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Vale former Victorian Premier John Cain, a visionary and ethical leader

Today we honour the memory and legacy of the Hon. John Cain, the longest serving Labor Premier of Victoria (1982-1990) who was instrumental in the establishment of the Victorian Women’s Trust.

In recognition of the contributions and achievements of women and girls in the state of Victoria, as part of the sesquicentenary celebrations in 1985, the Cain Government gifted one million dollars which led to the formation of the Trust as we know it today.

John and Nancye, his wife and partner of almost 65 years, have always been ardent supporters of the Trust.

In August 2019, Mary Crooks AO (Executive Director, Victorian Women’s Trust) visited John and Nancye at home to talk about John’s memories of political life and the creation of VWT, which he called “one of the most symbolic and pioneering things we did”. 

Here’s John in his own words: 

“Well, I was political from the outset. I’d grown up in a political household* and I drove Nancye into it, I suppose. Which was selfish. We were married ‘55 just around the time that the Labor Party split. I joined the party in 1948 and in my early years as a member, the party was breaking open. All the bitterness that came from that just made me more determined than ever. 

When I was a school boy, I was a bit of a sport fanatic, really committed to the notion of tribal sport, like the VFL. It was a Saturday afternoon outlet. I went to football matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the Richmond Footy oval, as well as Collingwood, and Fitzroy, because all of them were within walking distance from the train tracks. I haven’t missed a Grand Final since 1943, I think.

I was aware of the ‘white line’ women were not allowed to cross at sports grounds long before I became a Premier. I was constantly at the race track when I was young, simply because my mother and father used to go. They would go as the Premier and his wife, throughout the 40s and 50s. That made me aware of the gender bias in elite racing and the elite sports clubs on public land.

Years later, when Nancye and I would go to the races, I could cross the white line but they would stop Nancye. She was not allowed to cross it, and so we’d have to watch the race somewhere else. That really got my goat. There was such arrogance there. 

The Labor party was elected in 1982 and I tackled the issue of the ‘white line’ as soon as I could. I talked to the Racing Club Chairs and Committee, and I said, “Look, you’re on a piece of public land here, you’ve got important business; racing, cricket, and football. You are now basically excluding half the population.” The Labor party had made it clear gender equality was what it was about. 

Nancye Cain, John Cain and Mary Crooks AO

I was just going through the diaries the other day and it was a long campaign. For a while, we weren’t invited to some of their sports functions because we wouldn’t comply. So, for 18 months, I suppose, it burned away at the MCG and at the Caulfield, Flemington and Moonee Valley race tracks. It took about four years to change. 

The political world is so different now than what it was then. The million dollar gift from our government to create the Victorian Women’s Trust in 1985 was one of the most symbolic and pioneering things we did. We were in our first term then. It was historic and we did it in response to general party policy and the enthusiasm of Labor Party women and Labor Party policy makers to do all we could to continue to weaken the hold sexism had on society. 

We thought creating the Trust, an independent body, would be good party politics too, giving women room to exercise their own will in a way that was sensible and balanced. When the Trust was established, we made Judge Peg Lusink the first President. I’d known Peg all my life. She was a judge of the Family Court. And she had a feminist mother, Joan Rosenove, of course, who had brought her up as a feminist. Peg was good.

Nancy has been a supporter of the Trust pretty much from the word “go”, I think. Supporter of everything. She’s terrific and after almost 65 years of marriage, I’ve learned that it’s all about tolerance, and give and take, I suppose. You need insight and understanding to make it work.”


Images Kate Dyer (Urban Safari)

*John Cain Snr held office as Premier of Victoria three times between 1943-1955.

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