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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1531

Senator MINCHIN (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate) (5:08 PM) —I rise on behalf of opposition senators to extend our sincere condolences to the family of John Button, who died on 8 April this year aged a tender 74. His death has saddened many, right across the political spectrum. The numerous public statements of regret are passing testament to the very strong regard in which John Button was widely held by politicians across the spectrum, journalists and, of course, the communities that he represented as a senator and a government minister. On our side, I think we would regard John Button as something of a legend of the Australian Labor Party—a key player in the turning points of modern Labor history and someone who made a very significant contribution in his only portfolio in government, that of industry.

We join with Senator Evans in his tribute to a great career. He was, as Senator Evans noted, elected to represent Victoria as a Labor senator in the double dissolution of 1974 and then had a year and a bit in government before being plunged into opposition where he served as Deputy Leader of the Opposition from 1977 and then as leader of the Labor Party in this place, both in opposition and in government. I must say that I feel some close affinity with John Button because we do have in common our services as government leader and opposition leader in this place and our service as industry minister.

John resigned just three months before I commenced my first term, together with Senator Evans. But of course my good friend and former colleague Fred Chaney, who was opposition leader in the Senate for seven years when John was leader of the government, publicly commented that John was a man who served Australia well, bringing great wit and grace into politics. Though it would have been a great privilege to have served with John Button in this chamber, only a handful of those here today had that privilege. Fred Chaney stated that he held the same high opinion of John Button at the end of their period as opposite numbers as he did at the beginning. It is a sign of John’s character, his performance as leader and the respect in which he was held by all sides of politics that, even after their many years of facing each other at this very table, such a statement could be made.

Senator Evans has reminded us that perhaps John Button is most notorious for his critical role in persuading the hapless Bill Hayden to step aside from the Labor Party leadership and make way for Bob Hawke, which of course coincided with Malcolm Fraser calling the 1983 election some nine months early. It is poignant for me because I was, at that time, the deputy federal director of the Liberal Party and responsible for our market research and I knew better than most how very popular Mr Hawke was. I tried desperately and unsuccessfully to persuade Malcolm Fraser not to call that election early because I thought we needed at least the nine months available to us to try to diminish the popularity of Bob Hawke. That was not to be and we lost that election quite significantly. So, Mr Button certainly played a significant role in ensuring that the Labor Party was very successful in that year by his very tough, very difficult role in persuading Bill Hayden, who is equally admired and respected on our side, to step aside.

It is also interesting, as Senator Evans has mentioned, that as Senate leader John Button had a choice of portfolio. On thinking about it for a day or two, he chose the industry and commerce portfolio—which might not have been an obvious choice, and a difficult one for a Victorian coming from an industrial state. To then spend a decade oversighting that portfolio from 1983 to 1993 was a tough gig. As I said, I was also an industry minister and I can certainly attest to the challenge of that portfolio, also coming from an industrial state. Indeed, I became industry minister only five years after John had left the job, and the Button legacy was still very strong at that time. Of course, it is an extremely demanding portfolio and he had the challenge of persuading his own side of politics, and the union movement in particular, that the old ways of producing automobiles and of making steel simply could not go on and that the industry in this country had to accept the reality of the need to internationalise and become competitive in their operations. The country and industry, and the people who work in industry in this country, to this day owe John Button a great debt for his courage in ensuring that the Labor movement was mugged by the reality that industry in this country simply had to become competitive or disappear. He was, of course, the longest serving minister in a single portfolio during the Hawke and Keating years and he has left a great legacy. I was privileged as an industry minister to inherit that legacy and continue, in effect, his work.

John Button was also a great parliamentarian and someone who really understood the culture of this place. In his memoirs he spoke fondly of both the Senate and his Senate colleagues, and he talked about the burden of representing both Mr Hawke and Mr Keating in the Senate chamber. As someone who had to represent both Mr Howard and Mr Costello in this chamber, I know exactly what he was talking about. He did understand, I think as most of us do, that this is a different place; it does require a more constructive and conciliatory approach than the more combative approach in the House of Representatives, and he was a master of that.

So, on behalf of our opposition, I express our deep sympathies to John’s family and friends. He was taken early. We regret very much that he has left us prematurely. To his partner, Joan, his sons, James and Nick, and their families, we place on record our appreciation and my own personal appreciation of John’s long and meritorious public service. We tender our profound sympathies to his family in their bereavement.