Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

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Can you remember at what stage of your life you first started to become aware that there was a society out there about which you began to form views?

I think it was probably when I was about fourteen years old. Prior to that time I had spent most of my time on two farms and going to two state schools, Melton and Sunbury. Now I was hardly aware that there was a society on the two farms. At Sunbury on the two hills, that are still there, you can stand on top of one of those hills and see the lights of Melbourne. There seemed to something far off, far off. I think it was about the last year I had at Sunbury State School that I began to see there was a society, and that involved certain dangers, problems, attractions and possibilities according to the way it functioned. And what caused the way it functioned, why did it function this way, or that way, became the central question in that early thinking. I think I would have then been about fifteen, and it was in about the last year I was at the State School at Sunbury.

And how did your views start to form? Did you start reading or what did you ...

I don't think there was much reading in it, in so far as I was able to get hold of books. I can't say that I was a good reader. I didn't read easily, and I didn't learn much as a result of reading during that year, or for that matter, during the three years that I was at Northcote High School. It wasn't a matter of becoming interested, finding things out significantly through reading. No, it didn't happen. I wouldn't have had a collection of books, two, three, four or five - one even, I think, until after that. That came later on. Now when did it come? It certainly didn't come during the three years that I worked for the Australian Estates, because I worked for too long hours to be able to have time to read. I had very little education up to the age of twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three. I had very little education. I was in no way well educated. It wasn't that I got on and made progress because I was educated. It wasn't because I'd done a university course, it was none of that really, up to the age of well after twenty-one, well after being an adult.

Was this because of the quality of the schools you went to, or because of something in you?

Both I think. Although I don't imagine much else different happened to anybody. I think children of those days, in the twenties and thirties, who didn't read, they weren't educated. Most of them had finished education completely by the age of fourteen. We think of quite a significant proportion of people going on after the age of fourteen into secondary schools - almost everybody does. Into tertiary education a significant proportion - probably thirty per cent or more. Now in those days university students were only two, three per cent and they came especially from people with money.

But a boy as bright as you proved to be, those were sometimes the exceptions that got picked up and pulled out of the system, and no one was aware of your intellectual potential when you were at school?

No. You see I was doing two subjects a year at Melbourne University. Now let me tell you the circumstances of that. I was not a university student. All I ever did was go up to the university, go into the commerce building and listen to a tutorial and away out again. Never went to the union, never mixed with students. And for the first couple of years I hardly went to a tutorial, or to a lecture.

But that was how you went to school too wasn't it? You didn't stay and linger around.

No. I'm making that clear because they were my circumstances. I ended up a Doctor of Philosophy, but I'm emphasising that in the ordinary sense of the word I was a very inadequately educated person. It wasn't education that got me on. Whatever else did it.

Did you encounter any teachers that had an effect on you?

Two: John Rogers at Sunbury State School and Derby Graham at Northcote High School. John Rogers was the headmaster, Derby Graham was the teacher in commerce, in shorthand and accountancy. And I did them both, don't ask me why. The only answer I can give may be is that I thought it meant getting something that will get me a job, because I was having ... When you think about getting a job at Northcote High School, what was I going to do about getting a job after leaving school? So I had thought a bit about the kind of subjects, as distinct say from geography, or physics or chemistry ... You didn't think of those in terms of subjects that gave you a professional standing.

How did those two teachers affect you? The principal at Sunbury, what did he do that made an impact?

Well, he raised my self-esteem. He made me think I was of some value.

How did he do that?

Oh, just by chatting and taking a bit interest in what I'd been writing at my desk, which normally speaking, in those years, I don't think teachers did very much. They had a very large class to handle. At Sunbury school from ... from the sixth grade to five, six, seven and eight, one teacher. Now there would have been ... The classroom would have been twice the size of this place - one teacher with all that crowd. They could not, by any means, get much personal attention. And a child can't get any self-esteem unless he's given evidence by other people to think that he is worthwhile. Self-esteem comes from how other people treat you, and if you are treated as, I think, may be even a very high proportion of kids are today, they can't get self-esteem, much. And it's no wonder at all, that they don't have much.

And this teacher paid you attention and did he encourage you in any other way?

I think it was he who did me a copy of the William Morris's book about socialism, and I still have it, if it did come from him. I'm not quite clear in memory now whether he did, but I've had it that long, and I think it did come from him. It wasn't a very ... a booklet of history. It didn't indicate to you the way Marx did, supposedly, showing how socialism came about. It was an eulogy of a socialist co-operative type of society as distinct from a competitive, conflict ridden type of society, suggesting that that kind of co-operative relationship - not suggesting - saying that it was what it was, and more or less leaving you to judge, obviously, that that was better.

Did you understand, at that time, the broader political theme? Did you have an awareness, although you were, as you say, pretty poorly educated? Did you have an awareness of party politics?

Yes, my family always voted Labor. My Aunt Eleanor and my mother worked on the hill at Sunbury and the member for Bulla Dalhousie was Reg Pollard, relatively young, middle 20s, Reg Pollard. Reg was a completely honest, capable and genuine ALP man, and they got to know Reg quite a bit well you see. And I could see the difference between Labor and Liberal from that, early on, and long before I began to vote I had chosen Labor out of that family background.

When did you join the Labor Party?

Not until 1947.

Did you think of joining it earlier?

Yes. I once wrote to John Cain senior, much earlier than that, and all what he did was to tell me to join the local branch. Well, there wasn't a local branch to join. Sunbury didn't have one. And then I was ... didn't do anything after that, because there was no local branch.

Had you noticed class differences in your life at that stage?

Hardly. I could see people were socially different: they dressed differently, they lived in different places, there was a Toorak and there was a Richmond. They never came into contact with one another, never spoke to one another, as very few people ever do anyway in the street, whether they're workers or not. Very few people ever do speak to anyone except their small number of associates and friends. I noticed a class in the social sense, and I saw that it originated in their own history of work: where they worked and how, and their own ability to acquire any different social attitudes. Class is social. It depends upon your accent, the way you speak, the way you dress, where you go for recreation. It's something that you acquire by learning, on the raw material of what your occupation gives you as a worker, or not as a worker.

You mentioned that the rich man of the district was Rupert Clarke. What did you as boy think of that? What did you ... Did you aspire to be like the Clarkes?

No. We never saw Sir Rupert Clarke. He lived at Riverswood, apparently at the end of the town of Sunbury, but he never came into Sunbury. He was, as far as I know, never seen by anybody. He had a motor car very early in the piece. Two men ... Two people had motor cars in my early life. One was Clarke. I can't remember now although I did see it - what car he had. The other was a man called Aitkin, who owned land up behind our place, and they had a Daimler, and that used to be driven up the road past our place and up the hill. Those two cars were the first cars I ever saw in my life.

And what did you think of them?

Not very much. Not very much.

I just heard that you actually rather like nice cars.

Did you? I've always ... Yes, I've been interested in nice cars. I think, I ... The one I sort of picked out as a very nice car was the Bentley, and then a little more reachable, the Riley. The Rolls Royce always seemed to me to be beyond the horizon, you know, something impossible. Yes, I would have fancied having a Riley, if I'd had the means.

What impact did the Depression have on you personally?

I suppose not a very intense one because it wasn't that I'd had a job and lost it, it was that I couldn't get one, and for eighteen months I was looking for one, not with any great intensity. We lived at 30 Sycamore Grove, Ripponlea then. It wasn't a bad house: a little back garden and a front one.

What had made you move into the city?

The Depression. We were on the farm in Sunbury. The Depression dropped the price of milk to a quarter. There was no hope with keeping up with payments on the property, so the National Bank moved in and sold it over their heads. And so they had to move.

When you say 'they', you were still there as part of the family.

Oh yes. It was owned by my grandparents and Eleanor - the farm was.

And what impact did that have in the house: the farm, sold over your head, have on you?

Not very much.

Did it appear to you as unfair or just inevitable?

Inevitable. My grandmother and grandfather were getting pretty old and they'd reached a stage where working on the farm was beyond their means, and they couldn't have done it for much longer any way. They'd have had to have retired somehow. The money that was still owing on the farm meant that they couldn't retire on the farm, so they had to retire somewhere else. At first they rented a house, 19 Park Street, St Kilda, a little single fronted place. There we had exactly the same: we were never short of food, we had this low standard of living that we always had, we had there. Then we moved to a place in Elwood and then to Sycamore Grove, Ripponlea. We were there much longer, and we were there when I got my job with the Australian Estates and for most of the time I used to travel from Ripponlea to Weaver Street, City, going to work and going home again each day. Gran and Grandpa had a small pension, and Eleanor and mother, for much of that time [worked. My mother] eventually retired from work before Eleanor. Eleanor had a reasonable pay for those days. It was ... The workers in the mental hospitals had reasonable pay. They had a good union, they had organised well, and comparatively to most other people, as workers, they were quite well paid. Now I can't say that during the Depression I was badly off - always had a few shillings in my pocket. I began work at nineteen shillings a week and after three years I was getting thirty shillings a week. Now that didn't provide me with much, but compared to what I had lived on before, it was much the same. I didn't think that personally I was suffering any great loss. But I suppose the thing that hit me about the Depression was what had happened to everybody else. I used to travel to Northcote, day and night, going home, and going out, and in those days there wasn't a house in Collingwood or Abbotsford or Richmond, almost without exception, that was not empty with a To Let board out over the railing. Hardly a house. Where had they gone? They'd gone to live two or three families in one place. Two or three parts of the family had come together and made one somewhere else. If the day was reasonable and not raining, you'd find 500 men sitting on the grass, on the cricket ground behind the Richmond Town Hall, playing cards. 500. Every hotel had a verandah in those days, and every verandah would have twenty or thirty or forty or fifty men under the verandah - not in the hotel, because they had no money to buy beer. Coming home from school one day, the train stopped at the Flinders Street intersection, where the head office of Peacock's Stevedoring industry was there, in Flinders Street extension. I saw what must have been about 500 men picketing that place, being attacked by 100 policemen, all with batons three foot long, bashing them with these batons. As they fell onto the cobblestones, the horses trod ... treading on them and running on them. It was talked about that two had been killed, and seventeen very badly injured in that clash. That was the Depression to me.

And did that provoke thoughts in you that related to what became your wider world views?

Oh well that strengthened my concern about Keynesian economics. My reaction to all that is that it was unavoidable ... that it was avoidable. And it depended on economic policy. The key was the effective demand: the amount of money people had to spend to buy things, to keep the factories going, to keep the men in work, and the Keynesian theory that never enough was just distributed in a work process to do that, additional money had to be provided by the growth of the welfare state, by the growth of things the government only could provide. That added to the level of effective demand and ensured a high level of employment. Now that experience in the Depression thoroughly confirmed the Keynesian economic theory to me, and it became my central way of seeing society - as a result of this experience that we've now drawn out, as a result of that theory, and as a result of my actually seeing what was happening in the Depression. But that also happened to so many other people. We all went into World War Two with a very different economic view to any available before.

Those Keynesian views, that were developed during the Depression, were they carried on into the war?

For me and for others, increasingly. It wasn't that people, who made decisions favourable to them, in parliament had studied Keynes. Chifley made decisions favourable to them. There was no hesitation in the Curtin government about [the] shortage of money to cause them to spend less money on the war effort, so much of it was provided by the Commonwealth Bank who [issued] treasury bills. They paid their way as the bills came in. They didn't worry about taxation or borrowing. Now so much of that was done in practice under the Curtin and Chifley governments. It was Keynesian, but it wasn't because like I had done, studied the books and saw the common sense of it. They saw the common sense without the study.

That was reinforced also by people like yourself, and of course at that time with those governments Nugget Coombs was a bit of a force.

Nugget Coombs was a very, very powerful force in all of this. Nugget was a theoretical economist, Nugget was a theoretical Keynesian. He'd done it at London School of Economics and he had a great relationship and effect upon Chifley, and then again into Menzies. Now Menzies behaved completely as a Keynesian, but Menzies had never read it. I made my maiden speech about this. Menzies always came in and listened when I made a speech. I was followed by Fraser. No. It was the other way round: Fraser first, me second. Menzies was there listening to both of us, when I'd finished he came around and he said, 'I'll be studying that speech of yours and [will] make sure our young bloke[s] do too'. And that was in 1955. In 1961 unemployment had risen from one and a half per cent to three per cent, and one night, on an adjournment, I made a speech saying the government wanted unemployment. I got to parliament the next morning and a Labor Party fellow says, 'Menzies was in here looking for you yesterday ... this morning'. So in about an hour's time, I wasn't in a hurry, I wandered around and Miss Craig says, 'Come in and sit down. The boss wants to have a go at you'. So I sat down and he said, 'I don't want to see any unemployment. You do me an injustice. You've always been doing me injustices'. Very indignant he was. So I said, 'No I haven't. I haven't'. And I said, 'Well I'll know within twelve months whether you do or not. You wait and see.' Well they increased ... They produced a supplementary budget. They put money into the post office, mainly, other things as well to provide jobs and in twelve months times unemployment was down to two per cent again. It never got much above that. No, they hadn't read their stuff, but it was common sense, and acting from common sense and not big business ideology, which is their way of thinking now, they produced a different result. Now for me and for us, that lasted until 1975.

Going back to your own development, when you actually started at the university as a lecturer, that really gave you an opportunity to try out a lot of your ideas in [a] public sense, in political forums. Could you tell us about that period, the period that you were lecturing, and how you gradually became more and more active politically during that time?

They weren't ... They were connected to a certain extent, but just as I became more notable about Vietnam, I became notable in politics in the university not about economics, but about relationships between America and Russia. Yes, I lectured and tutored as many as 800 students a year, public lecture theatre full. Yes, what I had to say had a very big influence on very many people. Somebody stopped at my table at Prahran market only last Saturday morning saying, 'You lectured to me in economic history, Melbourne University in 1948'. He said, 'I've always seen things that way ever since, and I'm now seventy-seven'. It had a lot of influence on students in classes, but I didn't go on and talk to students at student meetings around the university about that. What I was involved in, in those days, was the argument that Russia was being wrongly blamed for plans to take over Europe, or to attack the United States, and that Russia would not use nuclear weapons. If they were going to be used it was much more likely they would be used by the United States, but they would probably be used by nobody. That was the peace movement's story prior to Vietnam, and I was one of the three or four in Melbourne who put that peace movement story through most thoroughly in the first stage. So as far as public activity is concerned I was more involved in that first stage of the peace movement, in public activity, than I was in economics, as public activity.

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