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Tuesday, 14 October 2003
Page: 21354

Mr BYRNE (6:41 PM) —I would like to associate myself with this condolence motion, particularly the very many eloquent words that have been spoken by those on our side of the House. I do not hope to comment about Jim Cairns with anywhere near the erudition displayed by the member for Brand or other members on my side, but I would like to share a couple of personal recollections which I believe sum up the essence of Jim Cairns as a person.

I first met Jim Cairns in April 2001 at a construction project for the Hallam bypass, which is in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. What first struck me when I was introduced to him was what a self-deprecating person he was and the humility that he displayed, particularly given that he was such a towering figure in Australian politics and in Labor politics, in particular. We had a very pleasant conversation that basically revolved around a number of local issues. I indicated to him at that stage that I would like to catch up with him—he was, in my view, a living treasure of the Labor Party and someone that we could learn a lot from—and he undertook to get in contact with me.

The subsequent contact was a cheque—a donation for my political campaign in 2001. The cheque was simply marked `Jim Cairns' and there was a fairly scrawled note: `Best wishes; good luck.' Someone actually sent it back because no-one knew who this person was, and he sent it back saying, `It's me.' I made contact with him and caught up with him at his house in Narre Warren East in March 2002. It is a very long drive up that very steep driveway to Jim's house. His house has a fantastic perspective and looks onto the foot of the Dandenongs. It is a very quiet and very tranquil place. I found him there on that day in March 2002 and he very kindly gave me an hour of his time.

In that hour we spoke about many things: his time in parliament and important figures in parliament and his recollection of them. What struck me about his memories and the way in which he recollected them was the generosity of spirit that he displayed, the gentle sort of nature of his tales and the forgiving nature of the comments that he made, particularly about people who were opponents—and in some cases fairly vicious opponents. I think that characterised him. The gentleness of his character ran through the course of our conversation together.

One particular story and anecdote that he raised was of the time he gave a speech as a backbencher. It was a fairly strong and passionate speech which lambasted the Menzies government about its employment policies. He told me that, shortly after that particular speech that night, he bumped into the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister commented about his speech. He said it was an excellent speech and he invited Jim Cairns into his office. The then Prime Minister of the country and Jim Cairns, a backbencher, debated his speech late into the night. Jim said that he bemoaned the fact that that could never happen now, that that bipartisan spirit no longer existed in this House, and he very much mourned its loss.

One particular point that Cairns made—I think the member for La Trobe mentioned that he had left Labor politics, and that issue has been addressed by the member for Bruce—was that he believed quite clearly that the Left side of politics, the Labor side of politics, would address the issues that he felt most deeply about. It may well be that he left the party, but I believe that in the autumn stages of his life he came back to it. He rejoined the party and he passionately believed that the Left side of politics—the Left side of this party—would deliver the equity, the tolerance and the fairness that he so desperately sought in the community.

To this end he asked me during our discussion to earmark the members of the Labor caucus who were members of the Left so he could send them his most recent works and manifestos because he hoped that they could inspire the Left of our party—some of the young Left that he had identified—to take up the causes that he had taken up. So I hold no truck with this view that he had left us; he may have left us for a short time but in the end he came back to us. I have never met a more passionate person, a more committed person. He had a very frail body at that particular stage, but I have never heard anyone talk so eloquently of peace and of tolerance and particularly of the politics of hope, fairness and equity. And he did believe that they could come about. Certainly, he hoped that some of the younger members of parliament who had come into this place would take up those causes, because he believed he had a legacy and I too believe that.

The last time I actually caught up with Jim was unfortunately as long ago as November 2002, in the Endeavour Hills Shopping Centre. He was fairly ravaged by illness at that time. It struck me that here was a former Deputy Prime Minister of this country, sitting outside Wendy's at the Endeavour Hills Shopping Centre having a cup of coffee and an ice-cream with the local member of parliament. We spoke about a whole range of issues that were important to him, such as contemporary politics. I do not believe his interest in contemporary politics ever changed. One thing in particular that I want to comment on, from those two conversations that we had, was that his divergence from politics and his exploration of other fields during politics and after he left politics was not some search for self-aggrandisement; it was basically that he was very driven by the fact that he desperately desired peace. He knew that the root causes of conflict—hunger for power, greed, avarice et cetera—were in human nature and he sought to understand the reasons for them.

So, while there are some who criticise Cairns for his journey into the root causes, the meanings, of these things, I believe it was a journey that started because he passionately believed in peace in our society and in our world. He passionately believed in empowering people. He hated violence in all of its forms—physical, verbal and psychological—and he wanted to understand its root causes. If you could understand the root causes of these particular things then perhaps you could address them. So from my perspective on those conversations I find it very unfair that he is criticised for taking tangential journeys to satisfy his ego. I believe he did so because he wanted to understand the causes of misery in human nature.

I left him in November 2002 at that Endeavour Hills Shopping Centre. We had, as I said, a fairly interesting conversation about contemporary politics and I guess I gave a fairly forlorn account of how I saw it. The last comment he made to me as he shuffled away was: `Never give up hope, Anthony; never give up hope.' And that is how I remember Jim Cairns—a person powered by love, compassion and wanting a better society for humankind. As I remember him shuffling off into the distance at Endeavour Hills Shopping Centre, I would like to think that we, who are the legatees of his tradition, will at least try to find some way of manifesting his desires.