Tom Uren was more than a Labor mentor, he was an inspiration
MANY men live their lives corroded by hate. Weighed down by the hardships and sorrows of life, they succumb to bitterness.
Tom Uren — soldier, peace activist, parliamentarian, environmentalist and friend — was not such a man.
Despite suffering hardship that is beyond comprehension for most of us during the formative years of his long life, Tom was the most optimistic and loving man I have ever met.
He had a favourite saying from a speech by one of his heroes, Martin Luther King:
“Hate is always tragic. It disturbs the personality and scars the soul. It’s more injurious to the hater than it is to the hated.”
When you consider the cards life dealt Tom, this lust for life, this faith in his fellow man, was simply extraordinary.
Born in Balmain, Tom grew up enduring the aching grind of poverty during the Great Depression. Like many of his generation, Tom surrendered his youth to military service in World War II. Captured by the Japanese on Timor, he was a prisoner of war between 1942 and 1945, suffering the deprivation of forced labour on the Burma-Siam Railway, where he drew strength from the leadership of the legendary Edward “Weary” Dunlop.
One day in 1945, he watched from the island of Omuta as the US detonated an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, about 80km away.
It is perfectly understandable that many Australians exposed to such events were ruined by them. But not Tom. He learned from them. He absorbed them. He turned his experiences into a passionate desire for justice, peace and equality. He became an opponent of militarism and of racism in all its forms.
As a youth Tom’s great interests were boxing, surf lifesaving and playing rugby league. He excelled at all three and once fought unsuccessfully for the heavyweight championship of Australia.
He left school at 13 and began working for a fur importer with little sign of the political interest that came to dominate his adult life. But as he grew older, those experiences of the Great Depression, the war and the barbarity of the POW camps worked together to drive his development of the progressive political ideology that guided his subsequent political career.
Tom’s creed was collectivism. He understood that when people of goodwill worked together, they could achieve a great deal.
He used to tell how in the camps, Australian prisoners — officers and enlisted men — treated each other equally and gave each other strength.
As he stated in his first speech to parliament, “We were living by the principle of the fit looking after the sick, the young looking after the old, the rich looking after the poor”.
He noted the British had a different class-based system — under which the officers had the best food and quarters, while the enlisted men had to make do with what was left. In relative terms, the Australians fared much better than the British.
As a politician, Tom served in his seat of Reid with many of the greatest names in Australian political history — from Robert Menzies through to Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.
He fought for his ideals with commitment, but always with civility. He was equally prepared to take on conservatives or his opponents in the Labor Party, famously telling colleagues during the Hawke era that they had cash registers for hearts over their policies regarding benefits for ex-servicemen.
He was proud that one of his last policy victories was convincing PM Julia Gillard to provide justice to former prisonersof the Japanese.
Throughout his political activism he understood that once you moved past the immaturity of blindly partisan politics, it was possible to find people of goodwill throughout the parliament.
As a policy maker, Tom was a trail blazer. He was minister for urban and regional development under Whitlam and pioneered co-operation with state and local governments to improve life in our cities and regions.
As minister for local government in the Hawke era, Tom enhanced the importance of councils and their links to the commonwealth via the payment of financial assistance grants.
In and out of parliament, he championed sustainability of our natural and built environments and campaigned for social justice, environmental protection and civil liberties.
Tom’s lasting impact is evident right around Australia through the National Estate, the Glebe Estate and countless heritage buildings and natural environments that remain protected as a direct result of his intervention.
As a young man I had the opportunity to work for Tom. Over the years, he became a father figure to me , an inspiration and political mentor — but, more importantly by far — a living example of decency and generosity.
Tom’s greatest legacy is courage. He was a man who talked the talk, but also walked the walk.
Many people say they will fight for Australia. Tom actually did fight for Australia.
Many people say they will stand up for free speech. But in the 1970s and 80s, when Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen government banned protests, Tom travelled to Brisbane to lead protest marches. He was arrested and jailed. He refused to pay his fine, telling a magistrate that injustice anywhere was a threat to freedom everywhere.
Long after his retirement, Tom was fighting for progressive movements. And he was a Labor man until the very end, even insisting on door-knocking in my Grayndler electorate during the 2013 election.
He simply never gave up. As he once said in an interview:
“Always have faith in tomorrow. Unless you’ve got faith in people, got faith in the future, then your life is not worth a tuppence ha’penny and a beer bottle top.
“My whole life has been to make this a more just, an equitable, humane and a freer society. I’ve tried to make it a more beautiful and serene world. That’s what life is all about. That’s what struggle is all about.”
Vale Tom Uren.
By Anthony Albanese