Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James McIntosh Fraser (1889–1961)

by Andrew Lee

This article was published:

James McIntosh Fraser (1889-1961), by unknown photographer

James McIntosh Fraser (1889-1961), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 010009

James McIntosh Fraser (1889-1961), motorman, trade unionist and politician, was born on 12 March 1889 at Forres, Morayshire, Scotland, son of James McIntosh Fraser, ploughman, and his wife Elspet, née Anderson. Educated locally, young James was employed as a gardener at Gordon Castle, Fochabers, and as a munitions worker at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, before he emigrated to Western Australia. On 6 April 1912 at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Perth, he married Ellen Simmons, a domestic servant; they were to have five children. During World War I he tried to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force; when he was rejected, he returned to Britain and regained his job at Woolwich arsenal.

Back in Perth after the war, Fraser worked as a motorman with the Western Australian Government Tramways; he held office in the Tramway Employees' Union and from the 1920s served on the State executive of the Australian Labor Party. In 1929-37 he was a member of Perth City Council, representing Victoria Park Ward. Elected to the Senate in 1937, he was minister for external territories (October 1941 to September 1943), and held the portfolios of health and social services from 21 September 1943 to 18 June 1946. He led for the government in the Senate debates on the pharmaceutical benefits and the unemployment and sickness benefits bills (1944), and was the 'immediate ministerial architect' of Labor's broad programme to improve social security.

As acting-minister for the army in 1945, Fraser became involved in controversy over the employment and administration of Australia's military forces in the South-West Pacific Area. In April he visited New Guinea, New Britain and Bougainville to investigate claims of lack of equipment and low morale; on his return, he rejected most of the complaints, but admitted that shipping shortages had delayed the granting of leave and the supply of some matériel. Opposition senators alleged that he had avoided the front line and had spent most of his time with senior officers. Stung by the innuendo, he declared in the House, 'there are no cowards in my family'. His three sons served in the A.I.F. in World War II: Eric was captured by the Japanese in Singapore; Keith died in 1941 while a prisoner of war in Germany.

Fraser was minister for trade and customs from 18 June 1946, but was defeated in the caucus ballot for the second Ben Chifley ministry and on 1 November rejoined the back-bench. Towards the end of his career he emerged as a trenchant critic of H. V. Evatt. In October 1954 Fraser seconded George Cole's motion that all leadership positions be declared vacant, claiming that Evatt did not understand the party, could never lead it to victory and was 'the best ''how to vote" card Menzies and Fadden ever had'.

Somewhat austere and angular in appearance, Fraser was quietly spoken and an 'able and level-headed' administrator who was popular with his colleagues. In that he was working class, Catholic (converted 1951) and a trade unionist, he was typical of many Labor politicians of his generation. In 1959 he retired from the Senate. He died on 27 August 1961 at Victoria Park, Perth, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery; his wife, one of his two daughters and two of his sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 26 Sept 1938, p 181, 10 Feb 1944, p 50, 16 Feb 1944, p 223, 26 Apr 1945, p 1082
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate, Commonwealth), 30 Aug 1961, p 243
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 May 1944
  • Herald (Melbourne), 26 Apr 1945
  • West Australian, 28 Aug 1961
  • private information.

Citation details

Andrew Lee, 'Fraser, James McIntosh (1889–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James McIntosh Fraser (1889-1961), by unknown photographer

James McIntosh Fraser (1889-1961), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 010009

Life Summary [details]


12 March, 1889
Forres, Moray, Scotland


27 August, 1961 (aged 72)
Victoria Park, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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