Twenty-three years ago deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello tried to prevent Tim Fischer becoming Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister. But newly elected Prime Minister John Howard, a ‘staunch coalitionist’, dismissed as ‘out of the question’ Costello’s suggestion that, since the Liberals had the numbers to govern in their own right, the Deputy Leader of the Liberals (i.e. Costello) should become the Deputy PM. Howard had learned from the disastrous Joh for Canberra campaign in 1987, that the coalition must stick together for the sake of future electoral security – and in his biography listed unity between the two parties as ‘one of the major reasons we stayed in office so long’. There is no doubt that Fischer returned that favour, that Costello’s thwarted ambition would resurface and that Howard would be blessed with a coalition partner whose leaders’ economic views were similar to his. ‘The old divisions of earlier years had gone’, he wrote.
Following Fischer’s death last week at 73, the obituaries praised his political bravery not only in supporting Howard’s tough post-Port Arthur gun laws that were anathema to the Nationals’ rural constituency but also the strength of his attack on the newly-elected Pauline Hanson, many of whose extreme positions found favour in the bush. But the personal relationship between the PM and his deputy was never as close as that between Howard and soul-mate John Anderson who became Deputy PM after Fischer stood down for family reasons after only three years in office. On gun control, for example, Howard’s autobiography shares the praise between Fischer and his deputy Anderson: ‘They were both courageous in backing me so strongly’. And Howard’s comments of Fischer’s death noted not only his passions and his courage on gun laws, but also ‘his quirkiness that endeared him to Australians’. But that quirkiness had its costs; John Anderson’s tribute to Fischer, while praising him as ‘a man of real character, courageous, prudent, honest and gracious’ nevertheless, noted that during his six years as Fischer’s deputy leader ‘I sometimes wondered what he was up to as he embarked on some new line of political manoeuvring or a quirky idea to attract some media attention’, describing him as a ‘media junkie’. And some of his ‘passions’, such as criticism of Israel and being the only government minister to sign the Labor/Democrat-sponsored Parliamentary code of Race Ethics, ruffled feathers.
My times with Tim accentuated the quirky – and his basic decency. Quirky certainly covers his Tumbatrek that, back in 1993 when I joined in this mid-summer (but still very cold) several days hike through the Snowy Mountains, involved a few fellow politicians, like then-Senator Bill O’Chee (whose campfire rendition of The Man from Ironbark is legendary) and various journalists with campfire songs of varied taste. He campaigned for me during my regional electorate years, noting the departure time and destination of every passing train. Hosting Tim in New York provided a demonstration of how to win a crowd by the skilled use of an Akubra. Hosting my wife and me in his Vatican Ambassador role, his presence (the hat was a pass-key the Swiss Guards readily acknowledged) opened doors and avoided queues.
John Howard was much more comfortable with the seven years of Anderson as his deputy PM describing him as ‘A close colleague and friend. We trusted each other completely’. So John Anderson was the only non-family member to speak at Howard’s 80th birthday dinner last month, as the current and two former ‘usurped’ prime ministers (seated at opposite sides of the room) were joined by only a handful of other politicians among the 120 guests. The focus was on family and loyal old friends, from school or university, those who worked with and for him during the ups and downs of his political life, particularly his office staff, along with those members of the business community who stuck by him during the wilderness years. In old friend Donald McDonald’s speech (delivered due to illness by Howard’s daughter Melanie), he highlighted Howard’s special relationship with everyday Australians evidenced by the volume of greetings when walking down the street with him. Howard and Fischer may have been an odd coupling – but it worked.