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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21343

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON (5:52 PM) —A previous speaker referred to the inspiration that Jim Cairns provided to him in joining the party. Approximately a year ago a veteran member of my party organisation, Vicky Potempa, on moving to the Hunter Valley came into my office and gave me a copy of Jim Cairns's book on the lead-up to the 1970 moratorium, Silence Kills. It says: `Best wishes, Vicky. Jim Cairns, 25 September 1970.' The fact that she kept it so long and that she gave it to me when she moved out of the area is symptomatic of the respect for Cairns in my particular party organisation.

Others have alluded to the meeting of 1971 at the Sydney Town Hall. Tom Uren referred to it, as did the member for Grayndler. I remember that as a singularly emotional political event in my life; it is unparalleled. Cairns's plane had been delayed in Melbourne. The Sydney Town Hall was packed to the rafters. My mother was embarrassed as I, a young person, joined with hundreds in the Sydney Town Hall screaming abuse at the party leadership in New South Wales—obviously much against the instincts of a person like Jim Cairns, who preached tolerance. That was the consummation of a period in which the New South Wales branch of the party had originally supported the war in Indochina. They had attempted to expel every member of the Association for International Cooperation and Disarmament, and they had tried to ban any debate and discussion. It was only a huge public campaign by a significant number of members of parliament in that state—with, obviously, support from interstate forces in the party—that forced them to back off from that ban on people campaigning against the war.

This period was vital in my political upbringing. I recall the member for Fowler's husband, Geoff, and people like Richard Collier. I was only 14 years old in the 1966 elections, and it was the nearest I have ever seen to violence at polling booths when I worked at the Guildford Public School. There were intense feelings over the war. Labor was very much on the back foot; the war was extremely popular. The opponents were pictured as communists, part of a totalitarian world system. To stand up in that environment took great courage on the part of Cairns, and he really was a beacon to activists in the party in New South Wales. He stood up to conservative forces in the party and articulated at such an early stage a more complex picture of communism. For all the efforts of the Soviet Union to dictate controls to every Communist Party around the world from the 1930s onwards, Cairns understood that the case of the Vietnamese party was far more complex—as we were to see in its struggles with China some time later. He saw that there was a genuine nationalistic streak within the party, that it had resisted the French and then the Americans, that there were reasons why people in Vietnam were not content with the situation and that it was not just a totally manipulated, orchestrated world plan.

These were difficult arguments, and they were typical of the man who, as other speakers have said, was early in saying that work should be done to understand Asia and who was an early proponent of interactions between students. When we go to Asia now, we see the huge gains this country has made through alumni of our universities and people who were under the Colombo Plan. I also recall coming to Canberra on a bus with a large number of party members from my area—although, once again, we were still in a small minority—to see Cairns at a demonstration against the visit of Nguyen Cao Ky.

To me, the main thing about Cairns was his heroic effort against the war. He was a persuasive speaker who appealed to people's better instincts, and he so clearly represented an alternative to those people who would have driven the Labor Party in a different direction by taking the easy options. I salute Cairns on his career. As Gough Whitlam said, few in the party have expressed such an image of nobility in their public lives. I join with others in conveying my condolences to Alice and Barry.