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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1543

Senator WATSON (5:52 PM) —I had the honour to call John Button a colleague in the Senate for the first 15 years that I served as a senator. My memories of him will never fade as he was one of those outstanding contributors to the business of this chamber and to the government of Australia. His passing has removed from our presence a character whose wit and repartee was matched by very few, whose dedication and sheer ability stood out amongst his party colleagues and whose positive contribution as a minister will long deserve the praise of those who benefited from his leadership and listened to his speeches. He will be sadly missed.

John Button had a connection with my stamping ground of Northern Tasmania as his mother came from Strathroy near Launceston. His contribution to the stability and the future of one of Launceston’s largest employers—and I refer to the ACL Bearing Company—depended greatly on his ability to guide Australia’s motoring industry into a firm future, at least in the middle term. The ACL Bearing Company, as well as many other businesspeople in Launceston, held John Button in very high regard and fondly remembered him for his motor industry plan and the investment regime that it fostered for many years.

Like so many in this parliament, John came from a legal background, but he was also deeply immersed in ensuring that his beloved Labor Party rose again from the troubles of the 1960s. He was an active contributor to its strength during the Hawke-Keating years—as has been demonstrated today—when he was minister for industry for a decade. John Button was instrumental in guiding much of Australian industry into the modern global world economy and ensuring that many of the tariff barriers and artificial protection systems were shed so that Australians could find out where they were competitive and where they were not.

He was not particularly silver tongued or diplomatic at all times and I suspect that he may have told some home truths to his party colleagues and to Australian businessmen in a style they may not have previously heard. However, in his role as industry minister John Button was often required to speak to groups of foreign visitors and to travel overseas promoting Australian interests. His diplomacy was certainly evident on all these occasions. I remember being told by an interpreter that he was particularly aware that his well-developed sense of humour, which served him well amongst Australians, needed great care when applied to audiences from different backgrounds and different languages. He was careful to ensure that the interpreters of his talks fully understood the nuances of his jokes so that there could be no risk of offending his foreign-language-speaking audiences with jokes which might have had a particular Australian bent.

Among his other qualities, John Button was also a practical reformer, not just for reform’s sake but because he could see that it was vital for Australia’s economic future. His genuineness just shone through. He was a politician who also lead a very busy life outside the protected walls of the parliamentary arena and who benefited from regular contact with that we sometimes call the ‘real world’. I include in this his down-to-earth love for his beloved Geelong Football Club.

We will remember John Button not only because he appeared to be honest but also because he was honest and he made no pretence of the issue either in his daily life or in his politics. People believed that what they saw was what they got, and with John Button this was certainly the case. John Button had unusual titles for many of us in this place. Senator Kemp referred to one—I think it was the ‘rust bucket think tank’, I suppose because he came from Victoria. In my own case, he referred to me as the ‘refugee from the textile industry’ and maybe that was because I had a particular sympathy with certain protection issues that he disagreed with.

John served this parliament as a leader of his party, both in opposition and in government, in this Senate for a period of nearly 13 years and as a minister for 10 years. During his 19 years as a senator, he showed a great strength of will, a uniqueness of character and a determination to make a difference which can be seen in only very few senators who pass through this place. He grasped opportunities as they came and he certainly did make a difference. So, to John Button’s family, I wish to offer my sincere condolences at the loss of a great man and the family’s great loss. My prayers are certainly with them during this period of deep sorrow. Be assured, though, that those who knew him will fondly remember John Button. Vale John Button.