John Cain (41st Premier of Victoria)

John Cain (born 26 April 1931) is a former Australian politician who was the 41st Premier of Victoria, in office from 1982 to 1990 as leader of the Labor Party. During his time as premier, changes were enforced to the practices of various institutions in Melbourne which discriminated against women, while other reforms were introduced such as liberalised shop trading hours and liquor laws, equal opportunity initiatives, and occupational health and safety legislation.[1]

John Cain
41st Premier of Victoria
Elections: 1982, 1985, 1988
In office
8 April 1982  10 August 1990
DeputyRobert Fordham
Joan Kirner
Preceded byLindsay Thompson
Succeeded byJoan Kirner
Member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly
for Bundoora
In office
20 March 1976  14 August 1992
Preceded bySeat created
Succeeded bySherryl Garbutt
Personal details
Born (1931-04-26) 26 April 1931
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Political partyLabor Party
Spouse(s)Nancye Evelyn Williams
FatherJohn Cain


Cain was born in Melbourne, the son of John Cain, leader of the Labor Party in Victoria from 1937 to 1957 and three times premier. He was educated at Bell Primary School, Northcote High School, Scotch College, Melbourne, and at the University of Melbourne, where he graduated in law. He practised law in suburban Melbourne, and was chairman of the Victorian Law Institute in 1971–72. He was also a member of the Law Council of Australia and a member of the Australian Law Reform Commission.

Cain was 24 at the time of the 1955 split in the Labor Party that brought down his father's last government. He lost a preselection battle with Frank Wilkes for his late father's seat of Northcote in 1957.

During the 1960s he was a member of the group, known as The Participants, which also included John Button, Richard McGarvie, Frank Costigan and Barry Jones, who opposed the left-wing group which controlled the Victorian Labor Party from 1955 onwards. In 1971 he supported the moves by supporters of Gough Whitlam, led by Bob Hawke and others, that in 1971 brought about federal intervention in the Victorian branch and ended left-wing control. He became Vice-Chairman of the Victorian Labor Party in 1973. That group of Participants later became known as the Independents faction which predominantly voted with the Socialist Left.

Political career

In 1976 Cain was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly as MP for Bundoora. He became shadow Attorney-General under the leadership of Frank Wilkes. After Wilkes narrowly lost the 1979 election to the Liberal premier, Dick Hamer, Cain challenged him for the leadership, becoming leader in September 1981.

Hamer had been forced to resign a few months earlier and was succeeded by Deputy Premier Lindsay Thompson. However, the Liberals appeared tired and complacent after over a quarter-century in power, and Cain consistently got the better of Thompson. After waiting as long as he could, Thompson called an election for April 1982. At that election, Labor won a sweeping victory on a 17-seat swing—the worst defeat that a non-Labor government has ever suffered in Victoria. Cain took office at the helm of the first Labor government in Victoria since the one led by his father 27 years earlier.

First term as Premier

During the first term of his government, Cain's government carried out many reforms to Victorian government, particularly in the areas of education, environment, law reform and public administration. The Government brought in nude beaches, legalised brothels, extended Saturday shop trading hours, extended nightclub hours, extended hotel hours and allowed Sunday VFL football and more gambling opportunities.[2]

Cain was a Keynesian, opposed to the doctrines of economic rationalism, and he increased government spending in the hope of stimulating growth and investment. Following the lead of NSW premier Neville Wran, Cain demanded Government owned enterprises pay dividends to the treasury, these dividends were increased every year forcing these enterprises to borrow to pay the dividend. Other schemes such as the Victorian Economic Development Corporation, and the Victorian Equity Trust promised good returns. These schemes worked so long as the national economy remained buoyant.

The Government of Victoria refused to approve the plans for the upgrade VFL Park in 1982/1983, because the upgrade would have threatened the Melbourne Cricket Ground's right to host the VFL Grand Final. Cain said that such a major event must be played in the centre of Melbourne.

Cain was also responsible for the appointment as Governor of Davis McCaughey, then aged 71, who served from 1986 to 1992. A highly respected theologian, McCaughey was a popular choice after the controversy surrounding after the resignation of Rear Admiral Sir Brian Murray, following disputed accusations that he had improperly accepted free air travel.

Second term

Historically, Labor had not been very successful in Victoria. However, Cain remained very popular with the Victorian electorate, and was easily elected to a second term in 1985 over the Liberals under Jeff Kennett, the first time a Labor government had been reelected in Victoria. Labor also won the Victorian Legislative Council seat of Nunawading after a tied vote forced the parties to draw from a hat to decide the winner, giving Labor control of the upper house for the first time ever. However, a fresh election was ordered by the Court of Disputed Returns after it was found that the Chief Electoral Officer should have cast deciding vote. The Liberals won the seat, and Labor lost its slim majority. Within a week the chairman of the Victorian Nuclear Disarmament Party lodged an official complaint about a deceptive NDP how to vote card handed out at the booths. It was claimed that Labor members were recognised handing out this card and that the allocation of preferences to the ALP on the card damaged the NDP.[3] The government entered a cover-up to protect its state secretary Peter Batchelor and the Labor party.[4]

During its second term Cain's government began to run into difficulties with the state budget. The stock market crash of 1987 created a crisis which forced the government to cut spending, alienating some trade union supporters. The State Bank of Victoria, in particular its merchant banking arm Tricontinental, ran up a huge portfolio of bad loans, without adequate fiduciary supervision.

Progress had created a vast amount of vacant inner-city land, with the introduction of containerisation in the shipping industry, the docks became inadequate for the new container ships. This made the docks within Victoria Dock obsolete as the principal docking area shifted closer to the mouth of the Yarra, and this was seen as a large urban blight by the Cain state government. The size of the Melbourne Docklands area meant that political influences were inescapable.

The Docklands was high on the government's agenda,[5] however, the government at the time could not afford to initiate the investment for the project so the Docklands project stayed on the drawing board. There was a bid for the 1996 Olympic Games and another proposal was to turn the Docklands into a technology city known as the Multifunction Polis (MFP).[5]

Third term

The Cain government was narrowly re-elected to a third term in 1988. The Liberals actually won a majority of the two-party vote. However, much of the Liberal margin was wasted on large majorities in their heartland. In contrast, Labor only lost one seat in the capital, and won enough marginal urban seats to cling to power by only two seats. Immediately after the election a huge shortfall in the government's workers' compensation scheme, WorkCare, was revealed.

The VEDC (Victorian Economic Development Corporation), established by the previous Liberal Government, and its sister, the Victorian Investment Corporation, were created to back new industries to replace outdated smokestack manufacturers. The VEDC collapsed under poor management and an absence of accountability after it had provided $450 million of loan and equity assistance to business.[6]

This was followed by a budgetary crisis. The deputy premier, Robert Fordham, took some of the blame and resigned. This led to the elevation of Education Minister Joan Kirner to deputy premier.

For 33 days from 1 January 1990, 250 trams were parked in Melbourne's CBD streets by tram drivers. The Cain government wanted to save $24 million a year, by the introduction of a new Met Ticket system - or scratchies as they were colloquially known. Scratch tickets were supposed to save money by cutting 550 ticket conductor jobs and 550 train station staff. The trams did not move because the government shut down the power grid.[7]

In February 1990 it was rumoured that Pyramid, a privately owned building society, was in difficulties. Ministers in Cain's government accepted assurances from Pyramid directors that the society's position was sound, and passed these assurances on to the public. In fact, it was insolvent. When it failed, causing thousands of investors and depositors to lose their money, the government was blamed by investors and the media. This was followed shortly after by the collapse of Tricontinental Bank, which threatened to bankrupt the Victorian Government-owned State Bank, Victoria's largest financial institution. The bank eventually had to be sold to the Commonwealth Bank, which was shortly thereafter privatised by the federal government.

By this time Cain was becoming frustrated at the reluctance of his government's caucus members to approve his plans for tax rises and spending cuts to reduce the growing budget deficit. He issued an ultimatum at the Labor Party Conference - "back me or sack me." When the undermining of his position continued, he resigned on 7 August 1990. During an interview after his resignation, he remarked, "We appointed a few dills but we weren't crook."[2] Kirner was elected Labor leader in Cain's place and became the first female Premier of Victoria. By this time, Labor had bottomed out at 22 percent in opinion polling. Kirner was unable to make up the lost ground, and Labor was heavily defeated at the 1992 Victorian state election. Cain did not run in this election.

Life after Parliament

Cain did not seek publicity after his retirement from politics.[8] He became a professorial fellow in politics at the University of Melbourne in 1991, and has since completed three books. In 2004 he surfaced in the media with a damning critique of the University of Melbourne's experimentation with what he said were risky financial ventures and what he argued was its departure from its public mission. Off Course: From Public Place to Marketplace at Melbourne University attracted a range of critical commentary. He is a regular political commentator on local radio. He has remained active in the affairs of the Victorian Labor Party, and in 2011 he was critical of what he sees as the dominance of factions in the party, particularly the Labor Right.[9] He is one of the ALP's Dispute Tribunal members, a panel of three people from which one is selected randomly to adjudicate internal party disputes. Some members have expressed concern that his public statements on factions means that he has prejudged disputes that could appear before him.

John Cain sits on the board of the Melbourne Cricket Ground Trust.[10] He is also a member of the Patrons Council of the Epilepsy Foundation of Victoria. The John Cain Foundation is a thinktank on political affairs of relevance to Victoria.[11]


Cain married Nancye Williams in 1955. He has two sons and a daughter. Cain's son, lawyer John Cain, was named Solicitor for Public Prosecutions in Victoria in late 2015.[12]

He also has a library named in his honor at Northcote High School, of which he is an alumnus.[13]



  1. Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891-1991
  2. Cain enigma and me, Derryn Hinch, The Sun 11 August 1990.
  4. Public debt and private pain, The Sun 8 August 1990
  5. Kim Dovey (2005). Fluid City: Transforming Melbourne's Waterfront. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.
  6. Elias, David (8 September 2005), "VEDC: the ghost that still talks", The Age, retrieved 28 March 2011
  7. Lucas, Clay (16 January 2010), "Back to days when trams stood still", The Age, retrieved 28 March 2011
  8. Guthrie, Bruce (30 April 2011). "Labor's party poopers shun a great state achiever". The Sydney Morning Herald.
  9. Austin, Paul (16 May 2009), "Cain attacks ALP for council abuses", The Age, retrieved 28 March 2011
  10. MCG Trust, retrieved 28 March 2011
  12. Butcher, Steve (22 April 2015). "John Cain named the new head of Office of Public Prosecutions". The Age.
  13. "John Cain Library". Northcote High School website. Retrieved 13 March 2019.
Victorian Legislative Assembly
Seat created Member for Bundoora
Succeeded by
Sherryl Garbutt
Political offices
Preceded by
Frank Wilkes
Leader of the Opposition (Victoria)
Succeeded by
Lindsay Thompson
Preceded by
Haddon Storey
Attorney-General of Victoria
Succeeded by
Jim Kennan
Preceded by
Lindsay Thompson
Premier of Victoria
Succeeded by
Joan Kirner
Party political offices
Preceded by
Frank Wilkes
Leader of the Labor Party in Victoria
Succeeded by
Joan Kirner
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