Remembering Labor’s Barry Cohen

The late Barry Cohen.

TRIBUTES have flowed for former federal Labor minister and NSW MP Barry Cohen, who has died aged 82.

Suffering Alzheimer’s, Cohen was a prominent campaigner for funding to find a cure for the condition.

Colleague and confidant Michael Danby said he was “fortunate to know Barry as a friend, and also as a former employer”.

The Melbourne Ports MP reflected that, along with the late Dick Klugman, a Jewish federal MP who had fled the Nazis in Austria, and the late Senator John Wheeldon, Cohen was “part of the moderate sensible supporters of the Whitlam, Hawke and Keating governments.

Cohen and his colleagues centred the Labor Party so that it would always be a mainstream political party, whether it be in opposition or in government”.

“For decades he was also an icon in the Australian Jewish community. He was a lifelong, passionate but moderate supporter of Israel,” Danby said. “His European relatives’ fate during the Shoah was a searing influence on his life.”

Labor MP for Isaacs Mark Dreyfus remembered Cohen as “a fine Labor man … always great company and full of ideas … His activism in the fight against dementia, which has sadly taken his life, took immense bravery and strength of character”.

ALP leader Bill Shorten lauded Cohen’s parliamentary service and his fortitude, stating he had approached Alzheimer’s “as a policy challenge, not a personal struggle … urging politicians from all sides to deliver a better deal for older Australians”.

Cohen’s son Adam told The AJN his father was “proudest of his stand against racism … he fought against apartheid”. He was seen as “an oddity” in Parliament for his early advocacy of Aboriginal rights.

The veteran politician “was never not talking about politics” and his last writing was from a nursing home bed, with Adam’s assistance.

Executive Council of Australian Jewry president Anton Block and executive director Peter Wertheim jointly described Cohen as “a towering figure in federal politics and the Australian Labor Party who commanded immense respect on both sides of politics”.

Lauding his work to help free Soviet Jewry, they recalled him as “an important facilitator between the Jewish community and the federal government”.

NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO Vic Alhadeff recalled Cohen’s concerns about media bias over Israel. “With the passage of time he became increasingly concerned about the need for balanced media coverage on Israel and, through his writing, increasingly outspoken in his endeavours to achieve that.”

Born and raised in Griffith, NSW, Cohen wrote of the local school, “Seven Jewish children in a school of nearly 1000 made us a bit of a curiosity”.

But he received his first taste of anti-Semitism at Sydney Grammar School, with taunts from other students that “shocked, hurt and bewildered”.

After attending Australian National University, he entered business, and later politics. He married Rae McNeill and was a father of three.

Representing the federal seat of Robertson on the NSW Central Coast, Cohen served for 21 years in Parliament, and after the 1983 ALP victory, became a minister in prime minister Bob Hawke’s government, holding portfolios such as Home Affairs, Environment, and Arts, Heritage and Environment.

During his time in office Cohen facilitated ties between the government and the community in its campaign to raise awareness of the plight of Soviet Jewry.

In retirement, he controversially criticised the ALP in 2004, alleging “anti-Semitism is now rampant in the Labor Party”, and the ALP had drifted from its historic support of the Jewish State.

At that time, he claimed leaders such as Hawke and Kim Beazley were passionate defenders of Israel, but the party had changed.

“I’m sick of Labor leaders and foreign affairs spokesmen making all the right noises to Jewish audiences while an increasing number of Labor backbenchers launch diatribes at Israel,” he charged.

Cohen’s claims were strongly denied at the time by ALP officials, including Labor’s then foreign affairs spokesperson Kevin Rudd, later PM, who described Cohen’s claim of ALP anti-Semitism as “profoundly personally offensive”.

Cohen received an OAM in the 2007 Queen’s Birthday Honours for service to the Australian Parliament and to the community through a range of cultural and environmental roles and contributions to public discussion and debate.

A keen student of the life of Gough Whitlam, Cohen authored three books on the iconic Labor prime minister, Life With Gough, From Whitlam To Winston, and The Almost Complete Gough, as well as The Life of the Party – Political Anecdotes.

A Jewish funeral service was being planned to take place in Canberra this Thursday, followed by a State Memorial Service in late January.

PETER KOHN