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The time Malcolm Fraser stopped military intervention in PNG

Malcolm Fraser & Michael SomarePETER KRANZ

MALCOLM Fraser, Australia's 22nd prime minister, died early yesterday morning aged 84.

One little known story about Fraser’s time as Defence Minister under Liberal prime minister John Gorton was that he averted Australian military intervention in Papua New Guinea during the Mataungan uprising of 1970.

Gorton wanted to send Australian troops to the Gazelle Peninsula to restore order during a period of civil unrest.

Gorton was intending to do this without involving Cabinet by getting the Governor-General to sign an Order In Council to authorise it.

But word got to Fraser ,who was outraged as he had clear principles about in which circumstances the military should be used and he did not believe that, in this case, it was appropriate.

Without Gorton’s knowledge, Fraser warned the Governor-General not to consider making such an order as it was unconstitutional and promptly resigned, triggering the eventual downfall of Gorton who from that time refused to talk to Fraser.

Later Fraser recalled:

"And there was a famous case - or not case, it received very little publicity - but there were disturbances in Papua New Guinea [and] either the Administrator or the minister or somebody anyway, felt that the military forces ought to be called out.

“Now I was Minister for Defence at the time and the reports I was getting from Defence personnel in Papua New Guinea were that there was absolutely no cause at all for a call out of the troops, which would have meant those troops were available to the civil power, which meant the administrator [could] say, 'Go and capture this village', or 'do that', or 'put down these dissidents', or whatever.

“But if there was going to be that kind of decision by government, it should go through the Defence Council, which was the service chiefs - the Chief of Defence Staff, Heads of Treasury, Foreign Affairs, in this case Territories, maybe one or two others, but all officials.

“Then it would go to Cabinet, then it would go to the Executive Council. Without going through any of those processes, there was an attempt to take it through the Executive Council. I, in effect, rang up the Governor-General of the day and warned him that somebody was going to ask for him to sign an Executive Council order for the call-out of troops, which did not have my approval and had not been discussed in Cabinet.

“Without revealing or indicating that he knew that, the Governor-General just said, 'Well has Cabinet considered this matter? Has the Defence Council, the Defence Committee considered this matter?' And the answers of course had to be 'no'. So he said well he wasn't going to take it into Executive Council until it had been properly considered."

Transcript of Robin Hughes’ extensive interview with Malcolm Fraser for Film Australia, Australian Biography Online



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Chris Overland

Thank you for this Peter.

For a long time I have been amongst the many who believed that Fraser resigned as a consequence of a trivial spat with Gorton, thus strategically placing himself in a better position to eventually secure the party leadership.

You have shown this idea to be patently wrong.

Fraser's resignation was on an important matter of principle and stands to his credit.

It would have done no good at all to send in the Army to deal with the Mataungan Association. Instead, I think it would have alienated the many Papua New Guineans (including Tolais) who strongly disagreed with them and their tactics.

In the end, the murder of District Commissioner Jack Emanuel in 1971 turned many Tolais against the Mataungans who had formerly either been supportive or merely indifferent.

Corney Korokan Alone

Malcolm Fraser - man of wisdom and peace.
Thank you. Rest in peace.

Peter Kranz

The implications of Fraser's action for Papua New Guinea are profound but have received scant attention.

If there had been Australian military intervention it could easily have triggered armed conflict with pro-independence groups leading to bloodshed.

The cause of independence may well have been set back many years, and the young guns of PNG politics would have been denied the chance to take leadership roles.

The extent of Canberra's meddling in the Territory's administration - even to the extent of subverting due legal process - are documented in Paul Quinlivan's memoirs.

Gorton saw the independence activists as 'communists'.

Incidentally one of Fraser's first overseas trips when he became PM was to visit Papua New Guinea to celebrate the nation's first anniversary of independence with Somare in 1976.

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