Following in the footsteps of power

Following in the footsteps of power

James Button's tale of being a PM's words man is also a memoir of his famous father.

I WAS always going to take the job writing speeches for Kevin Rudd, despite the warnings. How often do you get a chance to write for a Prime Minister? Would you want to die wondering? Anyone would ask these questions, but for me they had a particular force.

My father was seventy-five when he died in 2008, six months after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He had been a labour lawyer, a senator for nineteen years, Industry Minister for ten and a member of the Labor Party for fifty-five. He was a small, intense, intelligent man, with thin hair and a high forehead - both of which he passed on to me - an elusive charm, a sharp tongue and the power to make people laugh. He had a big life and mostly a good one, but a hard death.

We emerged from those grim days on a sunny April morning to find the church packed. More than eight hundred people had come to the funeral, including two former Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and Malcolm Fraser. The speakers told funny and uplifting stories about him; how he helped the ALP to emerge from the constant defeats of the '50s, '60s and '70s, its long night.

In his eulogy, Bill Hayden spoke of the most painful episode of his career. He and my father had been friends. As two of the four leaders of the Parliamentary Labor Party, they had worked closely together to rebuild the party after the heavy defeats of 1975 and 1977. But in early 1983 my father had switched his support for the leadership from Hayden to Bob Hawke. In a letter, he said that while he had been loyal to Hayden at all times, ''My ultimate loyalty must be to the ALP … I believe that you cannot win the next election.''

From that deed emerged the Hawke leadership and the Hawke- Keating government, the second-longest and arguably the best government in the country's history. But it broke the friendship for a long time. Twenty-five years later, here was Hayden saying that my father had conveyed the hardest of messages in the manner of a friend ''who delivers bad personal news with honesty and courage and, I think I'd add, grace''.


Hayden said with a twinkle that he was left with only one regret: ''I should have challenged John and inquired directly: 'But do you really think Bob would want to take this job?'''

Although Hayden and my father had mended their rift many years before, I was moved that he told this story on this day. Yet, of all the speeches, it was a speech by the former Victorian Premier, John Cain, that affected me most.

I had known John all my life. He and my father belonged to a small but influential group, the Participants, that fought to broaden the Victorian ALP in the 1960s. In the church, John began his speech by describing a certain kind of Melbourne person, one who loved the arts, cafe society and sport. Who loved talk and ideas. Who advocated for human rights and democracy, and who saw education as the key to a fairer society. Who was not materialistic, and whose sympathies lay naturally with the underdog. And who believed that political involvement was a duty of citizenship.

But this society had not come about by chance, Cain said. There had been great battles to make Victoria and Australia more modern and sophisticated, more open to the world. Some of them had been fought first inside the Labor Party. In the early 1960s, said Cain, the party leadership was authoritarian, arrogant and out of touch. ''If I were to paint the picture in Victoria, I would say it was bad for Labor people. Many forget how bad, and many choose to forget!''

Cain's words unsettled me. These men had believed in something, something big enough to have drawn them deep into the drudgery of politics. They had written articles and party constitutions, run candidates for committees, endured a thousand meetings. They had lobbied, caucused, plotted, persuaded. They weren't radicals or ''idealists seeking some earthly Utopia'', as Cain put it. They were social democrats, practical men, who knew in their bones the truth of the Whitlam line my father liked to quote: ''The way of the reformer is hard in Australia.''

He and his mates rarely called it the Labor Party. It was always ''the party'' or the ALP. As a boy I stared at that word on papers lying around our house: the ALP, the Alp, the mountain we had to climb. I was born in the era of Robert Menzies, in his own blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Kooyong, in a state then called the jewel in the Liberal crown, in a country my parents saw as one of the most conservative on Earth. To be Labor was to be perennially out of power, almost against the grain of the society. When Whitlam finally won, in 1972, Labor had been out of office for twenty-three years.

But my father stuck it out. From joining the ALP in 1952, through the 1955 Split, Labor's non-swinging '60s, federal intervention into the Victorian branch in 1971, then the Dismissal and seven more years in the marshes of Opposition until he finally became a minister, he kept the faith. Sitting at his funeral in April, 2008, with Labor in power in Canberra and in every state and territory, in an Australia that was profoundly changed from the one I grew up in, and mostly for the better, I was sure his work was done.

Edited extract of Speechless: A year in my father's business by James Button, published by Random House Australia.

This book is one of 10 Victorian titles included in the State Library's Summer Read program. Visit a participating public library and recommend one of the books for your chance to win a prize.

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