Condolence Motion, Barry Cohen
February 6, 2018
DR LEIGH (Fenner) (17:55): Armando Iannucci, creator of The Thick of It and Veep, gave an interview recently where he said, 'Humourless politicians are the most dangerous ones, I think.' He was referring to oppressive regimes, but I think it applies to this place, too. In the tradition of Fred Daly and Jim Killen, Barry Cohen was a fabulous raconteur. I first knew him through his books; I grabbed three from the shelf on the way here—After the Party, The Life of the Party and From Whitlam to Winston—but, of course, that 's merely a small component of the Cohen oeuvre. In meeting him and chatting with him, one got the sense of a man who lived a full life.
In his eulogy yesterday, the member for Melbourne Ports pointed out that Barry Cohen had a range of records—the first sports commentator for Sydney's TCN 9, the first boss to join a union in the SDA and the last opposition male to hold the position of spokesperson for women's affairs, given there were no women in the House of Reps in 1978. His achievements as environment minister were legendary: forbidding the mining of sands on Fraser Island, protecting the Franklin, and helping to safeguard Uluru, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. It's a legacy which will outlive us all. His interest in the environment continued post politics, and I remember terrifically enjoyable conversations with him as he sought to persuade me to get up the great garden festival. Barry, I am sorry, we have so far failed you, but the international garden festival may yet become a reality.
There are so many fabulous stories, but, with Adam with us, I'm minded to turn to one known as 'Generation Gap', in which Barry relates the moment he heard Adam answering the phone, 'Oh, Jesus, mate, I'm sorry, I didn't realise it was you' and then saying to Barry, 'It's Gough.' Barry said he was staggered: 'You called our glorious leader "mate".' He apologises to Gough Whitlam and gets the response: 'What are you running there, a sheltered workshop? I don't mind him calling me "mate" but he doesn't even recognise the voice.'
He went on to recount his early experiences in the Labor Party, which many of us will have shared. He walked into the room, 'knowing' who the enemy were—the dreaded Liberals headed by Sir Robert Menzies—and:
I was soon disabused of that idea. The enemy were either the groupers or the coms and they were in the same room as I was, the Asquith Progress Association Hall. I found the screaming and shouting strangely at odds with the party's moto, 'Unity of Labor is the hope of the world'.
He also related a tale of a day of campaigning with Chris Hurford and Eric Fitzgibbon, the father of Joel Fitzgibbon. They spent a day visiting kindergartens and early childhood centres in the morning and an aged-care centre in the afternoon. At the event at the aged-care centre, Eric Fitzgibbon gave a speech in which he said: 'It has been a journey from the cradle to the grave.' Barry does not record whether the members of the aged-care home appreciated this description.
Then, finally, there was a wonderful anecdote, in which he related his early experiences in Mann Street, Gosford, when a constituent came in and said to Barry, 'I've got a pain here in my shoulder. I've had it for some months. I can't get to sleep at night,' and the constituent got increasingly perturbed when Barry Cohen failed to respond and then began to take his shirt off: 'My embarrassment started to turn to panic. I stood up to stop him before he was naked. "Look, I understand you've got a bad back, but what the hell do you expect me to do about it?" "What do you mean, what the hell do I expect you to do about it! You're the bloody chiropractor, aren't you?" He went out to his secretary and said, "I think this gentleman has the wrong Cohen. He may want to see John Cohen, the chiropractor, just down the hall."'
I want to close with an observation about an incident in 2011. As somebody who was a long-time fan of Barry's, my office was helping Deb O'Neill, then the member for Robertson, organise a fundraiser in which Barry would tell tales to the Labor faithful from the ACT Labor Party, and, just prior to the event, Barry Cohen wrote a piece in The Australian in which he said same-sex marriage was 'absurd' and compared it to his right to marry his dog. This caused some outrage among some of the activists within the party who urged me to cancel the event with Barry Cohen. I had to say to them, yes, he's wrong on marriage equality—at least in my view and theirs—but this was a man so profoundly right on so many of the social justice questions of our age. His opposition to apartheid came decades earlier than mainstream Australian opinion. His attitude to Indigenous Australians on the environment came earlier. I thought of that great John Donne line, 'Thine age asks ease' and the importance, at the end of a great life, of allowing a little sensitivity, a little forgiveness and a little understanding, and encompassing the mark of an entire career.
Barry Cohen's career was an extraordinary one. He brought wit, humour and happiness to the parliament, a cleaner environment to the nation and a sense of commitment to public life that we honour today as we honoured it yesterday at that most moving funeral service at Old Parliament House. May he rest in peace.