Australian Biography

Jim Cairns - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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In deciding to go into parliament, what was in your mind? What did you think that you could do with this new role in your life?

Mainly I thought I knew what social and economic reform was and how to bring it about. And that was the most important thing of all for me to do. So in a sense I had to weigh up, ten years, fifteen years, twenty years on the university staff trying to teach people about that, or go into parliament and begin to do something about it. Now at that stage I think I thought I could do more than I turned out to be able to do. I think I overrated what could be done in parliament. But I went into parliament because of a belief that by going there I could do the most I could possibly do about getting a better society.

Does this course in the parliamentary setting involve relating to your own party and to working with that, as it were, as a team to achieve these goals. How did you go about doing that and how well did you fit in with the other parliamentarians?

It involved working with the others. [With] the majority of the Labor Party members, from day to day I would say nothing more than, 'Good day' or 'How are you?' or 'What's doing?' and so on. But there were a good half dozen or so that I spent a lot of time talking to, and with whom I seemed to have a lot in common. They seemed to accept fully what the Labor Party had accepted, about what was needed for social reform, and that coincided pretty close to what I thought was needed. Now, for example, there was Eddie Ward, known all over Australia, probably the best known Labor Party member of parliament still alive. There was Les Haylen. There was Tom Uren. About half a dozen altogether with whom I was able to talk a lot, had a lot in common, and agreed with almost completely. In other words that six or so people made parliament for me. The majority I hardly ever exchanged a word with. Not any much more in the Labor Party than over there in the non Labor Party, with whom, not only I, but so many others hardly ever said anything.

But you had quite a big influence and a lot of people in the Labor caucus were very, very supportive of you. That normally comes about through quite a lot of work, as they say getting the numbers. How did you do that, what did you do?

Well, I never did anything about getting the numbers. I behaved as I did and they judged me on that. Some people like Tom Uren apparently did a lot to get the numbers for me. I'm not even sure about how to go about getting the numbers. I suppose they say, 'If you get so and so to vote for so and so, I'll get so and so to vote for you'. And they have little bits of paper with names written on them and they watch one another fairly closely when they're voting in this business of getting the numbers. Now I never did that in my life. I remember the only time I ever said anything that was in the context of that, and strangely enough it was against Eddie Ward and in favour of Whitlam, [was] when Evatt retired as leader of the Labor Party and Caldwell succeeded him. Ward and Whitlam stood for deputy leadership and we had a line of fellows standing up ready to go - pen on the dotted paper and put it in the box - and a couple of people came to me and said, 'Who are you going to vote for?' and I said, 'Whitlam', and that I think got a few votes for Whitlam. But that was the only time I think I ever did anything in the twenty-three years in parliament that you could call 'getting the numbers'.

As a consequence of that attitude Tom Uren has said publicly that he felt that you needed somebody to look after the practical side of your affairs in parliament because he thought that you really didn't want to be involved in that, but it was necessary. Do you feel that that was a correct judgement on his part?

No, I don't know. I don't want to disagree with him. I think my own feeling is that it wasn't necessary, but you see I don't know enough of the field where the running was taking place to know how to run as it were. He might have been right, but my feeling was the other way.

So while this was going on in the everyday, at times slightly grubby business of politics, what were you doing, what were you getting ahead with in that period after you'd first got elected?

Well, I used to get books out of the library and read them. I always put a lot of preparatory work into a speech. I wrote it out in full but I didn't read it - looked at it and talked from it. I always had a very heavy correspondence, hundreds of letters that had to be answered, and for most of the time I had nobody to help me answer letters. I had to do it myself. In Melbourne I had one secretary but I never sent any letters from Canberra to Melbourne to be answered here. The ones came to me at Parliament House, and they were many, I answered directly. So it was having cups of tea, it was talking to the half dozen or so members that I mentioned, it was reading books, preparing speeches, answering letters.

You were much in demand as a public speaker all over Australia during that period, even while you were still in opposition through the '60s, how did you manage to keep up the schedule? You had to travel, you had to attend parliament and you also looked after your constituents very well.

Yes, it was a full time job by every means. I did travel: Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, Sydney, Melbourne, Tasmania, always at the invitation and the arrangement of the local member. Almost always. And that in itself would have meant, I suppose, three or four nights a month away from home. The other organisations other than the Labor Party didn't come in until a bit later. The work I'd done through the Peace Council more or less disappeared, when I went into parliament. For a good long time parliament replaced all that.

And while you were there, one of the things, one of the things intellectual things, if you want to put it like that, that you were developing and really working on, ahead of your time really, was the relationship with Asia. Could you tell me what made you realise, as early as the late '50s, how important Asia was going to become?

Yes, my reason for realising that was that first of all I went into Asia in 1945. I spent about six months living on the islands up there, in the army, but able to see the people at very close hand, travel in a small aircraft to the Celebes, down from Morotai. And saw many of them living their normal every day way of life, as they always did. Now the one thing that impressed me about that, more than anything else, was that the Asian people were less aggressive, more peaceful, more friendly with one another, less likely to fight, less likely to kill one another than any one here in good old Melbourne or Sydney. I came away feeling that they were not an inherent force of war getting ready to invade Australia. They had never done so for thousands of years and I thought they weren't likely to do so now. I thought any changes that had to take place in our relationships with them, were changes that had to take place here. And so I wrote a book called Living with Asia. It sold very well. For a long time it was regarded as my best book. Then as soon as I could afford it in parliament I began to go to Asia, to again, as a second phase, and this time at a higher level, look at it all. Now in those years when I went and met people like Sukarno, Sihanouk, Lee Kuan Yew, the Prime Minister of Malaysia ... I've got all sorts of little pieces of cigarette holders, silver, here, given to me by various ones of them. I suppose there's half a dozen round here, presented by prime ministers or their equivalent of those Asian countries. Now I talked to them. They could all speak English as well as I could, and I liked them all. I couldn't see in any of them any mind or intent about invading Australia, and above all I couldn't see any preparations for that.

Why do you think that your way of viewing Asia right from 1945 was so different from many of your other ... your fellow Australians, both the other soldiers and then in later other politicians, in dealing with Asia? What gave you a different way of looking at them?

Well I think it was because I visited Asia under different circumstances from most of the others. Some of them - our parliamentary leaders, Menzies, never really came to earth in Asia. Men like Harold Holt never met any of these leaders. Men like Gorton never even met any of these leaders, had no respect for them, had no admiration for them like I have. No appreciation of what I considered to be their quality, at any rate, and I think was their quality. The only damage any of these people has done to any one is in their own countries. A classical example is Indonesia. Indonesia ... the Indonesians have hardly ever harmed any one out of Indonesia but they have killed and harmed, I suppose, four or five million people since the war inside Indonesia. Their violence and ill feelings have been exhibited against themselves, not by invasion. These countries are not invading countries. The downward thrust of China! There was no likelihood of the downward thrust of China into anybody. They supported Pol Pot, they opposed north Vietnam. They invaded north Vietnam - one exception - and they got badly beaten by the Vietnamese. Indonesia has never invaded any country as I have pointed out.

Well, it annexed East Timor.

Well, East Timor was supposed to be their own country. You see, when Indonesia stood for their independence they stood to get rid of Holland from wherever Holland was. Holland and Portugal were in Timor and they stood to get rid of them. Now I think in recent years, I've said in countries that they controlled, which they regarded as their own country, their record has been bad, and East Timor was part of that. West Irian was another part.

In your own party, were there others that were sharing your views? You gave this very pubic expression to it in the book that was so well regarded. How did you colleagues in the Labor Party feel about Asia at that time back in the '60s and the late '50s?

Not too many of them fully agreed with me. Tom Uren was involved in peace activities. The rest weren't, both before Vietnam and afterwards. We had a street full of people. I was the only member of parliament in that street very often.

Now it was the Vietnam War that brought Asia into the consciousness of all Australians, and it also brought activity from you in a very focused way. Could you describe how that all began for you?

Well, I'd been working on my own for several years about Vietnam. I had written The Eagle and the Lotus, which was a legitimate academic study of the history of the invasion and occupation of Vietnam by the French. I'd been working on this on my own. The book was published. Whitlam launched it, by the way. Its sales were pretty good. But my anti-Vietnamese (sic) activity was writing a book. Almost ... Whenever I've become involved in anything it's been writing a book or reading a book. I've always been a student in action, as much now as ever. Now as a result of that leadership of that book, and being present amongst people who wanted to bring about organised activity, a number of people, including me, formed the CICD, Conference for the International Co-operation and Disarmament. We invited four or five quite well known people from overseas, including Paul Robeson. A very successful conference was held at the South Melbourne Town Hall. Within that element of non-Labor, non-Liberal Party, non-party people, there were right-wing opponents of me as well as those who from then, you'd have to say, left-wing point of a view, following it the same as me. It was productive in the sense that a number of suburban and one or two country committees, subcommittees, were formed in the CICD. There would have been at the most, in the end, about twenty or so of them. They might not have had more than fifty or sixty members each but they were all in or around Melbourne. They were the source and foundation of the Vietnam Moratorium movement. The Vietnam Moratorium movement was a Melbourne movement. When action was taken by marching in the street in Adelaide and Sydney, a little in Perth and a little in Brisbane, there was no organisations like that, or no organisations like that underneath, to encourage people to come: 'Are you going? What about coming? Are you going? What about coming?' The result was that when we got our street marches in Melbourne they were two or three times as big as anywhere else. The Vietnam Moratorium movement was a Melbourne movement. It wasn't just because of me, it was because I was one of initially twenty or thirty, who emerged out of that South Melbourne Town Hall conference and worked together. Apart from that political parties are not groups of people interested in policy. They are groups of people interested in holding branch meetings, the form of which is always the same: Read the minutes, move a motion for their adoption, debate whether they should be adopted, receive the correspondence, write the letters, and sometimes someone has a word or two to say, but not often. These make up the branch, where the branch meeting consists very much of the same thing. Only occasionally do they get hot under the collar over some issue, some policy, but not very often. They're all used mainly to decide who should be the member of parliament for the area in which they exist, and they're made up of the contest between those who are trying to be so. That's the summary of what political parties are like. You can't really say they're significant areas for the discussion of ideals, the discussion of principles, or the discussion of policy.

So for you, at that time, other organisations were more significant ... were a more significant focus than your local party?

Always was so. Labor Party was a social affair, a door knocking affair for me because I had to door knock. I didn't have until about 1963 a safe seat, so door knocking had to be a significant part of our activity. But as I've said often, more than half the people who door knocked for me, more than half, were not members of the Labor Party.

They were people who preferred you to the alternative?

Yes. Yes. They might have considered themselves Labor supporters but they weren't actually members.

So with the moratorium activities that came from an organisation outside the Labor Party and what was your ... How would you characterise your role in it? What was your particular contribution to that whole movement?

I often wonder if it was anything much at all. You see even in the end, in that part, I was not an organiser. I have never been an organiser. I have never organised more than one person in all my life. I have been a writer and a talker. That's all.

But when you say 'that's all', that sounds as if you don't think that that it is more important or even as important as organising?

I don't say it's more important, or as important, it may not be. Organising, well done, might be more important.

But intellectual leadership is necessary, isn't it?

All I'm saying is that I was able and capable of doing that and I wasn't able to organise. That's all. I might have been Prime Minister four or five times if I'd been a good organiser.

But the ideas that you were putting forward ... I mean, the moratorium is over. It was organised, it happened. What we remember from it and what influenced people who watched and looked and listened at the time, what gave it voice, was very often the voice of Jim Cairns and the ideas that he'd thought through. So, I suppose, that's what I was asking you: okay we accept that your contribution wasn't to organise it, but what was your contribution?

Well, I suppose it was getting onto a platform making a speech, getting a typewriter, writing an article, working articles up into a book. I've written fifteen books.

What was the kernel of what you were wanting to say, wanting to tell people with that anti-Vietnam activity? What was at the heart of it for you?

Well the heart of it was to prove that Vietnam had not been an aggressor. Vietnam, the Vietnamese people, had been invaded by the French, then by the Americans, and they had defended themselves as anyone would, if they had the courage and the capacity, and the Vietnamese have a tremendous amount of courage and capacity to fight, to defend themselves. I doubt if ever they've been equalled anywhere. They fought overwhelming odds. My book showed the overwhelming odds, showed actually what was going on there. Understand that they weren't invading anybody. They had an occasional tank, an occasional aircraft, an occasional gun, a large gun. Most of them were ... Most of their weapons were, for a long part of the time, simply knives and sticks with which they fought the Americans. They were not importing hardly anything from China, because China was not on their side. China was against them. And not much from Russia. One of the things I think that was most impressive ... I wrote a little pamphlet showing the make up of the arms captured by the Americans from the Viet Cong. Without intending it, in exhibiting these arms captured from the Viet Cong, ninety per cent of them were American arms. Very, very few were Russian. Almost every weapon they used had been captured from the Americans and turned back on the Americans again. Every bit of evidence there was, was that the Vietnamese were defending themselves, and were using very inferior weapons to do so. Around about 1975 I was at a conference in Manila and Kissinger was there. And in this afternoon I was just walking into the entrance to the hall, and Kissinger, supported by about half a dozen guards, guns and all, came up and said, 'Your were right about Vietnam'. I said, 'How was that?' 'Well', he said, 'It wasn't an invasion from the north or from China. It was mainly the people there, fighting themselves. That's what we've found out. We could never have won. We could never have won that war without killing them all'. And I said, 'Wouldn't you have used nuclear weapons to kill them all?' He said, 'The American people would never have stood for it'. And that's the exact conversation I had with Kissinger.

The other great controversy, that time brought, related not just to the war but also to the methods that were being used to bring the objections of the Australian people to the attention of the government. In other words the right to demonstrate, the right to distribute leaflets, those sorts of issues were being worked through in the Australian scene. What was your attitude to that and could you describe how that happened at the time? How that played out?

Yes, well, demonstration, what we can call demonstration: picketing, marching in the street, confronting the police, that was a part of Australian history. It went back to Macquarie's time, before 1813. It had been no more or less violent than it was up to 1969 or '70, when the Vietnam Moratorium occurred. Now, our decision to have a march in the city and to sit down in Bourke Street was made by me on a Friday night without consulting anybody. The Age published it on the Monday morning and on the Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday the papers were full of terrible predictions about what was going to happen. The streets were going to be flowing in blood. Archbishops were weeping tears of blood about the terrible things that were going to happen and I was identified with most of it in the week before the 8 May 1970. Now really I didn't do anything much to reduce that atmosphere of confrontation that would be likely to happen, except give them an opportunity to talk it out. I suggested to Sam Goldboum, who was a good speaker but he was a far, far better organiser than me, that we have ... that we call a meeting at the Richmond Town Hall on Sunday afternoon, and it was full: 2000 people. The open advocates of confrontation, like Albert Langer at Monash, were there. I opened it. There's a photograph there of me with the Vietnam (GESTURES INDICATING SIZE, POSSIBLY A FLAG) at that meeting. And I said that we ... My argument briefly was: we were a peace movement and we were going to behave in a peaceful way. We were not a peace movement going to be aggressive. That was all, just a few ideas like that. Not many hundreds people would have heard. Not many more hundreds would have these ideas passed on to them. The point I'm making is that I didn't make that a peace day, it was a peace day because of its nature, because of its content, because of the way people felt. They were going to behave unaggressively because they were committed to unaggressive behaviour. I didn't make it peaceful. It was peaceful because it was peaceful itself. And so it was peaceful. I had another shot at them along those lines in the Flagstaff Gardens and again there's a photograph there of me standing in front of a monument talking to the thousands, only saying that, that's all. And then we started the march. Now I was full of tension and fear that day. The other thing I had done was ring the Superintendent of Police, in Russell Street, and tell him what we were going to do. The result of that was that he called a meeting of all the senior officers who were going to be in charge that day at Russell Street, and said, 'Come in and talk to them'. And so I went in and talked to them. They talked to me for about an hour. I didn't know what the response was going to be, but when we walked into the top of Bourke Street I saw what the response was: Bourke Street didn't have a motor car or a tram in it. The police had moved them all out and had opened the city, and had cleaned the city out, for us to use, wherever we wanted to go. We couldn't break the law because they'd taken the law away! Well that was the character of that movement.

[end of tape]

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