Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Vale John Button

John Button, Australia's greatest Industry Minister, passed away yesterday.

8 Truth On Comments:

Graziella D'Amico said...

John Button was a great man. Below is a tribute from Paul Keating published in a special edition of Crikey that was sent to subscribers late last night:

Former Labor senator John Button died overnight at 74. We were waiting for a fitting tribute, then along came Paul Keating. This is what he thought:

John Button is a real loss to the country and the Labor Party alike.

A lawyer who inhabited the centre ground of Victorian Labor politics, he was material in returning the pendulum of Labor politics from the left, where it had stuck fast for a quarter of a century, to the political centre.

A consequence of his work within the Independents’ group was the advent of the Cain Labor government and with that change, the underlying fabric of Victorian politics returned to the Labor fold, where it has more or less remained, for just on thirty years.

A person needs a lot of horsepower to be at the forefront of such a change, and while it was not all John Button’s work, he left his fingerprints on all the important bits.

In his prime, he was more or less despised by the left and the right. In the swing position, he played corner politics with cunning and élan. Some would say too cunning, others mercurial, while the impartial onlooker might say inspired.

As a Senator, he was a member of the post-Whitlam government group lead by Bill Hayden in 1977. That group, the reform ministers of the 1980s and early 1990s, came together as a coherent unit out of conviction borne by the defeat of the Whitlam government and the fact that post-War growth, worldwide, had collapsed from the mid 70s in the context of hyperinflation.

John Button like every other member of the group knew that the old closed way for Australia, the old Australian economic defence model was coming to an end. Like the rest of us, he was not sure what should take its place but he knew it had to be something competitive and more open.

As a person with a background in legal issues, including such things as civil liberties, it was a surprise to us all that he asked Bob Hawke for the Ministry of Manufacturing Industry. I remember going to his office after our swearing in and saying ‘what are you going to do with this job?’ He said ‘I dunno; something! God knows, something needs to done.’ Pretty much reflecting the mood of most of us.

Button was a case book example of giving a complex job to a person with a good mind, one formerly unsullied by its complexities, leaving the mind to sift through the issues, while coming to a new set of conclusions. As it turned out, he was the Minister for Manufacturing Industry at the fulcrum point of that industry’s development and history.

He and I had great battles over tariffs and for the tariff reductions announced in the May Statement of 1988 and the Industry Statement of 1991. But he knew the reform mantle meant he had to see his constituency’s interests in a longer term perspective. I remember calling him at home one Saturday morning in 1991, urging on him a further reduction in general manufacturing protection to 5% by the year 2000. I said ‘come on John, in for a penny, in for a quid’ and in a measure of all that was good and brave about him, he said ‘why not?’.

He drove a hard bargain at the Cabinet table on adjustment packages for particular industries, perhaps best known being the car industry, but being prepared to play the game, whilst being charming with it, I found him, at once, exasperating yet irresistible.

He was a fully paid up and foundation member of the reform group of ministers, the one that changed Australia forever. Deep personal losses in John’s life meant his heart and mind were always vulnerable to issues which affected the needy or those less well off.

He had a large group of friends and political associates and of course, many he picked up in his lifelong support of the Geelong Football Club. He was a warmly regarded person, yet for all that, he was always a loner. An intellectual loner and a political loner. None of us held that against him, because the same epitaph may be stuck to so many of us.

For all that, he held firmly to one idea throughout his life, and that was that political life was the highest calling, within which great things could be done; where the greatest leverage existed. And as his life’s work attests, he stuck to that idea with enthusiasm and perseverance.

John Button is gone but he will not be forgotten, inasmuch that at some point, we are all forgotten. Those of us who were close to him will always remember his penchant for devilment, for the zany and the unpredictable, but also the fun in being around such a quixotic character.

PJ Keating
8 April 2008

Anonymous said...

fat boy andy admires his fellow jailbird brian burke

fat boy andy admires a bloke who stole from his own party and whose incompetence in governemnt cost the workers, businesses and taxpayers of western australia billions of dollars

with views like that, no wonder no-one ever visits fat andys blog of sleaze

no wonder he has to post all his exciting revelations about young liberals and student politics and suburban councils over on this site and accompany them with paens of praise from his various sock puppets

Anonymous said...

Lots about Young Liberals, student pollies, councillors and rants about The Age (an earlier post about a price rise pulled) and Solly Lew at Buddha Boy's blog but he seems to have missed John Button's death.

Cait Catt said...

The OC DID cover the death of John Button. Here it is. Read on:

VALE JOHN BUTTON: A Very Clever Politician

I'd met John Button a few times and found him to be very friendly. I liked him. He was shorter than me, something I usually find agreeable.

Normally when people die, it's appropriate to just lavish praise on them and be done with that. I very nearly wrote something along those lines.

In this case, I think given the former Senator's very frank approach to some things, I thought it best we return the favour and really just describe his life and times honestly from the biased perspective of someone who was just a kid (admittedly with an obsessive interest in politics) at the time when Button was a very big figure in Australian political life.

As Labor's long-time Senate leader, John Button played an active role in resisting then reluctantly supporting Bob Hawke's ascension to the Labor leadership and then the Prime Ministership. For the role he played in finally forcing the transition to Hawke, he deserves great recognition.

Bill Hayden's assertion that a "drover's dog" could have won the 1983 election for Labor was quite wrong. Fraser was one of the biggest wastes of space ever to lead our country but he was politically astute and certainly had Hayden's measure.

Putting party politics aside, there can be no doubt that the government Hawke and Button led was a mostly good administration that opened up the economy and made a few very tough decisions from which we have all benefited.


But Button will also be fondly remembered by those who loved a bit of boardroom luncheon industry planning with taxpayer funded handouts for dessert.

He inherited big messes in many different industries which had grown hopelessly incompetent under the weight of years of government protection and meddling.

He belonged to an era when it apparently took government "leadership" to "save the car industry". Call me Adam Smith if you like, but shouldn't the foreign companies who assemble cars here and the many thousands of good Australians who work for them have been considered principally responsible for that task?

There are some who say - including those whose opinion we regard very highly - that this set of views makes me a "latte sipper", an accusation any patriot would find disturbing. The simple truth is that it is elites and the super-rich who benefit from protectionism, not workers and not battlers.

I should emphasise though - given the disturbingly large number of public servants who read the OC - that if any government agency wishes to cut me a bank cheque to prop up any commercial enterprise they feel should be a "national priority" or part of Australia's "future strategic direction for national development" that my views can be remarkably malleable.

Consider the wondrous nation-building possibilities of creating my own fighter jet with massive government subsidy, known as the Landeryou Freedom Fighter. The economics might be all Spruce Goose, but the considers the jobs we could create. The factory would verily be a sea of AWU true blue navy blue polo shirts too, I solemnly swear. We'd have more jobs on than the LHMU carpark on a Friday night.


You never hear of government intervention to save the fast food industry despite the recent heart-breaking loss of the Sydney Road Brunswick Red Rooster outlet. Its boarded up windows have been a devastating blow to local patriots looking for an occasional alternative to the KFC over the road. If only our local federal MP Kelvin Thomson could have arranged a loan package or special sweetheart deal to keep this uneconomic store going. Sounds stupid doesn't it? That's because it is.

And we dare not forget Button's role in the shocker handout to the Kodak film factory in Coburg (long since defunct) where nearly $40 million of taxpayer hard-earned was slopped out to a foreign owned factory to keep them going just a few years longer.

It was all bad. And to some extent this continued with the Howard Government whose commitment to free trade could not exactly be described as zealous. With Kim Carr large and in charge, who knows how far back we'll turn back the clock to Black Jack McEwen time.

To be fair though, the trend in government policy under Button was of scaling back, sometimes very quickly, the extent of government meddling in the economy. Industries like textile, clothing and footwear were transformed from sleepy protected sweat-shops where crooks like Sol Lew made a killing with government tariffs and all that bailing them out to a vital value-adding high-growth area that is increasingly export focused where the jobs focus on delivering to market what people really want at the lowest possible price not just grunt work.

It was a matter of great scandal that successive post-war governments had created this regime of "protection" for Australian industry that ruthlessly shafted Australian consumers to benefit a few Rolls Royce driving cynical factory owners who very rarely shared the benefits of their privilege with workers.

Australian consumers propped up the whole corrupt arrangement by paying higher prices for clothes and shoes for their kids, cars for their families and many other essentials of life.

Button deserves credit for his role in removing a big part of this.


And of course being in the ALP, contrary to some press reports, Button was very active factionally. In the Victorian ALP for most of the time I observed such things he voted with his "Independents faction" for almost exclusively Socialist Left candidates, an arrangement which continues to this day. Then as now, these "Independents" don't support candidates or ideas on merit, they support who and what they have to in order to protect their own base.

This is all a little different from the image of a straight-shooting, non-factional wise-man that he worked so hard to create.

Not polite to say so with the body still warm and all but there's been a fair bit of clever media manipulation by John Button over the years and while I suppose that sounds like criticism, it's not meant that way. He was clever and a fair bit smarter than those who were writing about him. He used that fact to great effect.


So having denounced the wily old fox for being an industry planner and an SL ally, it is only right to acknowledge his great wit and charm.

He wrote very memorably in The Age I think it was about his transition from the world of chauffeured limousines for decades to the alien landscape of having to find a carpark and queue to pay a bill.

He really could write beautifully and incisively. The Australian recalls some very funny lines:

In his memoirs, John Button, As It Happened, he wrote of Whitlam: "I admired Gough Whitlam, but not as much as he did." And of Hawke: "I couldn't help but admire his capacity to stand back, look at himself, and like what he saw."...And he wrote of Tim Fischer: "He spoke a strange language, a sort of Albury Afrikaans."

He was honest. Disarmingly so and used that as a very effective weapon at times to self-promote and also to get what he wanted. The Press Gallery lapped up every word he said. He was good copy because mostly he told it how it was, always knowing its impact.


In retirement, he occasionally succumbed to the temptation of slagging those who succeeded him, earning the rebuke of patriot Senator-Elect David Feeney who wrote of the "superannuated glitterati" piously interfering in the workings of the Party.

To Button's credit, he loved that mocking and accurate Feeney line (I heard him use it against himself in the self-deprecation mode he did so well), recognising perhaps in its author Feeney what many of us do, a Senator to be who could easily rise to the same great heights that Button did.

Less honourably, Button discovered a strident opposition to branch-stacking when it wasn't the Socialist Left doing it and felt the need to stick it to the ALP reasonably often with appreciative Age journalists.

Fair enough to oppose your lefty mates being done over, as he did with Gavan O'Connor, a time-server who ultimately ratted on the ALP in the most disgraceful circumstances, but prettying up his complaints as anything other tribalism was misleading and wrong.

But the ALP loves its history and its characters as we recalled in our reasonably friendly slap and tickle stoush with firebrand Lefty Pete Steedman in recent days.

And John Button will be long remembered as a big player, a huge figure in one of the nation's most successful reforming governments, a wily factional player and masterful press manipulator. In the OC's world, that's very high praise indeed.

Game on.

Anonymous said...

Fat Boy, you really are pathologically unable to tell the full truth, aren't you?

Yes, your Blog of Sleaze did run a report on John Button's death, but why won't you or you pathetic split personalities admit that it appeared more than 24 hours after the story broke?

Were you too busy covering student elections at the Wagga Wagga campus of Charles Sturt University or some other matter of vital importance and great interest?

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