More from the Barry Cohen Memorial Service

February 6, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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Barry Cohen was  minister in the Bob Hawke government who died in December. Yesterday he was remembered at a State memorial service in Canberra yesterday. Here are the unedited tributes paid by Labor leader Bill Shorten and MP Michael Danby. 

In J-Wire’s yesterday’s edition,  we published the full tribute by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Bill Shorten said: “The great Fred Daly’s warning to a young Barry Cohen is part of Labor folklore.

Cut out the comedy. You’re a very funny young man, but it won’t help you.”

How lucky are we that Barry ignored that advice.

How lucky are we that alongside his passion for public service, his determination to eliminate discrimination and his belief in the Labor party as an engine for progress and fairness…

…Barry also had an enduring faith in the restorative power of laughter.

How lucky are we to have known and loved a man who found so much joy and humour in life and in politics.   

And how lucky are we that this marvellous raconteur, this irrepressible force of fun – chronicled so many moments of wit, slapstick and farce – in columns for the Oz and the Bulletin and in a prodigious number of books.

Barry Cohen didn’t try and write ponderous tomes which magnify every decision through the lens of posterity…

…he didn’t use his words to settle scores or re-write history…

… instead his love was for the humour that makes politics human.

The everyday mistakes and mini-disasters that occurred in these halls, on the world stage – and on the marginal seat campaign trail, where he had no equal as a campaigner, organiser and reader of people.

And even now you can open one of Barry’s books at a random and read a tale about Gough, or Neville or Bob, or Paul that makes you laugh out loud.

Barry had exceptional recall of Whitlam witticisms – an Anec-doctorate some called it – and did a first rate impression of The Great Man.

But he was never afraid to be the punchline in his own joke either.

As you would all know, Barry was extremely proud of his background in menswear – the insights and experience he gained from starting and running a small business.

Back when he was fitting-out his first menswear shop in Gordon in 1959, a friend of Barry’s suggested he visit a shop on the Pacific Highway that specialised in artistic bric-a-brac, to add some character to the interior.

It just so happened Barry had known the shop-owners for a long time, in his view they were “a respectable middle-class family” but their 18-year old son Brett was “a five-star nutter”.

Anyway, Barry bought a few different pieces and on his way out, the owner asked him if he would be interested in purchasing some of Brett’s paintings – and pointed to five he had hanging in the shop.

 ‘15 quid each – or all 5 for 60 pounds’.

Barry said:

‘I don’t know much about art but I wasn’t about to be conned by an old codger, trying to sell his son’s paintings’.

So he simply replied:

 ‘It’s kind of you to offer – but no thank you, Mr Whiteley’.

No wonder Bob appointed him Minister for the Arts!

It was in that role that Barry often hosted advance screenings of Australian films for MPs, Senators and senior public servants, to promote the Australian film industry.

One night after a screening, he got into the car and his driver said:

The Prime Minister needs to see you, IMMEDIATELY.”

As Barry put it, those are the moments in a Minister’s life when his past flashes before him, as you try and remember the mistakes you’ve made.

So, Barry ran through King’s Hall, down the corridor and into the lobby of the Prime Minister’s office, where the secretary on duty told him that: ‘Mr Hawke had been trying to get in touch with him for more than three hours…’

This did nothing for Barry’s nerves – but he summoned up his courage and knocked on the door.

And, in his own words:

After what seemed an interminable wait, Bob came to the door with a deep frown on his face.

He looked at me intently for a minute or so, then said:

“Now, who have you got organised for golf in the morning.”

Today we honour and remember a remarkable man, with an extraordinary legacy.

He safeguarded some of Australia’s most precious natural treasures for future generations: from Uluru and Kakadu to the Great Barrier Reef.

He championed the security of Israel and stronger ties of friendship between our two nations.

And – even when Barry’s time in public life had ended, even when he became one of the more than 330,000 Australians living with dementia, he did not go gentle into that good night.

In fact, that’s when I came to know Barry best – as an irrepressible and irresistible advocate for a better deal for older Australians.

All that charisma and humour and passion, that lifetime of campaigning experience, channelled into a cause that is too often overlooked in the other building up on the hill.

We don’t have a cure for dementia yet.

And we have a long way to go before aged care in this country is worthy of the generation who raised us, taught us and helped build modern Australia.

But when we find the cure, when every older Australian lives in dignity and security – Barry Cohen will be due a great measure of the credit.

On behalf of the Labor family, I say thank you to the Cohen family for lending such a wonderful man to our movement and our nation for so long.

We are all better for his contribution to our country.

May he rest in peace.

Michael Danby said:

Michael Danby and Barry Cohen 2003

All of us worked for Barry Cohen, even when we were not employed by him.

Even when I was elected to parliament it made no difference, he still thought I worked for him and just needed to implement his million bright ideas.

Barry was, in the fuller Australian vernacular meaning of the word, a “character”.

He was the first sports commentator for Sydney’s TCN 9.

He was the first boss to join a union.

Even the legendary Johnno Johnson was taken aback by Barry’s interest in Labor when he ran his beloved fashion store in St Ives Fashion Plate.

Many years later as he turned the marginal Central Coast seat of Robertson into a bastion, holding it from 1969 to 1990

He was the last Opposition male to hold a position of spokesperson for women’s affairs, as in 1978 there were no women in the House Of Reps at all!

Barry was elected 9 times between 1969 and 1990 there will be few who can replicate that “Political longevity”, as MLK said “it has its place”.

Barry’s passion for the arts, heritage, and environment was fulfilled when he became the Minister in those portfolios.

His passion for Kakadu I believe established it in the public imagination alongside other indigenous natural icons like Uhluru and the Kimberleys.

He was a visionary with road safety from the 1970’s demanding that vehicles have airbags.

When he was Environment Minister he forbade the mining of mineral sands on Fraser Island.

He was one of the Hawke government’s spearheads in preserving the natural wonders of the Franklin in Tasmania

Successful life in business and in politics was not enough.The author of 9 books between ’87 and 2011 and an immense collection of newspaper and magazine columns. Some of his were excoriating about topics as varied, as the wit and wisdom of the NSW Right, the perils of Nouvelle Cuisine; the superannuation industry, where he argued that government should “Save seniors from racetrack touts, posing as fund managers”

Cohen made unpopular forays in his immense newspaper output arguing Ministerial travel should be judged on its outcome, not cost; That backbenchers resume their independence and resume their rights at Question Time

He was a devoted ally of Senator John Faulkner and his plans to clean up Labor.

Barrys whiplash pen critiqued people on his own side like Peter Garrett, Graham Richardson, and most memorably former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Indeed in the early 90’s, years before Rudd became a national figure, Cohen gave him a searing character evaluation of Rudd that reading it 20 years later, through all that happened, makes him sound like the oracle of Bungendore.

But “Big Brave Barry” didn’t simply snipe from the safety of his newspaper columns. He was a fierce critic of the maladministration of the Inter-parliamentary Union and attended his last gathering of that august organistion where he was subject to a 2 hour harangue by Fidel Castro. With incredible courage the next day he gave it back, both barrels, to the Cuban dictator. And he left Havana alive.

Barry’s gentler side was shown in his passion for the indigenous people of this country, this began with his super involvement as the non-indigenous assistant to the aboriginal campaign for the successful 1967 referendum. Years later his tribute to his mentor indigenous friend Faith Bandler on her death is one of the most memorable newspaper columns I’ve ever read.

As if all of this wasn’t enough Barry was the Deputy Chair of Old Parliament House from 1990 to 2011

Cohen throughout his parliamentary and newspaper life shared with me an immense pride in his Jewish origins and was a subtle, well informed advocate of Israel. The weight of the Nazi genocide of millions, including large segments of his family, weighed very heavily on the shoulders of his memory. Rae and he did great justice to his murdered relatives visiting Poland and writing a searing account of the fate of the Koziwoda’s, in an article which you can only get from my office, published in the now defunct Bulletin.

Lastly let me deal with the difficult topic of Barry’s last years. His courage in dealing with his dementia publicly was only matched by Adam and Rae’s devotion to his increasing physical fragility.

He even turned his suffering into a good story

“When word got out that I had joined the list of dementia sufferers, one of the first calls I had was from an old friend “Mr Howards calling”, was the message from the nurse”

“I don’t know a Mr Howard, unless it’s the former Prime Minister”. “Thats the one” replied the nurse.

I’m so proud.

Proud that the Pratoreon Guard, Dr Sergi, Peter Conway, Adam Cohen and I travelled to Goulburn to farewell Barry in his nursing home. He was compos mentis. We said a tearful farewell. He recognised all of us.

Barry Cohen. Big Australian. Big character

His memory is a blessing.

Born: 3 April 1935, Griffith
Died: 18 December 2017
Spouse: Rae O’Neill (m. 1959)

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