John Button was that rarest of beings, a politician who made you feel good about politics.

This wasn’t just because he was extremely good at what he did, as well as being both passionate and honest about the way he did it; it was because he always saw politics as a means towards the goal of a better world, never as just an end in itself.

Power for its own sake simply did not interest him; thus he was never part of the Labor Party’s factional system, preferring to associate with a small group of like-minded Victorians who dubbed themselves rather ironically “The Participants” – they were in fact the outsiders. Nonetheless three of them – Button, Barry Jones and Michael Duffy – made it into Bob Hawke’s ministry, thus proving that even the factions at their most ferocious could not entirely suppress talent.

Not that they didn’t try: even as a senior minister Button often found his preselection threatened by the hacks and apparatchiks. After beating off one such attempt early in his parliamentary career he accosted me with what he thought was an insight: with its predominantly male culture, its macho approach to debate, its absurd system of seniority and its arcane and arbitrary rules, parliament was just like a big boarding school.

Being in a grumpy mood, I replied: “You must have gone to a sh-thouse boarding school,” a correction which Button embraced with gusto: from then on the institution became “the sh-thouse boarding school.”

It remained the centre of Button’s life, and the place in which he will be remembered as one of the great reformers, the industry minister who took on the trades unions to drag the cosseted manufacturers, in particular the car industry, into the real world. But it was not his only interest: unlike many of his colleagues, Button had a life – many lives, really — outside the hothouse.

He was well-read, well-travelled and well-loved. He was funny, wise and above all completely sane, a rare and valuable quality for one who climbed so far up the greasy political totem pole. Seeing Labor regain power last year meant a lot to him, but perhaps no more than watching his beloved Geelong Cats win the flag.

John Button always kept things in proportion: it was this that made him not just a great politician, but a truly good human being.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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