Tim Fischer, quirky MP and diplomat

Tim Fischer, quirky MP and diplomat


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Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer was known for his Akubra and love of trains.

Former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer was known for his Akubra and love of trains.

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Tim Fischer, who became deputy prime minister, Nationals leader and Australia's first resident ambassador to the Vatican, was a politician like no other. Fisc...

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Tim Fischer, who became deputy prime minister, Nationals leader and Australia's first resident ambassador to the Vatican, was a politician like no other.

Fischer, in his ubiquitous Akubra, was a quirky man of great enthusiasms and a media tart whose effectiveness was regularly underestimated.

"Two-minute Tim", as he was called for the whirlwind speed of his meetings with voters, also had political courage - notably over gun control and Pauline Hanson.

Timothy Andrew Fischer was born at Lockhart in the NSW Riverina on May 3 1946.

In 1966 he was conscripted into the Australian army and, after being commissioned a second lieutenant, sent to Vietnam where he suffered shrapnel wounds.

More seriously, he suffered from cancers later in life which he attributed to Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant the Americans used widely during the conflict. He first developed cancer in 2008 and was diagnosed with acute leukaemia in 2018. He died on Thursday, aged 73.

Vietnam made Fischer an advocate for veterans and awakened a lifelong enthusiasm for Asia. He made innumerable visits over the years, with the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan a particular favourite.

After Vietnam Fischer started farming at Boree Creek and became active in the Country, later National, Party. In 1971 he was elected to the NSW parliament.

He soon got his name in the headlines with a speech - echoing the concerns of the Grong Grong branch of the United Farmers' and Woolgrowers' Association - about the dangers of a lion plague. He quickly learnt how to get on to commercial radio.

In 1984 Fischer went federal, easily winning the southern NSW seat of Farrer for the Nationals.

With his Akubra and his slightly bumbling manner he became a familiar figure in both his sprawling electorate and the national capital.

He'd ring journalists at any hour and from anywhere - even Bhutan - with stories. He'd take politicians and journalists bushwalking - he called them Tumbatreks - through the Alpine end of Farrer.

When dignitaries gathered at Gallipoli to mark the 75th anniversary of Anzac Day, he went swimming in Anzac Cove to get a better idea of what it must have been like coming ashore that fateful morning.

While all this made him well known and well liked, it probably also meant he wasn't taken as seriously as a politician as he should have been.

That changed after Charles Blunt, the unusually urban, free market and socially liberal Nationals leader, lost his seat in the 1990 election.

Fischer, to the surprise of many, won the vacant leadership, defeating former leader Ian Sinclair.

Prominent journalist Alan Ramsey wrote that he was the first dingbat to lead the Nationals, but added that he was "courtly, courteous and an olde worlde gentleman" and may be just what his party needed.

Another press gallery luminary, Michelle Grattan, said he could become an object of ridicule and it beggared belief that the Nationals could invest their faith in him.

Nine years later, when Fischer quit politics, Grattan sent him flowers with a note saying "I got it so wrong".

As the new leader, Fischer backed John Hewson's Fightback! package of economic and tax changes, though he had doubts about the Liberal leader's political skills in selling it.

He had trouble persuading his own grass roots, particularly in Queensland, to get behind it. Proposed sugar tariff cuts were specially sensitive.

In this period he married Judy Brewer. They had two sons.

Hewson lost in 1993 and it wasn't until John Howard returned to the Liberal leadership that, in 1996, the Coalition finally regained government.

Fischer, who found Howard's almost policy-free approach distasteful while acknowledging its effectiveness, became deputy PM and Trade Minister.

Barely two months later his first big test came out of the blue - the Port Arthur massacre in which a deranged gunman killed 35 people.

Howard acted swiftly, proposing wide-ranging gun control measures.

Fischer backed them, to the fury of many in the bush.

He was sent a white feather, hung in effigy and faced furious pro-gun rallies. But he didn't waver.

Fischer was quicker than Howard to reject the ideas of Pauline Hanson, who was elected in 1996 as an independent after being disendorsed by the Liberals.

He disageed with Hanson's views while recognising her growing support was a threat to the Nationals' constituency.

As usual, Queensland was the biggest worry, especially after the June 1998 state election in which One Nation won 11 seats.

Fischer faced a toxic brew - lingering hatred over the gun laws, resentment against the Liberal-proposed GST and other deregulatory measures, fear of the consequences of the Mabo and Wik judgments.

In a way, Fischer and Hanson were appealing to the same people - disgruntled, with a sense of being ignored by the urban elite.

Fischer's response was more responsible and mainstream. Crucially, he persuaded the Queensland Nationals to preference One Nation last.

The feared tidal wave was stopped. Hanson lost her seat and the party's only gain was a single Queensland Senate seat.

But the battles were taking their toll. According to biographer Peter Rees, 1998 was the first election campaign he hadn't enjoyed. He began to question whether politics was worth it.

Moreover Harrison, his elder son, was autistic.

Fischer, who believed he was mildly autistic when young, finally decided that the burdens were too great on his family. In July 1999 he returned to the back bench and quit as an MP at the following election in 2001.

It was hardly retirement.

He worked for charities, he lobbied for agricultural research and - long a consuming interest - trains. He was chairman of Tourism Australia for three years.

Then, in 2008, Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd asked him to be Australia's first resident ambassador to the Holy See.

Fischer was responsible for much of the organisation for the canonisation of Mary MacKillop and the finishing stages of Domus Australia - a Roman guesthouse for Australians.

Australian Associated Press

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