A tribute to...

Ken Bennett

Published: 12/12/2023

A Tribute to Ken Bennett

Ken Bennett had a big life. A premiership AFL player, political strategist, teacher and restaurateur, he died in his adopted home of Darwin on September 1, at the age of 83.  

Well-known sports and political identities joined family and friends from all eras of Ken's life, at a memorial service in Melbourne on October 10.  

Ken's son Clem Bennett told the gathering there would be "no long, drawn out, maudlin speeches or priests talking about the afterlife, instead, we're going to be talking football and politics and shiraz." He also gave the guests a glimpse into his father's final hours.  

"I was trying to remind him of the many things he could be proud of," he explained.  

"I posited the question to him, `What are you most proud of? Is it the election campaigns? Is it raising your children? Is it the incredible way in which you cared for your wife at the end of her life?'  

"He didn't f---ing hesitate. He looked me in the eye and said, `It's those two goals.' "

A courageous and talented rover, 18-year-old Ken Bennett played a pivotal role in securing Collingwood the 1958 premiership against Melbourne.
A courageous and talented rover, 18-year-old Ken Bennett played a pivotal role in securing Collingwood the 1958 premiership against Melbourne.

The host of the memorial service Peter Phillips recounted his friend's role in the unexpected Collingwood win.  

"Melbourne was an unbreakable odds-on favourite, a rating which seemed well-deserved when they had a five-goal first quarter and took a 19 point lead into the break.  

"But then, things changed - 18-year-old Ken Bennett, or young Bennett, as the commentator repeatedly called him, had a blistering second quarter, towards the end of which he kicked two goals in as many minutes.  

"The result of which was that Collingwood achieved the unlikely result of going into the halftime break in the lead. That the Magpies won the '58 Grand Final is now history. But this was part of the record of Ken Bennett, playing what was probably the best of his 56 games for the Pies."  

Stories of Ken's football career and his years in politics dominated the service which was held at the Glasshouse, the home of the Collingwood Football Club - only nine days after the club won the 2023 AFL Grand Final.  

Aided by a line-up of ten speakers, Peter Phillips guided guests on a journey through Ken's colourful life.  

Les Bennett, Ken's older brother, recalled their happy childhood growing up in the small town of Nar Nar Goon in Victoria.  

"Ken was an interesting personality, one filled with positivity, confidence, determination and an adventurous spirit," said Les. "He had a mischievous side to him and a gift of the gab."

Elaine and Ken Bennett met in their early twenties and were married for 42 years.
Elaine and Ken Bennett met in their early twenties and were married for 42 years.

Les said the young Ken had an unparalleled love for football and would spend endless hours practising the game in a 14-acre corner paddock.  

But by the mid-1960s another game had gripped him. An ALP member, Ken's interest in politics intensified as Gough Whitlam's 1972 It's Time campaign took off. After managing a number of successful political campaigns, he jumped at the opportunity to move to Canberra in 1974 to work for the new federal Labor government.  

Ken became the National Assistant Secretary of the ALP and later served as a senior staffer in the offices of Deputy Prime Minster and Attorney-General Lionel Bowen and Federal Environment Minister Ros Kelly who attended the service and spoke of Ken's impact.  

"He had an amazingly good reputation," she said. "Everybody liked him. And in politics, that is very, very unusual."   "If I can cast you back, the portfolio I had (Environment, Sport, Tourism, The Territories and The Arts) was absolutely full of conflict. We were fighting everybody from all angles. And Ken was right in the middle of it.  

"Ken kept me calm and he was really efficient in keeping the peace."  

“Everybody liked him. And in politics, that is very, very unusual.” … Ken Bennett, a gifted political strategist, worked in the Whitlam and Hawke federal governments.
“Everybody liked him. And in politics, that is very, very unusual.” … Ken Bennett, a gifted political strategist, worked in the Whitlam and Hawke federal governments.

"He cared passionately about the work he did, whatever it was, he was committed to a Labor Government, was obviously committed to his football team and he was incredibly committed to Elaine and the kids," she said.  

Ken eventually exited the political arena, lured by prospects in hospitality.  

He bought MyCafe in the Canberra suburb of Manuka and transformed it into an award-winning eatery. He was an excellent businessman and revelled in the role of restaurateur.  

"Flashy wasn't in the normal course of events associated with Ken," recalled Peter. "Even allowing for the flash red sport car he used to zip around in, but the cafe - a mere stone's throw from Parliament House - predictability and virtually overnight, became the go-to spot for anyone who was anyone." 

"Ken was a wonderful networker and very effective operator in which ever role he was playing," he added.

“I reflect on our adoption as being a little bit like winning an adoption lottery,” says Rebecca Bennett, pictured here with her parents Elaine and Ken, and her brother Adam, known as Clem.
“I reflect on our adoption as being a little bit like winning an adoption lottery,” says Rebecca Bennett, pictured here with her parents Elaine and Ken, and her brother Adam, known as Clem.

In 2005, Ken and Elaine moved to Darwin to be closer to family. The relocation saw Ken plough his strong sense of social justice into improving the lives of Indigenous communities. He worked on housing and infrastructure initiatives in Wadeye and took a delegation of community elders to meet federal ministers in the Rudd Government to lobby for much needed infrastructure for the town.  

While living in Darwin, Ken's wife Elaine was waging a battle against ovarian cancer. This harrowing time was recalled by both the Bennett's children - Clem and Rebecca - in their heartfelt tributes.  

"There are things beyond football and politics and running restaurants," Clem told the guests.

"One thing that Ken did was marry the love of his life Elaine. And then they took on the two of us, for better or worse, and they brought us up most marvellously in a very loving home and that's the stuff that isn't in the history books."  

Rebecca Kopke Bennett, who described her adoption as like winning the lottery, spoke of her parent's "remarkable 42-year marriage.  

"It was during my mother's battle with cancer that I actually saw in our father, this incredible tenderness and this undying love that he had for her.  

"Elaine did part too soon - she was with us for a mere 65-years - but in Ken's tender care and the love he showed her during those final weeks, was incredible compassion and incredible humility. And that's something for those of you who knew him more as that tough, gutsy footballer or political strategist - there was actually a very tender side to Ken," she reflected.

The Bennett children say their father revealed “incredible compassion and humility” throughout their mother Elaine’s battle with ovarian cancer. She died aged 65.
The Bennett children say their father revealed “incredible compassion and humility” throughout their mother Elaine’s battle with ovarian cancer. She died aged 65.

In 2009, Ken was involved in a car accident that left him with life-threatening injuries. Hospitalised in Townsville and permanently disabled, it was eight months before he was able to return home to Darwin. He then remained in the Royal Darwin Hospital for a further six months undergoing intensive rehabilitation to help him walk again. His family attributes his incredible recovery to the care and expertise of the staff at RDH.  

Rebecca's tribute painted a picture of a man physically limited, but with his charisma and positivity undimmed.   "Every doctor, every nurse, every passing family member of any other patient knew who Ken was by the time they exited," she said.  

"He had that ability to endear himself to others in his presence. He also had this incredible ability for making everyone feel like they belonged."  

Rebecca said in recent times her father felt he had run his race in life; and was clear about wanting to die.  

"I remember being in awe of his courage in speaking with the intensive care doctor at RDH about this, and that he wanted to leave the hospital to go back to his familiar surrounds at Pearl (aged care home in Fannie By) and die there.  

"Ironically, the day we had scheduled a palliative care discussion with the nursing home was the morning he died. He definitely lived his life on his terms."  

She told the memorial gathering her father's legacy was one of resilience in the face of adversity.  

"I miss him dearly, but his spirit lives on in the way he taught us to embrace life's adventures, include others and face adversity with optimism and humour," she said.

Originally published NT News We're going to talk about footy, politics and shiraz" - star turn-out for Darwin's Ken Bennett after his death at 83

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