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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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James Ford (Jim) Cairns (1914–2003)

by Tom Uren

from Age

Jim Cairns was a great Australian but failed to reach his potential as a cabinet minister, writes Tom Uren.

Jim Cairns was a great Australian — his life and commitment to people has touched so many. His leadership against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War and on so many other major social issues is imprinted in the history of our nation.

He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1955 and made an early imprint on the parliamentary Labor Party during his first term by challenging its policy on immigration. Together with Gough Whitlam, Cairns was an early public opponent of Australia's white Australia policy.

Cairns was committed to the Vietnam struggle from the early '60s. Labor suffered a huge defeat at the 1966 election on the issue of Australia's military role in Vietnam. With no support from the media, the Labor Party and the anti-war movement had to get its message to the people at the grassroots level. It took years of campaigning, with Cairns in the vanguard.

The first mass Vietnam War moratorium rallies occurred in 1970. Cairns called for the people of Australia to come out onto the streets and march peacefully against involvement in the war. In every capital city in Australia people turned out in the tens of thousands — young, old, rich, poor, workers and even bosses. It was a national mobilisation that shook the Australian establishment. Cairns was the inspiration, the titular head and the main spokesman for this unique movement.

At one anti-Vietnam meeting at Sydney Town Hall in late 1971, Cairns was running late and by the time he entered the hall all the speakers were already on the platform. As he walked down the aisle the audience noticed him and, en masse, they stood up and applauded.

Jim was very embarrassed and jogged down the aisle to the platform. He spoke quietly, not trying to raise emotions, giving the history of the creation of the conflict and our involvement, taking us to where we were and, finally where we had to go to achieve our objective.

There was absolute silence during this speech. When Cairns finished, the people rose again and applauded for several minutes.

It was his enormous courage that made Cairns such a magnificent individual. His crusading was the epitome of the movement. He drew enormous strength from the warmth of an audience, and they in turn drew strength and courage from him.

Cairns has never been assessed fairly for his contribution to the ALP and to the nation prior to his relationship with Junie Morosi. People who have written about Cairns have been over-critical, dismissing both the role he played throughout the 1960s and his early contributions as a minister and parliamentary leader. Political commentators and historians haven't really looked objectively at the man himself and his achievements.

Any objective observer analysing Cairns's political contribution and judgement recognises the complete transformation that took place after the Morosi relationship. The tragedy of this relationship was that he wouldn't listen to other people's opinion of her. Cairns would take criticism better than anyone in politics, but he was vulnerable in defence of Morosi. He wasn't honest about his relationship with her and those who had put him on a pedestal couldn't understand the relationship.

The media and conservative politicians used Cairns's personal life to bring him down.

Cairns was one of the most magnificent debaters and performers in the House of Representatives during the 1960s. No matter how aggressive the press was to him, he had a way of going over the media to the people, particularly when he appeared on television.

He was deeply admired by the Australian people for the role he played as acting prime minister after Darwin's devastation by Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day 1974, and the destruction of the Derwent River bridge in Tasmania soon after. The compassion Cairns displayed gave him an enormous stature and at the time many saw him as a possible alternative prime minister.

The federal Labor caucus also responded very positively to Cairns. After Whitlam's 1972 election victory he topped the poll for ministerial positions and was allocated the trade and secondary industry portfolio. He tackled the job with a great deal of intelligence. I don't think Cairns has ever been given the credit for his role in opening trade links with China. He had a vision of building trade bridges between Australia and China.

After the 1974 election, caucus showed the strength of its feelings for Cairns by overwhelmingly electing him deputy prime minister. Cairns also became treasurer. Unemployment had started to rise, largely because the money supply was tighter and big developer and land speculation had gone disastrously wrong. The 25 per cent tariff cut was also starting to bite. In an attempt to rein in unemployment, Cairns allowed the budget to blow out.

The overwhelming majority of the Canberra press gallery followed the views of Milton Friedman, and so crucified Cairns for this Keynesian move.

Cairns was dismissed by Whitlam in May 1975, after the prime minister claimed that Cairns had misled or lied to the Parliament when he denied having written a secret letter to a Melbourne businessman authorising him to seek funds, and supposedly offering a commission on loans raised.

Cairns really was an educator, which is what he had been before he entered Parliament. He was good at analysing things but he wasn't effective in putting forward economic programs and policies that challenged the norm.

Although he did many great things for the ALP and for Australia, the real tragedy of Jim Cairns was that he didn't become the driving, creative minister he could have been.

Humility and patience belong to very few political leaders. Jim Cairns was of the same mould as Nelson Mandela, Ho Chi Minh and Xanana Gusmao, who had or have the humility, compassion, courage and commitment our human family need from our leaders.

He will remain in the hearts and minds of many Australians.

* Tom Uren was a cabinet colleague of Jim Cairns in the Whitlam government.  

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Citation details

Tom Uren, 'Cairns, James Ford (Jim) (1914–2003)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 July 2024.

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