November 1st 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: France and Italy address fertility crisis

EDITORIAL: Bushfires: why the nightmare will be repeated

CANBERRA OBSERVED : Reforming the Senate?

MEDIA: Packer's media-gambling alliance

HEALTH: Abortion-Breast Cancer cover-up continues

FAMILY: Preserving marriage in Australia

AGRICULTURE: Mandate ethanol or sugar industry faces collapse

LETTERS: Time for farmers to wake up (letter)

LETTERS: New TV code of practice (letter)

LETTERS: Special needs, special treasures (letter)

LETTERS: New use for sugar cane trash (letter)

LETTERS: Nuclear menace (letter)

HEALTH WATCH: The 'morning after' pill: coming soon to a school near you?

WATER: Federals distance themselves from 'The Living Murray'

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Jim Cairns remembered

COMMENT: SBS programming questioned by Vietnamese community

ASIA: Siberia - China's 'great game' to reshape Asian region

COMMENT: Don't forget the threat from North Korea

Hong Kong: next elections a test for Beijing

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Jim Cairns remembered

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, November 1, 2003
After years of neglect, Jim Cairns has been coming in for a great deal of analysis, and remembrance of things past. He had to die before he could recapture some of the attention and respect from his contemporaries that was once his as of right.

Those who have come late upon the scene are not likely to be able to understand the political milieu in which Cairns had worked, and the significance of the tragedies which befell him.

One who did understand what a very special person he was, as well as a decent man in an often sordid political situation, was Bob Santamaria, himself a very special kind of person.

I understand that they had a few conversations in the last few years of Bob's life.

It would be otiose of me to add to the rising tide of comments, speculations, plus some authentic recollection of Jim Cairns, and his times, except that I was in the thick of some of these times, very simpatico to him, and indeed working closely with him, for perhaps four to five years.

Thus, with my wife, I used to turn up on Sunday mornings at his house, and discuss the affairs of the nation, and the world, and the War.

I virtually left that scene, which was already changing into something else far less salubrious, around 1970, while Jim, I felt, started to turn his back upon it five years later.

The only point of briefly returning to that time is to say some things about Jim Cairn's possible states of mind, just before Labor took power.

Things which are not likely to be said; and to outline the real history of that Peace Movement, and some of its actors. These were also pieces of Jim Cairn's history, and his political prognosis.

Jim, and wife, Gwen, were nearly killed by a cowardly attack by uninvited guests at a party in their house. The culprits were never identified - though some blamed "the Croats". It was a hit job, an inside job, and almost certainly by people within the Left.

Being in England at the time, I wrote expressing my condolences, and my horror, and asking "who do you think did this?" I received no reply.

Jim never referred to it upon my return, and made it clear he didn't want to return to that subject.

But he was a changed man: either through physical or psychological causes, he seemed to have lost much of his drive, his optimism and his unflappability.

As though he now realised what a nasty world this is, and how few people he could rely upon, in the end.

Not very long before the 1972 election, when McMahon and company were obviously heading for defeat, Cairns drove my wife and I up to a conference in Warburton, where he and I were to read papers.

He seemed even more low key, even depressed, that usual - so I thought I would cheer him up.

"You must be feeling pleased, Jim - the drought is about to break, Labor will win - you'll soon be treasurer, I predict, and then deputy PM. Then you'll be able to do the things we've all talked about".

"Yes, I suppose so," he said: after a long pause. He then, most unusual for him, uttered some pretty scathing judgements about some senior colleagues - not Gough - and made it fairly clear that he thought Labor wouldn't change things very much at all.

After a time, I asked, "Do you ever regret leaving academic life Jim?"

"Do I ever", he answered. "Are there still jobs coming up at Monash?"

I was staggered. He may have been fooling; but I didn't think so.

Cairns had spent seven years in that Peace Movement, with more and more of his time, combating enemies and hijackers within the Movement.

At the same time, he was caught up in the spiteful factional contests which seemed to be the life-blood of the Australian Left.

Thousands of speeches, demonstrations, conferences, committee meetings, arguing with Maoists and wreckers of every kind, would wear out anyone. He started making the same speech - loved by the believers but less and less likely to convert opponents.

Though not a simplifier or polariser by nature - rather the opposite - this became the standard mode of discourse. I think he stopped reflecting, even exploring new ideas. Meetings became a drug.

So I thought that he and many others were stale even before they started up in government.

Jim Cairns didn't care to be a leader - idealism, not ambition was his spur. And when disillusionment set in, as I thought it already had, a listless, almost absent-minded result was likely.

I though his performance 1972-75 was overall disastrous, because it was accident-prone. So, eventually he was easily made the scapegoat for the Government's comprehensive failures. Some of those people who now sing his praises didn't talk like that at the time, or later.

Labor is the poorer permanently, for the departure of Cairns often wrong-headed idealism - for all they have had left, ever since, is the old envy and rancour, and cupidity; and bump me into Parliament.

Fewer and fewer people seem prepared to oblige.

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