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25 September 2019updated 08 Apr 2020 10:32pm

The boy from Boree Creek: the moral and physical courage of Tim Fischer

Fischer led his party through the 1990s and was deputy prime minister, before suddenly opting out to give more time to his autistic son. He remained Australia’s best-loved politician.

By Matthew Engel

What do the following have in common? Doug Anthony; John Anderson; Mark Vaile; Warren Truss. It’s OK not to know; they were all deputy prime minister of Australia, and many voters there would be a bit vague too. They held the job ex officio, as leaders of the Liberals’ perpetual junior partners in the right-wing coalition, the National Party.

It used to be known, more accurately, as the Country Party and remains the standard-bearer for old-fashioned white rural conservatism. But not all its leaders have been either obscure or obscurantist. In late August came the death of Tim Fischer, aged a mere 73 but gone from politics for two decades. It was marked by a wave of affection across the political spectrum and the nation. Fischer led his party through the 1990s and was deputy prime minister to John Howard from 1996 to 1999, before suddenly opting out to give more time to his autistic son. He remained Australia’s best-loved politician.

Can one even find an adequate comparison? There was something of Willie Whitelaw and Ken Clarke: a warmth that smoothed partisan divisions. There was a touch of LBJ at his best: a folksy style masking much political calculation. But it was more than that. The word that stuck was “idiosyncratic”, which, as his friend Barry Jones said in his eulogy, was a euphemism for “weird”. Some of Fischer’s appeal was shtick, like his Akubra hat, often worn indoors as well as out. Most of it was genuine, an interest in everything and everyone. Jones, by the way, was a Labor MP.

Fischer particularly adored railways. And he made two last very public train journeys. One, shortly before he died, was a charity trip to his remote home town of Boree Creek, where normal passenger services ceased in 1975. The second carried his coffin. The route was lined with crowds, waving Akubras.

He was always “the boy from Boree Creek”. Not a typical farm boy, he was big but unsporty, a reader and a stutterer who was bullied at his Catholic boarding school. He thrived intellectually, though his tertiary education was courtesy of the University of Vietnam: he could have evaded conscription in the war, but didn’t. He was wounded by shrapnel and believed the multiple cancers that ultimately ended his life were caused by exposure to Agent Orange. In Vietnam he was still gawky (his men called him Tanglefoot) but as a platoon commander was both brave and caring.

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Fischer gravitated quickly to politics. He was elected to the New South Wales parliament in 1971 aged 24, and the federal parliament in 1984. He developed a rapport with his constituents and devoted much attention to Laotian refugees. But as a parliamentarian he was no instant star – he still stuttered – and when he emerged as party leader in 1990 there was derision. “Dingbat” and “an object of ridicule” said the press. Labor’s Paul Keating mocked him as “Huckleberry Hound” (well, there was a resemblance) and “basically illiterate” (which was absurd).

What Fischer did have was courage, moral as well as physical. Weeks after he became deputy PM, Australia had its Dunblane moment, shortly after Dunblane itself: in April 1996 a gunman killed 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania. Howard wanted a national clampdown on firearms; the Labor opposition agreed. National Party voters did not, often vehemently, with violent potential. Fischer could have faffed and waffled, knowing he would lose.

Instead he stood staunchly with Howard to change the laws. Two years later, when the neo-racist Pauline Hanson threatened to overwhelm his voter base, he could have trimmed and done deals. He took her on and saw her off.

In government he was in charge of trade and developed a deep knowledge of Asia (“the best trade minister we ever had,” said one political opponent). He never stopped doing things, and later became ambassador to the Vatican. Everywhere, he attempted the improbable and sometimes achieved it – he got the Vatican’s little railway reopened, though he never convinced his own country to opt for high-speed rail.

Thanks to a mutual friend and our shared interest in trains, Tim and I began emailing occasionally. Finally in February we met for breakfast in Canberra. He was obviously ill; we both knew this was a one-off. But he was delightful, with quirky humour: a listener as well as a fascinating talker.

Fischer was a conservative. He believed in “less government and less taxation”. In office, he opposed indigenous people’s land rights, as his voters did, and always struggled to accept gay marriage, but his views kept evolving because he never stopped thinking and learning: “He never thought he was the smartest person in the room,” said a colleague. And he became appalled by his own party’s refusal to address climate change.

In an era when conservative politics is degraded by intellectual corruption, we should remember that it need not be this way. Tim Fischer was a man who risked bringing politics into repute.

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This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace