Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

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After you were bashed in your own home, did that affect your attitude to having an open door?

Yes. I think you can say we were careful who we let in after that.

That seemed a pity.

It was a pity. Those concerned had no idea of the indirect harm they did like that. They knew something of the direct harm, but that was nothing, something they lived with: ex-boxers, something they lived with. But the indirect harm they did to our place at 21 Wattle Road, Hawthorn, as a home for many people, was something they could never appreciate.

You always had a certain sort of extended family around the family, didn't you? You'd had that from your childhood. Could you describe these extended families you lived in and how they worked right from the first one?

Well, the extended family of my first one, was my grandfather, grandmother, my mother, Aunt Eleanor, Sarah, an aunt, Elizabeth - Lizzie Salthouse, who came out with them from England, someone called Matthew Smith, who was always regarded as an uncle - a distant kind of uncle. I was never quite sure what the link was with Matt. He had a sister who came out later from England and lived in Albert Park, who we met a couple of times. Now that was my family and alone my family at Sunbury and Melton, then later on, when we moved back to Sunbury. So it wasn't that many.

And then when you set up with Gwen after a while various people came to live with you then too.

Oh yes, we frequently had someone living with us. There's hardly been a time when we did not have someone in the spare room or something like that. Always and frequently there was someone there.

What sort of people came to stay with you?

Well, friends that Gwen had met at work, people that I had met in the courses of my activities, in particular some ... You see, early in my time at the University I established the Australian and Overseas Students' Club to bring together overseas students and Australian students in a social life. Some of those were men - men mainly - whom I had made representations to the immigration department to be allowed to stay in Australia to study. Two of them in particular come to mind: Andrew Singh was one and he lived ... He spent a lot time living at our place. He eventually did a university course in education, became a teacher. Now that was the kind of extended family we built up in those days. When we lived at Brighton, at the weekend, there was hardly a time when there wasn't at least a dozen of them or twenty of them there. That was long before I went into politics. We had quite a big house at Berkley Grove, East Brighton, and there was enough room for all of those, and we never had a weekend without a dozen of them or so.

Now this kind of generosity that you had towards people, whatever their background, who had some need that you were presented with, must have placed a lot of demands on you. Did you feel always, from the beginning, that it was important to respond to needs when people approached you?

No, it was treated ... I treated it as a matter of course. I didn't feel it as something that was putting a weight on us, or making demands on us. It was just something about the way we lived, and it was just treated as a matter of course. I never felt that we were doing anything heavy, anything that was a burden, or anything that was costing anything. They used to bring food I can tell you. Quite a number of them brought a lot more than they ate as a rule, and a great deal more variety than we would have got in the shops.

So you also, during the time that you were an MP, a local member, and even later, even when you were Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, one of the things that people noticed about you was that you were always available for people who asked you for time, and you were criticised for that, and it was said that you didn't really have a sense of priorities, in that you were willing to see a school girl who wanted a project done, or you know, you kept these commitments. Could I ask you, with that in mind, about your philosophy of a public figure and their responsibility to people in public life?

Well first of all you mention that people have criticised me for that. Well I understand ... I've heard that before that they did, but I assure you not one of them ever did so to my face. I've been criticised a lot but never even once to my face about anything that I've done, and I wonder if that's a characteristic of critics, whether they like ... whether they, in a sense, sit at an office desk in a back room and write it from there. Because critics very rarely ever face the people they're talking about, and they very rarely ever faced me about Vietnam, about anything. So that's the first point about that. And with the other, again I find difficulty in recalling enough of all that to try to sum up for you what was happening during that time.

Let me ask you in a slightly different way the same question. When you are in public life and you're someone on whom there are a lot of demands, which there were on you, from people who had needs - a need of what you had to offer - how do you set your priorities? How do you decide what to do and what not to do?

Now I don't know what other members of parliament really do. I don't know how much or how little they represent people, how much or how little they have people come in with problems and how much or how little they help them. They may or may not, I don't know much. But as far as I was concerned it wasn't something that I thought about, philosophised about, justified as a public representative, as a representative of the people. It just seemed the normal and natural thing to do. And I went on doing it. I certainly did provide provisions for this that I doubt very few if any other members of parliament did. I always had one or two offices in the main street, somewhere in my electorate. I had the big van. I had the caravan that I used to drive about in. Now no one else in Victoria had any of those things. Now I must have thought that it was a matter of principle. It was important to do this. I must have thought that or I wouldn't have done it. I must have thought that it was necessary and proper for a member of parliament to give the people in his or her electorate an opportunity to make contact with them for whatever purpose they wanted to have it done. Look it still happens today. I have still two or three people a week coming to see me today about a student, about an essay, people trying to get their brother out from China. I had one case like that going for two years - a stack of papers, a file that thick about it. It still happens today. It happens because they assume I can pull strings, that I'm somehow important and important people will do things for me. Now I doubt if that's very true. I don't think it is. I don't think any longer that people who are important think that I'm ... that it's better to do things for me, because a time might come when he can make a decision about us. I'm sure that process used to operate, but I shouldn't think it operates now.

When you commit to something, or when you commit to a person, or to a task, do you feel that is a binding thing that you have to really take notice of?

Oh, yes, I would not ... I would feel very uncomfortable if I was ... and I often do. I am delayed, I do put things off, but I feel very uncomfortable if I don't get it done. That has happened on more than one occasion when there's been delay, when I haven't got things done, and I feel very uncomfortable about that.

Where do you think that feeling comes from?

It's just a ... Well, they need something and I'm supposed to help. Surely I've got some kind of responsibility to do it effectively. That's all.

Was being responsible an important element of what you were taught mattered, when you were a boy, by your family?

I can't recall it well enough in detail.

I was thinking about how your father had been rather irresponsible in running off and maybe that was something your mother watched carefully to make sure you knew about responsibility.

No, I don't think so. My mother used very little ... The existence or the behaviour of my father, she hardly ever mentioned it. In fact it was very disturbing to her and she never wanted to talk about it. I remember when we lived at Ripponlea, my grandparents went to church. They told the minister about my father not having come back from the war, and he decided he would make enquiries. She was very annoyed about that: 'No stop it, [it's] finished'. It was: my father was something that was over and done with when he didn't come back from overseas as far as my mother was concerned. I never really knew what she thought of him.

What did she think of you?

I suppose she thought that I was as near perfect as it was possible to be. And of course I was.

And when you got married do you think she may have seen that as a great loss for her, that she no longer had the son all to herself?

Yes, it was a loss for her.

Were you a good son to her?

Yes.

How did you show that?

Unfortunately she had to be in bed a lot, much, and while I was at home, frequently, I would often be sitting with her talking to her. When I was at school I would talk about my homework to her, and she knew a bit about that. Her education had been reasonable and she knew how to spell words in the English way and all that. We did a fair bit of exchange in that sense. I always kept myself clean, my room clean, always behaved as I thought would please her, with a few exceptions. And then when I left home and could do it, I'd visit twice a week to Victoria Street, St Kilda; Holden Street, North Fitzroy; Murphy Street, Richmond. In fact they always moved nearer to where I was working. Victoria Street, St Kilda wasn't far away from my police bases of operation. Then when I got the job at the university, they moved to North Fitzroy - pretty close to the university. Then when I became the Member for Yarra, they moved into Richmond and they were residents of Murphy Street, Richmond, until my mother died, and then Eleanor came and lived with us in Hawthorn in my electorate. So they always tended to move as close as they could to where I was living. Why? To cut down the travelling difficulties, visiting difficulties, that I had in coming to see them.

Did their belief in your goodness make you feel that being good was valuable? I mean, was that an important part of the way you set your own standards.

Yes, I'm sure it was. I had much respect for their opinion, and that was their opinion, so I had much respect for that. And I think being nice to other people, helping them, and being friendly, was what they always were,and I think it had a big influence on making me think that's the way I ought to be.

Was it very difficult for you when Gwen and your mother didn't get on in the beginning?

No. Neither of them showed anything of that. A bit of distance in communication but neither of them showed anything of it. It wasn't really until a bit later on that I found out that there was not as much friendship there as there might have been.

What was your wedding like?

Oh well, it was not a big thing. We decided to get married. We had already got a house to live in and we were married in a registry office. We didn't send out invitations. Gwen's brother and sister and mother came to the wedding. My mother could not travel - could hardly walk very far, and Eleanor stayed home with her, so they didn't come. So there were only about four of us ... five of us at the wedding. We used to have a nice photograph of us standing on the steps of the registry office but it seems to be not here now.

What has Gwen meant in your life?

Well, you see for sixty years next February ... That is a long time, isn't it? There are not very many marriages that have lasted that long. Gwen's been there almost every day. I don't say we've got along perfectly - not at all. But no one, no single person, no one person, has been so much ... has involved so much time in my life than she has. Not a fraction of it.

Has her support and loyalty to you through all the ups and downs in your life been very important to you in keeping you going, in keeping you feeling that the next step could be taken?

Well, you see her support with everything was extended out into practice. It wasn't something she just felt or expressed, she did things in accordance with it. She was the number one representative of Jim Cairns in Yarra. She was a significant associate of Jim Cairns in the University of Melbourne. It was an active thing, a participating thing, not just a feeling, not just an affection, not something that you might say was emotional. It's not so much emotional as real, and there can be a difference.

What was it like for her when you were actually in government? Did that place extra strain on her?

Yes, it was ... and even when I was in parliament it did. You see for twenty-three years, for two thirds of every year, I was away from home - from Monday afternoon until Friday lunchtime. People don't realise what a cost that is to a member of parliament. It subtracts half your time, always, from your private life. That private life cost of being a member of parliament is something that no one ever seems to take into account.

Well many of your colleagues of course, were also as a result ... or at least along side this deprivation of their family life, got involved in a lot of affairs and so on in Canberra? Was that ever a temptation to you?

I spent almost no time in Canberra other than in Parliament House. I had no social life in Canberra whatever, really. When we got there on Monday afternoon, I went straight to Parliament House. Stayed there until parliament rose, went down to the Kurrajong: one single little room, slept there, got up in the morning, half past seven, had a nice breakfast, cheap breakfast, the whole thing was very cheap, walked up to Parliament House, stayed there all day, had morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, supper, went back to the Kurrajong. That was my life in Canberra. I hardly went inside another building in Canberra.

Do you think that the fact that you spent so much of your time, even with the people who came to your own house, ministering to their needs, as it were, taking care of them, giving them what they wanted, teaching them, helping them, that that whole way of life, in a way, was depriving you of the self-interested things you might have done for your own gratification, so that when you did decide to change your philosophy to being more self-fulfilling, that that was sort of, in a way, over due because of the aestheticism of your life?

I'm not sure that what I did later was more self-fulfilling than that life in parliament. What that life was, was a very specialist one. I had no time for sport. There was ... a time came, and it was long before I went into parliament, that having spent a lot of time in athletics training, competing, suddenly cut it: 1946, that was the end of it. And that was because the university came in to take its place, and I just ... Athletics was no priority at all when I was working on the university staff. Now, having left the university, it surprises me that I didn't maintain more connection with the university and this is a good point that emerges from your question. I had a PhD but I've had almost no connection since then with the university staff. No connection.

Why not?

It's hard to find an answer for that. But one of the things I would have done differently, given the state of mind I have now, if I could go back to that, I would have maintained more connection with the university. I would have written articles for them. I'd have got them to give ... You see the only time I ever approached them was to a bloke who I didn't realise was so completely opposed politically to everything I stood for: Geoff Blainey. And I said, 'I'd like to give a talk on alternative reform', or something like that. Well after about a fortnight he said it was being arranged and there were two talks attended by a dozen people, not by him, and it got almost no publicity. Whereas when I was campaigning about Vietnam I'd fill Melbourne University public lecture theatre a dozen times. Now it ... I didn't even know enough about the university to know what sort of fellow Blainey was. And that's a regret. I should have ... The President of the Melbourne University Staff today is John Harper, whom I appointed to a position of the staff back in the early 1950s. He's retired and now he's the President and I happen to be a member of the Staff Association but I don't go there much.

Do you feel that you've never really identified strongly with any groups?

Yes.

Could you talk about that in the context of your life, starting right from when you were a child?

Yes, I never have identified closely with any groups because frankly I have never found a group with whom I disagree ... with whom I agree very much.

What about the Left faction of the Labor Party? Was that a group that you felt ...

No, not very much. The Left faction of the Labor Party did not have any kind of really theoretical base. The Communist Party strictly had a Marxist base, but a very dogmatic, authoritarian Marxist base. They didn't even know what Marx had been writing, honestly. They had a simplified version of it and they held it very dogmatically. I wasn't interested in that. Not even that much had gone into the Left of the Labor Party. The Left of the Labor Party was militant. It did strong things, it spoke loudly but it never stood for nationalising the banks. That was a decision of Chifley's made in private - in the toilet I understand. And, it was not that I could find any common ground in the things that really interested me and I couldn't at the university. You see I was pretty ... I was on my own in those days to the degree to which I was a radical economic historian, an historian of economic thought. My heroes amongst the writers of economic thought were important people for me. But there wasn't an economist, a graduate who had given them much attention. I had about ten students or a dozen in the history of economic thought. Those who did come were quite enthusiastic.

If you look back at the way your thought has evolved in your books, right through the various phrases of the development of your thought, it seems to me that a central thing that you've struggled with, and tried to find different ways of answering, is the question of the role of authority in society, and trying to find a way for people to live in a society that isn't based on some sort of hierarchy of authority.

Yes. Authority in some ways is the key to it. It's a bit emotional and irrational, but I hate authority. Authority is so full of assumptions that it's right, and it's so full of content that is wrong, whatever it is and this contrast, contradiction, is constantly there and no matter when harm is done, except in individual clashes like murders and so on, which do add up to quite a lot over a period of time, the sum total of harm done by ... to people, to the human race, is done by and with the authority of authority. Whether it's religion or state or what, I hate authority.

Way back in your maiden speech you said, 'Man is product of his environment and in a society which is acquisitive, where selfishness is raised to the status of a social philosophy, man will behave acquisitively and selfishly', or words to that affect. Do you still feel that?

Yes, I take a more complex psychological explanation of being acquisitive these days. I used to think being acquisitive was simply a result of life experience in capitalism. Capitalism is based on exploitation by very few people of very many, through the instrument of the accumulated capital - equipment, machinery, building and so on. And I thought acquisitiveness was learned by experience in capitalism. Then in about 1975, when the other change came in my way of seeing things, I could see that it went further back than that. I could see that acquisitiveness was a cultural product, a product of the way we are treated psychologically, emotionally, and not just with money, not just goods and services: much deeper. So if you're going to change acquisitiveness in capitalism, you can't simply change it by trying to persuade people to become co-operative and generous within capitalism. That hardly works at all. You have see what are the sources of their character and behaviour, and you have to try to implement ways of changing that into something else. And then they go into where ever it is, where exploitation, acquisitiveness is, and they won't behave like that, or nearly like that, and they'll set an example, both as a success in doing the job that's involved and in making real progress themselves.

[end of tape]

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