Getting to Know Calwell

The first time I came across the name Arthur Calwell was in a high-school History and Civics class, where we were taught of Calwell’s time as Australia’s first Minister for Immigration during the Ben Chifley Labor government of 1945-1949, we were taught of his role in welcoming countless numbers of those who he called ‘New Australians’ under his ‘Populate or Perish’ imperative, we were also taught of the infamous line he delivered in Parliament, ‘two Wongs don’t make a White’, a line which summed up the attitudinal basis for the White Australia Policy, a policy which kept the nation closed for over half a century to Asian immigration.

Nobody today would for a moment defend his erroneous views on Asian immigration, but maybe Calwell was a much more complex figure that I had originally thought. His views on European immigration were, in his day, controversial not for their conservatism but for their progressiveness: he was determined, he told Chifley, ‘to develop a heterogeneous society: a society where Irishness and Roman Catholicism would be as acceptable as Englishness and Protestantism; where and Italian background would be as acceptable as a Greek a Dutch or any other’ (for someone who’s spent most of their life on the other side of the millennium, it is easy to forget that the Australia of the 1940s was one riven by deep sectarianism). So it was left to Calwell and Calwell alone to ensure that many millions of our parents and grandparents – the ‘wogs’ and ‘daegos’ of Southern and Eastern Europe as they were called by many then – were granted passage into an Australia of full employment and an Australia of generous migrant support, and it was Calwell who casted the first stone against the great illusion of many who saw, and who still see, a culturally homogeneous Australia (despite there being many Chinese, Arab and Southern European Australians long before Federation, and despite, of course, some 50,000 years of Indigenous history – ‘some day’ Calwell said, ‘I hope, we will do justice to them’). In Lindsay Tanner’s words, Calwell was ‘the very person who made the end of White Australia possible… Few have received less credit from history for such a major contribution’.

It was also Calwell whose grainy voice was heard in parliament arguing for years and years against the ‘long, cruel dirty war’ in Vietnam, it was Calwell who tried, as the ALP opposition leader, to protect millions of Vietnamese and Laotians from imperial aggression, and it was Calwell who described conscription (which he fought against during both WWI and Vietnam) as an order ‘to kill or be killed’. And then, of course, there is the Calwell who could speak fluent Mandarin and use chopsticks with ease, the Calwell who had enormous support in the Chinese community of Melbourne. Then there is the Calwell who is remembered in the Arthur Calwell Memorial Forest, planted in Israel in 1996 to celebrate his granting refuge in Australia for Jewish Holocaust survivors. Perhaps most nobly there was the Calwell who forgave his would-be assassin, Peter Kocan, who tried to shoot Calwell at point blank range as he left an anti-conscription rally. Calwell survived with only minor injuries, and went on to visit and write to Kocan while he was interned in a mental hospital. Calwell then, is clearly a much more complex figure than what I first thought of him, and it is this complex and contradictory character which is so interesting about the man.

Calwell, a man with the looks of Allende and the voice of a cockatoo, was undeniably a man of the Old World. He was in active support of the White Australia Policy, (though others have suggested that this was born of a belief not in the superiority of one ‘race’ over another, but instead in the scepticism that East and West could co-exist within one nation. As former Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said, ‘I’m certain that had he lived to see the full spectrum of the success of his immigration policy, he would have been a convert to the principles of multiculturalism’), and he was openly hostile to what we might now call the New or Critical Left, or those who he who he described as the ‘pseudo intellectuals’. Calwell was orthodox and observant to both Catholicism and socialism, and in his second faith he was perhaps one of the last senior ALP politicians to critique capitalism, to so openly and consistently attack the commercial ‘mainstream’ media, to use the language of class, to openly fight for a Democratic Socialism (though he did, in 1961, give up on Chifley’s goal of socialised banking, a significant moment in the history of the Australian labour movement).Perhaps this is why it is so refreshing for someone raised in the neo-liberal age to read the memoirs of a politician who said what he truly thought (whether you agree with him or not is a different matter). But reading Calwell’s memoirs, Be Just and Fear Not, you also realise that the man was a puritan; openly hostile to the sexual revolution, to homosexuality, and to what he described as general ‘moral decline’. He was in many ways behind the times, but then again Calwell was, at 72 years of age, in the autumn of his days by the time the world’s universities erupted in 1968.

When I ask people who were around during Calwell’s days what they thought of him, mostly they tell me that it was this hostility, call it anger or passion, that made him ‘un-electable’, to use that awful word. Calwell believed that ‘it is better to be defeated on principle than to win on lies’, and it is worth remembering that in 1961 Calwell nearly ended the infamous ‘Ming Dynasty’ of Robert Menzies. The 1961 elections would have brought a very narrow victory to the ALP had the Australian Communist Party not, bizarrely, directed its preferences to the party that had tried to ban its very existence only a decade earlier, allowing another term of conservative government on the back of just 93 votes, a ‘What If?’ moment if ever there was one.

Calwell was certainly a flawed man, his political views contradictory and often backward, but I believe he was a great man, that is, a man of and for the ordinary man. He was the man who gave passage to my grandparents and many millions of other European migrants and refugees, he was a man who stood up against Australian and American aggression in Vietnam, and he was a man who fought his whole life for socialism; he was himself and no more.

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