On 14 October 1986, Fraser, then the Chairman of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, was found in the foyer of the Admiral Benbow Inn, a seedy Memphis hotel, wearing only a pair of underpants and confused as to where his trousers were. The hotel was an establishment popular with prostitutes and drug dealers. Though it was rumoured at the time that the former Prime Minister had been with a prostitute, his wife stated that Fraser had no recollection of the events and that she believes it more likely that he was the victim of a practical joke by his fellow delegates.
Forty years ago on 11 November 1975 John Kerr, the Governor-General, dismissed an elected government with a majority in the House of Representatives. In doing so he he collaborated with judges, senior members of the opposition in parliament and the media. Contact with the Palace was early and extensive.
Former PMs have had nice things to say. Here’s Paul Keating:
“I always thought Malcolm would be around a lot longer. I must say, I wished he had been.
“Notwithstanding a controversial prime ministership, in later years he harboured one abiding and important idea about Australia – its need and its right to be a strategically independent country.
“His public life also enshrined other important principles: no truck with race or colour and no tolerance for whispered notions of exclusivity tinged by race. These principles applied throughout his political life.”
The same article summed his contribution as follows:
In office, Fraser was a staunch conservative on economic policies, an opponent of deregulation – and he was was criticised by his colleagues for lacking reform zeal. But he continued many of Labor’s progressive reforms.
In 1976 he established the family court of Australia and federal court of Australia; granted the Northern Territory self-government; passed the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act; created the position of federal ombudsman and established the ABC’s FM radio service. The next year, he established the National Aboriginal Conference and SBS.
In 1979 the Fraser government established the Australian Refugee Advisory Council to advise it on the settlement of refugees – many of whom had been arriving as “boat people” from Vietnam since 1978.
After criticising the Liberal party’s direction during the years of the Howard government, Fraser finally quit the party when Tony Abbott came to the opposition leadership, unhappy with Abbott’s rejection of emissions trading. He said the Liberal party was no longer a liberal party but instead a conservative party.
Fraser campaigned assiduously for human rights and attacked the party’s stance on immigration and refugees.
Australia can be justifiably proud of an approach to economics that is squarely between Europe and the United States. The US, on the whole, champions free enterprise despite the social costs; Europe sees a much larger role for the state, even if that inhibits free enterprise. The Australia in which we live today is somewhere in between.
When Malcolm Fraser became prime minister that was all up for grabs. We could have become “old Euope” or veered onto a radically individualist path in response to the debacle that came before. Fraser helped us chart a middle course, and we should be very grateful for that.
Perhaps he wasn’t quite up to the challenge, but he had a steady hand and did no great harm. The Guardian has a suite of articles, the titles of which tell a story:
Fraser was ruthless in gaining power, first in the coup that unseated Gorton as PM, then doing over Billy Sneddon for the Liberal leadership and later in the famous dismissal of the Whitlam government. I hated him tribally for that, and disliked him for his apparent aloofness and arrogance, but later came to see him as a man of principle and values.
There’s more on his legacy at the ABC and heaps of articles just about wherever you look!
Probably the best article that takes you to the complexity of the personality and his politics is Guy Rundle at Crikey, unfortunately paywalled.
A remaining mystery is what really happened that night in Memphis, when Fraser turned up in the foyer of a seedy hotel without his trousers.