Honorary Doctor of Letters
Citation delivered by Professor Paul Wellings CBE Vice- Chancellor University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Timothy Andrew Fischer AC as a Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) on 19 December 2019.
There are few arenas, both in Australia and further afield, in which Tim Fischer has not left a colossal and indelible mark. The visionary man with the iconic Akubra hat served his country honourably as a soldier, politician, ambassador and patron, and distinguished himself as a farmer, author, broadcaster, company director and consultant.
Born in the NSW rural town of Lockhart in 1946, Tim started his schooling in Boree Creek before being sent to board at Xavier College, Melbourne to complete his education. In 1966, he was conscripted into the Army and became a decorated officer and platoon commander, serving with distinction in Australia and Vietnam before returning to the family farm in 1969 and becoming active in what was then known as the Country Party.
Tim’s political career, which was to span more than three decades, began with his election to represent the electorate of Sturt in the NSW Legislative Assembly from 1971 until 1980, then Murray until 1984. He served on the opposition frontbench for six years before winning the Federal seat of Farrer for the renamed National Party of Australia. His shrewd political mind, decency and affability contributed to his mounting popularity, and he rose to the opposition frontbench within a year and took over party leadership in 1990.
Tim became Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade in 1996, during which time he supported major reforms including the government’s toughening of gun control measures after the Port Arthur massacre – an act of great political courage when much of his constituency opposed it. He visited more than 60 countries in three years as trade minister, developed strong bonds with Asia, and opened new markets in China, India and the Middle East. Tim is credited with significantly impacting Australia’s international trade performance, guiding the nation to ably weather the turbulence of the late 1990s Asian financial crisis.
Tim believed Australia’s future lay in the international competitiveness of our rural industries, and that these should be supported to evolve and grow rather than protected from competing in an increasingly globalised market. He used his platform to give a voice to rural communities and bridge the gap between rural and urban Australia.
In opposition, he served as Shadow Minister for Energy and Resources, Shadow Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, and on the Select Committee on Aircraft Noise and the Standing Committee on Transport, Communications and Infrastructure, championing the development of the world’s newest transcontinental railway between Adelaide and Darwin. He retired from the party leadership and ministry in 1999, and from politics altogether in 2001.
A warm and dedicated family man, Tim’s retirement from the political arena was in large part to be more present in the lives of his two young sons, Harrison and Dominic, and his wife, Judy. For Tim, family took priority over politics.
Retirement, however, did not slow Tim’s momentum and his commitment to causes. Returning to farming, he poured his energy into charitable work for the St Vincent de Paul Society, Autism NSW, The Smith Family, The Fred Hollows Foundation, and many more. He spent three years as Chair of Tourism Australia, and of the Australia Thailand Institute. He was appointed National Chairman of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 2007, and Special Envoy for the Australian Government to Bhutan, Eritrea and South Sudan. From 2009 until 2012 Tim was Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, playing a seminal role in the canonisation of Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop.
His contribution to agricultural affairs in Australia and abroad is vast. Tim co-chaired the rural section of the Australia 2020 Summit in 2008 and was Chair of both the Crawford Fund on International Agricultural Research and the Australian Winemakers Association. He was an executive member of the Global Crop Diversity Trust Bonn Advisory Body, an international collective working to underpin agricultural research and ease the burden of a potential global famine.
Tim’s lifelong passion for trains was legendary, as is his contribution to advancing transport infrastructure and safety in our nation. He was appointed Special Envoy for the Adelaide to Darwin railway by the South Australian Government, one of the largest infrastructure projects in the nation’s history. Stretching across the Red Centre to Darwin and spanning almost 3,000 kilometres, the service heralded a new era in train travel and paved the way to building new markets in northern Australia and Asia for goods produced in the country’s southeast.
He used a visit to the Illawarra in 2016 to call for progress towards a more sophisticated rail hub for the city of Wollongong, going on to lobby for improved transport connectivity between the Illawarra, Wollondilly, Greater Western Sydney and the Southern Highlands. As TrackSAFE Australia Foundation Patron, he championed the reduction of near collisions, injuries and fatalities across the national rail network.
Beyond all this, Tim authored numerous successful books, and was a sought-after public speaker and profoundly influential public figure. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, holds honorary doctorates from both Charles Sturt and the Australian Catholic University, received a Centenary Medal, and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia.
When Tim tragically lost his battle with leukaemia in August 2019 at 73 years of age, there was an outpouring of national sorrow and remembrance. Australia had lost a giant, a man of courage, kindness and intellect. As the restored vintage train carried his coffin towards his final resting place in Albury, thousands lined the tracks, waving Akubras and flags in salute.
The Council of the University of Wollongong considered Tim to be a distinguished and worthy recipient of the degree of Honorary Doctor of Letters, approving this award in late 2018. Sadly, Tim passed away before he was able to receive this award.
Chancellor, Tim Fischer’s legacy is immense, reaching into so many aspects of our nation’s economic and social development. It is a great honour to present this citation on the occasion of the posthumous award of a Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, to The Honourable Timothy Andrew Fischer AC.