It is a live issue whether the federal Labor government circa 2010-13 is crazier than Whitlam’s lot in 1972-75. Is the National Broadband Network, for example, crazier than Rex Connor’s planned national gas pipeline grid? Is Wayne Swan’s deficit-laden legacy crazier than Whitlam’s economic management which involved, among other things, a planned 46% increase in government outlays in 1974-75?
I was sort-of present at the creation of Rex Connor’s national pipeline grid. He called me to his office in early 1973, looking for a bit of favorable press, and produced a map of Australia similar to one found in a primary school geography text book. He had a thick pencil and joined up the North-West Shelf gas field with the Palm Valley gas field in the Centre, via the Gibson Desert, and the Bass Strait gasfield in the south. Spur lines radiated to Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane.
Rex’s clever plan was that if one gas field was knocked out or dried up, the other fields would combine to keep our capitals’ supply safe. Apparently the grid would also permit uniform national gas prices.
He also planned to site our very own uranium-enrichment plant at the head of Spencer Gulf, South Australia, where it would be "safe from enemy submarines". (You don’t believe me? I’d give you the Hansard reference, except I’m in Budapest at the moment).
On this craziness comparison, I conclude that today’s federal government, while very disfunctional, is not in the Whitlam league of "please call the men in white coats and take the ministers away to a safe place where they cannot harm either themselves or others."
The federal government is profligate with the money we pay in taxes — that’s very bad. But even Julia and Wayne never suggested, nor does Mr Rudd, that we do away with money altogether and revert, for social justice reasons, to the sort of barter or ritual economy pre-dating the Sumerians and Babylonians.
That reversion was the plan of Dr Jim Cairns, Whitlam’s deputy prime minister and minister for trade. Of course, he was love-struck at the time and maybe didn’t actually intend to get this great project endorsed by cabinet and implemented.
You won’t find any record of this speech in the media, and that’s my fault. I should have filed a report for The Age on it, but figured my bosses at The Age would not merely spike the copy, but conclude their economics writer in Canberra was deranged, rather than Jim Cairns being deranged.
It all happened like this: In 1974, Jim was riding high. He had his status as prior leader of the anti-Vietnam marches, and he had his PhD credentials (in economic history, mind you, not economics). He was our philosopher-king, peddling a soppy version of Marxism.
I picked up that he was scheduled to address students at the Australian National University – I had noticed the flyers pasted up as I went to my economics lectures and tutorials. It wasn’t a normal press occasion but I decided to check it out.
The venue was in one of the medium-sized lecture theatres and about 60 students were waiting. Jim arrived, accompanied by his assistant Junie Morosi, clad in swami-style robes.
As for the date, it must have been around August-October, 1974. It had to be during the uni year, and before December, 1974, when he moved to appoint Junie Morosi as his principal private secretary. At that point Junie became a big news story. Before then there was no "public interest" hook and his married status made discussion of Junie dangerous from a libel point of view.
Jim treated the uni event as informal. Junie gathered her robes with a graceful gesture and sat on the floor in front of him. Jim was an accomplished public speaker and was relaxed and chatty. He just talked to the students, sans microphone and sans any notes or structure.
We all took this living tableau in our stride – if a deputy prime minister has a seriously glamorous assistant who sits at his feet in exotic robes, well that’s how things were in 1974.
Jim got onto the theme of choosing between materialism and brotherly/sisterly love. It became more an impromptu sermon than a speech. Relations between people should be based on lovingness; material things don’t make you happy, blah blah. I figured this was all well and good but Jim-as-preacher/philosopher wasn’t going to make a story in next day’s Age. It was just, well, mushy. I stopped taking notes – to get all this pap down in shorthand seemed ridiculous.
Jim drifted onto a new theme. Money transactions epitomised the soul-less state of relations between people. Money put barriers between us, money made us selfish.
In fact, he said, it would be a better world if money were abolished. We would give and take, based on a better style of relationship between individuals. Strife would subside. Harmony would reign. The world would become a better place, he concluded.
It was familiar to me as a riff on the Communist notion that once the class basis of society dissolves, the world would see a New Man arise (and, we hope, ‘new Woman’). Society would operate as "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Jim had once applied to join the Communist Party but was sent packing by party boss Lance Sharkey, who thought Jim (an ex-policeman) was a secret agent.
Jim finished his spiel, and took a few lame questions from the students. They applauded politely. Junie gathered herself up from the floor and the pair headed off to the waiting Comcar to be driven back across the lake to Jim’s parliamentary offices.
I was seriously non-plussed. I tried to imagine my story, headlined: “Trade Minister seeks abolition of money”. The body copy would read:
“The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Trade, Dr Jim Cairns, yesterday proposed that money cease to be used in transactions.
Addressing 60 students at the ANU, he said a superior system would involve inter-personal relationships based on love and kindness.
The use of money was degrading, he told students. Without money, international relations would become more harmonious and a source of global conflict and wars would be removed…”
If my bosses in Melbourne took this story seriously, it would have to be a Page 1 screamer. Given Australia’s role as a world trader of mineral and food commodities, it would also be a story of major international significance.
Note that I said “if” my story were taken seriously. I had a few shorthand notes, but this was one occasion where notes needed to be comprehensive and, preferably, a tape-recording available.
I also had a bit of a reputation for being too eager to rubbish the Labor government. A year later, when the government’s craziness was broadly acknowledged, my story might have been taken seriously, but at the time of Jim’s speech, the consensus Gallery view was that Gough was leading us all into those broad sunlit uplands, against the worst endeavours of assorted conservative gargoyles and goblins.
Like it or not, the Press has agendas and fashions as to what is "news" and what isn’t. A report of Jim’s proposal to abolish money didn’t fit the current paradigm of "news", I decided.
What next to do? We had daily columnists whose job on The Age was to assemble half a dozen faintly amusing snippets about politics and events. Maybe I could place a few paras about Jim’s speech there. I wrote a sample. It just looked horrible in that context, as though I was sneering and lying about one of our nation’s admired leaders.
Meanwhile, that afternoon, I had to start my usual serious work of digesting the daily statistics and following up government/bureaucratic announcements on the economics and resources fronts. I was behind schedule and it would soon be 5pm, when public service contacts became hard to telephone.
“Arrgghh, damn it!” I said. Exactly as actors do in movies when playing reporters, I crumpled up my story about the Deputy Prime Minister wanting to abolish money, and threw it in the bin.
By the Christmas break, Jim was the hero of Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, and there was a bit of a push for Jim to supplant Gough as Prime Minister. By February, 1975, he was confessing to a "kind of love" for Junie.
Jim was chucked out of the ministry in July 1975 for having offered his dentist George Harris a potential $50m commission for a potential $2b loan-raising from Arab sheiks. (For someone wanting to abolish money, Jim was somewhat free with other people’s money).
Jim kept Junie on as his research assistant, and they organised alternative lifestyles festivals outside Canberra, a sort of poor person’s Woodstock. Despite Jim’s views on the non-utilitarian nature of money, issues concerning money kept the Jim-Junie nexus in the media spotlight for several decades*. The alternative lifestyles movement they kick-started post-1975 dissolved in the 1980s amid acrimony and lawsuits over finance.
Did Jim ever go public elsewhere about his dreams for a non-monetary society? In 1998 he tape-recorded a very long interview for Australian Biography that included these thoughts, going not quite as far as in that uni talk I overheard:
“I used to think being acquisitive was simply a result of life experience in capitalism… And I thought acquisitiveness was learned by experience in capitalism. Then in about 1975, when the other change came in my way of seeing things, I could see that it went further back than that. I could see that acquisitiveness was a cultural product, a product of the way we are treated psychologically, emotionally, and not just with money, not just goods and services: much deeper.
So if you’re going to change acquisitiveness in capitalism, you can’t simply change it by trying to persuade people to become co-operative and generous within capitalism. That hardly works at all. You have to see what are the sources of their character and behaviour, and you have to try to implement ways of changing that into something else.”
* Junie won a total $27,000 damages from Radio 2GB and the now-defunct tabloid Mirror in 1977 and 1978 over their allegation that she had a sexual relationship with Jim. Jim put his foot in it in 2002 by remarking that they had indeed gone to bed, although he had sworn otherwise in 1982 in one of Junie’s damages claims involving The National Times.
Tony Thomas is available for any vacancies as a Professor of Journalism.