I join with the Prime Minister in paying tribute to a great Australian, Tim Fischer. His farewell in Albury last month was indeed a superb send-off. He organised it himself—of course he did! He arrived at his funeral by train. How could it be otherwise! Not the high-speed TGV-style train that he was calling for in his very first speech in this parliament, but one that carried him at a very gentle pace, so as the many hundreds of people along the route could cheer him and farewell him, paying their final respects in an entirely appropriate manner. It’s the sort of response that you could have expected—that most of us could only hope for.
With the death of Tim Fischer, Australia has lost one of our true gentlemen. We have also lost one of our greatest enthusiasts, one of our gentlest souls and one of our most doggedly persistent advocates. And we have lost one of the most distinctive figures to have ever graced the Australian political stage.
There was never any danger of Tim being mistaken for just another politician. Tim rose beautifully above some people’s early expectations. What many couldn’t see was that behind that idiosyncratic air of quizzical geniality was a man with a rock-solid constitution. He had faced guns in Vietnam, when the bleak lottery of conscription sent him off to the war that gave him the toughest, most thorough education going.
He faced guns when he handled an armed siege in the most Tim Fischer way possible. The armed man was a refugee. He was so aggrieved about relatives stuck in a Thai refugee camp that he stormed the immigration department’s Albury office, just above Tim’s electorate office. As Tony Wright wrote the other week, Tim ignored the warnings and walked in on his own, armed with nothing but empathy and words. Hours later he walked back out again with the gun in one hand and his arm around the man. Tim promised to help. He kept that promise as best he could, travelling on his own coin to that distant refugee camp. There was no fairytale ending, but Tim made it as good as he could and, as always, his word was all that you needed.
He faced guns in a different sort of way when he fronted his constituents over his government’s new gun laws in response to the Port Arthur massacre. Those constituents were, as we know, not happy, but Tim showed them and all of us what leadership looked like. The Nationals didn’t have to sign up to that firearms legislation. Quite frankly, it was more difficult for them than for either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party. Labor’s support was assured; therefore, the two big parties could have had the numbers to get it through. But, as Kim Beazley would later say to Tim as he stepped down from the front bench, ‘But you chose not that easy way out; you chose to lay your leadership on the line and persist with a course of action which was right for your country.’
John Howard, the Prime Minister that Tim served as deputy, called him the epitome of loyalty and decency, and he was all of that. He was also the epitome of enthusiasm. The way that he would latch onto a subject that even slightly aroused his interest was truly one of the natural wonders of this great continent. I thought I knew a little bit about trains. Tim could sense a fellow devotee, even from a distance, the same way some people can hear a lolly being unwrapped from the other end of the House.
I appointed Tim to the independent advisory panel on high-speed rail. He recommended the establishment of a high-speed rail authority and continued to be enthusiastic about it. For Tim, a train was more than just a form of transport; it was poetry in locomotion. What he didn’t know about trains simply wasn’t worth knowing.
But it wasn’t just that. Did John Monash have a more tireless advocate? Did the Holy See—and I met with him in Rome on a couple of occasions—ever receive a more enthusiastic ambassador? When the Rats of Tobruk Memorial Pipes and Drums band from Melbourne visited Tobruk for the first time Tim was their self-appointed ambassador, calling from Libya to let the media know that their performance had been terrific. These phone calls were plentiful, and journalists came to look forward to them. I’m told that, when Tim rang members of the fourth estate to furnish them with facts and personal reflections, he never left anything to chance. Not only would he dictate the quote but he would supply all the punctuation as well, offering guidance on the placement of quote marks, commas, full stops and the all-important capital letter at the beginning of any sentence.
Tim’s knowledge and energy extended to the small and the personal. Stories abound of him sending cards to children who’d had a tough time, then keeping up the card as an annual tradition. Or, if he heard someone had had a bereavement, Tim would be on the phone to comfort them in their grief. There were times when Labor disagreed powerfully with Tim—not in the least over his stance on native title, which was at odds with his powerful sense of fairness. But, even when the differences between us grew into chasms, our affection for the man did not dim.
When Tim decided it was time to step down, Kim Beazley called him one of the genuinely loved people in this building, and indeed he was. But, as tends to be the case, the starting point for this was Tim’s own fathomless capacity to give love: his love for his country, which drove him to serve in the military as well as at the diplomatic level as well as in this parliament; his love for his fellow Australians, which drove him to do all he could to lift them higher; and, of course, most importantly, his love for his family, which proved to be the most powerful of all. Tim saw the need of his family slowly but surely outweigh any other consideration, and eventually they won him back.
As his health worsened, we were sure we’d see him bounce back from each bout, but this time it wasn’t to be. I rang him earlier this year in perhaps an act of hubris to ask if he would be interested in serving on a high-speed rail authority were we to establish it were the election in May different. He said to me that he didn’t think he’d be around. I didn’t realise until after about 15 minutes of conversation that he was in hospital at the time—still answering his phone though, still working, still being interested in the nation’s future.
I’m very proud to have known Tim Fischer, to see him as someone who had my total respect. And I think that we can all aspire to be anywhere near as respected as him across this parliament, because he was, indeed, very much a unique figure. So, to Judy, Harrison and Dominic: in the midst of your sadness, you have our love and you have our thanks. It was a privilege to be in Albury just a few weeks ago. It was a remarkable send-off for a remarkable Australian. We all will remember Tim with affection, with respect and with the nation’s gratitude.