Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has died at age 84. Fraser was installed as Prime Minister by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, in an undemocratic coup in November 1975. He served three terms until electoral defeat in March 1983. Although some note Fraser’s recent criticisms of the major parties, it should be remembered that he pursued a very regressive agenda.
Fraser was elected to federal parliament in 1955. He rose through the ranks of the Liberal Party and would serve as minister for the army, education, science and defence under Prime Ministers Holt, Gorton and McMahon. As minister for the army from 1966-68, Fraser bore responsibility for Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He enforced conscription and committed more than 60,000 troops to the conflict in which 500 Australians lost their lives.
The ALP under Gough Whitlam was swept to power in December 1972, ending 23 years of Liberal Party rule. Under pressure from the social and trade union movements, Whitlam was forced to pump millions of dollars into expanding universal healthcare, education and welfare. Whitlam’s progressive, yet limited agenda caused great concern for the ruling class. By 1974, the number of days lost to strikes reached 2 million and big business was not confident that the ALP could keep an uneasy population in check.
Although the Whitlam government was re-elected in May 1974, the Liberal Party held a slim majority in the Senate. Around this time Fraser pushed for the Liberal leadership. In February 1975, Fraser ousted Billy Snedden as leader and under his leadership, the Liberals sought to undermine the Whitlam government by any means necessary.
The ‘loans affair’, in which the government sought to raise $4 billion for infrastructure projects from financiers in the Middle East, was the pretext that led to the Liberal Party to block the budget in the Senate and withhold supply. With a constitutional crisis looming, the Governor-General intervened. On November 11, 1975 Kerr dismissed Whitlam and installed Malcolm Fraser as interim Prime Minister. Elections were called for December 13.
Despite mass, impromptu strikes and protests against the dismissal, the ACTU and ALP failed to mobilise working class opposition to the undemocratic coup. Instead they channelled anger off the streets and into an election campaign. This resulted in the biggest parliamentary landslide in Australian history. After the 1975 elections, the Liberals held a commanding 55 seat majority.
As Prime Minister, Fraser sought to undo the progressive reforms of the Whitlam government. The Liberals’ first budget in May 1976 dramatically cut spending on education and welfare. Savage cuts to Medibank, the universal healthcare scheme introduced in 1975, soon followed. This prompted a nationwide 24-hour general strike in June 1976. Unfortunately the ACTU, under the leadership of Bob Hawke, refused to escalate the struggle and within months the campaign petered out and Medibank would be abolished.
Initially, Fraser seemed to be able to rein in the strikes. By 1979, Fraser’s cuts ensured that the share of GDP going to wages slipped to 57%, down from 63% in 1975. However, as the economy surged in 1980, the trade union movement pushed for wage increases and a 35 hour working week.
Despite Fraser’s attempts to freeze wages and working conditions, by 1981-82 most workers had secured a 16% wage increase and shorter working hours. It was against this backdrop that Fraser lost the March 1983 elections to a resurgent ALP which was led by former ACTU president Bob Hawke.
In retirement Fraser became a critic of both the major parties. When Tony Abbott became Liberal leader in 2009 he resigned from the party. He also joked that he was even to left-wing for the modern day ALP. Some preset Fraser as someone who mellowed as he aged. The truth is Fraser never changed his politics. The two major parties have instead moved so far to the right that even the man behind an undemocratic coup seems somewhat progressive in comparison.
By Conor Flynn