Barney Cooney, lawyer and senator – by Bernie Brophy

This is fifth article in Tinteán‘s series on the Irish and Australian Law

Among the many Irish-Australians who have contributed to the law and justice in this country, Barney Cooney ranks highly. He was born on the 11 July 1934 and died on 9 February 2019, aged 84 years. He was a Barrister, Senator for Victoria, and a veteran campaigner for the rights of workers and the under-privileged in society.

Born on King Island, Tasmania, Barney was proud of his Irish heritage. His forebear, John Cooney, was sent to Tasmania from Ireland at the time of the Irish famine.

Barney’s father was the Branch Manager for the Commercial Bank of Australia, and in 1937 he was transferred by the bank to the Mallee district of Western Victoria. Both of Barney`s parents had a concern for social justice and, following the Depression, his father used to assist, as far as he could, those farmers who got themselves into financial difficulties. His mother helped the swaggies: if they wanted work, she would give them work such as chopping wood. This concern for the underdog was passed on to Barney, and in his lifetime he was renowned as a fighter for the poor and the disadvantaged.

Barney was a pupil at St Kevin’s College for six years before studying law at Melbourne University. In 1961, he signed the Bar Roll and commenced work as a barrister in Melbourne. He practised mainly in worker’s compensation and personal injuries claims (acting on behalf of workers) as well as in industrial law.

In 1983, the Cain Government appointed Barney to chair a Committee of Inquiry into Worker’s Compensation Law in Victoria. The Cooney Report, released in June 1984, led to reforms implemented by successive governments of different political persuasions over about 25 years, resulting in financially viable and socially responsible systems of worker compensation.

Barney was Vice-President of the Victorian Council for Civil Liberties from 1975 until 1982. He had joined the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1965, and in 1985 he became a Senator for the State of Victoria in the Federal Parliament. He remained in the Senate until 2002 and his particular concerns were matters of social justice, human rights and civil liberties. He saw parliamentary committees as the most effective means of reviewing legislation and defending civil liberties. He chaired seven senate committees, most notably the Scrutiny of Bills Committee which he chaired for 12 years. That Committee’s first term of reference – ‘to guard against legislation which would trespass unduly on personal rights and liberties’ – reflected his own deepest instincts.

At the Victorian ALP farewell dinner for Barney in July 2002, there were more than 750 people in attendance, including representatives from the migrant communities for whom Barney had a special affection. At the dinner, Senator Kim Carr noted that Barney was not afraid to criticise his own party particularly on the issue of treatment of asylum seekers.

Barney was a modest, self-effacing person, much admired by politicians of all political persuasions. Upon his retirement from the Senate, there were numerous tributes to him from his colleagues and from his political opponents, acknowledging his humanity, decency and social conscience.

After leaving the Senate, Barney went back to the Bar, practising mainly in industrial law, advising unions as well as doing pro bono work. There is often criticism of lawyers for the rapacious fees many of them charge for their services, but I know from personal experience as a solicitor who often briefed Barney that his fees were extremely modest and he provided legal advice to large numbers of people and community groups for no charge at all.

In later life, Barney contracted cancer which eventually led to the amputation of one of his legs. He suffered physical deterioration as a result of his condition and was in a nursing home for some years prior to his death. His mind was still as active as ever, and shortly before his death he made a submission to the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety based on his experience. He made no complaint about the conditions in the home where he was resident but drew attention to the depersonalization of vulnerable residents and the lack of programs to stimulate the residents to help them pass the time.

St Ignatius' Church, Richmond - Wikipedia
St Ignatius Church

Barney was a committed, practising Catholic and remained deeply religious throughout his life. The Requiem Mass to celebrate his life was held at St Ignatius Church in Richmond, and the church was filled to overflowing by his family, friends, fellow lawyers, union members and politicians from all political parties. Barney`s good friend, Frank Vincent – a former Supreme Court Judge – delivered a moving and at times humorous eulogy. He recalled that early on in their careers as barristers, he and Barney jointly appeared for certain members of the ‘Unemployed Workers Union’ who were charged with trespassing on the premises of the Melbourne Club. They were besetting the Club as part of a political protest. The rather pompous manager of the Club, in the course of being cross-examined by Barney, stated that he knew the defendants were not members of the Club ‘by their dress sense’. The evidence continued in this vein and one suspects Barney rather enjoyed taking the manager down a peg or two. The charges were dismissed.

John Sylvester, the journalist, wrote a glowing tribute in an article published in the Age after Barney’s death, making special mention of his social conscience, his contribution as a Senator and his submission to the Aged Care Royal Commission.

At a personal level, Barney was very supportive of his wife, Lillian, who was also a lawyer and who took over her father’s city legal practice upon his premature death.  Lillian was appointed a part-time member of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The writer was her business partner for many years before the practice was sold.

The Irish people’s concern for equality and social justice is epitomized in the contribution Barney made throughout his life, particularly as a lawyer and as a Senator. Australia is a better place as a consequence of the part he played in its institutions and in his dealings with its people, especially those disadvantaged in life.

Bernie Brophy is of Irish descent and a retired solicitor, having practised in Richmond and then Melbourne. He was President of a Group called Australians for Peace in Ireland during the 1990s . It drew attention to the human rights abuses which took place during ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. Barney Cooney was a Patron of the Group. Bernie is also a long standing Committee member of the Brehon Law Society of Australia and has contributed several articles to Táin and Tinteán magazines relating to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

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