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Vale John Button ...

The news has just come through: John Button has died. There will be many eulogies. Mine is brief – there are few politicians for whom I have unqualified admiration. John Button was one of them.

Meanwhile, here is an extract from Alan Ramsey’s column in last Saturday’s SMH:

Ten years ago I wrote about John Button. I've been doing that for more than 30 years, 21 of them in this space. The computer tells me my Herald tally exceeds 40 Button articles. An edited version of the August 1998 piece says why. He lit up political journalism in the same way he illuminated political life. To quote: "This story has nothing to do with anything really, except good-humoured normalcy, and when political life is so despairing and national leadership, here and overseas, so awash with squalid conduct and buffoonery, normalcy is welcome wherever found. I discovered it in John Button's memoir, As It Happened, a book as seamlessly good-humoured as it is a light in the window of the Australia that was.

"He got out in 1993, three years before Labor's defeat. The concluding chapter of his memoir is entitled 'The Road To Geelong'. Button often drives it, down from Melbourne, to see his beloved Geelong football team, and he uses the journey as a metaphor for much of his life and what is happening to Australia. He concludes: 'In politics and football there are small triumphs and sometimes big prizes. It's the same in most people's lives. You have to persevere, to take sides and, win or lose, accept the consequences. I keep the faith my team will make it, and Australia, too. It may take time.' "

Both took nine years. Button saw Geelong win its first grand final in 44 years last September 29, then Rudd Labor swept into power on November 24. But in between Button learnt he had pancreatic cancer. The five months since have been diabolical.

On Tuesday this week, Button's partner, Joan Grant, emailed a group of us: "Dear Friends, we brought John home today. He hated the hospital routine, although we all agree the care and help of all kinds was wonderful. We are aiming to keep him here as long as we can, with the assistance of daily visits from nurses. He sat out in the sun this afternoon. His sister Muriel's partner Frank has constructed a stunning wooden ramp (for the walker or wheelchair) from the courtyard to the cottage, where John will sleep, as the bedrooms in the house are up too many stairs. We hope he can have enough peace and love to keep him going for a long time. Thank you, all who have sent such beautiful, heartfelt and encouraging messages. Joan".

The best prime minister we never had.

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A rare combination

I'll remember John Button the way George Negus had described him in 2004:

An Australian polly with a brain and a sense of humour - a very rare combination indeed.


I think I would have liked John Button as a person.

He seemed down to earth and with a good sense of humour.

His politics I found uninspiring.  Never at any stage in his writings did he question the economic orthodoxies.  This is the problem with common sense.

From a former Prime Minister

Paul Keating's tribute:

John Button is a real loss to the country and the Labor Party alike.

A lawyer who inhabited the centre ground of Victorian Labor politics, he was material in returning the pendulum of Labor politics from the left, where it had stuck fast for a quarter of a century, to the political centre.

A consequence of his work within the Independents’ group was the advent of the Cain Labor government and with that change, the underlying fabric of Victorian politics returned to the Labor fold, where it has more or less remained, for just on thirty years.

A person needs a lot of horsepower to be at the forefront of such a change, and while it was not all John Button’s work, he left his fingerprints on all the important bits.

In his prime, he was more or less despised by the left and the right. In the swing position, he played corner politics with cunning and élan. Some would say too cunning, others mercurial, while the impartial onlooker might say inspired.

As a Senator, he was a member of the post-Whitlam government group lead by Bill Hayden in 1977. That group, the reform ministers of the 1980s and early 1990s, came together as a coherent unit out of conviction borne by the defeat of the Whitlam government and the fact that post-War growth, worldwide, had collapsed from the mid 70s in the context of hyperinflation.

John Button like every other member of the group knew that the old closed way for Australia, the old Australian economic defence model was coming to an end. Like the rest of us, he was not sure what should take its place but he knew it had to be something competitive and more open.

As a person with a background in legal issues, including such things as civil liberties, it was a surprise to us all that he asked Bob Hawke for the Ministry of Manufacturing Industry. I remember going to his office after our swearing in and saying ‘what are you going to do with this job?’ He said ‘I dunno; something! God knows, something needs to done.’ Pretty much reflecting the mood of most of us.

Button was a case book example of giving a complex job to a person with a good mind, one formerly unsullied by its complexities, leaving the mind to sift through the issues, while coming to a new set of conclusions. As it turned out, he was the Minister for Manufacturing Industry at the fulcrum point of that industry’s development and history.

He and I had great battles over tariffs and for the tariff reductions announced in the May Statement of 1988 and the Industry Statement of 1991. But he knew the reform mantle meant he had to see his constituency’s interests in a longer term perspective. I remember calling him at home one Saturday morning in 1991, urging on him a further reduction in general manufacturing protection to 5% by the year 2000. I said ‘come on John, in for a penny, in for a quid’ and in a measure of all that was good and brave about him, he said ‘why not?’.

He drove a hard bargain at the Cabinet table on adjustment packages for particular industries, perhaps best known being the car industry, but being prepared to play the game, whilst being charming with it, I found him, at once, exasperating yet irresistible.

He was a fully paid up and foundation member of the reform group of ministers, the one that changed Australia forever. Deep personal losses in John’s life meant his heart and mind were always vulnerable to issues which affected the needy or those less well off.

He had a large group of friends and political associates and of course, many he picked up in his lifelong support of the Geelong Football Club. He was a warmly regarded person, yet for all that, he was always a loner. An intellectual loner and a political loner. None of us held that against him, because the same epitaph may be stuck to so many of us.

For all that, he held firmly to one idea throughout his life, and that was that political life was the highest calling, within which great things could be done; where the greatest leverage existed. And as his life’s work attests, he stuck to that idea with enthusiasm and perseverance.

John Button is gone but he will not be forgotten, inasmuch that at some point, we are all forgotten. Those of us who were close to him will always remember his penchant for devilment, for the zany and the unpredictable, but also the fun in being around such a quixotic character.

PJ Keating
8 April 2008

Yes, Vale John Button.

One whose loss we need like a hole in the head. His interest and concern for our democracy is exemplified in his support, and patronage, together with ex- Senator Fred Chaney, in the search by 'New Democracy',  for a better mode of democratic governance than we now have. John Button (and Fred Chaney) have been very far from your 'normal' political minds, in their emphasis on the need for a revitallisation of our democracy.

Their video comments can be heard on the 'Bang the Table' Forum on the New Democracy website.

Basil Smith

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