Jul 24, 2015

Address to ALP National Conference event for the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons – Launch of Tom Uren Memorial Fund

Just after 11am on August 9, 1945, on the island of Omuta, prisoners of war noticed an odd discolouration on the horizon in the direction of Nagasaki, about 80km away.

Decades later one of those prisoners – Tom Uren – described the sight.

It reminded me of those beautiful crimson skies of sunsets in Central Australia, but magnified about ten times stronger, and it’s vividly… It’s never left me.

Watching a nuclear explosion that killed as many as 80,000 people had a deep effect on Tom.

In later interviews Tom noted that in 1945, he was glad the bomb had been dropped because it meant that war was about to end and he could go home after years of oppression in POW camps and being treated like a slave on the infamous Burma Railway.

But he also said that later, the more he thought about witnessing the explosion, the more he came to realise that nothing could justify the use of nuclear weapons.

He later told a journalist:

As I evolved and understood nuclear war, I found that it was a crime against humanity.

Really. I really do think that the dropping of a nuclear bomb on human beings, generally, was a crime against humanity, and a lot of my mates don’t agree with me.

It says a lot about Tom Uren that despite losing his youth to the war; despite undergoing unimaginable hardships at the hands of his Japanese captors, he was able to disconnect his own experience from the broader issue of nuclear weapons and their impact on humanity.

He came to understand that the world would be a better place without nuclear weapons and was happy to stand up and argue the point – anywhere, any time and at any cost.

Tom Uren was an extraordinary man – a great man of the Left who dedicated a lifetime of activism to a range of important causes.

If you look through the history books at photographs of some of the great public movements of the past half-century, there’s a very good chance you’ll see Tom leading the marches or rallies.

The Vietnam War.

Land rights for indigenous people.

Justice for former POWs.

Protection of our urban and natural environments.

Attacks on civil liberties.

Self-determination of the people of East Timor.

Tom was always there, right out front.

But when he retired from Parliament in 1990, he left us all in no doubt on what he saw as unfinished business.

“The labour movement has been good to me in all the years I have been in politics,’’ Tom said.

“For the rest of my life I will commit myself to the people. The struggle for nuclear disarmament is the most important struggle in the human race.’’

Although Tom passed away on Australia Day this year, his comment is as important today as it was when it was made.

In political life, we encounter many issues and fight many battles.

Some matter more than others.

But when everything is said and done, we are kidding ourselves if we don’t see the existence of nuclear arsenals that could result in the destruction of the mankind as the number one issue facing our race.

All of us need to consider this issue from the perspective of our legacy we will leave.

Only a fool would not want their children and grandchildren growing up in a nuclear world if they could do something to prevent it.

It’s true that the extreme tensions of the Cold War, which was still a cause of fear when I was young, have eased.

That’s a good thing, because in those days kids were told the world really could end at any moment.

But let’s not forget that even if tension has receded, the weapons are still out there – enough weapons to destroy the globe many times over.

According to ICAN, nine countries together possess more than 15,000 nuclear weapons.

Most are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people.

Even if global politics is no longer an intractable battle of ideologies, too many nations possess nuclear weapons.

Some use them as threats as they pursue their economic, regional or global policy ambitions.

We’ll never stop there being differences between nations over any range of matters – territorial disputes, ethnic battles, religion, politics.

But what we can do is work together to disarm so that, when nations have disputes, there is no chance that their arguments will get out of hand and lead to nuclear conflict.

International powers need to work together to that end.

They must put the arguments of the day aside and accept that the existence of so many nuclear warheads around the world represents a danger to us all.

That’s a threat we can do without.

This requires commonsense and goodwill, commodities that are sadly often absent when it comes to the debate about nuclear weapons.

Just earlier this month when US President Barack Obama clinched a deal with Iran to surrender 97 per cent of its enriched uranium and allow intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities in return for the lifting of economic sanctions by the US and Europe, he made a critical step forward in reducing the chances of a Middle east arms race.

Yet there are conservatives in the US and Israel who are uncomfortable with the idea. They are wrong.

They have given in to fear and paranoia or because they simply can’t bring themselves to trust people they see as their enemies – they can’t see the forest for the trees.

It is that sort of approach to the issue that we really need to eliminate.

We need to accept that, whatever our arguments, the existence of nuclear weapons is a threat to us all and that the only way to reduce the threat is to work together.

Or, in the words of British songwriter and activist Billy Bragg:

The only way to disarm is to disarm. (from his song The Warmest Room)

What Billy was trying to say is that we can find all sorts of excuses about why we should not disarm, but if we stop using those excuses and just get on with it, the world will be a better place – for all of us.

I don’t know if Tom Uren ever met Billy Bragg.

But I do know that after all of his experiences, Tom had a similar view on the issue.

Indeed, in 1959 Tom gave one of his first speeches in Parliament in which he expressed his dismay that when conservative politicians debated issues to do with nuclear weapons, their comments were laced with paranoid Cold war rhetoric about the evil of Russia and China.

Clear-headed Tom said: “We on this side of the House do not want a hate session with anybody.

“We must do our utmost to stop nuclear tests. Problems can no longer be solved by wars. We must solve them by peaceful negotiation.’’

More than half a century later, Tom’s words ring down the decades.

Peaceful negotiation in the interests of common humanity is the way forward.

I’m very pleased to have been asked to speak today about Tom.

As most people here would know, I used to work for this great man.

He was like a father to me and we spoke often of these issues, as well as his concern about the use of nuclear energy given the unresolved issue of safely disposing of nuclear waste.

My position on the nuclear fuel cycle is clear.

Until the issues of nuclear waste and nuclear proliferation are satisfactorily solved, I oppose any further Australian involvement in the nuclear fuel cycle.

Nuclear waste created today, remains an issue for generations to come.

That’s why I am proud that Labor is sticking by our strong commitment to develop alternative energy sources and will seek a target of 50 per cent use of renewables by 2030.

That’s a sensible and responsible approach.

I note that Tony Abbott doesn’t like solar or wind energy.

The problem of course isn’t that Tony Abbott is stuck in the past, it’s that he wants the rest of Australia to go back there and keep him company.

I’ve had concerns about nuclear energy for my entire period in parliament, so I thank you for the chance to speak today.

I’ll speak about Tom Uren any time. He was a special man whose sense of justice and love for humanity make him one of our nation’s all-time greats.

I miss his love, his friendship, his counsel – and his hugs.

It’s fitting that ICAN has chosen to create the Tom Uren Memorial Fund.

Long may people rally behind his name.