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James (Jim) Ford Cairns, PhD (1914 - 2003)
Antiwar and social change activist, parliamentarian, counter cultural theorist

Obituary written by Takver

On Sunday 12 October Jim Cairns, former policeman, academic, Labor politician, anti-war activist, Deputy Prime Minister, and countercultural activist and theorist, died at home at the age of 89. Jim Cairns will be remembered for his idealism and his commitment to social change using different strategies over his life.

Jim Cairns by Spooner
Published in Libertarian Politics and Alternative Lifestyles
Dr Cairns was a senior lecturer in economic history at the University of Melbourne before standing for Parliament. He was a Member of the House of Representatives from 1955 to 1977 and served as Deputy Prime Minister and Federal Treasurer from 1974 to 1975.

On the 8th May 1970 Jim Cairns led 100,000 people through the streets of Melbourne in a peaceful protest against the Vietnam war. Tens of thousands of people marched in other cities around Australia. The Vietnam Moratorium movement was the culmination of several years of anti-war agitation. The Moratorium movement acted to legitimate street protests - the right of people to peacefully occupy and reclaim the streets as an act of protest.

In 1976 Jim Cairns was the primary initiator for the first Down to Earth Confest held at the Cotter River in Canberra. Bob James describes the organising of the event:

"Somewhere in there I ran into Karen Rush, an aide to Jim Cairns who was looking for a local Canberra group to provide logistical support for an idea he had. After he and I had talked, 'Alternative Canberra' became the co-ordinating group in the run-up to the first Down to Earth Confest. I've often laughed about going to meetings in No 2 Caucus Room, in the old Parliament House, straight from 'the farm', and deciding we'd go just as we were. The security guards knew exactly who we were and said nothing as we walked up the steps, sometimes in just our 'Halleluja hats', underpants, t-shirts and big rubber boots." 1

Dr Graham St John, from his thesis: 'Alternative Cultural Heterotopia: ConFest as Australia's Marginal Centre' elaborates further:

"In 1976, preceding his retirement from federal politics the following year, Cairns produced a manifesto: 'The Theory of the Alternative'. The document encapsulated his ideas about, and intentions for, cultural revolution, and as far as later developments were concerned, it was embryonic. In it, Cairns revealed his principal aim: 'to transform society and bring an end to alienation, oppression, exploitation and inequality' (1976:16). 'Survival now [Cairns stated] requires a radical break with the past; it demands a future which has to be created. Survival demands a revolution in the way of life of everyone' (ibid:3). The necessary radical elision would be achieved in four stages. 1) 'Cultural preparation or consciousness raising'. 2) 'Building up radical groups or alternative enclaves of all kinds based on real needs of the people'. 3) 'The development of a community for change, of a peoples' liberation movement, with the capacity to challenge the structure of authority'. 4) 'The radical groups or alternative enclaves [would] take over as self-governing and regulating communities and replace the bureaucracy and machinery of the centralised, nation-State'"2

The second confest was held in December 1977 at Bredbo and was attended by 15,000 people. The land was bought, ostensibly 'in trust', but then ensued a long and sometimes bitter fight over its management, occupation and ownership and control. By 1981 Cairns was no longer involved in Down to Earth Confest organisation, although he did attend some Confests organised by the Victorian Down to Earth Co-operative in the early 1980s to give workshops.

Cairns recently publicly admitted his sexual relationship with Junie Morosi, who he employed as his private secretary and office manager in 1974. The real issue is the level of vilification and moral outrage employed by the media in 1975. This provided one of the pretexts for Whitlam to sack him from his post as Treasurer. 3

The corporate media and many of his parliamentary colleagues castigated him for his relationship with Junie Morosi. Yet Cairns also remained committed to his wife, Gwen (who predeceased him), and family. The ability to form a multiplicity of relationships should be valued for what they can give to people, in drawing out their human potential. This is a lesson Cairns demonstrated and many people are still to learn, the power of love and openness to loving.

Valerie Yule, who knew Cairns from his Melbourne University and Moratorium days and beyond, comments:

"Cairns saw his relationship with Junie Morosi as 'loving' - which included sexual but not primarily. He thought it a big social problem that people were scared of loving. It is a comment on our country that he was criticised so strongly for being 'idealistic'."

For many years he could be found outside the various community markets around Melbourne behind a small table selling his self-produced books.

On February 14, 2003, Jim Cairns, who led 100,000 people through the streets of Melbourne against the Vietnam War on 8 May 1970, was on the street again against the war and invasion of Iraq in a crowd numbering up to 200,000 people. Read the report by Peter Davis, a Melbourne writer and photographer, on Jim Cairns at this rally. 4

Jim Cairns embodied the original idealism that established the Labor Party. Too few of its representatives have lived up to the founding ideals and been willing to champion them. Jim Cairns was willing to explore different avenues for enhancing community and to bring about social change for a more equitable world. His early career as a policeman and detective was exemplary, while police corruption seemed as endemic then as it is today. As an academic he inspired his students. As a parliamentarian he tried to use the power structure to change social circumstances, but found barriers in his path at every step, including from within the Labor Party. His anti-war activism ultimately convinced him that power lies in the streets and in the community, and what was needed was widespread attitudinal change through education.

After he left parliament, the Labor Party all but spurned him for his counterculturalism. The Left largely ignored him as a nutty 'lifestyler'. The anarchists and communitarians saw him as an authoritarian charismatic personality who was unable to put into practice his rhetoric of democratic practice in alternative community. For all that, he was a man of ideas and idealism who encompassed both the social democratic and communitarian traditions. One day, perhaps, his independently published writings will be honestly assessed for their humanity, hope, love and idealism.

Originally published on Melbourne Indymedia


Some Online Writings:

John Curtin Memorial Lectures: Other:

Writings by other people:

Bibliography of Cairns, Jim, 1914-2003

based on titles in the State Library of Victoria

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Last modified: May 13, 2004

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