A tribute to Jim Cairns

You have left us with a spirit in our heart
Tom Uren

Jim Cairns passed away on Sunday 12th October, eight days after he turned 89 years old. He was a great Australian - his life and commitment to people has touched so many. His leadership against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War together with so many other major social issues are imprinted in the history of our nation.

Jim was elected to the House of Representatives in 1955 and made an early mark on the Parliamentary Labor Party during his first term by challenging its leadership and policy on immigration. Following the Party's split in 1955-57, Labor's policy was 60 per cent British and 40 per cent Europeans and was directed against Southern Europeans who were overwhelmingly Catholics. Cairns argued that Southern European migrants were, economically, supporters of the Labor Party and his logical view brought about a change of attitude by Federal Labor. Cairns, together with Gough Whitlam, was an early public opponent of Australia's "White Australia Policy".

Cairns was born in Sunbury near Melbourne on 4 October 1914. He never met his father, who served in World War I and remained in England at the cessation of the War. He attended Sunbury State School and later Northcote High. His mother, as the breadwinner, had to work, and his grandparents played an important role in his early and teenage years. In his late teens he was an outstanding athlete and was broadjump and decathlon champion of Victoria. In 1934, he met Tom Blamey, the Victorian Police Commissioner, who invited Jim to join the police force and encouraged him to continue with his sporting activities. Jim joined the Force and this gave him a reasonable income to help his mother and family.

He met his wife, Gwendolyne Olga Rob, at the Empire Games in Sydney in 1938 and they married soon after. Jim and Gwen had a long and loving partnership. Gwen was a courageous woman and she loved Cairns deeply. Her courage shone through at the time of Jim's bashing by a young thug from the Ship Painters' and Dockers' Union in 1969. During a fundraising party at his home, Jim was attacked by the assailant, who hit him over the head with a heavy timber ornament. Jim fell to the floor, where the thug continued kicking his head. Gwen threw herself over Jim's head to protect him. She would have done anything for him. A light went out of his life when Gwen passed away in December 2000. It is interesting to note that soon after the accident Bob Menzies visited Jim at his home in Hawthorn.

In 1941-1943, Jim started a part-time course at Melbourne University. He tried to get an exemption from the Force to join the AIF, but was rejected because he was in an essential service. His resignation from the Victorian Police Force was accepted in September 1944. Jim joined the AIF in January 1945 and later served in Morotai, where he received a letter from Professor Herbert (Joe) Burton, then Senior Lecturer in Economic History at the University of Melbourne. Burton pointed out that, after the War, the University would need new economics staff and that Cairns should apply for a position. (Cairns always reflected on the importance of Tom Blamey and Joe Burton in the development of his life.) Jim continued to study, and obtained a Bachelor of Commerce in 1947 and a Master of Commerce in 1950. In 1951, he attended Oxford University on a Nuffield grant and was later awarded his PhD. He became a Senior Lecturer of Economic History at Melbourne University in 1953.

In 1954, Pat Kennelly encouraged him to stand for Labor's pre-selection for the seat of Yarra, and at the 1955 election he defeated Stan Keon, the former ALP Member who became a member of the Democratic Labor Party. During Cairns' political life he played an important role in the ALP leadership.

Labor was decimated at the 1966 election on the issue of Australia's military role in Vietnam. Calwell, Labor's leader, was reliving and fighting the anti-conscription battles of 1917. The anti-Communist hysteria in the 1966 campaign was almost beyond belief. The Liberal Party published a pamphlet displaying a map on which a large red arrow was thrusting from China, through Vietnam, towards Australia. The McCarthyism that existed in this country was wild and uncontrolled. With no support from the Australian media, the Labor Party and the anti-war movement had to get its message to the people at the grassroots level. It took years of campaigning with Cairns in the vanguard.

Labor made progress in the 1969 election. The first mass Vietnam War moratorium rallies occurred across the nation in 1970. Cairns called for the people of Australia to come out onto the streets and march peacefully against our involvement in the war. In every city in Australia people turned out in the tens of thousands - young, old, rich, poor, workers, and even bosses. It was a national mobilisation and it shook the Australian Establishment that such a people's action should occur. Cairns was the inspiration, the titular head and the main spokesperson for this unique movement.

At one anti-Vietnam meeting at Sydney Town Hall in late 1971 - called by the Labor Party's NSW Right machine - Jim was one of the speakers, along with Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke. John Ducker was in the chair. Cairns was running late and by the time he entered the Hall all the speakers were already on the platform. As he walked down the aisle the audience noticed Jim and, en masse, they stood up and applauded. Jim was very embarrassed and jogged down the aisle to the platform. Whitlam and Hawke were well received by those in the audience, who applauded during their speeches, but when Cairns rose to speak, they again rose en masse. He spoke quietly, not trying to raise emotions, giving the history of the creation of the conflict and our involvement, taking us to where we were and, finally, where we had to go to achieve our objective. There was absolute silence during this speech - you could hear a pin drop - the audience listened so intently. When he finished, the people rose again and applauded for several minutes. Never in my lifetime have I ever heard or seen an audience give so much respect to a public figure. They showed their love, their respect and their affection for him. It was his enormous courage that made him such a magnificent individual. His crusading was the epitome of the movement. He drew enormous strength from the warmth of an audience, and they in turn drew strength and courage from him.

Cairns has never been assessed fairly for his contribution to the ALP and to the nation prior to his relationship with Junie Morosi. People who have written about Cairns have been overcritical, dismissing both the role he played throughout the 1960s and his early contributions as a Minister and a Parliamentary leader. Political commentators and historians haven't really looked objectively at the man himself and his achievements.

Any objective observer analysing Cairns' political contribution and judgement will recognise the complete transformation that took place after the Morosi relationship. The tragedy of this relationship was that he wouldn't listen to other people's opinion of her. Cairns would take criticism better than anyone in politics, but he was vulnerable in defence of Morosi. He wasn't honest about his relationship with her and those who had put him on a pedestal couldn't understand the relationship. The media and conservative politicians used Cairns' personal life to bring him down. Conservative politicians' attitude to sexual freedom was particularly hypocritical - there were many irregular relationships on the conservative side of the parliament as well as the press gallery, but they weren't exposed in the press and nor were the participants vilified as Cairns was.

Cairns was one of the most magnificent debaters and performers in the House of Representatives during the 1960s. He had a humility and compassion which people of all political persuasions and from all walks of life found disarming. No matter how aggressive the press was toward him, he had a way of going over the media to the people, particularly when he appeared on television. He was deeply admired by the Australian people for the magnificent role he played as Acting Prime Minister following Darwin's devastation by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974, and the destruction of the Derwent River bridge in Tasmania shortly after. The compassion that Cairns displayed gave him an enormous stature at the time.

The Federal Labor Caucus also responded very positively to Cairns. Following the 1972 election victory, he topped the poll for ministerial positions and was allocated the Trade and Secondary Industry portfolio. He tackled the job with a great deal of intelligence. I don't think Cairns has ever been given the credit for his role in opening trade links with China. He had a vision of building trade bridges between Australia and China and building our relationship with South East Asian countries. The business people who accompanied him on the trip were also impressed, as were most who dealt with Cairns - they found he would always prepared to listen to their case.

Following the 1974 elections, Caucus showed the strength of its feelings for Cairns by electing him with a great majority to the position of Deputy Prime Minister, ahead of the incumbent, Lance Barnard, by 54 votes to 42.

Cairns became Treasurer. Unemployment had started to rise, largely because the money supply was tighter and big developers and land speculation had gone disastrously wrong. The 25 per cent tariff cut was also starting to bite; the first world oil crisis occured. In an attempt to rein in unemployment, Cairns allowed the Budget to blow out. His position was clear when answering a question in Parliament on 15 April 1975 from South Australian Liberal, Bert Kelly: "If printing money is a good solution to the unemployment problem, why not print more of the stuff and get rid of the unemployment problem altogether?" Cairns replied: "We might do precisely that. There are still 250,000 persons unemployed in Australia. I assure the honourable member that if by government expenditure I can ensure that any one of those men is put to work productively, I will make sure that he is, and he will not be allowed to remain in unemployment because of a shortage of money. As long as by government expenditure we can employ people productively, or assist in their employment in the private sector productively so that they provide as much as the expenditure is worth, there is no contribution to inflation. I will continue to ensure that unemployment does not remain in this country if anything the government can do can remove it." Cairns believed, as John Maynard Keynes did, that when the economy needed a stimulus the government should lead. Kelly was a follower of Milton Friedman as was the overwhelming body of the Canberra Press Gallery who crucified Cairns for his views.

I wonder if the rat pack of the Canberra press gallery will question or vilify President Bush about the enormous deficit his administration has created in the United States budget of trillions of dollars. But I will deal with that in more detail in a book I am writing at present.

Cairns was dismissed by Prime Minister Whitlam in May 1975. Mr Whitlam claimed that Cairns had misled or lied to the Parliament when he denied having written a secret letter to Melbourne businessman, George Harris, authorising him to seek funds and supposedly offering a commission of two and a half percent on loans raised.

Cairns really was a teacher and an educator, which is what he had been before he entered parliament. He was good at analysing things, but he wasn't effective in putting forward economic programs and policies that challenged the norm. However, when he thought something was the right thing to do, he would pursue it with determination and courage. Cairns did many great things for the ALP and for Australia, but the real tragedy of Jim Cairns was that he didn't become the driving, creative minister he could have been.

A few years ago when Xanana Gusmao was released from prison in Indonesia and came to Darwin, I arranged for an appointment with him. I was in his presence for two-and-a-half hours, most of the time he was addressing his people living in Darwin. It was the compassion of his speech that touched me. When he finished speaking he met every individual as they came and spoke with him. In each case they had his attention, he belonged to them. My thoughts went back to our campaigning in the 1960s and early 70s when I waited for Cairns, sometimes up to one hour, while Jim would speak individually with many of the audience who wanted to speak with him. He was always patient. He belonged to them.

Humility and patience belong to very few political leaders. Jim Cairns belongs in the same mould as Nelson Mandela and Xanana Gusmao, who have the needed humility, compassion, courage and commitment our human family need from our leaders. He will remain in the hearts and minds of many Australians.

I want to pay my respects to the Cairn's family. I want to particularly thank Alice Cairns, Jim's daughter-in-law, who cared for Jim through those difficult days of his loneliness and illness following Gwen's passing.

May I conclude by quoting a few words from Federal Labor Leader Simon Crean's speech to the parliament last Tuesday. Simon had known Jim since he was a teenager. He quoted Jim speaking at the May 1970 Melbourne moratorium. Jim urged moderation and reason, he said:

When you leave here today, realise a sacred trust.

You have the trust to stand for peace and for the qualities of the human spirit to which we must dedicate ourselves ...

Our spirit is the spirit of peace and understanding.

Our spirit is opposed to violence, opposed to hate, opposed to every motive that has produced this terrible war.

And in developing our own spirit, we will change the spirit of other people.

We can overcome ... and I have never seen a more convincing sight than I see here now to give me confidence that we shall overcome.

Farewell Jim, you have left us with a spirit in my heart and the heart of many others.


Tom Uren, a former President and Life Member of the Evatt Foundation, was a cabinet colleague of Jim Cairns in the Whitlam government (1972-75). Jim Cairns died on 12 October. This eulogy was delivered at the funeral in St John's Church in Toorak, Melbourne, on 17 October. Image: Jim Cairns & Tom Uren, on the way to Parliament House from Kurragoing House in the 1960s.