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Malcolm Fraser (1930–2015)

by Tony Abbott

condolence motion

I move:

That the house record its deep regret at the death on 20 March 2015 of the Right Honourable John Malcolm Fraser AC CH, former Member for Wannon and Prime Minister, and place on record its appreciation of his long and highly distinguished service to our nation and tender its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

It is fitting that we celebrate the life and legacy of our 22nd Prime Minister here in this chamber, because this very building is one of his achievements. He was prepared to endure gibes about politicians spending money on themselves because he understood that Australians would come to appreciate a Parliament House that reflected our pride in ourselves and in our country. He foresaw a building that would be the crowning achievement of the Parliamentary Triangle and, along with the National Gallery and the High Court, which were also started on his watch, would reflect the modern nation we have become. He was right and, of course, as so often happens in our public life, his government wore the brickbats for starting it and another government gained the credit for opening it.

The Fraser government conferred self-government on the Northern Territory, established the Commonwealth Ombudsman and enacted our first freedom of information laws. After the Hilton Hotel bombing, his government established the Australian Federal Police, and it set up the National Crime Commission following the Costigan inquiry. His government commissioned the Campbell report, which laid the foundation for the eventual deregulation of the financial system. Like all good farmers, Malcolm Fraser was a conservationist. His government banned sandmining on Fraser Island, banned drilling on the Barrier Reef, set up the Great Barrier Brief Marine Park and had this wonder of the natural world heritage listed.

He was a Liberal humanitarian who worked against white minority governments in southern Africa and a staunch anti-communist who tried to keep our sports stars from the Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. At the height of the Whitlam turmoil, he had said that he would like to see sport rather than politics on the front page. When he imposed the Olympic ban, he managed to realise that goal!

Fraser was not an avid social reformer like Whitlam, nor a mould-breaking economic reformer like Hawke, but he gave the country what we needed at that time. He restored economic responsibility while recognising social change. His government passed the Northern Territory land rights act and he was the first Prime Minister to visit the Torres Strait. He established the Special Broadcasting Service and began large-scale Asian immigration to Australia by accepting 50,000 Vietnamese refugees fleeing communism. In 1983 Malcolm Fraser left parliament, proud of his government and its achievements. As he said at the time, 'Australia is handed over in as good or better condition than any other western country in the world.'

For a long time after 1975 Malcolm Fraser was largely defined by the blocking of supply, the dismissal of the Whitlam government and his subsequent electoral vindication. Neither Whitlam nor Fraser ever resiled from the positions they took at that time, yet ultimately they came to see the good in each other. Some years ago, Whitlam observed with characteristic wit that 'Fraser had supplanted him as the principal bogeyman of the hard Right and that this second usurpation had been easier to take than the first'. A sense grew, especially among Liberals, that the Fraser government might have marked time. In the late eighties and the early nineties Malcolm Fraser offered himself to be federal president of the Liberal Party, and twice it did not work out. As the Howard government implemented reforms such as the GST and privatisation, expanded mandatory detention to stop the boats and joined US-led military coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, an estrangement grew between him and the party he had led for eight years—for most of that time triumphantly.

John Howard has famously observed that the Australian Liberal Party, unlike its namesakes elsewhere, is the custodian in this country of both the liberal political tradition and the conservative one. But there is in fact a third tradition our party represents that is as vital as our liberal and conservative philosophies—a dedication to service and to repaying good fortune, the working out in this world of the gospel notion 'To whom much is given, much is expected'. Melbourne Grammar, Oxford and a grandfather who was a senator no doubt helped to crystallise Malcolm Fraser's instinct to serve. His shyness, born of a lonely childhood, often made him seem remote but it also created a keen sympathy for the outsider. Duty and service came naturally to him. He was a man to whom becoming a member of parliament, if that opportunity presented itself, would seem the most natural thing in the world. His political allegiances might have been instinctive as much as philosophical but he was the true and authentic representative of an honourable tradition.

My first contact with Malcolm Fraser was to lobby him for voluntary membership of the Australian Union of Students. 'Because he had not been consulting papers at the time,' Senator John Carrick advised me afterwards, 'the meeting had probably gone well because the Prime Minister was focused on the discussion and not on something else.' In the early nineties I persuaded both Malcolm Fraser and his one-time nemesis the Liberal turned Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp to join the Australian Council of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. When I asked them both to speak at the launch, Chipp said that 'if that'—expletive deleted—'Fraser comes, I won't'. A few months later, Malcolm settled the matter by joining the republican side.

I did make it my business to renew contact with him on becoming party leader in 2009. We had some long talks. We often disagreed, but I appreciated his wisdom born of experience. He had a long and active life after leaving the parliament. He brought Care International to Australia in partnership with his longtime Liberal Party federal director Tony Eggleton. Throughout his life he enjoyed steadfast support at home. Tamie Fraser once said that the best thing about being the Prime Minister's wife is knowing that it will not go on forever. Her legacy continues through the Australiana Fund, which helps to furnish the four official residences. All subsequent Australian prime ministers and governors-general have benefited from her work. To Tamie and to the Frasers' four children, Phoebe, Mark, Angela and Hugh, and to their grandchildren, I extend the condolences of the parliament and the people of Australia. I also extend to them the gratitude of our party. Yes—today I say thank you to them, because my party has not said thank you often enough to their husband and father.

For most of his life, Malcolm Fraser was a classic representative of our party. He was conservative when he declared:

The values and principles by which we live, the human relationships which guide us, and the values to which we aspire as Liberals will not change.

He was Liberal when he stated, 'Each man from the street cleaner to the industrialist has an equal right to a full and happy life, to go his own way unhampered as long as he does not harm our precious social fabric.' He was above all an Australian patriot when he declared, at his first preselection, 'I could not enter this fight if I did not love Australia.' He was never considered a popular politician, although he won three elections, including the two biggest landslides in Australian history.

Years ago, when I was helping to draft the 'Fightback!' document, I sought to include a few observations that were critical of the Fraser government. My senior collaborator, David Kemp, rightly chided me on the grounds that it is hard to disown your past without diminishing your future. In a sense, today's proceedings are a farewell to this complex and driven man, to this forceful and effective leader, to this rare public personality who gained the support of all points on the political spectrum, but almost never at the same time. We Liberals owe him more than that. Our challenge is not to say goodbye; it is to be more magnanimous in his death than we were in his life and to acknowledge this giant, who was surely one of us.

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Citation details

Tony Abbott, 'Fraser, Malcolm (1930–2015)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012