Australia bids farewell to former PM Fraser at state funeral

MELBOURNE (AFP) - Hundreds of mourners gathered on Friday at a state funeral for former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who came to power in 1975 with Australia's greatest constitutional crisis and died last week aged 84.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott was to attend the ceremony at Melbourne's Scots' Church along with former prime ministers Julia Gillard, John Howard and Paul Keating.

The church holds only 700 people but the public has been asked to join family and dignitaries with another 1,000 seats provided across the street at St Michael's Uniting Church, where the service will be televised live as it will across the country.

Fraser died last Friday after a short illness, just five months after the death of Gough Whitlam, the man he dramatically replaced after the Labor leader became Australia's only prime minister to be sacked.

He began his term as the country's 22nd prime minister after the representative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Whitlam's government in November 1975.

Fraser was appointed caretaker and despite questions about the legitimacy of the dismissal, the Liberal Party man went on to win three elections, serving until 1983 with polices aimed at reducing spending and imposing responsible fiscal management.

He was also a strong supporter of human rights who oversaw an upsurge in immigration from Asia and a conservationist who banned whaling in Australia, while helping shape diplomatic and trade relations with East and Southeast Asia before being succeeded by Labor's Bob Hawke.

"The constitutional crisis of 1975 was one of the defining political events of our nation," Abbott said last week.

"Malcolm Fraser held true to the belief that his actions were in the best interests of Australia. He was determined to 'turn on the lights' and restore Australia's economic fortunes."

A staunch opponent of apartheid, Fraser was also noted for his strong support of reform in South Africa and for playing a prominent part in Commonwealth efforts to establish an independent Zimbabwe.

He formed aid group CARE Australia, established the Australian Federal Police, enacted the nation's first Freedom of Information laws and welcomed tens of thousands of Vietnamese boatpeople into the country.

Fraser maintained a high-profile after leaving office, lobbying for Australia to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and serving on Commonwealth observer groups overseeing elections in Pakistan, Tanzania and Bangladesh.

More recently, he became an outspoken critic of the Liberal Party, taking a stand on indigenous issues, refugees and the war on Iraq.

Born into a wealthy family, he was an Oxford graduate who entered parliament in 1955 and spent 10 years as a backbencher in the government of Robert Menzies.

A private burial was to follow the state funeral. He leaves wife Tamie and four children.