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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1544

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (5:58 PM) —I also seek to make a contribution to this condolence motion for John Button, albeit hopefully a brief one. John Button has been described in many forums in the past few weeks as a minister of the Crown, a senator, an industrial barrister, a letter writer, an author, a creative thinker, a Geelong Football Club lover and a Parliament House sunbaker. I am glad I never met him in that role, but I did meet John in the role of a government minister, senator, industrial barrister and certainly a creative thinker.

I first came across John Button some 38 or 40 years ago when we were both active in the Labor Party in Victoria. He worked for the legal firm that did the legal work for the shipwrights union in Victoria, where I spent a period as state secretary. I was quite a young, green union official in the early 1970s and I had a case before the full bench of the industrial commission, seeking a 35-hour week for shipwrights who were working on the Melbourne waterfront, subsequent to the waterside workers winning that condition in the mid-1960s. I went to John for some advice—we could not afford to pay for it, because we did not have that many members—and he sat down with me and painstakingly took me through the processes that I would have to follow in the commission to present the argument and make sure the argument got heard. As a consequence, we actually won the case. So that was a successful contribution that John made to the wages and working conditions of shipwrights in Victoria at that time.

I knew John as a senator during the period of the Whitlam government and in the period of Labor opposition consequent to the election of the Fraser government in 1975. I met him on a couple of occasions when I appeared before Senate committees dealing with industrial relations issues, in particular the amendments to the Industrial Relations Act that were pursued by Ian Viner in the late seventies and early eighties in order to enshrine company unions in the act. It was a forerunner of the type of structure pursued by John Howard in Work Choices. Most importantly, I had a great deal to do with John in the 1980s when he was industry minister.

The nature of the man was shown when, in a television interview with George Negus, he said that politics causes brain damage and that the dosage is worse in opposition. For those of us who have spent 10 years in opposition, we can attest to the truth of that statement. Certainly the period in opposition that John spent in the late seventies did not seem to do much damage to him, as he appeared to be unaffected by that period in opposition.

John was an extremely effective industry minister. It is interesting, as others have said, that he chose his own portfolio when Labor won government in 1983. He chose the role of industry and commerce—a role which surprised many of his friends and supporters, given his strong involvement and keen interest in issues of civil liberties and social justice. At the time, Paul Keating asked John, after his swearing-in as industry minister, ‘What are you going to do with this job?’ John’s response was: ‘I dunno; something! God knows, something needs to done.’ He was immediately thrown into a crisis because, around the time of the election of the Hawke government, BHP had announced publicly its plans to shut down the steel industry, with a loss of some 30,000 jobs in Newcastle, Port Kembla and Whyalla. John set about working through the issues of that industry with the company, the unions and the membership in the industry. As a consequence, the steel plan was born. He played a significant role—a role he was thrust into—and he assiduously worked his way through the process and came up with a plan. The plan certainly cost jobs but it created the foundations of a steel industry in this country that has continued to thrive since 1983.

John did a lot for industry in this country. He was a reformer, both in the Labor Party and as a member of the government. He was instrumental in reforming the Australian economy and the manufacturing industry. He was one of the key ministers in the Hawke government, all through the 1980s, that pursued and put in place the processes of reform that opened up the Australian economy. As we in this place all know, John is perhaps best known for the Button car plan—a legacy that helped the car industry in this country survive for decades. He was also responsible for the TCF industry plan. It is a tribute to his foresightedness that both those industries still exist in this country today, and with significantly less assistance from government than they were receiving in the eighties.

We should not ignore John’s role in putting in place the steel industry plan, which saved that industry at the 11th hour, and we should note that that was an industry on the verge of closing when he became industry minister and was thrown in at the deep end in terms of putting a plan in place. But there are many other industries in this country that survive and prosper today because of John’s support for and revitalisation of the Australian Manufacturing Council, which during the 1980s carried out a massive collaborative effort between capital and labour that renewed and revitalised many industry sectors. The shipbuilding industry is one example. The shipbuilding industry in this country was ‘gone the goings’, for all intents and purposes, in 1976 under Malcolm Fraser and Peter Nixon. When John took over the industry portfolio, the industry was floundering. Most of the big shipyards had shut down. There were a number of small shipyards around the place, but the industry was pretty fragmented. He put in place a shipbuilding consultative group, of which I happened to be a member, that worked assiduously for four years with the industry to redevelop its attitudes and views about its future. It became outward looking and got into the export market, and that was the forerunner of the industry we have today, which is building the fast aluminium ferries that we are exporting all around the world. That industry has been actively surviving in the export market with no assistance and competing effectively and maintaining its levels of employment.

The work that was put in in the eighties through the Australian Manufacturing Council laid the foundations for the significant growth in manufactured exports that occurred during the first half of the nineties and, in fact, for the broadening of our economic base, which was part of the strategy adopted by the Hawke government in the eighties. In the early nineties, we saw significant growth in our manufactured exports—elaborately transformed manufactures, or ETMs, as they are more commonly known—from about three per cent to something like 17 to 18 per cent in 1996 when Labor lost office. That position, unfortunately, was squandered under the previous government. The export of manufactured goods is back down to about two to three per cent of our total exports. It has all been squandered. All the activities, efforts and structural change that occurred during the eighties and the early nineties were squandered under the Howard government and we are back effectively to where we were when Labor first came to power in the early eighties.

John Button’s efforts, for example, in revitalising our heavy engineering industry laid the foundation for subsequent government decisions to source defence purchases in Australia and significant projects such as the Collins submarines and the frigates for the Australian and New Zealand navies, and very effective defence shipbuilding industry activity and the consequential subsidiary operations that support that in electronics and equipment and so forth.

While the car plan and the textile, clothing and footwear industries dominate discussion on John’s role as industry minister, we should not see his role in a narrow sense but in the broader sense of the effect he had right across the whole of our manufacturing industry sector, in all its facets, including improvements that were made in that sector during his period as industry minister. I have to say that if those ministers who follow him, particularly Labor ministers, achieve half of what he achieved as manufacturing minister, then the future of manufacturing in this country will be bright indeed.

There was one thing about John Button that you could not help but notice: whilst he was a small man he was born with a huge dose of scepticism. It continually flowed in comments he made from time to time on issues that were going on. I can recall two, which I think are examples of John’s wit. The first one occurred at a meeting in Old Parliament House in the cabinet room, during a discussion between a number of senior ministers and members of the national executive of the party about the direction of the government’s policy in early 1987, prior to the election that was held later that year. There was concern about the direction the government was going in a number of areas. As anyone involved in such discussions would know, they are pretty wide ranging. In the midst of that conversation, Paul Keating, then Treasurer, started to wax lyrical about the fact that he had been named as the world’s greatest treasurer by a meeting of the Socialist International that had occurred just before the meeting. I happened to have been sitting beside John Button and John said, ‘The only thing wrong with this is that they do not get a vote in our elections, otherwise we would not have a worry in the world.’ I said to him, ‘What are you drinking?’ Aussie, as we now know him, kept bringing drinks to the table for the ministers who were there—not for the visitors. John said: ‘It’s whisky. Why? Would you like some?’ True to his word, about 30 seconds later, Aussie turned up with a glass of whisky. I did not know at the time that there was a button under the table that you pressed and they would bring you your favourite beverage—tea, coffee, Coke or whatever. John was enjoying the whisky, and he and I had a very pleasant evening in the corner of the cabinet room listening to the discussion from that point on.

The second example was in relation to a proposal I had worked up in my role as deputy chair of the Manufacturing Council at the time. It involved putting a package together to promote technology diffusion across our manufacturing sector. A lot of the small companies in this country were not aware of the technologies that were available and being developed by some of the industrial giants around the world. The proposal was for a package of $20 million to fund an office of technology diffusion. You had to be careful about how you used words when you had a discussion with John Button, as many will attest—you used your words very carefully. In the middle of the discussion, I happened to say, or it might have been the person with me, ‘The problem is we don’t have anyone in this country who understands the technology and can promote it, so we need this fund to get it going.’ He said, ‘If I give you $20 million, who will you appoint?’ We said: ‘We don’t know. We’ll have to think about that.’ He said, ‘I’m not giving you $20 million until you come back with someone who you know can actually do the job.’ It was interesting that not long after that when I became a senator, I noticed there was a line in the budget papers in the department of industry for technology diffusion and a budget of $20 million. John adopted the idea, but he was not going to be sold on putting the $20 million on the table before he knew that it was capable of being used in the way in which it was promoted.

One could go on for a long time talking about John Button and his role in the Labor Party, about John Button as a human being and our experiences with him. Suffice to say, I wanted to ensure that the breadth of the role he played was on the record in terms of his support for manufacturing as minister for industry during the Hawke and Keating governments. I think his role in that area will probably remain unsurpassed. I wish to convey my condolences to his partner, Joan, and to his children on John’s passing.

Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.