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The Fraser legacy - defence and foreign affairs

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Nigel Brew

The recent death of Malcolm Fraser prompted current politicians to consider his legacy in the fields of defence, foreign affairs and security.

Malcolm Fraser had a long relationship with defence issues. As Minister for the Army in 1966 during the Vietnam War, he accepted the rationale for Australian involvement: to contain the Communist advance into South East Asia, but later wrote in his 2014 book Dangerous Allies that ‘it was of course wrong’. This perception led eventually to his taking a far more skeptical view of Australia’s relationship with the United States.

In relation to the Defence organisation, Mr Fraser had a significant impact after he became Minister of Defence in the Gorton government. He chose the reform-minded Sir Arthur Tange to be the Secretary of the Department of Defence and the two men worked to reform aspects of the Defence network. The process reached fruition during the Whitlam Government, with Tange’s Report on the Reorganisation of the Defence group of departments, and the consequential major restructuring of Defence.

Mr Fraser also reformed Australian policing, as a number of senators and members, including the Prime Minister, highlighted. A federal police service was first established in 1917 but while there were several permutations of a Commonwealth force between then and Mr Fraser’s time, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) was the first truly national police force.


Like the service established in 1917, the formation of the AFP followed a specific incident, in this case the explosion of a bomb outside the Sydney Hilton Hotel on 13 February 1978. In the aftermath, the Fraser Government appointed Sir Robert Mark to inquire into the organisation of police resources of the Commonwealth Government, protective security and counter-terrorism measures. Mark’s report concluded that the only way forward was to amalgamate the existing Commonwealth Police and ACT Police to create the AFP. The Fraser Government accepted that recommendation and introduced legislation to

establish the AFP in May 1979. Sir Colin Woods was sworn in as the first Commissioner of the AFP on 11 September 1979, and the agency commenced operations on 19 October the same year.

Mr Fraser made a telling contribution in the realm of foreign affairs through lifting the ban on exporting uranium, as a number of parliamentarians noted in their condolence speeches.

Following the 1976 release and consideration of the Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry, the uranium export policy enacted under the Fraser Government would form the basis of Australia’s policy for the next three decades. When outlining the new policy to Parliament, Prime Minister Fraser focussed on the proliferation safeguards—‘more rigorous than (those) adopted to date by any other nuclear supplier country’—to be applied to uranium exports which resumed in 1980. By 1982, Australia had signed bilateral safeguards agreements with 10 parties or entities— South Korea, the UK, Finland, Canada, Sweden, France, Euratom (the atomic energy agency of the European Union), the Philippines, Japan and the US—allowing cooperation on the use of nuclear material.

If Mr Fraser’s approval of uranium exports anticipated the voracious demand for energy that would emerge in the Indo-Pacific region in the 21st century, his strategic foresight was no less impressive.

Craig Kelly’s speech, in particular, underlined the changes in Australian foreign policy which were initiated or strengthened under Mr Fraser. The issue of the Soviet Union engaged him intensely in 1975, and he reversed Labor’s recognition of the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states. Today, these states’ relations with Russia continue to engage the world.

But it was in Asia that Mr Fraser’s foreign policy initiatives seem particularly prescient. He continued the Whitlam-initiated links with China, but recognised the need to balance these links through Australia’s relations with Japan and the Southeast Asian states. In a 1976 speech, he noted: ‘Australia and Japan therefore, share an interest in a stable, great power balance in which no potentially hostile power dominates a region of critical concern to either of us. We share a respect for democratic institutions. We have mutual interests in establishing and maintaining reliable access to each other’s markets’. In respect of Southeast Asia, Mr Fraser opined: ‘In current international circumstances it is in the interests of many countries that South East Asia not become a region of increasing great power competition. Such a development would not merely be dangerous to our security. It would greatly restrict our freedom of action across the whole range of our foreign policy objectives’. Such sentiments could have been penned this year.

Mr Fraser also stressed the importance of the Indian Ocean for Australian security, while his links with Indian Prime Minister Moraji Desai and his visit to India in 1979 reflected his perception of the relevance of the subcontinent for Australia in balancing other forces. Again these ideas are reflected in the policies of the government today.

Malcolm Fraser, 1978. NAA: A6180, 6/1/78/2 Source: National Archives of Australia