Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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Can I take you back again to the time when the Whitlam government first came into power in 1972 and for so many people that was ... for a whole generation, a moment of tremendous hope that change, that many people felt was long over due, was going to happen. And it was a very exciting time for a whole generation. Could I ask you, remembering that context, to place that government, of which you were such a key part, in perspective. What it did achieve - its strengths and its weaknesses?

Well, I'm afraid that you've got to say for a start that the Whitlam government lasted a little less than three years, that was all. In the meantime we had one election. So we didn't have a long term of government without an election, and a long term of government anyhow. That meant that there was a very limited amount of time to do anything. Now the Whitlam government presented itself as a government that recognised it was time for a change in the social way of life in Australia. In a sense the central point of that was gender and race, colour, education, discrimination. In that sense the Whitlam government essentially had a social policy and it set out to achieve social purposes. In addition to that it wanted to be more independent in foreign affairs. It had become disgusted, I suppose, at the extent to which the Australian government for so many years had rubber stamped first England and then America. As soon as the British rubber stamp went away we got a bigger American one. Now I think I can say, looking back that the Whitlam government achieved a great deal in those areas. It really put the status of women in priority - in high priority. It made it impossible for people to walk over Aboriginal people any longer. I doubt if anywhere, even in Queensland, have they been bashed in hotels and in streets. Not so much that the Whitlam government passed law, but it created in its time atmosphere. The same thing happened with women. It got better pay for women for doing similar work - nothing very dramatic. It made women freer to act and work like men. And one doesn't realise how much it made secondary education available to children who had never ever, and their parents, thought it was possible they would ever have it. It allowed so many of those people who got secondary education for the first time to get into a university. In those periods ... In those times it doubled the number of university students in most of the big universities in Australia - more than doubled them. It had, I suppose, so much success in foreign policy that it committed ... made sure the CIA, and the FBI, and all the rest of that conglomeration of conspirators, who work for America, would be working against it, and would rate it as a danger and would do what they could to bring it down, and they did eventually do what they could to bring it down. Now that's a very big programme, a very extensive programme, a very radical programme, a very unusual one for Australia, because it had never appeared in Australian national policy before. However good or bad. You can look at Menzies or Chifley or Curtin. It was never relevant to them. It wasn't part of the culture or the society but it had grown so, and it emerged with Whitlam - as much with Whitlam as a person, as with all the rest of us put together. But of course I haven't said anything about economics, and I do make this point and hardly any one else ever does, that the Whitlam government for the first year had no economic policy. It had no source in theory, in economic theory, for an economic policy. We simply continued what had prevailed through Dr Coombs, through Menzies, and to a far lesser extent through the Treasury for seventeen or eighteen years before. That was not economic rationalism. It was a fair and reasonable amount of tariff protection, maintaining at least the proportion of manufacturing to total economic activity in Australia, and it was maintained. There was no significant loss, as there has been since then, when manufacturing has fallen over twenty per cent of the total since Whitlam. We regulated the most significant parts of the make up foreign debt. You see, foreign debt comes from buying more goods than you sell, but that's only about twenty per cent of total foreign debt. The greater part of foreign debt comes from the wealthy men - no more than five per cent of everybody - taking money overseas, transferring it through the bank, speculating with it, going into this, going into that, losing here, winning there, investing here, investing there. Ninety per cent of foreign debt comes from that. You can only keep that under reasonable control by regulating the banks - by the Reserve Bank regulating the banks, okaying whether they can take money or not. Now Menzies had done that very well. Treasury had been educated into it. You can ... You can educate the Treasury if you have charge of them for twenty years, but it takes twenty years to educate the treasury. Their more difficult to educate than any child entering a primary school. It takes you longer to educate a treasury than it does to educate a child who first goes into primary school. Now Treasury had come 'round to accept that. It changed very soon afterwards.

But you felt you had some success with Treasury?

No. None at all. Treasury had a lot of success with me. They were instrumental in getting rid of me in very quick time, really. It took them about three months.

What are your own personal regrets about that period?

That we didn't have more time, more scope, more chance; that we weren't articulate enough; that we didn't go on to the platform enough. One of the important things we tried to do was to the Connor Programme. He called it Buy Back the Farm. Well Connor's great belief was you never explain anything. You just go ahead and do it. And he never made any attempt to explain the value of buying back the farm. It was just an emotional feeling.

Do you think that in your own as a great communicator in these matters, that you were in any way handicapped at that time by the fact that you had on your mind these new ideas?

Yes. I was handicapped a lot. I was handicapped a lot on explaining even the conventional things. The only speech really that was made adequately to explain what Connor was doing I made, and Connor wasn't at all pleased about that, I don't know about Whitlam, but Connor wasn't. Connor never complained to me, but I knew that he'd been complaining to everybody else. We could have sold Buying Back the Farm magnificently to the Australian people. They would have seen it, accepted it and backed it. Now I think personally that involved raising money for it from inside Australia, and not from overseas. There were so many opportunities from overseas, but I don't know, I wouldn't have taken them. The Shah of Iran said he would come and help us. He's not far from Western Australia, and he said he'd like to invest money in the gas and oil resources of the Indian Ocean and build up in Western Australia. I came home. Nobody ever went back to the Shah. I was sacked a fortnight later. No one ever went back to the Shah of Iran.

The big thing that affect your credibility at the time had to do with your relationship with Junie Morosi, which we've already talked about, but I wanted to ask you this question, that did it surprise that given the way in which these things had always been approached, that that took on an almost sort of mythical quality in the press and in the public mind, that it was almost like The Fall and the Garden of Eden all over again, that there was a sense that you had been somebody who'd held a position greatly elevated in the community and that you had fallen. Did it surprise you?


Were you prepared ... Now why did it surprise you?

I don't know. Mainly because I had never seen closely any experience of it. Mainly I thought that people were better than that, but I was very foolish not to realise what was likely to happen, and I was very foolish. Even if I had known I was going out of a government that was finished, I was foolish to allow it to go on.

Do you ... Some people of course ride these things out, and then come back to fight another day. You said that this whole path was taken from you in just a matter of weeks, and then you had to think of something else. Did you not think that you might have been able to go back and hang in there, and get another chance?

No, I ... I was aware of the possibility but I didn't think there was anything in it. I thought I was finished, and I'd have to start something new, and I wasn't a boy. I was getting on even in those days. I didn't have that long. And I did think in my remaining time I would have to do something quite different.

Looking back at the whole sweep of your life, do you feel pleased with what you have accomplished?

There's a critical contradiction in that. Yes I feel pleased, and I feel disappointed. I can separate the two of them quite well. I feel pleased in all those impersonal relations, those distant, public campaigning, public activity relations, talking to mass meetings, walking in front of tens of thousands of people in the streets. I have to feel pleased about all that. But so many of my purely personal relations, and I don't want to go into a number that I could think of at all, I feel disappointed about.

What kinds of relations?

Well, almost all of them, I suppose, starting off from that with my mother. It seemed to be very disappointing. I tried to get away, cross the barriers. Maybe I'm thinking of something that was not in fact possible. Maybe I couldn't have got closer to people, but I'm disappointed that I didn't, that's all.

There is this paradox between a man who put value on community, who makes himself so available to people, and yet there is this quality of loneliness in you.

That's right. I don't know whether ... you see, my relations with people were very superficial. There wasn't any intimacy in it. There wasn't any closeness. It was a ... It was a ... It was helpful for them and for me - relationship which didn't involve what I think human relationships can involve. Now I'm disappointed about that because I think that's my own deficiency. Secondly, I was afraid of the intimacy that anything deeper involved. The responsibility that would have come to me, and I didn't want to take that responsibility. It's a weakness I think, in ...

For a period you had that very great closeness with Junie Morosi. What happened to that? Did that last?

No. It didn't, no. And in a sense that was in words and on paper, like so much else of what I've done has been.

And you feel there's something better than the words on the paper that has eluded you?


And what ... How do you feel about that? What are your thoughts on that?

Those are things that I've found I haven't been able to do.

In relation to your public life, do you think you would have been a good Prime Minister?

Can't answer that.

Just from your knowledge of yourself and your qualities.

No, I can't answer that. I felt enthusiastic about its scope, once or twice, but I've always said that I wouldn't have been accepted. The media would have pulled me to pieces and they did. Most of what they did they invented. Whatever story they were using against me, they invented most of it. It wasn't true.

Could you sum up what you've been best at in life?

Writing and talking.

And what do you think you've been worst at?

Getting to know people well. I mean, getting to a more thorough interchange with people.

Do you think that some of the mistakes you made, some of the errors of judgement that you were ... that brought you undone, had to do with the fact that you didn't read people very well?

I guess so. My reading of people was fairly superficial. I took them on face value. I didn't think I could see much that contradicted that. There probably was something there. I don't know whether I can read faces well, but I didn't read them very well.

Right from when you were a young man and you travelled overseas with the army you never acted as if you saw a reason ... like for example at that stage, a superior view to Asians was more or less universal, [but] it doesn't seem that you ever shared those.

No. Never shared those.

Why do you think you didn't feel those things that so many people of your generation did?

Because my experience of Asians was that we were not superior to them. They were wonderful kids and wonderful people and the interchange with them was far, far better than the interchange in Sydney or Melbourne - far more love and respect and affection and care, amongst parents and children in the Celebes and Morotai and Indonesia, [and] Vietnam, than ever prevailed here. Even when children were dying of starvation they had smiles on their faces.

You went into politics to do good. You wanted to improve society. You wanted to bring about changes that would make people happier. Do you think that it's possible to do that in politics?

Yes I do. My own reassessment in recent years has made me less sure of that. If you had asked me that question ten or fifteen years ago I would have given you a much more confident and positive answer than now. But yes I do. I think that seeking to make society better, seeking to make people better, is the best possible objective we can have, and I think in order to do that as thoroughly as you can parliament has to become part of it. But parliament is not an end, parliament is a means. Parliament is not, to me, a place where you just make law, parliament is a research institute and a lecture theatre.

I asked you this before, and we ... The answer was affected by noise, so I want to ask it to you again. What's so wrong with ambition?

Ambition as I know it and as the dictionary knows it is not ambition to stand for some principle. It's to be something. And that being, in common knowledge and the dictionary, is not ... it doesn't refer to being something in respect of some ideal or principle. You can be a surgeon and that can be an ambition. You can be a Prime Minister and that can be an ambition. But to be it and nothing else ... Perhaps to be a great surgeon you have to perform some pretty big operations. The same with the Prime Minister, but that's incidental. It's more a matter of presentation of your personality in the performance of a job, than it is the quality or otherwise of that job.

And what do you think of ambition?

It depends what it's about. I don't use the word ambition, because I don't have an ambition to be a reformer, so I don't have to use it. And what I think of it is what I've just said of it. I had ... I have wanted to do the things I have done. I didn't have an ambition to do those things. I just did them yesterday, and again today and tomorrow, because what I was doing tomorrow was a projection of today and of yesterday. I didn't have an ambition to become ... What am I? I don't know.

You don't know?

Not really.

If you had to have a go at describing what you were, what words would you find?

Well, a person who has been involved in research, with people, with books - not in the laboratory. A person who can analyse scientifically. I can use scientific method as well or better than anyone I know. If I highly value anything ... I was going to say 'worship' then for a second. If I highly value anything it's the ability to use scientific method, and then to express these discoveries in the form of written work and words. The key to it, in a sense, is the ability to use scientific methods.

Do you think it's possible to be a scholar king? Do you think it's possible to be a true scholar, as you are, and a really effective administrative head of a country?

Well, I don't know that I'm a true scholar. You see I've had a very poor education. I know I've read a few pages of Shakespeare, I've read a few pages of Plato, a lot more of Aristotle, but as scholars are scholars, I'm not a scholar. In a sense, in the way in which you judge education, I'm poorly educated.

Can I pick up on an another earlier question which we missed out on, which was the very first question I asked you and we had some interference. So this is a real big leap from where we've been - back, back to the beginning. When and where you born?

I was born at 11 am. The bells were ringing in the church in Drummond Street, Carlton, as I was born. And I was born in the front room of 22 Drummond Street, Carlton. The house is still there, as substantial and intact as it was nearly eighty-four years ago, and I recently visited it - disappointed to find that it's been altered. The front room in which I was born is not longer a bedroom. It's now an office, part of a bigger office, and they're allowed a pepper tree to get altogether out of hand in the front garden, so there's nothing in the front garden now. When I last remember it and it's fifteen years ago, there were some very pleasant beds of geraniums and things like that, in the front garden. But I was born on the 4 October 1914, at 22 Drummond Street, Carlton.

[Now we'll just stop there while we take stock for a minute.] Do you think you've been hard on yourself through out your life, that your standards for yourself have been too high?

Oh no, I've given myself a good time. I'm lazy really. I sleep more than most people and now I don't work very hard.

You said to me off-camera that you felt that, perhaps, you hadn't aspired high enough.

Did I? Well, I think that's right, I think I haven't. But you see the thing about aspiring, had I aspired in the police force to achieve what many people in the police force predicted for me - some in courts like Goldberg, and Jack Culherty and Jack Golberly, that I become police commissioner - if I'd aspired to that I would have been stuck in the police force all my life. Now had I aspired to becoming a professor in the university, I'd have been in the university all my life, as a professor. Would have that have been better or not? In a strict of the word, I haven't aspired much. I have made it clear and as honest, I didn't aspire to become Prime Minster. I tried to beat Whitlam for other reasons. After that I never aspired to be prime minister again.

Has your chief ambition been to persuade ... to persuade people to your point of view?

I think I've done very well in that. It's always hard to say how much influence I had on the 100,000 people in Bourke Street for example, and how much influence the media had, [having] been showing the atrocities of the war for so long. We both had influence, but it's hard to say how much of that was attributable to me. I have said I thought more in Melbourne, because the Melbourne display was much bigger than the Sydney one, but I'm sure it would have been significant if I hadn't been there.

So what's life been about for you?

Trying to do things that I wanted to do, and sometimes being too self-centred in that. Not taking into account enough what other people wanted to do, from a purely personal point of view. In other words I put general things, comprehensive social things, maybe too much ahead of personal and individual ones. Maybe I could have done both and the result would have been better - in both cases, Maybe I'd have been a better public figure if I'd been a better private one. So hard to say when you're trying to look back on a complex situation. It's only that you can iron out all the factors and sometimes you can be very disappointed and distressed at the possibilities that might have been there that otherwise you wouldn't have thought of, and you might have been happier if you'd never thought of them at all.

What's ahead for you?

About seven years of looking after dogs and cats and houses and ... Writing another book, selling a few. That's about it.


Yes. Oh yes. Fulfilling in that you've got to test that in relation to what the possibilities are. As I said as I came to sit down today I can't do a broad jump anymore. It would be silly to think so, wouldn't it? So I can only think of the things I can in fact do. And given those things, it's just what I can do, and I want to do it as well as I can.

[end of interview]