Cairns, Hon. Dr James Ford October 14 2003

Mr GIBBONS  (Bendigo) (5.40 p.m.) —Jim Cairns was one of the giants of Australian politics. He was always a dominant figure in the Labor movement. He was a dominant figure in this parliament. He was a dominant figure in the life of Australia. Jim Cairns exercised unequalled moral authority in the Australian and international anti-Vietnam War movements.

This authority was based on his own ethical principles in favour of peace and justice. It was also based on his systematic study of the history of Indochina—as it was then called—and on his systematic study of the history of the Cold War. The book The Eagle and the Lotus was a history he wrote for Australians to help them understand Vietnam’s historic struggle for independence and unity.

His moral authority came from his remarkable courage and conviction. These were qualities he displayed in taking a strong public stand against the US war in Vietnam and against Australia’s military support for the United States of America. He took this stand early. He was ahead of his time. He maintained it through to the end of Australia’s intervention.

This came with the election of the Whitlam government—a political victory that he played a big part in achieving. Along with these impressive qualities, he was a skilful and persuasive public speaker. He was not a demagogue. He had powerful beliefs of his own that arose from his own life experiences and from his study of politics, economics and international affairs. He did not seek to manipulate people or to exploit them; quite the opposite. He preferred to believe that people were essentially reasonable and fair-minded and that they could be persuaded to a course of action if they had the evidence before them.

This is why his learning was so important. He had the information and he had the insight and he put a powerful case against the United States’ war on Vietnam and against Australia’s subservience, under the conservatives, to United States administrations at that time.

Jim Cairns also knew it was vital to help build a mass movement in Australia against the war. It was vital because the forces in America and Australia supporting the war had all the big battalions on their side. They were in government. They traded on fear and suspicion and they were backed by most of the media moguls. This was the time of the Cold War. The Reds were allegedly on the march and were already under the beds, if one believed the war hawks in America and the war parrots in Australia. The flag, patriotism, loyalty and national security were all claimed to be on the side of the forces that were yapping behind the hobnailed boots of the war makers in the United States.

Jim Cairns was a major figure in the peace movement. He became the embodiment of the peace movement and of peace itself. He helped it and he guided it to grow and become a mighty force. He was an inspiration to the masses of people who joined the moratorium demonstrations and demanded an end to the war. Australia and the world this year, 2003, for the first time have seen massive demonstrations rivalling the anti-Vietnam War moratorium demonstrations of the 1960s and 1970s.

Significantly, the impetus for these mass demonstrations against the US invasion of Iraq was the same as the impetus for the demonstrations against the Vietnam War. It is, of course, a sad reflection on the flourishing belligerence of rogue elements in United States administrations that they have learned so few of the lessons they should have learned from their defeat in Vietnam. They have learned so little that they have put the world through it all again in Iraq.

Yet already, only months after the alleged conquest of Iraq, there are voices being heard for the US to extricate itself from the quicksand it has made for itself in Iraq. In the 1960s and 1970s the US dug itself deeper and deeper into its own quagmire in Vietnam. It took years and huge destruction and slaughter to cover America’s final humiliating withdrawal.

If he were here in this House today Jim Cairns might well ask, `What have they learnt?’

The answer is: very little. And what has the conservative government of Australia learnt from the debacle of the Vietnam War? Just as little. He would say that this government has been just as ready as its conservative predecessors in the 1960s to follow blindly behind the rogue elements in the current United States administration and to rush to sign up for its latest military adventure.

Jim Cairns certainly could take a lot of heart from the big rallies that took place earlier this year in Australia, across the globe and in the US regarding the assault on Iraq. In his time he showed something that conservatives can never bear to recognise—namely, that there is good sense, decency and courage in the people as a whole and that people will organise themselves effectively in big movements to oppose aggressive wars and injustices inflicted on the world by cynical and immoral governments. At the basis of Dr Cairns’ opposition to the war against Vietnam was his moral conviction that war is repugnant to a civilised world.

This conviction rallied massive numbers of people to the peace cause just as it called people out onto the streets in Australia and Britain and around the world earlier this year. I personally remember the power of Jim Cairns’ message in the 1970s. It was the message that prompted me to become a member of the Australian Labor Party.

Much has been written about the life of this man, and much of it has been distorted. During his leadership of the Vietnam moratoriums he spoke of the ridiculous laws at that time governing distribution of leaflets and large assemblies of demonstrators. He was critical of the authorities that introduced and presided over those laws—the Melbourne City Council and the Bolte state government. He claimed it was this type of authority that stifled free speech. He went on to say he hoped that that authority had had its day.

The headlines screamed `Cairns Denounces Authority’. The headlines, mainly in the Murdoch chain of newspapers—and isn’t it surprising how things have not changed much—were designed to distort the original message by implying that Cairns had said he hoped that all authority had had its day. That is not what he said at all. This is just one of many instances where the media, especially the print media, appeared hell bent on destroying him and, as a consequence, destroying the Australian Labor Party—as I said before, things have not changed all that much.

Much has been written about the so-called Morosi affair and much of this was also distorted. During the media frenzy at that time, Cairns was urged to sever all ties with Ms Morosi but he refused to do so. Not to have stood by her would have been contrary to everything he believed in and Jim Cairns never said or did anything he did not believe in. As one of his biographers stated: It was the very qualities that so distinguished him as a man that ultimately crippled him as a politician.

I have always admired Jim Cairns. He was committed to the welfare of his fellow human beings for all of his adult life. He showed that ideas and principles are worth fighting for and are really what democracy is all about. He was a man of courage and integrity in his dedication to the cause of peace and justice. I thank Jim Cairns for the inspiration that he gave to me and so many others and for his outstanding contribution to Australia and the human race. This nation has lost a great Australian. I offer my condolences to his family and friends.