Chapter 5: Tamie Fraser
Image 49: Tamie Fraser, 1964.
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This short biographical essay was written by journalist Margaret Simons who co-authored, with Malcolm Fraser, Malcolm Fraser: the political memoirs published by The Miegunyah Press in 2010.
Tamara Margaret Beggs, known as Tamie or Tam to her family, was born in 1936. She was the eldest child of an established and well-off family of farmers from the Western District of Victoria. On her father's side, the Beggs were descended from Irish free settlers who arrived during the torrent of migration in the 1850s. By the time Tamie was born, they were large landholders. Her mother was the youngest child of an aristocratic Russian émigré father and an Australian mother.
Tamie was brought up at the foot of the Grampians, her childhood skyline dominated by mountains and lake. Her childhood left her with an abiding attachment to country life and a strong sense of duty. 'In the country everyone is someone. In the city no-one is anyone,' she would say.1 Within the family she was regarded as the rebel – the one most likely to do unconventional things. Yet she was also notoriously shy and due to the sense of duty instilled by her grandmother and mother, understood this to be a failing that she should overcome. 'Mum would say, well it's no use being shy. Shy people are dull. Shy people are boring.'
The tenets of the Beggs' family values were strong, and clearly and frequently stated. First, one should be loyal to one's family. Second, one should contribute to one's community. After that, there was loyalty to one's country. These were the values that Tamie internalised and which she carried into her highly influential, although often understated, role as a political spouse.
Outwardly, Tamie's life has been that of the classic supportive spouse, mother and charming Liberal lady. She has been all of these things, but there is more. Her partnership with Malcolm Fraser is one of equals. He valued her advice. Due to his social awkwardness, she was vital in smoothing the way for him. She edited his speeches and articles, and argued with him vigorously when she felt it necessary to do so. Theirs has been a combative, respectful and dynamic relationship. Fraser said of her in his later years that she was stronger than him, and 'If she had been Prime Minister in 1983, we would have won'.
Tamie was educated first by governesses, then by correspondence, and then sent to board at the Geelong Church of England Girls' Grammar School, The Hermitage, at the age of nine. Her academic results were creditable rather than excellent, but in every other way her school career marked her out as a leader. She was a school and house prefect, house captain, music captain, sports captain, tennis captain and baseball captain. She won a prize for being the girl who contributed most to the school in work, sport and 'general leadership'.
Image 50: Malcolm Fraser and Tamie Begg on their wedding day, Willaura, 9 December 1956.
Tamie first heard of Malcolm Fraser when she saw his picture in The Sun newspaper in the days following the 1954 election, in which Fraser had contested the seat of Wannon as the surprise candidate for the Liberal Party. At the time the article was published, the election result was not known. It was thought that the 24-year-old might be about to become the youngest member of Federal Parliament. The article, accompanied by a picture of the lanky Fraser leaning against a mantelpiece, described him as an 'Edmund Hillary look-alike … lean and rugged' and mentioned the fact that he was neither married nor engaged.2 Tamie was clearly intrigued enough to read the piece and she remembered it, but she claimed in later life that her initial thoughts were that he must be a fool. Why would anyone want to go into politics so young?
Malcolm and Tamie met face-to-face at a New Year's Eve party as 1955 turned into 1956, held in a woolshed by neighbours of the Beggs. She was 19 years old, and he was 25. Their engagement was announced in May 1956, and they were married seven months later on 9 December in a tiny weatherboard Anglican church in the town of Willaura, near Tamie's home. Fraser had promised Tamie that he would not ask her to take part in public life, but the promise was broken almost as soon as they returned from their honeymoon. Fraser lost his voice to laryngitis, which meant that Tamie had to stand in for him at a naturalisation ceremony in the Wimmera town of Edenhope, where refugees from the Soviet crackdown in Hungary were becoming Australians. From that day on, she was intimately involved in public life as Fraser's partner, sounding board and support.
The first years of their marriage were often lonely for Tamie. The young couple divided their time between a new house on the Fraser family property at Nareen and Canberra, where the young Tamie spent many sad hours in a town that seemed full of 'grey, bald men'. She spent her 21st birthday, in February 1957, wandering around the Australian War Memorial in tears. Her loneliness was assuaged when the Frasers formed a strong friendship with another young couple fresh to Canberra – the Country Party MP Doug Anthony and his wife Margot. It was an enduring friendship, with the two women giving birth to their first children within days of each other, in 1958. Tamie and Malcolm had four children: Mark (1958), Angela (1959), Hugh (1963) and Phoebe (1966).
By the time Fraser became Minister for the Army in 1966, Tamie, now entering her thirties, had developed a keen political sense. Fraser always consulted widely, and Tamie's advice did not always hold sway, but she was nearly always one of those he consulted. She supported him in his decision to resign from the Gorton Ministry in 1971 and through the crucial political decisions he made in the supply crisis of 1975, leading up to the dismissal of the Whitlam government. In a letter written on 10 December 1975, in the week before the election that would bring Fraser to the prime ministership with a record majority, former Prime Minister Robert Menzies wrote a personal note to Tamie that reveals both her acumen, the respect she commanded as a campaigner, and the way in which she was used as a conduit to her sometimes aloof and difficult to reach husband:
My very dear Tamie,
May an old campaigner tell you how much he admires what you have been doing in the course of this campaign. You have not only handled your interviews with great charm and skill, but you have been of tremendous assistance to Malcolm. I am now convinced that he will win on Saturday. I would like to convey to him my belief that this will be a great personal triumph, a complete vindication of his character and attainments. I notice that some people have been promoting themselves for future consideration in a rather curious way. Do get Malcolm to believe, as is the truth, that his personal prestige will be so great that he can exercise his choice of Ministers without feeling that he must please anybody but himself.3
The turbulence of 1975 left a mark on Fraser's family. There were real fears for their security. The children were sent to boarding school because the only option was to have them accompanied each day by body guards. Tamie recalled frequently fearing that her husband would be attacked or shot as he gave speeches.
As wife of the Prime Minister, Tamie felt that more than ever it was her duty to overcome her reluctance to be a public figure. She continued to campaign and take a public role, but perhaps her most enduring contribution in her own right was the founding of the Australiana Fund. On tours overseas, Tamie was struck by the official residences of other countries, and how they were living museums of their country. By comparison, Australia's official establishments were bare. She founded the Australiana Fund to collect money from the private sector to buy major pieces of Australian furniture, paintings and sculpture for The Lodge, Government House, Kirribilli and Admiralty House in Sydney. The fund survives to this day. The current value of the collection is estimated to be in excess of $4 million.4
Tamie was later to remember the years of the prime ministership as 'really hard work. I did a lot of stuff on my own account, and then I attended the things with Malcolm as well. So it was full on.'
As well, the couple would 'thrash things out' until the small hours. Her counsel was particularly important in those areas where Fraser's party colleagues were inevitably partisan – the occasions on which a minister was in trouble, and Fraser had to consider whether to ask him to resign. 'Mine was a layperson's point of view. I would have to say what message people would take from it if they resigned, or if they didn't,' Tamie said later.
To his regret, Fraser did not take Tamie's advice in 1983, when deciding on an election date. She would have advised waiting, particularly once Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden. She saw clearly that her husband could not beat the popular Hawke, but felt that over time he might wear him down in parliamentary debate.
Tamie supported Fraser's post-political work on the world stage. While they sometimes disagreed on matters of strategy, she instinctively agreed on the core of his political commitment – liberalism, human rights and freedom of the individual.
Image 51: Tamie Fraser at The Lodge, Canberra, 1978.
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Nevertheless she counselled him against his unsuccessful attempt to become Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations in 1989, and his aborted attempt to become federal president of the Liberal Party in 1993. He was later to admit that she had been right on both occasions. Meanwhile Tamie kept up her charitable work for the Red Cross and in 1992 also became president of the Open Garden Scheme. She regularly opened the gardens at their Nareen home to the public.
In 1998 the couple made the difficult decision to move from the Western District to a property on the Mornington Peninsula. Their new location was a compromise between Malcolm's preference for a city life (they also owned a flat in South Yarra) and Tamie's love of rural communities. They were joined on the Peninsula by their daughter, Phoebe, and her family, who lived next door.
From the early 1990s onwards, Tamie and Malcolm's disenchantment with the political direction of the Liberal Party grew. In 2001, during the Howard government's Tampa affair, they considered resigning from the party. It was Tamie's sense of loyalty to friends who shared their views and who were still in politics that helped them make their mutual decision to hang on as members.
In 2004 Tamie was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to the community through fostering the recognition and preservation of Australian artistic achievement, for initiating and promoting a range of activities to support people with disabilities, and for support of charitable, health and service groups.
Image 52: Tamie Fraser, 2012
In late 2009, shortly after Tony Abbott became leader of the Liberal Party, Tamie and Malcolm Fraser finally decided to resign from the party. Fraser at first wanted to make their resignation public as a protest against what they saw as the party's betrayal of its core liberal values. It was Tamie who dissuaded him. To her, the breach with former colleagues and friends was painful and should be a private matter. In deference to her views, Fraser kept the matter confidential until the news leaked out from Liberal Party circles, becoming public in May 2010, shortly after the release of Fraser's memoirs.
Tamie Fraser continues as an active charity worker for the Red Cross and Stroke Australia. She plays golf regularly, is a keen gardener, an editor of her husband's articles and speeches, and a crucial influence in her grandchildren's lives.
1 Unless otherwise referenced, quotations from Tamie and Malcolm Fraser are drawn from the author's interviews with them conducted in 2007–09, during the preparation of Malcolm Fraser: the political memoirs, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, 2010.
4 The Australiana Fund, theaustralianafund.org.au/australian-historical-art-fund-history.html, accessed 22 May 2012.