News People Remembering Tim Fischer, the enthusiastic and much-loved face of country Australia

Remembering Tim Fischer, the enthusiastic and much-loved face of country Australia

tim fischer
Tim Fischer's larger-than-life persona was exemplified by his Akubra. Photo: AAP
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Australia has lost one of its most colourful and authentic political leaders in a generation.

The death of former deputy prime minister and Nationals leader Tim Fischer at 73 is indeed a very sad event.

His long battle fighting many cancers has finally forced him to hang up the Akubra.

When Tim joined what is now the National Party it was more proudly assertive of its farmer roots, calling itself the Country Party.

But you could never take the country out of Tim and his trademark Akubra was his defiant assertion of that.

By the time I came to Canberra to cover federal politics “The Hat” had already been a larger-than-life presence in the place for four years.

My fondest memories of him were his appearances on Network Ten’s Sunday morning interview program, Meet The Press.

Tim would bound into the studio and plonk the hat prominently on the coffee table. The director would make sure the prop featured in playoffs or cutaways.

The hat was just as prominent during his stint as Australia’s first resident ambassador to the Holy See, or the Vatican, in Rome in 2008.

The “Eternal City” as it’s sometimes called in the classics, is no stranger to weird head gear, but the tall Australian ambassador’s Akubra, with its resonances of a distant, more rough-hewn place, always caused a stir as he wore it everywhere, including on official visits to the Vatican.

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Mr Fischer’s hat was everpresent as he represented Australia at the Holy See. Photo: AAP

The ambassador’s residence on the Via Nomentana backed on to Casa Loreto, the world headquarters of the Loreto nuns.

The nuns, some who were Australian, delighted in having Tim over regularly for Sunday-night pizza.

Tim largely led a bachelor’s life in Rome as his wife, Judy Brewer Fischer, would only join him during school holidays.

Tim told me this was so she could better manage the successful regime they had in place for their autistic elder son, Harrison, at home in Australia.

The strains that Tim’s many absences caused for his young family with Harrison’s disability were the main reason for his shock resignation as deputy prime minister in 1999, and his decision to leave Parliament in 2001.

Labor leader Kim Beazley at the time summed up the consensus of Parliament when he told an emotional Tim Fischer: “You are one of the very genuinely loved people in this place.”

As Nationals leader, Tim gave wholehearted support to John Howard’s gun law reforms soon after the Coalition came to government in 1996.

Then-opposition leader Kim Beazley described Mr Fischer as ‘genuinely loved’. Photo: AAP

He, like the then prime minister, saw no option after the Port Arthur massacre.

While John Howard as prime minister was advised to wear a bulletproof vest at an angry farmers’ rally in Victoria after announcing the gun reforms, Tim was burnt in effigy at another protest in Queensland.

One of the toughest political battles of his life was repelling the threat that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was posing to the Nationals in 1998.

He refused to capitulate on racially selective immigration and gave the insurgents no quarter as they threatened the party’s heartland seats in New South Wales and Queensland.

His response to native title claims in the Mabo and Wik judgements disappointed many. He spoke of “bucketfuls of extinguishment”, but was later honest enough to admit his fears were largely unfounded.

In 2001 he gave me a signed copy of his biography, The Boy From Boree Creek, with best wishes. It chronicles a truly remarkable life of service to this country.

Indeed, like other veterans of Vietnam, he has paid the ultimate price.

He credited his exposure to Agent Orange for the toll it took on his immune system and making him vulnerable to the cancers that eventually claimed him.

I join all Australia in offering my sincerest sympathies to his widow Judy and his two sons Harrison and Dominic.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics. 

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