Tom Uren says let's invest in our future

Margaret McDonough-Glenn

From the words of Tom Uren about investment in our future

Where is the younger Australian left? While the older members of the Australian labour movement's left regularly speak out, their younger colleagues rarely contribute to the public policy and community debate. Former President of the Evatt Foundation, Patron of Defence of Sydney Harbour Foreshore, life member of the Australian Labor Party since 1993, Whitlam minister in 1972-75, Hawke minister in 1983-84, deputy leader of the opposition in 1976-77, defender of the public good and left-wing stalwart, Tom Uren, has spoken out on a number of occasions; in his lifetime he has spoken out regularly on the state of the Australia, New South Wales, Sydney, his party and its policies.1 Recently, at "Winning back the suburban heartland - Politics in the Pub", he again spoke his mind.

At "Winning back the suburban heartland", Uren recalled that many Labor voters have deserted because federal Labor "turned its back on our people and moved to the centre and upper centre voters".2 The legendary Australian left-winger said that previous federal Labor governments such as Bob Hawke's have shown "no real faith in public infrastructure investment", adopting only a "band-aid approach"; the Hawke government turned its back on the public sector, particularly with regard to infrastructure in the major cities and regions.3 According to Uren, under federal Labor, investment in public housing suffered; in 1983, when the Hawke government was first elected, 120,000 families were waiting on housing commission lists in Australia; by 1996, when Labor was defeated, there were 240,000 families on the lists.4

Tom Uren noted in particular that, apart from the Whitlam government, previous federal governments have ignored the "serious social and infrastructure problems of western Sydney".5 In his view, next to the Aboriginal issue, the problems of the western Sydney youth are the most serious in Australia.6 The former federal representative for the western Sydney suburban electorate of Reid (1958-1990) quoted unemployment figures (as at September 2001) of 11.2 per cent for the suburb of Fairfield, 9.7 per cent for Campbelltown and 8.5 per cent for Liverpool, compared to the NSW state-wide average of 5.8 per cent. Youth full-time employment figures for August 2001 showed Canterbury-Bankstown with a rate of 39.9 per cent and Fairfield-Liverpool with 43.25 per cent.7 Uren also conveyed disdain for the NSW Carr government's solution; he noted its ranting about "Law and Order" and advocating only "more prisons". "It is a public social and infrastructure investment matter not [a] law and order matter", said Tom. He told the audience the answer was public investment: investment in public education, investment in public transport, investment in public hospitals, investment in public housing, investment in public childcare and aged people's homes.8

For the western Sydney suburbs, he believes the construction of an airport should be another public investment.9 "The construction of an airport at Badgery's Creek would be a catalyst as an employment base, and would be a magnet for service industries".10 In an earlier address, "Sydney - what is our future?", this defender of the community good had further elaborated: "For Badgery's Creek to be [a] viable option, there needs to be joint action by the Australian and New South Wales governments. However, it is important that any development of the site ensures that the people of western Sydney do not suffer from aggravated air pollution and water pollution".11 In his addresses, Uren has called for the second airport to be located in the western suburbs, attracting industries, hope and job opportunities for the young and unemployed.12 Otherwise, what will be the future for Sydney? A version of a "20:80 society", as articulated by Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann in The Global Trap; with those of the eastern and inner city suburbs prospering while their fellow citizens languish in poverty without industries, employment and opportunities in the west of Sydney.13

Similarly in his "Winning back the suburban heartland" address, Tom Uren conveyed that the retaining of the Australian defence industry (ADI) site at St Mary's was another investment in the future of the Sydney western suburbs. The former Whitlam minister, who was responsible for the department urban and regional development (1972-75), told his audience: "It is an area of 1500 hectares Â… They want to build 8000 dwellings - it is 5 to 7 kilometres from the nearest rail station".15 In an address last year, Uren had also noted the comparison of the ADI site with Richmond Park in London: "It reminds me in many ways of Richmond Park Â… which is situated a similar distance from the central business area of the city of London Â… as is the ADI site from the business centre of Sydney Â… Richmond Park is a great example for visionaries to duplicate Â…". The former federal member for the western suburbs can see the potential investment for recreation that the St Mary's site holds for the local citizens. This former minister for urban and regional development who facilitated the establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission, a National Register, and the Woolloomooloo and Glebe Estate projects can clearly see that some recent governments have failed to act, costing Sydney her beauty and her citizens their space.16

Continuing his life practice of speaking out, Tom Uren last year broke ALP ranks to state his views about asylum seekers.17 In an interview on the AM program on ABC Radio National, he conveyed displeasure about Labor's leadership acquiescing to John Howard's policy.18 On the former, he said: "the policy leaders of the party should dig deeply in their souls of what we really stood for the whole of our lives. Our lives were to improve humanity as a whole, not only in our own nation but the planet as a whole". "ALP policy on asylum seekers is an utter disgrace and Â… there is enormous anger across the party about it".19 Again, these are the words of an older left-winger. Similarly, Australian trade unionist and environmentalist, Jack Mundey, spoke out recently about the asylum seeker situation: "The Left has completely lost its way, if in fact there is still 'a Left' in the ALP".20 The older and retired parliamentary members of the Australian labour movement, such as Tom Uren, Jack Mundey, Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating, are fulfilling their democratic responsibilities.21

Where are the younger persons on the left side of the political spectrum? A few younger persons from the left such as Carmen Lawrence, federal member for Fremantle, Tanya Plibersek, federal member for Sydney, and Anne Summers, prominent Australian feminist and adviser to Hawke and Keating, have bravely broken ranks to speak out.22 How have these public statements against party policy been received? Praise? Reflection and critical thinking? Those who dared to break ranks were attacked personally; their ideas were not carefully considered; their ideas were not debated nor praised.23

Intellectuals such as Edward Said, Jurgen Habermas, Russell Jacoby and many others have emphasized the importance of dissent and debate to a democracy; the importance of encouraging not stifling dissent and debate; the importance of restoring the left to the debate.24 In particular professor Jacoby in The End of Utopia called for the left to show some backbone and to move away from pragmatism. Are the public statements by Lawrence, Summers and others - a few of the younger Australian left - showing some backbone, some courage? Is this the re-emergence of the Australian left, the younger members of the left, the labour movement? Listening to this eighty-year-old stalwart, the question arises where are the younger Australian Tom Urens; where are their contributions, their responsibilities to the democratic debate?25

The Hon Tom Uren, AO, is a former President and Life Member of the Evatt Foundation. Margaret McDonough-Glenn is a transnational historiographer, feminist & knowledge worker.


1. Tom Uren, Straight Left, Random House, Sydney, 1994. Geraldine O'Brien, "Harbour park campaigners hail heroes who saved Ballast Point", Sydney Morning Herald, 20 February 2002 ("Tom Uren, another campaigner, called it a 'courageous and visionary decision', which was 'a great step forward' in preserving significant foreshores around the harbour.")

2. Tom Uren "Politics in the Pub" 1 February 2002.

3. Tom Uren, "Politics in the Pub", 1 February 2002, Unpublished manuscript, pp. 1-2.

4. Ibid, pp. 1-2.

5. Ibid, p. 3.

6. Ibid, p. 4.

7. Ibid, p. 5.

8. "Parliament of Australia: List of MPs Since 1901:Uren, Thomas (28.5.1921-) Reid 22.11.58 Retired 19.2.90 ALP".

9. Tom Uren, "Sydney - what is our future?", unpublished manuscript, p. 4.

10. "Politics in the Pub", pp. 4-6; "Sydney - what is our future?", pp. 1-6.

11. "Sydney - what is our future?", p. 5.

12. Ibid, p. 6.

13. Hans-Peter Martin & Harald Schumann, "The 20:80 society. World rulers en route to a different civilisation", in The Global Trap: Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1997, pp. 2-11.

14. "Politics in the Pub", pp. 7-8.

15. Tom Uren, "Speech by Tom Uren 1st April, 2001 at the ADI Site, Dame Joan Sutherland Centre, Penrith", unpublished manuscript, p. 4.

16. Sydney - what is our future?", pp. 2-3. "Our Government at all levels has failed Sydney's visionary potential. An abundance of urban planning errors were made in the 1980's and in some cases are still occurring in the 1990's. Disasters of the 1980's were the Entertainment Centre, the Monorail, the Sydney Harbour Tunnel, and Parramatta Stadium, to mention a few." Straight Left, pp. 273-4; 276-279; 258 "'DURD' was to be a major department of state, virtually co-equal with Treasury, dealing with the urban budget and co-ordinating departments with urban responsibilities."

17. Straight Left, p. 82. "During my long service as a federal MP there have been many occasions when I have refused to accept a decision carried at a New South Wales State Conference. The Vietnam War, uranium policy and the building of a sports stadium in Parramatta Park have all been issues where I have refused to accept the conservative and sometimes reactionary stance of the New South Wales Labor Party. I survived as a federal MP because of the strength of my grassroots support in the branches, but I remained in conflict with the New South Wales executive of the ALP the whole of my political life."

18. "ALP Blood Letting", AM, ABC Radio National, Monday, 12 November 2001. "Howard Sees Aid as Key to Asylum Seeker Solution", The World Today, ABC Radio National, Monday, 12 November 2001.

19. "ALP Blood Letting"

20. Letter from Jack Mundey, Croydon Park, 7 February 2002, Opinion - Weekend Edition, Sydney Morning Herald, 9-10 February 2002.

21. E.G. Whitlam, "Speech for the 2001 Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop Asia Medal", University of Melbourne, 6 February 2002: "We should seek to extend the concept of contractual obligations across the range of international affairs. In this age of globalisation the most secure, consistent and constructive principle for individual States and the community of nations is to honour contracts, adhere to international conventions and uphold covenants. Without this principle and its active pursuit, our professions about free trade, human rights and self-determination wither in a welter of moral confusion, self-serving selectivity and hypocrisy Â… If subsequent Australian Governments had worked in our region to achieve a wider membership, implementation and modernisation of the instruments on refugees and if the major Australian parties had promoted within Australia a proper understanding of our covenanted obligations, we would not be trapped in our present untenable, costly and brutal arrangements". Geraldine O'Brien, "Harbour park campaigners hail heroes who saved Ballast Point" ("The former prime minister, Paul Keating, who had lobbied the state government for the site to be preserved, called the move 'the most significant public decision for Sydney Harbour since Lang government acquired Balls Head in the 1920s'.").

22. Carmen Lawrence, "A plea from a mother for a little compassion", Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 2002. Geoffrey Barker, "The issue that could split Labor", Australian Financial Review, 2 February 2002. "Only on Friday, former Labor frontbencher Duncan Kerr entered the debate, telling the ABC that Labor had to get out and build new positions on all the 'hot-button issues'. 'We got dragged down a very wrong path through a period of almost Australian McCarthyism by a Government that is cynically manipulating Australian community opinion', he said." Anne Summers, "Turning away the Whitlamite generation", Sydney Morning Herald, 28 January 2002. Duncan Kerr, "A better Australian approach to asylum seekers", 31 January 2002, unpublished manuscript, pp. 1-12. Mike Seccombe, "A time without distractions", Sydney Morning Herald (Spectrum), 16 February 2002. "Uh, oh. Kerr is preparing to do what all political parties claim to encourage, but secretly fear: start saying what he thinks is right, rather than politic." "Media Release - Tanya Plibersek Â… Villawood Awards Ceremony: MP presents human rights award to asylum seeker", 8 February 2002.

23. Dennis Atkins, "Finding third way", Courier Mail. "Western Sydney MP Mark Latham joked that Summers should be sent a bill for all of the taxpayers' money she had taken over the years in jobs she held. 'She's not representative of the real Whitlam generation', he scoffed. Â… Like former Liverpool deputy mayor Alex Sanchez, Latham feels Labor would be better off without people like Summers."

24. Edward Said, "The sound and the Fuhrer", Sydney Morning Herald, (Spectrum) 24 November 2001: "Nothing historical is frozen in time; nothing in history is immune to change, beyond reason, understanding, analysis and influence. Politicians can say all the nonsense they wish and do what they want, and so can professional demagogues. But for intellectuals, artists and free citizens, there must always be room for dissent, for alternative views, for ways to challenge the tyranny of the majority and, most important, to advance human enlightenment and liberty." Edward W. Said, Representations of the Intellectual - The 1993 Reith Lectures, Vintage, London, 1994, pp. 52-53; Jurgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other - Studies in Political Theory MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass) 1998; Russell Jacoby, The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy, Basic Books, New York, 1999.

25. Is John Warhurst correct in his suggestion this is another split reminiscent of the 1940s-1960s within Australian Labor ranks? John Warhurst, "A Crucial 12 months lies ahead for Labor", Canberra Times, 8 February 2002 ( "There are striking similarities between the border-control issue and the communism issue that dominated Australian politics during the Cold War from the 1940s to the 1960s. This is a political scientist's judgment, putting aside for a moment the rights and wrongs of the issue itself.").

26. Straight Left, p. 108. The concluding words from Tom Uren's maiden speech are worth considering; as he recalled in his autobiography: "I concluded my maiden speech with a quote from Ben Chifley's Things Worth Fighting For: 'The labour movement was created by the pioneers, and its objectives have been preached by labour disciplines Â… to make decisions for the best for all people. If from time to time the policy is not favoured by the majority of the people, there is no reason why things we fight for should be put aside to curry favour with any section of the people. I believe what we are fighting for is right and just. We must continue and justice will prevail.'"

Suggested citation
McDonough-Glenn, Margaret, 'Tom Uren says let's invest in our future', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 2, March 2002.<>