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John Cain (1931–2019)

by Bruce Guthrie

from Age

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

When John Cain was premier of Victoria in the 1980s and riding high in the opinion polls he would often caution party faithful and political journalists that Victorian Labor should take nothing for granted. “The Liberals are the natural party of government in this state,’’ he’d say, fanning the fingers of his right hand in emphasis. ‘‘And history proves it.’’

Before Cain’s 1982 election win, Labor had governed Victoria for fewer than 10 years and been out of office almost three times that since his father, also named John, was brought down as premier by the 1955 Labor split. Cain (junior) would eventually govern for three terms and just on 8½ years until he stepped down as premier in August, 1990. More than three decades on from his first election win, Labor can lay claim to being the natural party of government in Victoria — they’ve held office for 26 of a possible 37 years since that first Cain victory.

Whatever else he will be remembered for — liberalised shop trading, liquor and prostitution laws, freedom of information legislation, tobacco and gun control, the National Tennis Centre, Workcare and the TAC, final-term financial woes, even keeping the AFL grand final at the MCG – the seismic shift in Labor’s political fortunes is undoubtedly John Cain’s greatest achievement. He not only led Victorian Labor out of the political wilderness, he helped build them a permanent place in the hearts and minds of Victorian voters.

In his later years, Cain would modestly acknowledge his achievements, crediting the policy development he and like-minded MPs did before the successful ’82 poll. ‘‘There’s no replacement for hard work and good policy,’’ he’d say when reflecting on the sometimes flimsy efforts of oppositions seeking office in vain. ‘‘So many don’t do the work.’’

He passed away on Sunday, December 22. He was 88.

Cain was born on April 26, 1931 in Northcote where his father was the sitting Labor MP. Although it was almost inevitable that he would follow his dad into politics — the family home was always full of party workers and discussion — their upbringings couldn’t have been more different.

John Cane – he changed the spelling of his name after leaving the family home – had at least 10 siblings. Then again, maybe it was 11, some references say it was as many as 18. Even John Cain junior wasn’t entirely sure how many aunts and uncles he had. When asked about his father’s brothers and sisters he would reply: ‘‘I think he had 10 or 11.’’

Cane grew up in Greendale near the then-rural Bacchus Marsh on Melbourne’s fringe, had little formal education and ran away from home as a 14-year-old, almost certainly because of ill-will between him and his stepfather. Certainly he didn’t share his fondness for the Catholic Church. He eventually resurfaced as a 20-something fruiterer in Northcote before being elected to the local council in 1913 and to the Legislative Assembly (for Jika Jika) in 1917.

By contrast, John Cain junior was one of only two children, grew up in Northcote and was educated at the local state primary schools, Northcote High, Scotch College and Melbourne University, where he graduated in law in 1952. His father was determined to give him the education he never had. Cain’s mother was an equally strong influence on her son.

Born in Fitzroy, she would later run a chain of successful millinery stores in Melbourne’s inner north. A strong believer in the right of women to pursue careers and equality in the workplace, her strong opinions would later inform Cain’s fight to improve the status of women in previously male-only domains, including the Melbourne Cricket Club.

By the time Cain had graduated in law he’d already been a Labor Party member for five years and his father was beginning his second term as premier. (Both would have three continuous terms, although the elder’s were short-lived and traumatic by comparison.)

 ‘‘I grew up in a political house,’’ Cain would later say.  When he wasn’t listening in to earnest political discussions at home he’d visit parliament or sit in on public meetings where his father would speak from the stage.

Years later Cain marvelled at his father’s stamina: ‘‘During campaigns, he’d address three meetings in a night.’’ After completing his law articles in the firm of John Galbally, who was a leading Labor lawyer and a former member of his father’s cabinet, Cain set up his own law practice in Preston. Focussing on basic legal services for the largely working class families in the area, he developed both a strong sense of the challenges they faced in their daily lives and a commitment to social reform.

Galbally would regularly send Cain criminal cases in his area and also Catholic divorce cases that lawyers of that faith would have nothing to do with. It was a lucrative field and in time the young lawyer had expanded into neighbouring premises and had a dozen support staff working alongside him.

In 1955 he married Nancye Williams and together they raised three children, Joanne, John and James. Nancye was an important sounding board for Cain during their more than 60 years of marriage. They first lived in Reservoir and then Ivanhoe and throughout it all he ran his Preston legal practice.

For much of his working life, Cain would begin most days with a three or four kilometre jog around his neighbourhood. His chosen footwear was a pair of Dunlop Volleys, which probably explained the ongoing hip complaints he suffered later. Cain was also a better than average tennis player and could often be found on the court at home.

His father died in 1957 at the age of 76 and Cain felt the loss keenly. They’d been close throughout his lifetime, sharing their most cherished moments during walks along Melbourne’s southern beaches where the family kept a house into the 21st century. Cain had no doubt the stresses around the famous ALP split of 1955 shortened his father’s life, saying: ‘‘I think, in the end, he was just worn out.’’

The death of his father led to Cain’s first unsuccessful tilt at politics, but he lost pre-selection for Northcote to Frank Wilkes, who went on to become opposition leader at the end of his long parliamentary career. (Ironically, in 1981 Cain replaced Wilkes as leader in the seminal change that brought Labor back to government after 27 years.)

As he bided his time for another tilt at pre-selection, Cain took on a number of backroom roles for the ALP. The party had stagnated after long years out of government and developed a mindset of life in constant opposition. During the 1960s and '70s Cain played a key role in reforming the party, recruiting new blood and pushing new ideas.

Along with future federal ministers John Button, Michael Duffy, Barry Jones and other reformers he founded a group that came to be known as ‘‘the participants’’. They openly opposed the faction controlling the Victorian ALP from 1955 and developed close links with the new federal leader, Gough Whitlam.

Their campaign for change finally resulted in the federal party intervention of September 1970. Cain played a key role in the reorganisation helping to rewrite the ALP rules. The success of his legal firm meant he could be fearless in challenging Labor Party orthodoxy. It wasn’t as if his salary depended on staying in anyone’s good books. ‘‘That financial independence freed me,’’ he said years later.

In 1976 he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as the MP for Bundoora. By the time he entered parliament he’d been a suburban lawyer for 19 years and would go on to hold Bundoora for 16. He and many like-minded new entrants decided to give themselves two terms to win government. If they couldn’t manage it, they’d go back to their old jobs. Of course, Cain never had to.

A strong new generation of MP’s emerged from the 1976 and 1979 elections — Evan Walker, David White, Steve Crabb, Tom Roper, Ian Cathie, Jack Simpson, Race Mathews and Rob Jolly.

As recorded in Tim Colebatch’s biography of Dick Hamer, Cain and several of these new members exposed what became known as ‘‘the land deals’’ of the Liberal government in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These revelations led to two boards of enquiry and certainly contributed to the decline and later defeat of the Hamer/Thompson governments.

In September 1981, after succeeding Wilkes, Cain and the ALP sensed their time was finally coming as the Liberal government under Lindsay Thompson stagnated. Cain quickly reorganised the shadow cabinet, promoting the best talent and prepared for the campaign.

‘‘It had never been a particular ambition to be premier per se, but I did want to reach my potential,’’ Cain said later. ‘‘I wanted to go as far as I could.’’ The election in April 1982 was fought under the slogan ‘‘Vote V for Victoria’’. Bob Hogg was Labor’s campaign director. Cain was a clear campaign winner with a tightly organised set of bold policies and initiatives which targeted marginal seats with grass roots campaigning backed by a creative television media campaign. It was the prototype for many state elections to come.

Labor won a sweeping victory on a 17-seat swing, which remains the biggest swing in Victoria to remove a non-Labor government. (In 1999 Steve Bracks won 12 seats). It meant Cain became the first Labor premier in Victoria since his father, 27 years earlier.

The long absence from power meant his government was very inexperienced. Indeed, many of his MPs hadn’t been in parliament long, much less on the government benches. Cain himself was something of a newbie too — none of his predecessors as premier had been in parliament for such a short time (six years) before taking office.

This didn’t mean he was unprepared though. In lectures at Melbourne University and other tertiary institutions over the years, Cain impressed upon students the importance of a good cabinet structure in decision-making in government. He would recall how he had studied the cabinet processes in Canberra, NSW and South Australia in the late 1970s. As a result, Cain cabinets were built on consensus. ‘‘Frequently, when consensus didn’t emerge, cabinet would defer the matter for later consideration,’’ Cain would say later with pride.

Labor’s win ushered in a major cultural change for a public service long used to serving the Liberal party as the ‘‘natural rulers’’ of Victoria. This reform of the public service became an article of faith for Cain which he would often cite at press conferences and in anniversary interviews, but his enthusiasm was rarely matched by that of his interviewers, who saw these behind-the-scenes changes as worthy but dull. To Cain they were fundamental to good decision making.

‘‘You are always going to get something wrong,’’ he’d say. ‘‘But if the process is thorough there will be fewer errors.’’ Cain was also fond of celebrating Victoria’s employment success by pointing to the Melbourne skyline and inviting onlookers to ‘‘count the cranes on the horizon’’. During his tenure as premier, Victoria led the national employment statistics for 84 straight months.

Sweeping reforms
As well as being premier, he stayed attorney general for 18 months so he could deliver key legal reforms, including groundbreaking FOI legislation and the appointment of an independent director of public prosecutions. These were models for other states and the Commonwealth.

His sweeping law reforms didn’t stop there: he disbanded the police special branch, decriminalised and regulated prostitution and introduced firearms control legislation.

In the first month of office he made a statement about his personal priorities by taking on the portfolio of minister responsible for women’s affairs and quickly got into (and won) a public stoush by forcing sporting clubs on public land to accept women members. This included the venerable Melbourne Cricket Club and the racing clubs. Cain told them that as occupiers of public land they had no right to exclude half the population from membership of the club they ran on that land. (His mother, who died in 1974, would have been proud.)

One of the successes he took greatest pleasure in was successfully fighting a move by the VFL/AFL to shift the grand final to Waverley. A keen football follower and a former wingman for the Scotch seconds, Cain saw his first grand final in 1942 — at his father’s side — and never missed another one during his lifetime.

Also a tennis fan, he famously preserved the Australian Open tennis championships for Melbourne by building the National Tennis Centre at Flinders Park after the privately run Kooyong club resisted much-needed changes to facilities and scheduling. He watched the Open most summers somewhat irked that as governments poured more and more into the tournament venue at Flinders Park, ticket prices grew further and further beyond the reach of the average fan.

Cain and his government were busy in other areas of social policy too, green-lighting nude beaches, extending shop trading hours, allowing VFL football on Sundays and radically overhauling the state’s drinking laws in the hope they’d eventually reflect a more sophisticated European approach to alcohol. All of this was in stark contrast to his image as a teetotal wowser. ‘‘You’re an agent of change comrade,’’ Barry Jones would often say to his friend.

One area where Cain was less permissive was his staunch opposition to the introduction of a casino and poker machines. It wasn’t until he left office that the ALP embraced them. Cain insisted on high standards of integrity. Legendary for buying his own stamps for personal mail he set high expectations of ministers and banned the emerging group of professional lobbyists, insisting that ministers dealt directly with their stakeholders rather than through shadowy third parties.

Cain was elected to a second term in 1985 over the Kennett-led Liberals, the first time a Labor government had been re-elected in Victoria.

Labor also won control of the Legislative Council for the first time. Incredibly, the result was decided after a tied vote in the seat of Nunawading forced the parties to draw from a hat to decide the winner. But Labor’s Upper House victory was short-lived and shrouded in controversy.

Though historic, Cain’s third-term victory in 1988 was less clear cut. Labor won by just two seats and the narrow win ushered in a difficult couple of years that saw a series of financial collapses – the Victorian Economic Development Corporation, Pyramid Building Society, the Tricontinental Bank — and, ultimately, the sale of the State Bank.

Cain argued at the time that many of the events were beyond the control of government, but his political standing and that of his government took a battering.

Throughout it all he fought to stabilise the government, but eventually he resigned, announcing his decision to a stunned party room — and an even more surprised deputy leader, Joan Kirner, who would assume the role — on August 7, 1990, having served 3044 days in office, making him the fourth longest-serving Victorian premier.

Integrity and honesty
After politics, Cain remained active in public life, writing books, lecturing at Melbourne University and joining a number of boards and trusts including the State Library, Melbourne Cricket Ground Trust and the National Tennis Centre Trust.

While he enjoyed all of it, he confided to me late in life that he wished he’d returned to the law after politics. ‘‘I would have liked to have worked in the area of media or sport law,’’ he said. It remained one of his few, small regrets.

In his retirement he doted on his children, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, dividing his time between his home in Ivanhoe, the family beach house in Bonbeach and an annual mid-winter visit to Queensland. He caught the train to his office at Treasury Place several days a week and could often be seen under his distinctive tweed hat, walking the kilometre or so to and from Jolimont railway station.

Over four decades of public life, Cain demonstrated a commitment to progressive social, economic and environmental policies and built an unrivalled reputation for integrity and honesty in government. His contribution to rebuilding the Labor party and leading it back into government after three decades in the political wilderness cannot be overstated. The process of professional policy development and active community campaigning became the model for Labor’s success over the following decades.

While the economic failings of his third government would eventually cost him office and, for a while at least, some of his reputation, even his harshest critics in time acknowledged they had their genesis outside Victoria, certainly outside his government.

His style of cautious but determined leadership in office became a template for other Labor leaders in the 1980s and the next generation of leaders who took Labor to national dominance in the 2000’s — including Victoria’s Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

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Citation details

Bruce Guthrie, 'Cain, John (1931–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012