Brian Rope Photography

Brian Rope Photography

Words in Focus

My Nemesis

Legend, charismatic hero, champion. These are just some of the words that have been used in the media to describe The Honourable Tom Uren AC since he died on 26 January 2015. I would add another word - nemesis.

 

I met Mr Uren soon after he became Minister for Territories and Local Government in March 1983. I was Commissioner for Housing for the Australian Capital Territory at the time and he had a keen interest in housing. However, I did not spend a great deal of time in his presence thereafter; instead I dealt primarily with members of his staff when I was in direct contact with his office.

 

Initially, we did some very good things together - although one early attempt to assist the homeless and those living in overcrowded accommodation or struggling with rent hit a small hurdle when a member of the Minister’s office staff did not like the first advertisement that had been mocked up. The first significant initiative of the Minister that we implemented was a boarding-house concept of emergency housing. Uren was keen to help those who needed emergency housing and asked us to find a suitable and large building that could be used. We negotiated the purchase of a disused convent in Narrabundah and it commenced operating in August 1983 – but only after Uren got me to personally show it to the Prime Minister’s wife, Hazel Hawke, and get her blessing. The Canberra Times ran an article and photo about it on 21 August.

 

In September of the same year, the Minister announced a new housing loans package to assist moderate income earners purchase homes. We worked closely with the then two ACT Building Societies to implement the package. In October Uren opened a public seminar which informed the community of the First Home Owners Scheme and the new Commissioner for Housing Loan Scheme. About 1,000 people crammed in to hear myself and other speakers.

 

In November 1983 the Minister established a Committee of Inquiry into Homelessness in the ACT. I was seconded as a member of that Committee. We worked hard with the Minister’s office to try to implement a Community Housing Expansion Program that he was very keen to put in place. We obtained approval for mobile homes to be used as temporary extensions of family homes. Each of these things were focussed on the Minister’s desire to assist homeless people.

 

However, at the same time a problem began to develop. In March 1984 I answered a question from Graham Downie of The Canberra Times about disturbances in the then Melba Flats. My answer indicated that the Minister had approved a policy that tenants of government dwellings should not be evicted. Downie had sought to ask Uren about the policy but received no response before reporting it in the newspaper. Recognising the problem that the newspaper report would cause, someone sent me a sympathy card saying I would be missed by all my friends.

 

The following day a colleague drew my attention to an article in The Age about public servants speaking publicly. She highlighted a statement in the article, “There can be little doubt that the processes of Government would grind to a halt if all public servants were given the right to speak publicly on anything at any time. Few would argue that new freedoms should extend that far, although it is Labor Party policy. On the other hand, there would seem little justification for keeping the rule as restrictive as it is at present.”

 

Radio 2CC took an interest and submitted a series of questions regarding the “eviction policy”. It seemed that a disenchanted male member of Housing Branch staff may have encouraged the questions.

 

Graham Downie revealed that rental arrears on government dwellings had risen by almost $156,000 during twelve months and reported that the Minister had denied that he insisted on a policy of not evicting government tenants. None had been evicted since he became Minister, whereas five had been evicted the previous year. Commenting on nuisance tenants, Uren said “We have to look at the circumstances that prevail. If they are creating problems we may have to transfer them or give them a warning.” He reportedly indicated that if tenants were in arrears it would be explained to them that they might not find similar economic rental accommodation. He also said he understood that the old policy of sending people a letter threatening eviction had “frightened the hell out of them”.

 

In an Editorial on 3 April 1984, The Canberra Times said Mr Uren, “has got his priorities wrong in opting for benevolence rather than proper administration of a scarce resource” and “the figures speak for themselves, and they are eloquent against Mr Uren’s management”.

 

Rental arrears continued to rise. The Minister continued to ask me why. I continued to say it was because we had lost the effective weapon of threatening eviction. The Minister did not like hearing that answer. The pressure on me and my staff continued to increase, especially when The Canberra Times obtained documents under Freedom of Information which revealed the extent of the friction regarding the issue between the Minister’s office and the Department. Despite everything we kept on doing other good things to assist those in need of public housing, but eventually totally unrelated problems regarding the housing loans scheme provided a reason to justify moving me from my position as Commissioner.

 

On 21 September 1984, the Minister wrote to the Secretary of the Department in such terms that he really had no choice but to act by moving me. The Secretary wrote back on 24 September advising Uren that he had transferred me out of the position. A note, personally hand written by Tom Uren, came back. It said he agreed with the actions taken but “the problems of the Housing Branch should not all be transferred onto the shoulders of Brian Rope. I believe it is long overdue to examine the administration senior to Mr Rope.”

 

My removal from my position was a main news topic for some days. Radio 2CC reported Uren as saying he had nothing to do with my sacking, but also said it had reportedly been done at the express orders of the Minister. Tom Uren was quoted as saying “I’m not looking for scapegoats” and denying that I was a scapegoat. The Canberra Times cartoonist Pryor drew a cartoon depicting me as a scapegoat – but it did not make it into print. I have the original in a frame beside my study desk. I received many messages of support from friends, colleagues, politicians and the media, amongst them a photocopy of a page of the dictionary with the word “scapegoat” circled in red. The entire staff of Housing Branch signed an open letter to Mr Uren, which was intercepted by departmental management and never delivered to him.

 

So, I left the most satisfying job I had had up to then, the position that had allowed me to do many good things for the public. The matter continued to bubble along for some time. In December 1984 a new Minister took over from Tom Uren.

 

On 19 March 1985 Canberra Petty Sessions granted the Department a warrant to evict two women from a government house in Yarralumla after occupying it from August 1983, but paying no rent from October 1983. A departmental statement said it “regrets taking eviction action against its tenants, using it only as a last resort. However, in this case, eviction action was unavoidable.”

 

It was not until November 1985 that exchanges between the Minister and senior departmental officers relating to my transfer were ruled “not exempt” under the FOI Act. In a Canberra Times column published on15 December 1985, Jack Waterford summarised it all. From my perspective the most interesting thing Jack said was, “Mr Tom Uren, with long and bitter experience of seeing tenants evicted during the 1930s Depression, did not want evictions used as a way of controlling rent arrears. He told his department so. Now the truth of the matter is that his then Commissioner for Housing, Mr Brian Rope, was about as likely ever to evict as Mr Uren was. But Mr Rope believed that the threat of eviction was a tool by which tenants could be made to face their responsibilities and come to terms with the department. The big stick might be frequently waved, but it only very rarely touched the body”. Waterford was right. I didn’t want to evict anyone because to do so would have run absolutely counter to my principles of social justice, just as it did with Tom Uren’s.

 

To the descriptions of Tom Uren as legend, charismatic hero and champion, I would add nemesis. For he was my personal nemesis, the inescapable agent of my downfall as Commissioner for Housing.

 

 

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