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Gwenda Tavan about Arthur Calwell and White Australia

Mara Moustafine and Gwenda Tavan.

Historian Gwenda Tavan discusses Arthur Calwell and White Australia



Date Added:

13 February 2009


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... Arthur Calwell in a sense, embodied, you know, the White Australia Policy and was – he was the immigration minister at the time. He was, on the one hand strongly encouraging people to come to Australia from Britain and Europe, on the other hand, you know, staunchly defending the White Australia Policy and in the case of wartime refugees, arguing that there’d be no exceptions to that, you know, that they would have to go home.


Now I think Calwell’s motivations were quite complex in a way. He was worried that if he – on the one hand – undermined the policy that, that might create a kind of political backlash that would possibly impact on the mass immigration program which he was very keen to protect. He was also a stickler for, you know, bureaucratic detail: this was the rules and if you broke the rules once well that was – that would be the thin edge of the wedge. And of course, the principal motivation was that he strongly believed in the White Australia Policy and maintaining Australia as a white, British Australian, though increasingly I think he came to, you know, they came to concede that European – European-ness as a part of a – you know a definition of national identity.


Calwell’s a very complex character and as I say, on the one hand he seems to embody the white Australia policy but it’s that complexity I think that gives us insights as well into what was going on. Calwell did have very strong connections to the Chinese community in Melbourne, also to the Jewish community and the Italian community and those relations were maintained long after he stopped being immigration minister. Calwell on the one hand, was, you know, was adamant that wartime refugees had to go home and in fact, introduced legislation and made sure that, that occurred, but he wasn’t averse to lobbying behind the scenes for friends within the Chinese community. And if you – when I was doing my archival research for my book, you know, came across numerous examples of immigration officials being lobbied by Arthur Calwell to let so and so in because he has a good record.


He taught himself Mandarin, I think that’s quite a well-known fact and he often used that as an example of the fact that he wasn’t racially prejudiced. I think what is interesting there is the way that Calwell and I think many people since then, use or take what they see as their personal attitude, you know, how you react on an individual basis as the fundamental of your – as evidence of your fundamental outlook without thinking about the consequences of public policy. So Calwell was quite happy to talk to Chinese people and in Melbourne and to maintain commitments he was happy to lobby on behalf of people he knew. But he – I think when you look at it – failed to recognise the blanket injustices and inequities created by the Immigration Restriction Act and successor acts and you know, the wartime, the deportation controversies of the 1940s indicated that.


He was an example where a bit of – a more easygoing attitude would have done a lot in terms of public – you know, in terms of diplomacy and goodwill. And he wasn’t prepared to do that and I think that actually –there was a backlash against the Chifley Government, it was partly on those sorts of issues.


One of the major controversies of the late 1940s was the Annie O’Keefe case. Which became very symbolic for a lot of people. Now the interesting thing about Annie O’Keefe, who was an Ambonese woman who had been here as a wartime refugee, had from memory seven children – I’ve got to think back now – or it might have been eight actually, eight. And –but she had married an Australian-born man. Now, very interesting because they were based in Melbourne in the Brighton community and the O’Keefes had very strong community support. Now this was a good example of kind of, grass roots activity.


The O’Keefes were Catholic and the Catholic Church came out very strongly in favour of letting the O’Keefes – Annie O’Keefe and her children remain in Australia. Calwell was adamant that they had to go and he used, you know, there were a number of arguments that he made: one was that we should try – Australia should always try to prevent what he called “racial miscegenation.” In other words, he was concerned by the fact that the O’Keefes had a mixed marriage, a mixed race marriage. There were the bureaucratic factors that I mentioned: the law is the law and if we make allowances here, other people will do the same.


End transcript