Old new Labor

Andrew Scott, RMIT University

Paul Strangio, Keeper of the Faith: A Biography of Jim Cairns Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2002 (480 pp). ISBN 0-52285-002-2 (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

Like many Australian adolescents first becoming politically informed at the time of the Whitlam Government’s dismissal in 1975, I gained my first impressions of Jim Cairns from television and press reports of his fall from the positions of deputy prime minister and treasurer, and the association between this event and his relationship with Junie Morosi. As I became active myself in Labor Party politics in my late teens and early twenties, I then started to see Jim Cairns in person at places like Prahran Market in Melbourne, sitting at a stall with one of his books which seemed to be about personal liberation. Cairns was a figure apparently at odds with the idea then preoccupying most of us, even in the Left, that the priority was for the Labor Party to be a disciplined government for a sustained period in order to make a positive difference, so I tended to resist contact with and feel awkward about him.

As the actions of the Hawke Government on economic and education policy during the 1980s began to disillusion many of us, though, I began to notice the cogency of Jim Cairns’ critiques of these policies. When I stopped to take a closer look at his 1993 book Towards a New Society, I was struck by the effectiveness of his arguments against ‘economic rationalism’ including his graphic, well researched presentation of three phases of capitalism in twentieth century Australia: the ‘Old Capitalism’ of classical, supply side economics typified by the Bruce-Page governments; the ‘Modified Capitalism’ of Keynesian demand side economics under the Chifley, Menzies, and Whitlam governments; and then the return of the ‘Old Capitalism’ of supply side economics in the guise of ‘economic rationalism’ under the Fraser, Hawke, and Keating governments.

When I prepared for and then proceeded to conduct an interview with Jim Cairns myself in June 1994 as part of research comparing the ‘modernisation’ of the British and Australian labour parties, I became further aware of the strength, depth, and longevity of this man’s contribution to the Australian labour movement, his consistent commitment to the goal of full employment, and his role in upholding the best traditions of the democratic socialist elements of that movement in the debates with the revisionist social democrats of the 1950s and 1960s. I was also impressed by how approachable, generous, intelligent, and appealing he was in person.

The many facets of Jim Cairns’ complex character and life are now made clear and intelligible in Paul Strangio’s excellent biography. Strangio has blended sensitive psychological analysis with thorough historical research (including many original interviews) and sophisticated philosophical discussion. He shows how Cairns’ outlook and character were shaped by a combination of the material adversity his family suffered during the Great Depression, the emotional deprivations of his childhood— particularly the deep wound inflicted by his father’s (long concealed) desertion and his mother’s emotional distance, and the positive encouragement to learn and to succeed from the grandparents with whom he spent most of his time. The ostensible paradox of a man who has talked so much of the need for love and intimacy — yet who does so in an intellectual, remote kind of way — is thus resolved.

Jim Cairns was one of the first who wanted Australia to engage with its Asian neighbours

The importance and correctness of Jim Cairns’ leadership of the campaign against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War is now widely acknowledged, though it was a cause that was deeply unpopular in the 1960s including among many of his senior colleagues in the ALP. Strangio underscores this point. He emphasises how Jim Cairns was one of the first — and very few — who wanted Australia to engage with its Asian neighbours. Further, he argues convincingly that Cairns’ stand against Whitlam’s pragmatism, including Cairns’ formal contestation of the ALP leadership in 1968 when he came within six votes of beating Whitlam, ensured a more radical reforming Government in 1972–1975 than would otherwise have been the case. Cairns’ challenge ‘stopped Whitlam going Right’ and was an important factor in producing the ‘It’s Time’ policy manifesto, Strangio argues.

This is a perceptive observation and Strangio illuminates and reinterprets in this book other important points of detail about the tumultuous events of 1974–75 within the Whitlam Government. These include Cairns’ own achievements as minister for overseas trade and industry; and a suggestion that there is more continuity between the Whitlam and the Hawke and Keating governments than many allow — especially if the Whitlam years are clearly demarcated into the 1972–74 high watermark of Australian social democracy, and the retreat from this into contractionary economics by Whitlam, Hayden, and others in 1975.

Strangio makes sense of Cairns’ apparent sudden detour into the counter culture from 1975 by tracing the steps in that direction he had taken much earlier with his attraction to the ideas of the New Left. The apparent contradictions in the life of someone who went from being a police officer to an academic, to a left-wing parliamentarian and participatory democrat, and then to a kind of mystic prophet, are made intelligible in Strangio’s skilful and comprehensive analysis of the many continuities running through Cairns’ life and thought.

This is a valuable, very readable book that although plainly sympathetic to its subject, does not shirk criticism nor suffer distortion. It enables the reader to get a truly rounded picture of one human being’s life journey, and the many positive effects it has had. Among the book’s attributes is its evocation of the political debates and personalities on the Melbourne University campus in the 1940s. The book’s publication in 2002, when the Australian Labor Party is agonising over its identity and sense of purpose after a third consecutive national electoral defeat, is timely. The contrast between the futile careerism and cynicism pervading much of the ‘modern’ ALP, and Jim Cairns’ earnest life-long moral commitment and multiple long-term social effects should make many people pause to reassess their political assumptions.

Dr Andrew Scott is a Lecturer in the School of Social Science and Planning at RMIT University. He is the author of Running on Empty: ‘Modernising’ the British and Australian Labour Parties (Pluto Press Australia, 2001).

Read Sean Scalmer’s review of Andrew Scott’s Running on Empty.

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