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Kevin Michael Kiernan Cairns (1929–1984)

by Elaine Brown

This article was published:

Kevin Michael Kiernan Cairns (1929-1984), dentist, economist and politician, was born on 15 May 1929 at Five Dock, Sydney, and registered solely as Kevin, only son of Michael Cairns, an English-born seaman and union official, and his wife Mary, née Jarvis, formerly Downey, who was born in Sydney. His working-class parents made great sacrifices to educate their intelligent son, sending him to the Christian Brothers’ High School, Lewisham, then to St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, where, at the age of 16, he won a bursary to the University of Sydney (BDS, 1953).

After registering as a dentist on 20 April 1953, Cairns practised briefly in Sydney, Melbourne and Broken Hill, New South Wales, before moving to Brisbane in 1955 and entering private practice at Stones Corner. Keen on a career in politics, he took up debating and joined the Young Liberal Movement. He stood unsuccessfully for the safe Labor seat of Brisbane in the House of Representatives in lively elections in 1955, 1958 and 1961. On 23 January 1957 at the Catholic Church of Saints Peter and Paul, North Broken Hill, he had married Tonia Maria Gainer, a dental technician.

At the 1963 Federal election Cairns won the marginal Brisbane seat of Lilley. While serving in parliament, he completed part-time studies at the University of Queensland (BA, 1964; B.Econ., 1965). He was made deputy government whip in 1967, but resigned the position in 1969 after a disagreement with Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton, of whose leadership he had become intensely critical. On 22 March 1971 he was appointed minister for housing under (Sir) William McMahon, becoming the fifth Catholic to serve as a Liberal minister. Losing his seat narrowly in 1972, he worked as an economic adviser in the Queensland Department of Industrial Affairs.

In 1974 Cairns regained Lilley. He visited Europe as a member of a parliamentary delegation in June 1975, chaired (1977-80) the House of Representatives standing committee on expenditure and served on various other parliamentary committees. Defeated again in 1980, he earned his living as a lecturer in economics, a member of the Independent Air Fares Committee, and a consultant to Mount Isa Mines Ltd and the Queensland Tourist & Travel Corporation. He also became president of the Queensland branch of the Economic Society of Australia.

Cairns was a man of medium height and stocky build, with hazel eyes and a fair complexion. Although sensitive, idealistic, modest and intensely serious, he displayed in private an impish sense of humour. Described as a voracious reader and a vigorous, determined debater, he brought to his political career a strong sense of social justice, conservative family and religious values, a free-enterprise approach to economics and an outlook so individualistic that within the Liberal Party he was sometimes seen as a `boat rocker’.

An avowed anti-communist, he had become involved in controversies over the Vietnam War in 1966 and the boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980. He deplored Australia’s falling birth rate and opposed the Family Law Act (1975). As a dentist, he favoured the fluoridation of water supplies, and as a humanitarian, expressed compassion for the disadvantaged, the aged and the unemployed. He campaigned to have Brisbane airport upgraded to international standard, pushed for state aid to independent schools and successfully promoted a plan to achieve better funding arrangements between the Queensland and Federal governments.

Cairns died of myocardial infarction on 6 July 1984 at Clayfield; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Nudgee cemetery. His wife and their four sons and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 7 July 1984, pp 1, 14
  • Echo (Brisbane), 11 July 1984, p 3
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 15 July 1984, p 23
  • Catholic Leader, 15 July 1984, p 5
  • News Weekly, 18 July 1984, p 3
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 21 Aug 1984, p 12
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 21 Aug 1984, p 31
  • private information.

Citation details

Elaine Brown, 'Cairns, Kevin Michael Kiernan (1929–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1929
Five Dock, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


6 July, 1984 (aged 55)
Clayfield, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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