FRASER, James McIntosh (1889–1961)
Senator for Western Australia, 1938–59 (Australian Labor Party)

James McIntosh Fraser, Perth tram driver, city councillor and member of the wartime ministries of the Curtin, Forde and Chifley Labor governments, was born on 12 March 1889 at 26 Batchen Street, Forres, Scotland, to James McIntosh Fraser, ploughman, and Elspet, née Anderson. The young James was educated at the Milne’s Institution, Fochabers, until 1903. His initial employment was as an apprentice gardener at Gordon Castle, Fochabers, where his father was also a gardener. Subsequently, he moved to England and became a munitions worker at Woolwich Arsenal. During his time at the arsenal, he met Ellen Simmons. In 1911 James and Ellen emigrated to Australia, and on 6 April 1912 they were married in St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Perth. From the time of his settling in Perth, Fraser began a long association with the tramways and its affiliated workers’ union.

When, at the outbreak of World War I, his application to enlist was turned down, he and his wife returned to England. Fraser again commenced work at the Woolwich Arsenal, believing that here he could contribute to the war effort. Soon after the war the Frasers came back to Perth, and initially lived at Leederville. As a result of his service at the arsenal, Fraser became eligible for a war service loan, with which he financed the purchase of a property at 26 Teddington Road, Victoria Park. He moved to this address in 1921 and lived there for the rest of his life.[1]

Returning to the tramways, Fraser became increasingly active in the Tramway Employees’ Union, of which he was president between 1926 and 1927. One of his first tasks was to interview the Western Australian Minister for Railways over the union’s claim for a 3 shillings and 4 pence weekly pay rise and a 44-hour week.[2] He probably joined the Australian Labor Party before the war; by the early 1920s he was a member of the party’s state executive, and from 1936 a delegate at annual conferences. At the 1942 federal conference Fraser seconded Prime Minister John Curtin’s unexpected motion to extend ‘the territories associated with the defence of Australia’, and in 1954 he seconded the Labor Caucus motion for a spill of positions against H. V. Evatt’s leadership.[3]

In 1928 Fraser was elected to the Perth City Council, representing the Labor Party for the Victoria Park ward. He served three terms, becoming a member of the endowment lands, works and finance committees and chairman of the general purposes and electricity and gas committees. In 1937, his last year as a councillor, he wrote an article for the Westralian Worker, documenting Labor’s contribution to civic affairs in Perth. For many years, he carried in his vest pocket a gold medal celebrating Perth’s centenary, given to him as a city councillor in 1929.[4]

Fraser was elected to the Senate in October 1937, having stood unsuccessfully for the federal seat of Swan in 1931 and for Western Australia’s Legislative Council in 1934. From his first speech on 26 September 1938, he pursued a wide range of issues. He called for the development of civil aviation in Western Australia and the extension of air conditioning on the Trans-Australian Railway to the second class, so that passengers would not be ‘huddled together’ in temperatures of up to ‘110 degrees in the shade’. Concerned that a recommendation of the Commonwealth Grants Commission would cause greater unemployment, he urged the creation of a federal minister for employment, wanting to know what was going to be done ‘for the hundreds of men who are unemployed in Western Australia to-day’. He asked questions about a floating dock for Fremantle, the sale of wheat to the United Kingdom, a road to the Port Moore lighthouse at Geraldton, and the Government’s policy on the development of iron ore at Yampi Sound on the north-west coast. In October he supported a motion by the United Australia Party’s Senator Foll to disallow regulations that placed an embargo on the export of iron ore. Fraser discussed issues from banking and monetary reform and the inadequacies of the national insurance scheme to trade representation abroad. He drew particular attention to the impact of mechanisation on apprentices and to ‘the tragedy of young men’ unable to obtain work. He could not understand ‘why Parliaments, both Commonwealth and State, rush business through towards the end of each year’.[5]

His background in munitions may have encouraged his particular interest in defence. During the adjournment debate on 17 May 1939, he expressed dissatisfaction with an answer that Foll, as the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, had given to a question asked by Fraser about the setting up of annexes to the Midland Junction Railway Workshops in Western Australia. Advocating the decentralisation of the armaments industry, Fraser said that some reason should be advanced for the virtual exclusion of Western Australia from the program, as the state had ‘one of the finest railway workshops in the Commonwealth’.[6] Similarly, during the second reading debate and committee consideration of the Supply and Development Bill in June, he discussed the manufacture and protection of munitions, advocating the use of underground factories. He considered that the bill should provide for a restriction on wartime profit‑making, and that during times of national emergency government should control industry. While claiming that the legislation adopted part of the Labor Opposition’s defence policy, he found one of the bill’s ‘most objectionable features’ to be the ‘practically unlimited power’ it would give to the minister by regulation. He noted that some clauses in the bill would supersede provisions of the Defence Act. He also pressed for, and became a member of, the Select Committee on the Discharge of Captain T. P. Conway from the Australian Military Forces. He had little interest in the compensation issue, concentrating on the allegation that written evidence had been destroyed.[7]

On 7 October 1941 Fraser became Minister for External Territories and Minister Assisting the Minister for Commerce in the first Curtin Ministry. He would establish a reputation as an ‘efficient, quiet-spoken Minister’ who made friends easily. On 21 February 1942 he also became Minister Assisting the Minister for the Army and, from 17 October, Minister Assisting the Minister for Supply and Shipping. During these years, when Australia’s leaders were subjected to almost intolerable burdens, Fraser took on other parliamentary wartime responsibilities. In 1941 he became a member of the government-appointed Joint Committee on the Apple and Pear Board. This led to his attendance at meetings of Cabinet’s Production Executive during 1942 and 1943. In 1944 he was appointed to the Joint Committee on Censorship. Following its unpublished interim report, the committee was superseded by a commission of inquiry into postal, telegraphic and telephonic censorship, appointed in 1944 under national security regulations.[8]

Fraser’s close association with the army portfolio continued through World War II. For three periods (totalling some nine months) during 1944 and 1945 he acted in place of the Minister, Frank Forde. In February 1945 it was alleged in Parliament that Australian soldiers in New Guinea were suffering shortages of equipment. There were heated questions in the Senate to which Fraser responded on 7 March. In early April Curtin sent Fraser to New Guinea to assess the situation on the ground, the journey receiving some media attention. Arriving back in Australia, Fraser submitted his report to the Government. He was satisfied that on the whole the troops were receiving adequate supplies and equipment. In relation to the takeover from the Americans at Aitape, he believed the criticisms had some validity, and said that, had the military authorities informed the Government earlier, ‘corrective action’ could have been taken. Given the political and military sensitivities, the Government divided Fraser’s report into two parts, his somewhat negative comments on troop conditions at Aitape being included in a ‘second’ report, for War Cabinet eyes only. Curtin tabled the ‘first’ report in Parliament on 8 May 1945 but not before Fraser had been forced to make a personal explanation in the Senate, and the Liberal Opposition, sensing Parliament had not been told the whole story, had created uproar in the House of Representatives.[9]

Fraser’s most lasting legislative achievement occurred during his tenure of the health and social services portfolios from 21 September 1943 until 18 June 1946. (His membership of the Ugly Men’s Voluntary Workers’ Association—a Western Australian group that assisted World War I veterans—may have been an early manifestation of his concern for social welfare.) He played a crucial part in helping to lay the legislative foundations of the social policy program of the Curtin and Chifley governments, made feasible by the Commonwealth’s takeover of income tax in 1942. Working with the Joint Committee on Social Security, Fraser piloted through the Parliament such measures as the Unemployment and Sickness Benefits Bill 1944, the Pharmaceutical Benefits bills of 1944 and 1945 and the Hospital Benefits Bill 1945. He was responsible too for the consolidation of a raft of social legislation, which included invalid and old-age pensions, widows’ pensions, maternity allowances, child endowment, unemployment and sickness benefits, and which led to the Social Services Consolidation Act, introduced into the Senate by Senator McKenna in 1947. McKenna would refer to Fraser as ‘the immediate ministerial architect of the programme’.[10]

Fraser’s last ministerial position was as Minister for Trade and Customs, from 18 June to 1 November 1946. Earlier, in October 1945, he had proved himself a keen negotiator when representing the Government at the International Labour Organization Conference in Paris. Foreign Minister H. V. Evatt attributed the delegation’s success to Fraser’s advocacy in gaining a seat for Australia on the governing body. However, when Prime Minister Chifley was again returned to office at the September 1946 election, Fraser did not achieve a place in the new ministry, but continued as a backbench senator for the remainder of his career. One of his last parliamentary roles was as a temporary chairman of committees (1954–55).

Fraser decided not to stand at the federal election of November 1958, and on 10 March 1959 delivered his final speech in the Senate. He recounted a conversation between himself and General Douglas MacArthur in which MacArthur had referred to Curtin: ‘I sometimes wonder, Senator’, MacArthur had said, ‘whether the people of Australia know the great leader that they have in John Curtin . . . It is all very well to hark back to the days of Barton, Deakin and others but . . . they never had to face the responsibility that confronted the Labour government from 1941 to 1945’. Fraser then read from a letter he had received from Curtin in July 1944: ‘I should like to express to you my warm appreciation of the admirable manner in which you discharged the additional duties that were imposed on you during my absence from Australia’. Fraser went on to refer to his own age and ill health as the reasons for his intention to leave political life; between 1956 and 1958 he had been absent from the Senate for almost seven months. On 21 April 1958 he was granted leave of absence for a further month.[11]

Fraser died at his Victoria Park home on 27 August 1961. His wife and two of his three sons, James Eric, and Desmond Basil, and daughter, Doreen, survived him. A third son, Frederick Keith, died as a prisoner of war in Germany in 1941. All three boys had served in the war, James having been a prisoner of war in Malaya at the time of Fraser’s visit to New Guinea in 1945. Another daughter, Eileen, predeceased her father. Fraser had been baptised into the Roman Catholic Church in 1950, perhaps as a consequence of his friendship with the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Perth, Redmond Prendiville, and the fact that his wife was a Catholic. He was awarded a state funeral, which was held at St Mary’s Cathedral, Perth, and buried at Karrakatta Cemetery. Fraser Park in Balmoral Street, Victoria Park, is named after him.[12]

Peter C. Grundy

[1] Andrew Lee, ‘Fraser, James McIntosh’, ADB, vol. 14; Northern Scot & Moray and Nairn Express, 17 Oct. 1953; Argus (Melb.), 6 May 1944, p. 6, 13 Mar. 1943, p. 6; CPD, 15 Mar. 1951, p. 531; The author is indebted to Mr Eric Fraser (son) and Mrs Doreen Sullivan (daughter) for information; CPD, 3 Apr. 1944, p. 604.

[2] Minute Books, Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association, Perth Branch, MN 775, LISWA—the editor is indebted to Mr Ian Pleydell, author of The History of the Perth Electric Tramways (Mooroopna, Vic., 2001) for searching these records.

[3] Leading Personalities of Western Australia, Paterson Brokensha, Perth, 1950, p. 337; L. F. Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party 1901–1951, 2nd edn, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1978, pp. 313–14; ALP, Reports of special Commonwealth conferences, Nov. 16, 1942, Jan. 4, 1943, p. 32; Daniel Connell, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Crows Nest, NSW, 1990, pp. 109–10; Lloyd Ross, John Curtin: A Biography, Sun Books, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1983, p. 301; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, p. 192; West Australian (Perth), 28 Aug. 1961, p. 8.

[4] The editor is indebted to Marian Farrant, City of Perth, for information; J. Fraser, ‘Labor in the Civic Sphere’, Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 30 Apr. 1937, p. 14; West Australian (Perth), 19 Mar. 1959, p. 15; See photograph in C. T. Stannage, People of Perth, Perth City Council, Perth, 1979, p. 337.

[5] CPD, 26 Sept. 1938, pp. 181–3, 13 Oct. 1938, p. 721, 4 Nov. 1938, p. 1255, 23 Nov. 1938, p. 1884, 27 Sept. 1938, p. 193, 8 Dec. 1938, p. 2915, 28 Sept. 1938, p. 273, 7 Oct. 1938, pp. 537–9, 2 Nov. 1938, pp. 1052–6, 30 Nov. & 1 Dec. 1938, pp. 2349–50, 2342–3.

[6] CPD, 22 Sept. 1939, p. 1078, 17 May 1939, pp. 364, 407–9; Lindsay Watson, The Railway History of Midland Junction: Commemorating the Centenary of Midland Junction 1895–1995, L. & S., Swan View, WA, [1995], p. 77.

[7] CPD, 8 June 1939, pp. 1480–9, 13 June 1939, pp. 1686–9, 1699–700, 1725; CPP, Select Committee on the Discharge of Captain T. P. Conway from the Australian Military Forces, report, 1939; CPD, 31 May 1939, pp. 982–3.

[8] Argus (Melb.), 6 May 1944, p. 6; CPP, Joint Committee on the Apple and Pear Board, report, 1941; Minutes of Meeting of Production Executive, 3 Aug. 1942, A2867/1/1, NAA; CPD, 25 June 1941, p. 424, 12 Nov. 1941, p. 229; Statement by Acting Prime Minister, 1 May 1944, A2684/3/1351, NAA; CPD, 19 July 1944, p. 142, 21 July 1944, p. 379.

[9] CPD, 28 Feb. 1945, pp. 113–17, 126–32, 7 Mar. 1945, pp. 335–43; Sun (Melb.), 18 Apr. 1945, p. 3; Age (Melb.), 27 Apr. 1945, p. 3; Argus (Melb.), 20 Apr. 1945, p. 5; CPD, 24 Apr. 1945, pp. 1025–33, 26 Apr. 1945, pp. 1082–4; Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1942–1945, AWM, Canberra, 1979, pp. 573–5; Senate, Journals, 8 May 1945; Report by the Acting Minister for the Army on his Visit to the Operational Areas, Table Office, Department of the Senate; Report by Senator Fraser on Matters Other than Equipment, A816/1, item 37/301/294, Minutes of War Cabinet Meetings, April, May, 1945, A5954, War Cabinet Agenda, 190/1945, 499/1945, War Cabinet Agendum, AWM54, item 732/2/7, NAA; Letters, General Blamey and Senator Fraser to Minister for the Army, July and Aug. 1945, A816/1, NAA; David Horner, Inside the War Cabinet: Directing Australia’s War Effort 1939–45, Allen & Unwin in association with NAA, St Leonards, NSW, 1996, pp. 184–9.

[10] Subiaco Post (Perth), 9 Aug. 1994, p. 26; James M. Fraser, The Health Policy of the Australian Government, [Canberra, Government Printer, 1944]; CPD, 23 Feb. 1944, pp. 399–432, 16 Feb. 1944, pp. 223–4, 29 Mar. 1944, pp. 2140–3, 10 Feb. 1944, pp. 52–3, 21 May 1947, pp. 2635–7, 15 May 1947, pp. 2410–11, 30 Aug. 1961, pp. 243–4.

[11] I. M. Cumpston, History of Australian Foreign Policy 1901–1991, vol. 1, Canberra, c. 1995, p. 179; CPD, 2 Apr. 1946, pp. 831–2; W. J. Hudson & Wendy Way (eds), Documents on Australian Foreign Policy 1937–49, vol. 8, AGPS, Canberra, 1989, pp. 163–4, 305–6, 490–1, 569–70; Age (Melb.), 3 Jan. 1946, p. 3; CPD, 10 Mar. 1959, pp. 277–9, 21 Apr. 1959, p. 897; West Australian (Perth), 19 Mar. 1959, p. 15.

[12] Commonwealth War Graves Commission files record Frederick’s burial at Durnbach War Cemetery, Bayern, Germany. Mr Eric Fraser recounts that as a prisoner of war in Malaya he was warned not to let the Japanese guards learn of his father’s ministerial position; Age (Melb.), 20 Apr. 1945, p. 3; The author is indebted to the Roman Catholic Archives of the Archdiocese of Perth; West Australian (Perth), 29 Aug. 1961, p. 8; Information provided by City of Victoria Park Library and Perth City Council.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 55-59.

FRASER, James McIntosh (1889–1961)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1938–59

Minister for External Territories, 1941–43

Minister Assisting the Minister for Commerce, 1941–42

Minister Assisting the Minister for the Army, 1942–43

Minister Assisting the Minister for Supply and Shipping, 1942–43

Minister for Health, 1943–46

Minister for Social Services, 1943–46

Acting Minister for the Army, 1944–45

Minister for Trade and Customs, 1946


Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1938–43

Select Committee on the Discharge of Captain T. P. Conway from the Australian Military Forces, 1939

Joint Committee on the Apple and Pear Board, 1941

Joint Committee on the Commonwealth Bank Bill, 1942–43

Joint Committee on Censorship, 1944

House Committee, 1946–49