Philosophy for a Civil Society

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by Neil Godfrey

In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick.Tom Uren
Tom Uren

‘Humanity which we love so much—I know many of you are fearful of using that word “love”—but our struggle is a commitment of love of our fellow humans. It inspired our people in their early struggle against oppression and exploitation’.

I am proud that your organisation has similar ideals. Peter Jennings said to me in his letter:

‘We are the overseas aid arm of the Australian Trade Union Movement. With the support of Australian unions and many individual union members we assist vocational skills training of men and women workers in developing countries as well as strengthening their trade union so that any job they get will be a decent job—paying just wages with reasonable conditions and safety standards’.

So I am here in solidarity with all those ideals.

I was elected to the federal parliament by the Australian people 49 years ago. I have always tried to meet the ideals that Peter set out in his letter. I have written two books on my life – Straight Left, published in 1994/1995 and gone into four prints, and more recently I co-authored a book, The Fight: a portrait of a Labor man who never grew up, with Martin Flanagan, whose father served with me on the Burma/Thai Railway during the war. Excuse me for talking about the evolutionary development of my life, but my war experience had a great influence on me.

On the Thailand Railway by Harold Abbott. Source: National Museum Australia, Burma–Thailand Railway

There are many people and experiences that have nurtured my life. But my experience serving under Weary Dunlop has had a lifelong and lasting experience on me. We were at a place called Hintock Road Camp or, as Weary called it, Hintock “Mountain” Camp. “Weary” is a name of respect. He would tax our officers and medical orderlies and the men who went out to work would be paid a small wage.

We would contribute most of it into a central fund. Weary would then send some of our people out into the jungle to trade with the Thai and Chinese traders for food and drugs for our sick and needy. In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. We collectivised a great proportion of our income.

Just as the wet season set in a group of about 400 British camped near us for shelter. They had tents. The officers took the best tents, the NCOs the next best and the ordinary soldiers got the dregs. Within six weeks only about 50 of them marched out—the rest died of dysentery or cholera. In the mornings when we would walk out to work, their corpses would be lying in the mud as we passed them. Only a creek separated our two camps. On the one side the survival of the fittest – the law of the jungle – prevailed, and on the other side the collective spirit under Weary Dunlop. That spirit has always remained with me.

Tom Uren — cited from ChrisWhiteOnline

From the same source:

In conclusion, in September 2005 I was speaking to a group of young Japanese at Macquarie University in Sydney. During the period of dialogue, one young Japanese student asked “Mr Uren, what is your philosophy?”

I quoted the principles I lived by during my parliamentary life.”

When I returned home I set it out on paper, as follows.

Tom Uren’s Philosophy

• The strong should look after the weak.

• The young look after the not so young.

• The fit look after the sick.

• We should collectivise a substantial portion of our
income to help protect our sick, needy and our people.

• We need to seek a more tolerant world.

• We should defend human and civil rights, wherever they
are violated.

• Oppose violence, on a personal, national and
international level.

• Oppose war as a solution to international problems.

• Protect, enhance and rehabilitate our environment. If we
destroy it we are destroying a part of ourselves.

• Recognise we are inter-related to one another.
Australians should recognise we are a part of our

• Why is it that in times of crisis we need each other?

• Why in normal times can’t we be more collective?

• We should build friendship and understanding between
people and nations.

Both fascism and capitalism glorify the victory of the strong over the weak. The world’s leading capitalist nation even denies Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

And now with the covid-19 epidemic leaders are calling for the necessity for the young to leave the old behind to fare for themselves, compatible with the fascist ideology of letting the weak die off to allow room for the strong to be favoured:

Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister . . . has railed against Covid “health dictatorships”, saying the economic cost of lockdowns meant families should be allowed to consider letting elderly relatives with the coronavirus die by letting nature take its course.

He claimed it was costing the Australian government as much as $200,000 (£110,000) to give an elderly person an extra year’s life, substantially beyond what governments would usually pay for life-saving drugs.

Abbott said not enough politicians were “thinking like health economists trained to pose uncomfortable questions about the level of deaths we might have to live with”.

Wintour, Patrick. “Tony Abbott: Some Elderly Covid Patients Could Be Left to Die Naturally.” The Guardian, September 1, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/01/tony-abbott-some-elderly-covid-patients-could-be-left-to-die-naturally.

This post was prompted by a reminder of Tom Uren’s philosophy in Anthony Albanese’s Budget Reply speech a few days ago.

Tom fought in World War 2, he spent his 21st birthday as a Japanese prisoner of war on the notorious Thai-Burma Railway.

He never talked much about what he went through.

But he always said Australians survived because of a simple code:

The healthy looked after the sick, the strong looked after the weak, the young looked after the old.

Tom was known as “the conscience of Parliament“. In the interview below he explains how he put aside the bitterness he felt against the Japanese from his prisoner of war experience. He concludes with an astonishingly simple way to put climate policy above party politics.

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Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

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2 thoughts on “Philosophy for a Civil Society”

    1. Yet in the mainstream media in his day — the ABC (radio and tv), The Australian and Courier Mail newspapers, the impression I gained at the time was that he was an threat to Australian society, an extremist, a communist even. He called the atomic bombing of Japan a crime against humanity when “every respectable person” knew it was necessary “to save allied lives”, he opposed the Vietnam War, when “right thinking people” knew that his position would allow the “Reds” to sweep down and take over all of south-east Asia and even threaten Australia . . . A subversive traitor and blight on Australian politics was how many saw him at the time.

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