Canberra — Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is rallying all his senior minister and his nonparliamentary Liberal Party apparatus to stave off a determined challenge against his leadership of the Australian government.
The challenge is being mounted by Andrew S. Peacock, former foreign minister in the Fraser government. Mr. Peacock resigned from Mr. Fraser's Cabinet earlier this year because of his disapproval of the way Mr. Fraser was running the government.
Mr. Peacock has gradually been building up support among the Liberal Party members of Parliament after a series of public speeches spelling out his opposition to Fraser policies.
But Mr. Peacock's real support among Liberals has come as the public popularity of the Fraser government has fallen. Essentially Mr. Peacock's appeal rests on the fact that he is more popular with the electorate at large than Mr. Fraser, and that he is the best chance the Liberal Party has of winning the next federal elections and keeping the Liberals in power.
Mr. Fraser has faced a great deal of unrest among his followers since he ousted the former Liberal leader, Sir Billy Snedden, in 1975.
However, he went on to win the 1975 and 1977 federal elections with record majorities, and he won the 1980 elections with a reasonable majority of 25 seats (a voting margin of less than 2 percent) after the public opinion polls predicted he would lose that election.
Mr. Fraser's position has been worsened by the poor performance of the Liberal Party in recent elections in New South Wales, the largest of the states. In the state elections the state Liberal leader lost his seat in Parliament, and the party was reduced to just 14 members in a 99-seat Parliament.
In the past few weeks, rumors that Mr. Peacock would move to oust Mr. Fraser from the leadership increased, at the very time Mr. Fraser was playing host to the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Melbourne.
The threat was taken so seriously by Fraser's senior ministers that on consecutive days, two of them made contact with leading Australian political journalists to inform them that Mr. Fraser had their full support, and that there was no prospect of any successful challenge to Mr. Fraser.
Treasurer John Howard said Mr. Fraser had his complete support and rumors that he was prepared to accept the party's deputy leadership under Mr. Peacock were untrue.
Sir Phillip Lynch, the Deputy Liberal leader and minister for industry and commerce, said, "I know of no other man in the Liberal Party who offers the strength and capacity which Malcolm Fraser has brought to the position of prime minister since 1975."
A former Liberal prime minister, Sir William McMahon, said that although a number of people in the Liberal Party wanted a change in the leadership, they did not have sufficient numbers at the moment and Mr. Fraser was the cure for the party's troubles "for the time being."
Following these reports and the rallying of support for Mr. Fraser, the Liberal Party's federal executive, which includes representatives from every state, met in Canberra Oct. 9 to try to end the public speculation about the leadership.
It issued a statement threatening to remove the party's endorsement from troublemakers -- and without the party label, few members of Parliament would have any prospect of retaining their seats at the next elections.
The statement said presidents of the state branches of the party were critical "of any action that created divisiveness and instability." They unanimously agreed that "loyalty was a prerequisite" and they "would not put up with disloyal comments and tactics that had the effect of undermining the leadership and destabilizing the party."
The statement is likely to help prevent any challenge being mounted against Mr. Fraser in Parliament, which resumed Oct. 13, and could delay such a challenge until next year.
However, Mr. peacock's supporters now claim more than 30 of the 82 members of the parliamentary Liberal Party are prepared to vote to remove Mr. Fraser from the leadership, and they are hopeful of building toward a majority.