Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and force prime minister Bob Hawke have delivered tributes to the late Barry Cohen.
As the assembled crowd in the Members’ Dining Room in Old Parliament House quietened, Rabbi Shmueli Feldman, Chairman of Chabad ACT, welcomed those who had come to pay tribute to the late Barry Cohen.
In his welcoming remarks, Rabbi Feldman described Barry Cohen as a man who was not the most observant Jew, but nevertheless was a man intensely proud of his Jewish heritage. During his lifetime, Barry fought against hate, anti Semitism and anti Zionism, as well as holocaust denial. As the child of holocaust survivors, he believed it was the right of all peace loving Australians to practice their beliefs openly and freely.
Aunty Jannette Phillips, Ngunnawal Elder, provided the welcome to country. She remarked on her long association and friendship with Barry, saying that he understood the instinct of survival in the indigenous population as well as their plight. Her touching tribute included many references to his being a “Good man with a big heart,” that “He did the best he could with what he had” and that he was “A proud Jewish man.” Her anecdote of Barry being able to recognise what perfume she was wearing and her comment that this was unusual for a man, gave us a totally different insight into his many layered character.
The tributes flowed, with Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull recalling that Barry loved a stage. Always perfectly well dressed, Barry stayed humble and never took himself too seriously. He had the uncanny knack of being able to blend frivolity with a deeply caring nature. His advocacy for others was legendary, as he abhorred discrimination in all its forms. Mr Turnbull noted that later in Barry’s life, as he battled with his dementia and Alzheimer’s, he fought for understanding of these conditions. He observed that Barry’s life was devoted to public service and that Australia is the richer for his hard work.
Bill Shorten, The Leader of the Opposition, similarly noted Barry’s passion for public service, as well as his love of family and his membership of the Labor Party. He noted that Barry came from a humble beginning as a menswear merchant and rose to fight hard to secure our national treasures. He was a “marvellous raconteur,” with his wit on show over a long period in newspaper articles and columns, as well as numerous books. He used his words “To make everyday politics more human.” Mr Shorten said the Barry Cohen had remarked that while there is currently no cure for dementia, we do need to ensure better care for older Australians, enabling them to live with dignity and security in their later years.
An unusual addition to a memorial service was the inclusion of “Hava Nagila,”a joyous song, which was requested by Barry’s family. The song was chosen to celebrate Barry’s superb life, to rejoice in his achievements at the time of his passing and to encourage all of us to live our lives to the fullest. The audience was invited by Rabbi Feldman to sing along with the music and the room was filled with the meaning of the words in the song. [Editor: This splendid episode from the service begins at the 20:34 min mark.]
A very touching tribute came from Bob Hawke, who lauded Barry’s achievements in the Environment as well as the Arts. Most notable was Barry’s efforts to ensure the “beautiful and majestic” wilderness areas in Tasmania were maintained and preserved for posterity. Likewise Barry’s efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru and parts of Kakadu were essential to their long term survival. He declared that as a person, Barry’s business acumen was a great asset. His zest for life covered many wide-ranging and disparate areas, from golf, in which he excelled, to wildlife sanctuaries. Mr Hawke, like others, noted Barry’s quick sense of humour, his sharp mind, repartee skills and commitment to both the nation and the Labor party.
Michael Danby, Member for Melbourne Ports, Victoria, continued the tributes. Having worked for Barry for many years, his memory was of a big character, a man with “a million bright ideas.” He noted the wonderful service given to the Central Coast seat of Robertson, which Barry won in eight Federal elections, a marvellous feat for any politician. Mr Danby recounted the ground breaking work Barry did in the field of road safety, as well as his immense contribution to newspapers over a very long period, quipping that this had earned him the title of “the oracle of Bungendore.” We learned that Barry was a subtle but informed advocate for the State of Israel. Mr Danby concluded with the traditional saying “His memory is a blessing.”
The eulogy on behalf of the family was delivered by Stuart Cohen, one of Barry’s three sons, the others being Adam and Martin. Stuart remembered the incredibly hard work done by his parents to secure the seat of Robertson, attending every kind of meeting on the Central Coast and doorknocking virtually every house in the electorate. The burning issue in Barry’s maiden speech to Parliament concerned indigenous issues, looking at what was wrong and unfair, as well as how to make it right and giving his efforts freely to the “Yes” campaign for the 1967 Referendum. Commenting on the family history, like others in Jewish communities everywhere, those who had not escaped from Europe were wiped out in the Holocaust, a fact that remained extremely sensitive to Barry throughout his life. His son remembered him as a passionate man in all his endeavours with serving the community being the driving force in his life. He quoted his father as saying he had “never been bored,” and given the many areas with which Barry had been involved it is clear why. He also recalled that it was always interesting to be his son, despite it being challenging, as with a famous father there is no anonymity for the family. His final memory was of a man who loved his family fiercely, and whose family remain intensely “proud of his achievements.”
The closing tribute was given by Dr David Pross, Director, Guringia Tribal Link Aboriginal Corporation. He pointed out that Barry was a great friend to the Aboriginal peoples, fighting hard for better rights, along with another great friend, the actor Jack Thompson. The handing back of Uluru to the traditional owners was a prime example, as was the creation of Walkabout Park, where people could learn about Australian Flora and Fauna. Dr Pross said it was a great honour to speak about a “top bloke”.
To conclude the Service, Pipe Sergeant Craig Dawson performed “Flowers of the Forest.”
These remarks by Yvette Goode were taken from J-Wire.
The memorial service can be watched on YouTube.