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Just a few months after saying farewell to Gough Whitlam, the 21st Prime Minister of Australia, we sadly lost our 22nd Prime Minister, when John Malcolm Fraser, always known by his middle name, unexpectedly passed away after a brief illness in the early hours of March 20. He was 84.
You will remember he came to power in a controversial way, instructing Coalition Senators to delay government budget bills in hopes of forcing an early election. His plan worked when, after several months of political deadlock, governor-general Sir John Kerr suddenly sacked Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on November 11 1975, on the day that became known as The Dismissal.
Malcolm was sworn in as caretaker Prime Minister, and later led the Liberal-Country Party Coalition to a landslide victory, his 55 seat majority the largest yet in Australian history. He had a second victory in 1977, and the Liberal Party won a majority in their own right, not needing the support of the (National) Country Party, which is almost unheard of.
As Prime Minister, Malcolm was active in foreign policy, showing a commitment to racial equality that was to be a keynote of his character. He supported the campaign to abolish apartheid in South Africa, and strongly opposed white rule in Rhodesia, being one of the architects of the new Zimbabwe.
His policy was for humanitarian resettlement, allowing more refugees to enter Australia, and greatly expanding immigration from Asia. A strong believer in a multicultural Australia, he established government-funded multilingual radio and television, the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS). He also gave Indigenous Australians control of their traditional lands in the Northern Territory, was a supporter of environmental concerns, and banned whaling around the Australian coast.
Although he managed to win another election in 1980 with a greatly reduced majority, he lost the 1983 election to Bob Hawke in a heavy defeat. He was the last non-caretaker Prime Minister to come from a rural seat, and is remembered not just as a Prime Minister, but an excellent farmer from a distinguished pastoral family who understood the needs of regional Australia.
After leaving office, Malcolm served in key roles at the United Nations, with a focus on South Africa and other African nations. He helped to establish humanitarian agency CARE International in Australia, demonstrating again his commitment to helping vulnerable people around the world. He reconciled with his old enemy, Gough Whitlam, and the two men were able to be good friends, finding common ground on many issues.
At the same time, Malcolm gradually became estranged from the Liberal Party, with many of even his own party unable to forget the role he had played in The Dismissal. A man of conviction, Malcolm did not hesitate to speak out on important issues of the day, such as the human rights of asylum seekers in detention, civil liberties, and treatment of Aborigines, even when his opinions were at odds with those of the Liberals.
After years of criticising Liberal Party policy, bemoaning the lack of integrity in Australian politics, and supporting the campaign for a change of policy on Iraq, Malcolm finally handed in his Liberal Party membership in 2009, when Tony Abbot became the party’s leader, saying that it was no longer a liberal party, but a conservative party. In 2013, he endorsed a Green Party Senator and urged his Twitter followers to vote Green in the upcoming election.
Just before he died, Malcolm was working to set up a new political party called Renew Australia. It was to stand for an Australian republic, to reconcile with Indigenous Australians through a treaty, to support a larger population with an independent foreign policy and a post-carbon economy, recognising climate change and the urgent need to avoid its most catastrophic effects, as well as a central commitment to human rights obligations.
Malcolm’s memorial service was on March 27, and his son Hugh spoke of his father as someone who never ceased to care about current affairs, his strong sense of responsibility enduring to the end. According to Hugh Fraser, his father loved Australia, and was not merely one of its sons, but one of its most fervent custodians.
With the passing of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm, political giants who defined the 1970s (and physical giants, as they were our tallest prime ministers at 1.94 and 1.93 metres tall respectively), it does feel like the end of an era. Gough was the most progressive Labor prime minister, followed by Malcolm, the most progressive Liberal prime minister, and with them gone, the political future feels rather bleak.
Malcolm was famous for his quote from George Bernard Shaw: Life wasn’t meant to be easy. Most people forget that the quote continues … but take courage child, for it can be delightful. We must remember our courage now.
Malcolm is the Anglicised form of the Scottish name Máel Coluim, meaning “follower of Saint Columba”. You will remember that Columba means “dove”. It was a traditional name amongst Scottish royalty and nobility, and there have been four medieval kings of Scotland with the name Malcolm.
Malcolm III is the basis for the King Malcolm who is the son of Duncan in William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, although in real life he did not immediately avenge his father by killing Macbeth, as he was only a little boy at the time. Only after he had grown up did he kill Macbeth, and then Macbeth’s heir, so that he could take the throne at last. Malcolm III was the husband of the English princess who became Saint Margaret of Scotland. Despite Malcolm not being particularly religious, they had a strong and loving marriage, and Margaret is said to have died of sorrow after hearing of Malcolm’s death in battle.
The name Malcolm was #81 in the 1900s, and peaked in the 1950s at #52, when Malcolm Fraser entered parliament as the youngest MP, aged 25 (this was also the decade that Malcolm Young from AC/DC was born). It left the Top 100 by the 1980s, the time when Malcolm Fraser suffered the worst defeat of a non-Labor government since Federation, and lost the prime ministership. After that it fell steadily, and despite a small boost in the late 2000s, when the sit-com Malcolm in the Middle was aired, it has not charted since 2009, the year Malcolm Fraser left the Liberal Party.
There has been another prominent Malcolm in the Liberal Party, Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull, and celebrity grandfather on the blog. This may not have been a help to the name, as politicians generally don’t assist a name’s fortunes. The name can now be said to be in rare use.
In the UK, there were 14 baby boys named Malcolm in 2013, so it is uncommon there as well. Malcolm is most popular in the US, where it has never gone off the charts and is in the mid-400s; it is associated there with civil rights hero Malcolm X.
Malcolm is a strong, handsome underused Scottish classic with a slightly quirky feel. It honours one of our greatest statesman, a gentleman who had the courage to speak out and work towards constructive change, who was uncompromising yet compassionate, and who placed his duty higher than his popularity.