BUTTON, John Norman (1932–2008)
Senator for Victoria, 1974–93 (Australian Labor Party)

Variously described as ‘the best prime minister we never had’, ‘a small man of quick wit, crafty calculation and intellectual provocation’, as having ‘an unenviable reputation as a minister with an undisciplined tongue, a politician prone to gaffes’, ‘the first person since Shirley Temple to build a whole career out of whimsy’ and ‘a rare phenomenon in Australian politics: a genuine intellectual, a wit, raconteur and bon vivant’, John Button was one of the key members of the Hawke and Keating governments, and a powerful Labor figure from the late 1970s until his death in 2008. As Industry minister from 1983 until he retired from Parliament in 1993, Button was the longest-serving minister in a single portfolio of the Hawke-Keating governments.[1]

John Norman Button was born on 30 June 1932 in Ballarat, the second of three surviving children of (Clifford) Norman Button, minister of the Presbyterian St Andrew’s Kirk, Ballarat, and Dorothy Marion Button, née Grubb. Norman Button, ‘witty, entertaining and tough’, was the author of several books, and a respected preacher with a strong sense of social justice. John ‘adored’ his mother, but found his father strict and distant. Norman served as Moderator of the Victorian Presbyterian Church during 1941 and 1942. As a minister’s son, Button was eligible for, and in 1946 was awarded, a Hume Robertson scholarship to attend Geelong College. There, he was a member of the debating club and became editor of both the school’s newspaper and its magazine. He also became an advocate for the Chifley Labor Government in an environment dominated by the sons of Liberal-supporting wealthy families. Eventually he would win a scholarship to study law at Ormond College at the University of Melbourne, but his final year at Geelong was marked by the unexpected death of his father. Despite his academic achievements to this point, Button was not enthusiastic about his studies, preferring the writings of the socialist economic historian, R. H. Tawney, George Orwell, and the British Labour politician, Aneurin Bevan:

I had little interest in law, and was unable to imagine myself as a barrister or solicitor … I decided on a different course. I would absorb experiences and set myself a goal. I would aim to be a man of the world by the time I was twenty-five, a sophisticated bon vivant, urbane, widely travelled and cultured.

It was this ambition which led Button, after finishing his degree and briefly working as a law clerk, to travel to Europe, initially to study Italian at the University for Foreigners in Perugia. While there, he temporarily joined the Italian Communist Party in order to gain admittance into the 6th World Youth and Student Festival in Moscow. After ten days exploring Moscow, Button returned to Italy and then, in exchange for board, volunteered for the International Union of Socialist Youth in Vienna. After hitchhiking around Europe, he arrived in London in late 1957, where he worked as, variously, a sandwich board man (advertising movies), a factory worker (making sausages and pies), a supply teacher (teaching English, geography, arithmetic and religious instruction) and a research assistant for the British Trades Union Congress. He also joined the British Labour Party, regularly attended public lectures and became an avid theatre-goer. Button stayed in Europe for two years before returning to Melbourne.

Back in Australia, Button rejoined both the Labor Party and legal firm Maurice Blackburn & Co., where he had clerked before his European trip. Encouraged by theatre director, Wal Cherry, Button attempted to turn his interest in the theatre into a profession, establishing a new theatre with a few friends in 1960 and, after its rapid failure, the Emerald Hill Theatre, one year later. Emerald Hill was more successful, albeit never profitable. On 6 May 1961 Button married Marjorie Batten, a schoolteacher, and within four years they had three sons. The marriage ended in divorce, as did his subsequent marriage to Dorothy O’Neil. For the last decade of his life, Button’s partner was Joan Grant.[2]

Button was asked to stand for Labor in the safe Liberal seat of Chisholm for the federal election in 1963. With no hope of winning (he polled less than thirty per cent of the primary vote) Button nonetheless accepted but found it ‘a pretty low-key experience, a diversion from more important things like kids and work. It didn’t lead me to think that I wanted to be a politician, or give me a rush of blood to the head about the excitement of the political life’. Through the remainder of the 1960s Button was busy within the Victorian Labor Party, attempting to work against the party’s leadership, which he considered to be ‘characterised by anti-Catholicism, incompetence and authoritarianism. It was hard to imagine a group of men … more out of touch with the electorate’. Secretary and president of the Hawthorn branch, Button attended state conferences from 1963 and drew the ire of the party’s leadership by standing unsuccessfully for election to the executive the following year. Yet politics remained ‘a kind of amateur sport’, a diversion from his professional life as a lawyer. The legal profession rarely excited Button, but he enjoyed working in the Magistrates’ Court, representing ordinary people on small matters, and began to focus on representing workers injured in industrial accidents. Made a partner at Maurice Blackburn in 1963, by the mid-1960s Button was regularly appearing as an advocate for various unions in the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission and Commonwealth Industrial Court. He was also founding president of the Society of Labor Lawyers (1974–78).

Active in the Fabian Society, organising lectures and editing a book that came from a series on the environment, Button’s push to modernise the Victorian Labor Party saw him co-found the group which became known as the Participants. Originally an informal discussion group opposed to the Victorian party leadership, the Participants grew to become a significant force in the Victorian branch of the ALP over the following decades. By the early 1970s politics had come to dominate Button’s life: after the Victorian branch was dissolved by the Federal Executive in 1970, Button was a member of the advisory council formed to assist in reconstruction, and he helped draft a constitution for the reformed branch. In 1972 he unsuccessfully contested preselection for the Victorian Legislative Council seat of Melbourne Province; in the following year he was a Victorian delegate to the ALP national conference, and won preselection for the Senate. He was eventually elected in fifth place at the May 1974 double dissolution election. Button’s position on the Victorian Senate ticket remained tenuous until the double dissolution election in March 1983, when the National Executive secured his position by placing him at the top of the ticket.[3]

Entering Parliament in 1974 at the second of three federal elections in just over three years, Button joined a Labor government which he described as ‘something of a mess. There was an air of magnificent chaos. Observing it at close quarters one hovered between admiration and dismay … The government seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis’. Through the last year of the Whitlam Government and then Labor’s period in Opposition Button was a member of a range of committees including, notably, the Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs (1974–78). He served on the Privileges Committee for a decade (1974–84), chairing the very difficult inquiry into the aftermath of the loans affair in 1974 when public servants called to the bar of the Senate were instructed to claim executive privilege. Button also served in a number of shadow ministry positions: construction (January to March 1976), media and films (March 1976–December 1977), education (December 1977–March 1983), science (December 1977–March 1980), and communications and rural and provincial development (both March 1980–March 1983).

In his first speech to the Senate, Button declared that Australia’s ‘capacity to adapt to change will determine our future viability as a nation’. He returned to this theme in 1976: ‘Politics, as I understand it in the 20th century, is about managing change’. By 1978 he was questioning the capacity ‘of perhaps any government, in the current political situation’ to solve long-term problems arising ‘from technology outstripping man’s capacity to make social and moral judgments about how that technology ought to be used’, whether in communications, medical science, genetic engineering, ecological disruption or the structural breakdown of big cities. If such fundamental issues could not be debated and resolved in Parliament, on a better basis than in the past, he said: ‘I fear indeed for the continuation of this body as a relevant institution in Australian society’.

In 1974 Button observed that ‘there has been much talk about threats to freedom of individual Australians, but there has been little analysis of the meaning of the word ‘freedom’ … It is sometimes stated by Opposition spokesmen that in some peculiar way which has never been explained to my satisfaction, the existing federal structure in Australia provides a bulwark for the freedom of the individual’. He suggested that constitutional reform ‘for the efficient management of our society’ was ‘another area of change with which I believe we should all be concerned’, and described Opposition senators ‘speaking of the Australian Constitution with the reverence which an antique salesman sometimes displays when he is trying to sell an old chair. The point is always made that because of the age of the chair its value is so much greater. While that may apply to furniture it cannot apply to the framework of government in Australia’. In subsequent years he argued that the Fraser Government’s emphasis on the right of individuals to make and spend their own money was ‘totally inconsistent with the well-being … of the community as a whole’, pointing out in 1981, that ‘the freedom to spend money’ is a ‘meaningless freedom’ without equality. The political concepts of ‘Freedom and equality … are very closely bound, very closely interwoven. They are the essential ingredients of the good life to which all Australians are entitled’.[4]

Button contested the position of Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in May 1977. Unsuccessful on that occasion, he was elected to the post seven months later, following the December 1977 federal election, and less than four years after entering the Senate. According to his biographer, Patrick Weller, Button’s intellectual capacity and debating skills impressed his colleagues enough to earn him the spot. Three years later Labor’s Leader in the Senate, Ken Wriedt resigned his seat and Button was elected unopposed to the leadership, which he then held until his own resignation almost thirteen years later. He used these positions to argue that Labor needed to articulate its policies and ideas to the electorate better. Button, who advised Opposition Leader Bill Hayden, encouraged his colleagues to try to set the public agenda rather than just react to the government, and set an example by producing discussion papers. Such rethinking was necessary to prepare Labor for government in the wake of the events of 1975 and in the unhappy climate of the party through the late 1970s. In particular, Button was determined that Labor should not fall into the trap of long-term opposition and that the party should continue to evolve and modernise in order to avoid gradual irrelevance.

Perhaps no other single event so captures Button’s growing importance to and influence in the parliamentary Labor Party as his role in the change of leadership from Hayden to Bob Hawke in 1983. Long one of Hayden’s closest friends and strongest supporters within the party, and dubious about Hawke’s leadership capacity, Button nonetheless encouraged his friend through the early months of 1983 to resign the party leadership in favour of Hawke. While believing that Hayden would probably make the better prime minister, Button was convinced that Labor under Hawke was much more likely to win the upcoming election. As well as convincing Hayden to stand aside, Button used his influence amongst his colleagues to ensure an orderly and recrimination-free change in party leadership. Most famously, in a letter to Hayden in late January he wrote: ‘I am still loyal to you as a person and I hope I am still regarded as a friend … My ultimate loyalty, however, must be to the ALP… I believe that you cannot win the next election’. Within a week of receiving Button’s letter Hayden resigned from the party leadership. A month after that the Labor Party won the double dissolution election called by Prime Minister Fraser on the day that Hayden resigned, and moved into government. For Button, the election triumph was clouded by grief over the death of his second son, David, just nine months earlier.[5]

As the new government’s Leader in the Senate, Button had the right to select his ministry, and chose Industry and Commerce. As he recounted:

I dithered because I didn’t know much about industry and commerce, and I didn’t know much about being a minister. If I’d known more I probably would have run a mile, and embraced some softer option … I chose industry because it seemed challenging, an area in which Australia had to do better.[6]

Unusually for a senior minister, Button also served (until December 1984), as an assisting minister to the Minister for Communications, Michael Duffy, allowing Duffy to gain experience and confidence in the portfolio formerly shadowed by Button. After the 1984 election, Technology would be added to Industry and Commerce, and that remained Button’s portfolio until his resignation.

Paul Keating would later write: ‘Button was a casebook example of giving a complex job to a person with a good mind, one formerly unsullied by its complexities, leaving the mind to sift through the issues, while coming to a new set of conclusions’. Button was part of the Hawke Government’s attempts to modernise the Australian economy, but more particularly his time as minister would come to be known for his work in two industries—steel and cars.

One of the commitments of the incoming Hawke Government in 1983 was to address the problems facing the Australian steel industry. The previous year, the dominant steel company, BHP, had registered its first losses in over a half a century, resulting in mass layoffs and the possibility of more unless the government intervened. The ‘Steel Plan’ was based on a three-way commitment between the government, BHP and the unions, and was the result of extensive discussions between the parties. The government committed to make available 350 million dollars over five years as bounties for certain steel products in an attempt to ensure that the local industry (largely BHP) retained a domestic market share of between 80 and 90 per cent. The government also provided 100 million dollars in special assistance funding to three of Australia’s largest steel towns: Wollongong, Newcastle and Whyalla. In turn, BHP undertook to maintain its workforce and to invest between five and eight million dollars (over four years) into its three primary steel plants, and the unions committed to seek pay rises exclusively through the arbitration system and to cooperate with management to improve efficiency. The Steel Industry Authority was created to oversee these arrangements, and foreign steel being ‘dumped’ cheaply in Australia would also be monitored. The plan was approved by Cabinet in August 1983 and a package of bills introduced into Parliament and passed by the end of the year, the legislation coming into effect on 1 January 1984. The plan was positively, albeit not enthusiastically, received: BHP’s steel division executive general manager described it as the ‘best obtainable under the circumstances … to say BHP is happy would be taking it a little too far’.

The Motor Industry Development Plan developed during Button’s ministry became known as the Button Car Plan and constituted one of the most significant industry shake-ups in Australian history. Button believed that the Australian car industry had become uncompetitive and bloated after decades of government assistance including high tariffs on imported vehicles. There were too many manufacturers, too many plants serving them, and the limited competition offered by Australia’s relatively small population, combined with insignificant export quantities, were indicators of inefficiency. The consequences included an industry of large multinational corporations regularly seeking government assistance while also producing cars at a standard lower than the international level. Button consulted widely, including establishing the Car Industry Council—the first time all the stakeholders in the Australian automotive industry had met together—to canvass new approaches. As economics journalist Ross Gittins noted at the time, this level of consultation and conversation between Button and the various industry stakeholders ‘convinced the parties that restructuring was unavoidable … that the Government (and Senator Button in particular) understood their problems, cared about them, and was competent to deal with them’. The plan saw staged reductions in the imported car tariff and quota over seven years. Alongside this was a planned rationalisation of the manufacturing process, designed to reduce the number of inefficient production runs and ultimately bring the number of manufacturers down from five to three, and the range of models from thirteen to six. By 1992 these targets were met. As Button acknowledged, the car plan would result in job losses but aid in stabilising the industry as a whole.[7]

Significant as his achievements within his portfolio were, Button’s importance to the Labor Government was not limited to the industry area. As Leader in the Senate, Button was Labor’s chief defender in that chamber, as well as, when in government, being responsible for negotiating legislation through a Senate in which the government never held a majority. He also represented the prime minister in question time, including during the sustained attacks on Keating’s personal finances throughout 1992.

Button’s position gave him the freedom to comment on a range of economic issues both in public and in the party’s internal processes. Hawke and Keating each at various times had reason to reprimand Button for his tendency to publicly cast doubt on their pronouncements by suggesting that the economic climate was perhaps not as bright as the prime minister seemed to believe it was. Journalists loved him for his candour and ready way with a quote, but for some of his colleagues Button was a regular source of frustration—consistently attracted by the temptation of breaking Cabinet solidarity in an attempt to position himself as ‘the only honest man in government’ and granted a unique level of indulgence to do so. Button, for his part, considered this to be a vital part of his role in government and reserved strong criticisms for both Hawke and Keating for ignoring the realities of the economic recession for far too long and for being too sanguine about Australia’s recovery. His penchant for public speculation also aggravated the gradual breakdown in the relationship between the prime minister and the treasurer, after he suggested in an interview that he thought it likely that they had come to an agreement about when Hawke would resign the prime ministership. While Button had no specific knowledge of the Kirribilli pact, his comments appeared to give credence to what was widely assumed. Button was also a relatively early supporter of Keating, voting for him in the June 1991 leadership ballot and attempting to influence Hawke to step down for the good of the party in much the way Hayden had done in Hawke’s favour eight years earlier. In this he was less successful than he had been with Hayden, in part because he and Hawke had never been personally close.

Although he spent the best part of two decades in Parliament, Button never fully acclimatised to it, finding Canberra itself isolating and rarely seeking out friendship with his colleagues. Even as Labor’s Senate leader for thirteen years, he maintained a slight distance from those around him. Patrick Weller noted that Button was ‘only tangentially aligned to a faction, he was very much an individual, not a team player’. Paul Keating, in his obituary for Button, said: ‘He was a warmly regarded person, yet for all that, he was always a loner’. As early as January 1984, less than a year after Labor’s move into government, rumours surfaced that Button was considering retiring from Parliament. In an interview in June of that year, Button thought that he would get tired of Parliament within a year or two: ‘I don’t think you can keep going. I think politicians who say that they want to be in government for 20 years are making a mistake … it’s best to try and do a good job for a few years and then get out of it’. Later, he publicly indicated—to Hawke’s anger—that he thought that in their third term (1987–90), the government had missed opportunities for reform. By this time, Button was perhaps less active as a minister, and he considered retiring in late 1991, but Labor’s change in leadership at that time convinced him to stay. Button did not stand for re-election in 1993 and submitted his resignation letter on 31 March 1993, just over a fortnight after the election and three months before his term was set to end.[8]

‘I decided at quite a young age that I wanted to be a writer. Other things happened. My life went in different directions, including a long spell in politics’. So wrote Button in the introduction to his 1998 memoir, As It Happened. After his retirement from the Senate, Button fulfilled his early ambition, publishing Flying the Kite: Travels of an Australian Politician (1994), On the Loose (1996) and As It Happened, alongside regular columns for the Fairfax papers and The Monthly magazine and in 2002 his Quarterly Essay, ‘Beyond Belief: What Future For Labor?’ Each revealed the same thoughtful irreverence for which he was known, displaying both the enthusiasm and the cynicism which made up his public persona, and painting his former colleagues and opponents with brief but often-devastating accuracy: ‘I admired Gough Whitlam, but not as much as he did’. Reflecting on a meeting with Hawke during the leadership transition from Hayden in 1983 he wrote: ‘I couldn’t help but admire his capacity to stand back, look at himself and like what he saw’. Of Hawke’s successor, Button’s assessment was that: ‘The sadness is that Keating came too late to the prime ministership and failed to realise either his potential or his dreams’.

Upon his retirement Button took up a fellowship with Monash University, interviewed former colleagues and opponents for Channel Nine’s ‘Sunday’ program, served as chair of the Commission for the Future, and as a special trade representative. He also maintained his devotion to the Geelong Cats AFL football club, speculations and plans for which had often helped him pass the time in Cabinet meetings or Senate sittings. Button was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late 2007, and died on 15 April 2008, aged seventy-five. In his memory, a foundation was established to award the annual John Button Prize for the best piece of writing on politics and public policy in Australia. This prize is announced as part of the John Button Oration each year at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, of which he had been a patron since 2002.[9]

Joel Bateman

[1] SMH, 5 April 2008, p. 39; Paul Kelly, The Hawke Ascendancy, A&R, North Ryde, NSW, 1984, p. 32; Laurie Oakes, Power Plays, Hachette Australia, Syd., 2008, p. 35; CPD, 27 May 1993, p. 1508; AFR (Syd.), 9 April 2008, p. 68.

[2] This entry draws throughout on John Button, As It Happened, Text Publishing, Melb., 1998 [AIH], and Patrick Weller, Dodging Raindrops: John Button, a Labor Life, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, NSW, 1999 [Weller]; John Button, a Fabian Commemorative, Australian Fabian Society, Melb., 2009.

[3] AIH, pp. 123-9, 143–4; John Button, Look Here: Considering the Australian Environment, Cheshire, Melb., 1968; Frank Bongiorno, ‘Remembering Ol ’55: the Victorian Fabian Society and the Road to Intervention’, in Brian Costar, Peter Love & Paul Strangio (eds), The Great Labor Schism, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Vic., 2005, pp. 324–6.

[4] AIH, p. 160; CPD, 10 July 1974, pp. 49–51, 25 Feb. 1976, pp. 218–22, 22 Feb. 1978, pp. 37–41, 25 Feb. 1981, pp. 112–6.

[5] Weller, John Button, pp. 106–7, 117–23; AIH, pp. 171, 195–7.

[6] AIH, p. 246.

[7] Australian (Syd.), 9 April 2004, p. 2; AIH, pp. 276, 283, 292–313; Weller, John Button, pp. 155–62; Julianne Schultz, Steel City Blues, Penguin Books, Ringwood, Vic., 1985, p. 101; News Release, Senator John Button, 11 Aug. 1983, 6 Oct. 1982; Bureau of Industry Economics, Australian Steel and the Steel industry Plan 1984–1987, AGPS, Canberra, 1988; SMH, 12 Aug. 1983, p. 13, 4 June 1984, p. 19; CPD, 29 May 1984, pp. 2012–7.

[8] Weller, pp. 203–5, 222–3; Australian (Syd.), 9 April 2008, p. 2; Mercury (Hob.), 25 June 1984, p. 8; Northern Territory News (Darwin), 23 Jan. 1984, p. 6; AIH, pp. 331–2; SMH, 1 April 1993, p. 9.

[9] AIH, pp. 6, 9–10, 194; Age (Melb.), 12 Sept. 1993, Agenda, p. 4, 8 June 2002, p. 9; James Button, ‘John Button, 1933–2008’, The Monthly, No. 34, May 2008.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 398-404.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1974–93 (ALP)

Minister for Industry and Commerce, 1983–84

Minister Assisting the Minister for Communications, 1983–84

Minister for Industry, Technology and Commerce, 1984–93

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1980–83

Leader of the Government in the Senate, 1983–93

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Privileges, 1974–84

Estimates Committee B, 1974–75, 1978–81

Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1974–78

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1974–75

Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1976–79

Joint Standing Committee on the New and Permanent Parliament House, 1975

Standing Committee on Education, Science and the Arts, 1975

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1978–83

Standing Orders Committee, 1980–87

Select Committee on Government Clothing and Ordnance Factories, 1981–82

Select Committee on Industrial Relations Legislation, 1982

Appropriations and Staffing Committee, 1983–93

Procedure Committee, 1987–93