By Dr Sue Onslow, senior research fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

On 27 March 2015, Australians gathered to pay their respects to former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in a state funeral following the politician’s death late last week. As Singaporeans prepare to do the same for Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday, the Commonwealth can reflect on the contribution of these two ‘giants’ to its modern history.

Whereas Lee Kuan Yew was somewhat ambivalent about the Commonwealth as a diplomatic actor, Malcolm Fraser had no such reservations. Fraser was a committed and extremely active Commonwealth politician and leader both in and out of office – indeed, possibly the most committed Australian Prime Minister of the modern Commonwealth.

In his reflections for the ICwS Oral History Project, Australian politician Tony Eggleton recalls that Malcolm did not take long to make an impact and to win the support and respect of Commonwealth prime ministers, and not least those from the developing world. Michael Manley was among those who was pleasantly surprised at Malcolm’s constructive views about Commonwealth members, big and small.

Fraser worked closely with Manley of Jamaica and Secretary General Shridath Ramphal to promote economic development and west/south cooperation. Determined to use the Commonwealth as a platform to promote Australia’s national interests and international standing, by the late 1970s, Fraser was running ‘hot and strong’ on the Commonwealth. He was widely regarded as a formidable character with clear goals, and was often impatient for positive results. For more on this dimension of Fraser’s career, see the linked interview with Australian diplomat and Commonwealth authority Hugh Craft.

Liberal, progressive and a conviction politician in his opposition to racism in all its forms, Fraser took a particularly prominent and principled international stance in opposition to white minority rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa. Veteran Bangladeshi diplomat Farooq Sobhan recalls Fraser’s impact at the 1979 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Lusaka, where, at the Retreat, ‘you saw Malcolm Fraser and a few others prevail on Mrs Thatcher to give ground on the Rhodesia issue, which eventually led to the birth and independence of Zimbabwe.’ Fraser was part of the ‘contact group’ which was formed during the Retreat in Kenneth Kaunda’s study and where the basic agreement on Commonwealth support for an all-party conference in London was produced.

Fraser’s Commonwealth ‘activism’ prompted Ramphal to ask the Australian prime minister to host a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Melbourne in 1981 – always a deliberate political act by the Secretary General. Melbourne was known as the ‘friendly summit’, with the settlement of Zimbabwean independence providing enormous relief to Commonwealth leaders. Under Fraser’s leadership, the meeting’s firm focus was on economic development to address contemporary Commonwealth issues. A year later, Brisbane would host the 1982 Commonwealth Games, an event which further showcased Australia but which also drew international media attention – via the spectacle of large-scale protests – to the ongoing struggle for rights among Aboriginal groups in the country.

A concern for development – particularly in small states – was a common theme in Fraser’s engagement with the Commonwealth. On his initiative, a Commonwealth Regional meeting forum was set up to encourage small Pacific island states to speak out. This later evolved into the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, promoting trade and financial links across the Asia-Pacific region. An important legacy of Fraser’s Commonwealth work is a permanent office for Commonwealth Small States, which was set up in New York and significantly supported by Australian money.

Out of office, Fraser’s career as an internationally-respected politician continued and he was the preferred choice to jointly lead the innovative Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group to South Africa in 1986. Although his National Party colleagues found Fraser ‘more difficult’ to deal with than fellow head General Olusegun Obasanjo, the South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha told the Commonwealth Oral History Project that the EPG was of great significance in working out a possible negotiating concept between the white minority government and its political opponents. The EPG mission ended in apparent failure, but Fraser and Obasanjo’s subsequent tour of the US helped to persuade key Congressional leaders on the need for American sanctions against South Africa. The framework of the Possible Negotiating Concept they put forward, meanwhile, helped to start the South African negotiations to transition after Nelson Mandela’s release from jail.

In 1989, Fraser tried to run as Secretary General of the Commonwealth. He received the active support of Bob Hawke, who felt he would give strong and effective leadership, but Fraser was defeated in a secret ballot by Chief Emeka Anyaoku.

Fraser’s passing provides an opportunity for Australians to reflect on the statesman’s ‘dream of a truly original Australian foreign policy’, as veteran journalist Margaret Simons contended in The Guardian: ‘With Malcolm Fraser’s death, Australia has lost one of its abiding moral compasses, and a reminder of a time when we dreamed large about the role our country might play in the world.’

This article first appeared on the AHRC funded Commonwealth Oral Histories website, run by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. The project aims to produce a unique digital research resource that, when completed, will include at least 60 interviews with leading figures in the organisation’s history since 1965. It is set to become an essential research tool for anyone investigating the history of the Commonwealth and will serve to promote interest in, and understanding of, the organisation.

Image: Bust of the twenty-second Prime Minister of Australia w:en:Malcolm Fraser by political cartoonist, caricaturist and sculptor w:en:Peter Nicholson located in the w:en:Prime Minister’s Avenue in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. Photo taken by WikiTownsvillian