February 4, 2020  |  Condolences

Hon John Cain

CARBINES (Ivanhoe) (13:10): I rise to support the condolence for the Honourable John Cain. Melbourne’s northern suburbs have carried heavy hearts these past weeks since the passing of Victoria’s 41st Premier, the Honourable John Cain. Here are some local reflections on someone who so often was a familiar and reassuring presence in the Ivanhoe community that was his home.

There was a steady stream of inquiries to our electorate office in the lead-up to yesterday’s heartfelt memorial service. Locals were anxious to be there, to share their memories, to pay their respects, to give thanks and to show their support for John’s wife, Nancye, and the family. For so many people the election of John Cain and the government he led was the first time generations of Victorians cast a successful vote to elect a state Labor government. It changed their lives; the Cain government gave moral and legislative effect to their values.

Anyone who heard Jon Faine’s final program on 774 last year with a panel of premiers past and present could not fail to notice the sustained and heartfelt applause for John Cain and his reflections on public life and public duty. Perhaps in part it was also an audience very familiar with John Cain’s premiership; their aspirations were embodied in his decency and integrity. Thinking back to a time when that generation was much younger, I better understand why I was sent off to school wearing a green and gold ‘John Cain. For Victorians’ badge in grade 2 at Bell Primary School in West Preston in the lead-up to the 1982 election. John Cain was the hope of the side for so many young families of the era who needed a government that could give voice to their concerns and nurture and advance their interests. He had been doing that for years in both his legal practice in High Street, Preston, and as the state member for Bundoora.

Funnily enough John Cain was a student for a time at Bell Primary, and he was always generous in supporting the school at events on significant occasions over the years. Across the Ivanhoe electorate John Cain was ever present. For many years he was a welcome guest in classrooms at Ivanhoe Primary School, talking about civics, community action, Parliament and the people. From all reports, many parents wished they had been able to swap places with their children for that class alone. The current red-brick Ivanhoe Primary School was built in 1923, and the foundation stone carries the name of John Cain, Sr, the past Labor Premier and member for Northcote when the seat clearly stretched a bit further than it does today. I remember a discussion with John about it in recent times. He had apparently arranged for the stone to be cleaned up; it was at his cost of course. It was one of several examples I noted of the high regard he had for his father and his legacy in the community he served for 40 years.

John could always be counted on to do a shift or two at Ivanhoe Primary School at election time. Voters would mill around, hang back and wait for a break in the queue so they could take a how-to­vote card from John. It was a chance to have a chat and to renew acquaintances. It was getting harder for him to stand throughout some of those shifts over the years, but he never complained; he wanted to do his bit—a participant to the end. At one election some young blokes handing out for our opponents—clearly not from the area—were overheard asking, ‘Who’s that bloke?’. They were clearly exasperated by John Cain’s effective lock on the voters. He was a voter magnet. Our opponents were always happy when John left the polling booth. Usually, as you know, Speaker, it was to hand out in his old seat of Bundoora. I could not quite convince him to stay in Ivanhoe. He had a great regard for so many of those long-term party members who had worked on past campaigns for him—Brian and Ellen Smiddy certainly come to mind.

It may have been Labor warhorse Pat Kennelly who said something like, ‘Any win is a good win. The smaller the margin, the better. There are fewer people to thank’. Preselections and elections in Ivanhoe were close-run contests in 2009–10. John Cain played a defining role in our 2010 Ivanhoe campaign launch. The incumbent Labor MP had resigned months earlier, and history shows that the government would change at the subsequent election. John agreed to introduce our guest speaker, the then Treasurer, John Lenders. He took the opportunity to rally party members, community activists and friends to back Labor. It needed someone of John’s gravitas, his authority and capacity to command respect, to forge that unity of purpose and to give us confidence and self-belief. He followed up with a kindly letter the next day predicting a win for us locally and said he was heartened by our speech reflecting Labor values, which he found ‘refreshing’. We withstood a withering 9 per cent swing locally, but as to leadership and momentum, John gave us that when we needed it most.

Over the years you would see this commitment at street stalls in Ivanhoe as John would be on his walk to the shops. He would stop to chat to you, and then local residents would stop to chat to him. He would say, ‘Have you met your local member?’. In part, you could see what some of them were thinking: ‘If it’s good enough for John Cain to stand alongside the Labor candidate, maybe I could too’.

John provided the same steady advice and support for our new federal member, Kate Thwaites, at her first election last year. It was loyalty to the party, the candidate and the cause; it was fidelity to party members and the people—the voters. In past years, with our former federal member, the Honourable Jenny Macklin, we would host seniors morning tea events in Bellfield. There was often a big crowd and plenty of Q and As, but John Cain would bob up in the audience. He would set out the case for Labor, touch on the work we were doing as local MPs and encourage people to back us in. He could carry the day. He could always sense when his personal conviction could make a difference.

John was a regular commuter on the Hurstbridge line from Ivanhoe station. Let us just say the express services are popular; however, in his coat and hat, John was a familiar figure, and invariably fellow commuters were insistent that Mr Cain have their seat. He was usually offered several. He really did put a smile on people’s faces. They would catch his eye and say ‘G’day, John’ or ‘Hello, Mr Cain’. Like many locals, I will miss those walks with him, like the one I did today, from Jolimont through Fitzroy Gardens to the Treasury Place office and Parliament. We would talk of the latest political happenings, and I would glean insights into the history of our state from one who was there. I always felt a sense of renewed purpose and was often given some extra tasks and homework to report back on.

Much of the Ivanhoe electorate to the north, across Viewbank, Macleod, Rosanna and West Heidelberg, had at different times been part of the Bundoora electorate John represented for 16 years. Two lasting legacies deserve mention here. There is the West Heidelberg Community Legal Service, which John was patron of for many years, and is now part of the Banyule Community Health service. In his own words in the book The Centre: 40 Years of Banyule Community Health, John said:

West Heidelberg had this community health service, and an ally of that was a legal advice service.

Bill Newton, the CEO invited me to volunteer at West Heidelberg. We were all volunteers. We were seen as an interim emergency service; operating on a shoestring with no secretarial support and no facilities.

What’s been achieved here over the years has been terrific.

To this day the service provides advocacy to locals and policy submissions to governments and boards of inquiry. It is a service that owes much to John’s willingness to volunteer his time and legal skills to help get the service established and then support such services across the state as Attorney-General and Premier.

In recent years John expressed in strong terms the need to protect neighbourhood character in our community, and he was right to say that it was a core issue across Ivanhoe. We agreed that to be in there fighting for residents at council meetings or at VCAT and holding developers to account was so important, even at times you could not win. The long-term work with the Minister for Planning to secure mandatory height controls in Ivanhoe in part had its genesis in these conversations about planning and restoring integrity, accountability and transparency to the planning decisions in our area, which have previously been the subject of often ignored guidelines.

In recent times John also expressed a strong desire to see a greater community purpose for John Cain Memorial Park. I know the member for Northcote and the Premier would also have been well briefed by John through his advocacy to ensure this public space, which bears his father’s name, regains its lustre as a sport and recreational centrepiece in the northern suburbs.

At the recent VicHealth awards I acknowledged John’s abiding interest in and advocacy for the public health institution his government established. It was very clear that public health advocates and petitioners have not forgotten his pioneering leadership. Sometime before, John had written to me, and I quote:

… enclosing a copy of the paper prepared, recalling the facts around the evolution of VicHealth.

I repeat, the real result was a successful confrontation with the Tobacco industry.

He had kindly listed a range of other available papers on policy outcomes delivered by his government, many of which have been well canvassed since his passing.

In his memoir John drew on his father’s philosophy, which had helped shaped his own outlook. He wrote that:

The lifelong credo that emerged was that for society to function smoothly government had to provide stability, decency and integrity, and it had to act to protect those values.

So today we commit ourselves to strive for the heights laid out by word and in deed by John Cain. On behalf of the Ivanhoe ALP branch, of which John was a member for so many years, and of the communities across the Ivanhoe electorate, we express our deepest condolences to John’s wife, Nancye, and their children, John, James and Joanne, and their families. Vale, John Cain.