Tamara (Tamie) Beggs grew up in western Victoria, where her family, like John Malcolm Fraser’s, had a grazing property. The couple married in 1956, and by the time Fraser became Prime Minister in 1975, they had 4 children, aged 9 to 17 years.
The Frasers were not newcomers to Canberra when they moved into The Lodge in January 1976. They had built a house in the suburb of Deakin and all 4 of their children were born while the family lived there from 1957 to 1972. In their early years in Canberra, Mrs Fraser had made friends with another ‘political wife’, Margot Anthony, whose husband was the Country Party Member for the seat of Richmond. In March 1971, Doug Anthony had succeeded John McEwen as Leader of the Country Party.
Mrs Fraser undertook many political roles during her husband’s prime ministership. When Fraser was ill during the crucial election campaign in December 1975 after the dismissal of the Whitlam government, Mrs Fraser was required to deputise for him. Robert Menzies relied on Mrs Fraser as a conduit and advocate. In a letter written on 10 December 1975, he advised her to encourage Fraser to choose his own ministers so that:
he will have the same amount of personal authority and prestige as I always hoped for in my own case in my own time.
Although Mrs Fraser claimed she hated electioneering work, she was good at it and was regarded by Liberal Party campaign managers as an asset. Commenting on her role to an Age newspaper reporter on 5 December 1975, she said that ‘the hardest thing to take is that you are public property’. She nevertheless played a prominent role in the 1975, 1977, 1980 and 1983 federal election campaigns.
Answering voluminous correspondence from people requesting support for events, organisations and causes was another task of the prime ministerial spouse. Many requested help in dealing with government bureaucracy. Mrs Fraser was well-known in government departments for routing these letters to the appropriate public servant, and later phoning to check on the progress of the case. She was the first prime ministerial spouse to secure the services of an official secretary, and she used a small room on the staircase landing at The Lodge as her office.
Sometimes direct requests were made to the prime ministerial spouse to influence policy outcomes. The government’s response to anti-whaling lobbying in 1977, for example, was attributed to the intervention of Mrs Fraser. In the assessment of one political reporter, ‘for a woman who has only a languid interest’ in politics, Mrs Fraser wielded ‘a lot of power’.
The Frasers occupied The Lodge 9 years after Zara Holt’s refurbishment, and they found the house drab and unwelcoming. The once-glamorous wallpaper was peeling from the guestroom ceiling and many cracks had appeared in the bathroom walls. Mrs Fraser thought the layout of the house was inefficient, the service area inadequate and, like every occupant since 1927, the dining room too small for official entertaining. Among the visitors entertained by the Frasers at The Lodge in 1977 were Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in March, then Prince Charles in November.
The first task Mrs Fraser undertook was to supplement the surviving settings of the 1927 white and gold Royal Doulton dinner service. It had a special pattern featuring the prime ministerial crest, which had been designed by Ruth Lane-Poole in 1926. Interestingly, the man who handled Mrs Fraser’s order in 1977 had arranged for the manufacture of the original set 50 years earlier.
Although this expensive purchase created a furore, it did not deter Mrs Fraser from battling to secure major renovations of the service wing and dining room in 1978. She chose architect Guilford Bell to oversee this remodelling and to redecorate the main rooms. 10 years after Zara Holt imposed her extravagant decorating scheme on The Lodge, Mrs Fraser returned the main reception rooms to ‘classic colours and style’, with cream painted walls and a white Berber carpet. In July 1979, former prime ministerial spouse Dame Enid Lyons returned to The Lodge to present Mrs Fraser with a gift to the Australiana Fund. That year, the government acknowledged that both the size and style of The Lodge were inadequate and that planning for a new prime ministerial residence should proceed.
Mrs Fraser had been surprised that The Lodge showed no sign of its status as the official prime ministerial residence, nor any evidence of memorabilia of its former prominent occupants. She also noted that it was ‘not even particularly Australian in atmosphere’. The Frasers visited the United States in 1976, and Mrs Fraser was impressed with the idea of the Americana Fund. This had been an initiative of former ‘First Lady’ Jacqueline Kennedy to raise money to furnish Washington’s White House and the nearby residence for official visitors, Blair House. The Australiana Fund, launched by the Prime Minister in August 1977, aimed to raise funds and acquire items of historical significance for the official residences of the Prime Minister and the Governor-General. As the fund’s first president, Mrs Fraser said in a 1978 interview:
We will be meticulous about ensuring gifts and acquisitions go only to the public areas of the official homes . . . The Lodge is not my home. I just happen to be here to do a job. But I would like Australians to be able to be proud of it, not ashamed. I think it should reflect our national history, for ourselves and our visitors.
In her 8th and final year as a prime ministerial spouse, Mrs Fraser maintained she was ‘still the person in the back row’ and disliked speaking in public. Her record shows she nevertheless did a great deal of it, addressing luncheons and campaign rallies, and giving many radio interviews. She was also accomplished at the endless round of ‘meet and greet’ events attended by prime ministerial spouses.
In November 1982, she told an interviewer, ‘The best thing about being a PM’s wife is knowing that it won’t go on forever’. She was relieved of a role she said she disliked only 4 months later, but she had played it with distinction.
Mrs Fraser continued an active public life and, in 2004, was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for her service to the community, especially in ‘fostering the recognition and preservation of Australian artistic achievement, for initiating and promoting a range of activities to support people with disabilities, and for support of charitable, health and service groups’.
- Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 March 1978.
- Daily Mirror, 10 November 1982.
- Hindhaugh, Christina, It Wasn’t Meant to Be Easy: Tamie Fraser in Canberra, Lothian Publishing, Melbourne, 1986.
- Langmore, Diane, Prime Ministers’ Wives: The Public and Private Lives of Ten Australian Women, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1992.
- Simpson, Caroline, ‘The Lodge’, Art in Australia, 1988.
- Sunday Telegraph, 27 July 1980.
- The Australiana Collection, Fine Arts Press, Sydney, 1990.