Malcolm Fraser became prime minister of Australia during a constitutional crisis but later won three elections and led his country for eight years.
Fraser was one of Australia’s longest-serving prime ministers, a fiscal conservative who championed multiculturalism and loudly condemned the racist policy of apartheid in South Africa, yet his rise to power in 1975 came as a result of an unprecedented political tempest that culminated with a thunderclap.
Sir John Kerr, the governor-general and the appointed representative of the Queen in Australia, dismissed prime minister Gough Whitlam and appointed Fraser to lead a caretaker government.
The abrupt end of Whitlam’s Labour government came during a crisis over spending that would today be called a government shutdown. Fraser, as head of the opposition, had refused to approve Labour’s 1975-76 budget unless Whitlam called a new election.
That demand came after a year of economic weakness and low approval ratings for Whitlam. The dispute over the budget led to a deadlock that prompted Kerr, whose post had previously been widely considered a formality, to remove Whitlam in favour of Fraser.
The move shocked Whitlam, as well as many Australians who had no idea that, more than 70 years after the country gained independence from Britain, a representative of a British monarch could remove a democratically elected prime minister from office.
In Sydney, a crowd of protesters broke into the offices of an anti-Whitlam newspaper and burned its afternoon edition. Fraser received death threats, and Labour MPs jeered his first speech to the Senate with shouts of “It’s war!”
Despite the controversy, Fraser’s coalition went on to win majorities in both houses of parliament in the 1975 election, a feat it repeated in the next two elections.
In a statement yesterday, current prime minister Tony Abbott called the 1975 constitutional crisis “one of the defining political events of our nation”.
He hailed Fraser as a leader who had “restored economically responsible government while recognising social change” at a crucial moment in the country’s history.
Fraser dominated Australian politics until 1983, embracing multiculturalism and land rights for Australia’s indigenous Aboriginal people while championing economic conservatism and rejecting deregulation. He also welcomed the arrival of tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who settled in Australia after fleeing their war-ravaged country.
His support for multiculturalism raised Australia’s profile on the world stage, as he became a loud campaigner for the end of apartheid in South Africa and white minority rule in Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. Fraser was a leading figure in the British Commonwealth during his time in office, but though he owed his own political ascent to the country’s lingering connection to its colonial master, he weakened the link to the Commonwealth by abolishing the right of Australians to appeal legal decisions to the Privy Council. That made Australia’s High Court the final appeal in the land for the first time in its history.
“Malcolm Fraser weathered a lot of storms, but he remained true to core values which were important to him, and one of them was anti-racism,” Michael Kirby, the former chief justice of Australia’s High Court, said.
After his party lost the 1983 election, Fraser remained active in public affairs and campaigned tirelessly for human rights, founding the Australian chapter of an international relief agency, Care Australia.
He also wrote a column in the newspaper The Australian and remained active on social media, where he posted to Twitter until two days before his death.
John Malcolm Fraser was born on 21 May, 1930, in Toorak, in the Australian state of Victoria, to a ranching family. He entered politics in 1955 at the age of 25, becoming the country’s youngest MP.
Fraser’s death came five months after the death of Whitlam, the political adversary whose place in history would be entwined with Fraser’s.
Speaking to reporters after Whitlam died in October, Fraser said that, despite their differences during the 1975 crisis, the two never bore each other any personal animosity.
“Gough Whitlam wasn’t the sort of person who bore grudges,” Fraser said. “He was a prime minister who did many different things, and many of his ideas were good.”
Fraser is survived by his wife, Tamara, and four children, Mark, Angela, Hugh and Phoebe.
l Copyright New York Times 2014. Distributed by NYT syndication service.