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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21346

Mr BRENDAN O'CONNOR (6:05 PM) —I rise to add my condolences to the family of Jim Cairns. I had the good fortune to meet Jim Cairns on a number of occasions as he sat outside the Prahran markets on Saturdays in the early eighties. I was a university student living nearby and I knew of Jim Cairns as a great anti-Vietnam War crusader and former senior federal Labor parliamentarian. I did not know it at the time but I found out subsequently that not only was he these things but he had also been a member of the Victorian police force. I heard from people recounting the tales of the contests between him and the fiery orator Stan Keon that he gave as good as he got in a very robust contest in the fifties, which certainly did not accord with the views I had then of the peace activist Jim Cairns. As I learned more about him, Jim Cairns illustrated how complex life and humans are. Indeed, my interest in him grew as I read and heard more stories about how his life was filled with many achievements.

But back then, in the early eighties, I did not know a lot about him. I was rather bemused that a person of such former stature, a great public figure, could be sitting at a table with a few books, rugged up against the Melbourne weather, engaging with passers-by on any matter that might take their fancy. For me, as a young man and a person who normally did not have access to such figures of note, I found it an extraordinary opportunity and privilege to engage in conversation with a person who had led such a rich life. Whilst I was bemused, I was impressed by the ability to access him in such a modest manner. I do not pretend that I agreed with everything he said—I agreed and disagreed with him. I think I showed more moments of anger in those conversations than he ever showed in most of his life. He was patient with me and listened to what I had to say, and I certainly listened to him. He was no ordinary politician. He was no ordinary public figure. He was an extraordinary figure in our history. I think his outspoken criticism of Labor's White Australia Policy well before it was abandoned showed his integrity, his courage and his foresight. I know there are other things we could raise to illustrate those qualities, but I think the criticism of that unfair and archaic policy alone was testimony to his great qualities as a man.

I would like to touch upon an experience of mine in the last federal election campaign which allowed my path to very briefly cross not so much Jim Cairns's but those of his supporters. I was doorknocking in the suburb of Deer Park, which is now in the electorate of Burke and was at some point in time in the electorate of Lalor when Jim Cairns was the member. I was doorknocking in what is known to be a very safe Labor area—an area, perhaps, that not many incumbents would doorknock if they were looking to get swinging votes. I knocked on a door and a woman answered. She said to me that I was the first candidate who had actually knocked on her door since Jim Cairns had knocked on her door more than 30 years ago. I had a cup of tea with her and she went on to tell me that he had made it a habit to campaign locally and to be accessible to his constituents. I think another speaker mentioned the fact that he had a caravan that he used to get about in and open up to allow people to come and meet with him. It was clear to me that he also doorknocked even very safe Labor areas—as they would have been back then and as they are now. This illustrated to me that even a person with such a high national profile and with such a busy life—and a person in demand, I imagine, in so many places—could find the time to actively represent the interests of his electorate and tend to their needs. I suppose, given the philosophy of Jim Cairns, he could not really do it any other way.

Jim Cairns may well be remembered by the bulk of Australians as someone who was a flawed politician. They will remember, no doubt, through footage and other means, that he was an extraordinary peace activist. But, as others have said, I think it should also be remembered that he did many other things in what was clearly a very full and complex life. He enlisted in the army. He was a dedicated police officer. He was a graduate of Melbourne and Oxford universities and a teacher. He rose to the offices of Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister. Perhaps most importantly, Jim Cairns was a tireless reformer who challenged conventional thinking and invited everyone with whom he engaged to do the same. I offer my condolences to his family.