When Tim Fischer, who has died aged 73, announced just after question time on 30 June 1999 that he was quitting as the deputy prime minister of Australia to be more present in the lives of his two young sons, the reaction was unusually sentimental.
Sustained applause broke out in the House at the conclusion of Fischer’s farewell, and the standing ovation extended for more than a minute. Journalists also stood in the gallery above the bear pit and applauded as a mark of respect, and possibly contrition, given his rise to the Nationals leadership had been treated derisively by many commentators. During his farewell at the dispatch box, Fischer had cocked an eyebrow at the correspondents and observed: “To the media I would say this. It was about 12 months ago that you stopped calling me idiosyncratic. I knew then it was time to start thinking about getting out of politics.”
The respect from around the chamber was a collective acknowledgement that Fischer had not taken the easy road during his public service. He had stood with John Howard during the tumultuous times that followed the Coalition’s ascension to power in Canberra in 1996 – navigating both the gun control debate that followed the Port Arthur massacre, which caused significant grief in the bush, and the rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, a disruption to the political landscape that threatened the hegemony of the junior Coalition partner. Fischer’s biographer, Peter Rees, noted: “Never once had Fischer dropped the ball on populism.”
The departure wasn’t a complete shock. Fischer told the Nine Network in the same month he called time on his leadership that 1998 had been the worst of his 28 years in public life because “we had to deal out the left and the extreme right”. The battle with One Nation had been enervating, and Fischer felt he was needed at home. His son Harrison had been diagnosed with autism.
When Fischer resolved it was time to go to the backbench before leaving politics, after an Apec meeting in Auckland, he informed his close colleagues of his intentions. On the plane ride back to Australia he shared the news with the then Australian Financial Review journalist Brendan Pearson on the basis he would not report the development until the deputy prime minister informed the House. According to Rees’s account of events, confiding in Pearson proved useful to Fischer when Howard tried to persuade him on his return to Canberra to delay the announcement. The Nationals leader told Howard the die was cast. There would be no delay.
Timothy Andrew Fischer was a singular political character. He was born on 3 May 1946 in Lockhart, in rural New South Wales. Educated in Melbourne, he served in the army during the Vietnam war before returning to settle in Boree Creek in the Riverina. He went into politics in 1971, first in the NSW state parliament, moving to the federal arena in 1984. He married Judy Brewer later in life, in 1992, and the couple had two sons. Fischer rounded out his professional life as a tourism executive and with an ambassadorial appointment to the Vatican.
Fischer was a lifelong railway enthusiast. In his book Steam Locomotives That Galvanised the Nation, Fischer recounts an episode of trainspotting, aged 10, on the Newell Highway over bridge near the Narrandera railway station. His experience of bearing witness is almost rhapsodic. “My thoughts that morning were fully engaged by the brilliant colour, action and movement of the big black steam locomotive hauling some rust red carriages with gold trimmings.”
Closer to home, the contact with trains was more prosaic. The young Tim would accompany his father on Monday nights just after 7pm to collect the Sydney Sunday papers that arrived with passengers on the CPH rail motor. But even that small element of routine burned bright in recollection. “What joy as the rail motor with its big searching headlight came sweeping around the corner in winter; a quick whistle stop, and then off it would hurtle into the night.”
Trains assumed importance because they were part of the way Fischer encountered the world. Young Tim rode the train to boarding school in Melbourne, battling intense homesickness as the non-sporty chess player struggled to find his tribe at Xavier College. He rode troop trains in the army, and back in the Riverina he loaded sheep and grain and unloaded superphosphate from freight trains.
Fischer said he was never a trainspotter in the “classic British sense” but his lifelong fascination stemmed from wanting to understand the role trains, both passenger and freight, played in the development of modern economies. In some of his writing, Fischer processes the passage of time and societal change by reflecting on the pre-war Australian prime ministers who rode trains, changing transport at state borders because of different gauges, through to his own career navigating the journeys to the parliament in Sydney and in Canberra.
During his political career, Fischer made a point of visiting railway stations from Pretoria to Tehran to “get a feel for the standard of living and quality of infrastructure in countries off the beaten track”. During his diplomatic appointment at the Holy See, Fisher contributed to the the Caritas Express – a steam train journey from the Vatican Gardens to Tuscany.
Fischer, an imposing physical presence, decked out in an Akubra, with a speaking style possessing the mild echo of a childhood speech impediment, was underestimated by many prominent Canberra commentators when he took the Nationals leadership federally in 1990. The acerbic political commentator Alan Ramsey declared in his inimitable fashion that Fisher was the first dingbat ever to lead the National party.
Fischer’s politics were a mixed bag. John Hewson took the trade ministry away from the Nationals during the Fightback period, and Fischer was dogged until he grabbed it back from the Liberals. Unusually for a National of his period, Fischer wasn’t a protectionist, he was an internationalist, and broadly comfortable with the economic rationalism of the Liberal party.
Rees notes in his biography Fischer believed rural Australia had to evolve with the times or it would be squeezed out of international markets. In 1996 he told his party’s national conference, “shutting Australia off from the rest of the world behind a protectionist barrier – trade and human – is just plain dumb”.
The devout Catholic was socially conservative, and fiercely opposed to gay rights during his time in politics. Fischer was criticised during the Wik and Mabo debates for forcefully taking up the objections of pastoral leaseholders to Indigenous land rights, but while his positions in that debate were contentious, he stood firmly against racism.
He spoke out against Hansonism, labelling her interventions on race “divisive, dumb and wrong”. Fischer, who took on Hanson more forcefully than John Howard, was the only government minister to sign up to the parliamentary code of race ethics championed by Labor and the Australian Democrats.
He was also interested in forging closer relationships between Australia and Asia, and during his service in the trade portfolio built up a substantial network of political friends and allies in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. He was also a critic of Israel’s aggression against Lebanon, which caused friction with Liberals.
The gun control debate was enormously difficult for Fischer and the Nationals. The then deputy prime minister stood shoulder to shoulder with Howard in championing regulation after Port Arthur, but there was a fierce backlash in the bush, and there was an open rebellion inside the Nationals, with Fischer under intense pressure from Queensland MPs, including De-Anne Kelly and Bob Katter (who parted ways with the Nationals in 2001). His leadership faced an acute threat.
Some of the ugly rallies against gun control included effigies of Fischer. The deputy prime minister told protesters at a rally in Gympie gun control was “about taking out of the suburbs of Australia the semi-automatics and automatics that should not be in the suburbs of Australia”. As the protesters hurled abuse, a teenage girl took the stage with Fischer to back the deputy prime minister’s stand.
The then federal Labor leader Kim Beazley later reflected Fischer could have chosen to allow the Nationals to differentiate themselves from the Liberals in the gun debate because Labor supported the regulations Howard implemented, so Nationals numbers weren’t required to get the changes legislated. “It would have passed this House very easily without the support of your National party members,” Beazley said in the chamber. “But you chose not that easy road out. You chose to lay your leadership on the line and persist in a course of action which was right for the country.”
Fischer, who died of cancer, is survived by his wife, Judy, and his sons, Harrison and Dominic.
• Tim Fischer, Australian politician, born 3 May 1946; died 22 August 2019
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