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Vale Tom Uren

1. Bridges of Goodwill – Reminiscences Tom Uren

Read Tom’s philosophy at the end.
Update: State funeral
Illawarra Unity – Journal of the Illawarra Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 7(1), 2007, 32-36.

The following is the text of a talk delivered to the South Coast Branch (Thirroul) of Union Aid Abroad on 4 August 2007.

Tom Uren AO was born on 28 May 1921. His early life involved playing rugby league for Manly Warringah and a stint at professional boxing before going to war between 1939–45. In the early 1950s he joined the Australian Labor Party and was the Federal Member for Reid, in western Sydney, between 1958–1990. He was Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1975, responsible for setting up the Australian Heritage Commission and the National Estate and creating new national parks. He held the portfolios of local government and administrative services in the Hawke government from 1984 to 1987 and was a leading member of the ALP Left during his time in parliament. He was often referred to as ‘the conscience of Parliament’ and remains a strong advocate for world peace and the environment.

“I am pleased that I was invited to be here with you tonight, and I commend your organisation in building bridges of goodwill with workers in countries less fortunate then ours. Let me restate a brief quote I made in Melbourne in 1990, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of May Day:

‘Humanity which we love so much—I know many of you are fearful of using that word “love”—but our struggle is a commitment of love of our fellow humans. It inspired our people in their early struggle against oppression and exploitation’.

I am proud that your organisation has similar ideals. Peter Jennings said to me in his letter:

‘We are the overseas aid arm of the Australian Trade Union Movement. With the support of Australian unions and many individual union members we assist vocational skills training of men and women workers in developing countries as well as strengthening their trade union so that any job they get will be a decent job—paying just wages with reasonable conditions and safety standards’. So I am here in solidarity with all those ideals.

I was elected to the federal parliament by the Australian people 49 years ago. I have always tried to meet the ideals that Peter set out in his letter. I have written two books on my life – Straight Left, published in 1994/1995 and gone into four prints, and more recently I co-authored a book, The Fight: a portrait of a Labor man who never grew up, with Martin Flanagan, whose father served with me on the Burma/Thai Railway during the war. Excuse me for talking about the evolutionary development of my life, but my war experience had a great influence on me.

There are many people and experiences that have nurtured my life. But my experience serving under Weary Dunlop has had a lifelong and lasting experience on me. We were at a place called Hintock Road Camp or, as Weary called it, Hintock “Mountain” Camp. “Weary” is a name of respect. He would tax our officers and medical orderlies and the men who went out to work would be paid a small wage.

We would contribute most of it into a central fund. Weary would then send some of our people out into the jungle to trade with the Thai and Chinese traders for food and drugs for our sick and needy. In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. We collectivised a great proportion of our income.

Just as the wet season set in a group of about 400 British camped near us for shelter. They had tents. The officers took the best tents, the NCOs the next best and the ordinary soldiers got the dregs. Within six weeks only about 50 of them marched out—the rest died of dysentery or cholera. In the mornings when we would walk out to work, their corpses would be lying in the mud as we passed them. Only a creek separated our two camps. On the one side the survival of the fittest – the law of the jungle – prevailed, and on the other side the collective spirit under Weary Dunlop. That spirit has always remained with me.

Our book The Fight is a message of hope. It doesn’t deal with personalities – it is more directed towards philosophy and looking towards a positive future. Among my contributions I wrote an essay entitled ‘Let’s look to the future’.
I have served the Labor Party, the Labour Movement and our Australian people for over 50 years. I have faith in our tomorrows. We have some remarkable young federal members of parliament, particularly the young women of our movement. What has worried me for a number of years from both sides of politics is the lack of compassion and commitment for ordinary people. Governments fail to give public leadership and commit themselves to the long term planning of our country and our planet.

No federal government since the Whitlam government has made a major financial commitment to our states to strengthen and enhance the social and physical infrastructure of our major cities and regions. Yet each year the federal government determines the net immigration intake into our country. They then leave it to the states, local governments and the market to cope with the population intake.

On our environment, the Howard government’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Agreement was a grave mistake, considering the world climate change situation, the greenhouse effect and the water and soil problems in Australia.

The Murray–Darling catchment, which affects the three eastern states and South Australia, is a region which is the food basket for our people but also for millions of people on our planet. In my view, it is a greater priority than our defence program. I have always supported a rational defence program, but this issue surpasses that commitment. On the protection of our native forests, we should cease issuing wood chipping export licences and progressively phase out existing ones.

I advocate the creation of an Independent Environment Authority which should have the independence of the Reserve Bank and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

In regards to defence—Australia’s policy should be orientated to our region. We should not be in Iraq and Afghanistan. We should be committed to the Asian and Pacific Region. North Korea is a greater problem for us than Iraq; particularly the problems it creates with Japan.

I want to make some comments on Iraq and an experience I had in Sydney on 16 February 2003. It was an anti Iraq war rally in Hyde Park. What affected me was the patience and tolerance of those still waiting to march. Many could not hear what the speakers were saying. They were there to oppose violence. They were opposed to war being a solution to international conflict and the killing of ordinary people. They knew that over half of Iraq’s population is under 15 years of age. I am sure what occurred in Sydney was not only duplicated in other Australian cities, but also in cities and towns around the world. We who marched knew John Howard or George Bush would not heed our message, but some of the nations in the United Nations Security Council may have been influenced by ordinary people’s commitment against war in Iraq. Of course Bush and Howard did ignore our demonstrations – not only ours but those throughout the world. But the United Nations Security Council refused to authorise a motion which would allow military action to be taken to invade Iraq.

In the words of Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, “it is an illegal war”.

In my view the United States invasion of Iraq is the most disastrous and tragic foreign policy decision made by an American Government since the end of World War II.

They ignored wiser counsel, even from within their own conservative ranks in the United States, and even within the Republican Party. I wrote letters both before and after the invasion. Some were published in The Australian. I predicted that Iraq will become a quagmire. What an understatement that has turned out to be!

As a member of the Coalition of the Willing in the military invasion of Iraq, the Howard Government should share the responsibility of the chaos that has been created in Iraq. Since that invasion, over 700,000 Iraqi civilians have perished, four million Iraqis have been displaced, including two million refugees. Over 3,600 United States forces have been killed and more than 48,000 have been wounded since the invasion of 19 March 2003. I haven’t included the British death and casualty figures as well as those of the other nations involved. Australia, by good fortune or good luck, has lost very few. To date the cost financially to Australia is $1,650 million.

Ultimately the Shiites will be the victors if Iraq remains a single country. They represent over 60 per cent of the population of Iraq, and that is only if the so called democratic elections are held. There are some elements in the United States who believe that Iraq should become three countries. The Kurds control the north (which is oil rich), the Shiites in the South (which is also oil rich) and the Sunnies based around Baghdad (but have no known oil resources). We will need good, experienced diplomacy to avoid wider conflict. We will need to evolve a greater tolerance and understanding to work with the dominating forces in Iraq and Iran.

Through the so call democratic elections they will control, and exert influence over, the region which possesses the greatest oil reserves on our planet.

One thing I am sure of: violence and military conflict will not solve our problems.

I am also sure there are many Australian people who resent involving us in an illegal war and Howard going all the way with George W. Bush.

In conclusion, in September 2005 I was speaking to a group of young Japanese at Macquarie University in Sydney. During the period of dialogue, one young Japanese student asked “Mr Uren, what is your philosophy?”

I quoted the principles I lived by during my parliamentary life.”

When I returned home I set it out on paper, as follows.

Tom Uren’s Philosophy
• The strong should look after the weak.

• The young look after the not so young.

• The fit look after the sick.

• We should collectivise a substantial portion of our
income to help protect our sick, needy and our people.

• We need to seek a more tolerant world.

• We should defend human and civil rights, wherever they
are violated.

• Oppose violence, on a personal, national and
international level.

• Oppose war as a solution to international problems.

• Protect, enhance and rehabilitate our environment. If we
destroy it we are destroying a part of ourselves.

• Recognise we are inter-related to one another.
Australians should recognise we are a part of our

• Why is it that in times of crisis we need each other?

• Why in normal times can’t we be more collective?

• We should build friendship and understanding between
people and nations.


Andy Alcock sent me the above and post his tribute below. Andy passed it on from Ron Witton, and photo.

Guardian report

2. From: Andy Alcock [] Tuesday, 27 January 2015


Tom Uren was one of the greatest politicians Australia ever had.

I first came across him at Vietnam rallies when I lived in Sydney in the early 1970s. He was a very powerful speaker – eloquent, articulate, persuasive, rational and warm.

Tom was very sincere, totally opposed to human rights abuses committed against all people and strongly on the side of those who suffered tyranny. This is why he supported the Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, the East Timorese and the West Papuans.

Yes, he was a supporter of left and progressive politics. To him, this meant following the politics of social justice, human rights, equality for
all, fairness between nations and caring for the environment.

At a time when most of the ALP had sold out the East Timorese, he was one of a few who supported the liberation struggle of our former, valiant WW2 allies. Others in that group, of course, included Richie Gun and Ken Fry.

Because of his strong support, CIET (SA) – now AETFA SA, asked Tom to officially open the “East Timor, Australia and the Region Conference”.

This conference was an international one and it was organised by CIET SA and held at Adelaide University in 1979. Tom made a great contribution.

Frequently, he spoke out about what was happening in Timor and always gave support to activists working in solidarity with the East Timorese.

I see that Bill Shorten has described Tom as a giant in the ALP, which is true. But, I also remember being at an East Timor Activists Conference in the early 1980s as the right was becoming far more dominant in the ALP. At a party organised by Tom to which he invited conference delegates, I remarked to an ALP staffer that he must be very proud working with people like Tom Uren. His response was that Tom was a fool for supporting East Timor and that he was working with others in the ALP to get rid of old fools like him!

Is it any wonder that the East Timorese got very little support from the ALP leadership during their struggle?

It was rather ironic that towards the end of their struggle, it was Laurie Brereton, a key figure in the NSW right of the ALP who turned around the Party’s policy on this issue. Sadly, this did not follow through and when the ALP took office in 2007, there was no support from ALP MPs to reverse the “Liberal” Party’s policy to refuse to recognise the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in relation to Timor-Leste – although Australia recognises the UNCLOS principle with NZ and the Solomons. This has resulted in Australia taking a lot of the oil and gas from Timor-Leste’s half of the Timor Sea.

Tom Uren always stood for human decency in relations between people and was totally opposed to racism.

Even though he was a victim of the Japanese military during WW2, he did not harbour anti Japanese sentiments. Tom had been captured in West Timor and sent to work on the infamous Thai Burma railway as a POW and later he worked in a slave camp in Japan not far from Nagasaki, where he saw the atomic bombing of Nagasaki from a distance.

During the official recognition of the 60th anniversary of the end of WW2, I saw Tom being interviewed at Hellfire Pass, a part of the railway in Thailand.

The interviewer asked him what the conditions were like. Tom’s reply was that it was like hell on earth.

“We were expected to pick and shovel through solid rock to make this cutting. We worked long hours on extremely meagre rations. Many of the men were extremely sick. A huge number had dysentery and they were literally shitting their lives away. There was virtually no medication for the sick. I saw men on many occasions drop dead while they were on the job.”

The interviewer then asked Tom what he though about Japanese people because of his experiences. His answer was: I hated every last one of them and I would not have cared if they had been all wiped out!”

He was then asked if he still had the same attitude. His answer was a definite “No!” Tom then went on to say that, “Í did not keep that opinion for long.

Later, I was transferred to a slave camp in Japan. There I met Japanese political prisoners. These people had the courage to oppose Japanese fascism on its own grounds. They were very courageous people. They were my brothers. They were my comrades. Many people who harbour ill-will to all Japanese people because of WW2 do not understand one important fact. And that is that during WW2, we were not fighting the Japanese people, we were fighting Japanese fascism and there is a great difference.”

His analysis of the conflict between Australia and Japan avoided the racism against all Japanese that the Bruce Ruxton’s analysis embraced.

Because of his experiences during WW2, Tom became a devoted peace activist and was opposed to nuclear weapons and the nuclear industry.
His quest for social justice led him to be a strong advocate for socialism.

Tom Uren was a giant physically, but a gentle one. He was also a boxer, but more importantly, he used his strength and energy to fight for a fairer and
safer world.

Farewell, Comrade Tom. You will never be forgotten.’

Andrew (Andy) Alcock Information Officer
Australia East Timor Association SA Inc

As Secretary of the SA May Day Committee, I invited Tom Uren to march in Adelaide and be our speaker. With John Scott, Ron Barklay, Brian Mowbray and his wife.

SA May day

SA May day

3. Timor Leste Government Vale Tom Uren received special recognition for his solidarity. Díli, January 28, 2015

It was with deep sadness that the Government of Timor-Leste heard of the passing of the Honorable Tom Uren AC on the 26th of January 2015. On behalf of the Government, the Prime Minister, H.E. Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão, presents heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and colleagues.

Tom Uren is held in high regard in Timor-Leste as a man of dignity and courage.

As deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party he gave his attention to the cause of the Timorese people when very few in the Australian political spectrum were prepared to raise their voice in advocacy. His determination led to the adoption of a resolution in favor of self-determination at the ALP Conference in 1977 and contributed to the 1977 US Congressional Hearings into Timor-Leste. He constantly supported Timorese asylum seekers and, with his fellow World War II veterans Paddy Kenneally and Gordon Hart, was patron of the Australian East Timor Association of NSW [AETA-NSW]. Tom spoke powerfully many times over the years of struggle about what was happening in Timor-Leste and consistently gave support to Australian activists working in solidarity with the Timorese people.

Tom’s experience as a prisoner of war after being captured in West Timor in 1942 forever shaped his life. Although it could have left him with bitterness, instead it led to a steadfast conviction about the value of mutual support and collective action. He endorsed Martin Luther King’s words that “Hate distorts the personality and scars the soul. It is more injurious to the hater that the hated.”

After the war he never forgot his fellow prisoners of war and worked for them his whole life. It seemed to the Timorese friends he made over the years that his experience of suffering and injustice drew him in close to the suffering and injustice experienced by the Timorese people.

On the 1st of July 2013 Tom Uren was awarded the Order of Timor-Leste Medal by the President of Timor-Leste, H.E. Taur Matan Ruak, in a ceremony in Canberra. The medal was accepted by his son, Mick. The Order of Timor-Leste Medal is an award of prestige and dignity presented to those to have significantly contributed to the benefit of Timor-Leste, the Timorese or Mankind. In the case of Tom Uren, through a life well lived, he contributed to the benefit of all three. Timor-Leste will always be grateful for his contribution and character.

In an interview given in 1996 Tom was asked how he would like to be remembered.

He said “as a person of goodwill, a giver, a fighter for peace.”

This is forever how Timor-Leste will remember Tom Uren, as someone who made a difference in the history of our nation through an extraordinary life as a person of goodwill, a giver and a fighter for peace.

4. ABC report
Vale Tom Uren – a warrior for a fair go for people and the environment. Here is an interview with Martin Flanagan who knew him well.
Tom Uren was “a giver, a fighter . . . an old bull”. He was a “man who wasn’t scared to tell another man he loved him.” He wasn’t a man of theory so much as a man whose teacher was life. He got his socialist politics from the time when he was on the Thai Burma Railway with Weary Dunlop:

Please post your memories.


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