A Man of Great Spirit: The Life and Politics of Dr. Jim Cairns

While many of you gathered here today would already be quite familiar with a brief biography of the late Dr. Jim Cairns who died last October, it is important for those who are not to engage in a minimal description - a difficult task, as will soon be evident - before moving on to a discussion of his beliefs which are strongly differentiated into two parts, his political theory and parliamentary career and in later years, his psychological theory and cultural activism. Necessary commentary on the more controversial insights from these and by way of a conclusion an originally unplanned comparison is made by the recent demise of another Australian and the role of mass media.

Jim Cairns was born in impoverished circumstances in Carlton, 1914. The following year his father went to the so-called 'Great War' never to return. As his mother maintains an income working in Melbourne city as a cook, Jim is raised primarily by his grandparents in the country town of Sunbury, where he would often ride a pony to school and later would travel one hundred kilometres a day to go to high school in Northcote. They introduced him to Wesleyan Methodism that Cairns later claimed provided a foundation to his political philosophy with their gentle, non-sectarian ethos based on universal human values. Although an excellent student and athlete, financial pressures led Cairns to join the Victorian police force as an undercover detective whilst studying economics at the University of Melbourne. His studies provided the opportunity to leave the dangerous work in the police force and work as a tutor at the University, rising quickly to lecturer and senior lecturer in economic history, whilst at the same time becoming Secretary to the University of Melbourne's staff association.

It was during this time that Cairns began his political career. Initially he applied for membership of the Communist Party, but was rejected. Instead, he joined the Australian Labor Party and became active in working against the religious fundamentalists known as the "Groupers" who were destablizing the union movement. When the conflict between the social democrats and religious conservatives led to a split in the Labor Party in 1955, Cairns was preselected for the inner urban Federal seat of Yarra which was held by a defector, Stan Keon. In what was described as one of the most violent in Australian history, Cairns was elected by one percent of the vote. Quickly however he consolidated this position, his intellect was well respected within the Party, as was his principled and pragmatic opposition to the racist 'White Australia' policy and then the intervention in the Vietnam war.

A rising star both in parliament and outside it, Cairns stood for leader of the Labor Party in 1968, failing by only a handful of votes to Gough Whitlam. By 1970, he was chair of the Vietnam Moratorium Committee, an extraordinary diverse organization united in their opposition against the war. In May of that year he led a march of some 70,000 people through the streets of Melbourne to which the mass media prophesized would lead to violence, the Prime Minister describing the protestors as "storm troopers". The violence of course did not occur and in doing so Cairns cemented the norm of marches and public protest into to Australian political life.

In 1972 the reformist government of Gough Whitlam was elected, with the ending of conscription and the release of conscientious objectors from prison. Cairns became Minister for Overseas Trade and for Manufacturing where he gained a great deal of respect from industry leaders. Following the 1974 election, Cairns became Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister and as Acting Prime Minister during the disaster as Cyclone Tracy wrecked Darwin, showed great sympathy, skill and leadership. As Treasurer however he faced severe difficulties, as did others at the time with the onset of unemployment and inflation following the OPEC crisis. During this time he also began to express frustration at the capacity of executive power, and indicated increasing sympathy for radical psychoanalysis over economics; not something that was expected of a Treasurer. However his real political undoing was when he misled parliament over an attempt to raise funds from Melbourne business identity George Harris. This coupled with media innuendo over his relationship with his principal private secretary Junie Morosi.

After retiring from parliament, Cairns embraced the counter-cultural movement, starting the 'Down to Earth' organization and Confest in 1976. He also became quite a prolific writer, writing no less than ten books outlining the critical psychological and social problems of our day and recommending personal and cultural transformation. Engaged in a process of self-publication and distribution, he was a familiar figure at places such as the Prahran and Camberwell Markets and always encouraged his readers to contact him for further discussion. An activist until the very end of his life, he opened the Labor Left Activists and Supporters Conference at the Trades Hall in July 2001, and, wheelchair bound and with a placard reading "Make Love, Not War", was part of the 150,000 strong march in Melbourne against the war on Iraq on Valentine's Day, 2003.

It is typical in contemporary sociology to differentiate between 'the system' of politics and economics and 'the lifeworld' of culture and personality.

Usually a person's life consist partially in one of these areas of social life and partially in the other. However in the narrative of Cairns' social life there is a very strong demarcation between the two. In terms of analysis of his philosophy this is quite useful. One can refer to two distinct periods, two distinct sets of contributions. On one hand we have Cairns the interventionist in the system, enunciating a programme of national self-determination, libertarian socialism and state planning. On the other hand, we have Cairns, the cultural transformer, drawing upon anthropology, feminism and psychoanalysis to change society through changes in individual consciousness.

In terms of intervention in the system, Cairns' politics can be understood as a synthesis of personal freedom, democratic control over society and social property. In the realm of foreign affairs, he took a very pragmatic approach, refusing to align himself with any axis in the competitive world order and making the rather sensible suggestion that peace and cooperation between nations was preferable to violence and conflict. Within the nation, Cairns' understood "freedom" not to just mean civil and personal rights, very important though these are, but also the idea of freedom representing the options available from the result of social welfare and democratic planning. In terms of strategy, he advocated direct intervention into the political system by truthful individuals motivated by universal principled who could avoid the trap of "ultraleftism" - "the insistence of the instantaneous achievement of the universal".

In terms of cultural transformation, Cairns never lost sight that personalities were a social phenomenon and so, in opposition to the plethora of so-called individualistic "self-improvement" books, he was able to orientate his radical psychoanalysis, anthropology and sensitivity to feminism in a progressive, outward looking manner. Firstly, he recognized the pervasive effect on consciousness of patriarchal culture and systematic classes. Secondly, he suggested that pathological behaviour resulted from a suppression of organic expression which became a desire for power and authority over others. Thirdly, in addition to pathologies, mainstream culture had become neurotic in its worship of external sources of power and acquisitiveness. Finally, Cairns now claimed that the formation of a political alternative was dependent on cultural change, which in turn depended on individual transformation. Under this new analysis Cairns even advocated the establishment of a cadre of highly committed counter-cultural activists.

If Cairns is to be criticized for his philosophy and life, he must also be praised. What is witnessed here is an intellect of extraordinary scope, an entire life dedicated to improving the lives of others and a reflective ability to seek internal improvement and to learn new disciplines. One does not learn history, politics, economics, anthropology, psychoanalysis and feminism without having this ability. But there is an uncomfortable problem which is at the core of his work - the combination of radical psychoanalysis with socialist economic theory. Cairns of course is quite right, along with many others, that the species has become alienated from nature as it has become alienated from itself and individuals from themselves. However there is a vast difference between reaching a balanced approach to the differences between the species and nature, the self and society, the ego and the id. Ultimately Cairns often offered the right solutions but for the wrong reasons, which weakens his call to arms. But what a life he lived. He was undoubtedly, not a "foolish, passionate man", as one biographer called him, but a man of great spirit.

By way of a conclusion, it is useful to draw a comparison between the recent death of the sportsperson David Hookes and that of Dr. Jim Cairns. Needless to say, none of what follows should possibly be interpreted as any degree of disrespect for David Hookes or his family, but rather a criticism of the mass media that is so firmly aligned with the values of the political and economic elite that they engage in the most extraordinary levels irresponsible obfuscation. One can almost come to the conclusion, as indeed many media researchers have done, that the sole purpose of the mass media is to simply relay the ideologies of the political and economic elite as conventional wisdom and to distract people from thinking about critical issues in favour of thinking about mundane issues.

Let us express this merely in terms of matters of fact. David Hookes played a number of first-class state cricket games for South Australia, and playing test cricket at 21. He did set the record for the fastest 100 runs in state cricket. He did once score a century in an international game, against Sri Lanka in 1983. In total, he played 23 international games, and spent 16 years playing state-level games and became a state captain and a coach. He had a somewhat flamboyant style on the field, and a bit of a cocky and occasionally an abusive tongue. From all accounts he was a pretty much a nice bloke and his death, from being allegedly hit in the back of the head in a bar-room brawl by a security guard is simply tragic.

But did this, in comparison, really justify the multiplicity of video footage from state and private mass television agencies and such priority on current affairs and news programs? A one and a half hour broadcast on Channel Nine for the funeral? Was it really necessary for The Guardian in the UK to report on it? A photo-history on the Sydney Morning Herald website? Did it justify the Federal Treasurer and the South Australian state Premier to call for a review of punitive regulations for hotel security? Did the Herald Sun, in an epitome of alleged media pathology, really require it to publish twenty eight pages within four days on the matter? And did corporations and sporting organizations really need to engage in the worst taste of advertising standards by putting their logos on death notices? The media circus only ended after requests from Hookes' family that they 'move on'.

Compare this to the coverage of the late Dr. Jim Cairns who, by any serious standard, had a greater effect on the real conditions of people's lives. One commentator claimed his opposition to Australian involvement in the Vietnam war caused the "enslavement" of the people of Vietnam and Cambodia - a person clearly ignorant or deliberately deceptive of Vietnamese or Cambodian history and one who most certainly has never seen anything close to a war. The best that Padriac McGuiness could come up with was to suggest that "he was not a bad man, nor was there any evil in his heart". With a few articles in the newspapers, some passing comments on the television news, and magazines contemporary Australia through the mass media was mostly shielded from any real study of his life and ideas.

The reason for this is quite simple. The owners and managerial elite of the mass commercial media are the associates and friends of the owners and managerial elite of the rest of economic and political life. Dr. Jim Cairns, in their perspectives, framed by vested interests, had some dangerous ideas about the management of society and, when it comes down to it, these ideas were no more difficult to understand or to debate than the rules of a cricket match, the style of a batsman or the coaching of a team. Their substantive implications however are significantly different. And for that reason there has been a deliberate difference in how the two demises have been treated. But one thing is also certain: the democraticisation of media inevitably means that ideas about the management of ourselves and our society, right or wrong, will be more important than hitting a ball with a club of willow.

Address to the Melbourne Unitarian Church February 1st, 2004.