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John Cain (1882–1957)

by Robert Murray and Kate White

This article was published:

John Cain, with his wife, 1954

John Cain, with his wife, 1954

State Library of Victoria, 49376040

John Cain (1882-1957), premier, was born on 19 January 1882 at Greendale, Victoria, eldest child of Patrick Cane, a farmer from County Clare, Ireland, and his Victorian-born wife Julia, née Brennan. Following a fit of depression, in April 1890 Patrick drowned in the Lerderderg River 'apparently self-committed, while of unsound mind'. The tragedy of his father's death, when John was only 8, may explain some aspects of his subsequent life, including his secrecy about his childhood and age. Despite his reticence, his stocky, strong frame, 'map of Ireland' face, leathery voice and determinedly 'plain man' style all indicated his origins as the son of an Irish-Australian hill farmer.

After Patrick's death John lived with relations and later with his remarried mother. Educated to primary level in the Bacchus Marsh district, he left school and home at about 13, and was employed for several years by farmers in the Goulburn Valley where he earned a reputation as an exceptionally good worker but an argumentative political rebel. About 1907 Cain moved to Northcote, Melbourne. He hawked fruit and rabbits, took a job as a theatre spruiker and about 1911 opened a fruit shop in High Street.

By 1910 he was active in the Victorian Socialist Party where John Curtin was a friend and colleague. Through the V.S.P. Cain adopted what was to become his lifelong habit of addressing all colleagues, friend and foe alike, as 'brother'. By 1914 he had joined the Australian Labor Party and stood unsuccessfully that year for Labor pre-selection for a State parliamentary seat. He sold his shop and moved into positions that helped to prepare him for a political career, among them organizer for the Theatrical Employees' and for the Clothing Trades' unions. He was vocal in the anti-conscription campaigns of World War I and won election to Northcote City Council as a Labor candidate in 1915. In that election he attracted the support of Pat Kennelly, then aged only 15, who was to remain a close friend and political ally.

In 1917 Cain entered the Legislative Assembly as member for the seat of Jika Jika, which encompassed Northcote. He was to represent the district continuously until his death. With its three competing parties, all internally divided, the State parliament offered a challenge in political intricacy which was very different to the warm, rhetorical ways of the V.S.P. Cain had initially been dedicated to a vision of social change that favoured the underprivileged, but, once he was elected, events showed him how difficult this vision was to put into practice, even during the rare periods when Labor held office. On 20 February 1926 at the Brunswick Street Methodist Church, Fitzroy, he married Dorothea Vera Marie Grindrod, a milliner who owned five hat shops and employed fifty workers.

Cain was appointed minister without portfolio in the Prendergast government (July-November 1924) and in the Hogan government (1927-28). In his 1929-32 cabinet Hogan elevated him to minister of railways, minister in charge of electrical undertakings and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works, thus giving him responsibility for some of the biggest employers among government utilities at a time of severe economic depression. It was a miserable awakening for one who had previously tended to see nationalization of industry as a cure for social ills.

Although Cain called his portfolio 'the suicide club' and had to retrench railway workers or reduce their working hours (with proportionate pay cuts), the astute and tactful way in which he handled matters increased his standing. Railway revenue was falling at a time of severe budgetary stress and he appeared to grasp the political necessity for doing what had to be done, while also appreciating that the protesting unions had their own, worried electorate to satisfy. Unlike Hogan's faction, Cain and the majority of Labor's parliamentarians followed the party's State conference policy of opposition to the 1931 Premiers' Plan. He had earlier supported the plan, but by 1932 the bulk of Labor union and rank-and-file opinion had turned against deflationary policies, and Labor was set to collide with that section of the Country Party which had kept it in office. There was no advantage for an ambitious, young Labor parliamentarian in prolonging the political life of Hogan's ministry by a few more months when the unions and rank and file were withdrawing their support.

The successful no-confidence motion against a divided Labor government precipitated an election in May 1932. The A.L.P. lost fourteen seats. Labor's debacle, however, was Cain's triumph: the depleted parliamentary party chose him as deputy-leader. Five years later it elected him leader when Hogan's successor Thomas Tunnecliffe retired. By 1937 Cain, who was aged 55 (though claiming to be 50), had moved far from the 'red ragger' of his youth. He was a skilled parliamentarian, with a reputation as an administrator, who had mastered many gruelling lessons in survival. He made the principal objective of his leadership the achievement of a majority Labor government, as opposed to the previous situation where Labor ministries had survived only with Country Party support. Since 1935 the reverse had applied—the Dunstan Country Party ministry had governed with Labor support. This alliance, forged under Tunnecliffe's leadership, was to last under Cain until 1943.

Despite its many troubles, Labor had been the most united of the three parties before the 1930s. Once the inevitable divisions of wage-cutting and retrenchment were behind it, new problems appeared with the rise of the Communist Party of Australia as a force in the unions and the emergence of a distinctively Catholic element in the labour movement. With Kennelly as his right-hand man in the organizational wing, Cain based his leadership on fostering a stream of opinion which could command the centre. The divisions, nevertheless, became exacerbated. Disciplined, Stalinist communists, deeply hostile to Labor, won power in the unions; the cohesive, secretive Catholic Social Studies Movement and the A.L.P.-endorsed Industrial Groups arose in the 1940s to counter them.

Cain first became premier on 14 September 1943, but the ministry lasted only four days until Dunstan cemented a coalition with the United Australia Party. After Labor had gained four seats from the Country Party in an election called because of splits between the Country Party and Liberals (as the U.A.P. was now known), on 21 November 1945 Cain again became premier. He was 'of medium height, cleanshaven, always dressed in quiet grey or navy blue double-breasted suits, a grey felt hat and black shoes, square jawed and square shouldered'. His trademark was his stubby pipe. Unassuming in manner, he enjoyed being seen as an average citizen. He lived in the same Northcote villa throughout his political career, pottered in the garden at weekends, watched cricket and football matches (without any declared allegiance), and enjoyed occasional visits to the cinema.

His government survived precariously with the support of Independents. Its legislation included measures that gave independent pay tribunals to public servants, teachers and police, long service leave to railway workers and more liberal conditions for workers' compensation; a Land Conservation Authority was also established and the Soldier Settlement Commission's powers were extended. It was a better, longer-lived government than might have been expected, but it fell when the Opposition blocked supply in the Legislative Council on 2 October 1947 in protest against the Federal Labor government's proposal to nationalize the banks. Labor was defeated at the State elections on 8 November, with the loss of five seats.

In 1950-52 Labor again supported a minority Country Party government. From 1940 Cain had been fostering closer political and personal relations with the Liberal leader T. T. Hollway to achieve an agreement on redistributing seats to check the power of the Country Party. The basis of this alliance was mutual despair at the ability of the Country Party to manipulate parliament through its balance of power. The politics were of Byzantine intricacy and Cain became almost obsessive in wheeling and dealing with a variety of interests. Yet, his strategy resulted in adult suffrage for Legislative Council elections, introduced by (Sir) John McDonald's Country Party government in 1952 as the price for Labor support.

The unpopularity of the minority Country Party government in the community, together with division in Liberal ranks about vote-weighting and over Hollway's performance, brought Cain victory at the election of 6 December 1952. He took office on 17 December, with a majority in both Houses, and succeeded in redistributing seats—the crowning legislative achievement of his career. Another coup was the relocation of Tattersall's lotteries from Hobart to Melbourne in 1953-54. But major difficulties threatened his government. A faction aligned with 'the Movement' and the Industrial Groups had become aggressive in both the parliamentary party and the organizational wing, conflict broke out with the Trades Hall, Cain's increasing inflexibility caused concern, and there was no obvious successor. While these tensions had only a little to do with the main questions of State government, they exacerbated the crisis when the Federal Labor leader Dr H. V. Evatt denounced 'the Movement' and 'groupers' in October 1954, thereby touching off the great Labor Party split of 1955-57. In April 1955 a 'new' State central executive—chosen by a federally-dominated, special State conference—expelled eighteen Victorian parliamentarians for attending a meeting of the rival faction; in retaliation, those expelled crossed the floor and the third Cain government fell on 19 April. The incoming premier (Sir) Henry Bolte, whose Liberal Party won the elections next month, became the beneficiary of Cain's parliamentary reform.

With no heir on his depleted benches, Cain stayed on as leader of the Opposition. These final years were a bitter harvest. The far left, working closely with the C.P.A. in the unions, had won fifteen years' control of the Victorian A.L.P. Contemptuous of the whole parliamentary process, it wrecked efforts to repair the damage of the split and treated Cain with little respect. He joined the central executive, but despaired at the defeats and rebuffs he suffered, and was stung by the ensuing political embarrassment. Visiting Queensland, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 4 August 1957 at Townsville. He had been raised a Catholic, but lapsed in his youth and shared the agnostic views common among socialists; he later softened somewhat in his attitude to religion. Accorded a state funeral, he was buried in Preston cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife, daughter and son John, who was to serve as Victorian premier in 1982-90, survived him.

For all his Labor rhetoric, especially when young, Cain senior was a fairly conservative administrator, ever aware of the limitations of the government purse and of public patience with experimentation. He was adept at making the best of what limited opportunities Labor had in Victoria and at sticking to his strategy of parliamentary reform.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Syd, 1970)
  • K. White, John Cain and Victorian Labor 1917-1957 (Syd, 1982), and for bibliography.

Citation details

Robert Murray and Kate White, 'Cain, John (1882–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Cain, with his wife, 1954

John Cain, with his wife, 1954

State Library of Victoria, 49376040

Life Summary [details]


19 January, 1882
Greendale, Victoria, Australia


4 August, 1957 (aged 75)
Townsville, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death


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