Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

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Your religion had been so important to you for the first 45 years of your life. Why did you abandon it in the mid-'60s?

Well it was a gradual ... you never move immediately into anything, it's a gradual process and ... of questioning. And I always worried about certain aspects, particularly 40 days and 40 nights of going into the wilderness, and many other things, but what I found in life is that history's written by men and women and men and women are not ... it's always like history's in the eye of the beholder. And I recognised that in the long term I didn't really want to believe in any one, or have to rely on any one, faith to win it. There was a kind of reservoir of faiths that I would draw on so I moved to a position of self-reliance in a way, not in a kind of an egotistical way, but I felt that I loved the men and women of goodwill that do really could solve the problems of our world. It's like John XXIII said, 'You know, it's men and women of goodwill can solve the problem whether they're believers or non-believers.' He's the first Pope that I know to say such a thing. And so it was this belief, and wherever I can I try to encourage people to have more ... believe in themselves more. They have more strength in themselves, don't blame other people for the problems that they create. Now having done that, even though I still believe in a collective society, that we need each other, but one has to have greater strength and greater faith in one's self to solve one's problems without looking for any Messiah that's going to come over the sea. Like for instance, I dislike immensely the charisma mentality of advertising -- a leader of charisma, that's what we really need -- it's utter nonsense. What we really need is people to have belief in themselves and to make sure that these men of so-called charisma carry out their wishes. So this is an evolving, philosophical position that I carry through at that time.

So, what was it in religion that you were actually turning away from, and what were you retaining from it?

Well first of all, I was retaining the missionary zeal, the revolutionary zeal of Jesus, and so I've never really ... in fact I was never close to God. I was close to Jesus always, I mean God was never my ... close to me. But Jesus was close to me. And I just recognised that he was a man of goodwill, one of the many people in my life that has done good for other human beings and that we should, I should, strive and draw on people, of men and women, of goodwill. Now it's how I see it. And I think they're the people that I've drawn so much on [for] influence, for instance Cairns, that I thought he was the most Christ-like human being that I've ever known. With probably one exception, I think my own wife was very much that way. But Jimmy was that way too.

So, when you decided that you didn't want to be formally part of a religious practice anymore, it was partly a decision to rely on yourself rather than on any external authority?

That's right. In fact, I said to Cairns, 'I'm not a believer anymore,' and all he said to me, 'I knew you'd get round to it like sooner or later.' That's all he said to me.

Given that you felt that Jim Cairns was so Christ-like, did you feel particularly betrayed when he let himself down?

No, no, Jimmy was, is, still that decent human being today, in a way I suppose one could say, you know, that Don McLean song, Vincent (Starry Starry Night) -- you were talking about Vincent van Gogh, you are too beautiful for this world. Well, Cairns in his own way, had that certain beauty about him. Now because he fell in love and he did it so openly with this woman, they used everything -- I mean, you've got to recognise the time that they do it, in that relationship with Cairns, there was a great deal of racism in it, sexism in it, I mean I have never seen the Australian press so filthy sexually, so filthy. Do you know that one newspaper -- Gwennie Cairns, Morosi and Jimmy had breakfast together. And they waited until Gwennie had gone and they had Jimmy and Morosi having their breakfast with telescopic lens. Plastered in their newspapers in the morning. I mean how sick and low that they get but he was foolish, too, so I'm not trying to over-protect him in those ways, but no, I've never felt let down in a personal way, I think he let our class down. You see, I've said so often before he's our Fidel. When you've got a responsibility to the broader class -- I'm so much inadequate compared to Cairns, but I don't think I've got a .got a broader responsibility and now Jimmy would feel that he's got a responsibility to himself but I once said, you know, no man is an island, but in his own way Cairns was an island in himself.

What did you think of Junie?

Well, she liked me in a way, but I just really didn't like her. I didn't like her because -- I think she's a very strong woman, by the way, I think she's very strong, had powerful thoughts, and enormous influence on Cairns, but of course I had this lifelong association with Gwennie Cairns and where I don't interfere with my mate's relationship, I mean I've still got a loyalty to the other partner as well. So, there was a sadness there for me.

DId you see Junie as an opportunist?

No, no, I think that she was genuine in her relationship with Cairns. People used to say to me, that we think she's a -- what's that American, you know American security services, you know, she was a part of that.


CIA. Yes. That's rubbish but Junie once said to me, 'Tom, the trouble with you Anglo-Saxons is you don't understand ... they don't understand sex, you know we Asians understand sex a lot more clearly than you Anglo-Saxons.' And of course Junie came out of a tough world in the Philippines and she was a tough lady. Cairns once said to me, after their long friendship she's not the same person she was before, well I don't know about that. I'm not sure about that.

While we're talking about people that you've been associated with in your long career in politics ...

... My long life in politics, I never had a career.

Good point. But during the period that you were in politics you were associated with a number of leading figures. What was your experience of Bill Hayden?

I liked Hayden, particularly in his early days. He was a compassionate young fellow, enormous courage and was very advanced on a lot of issues, played a very good role on the question of Vietnam, and certainly only social issues, White Australia. He was against White Australia, certainly on homosexuality and other such things. Particularly good. He was a very good minister in the Whitlam Government, particularly his pioneering on Medicare, but he always had a conservative strain in him in the question of economics and I think that really grew out of his schooling, and I think as he's grown older, instead of moving to a much more radical position and holding the compassion (even today I still think he's got that compassion for people) but I think he went down that conservative road, and it's very hard having taken those first steps. You find it hard to turn back, and he's got a long way down that road. I remember him telling me in 1988, 'Tommy, you seen that film Mephisto?' And I said, 'Yes, I have.' He said, 'Oh god when will you stop prostituting yourself to the system?' Now Mephisto was an actor and a producer that had been used by the Nazi machine in Germany, and at first he thought he was using them, but in the long term they used him. Now I don't want to be too cruel to Bill, but I think that really he's gone down that road and Bill may have thought he's used the system, but I think the system has used him. And that's a very sad thing, because I think Bill Hayden was really an extremely compassionate human being.

He was always a very sensitive person ...

Yeah, one of the most sensitive people I've ever known in my political life, and in fact I think that sensitivity -- and I know I'm sensitive myself -- and sensitivity can be a positive and negative, and the tragedy about Hayden is that he's so sensitive that in the end it really killed his political life because he really was not a good performer in the parliament, and the more he performed badly, the more sensitive he became about that situation. And of course the white ants can really do a lot of undermining and it's now public knowledge of the New South Wales Right's position of undermining his position. Not only personally, but within the press.

What was your position when Hawke challenged him for the leadership?

Well, in the first position I argued within the Left that Hayden was performing so badly that I don't think we'll make government under his leadership and if we continue under the Fraser/Howard leadership, what will occur will be that the Labor movement itself will fragment, that the whole question of the union movement will be undermined [by] their policies, that things like the Commonwealth Bank and TAA and Qantas and Telecom will all be privatised, and I flowed on about these arguments of why we really needed to dramatically change and that on economic issues there was very little difference between Hayden and Hawke, but on the other hand probably Hayden was the more compassionate decent person. On the other hand, Hawke was the communicator and this was the big argument within the Left, and I took that position and argued that very strongly within the caucus. But early on, particularly first of all I argued it in the national Left, and then later there was strong support for it, and then practically overwhelming; only one person stood out, it was Ray Hogan. And then in the parliamentary Left it was split down the centre at first, but what happened was, in the Labor movement itself, I used the term 'the little people', the ordinary people of the Labor movement are extremely loyal to a Labor leader. In fact, they love their Labor leaders. And the Left of the trade union movement was very much supportive of staying with Hayden. In the end I changed my position and I just said that, no, I rang Hayden up and told him that I wasn't pushing for it anymore and I stuck with him right through to the end. But, others didn't. And the Left stayed with him, but unfortunately I feel that one of the things that Hayden resented about the Left was that he had to rely on the Left to survive. And I think down deep underneath it all, he resented having to rely on anyone. That's my personal view.

What was your relationship with Lionel Murphy?

Oh, well, it's good. It was wonderful. Actually, with Lionel Murphy, I thought early on he was in too much of a hurry to get to a position of leadership. And I always recall the first time: he was in there about 18 months, he wanted to run for the Deputy Leadership against Pat Kennelly and I thought that it's better the devil you know than the devil you don't know and though, as I say, in those days I was really going through my court cases and I was in and out of Canberra, but the Left wasn't an organised group and we could vote how we liked. I actually voted for Kennelly in that first ballot. And I was really pro-Sam Cohen to become Leader of the Senate, not Murphy, but what changed my position with Murphy is that Sir Garfield Barwick had a paper on what we could do within the trade practices, dealing with trade practices, constitutionally what the Federal Government could do, and it was a discussion paper and so, to get our perspective from it, we got both Murphy and Cohen before us. Before the economics committee which I was a member of, of the parliamentary party, Cohen put all the conservative legal attitudes of what we could do and what we couldn't do within the constitution and most of the things we couldn't do, you know. But Murphy, when he came forward, he just talked about all of the positive things one could do within the existing constitution and never made any excuses about the impediments of the constitution. And it was this positive thinking of Murphy that really, from that day on, I was sold. And from there he was like Cairns, I served Murphy, and did everything I could to elevate Murphy to positions of influence within the party. And of course remained a friend of his 'til his dying day.

What did you think when he left politics?

I was very angry. First of all, that decision was made without consultation with anyone else. And in fact I was angry with Cairns and I just recently asked Cairns [if anybody] had in fact discussed with him before that day? And even though he was Deputy Prime Minister at the time nobody, Whitlam even, had discussed it with Cairns. But I think Whitlam really wanted to get rid of Murphy and certainly I don't know why, but that's something you've got to ask Gough. But that appointment to the High Court, we're all in there waiting and we're all there with the exception of Whitlam, Cairns and Murphy, and then eventually Gough and Murphy and Cairns walked in, and then Gough gave his announcement and said that Mr Murphy was now going to be appointed to the High Court, and of course I was so angry and even in my anger, I control my anger, don't get me wrong, and I argued the case that if they appoint Murphy -- because in a six-year term he'd only been there for 18 months, what will occur [with] his replacement? I could see ... first of all, who's to say, big question mark, who's to say that that they'll appoint another Labor man in his place? But underneath it all what I was really also considering that, even if they did, they would appoint a Right-wing mafia bloke from the New South Wales machine. And, ultimately they did, but the first position was -- Lewis didn't appoint a Labor man, he appointed an independent, an old chap by the name of Cleaver Bunton who was the mayor of Albury, but I argued also the question of the numbers in the Senate, that if we were to get control of the Senate, because of Murphy's position (if Murphy had retired then of course), there would be six senators coming up instead of five, and that if Labor could get three of those five, then we would be making gains, but the best we can do is get three out of six, so we were in fact throwing away a seat anyway.

And of course you turned out to be right, in the whole long-term of the weakening of the Senate, that ultimately allowed a lot of the things that then subsequently led to the Dismissal to happen?

Well, it may not ... might not have happened. If the New South Wales Premier Tom Lewis, in appointing Bunton in the place of Murphy, then when [Bert] Milliner died soon after in Queensland, they put in a phoney Labor man by the name of Field and whatsaname may not have done that at that time (Bjelke-Petersen) and so that's what changed the whole balance of power in the Senate and also the other thing a lot of people don't realise, but even on the question of the Dismissal, the question of being struck down on November 11th, you don't realise how fertile Murphy's mind was, and how in fact he could work with diverse forces, with [Reg] Withers and others in the Liberal Party. And he had that animal instinct about him that he would find out exactly what was going on in the Liberal Party, there were no barriers between them because -- he had a great relationship with, for instance, former Prime Minister Gorton, they were great mates. Anyway, we were devoid of all these things, now. That was on one side. On the other side, if Murphy had not been on the High Court of Australia, probably the liberalisation of this move to make -- and the great judgements, even though they were minority judgements in many cases that he made, may not have developed and evolved into the great court that we have today. I think we Australians should be very proud, very proud indeed of that liberal progressive democratic court, well it's democratic in that it's fair and open and free, and I'm very proud of the present High Court and I think I told Anthony Mason the other day, when he retired, and I congratulated him on his statement in regards to Michael Kirby being appointed to that court. I'm pleased and I'm proud of the present High Court of Australia, having lived under that conservative court, reactionary court, for six-and-a-half years of my own life ... I feel wonderful that people are there to defend our freedoms.

And what do you think of Paul Keating?

Well, Keating is a complex character. I've seen him grow from a very narrow young man, narrow-minded young man, into a person that is still growing, but I think he's going to be one of our great Prime Ministers. Economically I had disagreements with him during the time that I was a minister and I still disagree with some of the economic aspects with him, but on the broader vision of Keating -- for instance, that speech that he made on the 10th of December 1992 at Redfern Park on the Indigenous people, in my mind, will go down as one of the great speeches by an Australian leader since Federation. And I think it's so great that one day Australians will see the greatness of it and compare it with that of President Lincoln's second inaugural speech when nearing the end of the American Civil War. He said, 'We must bind up our wounds and bring our nation together.' Now that's how courageous that was of Keating. But there are other things that I'm proud of Keating of, for instance on the question of his relationship with the Japanese. He's the only leader of Australia that said post-Second World War against Japan, 'Look, it's about time that you Japanese, the Japanese people and the Japanese government, examine the crimes they committed in the '30s and '40s and to at least let their school children know in their education system so that they understand the crimes that were committed in that period.' Now, is there anyone that's had the guts to do that? And the wisdom to do it? And the last thing that I want to say of the greatness of him, even though it's around an election time, is that he set up a commission, first of all he said he believed that nuclear weapons should be outlawed and he set up a commission to do something about it. Now I don't care what you say about Keating, Keating has got something positive and terms of greatness about him. I think that he's got that -- he and Whitlam have got that vision of greatness, and I put them in my pocket. I mean, the other bloke on the other side which I had a really great admiration for was Jack McEwen. I mean, Menzies was a great -- I recognise Menzies -- but I put Menzies and Bob Hawke in the same category. They're the same type of people. They're good captains of their ship, they keep an even keel, but they never generate the engine room, they never generate policies with visionary programs. McEwen had that, Keating had that and certainly Whitlam had that.

What's Keating's weaknesses?

His tongue, at times, plenty of times. I think that he's got an enormous warmth, he's got enormous compassion for people, and he hasn't got that ability to show it enough. He really should show his compassion more, because there's an enormous warmth for feeling for people Look, I said to him many years ago, when he was only Treasurer, 'Listen, Paul, you're the top of the heap now, you don't have tongue bash lash those Liberals the way you do.' And he just smiled with that lovely smile of his and said, 'Yeah, but Tom I do hate their hypocrisy.' And that's the trouble with him, you see? He's got to learn that ... life, life is about building bridges with peoples and nations. It's not drawing them apart whether it's Liberals or Labor or anything else, that in the end we've got to find the best ... to move forward. We live on a limited planet, I mean, lots of things like Keating's position on environmental and foresting matters and the Solomon Islands is fantastic, and took him a hell of a long time to come around on the question of woodchips within his own country. Now I know that he's got problems with some of those conservative states, but he's got to give some vision. I don't think he really understands properly the question of the environment. If he understood the question and got engrossed in the problems of Mabo and the question of Aboriginal problems -- but one of the great challenges to his economic drive position is what's the future of the world in an environmental world? And I think he's still got to go a long way yet to really understand the inter-relationship that exists in the environmental world.

After the dismissal of the Whitlam Government of which you were part, and the terrible shock of that day on November the 11th, 1975, what did you think should be done?

Well, first of all, I was sitting next to Gough, he was sitting next to me, and he said, 'The bastards sacked us ... Malcolm Fraser's now Prime Minister. I says, 'WHAT?' He said, 'But we'll beat the bastards,' and I looked at him dumbfounded 'cause I mean I looked at the situation, economically -- if Opposition could determine that the question of when an election should be held, how in hell could a government ever survive? So anyway, the first thing I tried to do was marshal the forces and about 35 of the caucus came and many of the ministry came into my office immediately after to try to talk things through, and I thought that we had to broaden the struggle and try and get the trade union movement in an organised way involved in some way, and certainly the following day, we had a cabinet meeting, unofficial cabinet meeting, in the caucus room and I can recall that day that I didn't get much support in that field of thought. Jim McClelland himself raised the question that we need a national strike like we need a hole in the head, that's what Jim said, and I said well it might be that we need that, but in fairness to Jim, his thought prevailed and mine didn't, amongst them, but then that's not unusual amongst the parliamentary elite of the party. But I tried to get my mate Dick Scott (he was on the interstate executive of the ACTU) to get Hawke to call an interstate executive of the ACTU so that at least the union movement could determine its policy and involvement in it. But the truth is that Hawke did everything but in fact to call the decision-making body of the trade union movement together, but he did everything he could to dampen down anything, so there was a lot of people getting up and expressing emotional attitudes but there was no organised base to any of the things. There was no stoppages of any description and consequently we would go to meetings where you would make speeches, and in the case of Gough, would make speeches and you know all they wanted to do was to bellow out, 'We want Gough' And I can recall many meetings, but one in particular, it was about 500 people at a dinner in Albury and I was a making a speech, I'm going along nicely, and then all of a sudden some bloke with a few drinks in him starts singing out 'we want Gough', and everybody start clamouring 'we want Gough', and I said, 'Well would you shut up? If you really want to achieve victory, then if you go on ranting that way then you will have Malcolm Fraser there, not Gough. We've got to go out and try to convince the people our arguments of democracy, that in fact a democratically elected government in the People's House has been struck down by the Queen's representative.' That's the democratic process. Now the further we got away from the November the 11th towards December the 13th, the more the newspapers of the day and the system of the day argued the case of the economic conditions of the country and not the question of the undemocratic process of striking down our national government. And the first time I could confront Hawke was immediately after the election when we went into Opposition and of course I was elected Deputy Leader, Whitlam was re-elected as Leader although there was a great deal of division about that, and at the first federal executive meeting of the party we had a post-mortem and of course Bob Hawke was in the chair, and I confronted Hawke on this whole thing about his position of really not calling the union movement together and of course his argument was he didn't want violence. I said, 'But look, the question of violence, violence is the role, and the violent action is the role, of the ruling elite, it isn't the working class, and we give the correct leadership, we could have done things like we did with the moratoriums in the Vietnam discussions, stop this city traffic for two or three hours to just sit down and talk about the discussion, bring it back to the discussion of the democratic process and the union movement themselves,' but there was no coordinated effect at all of the union movement and Hawke was the one guilty, but in fairness even to Hawke, the elite of the party including Whitlam went along with that line and they didn't trust the people. And that's my argument. That the Labor Party have really not been in favour of trusting the people enough. Now there has been some movement away from that position, thank goodness, since that time. At that period we failed the people, we failed the leadership, to really give leadership to people, to get it back on the democratic arguments of how a government should be elected ...

At the end of a long period ...

... And who should govern.

... At the end of a long period of Labor government, what would be your criticisms now? Are there ways in which you feel that the Hawke and then the Keating governments, given their long period of being in control of things, has let the people down in any way?

I think you've got to not look at only an isolated position. I think you've to look for the world position, you can't divorce what's occurred in Eastern Europe (about you know the failure of socialism etc), you've got to look at the movement of democratic socialists or social democratic parties in Europe and other parts of the world. There's kind of been a movement towards a free market forces philosophy to some degree and I think that one has to recognise those changes and of course that that pendulum, it will turn; have no doubt about it. If you take us back to the '20s and to the early '30s, you know in America, where there was really no government intervention. Everybody under the free market forces, they want to minimise government. They don't believe in government or collective leadership. They really believe in a madness of private enterprise. That madness went through the '20s and of course it was only the Roosevelt regime that started the concept of regulation and intervention and I'm quite sure myself that the world will move forward much more in the next couple of decades ahead of greater intervention because in many cases it's not governments that are controlling our countries, it's multinationals, multinational organisations that don't deal with trade from our country to the United States. Some multinational decision is made at some place in the world and they determine whether there's trade from point a to point b. And they're not only getting out of control economically, but we also have to control them environmentally because unless we do, then democracy itself is not moving forward, it's failing, and the one thing you have to also be fear of [is] not giving too much power to bureaucrats. And if you look at the European situation in many cases, bureaucrats are getting more and more control ...

[end of tape]

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