Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

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Your involvement with the peace movement and your public position in relation to Russia, brought you a great deal into contact with the Communist Party and with communists of the time, but you were never a member of the Communist Party. Was that ever a possibility for you? Did you consider it seriously?

Yes. When I was at Morotai in the army there were two of my students, both of whom were members of the Communist Party: Bill Brown, who lived in Sydney, and Bob Laurie, who lived in Melbourne. Bob Laurie had been a Scotch College student. When I left Morotai they said to me, 'Go to the ... Please go to the head office of the Communist Party and ask for Len Sharkey. He knows you want to join'. So I went in and saw Len Sharkey, and he was very unfriendly, very distant. Then I heard they had rejected me as an applicant for membership of the Communist Party because they thought I was a police agent. So I thought, well what a pity, that's the end of that. So I never had the question of being a member of the Communist Party, or not being one. [It] never occurred again. That was the end of that. And I saw a lot of the communists in the peace movement, because the peace movement from 1948 ... the establishment of the Australian Peace Council right on until 1965 was mainly moved by members of the Communist Party, for nearly twenty years. It didn't make a great deal of progress. I spoke at meetings quite a lot. I resigned from the Australian Peace Council in 1948 or '49 because I said their view was too narrow, they were not analysing it, they were asserting it. They weren't' saying, 'You can say there is something in favour of the Russians overthrowing the non-communist government in Hungary because it was directed at them among other things, but you're not analysing, you're just supporting it', and so on. So I resigned from the Peace Council about 1948 or '49. I continued to have an association. One very notable small thing occurred. John Rogers was a member of the Communist Party and the Peace Council and they sent him to Moscow somewhere around that time, and he came back and announced that he would have meetings at town halls to tell people about his trip. Now the Melbourne Town Hall was refused to him. He got Caulfield and Williamstown. They couldn't get a more distinguished chairman than me, and by that time I was only a lecturer in economic history, so I was chairman of the meeting. We had Caulfield and Williamstown Town Hall completely full. Policemen lined up. You've no idea, you know: a public meeting with 300 policemen there. And I was in the chair and I announced beforehand that I was well familiar with Section 27 of the Police Offences Act and if anyone caused any fights I would tell the police to remove them. Nobody ever did and the meetings went off quite successfully. But I don't think it would be possible for that to happen ... It isn't possible for it to happen these days. You see world conflict, warlike conflict, has gone now. It's not like it will come back as far as one can foresee.

Going back to the peace movement then, you were involved there with communists and you felt that they were not always as analytical as you would like them to be, and yet you spoke as if you would have joined the Communist Party if they would have had you. Did you have ... I mean, how would you describe your differences with the Communist Party at that time, or were there none?

I did not ... It was no feeling of really any significance. It wasn't ... I didn't want to join the Communist Party. It was Bill Brown and Ted Laurie who put my name up and I said, 'All right, go ahead'. When Len Sharkey turned me down I was: so what. I wasn't involved, I didn't care much about it. I agreed with it, [and thought] we'll see what happens. I haven't got any where else to go. I wasn't associated with the Labor Party or any one else. Might as well see what the Communist Party is like for a year or two. That was my attitude.

And as time went on and you'd spent quite a lot of time on committees and doing things with communists, how would you characterise, looking back and summing up, the sorts of areas where you found yourself differing from them?

There was no doubt about this: the Communist Party consisted of a number of different committees, central committees and otherwise, which were very authoritarian. The rule was the rule. It had been decided by the central committee it had to be applied. No one was entitled to debate that or take a different position. There was no doubt about that high degree of authoritarianism that applied throughout. Now looking at individual members I would say twenty or thirty of them were the best quality people in the peace movement, or in the labour movement that I knew at the time. Well known trade union figures like Jack Brown, the waterside man - Jim Healy, were completely honest, completely decent.


Yes, working for the ... clearly and without doubt, as best they could judge it, in the best interests of their members and putting nothing else in their place. They built up their memberships very high. Clarrie O'Shea at Tramways. Imagine Tramways Union with 5,000 participating members.

So, when you joined the Labor Party and you were also sitting on committees which had ... were predominantly communist because the peace movement committees were mostly communists, did you feel compromised in any way?

No, by the time I joined the Labor Party I was not taking any part in the administration or government of the Peace Council. By the time I joined the Labor Party I was a public speaker in Peace Council activities, but I was in no way part of it as an organisation. You see for a while I wasn't much a part of the Labor Party either, because I joined the Labor Party in 1947. In 1948, 1949 [there was] very little Labor Party activity for me. 1951 overseas. I had a Nuffield Dominion Fellowship. 1952 still overseas, 1953 [I] came back. By now I was suspended from the Labor Party: didn't have much claim on my time, coming from that source. And then when I got through by appearing before the federal executive of the Labor Party, and telling them what had happened, and being reinstated unanimously, the split came, you see. So prior to 1955 I didn't have hardly any claim made on my time made by the Labor Party. But as I say but there was no time either in the Peace Council from 1949 or so. Much of the time I was overseas and I was not involved in committee-like activities in Australia between 1949 and 1955. Then by the time it was 1955, my sole committee activities were Richmond and Collingwood, and wherever I went seven nights a week it was a committee. Wherever I was there was a committee. Over a hundred meetings in three months, in Richmond and Collingwood alone, in that campaign.

Before we get on to talking in detail about that campaign, could we now just take a few minutes and could you tell me about your trip to Oxford and what happened with your going to do that. How did you decide and made you decide to go overseas to do your PhD?

Joe Burton, the Associate Professor of Economic History, had been a Rhodes Scholar and he had a good opinion of Oxford so he pulled the right strings, and I got a Nuffield Dominion Fellowship to go to Oxford. He had an opinion of Oxford that had declined with time, until he had come to think that Oxford was disinterested and detached. 'But nevertheless', he said, 'It will be good for your progress to have been at Oxford'. He was right on both scores. Oxford was disappointing to me, but it didn't do my progress any harm. I didn't stay there long enough to find out whether it was going to do any good. I never got beyond senior lecturer, as it were. Now I found Oxford to be very conservative, very stand-offish, as it always had been. Oxford is very conservative, very uninvolved really, on the whole.

Which college did you go to?

I wasn't attached ... I was at Nuffield College at Oxford. I was attached to Nuffield, but Nuffield isn't residential. I wasn't in a residential college. We lived at a small house in Rose Hill, just a small suburb up the creek from Oxford. I didn't really have a college life.

And so once again you went in and did what you needed to do and went home to your own thing, as you'd always done?

That's right. Exactly.

And you went to compare labour movements in the two countries, but you found it difficult to establish links. What did you end up writing the thesis on?

The welfare state in Australia, a study in the development of public policy. It was a study of how in and through the Chifley government the welfare state was established in Australia: the national system of age and invalid pensions, the national health scheme, what was left of it after the BMA had ruined it, and relatively new money, total new money for primary education in the States. It raised the level of those people who couldn't afford to pay for their own education, and illness very considerably in the welfare state in Australia. I showed that that had come through the influence of the Labor Party, through the trade unions and connected the two, [saying] this is the labour movement in action, this is the result. It got no support from the anti-labour forces in Parliament. The governments of Menzies didn't help at all. And it was almost alone the result of the Labor Party in parliament. That was the thesis that I wrote. It was very narrow in a way. It seemed to be quite relevant then. There's only one copy of it that I know and that's in the Giblin Library at Melbourne University. And in order to see it, my impression that I've just told you, was right ... I went in about a month ago and got utterly bored by reading it and came to the conclusion: yes, that was it all right.

Did you find that being in England at that time, as it were, just being in a different society from your own, was important to your development? Did it test any of your ideas?

Yes, I was amazed at the ... and Gwen was more so amazed at the class distinctions that were practised in England. Whenever we had any one to help us a little bit in the house, she would never sit down and have a cup of tea with Gwen. Never. She'd stand up, as a servant always should. Whenever Gwen got to talk with English students in the library there - she did a chapter in my book called ... it was in the Land and the People series, it was ... She did the chapter on the Aborigines, and she did the research work in the library at Oxford. Oh, and they called her a colonial and put up their noses as though she smelt. That was all over England, in the south and in the centre. We hardly went to the north on that trip. But we didn't like England. That was the impression we got.

So you were glad to come home?


And what was the next phase for you on your return?

Well, the split took over in the Labor Party. I was only home for eighteen months, most of it out of the Labor party went the split came. I was still on the university staff, you see. Came back and got stuck into work as a senior lecturer, largely in American history and Australian history, at this time, and history of economic thought. That was the important one that I gave so much attention to: history of economic thought. So between 1953, early '53 and late '55, I gave a lot of time to studying history of economic thought and lecturing in it.

You have said publicly that you think that history is much more relevant to politics than economics is. What's the foundation for that view?

Well, politics is determined by forces that have required a long time to establish themselves, that is to say history. Economics is fashionable or not fashionable, it just blows in the wind. And that actual system underneath it selects the kind of economics that suits it from time to time. Economics is transient, the historical forces are continuing.

And was that why you became more interested in pursuing the history of economic thought ...

Yes, of course it was.

... because you were coming to that conclusion and you were becoming more interested actively in political thought?

But we will no doubt, as we discuss it, show that I made another change. I changed into history as it were, then I changed out of that history into culture in 1975.

So that was much later. We will come to that because that's another very important phase. But while we are talking about where you were back then ... Now in this context, the opportunity arose for you to run for Yarra and that campaign was always going to be a tough one, and you've already talked about some of the reasons for that. How did you approach the winning of Yarra?

By campaigning. I knew that the Catholic Church was very strong. I knew that Keon was very popular in it. I knew that I had to develop out of the unorganised and unrelated labour, non-Catholic people, [and develop] relationships which brought them together, which were substantial. Made sure that they found out what I was like; made sure they would find out the difference between the Labor Party and the DLP; made sure that enough of them would man the polling booths, and all that. So it meant talking to them, knocking on their doors and talking to them. And Gwen and I and a few others door knocked I think every door in Richmond, Collingwood, Abbotsford and Hawthorn in the space of four months - literally knocked on every door. We had eighty or ninety meetings in that period of time, everywhere, ranging from four or five on a cold night outside some corner in Abbotsford to 3000 people in the corner of ... just down from Bridge Road ... Age is making it impossible to remember all these side streets.

But in a big venue.

Oh yes. A big open space, a street corner. We just reached people as they had never been reached before. Never in the old days, never in the Santamaria-Keon days. I say Santamaria, [but] you see, Santamaria was never a public man, he was never involved, he never went to a meeting, he never spoke to any one. Behind the scenes all the time. And Keon was the best and most effective public figure they had by far.

He was also very active in what, the DLP, what that whole Movement was doing everywhere else, so what in fact ... Did that work in your favour? I imagine he would have had limited time to spare.

Oh, he made a grave mistake, he didn't realise until it was too late. He thought he could win easily, so he went off all over the place to campaign. And the fortnight before the poll, he was everywhere in Richmond. He'd come back again, but it was too late.

He'd realised what was happening?

Yes. If he'd campaigned effectively and strongly he would have won.

Who was your campaign manager?

John Button. [laughs]

And there were some quite ... names that became quite well known later working with you on that campaign wasn't there?


Norm Gallagher was one of them.

Oh he did a bit, not much. Norm was much ... Norm created an image for himself which was far more than it should have been. He did come occasionally, but not much.

There's a story that he burnt some pamphlets that he was supposed to hand out for you because he said they were anti-Communist.

Yes, that's right.

Something you'd written.

That's right, so they say.

I'm asking you about that because [of] what was happening at this time that we're talking about, just post split with the Movement. I would like you to describe quite vividly for people for whom it's history, and they don't remember it, so I'm going to ask you a question which I'd like you to just paint the whole picture of the fact that it was natural that there were people who were communists in society wanting you to get in because of the circumstances relating to ... so I will ask you a question about that and get you just to do a picture of it, you know, for people for whom it is history. So could you just describe what it was like campaigning at that time, in that electorate?

Well, all that I can say is that we were extremely busy. We were at it seven days a week, day in, late into the night, door knocking, talking to people in the street, elsewhere. And many others were. Now the Labor Party membership wasn't that big when you took the DLP. It was called Australian Labor Party, anti-Communist in brackets, not DLP. When you took them out, you took the majority out, you left only a minority in. So we didn't have a very big number of ALP members working especially in Richmond. More in Collingwood, because this DLP relationship, activity, had not gone nearly as far in Collingwood. Collingwood was almost as much ALP after the split as it was before. Collingwood and Abbotsford. Abbotsford a little less. So it was really those people doing what they chose to do or what they were inspired to do. Now what they chose ... What they were inspired to do, as distinct from what they were otherwise would have chosen to do, was proportionate to the effect mainly that Gwen and I gave by our activity. Gwen was as active as I was, and in many ways she had as much influence in Richmond as I had. And therefore the campaign was starting with what was left over of the Labor Party, moved by Gwen and me, and drawing in others. Now others that were drawn in, with limitations, were some Communist Party people. Now one point that is not very often mentioned it that the Communist Party in Richmond was a very small party. The Labor Party was too all embracing, consisting of two parts, as I've said: the John Wren part and the Catholic part. By the time you took them out of it, there wasn't much left for the communists as it were. And the communists were added to by a few Melbourne University Labor Club communist students, who were also overrated. So it wasn't a simple front. It was a fairly complex one.

And was there any risk of violence?

A bit. There were one or two fights. You know, one or two. It was nothing. Bernie O'Connell used to go everywhere with Gwen in case she was attacked, but she never was and never would have been. Bernie was always there. No, there was little, very little violence really. The critics of me will say there was. I saw one fight involving about four or five at the polling booth there in the centre of Richmond, at the State School, but nothing more.

The Movement under Santamaria was putting out a lot of propaganda that a vote for the ALP, for you, in that context, was a vote for communism. Now did that present a difficulty to you? In other words were your ... the people in your electorate confused about what was ALP, what was DLP, or incipient DLP at that stage, and what was actually communist?

I don't think that argument that a vote for me was a vote for communism had a great deal of effect. It didn't have to, we won by 791. If it had affected a couple of hundred people it was enough. Now our vote in 1958, three years later, went up from about forty-eight per cent to about fifty-eight per cent, it rose ten per cent in three years. So there was a big potential gain there, which was stopped from happening by something. It was stopped from happening by their opportunity to get to know me better. They may not have ... They might have thought I was still a communist and that was the way communists did things. I had a small office in Bridge Road, 371 Bridge Road, where I was there every Monday morning, every Friday afternoon and every Saturday morning, sometimes on Sunday, frequently on Sunday. People were coming in with their pension problems, immigration problems. People come up to me now and say, 'You got my daughter out', and she's now - looks about sixty-five or seventy - 'And she's had two daughters and they've both gone through the university. They wouldn't have been here if it hadn't been for you'. Things like that.

You were very well known once you won that first election for taking tremendous care of your constituents.

Yes, that's right.

Did you see that was a very important part of the job?

I think it's a very, very important part of the job, yes.

In order to be re-elected?

No, you represent the people. It also helps to get re-elected, but I think that the member of parliament, if he is going to be representative, has got to be closely in touch, physically, with the people he represents. Not just to be re-elected but because that is what he should be doing. Not somewhere else and never goes into his electorate, as is often the case now, or goes in as a far away figure capitalising upon his far-awayness, his distance and his superiority, which is the way the most successful ones do now.

Can I take a step back. When you were approached by Pat and asked to take on Yarra, what did you think about that? You had a successful career. Why did you do it? Why did you take that step into active politics?

I overrated the importance of being a member of a parliament and a minister, in what I can do to achieve what I thought should be done. I overrated it.

How? At that time, what did you think you could do?

No more than the fact I did.

But when you were thinking about going into it, what was your intention?

To go in and be a speaker, a lecturer, a teacher, a very active member of parliament. Over what? Vietnam had not occurred. It was essentially in the Keynesian period. I achieved a lot but it wasn't that much.

Was your intention to reform things?

Yes. To go much further than I was able to do, much further.

But you went in optimistically?

Yes, thinking I could do more than I was able to do.

So at the time that you went there, what would have been the content of the reform you were looking for? What was it, that was in your heart, that you intending to do?

I wanted to change what we call welfare and education into something which creates an alternative way of life for those people, to create what I can call a human growth centre in which people would be taught the formation ... what is the formation of character and behaviour, [and] would be given the opportunity to create what we might call friendships: 500 of them in Australia, was my aim. It was to transform the social neighbourhood away from what the family and the states call ... that left it to be. That was always my primary aim: reform. I would have ... [I] aimed at taxing, by at least fifty per cent, every $100,000 of gains made on the stock exchange. If you make a 100,000 on the stock exchange you pay 50,000 tax.

[end of tape]

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