|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 17, 1996
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
You felt you were under surveillance by ASIO?
Yes, I really always felt that, and particularly the telephone, and as I said earlier that whenever I was on the telephone I took it for granted that ASIO was there with me, or I was being taped. And of course, I was assured by the PMG as it was in those days that it just was not possible; we know that's all nonsense of course. But so therefore if I wanted to have a discussion I went and saw the person personally or secondly I would ring them up on a public telephone and make the appointment to see them at a different place. So I just took it for granted in that way. But anybody that really wanted to see me, whether a communist or anyone else, my office was open to them. I was not going to be intimidated in any way, or my home. Make no doubt about it. I would invite them into my home or to talk with me. I never ever put barriers on people because of the fear that I might be on ASIO's files.
You had some good friends who were actively in the communist party, didn't you?
Oh yes. One particularly, well I really became close to both Laurie and Eric Aarons, and I admired them greatly. First of all, I met Carol, who was Laurie's wife, because she used to work on the polling booths in Reid and they lived in the Reid electorate and, later of course, I met Laurie who became a very firm family friend. In fact there was a kind of a love and affection between both Patricia and Laurie and Laurie had great admiration for Patricia.
Would you ever have considered joining the Communist Party?
Well, no, I wouldn't because of the position that I evolved to, a position where I got a better understanding. I suppose my admiration for the Communist Party, I didn't see the worst, I told you the only time I was really negatively anti-communist was in those '50s when I was in Lithgow. But at no other time was I negative anti-communist, I was just non-communist. Now, as I developed and got a better understanding, I really judged them on their merits of those events in the '60s and particularly after Czechoslovakia. What finished up to be the Australian Communist Party as you know, for listeners to understand it, there was a split first of all: the Marxist Leninist, which were the Chinese orientated people, went one way; then the Socialist Party of Australia which was in allegiance to the Soviet Union went another way; and then what was left was the Australian Communist Party. So it was after Czechoslovakia I had a great deal of respect for their foreign policy at that time, because I still thought that Australia was either following the British or the American line and the only one in Australia, political party, really taking at that time an independent position was in fact the Communist Party, so I had respect for some of their attitudes and I certainly had respect for people like Eric Aarons and Laurie Aarons and, particularly, a wonderful old person in the peace movement, it's sad to say it's slipped my mind at this moment, but he was a great ... he was a member of the teacher's federation, he was a headmaster at Parramatta High School.
You were the first Australian Parliamentarian to visit China, and then later in 1968 you were in Czechoslovakia during those crucial events. How did people regard you at home because of these international activities?
Well, I wasn't the first parliamentarian to visit China, there'd been a parliamentary delegation of the caucus back in 1957, which Leslie Haylen led. But in 1960, three years later, I went with the peace movement first of all to Japan for the sixth world conference against A&H bombs and then across to China for 21 days, and when I did return, the Right-wing elements of the government really played hell, and so of course the press played it up quite substantially at that time.
And your visit to Czechoslovakia, what came from that?
Well, at that time how the visit arose was this -- I was in Europe, and I was on a study tour for the Australian Government or the Australian Parliament to study the economic question and dairy questions and trade questions in Europe. And of course, they were complaining then they were under-strength greatly in Europe at that time because of the Vietnam War, particularly Americans, and also of course France, under de Gaulle, was playing a very independent position also. So NATO was in grave difficulties at that time. Now I'd arranged, before I left, I'd built up a rapport with a wonderful Czech called Dr Franc Kriegal. I first met him in 1965 at Dublin when I was at an inter-parliamentary union, then later the same year in Ottawa, the following year in April of 1966, he led the Czech delegation to the parliamentary union in Canberra. So I had these three wonderful meetings with him and he had an enormous affection for me and I with him. Now just before I went on this parliamentary trip, I'd arranged to go to the Soviet Union for ten days, they'd invited me some time earlier, and secondly, I'd also asked to see the local consul. There was no ambassador then to go to Czechoslovakia, and he said, 'Well Mr Uren, you realise that Kriegal is no longer the leader of the inter-parliamentary union delegation.' I said, 'Oh, he's not?' He said, 'No, he's now on the presidium, the [Alexander] Dubcek Presidium. What had occurred is that Kriegal was one of 300 communists in the central committee and that there'd been a struggle inside the presidium of the Czechoslovakian Government on whether Novotny should hold the position of Secretary General of the Communist Party and President of the Republic and the decision was split five/five so when it came to the central committee, Kriegal made the decision to move for a secret ballot. Of course, in doing so, they won the struggle and Novotny had to break down his position. Now, President Svoboda took his place and they then elevated Kriegal to the presidium. Now, with that background of course I was given by the consul, I then went to Czechoslovakia and I saw ...
We're going to have to stop [INTERRUPTION]
When you came back from Czechoslovakia, the visit that you made in that historic time in 1968, people were tremendously impressed with the speech you made. How did you feel about that whole time?
Well, I was personally involved, so very personally involved, because of my relationship with people I knew in the leadership in the Dubcek Liberal Government of the Czechoslovakia. And, first of all, when the debate was in the parliament I was sick in bed, but as soon as I got back there was a speech on the budget and I was able to make my speech on Czechoslovakia. Probably the best speech I've ever made, parliamentary speech I've ever made, in my life. But I really tried to deal with the stupidity, if I might use the term, of the brutality of the Soviet regime of crushing the Liberal-minded and progressive government of Czechoslovakia, because they were a government that would not only try to take the nation forward, but also look at some of the crimes that they'd committed in their past and adjust the compensation to their citizens accordingly. But, at that time, the hardline mentality and the backwardness of many of the people in the leadership of the Soviet Union overruled many of the progressive people even in the Soviet Union at that time. And there were army manoeuvres after ... well they were going on whilst I was there, but when I left what happened was it was just like the showing of the flag. They came in through one end of Czechoslovakia and through Bohemia and other places and went right out through Slovakia with their army tanks and everything showing the flag [and] what they didn't like about the government, so they were trying to intimidate the Czechoslovakian people. Instead, the Czechoslovakian people were so proud that they were putting on front pages of their papers their government's argument and putting the Soviet bloc's argument on the other side of the page. So it can't get any more democratic than that. So it was really getting the citizens up in arms against -- then of course, when I went to the Soviet Union I was to be there for a week, ten days, but because of the crisis came back to Australia; particularly over redistribution of boundaries, I only spent four days there. But the whole four days I was there, I was arguing with the Soviet people, and nobody at any time admitted that they would in fact invade the Soviet Union ...
I'm sorry, invade Czechoslovakia. And so, I spelt all these things out in my speech and Australian press' comments about the invasion, but used the communiques that were coming out of the Soviet Embassy in Canberra, and I said that if anybody in the Soviet Union believes that, they are fools or liars. I mean it was just utter stupidity. And my argument was that it really would have set back, it did in fact set back, progress so many years. One of the things that -- when I was in the Soviet Union I saw some good elements, particularly amongst the arts and concerts and things like that, that gave me some hope and of course we know now that hope was broken through.
Your association with the Left brought you a lot of criticism from the Australian press. Did you ever fight back?
Well, the worst of all, the worst libels --they'd written an article by a journalist on the Sun Herald in February of 1963. He said that I was asking questions on behalf of the Soviet Union and now I know, of course, because of the 30-year rule that I quoted [earlier] in regards to 1st of January '93, which revealed that ASIO had written a memo and circulated that memo that Uren was asking questions about delicate matters, particularly on the Northwest radio communication station, that he didn't have the intelligence to formulate such a question, and therefore he would only be inspired by the Soviet Embassy. And of course, in this newspaper article, there'd been a person named persona non grata only a few days before called Ivan Skripov and it was inferred that Skripov had inspired me to ask these questions. Now, they didn't name me in the newspaper article, but I was clearly identifiable. I mean, I was the only person that had asked some six to eight questions over a period of two years prior to that. And also, of course, had made speeches about the matter as well. And so, I said that I would sue them. And of course, that long legal action -- I might say that the Sydney Morning Herald or the Sun Herald, with John Fairfax or someone, they knew I was going to sue them, withdrew it after their first edition. But the Daily Telegraph, who had not run it in their first edition, put it in their second edition of Sunday papers and all other editions and so Sunday morning when I got up, it had disappeared from the front page of the Sun Herald but there it was in the Sunday Daily Telegraph so I took them both to court. And it finished up that I had a jury of 12 and in the first, against Packer, they awarded me 30,000 pounds and there were two other libels that I had as well but Clive Evatt wanted me to use the question of malice. I was given 30,000 pounds, 5000 for the first one, 10,000 for the second and 15,000 pounds for the third count, which was the Skripov-inspired spy question. Now that was 30,000 pounds. Six weeks later the Herald had changed their plea only a few minutes before the jury came in, in the Packer case, and they changed it to that they were guilty of libel. And after a long trial, even with them with admitted guilt, only on the one count there was 13,000 pounds. So within six weeks there was awarded 43,000 pounds to me. Now 30,000 pounds by the way was the highest amount of litigation in those days -- it was March, 1964 -- ever given to any person, let alone a politician. Well, they fought me, Packer and both Fairfax, fought me in the full Supreme Court and said that there should be a new trial on damages only. Then the High Court after a year or so a gave a further opinion that there should be a retrial on all counts, but punitive damages should still be allowed. In the meantime, I'd settled with Fairfax, well they settled with me and apologised and settled with me, and I used their money to continue my fight with Packer, and Packer took me to the privy council in London, and the privy council decided that whether the law was good or bad, it was formulated by the Australian court and therefore it should remain, and that was a test case I might say, and there was never any overruling until of course the privy council appeals were ultimately done away with. Then they took me back to a second trial and I won that again, and Packer took me to a full Supreme Court of New South Wales, and two counts went to the High Court, and one count went back to a third trial when Packer surrendered six-and-a-half years later. So it was a long struggle and I was tenacious and, to a great extent, I must give great credit to Clive Evatt. If he had not stayed with me ... But it was very interesting, in my latter days, I used to always worry about Evatt before the High Court or before the full Supreme Court, but about halfway through my struggle, Michael McHugh became my junior barrister and he would argue. Even Clive thought he was so good that he would give way to Michael, and Michael would argue before the courts and I felt much more secure with Michael arguing. I loved Clive in front of a jury, but in front of the appellate courts I really worried a great deal. But anyway, ultimately I was successful and the apology was made, a certain agreement was made out of court with Packer.
How much money did you end up with Tom?
Well, there was a part of the settlement that you couldn't declare it and in fact I don't think that one should reveal it even at this stage. But, what happened was, the great joy for me was, that Packer and I ultimately met. Because earlier on we'd tried to settle it, but Packer thought we'd agreed on something, and then I'd gone back a second time to see him, and he thought I was negotiating from ... from weakness, so I've never abused anyone personally more powerfully in my life than I did against Frank Packer, and they tell me that the more I abused him the more he liked me. In fact, Alan Reid tells the story that when the second trial was coming up, Larkin had come to him and said, 'Has Sir Frank ever seen Mr Uren?' And he said, 'Why do you ask?' He said a funny thing, he said, 'You know, when you get Uren in the box, don't be too tough on him, he's not a bad bloke, you know.' Anyways, the funny thing about it all was that within a year Packer through McNicoll, David McNicoll, had approached us to write a column in The Daily Telegraph. I thought all the shadow ministers should get it, but McNicoll said, No, Packer only wants you and Whitlam,' so I only agreed if the caucus would agree to it. The caucus did agree, and then Whitlam and I, for a year, wrote a double column, in The Daily Telegraph. Gough would do it one week and I'd do it the following week. And so, there must have been grudging respect from old Packer to me.
What did you do with the money?
Well, my family, I felt that they needed a retreat and I had this land up at Mt Wilson, but no house on it, so we built this house, this shack on it, at Mt Wilson which I call Fairfax Retreat, and I bought a little holiday home down the south coast which I call Packer's Lodge. So ... and I used to call the one at Guildford 'the halfway house.'
So, you were now a Left-wing Labor politician with three houses. Did that ever strike you as being an odd situation to you?
Well, as long as you don't rent them, I've got no objections to people owning houses. I was always suspect of landlords. No, I've always been in favour of home ownership, even though I've been a great public housing advocate. I've always been in favour of private ownership because I believe that in a worker's lifetime, the major earnings of a worker is the home and residence they live in. That's a great thing in Australia and it's a pity that it's starting to dwindle now. I really believe that every worker should have the right to own his own home. And therefore they accrue some of the capital appreciation that occurs in that home and they don't pay money to landlords all their lives.
Have you ever gone to jail for your beliefs?
Yes, I've been to jail. My first time I went to jail was in 1971, in the September 1970 demonstration in the war in Vietnam [where] I was manhandled by a young Japanese, I'm sorry, by a young police officer ...
He just seemed like one of your Japanese guards, didn't he? ... [INTERRUPTION]
Have you ever been to jail for your beliefs?
Yes I have. Several times actually, but the first time I went to jail was back in 1971, when there'd been a demonstration, Vietnam demonstration, in Sydney. The second moratorium it was in September. And Askin wouldn't allow them to walk on the street at that time, forced them onto the footpath, and I was a manhandled by a young policeman, so I went down. That day there were about 200 young students who'd also been booked by the police, so I went down and 'laid an information' against this police officer. I only had his number. And then I had to wait until January 1971 to hear the case. We went into a magistrate's court and argued the case, it was a criminal case because it was [an] assault case. And the police officers lied their head off, the authorities gave all the false information. Even though they didn't, they wouldn't, identify the young officer. They had six young policemen all of similar type in plain clothes and they made me identify that person out of the six which I did, which was remarkable, picking people's eyes, and I picked him. But they were all the same colours and backgrounds, making it very difficult, to confuse me. And so I did, and for three days the police just lied their heads off. And in the end the magistrate dismissed the charge because of conflicting evidence. Then the police pushed for the cost to be paid by me. Jimmy Staples was my barrister, and he argued strongly against this, and ultimately Lewer was a compromiser (the magistrate). He said, 'Look I'll only charge them two days' costs and not three, it's 80 days' cost or 40 days hard labour.' Of course I immediately picked up the political significance of this, and I got up and I said, 'I'll do the hard labour.' And Jimmy said, 'Don't do this, it'll get in the press.' I said, 'Jim, we've been sitting here for three days, the police have been lying their heads off that they ... nobody knows that it's going on, there's nothing reported in the paper at all, but certainly it will be now.' And it certainly was, and consequently Lewer couldn't get out of the court fast enough, didn't want to fine me for contempt of court in any shape or form. So I waited the three months and when the three months was up I turned up at the police court. I said, 'Here I am, you better put me in jail.' Nobody wanted me because by this time I had enough information, television, the whole caboodle with them. They were all in chaos, this is the week before Easter, so ultimately, they had a cabinet meeting and they instructed the police that they better proceed with me; they can't have a special case for Uren. So on Easter Saturday they came looking for me. I was down at the Berrima Jail. I went down to Berrima Jail and there was a young fella by the name of Mullins in there and I was visiting him this Easter Saturday and I heard the message that there somebody was looking for me so I rang back and said I'd be coming, and so I turned up and when I did I rang -- first of all rang Jack Ferguson, who was my colleague (a local who dealt with police matters), and then the person in charge of the Merrylands Police came up to my house and said, 'Mr Uren, can't we pay your costs?' And I said, 'No, don't you pay the fine, Inspector. I'll do the time.' So consequently I went down to Merrylands Police Station, they fingerprinted me, put me in a car, took me out to Long Bay. I'll never forget those clanging gates behind me at Long Bay and I said, 'Oh Christ, Uren, what have you done now?' That feeling of ... that cold feeling of ... the clanging of those gates, jail gates. Anyway, they put me in a. -- oh it was funny as a circus. My number, my uniform number, is C1204, and the chap (who's the famous black Aboriginal writer, he was a sculptor then), he's outfitting me and got everything for me but not the right size for my underwear. I said I'm finicky about my underwear, I'll keep my own underwear ... he just couldn't ... he was flabbergasted. Anyway, I go into my cell and when I get into the cell I hear on 2UE that Tom Uren has just been put into Long Bay Jail. I said, thank god, somebody knows I'm here. Well, I'll never forget the first morning that I go out to get my breakfast, the cons come up to me, 'Don't eat the meat Tom, the fridge is on the blink.' So I had the porridge, and when I got out into the yard they all lined up to put their case to me. And every one of them was in there on a wrong case. And then I asked the guards could I, in fact, could I go into my cell, stay in my cell and do some reading in the afternoon? He said, 'Well, we'll have to lock you up.' I said, 'Well that's all right, that's all right.' So all afternoon, I might tell you, I had all the guards coming to see me and right to the Deputy Governor they all wanted to talk about the superannuation problems, they all had their complaints. Anyway, on the Easter Monday, somebody had paid my fine and I was released. So that was my first experience. But I've been in jail, lockup, many times in Brisbane over the anti-march laws with Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and of course ultimately into Bogga Road. But as in '71, I was a minister in '72, and then in '78 and '79, when I was in lockup and also in jail in Brisbane. By '83 I was a minister again in the Hawke Government. So it was quite ironical. It's interesting also that the person in charge of the Brisbane Jail wanted to pay my fines also. He was a former prisoner of war with me, so it was a bit embarrassing for him.
What was it like in jail apart from the fact that you ended up setting up office?
Well, I think the thing that struck home the first time I went into jail was the kind of San Quentin kind of mentality, the type of cell and that you had. It's quite frightful and I mean I didn't get into the oldest cells, but some of the older cells at Long Bay, urination is instilled into brickwork, but it was a dehumanising effect and I thought to myself that it's a pity that more politicians don't visit these jails and understand what they're like because it was a dehumanising effect. It's an interesting point that one of the people in jail at that time was a solicitor who was in there for absconding with people's funds and after he served his time, he said, 'You know my wife,' and she worked in the parliamentary library, and he told me who she was and so when he was coming out, he lived in New South Wales, and the only way that he could get into the ACT was to get a job, so I talked to my permanent head and I said, 'Why don't you give him an interview, he's a very intelligent bloke. He's got good qualifications ... if we are to be progressive we've got to take a look at some questions of rehabilitation.' Do you know that that chap became rehabilitated? In fact he'd become a part of the regional section of my department and that was in '72-'75 and even when I came back in 1983 he was still in the regional section of my old department at DURD and I re-inherited again in 1984. So that's an interesting human story as well.
What part has religion played in your life, Tom?
Well, my difficulty was that first of all I was Christian until I was about 45 years of age, about the middle '60s, when I walked away from my faith.
How were you raised?
I was raised as a Anglican.
Were you sent to Sunday School?
Yes, I attended Sunday School and my mother was quite a good Christian and myself, and I might say so was my wife Patricia. She was a very fine Christian and we'd go to communion together, Church of England, go to communion each Sunday. And you know, that question of guilt played an important part particularly in a certain period of my life. But, when I eventually came to the decision about moving away from my faith, I really hate hypocrisy and I wondered why I'd been so emotionally moved by reading stories about Jesus. Because my wife had given me, soon after our marriage as a present, Christmas present, a translation of the New Testament by JP Phillips, and those stories I used to read about Jesus, they were so moving that I would choke up and you know feel perhaps I'm emotionally moved, and I thought to myself, why, why, why, was I moved so much? Then I found out it's the old humanism in me. It's my compassion for other human being and that Jesus Christ was a man of goodwill and that we need more. And I've been very pro-men and women of goodwill and even though I've left my faith, I mean, there're people like John XXIII and people like Martin Luther King, you know, that really have inspired me in my own lifetime.
So, you were a very strict and devout Christian up to the mid-'60s ...
I wouldn't use the word strict, but I was fairly firm Christian. In my early part of my parliamentary life when they were calling me a communist, I thought I had old Jesus Christ right along side of me. So you know, he was really inside me. And in fact, I really support the concept of all young children being taught ...
[end of tape]