Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Ambassador Fischer to Holy See to reside in Rome

THE former deputy prime minister Tim Fischer admits he is a less-than-perfect practising Catholic but the retired politician with a fondness for trains has been enlisted to help forge closer political ties with the Vatican after the World Youth Day celebrations.

The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, yesterday introduced Mr Fischer, wearing his trademark Akubra hat, to Pope Benedict as the country's first resident ambassador to the Vatican and Holy See in 35 years.

It was not the first time they had met: Mr Fischer had spoken to the Pope at the weekend and told him: "I have some good news, Your Holiness; there has been good rain in the Riverina."

The upgrading of Australia's diplomatic relations with the Vatican would allow the Government to expand discussions with the Vatican on human rights, food security, arms control, refugees and interfaith relations.

Mr Fischer said engaging with the Vatican on these issues would be critical, given the Catholic Church's influential role.

"The Vatican may have one lone railway station but it has a worldwide network of great influence and great excellence," he said.

Mr Fischer said he was of good Catholic stock, having been schooled at St Francis Xavier College in Melbourne, but admitted his religion was another area of his life that might need some touching up.

"I am a less than perfect practising Catholic," he said. "But I am Australia's representative to the Holy See before I am a Catholic representative. There's only one true perfect practising Catholic, and he has just left Sydney this morning."

Mr Fisher's appointment suggests the Pope's visit will do more than reinvigorate the spirituality of pilgrims and inject more life in the Catholic Church. It may also lay the foundations for a deepening relationship between Australia and the Vatican.

It will be the first time since 1973, when the then prime minister, Gough Whitlam, established diplomatic relations with the Vatican, that Australia has appointed a resident ambassador. In later years the ambassador to Ireland has had responsibility for relations with the Vatican.

Addressing the Pope at Sydney Airport yesterday, Mr Rudd said: "The Holy See has expressed support for Australia's efforts, within Australia and in the region, to facilitate greater understanding between people of different faiths.

"Your Holiness, I am confident that Mr Fischer, Ambassador Fischer as he will be, will discharge this position with dignity and enable Australia and the Holy See to be able to work together on the great challenges we face in the world.

"On human rights - including religious and political freedom across the world - on poverty, on food security, on international humanitarian relief, on peace, arms control and disarmament, on the great challenge of climate change and the other great debates affecting the future of our planet."

The former deputy prime minister and Nationals leader said the Prime Minister called him seven days ago on his wife's mobile phone. The couple deliberated for a day before accepting the position but said it would be hard to leave the family farm in Wodonga.

Mr Fischer will take up his position in January, accompanied by his wife, Judy, and sons, Harrison, 14, and Dominic, 12.