In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. — 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.
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.
I’ve been bringing myself up to date with the way the world has been changing these past few and more decades, beginning with the 1960s. I am constantly reminded of two quotes, one I heard by Sting quite a few years ago, and another more recently from my mother.
Sting was talking about his boyhood and how everyone listened to the same radio programs, the range of entertainment and recreation and things were more limited but that meant you shared a lot more with everyone in society. He said he thought it was better then. I asked myself if that was just a typical opinion of anyone looking back and thinking things were better in the old days, but I did have to wonder if he was also right.
My aged mother was reflecting on the years of the Second World War and those following, and saying how she remembered society as being less divided than it is today. Obviously, I thought, during total war a nation is going to pull together. And certainly there were serious conflicts afterwards as different sections found their new places with respect to each other afterwards. But I also remember learning at school or soon afterwards how Australia was one of the most egalitarian countries in the world with one of the narrowest gaps between rich and poor. And in the late 60s and 70s there was certainly more hope despite our youthful naivety about what it would take to bring about real change. Perhaps since then we have lost that naivety and come to understand how power works and cannot be so easily changed.
But surely it is true that there is less optimism and less social cohesion today in Australia, and I can only imagine as an outsider from what I hear in the news about America what the divisions are like in the U.S.
One of the truisms Karl Marx pointed out (oh how I must be showing my ancient past to be citing Marx today!) was how the capitalist system produced workers who were alienated from their jobs. Today I notice that businesses and institutions seem to try to make up for that loss by artificially creating communities and personal meaning through human relations programs to offer workers some sort of personal group identity and meaning in their work places. But the alienation, I think, has meanwhile been extended beyond the workplace to the consumer society as a whole. Targeted products, especially via the new technologies, have enabled services and products tailored for ever more fragmented groups.
We’ve come a long way from the days when I could go to school and talk about the latest black and white Batman short that was showing at the local cinema and expect others to know what I was talking about.
I don’t think such changes are the imagined product of wishful nostalgia, either.