Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

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When you arrived in Parliament you were already involved with the Left of politics. Did you have a sense that you were coming in as a Labor member, or were you conscious of the factions even then that you felt yourself already identified with the Left?

No, I was so proud to be a Member of Parliament, to be a representative of the people, that was the main basic thing, but once I got into the caucus itself and built the bridge with Cairns, I never ever thought I was amongst any other group other than the Parliamentary Left.

Why was that?

It was just an atmosphere of the feeling I had with the people I was involved with. And also, from what I'd read, I really was orientated more that way. But I was completely unaligned, even with the steering committee of New South Wales I was not really deeply involved with them prior to being elected to parliament. I'd been, I suppose a Leftist, but I was fairly independent prior to that. I'd become more collectivised towards the Left after being elected into the parliament itself. And I think that the initiatives I took, I mean I never ever ... for instance, the Left these days is quite regimented. And it's a part of proportional representation -- there's careerism as much in the Left as there is in the centre of the Right these days, because people go into it for career, to advance their own personal career position, but in those days we didn't really determine who the Left candidate should be, what we would do. If there were two or three candidates from the Left running for a position, we'd more or less say, well, vote for the best man of the Left, but make sure you interconnect your preferences. We never tried to regiment people whether they could stand or whether they couldn't stand that occurred and remained right through until the early '80s.

So ,for you when you joined the Left, it wasn't with a knowledge that in a practical way you had to have a faction behind you to get on, it was really just because you believed the way they did?

No. That's right. In fact in those days, if you wanted to make anything, you not only got the block left vote, but you knew you also had to convince some people at the centre, in my case the centre, because very rarely would anybody from the Right ever vote for me, to convince them that you were the right type of candidate to get up. Now, for instance, I never ... I mean, right up until the time I even became a minister in the Hawke Government, that's in '83, I'd never relied on any factional group just to get me there; I was already there. I mean, I was a part of the leadership of the party from after the 1969 election right through to the 1987 election. I carried a position either in the shadow ministry or as a minister and sometimes Deputy Leader. For two years I was Deputy Leader of the Party, so I was a part of the Left and I'd earnt my spurs not from being a token leftist, being a part of a bush representation, but I'd earnt my spurs with the support of the caucus who thought I was worthy of being elected to a leadership position.

And why do you think that was? What was it about you that drew that support from factions other than your own?

Well, at first I think it took a long time. First of all, it was 11 years before I stood for any position. I worked behind Cairns and people knew that I was a person who was a fairly strong servant generally of the movement itself, and I think I must've made some contribution otherwise I wouldn't have been elected after the '69 elections. Because right up until '69, particularly I'd had very little in common with Gough, for instance, on foreign policy. I found a conflict with his position and many of the internal issues which I think I'm wrong and he was right, that I wasn't greatly involved in. And people would say to me, why don't you stand after the '66 election? Some of my Left colleagues got up into the shadow ministry and they said, 'Why don't you stand? I said, 'Oh, I won't waste my time, the big bastard would probably give me Veteran's Affairs or something like that,' a portfolio which would take up a lot of your time but you want to determine your priorities on other issues. But to my great surprise after the '69 elections -- by the way I thought Whitlam's greatest hour as leader of the party was in the '69 elections and I admired him greatly for the role he played at that time because I always thought if we were to achieve victory, we needed an economic downturn. Whitlam was able to prove to me anyway that at the '69 elections, he nearly won the election without any major economic downturn. Mainly on positive policies. And of course we were united on the question of Vietnam and bringing our troops home. So after the '69 election for the first time I went around amongst my Left colleagues and said to them, 'Do you think I should put my name forward as a member of the executive of the Parliamentary Party, as we called it then; there was no shadow ministry up to that point, it was always the executive of the Parliamentary Party. And it was after the '69 elections that Whitlam in fact allocated his portfolios and in allocating his portfolios, he gave me Urban and Regional Development. Now I appointed myself as the Environmental spokesperson, which he later concurred on, but my real portfolio was Urban and Regional Development. And that was a liberating thing for me and it was a great choice on his part. I asked him years later, you know, why did he make that decision? He said, 'Well, Tom, I'd observed the way you lived and surroundings that you created in Guildford and also what you'd done with your retreat in Mt Wilson, that I thought that you were the person to look after that field.' So you know, he'd been observing many things about me, and of course he should've ... if he'd been a little man, in many ways, a petty man, because of the things that I did to Whitlam during that period of the '60s, then he would've given me a kind of a portfolio that would've isolated me, but as you well know urban and regional affairs was so close to his own heart. I think Gough was terribly involved in the environment in Australia. He certainly was involved in the grand design of the environment in old Europe, you know, particularly the historical sites and the cathedrals and many of those things, but I don't [know] that he was ever deeply involved in environmental things in Australia but in fairness to him, he certainly, when I took on that environmental portfolio, both the natural one and the man-made one, he certainly backed me all the way.

If you could have picked your own portfolio, would you have chosen DURD?

Well, I wouldn't have dreamed it, that I could have got -- I always wanted portfolios which was close to the people. And certainly he, in his wisdom, made that decision, that I was close to people and the issues I must've talked about; he chose wisely, I mean for me personally ... it certainly was rewarding to me ...

It turned out that way, but before you got it, would you have thought of giving it to you? I mean, was that what ...

Well, housing. I was always interested in housing and that was a part of my portfolio, overall portfolio. And I was always involved in community issues, so that again was interrelated with that. But I didn't specialise on it, I specialised on taxation matters and foreign policy prior to that. That was my main ... I was a member of the economics committee and right from my beginning. And also I was very interested in foreign affairs and matters of world war and peace. They were the issues that overwhelmed me.

And throughout the '60s you'd given Whitlam a hard time. In what way?

Well, first of all, we foresaw or I did anyway, always saw Cairns as the natural leader. Whitlam, I thought, more than a centrist, I would have thought he was to the Right of centre, on a lot of these issues, and I thought he was too Americanised on his foreign policy. The one thing I admired of Whitlam during the '60s, really admired him for, was he was one of the early pioneers against White Australia. And he with Cairns and Billy Hayden was also greatly outspoken (of course we in the Left were also) against the White Australia Policy. We believed that Australia's policy shouldn't be determined by colour, creed or race. We've always stood by that position; now, Whitlam was outstanding on that situation, and every time he'd make a statement (and of course old Arthur Calwell was the leader) I would always send him a telegram of congratulations.

And what was Calwell's attitude on it through that period?

Well, Calwell would believe black is black and white is white and never the twain shall meet. And he was with that philosophy right through to his death. As were a lot of other old traditional Laborites. If you go back and do early Labor history, there was always the threat of a slave labour from the Asian labour or the black labour and there was that mentality ran through their veins, so I don't think a lot of them ever got out of that situation.

And Tom, on this issue, for you personally, what had been your own progress through this, because you had spent that time with the Japanese in a prisoner of war camp, and certainly the prevailing views around as you grew up and developed were often quite racist in the Australia of that time. What was your own personal position on all of this, and did you have a struggle with it?

No, first of all, hate. I don't think there's any progress in hate, in fact as I developed Martin Luther King's view on hate; hate is always tragic, it distorts the personality and scars the soul. It's more injurious to the hater than it is to the hated, and my own view was there was no progress in hate. Now I think that that growing period that I had in the latter part of the last year as this prisoner of war ... I think I've always had a compassion for people, and having that compassion, the barriers broke down. That's why even the question of -- still I hadn't really evolved completely because there was still that sectarian streak in me up until at least the middle '50s. And it took me a while to in fact evolve out of that. But I'd say by the late '50s that I'd evolved out of no such thing as religious prejudice. There was no issues such as racism of any description. So before I got into parliament I'd gone far beyond that -- having a feeling of racism or prejudice against other human beings.

So you're not conscious ever, really, of any racist feeling in you?

No. I can't. I can remember feelings of sectarianism, but not of racism. And of course, that sectarianism was only bred into me by other prejudice from my upbringing itself, and of course you've got to recognise in this country of ours, I mean Catholics, they might have gone through a difficult period in the Labor Party, but you've got to remember if you go back to the 1930s, if you wanted a job in Sydney or in New South Wales, you had to put down what your religion was, and if you applied for a job in private enterprise and you were Roman Catholic you didn't get a job. So I mean we went through that very strong sectarian period. So that's why the public service was full of Catholics, both state and federal, because they had nowhere else to go to get jobs. So thank god we've got that behind us. But we went through a very sectarian period in the early part of our 30's, and evolving in our history as I said, in 1957 even it was prevailing in the Labor Party to try to counteract the split that had occurred in the party over the movement issue. Because '57 you had to be 60 per cent British immigration and 40 per cent non-British, meaning Europeans, no white, because it wasn't until 1965 that we in fact changed our White Australia Policy. But I entered the Parliament in 1958 with no such thing as colour, creed or race. In fact, I attended the Commonwealth Association Conference at Canberra in 1959 -- that's where I met Clem Attlee, by the way, the former Prime Minister of England, and so many others. Actually Turner, John Turner, who later became Prime Minister of Canada, he was also there. But I met a young Singapore doctor, and I was talking this way and he was just astounded that here's me, Tom Uren, the way I talked in a white Australia, he was astounded the way I did talk, in a country that still had a White Australia Policy. But it just came naturally to us. But that's what I admired about Whitlam at that time. And it wasn't a popular thing to do in those days. It was really quite courageous on his part.

When did you get interested in the environmental movement?

I think I was a natural environmentalist but my wife, Patricia, really nurtured me a great deal in it. But I can recall though even back in my prisoner of war days, you know, we had to walk about six to seven kilometres back from the railway back to our camp and we had to over a mountain and on the top of this mountain was this blacksmith's forge and where my feet had been sore and weeping -- they had a 44-gallon drum that had been cut in half and was full of hot water where the people who were on the blacksmith's forge had been sharpening the grilles that we used to knock the holes through to (in the railway) and I'd sit on this edge of this 44-gallon drum and put my feet in and I'd look out over those teak forests, and I thought to myself what a beautiful environment it is, and how I must come back to this one day, when I'm free. We used the words 'when I was free'. The tragedy was, I went back there in '87, when I was free, I was a minister at the time, and do you know there wasn't one teak tree left. Not one. The whole of that area, practically the whole of Thailand, has been raped of the most precious timber in the world, the teak trees. They're now moving into Cambodia and Burma and places like that. That's the tragedy of it. And so I'm talking about that feeling about the environment was there, but then when I came particularly with Patricia, my evolvement -- first of all my love of my garden and the love of the northern hemisphere, first of all I fell in love with the northern hemisphere's trees and I can always remember in my early days, particularly as a Member of Parliament, talking about the question -- instead of talking about the peace movement I might be talking to a group of ladies from the International Red Cross or it might be a church group and I'd talk about my story about my garden, because I used to talk about in my garden we got the cedrus deodora of the Himalayas, the liquid ambers and the camellias and ashes ... sorry, can I start all over again?

Yes, you can.

In my garden I would have the cedrus deodora and the rhododendrons of the Himalayas, there'd be the camellias of China, there'd be the azaleas and maples of Japan, there'd be the liquid ambers of North America and the jacarandas from Latin America, the oak and ash of England together with the good old silver birch of the Soviet Union blending together with the Australian gum. It would be a wonderful thing if the human race could just take a pattern from our garden. Of course, the ladies would get up and start talking about Mr Uren's ... of course I was talking really about the human race and what we should do. Or I might go to naturalisation ceremonies and I was talking about, you know, our citizens. Our new citizens who had come to this, our shore. That, you know, you plant a tree, you plant two trees, one will grow up strong and robust without any assistance at all. On the other hand, the other one will have to struggle. But if you take care and nurture it and make its root systems healthy, it too will grow up as a strong and lovely tree. So with our citizens ... And so I used to always use this philosophical message of trying to talk about human beings together with what our trees were. But as I've developed, I've realised also that the love of my own flora and the need to plant our own flora because of the dryness of our continent and our lack of water, and so I've come kind of the circle, but I love the planet. I love the human race. And I see this inter-relationship. An American biologist by the name of Barry Commoner had an enormous influence on me very early on. And he has two main principles. The first ... there's four really. But the first two principles, one is that everything's connected to everything else, and the second principle, everything's gotta go somewhere. Well, you think about that. It's so interrelated. All my urban programs, when I'm talking about urban matters, when I was talking about the local governments, get out of their little parochial, little local areas and look at the inter-relationships that they've got to have in a kind of regional concept. And with my urban planning, with my environmental planning, because you just think of things: if you burn something it goes up in the air and it's going to affect -- whether it's industry, chemicals or anything else, or whether you pour something down the drain in the sewer, where does it go or where does it finish up? And that's had such an influence on me in my thinking and in my environmental thinking. And of course, there was my love, my love of man-made things. Not only nature but man-made. Luckily for me I had Elizabeth Farm cottage on one end of my electorate and Lansdowne Bridge on the other: two of the most historic pieces of man-made culture in Australia. And of course, I agitated, even through the '60s, to do something about this. Or, the natural environment, I was a great lover of -- I used to always talk about the beauty of the lemon-scented gums, they were the silver birch of our own gardens because like the silver birch they peel their bark. But, on top of that of course, my greatest love of all of my own local flora in Sydney is the angophora. I wrote a letter once to the Sydney Morning Herald saying I loved every angophora from Sutherland to Bilpin to Avalon, and that when any Commonwealth Estate bureaucrat scars those angophoras, I feel the scar personally myself. And of course my letters to the Sydney Morning Herald talking about the environment kind of balance my personality of aggression, my anti-war role in the war, so again this was showing two sides of my nature. They really were interconnected, but a lot of people used to think I was a terrible monster insofar as opposing the war in Vietnam, but on the environmental questions I was a little bit more human.

You were drawn into the environmental movement initially by your love of beauty and your response, your emotional response, to beautiful things. Then gradually you began to understand more about its significance for our entire future, for the future of the world. When you actually got an opportunity in government to do something about it, were you positioned by then to [see] very clearly the way you wanted to go with the opportunity to lead us in relation to that area?

Well, can I tell you a story? First of all, it was Christmas of 1971, not long before we got into government. And I'd had a nice meal at Beppi's in Sydney, lovely Italian restaurant, and Geraldine Pascall who worked for Lionel Murphy at that time, she was crying on my shoulder about some of the things Lionel wasn't doing, so when we'd finished lunch, I walked up to the corner of Park and Elizabeth Street, and straddled around the old TNG building was this scaffolding to pull down something which was unique in its architecture in that majestic old TNG building. Then from there I walked along Elizabeth Street and I just passed Market Street and there they were pulling down the old St James building, and I was a great theatre-goer, and MGM films used to always show at this St James Theatre. It was a lovely old building and they're pulling it down to put up another one. And top it all off, I walked down King Street and I stood on the corner of King and George Street, and there right opposite was this lovely old sandstone building which had boarding around it saying 'you can bank on the Wales' -- really scarred looking. I went down the GPO and wrote a short note to my secretary and I sent that to the Daily Telegraph, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian and three of them published. It was this letter about the destruction. I walked through the centre of Sydney and the heart seemed to be torn right out of it. And I was complaining about, 'can't somebody in some authority create something to protect our heritage', and little did I know that within a year or so I would be given that opportunity. Now what broke my heart to some degree was that because we were 14 shadow ministries, and when we became government they made us into 27 ministries so therefore Gough had to put the portfolios, spread them more widely. So he rang me up, first of all to tell me that he'd just appointed Justice Evatt to an important position on the bench, to try and soften me up because he was knew I was close to old Clive Evatt, and then he said, Look, comrade, I'm afraid I've got to take Environment away from you.' And of course, I was brokenhearted. But when the administrative arrangements came, well first of all I convinced him who should replace me, and I convinced him it should be Moss Cass. I think Moss Cass and Graham Richardson are the only two great environmental ministers we've ever had. Since the environmental portfolio's been created. John Faulkner has still to prove himself, but those two, they were outstanding in their portfolios. Anyway, when the administrative arrangements were set up, Whitlam had still left me with the National Estate. Even [though] I had urban and regional development, the National Estate was still mine. And that was specific. Now, so after a short while, and I was, you know, talking -- different people had asked me what I meant by the National Estate and I'd talk about the landscape of the lower Blue Mountains, the foreshores of Sydney Harbour, that clump of lemon-scented gums, spotted gums, between Appin and Campbelltown and remember if you go up into the Bellingen Valley there's a magnificent stand of melaleucas there, and he said, 'My god Tom, we've got to have something more definitive than that!' So we set up this inquiry into the National Estate. Now this chap we chose for it was Justice Hope of the Supreme Court and we had intended to put Jack Mundey also onto the inquiry but [Robert] Askin wouldn't release Hope if we had Mundey on the thing because Mundey had had a libel action out against Askin. So that held it up for several months 'til ultimately I went to Gough and said, 'Look, what about if we put Jack Mundey on as adviser onto the cities' commission and that we put Milo Dunphy in Jack's place on the inquiry into the National Estate, and of course, that's what happened. And Gough concurred immediately. And of course the inquiry was set up. Now it really was my initiative -- it wasn't Gough's -- but it was set up under joint names of both myself and the Department of the Environment and if you look at the records at the time of the whole inquiry the Department of the Environment never even made a submission. The reason they didn't make a submission was they were a bit worried that it was one of the expansive ministries. They thought I was going to take over their empire. But that wasn't my position at all, in fact, I always supported Moss in environmental questions. But, so anyway, when the inquiry went through and it was a great success, there was one person who emerged out of it that in my view made the greatness of the report and made the greatness of its evolutionary process, and that was David Yencken. He's now a professor in one of the Melbourne universities, Victorian universities, but also he was a former Head of the Victorian Planning and Environment Department and I appointed him as the first Chairperson of the Australian Heritage Commission, so the inquiry came down of the National Estate and arising out of that, I then introduced the legislation for the Australian Heritage Commission. So, that's what I'm extremely proud of, my role in that evolutionary process. Now, Gough, in his book, virtually gives me little recognition and in my book I deal with some of my conversation with Gough saying that I can have some arguments about the historical development. But in fairness to Gough, it was Gough's drive and tenacity that allowed the legislation to come forward and to get through. Otherwise it would have never got through. We got the legislation through, we got Yencken made Chairperson of the Australian Heritage Commission, but we never ever appointed the commission before we were struck down in November of 1975. So it's really, I suppose, a joint effort between Gough and myself, and Moss certainly went along with me on those issues, although his department were extremely sensitive about my interfering with their portfolio. But in the end Gough and Moss and I made an agreement whereby I would look after the man-made environment and he would like after the wilderness environment and that's how Gough set up the administrative arrangements for the National Estate, or the Australian Heritage Commission. So you know I am proud of that evolutionary process which grew out of my love in so many ways, about my love and commitment to the environment.

Were you worried when you did lose power in '75, that [they] might dismantle it before it was allowed to really get going?

I was always worried about that, but there were two things that really survived out of our portfolio. One was the Heritage Commission and I think to some extent it was probably David Yencken's wisdom and patience that was able to get through and hold it together. Although it was slightly amended by the Fraser Government (the legislation) the other thing which survived out of my portfolio, inter-related with Charlie Jones, transport ministry, was the urban public transport, rapid trains and buses within the urban cities. They're the only two major programs, but the great thing about the programs out of my department that survived, most of them either built up within the state apparatus, you see, and prior to that there was very little planning authorities within the states, but after DURD there was the development of the New South Wales planning process, the Department of Environment and Urban Planning, and certainly Victoria, South Australia and Perth also made great advances. There doesn't seem to be much progress on urban planning until modern times in Queensland, and it's done on a minor scale in Tasmania. But I'm proud to say that even though my DURD suffered, being struck down in 1975, something like 20-odd members of that wonderful band of people that worked with me finished up being either permanent heads or what they call secretaries now, in federal department or state departments or statutory authorities, either in the state or commonwealth. So, the DURD influence is still functioning today. And if that Commoner, those principles -- they weren't socialist programs that was on, but there were two things, the first thing is efficiency and equity that we have to make our cities efficient ...

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