Subject: Hon Tom Uren AC
ANTHONY ALBANESE: Today I’ve been asked by Tom Uren’s family to pay tribute to my comrade and friend who passed away this Australia Day. Tom Uren was a giant who left this nation that he served and loved better off for his presence.
After 93 years he leaves us as a great Australian. Tom Uren is a link to Australia’s past and how we’ve become the nation that we are today.
Born into the Depression in Balmain in 1921, he moved to Manly where he became an active sportsperson, being a surf lifesaver, a representative football player and a professional boxer.
In 1941, like many of his fellow Australians, he signed up to the Australian Army. He was captured by the Japanese in 1942 on Timor and served there, in Singapore, and on the infamous Burma-Siam Railway and at the end of the War he was taken to Japan, where he served in the slave labour force in the lead-up to the end of the Second World War.
From there, he witnessed on the horizon the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki. He then returned to Australia where he became a manager at Woolworths at Lithgow. He went into Federal Parliament after having been inspired to join the Australian Labor Party in 1958. He served as the Federal Member for Reid for some 32 years and served as a Minister in both the Whitlam and the Hawke Governments.
His legacy, is of someone who was passionate about the natural and built environment, passionate about civil liberties, passionate about peace and social justice, passionate about the rights of working people and the underprivileged. This is a legacy of which he was rightly proud.
Tom Uren continued up until the end as an advocate of social justice, and was very proud of the decision by Julia Gillard and the Labor Government to grant justice to the former Japanese Prisoners of War, just in the last few years.
Tom Uren was a man of principle. He didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk. He cared about his community and he cared about his nation. Tom Uren didn’t go through the Second World War and come out as many could understandably have come out, with bitterness.
He spoke in his first speech about the philosophy learnt on the Burma-Siam railway as part of Weary Dunlop’s force there. It was a philosophy that said the Australians were better off because the fit looked after the sick, the young looked after the old and the rich looked after the poor. Under Weary Dunlop’s leadership, the officers in the Australian force shared, according to need, with those of their fellow prisoners who needed that assistance.
It is remarkable that Tom Uren came through that experience as an advocate for reconciliation – as an opponent, not of the Japanese, but as an opponent of militarism and he lived that way his entire life.
When it came to injustice such as the Queensland anti-march laws, he didn’t just march, but went to jail for refusing to pay the fine. Wherever injustice was, he stood up. He became an of outspoken advocate for the rights of the East Timorese, in part because he believed that Australians owed the East Timorese a debt due to what they did for our forces during the Second World War.
He was someone who could reach across the political divide. He was a builder of alliances. When I nominated him for the Companion of the Order of Australia that he was granted just a couple of years ago, his support letters came from Julia Gillard, the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, the then Leader of the Opposition and Bob Brown, the then Leader of the Australian Greens. All three of them strongly supported this highest of Australian honours being granted to Tom Uren.
Tom Uren was passed away peacefully and I was able to spend time with him just two days ago. He leaves a legacy that is enormous for our movement. He was a lover of people and of the community and the community gave him that affection back.
I mourn him today. I pay tribute to him and I thank him on a personal level for his mentoring of me. He was the closest that I had to a father figure over the last 30 years when, as a very young man, I went to work for him and it was an honour and privilege to be his comrade and his friend.
REPORTER: Can you tell us a little about that time you spent with him a couple of days ago?
ALBANESE: Well, Tom had suffered considerably in recent times. As a Prisoner of War in World War II, he went through what his fellow prisoners went through, malaria, cholera, the diseases, the suffering that they went through that’s outlined so vividly in Richard Flanagan’s book that won the Booker Prize last year.
I must say I asked Tom about that. He didn’t have to read any of the books or any of the histories because he was there. But eventually in terms of his illness, he spent recent months in Lulworth House, part of St Luke’s Hospital. At one stage we had Tom Uren, Gough Whitlam and Neville Wran all being looked after and cared liked to for so well and he would have liked to have passed on his thanks to the nursing staff and those wonderful compassionate people who do such a remarkable job for looking after people towards the end of their life.
REPORTER: Did you ever tell him he was like a father figure to you?
ALBANESE: Many times. I loved him. He told me on Saturday that he loved me.
REPORTER: How tough was that for you?
ALBANESE: Look, it’s been a tough period. I was there a couple of weeks ago, we had one-on-one time. Tom was ready to go. He said to me that death is a part of life, it’s the end period.
He had led such a remarkable life, to have that contact that he had with many tens of thousands of Australians, to walk down a street with Tom Uren and to see the love that people had for him and the respect that people had for him was quite remarkable and I think just shows the person that he was.
In the noise of politics where so much of it is petty in modern politics, Tom Uren always soared above the pack, with his vision, with his principle, with his ideals and with his determination to achieve progressive change for this country and indeed for the world.
I had him as a guest for President Obama’s address to the Parliament just a few years ago and moments like that were a great honour to spend with someone like Tom Uren who had, of course, that connection going back to the Great Depression and that experience and that humility that he had.
REPORTER: What do you think modern Labor needs to take from his experience and his role in shaping, I guess, the Party as it is today?
ALBANESE: Tom Uren was an inspiration to many. He was a man of principle but he was also a man who got things done. He was pragmatic when he needed to be. He was about outcomes. He was about building alliances as well.
Tom Uren worked very hard on the Sydney Harbour National Park issue. We had a joke just a couple of weeks ago about the issue that appears to be happening in Tony Abbott’s own electorate.
Tom Uren had a good relationship with Tony and he certainly said that he wanted to have a word with him at one stage about making sure that nothing infringed on the principle of Sydney Harbour National Park that he fought so hard for.
The important thing about Tom is his legacy in terms of the register of the National Estate, the built environment heritage but also the national environment heritage that he was such a part of building.
He was prepared to reach out across the aisle, whether it be to John Howard or to Tony Abbott or whether it be to people in the Greens political party, whilst remaining an absolute true believer in the Labor Party.
He insisted on door-knocking in the last Federal campaign in 2013 for me. And ringing people for me when the leadership ballot was on between myself and Bill, which he saw as a great improvement in the Labor Party and he certainly encouraged me to say the least, to run.
REPORTER: He is one of the last of perhaps the old guard of the Labor Party, many of whom have passed away recently?
ALBANESE: That’s right. It’s been a very sad 12 months for the Labor Party to see giants like Neville Wran, Gough Whitlam and Tom Uren pass. But all of them remained very positive about the future, right up until the end and Tom was a very passionate servant, as he put it, of the people.
And he saw the Labor Party as the vehicle to achieve that change through the Parliament but he also saw and played an important role in the Labor Party’s principles of action, which is part of the Socialist Objective that isn’t looked at as often by as many that look at the first few lines.
That principle of action speaks about community action, action by trade unions and action by broader society. Tom Uren was someone who was a regular marcher. He was someone who was active in civil society and understood that politics didn’t just happen in the Parliament, it happened on the meeting rooms, on the streets, around the family dinner table and around the local RSL or sporting organisation as well.
REPORTER: With all due respect, there don’t seem to be those sorts of giants and staunch believers in the Labor Party at the moment who wear their hearts on sleeve and prepared to take massive political risks if necessary to carry on their own true beliefs. Would you accept that?
ALBANESE: No, I accept that Tom Uren was a giant of the movement and you don’t have to, and he certainly wouldn’t want, anyone to be denigrated in order to praise him. What Tom Uren was, was an optimist and positive.
He never succumbed; he never, ever succumbed to negative politics. That is pretty remarkable given the tough life that he had. I think that is one of the reasons that why he is such an inspirational figure to myself, to my generation and to generations to come who will be able to have a read of Straight Left, his autobiography and to read about his circumstances.
He spoke many times of the success of the Labor movement. Even in his first speech he spoke about the success of the Labor movement in having gains which improved living standards.
Of course, improvements occurred as a result of his contribution after he was a Member of Parliament and others who have come after them as well. He was a great believer in local government and he I think is seen by many as the father of local government in the federal sphere.
It is because of him that there are direct Financial Assistance Grants to local government. He saw politics as being from the ground up and right until the end he remained faithful to his beliefs and he retained a faith in people to be able to advance progressive change.
He used to dismiss some of the romantic notions that are there, that there was a golden era in the past but not the future. He spoke about environmentalism and how far that had moved from the time when he was made Labor’s first environment spokesperson.
When he was in Parliament, there wasn’t even an Environment Minister. Now the environment is a core issue that is critical to all political parties in this nation.