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
Deputy Leader of the Labor Party
In office
20 June 1951  7 March 1960
Leader H. V. Evatt
Preceded by H. V. Evatt
Succeeded by Gough Whitlam
Minister for Immigration
In office
13 July 1945  19 December 1949
Prime Minister Ben Chifley
Preceded by New position
Succeeded by Harold Holt
Minister for Information
In office
21 September 1943  19 December 1949
Prime Minister John Curtin
Frank Forde
Preceded by Bill Ashley
Succeeded by Howard Beale
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 Arthur Augustus Calwell
(1896-08-28)28 August 1896
West Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Died 8 July 1973(1973-07-08) (aged 76)
East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Political party Labor
Margaret Murphy
(m. 1921; wid. 1922)

Elizabeth Marren (m. 1932)
Children 2
Education St Mary's College
St Joseph's College
Profession Public Servant
Trade Unionist

Arthur Augustus Calwell KCSG (28 August 1896 – 8 July 1973) was an Australian politician who served as the leader of the Labor Party from 1960 to 1967. He led the party to three federal elections without success.

Calwell grew up in Melbourne and attended St Joseph's College. After leaving school, he began working as a clerk for the Victorian state government. He became involved in the labour movement as an officeholder in the public-sector trade union. Before entering parliament, Calwell held various positions in the Labor Party's organisation wing, serving terms as state president and as a member of the federal executive. He was elected to the House of Representatives at the 1940 federal election, standing in the Division of Melbourne.

After the 1943 election, Calwell was elevated to cabinet as Minister for Information, overseeing government censorship and propaganda during World War II. When Ben Chifley became prime minister in 1945, he was also made Minister for Immigration. He oversaw the creation of Australia's expanded post-war immigration scheme, at the same time strictly enforcing the White Australia policy. In 1951, Calwell was elected deputy leader of the Labor Party in place of H. V. Evatt, who had succeeded to the leadership upon Chifley's death. The two clashed on a number of occasions over the following decade, which encompassed the 1955 party split. In 1960, Evatt retired and Calwell was chosen as his successor, thus becoming Leader of the Opposition.

Calwell and the Labor Party came close to victory at the 1961 election, gaining 15 seats and finishing only two seats shy of a majority. However, those gains were wiped out at the 1963 election. Calwell was one of the most prominent opponents of Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, a stance that was not electorally popular at the time. In 1966, Calwell survived a leadership challenge from his deputy Gough Whitlam, survived an assassination attempt with minor injuries, and finally led his party to a landslide defeat at the 1966 election, winning less than one-third of the total seats. He was 70 years old by that point, and resigned the leadership a few months later. He remained in parliament until the 1972 election, which saw Whitlam become prime minister, and died the following year.

Early life

Birth and family background

Calwell was born on 28 August 1896 at his parents' home in West Melbourne. He was the oldest of seven children born to Margaret Annie (née McLoughlin) and Arthur Albert Calwell. His father worked as a police officer and retired as a superintendent of police.[1] Calwell's parents were both born in Australia. His maternal grandfather was Michael McLoughlin, who was born in County Laois, Ireland, and arrived in Melbourne in 1847 after jumping ship. He married Mary Murphy, who was born in County Clare. Calwell's paternal grandfather Davis Calwell (or Caldwell) was an Irish American born in Union County, Pennsylvania, who arrived in Australia in 1853 during the Victorian gold rush. He married Elizabeth Lewis, a Welshwoman, and settled near Ballarat, eventually becoming president of the Bungaree Shire Council. Davis Calwell's father, Daniel Caldwell, had immigrated to the United States from northern Ireland, and served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the 1820s.[2]


Calwell grew up in West Melbourne.[3] As a young boy he contracted diphtheria, which permanently scarred his vocal chords and gave him a life-long "raspish, nasal voice".[4] Although his father was an Anglican, Calwell was raised in his mother's Catholic faith. He began his education at St Mary's College, the local Mercedarian school. In 1909, he won a scholarship to St Joseph's College, North Melbourne, a Christian Brothers school. One of his closest friends at school was Matthew Beovich, a future Archbishop of Adelaide. In later life he said "I owe everything I have in life, under Almighty God and next to my parents, to the Christian Brothers".[5] Calwell's mother died in 1913, aged 40, when her oldest son was 16 and her youngest child was only three months old. His father remarried, eventually dying in 1938 at the age of 69.[6]

World War I

Calwell was an officer in the Australian Army Cadets at the outbreak of World War I, and made two unsuccessful applications for a commission in the Australian Imperial Force. After his second rejection in 1916 he made no further attempts to seek active service, being unwilling to join as an enlisted man; however, he was placed in the Army Reserve and remained there until receiving an honourable discharge in 1926.[7] Calwell joined the Young Ireland Society in 1914, and served as the organisation's secretary until 1916. His reputation as an Irish republican brought him to the attention of the military police, which suspected him of involvement in the more radical Irish National Association. His residence was searched on one occasion, and his correspondence was routinely examined by censors. On two occasions there were moves to have him dismissed from the military for disloyalty, but Calwell denied the accusations and there was little proof that he had been actively disloyal.[8]

Public service career

Calwell entered the Victorian Public Service in 1913, as a junior clerk in the Department of Agriculture. He transferred to the Department of the Treasury in 1923, where he remained until winning election to parliament in 1940. As with most of his colleagues, Calwell joined the Victorian State Service Clerical Association. He served as secretary and vice-president of that organisation, which in 1925 was reorganised into the state branch of Australian Public Service Association (a forerunner of the modern Community and Public Sector Union). He was elected as the new organisation's inaugural president, serving until 1931.[9]


Calwell's first marriage was to Margaret Mary Murphy in 1921. She died the following year 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.[10][11]

Early political involvement

Calwell joined the Labor Party at about the age of 18. He was elected secretary of the Melbourne branch in 1916, and from 1917 served as one of the Clerical Association's delegates to the state conference. He was elected to the state executive in the same year, and was state president of the party from 1930 to 1931 – at the time, the youngest person to have held the position. Calwell unsuccessfully sought Labor preselection for the Victorian Legislative Assembly and the Senate on a number of occasions, and was elected to the party's federal executive in 1926. He was an assistant secretary to state MP Tom Tunnecliffe for a period, and from 1926 served as secretary to William Maloney, the long-serving Labor member for the federal Division of Melbourne. Maloney would remain in parliament until his death at the age of 85, and Calwell made no effort to force an early retirement, despite being widely seen as the heir apparent to the seat.[12]

Curtin and Chifley Governments (1941–1949)

Calwell's mentor William Maloney died in August 1940, less than a month before the 1940 federal election. As a result, no by-election was held in the Division of Melbourne. At the general election, Calwell easily retained the seat for the Labor Party. Due to his long service as Victorian state president of the party, he was already well-known in federal parliament.

During World War II, Calwell was appointed as Minister for Information in the Second Curtin Ministry following the 1943 election, 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 when Ben Chifley succeeded Curtin, Calwell became the inaugural Minister for Immigration in the post-war Chifley 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.[13]

Calwell was a staunch advocate of the White Australia Policy: while Europeans were welcomed to Australia, Calwell attempted to deport many Malayan, Indochinese and Chinese wartime refugees, some of whom had married Australian citizens and started families in Australia. The main instrument of deportation was the War-time Refugees Removal Act 1949, which succeeded previous acts that allowed non-whites to stay in certain circumstances. However, 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."[14]

Opposition (1949–1960)

Calwell left ministerial office from the 1949 election 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."

Leader of the Opposition (1960–1967)

Evatt retired in 1960, and Calwell succeeded him as Leader of the Australian Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition, with Gough Whitlam as his deputy. Calwell very nearly defeated Menzies at the 1961 federal election, owing to widespread discontent at Menzies' 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, it is generally accepted that unfavourable Democratic Labor preferences is chiefly what had left Labor 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 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."[15] 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 era, as he was still campaigning about socialism and nationalisation and he was a defender of the White Australia Policy.

Assassination attempt

Calwell was only the second victim of an attempted political assassination in Australia (the first being Prince Alfred in 1868).[16] 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.[17] Calwell later visited Kocan in the mental hospital (where he was confined for ten years), and through a regular correspondence encouraged his eventual rehabilitation.

Later life

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)[18] 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.[19]: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".[20]

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.[21]

Calwell also said in Parliament: "I have no racial animosity."[22] 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. David 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.[23]

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.[24]

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."[25]


  1. Colm Kiernan (1978). Calwell: A Personal and Political Biography. Thomas Nelson. p. 11. ISBN 0170051854.
  2. Kiernan (1978), pp. 13–15.
  3. Kiernan (1978), pp. 11–12.
  4. Kiernan (1978), p. 19.
  5. Kiernan (1978), pp. 16–18.
  6. Kiernan (1978), p. 12.
  7. Kiernan (1978), pp. 9–10.
  8. Kiernan (1978), pp. 24–31.
  9. Kiernan (1978), pp. 31–33.
  10. Val Noone, Hidden Ireland in Victoria , Ballarat Heritage Services, 2012, p. 116
  11. G. Freudenberg, 'Calwell, Arthur Augustus', in Australian Dictionary of Biography
  12. Kiernan (1978), pp. 33–36.
  13. J. Franklin, 'Calwell, Catholicism and the origins of multicultural Australia', 2009.
  14. The Whitlam Government 1972-1975 by Gough Whitlam
  15. "Digital Collections - Books - Item 1: Mr. Calwell and the Faceless Men". Retrieved 2012-02-26.
  16. Edinburgh, Duke of (1844 - 1900) Australian Dictionary of Biography
  17. Failed assassin Peter Kocan wins top literary award The Australian
  18. Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, 1988, p. 456
  19. Calwell, Arthur Augustus (1972). Be just and fear not. Hawthorn, Victoria: Lloyd O'Neil Pty Ltd. ISBN 0-85550-352-1.
  20. Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 1st Session, 18th Parliament, 3rd Period, vol.195, 2 December 1947, p.2948.
  21. Colm Kiernan, Calwell, 132.
  22. Kiernan, 133. Kiernan's reference for this is Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, 6 October 1948.
  23. Kiernan, Calwell, 135. Kiernan's references for Wang's comment is "telephone conversation 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.
  24. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, 117
  25. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not, 116

Further reading

Political offices
New office Minister for Immigration
Succeeded by
Harold Holt
Preceded by
H. V. Evatt
Leader of the Opposition
Succeeded by
Gough Whitlam
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
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