|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've been a prisoner in your life. How important is the whole idea of freedom to you?
Well, I think it's life itself and it's strange, though, you know, that you fight and struggle for freedom, but if you go into public life, sometimes that freedom is restricted, freedom in a way that there were things that you would really like to do and just kind of contract out. Now, for instance, I'm not running away from life, but I'm nearly 75 years of age, but I've always wanted to travel like a hippie, and see certain parts of the world and to sit and talk with those people involved, and I've never had that time to do those things in my 75 years and next March I'm going to do it, I mean that's what I intend to do. And that's a freedom that I've been yearning for. So, you fight for individual freedom, not to be intimidated, and there's other aspects, whether or not you are intimidated within the system you're in. And certainly, I think, from about 1964 onwards, I think I was free in the Labor Party, but you had to live under the old autocracy of the Labor system and the Labor machine that they really, particularly being Left, would try to intimidate you and to orientate you, like for instance there were times when I wanted to talk about peace. Even in my own electorate, and Bill Coleburn wouldn't allow me to talk, because I was a Member of Parliament, because I would have been talking with a member of the Communist Party, who was Pat Clancy, who was also a trade union leader. But Jim Kenny, who was also a member of the Upper House in New South Wales, and also secretary of the Trades and Labour Council of New South Wales, he was allowed and couldn't be stopped and Coleburn's explanation was, 'But he's a trade union leader, and therefore we can't influence him or discipline him, but we can you.' And therefore I was stopped, in those early '60s, from doing that. But I got to a stage in my life where I said, 'To hell with you people, if you want to discipline me, you discipline me,' but I've done that and it has been-- freedom of that kind of breakthrough. I told you round about '64 that I walked across that line and nobody has ever really influenced me or tried to intimidate me in any way since that day.
What about cabinet solidarity, was a that a limit on your freedom?
It wasn't so much my freedom, it was to serve those people who elected me to the ministry. And therefore, first of all, I got the concurrence of Whitlam in the first place, that if in fact we did want to oppose a cabinet decision we would notify cabinet, that we would raise the question in the caucus or vote against a certain subject within the caucus. And we got that agreement, but in the question of dogma, under Hawke, Hawke insisted that his cabinet be bound by solidarity. Now I wasn't in the cabinet, I was in the ministry, and I just said that I would not be bound by solidarity because those people in the ministry didn't elect me to the ministry, the caucus elected me to the ministry and I owe my loyalty to the caucus, answerable to the people of the caucus, and that's always been my parliamentary position and I wouldn't move away from it.
You've been very much against racism in your life and spoken very strongly against it. Do you even understand, at all, people who have those racist impulses?
Well, I talk about an experience when I was a fairly young man and parliamentarian, and I was in Japan and I was at this peace conference against A and H bombs, and I always remember this beautiful Viennese woman, blonde Viennese woman, who'd been married to a black Nigerian and when you met them and fraternised with them in the conference, you didn't take any notice whatsoever. But I can recall getting up one morning early in August, and it was a very oppressive night and we were staying in this guest house and, no air conditioning and the doors were wide open to get fresh air through, and this woman was stark naked on the bed and he was too, lying on the top of the bed ,and as I looked in and saw it something jarred on me and I thought to myself, 'You're a redneck or something, a bit of racism in you, you'll have to work on that.' Now, as I've evolved I've tried to examine and re-examine my position on racism, sexism and male chauvinism, you know, all my life, so I'm still trying to learn and work towards that situation. But I think we're making progress slowly on the question of racism. It's a slow process, but I think where good is winning over evil. I'm a believer that good will ultimately defeat evil and that's my whole philosophical position of life. Maybe romantic, that's what I'm fighting for.
Looking back over your life, from your mother onwards, various people have influenced you strongly and helped shape and reshape your attitudes. Who would you say had been the one that influenced you most fundamentally?
I wouldn't like to pinpoint any individual. A young person, who interviewed me not so very long ago, said I kind of went round the supermarket store picking off the shelf all those things that in fact would help to nourish my life, and I think that's what I'd prefer to say, I wouldn't like to isolate any one individual. I think they are inter-related, those people, some of them that I've mentioned in my book, some of them mentioned today, but there are other people, even little people, I don't want to say little, but just ordinary people, that have had such an influence on my life and, and so I just wouldn't specifically say any one individual.
What has your mother meant to you throughout your life?
Well, I'd say that she was the seed, she's the basis of my compassion, my love, and commitment to other people. She had a very strong influence, my mother, but also Patricia, my first wife, was certainly a remarkable influence in my life. And in fact if I had to say who was the nicest person I've ever known in my life it was Patricia Stella Palmer.
How would you describe her?
Oh, a beautiful human being, wise, diplomatic, skilful, artistic, loving, beautiful nature. Just, just beautiful ...
You still miss her.
Well, at moments like this when you try to talk about it. But, because I'm married to a woman with similar qualities, they blend into one another so much, a living love ...
You're someone ... one of the things that really strikes one about you, Tom, is that you've always gone about what you've done with a great air of confidence and certainty, and that's been a very big part of your strength, that you've worked through things in a very confident way. Where does this confidence come from?
Oh, I think that comes from Maggie, Agnes Uren. Yeah, I think that that confidence really grew out of that love and affection that I got right from my very beginning. There's places where I'm not confident, don't get me wrong, I'm not that confident, but it's what Annie said to me, you had to be more a private than a general. And then start doing things and I feel I'm more confident now that I do more things myself than when I get other people to do it, particularly these last six years that I've been retired.
And what have been some of the highlights of your -- as you say, you left parliament, but not politics. What are some of the things that you've done in the public arena since you left parliament?
I think the whole question of the Iraq question was important. I'm glad ...
What was your part in that?
Well, first of all, I spoke out about Australia committing itself to the war which I didn't think we should have done. We should have supported the UN sanction position but not a military excursion. And I'm very grateful that no-one was killed in that war. But it was going over to try and get the hostages back from Saddam Hussein and his thugs. But I wouldn't have gone, I didn't put my name forward. I thought that a person like Whitlam or Fraser or Jimmy Cairns or somebody of that description should have been, the more eminent person should have gone, but the Arab community came to me and that's why I went and I'm glad I did. It was a hell of a time and I don't want to go through that experience again. I was there for three weeks and I think I averaged about three hours a night sleep. And it was a lot of tension on me at that time, but I'm glad that we got out of it and I'm glad that ultimately all our people got out. But they're a pretty devious, not very honest or honourable people. There are honourable ones amongst them, don't get me wrong, but I mean I wouldn't trust that Saddam Hussein or the officers or people around him. They talk one way and act another way.
You went back with a group to visit Hellfire Pass with Weary Dunlop and another group of prisoners. What was that like as an experience to go back after all that time with your mates to that place of torture?
Yes, well, I went back with John Carrick at that time. We, John and I, represented the Australian Parliament and it was an experience I don't want to go through again. I walked into that cutting and I completely lost control, every control of my muscles for several minutes, and I just didn't know what was happening to me. Something psychological -- I just don't know to this day because I wasn't exerted physically in any way. But it was also the atmosphere of the area because I still visualise the beautiful teak forests that surrounded that area. And there's not one teak tree left. They've been all exploited and that's a scar in my mind that I just can't wipe away. And of course, the hell of the experience going back to what you went through. I suppose the great thing about being there on that occasion was that we were with Weary again and Weary unveiled the plaque, so I was proud of that and he kind of said some kind words about me at that time. Weary always said that 'Tom Uren was one of his boys' and I was one of his boys. I'm very proud of it.
When we talked about that time the other day there was one part of it that I didn't ask you about and I'd just like to go over it again. When you were in prison camp, were you ever beaten by the Japanese in charge of you?
Yes, well, I've been beaten brutally, from time to time. I mean they've hit me with open hands with wooden clogs, and one occasion with a four-foot-by-about-two-inches-diameter solid green bamboo. But they'd always go out of their way of picking me because I was a bit taller than most people, and also because somebody had said that I was a fighter, and so I've had plenty of bashings from the Japs. And also there were times when I went to my mates' aid. A mate of mine said, you know, on a recent television program that I in fact helped to save his life. And I really can't remember that experience because I'd done it so often, I'd try to intervene in front of my own mates and the Japs that were bashing, and then they'd kind of turn on me, so I always felt it was a responsibility because I was a bit stronger and physically and I suppose internally within me there was a bit of moral strength, and so things just come automatic to you, kind of instant. And you don't fear. I've never feared anyone. The only thing I've ever feared was that Japanese ... was cholera in the prison camp. But I've never been fearful of any individual in the whole of my life. Now you might think that's a funny experience, but I'm talking about from a physical point of view. I've never been about confronting a person.
Is that because you're not at all afraid of death?
I don't know, I just don't know.
Are you afraid of death?
No, I'm not. I'm not afraid of death at all, I just don't want to be a burden on my family or my friends, and when I go, I want to go with courage.
You said your father died a very good death ...
Well, I didn't say a good death, he died a courageous death. He died a hell of a death. He actually had a tumour on the brain. And they didn't know what it was because he'd been a painter, a house painter and industrial painter. And they thought he might have had lead poisoning because he was all paralysed down one side, but ultimately they found out that he'd had a tumour on the brain and it was the courage in which he faced up to that, I mean, I had enormous respect for my father.
And you'd like to die courageously?
Yes. My father was a hero, I want to be a hero, too.
What do you think will happen when you die?
Well, I think I'll be cremated and I'd like my ashes to be thrown around under an oak tree up at Mt Wilson where Patricia is.
And that'll be that? You don't think there might be an afterlife?
No, I don't really think that.
Any remnants of that feeling from your Christian youth?
No, no, none at all. I just hope that some of what I stood for, a sprinkling, that some people might say, 'Oh, but he was a person of goodwill, he was a good human being, we need more good human beings in the world to make the world a better world.' That's what it's all about. That's my feeling and philosophy.
You'd just like to be remembered as a good human being?
Mmm. As a giver. One of the givers. And fighters, by the way. Fighters for peace. Not for anything else.
I'll ask you that again so you can say both things.
No, no, that's all right. Isn't it alright the way it is?
No, because I interrupted you and Frank won't like that 'cause he wants a nice summing up, so I'll ask you again. How would you like to be remembered?
Oh, as a person who was a person of goodwill, a giver, a fighter for peace.
Going right back now to when you went to Lithgow or when you joined Woolworths, can you tell me what it was out of your period in Woolworths and your development in that managerial side of things that stood you in good stead later on?
Well, I think it was the administration. I think it was the strength and character of a person in the name of Bill Maiden who really had great influence on me in my planning and administrative ability, and that stayed with me right through my Woolworths years and of course later in my parliamentary years. I was always a good -- I mean on the one hand I would delegate, but I would also make sure that I checked on that delegation. I mean, I would give people responsibilities, it's only when those people who I'd given responsibilities and I'd met my commitment that I would question it. But if they faced up [to] their responsibilities then I'd give them that strength. And I think that stayed with me right from my Woolworths days. And one of the great things I suppose is the young people that worked with me through my life that had their visions, I would bring their vision to life. I mean, you know, creating a national park, for instance. I had a great young bloke by the name of Frank Miller who worked with me and he had a vision that one day the Namadgi National Park which we created in Canberra would link with the Mt Kosciusko National Park and the Victorian Alpine Park, into a great national park, and of course we created that, that Namadgi National Park, against the bureaucracy in Canberra at the time we were there. There were so many things that one could do [with] wonderful young people who were working around you, that gives them so much inspiration, that you could go in and carry out their work, or their thoughts and their views.
Make their dreams come true ...
That's right, really, you've got to be a part of a team. I'm the ball carrier, kind of, you know. But only a part of the team. That's what life's about.
As a young man, really, in your late 20s, being given that job to go and manage an ailing store in Lithgow. Did you take it very seriously, that challenge?
Oh yes, it was a real challenge and in fact we lifted the store quite remarkably, and that's why we did so well with Woolworths, and Woolworths responded quite remarkably to me as well. But ...
How did you go about it? What do you think was the essence of your success in turning that store around?
Team spirit. The staff who were working there, we'd talk about talk about our issues. Even if a person was sick, you know, whether or not we'd pay her. I mean, I even put to the staff from time to time ... I remember one person had appendicitis and I said, 'Look, she'll have to be off for at least two weeks. Now what will we do, will we get a casual in to take her place or do we carry her that two weeks so that she can be paid for and covered during that period of time?' And they made the decision and then they worked accordingly. It was the whole basis, I found everywhere where I've worked, where I can get the team working together. It was just like DURD, when I was the minister. I had a group which ran a program called Area Improvement Program, which dealt with local communities and local councils, and they used to need direction, so I'd get them over and they'd sit round the floor of my office and I would talk about my political and environmental and human aspirations of our programs that we seek to do, and they would get up, they'd want to go out, and they'd work, you know, because they were a part of a team. And I found that public servants, if you gave public servants leadership, they would respond in a positive way, and that's what I found with my people. Or with our people.
You needed to be clear about the direction and inspirational in the way that you got them motivated, and that was something that came very naturally to you?
Well, I don't know that it was, but it was me, and it was just the feeling of me. For instance, I'll give you an example: I wrote a letter once to the Sydney Morning Herald where there'd been a lot of land exploited and knocked down at Kurrajong Heights. It's the north of Kurrajong Heights as you go up through the Blue Mountains. And I wrote this letter and complained about these trees being destroyed, particularly the angophoras, and I asked whether the bellbirds at Bellbird Hills will ever sing again. Well, in my last budget, one of the people working on the Area Improvement Program spoke with the people at Colo Shire (which later became the Hawkesbury Shire) and said, 'Look, we've got enough money here, would you like to buy that land as the lookout land that looks over the whole of the valley of the Cumberland Plain?' And they bought it and it's been reforestated again and it was just that normal letter of mine that the staff, the public servants, made the decision, not me, in inter-relationship with the local government. But this is what you call team spirit. It was a kind of flowing through. It's wonderful to work with people who respond so positively to you.
Now, you'd worked with Jim Cairns in the great Vietnam moratorium marches and people will always remember you leading some of those marches, and you set up the Heritage Commission which survived the government that followed you, and has survived through to this day. There are a number of physical monuments around the country to you in various places where the urban environment and the natural environment have been saved. What are some of the other achievements that you managed to do with the help of these teams that you got around you while you were in government?
Well, of course Gough's a part of this too. You know, the national sewerage program, like to link and pick up the backlog of the sewerage systems within all our major capital cities. I mean, you look at also the introduction of Land Commission programs; LANDCOM or urban land councils never existed until we came into being. Many of the public housing projects like the experimental ones of Glebe and the Woolloomooloo in Sydney, and Emerald Hill and Richmond in Melbourne, and not only that but a lot of people don't realise until Whitlam came along (and I was a part of that, a part of this) that we made untied grants, local grants to local government and about 15 per cent of urban councils, up to 30 per cent of rural councils, funds come directly from the Federal Government to the local government. Well, when we made the first contribution it was 56 million in 1974, now it's over 700 million dollars a year, and if you put in the untied grants it even doubles and trebles that. So local government played a very important role and I certainly had a foot in the door in every local government authority throughout Australia and regional authorities. Programs like the Albury-Wodonga development corporation just wonderful projects which gave you great enthusiasm, I mean you could go on and on, and particularly even the involvement of Canberra. I was responsible for the planning of Canberra for five years as minister and I think the catchment area. I stopped the development across the western side of the Murrumbidgee and made the whole of the Murrumbidgee Valley there at Canberra a conservation zone. As I said, created the national park there at Namadgi, at Canberra, and so many other ... look, it really embarrasses me to talk about these things, because really I feel so humble, that I've been given the responsibility first by Whitlam and even by Hawke. Hawke was very kind to me in many ways as Minister for Local Government, and in the early days we weren't good friends, but at the end we worked very well together. So even with Hawke, I want to pay tribute to his contribution to what I could do for people.
You've said you're worried that as you get older you might be a burden on your family. Are there any good things about growing older?
Yes, you get more patient, you get more tolerant, and you look back at what an awful bugger you were when you were younger, particularly for instance raising children. I'm a part of raising Ruby much more than I was of Michael and of Heather, and that gives me a greater joy about being old, older, and I see the beauty and joy in seeing a child grow and develop and being smarter than you are.
What kind of an Australia would you like Ruby to grow up and inherit?
I hope we grow more tolerant as time goes on. I think we've got a fairly happy basis to this multicultural society, we are a great experiment for the world. I think that on the whole we've got a great deal of tolerance to one another and we've got to make sure that we retain that. If you don't know about something and you're kind of questioning, don't get sectarian against it, try and find out a bit more about it and then you'll find that it's not such a bad organisation or such a bad body. I think that we should support the question of tolerance and unity of purpose. What I object to, what I object to more than anything else is public figures playing to the gallery to play off one section of the community against the other. Even though I am what I am, and I will seek equity and justice and freedom and a more sensitive environmental world, but having said that, I still feel if that if you are going to play it, then stop getting off this sectional position. I think there are some very, very sick people in politics at present.
Which in particular?
I'll not name people in particular, but I think that both sides can look at their situation in that regards.
In that they're advancing their careers at the expense of their objectives?
Well, they're trying to advance their own personal position instead of looking at the more objective society as a whole.
Isn't this something that you see right across the community now, though, people looking to advance their individual position, sometimes at the expense of their neighbours ...
Well, society is less collective today in some ways than it was 30, 35 to 40 years ago in my early beginnings, but then there are certain things which I've seen people come together in a collective way. I can remember, for instance, in the middle '80s something like 170 thousand people in one day in Sydney alone came out to march against nuclear weapons and nuclear war, and that is a beautiful collectivisation of people and could have never been done before in earlier years. Now, I find that even in our own day and age that when the crisis issues arise the response of people is just wonderful and I find that people live in the commercial world. For instance, I've got a lot of personal respect for say a person like Ray Martin; I think he's a human being of goodwill. Now, he's on the commercial side, on the other hand I'm an ABC viewer normally, but you've got to give credit to people when you see them doing something of goodwill.
Does Tom Uren the optimist imagine that Ruby will inherit a world, to use your phrase, more collectivised than it is now, or do you think that the trend that's gone so strongly in the other direction even under a Labor government is going to continue?
I think that it's the world -- I'm not talking sectionally about Australia but the world has moved away from the 'greed is good' mentality of the '80s. And I think that they're starting to re-examine things about [how] they can make it a better world in the '90s and into the new century. That's my own view and I think that progressively we've got to move towards that position. It's not going to be an easy track towards that, it's going to be a very difficult one, but all I've done with Ruby is that we give her love and we'll give her books around her and culture and art around her. We hope that she'll learn other languages so that she can communicate with other peoples, so that's Ruby.
[end of interview]