Tom Uren AC Memorial Lecture

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Sunday, 20th June 2021

Tom Uren AC Memorial Lecture

Hosted by Hon. Anthony Albanese MP & Delivered by Hon. Linda Burney MP

I grew up without a dad, but not without a father.

Tom Uren was my father figure.

He was a big man in stature. A big man in ideas. And a man with a big heart.

During his service in WWII, he was a prisoner of war in Changi Prison.

Tom spent his 21st birthday as a Japanese prisoner of war on the notorious Thai-Burma Railway.

Many thousands died, but Tom survived. He never spoke much about what happened during that time, but he always said Australians survived because of a simple code:

The healthy looked after the sick, the strong looked after the weak, the young looked after the old.

– Tom Uren AC

Near the end of the war, he was sent to Japan as a slave labourer, where he witnessed the atomic bomb being dropped on Nagasaki.

He lived an incredible life.

He witnessed the depravity and cruelty of war, but he never lost his humanity.

Tom went on to be a minister in the Hawke Labor Government.

He was an anti-war advocate.

He was a strong anti-nuclear advocate.

He fought to preserve Sydney Harbour.

To me, Tom Uren was a father figure. He was my mentor. He was my friend.

We lost Tom in 2015 – but he would have turned 100 last month.

Linda Burney and I spoke at the Tom Uren Memorial Lecture today. The annual event honours Tom’s contribution to our movement.

Linda delivered Senator Patrick Dodson's speech, who could unfortunately not join us due to the Covid outbreak in Sydney.

Tom Uren was a man driven by values derived from his own experiences. As a veteran, he abhorred violence. As a campaigner, he believed in a better Australia.

And he believed Labor was the party to make that happen. His beliefs inspired me to strive to make this country fairer, better, more ambitious. Those values still drive me today.

Please watch the Memorial Lecture below, or read the transcript also found on this page.

Linda Burney MP Delivering the Tom Uren AC Memorial Lecture 2021

I firstly want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we meet this afternoon, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

I want to thank Anthony Albanese, Labor’s parliamentary leader, for having invited me to deliver this year’s Tom Uren Memorial Lecture.

And I welcome the presence here this afternoon of Anthony’s predecessor in the seat of Grayndler, Jeanette McHugh, who was Minister for Consumer Affairs in the Keating government. 

I also welcome those friends of Tom who are with us, and I acknowledge the presence here of fellow parliamentarians …

Tom Uren died on Australia Day 2015.

Had he been alive today, he would have celebrated his centenary a month ago.

The flyer promoting this lecture says he was a political activist and parliamentarian, passionate about Indigenous land rights.

He was all of that – and, fearlessly frank with it.

Take this passage from his autobiography, Straight Left, published in 1994, when he’s writing about a meeting of the Hawke Cabinet to discuss a scheme for national land rights for First Nations peoples – a scheme which was later abandoned. 

“It was disgraceful,” Tom has written. 

“We know now,” he said, “that by vetoing Aboriginal land rights, Bob was doing a job for his mate Brian Burke, the Premier of Western Australia.”

I want to return later to that episode, but Tom Uren’s forthrightness has prompted me to ponder the records of Labor and the Coalition in their dealings with affairs and policies that affect First Nations.

I must say at the outset that – with some egregious exceptions – Labor over the decades has been far more understanding and accommodating of the interests of First Nations people than those who’ve sat opposite us in the federal parliament.

Were it otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.

Labor has a conscience. 

The conservatives, by and large, are conscious only of their own kind. 

With the exception of the Fraser years and the ministries of Ian Viner and Fred Chaney from the mid-1970s to the early 80s, the coalition parties have demonstrated indifference at best, hostility at worst, towards First Nations peoples and their pleas for justice and recognition.

By comparison, Labor’s approach, from the outset of Federation, has been progressive and sympathetic.

It’s fair to say that for much of the first half of last century, all federal governments gave scant attention to Indigenous affairs.

There was of course the notorious Franchise Act of 1902 which denied Aboriginal people the right to vote – and, for the record, Labor members were among the very few who opposed that provision.

As the historian Judith Brett has written, the disenfranchisement of Aborigines was one of the infamous stepping stones of cruelty and shame in Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Australians.

But that treatment – maltreatment, really – was the responsibility of the states.

And in spite of several calls over the early decades of federation for the Commonwealth to assume control of Aboriginal affairs, various federal governments were happy to leave it to the states.

I should note here that the Commonwealth did have responsibility for the Northern Territory from 1911, but its treatment there of Aboriginal people, a large majority of the territory’s population, was hardly exemplary.

Finally, international factors brought the role of the Commonwealth into sharper focus during the Second World War.

Labor’s Attorney General Doc Evatt was, in part, mindful of Australia’s international standing when he proposed a referendum in 1944 to give the Commonwealth greater powers to drive a post-war agenda.

Evatt anticipated a heightened scrutiny of Australia’s care for Indigenous populations, both here and abroad, given the principles enshrined in the Atlantic Charter – the agreement between Britain and the USA which prescribed the principles of a new world order after the war.

Among the fourteen powers Evatt sought in the 1944 referendum was for the Commonwealth to have the ability to legislate for Indigenous Australians.

But that referendum was lost and successive governments, principally the Menzies coalition, were content to let rest the matter of Commonwealth control.

Labor was much more sympathetic.

As early as 1959, the year after Tom Uren was first elected to Parliament, the ALP’s federal conference adopted as party policy the alteration of Section 51 (xxvi) – the race power – in the Australian Constitution, and the repeal of Section 127 that said Aboriginal people could not be counted in the census.

From Opposition, Labor MPs Kim Beazley senior and Gordon Bryant were great champions of the policy, and Arthur Calwell in August 1964 introduced a private member’s bill for constitutional changes.

Prime Minister Menzies was intransigently opposed to amending Section 51 (xxvi) to allow the Commonwealth to legislate for Aboriginal people.

“What should be aimed at,” he told Parliament, was, quote, “the integration of the Aborigine in the general community, not a state of affairs in which he would be treated as being a race apart”.

In other words, assimilation was the order of the day – although these days I’m not too sure that Menzies was happy that Aboriginal people continued to survive at all.

I say that because I have been shocked to read Menzies’ reflections to that archly conservative journalist, the late David McNicoll, as recorded by Troy Bramston in his 2019 biography of Menzies.

“We have created an Aboriginal problem in Australia that did not need to exist at all. 

“The Aboriginal is almost the lowest form of human native life,” Menzies told McNicoll seven years after he had left office.

Aboriginal people, he said, could not be compared with Maori or Fijians.

Bramston writes that Menzies went on to say that he had often wondered whether the right thing to do wouldn’t have been to mark out a territory and put them – Aboriginal people, that is – into it.


Out of sight, out of mind!

And this is the same Menzies to whom the New South Wales Liberal Party Senator Andrew Bragg in a new book ascribes quiet achievements in Indigenous affairs.

Quiet achievements!  

That’d be right!

So quiet, nobody’s ever heard of them.

Eight years after Labor policy proposed constitutional changes, Menzies’ successor Harold Holt finally put them to a referendum, which was passed overwhelmingly in May 1967.

Senator Bragg, in his book which lays out a liberal case for national reconciliation, writes in awe of Holt’s achievement in putting the referendum to the vote.

The fact is, Holt and the Liberals were years behind Labor’s timetable.

The yes vote of more than 90 per cent was not testament to Holt’s advocacy.

It merely reflected the long pent-up frustration of the Australian people.

As it happened, Holt was quite unprepared for the hugely positive outcome of the referendum and took many months to shape a role for the Commonwealth in formulating and guiding policies relating to First Nations peoples.

Worse, the Liberal Prime Ministers who succeeded Holt, John Gorton and William McMahon, had no appetite for reform and were happy to sit back while National Party ministers stymied the aspirations of First Nations people.

National Party ministers for the Interior and Territories and their like-minded departmental officials ran the Northern Territory as if it was their own fiefdom.

They went out of their way to stifle any calls for land rights, and Tom Uren was on to them.

Gurindji stockmen famously walked off Wave Hill Station a few months before the 1967 referendum and Tom took up with gusto their demands for proper wages and land rights.

In October 1967, he called for an inquiry into the grievances of the Gurindji strikers and told the Parliament:

“The people of Australia voted overwhelmingly at the recent referendum for a better deal, a fair go, for our Aboriginals.

“For far too long this minority section of our community has suffered injustice, cruelty and inhuman treatment. Most sane and rational people in Australia want to ensure that the Aboriginals get a better deal. The eyes of the world are upon us,” he said.

The Coalition government was unmoved. 

The Gurindji would have to wait until the election of the Whitlam government for their demands to be satisfied.

And while the Gurindji waited, Tom Uren continued to advocate for their cause in parliamentary debates and question times.

And his support continued long after he’d retired from Parliament.

I clearly remember his attendance at Dagaragu in 2006 for the celebrations to mark the 40th anniversary of the walkoff. 

He was 85 years old, but still alert and determined to join in all the celebrations that marked the anniversary.

It took the election of Gough Whitlam in December 1972 for the Commonwealth to take control of Aboriginal affairs, as voters had hoped the ’67 referendum would deliver.

Just 10 days after he assumed the Prime Ministership, Whitlam appointed Justice Ted Woodward to advise on how land rights could be implemented in the Northern Territory, which the Commonwealth would continue to control until 1978.

The Woodward inquiry would lead to drafting the Northern Territory Land Rights Act which was introduced to parliament in October 1975, but never got through the Senate because the Whitlam government was dismissed a month later.

Labor had been sympathetic for many years to Aboriginal demands for land rights, especially in the Northern Territory.

As far back as 1963, Labor MPs Gordon Bryant and Kim Beazley senior, both of them ministers under Whitlam, had been great promoters of the Yirrkala bark petitions which rest to this day in a glass cabinet at Parliament House in Canberra.

The petitions recorded the protests of the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land against the Commonwealth’s seizure of their country on Gove Peninsula for a bauxite mine.

The call of the Yolngu for a parliamentary inquiry was backed by the Labor Opposition and eloquently supported by Kim Beazley.

“We need to accept an obligation towards Aboriginal Australians today,” Beazley said at the time.

“We ought to be motivated by respect, by the desire to do justice and by the recognition that there are obligations to make restitution for much of the past of our nation.”

The Yolngu and their Labor champions in Canberra got no joy out of Menzies and his successors.

The conservative Coalition formally and firmly turned their back on land rights on Australia Day 1972.

Prime Minister Billy McMahon proposed a scheme whereby Aboriginal people could lease land instead for economic and social purposes.

Immediately was born the Aboriginal tent embassy in the grounds of old Parliament House, and Whitlam was an early visitor.

In his election campaign launch nine months later he promised to legislate land rights for Aboriginal people – not just because their case is beyond argument, he said, but because all of us as Australians are diminished while the aborigines are denied their rightful place in this nation.

The Whitlam government did so much more to honour the intent of the ’67 referendum, as he affirmed to a conference of Commonwealth and State ministers concerned with Aboriginal Affairs in April 1973.

The basic object of his government’s policy was, he said, to restore to the Aboriginal people of Australia their lost power of self-determination in economic, social and political affairs.

Ever mindful of Australia’s international reputation, he said Aboriginal affairs represented in the eyes of the world a test for the integrity and humanity of the whole people of Australia.

The scope and scale of Whitlam’s reforms in Aboriginal affairs were dazzling.

He established the first Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

He established the Aboriginal Land Fund, the Aboriginal Loans Commission and the National Aboriginal Consultative Committee.

He passed the Racial Discrimination Act and funded Aboriginal legal aid services.

He poured money into the Aboriginal arts, and resourced the teaching of Aboriginal languages in remote communities.

Tom Uren was part of that revolution.

As Labor’s Minister for Urban and Regional Development, with the Minister for Environment and Conservation, Dr Cass, he established an inquiry into the site of Australia’s Heritage.

Importantly, the resulting legislation contained the first-ever national measures to protect and preserve important Aboriginal sites.

Whitlam’s successor, the Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, was sympathetic to Aboriginal issues.

To his credit, and in the face of stout opposition from pastoral and mining interests, Fraser’s government passed Whitlam’s Northern Territory land rights legislation – although he did wind back some of the measures that Whitlam had proposed, such as limiting land available for claim.

The Land Rights Act has enabled Aboriginal people to gain freehold ownership of half the land mass of the Northern Territory, and has given them a right of veto over any development on their land.

Bob Hawke was elected in 1983 on a promise to expand land rights, which he identified as central to bringing the country together.

And he promised to wield the Commonwealth’s constitutional powers where necessary to realise that agenda.

Sadly, national land rights were not to be.

At that time, I was director of the Central Land Council and found myself right in the middle of upheaval as the Hawke cabinet wrestled with an aggressive mining lobby and Brian Burke’s Labor government in the West.

They both fought ruthlessly against a national land rights regime – especially one that allowed traditional owners a right of veto.

To appease those influences, Hawke was even prepared to remove the veto against development on Aboriginal land that we enjoyed in the Territory, in order to achieve a national order.

In the end, his government simply abandoned national land rights.

It was all too hard.

His threat to bring the Commonwealth’s constitutional armoury to bear came to nought.

By the way, right now the mining industry in the west is resorting to the same old behaviours as it tries to subvert First Nations’ attempts to strengthen state legislation to protect sacred sites from marauding miners.

Tom Uren in his autobiography describes Hawke’s retreat from national land rights and appeasement of Brian Burke as a most disgraceful about-face.

And so it was.

And so too was his failure to deliver on his 1988 promise of a treaty.

Instead we got a program of reconciliation which in the end never achieved its aims.

But we did get ATSIC and, from Robert Tickner, the inquiry into the Stolen Generations.

And from Keating we got the Native Title Act in response to the High Court’s Mabo judgement, and the realism of the Redfern speech.

All that unravelled during the hard years of John Howard’s Prime Ministership.

Howard was a mean-minded wrecker.

The damage he did to relations with First Nations peoples was callous, calculated and long-lasting.

His so-called 10-point plan to please the pastoral industry after the High Court’s ruling in Wik gutted Keating’s Native Title Act.

His rejection of the social justice package which Keating had promised as part of the Mabo settlement was dishonourable.

His refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generations was perverse and small-minded.

It all got too much for me and by October 1997, only 19 months after Howard’s election as Prime Minister, I knew I could not seek reappointment as Chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation.

In my resignation letter I wrote that I despaired for my country and regretted the ignorance of the political leaders who did not appreciate what was required to achieve true reconciliation for us as a nation.

I said Howard’s attempts to diminish the status and rights of Aboriginal people would not see history record great praise of this period.

But worse was to come.

There was the dismantling of ATSIC in 2005 – and, shame on Mark Latham for backing that.

Then there was the Northern Territory intervention, the most pernicious suite of policies ever inflicted upon First Nations peoples.

I know it was only a few months out from the 2007 election, and Kevin Rudd was terrified of being wedged.

But shame on Labor for backing the intervention – even down to supporting the suspension of Whitlam’s Racial Discrimination Act so that income management could be imposed on Aboriginal people in the NT.

Labor under Anthony Albanese has opposed this government’s fixation on income management and its determination to extend the reach of the Cashless Debit Card.

We’ve opposed the Cashless Debit Card because it’s racist and because the evidence is now in: income management has not changed people’s behaviours.

It’s just another way of punishing the poor.

At least Labor under Kevin Rudd restored the Racial Discrimination Act when he got into government, even if he did maintain other elements of the intervention.

And let’s not forget his apology to the Stolen Generations which Howard had so stubbornly resisted.

And let’s not forget also those Liberal MPs who left the House in protest against the apology:  Don Randall, Sophie Mirabella, Dennis Jensen, Wilson Tuckey, Luke Simpkins, Alby Schultz and, of course, Peter Dutton.

Dutton is the only one remaining in Parliament, but he represents that hard-line rump of the Liberal Party which will always stand in the way of policies to advantage First Nations.

For instance, he’s against a Voice to Parliament – that fundamental component of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Like others from the Coalition, he’s wrongly characterised the Voice as a third chamber.

Labor, on the other hand, fully supports the principles of the Uluru Statement: a First Nations Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution, and a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of truth-telling about our history and agreement-making between governments and First Nations.

More than four years have now passed since the convention of First Nations people produced the Uluru statement.

It’s been two years since Minister Wyatt announced to the National Press Club that he would develop in the term of this Parliament a referendum to recognise Indigenous Australians in the Constitution, and vowed to work on how we progress towards truth-telling.

He then handballed the business of treaties to the states and territories.

A voice, if it ever eventuates under the Coalition, would be a voice to government – not to Parliament, and not enshrined in the Constitution.

Don’t be fooled by the statements of various Coalition figures appearing to support a Voice.

When read closely, many of these carefully-worded endorsements ring hollow.

Take Senator Bragg’s book, which I mentioned earlier.

There’s been a swathe of reverential reports claiming he’s a champion of the Uluru Statement.

But those who’ve bothered to read his book will know that Senator Bragg stops short of calling for a Voice to be enshrined in the Constitution.

What he’s advocating is a vague provision in the Constitution for First Nations people to be “heard by the Commonwealth”.

Anyone familiar with legalese knows that would do nothing to change the current position of First Nations people in this country.

It would remain for the Commonwealth to decide by what mechanism First Nations people would be “heard” – and to demolish such mechanism at will, just as we have seen with ATSIC and National Congress.

Those who’ve pinned their hopes on the Coalition and the likes of Senator Bragg to deliver a secured Voice are misguided.

And who knows how and when, or if, this government will ever embrace truth-telling and agreement-making.

Earlier this year, the Coalition joined with One Nation in voting against my motion to establish a committee to take the first steps towards the truth and treaty elements of Uluru.

As I said at the outset, it’s only the Labor Party that can be trusted to deliver real benefits for First Nations peoples.

Tom Uren would be proud of us now.

We’ve got one MP on the front bench and two Labor senators who are Aboriginal.

And we’re hoping to increase the representation of First Nations members at the next election when Marion Scrymgour succeeds the venerable Warren Snowdon as the member for Lingiari, and Donisha Duff contests the Queensland seat of Bowman, held by the now-disgraced Liberal, Andrew Laming.

Further, our First Nations Caucus Committee, chaired by Senator Malarndirri McCarthy and including many non-Indigenous members, is a vital part of Labor’s parliamentary machine.

Tom Uren would be an honoured member of the committee were he with us in Parliament today.

My friend Phil Glendenning, the director of the Edmund Rice Centre, was a great mate of Tom and described him as a mentor to many who were bitten by the social justice bug.

Phil said Tom lived a life for others.

Despite the hardships of the Second World War including three and a half years as a prisoner of war in Thailand and in Japan, he had an overwhelming love and regard for ordinary people.

Phil said that was best summed up in the final paragraph of his book, 'Straight Left', and I quote: 

“In my years of living, giving and serving our human family is the most rewarding achievement.

“When you walk down the street, the beauty of people’s eyes and faces give you so many rewards.

“Packer can never buy it, with all his millions" - unquote.

At his funeral, Tom’s son Michael said his father carried into later life the lesson he learnt in the POW camps: that "the strong should look after the weak, the young look after the not-so-young, the fit look after the sick".

In and out of politics he campaigned for peace and justice.

His causes included the anti-nuclear movement, opposition to the Vietnam war, devotion to independence for East Timor, Indigenous land rights, the defence of civil rights and a commitment to the urban and natural environment.

As Phil Glendenning put it simply: Tom Uren made a difference.

Thank you so much for listening.

In finishing, I’d like to thank the people in that wonderful institution, the Parliamentary Library, who’ve helped put this lecture together.

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Phone: (02) 9564 3588
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We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which our offices stand and we pay our respects to Elders past, present and emerging. We acknowledge the sorrow of the Stolen Generations and the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. We also recognise the resilience, strength and pride of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

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