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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21344

Mr TANNER (5:57 PM) —Jim Cairns could aptly be described as the most significant figure in the history of the Labor Party who did not actually lead the party. If you look at the impact that he had on Australian politics, the Labor Party and the Labor movement over a very long period of time, you see it is a degree of impact that is, in fact, not even paralleled by some people who have led the Labor Party. I believe it stands alone amongst the efforts of people who have not managed to get to that high office.

As previous speakers have indicated, Jim Cairns is perhaps best known for his role in the moratorium movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s and for his singular contribution to ending Australia's involvement in the war in Vietnam. It is important to recall that this was not something that came automatically and easily to the Labor Party. It was an issue on which many people in the Labor Party held differing views in the mid-sixties, but, through the sheer effort of will of Jim Cairns and many other people like him, Labor picked up the banner for peace and for Australian withdrawal from Vietnam and, ultimately, prevailed in that quest.

We should remember Jim Cairns not only for that enormous contribution to Australian politics and Australian life but also as somebody who was a very important early moderniser for Labor. He made an important contribution to changing not only Labor attitudes but also community attitudes to our Asian neighbours and to the White Australia Policy. Back in the 1950s and 1960s the attitudes in the Australian community and within the Labor Party broadly towards our region and towards people of non-white ethnicity were pretty backward, to say the least. It was people like Jim Cairns who gradually changed the attitudes in the Labor Party—and, through that, in the community—towards non-white immigration and towards relationships between Australia and people in our region.

It was disappointing today to hear the rather paltry contribution of the Deputy Prime Minister and the snide contribution of the Minister for Health and Ageing in this condolence debate, reflecting a caricature of a great Australian that is not deserved and failing to acknowledge a much more multifaceted person who made a much more substantial contribution to Australian political life than either of the two government speakers appear to have noted.

Mr TANNER —Or perhaps will ever understand, as the member for Sydney points out.

Ms Plibersek —Or will ever make themselves!

Mr TANNER —And certainly they will never aspire to the same heights themselves—I think you can put some money on that! A primary attribute of Jim Cairns was that for many he was the epitome—the representation—of that great tidal wave of social change and of the optimism, hope and excitement that emerged in Australia and in many other Western nations in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In retrospect it appears to have been tinged with a degree of naivety and, indeed, some misconceptions about human nature and the world and how it operates. Nonetheless, this was an enormously liberating and empowering period in human history and people like Jim Cairns had a great influence on many who have subsequently entered public life, including me. It was clear from comments made by previous speakers that a number of my colleagues were very influenced by this wave of change and by the vision, optimism and idealism of people like Jim Cairns.

There was a great upheaval of the human spirit and a great change in our attitudes to issues like violence, individual rights, sexuality and the freedom of the human spirit—attitudes which had all existed in a very constricted and narrow environment in Australia in the 1950s but which were radically changed by that great wave of cultural transformation for which Jim Cairns was a focal point. He was very much a man of his era and we live in very different times now. But we can shape the vision of a future for our society now, just as people like Jim Cairns did in that bygone period. The negative, nasty, inward-looking, self-absorbed politics of the current environment, fostered particularly by the current Prime Minister, can be overcome with vision, optimism, passion and the idealism that epitomised Jim Cairns and characterised his contribution in the 1960s and 1970s.

He also needs to be acknowledged as having been one of those people in politics who was unfailingly courteous and who never felt the need to use personal vituperation as a means to achieving a political outcome. He did not need the empty calumny and vituperation that so often characterises political debate in this country. In order to advance his cause he used argument. He was always respectful of people with alternative views. He was always keen to engage in serious debate and discussion and to consider issues on their merits.

If there is one thing that contemporary politicians can learn from Jim Cairns, it is his commitment to ideals and his ability to express those ideals and to treat opponents and people with different points of view with some respect. Therefore it was particularly sad to read the observations of Paddy McGuinness in the Sydney Morning Herald today. Mr McGuinness is a person who appears to me to have made very little contribution to public life other than through denigrating and pouring bile on others, and he appears to have outdone himself today in an incredibly mean-spirited, unwarranted and vile attack. It really is beneath contempt and I think it is important to put on the record that Jim Cairns, irrespective of what one may have felt about his views, made a major contribution to public life in this country.

It is important to note that, amongst obvious people like me and other Labor members who have been coming out to applaud Jim Cairns yesterday and today, numerous people of prominence in the Liberal Party of the past have said how much they respected him. These were people who did not have to come out and say these things but who volunteered their words, which is a mark of the esteem that he was held in for his contribution to Australian society. Although the controversies which characterised the latter part of his role in the Whitlam government ultimately brought him undone, they cannot change the magnitude of his achievement, they cannot change the nature of his contribution to Australian public life and they cannot change his contribution to the world or his emphasis that idealism is important—that it does matter—that politics is important and that, collectively, people can change the world. Parliamentary and public debate is not just theatre or gladiatorial battle; it is about improving the world and making a better life for people.

Jim Cairns proved that people acting collectively can bring about change. Although his contribution was marred by occasional indiscretions and by some of the issues that emerged in the Whitlam government of the time and during the latter period when the government descended into something a little less than chaotic, nonetheless he stands alone in Australian politics as a beacon of idealism and hope and as a great contributor to the force for politics as a noble calling to achieving change for a better society. I offer my condolences to his family during this period of their loss.