I Am Tim by Peter Rees

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

In the book, I am Tim, Peter Rees uncovers the influences which shaped the life of politician Tim Fischer, whose resignation after three decades was greeted with an outpouring of emotion from all sides of politics. Peter Rees was federal political correspondent for Melbourne Sun News-Pictorial, West Australian and the Sunday Telegraph.

This is Rees’s eleventh book and cannot be faulted for the depth of research into a man who did much to influence politics in Australia and who was honoured in 2005 with a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in recognition of his contributions to Australian politics, trade liberalisation, rail transport development, support of humanitarian aid and fostering community acceptance of cultural differences.

Tim Fischer’s life spanned a period of great events and cultural shifts which reflected the journey of the nation itself through this period of change. He died from cancer on 22nd August 2019 a widely revered national figure.

How these events impacted on the life of Tim Fischer and the influence he had through his work in parliament and beyond is revealed in fifty-five chapters in this 416-page book. Each chapter has its own unique title. The text, though dense, is nicely spaced on crisp white pages through the use of indented primary source material and easy to read paragraphs. There are twelve pages of photographs in the middle of the book which also contains the usual sections you would expect of an academic piece of work.

The Prologue highlights Tim Fischer’s fascination with the railway. He had model trains in his parliamentary office. This section of the book recounts his last train journey. His coffin was loaded on a train at The Rock for the journey to his state funeral in Albury. As the train moved along the track people stopped to pay their respects to this man they had come to know and respect.

Tim Fischer, on first meeting, did not inspire. He was different from other politicians. In his early years he was plagued with a speech impediment but would not let that stop him. At boarding school, he was miserable and lonely suffering from home sickness, but he still looked on that time as a journey of discovery. At the young age of thirteen his curiosity about the world was blossoming and through his work on the school magazine he was developing a deep interest in current affairs. He joined the debating team and was chosen as a prefect at Xaviers boarding school in Melbourne because he was level-headed, fair, genuine, caring and friendly, well-balanced and self-contained.

After leaving the Jesuit boarding school, he was conscripted to officer training and Vietnam. Here he learned the importance of planning and taking measures to avoid negative outcomes as best he could. He learned never to underestimate the difficulty of a particular task but to anticipate and be organised, to be self-reliant and confident under pressure. His year in Vietnam opened his eyes to Asia and began a fascination with Asian culture. The army had given him a grounding in leadership, a focus beyond Australia and an awaking interest in Asia, also training for his next career.

From the Jesuits he had learned to give back to the community; from Buddhism, he had learned to walk gently in the world. He came to believe that any adversity was to be challenged and turned to advantage.

In politics, Tim Fischer was a New South Wales state minister at the age of twenty-four, the first Vietnam Vet to be elected to any Australian parliament. After a decade in state politics, his eyes turned towards the federal sphere as he knew that this was where the main game was.

Learning from past experiences, he set in place a five-part plan for moving forward in this new area. He needed guidelines to give structure to his life and thereby a sense of control. He had a strong sense of purpose, initially to survive and later to succeed. The world for him was infinite and full of opportunities. He was a man driven. What made him different was he had a natural curiosity and an innate interest in people. In an age when politicians risk their careers if they stray from the party line, Fischer could be an iconoclast (338).

In 1990 when he became leader of the National Party and was still a bachelor, 60 Minutes launched a hunt to find him a wife; however he did not need their help, marrying Judy Brewer who was also interested in politics. They had been good friends for a long time. He later became Deputy Prime Minister when John Howard’s Liberal Party swept into power.

When their first son was diagnosed with autism, through research, Tim Fischer came to understand that his own differences may have a link to this condition. This difference he used to advantage when he took to wearing an Akubra hat everywhere. This habit continued even after politics. When he was offered the job of first resident ambassador for Australia to the Holy See, his hat quickly gained him a presence in Rome. It was also at this time of his life that a bladder cancer was discovered; however with treatment he was still able to take up the role. He was away for three years. In his lifetime he was to battle four different cancers.

In 1998, he had begun to question whether politics was worth all the trouble. Fights with the One Nation party and fatigue of overseas travel as trade minister drained both he and his wife. He was increasingly torn between the demands of his family and the duty of politics.

After retiring from the political arena, he did not put his feet up and relax. He accepted a job as Mayor of the Paralympics Village for the 2000 Sydney Olympic games and became active in many other organisations. There are seven books that he had written or co-authored. One of his last emails was to his publisher. He had sent a 15000-word first draft of a book called Tenacity, with a message which his wife had to type, ‘I haven’t got time to finish it’. While trialling a treatment for his cancer he took copious notes knowing it would not help him but may help others in the future. In his last interview he talked about the pillars in his life – Faith and family, Army, National Party. He believed that there was a future for the National Party which should centre around infrastructure, sustainable agriculture, country education foundation and more (375).

On the ledger stone of his grave are the words: ‘A life lived to the full. Duty done’. The Fischer property is now a care farm to offer vulnerable people and those with disabilities a chance to experience farm life.

This is the story of part of Australia’s political history as much as a story about a remarkable man who overcame much to make an impact in Australia and overseas, an important contribution which continues with his passing.

I am Tim  Life, Politics and Beyond


by Peter Rees



$40.00; 416pp

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