Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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When you were chasing this man did you feel afraid for yourself or afraid that you might shoot him, or both?

I knew I wouldn't shoot him. No. I wasn't in any way afraid that I might get shot. It's a strange thing, but I wasn't. And I don't think people really are in situations like that. I don't think in the main they're afraid they're going to get shot. It's more exciting than that. It's like a game. And I didn't feel any fear at all. A couple of other times I was shot at and I had the same feeling: didn't feel fear at all. I had a job to do and what's the best way to do it? And it turned out all right in each case.

You were ... In 'the dogs' you had to watch people, as it were spy on them, how did you feel about that activity?

Oh I thought it was great. It was a really good job. You see, I'd risen from nowhere. I was now talking to the big men. I did. Worked directly for Blamey, worked directly for Superintendent Dealy. I was now working for the top people. I had a car, I worked long hours, but I never had to report for duty, never had to report when I went off duty. I went on and off when I thought I should. Now that was the first six years and it was an excellent experience. It was an important part of my development as a person, that first six years in the police force.

What did you get from it? In your development?

I got the ability to like to make my own decisions, to test them to see if they worked out, whether to go this way or that way. I got decision-making experience and I got to know the pleasure of decision-making experience.

What qualities in you do you think made you rise so spectacularly, so quickly?

What, in the police force? Oh, I suppose, running ability, enthusiasm about the job, I think, the absence of dislike towards the men I was dealing with. I didn't hate them or put them down. It was strangely pleasant to be in their environment. One night we were following Leo Devaun and Alec Deroticas, two well known safe blowers, who were doing their first job that we caught them at, by going into the bakery in Balaclava, near Balaclava Road, Pitairn's Bakery is it or Goddard's? Gwen was working with me this time. We started in Russell Street. They got on a bus. Gwen and I got on the bus. Hardly any reason why they should be suspicious. There were no policewomen in those days. Then they got on a bus and went to east St Kilda. We got off the bus. They walked down the side street to the bakery. While they were opening the door, Gwen and I are standing at the front gate of the house opposite, saying good night to each other, while they went inside. When they went into the bakery, I bolted round to the telephone at the corner of Balaclava Road. Rang Russell Street. In very quick time - they always came very quickly when I rang - they arrived. Sergeant Carey and Sergeant O'Keefe, the two top sergeants in the CIB [asked], 'How do you get in?' And I said, 'Well, we bust in. Break in that little door there. It's not strong. That's how we can break in'. So they were both seventeen stone men, so they kicked the door. In it went. And I shot in the door and here's Alec in a beautiful brown suit, brown hat on the back of his head, pushing gelignite into a key hole in the safe, lying on his back. And we got him easily enough but Leo we couldn't find for quite a while. Eventually we found him in a flour elevator, between the two parts of it. He'd crawled in there and he was a very dark complexioned fellow, and here he is with flour caked all over him, [laughs] so we arrested them both.

And what did you ... Wasn't it a little bit dangerous for you to be taking Gwen along with you?

It might have been but ... It might have been, but I don't think so.

She wanted to go?

Oh, yes she was quite involved.

Did she often come with you?


And you found that a really good cover?

Oh it was an excellent cover, particularly when we were travelling on public transport.

Did it ever cross your mind that you might be putting her into danger?

Not really. I suppose I felt I could look after her, if we had to. But I never really was ... can't remember now, after so many years, that I was much influenced by that.

You said you were very confident that you wouldn't shoot Cody when you were pursuing him. That doesn't seem to be a confidence that's shared by a lot of police officers these days.

Well, they shoot at people. I was shooting up in the air. Course it's not. You don't have to shoot at them. I don't know whether it never occurs to these characters or what, but I fired up in the air over his head.

And that was standard procedure at that time, was it?


Other people would have shot at him?

Other people. Other men had been shot by the police. Yes.

In relation to issues like that, as a policeman, did you find that your practices and principles were often at variance with your fellow officers?

I think I had a lot more respect for the people we were pursuing and arresting than the average member of the police force had. I think that was the main difference.

I suppose what I'm asking here, is that you had grown up in a household that was very equal and very caring, and the police culture is a culture noted for its authoritarianism, its violence at times, and also an element of corruption which has always been difficult to get rid of out of the police force. How did you deal with all of that, coming from the background you did?

Well, I didn't see much evidence of corruption. I saw some of it by policemen. One we knew very well said I was a fool, a very big fool, for not taking any of it as he waved a handful of notes in front of Gwen. I don't know whether it's different either - this culture - whether it's any different now to what it was. But whatever it is, I think the other one is the best way to work, the best way to be a policeman. The other one - not this so-called culture that you hear about. By ... The first six years, however, I was at the end of the road of working that way in the existing situation. So in 1941, six years after I joined the police force, I decided I would begin to study university subjects, to go somewhere else, to do something else. Well I wasn't able to matriculate because I had not had enough education to do so, so I began doing the only subjects I could do without matriculation, that was subjects in commerce, the Faculty of Commerce. So I began doing two subjects a year part time. The first year after doing that I made the point of telling the Commissioner of Police, who was Mr A.M. Duncan by this time, that I was doing a couple of university subjects, and his reply was, 'You're wasting your time my boy. Get out and get a couple of bizzers, and catch a thief or two'. He was Scot. So that was really, I suppose, the straw that broke my connection with the back of the police force. So I decided to go on doing university subjects and work my way out of the police force.

Were you with 'the dogs' for the whole time that you were in the police force?

Yes. No, no, no. I was in the consorting squad for eighteen months.

And then you went into the dogs. Did you ever have to do any political work in the police force?

Yes, I was in the Special Branch, but it was only clerical work really. For about a year, as soon as the war broke out.

Because at that time the police did sometimes do work that was quasi-ASIO work, didn't they?

The word hadn't been thought of then, but it was recording people, writing down the names of people who were suspected of left-wingism, or whatever it might be. Yes, they did.

What was happening to your own political views at the time?

Well, my political views became pretty well established what they are as early as 19 ... No ... My political views were firstly very much those of John Maynard Keynes, the famous English economist. Now I arrived at them about three years before Keynes did. Keynes wrote his general theory of employment, interest and money in December 1935. I spoke in a debate in the chemistry classroom at Northcote High School that the level of employment depended upon the level of public spending. I argued that in 1929, and won the debate. I was mainly concerned, therefore, with advocating and putting into practise learning about the connection between the level of employment, the low level of poverty, and progress with the spending capacity of the people, [and] the effect of demand. And that could only be raised high enough by government contribution to it. It would never become enough from the market. That was my way of looking at Australia, all the way through to 1975, and that's what I learned against the tide at Melbourne, because that was not really the point of view of the Faculty of Commerce. We had a couple of Keynesians there: Dick Darling, Professor Darling, in those days and Ben Higgins from Canada, who reinforced my views. Now to ... to get into the army, I went to see Sir Thomas Blamey.

Could you explain to me why you wanted to get into the army?

Yes. I wanted to get into the army to get out of the police force. And I couldn't get out of the police force because we were controlled. [The] police force was [the] number one occupation or something and we had to stay in it. So I went down to Victoria Barracks one day and saw the Sergeant, the staff sergeant at the front door, and I said, 'I'd like to see Sir Thomas Blamey'. And he said, 'No doubt every important person in Australia would like to see Sir Thomas Blamey'. And I said, 'Well what about doing me a favour and letting his office know and see what happens, just see what happens'. So he did and in about five minutes Lieutenant Colonel Carlyon, Blamey's ADC or something like that, came walking down the corridor and said, 'Sir Thomas is in and would like to see you'. So I went up and told him my dilemma. 'Oh', he said, 'We'll have you out of the police force in a month or two.' 'Well, not too fast, because I've got a couple of examinations to do in November, what about making it early next year?' So he made it early next year, and I was out of the police force and into the army.

What was the problem about simply going and joining up?

I couldn't because I was man-powered into the police force. You couldn't just walk out of the police force. It was a priority job in the army control ... in the war control of man power.

Did you want to get out of the police force because you didn't like the police force by that stage?

I didn't think there was a future for me in the police force. I didn't like it.

You'd liked it a lot to begin with.

In the first six years, yes.

What changed?

That I could no longer be a single 'dog' working on my own. For a while I was put in charge of 'the dogs' - about five or six, and I had to be in charge of them.

And you didn't like it?


So being part of the pack wasn't your style?

Never had it put that way before, but that's not a bad way to put it, yes, being part of the pack.

And you felt you wanted to get out. But you got out into the army, which was not exactly the best way to escape from ...

Well it was a bigger pack wasn't it but ... Oh I don't know - going out of the police force and into he army and I thought a future, if I was going to have a future ... frankly, if we took a selfish point of view, it wouldn't be a bad way to start.

In the time since then you've developed strong and sophisticated arguments about peace. At that time, as the young man you were, did you ... what did you feel about the war and about the army then?

Well I thought the resistance and defeat of Hitler was beyond criticism. It should have happened. I thought the use of nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were beyond question. I thought they should have happened. So I was in agreement with our side in World War Two.

And even with hindsight, do you still feel that about the droppings of the bombs?

I suppose I would like to think that it could have been done differently but I can't bring myself to think that the Japanese would have surrendered easily. A couple of hundred thousand people, and more, were involved in death because of the two bombs. I think had America gone on fighting without using the bombs probably more than that would have been killed, in that war that went on before Japan was finally defeated. So it's difficult to say, even now, there's a case against using those bombs. And they'd done ... Using those bombs now may well have made sure that they will never be ever used in human history, and that's a great gain from the use of those bombs.

Their extraordinary and exceptional nature was demonstrated. What, anyway what happened with your war, when you joined up, and you were transferred, did Blamey continue to be a patron as it were?

Yes, but I'm not sure how. I joined up and had to go into the recruit training camp at Cowra. That took about seven or eight months, because I got boils there, over two hundred boils everywhere, and it took ...

How did that happen? Was that because of the hygiene or the food or ...?

No idea. They never explained the cause of any of these things. They don't know. The doctors really don't know the cause of anything, do they? And after eight or nine months I was out of Cowra and sent to St Georges Heights in Sydney, which surprised me, and then into army education, which surprised me. I never asked anyone to send me into army education, but somebody did. I don't know whether it was Blamey or not. I was in army education. As a member of army education I was sent to Morotai, the headquarters of the Australia army in the south west Pacific. And I was there for six or seven months working in army education: tutoring, lecturing to Australians, and by now the bombs had been dropped and the war was over. At the end of 1970 ... At the end of 1945, the Associate Professor of Economic History at Melbourne University, one J. Burton, wrote to me at home suggesting I put in an application to be tutor in Economic History in the Faculty of Commerce, Melbourne University.

How much economic education had you had yourself by this point?

Eight subjects only, I didn't have a degree. So I was up at Morotai and this was January, and I'm supposed to be here to start work in February. And I was wondering how I might go about it, what I might do. And I used to work on the officers' side of the peninsula in my education headquarters spaces, where people used to come for lectures and so on. And every evening I would go and have a swim on the officers' side, where no one other than an officer was supposed to go.

Why did you go there?

Because it was convenient, easy, nearby. And so I went in there one day and coming out I saw these three bald heads between me and the beach. So I thought, oh yes, Blamey's one of them. So I didn't dodge them this time, I went straight past them, you see. And Blamey looks up, 'Oh', he says, 'Heard you were at Morotai'. So I said to him, 'Yes, but I want to get home. I want to be home in a fortnight because I've got a job as tutor in economic history at Melbourne University'. 'Well', he said, 'I'll see what I can do for you'. I was home in a fortnight.

Why do you think he made you such a protégé?

I don't know. You see Blamey was described as a right-wing, neo-fascist type of character, but I found him the very opposite of that, the very opposite. Now why, I don't know. I think it's maybe I'd given him two meat pies you see. I think it's all that kind of relationship: if you're nice to people it's very difficult for them not to be nice back.

He must have seen something in you that drew him?

Yes, I think so. I think he did, but after all, there's a lot of that in people round about. I'm saying it's one thing that for me counted.

So you came back to an academic career without a degree. So how did you approach that? What were you thinking at the time?

Well, I just got into tutoring and I continued to do two subjects a year, and by this time I was getting honours, second or first class in all of them, and I was tutoring - seven or eight hours a day of tutoring. Seven any way, six or seven.

One way to learn.

Yes, that's right.

You said though that you'd gone into commerce because it was the only faculty that you could go into without matriculation. Was that the only reason, because you had been thinking about economic matters, hadn't you?

Yes I had been Keynesian and that was ... Initially I went into commerce because it was the only one I could go into anyway, but I stayed on and worked in it largely because I thought the Keynesian theory was the one that I ought to work, to make understood. It was the other one, the first - the only one that I could get into, but then, it was, as I saw it, the high validity of the Keynesian theory in the second place.

I'm interested here, at this point, as you got more and more involved in university life and the work that you were doing in the Economic Faculty, you were in fact bringing together a political development with an academic career, and I was just wondering - going back now to put it into a little bit of context, we started doing that earlier, and probably prematurely - I'd now like to go back and bring us up to date, as it were, with the other stream of your life that wasn't your conventional police force and all of that, but the impact of events that led you to a point where you were ... that internal thought direction, which had always gone on in parallel with your external life, and that involves us going back to high school. Could I ask you this question. That's all background, just to let you know what I'm doing. When did you first become aware of the political and social system around you and start thinking, or trying to make sense of what you were observing in society around you?

In 1951. In 1951 I was facing the question of deciding on a thesis for my PhD at Melbourne and at first I thought I'd work on the connections between the British and Australian labour movements from the end of the nineteenth century. And I was granted a Nuffield Dominion Fellowship to go to Oxford for this purpose. Gwen went, the whole family went, and others too. We went and lived and worked at Oxford for a year. Now I found that when I'd been there for about a month or two, there was in fact very little connection between the British and Australian labour movements at organisational level. A lot of individuals had been in unions in England had come out here, had become part of the unions here. Quite a number of unions, that had been formed in England, were formed out here with the same name. But there was very little connection really. What I was looking for, was where ... what ideas came. Were they socialist, were they communist? What about Marx? A book had been written, Socialism Sans Doctrines. Yes it was sans doctrines. In so far as there was any socialism in Australia, there are no doctrines. Well, that was a negative kind of view, so in England I decided I'd switch and write my thesis on Study in Public Policy. The Welfare State: A Study in the Development of Public Policy. The Welfare State: A Study in the Development of Public Policy. Well immediately I got into that area I was studying the application of Keynesian theory in parliaments to bring about change. So I was linked with political reform, linked with parliaments. I had joined the Labor Party in 1947. I didn't do much in it because I was in it only two years before we went to England, and when I came back in 1954, I found I'd been suspended from it, and so it took me another year and a half to get back into it again. I'd been suspended because I'd been a member of the Toorak Branch of the Labor Party and ...

Was it a very big branch?

No! It had about a dozen members in it. Brian Fitzpatrick was one. In 1951 they had this referendum for the dissolution of the Communist Party. Referendum. Menzies. So this Toorak branch of the Labor Party ... and we're in England Gwen and me ... we're not in Toorak, we're in England ... had held a meeting in the village, Toorak, against the referendum - against dissolving the Communist Party, and so the Victorian branch of the ALP, which was run by Santamaria's representatives, at that time, decided they would suspend the Toorak branch, and as they thought I was part of it, they'd suspend me too. So when I came back I was suspended. Well, it took me eighteen months to get back into the Labor Party again, so I went back in again. And the split in the Labor Party ... The split was everywhere. So there was me, you see, with a Bachelor of Commerce and all that sort of stuff, with them looking for a candidate to fight the main election in Melbourne, that for Yarra, against Standish Michael Keon. So the senator, former secretary of the Labor Party, Pat Kenelly, known to everyone as the great numbers man ... He had a ... he had an impediment in his speech, so I'll do a little bit of imitating. He said, 'I-I hear y-you're thinking of going into parliament in Victoria'. I said, 'Well, I wasn't really Pat'. 'No', he said, 'You'd be w-wasting your time'. He said, 'I'-Ive got a job for you. You nominate for Yarra and contest Yarra in December this year, that's what you'll do'. So I did. I won Yarra by 791 votes, after I think the most active and intense and vigorous election campaign that's ever been run in Australia.

Yarra was a very interesting seat at the time, wasn't it? Could you tell us about it? What kind of a seat it was, and what were the forces at work in that seat?

Well, Yarra was really Richmond, and Richmond had been the centre of John Wren's power in Australian politics, John Wren being the first millionaire who took over control of a political party, that is the Labor Party, and of local councils, that is Richmond Council and Collingwood, which was more or less the whole of Yarra. So Yarra had been the ground of John Wren for twenty-five, thirty-five years. And then remarkably enough, after John Wren, it became the centre of Santamaria. So you had John Wren and Santamaria. When I got there you had the leftovers of the John Wren's - that is the Luckmans and the O'Connells - against the priests, who were door knocking in furtherance of Santamaria's influence. So that was the Yarra that I came into. We had a first ... one seat in the Richmond Council, the rest were DLP. Then in the next election we won the whole lot. I think there was four at a time. We won the whole four. The next election we won the whole four. Next election we won the remaining one. We won them all, as fast as we could.

[end of tape]

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