The terribly sad and premature recent passing of Tim Fischer (pictured above), “the boy from Boree Creek”, after a decade of battling cancers, reminded Australians of times past in Australian politics. And “times past” in this case mean times as recent as 2001, when Fischer retired from politics, many would argue, also prematurely. Politically and culturally, Fischer’s time seems more like a century ago, a time when honour in politics still meant something, when leaders didn’t merely speak in cliched sound grabs, when tweeting was something that birds did and political promises were honoured, at least sometimes. Tim Fischer was, above all, a gentleman and one who, one felt, believed it was a privilege to serve his country. You get the sense that, if he had ever done something wrong as a minister, he would have done the honourable thing and resigned, since he was principled and believed deeply in parliamentary democracy and responsible government.
Fischer’s public life was not quite done in 2001, however. While he never made governor-general, as some anticipated, he re-emerged as Kevin Rudd’s ambassador to the Holy See in 2008, an inspired choice from a prime minister very short on inspired decisions. And an appropriate choice as well. Fischer’s final book was titled Holy See, Unholy Me, published in 2013. The title captured neatly Fischer’s humility, his talent for self-deprecation and his essential decency.
The Australian Financial Review’s Tom McIlroy recently described Fischer as “revered”. This is apt. It is not often that a politician these days can be said to be “revered”. There was even this in The Guardian, of all places:
When Tim Fischer, who has died aged 73, announced just after question time on 30 June 1999 that he was quitting as the deputy prime minister of Australia to be more present in the lives of his two young sons, the reaction was unusually sentimental.
Sustained applause broke out in the House at the conclusion of Fischer’s farewell, and the standing ovation extended for more than a minute. Journalists also stood in the gallery above the bear pit and applauded as a mark of respect, and possibly contrition, given his rise to the Nationals leadership had been treated derisively by many commentators. During his farewell at the dispatch box, Fischer had cocked an eyebrow at the correspondents and observed: “To the media I would say this. It was about 12 months ago that you stopped calling me idiosyncratic. I knew then it was time to start thinking about getting out of politics.
Biographer Peter Rees called Fischer a “once in a generation” politician. Michelle Grattan termed him a man of “courage and loyalty”.
Fischer was genuinely loved. Perhaps not by everybody but the Fischer haters would be a very, very small group indeed. His personal appeal extended across parties and ideologies. His trademark broad brimmed hat, his quirky love of railways and trains, his low key but deeply felt Catholicism, his personal selflessness in the face of family crises and his openness to all comers marked the man.
Equally, Fischer was known for his national service in a losing and unpopular Asian war, his commitment to “the bush”, his indefatigable labours in the trade portfolio and his highly productive, yet typically understated and quietly effective political partnership with John Howard. This was especially the case through the tougher times of the early Howard years, when the Coalition confronted a budget quagmire, testy industrial relations issues, the introduction of a new tax system and challenging gun law reform.
Fischer had, perhaps, the good fortune to have been massively underestimated early in his political career. When he assumed the leadership of the Nationals, then in opposition and facing an arrogant government led by Paul Keating, who personified that arrogance, Fischer was disregarded as a political force, mocked as a somewhat quaint yokel of little consequence.
That was a Labor mistake of epic proportions.
Fischer was no fool. He was a canny operator who overcame what at the time appeared to be an existential threat to the Nats from One Nation. With equally canny offsiders such as the hugely underestimated Ron Boswell and the principled John Anderson on board, Fischer crafted a highly effective ministerial team of Nationals that more than pulled its weight in a star-studded Howard line-up that truly deserved the many accolades it received. (Merely to rattle off the names of these ministers – Downer, Costello, Abbott, Fischer, Anderson, McGauran, Vaile, Kemp, Vanstone, Fahey, McLachlan, Sharpe, Reith – is to remind oneself of how recently it was that the Coalition possessed senior men and women of a quality that now seems quite unfamiliar). Even the wets were impressive then, viz, Robert Hill and Richard Alston.
Fischer’s public persona oozed honour and traditional virtues.
WHAT has become of the party that Tim Fischer led so ably, with character, whimsy and panache, for over a decade? The party of Michael Bruxner, of Arthur Fadden, of Earle Page, of John “Black Jack” McEwen, Doug Anthony, of Ian Sinclair?
Initially, the Nationals remained in good hands, with some years still of government ahead, One Nation cast aside as an electoral rival outside the cities, the hideousness of Malcom Turnbull’s disastrous water policies as yet a little ways off and the socialist rural independents who later made such a mockery of regional development still ensconced in Macquarie Street and doing little national harm.
Fast forward a dozen years, and what do we have now? Coinciding with Fischer’s sad passing has been the spectacle of the New South Wales Nationals not merely helping the vile abortion laws to pass the parliament, but being, along with Alex Greenwich and Brad Hazzard, in the vanguard. One had to look hard even to find Nationals in the NSW Lower House who voted against the bill. Of thirteen Nationals members, only two were pro-life. The NSW Nationals leader, John Barilaro (at left), not only voted for radical abortion rights, but noted that he himself and a then-partner had actually procured an abortion decades earlier. A supporter in practice as well as in theory.
Former Nationals minister Niall Blair, who introduced an upper house amendment designed to prevent abortions based on sex selection, said that he wished he were not introducing the amendment! Every last Nationals Upper House member in New South Wales is pro-choice – there are five – and voted for a bill that endorses late-term abortions, sex-selection abortions, denies doctors the opportunity for conscientious objection and fails to mandate saving babies who survive abortions. One, Ben Franklin – the MC at the recent Harwin office gay wedding – spoke on the abortion bill for about half a minute, and concluded:
A couple of weeks ago I rang my father—a thoughtful man in his eighties—to let him and my mother know that a debate would be occurring to consider taking abortion out of the New South Wales Crimes Act. He asked me what I was talking about. He said he assumed that this had happened 30 years ago and that of course I must support it. I believe that his views are in line with the majority of the citizens in this State and they are certainly in line with my own. I support the bill.
That is one way of describing the legislation. It isn’t mine.
Another Nats MLC , young Wes Fang, is on the record calling the conservative Liberal Matthew Mason-Cox a “c***” and a “prick” (admittedly not over the abortion issue). The Nats have changed, indeed. One can only wonder if Wes Fang will ever be “revered”. Adding together the votes in both houses, out of nineteen Nationals, seventeen are pro-choice. And only five of the nineteen are women, hence the Nationals’ men are also overwhelmingly pro-choice.
John Anderson was moved to comment on the abortion debate and the Nationals’ current state publicly, as noted by Joe Kelly:
Mr Anderson told The Australian that NSW Nationals MPs now appeared to be “well to the left of the Liberal Party on social issues” and that the party’s grassroots membership was increasingly being dictated to by those with no real affinity to regional Australia.
“People like my wife will feel truly alienated from the party that she’s been a part of ever since she married me,” Mr Anderson said.
Two-thirds of Liberal MPs in the lower house of the NSW parliament voted against the Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill brought forward by independent MP Alex Greenwich, despite it being supported by Premier Gladys Berejiklian. The bill’s passage was successful, not because of the votes of Ms Berejiklian’s MPs but largely because of the votes of the majority of Labor and Nationals members(emphasis added).
Let this sink in. It was Labor and the Nationals that got the bill home. The modern Labor Party we would expect to be violently pro-abortion, since Labor has become, in effect, the plaything of Emily’s List. But the Nationals?
It is not just on abortion that the Nationals have tacked left. On the various issues associated with gay rights, too, at least some have carved out an entirely unexpected area of niche political interest.
The same sex marriage debate of 2017 was championed by one of the NSW Nationals’ abortion debate ringleaders, the Upper House MP Trevor Khan, who has been in the forefront of the LGBTI rights movement for the best part of a decade, notably at pivotal moments such as the move by the Liberals in Canberra in 2015 to allow a conscience vote on SSM and, of course, during the SSM “referendum”. Khan tore strips off his more conservative Nationals colleague Matt Canavan over the issue in 2017, and argued in The Australian why conservatives should support SSM. (Two of the key conservative sources for his argument were, alas, David Cameron and the limp “conservative” David Brooks of the New York Times).
The NSW Nationals were already stepping up to the plate back in 2013 on gay rights. During a bill on SSM being debated in the Legislative Council at that time, Melinda Pavey could only endorse the sentiments of a Labor opponent:
It is tough to be gay in country NSW, no doubt about that, not just country NSW but country Australia.
The Guardian noted at that time:
Pavey is tearing up talking about her 64-year-old uncle who has been in a same-sex relationship for 40 years and knows of the pain her uncle has been through.
Of course, there is an active gay lobby in the Liberal Party. A very senior Liberal apparatchik has (privately) noted the increased presence of younger homosexuals in the National Party organisation. The overlap between support for gay rights and the “moderate” faction of the Liberal Party is very strong, as is the overlap with pro-choice views. While there are no factions in the Nationals, if there were the wets would clearly be in charge.
I have always believed that, once upon a time, the Nationals stood broadly for two things – “the bush” and conservative values – and that these never wavered. The political scientist Don Aitkin, a keen chronicler of all things National over many decades, talked in the 1980s of the philosophy of “countrymindedness” and rural protest that underlay the birth and growth of the then Country Party in the 1920s, as it emerged out of the farmers’ and graziers’ associations of the States. As Australia urbanised, the sense of country people “missing out”, of being excluded by city-based power elites, only grew. It continued to energise the bush politically, and emerged afresh in the “balanced development” pitch of Tony Windsor and other country independents.
Looking back at the turn of the (twenty-first) century, Aitkin noted:
What, then, has happened to ‘countrymindedness’? It’s still there in the bush. You will hear country people in New South Wales today talk contemptuously of ‘NSW’ actually standing for ‘Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong’, quite unaware that this was a New State Movement slogan of the 1920s.
The Nationals have consistently sought for a century to advance the position of regional Australia, variously through support for the chimeric notion of decentralisation, championing of soldier settlement schemes, retaining services in the face of inexorable rural population decline, spruiking for a fair deal over the geographic distribution of infrastructure, and (of course) safeguarding the interests of farmers through trade policies and drought assistance. They have attempted to keep a brake on the Liberals’ perceived bias towards the cities and on their economic rationalism.
What of the conservatism of the Nationals? According to the Party’s website:
The party’s basic philosophy is conservative, in that it supports maximum development of private enterprise and minimum intervention by Government. It believes Australians should be able to manage their own affairs in a prospering private sector-led economy, enhanced by appropriate Government policies, especially for those in genuine need.
So the Party is fired by private enterprise, small government conservatism. And not so much by social conservatism. Even the Party’s adherence to what might be called economic conservatism is more honoured in the breach. Enlisting biggish government in the cause of agrarian socialism and protectionism has been often par for the course.
Of course, many of the issues that have come to dominate the social agenda of late – extreme sexual liberation, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, abortion on demand, transgenderism, third wave feminism and the woke demands of the “rainbow tick” – were not major political issues even in Tim Fischer’s time, let alone in the earlier days of the old Country Party. It might be argued that the Nationals were conservative because most of Australia then was conservative (socially), when contrasted with today. Certainly the bush was conservative in those days. Maybe the Party wasn’t so much motivated by conservatism as simply reflective of it.
Tim Fischer with Pope Benedict.
As the economies of country regions have grown much more to resemble the national economic structure and the economies of cities, as the role of farms and of farmers has diminished markedly, and as rural populations have been augmented and diversified by returning, cosmopolitan Gen Xers and refugees from the big smoke – all occurring at a time of huge and accelerating social change – the values landscape of rural Australia itself has shifted. After all, the Evo Cities group of larger inland NSW towns, established to encourage the relocation of people and businesses from the city, prides itself on the cultural sophistication of the modern bush and even encourages its target audience to make a “city change” and not a “tree change”.
Electoral backlashes against the Nationals have generally occurred when the party was seen as not sufficiently effective in defending rural economic interests (often against the Liberals), rather than when it was seen as not sufficiently conservative. Perhaps, then, seeing the Nationals as bastions of conservatism has always been a case of looking at the party through the wrong lens.
There has been, as well, a certain defensiveness among the Nationals about their old fashioned, yokel image. As many of the former Nationals’ regional strongholds were invaded by the hip, the sexually liberated and green-tinged former city dwellers, the Nationals perhaps sensed that they needed to overcome the stereotypes in order to remain electorally appealing.
Nevertheless, the shift in the Nationals’ approach to the defining social issues of the age has been dramatic and noteworthy, outstripping the Liberals’ own shift towards wokeness by a considerable distance, and causing old stalwarts like John Anderson to reflect on the shift, and not in a good way. But it is the leadership positions on these issues taken by outspoken social liberals like Trevor Khan that has caught the eye. Khan’s recent trajectory and focus have mirrored those of the same sex marriage leader and abortion advocate Alex Greenwich, astonishingly so in the eyes of more traditional and conservative Nationals voters and conservatives generally.
Not every old Liberal was socially conservative, of course. Think here of Billy McMahon, Harold Holt and (especially) John Gorton. McEwen was a crusty old Nat, a pragmatist above all else, and a defender of the bush. Were he alive today he might well concur with many a young Nat that they need now to be “relevant” to a new demographic, with many more women in parliament and hordes of environmentally conscious blow-in voters demanding twenty-first century wokeness to boot.
Stay relevant, win new voters, and keep defending the bush. That is what they do. The leftward turn and the abandonment of so fundamental a principle as the right to life of the unborn clearly dismays John Anderson, but who knows if the Anderson types still run the Nat branches. A prominent and, given his recent personal moves, perhaps unexpected champion of the right to life cause has been another former Nationals leader, the even-quirkier-than-Tim-Fischer Barnaby Joyce. Joyce has joined Tony Abbott as a star of the pro-life speaking tour, even as his own marital waywardness causes some pro-life eyebrows to be raised. It says much about the distance travelled by the Nationals that the state party in New South Wales considered expelling Joyce for his social conservatism! No, decidedly not the party that John Anderson’s wife joined. And yet … Nationals pre-selectors must keep voting in these moderates. Do the pre-selectors know just how “moderate” their elected members are? I wonder.
What the late and much missed Tim Fischer (above with Pope Benedict), a less vociferous conservative than Anderson, less of an ideological warrior, and far more conventional than lothario Barnaby, might make of the postmodern, Brokeback Nats, well God alone knows.