Jim Cairns

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.

[read more]