This week I was saddened to hear of the passing of Tom Uren AC. Tom Uren was a Parliamentarian for 31 years, Minister in the Whitlam and Hawke Governments, former prisoner of war and lifelong advocate for peace, human rights and the urban and natural environment.
Tom Uren's values and politics were shaped by the Great Depression and World War II. His father, a former jockey and jack of all trades was often unemployed, his mother pawned household goods to pay the rent, and Tom's primary school years were spent barefoot. He left school at age 13, taking whatever work he could find.
In May 1939, he joined the Australian Army, three months before Australia declared war on Germany. While serving in Timor, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942. His 21st birthday and the following three were spent as a prisoner of war, forced to work on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway and later as forced labour in Japan. He subsequently to take up a management traineeship with Woolworths, which brought him to Merrylands in Sydney's western suburbs. He resigned to run his own shop and to devote time to pursuing a political career.
Tom Uren was elected to the Commonwealth Parliament in November 1958. Although he served less than three years as Minister for Urban and Regional Development, his achievements were significant. These achievements stemmed from his success in gaining Cabinet's support for his Department's programs, often against Treasury resistance. This included obtaining funds to purchase the Glebe estate and areas of Woolloomooloo, protecting them from being destroyed by rapacious overdevelopment; providing sewerage to outer urban areas of our cities; introducing grant programs to support local government initiatives; develop growth centres in western Sydney, Albury-Wodonga and other areas and help improve transport, including Canberra's first cycle path.
Tom Uren's personal passion was protecting the National Estate, which he described as encompassing things "created by people and nature that were unique and beautiful for future generations." As Minister he initiated an inquiry into the National Estate, which led to the establishment of the Australian Heritage Commission and the creation of a National Register, "comprising those elements of the built and natural environments which were most worthy of preservation". Funds were allocated to buying and restoring buildings, acquiring open space and Aboriginal sites, particularly those facing immediate threats. Around half the funds were distributed through state governments, local government and non-government organisations such as the National Trust.
In retirement, he continued to campaign for peace and the environment and became a strong advocate on behalf of former POWs. He remained involved in Labor politics, campaigned to protect Sydney Harbour foreshores, opposed Australia's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and strongly advocated for former prisoners of war.
Tom Uren summed up his approach to life and public service in a 1993 Australia Day speech, recalled in his memoir, Straight Left:
In my years of living, giving and serving our human family is the most rewarding achievement. When you walk down the street, the beauty of people's eyes and faces give you so many rewards. Packer can never buy it, with all his millions.
Vale Tom Uren, a great Australian.