When I first moved to our street, Tom knocked on the door to welcome us. I had no idea that he was a well known politician who had spent many years in politics. Until today I hadn’t really understood what a remarkable man he was – he was, to us, simply a friendly neighbour and step father of Lara’s friend, Ruby. Today I learnt that he was so much more than that! I was privileged to attend his Memorial Service and be among the great and good (and not so good!) in Australian politics, there were three former Prime Ministers amongst us, as well as the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten and his deputy – Tanya Plibersek and I leave you with her words and suggest that we should keep his legacy alive by helping those more in need than ourselves and by being of service to the community. Vale Tom Uren.
Tom Uren: a champion of Labor and the Left
Former Whitlam minister Tom Uren has died aged 93. Here, Tanya Plibersek pays tribute to a politician who was always ready to speak out for the voiceless and the dispossessed.
Tom Uren was, to me and so many of my generation in Labor politics, our great inspiration, our elder statesman, and an unstintingly generous and loving mentor and friend.
Among the last veterans of World War II to serve in the House of Representatives, Tom’s wartime experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese left him not with bitterness, but with an unshakable conviction of the importance of mutual support and collective action – of the strong helping the weak, of the well helping the ill, of those who could bear a heavier burden willingly shouldering that load in the interests of all.
It left him with a deep dedication to the cause of peace and, having witnessed the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, an abiding aversion to nuclear weapons. He was the first Labor MP to question Australia’s support for US intervention in Vietnam, in August 1962, and he was a regular and stalwart presence at marches and demonstrations, jailed more than once. He also never ceased to work in the interests of his fellow veterans – from all wars. One of his proudest moments was just recently when, after a long campaign for a payment to surviving prisoners of war, he received a visit at his home from prime minister Julia Gillard to tell him the payment would go ahead.
His wartime experiences left him, too, with a great faith in the power of love versus hate. He had seen the worst of what human beings can do to one another, and his response was to seek the best: to strive, with rigour and determination, to transcend enmity and fear, to replace them with compassion and with empathy.
He would always emphasise to those of us to whom he so willingly gave his time, his wisdom, and his experience that there is no profit in hate, either in personal relationships or in politics.
Loving as he was, he could still be tough: tough in the pursuit of fairness, justice, and peace. And if you disappointed him, or he disagreed with you, he let you know. And yet, as much as we all hated to disappoint him, we never feared to disagree. For such physically imposing man, he was never intimidating. He was tall, tough, a former boxer, yet he took pride in being a gentle man.
He was tough, too, in his battles to protect the Sydney Harbour foreshore for public use and to restore and invigorate the working-class neighbourhoods of inner-Sydney
As Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam Government and beyond, his passionate commitment to our urban environment has left an enduring legacy, in both the preservation of our heritage through such steps as the establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission, the conservation of the Sydney Harbour foreshore, and through his vision for the restoration and invigoration of old working class inner-city areas. I am particularly aware, as Sydney’s representative in our Federal Parliament, of just how much we owe Tom.
The face of our city, and the survival of the working class communities within the inner city areas, is down to Tom. So too is the access all residents and all visitors to Sydney can enjoy to our beautiful harbour. His great vision was that the harbour foreshore should be open to everyone, not the preserve of the rich – that anyone could walk from headland to headland. He worked tirelessly in great battles and in small to make that true.
He strove, too, to make sure that all of us, no matter where we live, have access to the beauty and the enjoyment of open space and parks, through, for example, his position on the board of Parramatta Park Trust.
He lived a long and rich and full life, but the legacy he left Sydney will last forever.
He was one of Labor’s, the Left’s, and Sydney’s great champions, never hesitating to state his beliefs, always ready to speak out for the voiceless, for the dispossessed, for those in need. Born in working-class Balmain, Tom lived through the grinding poverty and struggle of the Depression, and knew first-hand that the difference between prosperity and destitution is all too often simply luck. His compassion towards those grappling with adversity never dimmed, no matter his personal success.
Long after his retirement, he remained an active and committed member of the ALP. There was Tom, well into his nineties, campaigning for Labor at local government, state or federal elections. Loyal, but never unquestioning: he never held back from letting us all know when he thought we’d made a wrong decision or taken a wrong path.
Tom would often quote to us Martin Luther King’s words that “Hate distorts the personality and scars the soul. It is more injurious to the hater than the hated.”
The privations of war, and eventually the effects of age, left their marks upon his body. But despite all that he had endured, Tom’s beautiful soul was unscarred. Unstintingly loving, fierce and gentle, we will miss him.
Tanya Plibersek is the Federal Member for Sydney and Deputy Leader of the Opposition.