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Fischer, Timothy Andrew (Tim) (1946–2019)

by Tony Wright

from Sydney Morning Herald

Tim Fischer, by Loui Seselja, 1998

Tim Fischer, by Loui Seselja, 1998

National Library of Australia, 20131004

Tim Fischer, AC, became one of Australia’s most admired public figures, yet there always hovered something of the loner about him.

In the early 1960s, when school holidays ended, he was one of the farm kids from the NSW Riverina who boarded the train for the long trip to Melbourne, where he was a student of the Jesuits at Xavier College.

The trip was treated as a party by a lot of the students.

"But there would be Tim, sitting in the corner with a book, all by himself," one of his contemporaries remembers.

The young man who would eventually become Nationals leader, deputy prime minister, Australia's trade minister and later, ambassador to the Holy See in Rome, was well practised in wrapping himself in what he admitted were his "weaponry of protection, the necessary barriers between public and private life".

Often, he seemed an awkward, raw-boned bloke from Boree Creek in a big hat, though he carried an old-fashioned gentlemanly manner about him, too.

It was thus easy for critics and opponents to underestimate Fischer, often to their cost.

Many Nationals colleagues were astounded when they discovered they had elected Tim Fischer leader of their party in 1990. He had outfoxed them with a classic divide-and-conquer strategy, streaking up the middle of a three-horse race.

Soon, Liberal leader John Hewson tried to bring Fischer and his Nationals to heel as the vast Fightback policy was being created.

Fischer, judging Hewson’s proposed GST deeply unpopular among country constituents, proposed pro-rural trade-offs such as a fuel-tax rebate, and let the Liberals think it was their idea.

At the 1993 election, Hewson's Liberals were demolished and Fischer’s Nationals won two extra seats.

Labor prime minister Paul Keating belittled Fischer as a gormless yokel during the 1996 election campaign, inviting voters to imagine how absurd would be Tim Fischer, deputy prime minister.

Keating’s administration was swept away by the Howard-Fischer Coalition, Fischer increased his own majority in his sprawling seat of Farrer, and the Nationals won three Labor-held seats.

And yet, to many, he remained enigmatic and idiosyncratic, even when he risked everything in 1996 by fronting furious farmers to argue that after the Port Arthur massacre, they should hand in their semi-automatic guns.

He tried to explain his reticence to reveal a deeper self by arguing that many men of his era, who were brought up in the Australian bush and who were sent off to boarding school, maintained a natural reserve. In fact, you needed to needle your way into his discomfort zone for the source of the barriers he erected early in life.

"Some people seem to find a problem with the way I pronounce words containing a 'th'," he once confided to me. (Often, for instance, the word "with" came out as "wiff"). "If they've got a problem with that, they should have seen the little boy at Boree Creek Public School."

As a child Fischer suffered such serious structural problems with his teeth that it was difficult for him to speak at all. He later received correctional orthodontic work, but the shy loner, teased mercilessly at school, had been created.

The young Fischer built a store of determination as a survival strategy, and turned his solitary attention to compiling lists of the world’s rail gauges — the start of a lifelong fascination with trains.

At Xavier, he lacked talent at the pursuits that define success for Victorian schoolboys: cricket and football. He played chess. And yet he surprised his peers by becoming a prefect, matriculating with honours and — astonishing for a boy who could barely speak as a child — winning the school prize for debating.

Fischer earned a Commonwealth university scholarship, but his older brother, Tony (who became one of the world's leading scientists in wheat breeding), had already attended Melbourne University. Tim returned to the family farm, "The Peppers" at Boree Creek between Albury and Wagga.

He proved canny, eventually buying out the interests of his brother and two sisters and farming sheep, lupins, canola, oats, barley and beans. Fischer sold the Boree Creek property several years ago. He had moved to the beef property his wife, Judy Brewer, had established at Mudgegonga, north of Myrtleford in north-east Victoria. They were married in 1992.

In the mid-1960s during the Vietnam War, Fischer was conscripted to the army. He graduated from the tough Scheyville Officer Training Unit, near Windsor, NSW, with the prize for most improved cadet. As a second lieutenant, he signed on to the 1st Royal Australian Regiment for nine months more than was required so he could go to Vietnam.

He spent 18 months as a platoon commander in Vietnam, and copped shrapnel to the chest and shoulder during the ferocious battle of Firebase Coral. In recent years, as his body and blood succumbed to acute myeloid leukemia, he came to believe something more insidious had afflicted him in Vietnam.

Last year he told the ABC that Agent Orange — a chemical notoriously used to defoliate Vietnam’s jungles — was sprayed over part of the area in which he had operated. “At least one specialist has suggested my immunity broke down a lot more quickly as a direct consequence,” he said.

Having undergone intensive treatment and sometimes excruciating trials in an attempt to beat leukemia, involving frequent trips to the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Fischer died at the Albury-Wodonga Cancer Centre on August 22, 2019.

Years ago, when I asked Fischer to name the best moments of his life, he nominated one as steaming through Sydney Heads on the return from Vietnam in 1968.

The most important moment, however, was the day of his wedding to Judy Brewer. Fischer was 46 when he finally married, and he later updated those best moments of his life to embrace the births of sons Harrison and Dominic.

Harrison was diagnosed with autism, and Judy became one of Australia’s leading voices on neurodiverse families: chair of the Autism Cooperative Research Centre, life member of Autism Spectrum Australia, and founder of Autism Aspergers Advocacy Australia.

Fischer declared he had a degree of undiagnosed autism himself, believing it explained part of his near obsession with railways.

Long before he became a family man, Fischer had added to farming and soldiering a career in politics. When he was just 24, a friend suggested he should run for the NSW State seat of Sturt "so you can get your name known and put you in a position to actually get into politics in the future".

Fischer replied he didn't do things to lose, stood for the seat and in 1971, won it for the Country Party.

He switched from the NSW Parliament to run for the federal seat of Farrer in 1984, which ran from the top of Mt Kosciusko clear along the Murray River to the South Australian border.

He earned the nickname “Two-Minute Tim” for his electioneering style, driving huge distances and stopping in small towns for short meetings with constituents on the steps of local post offices. He won the seat from the Liberals and held it comfortably until his retirement from politics in 2001.

Meanwhile, Fischer’s restless interests extended beyond Australia.

He travelled regularly to Thailand, having formed the opinion after his Vietnam days that the country would become a “tiger” economy, and formed friendships with many of the country’s leading figures during the 1980s and 1990s. His interests extended over the years to Malaysia, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

A Muslim friend, former Thai foreign minister Dr Surin Pitsuwan, introduced the Catholic Fischer to a broader understanding of Islam — an interest that led to Fischer calling for greater understanding in Israel for the plight of Palestinians and Lebanese, causing controversy in Australia's Jewish community.

Post-politics, after he had served as chairman of Tourism Australia (2004 to 2007), Fischer was appointed by Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd as ambassador to the Holy See in 2009. In the Vatican, the former deputy prime minister became closely involved with the final stages of the canonisation of Mary McKillop, Australia’s first saint.

He was rarely short of a cause.

During his latter years Fischer campaigned relentlessly — albeit without success — for the posthumous promotion of the great Australian military commander of the First World War, General Sir John Monash, to Field Marshall.

In the end, Tim Fischer, aged 73 — a man who had received the rare honour of a standing ovation from every member of the Federal Parliament when he announced his resignation those years ago — was no longer a loner.

With him during his last days were his brother, two sisters, wife Judy and sons Harrison and Dominic.

At the end, it was simply Judy, holding him. Every moment with Tim, she said, was precious.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 August 2019

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Citation details

Tony Wright, 'Fischer, Timothy Andrew (Tim) (1946–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fischer-timothy-andrew-tim-29883/text36995, accessed 23 October 2019.

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