Arthur Calwell (ALP, Melbourne) would have been 120 years old on August 28, 2016. Today he is all but forgotten; even those who lived through his era often have only a vague recollection of him.
Immigrant numbers, not political numbers,
were Arthur Calwell’s ruling passion.
Why should we remember the life and achievements of this man? Because more than any other person he moulded modern Australia. Without Arthur Calwell’s vocation as Minister for Immigration and his energetic championing of Australia’s post-war immigration program from 1945 to 1949, Australians today might well be an insular breed of Anglo-Celts, an island continent carrying not much more than the 8 million people we had at the end of World War II.
Calwell spent his youth in West Melbourne, where large families lived in tiny houses. They could afford no better. Even today, West Melbourne has been passed over in the wave of gentrification that has swept Melbourne’s inner suburbs. West Melbourne is full of panel shops and warehouses, and the surviving modest dwellings of Calwell’s youth.
Calwell’s father was a policeman who got only one day off a month. Young Arthur was a good student and won a scholarship to complete his matriculation. Catholics in those days weren’t welcome in commerce. Some businesses even had notices: “Catholics need not apply”. As did many other young educated Catholics, Arthur applied for the Victorian Public Service, where recruitment and promotion were based on merit. He was accepted, though his superiors were not happy with his early involvement in the Australian Labor Party.
In the pre-World War II years, the two engines of social advancement for Irish Australians in the face of the ascendant Anglo-Protestant majority were the public service and the ALP. Professor Patrick O’Brien of the University of Western Australia said that Irish-Australian Catholics adopted the ALP as their preferred means of economic and political advancement because of their exclusion from the Protestant Ascendancy and its political organs. Through the ALP, Irish-Australian Catholics could circumvent and subvert the dominant power structure.
Calwell said as much in his autobiography, Be Just and Fear Not (Lloyd O’Neill, Melbourne, 1972), when he wrote: “What emerges is a picture of a party consciously and deliberately using the machinery of the state in the interests of those it represented. A frank recognition of the role of the state as a means of social progress is what distinguishes the Labor Party from all others.” (p23)
Calwell cited the Commonwealth Bank, the “People’s Bank”, and a widening propensity of the people the ALP represented to use the state “for their own betterment and progress” as evidence of this use of the state as a means to progress.
The Split and Stan Keon
People who knew Arthur Calwell often suspected his motives. Some allege that Calwell kept the ALP Split going to keep Standish Michael “Stan” Keon (ALP, Yarra) out of Federal Parliament, where he would have been a threat to Calwell’s leadership ambitions. Keon was viewed as a future leader of the party. Keon was the better man and the better politician, say those who knew both men intimately.
Keon held the newly formed federal seat of Yarra from 1949 to 1955, the year of the Split, when he was expelled from the ALP. (He had previously held the state seat of Richmond from 1945–49). The Split caused immense pain, both political and personal. Mary Moodie, an early activist in the ALP for women’s rights, aided Calwell and others by organising teams of campaign workers and doorknockers. Mary Moodie was married to William Peter “Bill” Barry II (ALP, Carlton), who was joint-leader of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist) in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, which became the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Moodie and Calwell’s other friends in the DLP expected Calwell to lead the anti-communist forces in the ALP. It was not to be.
Faulty but principled
Calwell was cantankerous and picked fights with men such as press baron (Sir) Keith Murdoch (father of Rupert) that were counterproductive and motivated mainly by spite. But for all his faults, he was a man of firm convictions: like a “Daniel come to judgement,” as Shylock said of Portia in The Merchant of Venice. He was not afraid to hold to his principles.
Politically, Arthur Calwell would have been killed by television. Television arrived in Australia in 1956, just in time for the Melbourne Olympics. In days gone by, campaigning was done at town-hall meetings, at mass rallies and by door knocking. Politicians would wear out two pairs of shoes door-knocking their electorates.
Campaigning was close-up and personal. It was after such a town-hall meeting at Mosman in Sydney that Peter Kocan, later found to be schizophrenic, tried and failed to assassinate Calwell with a sawn-off rifle.
By the early 1970s television had taken over as the main campaigning medium. Gough Whitlam, who succeeded Calwell in 1967 as leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party, was destined to lead the ALP out of the wilderness after 23 years in opposition. The brilliant “It’s Time” campaign in 1972 made full use of television.
Whitlam was everything Calwell was not: telegenic, charismatic, articulate, well spoken, handsome, diplomatic – a well-born, well-educated barrister. When the ALP took power again, Calwell completed his 32 years as Member for Melbourne. Truly “video killed the radio star”.
“Kisser” and “Cocky”
Arthur Calwell earned the sobriquet “Kisser Calwell” for his propensity to kiss women and babies when meeting immigrant ships arriving at Station Pier in Port Melbourne. According to Gordon Cox, lecturer in history at Leederville Technical College in Perth, this nickname preceded the sobriquet by which he is more commonly remembered, namely “Cocky Calwell”.
This latter term was a favourite with editorial cartoonists, due to Calwell’s supposed resemblance to a sulfur-crested cockatoo. Calwell’s voice was high pitched and screechy, which he put down to a childhood bout of diphtheria. His lined, craggy face and prominent nose with heavy black spectacles added to the effect; compounded by his fits of squalling temper.
The man who preceded Calwell as leader of the federal opposition from 1951 to 1960, Herbert Vere Evatt QC (ALP, Barton), also known as Bert Evatt, or simply “Doc”, was an odd sort of Labor man for his day. When Evatt was elected, Arthur Calwell said to Mary Moodie: “You’ll rue the day.”
Evatt was a brilliant man but it is now known that he was mentally unstable. He suffered from epilepsy, cerebral thrombosis and arteriosclerosis. It is interesting, though fruitless, to speculate what would have happened if another leader had been in power at the time of the Split. (See H.V. Evatt, Australian Dictionary of Biography)
“Doc” Evatt was much loved by Labor people. Almost all Labor men were self-educated, like Calwell, and had dragged themselves up by their bootstraps. Evatt stood out. He was a brilliant Queen’s Counsel, author and former Justice of the High Court of Australia. Typical Labor men of the time more resembled Clyde Cameron (ALP, Hindmarsh), who never lost his shearer’s broad shoulders.
Evatt is known to have employed three communists and may have been one himself.
All but a PM
Under Calwell, the ALP almost won the 1961 election. It is said that Denis (Sir) James “Jim” Killen (Lib, Morton) won with Communist Party preferences to save the Menzies government. The ALP later became wedded to the tar baby of the Vietnam War and conscription. Calwell was a life-long opponent of conscription.
Calwell was a prophet and, as the Prophetic Age ended with Malachi, the Age of Leader as Prophet ended with Calwell. After Arthur Calwell came the age of the scholar, the lawyer, the public servant, the university-educated union official; and, we can say, the advertising man. God no longer spoke to the people through his agent.
Prophets are often unpopular. As for Calwell, he was a Watchman. In the eponymous Old Testament book, Isaiah says: “For thus the Lord said unto me: Go set a watchman, let him declare what he sees” (Isaiah 21: 6). A righteous man who told right from wrong and kept watch over God’s people.
Calwell’s greatest achievement was post-war immigration. Before World War II, Australia undertook to take in 15,000 Jewish refugees, though, by the time the war intervened, less than half that number had arrived in Australia.
After the war, Eastern European refugees were known almost universally as “Balts”. Robert Hetherington, lecturer in politics at UWA, later MLC (ALP, SE Metropolitan), held that the term “Balt” was properly used to describe persons from the Baltic States – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.
The Balts, Hetherington said, were recruited because they were tall, fair headed and attractive, thus putting a pretty face on the migration program, making it acceptable to native-born Australians. This contention is supported by Calwell, who said they selected a “choice sample” of displaced persons as migrants.
When the first boatload of Balts arrived in Melbourne, Calwell invited union leaders, employers and the press to meet them. “The men were handsome and the women beautiful. It was not hard to sell immigration to the Australian people once the press published photographs of that group,” Calwell said (Be Just and Fear Not, p.103).
Arthur Calwell is known as a friend of the Jewish people. Australia took in over 35,000 Holocaust survivors, second only to Israel as a percentage of Holocaust survivors. Calwell worked closely with the Australian Jewish community to expedite migration to Australia of the pitiable remnants of European Jewry, who were literally homeless.
Calwell popularised the phrase “populate or perish” as an educative slogan. He also claimed to have coined the term “New Australian”. He was knighted by Pope Paul VI, a rare honour for Australian politicians.
What motivated Arthur Calwell? It is not easy to say. Some epithets were unfairly attributed to him, which he resented. One epithet he did not resent, however, was “xenophobe”, an appellation in which he took pride, as he asserted that all proud peoples are xenophobes.
We can be certain of one thing: we shall not see his like again.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer.