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Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Page: 3431


Mr BRENDAN O’CONNOR (Minister for Employment Participation) (7:21 PM) —I rise to place on the record my views of John Button, a great Labor minister and a great reformer, both in terms of what he did for industry policy in this country and what he did for the Australian Labor Party. I do not have a great deal of time, as I am on duty in the main chamber, but I wanted to express my gratitude to Senator John Button, who provided many of us in the Labor Party with a fantastic role model. It was not because he was in a particular faction, the independent faction, but it was because he was an independent thinker. He was willing to challenge the current construct, whether it was factions or an industry policy that was not assisting Australian workers and Australian business in the longer term. He was able to quite effectively, and like very few others, challenge the way we did things. Because of that inclination, that genius that he had, his mark was left in many areas, especially on the Australian Labor Party and the way in which it operated, particularly in Victoria, and on the way the Hawke-Keating period is now perceived.

Firstly, I will turn to the Victorian Labor Party. John Button was someone who we desperately needed. The branch of the Australian Labor Party in Victoria in the period in which he became active was a moribund, incestuous and dysfunctional outfit—and I do not think I am overstating things. He had the capacity to challenge the way people behaved and the strength to challenge people’s undemocratic approaches to preselection and the way policy was formulated. He was one of only a number who in the end contributed to the opening up and the democratisation of that particular branch. I think he was therefore in many ways responsible for the success that the party had in that state subsequent to his assistance in reform.

With respect to his role as a parliamentarian, he was of course Leader of the Government in the Senate, a remarkable leader of the Senate. He was the Minister for Industry and Commerce and he was renowned for his role in the area of industry, not just in the car industry but also in the steel industry. There are many thousands of workers and their families in Whyalla who could thank him for ensuring that the industry remained in that town. Many people now work for the car industry, an industry that is beset with constant challenge because of its highly competitive nature. They can thank John Button in his role as industry minister for providing the framework that allowed that industry to remain and to grow in this country. A lot more has to be done, and the industry constantly finds it has new challenges to confront and deal with. I do not think it is going too far to say that, without John Button as minister, that industry may not have survived and we may not have been talking about a car industry in today’s Australia.

He brought a strong intellect to everything he did. I had the great fortune of seeing him relatively recently at a function in my former electorate, in the town of Woodend, which is a fantastic town in central Victoria. I was to introduce him. I remember speaking to someone who was a little antagonistic. I turned quickly, as you do when you feel someone spying on you, and I saw John looking at the way I was handling the situation. He had a writer’s mind; he was an observer of human behaviour and of human nature. He gave an almost imperceptible nod to me as if to say: ‘You’re doing okay, son. Keep it up. You’re a fledging politician but you’re doing okay.’ This was in my first term as the then member for Burke.

I got to speak to him about his role in the parliament, what he got out of it and what was important. People like him provide great guidance to new members of parliament. He certainly did that for me. As we now know, he was struck down with cancer, which was diagnosed only shortly before his death. It was quite a sudden and tragic end. I was aware of the fact that last year he had chaired an inquiry into workforce participation for the Victorian government, for the then minister Jacinta Allan. Before he fell ill, I was going to ask him about the inquiry and whether he could provide assistance to the Commonwealth. Of course, if he had been involved, it would have been our gain, because he did everything in public life to his fullest and he brought a great capacity and a great sense of purpose to it. He was not one for wasting time.

We could recall many anecdotes and witticisms, because he had such an extraordinarily good sense of humour. He saw that life has its absurd side and, when the moment struck him, he liked to shine a light upon those absurdities. In the end, I think he will be remembered for his bravery, his intellect and his capacity to think and not be swayed from doing the right thing. I therefore want to express for the record my appreciation to him and my condolences to his partner, Joan Grant, his sons, James and Nick, and his grandchildren, Harry, Lola and Otis.