Australian leader who remained a liberal

Malcolm Fraser: May 21st, 1930 - March 20th, 2015

Malcolm Fraser: became increasingly estranged from his party, criticising its hardline stance on asylum seekers and its free-market policies. Photograph: EPA

Malcolm Fraser: became increasingly estranged from his party, criticising its hardline stance on asylum seekers and its free-market policies. Photograph: EPA

 

The Australian politician Malcolm Fraser, who has died aged 84, transformed himself from the patrician Liberal behind the historic dismissal of the Labor government in 1975 to the vocal promoter of progressive causes, a transformation which left him often at odds with his own party.

In his later years he became increasingly estranged from former colleagues, supporting Aboriginal rights, the rights of asylum seekers and even an Australian republic.

In office as prime minister from 1975 until 1983, he changed his nation by opening it up to multiculturalism, Asian trade and immigration. After the Vietnam war he allowed in more than 56,000 refugees. But this legacy was overshadowed by his role in engineering the coup in which governor general Sir John Kerr dismissed Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam.

Fraser was born in Melbourne, son of Neville and Una (née Woolf), into a well-off family of livestock farmers. At 19, he went to Magdalen College, Oxford, to read philosophy, politics and economics. There he was awakened to ideas about human dignity and the primacy of the individual over the state. Back in Australia he joined the Liberal party, becoming Australia’s youngest MP aged 25.

Catching the eye of long-serving prime minister Robert Menzies, he became army minister in the early stages of Australia’s 13-year involvement in the Vietnam war. He presided over an unpopular conscription and the loss of more than 500 lives.

In 1975, on his third attempt, he became Liberal leader. His political platform, which he stressed throughout his life, was a return to what he saw as the classical liberal principles of individual freedom and protection of the weak.

Ousting Whitlam

In an unprecedented parliamentary move, Fraser ordered Liberal senators to block the supply of money to the government and force Whitlam to call an early election or face dismissal by Kerr. In doing so he triggered a constitutional crisis that is still the subject of debate. While Kerr remained the villain of the piece, Fraser was charged with cynically manipulating him.

In December 1975, he was elected by a landslide with a mandate to restore the economy. He reduced government spending and state regulation and tried to curtail union power and promote individual responsibility. But his softly-softly approach was at odds with the more radical reforms his more pro-Thatcherite and free-market ministers sought.

In other areas Fraser undoubtedly pioneered change. He backed legislation that gave Aboriginal people more control over their traditional lands. He remained an unapologetic supporter of multiculturalism and set up the government-funded national broadcaster SBS to provide multilingual services. The immigration programme was revitalised with a fresh focus on Asia.

His real interest was in foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region and turbulent southern Africa. Defence and trade agreements were beefed up with Asia. He formed close and productive ties with African leaders in the campaign against apartheid, his own commitment in this area going back to speeches he gave after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre.

In defiance of Menzies’s view that apartheid was an internal matter, Fraser argued for international action against South Africa because of “the great principle of human rights, that all men are born equal and have an inalienable right to their place in the sun, no matter what their colour, race or creed”.

It has been claimed that his overseas focus weakened his position domestically, and in the 1980 election his majority was more than halved. From then on, a recession, a tax-avoidance scandal and a revived opposition all weighed against him.

In March 1983 the newly installed Labor leader, Bob Hawke, took power in a landslide so huge it helped push the Liberals into opposition for the next 13 years. Fraser quit politics within weeks.

In retirement he held a number of high-profile roles. He was appointed chairman of a UN expert group in African commodity problems and formed Care Australia as part of the international network of humanitarian aid groups.

Observer

In the 1990s he was part of observer missions for elections in Pakistan, Tanzania and Bangladesh. In 1999 he was sent by Australia as a special envoy to seek the release of Care workers imprisoned during the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

After 1996, when the Liberals returned to power under John Howard, he became increasingly estranged from the party. He criticised its hardline position in turning back asylum seekers and campaigned, unsuccessfully, alongside his old rival Gough Whitlam for an Australian republic.

Fraser might have moved politically, but his party had changed, too, moving towards free-market economics and a cultural conservatism at odds with his liberal ethos.

In 2006 he continued the attack on Howard’s policies on terrorism, refugees, civil liberties and the Iraq war. He eventually resigned from the party in 2009 after Tony Abbott was elected leader, saying it was “no longer a liberal party but a conservative party”. In 2013 he sought votes for the Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young because of her policies on asylum seekers.

He used traditional and social media with aplomb, tweeting prolifically to his many thousands of followers.

He is survied by his widow, Tamie, whom he married in 1956, and their two sons and two daughters.