Senate debates

Monday, 9 September 2019


Fischer, Mr Timothy Andrew (Tim), AC

3:34 pm

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

It is with deep regret that I inform the Senate of the death on 22 August 2019 of the Hon. Timothy Andrew 'Tim' Fischer, AC, former Deputy Prime Minister and member of the House of Representatives for the division of Farrer, New South Wales, from 1984 to 2001. Before I call the Leader of the Government in the Senate, I'd like to acknowledge Mrs Judy Fischer and Dominic and Tony Fischer in the chamber with us today.

Photo of Mathias CormannMathias Cormann (WA, Liberal Party, Vice-President of the Executive Council) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to move a motion relating to the death of former deputy prime minister and member of the House of Representatives the Hon. Timothy Andrew 'Tim' Fischer, AC.

Leave granted.

I thank the Senate, and I would also like to welcome Tim's family with us in the chamber today. I move:

That the Senate records its deep sorrow at the death, on 22 August 2019, of the Honourable Timothy (Tim) Fischer AC, former Leader of the National Party, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister in the House of Representatives and Ambassador, places on record its gratitude of his long service to the Parliament and the nation, and extends its profound sympathies to his family in their bereavement.

A giant of this parliament, a giant of the National Party, Vietnam War veteran, Leader of the National Party, Deputy Prime Minister, ambassador to the Holy See, husband of Judy, father to Harrison and Dominic: there are so many ways to remember the late, great Tim Fischer. But, above all, we remember Tim as a humble man who always wanted to help people; a man whose passion for regional Australia, contributions to gun reform, service in the Vietnam War, and love of trains and Akubra hats made him one of the most loved politicians of his generation.

As a politician, Tim's life mirrored that of a train journey: there were many stops along the way. His often hectic schedule of visits to branch meetings and functions earned him the affectionate nickname 'Two-Minute Tim'. He would often arrive, speak for a couple of minutes, chat to the people present, or colleagues, and then depart for the next stop on his busy schedule. But he never forgot a name and was always listening to the community. He understood the value of people in his life. He listened, gave his attention and always remembered. It was his way with people that made him universally popular.

When Tim announced on 30 June 1999 that he was quitting as Deputy Prime Minister to spend more time with his two young sons, sustained applause broke out in the House of Representatives at the conclusion of his farewell. The standing ovation extended for more than a minute and included even those who thought poorly of his rise to the top of the Nationals nine years earlier. He had won them all over. Tim was a titan of rural Australia, a true man of the people, who saw opportunities and seized them, and our country is a beneficiary of his work.

Tim was born to Barbara and Ralph in Lockhart, New South Wales, on 3 May 1946. The third of four children, he grew up on the family property and attended Boree Creek Public School before becoming a boarder at Melbourne's Xavier College. He battled intense homesickness during his time at Xavier College. His heart was in the country. It was where he belonged. After spending summers at home in Lockhart, he would take the long train journey back to Melbourne. This gave Tim some solace. From a young age he loved trains and remained enthusiastic about them until his recent passing. His move from the country to the city was the first of many.

In 1966 Tim was conscripted into the Australian Army as part of national service. He trained at Scheyville and served as a second lieutenant in 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. Tim served in the Vietnam War, fulfilling the role of transport officer as well as platoon commander. In 1968, during the Battle of Coral-Balmoral, he was wounded by rocket fire. An explosion tore out a piece of his shoulder, and his life was saved by a flak jacket when shrapnel also hit him in the chest. What our country owes to that flak jacket! He finished in the Army in 1969, but his time in uniform was only the beginning of his service to our country.

Tim returned to the Riverina and took up farming at Boree Creek. He became active in the Country Party, as the Nationals were then known. In 1971, at the record young age of 24, Tim entered the political arena through the New South Wales parliament. He was the first Vietnam War veteran to be elected to any Australian parliament.

After 13 years in state politics, Tim contested and won the seat of Farrer at the 1984 federal election. His victory was significant and unprecedented—a feat not repeated since. In winning the seat of Farrer, Tim became the first and only National Party member for the electorate, which has otherwise been held by Liberals since its creation in 1949. Tim held the seat until his retirement in 2001. Tim quickly gained popularity in his party and the parliament. Within a year of entering the parliament he was on the opposition frontbench, and he only continued to rise. In 1985, he became the shadow minister for veterans' affairs and gave a voice to those who, like himself, had fought in armed conflict. Tim served in parliament and in Vietnam, which speaks volumes about the person he was.

In 1990, the boy from Boree Creek, as Tim was dubbed, was elected as the Nationals new leader after Charles Blunt lost his seat at the general election. As can often be the case in our profession, quite a number of political commentators had views in relation to Tim's elevation to Nationals leadership and in fact questioned the National Party's decision to install Tim as leader. Tim defied the sceptics, successfully managing his party and the coalition relationship to the benefit of each and the country. He provided stability for the coalition when the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party was passed from John Hewson to Alexander Downer to John Howard. In his personal life during this time, I'm advised that Tim was courting fellow National Party member Judy Brewer. He and Judy married in 1992 and had two sons, Harrison and Dominic.

In 1993, Tim became the shadow minister for trade. His politics on this subject were different to many of his National Party colleagues. Unlike many Nationals of his period, Tim was an internationalist, not a protectionist. He was comfortable with the economic and trade approach that was perhaps more known from within the Liberal Party. He understood the value of broadening Australia's footprint beyond our shores.

In 1996, Tim reached the peak of his political career, becoming Australia's Deputy Prime Minister when John Howard returned the Liberal and National Party coalition to government. He retained the trade portfolio for which he had responsibility in opposition and forged closer relationships between Australia and Asia. He made particularly close political friends and allies in Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia. Tim enthusiastically sought to place rural Australia on the world stage. He visited railway stations in cities from Pretoria to Tehran to, as he said, 'get a feel for the standard of living and quality of infrastructure in countries off the beaten track'.

Tim's most significant contribution in public life was on the domestic front. After the Port Arthur massacre in 1996, he stood shoulder to shoulder with John Howard in championing better gun laws for Australia, which made and continue to make Australia and Australians safer. This was a difficult issue for Tim, and he showed great political courage and strength. The reforms elicited a fierce backlash in the bush and inside the Nationals. The rural base said no, and rallies against gun control included effigies of Tim. But he didn't flinch. Tim took a strong moral stand on the issue, not a political one. To him it was about 'taking out of the suburbs of Australia the semi-automatic and automatic weapons that should not be in the suburbs of Australia'. Under the reforms, more than 700,000 firearms were surrendered to police and destroyed during a gun amnesty and buyback. More Australians are alive today as a result of these changes, and recent events elsewhere in the world underscore the importance of these reforms to this day. Tim also navigated the rise of the rival One Nation party, working with John Howard to ensure the survival of the Nationals and stabilise the Australian political landscape.

In 1999, Tim announced he was stepping down as Deputy Prime Minister and moving to the backbench. He was doing so to spend more time with his family. That was the type of man he was, always considering the needs of others. Tim left politics altogether in 2001, and rounded out his professional life as a tourism executive and with an ambassadorial appointment to the Vatican. From the backblocks of rural New South Wales to Vietnam, and from the halls of parliament to the home of the Catholic Church, Tim left an indelible mark. He fought for his country, in war and in politics, and we are forever indebted to him for his service. Tim also fought very publicly for his son Harrison, who was diagnosed with autism as a child. Tim shared Harrison's inspirational story with the nation, and was proud that Harrison has reached a level of independence and contentment in his life. Sadly, Tim could not win his own battle with leukaemia.

For his contribution to our country, Tim was, very appropriately, farewelled at a state funeral in Albury less than two weeks ago. Fittingly, he arrived on a train. With his end in sight, Tim had reached back to a happy childhood memory of the little 'Tin Hare' railmotor and arranged for his own funeral train. The railmotor carried his coffin for 100 kilometres to his service: one last ride for the avid rail enthusiast. The train driver, Kevin Schultz, said he had never seen anything like it. All the way, people stood along the track and in the paddocks and on the railway platforms of the little towns waving Akubras and Australian flags—thousands of people, all of them coming out for Tim. When the train finally pulled into the platform at Albury, another thousand or so Australians were there waiting to pay their respects. The farewell was reminiscent of his send-off in parliament in 1999. Tim was as popular with the public as he was with his parliamentary colleagues. To Judy and the boys, Harrison and Dominic, on behalf of the Australian government and the Australian Senate, and in tribute to a much-loved Australian, we in this place join in offering our sincerest condolences. May Tim rest in peace.

Honourable senators: Hear, hear!

3:47 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the opposition to express our condolences following the passing of the Hon. Timothy Andrew Fischer, AC, Tim Fischer, a former member of the House of Representatives and former Deputy Prime Minister. As we mourn his death, I convey our sincere condolences to his family and friends, and particularly extend our sympathies to his wife, Judy, and his two sons, his wider family and many friends, especially those with whom we serve in this parliament.

Australians share a lot of fond memories of Tim Fischer. Some of these are the famous Akubra, the tie collection, the laconic speech and an endless enthusiasm for railways. But, beyond these impressions, Tim Fischer was a complex character. He could be as enigmatic as he was idiosyncratic—he was the trade minister who bucked protectionist history and helped to navigate the next stage of trade liberalisation; the National Party leader who looked to advance the national interest; a man who served at the heart of federal government but remained humble to his roots. John Howard described him as an authentic character. It was this authenticity, something that by its nature cannot be manufactured, that endeared him to so many people, and perhaps explains in part the wave of sadness in so many parts of the country that accompanied the announcement of his passing.

Born in Lockhart in the Riverina in New South Wales in 1946, his early education was at the Boree Creek Public School and he maintained a connection to this place, including in how he was described, all of his life. Later he completed his education at Xavier College in Melbourne and, of course, a formative experience of his 20s was his military service, as officer of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, both in Australia and Vietnam between 1967 and 1969. During his time in the House of Representatives, he was one of a very small number in this place with an active service history.

As a relatively young man, still in his 20s, Mr Fischer successfully entered the New South Wales Legislative Assembly as the Country Party member for Sturt, and later represented the electorate of Murray. Over 13 years he served mostly in opposition, owing to the success of Neville Wran's Labor government in that period, but this gave him the chance to refine his parliamentary skills and to hold portfolios across a range of areas—conservation, water resources, transport, forests and corrective services. But state parliament was just one stop on Tim Fischer's journey of public service. In 1984 he successfully contested the division of Farrer for what by that time was known as the National Party, and entered the House of Representatives. At that time the seat ran from the border with South Australia, along the Murray River, all the way through Deniliquin and Albury to Mount Kosciuszko. His state parliamentary experience enabled him to join the federal opposition frontbench almost immediately, and, in the 12 years that followed, he took on a succession of portfolios including veterans' affairs—to which he could bring profound personal experience—energy and resources, and trade. In 1990 he was elected the Nationals' parliamentary leader. He took on the role in the face of some scepticism about his capacity for the job, and he would later delight in reminding others of their misjudgements.

Tim Fischer became Deputy Prime Minister on the election of the Howard government in 1996. At that time he served as the Minister for Trade, continuing what at that time had been a long tradition of this position being held by the Nationals—dating back to Black Jack McEwen in 1956. He took on this role after the sweeping trade liberalisation reforms of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments that helped deliver lower tariffs, higher living standards and higher wages for working people, and elevated Australia's multilateral engagement. In today's world of rising nationalism and populist protectionism, all of us should recall that Tim Fischer was not a protectionist; he was an internationalist. He saw the survival of the regional economy and communities as dependent on engagement with international markets. He did not envisage an Australia that was shut off from the rest of the world. At a time when some were questioning Australia's place in the world and seeking to turn us away from Asia, he acted to form stronger relationships with the region. This was particularly the case with Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia, incorporating bilateral and regional approaches into the broader multilateral agenda.

In the days since his death, many have reflected on what was undoubtedly Tim Fischer's finest quality—that is, his courage. It was his courage that set him apart—his willingness to put the national interest ahead of his own political interest and to stand up for what he thought was right, even when it meant disagreeing with his own constituencies. Tim Fischer's courage was most demonstrated by his advocacy on two issues: guns and race. On guns, with Prime Minister Howard and Opposition Leader Beazley, he recognised that the Port Arthur massacre in 1996 had to be a catalyst for change. This event was a national tragedy. But the leadership and cooperation displayed across geographical and political borders in its wake to bring about the National Firearms Agreement was a national success. There is a reason bipartisan support for these initiatives is so critical. Telling people that they will no longer be allowed to access or do something they previously were able to do isn't easy. Gun owners don't like having their guns taken away; this was certainly the case in National Party heartland. But Tim Fischer acted not out of his own political interest but in the national interest. He responded by taking the argument for the national buyback and gun law reform to the places that found the message hardest to hear. As a consequence, Australia's gun laws are amongst the best in the world and Australians are safer.

On race, Mr Fischer again did not buckle in the face of challenge. I have spoken in this place on past occasions of the importance of rejecting racism and right-wing extremism in Australian politics—a key issue of national importance. Tim Fischer, supported by others in the Nationals, like former senator Ron Boswell, was part of the rebuttal of the far Right political movement in Australia. Again, he acted in the national interest—often against the advice of others who sought a more accommodating arrangement with individuals and political parties espousing such views.

He was the only government minister to sign Labor's parliamentary code of race ethics. And, by describing certain interventions on race as 'divisive, dumb and wrong'—pretty pithy, hey—he set about isolating such views and ensuring they remained outside of the political mainstream at that time. It should be remembered that there were those in the then government who were countenancing the accommodation of these perspectives. The National Party had a particular connection to many of the constituencies that extremists sought to influence, making it all the more important for courageous leaders within its ranks to take a principled stand against what these extremists stood for. Such a principled stand against those whose views and policy prescriptions are divisive and wrong looks even better in hindsight. His courage is an example his successors should reflect upon—an example all of us should reflect upon. At a time when debates about racism and freedom of speech are still present in this country, Tim Fischer's position has been vindicated and is an important element of his legacy.

After standing down as Nationals leader in 1999, Tim Fischer remained on the backbench until departing at the 2001 election. At this time, he was an observer during the independence process for Timor-Leste—something about which he later wrote. One thing he didn't do when he left parliament was fade into the background, and, whilst his retirement from politics enabled him to devote a greater amount of time to family and especially his beloved sons, it also enabled him to continue to serve the nation and advance causes large and small. He also didn't lose touch with politics. A number of new Nationals politicians have doubtless been recipients of his wisdom in many ways, including that contained in, I understood, a tip sheet that he sent when they were first elected to the parliament—10 tips which ranged from the very practical, such as when to travel to Canberra and which ABC Radio news bulletins were most important to listen to, to guidance on how to survive a life in politics. These pointers included ways to maintain good contact with non-political friends and, consistent with Mr Fischer's global outlook, the recommendation to select a country, preferably within Asia, for detailed contact and study. He finished with: 'Enjoy it all.'

Following from his experience as Minister for Trade was his appointment by the Rudd government as Australia's Ambassador to the Holy See, holding the position between 2009 and 2012, the first resident ambassador of our country in the Vatican. He contributed to Australia's successful campaign for election to the United Nations Security Council in 2012, a priority of the then Labor government. He also served as chair of Tourism Australia and the RFDS, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and was the author of a number of books. Many of these particularly reflected one of his great passions in life: trains. The ways in which he weaved this fascination into so many elements of his life demonstrate some considerable skill. He even managed to organise a special steam train from the Pope's platform during his time as Ambassador to the Holy See. It was a passion seamlessly coupled to his love for people. Train travel took him everywhere within Australia and abroad but especially in his post-political life. It is inseparable from the impact his presence, contribution and enthusiasm had on so many Australians.

It is the stories of these people that perhaps most vividly demonstrate the personal qualities of Tim Fischer. Following his death, one railway enthusiast spoke of how he waited on a dark station platform in the north of my home state, South Australia, seemingly in vain, only for a train to arrive and Mr Fischer to emerge with a donation for a local heritage railway. Nothing was too much. He'd often be heard on ABC Radio with Macca on a Sunday morning—a program that truly speaks to the whole of the country—calling in to update listeners on a particular railway anniversary he was helping to celebrate or a special excursion he was participating in. One such trip was organised in the month before his death. Chronicled on Australian Story and elsewhere, it was a one-off trip that raised funds for the cancer centre in Albury-Wodonga and took him back to Boree Creek where the local park was named in his honour. Of course, that wasn't his final journey. As my friend Senator Cormann has outlined, Tim Fischer's passion was reflected to the end when his body was carried by heritage railmotor to Albury ahead of his state funeral service.

Tim Fischer and I don't have completely compatible political views, and there are some matters on which history shows that he didn't make the right call—his position on native title and the Wik decision, for example—but he deserves to be well remembered and well honoured for his selfless and tireless contribution to our nation inside and outside of the parliament. He loved Australia, its back roads and its branch lines, and Australians loved him, especially in the bush.

Tim Fischer was always grounded in what he thought was right for all Australians, and this goes to the heart of the matter, because today we are acknowledging someone who was guided by the national interest ahead of political convenience and who on some critical issues had the courage to take the route that was right even when that was not the journey of least resistance, and it was to the benefit of our nation that he did so. We are better for his service. As I farewell Tim Fischer again, I express the Labor Party's condolences to his family and friends.

4:00 pm

Photo of Bridget McKenzieBridget McKenzie (Victoria, National Party, Minister for Agriculture) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you for everybody's contributions. As Leader of The Nationals in the Senate, I rise today to acknowledge the passing of the former leader of our party and deputy prime minister and Minister for Trade, Timothy Andrew Fischer AC, who passed away on Tuesday 22 August, 2019, at the age of 73—too soon. I'd like to acknowledge Judy and Dominic and Tim's brother, Tony, who are in the chamber today, and I'm sure Harrison's listening at home. We know Tim Fischer was an admirer of the great Australian leader Sir John Monash, a cause many of us in this place supported him on. I note that it was Sir John Monash who said:

Adopt as your fundamental creed that you will equip yourself for life, not solely for your own benefit but for the benefit of the whole community.

Those words from so long ago describe well the life of Tim, almost universally regarded as a great modern Australian leader. Tim Fischer was first foremost a dedicated family man, and I say to his family: I hope you can all take solace in how much he loved you and how well our nation loved him.

After serving in the Vietnam War, Tim Fischer farmed at Boree Creek in the Riverina before beginning his public service as the member for Sturt and then Murray in the New South Wales parliament, the first Vietnam veteran elected to an Australian parliament. Tim represented the electorate of Farrer for 18 years, nine of them as Leader of The Nationals, and he served as Deputy Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999. He will be remembered as a stoic leader of The Nationals who acted with integrity and intellect. He was able to connect with people from all walks of life. He had a truly great gift as a communicator. He was respected by all sides of politics, and he was a fearless and ferocious advocate for rural and regional Australia.

Tim Fischer set the standard for doing what he believed was right rather than what was easy when he championed sensible gun reform in the wake of the Port Arthur tragedy. His stand in that chapter can never be overestimated. He remained strong and presented his case in the face of hostile crowds and angry constituents he vowed to represent. It was real courage under fire, as was his fight against One Nation during this period of Australia's political history. Tim never wavered, he never backed down and he never changed his stance. It was hard. It was a challenge he was willing to accept and one he was unwilling to postpone. He did both of these things, as Senator Wong alluded to, because he believed it was right and it was in the national interest.

After politics, Tim continued to promote Australia at home and around the globe. He worked tirelessly for St Vincent de Paul, the Fred Hollows Foundation and Autism New South Wales and as Australia's first resident Ambassador to the Holy See. Whether chomping on a Stanley-grown apple, checking his cattle at Mudgegonga or developing strategies to secure food for humanity, agriculture was never, ever far from Tim's mind. In 2013 he joined the Crop Trust, and he was vice chair of the board till 2017, when he became chair. He was elected for a second term as chair in 2018 but stepped down on doctors' advice. Tim delivered seeds from Boree Creek, of course, to the Global Seed Vault in Norway, and he often spoke to me of how it was this unbelievable facility for the world to secure seed banks. He was deeply passionate about that contribution. He was also patron and a former chairman of the Crawford Fund, which supports international agricultural research. He was a consultant, author, broadcaster and bushwalker. He was envoy to the Himalayan nation of Bhutan, to Eritrea and to South Sudan and, of course, an avid train enthusiast, which people have spoken about already. His tremendous contribution to Australia was recognised in 2005 when he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.

In his maiden speech, Tim Fischer outlined his vision as a National Party member for Farrer. On Tuesday 26 February 1985 Tim said his intent was:

… not only to provide full-time representation for all electors in Farrer but also to seek better the wellbeing of our nation through less government and less taxation and the encouragement of individual enterprise—

A principle those in the National Party all uphold. As the rookie member for Farrer did in his first address in parliament, I too quote a long-serving Australian conservative leader, former Prime Minister Menzies, who said:

The great race of men is that one in which each individual develops his fullest individuality, in which ambition is encouraged, in which there are rewards for the courageous and enterprising …

Tim Fischer epitomised this and more. Ambitious? No doubt; you don't step off the tractor in the Riverina and become leader of Australia's second oldest political party without a certain level of personal drive and ambition, and Australia knows that Tim Fischer was a man of incredible courage. He had a sharp mind attuned to finding new solutions to old challenges—an enterprising leader if ever there was one. As an individual, he was one of a kind. In an environment dominated by egos and extroverts, Tim Fischer stood out and stood tall—a giant of humility, compassion, hard work and leadership. In parliament, he endeavoured to stand up for the have-nots, be they farmers from Balranald or Berrigan, or the young unemployed from the Lavingtons and the Liverpools.

As a politician, he knew the value of relationships with the media. He was universally loved by the fourth estate, especially those journalists across rural and regional Australia. Some in the media coined a phrase for those in public life who seemed overly fond of seeing their name in print or on the telly. They referred to them as 'dial a quote'—talent the media can always count on to get a headline or grab a story whenever they dialled. But, as usual, Tim Fischer was different. Perhaps Tim was the master of reverse psychology with the media, because he always used them to get his message out, rather than the other way around.

For his beloved ABC Radio Tim would often phone on a Friday or a weekend, because he knew Monday bulletins were often light on content. He would say: 'Greetings, Tim Fischer here. Are you ready to record? Okay; 3, 2, 1,' and then he'd deliver a fault-free 30-second grab on what he had decided was to be tomorrow's news of the day. There was no need for cutting or editing, nor any option; he'd given them his gold. He'd then repeat the process for the 15-second grab. He'd do that just once and expect the ABC to share the audio; Tim would phone every region with a message tailored to their particular audience—a very National Party response, because all politics is hyperlocal. Then he'd repeat the process with the papers, instructing the reporter who answered not to record but instead to: 'Take this down. Ready? Start.' Tim knew rural and regional media needed content years before the 24-hour news cycle. I'm talking back in the days when multiplatform publishing meant he was reading train timetables from Sydney and Melbourne rather than what we're used to today.

The Border Mail in Albury-Wodonga was Tim's local paper, serving the readers of Farrer during his parliamentary career and the north-east of Victoria following his retirement. Among their many pages dedicated to Tim Fischer recently was an account which showed his masterful grasp of messaging, networking and the art of maintaining a positive relationship with the media. The writer, Jodie Bruton, recalled a day in the spring of '94, arriving late to the Berrigan Community Golf and Bowling Club and therefore missing the National Party leader's talk entirely. Off the stage, Tim Fischer was busily scribing notes before he gathered up his belongings and, on his way to the car park, he handed her a beer coaster on which he'd noted the key points from his speech. It must have been Tim's trial run for Twitter, more than a decade earlier. He passed the pub test that day as he did every day of his life, and that was Tim—enterprising and making sure his message reached as many as possible.

Many families across the Riverina in northern Victoria had heard of Tim Fischer the farmer long before he became a national household name. Former National Party member for North Eastern Province in the Victorian Legislative Council David Evans told me of the story of how he'd come to hear of Tim Fischer. It was actually a strategy that David employed later in life as well. He recalled listening to the local radio in northern Victoria, 40 years ago, as callers rang in from around the district with their rainfall figures—your local ABC, no doubt. Mrs McCormack from Cheshunt South phoned in, having reported 3½ inches—I wish she could do it today. David told me that the caller he heard on immediately after Mrs McCormack went something like this: 'Greetings, Tim Fischer here to report 26 points at Boree Creek.' That was really the start of Tim connecting with the broader community and using the media positively to do that.

Tim was forever a gentleman and a diplomat. He always made it his duty to thank his hosts at country functions he attended across the country. He was a generous and trusted sounding-board for me and for many inside the National Party and beyond, providing perspective and sound counsel on issues affecting rural and regional Australia. He even helped out in the recent federal election, despite his health difficulties, and he was inspiring at every single moment—yes, authentic; yes, courageous; his commitment to agriculture and the growth and development of trade in this country can never be underestimated.

Thank you for your comments today—the genuine love for a man who loved his nation. He loved his party and he loved his family. The Australian Senate and the Nationals—the Australian parliament—are forever changed and are better for his contribution. Thank you for sharing him, Judy and the boys. Our sincerest condolences—a great patriot.

4:10 pm

Photo of Richard Di NataleRichard Di Natale (Victoria, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise on behalf of the Australian Greens to pay tribute to the life of former deputy prime minister and Leader of the Nationals Tim Fischer, and of course we send all of our thoughts and sympathies to his wife and children.

I didn't know Tim personally. Others in this place are far more qualified to speak to his life than I am, but I'll keep it brief. Suffice to say that my impression of Tim Fischer is of a thoroughly decent and honourable human being. Of course, the legacy that is most often attached to his time in public life was carrying his party through what was at the time a hugely controversial piece of legislation—that is, tightening up the gun control laws following the Port Arthur massacre. No doubt there would have been some on his own side who, at the time, were accusing him of politicising the tragedy, but he showed guts and determination. He stood up to some of his colleagues and of course to some of his political supporter base. But it seemed to me that Tim Fischer drew strength from knowing it was the right thing to do for the broader Australian community, and I never doubted for a moment that, even where we may have disagreed, he believed he was fighting for Australia's national interest.

And that's what leadership is. Leadership is being prepared to take a stand, sometimes on an issue that is unpopular with your own constituency, and it's leadership that is so often missing from today's political debate. Again, he stood up loudly against the politics of hatred and division. He stood up against extremists who were prepared to use race in their effort to divide our community. He was a strong supporter of multicultural Australia and recognised the huge contribution that many communities made to Australia and particularly to regional communities. He clearly drew courage from his convictions, even in post-political life. I came across a quote from his wife Judy, where she told the ABC that he 'finds it hard to hold back'. She said:

Tim has found it hard to retreat when there are so many really critical issues, particularly in rural Australia with the drought, climate change and all the things we see every day as farmers.

He clearly was somebody who was committed and was prepared to take a stand on the things he believed in. We disagreed with him on his approach to the Wik decision, which found that native title could co-exist with pastoral leases. I often wondered whether, over time, his view on that may have changed, seeing the way that legislation had played out. Perhaps that's a discussion for another time.

His interests were really wide and eclectic. Of course, he's well known as parliament's biggest train enthusiast. There was the strong association with the Kingdom of Bhutan, street names and so on—his advocacy for more support for children with autism. The list is long. He clearly was a person who was fascinated by the world. He soaked it all up, and he was here because he wanted to make the world a better place. We could all learn from that. It's something we should respect and that will resonate with many of us. I hope to see him at the next train station sometime soon—perhaps not too soon, but sometime soon.

4:14 pm

Photo of Matthew CanavanMatthew Canavan (Queensland, Liberal National Party, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia) Share this | | Hansard source

I too would like to honour the life of the Hon. Tim Fischer. Tim's penultimate speech to the House of Representatives was in response to a motion condemning the September 11 attacks. In his contribution Tim expressed his confidence that:

The United States of America will recover from this human tragedy …

And he said he was:

… quietly confident … Australia will play its part and … do so in honour of those who have died, been injured and been so seared in a direct way …

His statement carried weight given that, years before, Tim Fischer had fought alongside Americans in Vietnam. In later years Tim was critical of parts of that war, including the indiscriminate use of Agent Orange, which had perhaps contributed to the cancer that ultimately killed him. However, he volunteered for that war with dignity and a sense of duty.

Tim's life was a living example of duty—duty to his nation through the service of war, duty to his home of western New South Wales as a member of parliament at both state and federal levels and duty to his family through his early retirement from parliament and of being Deputy Prime Minister at the age of just 55 to spend more time with his family and especially to care more for his autistic son. Others have focused in more detail on Tim's biography. I wanted to spend more time on the lessons that we can learn from his life, and perhaps that's the best way we can pay our respects to those who have passed. In the case of Tim Fischer, the lessons come more from not what he did but how he did it. He was respectful but determined, quirky but effective and humble but an overachiever. He did achieve much, especially in his portfolio of trade.

It is a common myth that the National Party is anti free trade. In fact, the National Party—like its predecessor, the Country Party—is the only party in this parliament that was formed on an explicitly free trade basis. In the first coalition agreement between the Country Party and the then United Australia Party, the Country Party successfully fought for the removal of tariffs on 465 items of machinery not made in Australia but necessary for domestic industries, especially farming. Tim was a worthy successor to this tradition. He was a committed exponent of the benefits of free trade and integration in our region. He travelled to over 60 countries in just three years as trade minister. He was a broader exponent of the benefits of free enterprise and supported the economic reforms the Australian government pursued during the 1980s and 1990s. And those reforms have helped deliver nearly 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth.

Supporting those reforms took political courage given the opposition to them concentrated in some rural areas, especially in industries like sugar and dairy. As Tim expressed, though, in his first speech to parliament, he was committed to 'seek to better the wellbeing of our nation through less government and less taxation and the encouragement of individual enterprise'. He quoted John McEwen, who put it more bluntly, that he was 'for free enterprise, against socialism'.

However, Tim always believed in pursuing what he believed was the right thing for the country, not just the popular thing. That was evident in his pursuit of gun restrictions after the Port Arthur massacre. It is a shame, though, that some seek to reduce the Howard-Fischer years to simply these reforms or at least seem to comment that that decision was the only good thing done in those years. It was an important and controversial decision of that government but not its only one over that period. Tim's advocacy was courageous in light of significant opposition to those reforms and the clear political cost exacted on the National Party at the time. At the 1998 election, the Nationals' vote dropped from over eight per cent to below six per cent. While it has recovered since, it still remains well below the peak pre gun-reform years. Perhaps Tim's greatest legacy is that we have fully rejected a gun culture in Australia. Guns have their use on farms, but we are all safer for the fact that Australians as a rule do not see the need to have guns outside of limited economic or recreational use.

These are just some of the examples of where Tim pursued what he believed was right over the popular. His persistence was not constrained to his parliamentary life, however. After parliament he continued to pursue platforms in his respectful and persistent fashion. He was a forceful advocate for greater rail investment, especially a fast rail between Sydney and Melbourne, and he was a famous supporter of the achievements of General Sir John Monash and believed Monash should be awarded a posthumous promotion to field marshal. Both of his campaigns on these issues have failed so far, but few have fought so hard for so long for such causes. Tim went to the great length of writing four books on just these two issues. Whatever one thought of the merits of his positions, no-one could fault him for his unceasing efforts.

Some have said that every day in politics is a test of character. It is a test that Tim passed with flying colours. In a life spent in the service of duty, it was apt that Tim's last speech in the parliament was not a grand farewell but words of duty in his role as acting Speaker:

My thanks, my pleasure and my privilege . I move:

That the House do now adjourn.

As we adjourn Tim's amazing contribution to Australian life, it is our privilege to have his example for us as a lead.

4:19 pm

Photo of Kristina KeneallyKristina Keneally (NSW, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to contribute to the condolence motion for former deputy prime minister Timothy Andrew Fischer. I rise to do so both in honour of his service and as a fellow New South Wales resident and a Catholic. I will come to both of those shortly.

Mr Fischer came to this parliament having already served his country during the Vietnam War and his community in the New South Wales state parliament. He was held in high regard by parliamentarians from both sides of the chamber, who recognised his immense convictions and dedication to his constituents. During his time in Canberra, he was a tireless advocate for rural Australians, particularly those from the Riverina, where he was born and lived much of his life. Many of the tributes we've seen since his passing have touched on Mr Fischer's immense passion for his community and the tireless energy he spent meeting those who he represented. His press secretary, David Kelly, once remarked:

No-one would believe that somebody could pack so much into one day, do so many things and still come out at the end of the day with some sense of where he'd been, what he'd said and who he'd said it to.

It was this dedication to his constituents and his duties, his authenticity, that made him an important and valued voice both in this parliament and the broader community. Upon Mr Fischer's retirement as The National Party leader in 1999, Labor leader Kim Beazley said of Mr Fischer:

You are one of the very genuinely loved people in this place … You are going to be very much missed by us.

These traits that earned him this universal respect didn't fade with time. Mr Fischer was interviewed in 2013 by British comedian John Oliver. Oliver was visiting Australia to film a short series on our gun laws and went to the former Deputy Prime Minister's farm to speak with him. Oliver recounts that he and his film crew arrived to find that Mr Fischer had made vegemite sandwiches for everyone. Halfway through the filming, Mr Fischer got up and excused himself. He had to unload some livestock that had just arrived. Oliver remarked:

It's the first time I've ever had an interview stop because a truck of cows turned up.

Such was his way—a man of genuine humility and warmth, complete unpretentiousness. They were traits which endeared him to his community and the Australian people.

That interview with John Oliver was on a topic that would be part of Mr Fischer's enduring legacy. As we know, he held the office of Deputy Prime Minister on that fateful Sunday in April 1996 when 35 people lost their lives at the hands of a gunman in Port Arthur. That shocking massacre would be a turning point in our nation's history. In the aftermath, the government responded swiftly with a significant suite of reforms that were designed to tighten our gun laws in this country and prevent further tragedies. Even today, these gun laws remain a catchcry around the world for the very best that we can achieve in politics.

However, they were not without controversy. Mr Fischer was at the front line of the campaign to win support for these reforms. The strongest opposition often came from Mr Fischer's own core constituency: rural Australians. Footage from the time shows the level of vitriol this debate fomented. Signs labelling Mr Fischer a traitor were splashed across the media, and a group in Gympie even erected an effigy of the then Deputy Prime Minister, but he was undeterred. He appeared in front of extremely hostile crowds and argued in favour of the exact thing they opposed. No amount of personal abuse swayed him. He even visited Gympie, despite the welcome he must have expected that he would receive. It's difficult to understate the importance of Mr Fischer's voice in this debate. An extremely well-respected rural MP lending his weight to the push for gun control was pivotal to the successful passage of these reforms. This is true both with his efforts within the public arena and inside his own party room. His efforts have undoubtedly saved countless lives and made our country a safer place for all Australians.

The truth is that Mr Fischer could have stayed silent in this debate. The bipartisan support for the legislation in the Liberal Party and the Labor Party could have carried the day, but he made a conscious decision as a leader not to. As Kim Beazley remarked at the time:

But you chose not that easy road out; you chose to lay your leadership on the line and persist in a course of action which was right for the country.

Our current Deputy Prime Minister said on his predecessor's role on the gun control debate:

A lesser person perhaps might have wilted, a lesser person might have said this is a bridge too far, might have objected, and we wouldn't have had the tough gun stance that we took necessarily then.

Fortunately for our country, our friends, our family and our children, Mr Fischer was not a lesser person. His resolve in the face of concentrated opposition, especially from the very communities he so often championed, was immense, and we, as a country, owe him a great deal for his bravery and determination.

Mr Fischer retired from the parliament in 2001 but would remain active in the public square. He served as chair of Tourism Australia and the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and he was appointed as Australia's first resident Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, in 2009. This is when I first came to know him, as I had the honour of serving as the government spokesperson for World Youth Day in 2008 when his appointment as an ambassador was announced. As a devout Catholic, Mr Fischer served not only as an ambassador in service of his country but also in service of his faith. He played a vital part in bringing those two strands of his personality together—his commitment to his country and his faith—in organising the canonisation ceremony for Mary MacKillop, our country's first saint, in 2010. After this appointment he went on to serve as an envoy to several countries for the Australian government until 2012.

In his retirement, Mr Fischer continued his work on perhaps his greatest passion—his love of trains. Few people write one book; he wrote several. It's a testament to his immense intellect, passion and energy that this was a constant theme throughout his life. It was appropriate then that he took one last train ride to his funeral in Albury in New South Wales—a farewell that echoed with kind words about the man who lived such an exceptional life and changed so much for those around him. My condolences are with his wife, Judy, their sons, Harrison and Dominic, and his extended family and friends. Mr Fischer was an extraordinary Australian; indeed, an extraordinary New South Wales person. He will be remembered equally for his character as for the immense contribution he made to our country.

4:27 pm

Photo of Hollie HughesHollie Hughes (NSW, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I never knew Tim Fischer when he was in parliament. He left politics before I became involved. He'd been a giant on the political stage, but it was for much more personal family reasons that our paths crossed, and it's for that community that I want to acknowledge Tim. My former boss and dear friend Bill Heffernan introduced me to Tim Fischer when my son was diagnosed with autism. I still remember the phone call when Bill told me that Tim had a son with autism and that Tim was probably on the autism spectrum himself. But it was said with such love and affection, in a way that only one country bloke could talk about another. Whilst I had conversations with Tim about autism, our sons and what the future would hold, for me it was always more about the hope and comfort that Tim provided not only to me but also to a whole host of parents who were struggling with their child's diagnosis.

Like so many Australians, I watched that final Australian Story on Tim's life. Tim and Judy, like so many families, were given the grim diagnosis, devoid of hope and a future for Harrison. They were told, 'Your son has autism. He'll probably never live independently. He'll probably never have a job and he'll probably never do the other things that other children or adults do.' Unfortunately, this is the story that far too many of us as parents hear. With an autism diagnosis still being quite a subjective process and responsiveness to therapy the great unknown, children can move up and down the spectrum throughout their life and continue to learn. But, like so many other extraordinary autism parents, determined not to let the diagnosis define their family, Tim and Judy worked tirelessly for Harrison. I know it would have been of great comfort to Tim in his passing knowing that the extraordinary young man that Harrison has developed into is an independent one at that. Harrison works part-time as a technology assistant at his former school and is a mentor to other children on the autism spectrum. Harrison knows every electorate and sitting member in federal parliament. His prodigious memory also extends to sporting statistics, planes and Pokemon. In my house, it's Godzilla, New York, suspension bridges and fishing. Tim and Judy worked hard to also pay it forward for the families coming behind them, to show that autism is a different, not lesser, way of seeing the world. I also loved my talks with Tim about Dominic and my other children, Millie and Rupert, about how autism siblings are the best, and we should be telling more people about that. It is because of the Fischer-Brewer family and others like them that autism is no longer hidden. Those on the spectrum have much to contribute. With the right supports, they can make a significant contribution to the community around them. It is because of their efforts that families like mine could find comfort and support.

I find that much of the commentary around Tim's quirks and eccentricities have missed the point. Those of us who understand the world of autism know that trains, modes of transport and his amazing ability to recall all the timetables of those modes of transport was just a part of his special interest. As a parent of an autistic son, it gives me great hope for Fred's future to see how wonderfully Harrison is thriving in life. But it is not just that. The fact that a man as beloved and intelligent as Tim, a man who identified himself as mildly autistic, can rise to the top echelons of our government and effect such great change shines a bright light on all of our children on the spectrum, and what they might be able to achieve in their future.

Tim, you were a brilliant politician but also an incredible parent. I thank you for the path you laid open to our autism families and all the members of your autistic tribe. Rest in peace.

4:31 pm

Photo of Susan McDonaldSusan McDonald (Queensland, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

It is a privilege to speak today on the condolence motion for Tim Fischer. I acknowledge Mrs Judy Fischer, Tim's brother Tony and son Dominic Fisher here today. When I was state secretary for the National Party in Queensland, Tim had already retired and much has already been said of his career to that point. But he was famous for attending party events, and ending up in the kitchen, listening to the gossips and the news, and he always listened far more than he spoke—a rare and important gift.

After retirement, Tim returned to his great passions—his family, Judy Harrison and Dominic, and farming Boree Creek. He gave fully and selflessly—as he did in every interaction—to charity work, assisting organisations such as the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Fred Hollows Foundation and Autism New South Wales. Tim served as Chairman of Tourism Australia from 2004 until 2007. He was made a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 2000. He served as chairman and patron of the Crawford Fund, an initiative of the ATSE supporting international agricultural research. He was Vice-Chair and Chair of the Crop Trust, and a vigorous supporter of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. He served as national chairman of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. He also served as founding patron of Australia for UNHCR, an Australian charity that raises funds for the UN's refugee agency.

Last year I attended the Rural Press Club to hear Tim speak on one of these many passions, and on this occasion it was the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In his own inimitable way, he made the subject fascinating, and talked at length on seeds, crops, new methodologies and international advances in irrigation. He held the crowd in the palm of his hand for an hour and a half.

Last year, Tim, along with fellow rail enthusiast Everald Compton, visited my parents, Don and Chris McDonald, south of Cloncurry. Everald reported the visit as follows: 'Tim announced at breakfast that he had discovered on Google an old mine and the remains of its railway that operated a century ago in a remote place in the mountains between Cloncurry and Mount Isa. He invited Don to take us out there in one of his helicopters. To make a long story short, we spent a fascinating morning crawling through crumbling tunnels and down old mine shafts, with Tim constantly proclaiming what a great engineering feat it was to have built all this by hard human labour, without machinery all those years ago. He yearned for Australia to revive that nation-building spirit, and asked Don and I to join him in leaving messages in a bottle that he hid in one of the tunnels. He then speculated how long it might take for someone to find it.'

On my preselection to the Senate, and again following the election last year, Tim rang me to congratulate me. The number of people who tell stories of him calling or writing amazes me—how much time and interest he took in so many people's lives. He had earlier offered to provide me with a testimonial for my preselection, but with his characteristic innate understanding of Queensland politics he wryly added that I may not want to use it, given that he was from New South Wales.

Two weeks ago, while walking down the street to Tim's service, a man stopped me and asked me what was going on. Upon hearing that everyone was gathering for Tim Fischer, the man answered simply: 'He was a good man. He did a lot for us and for Australia. He will be missed.' I don't know that I can add much more than that. So thank you for your wisdom, your courage, your leadership, your support and your friendship. It has been an extraordinary privilege to know you. To quote Everald again: 'May there be trains in heaven.'

4:36 pm

Photo of Perin DaveyPerin Davey (NSW, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

As I rise to speak on this condolence motion, I do note that it's not my first speech. It is very important to me that I speak about Tim Fischer, former Deputy Prime Minister, who was member for Farrer—my home region, my electorate—but also a very good friend of my family and of my husband. So I look up and acknowledge Judy, Dominic and Tony. Tim was a giant of The Nationals and he was a true champion for rural and regional Australia. He was also a natural leader who commanded respect right across the political divide, not by walking in front and expecting people to follow but by shepherding and asking people to join him on the path.

He was first and foremost a public servant, and one that I had the great privilege of knowing for more than 30 years, since I was a child. While Tim rose to serve as leader of the Nationals, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, he was first and foremost 'the boy from Boree Creek' and a champion for our shared home of the Riverina Murray. He represented the communities there for 30 years, first in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly and then in the House of Representatives. The Riverina Murray is a stunning patchwork with hundreds of individual towns, each with their own communities and each with their own personalities. Tim knew each and every one of them, and they all knew Tim.

Prior to my seeking endorsement as the National Party candidate for the Senate, ahead of this year's federal election, I reached out to Tim for advice. He told me, as I'm sure he might have told many others: 'You have two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion. Be there to listen, not to talk.' Tim's words of advice were with me during the election. They've been with me since. And I certainly hope I never let him down.

In the lead-up to the federal election, I was privileged to join Tim at the Lockhart opening of his self-titled gallery at the Greens Gunyah Museum. I encourage anyone travelling through the Riverina to call in and stop and get to know this wonderful man a little better. Despite not having been member for Farrer for close to 20 years by then, hundreds of people turned up to join him for the event and to see and talk to him, and he was in his element. He loved people. He loved their stories. And he loved to listen.

Tim was driven by a very strong belief that he had to do the right thing, not just the popular thing. Many people have already mentioned the gun laws and the gun reforms that Tim championed. He championed them very vocally and steadfastly. Along with the then National Party federal president Mrs Helen Dickie, who I also know quite well, he got in the car, drove around to communities—to town hall meetings and to branch meetings of the National Party—and stood in front of screaming mobs of angry constituents to explain why he believed it was the right decision for Australia. He was willing to go out there and face them front-on and explain to them his reasons but also why it was the right thing to do, and I think history has shown us that it was the right thing to do.

But as we reflect on that contribution, which is very right, we can't forget his other political contributions. As Minister for Trade from 1996 to 1999, Tim recognised that the sustainability and long-term success of our primary industries depended on Australia embracing internationalist and free trade policies, which went against the natural protectionism that some of our colleagues feel. At the Nationals conference in 1996, Tim observed that shutting off Australia from the rest of the world behind a protectionist barrier, trade and human, was just plain dumb. In his three years as trade minister he travelled to over 60 countries, which was an incredible achievement, and his habit of laying down his Akubra on the negotiating table as he hammered out deals and treaties is very well documented.

In 2001 Tim retired from parliament, opting not to recontest the division of Farrer at that year's election. He was one of the few politicians that went out on a high and he should be commended for that. But, while he did retire from politics, he didn't slow down at all. I'm actually not sure that he could slow down. Instead he directed his energy into other causes and, alongside Judy, he worked very hard to raise awareness for autism and advocate for the sufferers of autism, a cause very close to their hearts after their son Harrison was diagnosed. He also chaired the Crawford Fund from 2001 to 2006 and later went on to serve as the fund's patron, using this role to promote conservation, biodiversity and agricultural research and further to support the operation of the Global Seed Vault in Norway.

He joined the board of the Australian Agricultural Company, where our paths again crossed in a non-political way. My husband and I were working for the AA Company in Queensland at the time. At a managers' meeting Tim and Judy made a beeline for our familiar faces across the room, which was very welcome. He never forgot us. My husband always remarked how unbelievable it was that Tim did not forget a face or a name. He served as chairman for Tourism Australia, which was a position that he used to champion regional tourism through initiatives such at the caravan safari trail and the Great Outback Cattle Drive. Then he turned his skills to diplomacy, serving as our first resident Ambassador to the Holy See, which has also been mentioned. But his service did not end there; he was a director or a patron of more than 200 not-for-profit and community organisations. Knowing the passion he injected into all of his endeavours, I know that he would have made a positive and long-lasting contribution to each and every one of them.

He found time in his retirement—but I do use that word very loosely—to pursue his other great passion, trains. Much has already been said of his love of trains—so great that it motivated him to write two books on trains. He also then joined my uncle in hosting train tours across the world and here in Australia. He and my uncle would sit there, and Tim would regale people with fun facts and details about the rails they were riding on, the coach they were travelling in and the history of rail in whichever country they were riding through at the time. It's no surprise that all of Tim's tours were sellouts. While those of us in this place may reflect on Tim's service to parliament and his political career, the reality is that his time in elected politics was just one chapter of a truly remarkable career. Over his 73 years he touched many lives. Tim will be missed, but his contribution to the Nationals, to the communities of Farrer and to Australia will be remembered.

That was proven at his recent state funeral. I had the enormous privilege of attending the funeral, held recently in Albury, along with thousands of people who came to pay their respects and to show how much they valued his remarkable contribution both to our community in the Riverina Murray and beyond. It was a very fitting farewell for Tim, and it was beautiful to see the way people came to say thank you in the way they did. As the train carrying Tim made its way from The Rock to Albury, people stood along the track and in the paddocks and on the platforms of the towns along the line, waving their Akubras and their Australian flags to say goodbye to Tim. We've not seen anything like it in the Riverina Murray and I doubt we ever will see it again.

On behalf of the people of New South Wales, and particularly those in the division of Farrer, I offer my condolences to Judy, Dominic, Harrison and the rest of the family. Vale, Tim Fischer, a truly unique Australian, having served his country with passion, courage and humility. May he now rest in peace.

Photo of Scott RyanScott Ryan (President) Share this | | Hansard source

I ask honourable senators to join in a moment of silence to signify assent to the motion.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.