Barry Cohen was a born performer, made for show-business.
He loved a stage and for twenty-one glorious years, our Parliament was the venue.
It was here in Canberra, always perfectly well dressed, a natural dandy, well-cut suits always looking the very best.
He courted laughter in all its’ forms.
He did so with an artful and seemingly endless deployment of anecdotes, which he sharpened and improved over time, with his inimitable wit.
He used humour to connect with people, the Australians whose interests he worked tirelessly to advocate and of course, his fellow parliamentarians.
He also used it to stay humble, actually very good advice for all of us politicians. I know former Prime Minister Bob Hawke would agree, it’s always important not to take yourself too seriously and Barry certainly never did that.
When his ministerial career ended in 1987, there was a lot of speculation about him becoming the Speaker. He responded to this chatter in a column for The Bulletin and recounted his valiant attempt as a freshman MP to read the Standing Orders.
At least he started reading them Mr Speaker, you’d no doubt appreciate that.
He said, Barry said he made it all the way to page two.
And he ended his column with this typical line of self-deprecation:
“The Hawke Government has its problems, but it’s not yet so desperate that it should risk the destruction of the Westminster system by appointing me Speaker.”
Part of Barry’s appeal stemmed from his ability to blend frivolity with the deepest and most heartfelt sincerity. Behind the laughter was a man who felt acutely and cared profoundly, as Aunty Jannette has reminded us.
He once revealed that John Steinbeck’s haunting The Grapes of Wrath prompted his political career and his advocacy for others was the perfect illustration of one of the novel’s central themes; that we’re at our best when we work together, rather than toiling alone to overcome hardship.
He abhorred discrimination, something he experienced as a young Jewish man in the 1940s. He possessed a fierce desire to combat it. In his maiden speech to Parliament in 1970, Barry spoke against “prejudice based on class, religion or race” and spoke loudly, as again Aunty Jannette reminded us, for our First Australians.
He also believed that Australia’s parliamentarians should never stop learning and should “obtain every skill possible”.
This was hardly surprising from a man who before politics, enjoyed stints as a ‘first-class’ golfer, postman, clerk and businessman. But for Barry, no vocation was more enthralling - or more rewarding - than writing. He continued to write even after Alzheimer’s cast its long shadow. His writing opened the door on what had previously been the very private pain of those who live with Alzheimer’s.
He fought for greater awareness of dementia and he often did it – again - with his trademark humour.
When former Prime Minister John Howard asked Barry how he found life in a nursing home, his response was quick. “Question time!” he yelled to a roar of laughter from John.
Australia has been richer for his presence and we mourn his loss.
To his beloved wife Rae, and his family, I offer the nation’s deep and sincere thanks and appreciation for a life of public service well served.