John Norman Button (30 June 1933 – 8 April 2008) was an Australian politician, who served as a senior minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. He was notable for the Button car plan, which involved modernising Australia's car industry by reducing tariffs and government protection.[1]


Button was born in Ballarat, Victoria, and was educated at The Geelong College and the University of Melbourne, where he graduated in arts and law. He became a prominent barrister and solicitor in Melbourne, and was active in the Australian Labor Party from the late 1950s. In the 1960s he joined a group of other middle-class Labor activists, such as John Cain, Barry Jones, Richard McGarvie, Frank Costigan and Michael Duffy, known as "the Participants," whose objective was to end Left-wing control of the Victorian branch of the Labor Party.

In 1970, the Participants formed an alliance with the federal Labor leader Gough Whitlam and the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Bob Hawke, to bring about intervention in the Victorian branch by the Federal Executive. Button became part of the interim Advisory Council which took over the branch after intervention, and in 1974 he was elected to the Australian Senate as a strong supporter of Whitlam.[citation needed]

Button remained a backbencher during the remaining 18 months of the Whitlam government. He was elected to the Opposition Shadow Ministry in 1976 and was elected Deputy Labor Leader in the Senate in 1977. From 1980 to 1983 he was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Shadow Minister for Communications. He was also a member of the Labor National Executive.[citation needed]

A close friend of Labor Leader Bill Hayden, Button decided during 1982 that Hayden could not lead the party to victory at the election due in late 1983. When Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a snap election in February 1983, it was Button who told Hayden that he must resign immediately to make way for Bob Hawke. Button tapping Hayden on the shoulder would later be compared to Bill Shorten switching his support from Julia Gillard to Kevin Rudd in 2013. Button did not live to see this comparison as he died in 2008.[citation needed]

In 1983, when Hawke became Prime Minister, Button became Minister for Industry and Commerce, a post he held until 1993. During this period Button carried through major changes in industry policy, lowering tariffs and reducing other forms of protectionism. This caused large job losses in manufacturing industry and provoked bitter opposition among Labor's trade union base.[citation needed]

Button was responsible for the Button car plan, which reorganised the Australian car industry in an attempt to make it competitive without tariff protection. One component of the plan was the sharing of models by local manufacturers, for example, Holden shared models with Toyota, and Ford shared models with Nissan. However, badge engineering proved unpopular from buyers, who preferred original models to their rebadged versions, and with manufacturers themselves.[2]

Button resigned from the Senate on 31 March 1993. In retirement he remained active in Labor affairs and published several volumes of amusing memoirs. He led a number of trade missions, joined company boards and served as a professorial fellow at Monash University.[3] His son, James, is a prominent journalist.[4]


John Button died on 8 April 2008 from pancreatic cancer.[5]


  1. ^ "Former federal Labor minister John Button dies". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 8 April 2008.
  2. ^ "Union ... and demarcation". The Age. Fairfax Media. 26 May 2000. Archived from the original on 6 July 2011. Retrieved 10 March 2008.
  3. ^ "Former Labor minister John Button dies". The Age. Retrieved 8 April 2008.
  4. ^ "James Button". The Wheeler Centre. Retrieved 18 February 2018.
  5. ^ "Former federal Labor minister John Button dies". Retrieved 8 April 2008.[permanent dead link]


  • Button, John (1994), Flying the kite: Travels of an Australian politician, Sydney: Random House. ISBN 0091828724.
  • Button, John (1996), On the loose, Melbourne: Text Publishing. ISBN 1875847359.
  • Button, John (1998), As it happened, Melbourne: Text Publishing. ISBN 1875847499.
  • Weller, Patrick (1999), Dodging raindrops: John Button, a Labor life, Sydney: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1865081361.
  • Button, James (2012), Speechless: A year in my father's business, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 9780522858587.

External links

  • Button, James (May 2008). "John Button, 1933–2008". The Monthly.
  • James Button talk at ANU's National Centre of Biography about his "accidental" biography of his father Speechless: A Year in My Father's Business (2012), 31 July 2014.
Political offices
Preceded by
Andrew Peacock
Minister for Industry and Commerce
Succeeded by
Alan Griffiths
Preceded by
John Carrick
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Succeeded by
Gareth Evans
Party political offices
Preceded by
Ken Wriedt
Leader of the Labor Party in the Senate
Succeeded by
Gareth Evans