Condolences for the Hon. John Norman Button

John Button was a very important figure in Victorian Labor politics and indeed on the national stage. It is a mark of John Button’s stature that the tributes to him flowed from leaders and former leaders of all major political parties and from people of all walks of life. All acknowledged his role in reforming the Australian economy. All acknowledged his commitment to the Australian manufacturing industry. Many of the tributes recounted his achievements through his life—and we have heard during the debate on this condolence motion that kind of acknowledgement.

John Button was a very important figure in Victorian Labor politics and indeed on the national stage. It is a mark of John Button’s stature that the tributes to him flowed from leaders and former leaders of all major political parties and from people of all walks of life. All acknowledged his role in reforming the Australian economy. All acknowledged his commitment to the Australian manufacturing industry. Many of the tributes recounted his achievements through his life—and we have heard during the debate on this condolence motion that kind of acknowledgement.

Many people also referred to John Button’s personal qualities, like the former Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and minister in the Fraser government, Fred Chaney, who said that John Button brought ‘wit and grace’ to politics. We heard this tribute from the former Premier of Victoria, John Cain:

John Button was self-assured, never cocky, always modest and understated.

Michael Duffy, a former member of this House and a great friend and ministerial colleague of John Button, said that he had made a threefold contribution to Labor and to the country. He said:

Before politics John Button played a major role in reforming the party. During politics he was an outstanding minister whose structural reforms helped put the Australian economy on track. And finally, he was a good bloke.

I first met John Button in 1976, when he was a new senator. They were dark days for the Labor Party after the defeat of 1975. John had set up his first electoral office in Cheltenham, where my electorate of Isaacs now is. I was then a second-year law student. I went to him for advice, partly about my career and partly as to what role I might play in political life. Demonstrating the practicality that John Button always brought to advising people—and he had a great role in advising younger people, particularly in the Labor Party, for which he was known—the advice he gave to me was, rather than go into politics or pursue a job in a political office: ‘Finish your law degree.’ I fear that that advice might have delayed my arrival here for quite some time, because I did just that and indeed went on to practise law.

John Button’s qualities were qualities that all members of this Australian parliament might aspire to. I will leave it to others to record in detail his ministerial and parliamentary achievements, but his personal qualities, of which I have already spoken—his practicality and good humour, his sense of respect for the democracy and its institutions, the sense that he brought of involving young people in the political process and his humility in the sense that John Button never lost touch with ordinary Australians—were all qualities that all of us in this place would do well to aspire to.

John Button wrote very well. It is a great reflection of his ability to think clearly that he did write so well, and he saved much of his observation and writing for the time after he left parliament, when he wrote three books: Flying the Kite: Travels of an Australian Politician in 1994, On the Loose in 1996 and As It Happened in 1998. He wrote for the newspapers; he wrote for journals; he wrote on architecture, on art, on history and on politics. In those writings, after he left politics in 1993, he was able to demonstrate a freedom to express himself that perhaps was not available to him while he was a member of this parliament. I said before that John Button never lost touch. Indeed it is easy to do that in this place, as he commented, very soon after leaving the parliament, while writing in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1993. Perhaps wearily after 19 years in this parliament, he wrote—and it is a passage that appeared later in his book On the Loose:

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the Canberra thing. For newcomers to national politics, the Sunday night flight to the capital is a date with destiny, a ticket to where it all happens.

As time passes, things change. You present your ticket to the flight attendant with the heavy heart of an inmate returning to a lunatic asylum after weekend release.

That is of course John Button writing after he had left the parliament and he was, as I have suggested, perhaps demonstrating some weariness in the month immediately after he had left the parliament after 19 years. That weariness with the political process, if indeed that is what is reflected in the passage that I have just read, is not something that stayed with him, because John Button continued to participate, continued to write and continued to agitate in the political life of this country with tremendous vigour, continuing to put forward many of the ideas that he had put forward during his time here.

I cannot resist recounting at least one of the anecdotes from John Button’s life that have been much repeated in the speeches and tributes over the last month. It concerns his use of the nom de plume ‘Arthur Cartwright’. It is now known that John Button wrote to newspapers, ALP officials and even, on occasion, state and federal ministers using that nom de plume. It appears that, while using that nom de plume and often writing publicly to the same people to whom he himself using his own name had written, John Button had the freedom to say things that he might not have been able to say in his own name. In one story about his use of the nom de plume Arthur Cartwright, it is said that he had written to an ALP state president in Victoria with whom he had been publicly arguing and that, at a meeting with this state party president, the state party president apparently said to him—and John Button was very proud of this—something along these lines: ‘John, I can put up with blokes like you; I know what you’re about. But wait till I get hold of that Arthur Cartwright!’ It is a mark of the type of man that John Button was that he continued to use the nom de plume in that way, providing him with considerable private amusement while also possibly serving a purpose as he conducted his debates and as he participated in discussion on the matters that he wanted to comment on.

John Button persisted with an adherence to the idea that politics matters. It was evident in all of the speeches he gave in this parliament that, for him, being a member of parliament was a high calling. He never lost faith. He never lost sight of the idea that through politics great things can be achieved. He was in that sense a true democrat. He never stopped expressing his adherence to the rule of law, to the importance of a free and independent media and to the importance of striving for the civil liberties of all people in Australia.

I say with some regret that one of the ideas that John Button spoke very passionately about in his first speech in the Senate in 1974 bears repeating because it is something that is still with us—that is, the difficulty that our nation has experienced in achieving constitutional change and in achieving change to the framework of government. John Button, in 1974, spoke of ‘the Constitution providing the framework of government in Australia’. He went on to say:

It is sometimes stated by Opposition spokesmen that in some peculiar way which has never been explained to my satisfaction, the existing federal structure in Australia provides a bulwark for the freedom of the individual. I have never heard any evidence for that assertion, and I look forward to hearing it in this chamber because whatever we do we must be sure that the democratic institutions and the framework of government in Australia reflect the aspirations of the Australian people and allow the members of this chamber and of the other chamber to act in a way which fulfils the aspirations of the Australian people …

I go on with a little more of the next passage, because it shows the lightness of touch that John Button was able to bring to weighty issues and, in so doing, make the point that much better. In his first speech, John Button went on to say:

I have sometimes heard Opposition senators speaking of the Australian Constitution with the reverence which an antique salesman sometimes displays when he is trying to sell an old chair. The point is always made that because of the age of the chair its value is so much greater. While that may apply to furniture it cannot apply to the framework of government in Australia …

John Button, as I have said, continued to write on the issues that concerned him. In particular, he wrote a sparkling essay published in the Quarterly Essay series in 2002. In it, he expressed very eloquently the importance of ideas in politics generally and the importance of ideas for the Australian Labor Party, of which I am proud to be a member. I will read just a couple of passages from this essay that John Button wrote in 2002, about ideas:

It’s worth remembering that the ALP has always done best in federal elections when it has set the political agenda, when it has involved its members as agents of change and enthused a wider section of the community with a sense of excitement and vision. A small target strategy does none of these things. It’s contrary to ALP sentiment and tradition, demoralising to the membership and boring for the electorate.

And you can hear the vigour with which John Button was writing even in 2002. He further wrote:

Ideas are crucial to an ALP agenda. Ideas are about all the ALP has going for it and they are something which the coalition has never been good at. Some ideas and examples for the ALP will come from overseas, but history has shown that the best political ideas, the ones which have been successful for Labor, are those developed here in response to Australia’s particular circumstances. These particular circumstances include our position in the Asia-Pacific region, a highly urbanised population, multiculturalism, unique environmental challenges and our history, including the story of Aboriginal Australia.

And one can hear in that passage the clear-sightedness which John Button brought to the practice of politics. He never lost his passion for the Australian Labor Party. In that same essay he analysed the major political parties and finished with this:

Who among these parties is going to be able to build a better Australia? The Democrats and the Greens can’t do it. The Coalition won’t do it. The ALP remains the sole genuine avenue for political change.

Lastly, I would like to read a contribution to politics from John Button’s last major publication and some observations that he made about the importance of our institutions, particularly the Public Service, the judiciary and the media. John Button wrote:

A public service committed to the public good is a keeper of a country’s corporate memory. The best public servants know what has happened in the past, what has worked and what hasn’t. This can be a useful guide to the present and sometimes the future. It is an important part of a healthy democracy.

So too in different ways are an independent judiciary and institutions like the ABC, the universities and a diverse and critical media. Menzies understood this. Latter-day politicians have understood it less. Politicians should respect the integrity of these institutions.

I am in John Button’s debt for showing me that it is possible to achieve good results and real change through parliamentary work. All parliamentarians and all Australians are in his debt for the contributions he made and the example that he set. I extend my condolences to his family.