Mary Elizabeth Calwell was just a school girl when her father, Arthur Calwell, was sworn in as Australia’s first federal minister for immigration in 1945. Labor’s Ben Chifley had become prime minister, and World War II was coming to an end. Calwell had a visionary plan for a large-scale immigration scheme—a plan that that would later see him labelled ‘the father of multiculturalism in Australia’.

In his inaugural parliamentary speech on 2 August 1945, less than three weeks after his appointment, and before the official end of World War II, Calwell presented his vision for Australia:

If Australians have learned one lesson from the Pacific War, it is surely that we cannot continue to hold our island continent for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increase our numbers. We are about 7 million people, and we hold 3 million square miles of this earth surface … much development and settlement have yet to be undertaken. Our need to undertake it is urgent and imperative if we are to survive … The door to Australia will always be open within limits of our existing legislation to people from the various dominions, United States of America and from European continental countries, who are sound in health and who will not become a charge on the community to come here and make their homes.

Though Calwell died in 1973, having served in federal politics from 1940 to 1972, the impact of his policies and work in initiating and implementing post-WWII immigration to Australia continues to be felt today, including within our Archdiocese’s rich tapestry of multicultural faith communities.

Reflecting on her father’s legacy, Calwell’s daughter Mary Elizabeth notes that both historian Geoffrey Blainey and former Prime Minister Bob Hawke believed that Labor’s greatest achievement in the 20th century was probably Calwell’s ambitious immigration scheme.

Calwell was born in 1896 in West Melbourne. Many immigrant families lived nearby, so he enjoyed friendships with people from Jewish, Lebanese, Italian, Greek and Chinese backgrounds. He spoke fluent Irish and some Mandarin and French.

Calwell was raised in the Catholic faith of his mother and Irish grandparents, and was the eldest of seven children. He attended St Mary’s Boys’ School in West Melbourne and won a scholarship to attend St Joseph’s College in North Melbourne, both run by the Christian Brothers. He is reported as saying, ‘I owe everything I have in life, under Almighty God and next to my parents, to the Christian Brothers.’

Arthur Calwell’s mother died in early 1913. Although his father was a policeman and later Police Superintendent, a university education was not possible, so Calwell began work as a clerk for the Victorian State Government, first in the Department of Agriculture and then in the Department of Treasury. He was secretary of his ALP Branch at just 18 years of age, and was elected to many ALP and union positions, including Victorian ALP president from 1930 to 1931—the youngest person at that time to have held that position—and was the first president of the Victorian branch of the Amalgamated Australian Public Service Association, Clerical Division, from 1925 to 1931.

In 1921, Arthur Calwell married Margaret Murphy, who died just five months later. Ten years on, in 1932, he married Elizabeth Marren, an Irishwoman who was social editor of the Catholic weekly newspaper The Tribune and had also been a journalist at The Advocate. They met through Irish organisations. They had two children, Mary Elizabeth and Arthur Andrew, who died of leukaemia when he was 11 years old.

Mary Elizabeth, who went to boarding school at the age of 10, says she was fortunate to have grown up in a home that valued intellectual activities. Both her parents wrote extensively, and in 1933, they established The Irish Review, which continued under other auspices until 1954. Mary Elizabeth says both her parents had a ‘big influence’ on her life.

‘My father wrote for The Age Literary Supplement on American history for the 4th of July, and he quoted spontaneously from the Bible, history or literature in parliament. He was elected to positions in social, cultural and sporting organisations.’

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Mary Elizabeth Calwell Photo by Fiona Basile

However, it was Calwell’s role as Immigration Minister that cemented his place in history. To win support, he emphasised the importance of immigration for national development and defence. ‘Australia’s population was 7.4 million with 250,000 available jobs,’ Mary Elizabeth says, ‘and he used the slogan “populate or perish”.’ According to historian Geoffrey Blainey, Calwell’s immigration scheme brought more people to Australia than had come in all the previous years since settlement.

In 1947, Arthur and Elizabeth Calwell, along with his secretary Bob Armstrong, visited 23 countries in just under 13 weeks, travelling by flying boat, plane and ship. In July, Calwell signed an agreement with the United Nations Refugee Organisation to accept displaced persons from European countries ravaged by war. Despite shipping shortages, 100,000 British and 50,000 assisted migrants had arrived in Australia by August 1949, along with many thousands of sponsored migrants.

‘He allowed Holocaust survivors to come to Australia when other countries were uninterested,’ says Mary Elizabeth. ‘Descendants and survivors are proportionately greater here than in any country outside Israel.’ In 1946, 100 trees were planted in Israel by the Melbourne Jewish Community through the Jewish National Fund (JNF). In 1995, trees were also planted in Melbourne, and in 1998, the Australian Jewish Community established and dedicated the JNF Arthur A Calwell Forest of Life at Kessalon near Jerusalem, Israel.

Mary Elizabeth is particularly proud of her father’s implementation of the Nationality Act 1946, which enabled Australian women to retain their nationality after marriage to a foreigner, and the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, proclaimed on Australia Day 1949, with the first citizenship ceremony taking place in Canberra on 3 February 1949. He also introduced the term ‘New Australian’ to discourage hostility to migrants, and he approved the introduction of Good Neighbour Councils. By 1952, the Australian population had increased to 8.7 million through births and immigration.

When not engaged in politics, Calwell was devoted to the North Melbourne Football Club, becoming the club’s first life member. According to Mary Elizabeth, he was also devoted to the Church, receiving a papal knighthood from Pope Paul VI and being made a Knight Commander of St Gregory the Great with Silver Star in 1963.

‘My father had a very deep and informed knowledge of his faith, which sustained him and complemented his commitment to Australian Labor values,’ Mary Elizabeth says. Among his many initiatives, for instance, he arranged for paid chaplains to be appointed to immigration reception centres, where displaced persons were welcomed, and he was on the committee that bought the first Maronite Church in Rathdowne Street, Carlton.

Having served as both deputy leader and leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party—narrowly missing out on becoming prime minister in 1961, when Democratic Labor Party preferences were directed to the Liberal and Country Parties—Calwell retired from politics in 1972. He died on 8 July 1973 in East Melbourne and was given a large state funeral at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Looking back on her father’s legacy, Mary Elizabeth observes, ‘There were 7.5 million in Australia in 1945, and by the time Dad died in 1973, we had an extra 6 million people.’ She agrees with sociologist Professor Jerzy Zubrzycki that her father’s immigration policies ‘changed Australia in a far more fundamental way than anything else since the end of the Second World War’, and that our nation is a richer place for those changes.

Mary Elizabeth published a biography of her father in 2012 titled I Am Bound to Be True.

Arthur Calwell also released an autobiography in 1972 titled Be Just and Fear Not, and an earlier book, Labor’s Role in Modern Society, in 1963.