THE colourful life and illustrious career of Barry Cohen were honoured by past and present political leaders at a state memorial service held at Old Parliament House – where the late politician spent three years of his more than two decades in office.
A long-serving Central Coast MP, and Minister for Home Affairs and Environment and then Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Environment in the Hawke government, the ALP veteran died in December last year, aged 82, after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Remembering Cohen for his “ability to blend frivolity with the deepest and most heartfelt sincerity”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull remarked that Australia is a richer nation for his invaluable contribution.
Cohen’s indomitable spirit and self-deprecating wit was a common thread that tied together the many tributes at Monday’s service.
“He courted laughter in all its forms,” said Turnbull. “He used humour to connect with people, the Australians whose interests he worked tirelessly to advocate, and of course, his fellow parliamentarians.”
Recalling an incident when Cohen’s ministerial career ended in 1987, Turnbull said that there was considerable speculation about Cohen 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 … 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’.”
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also remembered Cohen – “a remarkable man with an extraordinary legacy” – for his wicked sense of humour.
“Alongside his passion for public service, his determination to eliminate discrimination and his belief in the Labor party as an engine for progress and fairness, Barry also had an enduring faith in the restorative power of laughter,” said the Labor leader.
Championing the security of Israel and stronger ties of friendship between Australia and Israel, Cohen also “safeguarded some of Australia’s most precious national treasures for future generations: from Uluru and Kakadu to the Great Barrier Reef”, Shorten commented.
Former prime minister Bob Hawke similarly paid tribute to Cohen’s commitment to environmental protection, recalling that Cohen had introduced a bill to protect the “beautiful, majestic area” of the Southwest Tasmanian wilderness.
Among his other achievements, Cohen set up the National Film and Sound Archive and Questacon, and pushed for greater recognition of Indigenous rights.
Dr David Pross, director of the Guringai Tribal Link Aboriginal Corporation, remembered Cohen fighting hard for the handing back of Uluru to the traditional owners, while local Ngunnawal elder Aunty Jannette Phillips referred to Cohen as a “good man” with a “big heart”.
After his political career ended, Cohen remained an irrepressible advocate for the causes he held close to his heart, fighting for funding to find a cure for dementia.
“When he became more than one of 400,000 Australians living with dementia, he did not go gentle into that good night,” remarked Shorten. “When we find the cure, when every older Australian and their family can enjoy a life of greater dignity and security, Barry Cohen will be due a measure of great credit.”
Remembering his colleague and friend as a man with a “million bright ideas”, federal MP Michael Danby recalled Cohen’s brilliant writing of numerous books and columns for The Australian and The Bulletin.
“Barry’s whiplash pen critiqued people on his own side, from Peter Garrett, to Graham Richardson and most memorably former prime minister Kevin Rudd,” said Danby.
Adding a unique and celebratory tone to the service, Hava Nagila was sung after which Chabad ACT’s Rabbi Shmueli Feldman, who officiated the service, remarked, “That was the first time that I have sung a joyous song at a memorial service!”
Survived by his wife Rae, and three sons – Adam, Martin and Stuart – Cohen was remembered with great fondness by his family.
Delivering a moving personal eulogy, Stuart reflected on Cohen’s final two years of life.
“What was most distressing was seeing a giant reduced to a shadow,” said Stuart.
He was, remembered Stuart, “a passionate man in just about everything and anything he pursued”.