Politics we know is a rough game, and anyone playing it has to develop a tough hide to deflect its slings and arrows. The latter come not only, or even mainly, from political opponents or angry constituents but often from one’s close colleagues. Stories abound of sharp-tongued dressings-down, of brutal profanity-laced bullying, of thinly-veiled or outright misogyny, of sheer unadulterated rudeness and basic lack of human consideration. High political office seems often to bring out the most arrogant and domineering aspects of the officeholder’s character. Seldom does one hear a political leader described simply as ‘a decent person’.
In fact there are many more decent people in politics than is commonly perceived through the hurly-burly of political combat. Yet it is highly unusual for any politician, never mind a leader, to be generally acclaimed across party lines as ‘a decent man’, as Tim Fischer was. When he announced to the House on June 30, 1999, that he was quitting as deputy prime minister, the minute-long standing ovation included not just all parliamentarians but the jaded and cynical journalists of the gallery. Now with his passing, tributes and obituaries rehearse his rather unexpected career: the boy from rural NSW with a speech impediment, who served in Vietnam and was wounded in the longest and costliest battle Australians fought in that misbegotten war, who spent a long period in the NSW parliament before moving to federal politics in 1984, who to everyone’s surprise became leader of the federal National Party in 1990, who married late and had two sons, one with autism, who rounded out his political career as Australia’s first ambassador to the Holy See.
The commentaries also extol his oft-overlooked virtues, for he was an idiosyncratic character who people found hard to take seriously, at least at first. His constant Akubra, his bumbling locutions, his deep and enduring love of trains, his whistle-stop tours delivering brief speeches at each station (‘two-minute Tim’), all added to the comic persona. One of the most common adjectives applied to him posthumously was ‘underrated’. In this respect, he resembled the great American, Abe Lincoln, another boy from the sticks who was mocked for his uncouth accent and appearance but who cannily used the general underestimation to political advantage. Like Lincoln, Fischer would prove himself in the fire of politics, establishing closer ties with Asia, encouraging rural industry to engage internationally instead of crouching behind tariff walls, defending Howard’s gun laws in the face of savage rural backlash and forthrightly confronting Pauline Hanson’s racist agenda. He had the courage of his convictions even when these were unpopular, like his stance, as a devout Catholic, against gay marriage or his defence of pastoralists opposed to Indigenous land rights. And in the end, he gained that which is hardest to gain and hold in political life, general respect.
In considering Fischer’s character it is worth examining his ten tips for surviving parliament, sent well after he had himself left politics to newly-elected Steph Ryan of the Victorian Nationals (a generous act in itself). The first is personal, about preserving one’s non-political friendships over time, but the rest are political in the broadest sense. Some stress the importance of managing a schedule so as to be able, when necessary, “to hit the ground running”, or to maintain control of the agenda rather reacting to events, or to pace oneself while yet assiduously keeping abreast of the daily news. Others advise studying and establishing ongoing contact with one (preferably Asian) country, selecting one policy area in which to become particularly expert while keeping a watchful eye on other “big issues”, all of which “will add to your standing” (as well as, implicitly, being good for the country). Most interesting are three points which recommend treating people with consideration, the principal point being again political. Don’t be rude to any MPs in your area (irrespective of party, implicitly) and always recognise them by name at functions, “even if personally you cannot stand them”. Don’t attack towns and suburbs just outside your electorate (for borders may change). Study weekly papers from your electorate to discover people who have done something in the public interest and personally commend them.
Being nice to people with an eye to political advantage might appear cynical and false, but that is a simplistic reading. Fischer understood that in politics everything you do is political and has consequences. There are enough enemies to confront without needlessly creating more, even if you have to grit your teeth to be nice. It was a lesson that someone like Kevin Rudd might well have learned (and insisted he had learned when returning to the prime ministership) but whose practice depends fundamentally on character (try teaching it to Donald Trump). Even if you are a decent person, in politics you sometimes have to play your character rather than simply be it. Tim Fischer, as everyone who knew him attests, was a decent man but he was also a political man, and he understood that. So farewell and thank you Tim, and let us close by endorsing your tip number 10:
“Enjoy it all”.
John Kane is a Professor in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University. He teaches in political theory, political leadership, and US foreign policy, and is a researcher in Griffith’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy.