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Life at the Top: A Week with Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser (1977)


Life at the Top follows Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser for one jam-packed week as he goes about his various work responsibilities, from 7-13 October 1977. He visits Kalgoorlie and Wollongong, attends numerous meetings with advisers and joint Liberal-Country Party Coalition staff, electioneers for a by-election and spends time with family members. The documentary uses observational material, Fraser’s voice-over and narration by the filmmaker.

Curator’s notes

Malcolm Fraser served as the 22nd Prime Minister of Australia. He was appointed after the Governor-General Sir John Kerr’s controversial dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975. Fraser was prime minister for eight years but his government’s legitimacy was questioned throughout his time at the top.

Life at the Top is about one week in Fraser’s life. He is on the go from early morning until late evening, day in, day out for the entire week of the filming. His over-the-top workload makes for an exhausting life.

Fraser gets up very early most mornings to read reports and papers for three hours before he goes to Parliament House for the day. In the evening, after dinner and spending some time with his family, he goes back to working for a few more hours. Fitting the family in is difficult (clip one).

The film uses an observational shooting style popularised in the 1950s and ’60s and the filmmaker, Richard Colville, who followed Fraser for that week, also narrates the film. Colville uses time in a chronological and orderly way to construct his story. This use of time helps define the structure and provides momentum for the story (clip two).

Life at the Top now feels a little dated in both the look and in the style of narration, but it captures a moment of Malcolm Fraser as prime minister and portrays some of the issues of the day, which makes it historically valuable.

Made by Sydney’s Channel Ten, the documentary was intended to be a non-political record of a week-in-the-life of the prime minister. The week chosen, 7–13 October 1977, featured interstate trips and a reception for the visiting Crown Prince and Princess of Jordan. Its broadcast in late October-early November of 1977 was overshadowed by the announcement of the upcoming federal election, to be held on 10 December.

The election was the first contested by the new Australian Democrats party, founded by former Fraser government minister Don Chipp after he quit the Liberal Party. It also coincided with the retirement of Kerr as governor-general. Promising large tax cuts, the Fraser government was returned with a large majority in the House of Representatives and maintained control of the Senate. Fraser successfully contested a further election in 1980 before the Australian Labor Party, led by Bob Hawke, won office in 1983.

Life at the Top was broadcast on Network Ten in late October or early November 1977. You can also watch an interview with Malcolm Fraser at Australian Biography.