A tribute to Jim Cairns

You have left us with a spirit in our heart

Tom Uren

Jim Cairns passed away on Sunday 12th October, eight days after he turned 89 years old. He was a great Australian - his life and commitment to people has touched so many. His leadership against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War together with so many other major social issues are imprinted in the history of our nation.

Jim was elected to the House of Representatives in 1955 and made an early mark on the Parliamentary Labor Party during his first term by challenging its leadership and policy on immigration. Following the Party's split in 1955-57, Labor's policy was 60 per cent British and 40 per cent Europeans and was directed against Southern Europeans who were overwhelmingly Catholics. Cairns argued that Southern European migrants were, economically, supporters of the Labor Party and his logical view brought about a change of attitude by Federal Labor. Cairns, together with Gough Whitlam, was an early public opponent of Australia's "White Australia Policy".

Cairns was born in Sunbury near Melbourne on 4 October 1914. He never met his father, who served in World War I and remained in England at the cessation of the War. He attended Sunbury State School and later Northcote High. His mother, as the breadwinner, had to work, and his grandparents played an important role in his early and teenage years. In his late teens he was an outstanding athlete and was broadjump and decathlon champion of Victoria. In 1934, he met Tom Blamey, the Victorian Police Commissioner, who invited Jim to join the police force and encouraged him to continue with his sporting activities. Jim joined the Force and this gave him a reasonable income to help his mother and family.

He met his wife, Gwendolyne Olga Rob, at the Empire Games in Sydney in 1938 and they married soon after. Jim and Gwen had a long and loving partnership. Gwen was a courageous woman and she loved Cairns deeply. Her courage shone through at the time of Jim's bashing by a young thug from the Ship Painters' and Dockers' Union in 1969. During a fundraising party at his home, Jim was attacked by the assailant, who hit him over the head with a heavy timber ornament. Jim fell to the floor, where the thug continued kicking his head. Gwen threw herself over Jim's head to protect him. She would have done anything for him. A light went out of his life when Gwen passed away in December 2000. It is interesting to note that soon after the accident Bob Menzies visited Jim at his home in Hawthorn.

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