The story of the time Malcolm Fraser, the PM with a social conscience, lost his trousers

Malcom Fraser in 2012. Michael Dodge/Getty Images

Malcolm Fraser, who came to politics at the age of 25, became a controversial prime minister and was widely seen as the politician with a social conscience who fought racism, had one small area of mystery.

It was early morning on October 14, 1986, that Mr Fraser turned up at the front desk of a small hotel in Memphis, the Admiral Benbow Inn, with a towel wrapped round him.

He was wearing a confused look with his shirt and tie and somehow he’d managed to lose his trousers.

It’s a situation he never, at least publicly, commented on, except to say: “I wish I’d never been to bloody Memphis.”

He said he woke up in the hotel room in the morning and found he’d been robbed of his passport, money and trousers.

How he came to be at that hotel, and what he was doing there, is the mystery. He was due to stay elsewhere in more up market accommodation.

We do know he’d been at the Memphis Country Club the night before where he gave a talk on the topic, “Can the Western Alliance Maintain Peace?”

This was five years after he lost the 1983 election to Labor’s Bob Hawke. His role in 1986 was head of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group and was working to end apartheid in South Africa.

The trouser incident was devoured with much amusement by the Australian media. Later, some commentators suggested that it was this which made Fraser, sometimes seen as aloof, human and more likeable.

His wife, Tamie, did eventually speak about the incident in an interview with Susan Mitchell for the 2007 book, Stand by your man.

“I wanted to protect him,” Tamie told Mitchell. “My heart bled for him. He’s such an innocent in some ways,” Mrs Fraser says in the book.

She didn’t believe the speculation that her husband may have spent the night with someone else.

“He might have gone off with someone here or there at some time, but he wouldn’t go to a bar to meet someone on the off chance – they were setting him up,” she said. “Poor old boy. It’s really horrible. He was so embarrassed. And still is.”

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