Tom Uren (1921 – 2015) – A Life in Politics

Anthony Albanese

The obituary printed here consists of Anthony Albanese’s introductory remarks and address at the state funeral held for labour movement stalwart Tom Uren, Minister in both the Whitlam and Hawke governments, at the Sydney Town Hall on 4 February 2015[i].


We have gathered to celebrate the life of an extraordinary man.

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

Those closest to him loved him dearly.

For me, he was not just a political mentor, but the closest I have had to a father figure in my life.
Many people who had never met him loved him also.

In an era in which politics is sometimes reduced to just background noise and shouting, Tom Uren soared above the political landscape.

I thank all of you for joining us here at the Sydney Town Hall- a place where this great man fought great battles over great issues, but who always left with love in his heart.

Today’s celebration has been organised down to the minute detail by Tom himself – he chose the speakers and the music you will hear. He told me I would be MC at this celebration a decade ago.

Tom hoped that today we would all learn something extra about his life.

Given the circumstances of a life that began with hardship and deprivation, followed by the traumatic experience as a Prisoner of War, it would be perfectly reasonable to become bitter and without hope for the future of mankind.

His life showed a strength of character, almost beyond comprehension. If Tom had a single defining characteristic, it was his positive and optimistic outlook.

He was fond of quoting Martin Luther King, who said, “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.”

The passing of a man such as Tom Uren has caused us great sadness but Tom would want us to channel his energy into using his life story to inspire a new generation into striving for a more compassionate and just Australia and world.

It’s unusual to hear hard bitten people in the world of politics speak about love. But there will be plenty of that today.

As Tom explained, in an interview on ABC television, “I remember talking at the 100th anniversary of May Day…and I talked about the question of love. I said, I know a lot of you blokes find it embarrassing talking about love, but that’s what our struggle is all about. It’s a struggle about commitment and love for other human beings, to raise their lives up.”

It was Tom’s hope that all who are here or watch this celebration are uplifted.

To understand Tom Uren’s political career, which featured 32 years in parliament as the Federal Labor Member for Reid, the best place to start is at the end.

When he retired in 1990, he was asked what he would do now he was no longer in politics.

I’m out of Parliament,” Tom said, “not out of politics.”

Tom’s political power and influence came directly from his political conviction. Tom Uren was a man of substance. Tom was a true believer. He was a proud man of the Left – “Straight Left” as he named his wonderful autobiography.

Political activism was a way of life. A responsibility. Over his long career, he pursued this responsibility with commitment, tenacity and absolute conviction. He could be a ferocious and fearless opponent.

But just as importantly, he did so with a generosity of spirit and a willingness to work with anyone of good will to achieve practical outcomes. He was selfless in his struggle for justice, compassion and progress.

If you look at photographs of some of the big peoples’ political movements over six decades, chances are you will see Tom in the front line:

  • The Vietnam War moratoriums
  • The anti-nuclear movement
  • Indigenous land rights
  • Protection of our urban and natural environment
  • Self-determination for the people of East Timor
  • Justice for war veterans
  • Uncompromising defence of civil liberties

If he was convinced he was right, he feared nothing. Not criticism. Not even jail.

But then again, I suppose it’s pretty hard to intimidate a bloke with the threat of an Australian jail, when he had worked on the Burma Railway.

Tom lived the vision of change outlined by Barack Obama who once said:

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Tom was always seeking change. On the streets. At public forums. In the Labor Party. In the Parliament.

He was immensely proud of his last major victory, when he convinced Julia Gillard and the former Labor Government to provide compensation for surviving prisoners of war.

The great testimony to Tom’s life as an activist is that he was on the right side of history on all of the major causes he was associated with.

When Tom and his great mate Jim Cairns led opposition to the Vietnam War it was a radical position.

It takes moral courage to campaign and bring people with you.

After he was declared one of the 100 living national treasures in 1997, Tom joked that people applauding his lifetime of achievement would have had him hanged in the 1960s over these very same issues.

There’s a message here that we should never forget.  Today’s unfashionable cause can become tomorrow’s conventional wisdom.

Tom argued that if you believe in your heart that your cause is just, you should fight for it. And fight Tom did.

Tom’s parliamentary career began in 1958, in the seat of Reid after moving to Guildford with his wife Patricia. In a hard fought preselection he defeated a sitting member, Charlie Morgan, who he saw as being linked with the right-wing industrial groups.

This was the first time a sitting Labor member had been successfully ousted for a long time.

He didn’t do it by stacking branches or calling upon favours from sympathetic trade union blocks. He simply argued his case and persuaded party members over cups of tea at their kitchen tables. He was persuasive, passionate, and of course he could be charming. His conviction shone through and he was a grassroots campaigner without peer.

While he was a strong supporter of collectivism through the union movement, it was the community that was his political support base. You couldn’t walk down the street alongside him, without feeling the warmth that people had for him. People truly loved him.

After easily winning his seat, Tom spent his first two or three terms creating firm alliances with likeminded MPs. He worked hard to absorb knowledge from colleagues and books as he sought to make up for his lack of educational opportunities earlier in life. He taught himself the principles of economics and the fine detail of the full spectrum of commonwealth legislative activities.

Tom wanted to change the world.

And his tool was persuasion. His aim was incremental progress. He would always tell me, “You’ve got to bring people with you.

It didn’t stop opponents questioning his patriotism. Tom responded with successful legal action. Tom built a place in the mountains called Fairfax Retreat, and a house down the South Coast he nicknamed Packer’s Lodge.

By the late 1960s Tom was in a leadership role.

Tom had a difficult relationship with Whitlam, worrying that Gough might be too wedded to American foreign policy. But when Whitlam declared his intention to bring troops home from Vietnam, that cemented Tom’s support.

And if you had Tom’s support, his loyalty was absolute.

Gough Whitlam turned to Tom to design, and later implement, the nation’s first comprehensive policy for improving living standards in our nation’s cities, the outer suburbs and regions.

In 1969, as man walked on the moon, millions of Australians watched the event on televisions in homes that were not even connected to sewerage.

Roads were inadequate. Public transport was underfunded. There were few protections for heritage values and the environment.

Gough and Tom realised that if they worked with state and local government to provide political leadership and direct investment in communities, they could deliver real improvements in the day to day life of millions of Australians.

Having spent their political lives aspiring to uplift mainstream Australia, they had hit upon a practical way to do so.

Tom attracted the best and the brightest to the Department of Urban and Regional Development, more than 20 of these creative public servants went on to head Government departments and agencies.

Tom Uren’s achievements in the Whitlam Government stand as testimony to what can happen when national leadership and vision is put into practice:

  • Growth centres such as Albury-Wodonga
  • Provision of parks and environmental protection in suburban Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and other parts of Australia
  • Provision of sewerage in the outer suburbs of our capital cities
  • Direct funding of local government through Financial Assistance Grants
  • The first significant federal funding of public transport
  • The Australian Heritage Commission
  • The Register of the National Estate
  • Rejuvenation of urban precincts, like Glebe and Woolloomooloo
  • Protection of the Sydney Harbour foreshore

As much as Tom put collective action before the role of any individual, the truth is that one man did change the relationship that the national government can have in improving the quality of life, particularly for those living in outer suburbs.

That man is Tom Uren.

Tom became Deputy Leader to Gough Whitlam after the loss of Government, defeating opponents including his later great friend, Paul Keating in the caucus ballot.

He continued to play a role in the executive right up to the 1983 election of the Hawke Government in which he joined Bill Hayden, Lionel Bowen and Paul Keating as the only Whitlam Government Ministers to also serve in Bob’s Government.

As a Minister in the Hawke Government, he took up where he left off – supporting public and community housing, cementing his position as the modern father of local government.

As the Minister for Administrative Services, he oversaw the construction of the new Parliament House, which had begun with his motion in the Parliament back in 1975.

Tom started the ball rolling on self government for the ACT, consistent with his support for grassroots democracy.

After he stood down from the Ministry in 1987 he became Australia’s delegate to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, taking his message of peace, nuclear disarmament and social justice on to the international stage.

In 1990 he retired from Parliament as the Father of the House of Representatives, but continued his political activism across a range of areas including serving as head of the Parramatta Park Trust.

Tom continued to be respected across the political spectrum.

In 2012 then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Greens Party Leader Bob Brown combined to enthusiastically sponsor Tom’s nomination for Australia’s highest home-grown honour, the Companion of the Order of Australia, in recognition of his remarkable contribution to our great nation.

To the very end, Tom Uren was an optimist. He drew his positive outlook from people around him.

Into his 90’s he said:

“I hope that right to the end of my days, I’ll always struggle for progress. Always have faith in tomorrow.

Unless you’ve got faith in people, got faith in the future, then your life is not worth tuppence halfpenny and a beer bottle top.”

Tom lived by this positive creed until the end of his days on this land, which he respected and loved.

Those of us who remain can honour his legacy by living by this creed.

[i] Anthony Albanese’s introduction and address are reproduced from his website with his permission.