Condolences: Barry Cohen 3/4/1935 – 18/12/2017

Senator O’NEILL  (New South Wales) (16:02): It is a sad occasion on which to rise, but I absolutely appreciate the opportunity to put on the record remarks around the amazing Barry Cohen. I recall the first time I met Barry Cohen. I was considering running for preselection and I was advised that I should go and meet him. In all the years I had lived on the coast, and being only a fairly recently joining member of the Labor Party, I hadn’t had the pleasure of making his company. So I went to the bottle shop on the way at the bottom of the hill, I picked up a bottle of red and a bottle of white and I proceeded up to the top of the hill to what’s now known as the Walkabout Wildlife Park but was Barry’s Calga Springs Sanctuary at the time. I was greeted first by a wallaby and then by Barry, emerging from the back of the house at the call of his wife, Rae. He stood on the balcony and he looked me up and down; I had the two bottles in my hand. He said, ‘Oh, well, what have you got there?’ I said, ‘Barry, I didn’t know if you liked red or white, so I brought one of each.’ He said, ‘I don’t know anything about you, darling, but I like your style.’ That was our first encounter.

What a generous and wise mentor he was for me on so many occasions. That evening we sat as the sun set, and the wallabies jumped around in a free and open environment, which was quite a radical departure from the way in which engagement with our native animals is often experienced by tourists to Australia. Barry had vision there and he created this wonderful sanctuary that is a hallmark of the tourist industry that is part of the Central Coast. I’m very pleased to say that just last week I was in a local shop, talking to a young girl who has undertaken some training at TAFE and is on a disability support. She loves animals and she is going to work at the Walkabout Wildlife Park. It has been a great place of engagement for people in our local community.

I wanted to acknowledge that Barry’s passing on 18 December was something that really affected so many people on the Central Coast who have been long-term residents. Barry was very much a part of the furniture. I know that, when he retired from politics and when he finally sold the business that he had up there on the Central Coast and moved to Bungendore, he was still very much enamoured of the political process, for all its flaws—and I noted Senator Wong’s comments about his capacity to critique and to laugh at the lunacy of some of the things that happened around this place. He was still a passionate believer in the power of democracy to improve people’s lives, and the passion that it is possible to bring to politics, to bring about change.

Much has been said of Barry’s contributions to a range of policy areas, particularly the environment. In my conversations with Barry, the one particular issue that he spoke to me most commonly about was his efforts to improve and change practices to enhance road safety. There was always this profoundly practical dimension to the ideas that Barry wanted to advance, and he spoke with great joy about the changes that he was able to make and the lives of Australians that had been saved as a result of that policymaking that he was part of.

On that very first meeting that I had with Barry, he gave me some reading to take away with me—which shouldn’t surprise people. Amongst the reading—also no surprise—was one of his very own books. In fact, it was How to Become Prime Minister, which Barry wrote in 1990, six years before I even joined the Labor Party. It was a wonderful entry for me, through him, into his perspective on what happens here in Canberra.

Barry married Rae McNeill in October 1959. To Rae and their three sons, Stuart, Adam and Martin, and to Barry’s grandchildren, I convey my deepest condolences, as a long-term resident of the Central Coast, for and on behalf of the people of the Central Coast. Certainly, as a Labor person, he is writ large in our history. But I also wanted to acknowledge that the community remembers some remarkable local contributions that Barry made. Many of you would have heard of the RED scheme, which was a very significant way of getting funding into the local community. The RED scheme on the Central Coast, on Barry’s watch, delivered the very first versions of our surf lifesaving clubs up and down the coast. That was the way in which Barry engaged with the local people on a very, very practical level. Those surf clubs became the foundation institutions and the foundation places in which the community gathered at Copacabana, where I live; at Macmasters Beach; at Terrigal; at Avoca. That section of Robertson that he represented relied on those buildings to create spaces in which we could become a community in what was a very much a growing area at the time.

As Senator Wong has indicated, Barry Cohen won the seat in 1969. He wrested it from Liberal control, which it had been under for 20 years, and then held onto it till his retirement in 1990, no small feat in what is still declared pretty much a bellwether seat. Barry was part of the community. He read it very well, he appreciated the people who were there and he had an amazing set of allies. In fact, I recall him talking to me about a local real estate agent by the name of George Brand, who has real estate offices right across the coast. George Brand comes from the area of Copacabana where I live. Barry said that one day this fellow rolled up in his office wearing his stubbies shorts and a T-shirt, and he said he didn’t know who he was. He walked in and just said, ‘I’d like to contribute to your campaign, Barry,’ and just put the money straight down and helped him out. Local businesses really understood that, to grow their businesses, they needed a great member who was going to make practical enhancements to our local community and deliver the roads that enable communities to function and enable businesses to function. They had a great friend in Barry Cohen.

Before, during and after politics, Barry Cohen was very true to his cultural and faith tradition. He championed always a very strong and enduring friendship between Australia and Israel, and he never resiled from his commitment to that end. He certainly shared with me on a regular basis his thoughts about pressing matters with regard to our international relations.

Barry’s determination to try and help shape the debate, both at a local level and the national level, continued, as has been indicated, well after his parliamentary career. He continued to write books and he continued to go around the country. I’m sure that there was a powerful educative impact from Barry telling the stories of the human interactions that happen in this place, revealing the flawed nature, but also the possible nature, of the work that we do. I noted in the comments that Bill Shorten made yesterday—and I’m very sad to say that parliamentary business prevented me from being able to attend that memorial service yesterday as a former member for Robertson—when he paid tribute to Barry’s record in the parliament by indicating Barry’s response to his final illness of Alzheimer’s, his turning it from a personal struggle into a policy challenge. He certainly communicated with me, at least early in his illness, his ideas about what needed to be tackled. As Bill Shorten said, he did not go gently into that good night. Instead, he took up the fight on behalf of every Australian living with dementia, urging politicians from all sides to deliver a better deal for older Australians. I think that passion that he embodied in his last policy push remains a signature for a life lived in great service of the Australian people. I am proud to have called him my friend.