State farewell for a Labor stalwart

David Marr -Apr 12, 2012

Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and John Howard were among those at yesterday's funeral for Lionel Bowen.

Former prime ministers Kevin Rudd and John Howard were among those at yesterday's funeral for Lionel Bowen. Photo: Jacky Ghossein

NOTHING said at his vast state funeral suggested Lionel Bowen cared much for occasions of this kind. But the cardinal and a squad of bishops were on hand to see him off at Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral. And there were not many empty seats up the back.

Every eulogy mentioned Bowen's humility. Every obituary published since the former deputy prime minister died 11 days ago has, too. Bob Hawke told the congregation he had been through the press reports and found Bowen praised for his integrity, decency, honesty, loyalty and humility. ''It was all true,'' he said.

Three faiths were honoured in the ceremony: Catholicism in the liturgy; Labor by the man's old colleagues gathered in the pews; and in every eulogy something was said about Bowen's lifelong devotion to the track.

Though the betting ring was somewhere he clearly loved to be, it seems luck rarely found him there.

Old prime ministers were there in strength. Kevin Rudd sat with John Howard. The Keatings were reunited for the occasion. Blanche d'Alpuget came dressed for a Russian winter. Up the front among the honoured guests was the ancient colourful racing identity Bill Waterhouse.

The congregation was mostly men. Deep baritone responses rolled down the nave. Seventeenth-century Spanish church music may not have been Bowen's thing but it was superbly done at his farewell.

Once the Mass was over, a more complex picture of the man emerged in Kerry O'Brien's eulogy.

Bowen was an only child brought up in poverty by his mother, Elsie; a boy who left school at 14, became a lawyer in his 20s by which time he was already mayor of Randwick with his mother as lady mayoress.

''He was complex, ambitious and passionate in his policy interests,'' O'Brien said. Though a ''staunch and loyal Catholic'', Bowen defended the right of women to receive Medicare benefits for abortions. Though a leader of the NSW Right faction of the party, he was, ''much to the chagrin of Sussex Street, a man of his own''.

It was raining by the time Bowen's sons carried his coffin to the waiting hearse. Two umbrellas were found for the cardinal. With a motorcycle escort and a modest cortege, a Labor old-timer was taken away for burial.

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