300 people crammed into the Museo Italiano in Melbourne’s Carlton district last week for the launch of I am Bound to be True: the life and legacy of Arthur A Calwell. Written by Calwell’s daughter Mary Elizabeth, the book tells the story of Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, and the man widely regarded as the father of Australian multiculturalism.
Arthur Calwell (1896-1973) entered Federal Parliament as ALP member for Melbourne in 1940. During WWII he served as Minister for Information in the Curtin government, and at war’s end became Australia’s first Immigration Minister in Ben Chifley’s Labor administration. As the architect of Australia’s post-war immigration program, Calwell ensured hundreds of thousands of European refugees were able to find a better life, far from their war-torn homelands.
With his strong links to the trade union movement and his skillful presentation of the need for immigration to drive Australia’s industrial growth, he overcame resistance to mass immigration by promoting it under the slogan “populate or perish”. Officially launching the biography, current Immigration Minister Chris Bowen described Calwell as “one of the most substantial figures of the second half of the 20th century in Australian politics,” as well as being a misunderstood figure. “This is a substantial book about a substantial man.
He is justifiably recognised as the father of Australia’s immigration, not just as the first immigration minister, but as the intellectual driving force behind that program,” said Mr Bowen. In homage to his predecessor, Mr Bowen described many of Calwell’s initiatives that created today’s multicultural society, including how Calwell, as early as 1941, had argued that people of Chinese heritage in Australia should be offered full naturalisation rights. Bowen reminded the audience that it was Calwell in 1947 who had first chipped-away at the White Australia Policy, moving amendments to the restrictive Immigration Act of 1901.
“His argument for a generous program of resettlement to Jewish refugees after the war, means that Australia is the host to more Holocaust survivors – and descendants of Holocaust survivors – than any nation in the world other than Israel”, said Mr Bowen. Most widely known for his remark, “two Wongs don’t make a White” made in Parliament in 1947, Bowen said that it was “intellectually lazy” for Calwell’s detractors to define him by that one comment. “How many people know that when Arthur Calwell said [that], he was actually answering a question from a Mr White?” said Mr Bowen.
“It may not have been the best-judged comment he ever made, but look at his actions and not just his words.” Also in the audience to celebrate the book’s launch were Federal Members Simon Crean and Maria Vamvakinou. Mr Crean said that it was important to reflect that post-war Australia had a population of seven million people, which had trebled within 50 years, due to the policy foundations laid by Arthur Calwell.
“Immigration has been great for this country, economically, socially and culturally,” said Mr Crean. “Calwell’s values were developed through his Catholicism – values that went to the issues of fairness, equality and social justice – and that all people were created equal before God.” Maria Vamvakinou spoke on behalf of Prime Minister Julia Gillard who described Arthur Calwell as a great Australian whose contribution to the nation was substantial and enduring.
The PM added that “no one could be more suited to writing the biography than his daughter, who writes from a close personal perspective but who writes as an author and scholar in her own right: no father could wish for a more faithful daughter.”
I Am Bound to be True: The Life and Legacy of Arthur A Calwell by Mary Elizabeth Calwell is published by Mosaic Press. ISBN 9781743241400.