Malcolm Fraser dies, aged 84

Former prime minister Malcolm Fraser has died.

Mr Fraser was prime minister from 1975 to 1983.

He was the member for Wannon, between 1955 and his retirement in 1983.

He was just 25 when he was first elected. SEE HERE FOR AN INTERACTIVE TIMELINE OF HIS LIFE.

Mr Fraser spent some of his childhood at a farm property in Nareen, near Hamilton.

A statement on Friday morning announced the former prime minister's death.

"It is with deep sadness that we inform you that after a brief illness John Malcolm Fraser died peacefully in the early hours of the morning of 20 March 2015," the statement read.

"We appreciate that this will be a shock to all who knew and loved him, but ask that the family be left in peace at this difficult time."

JOHN MALCOLM FRASER (21 May 1930-20 March 2015)

No Australian politician became Prime Minister in more controversial circumstances than Malcolm Fraser, whose name will forever be associated with the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, and no prime minister's accession to power has been more hotly debated ever since. Certainly, few political events convulsed the nation as that did. Yet, however shocked and outraged people were at the time, at the subsequent election, just a few weeks later, on December 13, 1975, the electorate ignored Whitlam's appeal to maintain the rage, and confirmed Fraser in office with the largest majority in Australian history.

From being Leader of the Opposition, Fraser, who has died in 2015 aged 84, won his way to The Lodge by blocking Supply and creating a House of Representatives-Senate deadlock, which Governor-General Sir John Kerr broke by dismissing the Whitlam Government and appointing Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister until an election was held.

But having gained the crown that every politician aspires to, Fraser didn't have an easy time of it. His seven years in control of the Treasury benches were dogged by turbulence, contention and a difficult and intractable economic situation. Even so, he won three elections and was the Liberal Party's longest-serving prime minister after Menzies until John Howard surpassed that record.

Overall Fraser's record shows him to have been one of the Liberal Party's most progressive leaders. Yet after his defeat by Labor's rising star, Bob Hawke, at the March 1983 election, he was disparaged and cast into the wilderness for nearly a decade. Even his own party kept its distance. When he offered himself as the Liberal Party's Federal president in 1987, he withdrew when soundings indicated clearly that party preference was for businessman John Elliott. The trouble was the Dismissal still rankled, even among some Liberals, but particularly with the vocal Left, and it was still being raked over in some quarters of academe. Traces of that sentiment still lingered in 1993 when he almost certainly had the inside running for the Federal presidency, but rather than divide the party, he again withdrew upon Tony Staley becoming a candidate. In some eyes Fraser's reputation also was still smudged by his resignation as Defence Minister in 1971 that led to the downfall of his leader and Prime Minister, John Gorton.

He had precipitated that crisis by charging that Gorton had been disloyal to a senior minister (himself) and was not fit to hold office. Added to that was his move to topple Billy Snedden as Liberal opposition leader. He failed in his first attempt, but succeeded in his second on March 21, 1975 when he won a party-room ballot by 37 votes to 27.

The total of those events left a mark. Perhaps more so, because he was never a popular figure, though respected for his strength and political authority. So he was politically excommunicated, dashing his hopes of fulfilling an elder statesman role in Australia. His own country was reluctant to court him, though conservative think tanks, universities and the international business community sought him overseas. He would much sooner have been doing those things in Australia, whose rejection he found hurtful. Full public rehabilitation did not come for him until the late 1990s. It gathered momentum after the Liberal Party decided to bring him in from the cold in June 2000 and bestow the party's highest honour, life membership. Even John Howard, whom Fraser had criticised savagely a week earlier, was prepared to be magnanimous, declaring him to have been a great Liberal leader. Howard's praise for his former leader stopped there. Even though Fraser went on to win public support for his strong anti-Howard stand on humanitarian issues and other social causes, Howard never publicly criticised Fraser. That restraint probably stemmed from the fact that when he became Prime Minister, Howard was concerned about the way Fraser had been treated. One of his first actions was to offer Malcolm a diplomatic appointment, but it didn't suit the Fraser's lifestyle and commitment at that time. 

The 1990s also saw a reconciliation between Whitlam and Fraser. In a speech paying tribute to Fraser's strong anti-Howard stand on humanitarian issues, Whitlam said, "Malcolm Fraser has now replaced me as Public Enemy Number One in the demonology of the Australian right wing. I must say I am much more relaxed about being supplanted by Malcolm Fraser for a second time than I was the first time."

Fraser won respect for seeking to use his post-PM years constructively. Much of that respect emanated from his role in establishing the CARE organisation in Australia, thus enabling him to make a major impact on overseas aid, both through CARE Australia and through the worldwide body, CARE International. At different stages, he led both organisations and ensured that CARE was in the forefront of humanitarian response around the world. He was also outspoken on affairs of the day, ranging from media ownership, the rights of asylum seekers and their detention, the treatment of Aborigines to the role of the High Court, to name just a few.

A re-assessment of his role in government also got under way with an acknowledgement that he faced a tough task after winning the 1975 election with a mandate to curb the excesses of the Whitlam years and restore order to the economy, confidence to investors and sound government. To do this, he set about slashing public-sector expenditure, reducing the tax burden and initiating a drive to beat inflation. But the economic recovery he sought eluded him. It foundered on unemployment, demands for higher wages and developing globalisation. The challenge of globalisation demanded deregulation, whereas Fraser, ever the traditionalist, put his faith in regulation. He also failed to take the opportunity to reform the industrial system.

Nevertheless he chalked up significant achievements in other areas of government. He championed multiculturalism; revived Australia's flagging immigration program, accepted thousands of Vietnamese boat people as refugees and accepted by regular refugee entry more than 50,000 others; extended native land title rights and appointed three particularly sensitive Aboriginal Affairs ministers in Fred Chaney, Ian Viner and Peter Baume. 

In foreign relations he strengthened Australia as a middle power able to punch well above its diplomatic weight, and for most of his years as Prime Minister he was the leading figure in the Commonwealth of Nations. He saw the Commonwealth as a valuable forum for north-south relations, and he became something of a champion in the eyes of Third-World leaders. He played a prominent part in negotiations that saw Zimbabwe become an independent nation, staring down British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the process.  However, he missed out on the Commonwealth Secretary-Generalship because then Prime Minister Hawke was a bit heavy handed in pressing Fraser's nomination and because many saw it as Africa's turn. Moreover, Nigeria's Chief Emeka Anyaoku had an inside running, being a long-serving, highly regarded Deputy Secretary-General.  

On other fronts, where Whitlam had failed, Fraser negotiated a practical border arrangement between Australia and Papua New Guinea. He also supported environmental undertakings; reformed the family support system; established the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS); and banned whaling around the Australian coast.

Fraser was prepared to act boldly and decisively where issues about which he had conviction were concerned and where personal ambition was involved, but was more cautious in government than people expected. After his retirement Fraser admitted, "the major mistake we made was not to go for full industrial power for the Commonwealth in 1976". A radical approach was needed and Fraser never took it. He also felt he made another mistake with the timing of the 1983 election by setting it in March rather than later in the year. A further error of judgment he later admitted to was his decision to quit politics immediately after the 1983 poll. If he had stayed on for a time, he believed the Liberals might not have spent a decade locked in a destructive leadership struggle between Howard and Peacock. 

As Prime Minister he was in the Menzies mould. Like Menzies he had dominance over Cabinet, Parliament and the Liberal Party. His philosophy in politics was to stay totally in control all the time. Though his ministers could not complain about the amount of consultation he took with them and his senior public servants. He ran Cabinet meetings on the basis of consensus by exhaustion. He had complete command over the machinery of government, was a stickler for due process, while his ability to master briefs and his cross-portfolio knowledge was said to be awesome. 

That was typical of his hands-on approach in all that he undertook. Throughout his life he maintained an address book that many would give and arm and a leg for. He could, and did, know how to rapidly track down anyone from personal staff to Heads of State, and in the process called in many IOUs to assist the causes that he supported. Tony Eggleton, who worked closely with Fraser as director of the Liberal Party's Federal Secretariat and political adviser, recalls that, whoever you were, whatever the time of day or night, there was always the prospect of a call from Malcolm Fraser. In his case, on one occasion, a local policeman flagged him down on the road from Canberra to Sydney. The policeman had received a call from the Prime Minister requesting that he locate Eggleton's car and get him to phone (before the days of mobile phones!).

Eggleton also has a vivid recollection of Fraser's determination translated into bloody-mindedness. I still smile, he said, when I remember Big Mal striding across the ballroom at the Savoy Hotel in London, convinced that he was taking a short cut to his suite. Despite the protestations of personal and hotel staff, Malcolm headed for a door and disappeared into the broom cupboard to an accompanying clatter of mops and buckets. Despite some loss of dignity, he managed to crack a smile.   

Fraser was a formidable and aggressive politician, a patrician with a high sense of public duty, ambitious for himself and his country. He was also his own man, uncompromising but compassionate. He did not dodge controversy and didn't place great store on personal popularity. Though often described as a poor communicator, he could, and did, make effective public speeches. With his wooden, Easter Island-like face, he was shy and uneasy with people at a personal level, had no small talk at social occasions and admitted that from his earliest days in politics he built a wall around himself, not letting anything get through. That tendency to be a loner was noted during his school days and undoubtedly emanated from his early childhood. 

John Malcolm Fraser was born in Melbourne on May 21, 1930, the only son and second child of Neville Fraser, a pastoralist who had trained as a lawyer, and his wife, Una Woolf. His grandfather, Sir Simon, whom he came to greatly admire, had served in the Victorian Parliament and then as a senator in the first Commonwealth parliament.

His early childhood was spent on his parents' 11,000-hectare grazing property, Balpool-Nyang, on the banks of the Edward River near Moulamein in the NSW southern Riverina. The homestead stood at the edge of a 2000-hectare red gum forest. After his only sibling, his sister Lorri, went away to boarding school, Malcolm was very much on his own. The only other child nearby was the rabbiter's daughter, with whom he played occasionally. 

In 1940, he was plucked from that environment, where he had developed a robust self-sufficiency, to board at Tudor House on the outskirts of Moss Vale in the NSW southern highlands. He flourished there both academically and at sport until the end of 1943. Then it was Melbourne Grammar in 1944, after his parents sold Balpool and moved to Nareen in Victorias western district. He disliked the atmosphere at Melbourne Grammar, which he found repressive after Tudor House where there was discipline, but also a lot of freedom. After Melbourne Grammar, it was Oxford and Magdalen College, where he took the Modern Greats tripos philosophy, politics and economics, rather than law, which his father had done. He struggled with the economic component of his degree, but finished with a third - not a bad result

At Oxford, Fraser had developed an interest in politics, which he studied carefully and thoughtfully. So back in Australia in 1952, the career choice he faced was farming or politics. He joined the Liberal Party, but worked with his father on Nareen until the opportunity came for pre-selection for the seat of Wannon, which he eventually won in 1955. Soon after he was elected Fraser married in December 1956 Tamara (Tamie) Margaret Beggs, daughter of a grazier from Willaura, near the Victorian town of Ararat. An elegant and engaging woman with her social ease and charm, Tamie turned out to be Fraser's best political asset. She supplied the touch with people that her husband lacked.  Soon after they married, Fraser became one of the first MPs to set up home in Canberra. The Frasers moved into rented accommodation, which they occupied during parliamentary sittings.

When he took his seat in Parliament, Fraser, at 25, was the House of Representatives' youngest member, but he had to wait 11 years before advancement came his way. He was frustrated and puzzled when people like Snedden and Howson, who had also entered Parliament in the same year that he did, became ministers ahead of him. However, his chance came with Holt in 1966 as Minister for the Army. He handled the portfolio with flair and competence during the testing Vietnam War period, before becoming Minister for Education and Science 1968-69, then Minister for Defence 1969-71. He served again in Education and Science under McMahon until the Coalition lost the 1972 election to Labor.

Fraser left his mark in each portfolio, but particularly Defence, with Arthur Tange as his departmental head. He had a strong rapport with Tange, who he said was, "the ablest public servant I have ever met". The fruit of their cooperation came with the Tange Report of 1973. The adoption of this report by the Whitlam Government saw the abolition of single service departments and their responsibilities merged under a single Defence Department. He also initiated planning for what became the Australian Defence Force Academy and was a strong advocate of forward defence.

Though always wanting ministerial rank, he was prepared to sacrifice it by moving against Gorton, and going to the backbench. For a time he pondered whether he had any future at all in politics until Prime Minister McMahon brought him back into the ministry. In so many respects a strong leader, he was a complex man of many contradictions. Doing the right thing was always important for him, yet many of his actions could only been seen as questionable. While demanding personal loyalty from his colleagues, they couldn't always be sure that it would be reciprocated.  

His aloofness alienated many within the Liberal fold and beyond. Yet there was another side to Fraser: the man that was not often evident in Fraser the politician. He had a natural rapport with people of other races. As then senator Fred Chaney once famously remarked, "He doesn't have a racial bone in his body, otherwise I wouldn't work for the bastard." He was never condescending nor patronising in his dealings with people of other races, but treated them as equals. This was reflected in the strong role he played as an anti-apartheid campaigner. Also, appreciating that the leaders of the smaller Commonwealth countries were often out of their depth at full Heads of Government Meetings in London, he initiated regional meetings. 

Fraser's third term in office was not an altogether happy one. It was marked by damaging leaks, reshuffles and forced resignations. Several of the resignations, insisted upon as a matter of principle, were not really necessary, especially those of Senator Reg Withers over impropriety but not illegality, Michael MacKellar and John Moore over a customs issue. But most destabilising of all was the resignation of Andrew Peacock as Minister for Industrial Relations in April 1981. Peacock, who Fraser always saw as a potential rival, had been at odds with the Prime Minister, firstly over the Government's recognition of Cambodia's Pol Pot regime, and then over Fraser's confrontationist stance against the 35-hour week. So Peacock resigned and elected to go to the backbench. Relations between the two continued to simmer until Peacock finally made a direct challenge in 1982. But at the subsequent party meeting Fraser convincingly retained the leadership, defeating Peacock 54-27. These ministry upheavals not only rocked the Government, projecting an image of instability, they also showed up Fraser's poor management of people.   

For decades, Fraser was stalked by his celebrated enjoinder to the Australian people, "Life wasn't meant to be easy." What few people realised was that the quote, from George Bernard Shaw's play Methuselah, continued, "but take courage child, for it can be delightful". Wherever Fraser's name comes up, so too does the famous incident in 1986 when he was robbed of his passport, money and trousers in a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee. Reports, which were greeted with hilarity in Australia, said he had wandered into the hotel lobby wearing a towel and saying he thought he had been drugged. His biographer, Philip Ayres, has suggested that Memphis softened and reduced Fraser: softened the image of the man, reduced the stature of the politician.

It certainly depicted him as more human, as did the emotion he showed when making his speech conceding defeat in the 1983 election - his voice faltered and his eyes became wet. That humanity became more and more evident in his retirement. However, for those who were able to get close enough that so-called softer side was always there. Wally Brown, former political correspondent of Brisbane's The Courier-Mail, observed he could be genuinely and superbly hospitable as the country gentleman. Wal Fife, a former Fraser government minister, insists that Fraser was always genuinely concerned about people. He tells the story of a woman who wrote a letter of woe setting out to Fraser the sea of problems she was facing. As the woman lived some 160km from Fife, Fraser asked if he would go and see her, which he did. Most of the woman's problems could only be tackled through State assistance, which Fife was able to arrange. And, as Fife said, it showed a side of the Prime Minister that the public was not generally aware of.

Though Sir Paul Hasluck suggested that Fraser had few friends from his political days, he retained quite a number from those years, particularly Doug Anthony, who had been his deputy prime minister, and Peter Nixon, another National, who had been one of his senior ministers. However, his former immigration minister, Ian McPhee, always remained on friendly terms and kept in touch with him on a regular basis. He also kept in touch with quite a few members of the Liberal Party organisation with whom he had worked. One surprising friendship across the political divide was with Clyde Cameron from Labor's Left. In retirement Cameron did a lengthy interview with Fraser for the National Library's oral-history program and, in doing so, was a guest on several occasions at Nareen. Cameron also served under Fraser on the board of Care Australia, until the two fell out over some management issues at the aid agency.  

In retirement, as well as his activities in the public arena, Fraser also had to deal with the future of his 3500-hectare family property. Nareen had been in the family since 1944, but neither of the Fraser's two sons, Mark and Hugh, wanted to take on the place. Fraser might have lost his trousers in Memphis but he also lost his shirt acting as a "name" for Lloyd's of London. There were rumours about how much we was required to pay, but neither he nor LLoyd's ever spoke about such matters publicly. To boost the property's income, the Frasers turned it into a bed and breakfast establishment, while retaining their own privacy. Finally in 1997 they decided to sell and in 1998 moved to a property at Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula. Many people thought the move would be a wrench, particularly for Malcolm. But he had never felt for Nareen as he did Balpool, which he loved. So he and Tamie quite happily settled into their new home, which they called Thurulgoona after the property in Queensland, where Malcolm's grandfather had drilled the first bore that inaugurated the artesian well system that was to so benefit Australian agriculture. There, too, among other things, Malcolm always found time to practice his wood-turning hobby in which he was quite skilled - another unexpected side of the former Prime Minister.

As his retirement years progressed, there was greater appreciation of the constructive and positive nature of his post-prime ministerial contribution. His international stature went unquestioned, being enhanced significantly by his determined, and ultimately successful, efforts to secure the release of three CARE Australia aid workers - Steve Pratt, Peter Wallace and Branko Jelen - captured and imprisoned by Serbian forces during the 1999 Kosovo crisis. Fraser flew to Belgrade where, in two separate meetings, he argued and negotiated with the then Serbian President, Slobovan Milosovic, for the men to be set free.   

There was also a growing respect for his liberal and forthright views on domestic issues.

His was the voice that was most often heard when he felt that the government of the day was acting inappropriately at home and abroad. He did not hesitate to register his concerns when, in the context of the terrorist threat, he felt the Howard Government was introducing measures that impinged on basic rights and were a betrayal of Australian principles of a fair go and the abrogation of UN conventions.

History may be much kinder to Malcolm Fraser than opinions in contemporary times suggest. In some respects at least, he might well be judged as having contributed as much, if not more, than John Howard. 

His wife, Tamie, sons Hugh and Mark, and daughters Angela, Phoebe and their families, survive him.

John Malcolm Fraser, born Melbourne, May 21, 1930; died March 20, 2015.

 - John Farquharson with input from Tony Eggleton.