Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

Tape of 14

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Your wife Patricia had supported you in going overseas to further your fighting career. How did she feel about your entry into politics?

Well, it was a gradual situation because, as you know, I'd given the fight game up and I'd worked at Goodyear and then from there I started looking for this job and I got a start with Woolworths and when we went to Lithgow that's where she joined the Labor Party as I did. And so she became really socially involved in many of the issues that I felt about because we would talk about social injustice. She was a woman with enormous compassion herself. And so there was that gradual evolutionary process and ultimately most of the family followed a similar pattern. But, I think she was fully supportive of me going into politics, very much so. In fact, that's one of the great things about Patricia, she was not a possessive person, and she also was very supportive of the things I did.

Did you have any children?

No. We didn't. Actually we were married quite a time and -- when I say ... we didn't have any children naturally, but because it was my fault, we had tests and it was found that I couldn't produce. I wasn't you know negative in that way, but I had all the hormonal treatment and my old POW doctors like Arthur Moon and Ewan Corlette helped me but they sent me to a Professor Telfer who looked after me and really gave me a proper course and I went through all the tests and to really examine whether or not I could produce. It was found in the end I couldn't, so Patricia and I decided we should adopt.

How did you feel about your infertility?

It's something that it took me years and years and years and I still today don't really know whether it's affected me in any way, but I love my adopted, my children, as they are my own. And not only that but even without adopting my children, my position was such that I was a part of the human family but I'm very pleased that we really ultimately adopted children because you learn so much about life from having your own children. And we adopted both children -- we picked them up, the first one in July '59. It was just after about six months after I was elected to parliament. I had to wait five years for Michael and seven years for Heather, so it was in July 1959 that we picked up Michael and then of course two years later we were able to get Heather, our second child. And they've been wonderful children and never given us an ounce of problem. Both a bit headstrong in their own way, but they're both very loving and I'm very proud of them both.

Were you very involved in their upbringing?

Not as much as I should have been. I think right up until about 1969 I would've spent most weekends with my children. And in fact we had a retreat at Mt Wilson and we would go up there a lot and certainly I always remember I bought my sit-on lawn mower and I think I got a lot of frustrations out of my son's life. He's very, he was very car-orientated and instead of going out driving other people's cars he drove this tractor up on our three-and-a-quarter acre property at Mt Wilson. And so, in a way there was that great rapport and relationship up 'til about '69, then from '69 when I was on the shadow ministry my time was absorbed a little bit more. Well, I think I was still fairly close to my family until I became a minister, then they didn't see much of me.

And that was a problem?

Yeah. It grew into a problem. Yes. My daughter resented it much more than anyone else. And in the long term there were a couple of years, it was late '74, early '75, that Patricia wanted to depart from me. She decided that she didn't think that I needed her anymore.

What made her think that?

Oh I think that, well first of all, I think that I was not faithful in a few cases, and it was my fault in every regard. And one of the things in my life that I do regret, that I never fought for her enough. And she wanted to live in the country so we purchased just under 300 acres at Dorrigo and built her a home for her there. And I would visit her at least every month. Sometimes ... I'd speak to her at least daily on the phone. Sometimes twice a day. In fact we remained very close.

How old were the children when this happened?

They were in their early teens and they were at high school. And I think Michael took it well, but certainly Heather's always resented me. It took a long time ... she was very judgemental of me. And it was only in more recent years that I think she's buried the bone. And she'd got her own children and certainly they love their grandfather and I love them, and there's a great warmth there.

Why didn't you fight harder at the time, Tom? Did you think that perhaps she might be right?

Well, I think the middle '60s, from there on I really changed a great deal in my nature. I mean, if I'd had extra relationships prior to 1960, the middle of the 1960's, I'd feel extremely guilty in myself. I wasn't a promiscuous person, but if I did have other relationships after the middle '60s I looked at that, you know, you can love more than one person but I didn't, I loved her very much and she was so much a part of my life and remained a part of my life and ...

Did you miss her more than you expected to?

I was very lonely, I must say, I actually was practically alone from about late 1975 right through to my more recent relationship. There was very short periods where I might have shacked up with a person for a short period of time but again I found that if people were possessive of me I just couldn't cope with that. It's a strange situation. I've always been a fairly free individual in that regards. Although I'm not -- I want to stress I have never been promiscuous but I've been a loving person, and therefore as far as this is a natural warmth that you build relationships with people. I hated hurting people because I've been hurt myself. But ...

The social context, too, from the mid-'60s onwards, everybody moved to a more relaxed attitude to these things ...

Did they?

Well, it was a context in which that was happening a lot ...

Well, I not only did it in a sexual way, I did it in a moral way and a human and in every regards. I mean, I walked across a line and I was -- I would balk on intimidatory actions of, and taking on, institutions prior to that, but from '65 onwards, or about '64-'65, I'd never really bent the knee to anyone, it wouldn't matter whether it was Packer or Fairfax or whether it was Woolworths before them or whether it's Hawke or Whitlam or the system as a whole. If I thought I was right, well that's it, and I wasn't going to bend the knee to other people. I never found it, I didn't do it in a bravado sort of way, but it was a certain moral inner strength that I had and I was able to do it, and in fact I, you know, faced the system. My own Party can be very oppressive at times, but it certainly never was for me.

A lot of people have said, and some politicians' wives very publicly, that they feel that the political life, and especially that of ministers, is set up in a way that almost inevitably puts terrible pressures on families. Do you think that's true, or do you think that in a way, when you get to Canberra, there's a whole culture that allows you or encourages you not to be as responsible towards your family as you in deed could be?

No, I think it is true. I think it's a very dehumanising family situation. I think full credit to Keating for -- I mean Keating was very courageous on the position that he took, and I think the people of Australia should support him on his love of his family and standing up to that situation. But not everybody can in fact even be in a financial position even to do what Paul has done. But, certainly, in my view ...

In having his family with him as much as possible ...

Yes, that's right. Yes. Well, he took his whole family and decided to live in Canberra when he became a minister. But in my case there was a difference in that, a little bit different in most cases. First of all Patricia didn't like flying. Secondly, she didn't like leaving the children, she'd made that commitment to the children, and in fact I've learnt so much. You got to face facts. Younger men, when the children comes first and the husband comes second, something kind of, kind of stiffens, and you know you hurt, kind of, and I've grown a great deal, and secondly I think I'm a better person in my second marriage for that experience itself. But the closeness, and we remain extremely close, we had so much in common, Patricia and I, and when she, in those last two years of her life when she actually got cancer and she came back, and I bought this little shack down at Granville and I was living there, and she shared that house with me the last two years of her life and I would take her in every Tuesday to have chemotherapy and I've seen what a debilitating experience dying of cancer is. It's a terrible thing. I'll never forget, I saw that film Shadowlands and the person dying of cancer, but it doesn't experience really what the ... what that human being goes through, particularly when they first of all lose their breast and then they lose their hair and then they go from being a beautiful human being to skeleton of a person and the tragedy that the people have to go through with it. And the nausea. The suffering that they have to go through and that nausea is such a ... it's such a ... such a terrible death. Any my Patricia faced up to that death as nobody did.

Did you ask her to come back to you then?

No. Oh no, no. Just automatic. It was just automatic. We were very close and she used to call me ... those last two years might have been hell for her but they were powerful for me because she'd call me a rock, you see.

So although it was hard, you actually loved it because you had the chance to do something for her. Had you felt very guilty about her?

Oh yes, still feel guilty. No argument about it. I mean, as I said ...

You wish you had behaved a little differently towards her?

Oh, I could have been much more mature. Men are very, can be very, selfish and women take too many brunts.

Looking back now with the position of maturity, what do you think about marital fidelity?

Um. I'm not sure on that. I really feel it's whether you give love and protection to your family and you are keen on that although I mean I've never looked at another person since I've married Christine. I wouldn't be purer about people being that. I mean, many young people come and talk with me and talk through their problems. And I think that, you know, you've got to ... it's a matter of love and giving to people generally and sometimes there might be, sexual relations might come in, but that's not the be-all and end-all of a human relationship. And, so it's ...

So you've been very focused on your relationship with your second wife, Christine?

Well, in a way, she's much younger than I am and it took her a long time to make up her mind because we've had a very long relationship. It took her a long time for her to want to marry me, but ultimately she made that decision; I didn't, because I didn't want to force anything, I wanted to be naturally free about that. And she had the job in a period, we broke -- I mean we've had a long, nearly 15 years relationship, but there was a period where she kind of slipped away for about eight months and that's when Ruby was formed, but we came back together while she was pregnant, and I mean I was her security in that pregnancy. And Ruby's; even though I didn't father Ruby, I feel I'm Ruby's father as much as any other human being and I love her and give love to her and I think in the long term, I think it was Christine found that I loved Ruby so much, that she fell in love even more with me and it's a great relationship, but again if I might say that there's a kind of overflowing situation between Patricia on the one hand Christine on the other, and they kind of interweave with one another. Their natures are so gentle and they're not possessive, either of them, not possessive, and I give her ... I mean I don't ask her, you know, where she goes every moment of the day and vice versa; she's got a little holiday home where she entertains a lot of her friends in the theatre and opera business and I'm happy about that. They often come to our place too, in at Balmain, but I think more so up at Patonga where she's got a little holiday shack.

And how involved are you with Ruby?

Oh, very much, very much with Ruby and ...

You actually mind her some of the time, don't you?

Oh, even in the earlier days when she was very very young. Christine, at that time, was standing much more economically independent from me, although I would help on occasion if she needed it, but she would teach and she would go to opera rehearsals and all those things. There was a great deal of time when I was the chief babysitter and I would push Ruby in a pram, we would go on the trains and go on the ferries and we'd stroll through the city. I mean, I have to laugh, because I was about nine or 10 before I ever went to the centre of the city with my father, but here I am pushing Ruby when she was about one, even before she was about one year old or a little bit more, through the centre of the city and of course we still go about together, not as much as we used to into the centre of the city, but we certainly still go about a fair bit on ferries and buses and trains.

Women have played a very important part in your life, from your mother on to your little daughter now ...

Yeah, my first mother-in-law was a wonderful person in my life, too. Still a part. She was quite a remarkable woman, too.

What about the women that you've worked with in politics?

Oh yes, well, I've had some wonderful friends there. Wonderful friends. There's a remarkably strong-willed woman that does an enormous amount for me but she's also had a great influence on my life. Her name's Ann Catling, she's married to Jim Tzannes who's a solicitor, a solicitor by trade, but he's in the health department. But his brother is that famous architect Alex Tzannes, and Annie's been a great influence. Jeanette McHugh has been a great friend, we've had Delcia Kite, [who] was an old friend from so many years, but there're so many women and friends in my life, but they're friends in dialogue and discussion and they put a point a view. For instance, Annie used to always say to me, 'Tommy, you got to stop being a general and start being a private.' Because I'd been a general so long, you see? And it was a part of my training, in my administration under Woolworths, to get people to work with me or for me but I used to always use that term with me; I've always been a good delegator.

And why did she think you should start being a private?

Well, I should start getting involved and doing things more myself. Which I think in the long term is a great thing, I mean, I've learnt that same thing -- where people have written for me great speeches and did other things for me in the past. When I wrote my book it was just so wonderful that I had to sit down and write those things myself, and to go through that process, and there is so much that I find now that I'm a more accomplished person by doing many things myself instead of just delegating those things. But I find in women a great deal more compassion generally than men and I've loved very few men in my life, but you know I loved Cairns, I thought he was a very special human being, I still do. Another person that really had a great impact on my life was Lloyd Rees and I had a great love for him, too. He's [got] the great depth and the giving process. I love giving people, people like you know John XXIII, Martin Luther King, Paul Robeson -- I mean the enormous influence Robeson had on my life, all through those '60s when my struggles were really enormous, fighting Packer on the one hand Fairfax on the other, six and a half long years' struggle, fighting every court in the land every time I'd feel depressed in such a way, I would get this recording that Paul Robeson made -- he came out here in 1961 and whilst he was here he made this speech or performance at the Paddington Town Hall to the peace movement. Now I had a recording of this and I would always play this recording and it was the struggle that ... the beauty of his voice. It wasn't only that of his oppression himself but the oppressed peoples of the world and I'd get up and say, 'Get up with you, get out there and fight the bastards' and so it was out of that depression that really got me up and gave me that optimism, hope, and I'd get up and fight. And I was in Vietnam in recently, I was a guest of the government for the 50th anniversary of their republic and I've read and re-read Ho Chi Minh's prison diary and the humility and compassion of that man, I mean, that great revolutionary leader you know, that people put down, well he's a communist and all that. They know very little about his background, and I had to start searching more and more and wanting to know more and more about the greatness of Ho Chi Minh because I was always -- every time I've had that feeling about Ho Chi Minh. And I don't know if you ever read, you know, things like Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian, and talking about the whole question of basis of dialogue, but if you are to have faith in the human race you've got to have love for the human race, well I mean that's what the early beginners of the struggle for the working-class was all about. You made a commitment to other human beings. And you fought for them, fought for equity and justice and freedom, and of course now environmentally. I mean they're the struggles which life's all about. It's serving other people, it's giving to the process that really gives you that enormous strength about living, and that's what I feel I've drawn, partly from my own experience about living, from those great human beings.

Your great desire to do this drew you into politics, it attracted you into the Left of the party. Looking back, what do you feel was the great achievement of the Left of the ALP?

Well, I think the first thing you've got to recognise if you look, I think the Left in Australia has always been downrated. It's always been bogeyed. But if you look at the Left, they led many human struggles, whether it's [against] nuclear testing in the atmosphere or underground, whether it's nuclear free zones, whether it's the uranium mining struggle, whether it's Vietnam. They've fought some really remarkable human struggles. But also, we weren't one-party people, I was a part of the Left and I was the early environmentalist that grew long before it became the issue. The urban and planning question on housing, questions even on transport and those issues, I mean, we were really making a broad contribution across the board on issues. And we really always wanted at least, and you've got to recognise, a coalition of forces. And at least the forces that I represented, they really wanted to make it a more tolerant and generous and equitable world. But, if you examine our Left position from that of the British Labor Party, for instance, we were not people who were born to say we're going to remain in opposition as oppositionists, we were a part of government and we were a part of that collective team to form government and many of our ministers were great ministers. I mean, really great ministers: Doug Everingham who was Minister for Health in the Whitlam Government, Moss Cass who was the Minister for the Environment in the Whitlam Government, they were great ministers and we made our real contribution. As I said, Cairns, early on in the whole question of trade and commerce with China and particularly with the Soviet Union opening up trade, and strengthened the AICD. But the British Labour Party's Left, I think, to some extent helped to keep the Labor Party in Britain isolated. Now I don't think the leading journalists, I don't think the leading politicians, I don't think the system as a whole, has accepted the important role that we played.

Because you could have been spoilers, too, and you weren't.

Well, some of them were and they were isolated, those that wanted to be permanent oppositionists. Now don't get me wrong, I think that life is a 15-round fight, that in the political struggles, same as anywhere any other struggle, there are times when you have to clinch, there are times when you have to spar, but there's times when you have to stand up to it. Now I would say that since my retirement, there has been a weakness of the leadership of the Left in facing up to many of the important principles. I think the leadership of the Left on things like privatisation within both the Hawke and the Keating Government have been fairly negative. I think there's been in many cases that they've been in favour of subsidisation which is a transfer payment from the poor to the rich, instead of going into bricks and mortar and social and physical infrastructure owned by the public sector. I think that in the question of the Gulf War, the Left leadership, not the Left but the Left leadership, because you know that 10 people out of the Left wouldn't support the government during the Gulf War. But the leadership of the Left went along, I think it was an ill-principled thing, I think the Gulf War was over oil. I thought that it should have been over negotiations, there was no real discussion in the Australian Parliament, for instance, there was only a few individuals -- Ted Mack to his great credit stood up -- but what happened was that in the United States where there was some debate over the question of UN sanctions, wherein within the senate was only defeated by 52 votes to 47. In our parliament there was no debate for and against because they all went that way, the press of the day went that way. And what's happened? What have they changed in Saddam's name. I really believe that if they'd pressed and gone ahead with the economic sanctions, those billions and billions and billions of dollars that were spent and wasted in the Iraq war could have been used more fruitfully in the other parts of the world. It's strange that they haven't faced up to other crises in the world because there was no oil involved. But now the United States are involved there because United States, you've got to keep in mind, only represents the use of five per cent of the world's population. They consume about 25 per cent of the oil resources of the world. Now it's about time those people in the United States stop using those guzzlers of motor cars and start looking that they are part -- they're world citizens, they're part of the world and they've got a responsibility to give leadership and they've got to stop this self, individual, greed.

In relation to the Left, in the Labor Party, it was always and has always been a minority group. Why do you think that is?

Well, first of all I try to explain to people, and I've tried to explain it even within my own national Left, because I was a part of the national Left leadership for near-on 20-odd years, and I try to explain particularly in my evergreen years that we, on the Labor Party as the Left of the political spectrum in Australia, that we in the Left are on the Left of the Labor Party and that there's been a media mentality, if you look at the newspapers they'll say, even today, they're always saying, 'Tom Uren, Left-wing minister of so and so', that old saying. So and so, Right-wing minister of so and so they always identify, you know, 'This Tom Uren, he's a bloody monster.' But, you think, most people love me these days. I don't know why, but they do.

So this business of compromise in order to be able to win in the long run, was something that you feel requires real judgement because sometimes it's necessary to stand up. You yourself, were you ever tempted to resign?

Only once. Only once in my parliamentary life I ever thought I would resign and that was over Northwest Radio Communications Station back in 1963. And I'd played an important role in that because I was the one that agitated against it earlier on.

Could you tell us about the American bases?

Well the American base, and that's the one that I was directly involved in, was what they called the radio communications station at Northwest Base. It was a radio communications station which would receive messages from the United States at high frequency, transfer it to very low frequency which, in turn, would send it to submarines carrying Polaris missiles in the Indian Ocean, and they were directed at either China or the southern part of the Soviet Union. Missiles. And they weren't terribly accurate missiles, too, they called them second line of defence, but they were really an attack [on people]. As time went on, they got the more accurate ones and they could pinpoint the targets. Now there was 28 square miles of our territory, of our sovereign soil, given to the United States on a lease, and I opposed that because I thought it was inter-related with nuclear war, that in turn it would bring nuclear threat to Australia. And because it was a population deterrent, in other words a city deterrent. If it was good enough for us to fire onto their cities it was good enough for them to fire onto our cities. So that's what it was all about and I opposed it, and there was enormous struggle within the Labor Party over it. Ultimately we accepted it with certain amendments, but we went along with it, and it was on that basis that I found extremely difficult but the formulation of Labor's policy in the end gave me I suppose a way out. In fact, the Left didn't want to enter into the debate on it, but I certainly did, and I entered into the debate, and my speech must have been fairly powerful on that occasion, because other Leftists then followed my position in that debate. I always recall that Arthur Calwell was in Berlin (must've been in the winter recess that he was in Berlin) and he had Hansard's with him in bed, reading that, and he tells me that he just re-read my speech in the parliament and what a wonderful speech it was and I said it's funny how those old-timers like Calwell and even Whitlam go to bed with their Hansard's.

It isn't your idea of good bedtime reading?

No, it certainly isn't, no.

Your convictions on the Left and some of your international activities must have, especially in the late '50s and early '60s during the period of the consequences of the Cold War, have attracted a lot of attention to you from security and so on. Were you ever in real trouble because of this?

Well, ASIO really thought I was a Soviet spy and it was revealed on 1st of January, 1993, that there'd been a memo given, that certain questions that I was asking were inspired by the Russians, that I wasn't the person of intellect to be able to formulate those decisions, those questions, myself. And so they were my judge, my jury and my executor. They really were vicious, sick people, and I'm not saying that some of them may not still be there, but certainly I fought -- and arising out of that, of course, the long litigation struggle. But they certainly, there would be a security file on me that high, you know, I'm sure of that.

Did you feel that you were under surveillance the whole time and your phone was bugged and so on?

Yeah, well, I made it my business that when I picked up a telephone I took it for granted that ASIO or some of their agents were listening to my telephone and I had the department (in those early days it was called the Postmaster General's Department (PMG), long before post office and Telecom were split) and I had a fairly high file of complaints there, but in the end I used common-sense. And if I wanted to go out and talk to a comrade I would go out and use a public telephone, I wouldn't use my own phone.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 11