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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21350

Mr GRIFFIN (6:25 PM) —We are here today to say goodbye to one of Labor's great heroes, who was certainly one of the great figures of the Labor movement in the second part of the last century. I express my deep condolences on his departure to his family and those who knew him well. But there is much in the life of Jim Cairns to celebrate, and there is also much to look back on in terms of the last 50 years or so—particularly the period of the mid-fifties through to the mid-seventies, which exemplifies so much that occurred in Australian social and political life. I say social and political life because, while Cairns was a politician, and a politician who achieved great office in this country, the fact is that so much of what he did has to be looked at from a social perspective, in terms of the social movements that occurred during the time he was active in politics. So much of what he did in his later years related to the social life of this country and looked at that from a position of trying to influence the political to a degree.

As has been said by others, he was one of Labor's heroes but also, in that respect, deeply flawed. The thing about being deeply flawed is this: to be deeply flawed you have to be a figure who has been of substance, a figure who has created a good deal of comment and debate about what you sought to pursue and what you have done and a figure who has inspired feelings that are divided as to how you have progressed your role in society—and the fact is, Cairns was someone who certainly did that. I think it would be fair to say that you either loved him or hated him—certainly through the sixties and into the seventies. There were many who felt very strongly on either side.

He was an inspirational character. I suppose he was a character that in so many ways was seen to be someone who had passion and, I think, a connection with many ordinary people in Australia. You saw that with the moratorium marches and around the time of Cyclone Tracy. In that way, I think you can actually draw some comparisons with Bob Hawke, as probably the only other significant Australian political figure in the last 50 years who has shown a passionate connection and empathy with ordinary Australians to a degree that I think most of us would love to achieve but, alas, are unable to manage. But, having said that, there was much that was different between the two of them in the way they used that passion and operated in society.

You can look at Jim Cairns as an example of Labor in those long wilderness years. Although people have spoken about his rhetorical skill and flourish within the parliament, some of his best work occurred outside the parliament. The things that he will be remembered for—or I hope he will be remembered for—relate to events outside of this parliament. In that way, it was his influence on the development of issues in a social sense that was very important. He was also an educator—someone who basically sought to teach as he went along—in that he tried to change society and move it forward. Probably out of that role came his disillusionment with parliamentary politics. From a personal point of view, he felt that his endeavours were best spent elsewhere, to try and influence people in the wider community on more of a one-on-one basis. In fact, that is how he spent many of his later years in terms of his writings and in terms of his appearances at a range of markets over metro Victoria. In that way he sought to influence people on a one-on-one basis.

I met Jim Cairns only once in my life. It was at a function we had in Victoria in late 1997 which was to celebrate 25 years since the election of the Whitlam government. I was led to believe it was probably the only appearance that Jim had made at an ALP function for many years. In fact when we approached him to see if he would attend we were surprised that he said yes. While he was quite firm about coming, he was also quite firm about what he would do. Essentially we had endeavoured to organise various activities that a range of ex-Labor ministers from the Whitlam government would undertake on stage et cetera—and those who know many of those people would know that is not an easy thing to do.

With Jim, it was very clear: he would come—and he definitely wanted to come—but he wanted 10 minutes to address the audience at the Comedy Theatre, which was absolutely full to the rafters. He wanted his 10 minutes and he was going to have his 10 minutes, and there was going to be no control over content or how he presented it. He was going to go out there and give it to them. And that is exactly what he did. He got up and he gave a 10-minute speech which went through a range of concerns he had about the nature of modern society and how he felt about the direction of politics in this country. He did it, and he did it the way he had done so many times before.

Although he was getting on a bit then, there was a certain passion, a certain commitment and a certain stoicalness that was to be admired. Much of what he said were things that many of us would have had some problem agreeing with, but you certainly had to admire the fact that he had the guts and the commitment to get up there and to say it and to keep saying it—and to firmly believe it. We often talk about the fact that in politics there seems to be a lack of passion and a lack of belief. I think that is overestimated by many in terms of just how bad things really are, but when you try to compare your commitment and your passion to someone like Jim Cairns you will find yourself so often wanting.

It was mentioned by the member for La Trobe that Jim Cairns had become disillusioned with the Labor Party in later years, and I guess to an extent that is true. But to correct the record to a degree—and I checked this with the Victorian branch of the party this afternoon—the fact is, and it was mentioned by the member for Lalor, he was a life member and that was granted several years ago. However, he first joined the party back in 1947. His membership lapsed in 1991, but he rejoined in 1996 and was a member right through from that period. The fact that 1996 is the time we are talking about is a relevant point for all of us on this side of the House and certainly a relevant condemnation of those on that side. The fact is he was one of the great figures of the Labor movement, someone who inspired when so many failed to do so and someone who we are all better off for having known or known of, given the role that he played in politics in this country. I mourn his passing.