Like the American one, the Australian story is more of an idea than anything else. More rooted in mythology than actual facts, the country’s national ethos remains strongly attached to values such as individual aspirations and a fair go for all. From time to time, public life throws up the occasional personality embodying this still universally appealing story.
Most politicians nowadays intend to climb the greasy pole as quickly as possible, no matter the human costs. Once in office, though, a tiny handful of them rise to the challenges of their times. Tim Fischer, Australia’s former Deputy Prime Minister to John Howard, Minister for Trade and Leader of the National Party was such a man. His passing has prompted tributes from all sides of politics, and his public service has earned him praise from many journalists and the public at large.
Born in 1946 in Lockhart New South Wales, the journey of his life would turn out to be both, fruitful yet arduous and at times outright grueling. His determination would take him from the Australian bush to the jungles in Vietnam; to the corridors of power in Canberra and would later allow him to pursue an international career as a diplomat. As his biographer Peter Rees observed, overcoming adversity featured early in his life. From a young age, Fischer had acquired a severe stutter that undermined his confidence and made him extremely weary when it came to public speaking. Realizing that this condition would have the potential to stop any political career in its tracks, Fischer invested plenty of time and effort into overcoming his disability, and he did so almost completely.
After being conscripted into the Australian military, Fischer was wounded in the battle of Coral-Balmoral in 1968. Upon his return, he purchased a farm at Boree Creek and began his political career in the Country Party as the National Party was called back then. In 1971, he was elected to the State Legislature of New South Wales where he served until 1984 before making his move to the Australian capital. Holding the seat of Farrer and serving in Parliament for 17 years, his rise through the ranks was swift; in 1990, he was elected leader of the National Party and just 6 years later, on March 11th 1996, was sworn in as a member of the first Howard ministry, serving as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade until 1999. Following his departure from politics in 2001, Fischer continued in his role as a public servant of sorts, heading Tourism Australia from 2004 until 2007. Because of his stature and bipartisan appeal, then Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd appointed him Australia’s first resident embassador to the Holy See in 2008, and Fischer filled this role for three years, from 2009 until 2012.
Political bushfires raging
Events are the variables that can never be reliably calculated or removed from any given political equation. If one doesn’t subscribe to a deterministic view of history, then one has to acknowledge how instrumental individuals are in shaping the way events unfold, and how crucial their impact can be in what follows particularly in light of tragedy and disaster. Just a few weeks into its first term, the Howard government would confront a mass shooting that rocked Australia and the world.
In the wake of the Port Arthur tragedy, the Howard government embarked on the most comprehensive and far-reaching gun law reforms Australia has ever seen, putting the newly elected conservative government on a war-footing with its own rural base. Indeed, whilst the legal changes mattered, of course, the accompanying cultural shift seems to have been even more important, but was also much more difficult to achieve. The National Party and its leader Tim Fischer bore the brunt of all the anger in the bush; to his credit, however, Fischer showed the mettle he was made of and turned out to be instrumental in pushing through these changes and, over time, even managed to bring rural Australia along with him, halting at least temporarily Pauline Hanson’s surging One Nation party. Proving his effectiveness as a campaigner, he so successfully attacked One Nation during the 1998 federal election campaign that the party, once seen as a force possibly destroying the Nationals all together, gained only one Senate seat in Queensland. Throughout his life, Fischer remained staunchly committed to gun control.
With more than 20 years having passed since the Port Arthur massacre, it is not entirely without irony that voices arguing in favor of turning the clock back on Australia’s gun laws emanate from some circles in academia. The newly published book by Professor Tom Frame has caused controversy and outrage. Any changes to the National Agreement On Firearms is unlikely, however, as its provisions continue to enjoy broad political support.
On the economic front, the Howard government found itself in hot water pretty early on as well. Persuading the country at large to support the introduction of a Goods and Services Tax (GST) was another challenge for Fischer which he met head on. The GST is today heralded as one of the most significant achievements during Howard’s tenure in office.
I am not a redneck, but an Australian first
Perhaps it is the human condition itself that can be held responsible for ensuring that all men and women of greatness have at least one rather ugly political blindspot in their careers, likely to tarnish their legacy and undermine their reputation. Tim Fischer’s political blindspot was his troubled relationship with Australia’s indigenous population. When in 1992, Australia’s High Court handed down the Mabo decision, recognizing NativeTitle and land rights for the first time, thereby setting one of the most important legal precedents, Fischer remained vehemently opposed to the principle of NativeTitle in general and the court’s decision in particular. Sadly, on Aboriginal affairs, Fischer remained yesterday’s man.
Australians of all political persuasions have been paying tribute to one of the most capable leaders the country has had in recent times. Beloved by the community for his many great personal qualities, he will be deeply missed, and political figures have a lot to live up to in order to match a man of his caliber. We surely won’t forget you. Rest in peace Tim!