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Condolence statement: Tom Uren

Speeches in Parliament
Christine Milne 9 Feb 2015

The Australian Greens Leader, Senator Christine Milne, the enormous gratitude the Australian Greens feel for the life and contribution of Tom Uren.

Senator MILNE (Tasmania-Leader of the Australian Greens) (16:10): I rise this afternoon to express the enormous gratitude the Australian Greens feel for the life and contribution of Tom Uren, and we express our sympathy to his family, his extended family and his friends throughout Australia. When asked where he got his inspiration, Tom Uren said that 'life was his teacher'. I think you can see that from his life experience.

As has been said, he was born in Balmain, in 1921. As a nine-year-old, during the depression he witnessed his mother having to explain to a local committee why the family needed charity. That his mother would be put in that position really burnt on the memory of that young boy.

He went on serve in Timor during the Second World War and experienced the horrors of being a prisoner of war, between 1942 and 1945, alongside Weary Dunlop, involved in the Burma-Thailand railway. In 1944 he was transported to work in a copper smelting plant in Japan. There he witnessed the bombing of Nagasaki and became an anti-nuclear activist from that point. During the time in Japan he found his Japanese fellow workers comradely. He said that it was not the Japanese he hated; it was militarism. That is something he stuck to for the rest of his life. When asked what kept him alive on the Burma railway, he said it was the 'spirit of collectivism', of people working together to look after one another in the face of the atrocities they had to endure.

To his great credit he was a campaigner for East Timorese independence. It was as a result of his efforts that at the 1977 ALP national conference the party put the resolution for East Timorese self-determination. As a result of his experiences-his depression experience as a social justice advocate, as an advocate for a fair go for everyone, and his war experiences-he became a strong advocate for collective action, for the anti-nuclear cause and for East Timor. His anti-war activism led him to oppose both the Vietnam War and conscription. His was the first parliamentary voice to question US military intervention in Vietnam.

As his friend Sister Josephine Mitchell, of the Sisters of St Joseph, said of him, 'The thing that seemed to impress Tom was that when he went to Japan later in the war he got to know the Japanese people more and he realised it was not the people who were involved in this sort of action and cruelty, but it was the regime.' Tom had no bitterness and no feeling of hatred. In fact he said, 'Hate distorts the personality and scars the soul.' It is more injurious to the hater than the hated.

On his return he joined the Labor Party in 1951 and in 1957 won preselection for Reid, which, as we know, he held for 32 years, retiring in 1990. In 1959 he became the ALP spokesperson for the environment. Martin Flanagan asked him when he became an environmentalist. He said it was when he went back to Thailand and he found that the jungle had been cut down.

He built the first Department of Urban and Regional Development and helped establish the heritage conservation movement in Australia, protecting large areas of suburban Sydney from developers. The department's national estate program funded the preservation of historic buildings and the acquisition of open space. It provided the first significant funding for public transport from a federal government.

In 1972 Justice Hope was appointed chair of a committee of inquiry into the national estate. It reported in 1974, saying that:

... uncontrolled development, economic growth and 'progress' to that time had had a very detrimental effect on Australia's national estate ... and called for ... prompt action and public education to prevent further neglect and destruction.
As a result, in 1975 Tom Uren set up the Australian Heritage Commission. He set it up as an independent statutory authority. It then established the Register of the National Estate on which 13,000 places around Australia were listed.

He helped to preserve and rehabilitate parts of the Sydney landscape in his time as Minister for Urban and Regional Development in the Whitlam government and he is credited with rejuvenating certain Sydney precincts, including Glebe, Woolloomooloo, Parramatta and the Sydney Harbour foreshore. He worked tirelessly to secure heritage listings for many sites for the public to enjoy into the future.

In setting up the Heritage Commission, he recognised there needed to be an inventory of those places defined as being:

... components of the natural environment of Australia or the cultural environment of Australia, that have aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value for future generations as well as for the present community.
I really want to pay tribute to that because there are many, many places around Australia of cultural and environmental national significance that would have been destroyed had it not been for the foresight then in setting up the inquiry into the national estate and then the Australian Heritage Commission.

At the weekend I had the good fortune to meet David Yencken, who was the first chair of the Heritage Commission. He was talking about those years and what a challenge it was but also the enormous pleasure that he takes from the fact that many, many places are now saved because of the efforts of people like Tom Uren and others in the Whitlam government of the day.

When Tom Uren became deputy leader of the opposition in 1975, he used his influence to campaign for land rights for the First Australians and he also campaigned against uranium mining. After leaving parliamentary life in Canberra, he still continued campaigning for the environmental protection of Sydney Harbour and wilderness areas. He said after his retirement in 1994:

I want to help build an environmentally sensitive, beautiful and more tolerant world.
He spent much of his retirement fighting for the protection of those precious places. When asked in 1996 how he would like to be remembered, he said: 'As a person of goodwill, a giver, a fighter for peace.' I think he well and truly deserves those accolades as we remember him.

He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1993 and was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2001. In 2013 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours List. That was co-sponsored by Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Bob Brown. I think that commendation shows the level of respect that he had from right across the political system. It was for his work helping veterans and preserving sites of historic and environmental significance. I note also that he was awarded the Order of Timor-Leste medal, which is the highest accolade from the government of East Timor. Vale, Tom Uren. You made a great contribution to Australia.


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