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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1528

Senator CHRIS EVANS (Leader of the Government in the Senate) (4:55 PM) —by leave—I move:

That the Senate records its deep regret at the death, on 8 April 2008, of the Honourable John Norman Button, former federal minister and senator for Victoria, and places on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious public service and tenders its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

Today we note the passing of a great Australian, Labor Party activist, senator for Victoria for 19 years and one of the most eminent industry ministers in our nation’s history. It has not been a good parliamentary break for the Labor Party, having lost Ruth Coleman and John Button. Although John Button was small of stature, he was a giant of the Labor Party. In tributes to John Button, he has also been described as a rare phenomenon in Australian politics, someone who commanded the affection and respect of people throughout the country and not just in political circles. You certainly got a sense of this at his funeral last month, which I had the honour of attending, along with the Deputy Prime Minister and many other members of the government. The Labor Party generally respects its former leaders and senior figures very well. I think many of the Liberal Party wish that they also did in that regard.

It was a great funeral. I know I should not describe a funeral in that way, but it was a great celebration of a life, a great celebration of John Button’s contribution, his energy and his humour. The church was packed to the brim, with mourners also outside. In this parliament a number of the support staff who worked at Parliament House when John was a minister came and sat in my office to watch coverage of the funeral service on TV. It shows the sort of affection in which he was held, and everyone had a John Button story. As I said, the funeral was a great celebration. The speeches were fantastic and the best was delivered by Bill Hayden, the former Governor-General, former Leader of the Opposition and former leader of the Labor Party. Bill Hayden gave the best speech I have ever heard him give. It was a fantastic speech, full of compassion and humour. It really was a great contribution to the marking of John Button’s life, particularly as their relationship had been remarked upon because of the role John Button played in suggesting to Bill Hayden that he ought to stand down as leader of the Labor Party just prior to the 1983 election. Bill noted in his contribution that, despite the deep hurt and their falling out over that event, they went on to renew their friendship and he was very pleased to speak at the funeral in honour of John Button.

John Button was known for being a straight-talking man. A commentator once gave him the title ‘the Minister for Possum Stirring’. John’s unwavering honesty meant that he never failed to kick up a stir, particularly in government circles. But it meant that he always commanded enormous respect, not just within the ALP but across the political spectrum.

Perhaps what endeared John so much to the Australian people and those who knew him was his complexity. He had a rich and varied life beyond politics, which made him an interesting and lively character to be around. Many of us are accused of being whitebread politicians; no-one ever accused John Button of that. John was a well-respected and very talented writer as well as a lover of literature and theatre—and, of course, a mad Geelong Cats fan, only equalled, I gather, by Senator Glenn Sterle. As Leader of the Government in the Senate, John worked out of the office that I now occupy. I am told that, in between pushing through the Hawke and Keating governments’ legislative program, he would sit at this table, mulling over team selections and drafting letters of advice to Geelong’s coaches. Apparently, he would do this regularly. He was quite forthright in his advice to Geelong coaches as well. He was, as I say, a very committed supporter and he tried to organise his affairs so as not to miss a Cats game. It was a terrible irony that, in the year that John’s beloved Cats won the AFL premiership and the ALP was returned to federal government, John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which ended his life. But, as John once said, as a lifelong Geelong supporter, he had developed an endless capacity to endure pain.

John grew up in Ballarat, but he left home in 1946 to take up a boarding scholarship at Geelong College. He went on to study combined law-arts degrees at the University of Melbourne, again on academic scholarship. After graduating from university, he spent two years travelling around Europe. He lived in different countries, worked a variety of jobs and even joined the Italian Communist Party at one stage—but, apparently, only so that he could get a free trip to a youth festival in Moscow. He was not regarded as a communist inside the Labor Party in later years. In 1959, John returned to Melbourne and joined the well-known Labor firm of Maurice Blackburn and Co. and, by the time he ran on Labor’s Victorian Senate ticket in 1974, he had become a senior partner.

John first joined the Labor Party in 1952, while he was at university. He said that he was drawn to politics by the Menzies government’s attempt to ban the Communist Party the year before. He lived through the 1950 split of the Victorian Labor Party, an experience that led him to spending the sixties as a party activist, pushing for internal reform. In 1965, John joined with other barristers to form a small independent group called the Participants. I am pretty sure that Barney Cooney was also part of that group. They waged a hard-fought campaign for change and ultimately helped modernise the Victorian branch of the ALP, which was a major factor in making the Labor Party electable in 1972. His role inside the Labor Party, in its reform, was critical and is well appreciated by many of us who have succeeded him.

Despite all these years of political activism, it was not until John was 41 that he stood for election to the Senate. His election marked the beginning of a 19-year parliamentary career. But, after just a brief taste of government, Labor lost power in 1975. John moved across to the opposition benches, where he served as a member of the opposition shadow ministry from 1976, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from 1977 to 1980 and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from 1980 to 1983—and, as Senator Minchin is now learning, it is a thankless task.

Much has been written about the influential role that John played in the ALP’s election win in 1983, under the leadership of Bob Hawke. John has spoken about how difficult this was for him, and the Labor Party is indebted to him for the courage, strength of character and honesty he showed in encouraging Bill Hayden to step aside for Bob Hawke. In doing so, he changed the course of Australian political history.

John Button was at the heart of the reformist Hawke and Keating governments. As a commentator noted, the only other people who were as involved as John across all the workings of those governments were Bob Hawke and Paul Keating themselves. In addition to taking on the role of Leader of the Government in the Senate, John had the opportunity to choose his portfolio and, to the surprise of many, he chose industry. John did not have a background in industry; he was a lawyer, and he had to undergo a steep learning curve when he took up the portfolio at what was industry policy’s most critical juncture in Australian history.

John may not have had industry experience, but he brought fresh eyes, a sharp mind and a reformist energy to the portfolio, with remarkable results. The enormity of John’s role in reforming Australian industry policy cannot be overstated. He modernised Australian industry, driving cultural change and implementing reforms that have since propelled it into the 21st century. In essence, John Button was responsible for rolling back the protectionism that was suffocating Australian industry and for opening it up to global markets. He is best remembered for the Button car plan, which saved Australia’s car manufacturing industry, and the Button steel plan. However, John was also responsible for initiatives across a wide range of other key industries, including telecommunications, uranium, pharmaceuticals and textiles, and he made a huge contribution in the IT area.

Not only did John Button oversee the restructuring of Australian industry but also he changed the nature of the policy debate. He was an independent thinker, and that was reflected in his style as the minister. He sought a contest of ideas on industry policy and, while he remained committed to his core social democratic values, he was known for being flexible and innovative as a policymaker. All up, John served as the Minister for Industry and Commerce and the Minister Assisting the Minister for Communications from 1983 to 1984 and he was Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce from 1984 until his retirement.

John retired from the Senate in 1993, but he never strayed too far from the public’s consciousness. His breadth of interests outside of politics meant that he slid easily into new roles, most famously as a prolific writer. In addition to his three books, John wrote articles and essays for newspapers and magazines about politics, football and the future of the ALP. The Quarterly Essay he wrote in 2002, titled ‘Beyond belief’, was a powerful exposition of the need for reform in the Labor Party, and he won the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award.

I discovered at the funeral of John Button that he was an even more prolific writer than I had thought. Apparently, he had a very long career producing great correspondence under a pseudonym; and I understand he did not hold back in his critiques of the people to which he sent correspondence. Immediately after retiring, John took up a position as a professorial fellow at Monash, led a number of trade missions and joined several company boards. He also continued to cultivate his passion for the arts, serving as chair of the Melbourne Writers Festival from 1996 to 2001 and even posing nude as Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ for a portrait that was entered for the Archibald Prize.

John passed away on 8 April 2008. He leaves behind his partner, Joan, and his two sons, Jamie and Nick, who did him proud at the funeral. Tragically, his other son, David, died as a teenager. On behalf of the government I offer my deepest condolences for the loss of a great Australian. We are a stronger, better nation because of John Button’s service. We are a better Labor Party as a result of John Button’s contribution. I think that no-one in public life could ask for a greater legacy than that which he provides.