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Arthur Calwell

Arthur Calwell with young migrant, 1949

Arthur Augustus Calwell (August 28 1896 - July 8 1973) Australian Labor politician, was born in Melbourne, Victoria. His father was a police officer of Irish descent. His mother was of Irish-American descent.

A gifted high school student, Calwell was a devout Roman Catholic and became a socialist early in his life. He 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.

Active and energetic in the Labor Party, he was elected President of the Victorian Labor Party in 1931. He was elected to the Australian House of Representatives in 1940. During World War Two, Calwell was Minister for Information in John Curtin's government, and became well-known for his tough attitude towards the press in enforcing wartime censorship.

In 1945, Calwell became Minister for Immigration in Ben Chifley's government. He was the chief architect of Australia's post-war immigration scheme, at a time when Europe was teeming with refugees who desired a better life far from their war-torn poverty-stricken homelands. He popularised the slogan "populate or perish." The immigration program co-incided with a period when Australian industry was growing rapidly and suffering from shortages of skilled and semi-skilled labour.

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 left office in 1949 when Chifley was defeated by the Liberals, led by Robert Menzies. After Chifley's death in 1951, Dr H V Evatt became the Labor leader, and Calwell became his Deputy. The two disliked each other, but Calwell refused to challenge Evatt's leadership despite his lack of confidence in him.

During the split in the Labor Party in 1955 over this issue of Communism, Calwell remained loyal to the party at a time when many of his fellow Catholics were leaving: he lost many of its oldest friends at this time, including the Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix.

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. Menzies won 62 seats while Calwell won 60. The result was decided by a handful of votes in two seats.

After this near loss, however, Menzies was able to exploit divisions in the Labor Party over foreign policy to recover his position. Calwell opposed the use of Australian troops in Malaya and opposed the establishment of American military communications bases in Australia. At the 1963 elections Menzies gained ten seats from Labor. Many thought that Calwell should retire, but was determined to stay and fight.

Calwell made his strongest stand in opposition to Australia's involvment in the Vietnam War, and the introduction of conscription to provide troops for the war. Unfortunately for Calwell, the war was initially very popular in Australia, and in 1966 Calwell led Labor to a heavy defeat on this issue. In early 1967 he resigned as Labor leader.

Calwell retired from Parliament in 1972, by which time he was the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, after serving as an MP for 32 years. He was succeeded as Labor leader 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 Catholic Church despite his many conflicts with Church leaders. He was awarded a papal knighthood for his life-long service to the Roman Catholic Church.

Calwell is also remembered for being the first victim of a political assassination attempt in Australia. A young mentally disturbed man, Peter Kocan, attempted to fire a shotgun at Calwell's head one night in 1966 shortly after an election campaign meeting in Sydney. Calwell suffered superficial wounds to his face and neck from a bullet-shattered car window. Calwell later visited Kocan in the mental hospital to which he was confined.

Calwell died in July 1973 and 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. Calwell 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.

Further reading

Preceded by:
Dr H V Evatt
Leaders of the
Australian Labor Party
Followed by:
Gough Whitlam