Arthur Calwell

The Right Honourable
Arthur Calwell
Leader of the Opposition
Elections: 1961, 1963, 1966
In office
7 March 1960  8 February 1967
Prime Minister Robert Menzies
Harold Holt
Deputy Gough Whitlam
Preceded by H. V. Evatt
Succeeded by Gough Whitlam
Leader of the Labor Party
In office
7 March 1960  8 February 1967
Deputy Gough Whitlam
Preceded by H. V. Evatt
Succeeded by Gough Whitlam
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Melbourne
In office
21 September 1940  2 November 1972
Preceded by William Maloney
Succeeded by Ted Innes
Personal details
Born (1896-08-28)28 August 1896
Melbourne, Victoria
Died 8 July 1973(1973-07-08) (aged 76)
Nationality Australian
Political party Australian Labor Party
Spouse(s) Elizabeth
Occupation Unionist
Religion Roman Catholic

Arthur Augustus Calwell KCSG (28 August 1896 – 8 July 1973) was an Australian politician. He was a member of the Australian House of Representatives for 32 years from 1940 to 1972, Immigration Minister in the government of Ben Chifley from 1945 to 1949 and Leader of the Australian Labor Party from 1960 to 1967.

Early life

Arthur Calwell was born in Melbourne. His father was a police officer of Irish-American and Welsh descent, and both father and son were active in Melbourne's Irish community (including membership of the Celtic Club). His mother was of Irish descent. The young Arthur Calwell attended St Joseph's Christian Brothers College, North Melbourne after receiving a scholarship from St Mary's Primary School, West Melbourne. He was considered a gifted student and matriculated from St Joseph's in 1912.[1] A devout Roman Catholic, he joined the Australian Labor Party around 1915. Lacking the financial resources to pursue a university education, Calwell read very widely, acquired substantial skill in speaking to audiences, and became a clerk in the Victorian Public Service, in which he worked for the Department of Agriculture and the State Treasury. From 1927 to 1931 he served as President of the Victorian branch of the Australian Public Sector Association (the union representing himself and his colleagues).

Calwell's first marriage was to Margaret Mary Murphy in 1921. She died in 1922, and ten years later, on 29 August 1932, he married Elizabeth (Bessie) Marren, a strong-willed, intelligent and well-read Irishwoman who was social editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper, the Tribune. In 1933 they launched the Irish Review as the official organ of the Victorian Irish Association. Calwell had met Elizabeth at Irish language classes run by the Gaelic League in Melbourne, and retained an interest in and fluency in the language.[2][3]

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 advocacy 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 drew 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.[4]

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).

In economic policy, Calwell was not a great advocate of nationalisation. Gough Whitlam attributed this to Calwell’s brand of socialism which was “an emotion rather than an ideology, a memory of the social deprivation he observed in Melbourne during the Depression years.”[5]


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, 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 Calwell. Labor was narrowly defeated at the polls, which 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. For many years, he had a stormy relationship with the state Labor Party. He never favoured the communist philosophy and was eloquent in his attacks on communists, whom he once called, "Pathological exhibits... human scum... paranoiacs, degenerates, morons, bludgers... pack of dingoes... industrial outlaws and political lepers... ratbags. If these people went to Russia, Stalin wouldn't even use them for manure."

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, owing to widespread discontent at Menzies's deflationary economic policies, as well as the unprecedented (and temporary) endorsement of the ALP by the usually pro-Liberal Sydney Morning Herald. While Labor scored a 15-seat swing and a bare majority of the two-party vote, Democratic Labor preferences left Calwell two seats short of toppling the Coalition. Ultimately, a narrow loss in Bruce, located in the DLP's heartland of Melbourne, ended any realistic chance of a Labor win, but the Coalition was not assured of another term in government until the Brisbane-area seat of Moreton was called for the Liberals hours later. Labor actually won 62 seats, the same as the Coalition. However, two of those seats were in the Australian Capital Territory and Northern Territory, and members from the territories then did not count for purposes of forming a government.

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 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, Calwell hoped to build on his gains from two years earlier, but was severely damaged by a picture in the The Daily Telegraph that showed him and Whitlam outside a Canberra hotel, waiting for word from Labor's Federal Conference as to the policies upon which they should fight the election.

In an accompanying story, Alan Reid of the Telegraph wrote that Labor was ruled by "36 faceless men." The Liberals seized on it, issuing a leaflet accusing Calwell of taking direction from "36 unknown men, not elected to Parliament nor responsible to the people."[6] At the election, Labor suffered a 10-seat swing. 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. Labor lost nine seats while the Coalition won the largest majority government in Australian history at the time.

Calwell resigned as Labor leader in January 1967. It was clear by this time that his awkward, tactless image was no match for that of his charismatic and ambitious young Deputy Leader, the urbane, middle-class, university-educated Gough Whitlam. In particular, Whitlam's clear mastery of the media gave him a huge advantage over Calwell, who looked and sounded substantially older than his 70 years. Calwell, 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, avuncular and rich-voiced Menzies and the suave Holt. Calwell was also regarded by 1966 as an aged relic of the Great Depression in Australia, as he was still campaigning about socialism and nationalisation.

Attempted assassination

Main article: Attempted assassination of Arthur Calwell

Calwell is also notable for being only the second victim of an attempted political assassination in Australia (the first being Prince Alfred in 1868).[7] 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.[8] Calwell later visited Kocan in the mental hospital (where he was confined for ten years), and through a regular correspondence encouraged his eventual rehabilitation.


By the time Calwell's political career ended he was the Father of the House of Representatives, having served as an MP for 32 years. He was frequently critical of Whitlam, 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 Football Club and 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 received a papal knighthood from Pope Paul VI and was made a Knight Commander with Star of the Order of St Gregory the Great (KC*SG)[9] for his lifelong service to the Church.


At the 1972 election which brought Whitlam to the prime ministership, Calwell retired from Parliament. In July 1973, he died. He was given a state funeral at St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth and his daughter Mary Elizabeth.

Notwithstanding Calwell's poor relations with the conservative press in Australia and his public battles against right-wing Catholics like Archbishop Mannix and B. A. Santamaria, he maintained a cordial relationship with Menzies. Menzies, for his part, never lost his respect and outright personal liking for Calwell. He attended Calwell's funeral, but (according to his biographer Allan W. Martin) became so overwhelmed by grief after arriving at the cathedral that he was unable to compose himself and leave his car.

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 out the facts about a remark I made in the House of Representatives on December 2, 1947, which has been so often misrepresented it has become tiresome. On that day I was asked a question by Rupert Ryan, brother-in-law of Lord Casey, on the deportation of Malayan seamen, Chinese and other people who had contravened our immigration laws. I said, amongst other things, that an error may have been made in the case of two men named Wong. The Department had served a deportation notice on one of them, but it was the wrong 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 honorable Member for Balaclava will not mind 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, who was at the time the Hon T W (later Sir Thomas) 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 when the message got to Singapore, either because of some anti-Australian Asian journalist or perhaps because some Australian pressman with a chip on his shoulder, a Labor Party hater, the name of White was deliberately altered into a definition of colour, so as to read 'two Wongs don't make a white.' The story has lasted to this day. I have often answered questions about it from young Chinese students at universities in Melbourne and Sydney. I notice whenever reference is made to it in newspapers or periodicals, or whenever the quotation is used anywhere, the Singapore abomination is generally repeated. Latterly the true version is being printed. There was never any intention in my mind to raise any question of colour. I have repudiated the whole story so often that I suppose there is nothing more I can do about it. But I put the facts on record in this book.[10] 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 from 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)[11]

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."[12] Calwell also said in Parliament: "I have no racial animosity."[13] 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."[14]

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."[15]

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."[16]


  1. Stewart, Ronald (2000) The Spirit of North 1903-2000. North Melbourne, St. Joseph's College Melbourne
  2. Val Noone, Hidden Ireland in Victoria , Ballarat Heritage Services, 2012, p. 116
  3. G. Freudenberg, 'Calwell, Arthur Augustus', in Australian Dictionary of Biography
  4. J. Franklin, 'Calwell, Catholicism and the origins of multicultural Australia', 2009.
  5. The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 by Gough Whitlam
  6. "Digital Collections - Books - Item 1: Mr. Calwell and the Faceless Men". Retrieved 2012-02-26.
  7. Edinburgh, Duke of (1844 - 1900) Australian Dictionary of Biography
  8. Failed assassin Peter Kocan wins top literary award The Australian
  9. Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, 1988, p. 456
  10. Calwell, Arthur Augustus (1972). Be just and fear not. Hawthorn, Victoria: Lloyd O'Neil Pty Ltd. ISBN 0-85550-352-1.
  11. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 1st Session, 18th Parliament, 3rd Period, vol.195, 2 December 1947, p.2948.
  12. Colm Kiernan, Calwell, 132.
  13. Kiernan, 133. Kiernan's reference for this is Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 6 October 1948.
  14. 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 referring to David Wang, a leading Chinese-Australian businessman and City Councillor from 1969 to 1978.
  15. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, 117
  16. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, 116

Further reading

Political offices
Preceded by
H. V. Evatt
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Gough Whitlam
New office Minister for Immigration
Succeeded by
Harold Holt
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
William Maloney
Member for Melbourne
1940 1972
Succeeded by
Ted Innes
Preceded by
John McEwen
Father of the House of Representatives
1971 1972
Succeeded by
Fred Daly
Party political offices
Preceded by
H. V. Evatt
Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party
1951 1960
Succeeded by
Gough Whitlam
Leader of the Australian Labor Party
1960 1967


This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 10/28/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.