Malcolm Fraser, Australia's 22nd Prime Minister, who served between 1975 and 1983, died on Friday, just five months after his immediate predecessor Gough Whitlam. This seems fitting because Fraser and Whitlam became intertwined in each other's legacies as a result of The Dismissal. As a consequence, Fraser always seemed to suffer in comparison to the more charismatic Whitlam. Where Whitlam experienced fervour wherever he went, Fraser was met with quiet respect.
As I pointed out five years ago, perhaps Fraser's legacy was always going to be overlooked:
Academics and historians for a variety of reasons often neglect the period of the Fraser Government between 1975 and 1983. This is largely because nothing could possibly match the drama of the Whitlam Government’s dismissal from office, which immediately proceeded this era. Furthermore, the Fraser Government is largely seen as a non event retrospectively... particularly because he is wedged chronologically between two of the Labor Party’s most mythical figures in Whitlam and Hawke.Over the past week commentator and historian George Megalogenis has continually noted that Fraser governed in a divisive era, and suffered as a result. I would argue that Fraser was not nearly divisive enough. Fraser's parliamentary career can really be split into two halves, his career prior to his Prime Ministership, and his career after he won Australia's highest office.
Fraser was elected as the member for Wannon in 1955, as Australia's youngest ever parliamentarian. Even though he remained on the backbench during the final decade of the Menzies Era, he would shape the Liberal Party for a generation thereafter. In 1971, Fraser sensationally resigned as Minister of Defense, and openly criticised his party leader, John Gorton, on the floor of parliament. Fraser said that he could no longer support a government led by Prime Minister Gorton. Fraser's speech precipitated events that would lead to Gorton's resignation a few weeks later.
This chain of events often remains neglected when commenting on the political life of Fraser. It suggests more about his political career, than the events of The Dismissal. It is one thing to challenge a political opponent and cause his demise, as Fraser did to Whitlam in 1975. It was however quite another for Fraser to challenge a sitting Prime Minister on the sacrosanct floor of parliament, when he served as a Minister of that government. Fraser's speech opposing Gorton should rank as one of the most Machiavellian acts in Australia's political history.
With the knowledge of that event in mind, it is therefore no surprise that Fraser chose to become the major antagonist in the dismissal of an elected government. In retrospect Fraser's tactics against Whitlam seem hasty given it is likely that Fraser and his government would have won the next election anyway if he waited until an election was called by Whitlam in late 1976 or early 1977.
Fraser's politics was not defined by what he supported, but rather what he was against: whether it be Gorton's leadership style, the incompetence of the Whitlam government, the racist policies of various international governments, or his eventual repudiation of the modern Liberal Party. This did not make Fraser a bad leader, but rather a limited one.
It also explains why the Fraser government squandered the opportunity to implement long lasting domestic reform, despite securing two enormous election victories in 1975 and 1977. It is very rare that a Prime Minister has two consecutive terms where he has control in both houses of parliament. The Fraser government had a five year period in which it could implement any policy reform it wanted, largely unchallenged. Yet the media are hard pressed to name a domestic policy that was created between 1975 and 1980 which remains a legacy today.
Even though Fraser won three consecutive elections, a feat that is unlikely to be replicated any time soon, his Prime Ministerial tenure almost seems like an after thought.
That is the reason why Malcolm Fraser was an average Prime Minister, rather than a great one.