John Malcolm Fraser was Australia’s Prime Minister from 1975 to 1983. Although politics dominated much of his life, he is widely admired for his humanitarian work toward a fairer, less-racist world.
Born in Melbourne in 1930, the son of wealthy graziers, young Malcolm grew up on a sheep station in the Riverina district of New South Wales and later, on ‘Nareen’, a station near Hamilton, Victoria. He loved riding his horse, hunting rabbits and fishing in the river. When he was nine he went to boarding school. In his final year of primary school he was a prefect and his headmaster observed that ‘the child gave evidence of developing into a popular and capable leader and was reliable in every way’. He went on as a boarder to Melbourne Grammar.
In 1949, aged nineteen, he went to Oxford University in England to study philosophy, politics and economics. At Oxford he learned to think deeply about politics and society.
His grandfather, Simon Fraser, had entered the Victorian parliament, participated in the Federal Conventions of 1897-98 and become a Free Trade Senator from 1901 to 1913. At the age of 22 Malcolm returned to Australia to work at ‘Nareen’ but knew what he wanted to do. He joined the local branch of the Liberal Party, formed by Robert Menzies in 1944, and began campaigning hard to win the Victorian seat of Wannon in Federal Parliament. In 1956, at the age of twenty-five, he became the youngest member of the House of Representatives. That same year he married Tamara Beggs. They raised four children, Mark, Angela, Hugh and Phoebe at ‘Nareen’.
Over the next sixteen years Malcolm Fraser committed himself to politics. He was responsible for the portfolios of Army, Education and Science and Defence. He earned a reputation as tough and uncompromising but always fair. In 1972 the Labor Party won government and Mr Fraser became leader of the Liberal Party.
In 1975 in one of the most controversial episodes in Australian political history, Governor General Sir John Kerr replaced the Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam with Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister.
A month later the Mr Fraser’s Coalition government was returned with the largest landslide of any federal election and remained in office until 1983.
As Prime Minister, Mr Fraser’s aim was to reduce inflation and unemployment and to extend the reforms begun by the previous government. Notable legislation during his leadership included:
- the Social Services Amendment Act 1976 increasing the rate of child endowment
- the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 giving land rights to Northern Territory Aboriginal People
- the Ombudsman Act 1976 establishing an office of Commonwealth Ombudsman
- the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 establishing a court of appeal to operate in areas of federal and territory law
- the Northern Territory (Self Government) Act 1978 establishing a fully elected legislative assembly for the Northern Territory with powers in most respects equal to state powers
- the Aboriginal Development Commission Act 1980 provided funding mechanism for Aboriginal enterprises, housing and other services
- the Human Rights Commission Act 1981 and
- the Freedom of Information Act 1982 establishing a legally enforceable right of access to the public for information held by ministers and officials.
In 1977 the government established SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) to provide multilingual radio and television services. In 1979 Mr Fraser played a key role in ending the racial conflict in the former British colony, Rhodesia, enabling elections to be held for a new nation, Zimbabwe, under majority rule. In the same year the Government established the Australian Refugee Advisory Council to help with the settlement of refugees, many of whom had been arriving as ‘boat people’ from Vietnam. In 1982 a new migrant selection scheme was introduced, based on family reunion and the need for skilled workers.
In the 1983 elections Mr Fraser’s party lost government.
Malcolm Fraser had served 28 years in federal parliament After retiring from politics, he returned to ‘Nareen’ and the country life he loved but remained an active spokesman on many, especially humanitarian, issues. In his Alfred Deakin Lecture in 1971 Malcolm Fraser had made his famous comment “….life is not meant to be easy.” More recently he added “No – it isn’t easy, for so many people” and he has strived to improve the lives of those people.
In 1987 Malcolm Fraser formed CARE Australia as part of the international CARE network of humanitarian aid organisations. He was chairman from 1987 until 2002, when Sir William Deane succeeded him. Malcolm Fraser was also president of CARE International from 1990 to 1995, and its vice president for the next four years. In particular he worked tirelessly to help starving and war-affected Africans.
He chaired several United Nations and Commonwealth advisory groups and as a member of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group helped to end apartheid in South Africa.
In June 2001, Mr and Mrs Fraser were guests at a dinner at The Lodge, the Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra, in honour of retiring Governor-General Sir William Deane. Noting that this was their first visit to The Lodge since they had left eighteen years before, journalist Alan Ramsey observed that this was a sign of ‘Deane’s immense regard for Malcolm’s 1970s legislative record, as Prime Minister, in Indigenous land rights, as well as Fraser’s personal commitment for all of his public and private life to anti-racism, Aboriginal Reconciliation and minority rights’.
His honours include Privy Councillor in 1976, Companion of Honour in 1977 and Companion in the Order of Australia in 1988. In 2000, Malcolm Fraser was awarded Australia’s Human Rights Medal for his contribution to the advancement of human rights in Australia and internationally. The judges said Mr Fraser had provided national leadership in the pursuit of human rights over a long period, including consistent support for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians and leadership in the fight against racism nationally and internationally.
- Behind the News/ Australians © 2002 ABC
- National Archives of Australia/ Meet a PM
- National Museum of Australia
- Peace statement from Rt Hon Malcolm Fraser at http://www.salmac.com/peace/fraser-statement.html
Theme: Australian history and race relations – International racism and anti-racism