IN THE photographs, he seems to be floating above the melee, his famously impassive face showing just the slightest hint of unease. It's August 1976 and Malcolm Fraser is surrounded by demonstrators and police during a visit to Monash University. Despite his apparent stoicism, there's no doubting the prime minister's predicament.
It's less than a year after the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, and Mr Fraser is hemmed in by more than 1000 protesters on one of the most rabidly left-wing campuses in the country. For some reason he has arrived with the barest of protection and will eventually be forced to take refuge, dignity barely intact, in the building's basement.
In the thick of the action is a long-haired, trench-coated student by the name of Lindsay Tanner, whose political activism would eventually result in him rising through Labor's ranks, ultimately becoming one of the ''Gang of Four'' at the helm of the Rudd government.
''A lot of demonstrations have a rhythm. You have a gradual build up and then you have some kind of climax … and in this case it was the imprisoning of Fraser,'' recalls Mr Tanner, who attended Melbourne University and like scores of others had made the journey to Clayton to make his feelings very clear.
The Monash siege represented the high watermark of campus activism that crystallised the political values of a generation. I couldn't help but feel a pang of jealousy when my father first told me the story. By the time I first set foot on a university campus as a young man in the mid-1990s, the tide had well and truly receded.
Occasionally, faint echoes of rage can be heard, such as the recent Open Day protest against the La Trobe University vice-chancellor. But today's universities aren't the foundry of idealism that they once were - and making a documentary film about the Monash siege has become my way of vicariously experiencing a student life I never had.
With Mr Tanner's aid, I tracked down the demonstration's organisers to interview them. One of them was Jeannie Rea, now president of the National Tertiary Education Union, who was then an office bearer within the Monash student union.
''It was a fun time … but it was a fun time that we thought was terribly, terribly serious because we were out to change the world,'' Ms Rea says.
''I don't think there was any plan to imprison the prime minister because there wasn't really an understanding of how the logistics of the day were going to transpire.''
But the turnout was way beyond expectations and some of those present favoured using the demonstrators' weight of numbers to greater effect.
One was a young radical, Brian Boyd, a La Trobe-based Maoist and key member of a group Students for Australian Independence (SAI), perhaps the most militant activist group at the time.
''I would have had romantic notions of being an urban guerilla (along) with about 150 other far-left people who identified themselves with the Australian independence movement,'' Mr Boyd says.
The CIA's efforts to undermine socialist governments, most notably that of Salvador Allende in Chile, had left young radicals such as Mr Boyd in a heightened state of paranoia. ''We saw the dark hand of the US imperialists and the CIA everywhere,'' says Mr Boyd, now the Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary.
He and his allies in SAI believed Mr Fraser and Sir John were complicit with a US plot to bring down Mr Whitlam.
To the detriment of his studies, Mr Boyd spent most of 1976 waging protests against the two men he perceived as enemies of the country.
''If Kerr launched a yacht race, we drove him out of the yacht club,'' he says. ''Wherever Fraser went, we chased him, too. We viewed them as an enemy of the country. So yes, we were full of rage.''
The Commonwealth Police recognised Mr Fraser's visit to Monash as a perfect opportunity for the likes of Mr Boyd to get at the prime minister. Days before the visit, they requested ASIO provide a security assessment.
The spy agency, which had infiltrated Mr Boyd's group, told police the main antagonists in SAI were holidaying interstate and that the demonstration was expected to be ''small'' and non-violent.
But on the day before Mr Fraser's visit, Mr Boyd was in fact in Melbourne and was told of Mr Fraser's visit by contacts at Monash.
''The following morning we had buses hired and we were over there as early as we could get,'' says Mr Boyd.
His crew was instrumental in mobilising the crowd to surround the Alexander Theatre and trap the prime minister, he says. ''We were very excited that we'd found him in a vulnerable situation. He was on our turf and we had him.''
Mr Fraser was at Monash to open the Krongold Centre, a state-of-the-art education facility for children with special needs. Just before he started speaking, The Age reported the next day, Mr Fraser was handed a note from his press officer that police could not guarantee his safety. On stage with Mr Fraser at the ceremony was Dinah Krongold, who along with her husband, Henry, had donated a small fortune to help establish the facility.
''Everybody was scared,'' recalls Mrs Krongold, now 92. ''I think there was a roof right above us. They were banging on the roof, banging on the windows. ''People were in tears. It was a shame … it is a wonderful cause. Anything for children you can do is wonderful.''
Another on stage with Mr Fraser was the acting dean of education, Professor Ron Taft.
''As I remember it, the security officer came up to Malcolm Fraser and said, 'Sir, I think we should leave','' recalls Professor Taft. ''As far as I can tell no one was giving any further thought to the prime minister because it seemed clear he had got away.''
Little did Professor Taft know that Mr Fraser was seeking refuge somewhere within the theatre where he could await rescue by state police standing by on Wellington Road, just off campus.
Traditionally, universities following the British tradition enjoyed high levels of autonomy including self-policing, a practice that still prevailed at Monash in 1976 and would complicate the prime minister's rescue. ''For a policeman from outside to come onto campus would be like entering an embassy,'' says Professor Taft.
The police were awaiting permission to enter but reports suggest a communications breakdown lay behind their delayed response.
Word spread throughout the crowd that Mr Fraser was holed up in the basement toilets, although his real location remains the subject of conjecture. Either way, it appears that the crowd then flooded the building in search of him.
State police came to the rescue, surrounding Mr Fraser in a scrum in an attempt to force their way out. But Mr Boyd and his allies were determined to thwart the tactic, successfully encouraging demonstrators to resist the police.
Eventually, police reinforcements meant the demonstrators could no longer hold the building. They changed tactics, surrounding the official cars and immobilising them by letting down the tyres, says Mr Boyd.
By this stage, Professor Taft had left the theatre and was observing the demonstration.
''And then suddenly I saw a plain car drive up to the side of the Alexander Theatre,'' he recalls. ''A policeman … pulled the prime minister out through this window and bum-rushed him up a bank and into a car, and then it sped away.''
In 2010, Mr Fraser disowned the party he'd led to government.
Could it be that Mr Fraser and the demonstrators have more in common now than the events of 1976 would suggest?
''He was portrayed, by people like me, far more negatively than he deserved,'' admits Mr Tanner. ''On apartheid, Malcolm Fraser was a hero, and yet a whole lot of people in the student movement and the union movement who were actively campaigning against apartheid at the time would never have conceded that.''
Even Mr Boyd acknowledges Mr Fraser's progressive stance on issues such as refugees. Despite time tempering his rage, however, he stands by his actions in 1976. ''I've got no regrets. We were responding to the atmosphere … the 1970s was highly charged,'' says Mr Boyd. ''I think he's got more to apologise for than I have.''
Were you there?
Gary Newman would like to hear from anyone who witnessed the Monash siege. Email: gary@garynewman. com.au