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Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896–1973)

by Graham Freudenberg

This article was published:

Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896-1973), by P. I. King, 1940s

Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896-1973), by P. I. King, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an10488254

Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896-1973), politician, was born on 28 August 1896 in West Melbourne, eldest of seven children of Arthur Albert Calwell, a police constable who was to rise to the rank of superintendent, and his wife Margaret Ann, née McLoughlin, both Victorian born. Arthur's paternal grandfather Davis Calwell was an American, whose Ulster Protestant father had served in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Davis came to Victoria in 1853 and married a diminutive Welshwoman Elizabeth Lewis who became, in Arthur's phrase, 'the matriarch of the tribe'. His mother, who died when he was 16, was the daughter of an Irishman Michael McLoughlin, who is thought to have deserted ship in Melbourne in 1847. Calwell recorded: 'I grew up in [the] crowded inner [city] area, with its cottages built on fourteen-feet frontages and even less, and with evidence of human misery visible to all'. Aged 6, he suffered a near fatal attack of diphtheria, to which he attributed the high-pitched huskiness of his mature voice.

Raised in the Catholic faith of his mother and Irish maternal grandmother, Arthur attended Christian Brothers' College, North Melbourne, matriculated and entered the Victorian Public Service on 28 March 1913 as a clerk in the Department of Agriculture. In 1923 he was to move to the Treasury. He defied regulations against open involvement in politics, at 19 becoming secretary of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Labor Party.

When the British Empire went to war in August 1914, Calwell, a second lieutenant in the senior cadets, applied for a commission in the Australian Imperial Force. Rejected because of his age, in 1915-21 he served as a lieutenant in the Militia. By 1916 he was a critic of the war and an ardent advocate of a 'No' vote in the conscription referendum which split the Labor Party that year. His activities as secretary of the Young Ireland Society after the 1916 Easter Rising brought him under the surveillance of security authorities. Honorary secretary (from 1917) of the State Service Clerical Association, he was foundation president (1925) of the restructured Australian Public Service Association (Victorian branch). Between 1926 and 1949 he held a range of elective positions in the State branch of the A.L.P.: he was a member of its central executive, its president (1930-31) and a Victorian delegate to the party's federal executive (from 1930).

Calwell's great authority in the Victorian party enabled him to persuade the parliamentary leader, the veteran Thomas Tunnecliffe, to join the leader of the Country Party (Sir) Albert Dunstan in bringing down the conservative government of Sir Stanley Argyle in March 1935. Through an arrangement unique in Australian politics, Dunstan formed a Country Party government with Labor support. Among important legislation which Labor secured in return, Calwell took a keen personal interest in the reform of the Melbourne City Council, on which he served as an alderman (1939) and councillor (until 1945).

He had married Margaret Mary Murphy (d.1922) on 10 September 1921 at St Monica's Catholic Church, Essendon. On 29 August 1932 in St Patrick's Cathedral, Melbourne, he married Elizabeth Marren, social editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper, the Tribune, and an Irishwoman of sharp wit and strong will. In 1933 they launched the Irish Review as the official organ of the Victorian Irish Association. Hindered as a player by his poor eyesight, Calwell presided over the North Melbourne Football Club in 1928-34.

After the Depression he devoted an increasing amount of his time to the electoral affairs of the Federal constituency of Melbourne, held (since 1904) by the octogenarian William Maloney. Although Calwell had set his sights on Melbourne as early as 1926, he made no attempt to persuade the 'Little Doctor' to stand aside and did not seek pre-selection elsewhere. Throughout the 1930s he marshalled Victorian Labor against the rebel New South Wales Labor Party and its fiery leader J. T. Lang. Calwell's collaboration with the federal parliamentary leader John Curtin culminated in the unity conference of August 1939 which broke Lang's power in New South Wales. Maloney died in August 1940. Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies had called Federal elections for 21 September. The Victorian executive endorsed Calwell for Melbourne; he won the seat and was to hold it until his retirement.

With the Menzies government now dependent on the support of two Victorian Independents, Calwell allied himself with a group in the federal Labor caucus, led by H. V. Evatt, which urged Curtin to force an election. Curtin preferred to wait and Labor took power in October 1941. Omitted from the first Curtin ministry, Calwell felt free to criticize the budgets of 1941 and 1942 for failing to implement Labor's social programme. He vigorously opposed the wartime internment of Italian immigrants without trial. To the intense irritation of Evatt, the attorney-general, he campaigned for the release of members of the Australia-First Movement, whose continued detention after the outbreak of war in the Pacific struck him as unjust and absurd. 'Unfortunately', he wrote to a constituent in 1942, 'I am not persona grata at the moment with most ministers because I demand that they shall carry out the policy of the Party, regardless of consequences'.

Calwell's disaffection reached its peak when Curtin sought in November 1942 to modify Labor's policy against conscription for military service overseas. 'As a youth, I was an anti-conscriptionist in the 1916 and 1917 campaigns', Calwell told the House of Representatives, 'and I am as much an anti-conscriptionist in 1942'. A special federal conference on 4 January 1943 supported Curtin 24 to 12. In the subsequent caucus debate on 24 March Curtin called Calwell 'the hero of 100 sham fights'. Calwell retorted: 'The way you're going, you'll finish up on the other side, leading a National Government'. Curtin left the meeting and wrote to caucus demanding that the party either 'dissociate itself from the accusation or appoint another leader'. Calwell apologized.

Following the government's landslide election victory on 21 August 1943, Calwell won the last place in the new ministry. Curtin gave him the portfolio of information. Calwell brought to this post an ingrained distrust of the press, sharpened by his capacity for splendid invective and his delight in provocation—'stirring the possum' as he put it. He gave his opinion of the Australian press in parliament in November 1941: 'It is owned for the most part by financial crooks and is edited for the most part by mental harlots'. Mounting antagonism between Calwell and the newspaper proprietors came to a climax on 16 April 1944 with the seizure of copies of the Sydney Sunday Telegraph for flouting censorship rules. Next morning the Sydney dailies published a common statement challenging the powers of the censors. Calwell endorsed action by Commonwealth peace officers to confiscate all copies of the offending editions. The High Court of Australia granted an injunction against the suppression. It was at this time that Australian newspaper cartoonists began to caricature Calwell as a cockatoo, seizing on the most obvious aspects of a physiognomy which he himself wryly conceded had 'a kind of rugged grandeur'.

When J. B. Chifley became prime minister in July 1945 he appointed Calwell Australia's first minister for immigration. He was ideally suited for the post and had lobbied eagerly for it. No minister in Chifley's cabinet was so well placed to overcome labour's traditional resistance to large-scale immigration. Calwell shared and boldly articulated the prejudices both of the labour movement and the wider Australian community. More effectively than others could have done in the 1940s, he was able to expand Australia's traditional immigration base beyond the British Isles to include eastern and southern Europe, and to promote aggressive recruitment as the means of preserving a 'White Australia'. Calwell and (Sir) Tasman Heyes, his personal choice to head the new department, formed an outstandingly creative partnership.

War-devastated Europe and war-exhausted Britain provided an abundant source of potential immigrants, but their selection and transportation presented intractable problems. Calwell toured Britain and Europe in 1947 to inspect Australian migration offices, visit refugee camps, speed up selection procedures and organize shipping. He enlisted the co-operation of leaders of the Australian Jewish community to arrange passages for survivors of the Holocaust. Of the ships chartered for Jewish refugees, he later frankly stated: 'We had to insist that half the accommodation in these wretched vessels must be sold to non-Jewish people. It would have created a great wave of anti-Semitism and would have been electorally disastrous for the Labor Party had we not made this decision'. Basing his programme firmly on the concept of assimilation, Calwell coined the term 'New Australian' for immigrants, particularly 'displaced persons' from the Baltic states and Eastern Europe. Britain, however, remained the source of about 50 per cent of intending settlers, whose numbers rose from some 30,000 in 1947 to approximately 170,000 in 1949. While he achieved broad support for his policy, crucially from the unions, Calwell's handling of individual cases occasioned recurrent controversy, invariably involving his strict interpretation of the White Australia policy.

In 1948 Chifley placed Calwell in charge of an electoral redistribution to meet the growth and regional changes in population. Calwell produced a radical plan to increase the number of members in the House of Representatives by two-thirds and to have the Senate elected by proportional representation. He was convinced that his redistribution would advantage Labor, and, perhaps more than any of his colleagues, was stunned by the sweeping electoral victory which returned Menzies to office on 10 December 1949.

In the turmoil of the events of 1949 few noticed that, for the first time since 1926, Calwell had failed to win a place on the Victorian central executive. It was an early sign of the rising strength of a younger generation of Catholics, zealous to eliminate communist influence in the Labor Party and the unions. Calwell's dumping was partly a retaliation against a speech he had made at the 1948 State Labor conference criticizing the 'anti-communist obsession' of 'the Movement', a militant group of Catholics led by a publicist of genius B. A. Santamaria. Calwell's eclipse in Victoria was evident when the executive, now controlled by the anti-communist industrial groups, led moves which forced Labor's federal parliamentarians to pass Menzies' legislation proscribing the Communist Party of Australia. With Chifley's death in June 1951, Calwell was elected deputy-leader under Evatt, defeating three candidates, among them E. J. Ward, his old ally against Curtin; he beat the strongest opponent Percy Clarey in the third ballot, 45 to 36.

Although Calwell had criticized Evatt for accepting a brief from a communist-led union in a successful challenge before the High Court against the Communist Party Dissolution Act (1950), he firmly supported Evatt's brilliant campaign for a 'No' vote in the subsequent referendum on 22 September 1951. In the aftermath of a harshly deflationary budget in 1952, and with strong Labor performances in by-elections and State polls, the Evatt-Calwell team entered the 1954 Federal election campaign with high hopes. Calwell's redistribution of 1948 played some part in Labor's failure, by four seats, to win a House of Representatives majority on 29 May 1954, despite a national vote of 50.03 per cent. Evatt's frustration was to have devastating consequences.

Six weeks before the elections, with Evatt absent from Canberra, Menzies had summoned Calwell to his office, minutes before he told the House that Vladimir Petrov, the third secretary of the Soviet embassy, had requested political asylum. After members of Evatt's personal staff were named at the subsequent royal commission on espionage, Calwell was unable to dissuade Evatt from appearing on their behalf at commission hearings in Sydney. Attempts within the A.L.P. to replace Evatt with Calwell were side-tracked by Evatt's fateful press statement of 5 October, alleging that some Labor members, directed from outside the party, had sabotaged the A.L.P.'s 1954 election campaign.

Evatt's charge produced an avalanche of recrimination which split the Labor Party. After a ferocious caucus debate on 20 October, Calwell was one of the minority of 28 (against 52) who voted for a spill of all leadership positions. Evatt thereafter succeeded in making loyalty to himself the test of loyalty to the party. In 1955 the split in the A.L.P., deepest in Victoria, was given its formal shape by the proceedings of the federal conference in Hobart in March and by the formation of the Anti-Communist (Democratic) Labor Party. For Calwell, the most tragic personal consequence of the split was the breach it made in his relations with the man he most loved and admired, the Catholic archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix.

Despite massive defeats at the Federal elections in December 1955 and November 1958, Evatt retained the leadership until February 1960, when Calwell persuaded the New South Wales Labor government to appoint Evatt chief justice of the State's Supreme Court. On 7 March, by 42 votes to 30 over R. T. Pollard, caucus awarded Calwell the leadership prize for which he had waited so long. In the election for his deputy, Calwell voted for Ward, but welcomed the unexpected win by the 43-year-old Sydney barrister E. G. Whitlam. Despite the disparity in age, background and outlook, Calwell and Whitlam were able to create an effective partnership; Whitlam's fresh style and energy neatly complemented Calwell's earthier robustness.

By November 1961 a credit squeeze by Federal treasurer Harold Holt had produced more than 100,000 unemployed. In his policy speech for the elections next month Calwell proposed a budget deficit of £100 million 'to restore full employment within twelve months'. Menzies routinely denounced this plan as 'wildly inflationary', but was more alarmed by the unprecedented decision of the Sydney Morning Herald to switch its powerful support to Labor. On 9 December the A.L.P. gained 15 additional seats, concentrated in Queensland and New South Wales. The final tally gave the coalition parties 62 seats in the House of Representatives to Labor's 60. Calwell's spectacular achievement silenced those on Labor's left wing who had resented his campaign pledge to abandon the party's sacred cow of bank nationalization.

A wider spectrum of Labor members was appalled in January 1962 by Calwell's over-excited response to Indonesia's move to incorporate West New Guinea. He accused President Sukarno of sabre-rattling, 'reminiscent of Hitler's performances at the time of Munich, and just as menacing'. Menzies gleefully seized the opportunity to turn the 'sabre-rattling' charge against Calwell himself. Calwell's newly-won prestige and the Labor Party's new-found sense of initiative were irreparably damaged. Menzies quickly regained his ascendancy and the A.L.P. federal executive reasserted the authority over the parliamentary party which it had exercised since the split.

Both these developments converged in crisis for Calwell in 1963 when the Labor Party agonized over the government's decision to allow the United States of America to build a naval communications station at Exmouth, Western Australia. In March Calwell and Whitlam were photographed outside the Hotel Kingston, Canberra, waiting to learn the decision of the thirty-six delegates to a special federal conference. This incident provided the source for Menzies' immensely damaging description of the Labor Party's policy-making processes as being controlled from outside by '36 faceless men'. As if to prove the point, the federal secretary Francis Chamberlain persuaded the federal executive in October to demand that the New South Wales Labor government abandon a budget proposal to provide means-tested assistance to parents with children in private secondary schools. Although Calwell had earlier advised the premier R. J. Heffron that the proposal did not conflict with Labor policy, the executive's intervention revived the ancient and virulent dispute, essentially sectarian in character, about state aid to non-government schools.

Calwell published Labor's Role in Modern Society (Melbourne, 1963) as a manifesto. In spite of the party's open brawling and a general economic recovery, he mounted a strong and confident campaign for the elections which Menzies called in 1963, a year ahead of time. But in the weekend (23-24 November) before polling day, Calwell was struck by a series of savage blows. The pre-election opinion poll revealed a decisive reduction in support for Labor. The Sydney Morning Herald finally turned against him with a venomous personal attack. On Sunday at St Francis Xavier Cathedral, Geraldton, Western Australia, he heard a sermon on the sinfulness of voting Labor. That evening in Perth he was wrongly informed that Menzies had coupled Labor policies and the assassination, two days earlier, of the United States' president John F. Kennedy. In rage and frustration, Calwell issued a press statement claiming that Menzies had tried to 'smear the Labor Party over President Kennedy's coffin'. On 30 November Menzies regained ten of the seats Calwell had won in 1961.

Relations between Calwell and Whitlam began to deteriorate sharply. In a calculated indiscretion, Whitlam sorely offended Calwell by contrasting the age and vigour of the competing party leaders, should Menzies retire before the elections due in 1966 and be replaced by Holt. During his last electoral contest with Menzies, the 1964 Senate poll, Calwell was able to return to one of the grand themes of his career: his passionate opposition to conscription. Against the advice of the Military Board, the government announced in November plans for a compulsory call-up of 20-year-old men to be chosen by ballot. Calwell's denunciation failed to find a response in the electorate, which on 5 December gave Labor candidates only 44.7 per cent of the national vote.

On the eve of the Senate campaign, the Vietnam War began to take shape as the dominant issue in Australian politics. In August 1964 the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which it was claimed that forces of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) had fired on American vessels in international waters, exposed the dilemma that was to dog the Labor Party throughout the war: how to condemn the United States' intervention without condemning Australia's ally, the United States. Calwell personified Labor's dilemma and expressed it memorably in an emotion-laden speech at a parliamentary reception for President Lyndon Johnson in October 1966 in which he ended a philippic against the war by reciting the final sentences of the Gettysburg Address.

In April 1965 Menzies had announced the dispatch of an Australian battalion to the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) to help to stop the 'downward thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans'. Calwell's reply on 4 May proved prophetic as to the war's course and outcome: the U.S.A. faced humiliation in what was essentially a civil war. He asked: 'As the war drags on, who is to say that [Australia's commitment of 800 regular troops] will not rise to 8000, and that these will not be drawn from our voteless, conscripted 20 year olds?' It was only when Menzies' successor Holt included conscripts in the expanding Australian contingent in 1966 that Calwell's deepest emotions became fully engaged in opposition to Australia's involvement.

On the night of 21 June 1966, after addressing a rowdy meeting at Mosman Town Hall, Sydney, Calwell became the victim of an assassination attempt. A 19-year-old factory worker Peter Raymond Kocan discharged a sawn-off rifle immediately after Calwell entered his car, wounding him in the jaw. Described by his defence psychiatrist as a 'borderline schizophrenic', Kocan was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1968 Calwell wrote to him: 'If there is anything I can do to help you in future in the matter of the mitigation of your sentence . . . I will do it'. Kocan was released in 1976.

Labor's campaign for the 1966 Federal elections fell apart under the strains of Vietnam and tensions over the leadership. Friction between Calwell and Whitlam had intensified since March when Calwell narrowly failed to procure Whitlam's expulsion and Whitlam was unable to orchestrate a spill of leadership positions. Calwell attributed Labor's loss of nine seats on 26 November to 'the disunity in our own ranks on questions of personality and policy during the lifetime of the 25th Parliament'. He refused to call a caucus meeting until 8 February 1967. Whitlam was then elected his successor.

In his last, embittered years, increasingly troubled by osteoarthritis and diabetes, Calwell only once assumed the role of Labor's elder statesman. In August 1967 he strongly opposed a move by Labor senators to join with the D.L.P. in the Senate to reject a budget proposal for increased postal charges. He prophesied that, if the A.L.P. thus helped to raise the pretensions and ambitions of the Senate, then the day would come when the Senate would be used to destroy a Labor government. Appointed to the Privy Council in 1967, he remained in parliament until the 1972 elections in which Labor won office after twenty-three years in opposition.

He published his autobiography, Be Just and Fear Not (Melbourne, 1972), a moving, often bitter, account of his turbulent relationship with the two institutions he most loved, his party and his Church. Of his co-religionists who had criticized his acceptance of a Papal knighthood in 1964, Calwell wrote: 'I am afraid that an inordinately large number of my fellow Catholics are fear-stricken, communist-hating, money-making, social-climbing, status-seeking, brainwashed, ghetto-minded people to whom the Pope is too venturesome, and not sufficiently prudent in his dealings with the non-Catholic world on the one hand and the communist one-sixth of the world on the other'. Survived by his wife and their daughter Mary Elizabeth who sustained him with unflinching devotion to the end, he died on 8 July 1973 in East Melbourne. He was buried in Melbourne general cemetery beside his son Arthur Andrew, whose death of leukaemia at the age of 11 in 1948 dealt Calwell the one wound, of a hard-fought life, which never healed.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • P. Weller (ed), Caucus Minutes 1901-1949 (Melb, 1975)
  • G. Freudenberg, A Certain Grandeur (Melb, 1977)
  • L. Ross, John Curtin (Melb, 1977)
  • C. Kiernan, Calwell (Melb, 1978)
  • E. Kunz, Displaced Persons (Syd, 1988)
  • Arthur Calwell papers (National Library of Australia).

View the list of obituaries written by Arthur Augustus Calwell

Citation details

Graham Freudenberg, 'Calwell, Arthur Augustus (1896–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896-1973), by P. I. King, 1940s

Arthur Augustus Calwell (1896-1973), by P. I. King, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an10488254

Life Summary [details]


28 August, 1896
West Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


8 July, 1973 (aged 76)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.