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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1533


Senator FAULKNER (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) (5:21 PM) —John Button was indeed a substantial man. He was a man who thought and wrote crisply, clearly, honestly and independently. He was a generous man, endlessly curious and fearlessly open minded. All his life, he loved and understood the importance of the nation’s cultural and intellectual life as the way in which we come to understand ourselves—that films and literature, history and music are the mirror up to nature. He was passionate about sport and the tribal contest inherent in it. But there was always in him an element of detachment and scepticism. This was part of his humour, his sense of irony. As a member of an Italian delegation to the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students held in Moscow in 1957, he reflected:

… there was something decidedly Orwellian about 100,000 people fervently chanting the festival slogan ‘peace and friendship, peace and friendship’ with the apparent conviction that it had something to do with the international situation and the prevention of a third world war.

He added:

I met no Russians who thought everything as wonderful as the average Communist visitor did. I find it difficult to resist the temptation to write a few pages on the subject of Communist doublethink.

His loyalty to the Labor Party and to the nation was loyalty in the broadest and best sense of the word—critical and reforming. He held fast to the principles he believed in. He kept his eyes on the prize. As Peter Gebhardt wrote in a poem for John’s funeral, he held fast to the:

… horizon of hope …

never losing sight of it,

or the promise of it.

In the 1960s, on his return from two years abroad, John Button’s analysis of the circumstances of Australia and the Australian Labor Party was that both were a morass of tired and borrowed ideas. He wrote:

I was personally very disturbed by Australia as a nation. I thought, this country is very, very isolated, not taking advantages of the opportunities we’d got. The country’s political leaders exuded the scent of middle-aged grey power. The idea of excellence, where it existed, was narrowly based and shallow rooted. … Australia was easygoing, good natured, sporty and mediocre.

He was nothing if not honest in his judgements—what was dull or outmoded was dull and outmoded; what was ineffective and needed to be changed must be changed. And he had the intellectual capacity to see and understand the trends that were occurring around him. He believed that a man must participate in the life of the nation in ways that worked to the good. And he was a participant, active and practical.

In the 1960s, the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party was undemocratic and exclusionary. As the Scoresby letter of 1965 stated, the party suffered ‘declining membership, appalling electoral outcomes, secretive management and exclusive control by a small band of unions’. Its branches were unable to influence policy or preselections. All was bogged down in the preordained positions dictated by the old disputes of the split and the rigid control of the Victorian central executive. Change was clearly necessary—not just to make the Labor Party electable, but to ensure that more progressive, forward-looking ideas were offered for the better governance of the country. This change, for Button, was a matter of structural and organisational change in the party, and it was grounded in ideas about the kind of Australia that he wanted to see.

John Button belonged to, and helped to revive, the Fabian Society. The Fabian Society was about the contest of ideas. Series of lectures were organised: in 1965 there was ‘Australia Fair: a hard look at our visual environment’; in 1966, ‘The Blurred Image’, which asked, ‘What do Australians stand for?’ These lectures attracted, as Button himself reported, ‘considerable attention and an audience of over 800 on each of three nights’. And he believed the series:

… contributed to the changed climate of ideas, something which the Australian political process, and the Labor Party, seemed to be incapable of doing.

For John Button, debating ideas, in whatever forum could be devised, was never a waste of time. His was a life devoted to independent thinking and idiosyncratic views.

But changing the Labor Party was a tough endeavour. In 1965, four members—Richard McGarvie, Xavier Connor, Barney Williams and John Button; ‘the Participants’—set up a nameless, clandestine organisation:

… a loose alliance—the four just men, as Connor jokingly called it—to promote reform of the Party and progressive policies.

It attracted significant and influential support—John Cain, Race Mathews, Michael Duffy, Barry Jones, Jim Jupp and Jim Beggs. They were academics, lawyers, trade unionists and teachers. They worked for four years, writing, arguing, criticising, persuading and lobbying for change. They were supported by, and then they supported, Gough Whitlam in his efforts to reform the party, particularly its processes for selecting candidates. New policies were pushed through at the party conference. But it was federal intervention in 1970 that finally changed the party in Victoria and removed the greatest impediment to the victory of the Labor Party at a federal election. After the intervention, Button, amongst others, was appointed to a new advisory council set up to develop more democratic party rules and processes. It was a case of new blood, new life and a commitment to excellence. And it worked. Labor came to power after 23 years in the wilderness in December 1972.

John Button was elected to the Senate in the double dissolution election of May 1974 and began a 20-year parliamentary career, first as a backbencher in the Whitlam government, then as an opposition member and shadow minister during the Fraser government and finally as a minister in the Hawke and Keating governments. He was an active backbencher. He saw committee work as a ‘part of the parliament that worked’. As the chair of the Senate privileges committee during the ‘tortuous’ inquiry into the loans affair in 1975, he was described as a respected chair whose management of the inquiry was ‘just marvellous’. When tabling the report, Button announced wryly that there was a majority report, a minority report and four addendums. He added:

I think I can say on behalf of the committee that we felt that we did well to arrive at that position as a conclusion.

As a minister after 1983, Button was courageous in implementing policy that he believed was necessary but knew to be unpopular. He was described in 1984 as ‘the minister in a no-win portfolio’. Again he was about carrying through reform—reform of what he described as ‘industrial museums’ or ‘industrial relations bearpits’. For Button, the old issues of decline, decay and stultification applied. The country was in recession, unemployment was 10 per cent, the steel industry was in a mess, factories were closing down and the European market had closed off traditional markets. Australia lacked an export culture and entrepreneurial skills. It was a technologically deficient nation and it was uncompetitive in industry.

Industry, unions and the party platform all demanded increased protection. Button came to believe there was greater logic in the advice of experts such as the Industries Assistance Commission, which recommended a reduction in tariffs. The pressure not to follow this advice was enormous. The economic summit of 1983 was to be the basis for economic reform, economic recovery and the kind of structural adjustment that has served Australia well over the subsequent quarter of a century. At the summit, Button argued against short-term responses and that protection was not a panacea for industrial reconstruction. He faced what seemed to be insurmountable problems, such as entrenched attitudes, poor management, truculent unions and mutual knee-jerk hostilities. Button’s response was intelligent, analytical and aimed at long-term public goals. In visits to dozens of businesses, he observed practice and listened to argument. He planned, cajoled, negotiated and finally directed fundamental changes to Australian industry. He saw government’s role not as providing tariffs or subsidies but in facilitating research and development, in supporting new technologies, in training and development and for what Hawke described as the ‘compensating policies designed to spread the burden of change’. He has acknowledged in his autobiography that the government was fortunate that the opposition of the day chose not to oppose them even though they had lacked the courage to pursue such policies.

In two areas of industrial reform the Button approach was known to all: the steel plan and the car plan. These industries were large and significant. On steel, Button negotiated and required obligations and sacrifices from all players: the companies, the unions, the state governments and the federal government. Governments would look to market share and keep government charges low, companies would reduce workforces by voluntary retirements, and unions would abide by dispute settlement procedures and productivity would be improved. The federal government would assist with job creation and structural adjustment. These were signed agreements and commitments, to be valid over five years and for five years only. After nine years, a study by McKinsey reported:

The fundamental long term change that we need to make in manufacturing is starting to happen in a quite spectacular fashion.

John Button felt that his years of hard work were vindicated. Hawke, Keating and Button, through the wages accord, the deregulation of the financial system and industry policy, had modernised the Australian economy and, although painful at times, prepared it for the prosperity it has since enjoyed. John Button’s biographer, Patrick Weller, summed up Button’s career in the following terms:

He seemed to cross difficult terrain and remain unaffected and untouched. He survived as a parliamentary leader for sixteen years without satisfying that pre-condition for a Labor career, a strong factional base. He remained popular with the public, even while introducing unpopular policies.

Reform and regeneration in politics is a constant. In 2002, John Button found himself again arguing for a re-energising of the Labor Party, then six years in opposition and at a low ebb. He likened the condition of the Labor Party to chronic fatigue syndrome. His description in his quarterly essay in that year is reminiscent of the feeling he had in 1965. Through this essay, he was embarking on a similar crusade for party reform with the same affectionate honesty and directness. The Quarterly Essay article ‘Beyond belief’ was a detailed analysis and, as was the case with the participants in 1965, created a huge and, I think, productive debate. On general policy, he said that there was no clear articulation of the position that took account of the real decline in working people’s standard of living. Factions dominated to the detriment of policy development. Members’ discussions were about ‘arithmetic, not philosophy’ and ‘factional allegiances and deals led to mediocrity’. On the Tampa crisis, the party had failed to take a ‘courageous political stand’ in the face of the ‘coalition’s grubby opportunism’.

Button reminded his readers of the basic idealism of the party and its political heroes: ‘integrity and humility’ and ‘a belief in bringing something better to people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of people’. He believed, as he always had, that Labor could maintain its heart and soul but must be contemporary and relevant, that ‘Labor is most electable when it has a strong agenda for change’. He believed in Labor as the party of reform and the party of change. For John Button, power was not an end in itself but a means to a better society.

Finally, in my contribution to the condolence debate, I would like to read a letter that John Button wrote to me on 17 November last year:

Dear John

I watched the policy speech. He did very well. When you came on at the beginning I told one of the nurses here, ‘I know him’, and I felt she was very impressed.

The main purpose of this letter, however, is to thank you for your kind wishes and the get well gift from Kevin and yourself. It was a nice thought at such a busy time.

I think you will win next Saturday. I don’t know what your intentions are, but I hope you will stay on, win a spot in the Ministry, and take on the vexed question of Parliamentary reform, accountability in government, and honesty of Ministers (no snouts in the trough!). I really believe that if the Labor Party makes some serious changes it will benefit greatly, and force ideas back on the political agenda.

Congratulations on your part in the campaign, and best wishes for the ensuing months and beyond.

With warm regards

John

He was a true and a constructive believer to the end. Vale John Button.