Straddling a barbed-wire fence: Peter Ree's new biography on the life of Old Xaverian Tim Fischer (OX 1963)
Wednesday, 30 August 2023
Below is an excerpt from online News Publication, Inside Story, giving a synopsis and insight into the new release of Peter Rees' 'I am Tim'; a biography on the life and achievements of Old Xaverian, Tim Fischer (OX 1963)
Straddling a barbed-wire fence
A new biography reveals a pragmatic politician to have been more complex than he seemed
Tim Fischer, the former federal National Party leader and deputy prime minister, is revealed in Peter Rees’s new biography, I Am Tim, to be a more complex person than the one known to most Australians. Building on his earlier book, The Boy from Boree Creek (2001), Rees revisits and completes the story of Fischer’s life, from his birth in 1946 to his death in 2019.
In updating his account Rees has been assisted by access to the subject’s extensive personal archives granted by Fischer’s wife Judy. These cover his army experience, his parliamentary career and his time as Australian ambassador to the Vatican, and include a family memoir and (bravely) a pocket diary covering his final months of cancer treatment. Rees also lists an impressive number of interviewees (including Fischer).
Fischer was born to a Catholic sheep-farming family in southwestern New South Wales. After state primary school, he undertook his secondary education at the prestigious Jesuit-run Xavier College in Melbourne. He found the experience less than totally enjoyable, but was no academic slouch and matriculated easily.
He eschewed immediate university study, however, in favour of a return to the farm. He was soon conscripted for national service, and declined to opt for an alternative scheme available for those on the land. Opposed neither to conscription nor to the Vietnam war, he undertook officer training after induction.
As Rees tells it, there was more to Fischer’s decision than the simple conservative principle of doing one’s duty. He extended his national service in order to see action, contending that he would have wasted his eighteen months’ officer training if he didn’t perform the role on the battlefield. His superiors had identified leadership qualities in Fischer and it seems that he was keen to put them to the test.
In Vietnam, Fischer saw death and wounding at close range, and was himself the victim of non-life-threatening wounds. He secured the respect of his superiors and of those under him as a well-organised and measured decision-maker, thoughtful and clear-thinking.
By the time he joined the (then) Country Party in 1969, his war service could only be a plus for his chances of parliamentary preselection, a career direction he seems to have settled on after his return to the farm. If any nascent political ambition played a role in his decision to seek battlefield action, it is mentioned neither by Fischer in his memoir (as related by Rees) nor by Rees as biographer.
At the politically precocious age of twenty-four, Fischer won Country Party preselection for the new seat of Sturt in the NSW parliament. Rees notes the comparative novelty of a Catholic in that party’s ranks, with Fischer mischievously suggesting that his surname (as spelled) may have misled some preselectors to assume that he was of solid Lutheran stock.
Military precision proved to be a transferable skill, and Fischer was able to make good use of his organisational and logistical talents to secure preselection and subsequent election to parliament at the 1971 state election. No matter how small, towns were visited and meetings addressed. He became a prolific worker of local media, print and electronic, as a prelude to doing the same on a national stage.
State parliament proved a frustration for Fischer, possibly stimulating his penchant for the attention-grabbing gimmicks that would be associated with him for much of his career. A speech about lions at risk of escaping the Dubbo Zoo and surviving in the mountains, threatening humans and fellow beasts, was a case in point. On a more serious note, he obtained first-hand experience of the corrupt behaviour of Liberal premier Robert Askin but took no action — a failing he later claimed to regret.
Like many state politicians before him, Fischer decided national politics was where the action was. He secured preselection for the federal seat of Farrer for the 1984 federal election and easily won the seat. But he couldn’t have known that twelve years in opposition lay ahead. After advancing to the opposition frontbench (with, appropriately, the veterans’ affairs portfolio) after John Howard’s accession to the Liberal leadership in September 1985, he established himself as a serious player in both his party and the Coalition.
Straddling the proverbial barbed-wire fence over the unhinged prime ministerial ambitions of Queensland Nationals premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen, which effectively rendered the Coalition unelectable in 1987 against Bob Hawke’s Labor government, Fischer justified his ambivalence as a case of not wanting to split his own organisation. A demoralised opposition reverted to internecine wrangling, and in May 1990 a recycled Andrew Peacock replaced Howard. For the first time in their history, the Nationals dispensed with a leader, replacing Ian Sinclair with Charles Blunt. Fischer was active in bringing about the change.
Although the Nationals lost five seats in the Coalition defeat of 1990, Fischer increased his majority in Farrer. Post-election, he decided to contest the party leadership (vacant following Blunt’s loss of his seat) and defeated John Sharp twelve votes to eight after the elimination of the three other candidates. Sadly for many a subeditor, the Nationals had passed up the chance to replace Blunt with Sharp.
Fischer is depicted as a lukewarm supporter of Liberal leader John Hewson’s plan for a goods and service tax, which proved to be decisive in the Coalition’s fifth successive election defeat in 1993. He was clearly more at home with Howard as a Coalition partner and, after Alexander Downer’s failed Liberal leadership, was probably relieved to contest the 1996 election alongside the veteran.
The Coalition victory in March 1996 saw Fischer assume the roles of deputy prime minister and trade minister, later admitting to having elements of self-doubt at the time of his swearing-in. A month later, the first crisis for the new government would come from a tragically unexpected quarter with the mass shootings at Port Arthur in Tasmania.
The Howard government’s consequential restrictions on gun ownership were widely supported in the community but not necessarily in the constituency represented by Fischer’s party. But he was unwavering in his advocacy and made the case to those affected, accepting that the newly elected right-wing populist Pauline Hanson would exploit the situation to lure resentful Nationals voters towards what subsequently became her One Nation Party. Targeted for abuse and threats, Fischer stayed the course in what qualified as one of his most meritorious contributions to public life.
Fischer had taken the leadership when the Nationals were dealing with the winding down of much of the traditional tariff protection that had long been the party’s raison d’être. The result was an identity problem and a new vulnerability to electoral challenge. This added significance to his role as trade minister as he sought new markets for the products of his rural base.
He is generally seen to have done a good job in the portfolio, an impression probably reinforced by the overall bipartisanship in this policy area. His keen interest in Asia, and his success in establishing good relations with various Asian leaders over many years are cited by Rees as contributing factors.
Fischer’s accession to party leadership seems to have prompted him to tackle the conservative male politician’s version of the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice: he was “in want of a wife.” In 1992, at forty-six, he married Judy Brewer. Two sons followed, but the customary family problem of the absent parliamentarian parent hit the family harder than most after his first son was diagnosed with moderate autism spectrum disorder. Duty, of a different nature, now called and he stepped down from party leadership and the ministry in July 1999, and declined to recontest Farrer at the 2001 election. He was only fifty-five, but had been an MP — state, then federal — for more than thirty years.
He was appointed chair of Tourism Australia in late 2004, not long before Scott Morrison was appointed managing director. Suffice to say that nothing in Fischer’s account of Morrison’s turbulent tenure will do anything to improve the former prime minister’s tattered reputation.
Later, Fischer accepted prime minister Kevin Rudd’s invitation to serve as Australian ambassador to the Vatican, which he did from 2009 to 2012. He was an active diplomat and relished the contacts and lifestyle. Of interest in this context was his subsequent reluctance (unlike John Howard and Tony Abbott) to provide a character reference for Cardinal George Pell when he faced a jail sentence over allegations of child sex abuse. A more liberal Catholic than the dogmatic Abbott, Fischer was disturbed by Pell’s refusal to accept responsibility for what happened on his watch and his apparent indifference to the fate of the victims of abuse.
Fischer was silent when Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, defender of traditional family values and opponent of same-sex marriage, was exposed as having had an affair with a staff member, but recorded for his memoir that he viewed him as a hypocrite.
While Fischer was an active Catholic, he was open to the positives of other religions, notably Buddhism, an interest developed during a long relationship with Bhutan and its people. He was also a devotee of classical music and art, but these were possibly not credentials likely to enhance a National Party MP’s standing, and some colleagues were unimpressed when details surfaced.
Rees credits Fischer with ensuring Coalition unity during his years as leader by keeping the Nationals backbench in check, a claim made more credible in light of the subsequent leadership instability, which continues to this day. A believer in climate change and concerned about its effect on his primary-producer constituency, he would probably have struggled to accommodate its emergence as part of the culture wars agenda rather than a matter of science.
Rees clearly admires Fischer, but he is not entirely uncritical. In particular, he instances some of Fischer’s intemperate reactions to the High Court’s Mabo and Wik native title judgements, suggesting that “Fischer’s Social Darwinist speech reflected the thinking to be found in postwar primary school social studies textbooks.” At the time of Wik, Fischer was rebuked by the chief justice for possible breach of the separation-of-powers doctrine. He was suitably chastened, but his “defence” that he should have run his comments by his staff seemed somewhat lame.
A defence of his constituents’ interests might have been mounted with more moderate language, suggests the author, while leaving open the inference that leaders should sometimes lead (as on gun control) rather than follow. In reflective mood, Fischer would later acknowledge to Rees his regret about errors such as these.
In his time, Fischer was probably Australia’s most prominent advocate for rail transport — for both freight and passengers — but reality was always likely to win the unequal battle with the Very Fast Train and other dreams. This magnificent obsession did, however, add a point of difference to Fischer’s political persona. He retired from parliament with the respect and affection of his peers, sentiments that seem to have been echoed in much of the population, especially among his rural constituents.
The stereotype of the unsophisticated yokel politician whose language and manner disguise a shrewd and effective political operator can be overdone, but in Fischer’s case it may have been close to the truth. Peter Rees’s very readable book allows us to judge for ourselves about this very distinctive Australian. •