|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 16, 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.
What were the principles on which you based your work in the department?
Well, first of all the department was based on equity and efficiency, and that we really wanted to make the cities more equitable. And people don't realise how inequitable a city can be, particularly in the case where employment exists, where social and recreational opportunities are. Everybody says Sydney is a beautiful city, and it is a beautiful city if you live in or round about the Sydney Harbour, or you live on the north down to Warringah or you live on the South to Sutherland, on the coast, Cronulla way, but once you go west of Strathfield, you've got to keep in mind that it stretches now for something like 50 kilometres from the GPO, stretches south-west. And in my days, the centre of Sydney's population -- we're talking about the period that Whitlam and I were arguing about -- we used to argue that if you looked at Rookwood Cemetery and drew a line north and south there were more people living west of that line than lived in the whole of South Australia or the whole of Western Australia. But now, of course, you've got to draw that line well beyond Parramatta and that same thing, terminology, exists. And where the future growth of Sydney's going to be is in the western corridor and in the southwestern corridor and probably in the northwestern corridor from Blacktown to Windsor. And we foresaw this and we wanted to bring some equity and justice to the western region of Sydney. But not only Sydney, we looked at all the cities of Australia and did plans. For instance in Melbourne, we cooperated and did a plan with the Hamer Government where we felt that there were 18,000 too many Commonwealth and public servants in the centre of the central business district of Melbourne and that they should be relocated in other sub-metropolitan centres and with inter-regional areas, we were prepared to do similar things and in fact we did do similar things in the Sydney region because they were the two most advanced cities. But even a city like Brisbane, one can see what a crying need of a city like Brisbane is that it needs [an] electric railway line from Brisbane to the Gold Coast. It needs to create another sub-metropolitan centre between those two points so that if you build a transport system, then if you send it out the trains of a morning or the buses of a morning, they all go out empty and then come back packed to go into the central business district. What you've got to do is balance the transport load. And I noticed that since our days, when we started to talk like this, that now if you travel on a railway carriage that there are people going to Parramatta for employment from the east to go over to the west or if you go on the northern lines you'll notice that people are travelling up to Chatswood for employment instead of all travelling into the CBD in the morning and of course the reverse situation at night so there's some balance on that transport load and that was the one of the things. But there was also the social isolation of so many because they built Housing Commission and other new suburbs out into the western suburbs of Sydney, southwestern suburbs of Sydney. The isolation particularly if they're only a one-man car, but public transport away from the railway lines is so atrocious that most people would use their own motorcar, the husband, and the wife would be stranded all day at home. What did the wife and children do for social amenities? And so these are all the studies that we had to do and, again, if I can use that inter-relatedness, you can't do anything in isolation. If you really build houses in an isolated area then it's going to affect other social matters, there's that inter-relationship, so when you give shelter make sure you don't transfer other costs by giving them shelter [over] health and social issues and employment issues and cultural issues and other such responsibilities. You've got to look at the city as a whole and I used to try to argue that we should look at the metropolis and not just look at the central business district. I'm arguing now, and have been arguing for a number of years, even in the Hawke Government (I mean I had less influence of course in the Hawke Government than I had in the Whitlam Government) but after I'd even left the ministry I warned the Hawke Government that the worst thing they could do was to build the third runway at Sydney. It would be environmental vandalism. Because what it will do, it will crush the minds of so many people within the inner city of Sydney, and many of them will be working-class people, for the next 50 years. I warned them that what they should do -- next to the Aboriginal question in Australia, the most serious social problem we have is the employment base of the future younger and future generations in western Sydney. Now once there was employment out there because there were factories and other places of employment of some substance, that would create some employment base. But now, they've got big warehouses, what they call distributing centres. They're computerised and there are very few people working in those warehouses. It's traffic chaos from the coast out to these warehouses and I might say it's upsetting for the suburbs between east and west, but we really need to create a catalyst for employment. Now a second Sydney Airport ideally should be located at Badgery's Creek, but I argue that if it is to be built there, it has to be done in a visionary way, otherwise you will affect, even worsen, the already serious air pollution and water pollution that you've got to the Hawkesbury and Nepean system. This should be done in a visionary way. I suggested that they should send their planners and their engineers to go and see some of the international airports overseas, and the one I recommended was Frankfurt in Germany where you come out of an aircraft, you pick up your luggage, you go down on an escalator, you get on a rapid public train system. Now we don't need more freeways to Badgery's Creek, what we need is a rapid public transport system from Badgery's Creek linking up East Hills, which is going through a lot of state-owned land at present, and that would get it rapidly into the city, but you would also need a railway line from Badgery's Creek, south to link up with Canberra, and the other one going north, underground under Parramatta and linking up with a northern line maybe at Epping or somewhere, linking up the northern line. Unless they do it in a visionary way, by creating the Badgery's Creek Airport they will worsen their position. But by doing that, not only will it be good planning for the metropolis as a whole, but it will also be a catalyst for present employment and future employment because that airport creates service industries. Now I reckon that the only two policies the Hawke Government did for the people of western Sydney was to buy the land for the second Sydney airport, and to establish a second university. They're both catalysts for the employment base. Now one of the problems was that the '85 decision of the Hawke Government was that they didn't buy sufficient land to make it an international decision, but luckily the last budget of the Keating Government has made a decision to purchase sufficient land to go ahead. Now I'm not saying it should go ahead now in a piecemeal way unless they do it in a visionary way. But if they do it properly, it will be a great catalyst and will be a great stimulus for the future employment base of western Sydney. Now that's just some of the intelligent urban planning that we can do. But there are many other things, of course, in many other places [that] can be done as well.
How optimistic do you feel that that will be done?
I'm partially optimistic, because what I'm worried about is this privatisation madness. You see there's a privatisation madness that they think that the private sector will do it. I don't think they will. I think there has to be a major investment made in it, a mammoth major investment by the national government and if Keating is the visionary that I think he could be, then he could grapple with it. I'm not sure, and I'm not trying to denigrate John Howard. I'm not sure that Howard could go in the same way. Although Howard has a vested interest because he does live under the flight path at present and does know the continuing agony while that third runway exists that way it is. I don't think the Sydney Airport can ever be replaced, but I think the major traffic can be diverted to this new airport at Badgery's Creek. Now to say that it hasn't been a long-term plan ... it was being under consideration even in my time. Back in '72-'75, it was under study then, and one of the tragedies has been of course that state governments in the meantime haven't really had the vision and also the character to limit urban development in those corridors. Now the present inquiry -- there was an inquiry held -- which will have some implications on trying to emphasise that situation but it's not going to be easy to do it, but I hope that with Carr, I mean, one can have disagreements with Bob Carr, but one of the things I do like about Carr is his role, his commitment to the environment, his commitment to urban planning. Now I worked with him when he was minister, and I know his commitment, so therefore if Keating -- because in many ways Keating's got a lot of Whitlamism in him -- if Keating and Carr do really work together as a team, we can solve that problem.
What in your opinion makes a good minister?
Well, first of all, I think a minister must be the minister, and he must basically make the decisions. He must give leadership to his team, and leadership to the people around him. And I think that he should seek good advice before he makes his decisions. And I think that he's got to come down from his ego a bit and think that he hasn't got all the solutions himself, that if he builds a strong enough team around him and give those people encouragement to develop their thoughts and their views, then I think that he will be a fine minister. One of the things about my ministry, in my role as a minister, I had good staff that serviced me, but also I was fortunate enough to be able to create my own department, and I must say I want to place on record the greatness of that wonderful department of DURD, even though we had a very fine Head of the Department in Bob Lansdowne, the great strength of the employment selection was done by Pat Troy who was the acting deputy head of that department, who later went back to the urban research unit at the ANU. Now, I was very fortunate that I always had good people working with me all my political life. Some people used to say, Oh, Uren's not a very bright bloke, but somehow or other he seems to get good people to work for him.' [Laughs] Well, that's life.
Well maybe ... maybe that's a fairly important part of being bright to know how to pick the good people to work with you.
Well, it was common-sense anyway. It's common-sense that you get good material around you, but in the end it's that decisiveness -- you make the decision and that's what I grew out of my reading of Roosevelt in those early years, that ultimately, Roosevelt would hear the arguments around him, but ultimately he'd make the decision. For instance, I'll give you an example, on the creation of the Australian Heritage Commission, my bureaucrats didn't want to give too much independence on decision-making process to the commission, but in fact retain it within the ministry. On the one hand, David Yencken argued that there should be greater independence. I supported Yencken's interpretation and guidance on that, more than some of my own people I admired by the way, but I understood Yencken's continuity of sensitivity of environmental things. It's just like the arts. I think it's another field that that there shouldn't be too much political interference, I think, you know, art and culture and planning and ...
You need an arm's length arrangement.
Yes, the tenders in government, for instance, I was minister for administrative arrangements and I know the sensitivity of tenders; a minister doesn't interfere into those things. That's where corruption comes in.
It's very important for the minister's own political survival to have these mechanisms, to distance him somewhat from decisions that might be controversial?
Well, I'll give you an example. I bought more land than any other man in the history of Australia. I mean, nobody has spent more money purchasing land on behalf of the public than I did in both my first administration under Whitlam and secondly under Hawke, because I was Minister of Services towards the end of the Whitlam Government and having control over commonwealth properties, and again the last three years of the Hawke Government. Plus the fact that my urban plans of Albury-Wodonga and other such centres. And the land commission programs which we created throughout the country. But, a developer who came into my office, never came in alone. The permanent head or a very senior bureaucrat would be in there taking copious notes of everything that transcribed in my place. Even Bond and all those developers came into my office. I only saw Bond once because he came and saw me and used me as though I was going to do great things on his behalf. Or use his visit with me to stimulate his position. It was the last time he ever had a private one with me. But generally, if a developer saw me, I made sure that my permanent head or a senior public servant was in there taking the appropriate notes so that they couldn't in any way point the finger at me in a corrupt manner.
The balance that's needed in a ministry between the political vision, the vision of the future of whatever the subject is that the minister has to have control of, and the organisation and administrative side of things is something that's often talked about. He, a minister is called a 'good administrator'. You've described your disappointment in Cairns, who was a visionary but who wasn't a good administrator, and wasn't a good minister in that sense. How do you rate yourself, looking back now, with a very objective eye, to your two major periods of being in the ministry?
I don't rate myself at all and I wouldn't ever try to, but I think history will be kind to me in regards to me as an administrator. But, you know, one has to determine that with other objectives. I wouldn't even say that Cairns wasn't a good administrator, all I would say is that he made errors of judgement in the nepotism. In fact, in many ways he was considered a good minister because he was a great listener. And a minister is a good listener. Sometimes a good minister. So there's contradictions there and I think that in the early part of Cairns' ministry, even though I disagreed with some of his staff appointments, I think he was a very successful minister.
Did you ever find yourself struggling between your vision of how things should be and the practical realities that faced you?
Yes, for instance, I wanted to bring in a capital gains tax on real estate in my time and I was not successful. First of all at the time, Jim Cairns could have been more supportive at that time, he was the Treasurer, but I think the decision of treasury and a lot of the system -- even though it was a joint submission I fought it alone. It was one of my disappointments in Jim by the way and I told him so afterwards.
What was your feeling when you came to power in the great 'It's Time' election? Could you describe a little bit of what it was like to be one of the people associated with that?
Well, I want to say I don't think I've even been in power. I think I've been in government. I think you gain in real power when the real people give you that full support of their administration, and I think that's probably two short periods in our times when we had that kind of support of the people. But, no, it was an exhilarating feeling, don't get me wrong, it was really a great wonderful feeling and it was an enormous experience and the great privilege that had been given to me over the years, first by [being] given those opportunities to serve. I mean like, for instance, I was responsible for the restructuring [after] Cyclone Tracy. I mean, I know there were other ministers, for instance Patterson and later Paul Keating, but in fact I had to get it under way with the infrastructure ...
Darwin after Cyclone Tracy, the rebuilding of Darwin?
Yes, oh yes. I mean, Tony Powell was Head of my National Capital Development Commission. In fact, he put the basis of the work into it, and it was through him and the skilled workers he got round him. The guts of that foundation of rebuilding of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy was really done first of all by my input and through Tony and other people working close with me.
There are a few other physical monuments, too, to that period around the place in Sydney and ...
Oh yes, well, first of all, I think Albury-Wodonga is a great achievement, even though I think that the Fraser Government sold us out and it gradually was weakened as governments went on; ultimately the Hawke Government sold out completely. And I think that's an utterly stupid decision in such a time ... so blind with free market forces. Treasury always hated it. Anything that was a planning proposal for intervention into the marketplace, both Treasury and Finance will oppose it at every level. But there are other great interventionist programs that we did. The intervention first of all of in the saving of Woolloomooloo was one great thing and that will stand forever more. And of course, the question of the Glebe Estate. And the great thing about not only the saving of the Glebe Estate but the freeway system you now see and that new bridge, second bridge, that occurred in Sydney Harbour, again was done really through my planning process and let me tell you how. Because when we bought the Glebe Estate, I was making a statement about why we bought it. We bought it first of all because it was at that time over 120 years old. Secondly, it was a townscape, 120 years old and ... I'm sorry I'll start off on that again.
Just start again on the Glebe Estate ...
The Glebe Estate, first of all, afterwards we were having a cup of tea. I made a statement that we bought it for three major reasons. First of all, to protect the people living in it, secondly, to protect the townscape, 120 years old, and thirdly, now that it was Australian property, the Askin Government will not be able to drive a freeway through the centre of it. Now following that, about having a cup of tea, the old director, or chairman of the Main Roads Board, said to me, 'Mr Uren, I listened with interest to what you had to say, but the governments come and governments go, but the Main Roads goes on forever.' I didn't say this to his face, but I thought, 'You arrogant old bastard.' And of course, six months later my bureaucrats with Charlie Jones' bureaucrats -- because I had control, any freeways within the inner city had to get my approval if there was any money expended in the states. Even though it was the transport department that would put the money through. Well, and my bureaucrats, and Charlie's -- Charlie being the minister for transport -- bureaucrats had met with the Main Roads authorities down in Sydney and they'd come back with an agreement that they were going to bring all the freeways across the Darling Harbour, bring them down to Jones Street and go no further. And of course they thought they had a wonderful agreement and of course I wouldn't accept this. First of all, I remembered what the old chairman of the Main Roads board had said, and I just knew that it would create a bottleneck. And ultimately would create a freeway system that would be two freeways cut across Wentworth Park, 800 metres apart, and one freeway would go up cutting a swathe through the Glebe Estate, then through Annandale then through Leichhardt and Burwood and Concord, and all the way up to link it up at Concord. And of course that would have been 150 metres wide, the same as North Sydney is. And of course I wouldn't cop that at all. So we argued all night, and Charlie wouldn't give in, so in the end we had to bring Jim Cairns in as Acting Prime Minister and he concurred. He heard Charlie's arguments first and then mine. And he said, 'I think Tommy's arguments are right.' So we wiped the decision. So the following morning I had Dick Smythe, who was the head of my transport section at DURD. I said, 'Dick, have we got any spare money to do an alternative study? 'Cause that's the only way to beat them.' He said, 'I think so.' So we got this firm of Jackson, Teece, Chesterman, Willis, I think was the other crowd that was with them. I call it the Chesterman plan. And it was Chesterman who did the study because he did the original study for us to purchase the Glebe Estate. And of course, it turned it round through Pyrmont and at that time there was to be a bridge about 88-feet clearance, a grander bridge than was originally decided. And it would have gone up over the Lilyfield railway yards and then linked up with the canals. Well, that's the plan, only they've moderated it slightly, but that's the plan that ultimately was approved and what happened was it was finally finished. We did the first study up to October, and we got them to do a further study, but by this time we were struck down. The offices that were formerly in my department were now in the department in the Housing, Environment and Community Affairs, and they encouraged their minister to send it on to the new government of New South Wales of Neville Wran. I found out that this had occurred, the grapevine told me, and then I wrote to Wran and within three days he'd replied to me and said there'd been a special committee set up under the chairmanship of Jack Ferguson, Lander and Peter Cox, and it was that influence with that program that went ahead and that's the alternative. Otherwise, you know, we beat the system. Otherwise there would have been that wide swathe cut right through there, and the second one, the Northwestern Freeway, would ultimately not only go through Lilyfield, but it also would have carved right through the Lane Cove Valley and created a scar there, so I'm proud about those achievements as well. But look, you go right round Australia and we've been able to intervene into so many other places. As Minister for Local Government, for instance, not only [in] the Whitlam period, but in the Hawke period, I was able to get my foot in the door in over 850 local government authorities. I mean, I believed in the people and that, ultimately, people have got to grab a greater say over their lives and we should be encouraging local government to be given more authority, not less authority.
You served under two Prime Ministers, Whitlam and Hawke. How was it different being in a ministry led by Whitlam and a ministry led by Hawke?
Well, first of all, the men: chalk and cheese. One's a visionary and one is a good chairman. Good chairman, but a petty man. The other one can be a big man. I think Hawke is the best chairman I've sat under, but in many ways he's got some petty things and sectional little things. Which really does disturb one. But Whitlam, in his bigness; on the other hand, Whitlam was more autocratic than Hawke. Whitlam would determine the agenda of cabinet, and he would determine what would be discussed in cabinet. On the other hand, Hawke would allow things to be raised by ministers in cabinet. So there's pluses and minuses on both sides, but from the point of view of a visionary, I mean, I never found Hawke a deep person at any time. I found him a fairly shallow person, but at the same time I found him an effective communicator with people. And I suppose one could say a fairly astute politician. Because after all, he won four elections for the Labor Party. On the other hand, I found Whitlam a big man in every respect, a visionary, and I find with Whitlam I agree with most issues. I find a lot of kinship with him. I have complete disagreement with him on East Timor, that policy on East Timor, which I've told him so often and he knows that, but on most issues I find Gough quite a remarkable man and even Whitlam's continued to grow as a person. Even in the question of environment, in his retirement. I mean his role, for instance, as ambassador to UNESCO, he really has grown enormously in that role and he's now a world figure in the environmental world where, as I say, in the early days it was just, you know, he just saw his environment on the ruins of Europe and so forth, but now these days he's really an eminent person in the field of UNESCO. I think one of the sad things about Hawke's retirement is that, you know, he's got a new god and money seems to dominate him and it's really sad because you know with all Hawke's weaknesses, there is a great deal of compassion in his soul. About Hawke again, I don't want to be all negative about Hawke and I just don't want to knock him.
But I suppose I'm asking you from your point of view for Tom Uren, as a minister in that all too brief Whitlam period with all the pressures and difficulties there. Did you feel more positive in what you were doing in that context than in the better managed, smoother, more confident sort of government that you had under Hawke?
Well, one's chalk and one's cheese. And I'm afraid that all that positive thing was there with Whitlam. Whitlam would encourage you to do it. Whitlam encouraged me to acquire the Glebe Estate. On the other issue, I'll give you a simple explanation. When I became Minister for Administrative Services, for instance, there was a development, a port development, to be done in Port Melbourne, and there was only one street left of residentials we'd called Swallow Street. And I had some Commonwealth land I refused to transfer it to the state unless they gave consideration to the residents of Swallow Street. Do you know that Hawke said to me, you know, we can't interfere. We can't interfere in the state affairs in such and such a way.
That was his electorate?
No it wasn't his electorate, it was his mate Clyde Holding's electorate, but he just said we couldn't interfere, 'We'll have to take it before Cabinet.' So I said to him, 'Well, Bob, do you want to do that?' So anyway, what I was able to do, was I was able to see the State Minister for Planning, it was Evan Walker, and his head of his department was my old friend David Yencken so if I couldn't kill a cat one way, I killed it another. So ultimately, there was a plan came out and the residents of Swallow Street were all to stay the same. Now the thing is that the economics of it, the site, we've never gone ahead with it. Swallow Street people are still surviving, the port development hasn't occurred, but I'm talking about the philosophical position. I mean Hawke, even on the question of -- for instance, when he transferred the Department of Admin Services to me and the Commonwealth properties, I'd been involved in the original opening up negotiations of the Sydney Harbour National Park (of the transferring of the Commonwealth land to the State) and 20 years later, the land has still not been transferred. What he does, because he's got a link with two mates of his, Beazley and John Brown, he gives me the administration power of Admin Services, but doesn't allow me to do the negotiation for Jervis Bay and the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Lands. Well, of course I negotiated and wrote a lot of letters to him saying that look this is the wrong thing and ...
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