Bill's Speeches

STATE MEMORIAL SERVICE FOR THE HONOURABLE BARRY COHEN AM - CANBERRA - MONDAY, 5 FEBRUARY 2018

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The great Fred Daly's warning to a young Barry Cohen is part of Labor folklore. 

Fred said to Barry:

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

Just how lucky are we that Barry ignored that advice. 

How lucky are we that alongside his passion for public service, his love of family, 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. 

How lucky are we that this marvellous raconteur, this irrepressible force of fun, chronicled so many moments of wit, slapstick, and farce in the columns of The Australian, The Bulletin and a prodigious number of books. 

Barry Cohen did not try and write ponderous tomes which magnified every decision through the lens of posterity.

He did not use his words to settle scores or re-write history. 

Instead, his love was for the humour which makes politics human. The everyday mistakes, the mini-disasters that occurred in these halls, on the world stage, and in marginal seat campaign trail - where he had no equal as a campaigner, organiser and reader of people. 

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

Barry had an exceptional recall of Whitlam witticisms, an ‘anec-doctorate’ some called it. He could do a first rate impression of the great man.

But he was never afraid to be the punchline of his own jokes either. 

As you would know, he was extremely proud of his background in menswear - the insights and expedience that he gained from starting and running a small business.

In fact, when he started his first menswear shop in Gordon in 1959, a friend of  Barry's suggested he visit another shop on the Pacific highway that specialised in artistic bric-a-brac, to add some character to the interior. 

It just so happened that 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 brought a few pieces and on his way out, the owner asked him if he was interested in purchasing some of his son's paintings. And he pointed to five he had hanging in the shop. 

“15 quid each, or all five for 60 pounds.” 

Barry said:

“I don't know much about art - and I was not about to be conned by an old-codger trying to sell his son's paintings.” 

So he simply replied:

“It is 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, Senator and senior public servants to promote our Australian film industry. 

One night after a screening, he got in 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’. You try to remember the mistakes you made or the ones you don't think they know. 

So Barry ran through Kings Hall, down the corridor to the lobby of the Prime Minister's office. 

Where the secretary on duty told him that Mr Hawke has been trying to get in touch with him for more than three hours. 

This did nothing to settle Barry's nerves. 

But he summoned up the 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?’” 

In all seriousness, today we honour and remember a remarkable man with an extraordinary legacy. 

He safeguarded some of Australia's most precious national treasures for future generations: from Uluru, to Kakadu, to the Great Barrier Reef. 

He championed the security of Israel and stronger ties and 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 400,000 Australians living with dementia, he did not go gentle into that good night. 

In fact, that’s when I came to know him best. 

Not from his remarkable six columns in The Australian extolling my virtues - a feat never to be repeated. But as an irrepressible and irresistible advocate for a better deal for older Australians. 

I think we know: all that charisma, all that humour, all that passion, all of that undoubted love for his family, of whom he was very proud and talked to me at length about – all that lifetime of campaigning experience channelled into a cause so often overlooked. 

We do not 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 has raised us, taught us and helped build a modern Australia.

But when we find the cure, when every older Australia and their family can enjoy a life of greater dignity and security, Barry Cohen will be due a measure of great credit.

On behalf of the Labor family, Rae, I say to your family: thank you. Thank you for  lending Barry to our cause and to the nation. 

We are all the better for his contribution to our country. 

May he rest in peace.


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