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Keeper of the Faith

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Eulogy for John Richard Johnson

by The Hon. Bob Carr*

Friday, August 18 2017

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St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney


The separation of church and state was not a fetish of John Richard Johnson.

He adored the Cross on Calvary.

And rallied to The Light on The Hill.

And he believed that the thunderous rage of the Lord at the money changers in the temple would not be directed at the impish guy in the apron and a tilted Akubra, selling Father Mac puddings on the portico.

In fact, Johno would have pressed a $20 raffle ticket into the palm of the Saviour

…and even demanded a signature on the November page of the Maroubra Branch attendance book.

Just think. A working class kid stands on the banks of the Tweed River, looks across at the home of Sir Harry Budd and dreams that one day he, too, might rise to be President of the Legislative Council. But it’s more than a career we celebrate. Johno was a character … who had character.

He was able to live his life in the ALP because of one intervention, and it may have come from God – certainly it came from the Cardinal – his whole career only possible because of it. In 1956 in the Sacred Heart Monastery in Kensington, Bishop Carroll, in regalia including a biretta and crucifix, instructed 700 members of the ALP, in the middle of The Split, that they must still cleave to Labor, stay in the party and fight … and shun the DLP.

As a result, Joe Cahill stayed Premier to give us the Opera House; the Shop Assistants Union kept affiliated to give us Right wing majorities on the [ALP] conference floor; and in this cathedral we were able to farewell Labor politicians – Cahill himself, Pat Hills and Kevin Stewart – who served in government and did not expire in opposition.

Former NSW Premier Bob Carr, at right, delivers the eulogy at the conclusion of the liturgy. Photo: Giovanni Portelli

If The Split had not been averted in this state, Johno would have been forced into the DLP.

His twin loyalties – church and Labor Party – were reconciled. Thanks to Cardinal Gilroy and his auxiliary bishop, and their blatant and entirely happy intervention in politics.

Johno had only nine weeks of high school but sharpened his mind reading Papal encyclicals especially Rerum Novarum and the lives of the saints and the bishop’s letters; the party rules and the Shoppies’ award and the Standing Orders of the Upper House.

When he sold Fortnum and Mason or served tea and pies in the conference canteen it was with the humility captured in this: “I come not to be served but to serve”, almost a theological statement for the union he loved and its members he helped, Award book in his hand, across rural New South Wales.

In 1976 I reminded him of his own observation, “There are three factions in the Labor party: the left, the right and those who’ve been promised seats in the Upper House.” I feared Johno – so loyal, so humble- would have been too easy to overlook.

But in an expression of Labor mateship at its most authentic, his friends from Young Labor, John Patrick Ducker and Barrie Unsworth, insisted Johno, the boy from the butter factory, the keeper of the conference canteen – go on that Upper House ticket.

He was loyal to leaders. Johno treated Neville with awe, Barrie with unstinted affection. He saw me as co-conspirator, a useful fellow traveller who would protect the interests of his church. He was charmed by Kristina but thought she lived in theological error. He saw Luke as an altar boy … of great promise. The Hawke and Keating leaderships, he believed, matched Curtin’s and Chifley’s.

The former Paddington grocer was the most practical person any of us knew. “There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything”, he intoned. On polling day, to feed volunteers, Johno could buy a leg ham and a jar of mustard and sliced loaves and – like a quartermaster in the Irish Brigade of the Union Army – provide the food.

But he was far more than this.

In the late 70s, when their party was splitting between the new and old guards he visited Queensland no fewer than 36 times to preach unity. “Avoid a split,” he nagged them.

He insisted to me that the conscience vote which applied to abortion and euthanasia must be extended to questions of bio-ethics. I agreed. It happened.

At the 1975 state conference he charged from his kitchen, apron flying, burst through the frosted glass doors onto the conference floor and bellowed his opposition to a rules change that would have cut in half the size of the conference. Conference agreed, and forced the Left and Right leadership to back down.

His axioms came thick and fast.

“Judge people as you find them.” In other words, leave prejudice at the door.

“An eye for an eye leaves two people blind.” In other words, don’t talk revenge.

“Keep the faith, both of them!” he wrote in a card to young Nathan Albanese.

The Light on The Hill. The Cross on Calvary. The church and Labor.

But there was another pillar to his life.

He met Pauline at the Catholic Adult Education Centre. They found they were perfectly matched. How fortunate she, to be swept up in the bubbling merriment and fierce arguments of Johno’s rise. How fortunate he, to find such a bastion of love and support; how fortunate Michael, Andrew, Monica and Naomi to be chosen by this couple.

This family …

… to whom we offer our deep condolences

… will agree when I say that with Johno, there was always the laughter.

Above all, the laughter he directed at what he seemed to think the funniest miscreant beast ever summoned into existence: namely, the Australian Labor Party.

Looking at the cavalcade of human types drawn to its ranks – dazzling careerists, suburban stalwarts, crazed idealists, fanatics and stooges, infiltrators and proud hacks, cunning plotters, saints and Satans …

… types perhaps, not unrepresented under this vaulted ceiling today …

… Johno would have agreed with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, “From the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing is ever made.”

Johno looked at this grand old party – daring and crackpot, tarnished and tainted and rusty but gifted at renewal and capable of redemption – and arrived at his own brilliant contribution to theological doctrine and political theory.

“Comrade, the party has to be divinely protected. There is no other way it could have survived.”

By saying this he united – with his spluttering laughter- the two loyalties of his life: church and Labor, in an all-embracing theory. This ramshackle, improvised party protected by divine providence.

“I … owe … you … a … lot,” I said to Johno on his sickbed.

We all owed him a lot.

He won’t be with us to see the next Labor governments.

Or have the honour of funding their elections with raffles and pudding sales.

But he will be with us in spirit as he’s been at every turn in our fortunes, since he worked on a polling booth in John Curtin’s election in 1943.

When Labor wins next time, wearing his apron and with hat tilted, he’ll be there saying, “Comrades…

be just,

love mercy

and walk humbly with your Lord.”

And of course, he would add … brown eyes atwinkle: “Keep the faith … both of them.”


*This is the edited text of the eulogy given by former NSW Premier Bob Carr at the state funeral of John Richard Johnson, papal knight and former President of the Legislative Council of NSW at St Mary’s Cathedral on 18 August.

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