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Charles Edward Frazer (1880–1913)

by Ross McMullin

This article was published:

Charles Edward Frazer (1880-1913), by Sarony Studio, 1900s

Charles Edward Frazer (1880-1913), by Sarony Studio, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23397710

Charles Edward Frazer (1880-1913), politician, was born on 2 January 1880 at Yarrawonga, Victoria, son of James Bannerman Frazer, farmer, and his wife Susan née Atkinson. He attended the local school until he was 15 when the lure of gold attracted him to Western Australia. Employed on arrival in Perth in the Railways Department, he qualified as a first-class engine driver in 1899 before settling on the goldfields at Boulder as a mine-engine driver.

His ability and interest in local and union affairs were soon apparent. Frazer was elected president of the Boulder branch of his union early in 1902 and was secretary next year of the Goldfields Trades and Labor Council. He became active in the local Australian Natives' Association and was president in 1902; in November he was elected to the Kalgoorlie Town Council. When a Labor candidate was sought for the Federal seat of Kalgoorlie in 1903 to oppose the free trader, (Sir) John Kirwan, Frazer easily secured the nomination. Despite a cyclone on election day that kept voters away, he was rewarded with a majority as convincing as it was unexpected. The miners appreciated his fierce advocacy of White Australia as much as his relish for drinking, smoking and gambling. Tall, handsome and confident, he was equally popular with women voters.

Frazer rapidly gained a reputation as a dedicated radical. Initially 'a Parliamentary larrikin', he worked so assiduously at improving his political skills that he was soon regarded as leadership material. He studied law, frequently reading textbooks during parliamentary debates, but did not qualify. He campaigned successfully to provide caucus with the power to select Labor ministries, formerly the prerogative of the parliamentary leader, then J. C. Watson who resigned temporarily as a result. Frazer also urged that Labor should withdraw its support from the minority Protectionist government: with his 'caustic, bitter tongue', he led the way in parliament by subjecting the government to 'rhetorical assault and battery'. Eventually, on his motion in November 1908, caucus decided to sever relations with the Protectionists, and in the ensuing short-lived Labor government Frazer was assistant government whip. After Labour's 1910 election victory a closely contested caucus ballot elevated him to the ministry. He was 30 years and 4 months: in eight decades after Federation there has been no younger minister. On 31 August 1904 at St Peter's Church of England, Melbourne, he had married Mary Kinnane, a Kalgoorlie shop assistant; her family disapproved of her marriage to a non-Roman Catholic.

Initially Frazer was honorary minister, twice serving capably as acting treasurer; on the death of E. L. Batchelor in October 1911 he hoped to secure the treasury portfolio but became postmaster-general instead. His administration was again competent, and he was proud of the increased constructions and installations he had authorized. Privately he was contemptuous of the postal employees who were 'unreasonable', 'far too well paid' and like 'spoilt children'; he regretted cabinet's insistence that their demands be met. After Labor narrowly lost the election in June 1913, the new government replaced the design of the penny stamp Labor had introduced, although it lasted for most other values for many years; Frazer had originated the design which featured a kangaroo 'rampant upon a purely White Australia'.

Despite periodic ill health his death from pneumonia after a brief illness on 25 November 1913 was totally unexpected. His great capacity, energy and promise were questioned. The particularly glowing tributes reflected his general popularity and Labor's great loss. Frazer was better equipped to fill the leadership void after the conscription split than either F. G. Tudor or M. Charlton, and might have led Federal Labor out of the political wilderness earlier. He had the requisite ambition for leadership. Shortly before he was promoted to the cabinet he confided that if he were not a minister soon and prime minister within ten years he would quit politics. The first minister to be flown in an aeroplane, he was also one of the few to have a racehorse, Charlie Frazer, named after him. 'A brilliant life spoilt by too quick success and too much leisure', concluded R. A. Crouch. Leaving an estate sworn for probate at £1168 and survived by his wife, Frazer was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. M. Weller (ed), Caucus Minutes, vol 1 (Melb, 1975)
  • Southern Sphere, 1 July 1910
  • University Studies in History, 4 (1966)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1909, 19 May 1910
  • Argus (Melbourne), 26 Nov 1913
  • Australian Worker, 27 Nov 1913
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria)
  • Frazer papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ross McMullin, 'Frazer, Charles Edward (1880–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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