Remembering Jim Cairns

Everybody else has had their say about Jim Cairns, and I suppose I should put my own thoughts on record, too, even if they are not particularly original. In my view, Cairns played a significant and essentially positive role in the Vietnam moratorium movement, and everything after that was largely irrelevant.

In talking about Vietnam, it’s important to remember not only that the war was wrong in itself, but that the government was conscripting young men (too young to vote against it*) to fight, rather than making a moral case strong enough to attract volunteers or paying wages high enough to make the army an attractive choice. Whereas it’s possible to make a case for the war itself (not, in my view, a convincing one) this was unequivocally wrong.

As regards the anti-Vietnam campaign, Cairns must get a fair bit of the credit for the fact that, despite some fringe violence, the movement never produced the kind of terrorist offshoots that emerged in the US and Europe.

Once the war was over, so was the role of someone like Cairns. He wasn’t a great minister, but that’s not surprising – the politics of the street don’t translate well into the requirements of public office. The kind of moral certainty that was needed for the Vietnam campaign was of little use in the period of chaos and compromise that emerged after 1974.

His infatuation with Junie Morosi led him to dishonest and arguably corrupt actions and contributed to the dismissal of the Whitlam government, but any social democratic government elected in 1972 was doomed in the face of the global economic crisis of the early 1970s.

I’m not a Melbournian so I only know of his later life, selling his books at the market and so on from occasional reports. It sounded rather sad, but substantially more honorable to the post-Parliamentary careers of a lot of other Labor MPs.

* As I recall, the govt acknowledged the untenability of its position by letting conscripts vote after they had been called up.

4 thoughts on “Remembering Jim Cairns

  1. i used to see jim cairns selling his books once a month outside the rear entrance of the student union at monash university. i was too shy to talk to him but i bought one of his books once. he signed it for me as i recall. i used to feel very sad when i saw him. but then i told myself, ‘don’t be condenscending’. He was still doing something believed was important, writing and distributing his idealistic thoughts.

  2. Nicely said John. On my reading list is the recent biography, about which I have heard many good raps. You may be interested. It tells the story of an intellectually committed Keynesian, caught smack on the cusp of a world orthodoxy moving dead against him … or so I’m told, which is why it’s on my reading list. It’s challenging to think which way any decent left economist might have gone right at that moment. For those who think that monetarism, and the break it forged for the rest to ensue, was not very well grounded, I reckon it would have been a tough call … however foolish it can look in hindsight.

  3. I saw him a few times in Prahran markets in late eighties. I suppose it’s sad within a certain mindset of what behooves a former deputy PM.

    I also used to see John Gorton stumbling out of Manuka (Canberra) grog shops with video and bottles, on his way back to empty home.

  4. Look at my article at – you’ll see why and how conscription only ever has been supported by the public when most of the public has survivor bias and has emerged and been formed after going through conscription (in particular, see the Portuguese case – which also shows that “voting” isn’t relevant). It’s not a way of rigging support, and the fact that the effect occurs does not say anything one way or the other about the validity of conscription. It is orthogonal, happening even when conscription is justified on other grounds (using “justified” to include lesser evil).

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