I had a chance to read part of Arthur Calwell’s political memoir ‘Be Just and Fear Not’ through a course I’m studying at the Australian National University. If you get a chance, read Graham Freudenberg (the legendary Labor Party Speechwriter’s Australian Dictionary of Biography article: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/calwell-arthur-augustus-9667.).
Calwell is likely the politician who had the greatest impact on Australia in the Twentieth Century. I don’t say that lightly. His post WW2 immigration programme, that Menzies largely adopted and implemented, changed the face of Australia and laid the foundation of the country it was to become. He was also responsible for the implementation of proportional representation to the Australian Senate, a move that led to a loss of the Labor iron-grip control of the upper house. So, not without his faults. But immigration can be seen as his main achievement. And what an achievement it was: completely transformative, unlike most major political reforms.
His other notable achievement was when, as the newly minted Leader of the Opposition, he almost won the 1961 “Credit-Squeeze” Election. He came within two seats, and but for a thousand or so votes (and the preferences of both the Communist Party and the Democratic Labor Party) he would have won it. Sir Jim Killen hung on in his “magnificent” moment. The Liberal and Country Parties were to govern for a further 11 long years, in that inept, ineffectual style that Donald Horne so caustically and sarcastically portrayed in ‘The Lucky Country’. The country may have been completely transformed by Calwell’s socialist platform, and without a doubt, Australia would never have become involved in Vietnam.
As well as reading parts of ‘Be Just and Fear Not’, I listened to an oral history recording of Calwell from the National Library of Australia’s collection. If Calwell was caustic and spiteful in the memoir, in the oral history recording he wasn’t afraid of pulling any punches. His best hits were on Vietnam:
"I was the leader of the party then. It’s so easy for a person to say, ‘Oh well, I told you so’ with hindsight. But I did say in early 1964 that the war in Vietnam was an unwinnable, genocidal, filthy, immoral, civil war. And events have proven that I was right."
But now he has faded into a footnote, probably best remembered for the assassination attempt on his life in 1966 and his pun “two wongs don’t make a white”. While he was definitely not without his faults (his insistence on the White Australia Policy and race relations to name the big ones), imagine if the darkness of the Menzies era and the 23 years of stagnation to Australia was lifted with some hope. Alas it was not to be.
I would argue that if you were to be selecting a crucial point for markers in Australian history where things spun one way and the course of the country was drastically altered, then 1961 would be one. Maybe even moreso than the ALP/DLP split of 1955. Calwell as Prime Minister, Whitlam as Deputy. How long would they have governed and would it have been a more effectual period than the turbulence of 1972 to 1975? Who knows. But for the grace of a thousand votes and a few preferences… such is politics.