Prophet Without Honour — A biography of Jim Cairns (1914-2003)

In a moratorium confrontation in September 1970, Superintendent Hickey tells Cairns where the marchers cannot go

In 2022, Franklin Street Press plans to publish a revised, updated and retitled biography of Paul Ormonde’s A Foolish Passionate Man — A biography of Jim Cairns. It includes new appraisals by colleagues who served with Cairns during the tumultuous years of the Whitlam Government (1972 — 1975) and others close to Cairns during his rise and fall. The aim of revisiting Ormonde’s insightful biography of Cairns is to bring new attention to an extraordinary Australian politician whose restless ambition took him from a modest background to Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. Ormonde’s book delves Cairns’ psychological make-up while it traces a career accompanied by triumph, scandal, vilification, isolation and the outrage of his Labor supporters. His fundamental personal changes came when he was made Treasurer, and Junie Morosi, strong and beautiful, swept into his life and added a fresh approach to his ongoing critique of the economic and social fabric.

Author Paul Ormonde explains when & why he approached Jim Cairns to write his biography

Among those to add his own short memoir to this republished account of Cairns’ life is the publisher of Franklin Street Press Garry Sturgess who met Ormonde at Jim Cairns’ Hawthorn home when Ormonde first began writing his account of Cairns’ life. When it eventually published in 1981, six years after the fall of Cairns and the Whitlam Government, some of the fascination with Cairns had lost its point and purpose. While the book sold well, Sturgess had the idea that it may not have received the attention that it deserved and that to revisit the book and Cairns’ life could bring with it valuable insights to inspire a new age desperately in need of prophets to point the way.

Sturgess’ own recalling of Jim will be included in the new publication, along with the accounts from John Kerin, John Dawkins, Moss Cass, Barry Jones and Phillip Adams. In the meantime, however, here is an abridged account of Sturgess’ recollection.

Recalling Jim — Garry Sturgess

I first met Jim in 1969 as a year 11 student at Mitcham High School, Victoria.  There was a push of university-educated teachers at the school one of whom — a widely read and glamorous Sydney-sider of Lithuanian descent with flowing red hair and a gift for teaching literature— had worked for Jim in some capacity (research I figure and I don’t know for how long).  Along with Blake, the Romantics, Gerard Manley Hopkins and last century’s poets —Thomas, Yeats and Eliot, in particular — she also introduced us (my class) to Jim as we sat on her lounge room floor in Kew quizzing the quietly spoken opposition firebrand about Australian foreign policy — the war in Vietnam and the generals seizing power in Indonesia being the two subjects I most recall.  We were a room of kids being treated as equals by one of the country’s most famous, revered and feared politicians. There is a recording of the afternoon in the National Library(*Reference) with Jim Cairns deliberating on our questions as if in answer to a foreign leader or a parliamentary question.

“The main problem is the inability and unwillingness of leaders in key positions to make important decisions and to make them so that they have a regular and systematic effect…it’s a lack of content (that) is the main problem in Australian politics today.”

There was no answering up or down with him, everyone, no matter who they were, got the full Jim. I remember him saying to a journalist at one time, it might have been me — I have people in my home that your editor would never invite into his.

It was either in 1969 or, maybe, in our matriculation year of 1970 that I invited Jim to Mitcham High to talk about Vietnam. I had met the federal member for Deakin, Alan Jarman (1923 –1992), when he gave me a lift when hitch-hiking. It was enough of an introduction for me to invite Jarman to the school to debate Cairns on the subject. He was apprehensive —”he’s a very experienced man, you know” — but he was a good enough sport to agree and the two of them spoke in the newly built school hall, whether to the whole school or just the year 11 or 12 classes, I can’t recall or, indeed, too much else about the occasion, except that it was remarkable that they were both willing to participate. I can’t imagine there were any votes in it for either of them. After, Jim came to our home, and I do recall my step-mother Jean talking of meeting President Sukarno while on a visit with her Dutch missionary father to the Palace. Indonesia loomed large in people’s thinking at the time in the bloody aftermath of events that saw Sukarno toppled from power and replaced by one of his generals.  Jim had said in that lounge-room meeting with school kids that the generals had killed “half a million of them”, Indonesian communist party members and their sympathisers —other estimates range higher.

A group of us, Neil Westbury, Peter Donnelly, Quentin Cutler and no doubt others made weekend visits to Lalor to leaflet and doorknock on Jim’s behalf under the campaign management of Gordon Stirling.  Jim was contesting the seat against a sitting Liberal member after his seat of Yarra disappeared in a redistribution and after the former Labor leader Arthur Calwell refused to stand aside for Jim in the seat of Melbourne, a bitter struggle that Moss Cass and Anthony O’Donnell recount in their contribution to this book.  Campaigning was a wonderful, rollicking, joyous experience for a group of school kids on the loose on ‘foreign soil’ and being educated by wharfies about the tactics they used against the DLP and other adversaries. They added a dimension to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War of which the Labor Party slogan ‘Vote early, Vote often’ was but a morsel.

It must have been on the campaign trail that we met Irene Dowsing. She had written Curtin of Australia and was now writing about Jim— inspired by a similar regard for a man that Dowsing saw as incorruptible and the voice of conscience. Her books were innocently hagiographic resourced from newspaper clippings and the public record. She had certainly met Jim but whether she even formally interviewed him for her book, I’m not sure. Vin Crisp described Dowsing’s Curtin book as a “labour of love, intended to keep alive and share warm and fond memories.” Her Cairns book was of a kind. Nonetheless, I recall her as a wonderful woman of steely values and a soft setting of belief and trust that she was now settling on Jim.

She was an older woman and typical of Jim’s ability to inspire people of all ages. But Jim was too much for some people. The quieter he spoke, the more soothing his presence and parabolic his message, the more he could excite envy and even hatred.

After Jim had lost Yarra and was moving to contest Lalor there was a farewell party at his home at 21 Wattle Road, Hawthorn. Intruders took advantage of his ever-open door and one of them an ex-boxer smashed a wooden statue over Jim’s heading asking — “who do you think you are – God?”. Although it took Jim months to recover, he asked for his attackers to be treated leniently. He certainly didn’t think he was God but there were many who he inspired to think so —and for those who resented that quality, he ‘preached’ forgiveness.

Sir Robert Menzies visited Cairns after the bashing, he was an early admirer, another example of Jim’s eclectic appeal. “Menzies would have murdered that fellow (who assaulted him) if he’d got a chance. I spoke in a way a bit sympathetic to the coot, but Menzies thought I was quite wrong about that. He wanted him hung,” Cairns said in a 1998 interview (Robin Hughes, the Australian Biography project).

It was during that year that Jim asked me to give him a précised account and analysis of Danny Cohen-Bendit’s book Obsolete Communism: The Left Wing Alternative. ‘Danny the Red’, was the central figure in the May 1968 student protest that fanned to millions of striking workers and brought Paris to a standstill and France to the brink of…revolution!. It was a little bigger than my high school student brain could handle so my friend Philip Chubb, an honours history student at Monash University, stepped in to help me thrash it into shape.  

Phil was ever ready to step in whenever I got in over my head. The inscrutable currents that swept his younger friend closer to Cairns would have amused him — for courtesy of my schoolteacher and propinquity, I had easy access to Jim.

It was during that year that Jim asked me to give him a précised account and analysis of Danny Cohen-Bendit’s book Obsolete Communism: The Left Wing Alternative. ‘Danny the Red’, was the central figure in the May 1968 student protest that fanned to millions of striking workers and brought Paris to a standstill and France to the brink of…revolution!. It was a little bigger than my high school student brain could handle so my friend Philip Chubb, an honours history student at Monash University, stepped in to help me thrash it into shape.  Phil was ever ready to step in whenever I got in over my head. The inscrutable currents that swept his younger friend closer to Cairns would have amused him — for courtesy of my schoolteacher and propinquity, I had easy access to Jim.

I went with my teacher and her charming husband to the launch of Jim’s book The Eagle and the Lotus: Western intervention in Vietnam 1847-1968 (1969) where usually tense combatants seemed, for that night at least, to be in harmony. Gough Whitlam did the launching and praised Jim and the book, Arthur Calwell swallowed his resentment of his successor — as “Vietnam was the most burning issue”— and Kevin Sanders and other celebrities added a sprinkle of star dust to a charmed but, in retrospect, prophetic event.

I recall Tom Uren, Jim’s great friend, saying to my teacher — “You really hurt him, you know.” It gave a hint of context to the unfolding relationship between Jim and Junie Morosi that emerged up ahead and became emblematic of so much at the time, most painfully for Jim, the unravelling, then gutting, of his political career.

But for now, it was onwards and upwards. On election night of 25 October 1969, Jim stood on a billiard table in a crowded room of Labor faithful—Lalor well in hand and a stunning Labor victory seemingly on offer —“if the trend continues and there is no reason to say that it won’t, Labor will form the next Government.”

But Labor fell painfully short — claiming the popular vote, snaring 18 seats and securing the highest swing yet without winning Government —and with that, the tragedy of three more years of opposition.

While these further years had a terrible toll on some of his older colleagues sapping their vitality, Labor was also invigorated by new faces and fresh talent. And for Jim, he continued his tireless anti-Vietnam war campaigning — spearheading the three moratorium marches of 8 May 1970, 18 September 1970 and 31 June 1971.

Officially, he was the shadow minister for Trade and Industry — beyond that, the undisputed Prime Minister of the anti-war movement and, indeed, the streets.  The National Museum of Australia calls these Moratoriums a defining moment and credits Cairns’ “charisma and intellect (with) galvanis(ing) thousands of anti-war activists.”

In a moratorium confrontation in September 1970, Superintendent Hickey tells Cairns where the marchers cannot go

That’s certainly how my Mitcham High School chums saw it as we downed our books and went along to march, protest and to watch our leader and friend scramble on top of a van, megaphone in hand, to educate, inspire and restrain tens of thousands of people marching down Bourke Street to call an end to conscription and Australia’s involvement in the war. Touching for me was the presence of my father who sat with me on Bourke Street while being shunned by colleagues of a different political stripe. I later learned that a journalist friend of mine had a less successful father and son encounter. Covering the event, he saw his father approaching on the footpath with an associate and went towards him. His father, horrified to be linked with a possible protestor, denied the acquaintance, and beat his son off with an umbrella.

It was not my experience. My father never fitted that old-school mould and was more than once led into protest, the most daring being when he captained his protest yacht Warana and set sail for Muroroa Atoll to stop the French nuclear testing—with Jim Cairns as patron of the voyage and Phillip Cairns its organiser. But that is another tale entirely.

Cairns was sometimes cast as dour and humourless but he had a wry wit that was sometimes withering and…. funny. He told me once that had the Americans been dropping condoms over Vietnam the Catholic Church would have been against the war. I once told him that The Age was the best newspaper in Australia. He replied with the homogenised cruelty of the period, but you can see in it his capacity for humour, even if politically incorrect. Garry, he said, that is like saying that someone is the best runner in a team of paraplegics.

I went with him to the Lalor electorate on Saturday 8 April 1972. He was driving his old truck with Dr Jim Cairns and MHR for Lalor prominent upon it. It was courtesy of one of the trucking magnates, the only gift he said he had ever received. But it was a gift horse with a very distinct limp, worse. As we careened down a hill, the brakes failed, and we sailed into a street crossing smashing into the side of another truck. Miraculously, no one was hurt and after some heated words, everything died down, but it put an abrupt end to the electoral visit, luckily not us.

It was a different trip entirely when I rode with him to the Melbourne tally room on the night of the 1972 election. Do you realise what’s happened, he said, I’ve gone from having a staff of 3 people to more than 2000 — the staff then attached to his new department. Andrew Peacock summed it up more succinctly. “They’ve fucked us,” he said, as Jim entered the tally room.

Though Jim was now a senior cabinet minister, I was still a frequent visitor to his home and would often come into the bedroom where he and Gwen (Katie) were resting and sit on the bed where we would have long discussions. I called him ‘the colonel’, and there was an amount of banter as Katie had a big laugh and was always up for a joke. Looking back, I am astonished at the intrusion and Jim’s tolerance for having anyone at all in that intimate space, let alone a kid — although I was now 20 and had escaped being compulsorily conscripted for my failure to register by the election of the Whitlam Government.

From this rare vantage, I vicariously rode the vicissitudes of those harum-scarum few years of the Whitlam Government with ringside recounts on its many high and lows. Cairns rose to Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister then crashed down and out.

His personal journey of Reichian self-discovery may well be thought of as the antidote to a humiliating slide from high office. I’m not so sure. I had dinner with Jim and Gwen in the settling dust of that period where I chose to bolster his impact and contribution and the ripple-effect he had on so many lives, including mine. He raised his voice in pain and anguish: “I’ve done nothing, I have nothing.” He said more, the exact words I tape recorded shortly afterwards — guiltily conscious that I had looked through a window onto someone’s soul. I still have that recording somewhere in my archives but have not had the heart to ever listen to it again and knowing it to be far more revelatory than I have relayed.

I saw him on and off over the years and witnessed how indefatigably he continued to walk the talk — drafting and selling his books, writing poetry, staying interested and involved. I didn’t see him selling books at markets as tragic or as a fall — I saw it as authentic and an affirmation of purpose — of life!

I went to his funeral —now that was a sad, touching event but it ended triumphantly. When it was over, and his coffin was being carried down the aisle, those present started clapping and Jim was applauded out of the Church. “Have you ever seen anything like that before,” I asked Paul Ormonde, the author of this volume. “No, I haven’t!”

This revised, updated and retitled biography of Paul Ormonde’s A Foolish Passionate Man — A biography of Jim Cairns includes new appraisals by colleagues who served with Cairns during the tumultuous years of the Whitlam Government (1972 — 1975) and others close to Cairns during his rise and fall. Ormonde’s insightful biography of Cairns now brings a contemporary focus to an extraordinary Australian politician whose restless ambition took him from a modest background to Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister of Australia. Ormonde’s book delves Cairns’ psychological make-up while it traces a career accompanied by triumph, scandal, vilification, isolation and the outrage of his Labor supporters. His fundamental personal changes came when he was made Treasurer, and Junie Morosi, strong and beautiful, swept into his life and added a fresh approach to his ongoing critique of the economic and social fabric.

The thought of it

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