Jim Cairns

Icon of the Australian left and deputy to Gough Whitlam

James Ford Cairns, politician: born Melbourne, Victoria 4 October 1914; Minister for Overseas Trade 1972-74; Treasurer of Australia 1974-75; Deputy Prime Minister 1974-75; Minister for the Environment 1975; married 1939 Gwendolyn Robb (died 2000; one son, and one son deceased); died Melbourne 12 October 2003.

Jim Cairns, a former Australian deputy prime minister, was a radical, an intellectual and an icon of the left. He became the public face of the country's anti-Vietnam War movement after leading 100,000 protesters through Melbourne's streets. Serving in Gough Whitlam's 1972-75 Labor government, which transformed the social and political landscape after 23 years of conservative rule, Cairns embodied the spirit of that era, and many people remember him as an inspirational and charismatic figure.

But he was a flawed hero. Sacked by Whitlam as Treasurer, ostensibly for misleading parliament over foreign loans, he precipitated his downfall by employing a beautiful young public-relations consultant, Junie Morosi, as his chief of staff. Tongues wagged furiously, and the ensuing scandal helped bring down the Whitlam government, although it was not until last year that Cairns admitted the pair had been lovers.

While opinions are divided on his political record, his influence as a champion of peace is unquestionable. In the late 1960s, Cairns passionately opposed Australia's involvement in Vietnam, at a time when such a stance was both unfashionable and politically foolhardy. He was instrumental in persuading Labor to drop its pro-war platform, and he called on ordinary people to occupy the streets.

His countrymen obliged, and the Melbourne rally in 1970 - one of the biggest public protests seen in Australia - is burnt into the nation's consciousness. The anti-war movement contributed to the mood that swept Whitlam to power, with the new government promptly withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam. Fittingly, Cairns's last public appearance was at a rally in February against war in Iraq.

Cairns was born in Melbourne in 1914. His father deserted the family home - a fact unknown to him for many years, the boy being told that he was missing in action - and he was brought up mainly by his maternal grandparents. He met his wife, Gwen Robb, in 1938, and they were - despite the Morosi affair - a devoted couple until her death three years ago.

A talented athlete, Cairns became a policeman and then - after studying at Melbourne and Oxford - a lecturer in economic history at Melbourne University. In 1955 he was elected to parliament. Always willing to swim against the tide, he challenged Labor's espousal of the White Australia immigration policy. In the Whitlam government, he was initially given responsibility for industry. He later became deputy leader and Treasurer, but his tenure was so short that he did not even deliver a budget.

The controversy over his appointment of the clever but inexperienced Morosi culminated in a newspaper article in 1975 in which he admitted to "a kind of love" for her. The story, headlined "My Love for Junie", was illustrated by a photograph of Morosi in a swimsuit. Cairns denied their relationship was improper, and even won defamation damages.

Not long afterwards, he was found to have signed a letter authorising a Melbourne businessman to raise loans on the government's behalf. He had categorically denied doing so to parliament, and was duly sacked.

Cairns, who retired from politics in 1977, remained an activist, speaking out on social issues and writing a dozen books. Until 18 months ago, he would sell his books from a stall in a Melbourne market, where he engaged passers-by in political debate.

An idealist and man of principle, dubbed in one headline this week "The Man Who Was Too Decent for Politics", Cairns believed in full employment, and was convinced that people are essentially good. But even his most ardent supporters recognise that he was unsuited to politics. Although he did not lack ambition, once challenging Whitlam for the party leadership, he was not pragmatic. At the Treasury, he suggested that printing more money might help solve unemployment.

The passion that he displayed in the public arena did not extend to his personal life. He found it difficult to form close friendships, particularly with men - a characteristic attributed to emotional deprivation in childhood. His mother showed him little affection; she had, it transpired, contracted syphilis from her runaway husband and believed physical contact would pass it on.

Cairns was a loner, reserved, with a quiet manner. A newspaper article in 1964 described him as "as icily self-controlled as a Mississippi riverboat gambler". Morosi, however, knew a different man. This week she said: "I loved him dearly. He loved me. We met with our work and our total dedication to peace."

Kathy Marks

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