Malcolm Fraser, Three-Term Australian Leader, Dies at 84

Malcolm Fraser, who became prime minister of Australia after engineering the dismissal of Gough Whitlam in the nation’s 1975 constitutional crisis, has died. He was 84.

Fraser died early Friday after a brief illness, his office said in a statement.

The former Liberal Party leader’s death comes five months after that of Whitlam, with whom he formed a close friendship in later life, and closes one of the most controversial chapters in Australian politics. Fraser, who went on to win three elections, quit the party in 2009 complaining it had become too conservative.

“The friendship he built in later life with Gough Whitlam spoke volumes about the character of both men at the center of the crisis,” Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a statement. “In their own different ways, they were both fierce Australian patriots.”

Fraser emerged from Parliament House in November 1975 as Whitlam’s unelected successor after Governor-General Sir John Kerr, the U.K. monarchy’s representative in Australia, asked him to form a government. Kerr had sacked Whitlam over the opposition’s blockage of supply bills in the Senate.

In his farewell speech on the steps of Parliament in the national capital, Canberra, Whitlam dubbed Fraser “Kerr’s cur,” referring to a mongrel dog. His role in the dismissal was condemned by Labor voters for years to come. The sacking later became a rallying point for the country’s Republican movement, which sought to replace the monarchy with an Australian head of state at a failed referendum in 1999.

‘Duty to Act’

“The story of 1975 is largely about how Fraser came to believe that the government had indeed become so reprehensible that the opposition had a duty to act,” Margaret Simons wrote in collaboration with Fraser in their 2010 book “Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs.”

After winning a landslide election victory against Whitlam in December 1975, Fraser went on to win at the polls in 1977 and 1980. He cut the size of the public sector, devalued the dollar in 1976 to increase the nation’s international competitiveness, and lowered taxes and government expenditure.

A moderate Liberal with a cultivated manner of speech, Fraser stood against South African apartheid, supported Zimbabwean independence and broadened the intake of migrants to include about 200,000 arrivals from Asian countries, many of them refugees from Vietnam. He also set up a human-rights commission to target racial discrimination, proclaimed the Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory in 1979, and banned whaling in Australian waters the same year.

Foreign Banks

His administration agreed, in principle, to allow the entry of foreign banks in January 1983, though the policy wasn’t implemented until the following year under Labor.

More controversial acts included the recognition of Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor in 1978 after Suharto’s military takeover two years earlier, and the Australian government’s approval for the mining and export of uranium in 1977, setting the blueprint for the country’s sale of the mineral abroad for decades to come. In September 2014, Abbott agreed to a deal that would allow Australian companies to sell uranium to India.

“Anybody who achieves what Malcolm Fraser achieved in his life deserves respect as a quite extraordinary Australian,” former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “He brought great integrity.”

Early Life

John Malcolm Fraser was born on May 21, 1930, in Melbourne. He was the younger of two children of John Neville and Una Fraser, who owned a country property, where he was raised. His grandfather was a member of parliament in the state of Victoria and became a senator in the years after federation in 1901, according to a profile on the website of the National Archives.

He attended Tudor House elementary school, near Sydney, and Melbourne Grammar before completing a degree in politics and economics at Oxford University’s Magdalen College in England in 1952. He joined the Liberal Party on his return to Australia.

In 1955, Fraser became the youngest member of Parliament, at age 25, and married Tamara Beggs, better known as Tamie, a year later.

Serving under five prime ministers while in Parliament, he resigned as defense minister in 1971 after accusing Prime Minister John Gorton of disloyalty to him in a conflict with army officials. Fraser became Liberal opposition leader in March 1975, replacing Billy Snedden.

Apartheid Stance

After Fraser lost government to Bob Hawke in 1983, he became involved in United Nations and Commonwealth efforts to end apartheid in South Africa. In 1987, he set up the Australian branch of the humanitarian-aid network Care International, of which he was president from 1990 to 1995. Fraser was awarded Australia’s Human Rights Medal in 2000.

Fraser, who was 6 feet 4 inches tall, agreed with Whitlam on many issues later in life. Once political foes, they shared a friendship and a very public working relationship in support of human rights and the creation of an Australian republic while opposing foreign ownership of the newspaper group Fairfax Media. The two also lamented the shift to the right of both their parties after they left office.

“I think on the idea of Australia’s place in the wider world, we had a pretty common view,” Fraser said on Whitlam’s death in October 2014.

Party Resignation

Fraser quit the Liberals in December 2009 after describing the party as one of “fear and reaction” with policies that had become too conservative. He increasingly identified with progressive views on a range of issues, including immigration and the treatment of the nation’s indigenous people. In 2008, Fraser stood together with three former Labor leaders in Parliament House to commemorate Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to indigenous Australians.

“With the loss of the great Gough Whitlam last year, the chapter in our nation’s history that included the controversy of the dismissal has closed,” former Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a statement. “However, our memories of that era encompass far more than the days of the constitutional crisis and today we remember all of Malcolm Fraser’s life and works with respect.”

Fraser is survived by his wife, sons Hugh and Mark, as well as daughters Angela and Phoebe, the Sydney Morning Herald reported.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE