Last week Australia lost one of its great characters in public life with the death of our tenth deputy prime minister, the Hon Tim Fischer AC. Known for his trademark Akubra and colourful turns-of-phrase, Fischer was a farmer, soldier, statesman, family man, military historian and train buff. Overcoming a number of personal obstacles, he rose to one of Australia’s highest elected offices where he served with honour. As his biographer, Peter Rees, observed, the Tim Fischer story was about “an individual quietly determined to push past barriers and who succeeded where very few expected him to; of someone prepared to be different”.
Timothy Andrew Fischer was born on the family property at Boree Creek in New South Wales on 3 May 1946. Born to Ralph and Barbara Fischer, he imbibed his parents solid but uncomplicated rural values of doing a job well and living a simple Christian life. Educated as a boarder at Melbourne’s Xavier College, Fischer struggled during his early years and according to one of his teachers, this “gave him an ability to feel for others”. Overcoming speech difficulties and personal shyness, Fischer excelled at debating and writing to become a contributor to the school newspaper, Sursum Corda. In his final year at Xavier, he was appointed a prefect and matriculated with first-class honours in British History and General Mathematics in 1963.
Returning to the family farm at Boree Creek, Fischer became active in the Country Party (forerunner to the Nationals) and joined the Narrandera branch in 1965. The following year, however, he was conscripted into the Australian Army where he served with the Royal Australian Regiment from July 1996 to March 1969. In this capacity, Fischer saw active service in the Vietnam War where he was wounded in the 1968 Battle of Coral-Balmoral.
Following his tour of duty, Fischer resumed farming at Boree Creek and involvement in Country Party politics. Progressing through the party ranks, he successfully sought preselection for the NSW seat of Sturt in 1970 where the Vietnam veteran appealed for his party to ‘heed the nation’s youth’. In the 1971 state election, Fischer was elected to the NSW Parliament where he served for thirteen years, including a stint on the opposition frontbench.
Winning strong endorsement from the Nationals to contest the Riverina-based seat of Farrer in the 1984 Federal election, Fischer won the seat and entered Federal parliament. Within a year, he was on the opposition frontbench where his friendly manner and quirky, rustic character soon endeared him to his parliamentary colleagues both inside and outside the Nationals.
In 1990, Fischer succeeded Charles Blunt as federal leader of the Nationals. After the party’s unsuccessful flirtation with metropolitan constituencies during the Bjelke-Petersen years, Fischer pledged to take the Nationals “back to the bush”. For the new leader, the focus would be on the millions of Australians who live and work beyond the major capital cities, as well as the great agricultural export industries.
After serving alongside liberal leaders John Hewson and Alexander Downer in opposition, Fischer became deputy prime minister and minister for trade with the election of the Howard government in 1996.
Like many great statesmen, Fischer proved to be both a conservative and a progressive in office. A man of deep Catholic faith, he held to traditional moral values and regarded the family as the basis of a flourishing society. For Fischer and his National Party, the bush represented the traditional wellspring of Australian character and virtue. Amid the backdrop of powerful city interests, it was a constituency he worked hard to cultivate and defend during his time in public office.
At the same time, however, he was a reformer and a policy trailblazer. In a party wedded to the protectionism of John McEwen and Doug Anthony, he emerged as an energetic champion of free trade. For Fischer, the protectionist policies of the past were no longer appropriate in a world where the globalisation of national economies was inevitable. Staring down resistance from the protectionist elements of his own Party and One Nation, Fischer embraced the Howard government’s vision of strengthening Australia through enhanced competition, self-reliance, higher efficiency and productivity, and the privatisation of government-owned enterprises.
On the foreign policy front, Fischer was similarly forward-looking with his sustained interest in developing Australia’s relations with Asia. His twelve-month service in Vietnam had ignited an enduring fascination with Asia and a resolve to forge closer cultural and economic ties to the region. Visiting every Asian country with the exception of Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Fischer viewed the region as a ‘great, untouched opportunity for Australia to expand trade’.
In another progressive posture as deputy prime minister, Fischer vigorously defended the Howard government’s decision to introduce tough gun control laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. Despite the electoral liability facing his party in the bush, Fischer maintained that his principled stand for Australian public safety was worth the cost.
After stepping down as deputy prime minister in 1999 and retiring from politics in 2001, Fischer resumed farming at Boree Creek and became involved in charity work. He actively supported the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Fred Hollows Foundation, Autism New South Wales, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service where he served as chairman. For his charitable work, parliamentary service, and advocacy for trade and humanitarian aid, Fischer was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2005.
In July 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed Fischer as the first resident Australian Ambassador to the Holy See where he served until 2012.
A devoted husband and father, Fischer married Judy Brewer in 1992 and together they had two sons, Harrison and Dominic. A lifelong train enthusiast to the end, Fischer was a vocal advocate for developing Australian rail and at the Page Research Centre’s lecture in September 2018, he launched his last book, Steam Australia: Locomotives that Galvanised the Nation.
Finally succumbing to a battle with acute leukaemia, Fischer died on 22 August 2019 at 73. His passing attracted a flow of tributes from people of all side of politics who warmed to Fischer for his authenticity and decency. Australia’s tenth deputy prime minister is sure to be remembered as a figure of great courage and character who served his country in war and peace to the very end.
David Furse-Roberts is a Research Fellow at the Menzies Research Centre
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