Home - Claire Moore - Labor Senator for Queensland

CONDOLENCES: Hon Thomas Uren, AC

Senator MOORE (Queensland) (16:01): Mr President, as you know, I am making this speech on behalf of Senator Wong, who is wounded in action at the moment. I rise to speak on her behalf on the death of the Hon. Tom Uren AC. Tom Uren died on Australia Day, at the age of 93. He was a true giant of a man, physically, politically and morally. He was a true lion of the Labor Left, courageous, strong, tough and noble. He lived an extraordinary life: growing up in the Great Depression, leaving school early to help his parents make ends meet; fighting in the boxing ring, contesting as we have heard the heavyweight championship of Australia; fighting in the Second World War and being taken prisoner by the Japanese; surviving the hell on earth that was the Burma-Thailand railway; witnessing the atomic glow over the skies of Nagasaki; and joining the Australian Labor Party, and fighting again for the things he believed in, for a better, fairer, more just society, for the environment and for peace.

He rose to become the deputy leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party under Gough Whitlam, a minister in the Hawke Labor government and one of the most senior and respected figures in the New South Wales Labor Party. He mentored countless young Labor activists, especially those from the party's Left, which has not always had the easiest of runs in our party's New South Wales branch.

After leaving parliament he kept up his political involvement, campaigning for East Timorese independence, Aboriginal rights and war veterans' entitlements. He was even declared by the National Trust to be one of the 100 Australian National Living Treasures.

Tom Uren was born a Balmain boy, in 1921. His family moved to Harbord when he was just five years old. He left school during the Great Depression, at the age of 13, because his father was out of work. He took what work he could find, classing rabbit and kangaroo skins, selling newspapers and caddying on golf courses.

He was devoted to his mother and says that her sense of social justice was one of the main influences in his life.

He remembered her discomfort at being called before a local committee to explain why her family was deserving of charity during the hard years of the Depression.

As a big boy, who excelled at sports, Tom learnt to box at Jack Dunleavy's gymnasium in the Sydney CBD. He joined the Army soon after the outbreak of World War II but was granted special leave to fight for the Australian heavyweight title in 1940. The fight went for seven rounds. Tom was defeated, not by the other boxer, he would later say, but by the flu he was suffering.

He was deployed to Timor in December 1941. In early 1942 he took part in the last stand of the Australian infantry forces, who were defending the island against the invading Japanese forces. Captured by the Japanese then, the Australian prisoners of war were taken to Singapore. At the age of 21, Tom Uren was amongst the POWs sent to work on the notorious Burma-Thai Railway. At Hellfire Pass he witnessed the worst and the best of humanity. It was an experience that shaped everything for Tom Uren, that influenced him for the rest of his life.

He was struck by the contrast between the way the Australian and the British POWs organised themselves. The British maintained the regimented distinctions between officers and enlisted men. By contrast, the Australians, under the leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Edward 'Weary' Dunlop, adopted an egalitarian approach. Officers and enlisted men treated each other as equals. They looked to help one another and to give one another strength. Tom believed this difference was why the survival rates amongst Australian POWs at Hellfire Pass were higher than those among their British counterparts.

Tom was a strong man and he often interposed himself between prisoners and guards to protect those weaker than himself. But no-one could preserve their strength in the terrible conditions. Tom contracted malaria and amoebic dysentery, losing four stone in four weeks. He was sent to a prison camp in Japan.

In 1945, while working at a lead-smelting plant at Omuta, he saw the sky turn red when the atomic bomb was detonated over Nagasaki, 80 kilometres away. He later said:

We didn't hear any noise, just witnessed that vivid crimson sky.

And further:

And we didn't see the mushroom cloud, but we saw the discolouration of the sky and it was that crimson colour, that beautiful sunset magnified about a hundred times over. And you could never really forget that graphic description, colour, of the sky that day.

That experience turned him into a campaigner against nuclear weapons.

After the war, Tom worked at the Port Kembla steelworks as a labourer, then as a manager at Woolworths, in Lithgow. He joined the Labor Party in 1951, inspired to do so by the death of Ben Chifley. He moved to Guildford, won preselection for the seat of Reid, and was returned to the House of Representatives in 1958. Tom held that seat for 31 years before retiring from parliament in 1990, after eight years as Father of the House.

He served as Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam Labor government. It was a time of an expansionist vision of the role of the federal government in revitalising the nation's cities and regions. As minister, he used federal resources to rehabilitate large areas of Glebe and Woolloomooloo in Sydney, as well as parts of Fremantle and Hobart. He also opened Australia's first urban bicycle path in Canberra, declared the Namadgi National Park in the Australian Alps, and established the Australian Heritage Commission.

After the fall of the Whitlam government, Tom was elected as federal Labor's deputy leader. After the election of the Hawke government he served again as a minister, from 1983 to 1987, with responsibility for territories and local government and for administrative services. He retired to the backbench in 1987 and from Parliament in 1990. But he continued in public roles, serving as a member of the Parramatta Park Trust, and in political activism, lending his support to causes like Aboriginal welfare and environmental campaigns.

Tom Uren was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1993 and a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2013. His last big political win came in 2011, as he was nearing the age of 90. On Anzac Day that year he returned to Hellfire Pass with three other survivors and the then Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. Prime Minister Gillard announced that the government had agreed to Tom's long-running campaign for a supplementary payment to surviving Australian POWs from the Second World War and the Korean War. This was a final victory in a long life characterised by fierce passion for the betterment of his fellow human beings, unwavering commitment to his political causes, and a strong record of practical achievement and outcomes.

Tom Uren's most important characteristic, I believe, was his profoundly moral approach to public life. He nominated as his principal influences figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Weary Dunlop, Mahatma Gandhi, Pope John XXIII, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.

Before the counter-culture of the 1960s or the identity politics of the 1970s, Tom Uren exemplified the credo that the personal is political. It was in the brutal circumstances of the Burma-Thai railway where he embraced what he called the 'spirit of collectivism'. As he put it in his first speech to the House of Representatives:

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.

It was in the war-time factories of Saganoseki and Omuta where he encountered the humanity of individual Japanese workers. He learnt that it was not the Japanese he hated, but militarism.

His personal qualities and moral authority meant that anyone who spent time with Tom Uren was changed by the experience. Here is how the journalist Martin Flanagan described it.

When Tom poured his belief into you, it was like standing beneath a waterfall from which you emerged a larger version of yourself.

Tom Uren's life may have come to an end, yet the waterfall of inspiration his life represents still pours forth.

Tom Uren is survived by his wife Christine, his step-daughter, Ruby, and adopted children Michael and Heather. On behalf of the Labor Party, I extend my sympathies to them.