Tim Fischer’s penultimate speech in the House of Representatives was in response to a motion condemning the September 11 terrorist attacks. In that contribution Tim expressed his confidence that the ‘United States will recover from this human tragedy’ and that he was ‘quietly confident that… Australia would play its part… and do so in honour of those who have died, been injured and been so seared in a direct way.’ His statement carried weight given that years before, Tim Fischer had fought alongside Americans in Vietnam. In later years Tim was critical of parts of that war, including the indiscriminate use of Agent Orange, which he suspected had contributed to the cancer that ultimately killed him. However, he volunteered for that war with dignity and a sense of duty.
Tim’s life was a living example of duty. Duty to his nation through the service of war, duty to his home of western New South Wales through public service as their Member of Parliament at both State and Federal levels and duty to his family through his early retirement from parliament and Deputy Prime Minister – at the age of just 55 – to spend more time with his family and especially to care more for his autistic son.
Like the passing of any major Australian leader, obituaries and reflections are primarily a way for us to learn from past examples. To pay our respects we should contemplate the standards they set and seek to use the best parts of their lives to improve our own. In the case of Tim Fischer, the lessons come less from what he did than how he did it. He was respectful but determined, quirky but effective and humble but overachieving. He did achieve much especially in one of his portfolios of trade. It is a common myth that the Nationals party is anti-free trade. In fact, the Nationals party (as its predecessor the Country Party) is the only party in the parliament that was formed on an explicitly free trade basis. In the first Coalition agreement between the Country party and the then United Australia party, the Country party successfully fought for the removal of tariffs on 465 items of machinery not made in Australia but necessary for domestic industries. Tim was a worthy successor to this tradition. He was a committed exponent of the benefits of free trade and travelled to over 60 countries in just three years as Trade Minister. He was a broader exponent of the benefits of free enterprise and supported the economic reforms that Australian governments pursued in the 1980s and 1990s that have helped deliver 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth.
Supporting those reforms took political courage given the opposition to them in some rural areas and especially in rural industries like sugar and dairy. As Tim expressed in his first speech to parliament, he was committed to seek ‘to better the well-being of our nation through less government and less taxation and the encouragement of individual enterprise.’ He quoted John McEwen who put it bluntly that he was ‘for free enterprise, against socialism.’ However, Tim always believed in pursuing what he believed was the right thing for the country, not just the popular thing. That was also evident in his pursuit of gun ownership restrictions post the Port Arthur massacre. It is a shame that much of the left media reduce the Howard-Fischer years to just gun reforms, or at least the only good thing they did was gun reforms. It was an important and controversial decision of their government but not an essential one. Tim’s advocacy was courageous in light of the significant opposition in rural areas and the clear political cost it exacted on the Nationals party at the time. At the 1998 election, the Nationals vote dropped from over eight per cent to below six per cent. While it has recovered since it still remains well below the peak pre-gun reform years.
Perhaps the greatest legacy is that we have fully rejected a gun culture in Australia. Guns have their use on farms, but we are all safer for the fact that Australians, as a rule, do not see the need to have guns outside of limited economic or recreational uses. These are just some of the examples of Tim’s pursuit of what he believed to be right over popular. His persistence was not constrained to his parliamentary life, however. After parliament he continued to pursue platforms in his respectful and persistent fashion. He was a forceful advocate for greater rail investment; especially a fast rail between Sydney and Melbourne. And he was a famous supporter of the achievements of General Sir John Monash and his belief that Monash should be awarded a posthumous promotion to Field Marshal.Both of his campaigns have failed so far but few have fought so hard for so long for such causes. Tim went to the great lengths of writing four books in support of just these two causes. Whatever one thought of the merits of his positions no one could fault his unceasing efforts. Tony Abbott once said that every day in politics is a test of character. It is a test that Tim passed with flying colours.
In a life spent in the service of duty it was apt that Tim Fischer’s last speech to the parliament was not a grand farewell but words of duty – in his role as Acting Speaker – ‘My thanks, my pleasure and my privilege. I move: That the House do now adjourn.’ As we adjourn Tim’s amazing contribution to Australian life, it is our privilege to have his example as a lead.
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