HOME is where the heart is for Tim Fischer, writes JAMES WAGSTAFF
I'm officially 15 minutes late when I turn into the driveway of Tim Fischer's family farm in the North East's picturesque Mudgegonga Valley.
Again I curse the rain that had me stranded in gridlock traffic a few hours earlier.
While 15 minutes may not seem much in the scheme of things, it feels an eternity when considering the interview subject's nickname: Two-minute Tim.
This reflects a man who, when serving as Australia's deputy prime minister from 1996 to 1999, became famous for spending two minutes at one event before donning his famous Akubra and hot-footing it out the door to another.
I quickly do the maths. Fifteen minutes. That's 7.5 sets of two-minutes on the old Fischer scale.
This could be interesting.
I'm apologetic as Fischer's wife, Judy Brewer Fischer, greets us at the car.
"Don't worry, he's only just home himself," she says. "Excuse the boxes," she adds, referring to a scattered pile of cardboard strewn across the front veranda, "all Tim's stuff just arrived from Rome. He seemed to accrue a lot of books while he was away."
And with that the front door swings open and out bounds the larger-than-life Fischer.
At 65, he's in great shape.
It's seven weeks to the day since he returned from three years as Australia's first resident ambassador to the Vatican.
And it's almost 13 years since he shocked everyone in political circles by quitting the second most powerful office in the land - for his family.
Fischer's political career spanned 30 years in both state and federal parliament.
It culminated in his three years as deputy PM under John Howard, as well as National Party leader and Minister for Trade.
From the outset of our meeting it's evident Fischer couldn't be happier being home on the farm.
He boasts about getting his hands dirty, recently spending "five days with a tractor and bucket" repairing the wall of one of the farm's dams, damaged during heavy rain in 2010.
He's proud to say it "held" during a recent downpour of 250mm.
"(Former Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin) Rudd offered me a fourth year (as ambassador) and Judy and I discussed it but we decided to busta (move)," Fischer said.
"It was getting too much of a stretch for the boys and so forth."
Eldest son Harrison is in his final year of school in Albury-Wodonga while Dominic is in Year 9 at a Melbourne boarding school.
Fischer has cut back his board appointments to just one: post politics he served on a number, from the Australian Agricultural Company to Tourism Australia and agriculture research organisation the Crawford Fund.
A passionate rail fan, he also found time to chair the 2008 review into Victoria's rail-freight network.
But now his feet are firmly planted in the paddocks of the 142ha Mudgegonga property that has been in his wife's family for generations.
Judy admits she is happiest out of the spotlight.
She remained with the boys on the farm during her husband's time in Rome.
"Tim would live in the media if he could," she jokes. She is busy applying for European Union accreditation for her 130-cow Poll Hereford herd.
Plans for expansion were thwarted by the devastating 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which claimed half the property's pastures.
Fischer had only recently taken up his Vatican posting, and the day before the fire Judy, Harrison and Dominic boarded a flight to visit him.
"When I got off the plane, I got a call to say Mudgegonga was on fire," Judy said.
"I think I was incredibly lucky not to have been here. When I got back the place was still burning ... we had spot fires, the place was just devastated."
But Judy said the valley had bounced back with two of the best seasons on record.
While females are retained as breeding cows at Mudgegonga, this year the Fischers will sow alternate pastures on their other property 2 1/2 hours to the north at Boree Creek, in southern NSW, with the view of finishing some steers there.
Judy said the properties complemented each other.
Mudgegonga receives an average 950mm of rain annually, more than double Boree Creek's 450mm. "It's a very different set-up but it gives us scope," Judy said.
"July, August and September gets pretty wet and muddy underfoot here," Fischer chimes in. "And you have to feed. And if you lighten off 30 or 50 steers, then you can control it."
Cows are joined in May-June and when The Weekly Times visited they were anxiously awaiting the arrival of calf No. 100.
"The biggest focus for me has been efficiency through fertility," Judy said.
"I'm a hard and soft taskmaster. I love the cows as much as I love my family I think, but they don't get second chances like the family gets second chances, or thirds or fourths."
Judy's father started with Herefords in 1969.
Bulls come from Wirruna stud at Holbrook - "they have a really high-performance, high-fertility herd" - and Red Gate stud near Rutherglen, which is based on Wirruna bloodlines.
"I'd like to have 300 or 400 weaner cattle but I don't have the land for it," Judy said.
"And although I'm increasing the intensity every year a little, the idea is to add value to the cattle I have got. I'm a little bit obsessive about the performance recording."
Fischer described his time at the Vatican as exciting and interesting, with the canonisation of Australia's first saint, Mary MacKillop, the obvious highlight.
He said the October 2010 event at the Vatican involved "8000 Australians, 12 nicked passports - we did a lot to warn people so we kept the numbers down - and one broken ankle".
The Vatican is home to 80 resident ambassadors.
Fischer said they would meet Pope Benedict XVI "in various groupings once a quarter".
"You meet at the start of your posting for 20 minutes, at the end of your posting for five minutes and in January each year there would be a one-on-one meeting," he said.
Fischer said he met with the Pope's key chief scientist, Argentine Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, on numerous occasions and described him as "sharp as any Australian farmer on agricultural matters".
"He is very for GM crops, but he is in the minority because the rest of the Vatican is taking the European softly, softly, ultra-green line," Fischer said.
He said an example of the importance of overseas consular officials occurred just days before the end of his posting when the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia struck the coastline northwest of Rome.
"Before dawn the next morning our consular staff were moving up the coast, by lunchtime on the Saturday we'd accounted for 21 of the 23 Australians, and by sunset the next day all 23 had new passports etc," Fischer said.
"It's important to have an embassy network for a range of reasons but one of them is that you've got people on the ground when some idiot drives a cruise liner on to a rock."
I glance at my watch. Two-minute Tim has become two-hour Tim.
And now I'm running late for my next appointment.