Paul Daley: Tim Fischer's Ties
Esteemed Author and Journalist Paul Daley interviewed former National Party Leader the Hon. Tim Fischer as part of our latest exhibition Finders Keepers, opening Saturday 10 June.
Those who know Tim Fischer will be unsurprised that he has kept every single necktie he’s ever owned.
They won’t be surprised because they know that when he commits to a task – military service, bushwalking, train spotting, politics, collecting – he does so with complete enthusiasm, even obsession. And so it is that at 70 the former National Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister, reflecting on his long public life and with a widening eye, perhaps, on posterity, has donated 152 of his ties to the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
Through this collection of polyester, cotton-poly, wool, pure cotton and silk ties, of varying lengths, hues and patterns, it is possible to chart Fischer’s life from his boarding days at Melbourne’s Xavier College, through Army officer training and Vietnam service to his 14- and 17-year stints in state and federal parliament, and as a trade minister, deputy prime minister and, later, as his country’s first resident ambassador to the Holy See in Rome.
I first met Fischer almost a quarter of a century ago when I was a newbie to the federal parliamentary press gallery in Canberra. He’d already spent a half of his life in the New South Wales or federal parliaments and had broken through from the outer, against every odd, to become federal National Party leader in 1990 burying, in the process, any chance of an anticipated leadership resurrectiuon to of the more urbane, polished party stalwart, Ian Sinclair.
When we met, Fischer – pilloried by the press and his National colleagues for his rumpled, hayseed appearance and his speech impediment – was on the cusp of becoming deputy PM and forging his place alongside John McEwen and Doug Anthony, the most revered in the pantheon of Country, National Country and National Party leaders.
He always had time for new people. Indeed, if you were in the gallery he’d seek you out, especially on a quiet Saturday or Sunday, so he could dictate to you his lines, verbatim, replete with specified punctuation, referencing himself in the third person, on the issue of the day.
“National Party leader Tim Fischer yesterday said comma open quotes Paul Keating has yet again proven he is out of touch by . . ..”
He wore an Akubra hat, indoors and out. It accentuated his significant height. Combined with the ties and the suits, which seemed to drape over as much as hang off, his stooped, gangly frame, “Two Minute Tim”, as he was known, was simply an impossible presence to ignore.
There was always, and remains, a modesty and unmistakably true warmth about Fischer. But an aversion to public shows of self-reflection have always left open a gap for others – not least critics on all sides – to fill. The ties, therefore, are somewhat anomalous: nature might have rendered Fischer something of an eccentric and, while the neckwear was definitely part of a determined self-definition strategy from his earliest days in politics, self consciousness prevented him from being a natural extrovert.
The collection includes three ties related to Xavier College where he boarded. There are two actual school ties (one with his name tag still sewn on the back) and the prefect’s tie he wore as one of the chosen senior boys in his final year, 1963. Then there is the tie for the Old Xaverian’s (ex-students”) association.
When we catch up in February 2017 in Old Parliament House (a place he still loves), we pull out a few ties for him to talk about.
Fischer, visibly older but still an imposing physical presence, holds the school tie with his name sewn onto it. He says, in the trademark Fischer matter-of fact staccato, with more pragmatism than obvious sentiment, “That was my actual Xavier College prefect tie – look how narrow the damn thing is . . . Xavier College, Melbourne . . . which taught me two things - curiosity and motivation.”
He picks up the Old Xavs tie and explains:
“This was the more upmarket tie for the Old Xaverians Association where you have to donate an arm and a leg to make sure you’re allowed to wear it. So when you’re doing the boardrooms - even as a backbencher occasionally you got the odd boardroom invitation in Melbourne and Sydney . . . well I just tended to wear it as yet another connector.”
Here is Fischer, the young, neophyte MP, in the monied, teak-panelled halls of Sydney and Melbourne finance and industry, using the old school tie network.
Of course it’s an irresistible prompt with which to consider his schooldays in a little more detail.
Xavier, a pillar of Melbourne Catholic society, placed equal emphasis on academia and sport. Its stated aim in Fischer’s era was to produce “well rounded young men” of Catholic faith, and it contributed disproportionately to the Victorian Bar, the judiciary and medicine. Despite the Jesuit reputation for progressiveness and enlightenment, corporal punishment, even for the senior boys, was a mainstay of school discipline (and it remained so, well into the 1980s).
Fischer was hopeless at the school’s big sports, Australian Rules football and cricket. But as an academic superior, a formidable chess player and a very good debater, he none the less won sufficient notice to make prefect. Just as he would in public life, Tim Fischer, the schoolboy, made his mark outside of the orthodoxy.
In a detailed interview in 1996, he told me: “It was a difficult time in those initial (boarding house) years – that long winter second term seemed to go on forever . . . cold. If you were good at football and cricket you were home and hosed, but if you were awkward at these sports . . . and I did not have very much ability in that regard . . ..”
He described the influence of the Jesuits and lay teachers as “formidable”.
“That was in the days when you used to get severely strapped on the hand if you were not able to correctly decline French words, Latin words – so, yeah, I found that a bit upsetting at times.”
Fischer remains a devout Catholic. This is why he is so proud to have crowned his public service with “the great thousand days” he spent as Ambassador to the Holy See from 2009 to 20012. Instructively, he has not (yet) donated the white tie (now browning a little) that he wore on presenting his diplomatic credentials to the Pope in 2009 or during his farewell audience at the Vatican in 2012.
“The very first audience with the Pope was white tie and tails. And the farewell audience for me and my family was white tie and tails . . . I’ll have another look and see how much starch it needs. I might yet send it up. Because I’m unlikely to be wearing it,” he says.
Throughout his public life Tim Fischer did not merely accumulate ties – he consciously, actively, collected them in their dozens.
“I actively collected or brought over two thirds – perhaps the rest were gifts,” he says.
“There was a particular drawer at home at Boree Creek which was down the bottom not used much, just off the master bedroom and I got into he habit of just throwing ties out of fashion, ties over-used, into the drawer and so I realised about 10 years ago I had over 100 ties there but I kept at it. And eventually I thought, `I’ve got this unusual collection of ties just maybe there’s some interest in that and if there is let me offer it to the Museum of Democracy (sic) first’.”
In an email exchange before our meeting at Old Parliament House, Fischer intrigued me with his comment, “Like my Akubra wearing, I always carefully chose ties for or to match the (political) occasion . . . few realise how difficult it was to carve out an image and momentum v [former prime ministers Bob] Hawke and then [Paul] Keating, also v [former Liberal prime minister John] Howard and [Treasurer, Peter] Costello in a sense. I had to build gravitas and ties were part of this . . ..”
As the leader of a minor coalition party in parliament that brimmed with distinctive personalities and ongoing leadership tensions (forces loyal to Sinclair chatted relentlessly about Fischer; Keating challenged, and eventually replaced, Hawke in 1991; in Fischer’s time in Federal Parliament the Liberal leadership went from Andrew Peacock to Howard to John Hewson to Alexander Downer and back to Howard) Fischer needed to distinguish himself.
“I must put it in context . . . that I was battling up hill. Firstly I’d been a backbencher a dozen years in the NSW state parliament, on the cusp of the front bench, got to the front bench but in opposition and so was a little bit out of the inner loop, within my party, within the Coalition, within the Parliament and considered a little idiosyncratic. You would remember that! So . . . in 1984, I then switched to federal parliament . . . at age 38 and away we went,” he says.
“And again I was considered to be outside the inner circles, as they existed . . . yes, I was a hard working back bencher but the broad consensus in the press gallery, with a certain wisdom and lack of wisdom dare I say, was, `Yeah, he might become a middle bencher but that will be about it’. And you never know in politics how the numbers crunch and, so, suddenly I became federal leader of the Nationals and the rest is history.”
Fischer was born and bred in Lockhart in New South Wales. He’d returned from school to work to farm at Boree Creek in the Riverena and, by the time of his preselection at 24 for what then the National Country Party (the organisation began in Western Australia in 1913 as the Country Party) he had served as an officer in command of a platoon in Vietnam, where he was badly wounded, from 1968 to 1969.
On paper, at least, he seemed like perfect NCP material.
Question: Why do you think you were seen as such an outsider?
“Two reasons. Firstly, I was at that time and still am, a Catholic practitioner – less than perfect. The National Party took a while to get used to having Catholics amongst its ranks . . . It belongs to another era but it was true – it raised a few eyebrows that I kicked with the left foot . . . The second thing is, it’s well know, I had a slight speech impediment I’ve worked on over the years . . . At the time it probably led to people drawing a limitation on my future contribution and future career but by dint of hard work and other factors, it fell my way.”
In 1990 Fischer was seen, perhaps, by the press and his colleagues, as the least likely person to emerge as National Party leader. But he made his run at a time of maximum chaos in the National Party (the leader, Charles Blunt’s, attempted renaissance and urbanisation of the party’s conservative values failed dramatically and he lost his seat at the 1990 election), surprising Sinclair who, it was assumed, was a shoo in to regain the mantle.
Question: So you chose ties to distinguish you from others?
“Yes it was to make a point and to not miss the opportunity of making a point. So when I gave my maiden speech in the Federal Parliament I just wanted people to know I was busy and that I helped various causes before, during and since.”
He also chose them to promote causes that he felt strongly about. That is why, in his “maiden” speech to federal parliament in 1984, he chose a vivid blue-striped, 100 per cent polyester, tie bearing the Royal Flying Doctor Service logo.
“Anyone who knows their game would know this is the royal Flying Doctor Service tie of that era. So many out there, beyond the bright lights of the parliamentary triangle, would have some empathy with that,” he says.
The collection showcases Fischer’s patronage and support of a range of charity, political, community and sporting organisations including: the National Farmers’ Federation of Australia, the HR Nicholls Society, the Murrumbidgee Turf Club and the Victorian Racing Club, the State Emergency Service of NSW, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition, and the National Rail Museum (New Delhi). There is a tie with repeating elephant patterns, a similar one featuring rams and another (much remarked upon by the press at the time, not least for its metaphoric value) of balloons that he wore in campaign advertisements.
There is a knitted blue tie and a straight-ended tie in mustard yellow, blue, teal and black featuring flowers and horizontal stripes. Both belong to his early years in the state parliament.
The tie he wore for his first speech in NSW Parliament is also in the donated collection. It is a maroon number with repeating patterns, incorporating small and large flowers.
In both first speeches Fischer emphasised the importance to Australia of rail transport and travel. He remains proud that the Howard Government, while he was deputy prime minister, completed the Alice Springs to Darwin leg of a railway than now links Adelaide with the Top End.
There are dozens of ties with a train or railway theme in Tim Fischer’s collection. This reflects his personal fascination with railways and trains in Australia and overseas. He is a model railway enthusiast who has written and broadcast extensively on railways passion.
But how did this obsession begin?
“Originally on a Monday night with my father we’d drive four kilometres into Boree Creek to meet the rail motor at 6:52. To do what? To buy the Sydney Sunday morning newspapers 36 hours late! And woe betide if they’d forgot to change them at The Rock, at the junction of the Riverena Express, to the rail motor. So, to see this big search light on a . . . rust red rail motor come around the corner and the rails begin to hum . . . as a young kid, to buy the Sunday newspaper with comics, (there was a) a great level of excitement as it hurled down the line to Yurana and Oaklands. And that evoked my initial interest. Mind you it had a flip side. Years later in Rome if I could not download the Sydney papers in 36 seconds I got very angry. So in my lifetime I went from . . . newspapers and having to wait 36 hours, to having to wait 36 seconds.”
This leads, inevitably perhaps, to a discussion about why voters are becoming so disenchanted with mainstream politics, as evidenced by constant leadership changes at state and federal levels in recent years, the rise of independents and electors’ dismissal of governments after one or two parliamentary terms.
“ . . . I think it’s the inability of members of parliament on both sides to genuinely communicate with their electors . . .. Some use social media so well but somehow the fair dinkum dimension is lost and in the course of campaigns, high stage managed rally after rally takes place without one genuine town hall debate meeting . . . Blind Freddy can see that the whole thing is so absolutely stage managed, the questions are so stage managed, they [voters] resent it . . . I think the majority of Australian voters are very wary of members of Parliament today and the communication channels two-way have broken down because there’s a feeling that so many of them are choreographed to the enth degree and are not, quote, `dinkum’, unquote.”
Besides the ties, the Museum of Australian Democracy also has an old so-called “soap box”, once belonging to Fischer, in its collection. The box, which came from Mexico where Fischer’s brother worked as wheat scientist, is a reminder of the (pre-social and mass media) days when MPs had to get their messages out by speaking on street corners.
“My first election campaigns were quaint and country orientated, so several times a day it was a case of setting up speaker and standing on this soap box in town after town – nobody greatly listened but I think I won a few points for effort!” Fischer says.
Veteran political journalist and Fischer biographer Peter Rees says this genuine “folksiness” played to the former deputy PM’s great advantage in public life.
“He may have been avuncular, but the quality that saw Tim Fischer become a respected figure on both sides of politics was integrity. When Tim decided on a policy he committed himself with unswerving conviction. Nowhere was this more evident than in his support for the gun buy-back after the (1996) Port Arthur massacre, even when faced with vehement opposition among his rural constituents,” Rees says.
“Integrity enabled him to succeed as a national leader, despite disparagement of his idiosyncrasies. Not least of these was his fascination with trains. This was underlined for me when I approached him to do a story soon after he announced his (1999) resignation . . . Amid emotional scenes in the House of Representatives, Tim explained that with his elder son suffering from autism, his wife and children had to come first.
“In the cynical world of politics, this was a heartfelt decision. I wanted an interview with him on his return to the family farm at Boree Creek. He agreed on one condition – I had to transport the many model trains in his Parliament House office back to the old homestead. Such was the endearing nature of Tim’s folksy style.”
There is no doubt that the introduction of uniform gun control laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre was one of the most difficult times in the long history of the National Party. The Nationals, already trying to shore up their eroding base (due to demographic change, the loss of rural jobs and the first incarnation of Pauline Hanson and One Nation) faced a potential existential threat from rural gun owners over Howard’s determination to bring in new uniform gun laws that would require the surrender of tens of thousands of weapons.
Parts of the National Party fractured. And there was much federal leadership talk. But Howard, with Fischer’s help – and bipartisan parliamentary support - prevailed.
I ask Fischer if he can recall what tie he was wearing when he attended a particularly vocal and angry public meeting about guns in Gympie, Queensland, in 1996.
He recalls the meeting was on a Sunday afternoon.
“ . . . and there, as we pulled up, you could see on the branch of a tree an akubra wearing image [effigy] of my good self with a hangman’s knot. And it was a fierce meeting until a young lady, school prefect, stood up about half way through the meeting and laid it on the line in a way that just completely flipped the meeting in support of a sensible harmonised approach on gun laws . . . At Gympie it would’ve been fairly hot . . . what I did not wear was a gun vest [bullet-proof vest] or any form of protection. But we were obviously liaising with the police with regards to safety and security and there were extra police there on the day.”
Howard had, famously, worn such a vest to address an equally angry crowd in Gippsland.
Throughout his political career Fischer sometimes wore military-themed ties. The first is dark-blue with a small graphic of two crossed swords and the letters “OTU” (denoting the Officer Training Unit, Scheyville, where he trained at an army officer). The second is green, with the repeating logo of the 1st Royal Australian Regiment, in which Fischer served as an officer, including as a platoon commander in Vietnam, from 1966 to 1969.
While some of Fischer’s schoolmates went to university and burnt their draft cards, Fischer was in combat in Vietnam – a war that, by the early 1970s, was very unpopular in Australia. He was wounded badly, in the first of two violent, near-death experiences that have marked his life.
The second was a near fatal accident in rural NSW in 1994. Two people in another car died in the accident. (In one of the crueller slurs of modern politics, an opposition MP implied in the chamber that Fischer was at fault. He was not).
He almost quit Federal Parliament after the accident. But he recuperated slowly (for years he suffered vision problems from the accident and he still bears the physical scars of Vietnam).
Of his near death experiences, Fischer told me in 1996:
“Some would say of me, and I only later thought it was probably right, I lost those happy go lucky years of growing up. At age 21 I was commanding 30 lives in the jungles of Vietnam, age 24 I was in State Parliament in Sydney representing my electors . . . (then I) switched from state to Federal Parliament.”
When he entered State Parliament the anti-Vietnam moratorium marches were in full swing.
“I remember being asked by the media as a young state backbencher, ‘Why aren’t you out there objecting to the moratorium marches?’ And I took an unusual view, which I would’ve taken today – I very much acknowledged the right of these people to march against the Vietnam War. I am a returned serviceman – they might respect our professionalism and the work we were allocated to do and forgive us the mistakes of the United States in their leadership in respect of the Vietnam War. But we are in a democracy. If people want to march peacefully I will defend their right to do so,” he says.
“Charles Cutler, ex world war two colonel, then leader of the Nationals (and Deputy NSW Premier) . . . came and made a point of sitting with me at lunch the next day. And he said, `I just want you to know that I raised in Cabinet your comments about the moratoriums,’ which were dominating the streets of Sydney at the time. I’ve never revealed this before but . . . he said, `I raised it because I absolutely, 100 per cent, agree with the comments that you made and I made Cabinet think about it and calm down and back off a little with the police actions at the time’.”
Fischer retired from the ministry in 1999 and subsequently from Federal Parliament in 2001.
His decision was forged, in part, by his desire to spend more time with his (then) young children and wife, Judy, at the Boree Creek farm (which he is now preparing to leave after 40 years).
“I’d done nearly five years as deputy prime minister and trade minister. You would fly in on a jumbo from trade negotiations in Singapore or elsewhere at 6am, you’d end up standing up at 2pm at Question Time and then a fortnight of sitting in the middle weekend you’d have to go up to Queensland or elsewhere to handle various conferences and regional conferences,” he says.
“And I thought I’d end up coming back in a box one day from Bhutan or India or China or Latin America wherever I was pursuing trade endeavours. Judy and my eldest son, Harrison, had been diagnosed with autism and that’s a particular set of challenges. So we went in to bat with regard to that. And that ultimately swayed me to realise I wasn’t indispensible and for Tim and his ties to depart Canberra and step back from deputy prime minister and minister for trade and ultimately from parliament.”
In his retirement from public life Fischer continues to advocate for a range of organisations and charities, including Frontier Services, and to advocate for greater understanding of those with autism.
There are one or two unexplained oddities in Tim Fischer’s tie collection, not least a purple cravat that he thinks was a probably a gift.
He says, “Yeah, it never saw the light of day in the electorate because it would’ve been minus ten points straight away. I think the cravat was given to me and was never worn by me. And because I didn’t know how to and because it was not quite the image I was looking for.”
Want more? Curator Stephanie Pfennigwerth asks what can be gleaned from 60 years of ties?