- (Published on my blog with agreement from Justin Cooney)
I wanted to write something on the passing of our dear friend Barney Cooney. I won’t try and recount Barney’s numerous achievements in the political and legal fields about which others are better qualified to comment. My focus will be on Barney’s wonderful personality.
I knew Barney through the Labor Party and union movement. He was great mates with Wally Curran and would pay visits to the Meatworkers union when I worked there. After he retired from the Senate, Barney regularly attended the ALP Justice policy committee, when I was secretary of it. He also came regularly to Socialist Left policy forums which I convened.
How many ALP politicians continue to be active in the Party long after their retirement from professional politics? Not very many. Politics, and the Labor Party, can be a jading experiences, so I make no criticism of others. I simply observe that Barney Cooney continued his Party activity when there was no possible personal reward for him other than the experience of working with other rank and file ALP members on policy issues.
Barney and I also met fairly regularly for lunch with another Justice policy committee member, Joe Lenczner. “Have we solved the problems of the world yet?” would be a typical Barney Cooney welcoming refrain. I didn’t have the heart to answer “not really” such was Barney’s eternal optimism. Apart from which, despite a creeping cynicism about our prospects for deep change, I still usually had some suggestion to make, which Barney always seemed pleased to talk over.
I’ve been more or less surrounded by politicians all my life. I think it is fair to say that humility is not necessarily a quality which they display in abundance. Again I make no criticism. Humility is not a quality I lay any particular claim to personally. And anyway, it may be antithetical to success in politics. This may go part of the way to explaining why Barney was never a minister. Because Barney certainly had a warm humility about him.
Barney did have other qualities that might be valuable in politics. He was, for example, a gifted flatterer of others. He would do it anywhere- one on one, in a small group, or in a crowd. He did not care. It was heartfelt not contrived. And it seemed to resonate all the more because of his own humility.
Barney was a great deontologist. Modern politics, at least at the bureaucratic level, is obsessed with the costs and benefits of consequences. Don’t get me wrong, this approach has its place. But much of the time so-called “evidence based policy” is made up figures, based on dubious assumptions, which heavily discount future costs against short term benefits. So we still need people whose intuition tells them “this is wrong”. It was universal principle and a sense of duty to others that usually formed the basis of Barney’s approach. This included his commitment to human rights and his unwavering stance on refugees.
“I’ve always believed in the Labor Party and the Catholic Church and I’m sticking to them” Barney once told me. Barney and I had some interesting talks about religion. He liked to hear about my encounters with progressive Catholicism in Central America. He was not in the least bit fussed by my deep atheism. When I once said that, as a non believer, I would be missing out on heaven, Barney protested “Don’t be silly. It has to be fair”.
I have my doubts Barney’s view on my right to a place in heaven fully conforms to strict Catholic doctrine. But clearly Barney thought that if you truly followed your conscience, and undertook good deeds, it was only fair that this should see you through to the pearly gates.
“Well what do you think happens after death?” he once asked me. “I think after we die it is just the same for us as before we were born. So there is no suffering.” I replied. “Just the same as before we were born” he said, repeating my words over, almost quizzically. His response made me wonder whether he had ever before even seriously considered the possibility.
Barney, like Wally Curran, was a great raconteur. One worries how well great story tellers like Barney and Wally will survive the age of screen devices and the ubiquitous decline of attention span.
One of the best stories I ever heard about Barney was one of Wally’s. It perfectly illustrated the possibility that Barney’s sense of compassion could run too deep. I think they were on their way to protest the hanging of Ronald Ryan. “Who would take a job as a hangman?” quizzed Wally. According to Wally, Barney’s reply was “Oh well Wal he probably has a wife and family to support”.
When my mother died Barney rang me from the nursing home in Camberwell where he and Lillian now resided. “Your mother was a great woman” he said. “I am sorry I won’t be able to make it to the service.” This single phone call would have been enough. But after I sent him my eulogy for mum, including her arrival here as a 6 year old refugee, he rang back a second time. “That is a great life” he said “and that is a great story about Australia”.
I visited Barney three or four times in the nursing home. At first he was not so bad. Mentally alert. Easily able to converse. A caregiver came into his room and he was off, flattering her to me, telling me tit bits of her history and how good she was at looking after him and Lillian.
It was sad to watch his decline. It was very hard, even from earlier, for him to watch the fog of Alzheimer’s deepen its hold upon his beloved Lillian. When care requirements meant she had to leave the room she had been sharing with Barney in the nursing home he told me he was against the decision but could do nothing to resist it. So sad. He rallied unexpectedly against a number of close encounters with death before finally succumbing. I firmly believe he struggled on past his best departure date out of concern for Lillian.
The last time I went to the nursing home Barney was not in his room and I was directed to the dining room. There were the two of them, both fast asleep, sitting in separate chairs, but holding hands. I don’t think this image will ever leave me.
I woke Barney. “It’s Peter Holding Barney” I said as he stirred from his slumber. “Peter Holding. Thank God” he said. I could not help but chuckle at that.
We talked a while but it was a big effort for Barney to speak audibly by this stage. All I remember of the conversation now is saying to him “This must be so hard for you. What do you miss most from your life?”. “Lillian” came his faint but clearly discernible reply.
He made it to the Meatworkers Union Christmas break up last December. He really could barely speak audibly at all by then. But he could still understand and his presence was acknowledged and applauded. That was the last time I saw Barney.
He would want me to stay true to my principles. So I will leave it to others to claim that Barney is now in heaven. But I can say he is in an important place for believers and non-believers alike. And that is in our hearts.