Vale Tim Fischer

Tim Fischer used to send a note to new members of parliament. It was a letter of advice, broken into nine points, for the career to which they had just been elected.

“On entering parliament,” the first point read, “write down 10 names of close non-political friends you want to have still at the end of your career and if you have not had contact with them by Cup Day each year, you initiate contact to keep the friendship alive.”

Some of the points went to decency. Others covered political advantage. He encouraged MPs to choose one country in Asia and engage with it deeply, especially in opposition. He said they should read local papers and develop knowledge in a specific policy area. “As part of this,” he wrote, “keep a filing cabinet drawer for a chronology file and related reports in respect of each big issue, eg. a key rail corridor or a dam project or black spot mobile phone areas.”

The advice finished, “Enjoy it all.”

Fischer died this week, aged 73. The former Nationals leader was sick with an acute form of leukaemia. Many remembered him as idiosyncratic. It was a way of acknowledging that his graciousness and civility is uncommon in politics. Perhaps, even, it was out of place. Fischer stood out because he was so tall but also because he was so scrupulous. He understood service and made a life from it.

When John Howard announced his gun buyback, it was Fischer who joined him and stared down his own constituency. He did so not because Howard needed the numbers but because it was right. He argued with Nationals voters in towns where his own effigy hung.

Fischer was wrong about gay rights and native title, but he was right about Pauline Hanson. He stood up to One Nation where Howard bowed to opportunity. On race, he said the party was “divisive, dumb and wrong”.

He was an internationalist trade minister, at odds with protectionists in his ranks. He spoke against the war in Iraq and argued for action on climate change. Later, he was an advocate for the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. “What drives me,” he said, “in many ways – the clock is at four minutes to midnight with regard to biodiversity of plants.”

Fischer retired from politics to be with his young sons. While many say that, he meant it. “Because I married later in life, happily, to Judy,” he said, “I have an absolute, intense feeling about doing all I can to contribute to that marriage and to Dominic and Harrison’s development.”

Fischer’s eldest son has autism, which contributed to the decision. Later, Fischer said he believed he had a mild form of autism himself.

When people say Fischer was eccentric, some of them mean he liked trains. Others are finding a way to note that he seemed unembarrassed by his tenderness. To look now at the National Party and think he once led it is to be reminded of how badly our politics has declined.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Vale Tim Fischer".

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