Tom Uren's account of an era


Straight Left
By Tom Uren
Random House, 1994. 500 pp., $39.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Frank Noakes

It was the hottest Sydney October day in 100 years. In the humidity, squeezed between potted palms and the odd federal government minister, the invited crowd gathered for the launch of Straight Left, the autobiography of retired ALP left parliamentarian, Tom Uren.

The evening said much about the tall, well-preserved 73-year-old. The even taller and majestic-looking Gough Whitlam was present, closely flanked by journalists Brian Toohey and Max Walsh; Ernie Dingo bounced his toddler; the former Communist Party was represented severally; and a number of well-known environmentalists, including Jack Mundey, were there. It was standing room only.

Peter Garrett — it really was an evening of the tall poppies — in launching the book contrasted it by implication with the memoirs of Bob Hawke: "remarkably free of hyperbole and pretence, it sits in marked contrast to recent political biographies". A surprisingly nervous Garrett described Uren's account as "an adventure story, particularly when it deals with the wartime years. On other occasions it's a reflection; it's always a life story but it's also an account of an era, and it is absolutely fascinating."

Uren was a sports fanatic in his youth, never the spectator then or in later life. He played rugby league for Manly Warringah, was a strong competitive swimmer and a boxer who challenged for the Australian heavyweight championship against Billy Britt before going to war.

For young Uren it seemed the war was going to be short-lived after his 2/40 Infantry Battalion surrendered to the Japanese after a brief fight in Timor. But Uren and his comrades were destined to do the war tough — working on the infamous Burma-Thailand railway, where they were subjected to physical brutality and died by their thousands of starvation and disease.

Later, Uren was transferred to Japan, where he and his comrades were again put to work. There they were to witness a distant crimson sky following the explosion of the US atom bomb on Nagasaki.

Upon his return to Australia, he took up boxing professionally, travelling to England to box, but his health was never the same after his wartime experiences and he gave the fight game away.


From working as a builder's labourer at the Port Kembla steelworks, Uren, who left school at 13, became a manager at Woolworths, running its small store in Lithgow. There he eventually joined the ALP in 1952 as a "social do-gooder" not "what you'd call a socialist". He rapidly evolved to become "part of the progressive left for the rest of my political life". Uren was later to describe himself as a revolutionary — "probably one of the very few in the parliamentary Labor Party".

He explains, "My objective is to change society, not to reform it. I want to create a more equitable, just and democratic society. I want to help build an environmentally sensitive, beautiful and more tolerant world."

Elected the member for Reid in 1959, during his 31 years in parliament he rose to the post of cabinet minister and deputy leader of the parliamentary party before finishing his career on the back bench in 1990. During these years Uren, unlike most of his parliamentary colleagues, stood firm and spoke out in support of peace and nuclear disarmament, Cuba and Vietnam, a Palestinian homeland. He opposed the invasion and occupation of East Timor by Indonesia.

The only time that Uren contemplated resigning from the ALP, he says, was in 1963 over the party's support for the establishment of the US North West Cape communications base in Western Australia. Uren argued that the base would make Australia a nuclear target and ceded Australian territory to a foreign power. Ultimately, he decided to cop the decision on the chin.

With typical candour, Uren describes the ALP as "a sectarian party. Although it says that it represents the mass of the Australian working class, it finds it very hard to participate in the broader struggle with other political forces."

Straight Left is a play on both his political orientation and his dynamic southpaw punch. In it we a meet a man who, by turns, to quote the book's publicist, is: a battler, systematic and organised, controversial, sentimental, staunchly principled and loyal, straight talking, compassionate, dignified, a people person, short-fused, a fighter, but a gentle man, a lover and supporter of the arts and a protector of the environment.

Labor left

As leader of the left, Uren advocated dumping opposition leader Bill Hayden in favour of the electable Bob Hawke because: "If Fraser survived an election at the end of the year, which I thought he would if Hayden remained as leader, I was afraid that he and John Howard would deregulate the financial system, allow the entry of foreign banks and destabilise and weaken the union movement ... Fraser, I said, would attack and sell off such public organisations as TAA [Australian Airlines] and Qantas, the profitable aspects of Telecom and Australia Post, and even the Commonwealth Bank would come under threat."

Most of Uren's worst fears were realised — not by Fraser, but by the Hawke government. He's somewhat reticent in accepting this at times, despite his analysis, "The first two Hawke Labor governments, from March 1983 to 1987 when I retired from the ministry to the backbench, were bloody awful, lacking real compassion for the people they should have represented."

As a critic of the direction of the Hawke government he faced a dilemma as a minister: the desire to speak out and pressures to keep quiet.

"When should I rock the boat? Publicly criticise the government? Then everyone would say, 'Oh, there they are! The left ministers already rocking the boat, creating problems!' So the only time I allowed my private views to be publicly aired in the Hawke government was over uranium mining at the New South Wales state conference prior to the 1984 federal conference. Apart from that I remained quite supportive publicly of the government's decisions and expressed my criticisms within the Labor Party, although I had little respect for the policy and ideology of the government on many issues."

This prison is purpose built for the parliamentary left — for Uren in the Hawke ministry, it was solitary confinement.

The political trip from the Whitlam to the Hawke government was a long one for the ALP. Not that Uren himself overstates the Whitlam era. "Don't be misguided", he says, "the Whitlam government was not a socialist government, but it was a government of social values".

Party elite

Uren warns ALP members that the party "elite" lack faith in working people. "There is a new god among this elite — capital! And make no mistake. Until the ideology of the free market is defeated, the rank and file of our movement will continue to be on the defensive against attacks from our own leadership."

Yet, in October, Uren described Paul Keating as a "true visionary" and one who was yet to be recognised as such by the public. Another Tommy Uren contradiction.

"Leftists", he says, "shouldn't be dogmatic, but on the other hand they should not throw in their lot with the economic rationalists ... there are issues on which you have to stand firm, such as the privatisation of our major government enterprises like the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, or sending our young people to the Gulf War. [Brian] Howe's leadership of the left failed on these issues and others."

Overall, though, his assessment of the role of the left in parliament remains positive.

"The Australian [ALP] left have, during these three decades, been the leaders on many moral and international issues but they have sought to achieve government to try to enhance the conditions of the overwhelming majority of the Australian work force."

However, Uren recalls in 1974 throwing Jim Cairns' own words back at him: "It is far better to be defeated while attempting to implement Labor policies than to be defeated after surrendering them. I do not believe we can win by surrendering these or if by any chance we did win that winning would be worthwhile." Just how worthwhile the experience of Labor in government is remains a moot point within the broader left.

In Straight Left, the personal pronoun is muted, and this confirms its author's modesty. But Uren is more than the sum of his achievements in parliament, which were likewise modest. In his portfolios of Urban and Regional Development and Local Government, Uren was able to achieve advances and has every reason to be proud of them.

Tom Uren has journeyed through momentous and important events. He has met many interesting, some, almost legendary figures. He extends to us an opportunity to view them through his unique and compassionate perspective in Straight Left; it's an opportunity worth accepting.