Malcolm Fraser dies at 84; became Australian leader in constitutional crisis

Malcolm Fraser, who became Australia's prime minister in a constitutional crisis, has died. He was 84

Malcolm Fraser, the former Australian prime minister who was notoriously catapulted to power by a constitutional crisis that left the nation bitterly divided, died Friday. He was 84.

"It is with deep sadness that we inform you that after a brief illness John Malcolm Fraser died peacefully in the early hours of the morning," a statement released by his office said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in a statement that Australia's 22nd prime minister had "restored economically responsible government while recognizing social change."

Fraser became the unelected leader of an unsuspecting nation in 1975 when then Governor-General John Kerr took the unprecedented step of dismissing the chaotic, frenetically reformist government of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

It was a development that most Australians had not thought possible. Many were outraged that the Australian representative of Queen Elizabeth II, Australia's distant constitutional head of state, would dare oust a democratically elected government.

An indignant Whitlam branded Fraser "Kerr's cur," and urged voters to "maintain the rage" at the ballot box.

A month after taking power as a caretaker government, Fraser's conservative coalition won a clear victory over Whitlam's center-left Labor Party. Fraser won two more three-year terms.

His government's achievements include legislation that gave land back to Aborigines in the Northern Territory, an outcome he always gave credit to Whitlam for initiating.

Fraser worked to transform Australia, a former British colony, into a multicultural society and was a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa.

But his legitimacy as a leader never recovered from the controversy over how he got there. The "Kerr's cur" tag lingered in the nation's memory decades later.

With the cultivated Australian accent of the old money families and a stony countenance that cartoonists lampooned as an Easter Island statue, many mistook him for a classical conservative.

But he later became a vocal critic of conservative politics in Australia and a thorn in the side of the center-right Liberal Party that he once led and he eventually quit in disgust in 2010 following the party's election of Abbott as its leader.

Years after Fraser and Whitlam's parliamentary careers ended, the two political foes became friends. They shared a disappointment that their rival parties had both shifted to the right on issues including the treatment and detention of asylum seekers.

Whitlam died in October.

Fraser was born in the wealthy suburb of Toorak in Melbourne city on May 21, 1930. He was educated at the exclusive Melbourne Grammar School and Oxford University before reluctantly returning to farming in Victorian state. He recently said he fell into politics by accident, being first elected in 1955.

He is survived by his wife, Tamie, and four children.

McGuirk writes for the Associated Press.

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