Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

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At the time of the Whitlam government you spoke a great deal in praise of Whitlam. I mean rather to everybody's surprise, you were very strong in your support of his leadership, and spoke overtly and admiringly of his methods. What was it that you admired about him?

His clarity, open unambiguity, consistency, control in public, which wasn't there in private. His crashes and crashes through, as the title of the book put it, were in private, not in public. Now strangely enough I never saw any of that. Gwen did - saw three or four examples of uncontrollable bad temper, in private, over something his son had done or not done, or something that had happened in the office, or had not been done in the office. I don't think I was in Whitlam's office that much. Gwen used to go in with Margaret. They were fairly close associates when they were in the building together. And Gwen saw more of Whitlam for quite a while in private than I did. But this public appearance of Whitlam I thought was very much like that of a Prime Minister ought to be. I had the same attitude to Menzies. I thought Menzies was extremely competent and he responded much more than Whitlam did, to me.

Now it's interesting your relationship with Menzies because you must have represented most of what he hated, in the sense of policy and philosophical position.

Only really ... It was like Santamaria. Only really in something we can call communist. On economic policy Menzies and Santamaria and me were very close together. I wrote three or four lines in the first paragraph of the Charter of the Reserve Bank, when Menzies was establishing the Reserve Bank. Several times he'd get me into the office and talk about things. And after we finished in politics, and that time we got bashed up at Wattle Road, Menzies came to see me. Menzies would have murdered that fellow if he'd got a chance. I spoke in a way a bit sympathetic to the coot, but Menzies thought I was quite wrong about that. He wanted him hung.

Menzies actually, then, you think really admired you?

I suppose admired is the word. One of those chairs over there he nearly ruined. He was sitting on one of those chairs one day, when Freeth was Foreign Minister and there was a great fuss about Russian warships in the Indian Ocean, and Freeth said, 'They were doing no harm'. Menzies rolling backwards and forwards on that chair said, 'The man's got no sense of politics. If I were there now', he said, 'With Russian warships in the Indian Ocean, I'd have every Australian sitting on the end of his chair'. As he moved to the end of that one, it creaked but didn't break. You can still pick out which one it is because it's strained. So it was ... I asked him to come and open the Richmond Medical Centre at the Richmond Town Hall. He came to the Richmond Town Hall with Dame Pattie and Menzies and Dame Pattie and Gwen were quite friendly. And he said to me, 'You know, it's the first time I've ever been in the Richmond Town Hall'. And he was rather pleased with that experience. So at the end of it he said, 'I didn't [know I'd be] welcome there'. Never happened to him before.

Can I go back now and pick up on a whole completely different theme that we haven't traced through in your life, which is the more personal and family side of your life? Do you remember when you were a young boy, when did you first start get interested in girls?

The first one I was interested in was Bina Mills, but I never got off my pony in her presence. She'd be walking home and I'd trot up with my pony and ride the pony along side her as she walked home. Never got off my pony, never touched her. Until the age of sixteen, that was the closest I ever got to a girl. Northcote High School none. Never. Boy's school - no girl students. Australian Estates three years - no girls.

No girls in the office?

Oh, yes, plenty. But never any private conversation. Never took one out. Never.

Why not?

Don't know. I think I wasn't game somehow or other. I never took a girl out until in 1936, I was in the Victorian Police Debating Team. We went to Sydney for debates against the New South Wales Police Debating Team. Theirs was a well functioning kind of debating group. They often had debates and had people come and listen to them, which we didn't have in Victoria. We only had our debates at the depot. There was no one else but policemen there. And there was one girl that came to that debate. I can't remember her name - haven't been able to remember it for ages. And after the debate we went for a walk in the park, and for the first time I ever took a sexual position. I didn't succeed, but I was then twenty-two. Now as I'm sure, Gwen was the first one I had any sexual relations with.

And how did you meet Gwen?

There was the Empire Games in Sydney in 1938. She went to the Empire Games. There were friends of ours, the Curnows, who lived in Caulfield - Sylvia Curnow and Len. Len was the captain of Melbourne Harriers, an average kind of middle distance runner, distance runner. And they met Gwen and they'd been conspiring for some time to bring me into touch with some girl. They thought it was very necessary, and so, Gwen came to Melbourne - came to their place. They made sure I was there. I met her there. I had a car. She stayed at the Empire Hotel in Lonsdale Street, City. I drove her home. [KISSING SOUND] I think it was the first time. Well, she was here for about a week. She disagrees somewhat on exactly where I suggested to her we might get married, but it was very early in the piece. She went back to Sydney and then came back here. There are photographs here in that pile of what she looked like when she came back: how she dressed, where she was. She stayed while she was here with my grandparents at my mother's place at Victoria Street, St Kilda. I'm not sure whether she ever went back to Sydney again as a resident, but we got married.

And did your family like her?

She says my mother didn't. I'm not sure. My grandmother and grandfather did, and Eleanor did. After my mother died ... Eleanor and my mother lived together in Murphy Street, Richmond. When my mother died, Eleanor came to live with us in Hawthorn and did so for many years - became a very, very close friend of ours and a sort of guardian of young Jane [sic]. They became very close together.

What sort of a person was Gwen when you met her? What were her circumstances and what was she like?

Well I think she was very pleasant and easy going. She wasn't really any worry. She'd had a very difficult life. The first seven years was good, living on a farm, mother and father there, her grandfather, all of whom she admired very much, but she wasn't fairly treated. She would never say this, but her sister, Megsy, as we call her, went off to a private school, got a good education, became a snob. Gwen got hardly any school education. Most of her education is something she's got out of reading. She reads tremendously. She has a most unusual competent memory for all these things and apart from technical or academic kind of things, she's very well educated. Anyone talking to her quietly would feel sure she was a well educated person.

She was married before she met you, wasn't she?

Yes. That was a difficulty. She married somebody about sixteen or seventeen years older than herself. Jim Tilsley. He lived on drugs. The two boys were born quite early. He gave her almost no help in bringing up the boys. The two boys, Phillip and Barry, were brought up by Gwen and her mother, dependent completely upon them until the age of four or five respectively, when I came into the picture. All that had been handled pretty well. The boys had never been deprived in any way. They had never been disrespected or put down, and they had a good early life. Her husband ... Barry goes in for a records of the family, sticks them up on the wall and all that, and now he's been just discovering some things about his father, about James Tilsley. He was married after Gwen and he lived for quite a while.

You adopted the boys when you married her didn't you? And you never children of your own. Did you regard those boys as very much yours?

Look I don't know how you regard people whom are your biological children. I don't know how you do that. I've never the experience. But I regarded them as two young people who were constantly here, who went to Oxford with us, stayed in the same small house, until the age of getting married and later. They lived always in the same house as we did. Very close. Their bedroom there, ours here. I don't think I took part much in their education. They left school at the age of about fourteen or less, and they were not interested in further education. I think if I was to have another opportunity I would have tried to make sure that they did go further in education. Barry has been very successful as a business man. Phillip was successful as a human being but he was never successful in business.

You attracted some criticism when you were in government by having one of the boys work for you.

Phillip, yes.

Why did you chose to have Philip work for you?

To give him a job, to give him an opportunity. To do what he had been doing very much of his time before we were in government. Phillip was very significant in Richmond. He never thought of becoming a councillor but he worked odd jobs at the Richmond Council. He did a lot with the Labor Party. What Phillip did after he began to work for me in government was what he'd been doing in Richmond for seven or eight years.

And he was good at it?

Yes, very good at it.

So you felt it was worth it to have that.

It was worth it. I wasn't inclined to take the opinion of any crackpot, who knew nothing and was an expert in talking about it.

How important was Gwen in your public life?

Very important. Gwen was very important at the university. She was very busy in organisations at the university. There was an international one. I've forgotten the name it had. It was in Royal Parade. Gwen used to go there a lot. She was very invaluable in Richmond - never really went much out of Richmond, never went much into Collingwood, never really much in Hawthorn, but Richmond yes. Richmond was something she seemed to like very much and they liked her. Worked with the pensioners, fixed up dry cleaning services for them, supervised the provision of their daily lunch, all that sort of thing.

She has also a very warm and open sort of personality. Did you find that that was appreciated by the people who were the constituents?

Oh, yes, obviously, in the way that I think no other woman, no other wife, none ... They were all sort of Richmond snobs - the councillors' wives in Richmond. They wouldn't have any thing to do with ... they were councillors' wives and they were up there with [the councillors]. They wouldn't do the things that Gwen did. Several times she had to pull them in line and get them out their crevice.

You had an open door policy in your house in Hawthorn with people coming and going and very much ... As a loner ... This interests me that you had this willingness to be completely open to the community, and yet you were somebody who, in fact, did walk a little bit alone, yourself.

I was a loner, yes.

So how did that work? Could you describe the open house, open door, complete availability, and yet a loner mind?

Oh it was never very deep I'm afraid. My contact with people was a friendly, fairly superficial contact. That was what all they were capable of. They weren't deeper, they weren't educated, they didn't have any great depth. And in so far as what ever they produced I was able to be with it, and they came for, I think, the good things they got from coming. They felt they were more important if they could go up to 21 Wattle Road and walk in. They never intruded, they never stayed a minute longer than [what] seemed to be natural. They'd have a cup of coffee and something to eat. And we had parties there. We had as many as 500 people in the back garden of 21 Wattle Road, sitting on the grass, talking away - all day Sunday, once a year. It was well known. Everybody had to go to our Christmas party.

And there was never any trouble with any of this until one fateful day. Could you describe that?

It was after I had lost Richmond and I was moving to Lalor and we had a sort of farewell party - not a big one, at 21 Wattle Road. There was a man who's name I had forgotten and Gwen couldn't remember it either, because thinking ... know that you'd want to talk about this, I tried to work out his name. He was a relative of the chap, who used to run the gymnasium at Richmond. He'd been a welterweight boxer of some better than average performance. He was a painter and docker. As in all our other parties, when the time came for it, the front door was open and they just walked in. There would have been about ... at that party fifty people there. And this fellow Mr X, and a couple of his friends and two or three girls came in. They had a drink or two, and at one stage an argument broke out between Mr X and a couple of our friends, one of whom he knocked down fairly badly. And I went up to him and confronted him and said, 'This has gone far enough'. That wooden statue there on that table has got a bit broken off it. He picked it up, swung it and hit me on the head with it, there [POINTING TO HEAD], and hit me a few other times. And apparently I was knocked out. They almost choked Gwen with her necklace thing. They badly hurt two or three other people. They grabbed our record player and stole it. Ran off. The police caught them. They were charged with appropriate offences, but not heavy ones. They appeared in the city court. I had to give evidence. They were lucky to get ... he was Mr X ... lucky to get only three months. We did discover that he had done the same thing, three or four times at least, in the few weeks before at other parties, including at Clyde Holding's house a fortnight before. They were on drugs and it was closely associated with that. Since that day I've never heard or seen of him since.

At the time as you emerged from hospital after you had been treated for your concussion, you famously pled that they should be treated leniently because it should be recognised that this behaviour was produced by their background, and it was seen as almost sort of extraordinarily forgiving, Christlike sort of behaviour.

Oh, no it was none of those things. It was just the way I looked at everybody. You see I had a lot of experience in this working. From 1946, mainly to make a bit of money, through adult education, I gave a weekly Friday night talks or lectures at Pentridge, with twenty prisoners at each one. Half of them were all convicted of murder. I had the same experience with prisoners I had arrested and charged who'd finished their term of 'office'. Two examples to show you how change can take place: the four or five of the worst criminals that were convicted on my evidence, had got from four to seven years, never committed another offence. When I had my pericarditus operation I was on the chair going to get the anaesthetic, and I looked up and this fearsome character with a beard dressed in green was about to give it to me. And he said to me, 'I'm here because of you'. And I said, 'How was that?' And he said, 'Well, I used to be in your class at Pentridge'. Now there must have been a lot of people like that. It's not Christian or anything in my sense. It's just common sense. Even some of the worst of us ... There was a chap, the last one ever flogged here, he did some terrible things, but I can't remember his name: shot a policeman in Caulfield, sentenced to may be life even, flogged twice. I had him in a class at Melbourne, came out never committed another offence. One day I was in a ... doing a series of meetings in Richmond, went into a hotel to have a drink. He comes racing through the bar, you know, 'How are you?' They do change. You've only got to give most people a chance and the gaol system really doesn't. It might not treat them that badly, but I think it does. But when they go out ... They don't give them in there any feeling of self-esteem. They're still prisoners and they're separated. They're inferior to the staff.

So you didn't see it as being particularly forgiving?


But Menzies did?

Oh Menzies thought I was wrong. He thought he deserved to be hung or something. No Menzies thought I was wrong, but he didn't say much. But Menzies was not a social worker.

Did he come to see you after that? Could you tell me that story in this context.

When I came out of hospital the Bentley turned up one Sunday afternoon and I was somewhere else, so they told him when I'd be home. So the Bentley turned up the second day. And he came up the steps and inside. And we had talks about the state of politics at that time, and got on to things like this man, whom he thought I was wrong in giving the newspaper an opportunity to say that he ought to be given a chance etc. And he talked about foreign policy, he talked about the Reserve Bank, and how he'd ... You see I was critical of the Reserve Bank, I wanted a Commonwealth Bank. So he got hold of me somehow. I've forgotten this time how he did it, and put the case to me for the Reserve Bank. And I was talking about his obligations with full employment. Well he said, 'Write it in. We'll put in the Charter'. So if you have a look at the Reserve Bank Charter now, you'll see a reference to its obligation to maintain full employment, and I'd put that in.

[end of tape]

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