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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21292


Mr CREAN (Leader of the Opposition) (2:09 PM) —I join with the Prime Minister in this motion today because what it does is honour the life of one of the most admired men of the Labor movement and one of its most significant. Dr Jim Cairns was the former Deputy Prime Minister, former Treasurer, former trade minister and former Minister for Secondary Industry. He was a member of this House for 22 years, having joined it in 1955 and retired from it in 1977. Despite those 22 years in the parliament, he is perhaps better known for his extraparliamentary political activities—as a leader of the peace movement, as a writer, as an activist and as a radical for social change. He was a man of passion, a man of commitment and a man of conviction. He was a person who was famously shy in his personal life. Few got close to him. Even close friends like Tom Uren say they never really got to know him. There is a story about his diffident personality. Jim Cairns became the founder of the New Age Confest—famous for its `back to nature' dress code. Despite this, he could never quite bring himself to take off all of his clothes in public. He managed to remove his shirt but that is as far as he got—and we all remember the famous photos of that. His beliefs, though, he did lay bare. He made them known and he pursued them with a great passion. He was also a person that reached out to others. His house was open to the homeless and people down on their luck. Typical of the man, at Melbourne University after the war he set up a group to encourage friendship between Asian and Australian students.

The Prime Minister has outlined in considerable detail the history of Jim Cairns, from birth through to his parliamentary career. I will not repeat that. He came to this parliament in what was a tumultuous time for the Labor Party and the Labor movement generally. He won the seat of Yarra from the DLP, from Stan Keon, in the great Labor split in 1955. After an electoral redistribution, he was subsequently elected as the member for Lalor, from 1969, a seat which he held until the 1977 election. While he later became a New-Age thinker, in the beginning Dr Cairns was a Marxist. He advocated, amongst other things, the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the Australian economy. To say the least, this did put him at odds at times with his subsequent leader, Gough Whitlam, who wanted to modernise Labor's platform. The battle came to a head in 1968 and Jim Cairns came within a handful of votes of defeating Gough Whitlam for the leadership of the Labor Party. In that campaign he famously asked about Whitlam: `Whose party is this—his or ours?' History records that Gough won that battle and the Labor Party took a different direction to the one that Cairns would have preferred. Despite that, Cairns served under Whitlam's leadership both in opposition and in government. It is interesting what Gough Whitlam had to say about Jim Cairns when he learnt of his death, and I quote him:

Jim Cairns brought a nobility to the Labor cause which has never been surpassed. It is a great thing for me that throughout our political careers I had such a colleague, a friend, sometimes a rival, but always a benchmark in doing the great and the good things in the interests of Australia and the ALP.

In the late 1960s Jim Cairns put much of his energy into the Vietnam moratorium movement, culminating in that famous march in Melbourne in May 1970. I was part of that movement and participated in the rally, and I also remember his message on that day. Interestingly, he was condemned at the time by the establishment as being a radical but his speech that day in fact urged moderation and reason. I just want to remind people of a bit that he had to say that day. He said:

When you leave here today, realize 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.

The call to spread the message of peace and understanding in that speech by Jim Cairns stands, in my view, as his epitaph. Other marches followed and the dissent they expressed did much to shape the political consciousness of a generation of young Australians. I am proud to count myself amongst them.

The moratorium movement is often regarded as the high point of Jim Cairns's career, but this overlooks his many other achievements. He was ahead of his time in many areas of policy. He was one of the first Australian politicians to call for closer economic, political and social ties with Asia. He was also one of the earliest opponents of the White Australia Policy. When the Whitlam government was elected in 1972, Cairns was appointed to the senior economic portfolios of Overseas Trade and Secondary Industry. These portfolios, amongst other things, involved him in two major policy achievements that still shape our economic direction today. He played a key role in steering the 25 per cent general tariff cut through a divided cabinet—a decision that, at the time, was heralded as a watershed in Australian economic history. In his Overseas Trade portfolio he was also very successful in opening trade links with the People's Republic of China.

In 1974 Dr Cairns was elected Deputy Prime Minister. In that role he is remembered fondly, as the Prime Minister has indicated, for the great compassion he showed, when he visited Darwin, for the people devastated by the cyclone. He showed the same compassion when he had to attend the devastation wreaked in Hobart by the Derwent River bridge collapse. Gough Whitlam made Cairns his Treasurer in 1974, replacing my father in that role. The great tragedy is that Dr Cairns reached the height of his power just at the time when he was starting to lose his belief in the power of parliament and government to change society, much to the regret of his supporters.

In 1974 as well, his head was famously turned by Junie Morosi. His ministerial work suffered and his office became notoriously dysfunctional. That confusion was probably a significant factor in leading him to inadvertently mislead the parliament over the loans affair, an incident which saw Whitlam later sack him from the ministry. It is a great pity in public life that a personal matter—in this case, the Morosi affair—has tended to overshadow Jim Cairns's achievements in a life of service to the Australian people.

Jim Cairns was a man constantly on an intellectual journey. Even though he did lose faith in parliamentary politics, he never lost his zeal for and commitment to reform. After leaving parliament in 1977, he became a leader of the counterculture movement. Many of us, including me, would often see him at the Prahran or South Melbourne markets. On many occasions my father was with me and we always had friendly and lively discussions. He set up those bookstalls not for the purpose of selling the books but to engage the public and the new generation in his ideals, to seek to involve them in social, economic and political change and to persuade them to take up the torch of cultural reform. He succeeded, because today many of the issues that he championed—environmentalism, the importance of relationships and the nurturing of our children—are mainstream political issues.

Jim Cairns represented in perhaps its purest form the spirit of idealism that is such a central part of the great Australian Labor Party. He was an optimistic, trusting and gentle man whose strength of conviction, soothing voice and handsome looks made him a hero to many. He never measured political success in electoral terms alone; it was in persuading people of the merits of his beliefs and the rightness of his convictions. Whilst he never succeeded in converting the majority, he converted many. They remain devoted converts today. He was a man who liked to think the best of his fellow human beings. If that eventually brought him undone, then there are worse judgments that can be made of a politician and a human being. Whilst he was ever controversial, and whilst people could question his judgment at times, no-one can question his passion or his belief.

Jim's wife, Gwen, died three years ago. Jim never really recovered from that. One of his sons, Philip, died in 1997. He is survived by his other son, Barry, and by many thousands of admiring Labor members and supporters. Jim Cairns was a Labor original, a great servant of the Labor movement and a great leader of it. He was a true believer. We mourn his passing and we salute his contribution as a man of passion and commitment and a beacon for those who yearn for peace.