ACT News

Thatcher Down Under

Apart from Tony Blair, who spent three-and-half years in Adelaide as a child, no British prime minister has spent more time in Australia than Margaret Thatcher.

Baroness Thatcher visited Australia five times, three of them during her 11-year term as prime minister from May 1979 to November 1990.

She had also visited Sydney in 1976 as Britain's opposition leader.

Baroness Thatcher made her first visit to Australia as prime minister in July 1979, just two months after winning government in a landslide victory.

Fearful of a public backlash in the United Kingdom against the influx of Vietnamese "boat people'', the prime minister asked Australia to help buy an island in Indonesia or the Philippines to resettle refugees en masse.

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The proposal, documented in British cabinet papers released in 2009, fell over in the face of strong opposition from Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew who reportedly didn't want a rival "entrepreneurial city'' in the region.

Britain had been asked to take 10,000 refugees, a fraction of the 220,000 who eventually settled in Australia.

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser could not recall the joint resettlement proposal when asked about it in 2009.

Prime Minister Thatcher returned to Australia in 1981 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Melbourne and in 1988 for the Bicentennial celebrations and the opening of the new Parliament House.

Both the 1981 and the 1988 visits were focal points for left wing protests with organisers of one Melbourne rally accusing her of being ''a supporter of South Africa's racist policies, anti-gay rights, anti-abortion, anti-Irish and a union basher par excellence".

"(This) will be the longest visit that I have paid to any country since becoming prime minister except for the commonwealth conferences,'' she told the National Press Club in Canberra on August 3, 1988.

"It is also my fifth visit, in all, to your country.''

Her speech paid tribute to the contributions made by Australian service personnel during WWI and WWII and praised the former colony as a land of opportunity.

"It still seems incredible that one third of all Australia's men of working age went to Europe to fight in WWI,'' she said.

"The overwhelming majority of people came to Australia as an act of deliberate choice; they wanted a different and better life for themselves and their families.''

The former research chemist said she had a good working relationship with the then Australian Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, despite their ideological differences.

''We want to step up our contacts at every level with Australia, including more regular ministerial visits, and I have made some proposals to Bob Hawke this morning for this,'' she told the press club audience.

"He has accepted my invitation to pay an official visit to Britain next year. He (Mr Hawke) and I get on very well. We both believe in debating freely, expressing our views, and sometimes in international conferences we do not agree, but there is no rancour about it whatsoever.''

Asked what she had in common with then Australian opposition leader John Howard, Baroness Thatcher replied: "a whole policy''.

"If Mr Howard follows the policies which we have pursued in Britain as a matter of conviction and faith he will find it very, very good indeed for his future.''

Mr Howard did not become the Australian prime minister until March 1996 when Labor lost 31 seats.