Arthur Calwell

Arthur Calwell

Arthur Augustus Calwell (28 August 1896 - 8 July 1973) Australian politician, was Leader of the Australian Labor Party from 1960 to 1967. He was born in Melbourne. His father was a police officer of Irish descent, and both father and son were active in Melbourne's Irish community (including membership of the Celtic Club). His mother was of Irish-American descent. A gifted high school student, Calwell was a devout Roman Catholic and joined the Australian Labor Party in his youth. Lacking the resources to pursue a university education, Calwell became a clerk in the Victorian Public Service, in which he worked for the Department of Agriculture and the State Treasury.

Political career

Active and energetic in the Labor Party, Calwell was elected President of the Victorian Labor Party in 1931. He was elected to the Australian House of Representatives for the seat of Melbourne in 1940. During World War II, Calwell served as Minister for Information in John Curtin's Labor government, and became well-known for his tough attitude towards the Australian press and his strict enforcement of wartime censorship. This earned him the enmity of large sections of the Australian Press, and he was dubbed "Cocky" Calwell by his political foes, cartoonists of the period depicting him as an obstinate Australian cockatoo.

In 1945, Calwell became Minister for Immigration in Ben Chifley's post-war Labor government. Thus, he was the chief architect of Australia's post-war immigration scheme at a time when many European refugees desired a better life far from their war-torn homelands, and he became famous for his relentless promotion of it. Calwell's adovocacy of the program was crucial because of his links to the trade union movement, and his skillful presentation of the need for immigration. Calwell overcame resistance to mass immigration by promoting it under the slogan "populate or perish". This due attention to the need, particularly in light of the recent war in the Pacific, to increase Australia's industrial and military capabilities through a massive increase in the population. In July 1947 he signed an agreement with the United Nations Refugee Organisation to accept displaced persons from European countries ravaged by war.

Despite his far-sighted immigration policies, Calwell was a staunch advocate of the White Australia Policy: while Europeans were welcomed to Australia, Calwell was deporting many Malayan, Indochinese and Chinese wartime refugees, some of whom had married Australian citizens and started families in Australia. Calwell's enthusiasm and drive in launching the migration program was a notable feature of the second term of the Chifley government, and has been named by many historians as his greatest achievement (especially given the labour movement's hostility to earlier migration programs).


Calwell left office in 1949 when the Chifley government was defeated by the Liberal Party, led by Robert Menzies. The following period in opposition was one of great frustration. Like many Labor parliamentarians and union officials at the time, Calwell was a Roman Catholic. The Australian Catholic Church was in this period fiercely anti-communist and had in the 1940s encouraged Catholic trade unionists to oppose communists within their trade unions. The organisations that co-ordinated Catholic efforts were called Industrial Groups. Calwell had originally supported the Industrial Groups in Victoria and continued to do so until the early 1950s. After Chifley's death in 1951 Dr H. V. Evatt became the Labor leader, and Calwell became his Deputy. Under Evatt, Labor's attitude towards the Industrial Groups began to change as Evatt suspected that one of their aims was to promote the Catholic element within the Labor Party. Calwell's friendship with many of the leaders of the Industrial Groups (known collectively as "Groupers"), led Evatt to privately question his loyalty. The two men thus had an increasingly difficult working relationship. This culminated in Evatt drafting, and delivering, the Labor Platform for the 1954 federal election without consulting with Calwell. Labor was narrowly defeated at the polls and this deepened the rift between the two men.

Evatt's subsequent public attack on the "Groupers" and his insistence on their expulsion from the party placed Calwell in a difficult position. He was made to choose between the Evatt-led official Labor Party and the "Groupers" (who were mainly Catholic and Victorian). During a specially convened Labor Conference in Hobart in May 1955 the "Groupers" were expelled from the Labor Party and Calwell chose to stay within the party. Calwell's loyalty to the party was to cause him much personal and political anguish: he lost many of its oldest friends at this time, including the Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix, and was for a time denied communion at his parish church. Ironically this loyalty to the party did not prevent him from being deeply distrusted by the left-wing of the ALP, especially in his home state of Victoria, and for many years he had a stormy relationship with the state Labor Party.

Labor Leadership

Evatt retired in 1960, and Calwell succeeded him as Leader, with Gough Whitlam as his deputy. Calwell very nearly defeated Menzies at the 1961 federal election, due to widespread discontent at Menzies's deflationary economic policies and the unprecedented (and temporary) endorsement of the Sydney Morning Herald. The Coalition won 62 seats while Labor won 60.

After this, however, Menzies was able to exploit divisions in the ALP over foreign policy and state aid for Catholic schools to recover his position. Calwell opposed the use of Australian troops in Malaya and opposed the establishment of American military communications bases in Australia. He also upheld the traditional Labor policy of denying state aid to private schools. At the 1963 election Menzies gained ten seats from Labor. Many thought that Calwell should retire, but he was determined to stay and fight.

Calwell made his strongest stand with his vehement opposition to Australia's military involvement in the Vietnam War, and the introduction of conscription to provide troops for the war, publicly saying that "a vote for Menzies was a blood vote". Unfortunately for Calwell, the war was initially very popular in Australia, and continued to be so after Menzies retired in 1966. The Labor Party suffered a crushing defeat in the 1966 election, which Menzies' successor Harold Holt fought on the Vietnam War issue.

Calwell resigned as Labor leader in January 1967; it was clear by this time that his awkward, old-fashioned image was no match for that of his charismatic and ambitious young Deputy Leader, the urbane, university-educated Gough Whitlam. In particular, Whitlam's clear mastery of the media gave him a huge advantage over the staid Calwell, who (as an old-fashioned stump orator whose career was forged in the days of the raucous public meeting) had always come across badly on television compared with the smooth and reassuring Menzies.


Calwell retired from Parliament in 1972, by which time he was the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, having served as an MP for 32 years. He was succeeded by Whitlam, whom he cordially disliked and of whom he was frequently critical, especially since he knew that Whitlam intended abandoning the White Australia Policy.

Outside of the political arena, Calwell was a devotee of the North Melbourne Australian rules football team - he was the first life member of the club. He was always devoted to the Roman Catholic Church despite his many conflicts with Church leaders. He was awarded a papal knighthood (Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great and the Grand Silver Star [Gavin Souter, "Acts of Parliament", 1988, p. 456] ) for his life-long service to the Church.

Attempted Assassination

Calwell is also notable for being only the second victim of an attempted political assassination in Australia (the first being Prince Alfred in 1868). On 21 June 1966, Calwell addressed an anti-conscription rally at Mosman Town Hall in Sydney. As he was leaving the meeting, and just as his car was about to drive off, a 19-year-old student named Peter Kocan approached the passenger side of the vehicle and fired a sawn-off rifle at Calwell at point-blank range. Fortunately for Calwell, the closed window deflected the bullet, which lodged harmlessly in his coat lapel, and he sustained only minor facial injuries from broken glass. Calwell later visited Kocan in the mental hospital (where he was confined for ten years), and through a regular correspondence encouraged his eventual rehabilitation.

Calwell died in July 1973. He was given a state funeral at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth and his daughter Mary Elizabeth, who continues to jealously protect his reputation.

Despite Calwell's poor relations with the conservative press in Australia and his public battles with conservative Catholics like Archbishop Mannix and B. A. Santamaria, he maintained a cordial and even friendly relationship with Sir Robert Menzies. According to Allen Martin, Menzies' biographer, Menzies attended Calwell's funeral, but after arriving at the cathedral he was so overwhelmed by emotion that he was unable to compose himself and leave his car.

Calwell today is regarded unfavourably by many for his defence of the White Australia Policy, but his courage in opposing the Vietnam War is remembered with admiration in the Labor Party.

Calwell and racism

Calwell's remark in Parliament in 1947 that "Two Wongs don't make a White" is widely quoted. The remark was intended as a joke, being a reference to a Chinese resident called Wong who was wrongly threatened with deportation, and a Liberal MP, Sir Thomas White.

Calwell later wrote: "It is important to me, at least, to set about the facts about [this] remark, which have been misrepresented so often it has become tiresome... I said, among other things, that an error may have been made in the case of two men named Wong. I then said, and I quote from "Hansard", 'There are many Wongs in the Chinese community, but I have to say - and I am sure that the Honourable Member for Balaclava [Thomas White] will not mind me doing so - that "two Wongs do not make a White".' It was a jocose remark, made partly at the expense of the member for Balaclava... Hon T.W. White. I expected that I would have been correctly reported, as I was in "Hansard", and that the initial letter 'W' on both the names 'Wong' and 'White' would have been written in capitals. But [later] the name of White was deliberately altered into a definition of colour, so as to read 'two Wongs don't make a white.' ... There was never any intention in my mind to raise any question of colour." [Arthur Calwell, "Be Just and Fear Not", 109.

In fact Calwell did not refer in Parliament to two men called Wong. The full quotation is: "The [deportation] policy which I have just mentioned relates to evacuees who came to Australia during the war. This Chinese is said to have been here for twenty years, and obviously, therefore, is not a wartime evacuee. Speaking generally, I think there is some claim for him to be regarded as a resident of Australia, and I have no doubt his certificate can be extended frm time to time as it has been extended in the past. An error may have been made in his case. The gentleman's name is Wong. There are many Wongs in the Chinese community, but I have to say - and I am sure that the Honourable Member for Balaclava will not mind me doing so - that "two Wongs do not make a White"." ("Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates", 2 December 1947)]

In his 1978 biography of Calwell, Colm Kiernan wrote: "Was Calwell a racist? All Australians who upheld the White Australia policy were racist in the sense that they upheld a policy which discriminated against coloured migrants... Calwell never denied the discriminatory reality of the laws: 'It is true that a measure of discrimination on racial grounds is exercised in the administration of our immigration policy.' But he did not consider himself to be superior to any Asian." [Colm Kiernan, "Calwell", 132.] Calwell also said in Parliament: "I have no racial animosity." [Kiernan, 133. Kiernan's reference for this is "Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates", 6 October 1948.] . Kiernan further says: "Calwell had many friends among the Chinese community in Melbourne. This would have been impossible if he had been prejudiced against them. Anthony Wang, the first Chinese councillor of the City of Melbourne, has acknowledged Calwell's support and friendship. He liked the Chinese people so much that he learnt Mandarin in which language he could converse." [Kiernan, "Calwell", 135. Kiernan's references for Wang's comment is "telephone converstion with the author, 18 February 1976." There was in fact no Melbourne City Councillor called Anthony Wang. Presumably Kiernan is refering to David Wang, a leading Chinese-Australian businessman and City Councillor from 1969 to 1978.]

Kiernan is correct to observe that until the 1950s virtually all Australians supported the White Australian policy, that Calwell's views were entirely within the political mainstream at that time, and Calwell believed himself to be free of personal prejudice against people of other races. This is reflected by Calwell's comments in his 1972 memoirs, "Be Just and Fear Not", in which he made it clear that he maintained his view that non-European people should not be allowed to settle in Australia. He wrote: "I am proud of my white skin, just as a Chinese is proud of his yellow skin, a Japanese of his brown skin, and the Indians of their various hues from black to coffee-coloured. Anybody who is not proud of his race is not a man at all. And any man who tries to stigmatize the Australian community as racist because they want to preserve this country for the white race is doing our nation great harm... I reject, in conscience, the idea that Australia should or ever can become a multi-racial society and survive." [Calwell, "Be Just and Fear Not", 117]

Calwell's attitude to Indigenous Australians should also be considered. In his memoirs he wrote. "If any people are homeless in Australia today, it is the Aboriginals, They are the only non-European descended people to whom we owe any debt. Some day, I hope, we will do justice to them." [Calwell, "Be Just and Fear Not", 116]

Further reading

*Arthur Calwell, "Labor's Role In Modern Society" (1963)
*Arthur Calwell, "Be Just And Fear Not" (1972)
*Colm Kiernan, "Calwell" (1978)
*Arthur Calwell, "I Stand by a White Australia" (1949)


NAME = Calwell, Arthur
SHORT DESCRIPTION = Australian politician
DATE OF BIRTH = 28 August 1896
PLACE OF BIRTH = West Melbourne, Victoria, Victoria, Australia
DATE OF DEATH = 8 July 1973
PLACE OF DEATH = East Melbourne, Victoria, Victoria, Australia

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