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Cavanagh, James Luke (Jim) (1913–1990)

by Ian Howie-Willis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

James Luke (Jim) Cavanagh (1913-1990), politician and trade unionist, was born on 21 June 1913 at Paddington (Rosewater), Adelaide, youngest of three children of James Luke Cavanagh, boiler maker, and his wife Isobella, née Buckton, both Adelaide born. Educated by the Dominican Sisters at North Adelaide and by the Christian Brothers at Ovingham, young Jim left school at 14 and eventually found work as a plasterer. He joined the plasterers’ union and the Australian Labor Party, the local sub-branch of which he chaired at 17. His family’s economic hardship during the Depression and his reading of the literature of social inequality made him a socialist, and his sympathy for the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War prompted him to leave the Catholic Church. When he married Alfreda (Elfrieda) Barbara Lamm on 11 October 1941, it was with Congregational forms at Stow Memorial Church, Adelaide.

Secretary of the Plasterers’ Society of South Australia in 1945-62, Cavanagh was to serve as president of the Operative Plasterers’ and Plaster Workers’ Federation of Australia in 1967-71. He was a militant and forceful workers’ advocate in industrial tribunals. As a security precaution the Chifley government barred him from visiting union members at the Woomera rocket range in the late 1940s. While serving as a commissioner of the South Australian Board of Industry in 1960-62, he won Labor preselection for the Senate. Elected comfortably at the 1961 election, he took his seat on 1 July 1962. His parliamentary speeches most commonly were on pensions, housing, migrants, repatriation and other matters affecting the disadvantaged. From the mid-1960s he also spoke against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and served on seven parliamentary committees.

When Labor regained government in December 1972, Cavanagh joined the Whitlam ministry. He was successively minister for works (December 1972-October 1973), Aboriginal affairs (October 1973-June 1975) and police and customs (June-November 1975). The most challenging twenty months of his career were spent in the Aboriginal affairs portfolio. He was chosen because his administrative skills and toughness were needed to sort out managerial and financial difficulties in the department that threatened to provoke an electoral backlash. Some commentators were surprised at his appointment because he had rarely spoken on Aboriginal issues previously, and Aboriginal groups were generally hostile to his appointment, which they interpreted as a sign of the government’s timidity.

His most vociferous critics were Charles Perkins, a senior Aboriginal official within Cavanagh’s own department, and the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee. Their conflicts with Cavanagh arose mainly from Perkins’s wish to comment publicly on the government’s Aboriginal policies. In February 1974 the departmental head Barrie Dexter charged Perkins with a breach of discipline under the Public Service Act for criticising the minister. Cavanagh himself fuelled the dispute by attacking Perkins and the NACC in a speech to the National Press Club in Canberra. At this point the prime minister intervened, ordering Cavanagh to drop the disciplinary charge against Perkins.

Despite such controversies, Cavanagh’s achievements as minister for Aboriginal affairs were solid. He set in place a series of key policies, including the establishment of Aboriginal Hostels Ltd, the Aboriginal Loans Commission and the Aboriginal Land Fund Commission, and travelled widely to meet Aboriginal communities. At the same time his handling of the portfolio had exposed his limitations. He tended to be stubborn and inflexible, and his narrow assimilationist views on Aborigines were outdated. He had little appreciation of vexed issues such as Aboriginal identity and the psychology of dispossession that were critical to the Aboriginal political movement by the early 1970s. However, when Whitlam put him in charge of police and customs, it was because he wanted a competent, decisive minister to supervise the amalgamation of the Commonwealth, Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory police forces. This was a goal Cavanagh was unable to achieve because the Whitlam government fell only five months later.

In Opposition again, Cavanagh served (1976-77) on the joint select committee on Aboriginal land rights in the Northern Territory and as parliamentary representative on the council of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. He remained a prominent spokesman on Aboriginal affairs. Retiring from the Senate on 30 June 1981, he returned to his home at Rosewater. Of medium height, he was thickset with brownish hair and a lined, craggy face. Eight months after the death of his wife, he died on 19 August 1990 at Woodville; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Cheltenham cemetery. His daughter and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Read, Charles Perkins (2001)
  • I. Howie-Willis, `Cavanagh, J’ in D. Horton (ed), The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia, vol 1 (1994)
  • National Times, 4-9 Mar 1974, p 9
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Mar 1974, p 7
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 Apr 1974, p 5, 22 Aug 1990, p 4
  • T. Hannan, interview with Cavanagh (typescript, 1985, National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Ian Howie-Willis, 'Cavanagh, James Luke (Jim) (1913–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cavanagh-james-luke-jim-12299/text22087, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 December 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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