Les Twentyman memorial

Les Twentyman was a Victorian to his core. Les Twentyman was a Son of the West.  

He was as much a part of this great city as our mighty MCG.

And the people whose lives were changed by Les could fill that famous ground five times over.

That’s what mattered to him.

Not fame or fortune. Not clenching fists or throwing in the towel.

Not bothered about looking good. Focused on doing good.

Les became an icon – but he was never an ornament.

I first was aware of Les in the early 90s when he was running as an independent candidate in the Western suburbs giving Labor a good kicking. Mind you in 1992 that wasn’t unusual.

But I really got to know him when I was at The Australian Workers Union and repping the fantastic steel workers at Morgan Steel and Laverton.

I recall that we included the option to contribute to Les’s 20th Man Foundation as part of the industrial  agreement. I’m surprised the trade union Royal Commission actually missed that...but I digress.  

Like a lot of Victorians, I’d seen him on TV from time to time.

The jutting jaw, the eyes burning with conviction, every word delivering unvarnished truth, down the barrel of the camera.

The old frustrated footy coach in him, demanding more guts and heart, calling on us to ‘do something’.

Sometimes when people are good at doing TV interviews, they’re talked about as media ‘performers’.

But I learned that with Les it wasn’t performance, it wasn’t an act.

There was no artifice, nothing put on, no distance between his beliefs and his passion and his determination to make this a more fair and more equal city.

He had a great sense of humour, irreverent, dry, self-deprecating.

But for him, communicating with Australians was a serious business.

Les often spoke about the bottomless appetite for crime stories, for sensationalism, for gruesome and lazy stereotypes that wrote off people and communities.

He saw it as his business to take on all those with power, who would have us give up on people.

All those who prefer talking tough, rather than doing the really tough thing – helping someone.

Two street warriors who did the tough thing were Father Bob and Les Twentyman.

Father Bob is gone and now we have lost Les.

They represented the Aussie tradition of showing kindness in another’s troubles and courage in their own.

It is too easy to say that mental health is an epidemic, addiction is rife and the homeless will always be with us.

In the modern era it’s too easy to say that the problems are too big and one individual can’t actually make a difference.

Les Twentyman made a lie of that lazy excuse.

Les opened the eyes of so many to disadvantage that we can’t pretend doesn’t exist and hardship that we should not imagine is someone else’s problem to solve.

I saw him do it on TV and I witnessed the same passion, the same honesty, the same fearlessness and ferocity in meetings with CEOs and celebrities and Premiers and Prime Ministers.

Les made it his business to ‘tear away the veil’ to speak for the human cost of disadvantage, addiction, poverty and hardship.

To speak for people who would otherwise be ‘alone with their sorrow’.

In his life, Les came a long way from Churchill Avenue in Braybrook.

But in a very real sense, he also never left – and he certainly never forgot.

I want to offer one final reflection.  

A few years ago, I had the honour of helping launch Les’ memoir “The Mouth That Roared”.

There was a striking passage in there about how when he started out as a youth worker, he was given a piece of advice.

Don’t get drawn in too deep, don’t invest too much hope, you’ll only get let down.

He later reflected it was probably good advice - but it was never possible for him to follow it or benefit from it.

Because Les was all-in, always.

Body and soul.

Guts and heart.

He invested all his hope, every time.

And of course, he got let down occasionally.

Of course, the nature of his work brought him failure and heartbreak as well as joy and triumph.

But he never gave up hoping for better for those who needed it.

And he never gave up demanding better from those who could offer it.

Les lived a life of great achievement – and deep meaning.

And his life changed the course of countless others.

In Les’ death, we have lost a great man.

Through his life, we have been given a remarkable example.

Let us promise to honour him.

Remember him.

And vow to carry on his good works.

Thank you.