Tom Uren

Tom Uren 

10 February 2015

It is a pleasure to follow the Father of the House in speaking on this motion. One of the most brutal tests of national identity was described by Gavan Daws in his study of prisoners of war. Looking at men who had been starved and beaten down to what he called 'barely functioning skeletons' weighing less than 40 kilograms and surviving on less than 1,000 calories a day, Daws imagined that perhaps the national characteristics would all disappear, but it was not so, he found. He wrote:

The Americans were the great individualists of the camps, the capitalists, the cowboys, the gangsters. The British hung on to their class structure like bulldogs, for grim death. The Australians kept trying to construct little male-bonded welfare states … Within little tribes of Australian enlisted men, rice went back and forth all the time, but this was not trading in commodities futures, it was sharing, it was Australian tribalism.

In his first speech in this place, Tom Uren spoke about his experience as a prisoner of war under Edward 'Weary' Dunlop. He said that the Japanese paid their officers and medical orderlies an allowance, but the non-commissioned officers and men who worked on the railway were paid a smaller wage. In the Australian camp, the officers and the medical orderlies paid the greater proportion of their allowance into a central fund, and the men who worked did likewise. As Tom Uren said:

We were living by the principle of the fit looking after the sick, the young looking after the old, the rich looking after the poor.

And he contrasted it with what happened when a British force arrived:

The officers selected the best—


the noncommissioned officers the next best, and the men got the dregs.

Soon after the British arrived, 'the wet season set in, bringing cholera and dysentery'. Six weeks later, only 25 of the 400 British who had marched in were alive. As Tom Uren put it, only a creek separated the two camps, but on one side the law of the jungle prevailed, and on the other the principles of collective sharing. Egalitarianism is a powerful force in Australian national identity. Anyone who has read Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North will recognise not just the quality of the writing but the ability to tap the national character.

But sharing and looking after the most vulnerable are not just Labor values—they are Australian values. Tom Uren pursued them vigorously and with a wonderful sense of humour. I think my favourite point in his maiden speech is not so much the 'Weary' Dunlop sharing story but a little sideline where he says: 'I lived in Asia for quite a long time'—not going on to labour the point that under much of that period he was a guest of his Japanese captors.

Tom Uren did not harbour bitterness. He managed to speak so happily about love and about peace. He phoned me completely out of the blue last year to talk about egalitarianism and about what Labor was doing. I asked him how he felt about his time as a boxer and having been close to the pinnacle of Australian boxing. He said he always felt a bit funny about it, as though it did not quite fit with the rest of who he was. His principles had been to stand up for the most vulnerable, and boxing did not encapsulate that.

His was a big life lived large on the Australian stage. He was involved in conversations over whether Australians should be involved in the Vietnam War and, more than just conversations, he charged a constable who he said had assaulted him in an anti-war demonstration in 1970. He was vital in building the role of cities in Australia, speaking about the protection of the environment and in recognising the vital role of looking after the most vulnerable. And he always carried a great sense of who he was—a sense of self.

Bruce Childs told me the other day that Tom Uren would often come along and join them at Labor Party meetings that were held in Sydney pubs. He said that Tom did not drink much, but he felt he needed to consume something—so he frequently turned up with an ice cream in his hand. Bruce Childs said it was quite a spectacle to see a tough Sydney pub, everyone with a schooner in their hands, and in the corner a tall, ex-boxer, ex-minister was licking on a little ice cream.

Tom Uren is a part of the great Labor story which recognises that our purpose is the purpose of the Australian story—because Australian history is, in so many fundamentals, Labor history. Whether it was bringing our troops back to defend the homeland in World War II or the establishment of Medicare and universal superannuation, Tom Uren was there at so many points in our history.

He did not practice bitterness. He recognised that hate hurts the hater more than the hated. He taught so many of us about the Labor story. In 1994, when I was just a whippersnapper doing my honours thesis on trade liberalisation in the Labor Party, he had just put out his autobiography, Straight Left. But he was happy to invite me over to his home to talk about Labor history, about his achievements and about how he saw the role of Labor in the world.

He was an instinctive internationalist, not just because of those days spent in Asia, but because he knew deep in his bones that if being a social democrat means anything it is to engage with the world and to recognise the challenges of the vulnerable around the world are not someone else's problem—they are our challenge too. Tom Uren believed in foreign aid. He believed in Australia engaging in the councils of the world. He did not see us as a little nation that had to resile from speaking our values, but as a proud, bold nation that could step up on the world stage and speak out on behalf of the vulnerable wherever they were.

He lived a great life. I think of his life as similar to that of my maternal grandfather, Roly Stebbins, who was born just a year after Tom. That generation, born in the early 1920s, saw a transformation of Australia from a country where horses plied the streets to a nation of the internet. We owe them so much. They were a generation forged through the Depression and World War II and came back not crushed but bigger in spirit and wanting to generate a better Australia. My condolences go to Tom Uren's family, and I pay tribute to a truly great Australian.

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.
  • Andrew Leigh
    published this page in What's New 2015-02-12 15:31:45 +1100

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.