Tom Uren, one of the great characters of Australian post-war politics, has died in a Sydney nursing home this morning, aged 93.
Uren, a Minister in both the Whitlam and Hawke Labor Governments, was also the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party from 1975-77. He was a member of the federal parliament for 32 years and, in 2013, was made a Companion of the Order of Australia for his work on behalf of former prisoners of war.
The former Guildford resident had been appointed a companion of the Order of Australia for his service to the Parramatta Park Trust and welfare of veterans.
Portrait: Portrait of Tom Uren with his Archibald Prize portrait, and the artist who painted the work, Mirra Whale. 17th July 2014. Picture: Dallas Kilponen
Uren was born in Balmain on May 25, 1921 to Tom Uren and his wife, formerly Agnes Miller. He carried Cornish and Celtic blood from his father’s family, and Jewish and English from his paternal grandmother. After the family moved to Harbord when he was five, Tom walked barefooted to the local primary school, before being made to wear shoes to Manly Intermediate High.
He left school during the Depression, because his father, a former jockey and jack-of-all trades, was out of work. Young Tom helped classify rabbit and kangaroo skins, sold newspapers and caddied on golf courses. He gave all his earnings to his mother, a former barmaid, not just because they were poor but, he said later, because he wanted to marry her.
He became a surf lifesaver, rugby league forward and learnt to box at Jack Dunleavy’s gymnasium, perhaps driven by the fact that one of his father’s cousins, Tommy Uren, was a notable boxer. He had applied to join the army in May 1939 and was accepted soon after World War II broke out in September, but took leave to fight for the Australian heavyweight title in 1940, aged 19. He had been suffering from the flu and, although he knocked Billy Britt down in the sixth round, was beaten in the seventh.
Uren went to Darwin, then to Timor in December 1941 with the 2/1 Heavy Battery. He had heard the stories of Australian courage at Gallipoli and in France in World War I, but what he saw in Timor was confusion.
As the Australian force was being over-run in February 1942, Uren volunteered to go forward in a vehicle armed with a single Bren gun to support a Tasmanian battalion, the 2/40th, which was making what has been described as the last bayonet charge in Australian military history. Witnessing the Australian advance up Oesaoe ridge under machine-gun fire marked the 20-year-old for life.
Forced to surrender, the prisoners were taken early in 1943 to Singapore, from where Uren was loaded into a railway goods truck which ended up at Konyu River camp, where the surgeon Lieutenant Colonel Edward “Weary” Dunlop was commanding officer of the men slaving to build the Burma-Thailand railway for the Japanese. Uren moved later to the Hintok camps.
One man is said to have died for every sleeper laid on the railway. Uren prayed every day, frightened that cholera would take him, as it had so many others. Yet he rejoiced in the Australian egalitarianism. He believed that the British officers cared above all for themselves, while Dunlop and other officers funded what passed for a hospital.
Uren was transported in 1944 to work in a copper smelting plant at Saganoseki, Japan, then at lead smelting works at Omuta. Finding his Japanese fellow workers comradely, he realised then that it wasn’t the Japanese he hated, but militarism. He later quoted Martin Luther King: “Hate distorts the personality and scars the soul. It is more injurious to the hater than the hated.” He never forgot the colour of the sky over Nagasaki after the atom bomb was dropped: “We didn’t hear any noise, just witnessed that vivid crimson sky.”
Afterwards he worked at the Port Kembla steelworks and met Patricia Palmer; her brother had shown him her photograph when they were prisoners. They married in 1947 and honeymooned at the Hotel Carrington, Katoomba.
She gave him a copy of the J.B. Phillips version of the Bible. The Bible stories moved him and it wasn’t until much later that he realised that his prayers were for himself and not others. Uren was 45 before he became an atheist.
Minister: Tom Uren in 1990.
He later preferred the term “non-believer”, largely in deference to the Sisters of St Joseph, the Catholic order who admired his humanity and called him an honorary Josephite.
Uren continued to box and went to England, with mixed success; his wartime malaria had left effects. He came home, worked as a labourer, then as a trainee executive at Woolworths. He decided to join the Labor Party in 1951 on the way from Lithgow, where he managed the Woolworths store, to Bathurst for the funeral of Ben Chifley, the former Labor Prime Minister.
His political views were founded on his mother’s sense of social justice, Weary Dunlop’s example of leadership and F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. He was to add Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Ho Chi Minh and Nelson Mandela to his list of influences.
Living in Guildford, he won the western Sydney seat of Reid in 1958. When he retired from Parliament in 1990, he had been father of the House for eight years.
Uren was a leading figure in the Australian anti-war movement. In 1960, he revisited Japan as part of a peace initiative. He urged in 1968 that trade with Asia be expanded: “Trade and goodwill are our frontline of defence.”
He was the first Labor MP to question support for US intervention in Vietnam, in August 1962. He was jailed in 1971 for refusing to pay a fine over a Vietnam march protest and again for protesting against Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s ban on street marches. He led a delegation to Iraq seeking to have the hostages held by Saddam Hussein released prior to the first Gulf War.
Uren was the Labor Party’s first environment spokesman in the Federal Parliament, in 1969. He believed in revolutionary change, but understood the nature of struggle and the fact that the people had to be convinced. He took to using the word “collectivist” to describe his political stance, pointing out that Hitler, Mussolini and “f—–g Stalin” had given socialism a bad name.
Although he remained on Labor’s Left, his idea of revolution was not necessarily of right or left, but a battle over the environment and human rights. He said in 1994: “I want to help build an environmentally sensitive, beautiful and more tolerant world.”
Uren sued the Fairfax and Packer news organisations in 1963 over allegations that he had links to communists which amounted to his being a traitor. The judgment in his favour for £43,000 was then an Australian defamation record. The case was finally settled on undisclosed terms in 1969. During negotiations, Uren spoke to Sir Frank more abusively than he had to anyone else. The more abuse, the more Packer seemed to like his adversary.
As Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam government, Uren bought large areas of Glebe and Woolloomooloo, rehabilitated Fremantle and parts of Hobart, helped improve urban public transport and green western Sydney. He opened Australia’s first bicycle path, in Canberra, and declared the Namagi national park in the Australian Alps. He helped stop the destruction of inner-city suburbs, cut the sewerage backlog and established the Australian Heritage Commission.
Like most Labor leaders of his time, Uren paid scant attention to the economy. He lost more economic arguments than he won in the last 25 years of the 20th century, although the global financial crisis of 2009 saw trust in free market forces evaporate.
His wife, Patricia, left him in 1974, when he was a minister. He regretted not having fought to keep her. When they parted, he gave her nearly all the money he had. She bought a farm at Dorrigo, which she ran, and painted and wove.
When she developed breast cancer she returned to him and he was with her the night before she died in 1981.
He quietly married Christine Logan, a singer in the Australian Opera, in 1992, after waiting for her at the stage door.
They lived in Balmain, with Christine’s daughter, Ruby, in a house designed by Richard Le Plastrier. The house cost so much in the end, with timber from Western Australia, that Uren lived for some years in the basement, with lodgers upstairs.
Uren was made an Officer in the Order of Australia in 1993, then a Commander in 2013. On Anzac Day 2011, near his 90th birthday, he returned to Hellfire Pass, on the Burma Thailand railway, with the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce. Then prime minister Julia Gillard announced that day that the government would meet Uren’s long campaign for a supplementary payment to Australia’s 900 surviving prisoners from World War II and the Korean war.
Tom Uren is survived by Christine and Ruby, and his adopted children, Michael and Heather.
A memorial service will be held for Tom Uren in Sydney next week
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