Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

Tape of 14

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14

Okay. Did Charlie Morgan realise that you'd snaffled a lot of these votes?

No, he hadn't. He thought he was going to win and he'd come up from Canberra to visit some of the old people in Bass Hill areas and they rang me up to ask me, 'Charlie's going round to branch members, what should we do?' I said, 'Tell him you're going to vote for him.' And of course, Charlie went back to Canberra thinking that everybody was telling him 'you'll be right Charlie' but that was just nonsense because that area, I knew, would've been fairly substantially mine. And he must have made examination but he certainly was overconfident that he was going to win and of course in the end they were flabbergasted, the whole Right-wing machine was flabbergasted that I could win. In fact, they held up the preselection for four months trying to find something to take away from me. But in the end the caretaker of the state executive allowed and endorsed my position. Then Charlie ran as an independent in the general elections and I really was concerned because Charlie had been the member for 15 years, in fact, I always remember sitting in a taxi cab just before the election, and I said, 'Who do you think'll win? He said, 'Oh, the Labor candidate Charlie Morgan'll win.' Anyway, luckily for me, it was a wonderful battle and it was after the first two ballots had been counted I knew I was going to win, even though there were about 20 or 30 booths. But after the first two first booths had been counted I knew I was going to win because they were the two areas that Charlie should have finished ahead of the Liberals. As it was, the Liberals finished ahead of him. Because if the Liberals had run second to Charlie, the Liberals would have put their preferences to Charlie and he would have got in. As it was, as Charlie ran third, I was able to win on Charlie's preferences and win by a 13,000 majority. But it was a very narrow experience of that, on that first ballot.

It was also interesting because you demonstrated a hard-nosed political understanding of the need to get the numbers which isn't always associated with the idealist, Tom Uren.

Well, there's always been two sides of my nature. One's a kind of tough side, and the other [a] gentle side. One's the realistic side, and I've never really been a dreamer. I've been a realist and I try to face facts and face life and that's been how I live my life.

You've also always been very honest [but] you didn't hesitate to tell these people in the branches to tell him a fib about how they were going to vote?

No, well, I only told the one [person] and of course he responded, he wanted a way out. And I just said, 'Well tell him you're [just] going to vote for him'; he wanted a way out, I mean there was no argument about it. And so I never found that at all. We were at war with Charlie, and Charlie was a very difficult candidate, and he was doing some very difficult things at that time. And I never found that at all dup ... dup ...

Duplicitous.

[INTERRUPTION]

So you were in a situation where you felt that Charlie Morgan really deserved to lose that seat?

Oh, there's no argument about it. I really thought that Charlie was an old conman, played both ends against the centre, that was the old game he was playing, and he was a very wealthy man in his own right but as it turned out, he had a tragic death in the end of his life, he died of cancer, and I went back to him and thanked, I represented Calwell both visibly and personally, and also [at] his funeral in the end. And Mrs Morgan, his mother, was a remarkable old Labor lady as was his wife [who] was a fine woman and Kevin (his son) was a good person, too. He came and worked for the Labor Party in the arts in the Whitlam Government. You know, I built rapport again, if can use that term, with the Morgan family. I'm not trying to say that I had to clear my sins or anything, but because I thought I was doing the right thing for the Labor Party and the Labor movement.

Now, you challenged him successfully for Reid. During the period that you held Reid, the very long period that you held Reid, were you challenged?

Oh, yes, many times, yes. I was challenged practically right through. Even when I was Deputy Leader of the Party I was challenged in preselections. But if they would have challenged me at the crucial time when they could have had an opportunity to defeat me, they never really, if I might use, took the bit between their teeth and went after me. It was the 1968 preselection for the 1969 election, my seat or Reid had been cut in four. Part of it went to Parramatta, part of it of course stayed in Reid, a part of it went to Blaxland, and I just forget where the other part went. No that's right, Reid, Blaxland, Parramatta and part of it Prospect. That's the other part. And so that was, you know, my base to some extent had been diminished and the best seat of course was Reid, although it was only Reid in name because a big part of it had come in from the Auburn/Lidcombe area but I ran in like 'nothing succeeds like success' and I won that preselection, although I must say that at that time the Right-wing of the party really didn't vote, they just abstained, they just didn't vote at all, nobody marshalled them to come and vote, they didn't feel that the Right-wing candidate was opposing me. [The] 1968 elections was the one, that was the time when I was more vulnerable for defeat.

This respect for the need to get the numbers together was something that you then carried forward into parliament and you were actually very good at getting numbers together. Could you talk a little about the importance of that side of politics.

Well, when I got to parliament, of course, I found that the Left itself was not an organised body. You had individualists like Clyde Cameron and Eddie Ward, Leslie Haylen, people like ... old Stanley, Leslie, Jimmy Cairns, and people of that description but there was no collective Left, no organised Left at all, and some of those people never ever became a part of the collective Left. For instance, Cameron never became a part of the collective Left, nor did Eddie Ward, but Lesley Haylen was, and really became a type of numbers man or the convenor; what they're called today. And I would do most of the legwork and of course I didn't see myself being advanced to a leadership position. I saw Cairns as the solution to many of the problems and, in fact, I saw Cairns as an outstanding representative of our people. I once said he was 'our Fidel'. I mean, you have no idea, Cairns in the late '50s and the '60s, what a magnificent orator he was, what a debater he was, his great intelligence, compassion, commitment to ideals. I mean really, I love the man, and had a complete commitment to I worked for him and through him; my whole life was committed.

Do you remember the first time you met him?

Yes, I do, I met him in the Labor Party caucus. I sat down and we introduced ourselves to him, and soon after he told me that he thought Charlie was very confident of winning the preselection and that they never thought that I would win, and that I was fairly well denigrated as being a bit of a no-hoper and things of that description, but Cairns and I right from the very word go had brought ourselves together. I first heard about him reading an article in the Daily Telegraph, this article about the young Doc taking on the old Doc. What had happened is that the Labor Party's policy had an immigration policy, this is 1957 we're talking about that was sixty percent, had to be 60 per cent [British] and 40 per cent non-British. In other words, European, but we still had a White Australia policy in the Labor Party and held one until 1965. Now, Cairns argued against Evatt saying that the southern Europeans, which this policy was directed against (against Catholics) Cairns argued that they were economically Labor voters and that they would be voting in our favour and the logic that he argued on, the economic and social question of it, it really fit in with my own development and my own thinking at that time. And so I was attracted to him on that alone, but of course the more I got to know him, the more I got to respect him and draw from him.

And so he became really your mentor, when you first arrived ...

No, no, no, no, no. He was my mate. He was never my mentor. No-one was my mentor. If anybody was my ideal at that time it was Reggie Pollard who was a much older person. But my life has been -- I draw from men and women of knowledge and goodwill and that period, that early period of life particularly during the late '50s and the early '60s, in those [days] in the old Parliament House we'd have long morning teas. We'd have long afternoon teas, and we would really sit round the table and discuss many issues, and people like Reg Pollard and Lionel Murphy and Sam Cohen and Jim Cairns and Frank Crean and Billy Hayden later and John Whelan, a brilliant young man, they were all there and this great reservoir of knowledge hits me like a sponge, drawing from all this, and so I was a part of it. Now, Jim was my mate, who I saw as an answer, he had qualities that I didn't have. On the other hand I had qualities he didn't have. And consequently it was the mateship. We really were very very close. I mean, not for one year, but for more than a decade and a half.

What did you get from him particularly?

Well, I think his knowledge more than anything else. I think that he didn't know how to show love because he'd never really ... for instance, his mother had never kissed him. She'd never kissed him. And this great warmth that I had for my mother he reckons, he always said, that I was so ... naturally he argues now philosophically the importance of love and affection to children at an early age but that again it is a further development even though he's in his 80s; now he's still growing and teaching things. But the thing about Cairns was he himself was fundamentally decent. He's one of the most tolerant men I've ever seen. In fact, I once said he was the most Christ-like man I've ever known. Now I know that because of that Christ-like image that he had within, so much within the community, that when the Morosi Affair arose so many people were let down about that. And Jimmy only really had one love affair in his life (and Gwenny was a wonderful woman don't get me wrong) but he wasn't a promiscuous man. That's the point I'm trying to make. He wasn't a promiscuous man. And so many other politicians were, and they treated him so harshly. What I thought was wrong was that he did things so openly and so publicly and you say, well, that's his honesty, well that's baloney! Maybe it's an ego ... you see, even in some of the most compassionate and humble people, ego comes down in such a strange way. But I really think it was a failing on the part of Cairns, and also a letting down of the working class to some degree, of the class that had so much commitment to him personally.

So, you thought that was a really surprising piece of self- indulgence on his part. That he went with that at a time when he was needed for more public things?

Well, as I said to you earlier, right through the '50s, the late '50s and the '60s, I saw him as our Fidel. I saw him [as] the answer to an ideal working-class leader. But I've been critical of some of the things he did as a minister and certainly his appointment of Junie Morosi on to his staff, I was very critical of that. But the thing about Jim was that he allowed nepotism to come into his being. When you become a minister, you're only as good as the people around him. No matter how brilliant Cairns was as a person, he never put brilliant people around him, I mean, he allowed the Victorian branch of the Labor Party to get rid of some of their deadwood, or to give people jobs and he put them onto his staff. He put people that he had long associations with that really shouldn't have; it was kind of a nepotism approach. He put his own son on as his secretary and in the end of course he hired Morosi. Now, in a way, he set up his own defeat.

Tom, as his mate, did you try to talk to him about this?

Of course.

And what did he say?

Well, he even accepted some criticism in that regards. Then, in fact, I was going to second Pat Troy who was the Deputy Head of the Department of Urban and Regional Development (DURD) across to him to try and help him restructure certain aspects, particularly in regards to the Treasury and the Reserve Bank and other things at that time, but again, Jimmy's -- well, I learn more and more every day of little things that come up that he never discussed with me, and I would discuss things openly with him in a comradely way, but Jim wouldn't do it in an uncomradely way, he just didn't think it was necessary to discuss it with me. Having said my criticism of Cairns, I want to say quite clearly that Cairns still was in many ways a great minister, for instance some of the things he did as Minister of Trade in building trade with the Soviet Union and China, his question with the building of the structure of AICD, which is the major trading organisation. Even, if you can remember as far back as December of 1974, when he was acting Prime Minister, it's that time of Cyclone Tracy. People thought his compassion and humility showed through, everybody thought what a great leader of the nation he was in replace of Whitlam at that time. It was only a couple of months after that the whole rot set in about Morosi and other things. So up 'til December or 1974, a lot of people thought Cairns was just wonderful, but that wasn't my view. I was very critical of certain things he was doing even at that stage.

Even before the Morosi Affair?

Well, yes. In the administration of the structure, when you become a minister, you've got a responsibility to appoint people not out of charity, but out of what you call the best interests of -- first of all, you carry out your job, and do that job efficiently, not only in the interests of the nation as a whole, but also of the class that you represent.

So you saw him as a really great philosopher, thinker, teacher?

Educator, yeah ...

... but not as a leader?

He should have never been a politician. It would have been better if he'd stayed back in the university and wrote from the university. Probably, it's a bit like Vincent [Van Gogh], you know, was he too beautiful in this world? And Cairns, in many ways, is a very beautiful human being, and I'm not saying he didn't prove himself as a parliamentarian in Opposition, he did, and may have even still been a great politician had he not taken over the Treasuryship. To some extent I blame myself for that, because I helped push him into that position. Now, I think that was the worst mistake I ever made. Because he took on the system and he wasn't, if I might say, tough enough and crafty enough to deal with those devious people that he was dealing with. He was dealing with the Mandarins of Canberra, and he wasn't prepared to, he wasn't equipped to, do that. And in fact, he gave them weapons to beat him.

You said things are coming out even today that he didn't share with you. Given that you do have this realist side to you, do you think that if he had listened a little bit more to you that it might have helped him through that time.

Well, I realised he had that kind of vulnerability about him. Because at that time of the '68 challenge to Whitlam, over the leadership, I got him to promise that if he ever came to a position of leadership that before he made any major appointments he would at least discuss it with me. Now I tried also to get him to do the same thing when he got into government, but he didn't take any notice of me. Particularly when he became Deputy Leader also there was so much euphoria ... he was there ... Jimmy loved to be liked, he was a most unusual man, an enormous courageous man, but for some reason or other he'd let people get in there to con him. Now, I can smell a con a mile away, but not Jimmy, Jimmy took everybody on trust and they were some of the worst conmen you ever met in your life. And conwomen, god they were terrible. I mean it's a part of leadership. It's a part of responsibilities. But having said that, god if you'd just see him now, I mean, he's eighty two, he's nearly 82, and he's a beautiful person, just beautiful.

And in your early days when you arrived in parliament you learned a lot from him and he pointed you in the direction of a lot to read and think about?

Oh yes. Always. Yes, helped me in my type of reading and discussing and even the question of patience I learned a lot about, you see -- when Cairns entered a meeting and they want to talk to him, particularly during those Vietnam days, and he'd listen to their point of view, and answer their questions, and so articulate. The interesting thing was that when he was talking to you he wasn't looking anywhere else, it was you he was dealing with and he would deal with your problems and your questions.

But of course it was the great Vietnam War protest where the two of you really came to prominence, working together on that protest.

Yeah, really long before that, the great thing, back in the late '50s, was of course against the anti-nuclear testing, and it was Cairns. I was always pro-peace, but never in the peace movement, and it was Cairns that encouraged me to participate in the peace movement and for instance I attended the 1959 peace conference in Melbourne, which in fact was a very important conference, particularly against nuclear testing, and of course we agitated from there right up until 1963 for the partial test ban treaty. And when we in the peace movement would complain about the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, that the Americans or the British, when their bombs would go off -- 'oh, they're clean bombs' -- but when the Russians or the Chinese would go off, particularly the Russians in those early years because the Chinese didn't come until later, that they were dirty bombs. But we in the peace movement opposed all nuclear, but because we were opposing the establishment, we were suspect people. Of course when the partial test ban treaty came about in 1963, they went underground and we continued to oppose underground testing, but China and France continued to test in the atmosphere and we opposed those as well. Now what I'm so proud of in Australia today, recently against the French tests, was the unanimity of the Australian people against nuclear testing because they now know that testing, whether it's underground or in the atmosphere, it does affect our environment and humanity as a whole. And it's been quite remarkable, but I can tell you that Cairns and myself and other people in the peace movement, in those late '50s and early '60s, we were suspect. So that was the first big struggle I was involved with him, but then, later we struggled in those early years, in those early '60s, about the nuclear test ban treaty, I'm sorry nuclear-free zone in the southern hemisphere, and of course little did I realise in later years that a Hawke Government would in fact do the partial test ban treaty or the nuclear test ban treaty in the southwest pacific, which was quite a remarkable achievement at that time. But we were early beginners, again, on seeking the test ban treaties. And then of course, gradually the questions of the '60s are the problems of Vietnam, and the problems of Malaysia. For instance, myself, I opposed the first time that we sent advisers to Vietnam, that was in May of 1962, and when I got back to Parliament in August of '62 for the budget session of those days, I put a question on notice paper, I was the first person to raise that question about our troops going to Vietnam. But I've made an examination of those studies and going back to the periods of the 1960s, in '63 we raised it again, and in '64 again we continued to raise it, and by '63-'64 Cairns and I were doing certain universities and campuses and union movements and communal meetings and other such things. Now even the Labor Party was not really committed to our position, and in fact, the Left of the Party, as early as February 1965, they endorsed the US positions within the caucus. What happened was that we reassembled for the Autumn session at Canberra in February and in the meantime there'd been this bombing of North Vietnam and so we in the Left moved the resolution -- Cairns was the one that moved it -- that we should condemn the bombing by the Americans of North Vietnam. And of course there was an amendment moved on this occasion by Kim Beazley (who by the way later played a remarkable role on the Vietnam question) but again it took a long time in the late '60s and early '70s, so we were defeated, and therefore the Labor caucus supported the bombing of North Vietnam and both Whitlam and Calwell were both supportive of that. Now where the dramatic change came about was, in April, Menzies made the decision to send a battalion to Vietnam. And of course, that reply by Calwell on May the 4th, 1965, in the parliament would add a great change of position of many within the Labor movement in its Opposition. But even then, even [though] Calwell's speech itself was a very wonderful speech, don't get me wrong (though I wasn't there, I was overseas at the time) but I know by reading it was a great speech, but the positive term in it was that Cairns had written into the paragraph 'we will work to reverse the decision'. Now I examined Hansard not so very long ago and Arthur had just changed it to 'we will try to work to reverse the decision'. But we in the Left used that resolution, that speech of Calwell's, as a positive term of our Opposition that we would work to reverse the decision. But there was no real unanimity within the Labor Party across the board about bringing about -- I mean, there was opposition to the war, most people, Whitlam and the whole lot, were opposed to the war and thought that we should not be there and America shouldn't be there, but they wouldn't do anything positive about our withdrawal position. It wasn't until Whitlam, in November 1969, said that if he became Prime Minister [that] by the 1st of July, 1970, every Australian would be home from Vietnam. That united the Labor Party behind Whitlam as the leader, and particularly on the policy of Vietnam. Up until then there was still divisions, and I can recall even on the great moratoriums in 1970 and early 1971, there were still, in the early stages in New South Wales Right, reservations about the moratoriums, so it wasn't until the last moratorium of May of 1971 that people like John Ducker and the then Secretary of the Labor Party, Geoff Cahill, came onto the platform and shared the platform with the anti-moratorium movement. Or pro-moratorium movement. In Vietnam, against the war, and I was the chairperson of that Sydney committee. Now of course the position was much more advanced in Victoria where there was general unanimity, but you've got to recognise that New South Wales Right still had a very powerful position and it took them a long time to come on side.

Did that have anything to do with the fact that during the '50s when you were working in the peace movement you were so suspect, and that that was associated with your being seen as really associated with communism in the activities in the peace movement?

Well, I never really got involved in the peace movement in any way, I was Mr Respectability in a way until I became a Member of Parliament, because I'd never really taken up any real position in the peace movement or anywhere else, but I certainly did take a position on the split within the party, and as I said earlier on, I was guided more by sectarian than a logical position but as I evolved as a person I hadn't taken up the role in the peace movement outside until the 1959 conference. By that time I was a Member of Parliament, but because of my position against the group of movements -- I might tell you, for the first 11 years I was a Member of Parliament, I never got an invitation from a Catholic organisation. Now thank goodness that's a thing of the past and I find today that in the peace movement and the anti-war movement generally, throughout the world, many Catholics are playing a magnificent role and so is the church. I think the Catholic Church in Australia, particularly bishops like Bishop Benjamin of Townsville and Bishop Heaps and Bishop Heather of Sydney, I mean they are magnificent men in themselves and they're great peace fighters in their own right. And many of the nuns as well, by the way.

And even back in those days, there were quite a lot Catholics who were opposed to the Groupers as well?

Yeah they were, but the sad thing about it was, it took a long time for the Catholics in Australia to get their ecumenical spirit. John XXIII, who had an enormous influence on both Cairns and myself as a human being, and his philosophy, it took a long time for the Irish Catholics of Australia to recognise the spirit that he entered into. I mean, he opened up the Catholic Church which had been moribund for 300 years and could start to evolve. Now, many of the great political, social, leaders of the world, in Latin America or Central America or Africa -- look at their role against apartheid, they were never budged on this issue, so it took a long time for the Catholics in Australia to get the Liberal brew view through it. Really, it was a bit like New York City, in New York, and American Catholics under Spellman and people like that, they really did take a pretty rigid negative anti-communist role in that situation, but now that the Cold War's over, , even before the Cold War was over, from '63 onwards, there's been a real evolutionary process of change I believe within the church. That's from my own observations anyway.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 8