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.