8 February 2012
I first came to know Peter Veness on the doors of Parliament House. For those outside this building, doors are a bit of a strange ritual. You walk out the front of Parliament House to a press pack that asks you questions about any issue of the day. Peter Veness was the man who asked the hardest questions. He would often be on the fringes of the press pack and he would call out at you, not about what was on the front page of the paper necessarily but about what he thought was the most important issue. He had been diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and given a few months to live, and he nearly made it to three years. In that time Pete knew that his life was short and he needed to do what he could to make it count. His questions were punchy, penetrating and straight to the point, as the best journalists are. I remember he said to me after one particularly bruising doors session: ‘This place has lost its spontaneity. Doors used to be about the opening of the car doors; now it is about the opening of the parliamentary doors.’ All I could reply was: ‘Pete, I have to come out here to face your questions. I want to be prepared.’
I talked to Pete about this when I went to see him in the Clare Holland House hospice towards the end of his life. I am not sure how much he understood. He was going in and out of sleep at the time. With him was the little blue teddy bear and the crucifix that he held in his hand. As you do in these circumstances, I just talked and told him about how much he had influenced me in the short time we had known one another. And it was a short innings. Peter Veness passed away aged 27, far too young for anyone to be taken from us. His funeral was a fitting send-off. AAP journalist Adam Gartrell spoke about how Peter embodied the best of the craft of journalism. He told the story of Peter Veness writing a yarn that Peter thought was the best one he had ever written. It was about a farmer doing it tough. The only reason he got the story was by striking up a conversation with a random guy in a pub in the bush. Gartrell said:
‘That was pure Pete. He may have written about elections, political spills and scandals, but writing about the plight of the common man was what really made his heart sing.’
We heard from his wife Bec Veness, who with extraordinary strength gently scolded Pete for having failed to prepare some words and said, “He didn’t lose. He kicked cancer’s arse every day for almost three years,”Warwick Newell told a splendid story of one of his big nights out with Pete. He said, ‘I lost Pete after a big night out. He called me a few hours later from a bus in Bankstown in a frenzied and unexplained search for Paul Keating.’ All of us erupted into laughter.
That was one of the many sides to Pete Veness.
The service itself finished in the most poignant of ways, with the parliamentary press gallery forming a guard of honour from the door of the church through to the gate at St John’s. It was all the more poignant because on the back of the funeral service program was a picture of Pete and Bec coming out of the same door of the church just a few years earlier, as newlyweds.
One of my favourite obituaries of Pete Veness was that written by Chris Johnson, a Canberra Times journalist, who really got to know Pete because they were in adjacent offices in the press gallery and were both inveterate music lovers. Chris wrote in his obituary that Pete Veness was:
‘A larrikins’ larrikin by any reckoning. Loud and boisterous, yet with a heart as big as his cheeky grin.’
Chris told the story that Pete, who appeared to me an extremely confident journalist, once confided to him, ‘Do you know what a big deal it is for me to be in this gallery? I’d better not stuff it up.’ But you never got that sense of fragility from Pete Veness. You got a sense of somebody who had earned his right to be here and who did his job in the best spirit of the press gallery.
Chris disclosed that Peter Veness sometimes wrote music reviews under a pseudonym, the name Sal Caulfield combining Sal Paradise, from On the Road, and Holden Caulfield, from Catcher in the Rye. That of course sent me on a hunt for some of the reviews written by Sal Caulfield. There I found some of the best of Pete Veness’s writing. Here he is in the Canberra Times on 8 May 2008 writing under his pseudonym about an album by Cog, Sharing Space:
‘Producer Sylvia Massey left plenty of air among the almost apocalyptic electronic twitches that dart around Flynn Gower’s pleading, pounding voice in the verses. The air evaporates when the chorus arrives pushing the listener back with sheer volume and urging the ear forward in anticipation at the same moment.’
It is beautiful writing—another reason, I think, so many of us are so sad that Pete is not here to contribute to the great craft of journalism for many decades yet. As recently as 3 November last year he wrote for AAP the story of the killing in Afghanistan of Captain Bryce Duffy, Corporal Ashley Birt and Lance Corporal Luke Gavin. He wanted to keep on working to the end, and he continued to make a great contribution.
Journalist Peter Martin reminded me that one of the things that some of the tributes to Peter Veness have passed over is how devout he was. At the service, Peter read Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want’, and he pointed out to me that Peter Veness was the chair of St John’s Anglican Church council and was studying theology at St Mark’s. Peter Martin suggested that in preparing these brief remarks I should speak to Margaret Campbell, the assistant minister at St John’s. I spoke to Margaret this morning and she said that I should remind the House of what a man of great faith Peter Veness was, that he took great comfort in the promise of eternal life and that he was there in the church every Sunday. Margaret said, ‘Peter Veness challenged us, and we will really miss one of our own.’
I too will miss him. Doors will never be the same without him, and this place is a little poorer for his passing.