State memorial service for Barry Cohen

February 5, 2018 by Yvette Goode
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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and force prime minister Bob Hawke have delivered tributes to the late Barry Cohen.

Barry Cohen – The Minister

As the assembled crowd in the Members’ Dining Room in Old Parliament House quietened, Rabbi Shmueli Feldman, Chairman of Chabad ACT, welcomed those who had come to pay tribute to the late Barry Cohen.

In his welcoming remarks, Rabbi Feldman described Barry Cohen as a man who was not the most observant Jew, but nevertheless was a man intensely proud of his Jewish heritage. During his lifetime, Barry fought against hate, anti Semitism and anti Zionism, as well as holocaust denial. As the child of holocaust survivors, he believed it was the right of all peace loving Australians to practice their beliefs openly and freely.

Aunty Jannette Phillips, Ngunnawal Elder, provided the welcome to country. She remarked on her long association and friendship with Barry, saying that he understood the instinct of survival in the indigenous population as well as their plight. Her touching tribute included many references to his being a “Good man with a big heart,” that “He did the best he could with what he had” and that he was “A proud Jewish man.” Her anecdote of Barry being able to recognise what perfume she was wearing and her comment that this was unusual for a man, gave us a totally different insight into his many layered character.

The tributes flowed, with Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull recalling that Barry loved a stage. Always perfectly well dressed, Barry stayed humble and never took himself too seriously. He had the uncanny knack of being able to blend frivolity with a deeply caring nature. His advocacy for others was legendary, as he abhorred discrimination in all its forms. Mr Turnbull noted that later in Barry’s life, as he battled with his dementia and Alzheimer’s, he fought for understanding of these conditions. He observed that Barry’s life was devoted to public service and that Australia is the richer for his hard work.

Bob Hawke delivers his tribute  Facebook

Bill Shorten, The Leader of the Opposition, similarly noted Barry’s passion for public service, as well as his love of family and his membership of the Labor Party. He noted that Barry came from a humble beginning as a menswear merchant and rose to fight hard to secure our national treasures. He was a “marvellous raconteur,” with his wit on show over a long period in newspaper articles and columns, as well as numerous books. He used his words “To make everyday politics more human.” Mr Shorten said the Barry Cohen had remarked that while there is currently no cure for dementia, we do need to ensure better care for older Australians, enabling them to live with dignity and security in their later years.

An unusual addition to a memorial service was the inclusion of “Hava Nagila,”a joyous song, which was requested by Barry’s family. The song was chosen to celebrate Barry’s superb life, to rejoice in his achievements at the time of his passing and to encourage all of us to live our lives to the fullest. The audience was invited by Rabbi Feldman to sing along with the music and the room was filled with the meaning of the words in the song.

A very touching tribute came from Bob Hawke, who lauded Barry’s achievements in the Environment as well as the Arts. Most notable was Barry’s efforts to ensure the “beautiful and majestic” wilderness areas in Tasmania were maintained and preserved for posterity. Likewise Barry’s efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru and parts of Kakadu were essential to their long term survival. He declared that as a person, Barry’s business acumen was a great asset. His zest for life covered many wide-ranging and disparate areas, from golf, in which he excelled, to wildlife sanctuaries. Mr Hawke, like others, noted Barry’s quick sense of humour, his sharp mind, repartee skills and commitment to both the nation and the Labor party.

Michael Danby, Member for Melbourne Ports, Victoria, continued the tributes. Having worked for Barry for many years, his memory was of a big character, a man with “a million bright ideas.” He noted the wonderful service given to the Central Coast seat of Robertson, which Barry won in eight Federal elections, a marvellous feat for any politician. Mr Danby recounted the ground breaking work Barry did in the field of road safety, as well as his immense contribution to newspapers over a very long period, quipping that this had earned him the title of “the oracle of Bungendore.” We learned that Barry was a subtle but informed advocate for the State of Israel. Mr Danby concluded with the traditional saying “His memory is a blessing.”

The eulogy on behalf of the family was delivered by Stuart Cohen, one of Barry’s three sons, the others being Adam and Martin. Stuart remembered the incredibly hard work done by his parents to secure the seat of Robertson, attending every kind of meeting on the Central Coast and doorknocking virtually every house in the electorate. The burning issue in Barry’s maiden speech to Parliament concerned indigenous issues, looking at what was wrong and unfair, as well as how to make it right and giving  his efforts freely to the “Yes” campaign for the 1967 Referendum. Commenting on the family history, like others in Jewish communities everywhere, those who had not escaped from Europe were wiped out in the Holocaust, a fact that remained extremely sensitive to Barry throughout his life. His son remembered him as a passionate man in all his endeavours with serving the community being the driving force in his life. He quoted his father as saying he had “never been bored,” and given the many areas with which Barry had been involved it is clear why. He also recalled that it was always interesting to be his son, despite it being challenging, as with a famous father there is no anonymity for the family. His final memory was of a man who loved his family fiercely, and whose family remain intensely “proud of his achievements.”

The closing tribute was given by Dr David Pross, Director, Guringia Tribal Link Aboriginal Corporation. He pointed out that Barry was a great friend to the Aboriginal peoples, fighting hard for better rights, along with another great friend, the actor Jack Thompson. The handing back of Uluru to the traditional owners was a prime example, as was the creation of Walkabout Park, where people could learn about Australian Flora and Fauna. Dr Pross said it was a great honour to speak about a “top bloke”.

To conclude the Service, Pipe Sergeant Craig Dawson performed “Flowers of the Forest.”


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s address:

“Barry Cohen was a born performer, made for show-business.

He loved a stage and for twenty-one glorious years, our Parliament was the venue.

It was here in Canberra, always perfectly well dressed, a natural dandy, well-cut suits always looking the very best.

He courted laughter in all its’ forms.

He did so with an artful and seemingly endless deployment of anecdotes, which he sharpened and improved over time, with his inimitable wit.

He used humour to connect with people, the Australians whose interests he worked tirelessly to advocate and of course, his fellow parliamentarians.

He also used it to stay humble, actually very good advice for all of us politicians. I know former Prime Minister Bob Hawke would agree, it’s always important not to take yourself too seriously and Barry certainly never did that.

When his ministerial career ended in 1987, there was a lot of speculation about him becoming the Speaker. He responded to this chatter in a column for The Bulletin and recounted his valiant attempt as a freshman MP to read the Standing Orders.

At least he started reading them Mr Speaker, you’d no doubt appreciate that.

He said, Barry said he made it all the way to page two.

And he ended his column with this typical line of self-deprecation:

‘The Hawke Government has its problems, but it’s not yet so desperate that it should risk the destruction of the Westminster system by appointing me Speaker.’

Part of Barry’s appeal stemmed from his ability to blend frivolity with the deepest and most heartfelt sincerity. Behind the laughter was a man who felt acutely and cared profoundly, as Aunty Jannette has reminded us.

He once revealed that John Steinbeck’s haunting The Grapes of Wrath prompted his political career and his advocacy for others was the perfect illustration of one of the novel’s central themes; that we’re at our best when we work together, rather than toiling alone to overcome hardship.

He abhorred discrimination, something he experienced as a young Jewish man in the 1940s. He possessed a fierce desire to combat it. In his maiden speech to Parliament in 1970, Barry spoke against “prejudice based on class, religion or race” and spoke loudly, as again Aunty Jannette reminded us, for our First Australians.

He also believed that Australia’s parliamentarians should never stop learning  and should “obtain every skill possible”.

This was hardly surprising from a man who before politics, enjoyed stints as a ‘first-class’ golfer, postman, clerk and businessman. But for Barry, no vocation was more enthralling – or more rewarding – than writing. He continued to write even after Alzheimer’s cast its long shadow. His writing opened the door on what had previously been the very private pain of those who live with Alzheimer’s.

He fought for greater awareness of dementia and he often did it – again – with his trademark humour.

When former Prime Minister John Howard asked Barry how he found life in a nursing home, his response was quick. “Question time!” he yelled to a roar of laughter from John.

Australia has been richer for his presence and we mourn his loss.

To his beloved wife Rae, and his family, I offer the nation’s deep and sincere thanks and appreciation for a life of public service well served.

Barry Cohen   Born Griffith NSW April 3rd, 1935

Died: December 18th, 2017

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