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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1537

Senator KEMP (5:38 PM) —I rise to support the condolence motion on the death of our former colleague John Button. The previous speakers have outlined in quite some detail the achievements of John Button as a Labor Party activist, as a reformer, as a minister, and his work as Leader of the Government in the Senate. I attended the state funeral for John Button held at St Michael’s Uniting Church in Melbourne. Not surprisingly, the church was very crowded indeed and I was pleased to see so many of my Liberal colleagues there in attendance. Dr Francis Macnab, the former state premier John Cain, the former Governor-General Bill Hayden, the former ALP state minister Jim Kennan and Morag Fraser delivered, to be quite frank, absolutely outstanding tributes to John Button. His son James Button spoke movingly of his father, and Nick Button read a poem written by Peter Gebhardt in tribute to John Button.

Our careers overlapped in the Senate by just three years. There was no doubt, as other speakers have drawn to our attention, that John Button was a consummate parliamentary performer: confident, well briefed, and always ready with wit to deal with some troublesome senators—and I bore my fair share of Button’s wit from time to time. He used to refer to me as coming from ‘that rusty old think tank, the IPA’, and occasionally would refer to me as ‘Old Think Tank’.

Early on, he had worked out that my father’s views on industry policy were somewhat closer to his position than my own, and he would sometimes speak in glowing terms about my father in the hope that this would cause some family annoyance and tension. It certainly did not annoy my dad, and my father kept on telling me that I was far too harsh on John Button. He recalled one time—and this gave John Button great amusement—when he said that if my father could hear my views he would roll over in his grave, and I called out that that would be difficult as my father was not dead yet. John Button rather enjoyed this exchange and repeated it to me years later.

Some years ago, I bumped into John Button in Collins Street and he said that we should have lunch together. We had a number of these lunches and, when I asked curiously why he would want to have lunch with me, he said, rather kindly I thought, that he would rather have lunch with an employed Liberal minister than an unemployed, complaining, Labor ex-minister. He was, as everybody knows, just great company, and we had frank exchanges of political gossip. On one occasion we discussed a new book I had published on historic parliamentary speeches and he asked me to send him a copy. I received a very gracious letter in reply, and this is what his letter said:

Dear Rod,

Many thanks for sending me a copy of your book ‘Speaking for Australia’.

You are a strange person. Any politician who keeps his promises can only be so described. And when the promise is made ‘on the wing’ in Collins Street, well what does one say.

The book (on preliminary examination) seems an important collection. Modestly you have omitted some of your own fine speeches and sadly some of mine. In the next edition you should perhaps include a speech of mine on the [siting] of the new parliament house (I think about 1974) or the speech to the 1984 Economic Summit which chilled the minds of rent-seeking industrialists succoured by protection. Your father would have approved.

As for the inclusion of a speech by your good self, any one would do.

Again, thanks and best wishes.

Yours sincerely

John N. Button

I took John Button’s advice and went to those speeches, and they are well worth reading, so perhaps I was in error not to include them in my book. The speech on Parliament House—others will know his views better than mine, but I was not aware of it—was one that John Button made in the Senate on 24 October 1974. John Button would have preferred that this Parliament House were sited elsewhere and made a very passionate speech about that. Among other things he asked:

What sort of parliament building do we want? Again the question arises: Do we want one which symbolises the aspirations of the people as they are ‘on the level’ of people or do we want one which symbolises the aspirations of politicians? Surely there is no quarrel with the proposition that one cannot make statesmen out of politicians by putting them in a castle or by putting them in a prominent parliament house which dominates the capital city of Australia rather than being sympathetic with it. I remind honourable senators of what happened to the residents of the tower of Babel and many other residents of edifices constructed upon hills in the way in which the symbolic view of Capital Hill is expressed.

It was a very passionate speech. He did not win that debate, but it was clearly one which he felt strongly about, and it was one which he drew to my attention. Witnessing his performances in this place, I never doubted that he thoroughly enjoyed being in this Parliament House, but I was also interested in his comments.

The other speech he said should have been included in my book was the one that I think Senator Faulkner referred to, at the National Economic Summit Conference on 14 April 1983. It was a speech of its time, and it was probably bold at its time—it probably seems less bold today. He said, for example:

In dealing with longer term reconstruction issues however, there should not be too narrow a focus on the issue of protection.

Protection was a very controversial policy. He went on to say:

Protection is only one element in an array of policy instruments which Australian governments have at their disposal to assist the various sectors of industry. It is not in itself a panacea for industrial reconstruction.

He went on and asked a number of questions:

Is Australian management adequately trained and flexible enough to cope with change;

What role should union leaders be playing in persuading their members of the need to adjust to changed circumstances ...

It is, again, a speech which is well worth reading, and I think it is appropriate in this condolence speech today that this be recorded.

My colleague Senator Michael Ronaldson hoped to be able to make a contribution today, but he said to me that he would like me to record that John Button was one of Ballarat’s favourite sons, a man who enjoyed for a very long period, and still enjoys, an enormous amount of respect and affection in that great city.

During a speech that I made many years ago on a condolence motion for Sir John Kerr, John Button was very upset with what I was saying and—I think probably for the first time in parliamentary history—took a point of order during a debate on a condolence motion. This led to a vigorous exchange between the two of us. I rather hope that John may be happy with the remarks I have made today.

His speeches, of course, always had very interesting and amusing jokes, and one of the reasons that John Button was such good company was his enormous sense of humour. This story comes from one of these speeches which I have just referred to. He tells the story of a patient who goes to a psychiatrist complaining of an inferiority complex:

After a brief examination he is told by the psychiatrist: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you. You don’t have a complex, you’re just inferior’.

No-one could say that John Button was not simply a superb senator. No-one could say that he did not make a superb contribution to this country. The affection that is felt for John Button transcends party lines. To his two sons—who, as I said, spoke so movingly at their father’s funeral—James and Nick Button, and their families I send my condolences and hope that in their sorrow they recognise, as I am sure they will, that their father was a man who enjoyed enormous community affection.