Condolences - Bernard 'Barney' Cooney

I rise this afternoon to support this condolence motion and pay my respects to the late Victorian Labor senator Bernard Cooney, or Barney, as everyone knew him. I wasn't fortunate enough to know the senator personally. What I do know is his reputation—a reputation that few enjoy and that many aspire to on all sides of politics. It's this legacy and some urging from those who knew him well that has compelled me to speak today.

I'm a believer in the need for us all to work towards raising the standard of civility in this place, and one way to do it is to acknowledge the strengths of those across the aisle. Much has been said about Senator Cooney's decades-long legal career before he took up office in 1985 and the pro bono work he took up after his retirement in 2002. Much has been made, and rightfully so, of his outstanding committee work, for he was a master of the committee system. He was well respected as a chair. Committee work played to his strengths, his humanity and his decency. He could set people at ease and foster reasonableness, preferring a much more informal style of discussion than the combat of the chamber. As Amanda Vanstone once said of him: 'Why wouldn't you be happy to take questions from a decent person who always frames them decently and is genuinely interested in the answer? He asks the question pleasantly, he's never personally abusive and he's genuinely interested in the answer, so of course you'd show him respect.'

He was most celebrated for his work as Chair of the Scrutiny of Bills Committee. Speaking on the role of the committee, he said, 'Legislation is often passed which unintentionally imposes quite severely upon the sort of life we like to live. It's proper that there should be a committee of all parties who sit down and look at it and scrutinise it and make sure that those sorts of liberties that we all enjoy are not in any way diminished.' It's a sentiment I share. It was a deep commitment to protecting civil liberties that defined Senator Cooney's parliamentary career, most notably when he criticised the Hawke government's proposed national identity card as an Orwellian measure. He was a person of principle and conviction. He wasn't afraid to criticise the Liberal Party or, indeed, his own party, when he saw that individual freedom was in jeopardy.

As has been noted, he was a deeply religious man. In the debate on voluntary euthanasia, to which he was staunchly opposed, he unashamedly invoked his Catholic faith. He didn't argue that it went against his religion; rather, he had a way of linking the religious, cultural and social beliefs that reject euthanasia, and he pointed out that they are held by a large proportion of Australian citizens, including him. He said, 'A person's stance on a particular matter should not be labelled invalid simply because it is based on his or her faith.' That still rings true today.

Going back to his unwavering belief in the Senate's role in legislative oversight, he said of the so-called Andrews bill, 'Where the state chooses to give sanction to killing, and where we as legislators approve of that, then there is a sea change in the sort of society we legislate for. Legislative creep is a common occurrence.' It was a refrain he would draw upon again when he opposed antiterror and asylum seeker legislation.

Senator Cooney was a loyal and dedicated party man who at the same time drew respect from all sides of politics for his diplomacy. He was able to form friendships with people who held very different views to his. In his last week in the Senate, Liberal senator and government leader at the time Robert Hill called him 'one of the really decent senators within the ALP'. Australian Democrats Senator Vicki Bourne sought special leave to draw attention to his chairmanship of the Senate Scrutiny of Bills Committee, and Liberal senator Rod Kemp said that no-one had done more to raise standards than Cooney and praised him for welcoming him as a new senator when others had not.

Senator Cooney seemed to return this affection in spades. In his valedictory speech, he spoke generously not just of his family and grandchildren but also of his colleagues—so much so that he tabled the entire directory for the 40th parliament to pay tribute to every person in the chamber. That's how much he genuinely valued everyone he came across in his 17 years in the Senate. It showed again what a gentleman he was and why he was so well liked by all. It is a testament to Senator Cooney's reputation that, after his retirement, newcomers to the Senate sought out his wisdom on parliamentary matters. He was also a much-valued participant in university courses on parliamentary practices and conduct. I'm glad to be able to stand here and contribute something to recognising his qualities. I don't stand on the same side of the chamber as he did, but I have no doubt that he would have treated my colleagues and me with the same respect that he afforded everyone.

Of course, it's a little sad that I didn't get to share the chamber with him and witness his unique wit firsthand. I'm told we shared a love of books and that he read widely in history and enjoyed the Shakespearean comedies in particular. It's no surprise to those who knew him that his favourite play was Twelfth Night. His was a humour and style that, to this day, stands out in this chamber's long history. As The Age said for the departing senator back in 2002, 'So long, and thanks for all the quips.'