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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21334

Mr LATHAM (5:13 PM) —For most of his time in this House, Jim Cairns was regarded as a charismatic and influential leader of the Left. Such was his standing that during the late 1960s and early 1970s he was the only serious rival to Gough Whitlam inside the federal parliamentary Labor Party. But his influence reached well beyond the parliament. In the long history of this place, few MPs have ever led a social movement. Dr Jim Cairns was one of them—some would say the only one.

One reading of history is that social movements are the best way of achieving social change. As the leader of the moratorium movement during the Vietnam War, Dr Cairns emerged as a truly national figure, someone who put the case for peace, someone who argued for greater social freedoms in the 1960s. Dr Cairns was in the vanguard of this social movement, an era that changed Australia for the better—leaving behind the old fogies and conservatism of the Menzies era. The folly of Vietnam convinced Australians that conservative governments could get it wrong and did get it wrong—wrong on foreign policy, wrong on social policy and wrong in the McEwenism of economic policy.

Cairns put the case for a better Australia—a freer and fairer society. He became the custodian of a rich history of radicalism in this country. In many respects, this was a Melbourne tradition and Cairns was an heir to the Anstey legacy: a socialist who was never entirely convinced by the prospects of democratic socialism. Indeed, it was the great tension of his life—a parliamentarian who increasingly became frustrated and disillusioned by the limits of parliamentary reform.

As a member of parliament, he believed in an independent foreign policy, and he was perhaps the first senior politician in Australia to not only talk about it but actually mean it. He believed in Keynesism, economic planning and, for most of his parliamentary career, trade liberalisation. He also believed in ending the White Australia Policy. With Gough Whitlam and Don Dunstan, he said it was unacceptable for a socialist party to advocate a policy of racial discrimination, and he was absolutely right. As a minister in the Whitlam government, Dr Cairns was one of the proponents of the 25 per cent tariff cut in 1973, the reform that set Australia on the long road to economic openness and prosperity. As Minister for Overseas Trade, he capitalised on Australia's new found access to China, again setting our country on the long road to Asian engagement and prosperity in our part of the world.

As a citizen, Jim Cairns believed in a fairer distribution of power in society. He was that most unusual but thoroughly engaging type of thinker and activist: he was a libertarian on the Left. Indeed, a Left libertarian is a most unusual but highly engaging type of thinker and activist. He believed in the liberation of the individual from various forms of repression—legal, Constitutional, institutional, ideological, sexual and religious. Over time he concluded that it was more important to liberate the individual than to liberate the means of production. This has always been one of the great dilemmas on our side of politics: to pursue reform through the collective power of the state or to change society through the methods of non-state reform—mutualism, community building and the enlightenment of the individual.

In what some saw as a bewildering move, Dr Cairns shifted away from the state while at the height of his parliamentary powers in 1974 and 1975. He had been one of the great success stories of the first term of the Whitlam government, so much a success that the caucus elected him Deputy Prime Minister after the 1974 double dissolution election. But by the time of the ALP national conference in Terrigal in February 1975 he was convinced:

We cannot have a socialist society until we have a society of socialists. We have few socialists in Australia.

Dr Cairns's interest in social relations was a forerunner to the modern political debate about community and social capital. He was talking about the trust and kindness between people 25 years before the American academic Robert Puttnam made the concept popular. Dr Cairns would have welcomed, I believe, the fact that his successor along the Yarra, the member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, has just published a book on social relationships.

Much has been said in the popular media about Cairns's relationship with Junie Morosi, but we also need to understand the other great event in his life in 1975. It was confirmed 60 years after the event that his father had not been killed during World War II; instead, he had left the army and moved to South Africa, where he was subsequently killed in a motoring accident. It is a shocking thing for a grown man to find out such a truth about his father. It can change you. It can haunt you for the rest of your life. In this case, it certainly changed Jim Cairns. He left the parliament in 1977 in search of another social movement and for many years was engaged with the alternative lifestyle movement, the counter-culture. This, unhappily, was not a success for Dr Cairns or his followers.

Jim Cairns was a wonderfully complex and intellectually engaged person. All his life he rejected the status quo and looked for new ways of dismantling the social establishment—not for him the narrow one-dimen-sional life of a machine politician; not for him the reactionary nature of spin doctoring and opinion polling; not for him the cynicism and at times cowardice of the party warlords, nor the timidity and subservience of the conservative way. And I say this for the benefit of the Deputy Prime Minister, who spoke so briefly in this debate before question time: how easy it is for the Tories to preside and just kowtow to the social establishment and then look down their noses at a radical reformer like Jim Cairns. He was indeed a complex man and that is why he is so well remembered today: a champion athlete in his youth, a policeman, a mature age student, a doctor of economic history, a prolific author of books, pamphlets and essays, a public intellectual, a peace activist, a parliamentarian, a Treasurer, a Deputy Prime Minister and, on top of that, a father, a husband, a lover and—believe it or not—a Mason.

For most of us in this place, the achievements of a parliamentary life are achievement enough. But for Jim Cairns they were never enough. He crammed the life's work of many men, of many parliamentarians, into his 89 years. I believe he is the most significant Labor person to pass away since Dr Evatt. Some people of course say that the Labor Party has changed—beyond recognition—in that time, but I for one still recognise Dr Cairns's contribution and many of his beliefs in our work. Let me quote from the best of his 14 books, The Quiet Revolution—and I quote at some length because it is all good stuff. This is what Jim Cairns had to say:

I believe that an equitable spread of decision-making power and the liberation of ideas has revolutionary implications. I have a prejudice in favour of this because I believe it is good—good because it is invigorating, exciting and, above all, likely to allow individuals and communities to be able best to develop their fullest potential freely and quickly.

I am on the side of new ideas and a free society.

... ... ...

I have said I am a socialist and I have done this because a characteristic of socialists has been that they have favoured a spread of decision-making power and they favoured new ideas ...

Dr Cairns went on to say in this powerful passage:

But above all, it should be realised that all establishments, all bureaucracies—communist, socialist, capitalist, fascist or any other—will be against new ideas.

We must be committed, because of this, to a free society with humane values. We need to be highly suspicious and resistant to bureaucracies. This is not to say that collective action is not essential. It is. But it must be a free acting positive collective. It must be committed to action.

I endorse those words. For me they confirm that, while Labor are always modernising and renewing our policies and the detail of our intentions, our core values remain the same and the influence of Dr Jim Cairns is still strong within the Labor movement. What he had to say in that passage was true in 1975 and it is true today. Let us shake the tree and rattle the cage on the establishment in this country and renew our commitment to the dispersal of economic, social and political power.

Dr Cairns was a fine thinker and a mighty activist, but he also embodied the great unresolved tensions of the Labor movement—the tension between state and non-state reform, the limits of parliamentary reform and the fear, so well articulated by Vere Gordon Childe all those years ago, that parliamentarians ultimately must compromise on their beliefs and, in so doing, they will sell short the interests of the Labor movement. In The Quiet Revolution, Dr Cairns said that we should never give up on the struggle. He said that we must be `dedicated to the impossible dream.' He said that we must:

... love the human potential: the colourful, challenging, interesting and exciting human potential ... value human excellence ... believe that the future will be good, and in the final act ... be prepared to die for those beliefs.

Dr Cairns lived for his beliefs—his personal and political commitment to social justice—and he died true to them. He is what we call a true believer. He kept the faith. I pay my respects to his memory and his inspiration, and I convey my condolences to the Cairns family.