Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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You said that on that day you felt very tense and afraid. What were you afraid might happen?

Violence. I thought people might get hurt and I thought I'd get hurt. There had been information passed on to us that someone was going to shoot from up on the tops of the buildings and so on. They wanted me to wear a metal waistcoat. Some people did. And Philip here made one. There were two men who never moved away from me all that time. [There's] photographs of them. They were looking up all the time. Had anyone tried to attack me they would have been in front of me. Had they heard any shot they'd have tried to put themselves between me and where it came from. They would have done, literally. Now, they both waterside workers. I felt afraid because I knew that was the atmosphere. Now I don't think there was anyone ever likely to fire a shot from any building in Bourke Street. I don't think there was anyone likely to attack me physically in the end. In some of the marches you've got someone racing across over towards me, but no one ever knew what he was going to do because he was just pushed aside. There were two or three cases of that. They were always pretty old and, you know, he would have had to have had a 303 rifle to make any impression, sort of. But that was the feeling I had, that maybe something would hurt somebody, not just me, but somebody. But as I said, I got to the top of Bourke Street and saw and felt it was all right. About two years ago I was selling books in South Melbourne market and a very smartly looking fellow about forty-five or fifty with a moustache came up and said, 'Oh', he said, 'The first time I ever saw you, I was sitting on a horse in Bourke Street'. I said, 'You mean you were sitting on a horse in a lane near the Bourke Street Post Office'. 'Yes', he said, 'That's right', and he said, 'I was scared stiff'. He said, 'In a way we were'. He was a policeman. Then he said, 'As soon as the people came into Bourke Street I suddenly realised everything was all right', and he said, 'I really became part of it'. [laugh]

And how did you feel when you realised everything was going to be all right?

I think it was a wonderful day, a wonderful feeling. I think it was the most satisfying experience, public experience, I've ever had by far. And on the photographs - standing on top of a car in Bourke Street with a microphone, I only spoke to them for about seven or eight minutes. But I think that was the most pleasing day I'd ever had. Gwen, poor old Gwen, was in hospital that day and when the march was over we went to the Town Hall to finish it, had a song from Len Thomas Eddy, and again you see a photograph there and the astonishing thing about it is that I seem to be singing the song and I can't sing I'm sure.

It was a day of miracles.

Yes. [laughs]

And did you feel that was a very high point for you in that whole long battle?

Oh yes. It was much more of a high point for me than becoming part of the Whitlam government, becoming Deputy Prime Minister. This was a high point that had intensity in it. It ... The other was just something that came on as a matter of course, as a matter of many disconnected events that had led up to that point of being in the Whitlam government or of Deputy Prime Minister, or whatever. The other was something that was actually happening and had become what it was all in an hour or two.

It's a marvellous thing that so many people came out and that there wasn't any violence, in a group of that size. And how do you think that was achieved? Do you think that the fact that you had been a policeman and could go and speak to the police in the way you did helped the whole atmosphere?

Oh it helped undoubtedly: the passivity of the police, the full acceptance by the police of what I had told them we were going to do, and where we going to do [it], how long it would take, and when the city would be clear.

Do you think they listened to you better because you'd been a cop?

Oh, yes. They were friendly. Police are always remarkably friendly. Only just the other day ... and I sometimes wonder why it took so long ... I had an invitation to become a member of the Retired Police Association, which I've accepted. I've now got a tie - Retired Police Association tie. No, on the whole the police can see no wrong in me.

But they've not always been friendly to you. You have been arrested haven't you?

Yes, I have twice. The first one was very far from friendly to me. It was the first one of the ... It was the first election for the Richmond City Council after I became the member for Yarra. It was 1958. Both sides were fiddling the vote - getting people to come in and vote for others and so on. And I had just walked into the West Richmond polling booth as a scrutineer, with a proper form and all that, and I saw a bloke come in to vote, and I heard him give a name that wasn't his own. I knew what his name was. So I said, 'Hey, that's not your name'. It just got that far and up walked a policeman. He said, 'Get out', to me. And I said, 'No, I'm not getting out. I'm a scrutineer, here's the form, and I think he's voting under a name that isn't his own'. He said, 'I told you to get out'. And I said, 'Well, I'm not going'. He said, 'Well you're under arrest', so he arrested me and took me down to the Richmond Police Station and I was charged with obstructing a member of the police force in the execution of his duty, and with assault. Well that was on the Saturday. On the Saturday morning we turned up at the Richmond Court. There was Sam Cohen, Senator Sam Cohen, Clyde Holding - himself and lots of others. I should have said before that, when I was in the police station getting charged, after I'd been charged, Detective Inspector Doug Trainor, [laughs] personal friend for years, and very formerly and properly took a full statement from me about what had happened, you see. And off he went. Then on the Monday morning when we turned up at the court, Cohen, Holding, and I and others, my name was called, so I went into the dock, and the Sergeant said, 'It has been decided your honour to withdraw these charges'. So that was the end of it.

So after you'd been charged, were you held or were you kept, or you went home?

Oh no. Somebody bailed me out. But if there was one person outside the Richmond Police Station, there would have been a thousand. And somebody bailed me out. Jack Poke I think.

What happened to the policeman who'd arrested you?

He was a member of the DLP. I don't know.

Was he disciplined?

I don't know.

Was there any scuffle? Was there anything that could have led to a charge of assault?

No. Oh you can assault anybody without touching them, you know. If you put another person in fear of impending danger, you have assaulted them.

You learn something every day.

You don't have to lay a hand on them. I might have put fear of impending danger. He walked first all the way to the Police Station and I followed him, so he didn't have much trouble.

What about the second time you were arrested?

Yeah, the second time: [the] Save Our Sons ladies, who were opposed to sending off their sons to war in Vietnam who had been conscripted ... they were opponents of conscription ... were handing out leaflets outside the Melbourne Town Hall, against conscription, and I went along and handed out leaflets too. And the time came when the half a dozen or so policemen turned up with a police wagon and began to arrest them: Jean McLean, later became a member of parliament. And then they came to me and they said ... They had to ask you for your name and address first, and if you refused to give it, you were arrested. They said, 'What's your name and address?' and I said, 'It's on the leaflet, look. There it is on the leaflet'. So they said, 'You're under arrest'. So about eighteen of us were arrested and we were taken to Russell Street. They notified Gwen and she came to Russell Street, and then she went over and bailed out ... bailed them out as they took them in and charged them, you see, until I was the only one left. All the others had been in the prison van were charged other than me. And I'm sitting waiting, and the Sergeant Hargraves, who was in charge at Russell Street, came along and said, 'Will you sign this?' and it was a statement saying that I had no complaints to make. And I said, 'No I won't sign that'. So he said, 'Well, for Christ's sake piss off then'. [laughs] So I did.

So you were the only one that wasn't actually formally charged?

Yes, and then they were charged really by the City Council, and you know what they did on the Monday at the next Council meeting? They withdrew ... They withdrew the regulation, so you can now hand out leaflets outside the Town Hall without having to give your name and address and without subject to arrest if you don't. Some years later in Gawler I was handing out leaflets against something outside the public library. It was [about] the early closing of the public library. I was walking past, [and] she said, 'You did us a lot of good', she said. 'Here we are handing out leaflets and nobody takes any notice of us'. She said, 'Until that regulation was repealed they made a big fuss over this and we'd have been taken notice of'. [laughs]

Well, talking about political goals in that way, do you think that being arrested did your political career good or ill?

I can't notice any effect. Don't know that it had any effect.

Did it make you a bit of a hero among your followers, that you were prepared to go that far?

I don't know. No one ever said a word to me about it really, never a word. I mention it because I think it was interesting. I think it was ... it just showed, you know, what can happen. It's not such a kill 'em and knock 'em down and kill 'em place, like some people think.

In relation to the Labor Party you were working on these causes and you were also of course an active, a very active member of parliament and public figure, and people talked a great deal about you as a leader of the Labor Party. What were your own thoughts about the leadership during that period that you were in opposition?

I had a very high opinion of Doctor Evatt, not because of his work in parliament, which on the whole was very poor, but Doctor Evatt had more effect on the forming the charter of the United Nations than any other man in the world. It was very critically an H. E. Evatt product. Whenever Evatt took a position in relation to an overseas crisis, it was significant within that crisis. It had an effect, not always that we might all have agreed with. He didn't say much to help Cuba. He was very instrumental in the establishment of Israel. He didn't say much about the Russian activities in Hungary, but his record was significant as a man from a relatively small country. He was first Australian world figure in government. You might say what about Billy Hughes? Now Billy Hughes was not ... just on the Australian stage known in England. Nothing much beyond that. That was the first leader of the Labor Party when I was in parliament, but Evatt in parliament itself was atrocious. He was followed by Arthur Caldwell. It appeared in a sense that there was no alternative. Caldwell was an odd man. He was a Catholic who believed devoutly in the separation of the church and state. He was a great admirer of America: America's liberalism that comes from that separation of the church and state, and Caldwell well understood it and could have held his own with any historian of the United States. Strangely enough Caldwell was ... had distaste for coloured people. He had lots of Chinese friends, and he ate at many, many tables with Chinese friends, but he had a very strong distaste, less than conscious one, for coloured people. In respect to Labor Party welfare policy he was fairly pedestrian. He had no colour, and he was five shillings here and five shillings there.

When you entered parliament yourself, did you think at all about whether or not you might like to follow in the shoes of these men?

No, I never felt conscious about being leader any more than I felt conscious about being anything else. I have done all I have done leaving that kind of thing to the circumstances.

Could you tell me about the times when you actually stood for leadership?

Yes. I stood once for leadership of the Labor Party and once for deputy leadership of the Labor Party. I stood in 1968 against Whitlam for leadership of the Labor Party and I voted for him when he was elected, and I was as loyal to Whitlam as anyone else. But in 1968 there was a movement to the Right going on in the Labor Party, centring around Harradine, Brian Harradine. In Tasmania, being denied Labor Party endorsement for the senate by the Tasmanian Labor Party executive, being supported by Whitlam, mainly behind the scenes, but appearing to me to be opposing the Australian Labor Party federal executive, which had a narrow left-wing or anti-Harradine majority, with the idea of reducing that component and making it moderate or right-wing moderate. Whitlam resigned from the leadership of the Labor Party calling the federal executive witless men. I thought he ought to be checked and so for ...

Did he resign in order to get his own way, do you think? Was that what it was about?

Yes, yes. He resigned confident that he would be still leader and to get his own way with endorsement for what he was moving for. After three or four days in which I had discussions with all sorts of people like Phillip Adams, who eventually wrote a couple of paragraphs in a letter that I sent to the federal ... to the parliamentary Labor Party saying that I was going to stand, [I] made the announcement on the front verandah of our house at Hawthorn - I notice there wasn't a photograph of that amongst that lot you've got - that I was going to oppose Whitlam. Well, I did ring about, I suppose, fifteen or so people over that. When the vote came I lost by three votes - very close. Whitlam was very shaken by it.

You emerged from that looking quite pleased as if you actually hadn't wanted the leadership but just wanted to show Whitlam there was an alternative.

No I was pleased by then for another reason. I was pleased by then because of the power, in three days, that a number one figure appeared to me to have. I think I was on the media every twenty minutes and I thought, gee being Prime Minister can give you some power can't it? And as the time went by, initially from standing on the verandah after having got out of bed, in which Gwen made the statement not me - read the letter, not me - when they came with questions I couldn't keep quiet, so I began to answer them. But I'd been in bed for three or four days before announcing my opposition to Whitlam because of the effect of it. I was supposed to have a cold, but it wasn't a cold, it was the effect of it. No, it was the feeling of scope that I had for three or four days that made me seem as you just described.

And why did that give you such satisfaction?

Well, I thought with all the things I'm trying to communicate about, I could do it much more effectively if I was Prime Minister.

But you'd just lost the opportunity to lead your party.

Yes.

So that meant that you weren't going ... you were that, you know, step away from being Prime Minister. Did you start at that point to really want to be leader?

No, it had gone. It was an experience of a week. It had gone, although Whitlam was sure it never had. Whitlam was always thinking I was waiting there to take his job.

And despite this feeling that you realised the scope that the role would give you, the possibilities and opportunities it would give you, you really didn't continue to covet it. Why not?

No. No. I suppose I've never been ambitious as it were, and I hate ambition. I have never been ambitious and I just can't want to be something.

Why do think ambition is such a grievous fault?

Because it does so much harm. Perhaps I could have been ambitious, succeeded and I wouldn't done much harm. But ambition and harm are two things that I can't separate.

Were you suggesting then that the business ... the business of taking on Whitlam, in that run for the leadership, that sort of implied conflict, actually made you ill? When you said you were in bed ill, that it had something to do with your aversion to placing yourself in a head to head. Have you always been like that?

Yes. Yes. You see I love going out and talking, lecturing, but I hate, as it were, having to go out and be somebody. I feel like saying, 'For goodness sake leave me alone. I don't want to be something that you're coming to involve me in, I'm going to chose what I want to do, and if that's all right with you fine, accept it and I think it will be all right for you'.

But the ... and conflict with somebody, in that case Whitlam, but you also had conflict at one stage with Caldwell didn't you and you didn't like that much either?

Yes, over a Melbourne seat.

Could you tell me about your conflict with Caldwell?

Another thing that turned me away from that was this experience with Caldwell you've just mentioned. Because of the redistribution of seats in which the small Yarra and Melbourne seats were combined as it were, to make one, and Yarra had disappeared ... Melbourne and Caldwell didn't, Yarra and Cairns didn't. When I found that out I said to Arthur, 'What do you think?' 'Oh', he said, 'I think I'll retire'. He said, 'I've been here long enough'.

He was in his seventies then wasn't he?

Yes. So I said, 'Oh well, that's fine. If you do that I'll nominate for Melbourne'.' He said, 'Well you'll get it all right'. Now a fortnight later I was told that Arthur was not going to retire, and in not retiring he was backed by a number of the most ... the numbers men in the Victorian executive. Innes, Brown, to some extent Hartley, I think, and Moss Cass. And they had their little discussions up at Eltham. They decided I had to be persuaded to get out of Melbourne and leave it to Caldwell. I think the main reason they all had for that was that each of them, most of them, wanted to be the member for Melbourne and they thought if I got it they wouldn't have got it for years, whereas if Caldwell was left to it, they'd probably have it after one term, which is what happened and Innes got it. So they wanted to have a meeting with me, and I think Gwen and I had both been to Canberra. We came back to Essendon and they ... We had a meeting at somebody's place and they said, 'Well, we'll guarantee you can get Lalor', you see. Lalor was held by the Liberals but redistribution had made it ... had given it a five per cent Labor margin. Eventually, within a day or two of that, I agreed.

[end of tape]

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