In mid-2009, I landed in Italy for an extended break, as it happened, on the day of the L’Aquila earthquake. During the three months of my stay, I managed to avoid death by falling masonry, but very nearly went crazy trying to buy a house. On one of our periodic treks to find documents and British paint (Italian paint being rubbish) I managed to organise a rendezvous at the Santa Maria Novella train station in Florence with the newly appointed Australian ambassador to the Vatican, Tim Fischer.
The ever ebullient Tim wasn’t hard to spot, there being few Italian 6ft 4in-plus males in enormous Akubras. The appointment of the boy from Boree Creek as Australia’s first ambassador exclusively to the Holy see was controversial; a cause of surprise to some, and even outrage to a few.
Previous governments have simply followed the practice of doubling up the job of ambassador to Dublin and the Holy See. And apparently the appointment was as much a surprise to the new ambassador, a conservative National party leader, as it was to anyone else. His first reaction when asked was, ‘Don’t you want one of your [political] own?’ ‘Don’t you worry about that!’ was then Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd’s Bjelke-like reply.
It is no secret that the creation of the separate ambassadorial role was done very much by executive fiat from Rudd’s office and went ahead despite high-level opposition from DFAT. At a time of economic difficulty, Australians asked why the Rudd government was instigating such a high level of secular representation to an essentially religious edifice like the Vatican.
Fischer’s account of his time as the Australian ambassador there is thoughtful and entertaining. More than a diary, less than a memoir, the book is an amalgam of observation and anecdote of a likeable Australian of the old school, doing his bit for as puts it ‘team Australia’. As Fischer sees it, there are two broad reasons why an exclusive appointment to the Vatican was necessary. The most important reason is the particular type of nation that the Vatican is, and the second, the particular type of power that it wields. It has huge moral power. And with that goes huge intelligence power. It is an extremely important conduit of intelligence and diplomacy.
The Vatican does have specific political clout as Fischer makes clear, quoting Hillary Clinton’s acknowledgment of the contribution of John Paul II in the events leading to the downfall of Soviet Communism. But there have been other important and perhaps in Australia at least, less well-known conflicts where the Vatican provided a vital diplomatic conduit. He cites a South American example.
Argentina was within 12 hours of bombing Chile, over a border dispute in the Andes, and it was basically thwarted by the intervention of John Paul II, who appealed to both these Catholic countries to negotiate their differences. The result was a conference at which 900 boundary adjustments were agreed. Now they are even building a tunnel through the mountains.
Another reason Fischer raises the South American case in this book is, as he told me in 2009, on a purely diplomatic front, the global standing of Australia as a middle-ranked power is substantially raised by a Vatican appointment: ‘This appointment greatly enhances our standing. You are not really considered a valuable middle-rank power and a serious member of the G20, particularly by the South Americans , if you haven’t got Vatican representation.’
The other reason for Australia’s Vatican representation was that as well as fitting Kevin Rudd’s G20 agenda, it was part of Australia’s agenda to gain the presidency of the Security council. It is fair to say that without Fischer’s appointment, this would not have happened.
The book makes clear in quite amusing ways the lengths to which the ever energetic Fischer went to assiduously cultivate ambassadors from countries favourable to Australia’s presidency of the security Council. Dinners lunches, afternoon teas, lectures and seminars, Tim was there — even schmoozing the Eritrean ambassador who happened to be his next door neighbour.
Fischer also networked through all the UN agencies that are represented in the Vatican, organising conferences and seminars particularly in the area of food security. He happily digresses in his inimitable fashion on the series of seminars he organised or attended at the Gregorian university on genetic engineering, Darwinian evolution, the church and the fate of the planet in general. At the headquarters of the FAO, and as a firm believer in climate change, he went all out to promote something which as a farmer he knows about: food security, biodiversity and the ultimate aim of feeding the poor. The Vatican was still thinking in terms of cottage farming, not high tech sustainable agriculture. Nor are much of the diplomatic corps interested in this area. But Fischer rightly saw this area as Australia’s special expertise.
As for the question, who really wields power in the Vatican? Fischer refers repeatedly to the ‘silo’, the sort of closed room ‘cone of silence’ mentality of the Vatican, which applies both to its diplomatic bureaucracy and to the curia. The problem is that the Italians who wield the power often don’t see things up close in the ‘silo’ of Italy. But the church is universal. So, for example, Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana really put things into perspective (or to use an Australianism put the wind up) when he came to the Vatican and lectured them on events in Africa — including his own political intervention in Ghana.
This book is something more engaging than memoir, especially when Fischer gets into his own famous enthusiasms, one of which is trains. Apparently the Pope has his own station at the Vatican, and never one to let an opportunity for a train ride to pass him by, Fischer organised a special trip for the diplomatic core and anyone else to Orvieto from the Vatican itself, pulled initially by a steam train belching both black and white smoke. The trip raised $20,000 for the Caritas appeal in Haiti, and sounds frankly like a great fun.
There are a few other issues canvassed here, including clerical celibacy and sex abuse. It concludes with the election of Pope Francis. It is an interesting and entertaining overview from a warm-hearted and generous perspective. Old school he may be, but thank goodness there are still people like Fischer around, an authentic bloke to represent an authentic Australia, Akubra and all.
Angela Shanahan is a columnist on The Australian.
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