Parliamentary speeches

Vale Barney Cooney

February 13, 2019

It was my very great pleasure to have known Barney Cooney almost all my adult life, and it is a privilege to be able to say a few words in tribute to him and to commemorate him in this place, in a building that he loved and contributed so much to. I also want to pay tribute to all of his family—his wife, Lillian, and all of their children, whom I've had a chance to come across in various capacities. I'm sure this is a difficult time for them and I hope the words that have been spoken already about Barney will bring them some comfort and perhaps the occasional smile as well. I was particularly pleased to be here for the contribution of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition, the member for Sydney, who spoke typically with charm, insight and real feeling about Barney and captured the man as I knew him too.

Barney Cooney was a barrister and, in that, made a great contribution, building on the foundations of his views and his sense of how the world should be: a very deep Catholic faith, married to a deep belief in social justice and a membership of the Socialist Left—an unusual combination, in my experience, but one that characterised all of his contributions in his work and public life. As a barrister, he did much, but I think most importantly he pulled together the review that founded Victoria's no-fault workers compensation scheme, a scheme of enormous importance to millions.

Beyond his time at the bar, he was elected to Australia's Senate, where he served for 17 years. He brought to the Senate all of his personal qualities and an understanding of the importance of that chamber to this parliament and to our nation, with his passion for human rights, his love of detail and the law, and his absolute commitment not only to his values in politics but to finding ways to express them that brought people together regardless of their philosophical or ideological differences. It was always striking to me how people of diametrically opposed views could love Barney as much as those of us who were closer to him on the political spectrum. I think that's a great tribute to anyone in this place—to have those friendships and that appreciation across the aisle.

He was characterised by three qualities: generosity, decency and compassion. His decency shone through in the way he treated everyone. The member for Sydney made clear that, when she changed her status in this place from a staffer to a member of the House of Representatives, he spoke to her in exactly the same way. I think that is a beautiful shorthand for how he saw people as fundamentally equal. He was, though, deeply compassionate and always looking for those who needed help to find a voice or to find their path through life.

Most of all, I found Barney to be generous. Many of us on this side of the House, on this side of politics, talk about our commitment to collectivism; few practice it in the way that Barney Cooney did, with a profound interest in and respect for the people around them and a desire to always bring them along. I am one of many—and my great friend the member for Bruce may also touch on this—who know that the Victorian Labor Party today is a much better place for Barney Cooney's generosity. There's a generation of people in this place, and in Victoria's parliament, who are there because of his work in the seventies, with people like John Cain, to open up our party and his work through his time in formal politics and, more particularly, after it. They share the benefit of his experience, wisdom, empathy and understanding of the world as it is and his deep belief in the world as it should be.

Barney Cooney was kind enough to move my admission as a lawyer. It's pretty clear I didn't reach the heights he did in that profession. I'm reasonably confident I won't share the appreciation around the parliament that he enjoyed. It was a great honour for me to have him take that step with me in my professional career. It echoes all the steps he led me through politically. I also had the honour, briefly, of working for him. Again, he benefited much less from that arrangement than I did; I am very pleased to put that on the record. There are probably many others who would say exactly the same, the one exception being our mutual great friend, Lidia Argondizzo, former member of the Legislative Council for Victoria, who I know will be feeling his absence greatly.

So too will Lindsay Tanner, the former member for Melbourne, who shared an office and much more with Barney, going back a very long time. I'm sure that if Lindsay was still in this place, he would be first to pay tribute to his dear friend. I know that Senator Carr, in the other place, will be feeling this deeply too, as well as the member for Bruce and the members for Jagajaga and Calwell especially. Another very close friend of mine, Jill Hennessy, the member for Altona and Victoria's Attorney-General, will be deeply affected but a great comfort to the Cooney family. Right across the party that I love, Barney Cooney spread his love. He gave so much to so many. He continued his struggle, and his inquisitive nature, to always find a better path, right to the very end. I will cherish all the time I spent with him but think most often of the last time. Like many others, I'm sure, I wish that I'd visited him more often near the end and told him directly how much he meant to me. Vale, Barney.