Jim Cairns

James Ford Cairns (4 October 1914  12 October 2003) was an Australian politician who was prominent in the Labor movement through the 1960s and 1970s, and was briefly Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister in the Whitlam government. He is best remembered as a leader of the movement against Australian involvement in the Vietnam War, for his affair with Junie Morosi and for his later renunciation of conventional politics. He was also an economist, and a prolific writer on economic and social issues, many of them self-published and self-marketed at stalls he ran across Australia after his retirement.

Jim Cairns
4th Deputy Prime Minister of Australia
In office
12 June 1974  2 July 1975
Prime MinisterGough Whitlam
Preceded byLance Barnard
Succeeded byFrank Crean
Treasurer of Australia
In office
11 December 1974  6 June 1975
Prime MinisterGough Whitlam
Preceded byFrank Crean
Succeeded byBill Hayden
Minister for the Environment
In office
6 June 1975  2 July 1975
Prime MinisterGough Whitlam
Preceded byMoss Cass
Succeeded byGough Whitlam
Minister for Overseas Trade
In office
19 December 1972  11 December 1974
Prime MinisterGough Whitlam
Preceded byGough Whitlam
Succeeded byFrank Crean
Minister for Secondary Industry
In office
19 December 1972  9 October 1973
Prime MinisterGough Whitlam
Preceded byGough Whitlam
Succeeded byKep Enderby
Deputy Leader of the Labor Party
In office
12 June 1974  2 July 1975
LeaderGough Whitlam
Preceded byLance Barnard
Succeeded byFrank Crean
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Yarra
In office
10 December 1955  25 October 1969
Preceded byStan Keon
Succeeded byDivision abolished
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Lalor
In office
25 October 1969  10 November 1977
Preceded byMervyn Lee
Succeeded byBarry Jones
Personal details
James Ford Cairns

(1914-10-04)4 October 1914
Carlton, Victoria
Died12 October 2003(2003-10-12) (aged 89)
Narre Warren East, Victoria
Political partyAustralian Labor Party
SpouseGwen Robb
Alma materUniversity of Melbourne
OccupationPoliceman, lecturer

Early days

Jim Cairns c. 1956

James Ford Cairns was born in Carlton, then a working-class suburb of Melbourne, the son of a clerk. He grew up on a dairy farm north of Sunbury.[1] His father went to the First World War as a lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Forces, but became disillusioned with the war and lost his respect for Britain. He did not return to Australia. Following the war he essentially deserted his family, and he travelled to Africa where he committed suicide after a stay of six or seven years. Many years later, Cairns informed Gough Whitlam that he had long believed that his father had been killed in World War I, but that he was eventually told the truth of his father's desertion.[2]

Cairns attended Sunbury State School and later Northcote High School, where he completed his Leaving Certificate. Though life during the Depression was difficult with his mother having to work to provide for the family, and with himself having to make a three-hour daily commute by train, he was a good student, making his name at Northcote High School due to entering the school's broad jump championship and winning it easily with a jump of twenty feet and two inches, his competitors producing jumps of sixteen to seventeen feet.[1]

In 1933 Cairns joined the Police Force to have more time for athletics. He soon became a detective and gained notoriety working in a special surveillance team known as "the dogs" shadowing squad, where he was involved in a number of dramatic arrests.[1] While working, he studied at night and completed an economics degree at the University of Melbourne. He was the first Victorian policeman to hold a tertiary degree. In 1939 he married Gwen Robb (died 2000), whose two sons he adopted.

Cairns left the police in 1944. Thereafter he was employed, successively, as a tutor and lecturer in the Army and as a senior lecturer in economic history, at the University of Melbourne.[1] He was a knowledgeable economist and was considered a socialist. In 1946 he applied to join the Communist Party, but was rejected.[1]

Following this rejection, Cairns joined the Labor Party (ALP) and became active in its left wing. The Victorian division of the ALP had by this time been infiltrated by the mostly Catholic "Groupers", associated with Archbishop Mannix and B. A. Santamaria, and Cairns was a leading opponent of this group.[1]

In 1955, when the federal Labor leader, H. V. Evatt, attacked the Groupers and brought on a major split in the Labor Party, Cairns sided with Evatt. At the 1955 election, he stood for the House of Representatives for the working-class seat of Yarra, held by the leading Grouper, Stan Keon. In what Cairns has been quoted as saying was "... the most active and intense and vigorous election campaign that's ever been run in Australia",[1] Cairns was elected and held Yarra until 1969, when it was abolished at a redistribution. He then shifted to Lalor in Melbourne's western suburbs. The seat had been in Labor hands since its creation in 1949, but had been taken by Liberal Mervyn Lee in 1966, as part of that year's pro-Liberal landslide. However, a redistribution wiped out Lee's majority and gave Labor a notional majority of six per cent. Rather than face almost certain defeat, Lee made an unsuccessful bid for the seat of Bendigo. This proved prescient, as Cairns easily won Lalor with a healthy swing.

Leading left-winger

Jim Cairns c. 1962

In Canberra, Cairns became a leader of the left. He was a highly effective debater and was soon feared and disliked by ministers in the Liberal government of Robert Menzies, although his personal dealings with Menzies himself, who nearly always felt a healthy respect for an intelligent and principled adversary, were more cordial than might have been expected.[1] Cairns was also disliked by many in his own party, who saw him as an ideologue whose political views were too left-wing for the Australian electorate.

Nevertheless, Cairns' abilities could not be denied. He completed his doctorate in economic history in 1957, and by the 1960s he was among the Labor Party's leading figures. At this time he also lectured on Marxist and socialist history, and taught free seminars in Melbourne for working people who were unable to afford tertiary education. His first overseas trip, which he took place at this time to the US and Asia, had a great effect on him.

Early in 1967, the septuagenarian Arthur Calwell retired as Labor leader, and Cairns contested the leadership, but lost to Gough Whitlam. The following year, when Whitlam briefly offered his resignation as part of his fight against the left wing of the party, Cairns again contested the leadership. Although he again failed to win, the margin was much smaller than in the previous year, and if four ALP parliamentarians had changed their minds, Cairns would have been successful. Whitlam appointed Cairns as shadow minister for trade and industry.[1]

One of the reasons Cairns did not become leader of the Labor Party was that in the late 1960s and early 1970s his main focus was not on parliamentary politics but on leading the mass movement against the Vietnam War, to which the Menzies government had committed combat troops in 1965, and against conscription for that war. Until about 1968, most Australians supported the war. Whitlam himself was cautious about publicly committing the ALP to an explicitly anti-war stance. Opposition to Australia's role in Vietnam was led by the Communist Party and the trade unions. After 1968, however, non-communist opposition grew, and Cairns came to see the anti-war movement as a moral crusade. During the election year of 1969, a group of men broke into Cairns’ home, assaulted him and seriously injured his wife.[1]

In 1968, the psychiatrist John Diamond conducted a series of in-depth, psychologically probing interviews with Cairns. The interviews, which were recorded on audiotape, have been described as "politically unique" by one of Cairns' biographers.[3] They were initiated by the department of Political Science at Monash University, which was interested in researching the psychological motivations of politicians, but Cairns then continued them privately with Diamond over the course of a year, finding them to be "a voyage of self-discovery."[4] Another of Cairns' biographers, Paul Strangio, had noted how, in his interview technique, Diamond successfully "managed to penetrate his subject’s emotional defences."[5][6]

In May 1970, Cairns, as chair of the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign, led an estimated 100,000 people in a "sit-down" demonstration in the streets of Melbourne. This was the largest protest in Australia until it was overtaken by the anti-Iraq war protests in February 2003. Similar protests of proportionate size took place simultaneously in other Australian cities. The predicted violence did not occur and the moral force of the, mainly young, protesters had a major effect on Australian attitudes to the war.[1]

Cairns in Government

At the December 1972 election, Whitlam led the Labor Party into government for the first time in 23 years, and Cairns became Minister for Overseas Trade and Minister for Secondary Industry. He had by now shed much of his socialist ideology of earlier years, though he was still a strong believer in state planning. He got along surprisingly well with the heads of industry, although critics said this was because he was sympathetic to their requests for government assistance. During his time as Minister for Trade and Minister for Secondary Industry, Cairns undertook a number of overseas trade visits. The most successful of his overseas visits was to China which resulted in an increase in Australian trade with China from 200 million dollars before the visit to 1,000 million dollars a year after his visit.[1] After the 1974 election, Cairns was elected Deputy Leader of the Labor Party, defeating Lance Barnard 54 votes to 42,[7] and thus became Deputy Prime Minister.

In June, ‘’The Bulletin’’ magazine published a leaked Australian Security Intelligence Organisation document which gave a controversial, highly political view of Cairns. The political fallout from the leak led the government to act on its 1974 election policy to establish the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security.[8]

In December 1974, Whitlam appointed Cairns as Treasurer. This was the high-point of Cairns' political career. On Christmas Day 1974, while Whitlam was overseas, Cyclone Tracy devastated the city of Darwin, and Cairns as Acting Prime Minister impressed the nation with his sympathetic and decisive leadership. It was during this period, however, that Cairns hired Junie Morosi as his principal private secretary, and he soon began a relationship with her which would eventually help ruin his career.

Australia's already severe economic problems worsened during 1975, and Cairns had few answers to the new phenomenon of stagflation, the combination of high unemployment and high inflation that followed the 1973 oil crisis. Overseas finance ministers, especially in Britain and Europe, faced the same problems at this time, but as few Australians were exposed to the foreign media, the economic credibility of the Whitlam administration suffered.

Loans affair

In late 1974, in an attempt to raise funds for large capital works projects (such as drilling for gas on the north-west shelf between Australia and Timor and constructing a pipeline for transporting the gas down to Eastern Australia), senior ministers Rex Connor and Lionel Murphy, along with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, began to consider arrangements to borrow approximately US$4,000 million petrodollars from the Middle East. The plan was to use the services of an intermediary, Pakistani banker Tirath Khemlani. Cairns first became aware of what was to become known as the "Loans Affair" three days after being appointed Treasurer, on 13 December 1974, when he entered at the end of a meeting of the Labor Party federal executive at the Lodge, the official residence of the Prime Minister in Canberra. Whitlam explained the situation and asked that Cairns co-sign approval for the loan. Cairns did so, noting to Whitlam that the state premiers should be informed of the loan (this did not occur). Subsequently, Sir Frederick Wheeler, Secretary of the Treasury (the head of Cairns' department) and other members of staff advised Cairns that Khemlani was of questionable character. In his capacity as Acting Prime Minister during Gough Whitlam's overseas trip covering late 1974 to early 1975, Cairns arranged a meeting at the Reserve Bank in Canberra attended by various senior officials, including Lionel Murphy and Rex Connor. Connor's authority to borrow the loan was cancelled as a result of the meeting. Whitlam returned from overseas on 19 January 1975 and on 27 January 1975, Connor's authority to borrow the loan was reinstated without consultation with Cairns, who found out after the fact. A short time later, when Cairns was about to visit the United States in an official capacity, his staff informed him that if the issue of the Khemlani loan were not dealt with, it would most likely overshadow his visit. This, plus Cairns' pre-existing reservations about the loan, prompted him to discuss the issue once again with Whitlam, who then agreed that Connor's dealings with Khemlani should come to an end. Cairns delivered the news to Connor at Whitlam’s request. Connor was later dismissed by Whitlam for continuing his unauthorised business communications with Khemlani.[1][9] Whitlam moved Cairns from Treasury to the Environment ministry.

Cairns' political undoing began with an incident that is often conflated with the Connor/Khemlani dealings but was essentially separate. In 1974, Cairns was introduced by Robert Menzies to George Harris, a Melbourne businessman and president of the Carlton Football Club.[10] Harris had offered to secure loan funds for the Australian government, and in March 1975 Cairns signed a letter agreeing to a 2.5% commission. When Cairns gave a misleading statement in June to Parliament that he had not authorised any such commission, many blamed the disorganised state of Cairns’ office. Cairns claimed that he had signed the letter in question unknowingly while signing a batch of fifty or so letters and that it was not an uncommon practice for politicians to sign letters that they had little or no memory of signing. Ironically, opposition politicians, including Malcolm Fraser and a number of his ministers, spoke out in defence of Cairns, agreeing that they too signed letters of which they had little or no memory. However, since Cairns had signed the letter, Whitlam dismissed him from the ministry on 2 July 1975. Cairns has since stated that he felt there were ulterior motives at play on the part of Gough Whitlam; namely that Whitlam wished to be rid of Cairns because Cairns did not agree with a policy of economic rationalism and that Whitlam felt that Cairns was a threat to his leadership.[1][9]

Cairns and Morosi

In late 1974 Cairns met Junie Morosi who had worked for Al Grassby and Lionel Murphy. Morosi greatly admired Cairns from having read his academic writings and she introduced Cairns to the work of Wilhelm Reich, opening his mind to the relevance of human psychology as it related to social change.[1] Cairns decided to offer Morosi a position as his principal private secretary and the pair began an affair.[1][11]

On 2 December 1974, the media reported Cairns' employment offer to Morosi. The reports highlighted Morosi's lack of public service experience, past business failures, her physical beauty and pointed out that she had often been seen dining in Canberra with senior Cabinet ministers. As a result, Cairns and Morosi announced that she would not take Cairns' offer of employment. The Liberal Opposition called for a senate inquiry. An investigation found there was no evidence of impropriety on the part of Morosi or of no preferential treatment being given to Morosi. On 13 December, it was reported that Morosi would accept Cairns' offer of employment.[11]

During the Australian Labor Party's National Conference in February 1975, Cairns gave an interview to a reporter in which he spoke of "a kind of love" for Morosi, reigniting the controversy. The press continued to speculate about the affair. During the 1975 National Conference, a photographer hid in a tree and waited while Morosi, her husband, Cairns, and his wife were having breakfast on a balcony. This photographer took a photo just when Cairns’ wife left the balcony and with Morosi's husband out of shot. The Daily Telegraph ran the picture of Cairns and Morosi the next day with the headline "Breakfast with Junie". Allegations were made in the House and the Senate. Accusations of misconduct were made by a variety of institutions.[11]

In 1982, Morosi took 2UE and The Daily Mirror to court on defamation charges, with both Cairns and Morosi denying the accusations of sexual impropriety and corruption.[11] In the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Cairns denied under oath having had a sexual relationship with Morosi. The jury in that case found that the article in question did contain "an imputation" that Cairns was "improperly involved with his assistant, Junie Morosi, in a romantic or sexual association", but that this statement was not defamatory. Cairns did not receive compensation, although Morosi did.

On ABC radio in September 2002, Cairns admitted for the first time that he had a sexual relationship with Junie Morosi.[12][13] Four years earlier, referring to his decision to employ Morosi and the ensuing media storm that it created — Cairns said that "looking back over it, it was a mistake on my part".[1]


Cairns at Nambassa in 1981

In 1977 Cairns retired from Parliament. He devoted the next portion of his life to the Counterculture movement, to which he had been introduced by Morosi. He sponsored a series of Down to Earth conference-festivals, known as ConFests, at various rural locations, and was photographed taking part in Counterculture inspired activities, such as meditation. In 1979, Cairns severed his formal links with the Down to Earth organisers. Cairns kept in contact with Morosi and the two remained friends.

Cairns was subject to a great deal of media ridicule for these activities, but displayed his usual firm conviction about the rightness of his causes. In his later years he lived at Narre Warren East near Melbourne. He sold his books outside suburban markets, where he would talk about politics, history or his life.

In 1983, Cairns made an unsuccessful run for the Senate as an independent and won 0.5% of the vote. Although he had not resigned from the ALP when he made his independent Senate run, the Labor Party did not expel him and remained a party member until he let his party membership lapsed in 1991 but rejoined the party in 1996.[14]

In 2000 he was made a Life Member of the Labor Party. Cairns died of bronchial pneumonia, aged 89, in October 2003. He was accorded a State Funeral at St John's Anglican Church in Toorak.

Personal life

Cairns married Gwen Robb in 1939. He adopted Robb's two sons by her previous marriage, Barry and Phillip when they were 4 and 5 years old respectively.[1] Cairns claimed no religious affiliation. In a 1998 interview, he said: "I have never believed myself to be anything that I can attach a name to. I was not a Christian. I did not regard myself as a humanist or a socialist. I was something: what I am, and it did not have a name".[1]


  • Cairns, G. O. & Cairns, J. F., Australia, 1953
  • Cairns, J. F., Socialism and the A.L.P., comment by Bruce McFarlane, 1963
  • Cairns, J. F., Living with Asia, 1965
  • Cairns, J. F., Vietnam : is it truth we want?, 1965
  • Cairns, J. F., Economics and foreign policy, 1966
  • Cairns, J. F., Here I stand : statements, 1966
  • Cairns, J. F., Changing Australia's role in Asia, 1968
  • Cairns, J. F., Australian foreign policy, 1968
  • Cairns, J. F., Eagle and the lotus; western intervention in Vietnam 1847-1968, 1969
  • Cairns, J. F. & Cairns M.P., Silence kills; events leading up to the Vietnam Moratorium, 8 May 1970
  • Cairns, J. F., Eagle and the lotus : Western intervention in Vietnam, 1847-1971, 1971
  • Cairns, J. F., Tariffs or planning? : the case for reassessment, 1971
  • Cairns, J. F., Quiet revolution, 1972
  • Cairns, J. F., Impossible attainment, 1974
  • Cairns, J. F., Labor Party? Dr. Evatt - the Petrov affair - the Whitlam government., 1974
  • Cairns, Jim, Vietnam : scorched earth reborn, 1976
  • Cairns, Jim, Oil in troubled waters, 1976
  • Cairns, Jim, Growth to freedom, 1979
  • Cairns, Jim, Survival now: the human transformation, 1982
  • Cairns, Jim, Human growth, its source and potential, 1984
  • Cairns, Jim, Strength within: towards an end to violence, 1988
  • Cairns, Jim, Towards a new society : a new day has begun, 1990–1993
  • Cairns, Jim, Untried road, 1990
  • Cairns, Jim, Reshaping the future : liberated human potential, 1996
  • Cairns, Jim, On the horizon: a cultural transformation to a new consciousness, 1999
  • Cairns, Jim, Liberated biological function: the source of human quality, 2001
  • Cairns, Jim, New day : liberated biological human potential: the source of social reform to the good society there's no other way, 2002
  • Heffernan, Jack, Socialist alternative : an A.L.P. view, foreword by J.F. Cairns, 1969


  1. Film Australia (1998). "Australian Biography project interview – Jim Cairns". The Australian Biography project. National Film and Sound Archive, Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved 19 February 2022.
  2. Carr, Bob, "How Gough Carried The Can For Progress", Sunday Telegraph (Sydney, Australia) 26 October 2014
  3. Ormonde, Paul (1981). A Foolish Passionate Man: A Biography of Jim Cairns. Ringwood, VIC, Australia: Penguin Books. p. 95. ISBN 0-140059-75-X.
  4. Ormonde, Paul (1981). A Foolish Passionate Man: A Biography of Jim Cairns. Ringwood, VIC, Australia: Penguin Books. pp. 95–96. ISBN 0-140059-75-X.
  5. Strangio, Paul (2002). Keeper of the Faith: A Biography of Jim Cairns. Carlton South, VIC, Australia: Melbourne University Publishing. p. 179. ISBN 0-522850-02-2.
  6. "Trade Practices/Tobacco documents/Jim Cairns biography". ABC Radio National. 9 May 2002. Retrieved 21 June 2021.
  7. "Labor sticks to old team". The Canberra Times. 11 June 1974.
  8. Coventry, CJ. Origins of the Royal Commission on Intelligence and Security (2018: MA thesis submitted at UNSW).
  9. "The loans affair, 1974–75 – Fact sheet 239". National Archives of Australia. Retrieved 17 December 2011.
  10. Harris & Main (2006) pp. 149-176
  11. Laing, Kate. "'A Kind of Love': Supergirls, Scapegoats and Sexual Liberation" (PDF). University of Sydney. Retrieved 18 December 2011.
  12. Richard Ackland (20 September 2002). "Cairns admits sex, and breathtaking hypocrisy". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 25 June 2010.
  13. Annabel Crabb (16 September 2002). "Cairns admits Morosi affair". The Age. Retrieved 25 June 2010.
  14. John Robert Hawkins (July 2014). "Jim Cairns: The Dreamer" via ResearchGate.


  • Film Australia (1998), "Jim Cairns", Australian Biography, National Film and Sound archive, Commonwealth of Australia, retrieved 25 June 2010
  • Harris, George & Main, Jim (2006). George - by George: Changi, the Blues and Beyond. Melbourne, Victoria: Bas Publishing. ISBN 1-920910-67-0.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)

Further reading

  • Dowsing, Irene (1971), Jim Cairns MHR, Acacia Press, Blackburn, Victoria. ISBN 0-85808-005-2
  • Ormonde, Paul (1981), A Foolish Passionate Man, Penguin, Ringwood, Victoria. ISBN 014005975X
  • Strangio, Paul (2002), Keeper of the Faith, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Victoria. ISBN 0-522-85002-2
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