RIP Barney Cooney, they don’t make ’em like that any more

When he was speaking on things that really mattered to him, you knew. He would put a compelling argument.

When Labor was in power he chaired a number of committees on which I served as deputy chair or a member. He was good at all of it.

My most delicious memory of him is at a cost of justice inquiry hearing in Adelaide. A woman had been hardly done by and had made a submission outlining her plight. She came along to watch the hearing, sitting quietly at the back.

Some representatives from the Law Society came along and spoke to their submission. One was from the allegedly miscreant firm. Barney led them into a discussion about the type of problem generally the woman faced.

Barney Cooney's farewell speech to the Senate in 2002.

Barney Cooney’s farewell speech to the Senate in 2002.Credit:Andrew Taylor

They looked fairly happy. Barney then turned and said that there was someone here who might be able to enlighten us all a bit more. He asked her to come to the table. She was a bit reluctant, maybe shy or embarrassed, but he was charming.

She told her story and the Law Society men looked increasingly uncomfortable. Barney was rightly happy that a single voice got heard when so often it was organisations or lobby groups. He knew exactly what he was doing and he did it well.

Once, during hearings on another matter, we were listening to some experts and with a smile he said sotto voce that this was such a great job, it was like being paid to go to university. He had the brains to listen to differing experts, to question them and form his own view.

He also had the capacity to see that there are often three or four ways to pursue the same policy goal. That’s why he could advocate his cause so effectively, because he could explain why he thought his path was the better one.

Considered debate was his forte. It’s a very different style from the «knock ’em down, everyone else is an idiot» belligerent style we see so much of today.

We both entered the Senate at the 1984 election when Old Parliament House was still in use. On swearing-in day, my husband Tony, my mother and second stepfather, and one staffer were going to raise a glass in my office.

I’d noticed no one was in Barney’s room. Families often had to get back to their own work. The staffer, who I had poached from a lower house member, thought I was crazy suggesting a Labor person with union affiliations join us. I’m so glad Barney actually agreed. He may after all have his own misgivings about me.

Labor never made him a minister. I don’t know why. He had the capacity for hard work, the intelligence and mental toughness. In hindsight that might have been a good thing. The discipline of cabinet might have been a straitjacket in which he would find little comfort.

I knew I liked and respected Barney, but it was when speaking on his valedictory and my throat tightened and eyes got glassy that I realised just how much he mattered.

He bothered to write me a beautiful letter from retirement and another when I went to Italy. We spoke a few times in more recent years. Not enough. More’s the pity.

Amanda Vanstone is a regular columnist and a former Coalition minister.

Amanda Vanstone is a former Howard government minister, and regular columnist.

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