Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

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Was it difficult for you to decide to leave politics?

I never really left politics, I'm still in politics. I left parliament. And that wasn't difficult. I phased ... very few people in political life have been able to plan their life like I've been. First of all, I was able to remain in the leadership until '87, and I determined when I would step down and I informed my colleagues that, and then the last three years of my parliamentary life, I had in my mind what I'd like to do, and I was even able to arrange that because I became the leader of the Australian delegation that went to the inter-parliamentary union, and the inter-parliamentary union is an organisation older than the League Of Nations and the United Nations put together. It's an international conference that meets twice a year and the issues of relationships between peoples and nations in the world was important for me to be involved in my evergreen years of my life. So, I had wonderful wonderful experiences in those last three years. I mean I knew it was coming, it was either going to be some time in 1990, but it came suddenly when it did and that was of course Hawke calling the election for March of 1990.

Did anyone try to push you before you went?

Yes, oh yes. Back in '87 I was well -- prior to that in '84 there was internal movement, it was something that never happened in the Left before, but there was an undermining of my position within the Left, not within the Left so much, within the press. Rumours that Uren would not be standing again, and he would be replaced as a minister. And of course I knew that I had the numbers internally to get there, but they certainly tried to replace me, but ...

Who led to that? Who put that in the papers?

Well, I prefer to call it 'a Victorian group', but certainly a Victorian element that really progressively came to the leadership later, but they certainly were the ones that fundamentally tried to undermine my position. In fact, I was asked on one occasion would I stand down, and I told them why I wouldn't stand down. I just thought that both Arthur Gietzelt and I had the grit and determination to meet decisions, which the others didn't have. And in fact I think history has proven us pretty right, that after Arthur and I left the leadership in '87, I think the leadership of the Left never faced up to many of those important decisions. It should have. The rank and file still continued to struggle within the parliamentary party, but the leadership, to a great extent, let them down.

Why do you think that was? Why do you think the leadership wasn't up to it?

I have always felt that Gerry Hand should have been tougher. I had great hopes for Hand because I thought that Gerry was the best element amongst the young Leftists coming through from '75 and he had a certain grit, but he also had a complex about his own ability, and I think that the other people, for instance Nick Bolkus, I think that Gerry gave them too much leeway instead of standing up for that basic philosophical gutsy feeling about the working class that he had. And that's, to me, it was a disappointment.

In the seat of Reid, did anyone try to push you?

Yes. In '87 while I was still a minister, Martin Ferguson had proposed to me that I should step aside for his brother Laurie to take the position, and we had words about that, and it goes into a lengthy discussion, but in the end what really jarred on me was that Martin said, 'Well, we'll do what the family decides.' And I was so angry when he was talking about the family, I thought he was talking about some Mafia concept, and I couldn't understand that my comrade Jack Ferguson would be a part of it' I'm sure he wasn't by the way. But anyway, young Turks are young Turks. I threw the gauntlet down to them and they never ever challenged me.

You've had a long friendship with Jack Ferguson, Martin's father. Did this affect your relationship with Jack?

Well, no it didn't really, because even though I was concerned and I never really made the bridge which should have gone out, but if you war with one Ferguson, particularly Mrs Ferguson, Mary (who's a lovable character) I mean you're at war with the lot, as far as Mary's concerned, but that's not Jack's basis. Jack and I were comrades from way back, in fact we were brothers in so many ways and still are. I hadn't seen Jack for years and it was in Jack Cambourne's fifth -- he was retiring, he'd been a former communist official and he'd also been a great trade union leader and he was leader of the lift driver's union. Anyway, at this conference, Martin had come up -- by this time he was president of the ACTU and he'd come up to make the tribute for Melbourne on behalf of the whole of the trade union movement. But Jack came through with his younger son Andrew and I said to Andrew, 'How are you Andrew?' Not noticing Jack at all, because then I couldn't speak ... 'Goodness me, is that you Jack?' He was so gaunt and so, so thin and I was so shocked and anyway he put out his hand to shake, and I said 'don't be silly, give me a hug' so we both hugged each other. So I didn't do anything more during that night because I know Jack pretty well, he doesn't open up too easily, but if he's had a few drinks then he'll tell you exactly what he thinks and it relaxes him greatly. So I waited until the night was nearly over and I went over to him and he was talking about and complaining about the elite of the Labor Party and I just said, 'Joe Stalin was an elitist, too.' And he said, 'Sit down, Tom!' And then he started telling the young fellas there that Tom Uren was one of his greatest mates. So as we got talking through, I tried to talk to him about my experience with Martin and he wouldn't listen to me. I tried to explain why I hadn't come to see him, he said, 'Tom, we don't need to, we've been mates and we'll be mates for the rest of our lives,' you know. He was so spontaneous, he didn't really want to get down to the nitty gritty of the differences that had occurred between Martin and myself and anyway, when I left him that night, I felt that I may never see him again because about a week later I knew I was going to Japan, but luckily his health has improved quite considerably and he's doing quite well these days. He should be very proud of his whole family including Martin, the three of those boys [and] his two daughters ... particularly the three boys, they've made a great contribution to the Labor movement. I mean, Laurie succeeded me in the electorate of Reid, he's drawn his father's great avid reading and thinking and involvement in international affairs, and I'm quite sure that Laurie in the long-term will prove a very, very great parliamentarian. And Martin, of course, has made his mark in the trade union movement and to become the president of the ACTU, it's something of real distinction. And I think that as the years go on and he mellows more, I think he'll also be a great people's representative and as for the one that is the favourite of my heart, Andrew, who's the youngest of the three. And he is presently secretary of the building union and forestry unions of New South Wales. I see more of Andrew in old Jack than I do the others, but be as it may they're a great three boys and both Mary and Jack Ferguson should be extremely proud of them.

Some people would say that training as a prize fighter would be an excellent preparation for going into politics, I don't know whether you'd see it that way?

Well, there's one thing about the fight game, if you're winning, everybody wants to pat you on the back and everybody wants to know you. And somehow or other if you've had a loss at all, they don't seem to notice you quite so much. And the same thing occurs within politics, and in fact it's a good training in that regard. You've got to keep your feet on the ground whether it's in the fight game or whether it's in politics. And don't really be -- worry about flattery, worry about your commitment, what you feel for people and what you want to do for yourself and for people.

But the early part of your life you were, in fact, a professional fighter. You trained as a boxer and then you went away as a fighting soldier. But you've been so associated with the notion of peace. Are you a pacifist?

No, I'm not a pacifist. No, I'm not. I really believe that the people of Australia, every person first of all, must feel secure within themselves, and I think that even we in Australia must feel secure and therefore I've never really been anti a defence policy. I think that Australia should have a defence policy and we should play an independent role. I'm not in favour of entering into treaty with other countries. I believe that we should try to build bridges with all peoples and all nations of the world and really keep our powder dry in the protection and defence of our homeland. So therefore I am not a pacifist, but I am against violence. I don't think that military violence or personal violence is a solution to problems and I certainly do not think that war is a solution to international conflict. I believe that political dialogue in the end has got to solve those problems.

What do you feel are the really big issues that face Australia now?

I think the most important is of course the environmental question of Australia because we are such an arid continent and I think we have to be sensible of what population we absorb. I'm in favour of family reunion and of migration of refugees, whether they're from the Left or the Right, but I think that we really have to determine in the long term a sensible approach to the development of our nation and we must be doing much more to try to protect the scars we've created in the past. For instance, we've got the desalinisation and all those problems, the Murray/Darling system, and most of our water systems. Even the question of the sewerage on our offshore islands, excuse me, we really have got to stop just pouring the sewer into the sea. I mean, it's not a solution to the problem, it's going to aggravate the problem, so I find environmentally, we're an extremely sensitive environmental world, and we really need massive tree planting programs particularly of hardwoods and we should be reforesting our river systems in the inlands, particularly by Australian native trees and shrubs and other things. And we shouldn't over-try to over-industrialise it, whether it's an agriculture or otherwise. I think [that's] the major challenge to the future of our nation. Now, I'm not saying that there are not other problems in the world. I don't think that we can solve problems militarily, I think that we really should be great peace brokers, we should be brokers of goodwill between peoples and nations of the world and I think that we've been in some ways both -- in fairness to Hayden in his early years, I thought he did quite a good job in building bridges with peoples, particularly to our north. And I think in many cases Gareth Evans has done some good work, but where I think the failure for our government and all governments, has been that [of] human rights -- take our relationship with Indonesia and particularly our relationship to the people of East Timor. I think that we also turned a blind eye to the real problem of Bougainville and I think that in the long term there can be real problems for us in Irian Jaya, with the Indonesians, and particularly the conflict on the New Guinea border. So I see regional problems there, and so that's why I feel that we have to have a sensible defence policy and I'm supportive of that.

Central to your own economic philosophy has always been a notion of public ownership of certain key things. You spoke eloquently and passionately against actions that might lead the conservatives to get into power because they would privatise industries. And yet, it was a government in which you served that started that process, a Labor government. How did you feel about that?

Well, I think it's a disgraceful situation, and I said quite clearly [that] economically there weren't so many sales of public assets in the period that I was minister, but there certainly was after that period. I said that I thought that the Hawke Government was a bloody awful government and I stayed and stick by that. I don't think they've ever, the Labor Party, really analysed correctly why the people deserted us on the December 1984 election. There's a lot of excuses about Bob Hawke, and his daughter was ill and so many other things, but that's hogwash. The policies that we carried out those first few years, we didn't really feel any compassion or understanding for our people, we were more or less looking after the others. Now, even in the second government of '84, you might recall that there was a victory within the Labor movement against the VAT, the 12.5 per cent across the board VAT that the leadership at that time wanted to bring forward, and the trade union movement and particularly the Left played a very important role there. Now rising out of that, they set up a sub-committee, a sub-committee on taxation. And that sub-committee really was dominated by Keating, there's no ifs or buts about it, and Keating's got a remarkable personality; you can knock him down, you can keep him down but he'll get up off the canvas and win in the end. But there were four things that they did on that occasion. One was a tax cut of 1.6 billion dollars, secondly a capital gains tax, thirdly a fringe benefit tax and lastly, of course, the imputation tax. Now, the capital gains tax and the fringe benefit tax we in the Left supported, and what we didn't accept was the redistribution of the way that 1.6 billion dollars was made, because that was a thimble and pea trick, and in fact I often used to tell the ACTU leadership this, that the bottom 54 per cent or 56 per cent of tax payers got 800 million out of that 1.6 billion, but the -- I'm sorry, 4.6 billion, not 1.6 billion, 4.6 billion -- 800 million they got out of that 4.6 billion. Now, the top six per cent got nearly a billion dollars and as the years went on they accrued out of all proportion. Now, but where I thought was the worst decision any Labor government made on an economic issue, was the question of imputation. Now, to understand that, that imputation -- when we came into government, people who got dividends, income from dividends from their shares, and were in the top income bracket, would pay 60 cents on the dollars. Now, when we came into government there was 46 cents on the dollars in company taxation. Now what they would do, they lifted the company tax to 49 cents on the dollar and if the input, if a company paid its company tax, those people receiving dividends would pay no income tax at all. Do you know, they said it was going to cost about 250 million dollars and Keating and others argued it was a revolutionary thing and I said, of course, it was a reactionary thing. Instead of it costing about 250 million a year, it cost 11.6 billion dollars in the first five years of its administration. It's the greatest transfer of wealth away from our people across to the very wealthy people. It's the only way you can earn income without paying any income tax in Australia now, and that's by getting dividends or investing in big companies, and getting the dividends from it. Now as far as I'm concerned, that was not in the working-class interest, so I had very strong disagreements with the government on those issues, but I might say I didn't get too much support from my so-called 'new Left' people. I put 'new Left' in inverted commas.

Do you find this huge gap that's increasing between the rich and the poor worldwide a problem

Yes, it is a problem, and it's a problem the world over and really that's where I think there's got to be a greater intervention. There's got to be greater pressure and it's got to come from the grassroots up. In many ways -- I mean the Democrats are, they're a very small part in this stage and as they get a bigger part in it they'll find it a bit more difficult. The Democrats as I find it are mouthing some very good principles in that regard and I suppose in a way, in a democratic process in our nation, it's a healthy development because at least it's not a swing. That minority group is not to the Right like it used to be in the '50s when it was the DLP that used to have the balance of power. And that's why I think that it's a healthy situation, it seems to me, the way the political spectrum is at present. For instance, we're talking now well before a federal election, now it's my personal view that a lot of people want to get rid of the Labor Party but they really feel that the alternative is not the answer and therefore a lot of people who are voting for the Democrats, you know who are voting for the Greens and independents, ultimately will come back with their preferences to the Labor Party like they did in '87, like they did in 1990, like they did in 1993. And I don't think that the alternative leadership from the Liberal Party is really enough. Particularly on issues, not only economic issues but on issues where in fact we have to make these decisions as a nation. Such things as Aboriginal Affairs, I mean, can you imagine the states, the conservative states giving Howard the power to make decisions on that? On the question of environmental questions, on the question of human rights questions, on the question of social issues, homosexuality, how can you ever see it? Without the question about the industrial matters. These are the big issues which I think that thinking capacity of people that I think will still come back and vote for the Labor Party. Now I think it will probably be a very close election, but I'm speaking well before the election as a prophet.

Tom, do you regret your lack of formal education?

Yes I do.

What do you regret about it?

Well, I would encourage every young person to get a very healthy base that's really -- to maximise the base education when they're at school and from there, that base education, then they can start to grow from that, but ...

How has it handicapped you?

Well, first of all, for a long time in communication and articulation, I can remember -- I tell you -- I remember even in doing internal memos in Woolworths, writing those internal memos, and how many I screwed up and put in the wastepaper basket, and I'll never forget my great and beloved friend, Jack Ferguson, when he said to me when he became an organiser of the building workers' industrial union, he said, 'Tom, I can't write these internal memos.' And I just told him about my own experiences as Woolworths manager, writing internal memos. I said, 'It's a matter of usage. Keep on doing it and keep on doing it and keep on doing it and keep on doing it and in the long term you'll perfect that position,' and, look, he finished up as Deputy Premier of the State, magnificent. But, I should have gone in and understood so many things in a much deeper way and of course when you go to school only 'til first year in intermediate high school, and leaving school at 13, there is a lot of basic education that you didn't receive.

Do you feel you made up for it with your own efforts later?

No, I've never made up for it, I'm still battling along to make up for it, I'm trying to learn again every day. I'm learning from people, I'm a sponge still today, drawing from people, listening to radio programs, listening to experts talk on the ABC and other programs. Listening and watching the SBS from time to time. For instance, last night I watched an important program on oil. It's all education. I look at things that I kind of can draw from. And of course the books I read, books are a great educator for people. I'm a slow reader, but I read thoroughly and sometimes I argue, as I read too, sometimes.

Did you feel hurt when people criticised you on the grounds of your intellect. Everybody from ASIO to people in the press had a go and, as you said, said things like, 'Tom Uren's not too bright but he gets bright people around him', What did you feel when you heard those sorts of comments?

Early on I was a little sensitive, now it just runs off my back like water running off a duck's back. Because, you know, I just feel they don't look at me as a whole, see, and I think when you look at people -- I've learnt in life to not judge a person on the narrow concept but look at a person more as a whole, whether it's a woman or man, and even a statesman. Like for instance I've got plenty of things I could criticise Whitlam for in his life's span, but I think he's one of the greatest men that ever went into politics in Australia, and he's a great person. I'm very proud of him. Yet there are some things I feel he's been very, very poor on and I could criticise him very strongly.

So on what basis do you judge people?

Oh, first of all, I like them as a positive person. I like a person to have a broader vision. I don't like people to be self-centred. I like a little bit of compassion if it's possible. In a person. I like a giving person, a sharing person. And particularly people who are givers of knowledge or a sharer of information. I mean it really does worry me, some of our educators are some of the great people of the world, and thinkers, that we have, that are so giving in their thoughts and that, and their renumeration [sic] is so small but they're giving so much to the world, where in fact some car salesman or some other real estate salesman, or some TV bloke or commentator, gets large sums of money. And in a way, as I said earlier, it's the way people treat you, that's the wealth of the world. As I finished up writing my book I said, 'You can't buy it with all Packer's millions.' It's the givers of the world that I love.

Judging yourself on those standards, by which you look at those around you, is there anywhere where you, looking back over your life, feel that you fell short?

Well, I think I fell short in relationship to my own first wife, and in fact I regret that I didn't fight to hold her and go, you know, stay with her. But generally, as I've got older, I kind of tend to, I want to, be more self-critical about myself. At the one time I'm proud of some of the achievements I do, and sometimes one has to explain what has occurred in history, and then you say, well stop blowing your bugle, Uren. You know. And so there's a kind of humility, and as I mentioned, I think earlier, the question of particularly the people of humility, particularly the more recent ones -- I'm not saying that Ho Chi Minh is the only great leader of human ... I think that people like Mahatma Gandhi certainly had that certain evolutionary process to a position of great humility, he wasn't always that way, but he evolved to that situation. I think that if Martin Luther King had survived he would have probably evolved to that even though I think he was an enormously great man as it was, and his statement 'injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere' is immortally in my heart. He put it right in my heart. That's everywhere.

You're a person of very strong emotion, you feel things very deeply. Working in politics with this kind of emotional nature, did you have trouble controlling it? Dealing with it?

No, not really. I think, I'm probably a little more emotional now than I was as a younger -- I show more emotions now than I did as a younger person although I would say it was more a commitment then, than emotion. But I find now in my evergreen years or eventide years it's a kind of more emotions as well. I find my emotions work on me a bit more. Even Whitlam, I mean, I find when Gough and I get together we show our emotions to one another. Which we never always did.

There was this mixture always in you, wasn't there, of the fighter and the person of feeling. How did that balance work out for you

Well, it was always the two sides of my nature. There was always that tough side of me. But I think as I've got older the gentler side has tended to take over. Even though from time to time I've still got a short fuse but then I'll stand back and laugh at myself about that. But, no, I think as I've got older the gentler side has taken over much more than my young brash aggressive side.

One of the great passions of your life has been beauty. Could you explain how that evolved in you, that love of things beautiful?

I just don't know, it's just something that evolved there. I just love, I love, I love, well art is in the eye of the beholder, it's, what you feel, what touches you. I mean, nature itself, I look at my country. [My knowledge of] art evolved first through the northern hemisphere but then gradually I moved into my understanding of my own art. But I mean there's so much about Sydney. I suppose I try to think back on that because even as a youngster, starting school at 13 and then work at thirteen and going on the Manly ferry every day to and from five days a week, you know, what an opportunity for a young man to be able to do that, and to absorb that beautiful Sydney Harbour. I had a love affair ... I've had a love affair with Sydney, but particularly Sydney Harbour, and you know, the concept of Nielsen and of the green belt round Sydney Harbour and its trees and its backdrops and everything, I mean it just, that captures you and the more you look at Sydney the more I love Sydney. It's national parks on the south and the west and the north and the beautiful angophora trees. I opened recently the Sydney Vista 1788 through to 1995 and I told them [about] the beautiful park that I still love: you'll go on a ferry from Palm Beach up to Bobbin Head, there's that lower part of the island where you should go in January when those angophoras peel their bark and they show that lovely salmon bark trunks. There's something about the beauty of our city and the beauty of Australia, and the east coast of Australia is a paradise and really we should be very, very careful that we don't over-exploit it, that we really do feel, all of us should say, it belongs to all of us, it just doesn't belong to any individual, and we should be very protective of our beaches and our mountains. It's such a beautiful serene environment and we should do something about -- make sure that we do protect it properly.

That's your physical environment, natural and man-made, that you've been very sensitive and aware of. When did you first start getting interested in the work of artists?

Well, I suppose, to a great extent, two people had a great influence on me there, I firstly Clifton Pugh. It was in the very early '70s, late '60s, that I first met Clifton, and we've become very close, and through Clifton, I got to know people like Fred Williams and Bert Tucker and Percival, even though he was very sick at the time when I knew him, and Frank Hodgkinson. You know, quite a number, and through Frank Hodgkinson I met Lloyd Rees but Clifton had a great influence on me there and we would argue to some degree about it because, in many ways, Clifton would talk about survival of the fittest, you know, if you look at some of his landscape shots about the viciousness, the dog, the dingo, over a carcass, and he would talk about survival of the fittest, and I would argue, you know, about the collective society, but there was another side of Clifton. And I've got a beautiful painting of his called Early Spring, and it's because I'd been in the bush with him, and when you go into the bush with him his eyes observe things that you never see. And he'll just pick that up and talks about life through a little flower there or something, and it was this Early Spring, this beautiful piece of abstract painting he did, that I couldn't help but buy it even though it stretched me for every penny I had at that time, but it was on exhibition once ...

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