Thursday, April 17, 2008

John Button's funeral - a personal note

From left, former PMs Malcolm Fraser and Paul Keating, former Governors General Peter Hollingworth and Bill Hayden, leave John Button's funeral. Picture: by David Crosling from The Australian

Monday (14 April 08) Dee and I flew to Melbourne for John Button's state funeral. I am glad I went and at many different levels, although getting there proved far more of a battle than I expected.

Saturday night was one of those bad nights we all get from time to time when coming down with something. I spent most of Sunday alternating between bedroom and bathroom. Monday morning dawned somewhat better, but I was still pretty fragile.

I had to go to work first, but decided to come back home from the office and go to the airport by car. Dee was coming from a different direction.

Car may sound odd given airport parking costs, but we are so close to the airport that it is almost impossible to get a taxi to take you, worse coming back. Most drivers in fact refuse a $13-15 fare. As it turned out, a major accident meant that it took me an hour twenty to drive the few kays. Fortunately the plane was delayed, otherwise I would have missed it.

The story continued in Melbourne as the taxi took a rather circuitous route. In all, it was after nine before we got to the restaurant, a five hour trip!

The dinner group was a mixed one.

One of the three Departmental secretaries I had worked for, a deputy secretary from his period, as well as a previous senior SES officer who in fact took over one of my old branches. Then there were John Button's former staff. These included a well-known fellow blogger. Finally me, Departmental but married to a former staff member.

I am not going to give names of those there, nor am I going to talk about the details of conversations. I do not feel it to be appropriate. However, I will talk about a few threads that were important to me.

I am not naturally gregarious unless in the right mood or where the role demands it. This is especially true if I am not feeling good in myself. I am sure that many of you can understand this. So I was actually nervous and a bit uncertain.

I need not have worried. I was sitted immediately between one of John's staffers who had the same interests as me and John's former personal secretary, a rather nice women who I liked and who has worked for the former Victorian Premier John Cain for the last fifteen years. Other staffers who I had known were also friendly. So there was a pleasant atmosphere and lots to talk about.

A fair bit of the conversation dealt with issues relating to the office, internal workings of Government and the ALP. I obviously found this interesting, although very much as an outsider to some of it. However, there were a couple of points in overall conversation that pulled me up rather short.

At one point in answer to a question from some of my former colleagues, I mentioned that I was doing some work for a NSW Government agency. This led to fierce criticism of the incompetence of the NSW system to the point that I felt obliged to defend at least my immediate colleagues.

More importantly, in discussion with one former Button staff member (a discussion that would have made some of my former staff cranky), he gave a number of examples where he and the office had had to force action or positions on the Department.

I did not disagree with his positions. What struck me, pulled me up short, was that these were areas where we had previously had clearly defined policy positions and supporting processes that fitted pretty well with what he was trying to achieve. He had no idea of this.

How, I was forced to ask myself, had I failed so badly that while some things went on from strength to strength, the core knowledge and supporting positions that formed the soul had been lost in such a short time? I need to think about this because it links directly to my part completed post, Saturday Morning Musings - Finding new approaches to policy development, and to my broader musings on public policy.

Dinner finished quite late.

The next day dawned cool and overcast. The funeral was at 10.15, but we had been advised the night before to get there about an hour early to be sure of finding a seat, so we left the hotel about 8.30 to find a place to eat.

I have always liked Melbourne. The city is very different, appearance and feel, from other Australian cities. We found a cafe and I had one of the nicest cups of coffee that I have ever had.

There was already a large crowd by the time we arrived at the church. The thing that struck me first, almost with a sense of shock, was the large crowd of elderly gray haired men and, to a lesser degree, women.

This probably sounds very odd. Of course many of John Button's friends and colleagues were going to be older, he was seventy five when he died.

The thing was that in attending the funeral I was going back twenty years. These were people that, in many cases, I had not seen since that time when they were at the height of their careers and I was a relatively young SES officer. My visual images of them were twenty years old. There was actually a physical re-adjustment as I looked at the crowd and tried to link past and present images.

Outside the church there were a series of tables with pads on which people could write their names. We did so, then moved to the church entrance where our names were checked-off a list of attendees. Here people were split into two groups: close family friends and major dignitaries in one line going into the body of the church, the rest of us into another line moving towards a flight of stairs.

Climbing the stairs, we found ourselves in a balcony area that swept in a semi-circle like a theatre from front to front around the church. I had never heard of St Michael's, so the church's size and charm came as a surprise.

We found seats with a group from the previous evening and passed the time chatting and watching new arrivals. There is something seriously addictive about spotting people that you don't know, but recognise from TV!

Time passed and the church began to get very warm. Still not well and after a late night, I began to get uncomfortable. The Queen must have a constitution of cast iron when you consider the volume of her ceremonial activities. I was just thinking that I might have to leave when I was saved by the start of the service. This was both entertaining and intensely fascinating to someone like me.

We all see people through a prism set by the areas where our life and theirs overlap, interact. So we only ever see a slice.

In my case, the relationship was professional, friendly but set by the bounds of our respective positions. I knew of some of his other interests from conversations and the media, but did not know the details. The service slowly unveiled a picture of a multi-faceted man determined to enjoy life, a man who used humour and laughter at himself and others to mask internal pain and the sometimes dislocation caused by his own personality, including dislocation in his personal life.

The service also provided fascinating insights into Victorian, especially Melbourne, intellectual life and politics. Just as Melbourne is different from other cities, so are its intellectual life and politics. I think that a person from outside Victoria, especially one with limited knowledge of Australian history, might have sat in puzzled silence at some points.

Finally, the service was in itself a historical event. This was a gathering of an old political guard who had shared great events, a gathering in which secrets were revealed and an old wound publicly healed.

The service was opened by the minister at St Michael's, Dr Francis Macnab, a long time friend of John Button's. Author (among other things) of Don't Call Me Grumpy: What older men really want, Dr Macnab is an internationally recognised psychologist.

Dr Macnab opened by explaining that John Button had not wanted a heavy religious content. There were just two hymns that John had selected himself, The Lord's My Shepherd (Scottish Psalter 1650) and William Blake's Jerusalem.

I found this choice interesting because they are two of my favourites.

The first provides a message of hope to the living and has been one of the most sung and best loved Christian hymns for a very long time. The second, while mystical and very English, is actually a call for change:
I will not cease from mental flight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.
Dr Macnab then provided an overview of John Button and his life.

Dr Macnab was followed by John Cain, the former Premier of Victoria from 1982-1990.

In a talk spiced with dry humour, Mr Cain spoke especially of the role that John Button had played in the reform and rebuilding of the Victorian ALP after the split of 1955. To understand this, we need to go back into the past.

During the Second World War, the Australian Communist Party emerged as a strong unified party with a growing power base in the unions that threatened previous Labor Party links with the union movement. The ALP formed groups to counter the communist threat.

During this same period, the staunch Roman Catholic and strongly anti-communist Bob Santamaria created the Movement as an anti-communist force. With links deep within the Roman Catholic Church, the Movement fought communist influence and sought to take control of the groups, in so doing threatening to take control of the Labor Party itself.

While both Movement and Communist Party operated nationally, both were especially strong in Victoria. In 1955, tensions within the Victorian ALP came to a head and the Party split, a split that then extended across Australia, leading to the formation of the Democratic Labor Party.

The end result was an emasculated Labor Party, dominated in Victoria by a faction more concerned with ideological purity and the maintenance of its own position than with actually winning elections. A reform group including John Button, then a lawyer with the Labor law firm Maurice Blackburn, was formed to fight the dominant faction.

The task seemed hopeless. The reform group was consistently out-voted five to one. Yet it was finally to win.

In all this, there was a persistent letter writer called Arthur Cartwright. Well informed, Cartwright wrote scathing letters and articles attacking the dominant group within the Victorian ALP. These were not without influence, leading the head of the dominant group to remark I can put up with you blokes … But wait 'til I get hold of that Arthur Cartwright.

Only at the funeral was it revealed by John Cain that John Button was Arthur Cartwright. It was also revealed that Arthur Cartwright survived long after the period in question, writing (among other things) persistent letters to the Geelong Australian Rules Football Club - the Cats - providing trenchant criticism of the Cats' performance!

Nor was this the only example of a Button nom de plume. We learned that he had a love of different identities and indeed of disguises even during his ministerial period. I had a vision of this gnome - John Button was a very small man - sitting there chuckling as he planned his escapades.

John Cain was followed by former Labor Opposition Leader, Minister and Governor General Bill Hayden. This was something of a surprise, because John Button was the man who told Bill Hayden in 1983 that he had to stand down as Opposition Leader to make way for Bob Hawke. This action put Labor into power under Hawke, but fractured a long friendship.

In a gracious speech marked by the same type of dry humour as John Cain's, Bill Hayden spoke of his long friendship with John Button, starting with the event that had, for so long, fractured that friendship.

Mr Hayden outlined events, acknowledging that John Button had not only approached the issue with integrity, but was also acting in the interests of the Party. He also read a message from Bob Hawke who was in China and could not return, thus capturing all three points of the triangle in one speech.

At the end of this segment of Mr Hayden's speech, he got one of the most massive laughs of the morning. After a perceptible pause, he said: In all this, I never thought to ask John whether Bob wanted the job. The audience literally dissolved in laughter.

An article by Alan Ramsey written after the funeral provides a rather good overview of this episode.
Bill Hayden was followed by long standing friend Jim Kennan SC, a leading lawyer and former Labor Victorian Attorney General, who spoke of other aspects of John Button's life including his sense of humour, love of disguises and proclivity for practical jokes.

In turn, Morag Fraser, a former editor of Eureka Street and currently Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University, spoke of his style and contribution to cultural activities. In her words:

He was a complex individual who retained a child's capacity for wonder and a child's capacity for precocious insights.
Nick and James Button followed. Nick read a poem by Peter Gebhardt specially written for John Button, while James spoke of John from a family perspective.

I really admire James. I have read his articles with interest, one triggering a post.

It cannot always have been easy growing up with John Button as a father.

Children with prominent parents or grandparents often face problems. You meet people, but have to cope with attitudes and expectations created by your family.

In my case in the gold-fish bowl of Armidale, I had to deal with expectations linked to both my father and grandfather. James and Nick had to deal with this type of pressure and divorce, remarriage, divorce, long term partnership.

In one of those coincidences, on the day of John Button's second marriage Denise and I decided to go to Sydney to see the Max Gilles Show at the Seymour Theatre. We were still keeping our relationship somewhat secret at this point from everyone in the Department and Minister's Office.

Blow me down, at intermission we ran into John Button and his new wife. He just stood there and twinkled at us as we talked!

James handled all the internal family issues in a gentle and inclusive fashion. He gave great praise to Joan Grant, John's partner in the last ten years of his life. Later, outside the church, I greatly admired the composure with which James handled the conflicting pressures of family and friends.

The service ended. With so many trying to get out of the church, it all took time. Outside I watched while Denise moved away to talk to some of the people she had known.

We thought of going to the refreshments that had been organised at Ormond College, but felt that we were really bit players in all this, that it would not have been quite right to go. Instead, we escaped away to have lunch at one of those laneway Italian restaurants that Melbourne has and which Clover Moore, Sydney's Mayor, so wishes to see in Sydney.

While getting to Melbourne was not easy, both Dee and I were just so glad that we had gone.


Anonymous said...


A very interesting post - thank you for the personal insight.

Who says grumpy old Public Servants don't retain an acute and very perceptive sense of perspective?


Jim Belshaw said...

Hey, KVD, not so much grumpy, please!

Seriously, I enjoyed writing this post. I was trying to capture feels and moods, as well as the serious stuff. My thanks.