Tom Uren, one of the great characters of Australian post-war politics, has died in a Sydney nursing home this morning, aged 93.
Uren, a Minister in both the Whitlam and Hawke Labor Governments, was also the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party from 1975-77. He was a member of the federal parliament for 32 years and, in 2013, was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for his work on behalf of former prisoners of war.
Born to a working class family in Balmain, Uren left school during the Great Depression at the age of 13 because he could get a job and his father couldn’t. Having excelled at a range of sports in his youth, he fought for the Australian heavyweight title at the age of 20. At 21, he was on the Burma Railway, part of the force commanded by Sir Edward “Weary” Dunlop.
Uren believed the Australians’ survival rate was due to the “collectivist” spirit engendered by Dunlop. He spent the final year of the war working in a mine in Japan. The experience persuaded him that his enemy was not the Japanese people but what he called “militarism”. These were to be the basic pillars of his political beliefs.
He was a leading figure in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam years and led a delegation to Iraq to free western hostages before the first Iraq war. He was a prominent activist in numerous environmental causes and he never ceased to campaign on behalf of the men who suffered with him on the Burma Railway.
Uren was smeared as a communist in the 1950s and ‘60s but by the end of his life he would list Pope John XXIII and Martin Luther King as being among his principal influences. A member of his family said Uren had met his death “with the same character and courage he faced the rest of his life”.
A memorial service will be held for Tom Uren in Sydney next week.