Press "Enter" to skip to content

Arthur Calwell Memorial Lecture 2012: Chris Bowen

This is the text of the Arthur Calwell Memorial Lecture delivered by the Minister for Immigration, Chris Bowen.

Chris BowenThank you and it’s a pleasure to join you tonight to give the Arthur Calwell Memorial Lecture.

I’d like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri peoples of the Kulin Nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to the elders – past and present – and thank them for their stewardship of our land over the millennia.

I would also like to acknowledge Dr Mary Elizabeth Calwell, Arthur’s daughter, who is here with us tonight. I know Mary Elizabeth herself has an abiding interest in both the past and future of the Labor Party, including her father’s legacy.

I would also like to thank my friend Maria Vamvakinou for the invitation to be here. Maria is a first class Member of Parliament. She makes unfailingly thoughtful contributions in our Caucus and in Parliament. She is a fearless advocate for her community and, in my area of responsibility, a passionate believer in multiculturalism. Best of all, I count her as a trusty counsel and a firm friend.

I would also like to welcome some of the other people who, in many ways, are also in this room tonight because of the man after whom this lecture is named.

Specifically, I would like to welcome Domenic Pelligrino, who, as a godson of Arthur Calwell, has a very special familial relationship with the former Minister.

Likewise, Abla Amad, who came to Australia in 1954. She met her husband, John, here and I understand Arthur Calwell gave away at her wedding. Abla’s restaurant, of course, has an iconic status for Melburnians.

It is a tribute to Arthur Calwell’s legacy – as a man and as Immigration Minister – that you would both be here tonight.

The Legacy of Arthur Calwell

I understand the Calwell Lecture has a long, but not very regular, history.

The last time this lecture was delivered was in 2006 by a promising Shadow Foreign Minister by the name of Kevin Rudd, who had just announced a joint ticket with Shadow Health Minister Julia Gillard to challenge Kim Beazley for the leadership of the federal Labor Party.

It’s true to say that at least one or two things have happened in the history of our party and our country in the five and a half years since the Calwell lecture was last delivered.

It is right that we honour Arthur Calwell.

He was a creature of his times but also a visionary who pushed new limits in public policy and whose vision of immigration set the course of Australian policy for the many decades since.

He was a servant of the public – not a perfect servant.

He served in our party’s most senior role – leader of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party – in a period of great challenges and was a tireless and fearless proponent of Labor principles.

Before he became Labor leader, Calwell was, of course, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration. I think it is fair to say that he remains the most influential.

He served in the role for a little over four years but shaped our migration policy in a way that resonates to this day, as demonstrated by the stories – and, indeed, the presence – of many in this room tonight.

Within weeks of becoming Immigration Minister, at a time when Australia was still at war with Japan, Calwell set out a remarkable and courageous vision; his view that we had to “populate or perish”.

After the last seven decades of largely bipartisan support for migration, it is easy to underestimate what a bold and controversial statement this was at the time.

In his first speech to the House of Representatives as Minister for Immigration, he said:

“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 but seven million people and we hold three million square miles of this earth’s surface. … Much development and settlement have yet to be undertaken. Our need to undertake it is urgent and imperative if we are to survive.”

He went on to say:

“Our first requirement is additional population. We need it for reasons of defence and for the fullest expansion of our economy.”

So it is true that Calwell’s vision, which gave rise to our modern immigration program, was driven by a sense of existential imperative rather than some sense of grand social engineering. But, regardless of its motives, it kicked off a process of profound social change and development in this country.

Since 1945, we have seen the arrival of more than seven million permanent migrants and the forging of one of the world’s most culturally diverse nations. Almost half the population of Australia are either migrants or of recent migrant heritage.

Clearly, Calwell had been thinking about migration issues for some time before being appointed Immigration Minister. In a note to then-Treasurer Ben Chifley in 1944, for example, he reportedly set out what, again, was a controversial thesis for his times.

Calwell wrote of his “determination to develop a heterogeneous society: a society where Irishness and Roman Catholicism would be as acceptable as Englishness and Protestantism; where an Italian background would be as acceptable as a Greek, a Dutch or any other”.


Calwell did not found Australia’s multiculturalism. In fact, he explicitly opposed multiculturalism. But his reforms, and vision, his pioneering and advocacy of a diverse immigration program undeniably laid the framework for Australia’s diverse and cosmopolitan population today.

I’m certain that had he lived to see the full spectrum of the success of his immigration policy, he would have been a convert to the principles of multiculturalism.

And, as his legacy has taken hold and shaped the society we have today, I think most Australians have come to welcome, embrace and enjoy our multicultural and cosmopolitan way of life.

A little over a year ago, I took the opportunity in a speech to the Sydney Institute to reiterate the Federal Government’s commitment to what I call the “genius of Australian multiculturalism”.

As I said in that speech, while the concept of “multiculturalism” has come under attack in various parts of the world, particularly in Europe, it continues to enjoy broad support – and rightly so – in Australia.

That is because Australia’s rather unique brand of multiculturalism is based around principles of inclusion, integration and citizenship.

We facilitate settlement services better than any country in the world. And we encourage new migrants towards citizenship and full membership of Australian society.

Further, while we don’t ask migrants to leave their beliefs or cultures at the door, we make it clear that, to the extent of any inconsistency, Australian liberal democratic values must always prevail.

For most migrants, this is uncontroversial and unproblematic. After all, the overwhelming majority of migrants come to Australiabecause of our way of life – our freedoms and social norms – not to change it.

Since our recommitment to multiculturalism last year, we have taken a number of what I would describe as positive but modest steps in practical and demonstrable support for multiculturalism.

As I said last year, multiculturalism is like a marriage – it needs nurturing to be successful – and we need to remind ourselves occasionally of the benefits of multiculturalism.

Perhaps most noticeably, we now have a Minister for Multicultural Affairs within my portfolio –the hard-working Senator Kate Lundy.

This is a clear indication of our support and the importance we place on multiculturalism as an important part of the nation we’ve become and the nation we aspire to be.

In addition, we have:

  • Appointed the new Australian Multicultural Council to act as an independent champion of multiculturalism;
  • Formed the National Anti-Racism Partnership and put our new full-time Race Discrimination Commissioner in charge of the strategy;
  • Initiated an inquiry to renew the Access and Equity policy – the key mechanism to ensure Government services remain responsive to the needs of diverse communities;
  • Funded community sports programs through the Multicultural Youth Sports Partnership Program; and
  • Supported the celebration of our diverse cultures through the new multicultural arts and festivals grants program.

A Multicultural Law

Now, some have suggested that we should go one step further and legislate for multiculturalism: introduce a law to prescribe, presumably, how our multicultural society should function.

I don’t see there being any more value in legislating for multiculturalism than I see in legislating that Australians should like sport or that there should be more sunny days.

Multiculturalism has thrived in Australia without legislation to deign it so. I don’t see the ill that an Act of the Commonwealth Parliament would be designed to remedy, nor the benefit it would be designed to provide.

Multiculturalism is lived and experienced, not legislated for.

The people in this room, the thousands of migrants who have settled in this area, in my home town of Fairfield in Sydney and throughout Australia, haven’t needed an Act of Parliament to tell them how to participate meaningfully in a multicultural society and I don’t think we need an Act of Parliament now.

Let me give you one example of the interaction between traditional Australian values and multiculturalism, and how it works without the need for an Act of Parliament.

Last week, there was considerable public discussion about whether the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli is compatible with a multicultural society.

Now I don’t think some of the public commentary accurately reflects what was in a long and fairly comprehensive research project handed to the Government about community participation in the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli.

But I do want to make this point: any suggestion that commemorating Anzac Day on the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli or any other year is not compatible with our multicultural society or may cause offence with some groups is just completely wrong.

When I attend Anzac Day services in my electorate, I see people from multiple ethnic backgrounds commemorating this most sacred of our days. I am really at a loss to know who might be offended. It certainly wouldn’t be the Turkish community, who, as descendants of Turkish soldiers, march alongside the descendants of Aussie diggers in marches around the country and who honour those immortal words of Kemal Ataturk that:

“There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us. … After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

I’d also make a similar point about the Australian flag. Every so often, you hear suggestions that the Australian flag should be changed because it offends our multicultural society. I have never had one Australian of a non-English speaking background suggest to me that the flag should be changed. Those who suggest a new flag are usually of an Anglo-Celtic background.

I am a strong republican but I support our current flag as a reminder of our Anglo-Celtic heritage as well as an enduring national symbol. And I have a suspicion the majority of migrants to Australia agree with me on that point.

So we honour Arthur Calwell’s vision as Minister for Immigration. He recognised that immigration was key to developing Australia – he was right then and it remains right today.

Skilled migration is as vital to our economic future now as it was in the 1940s and 1950s. Just as immigration was a key to the success of the Snowy River Hydro scheme, it remains important for our economic growth and nation building today.

We have a massive pipeline of investment in the resources sector which will require labour. Resources companies tell me that the biggest single risk to some of the massive wealth creating projects proceeding is the fear that they will not be able to get enough skilled and semi-skilled workers for the complex construction task.

By 2036, Australia’s labour force will contract without migration – obviously an eventuality we simply can’t let occur.

Calwell’s vision has paid off in ways he never would have contemplated. I’m not sure he would have imagined Australia’s role in the Asian century and that our migration program would play a vital role in promoting our links with China, becoming our largest source country for migrants in 2011. And India and the Philippines coming in at third and fourth respectively.

And he wouldn’t have contemplated Australian multiculturalism playing such an important role in Australia presenting an open, cosmopolitan and outward looking face toward the world in the 21st century.

While he would not have contemplated these things, without him it would have taken many more years for them to come to fruition and Australia is a better place because he served as Immigration Minister.

It’s also right that we honour Arthur Calwell’s contribution as Leader of the ALP from 1960 to 1967. He, of course, came within a whisker of winning the 1961 election and, in fact, won a majority of the two party preferred vote.

However, he also fought tenaciously for the cause of Labor principles against the accomplished political operator RG Menzies through the divisive years of Vietnam and the social change of the 1960s.

We can draw on his dedication and tenacity in the cause of Labor in difficult times as Labor faces our current challenges.

It’s also instructive to draw on the wisdom of some of the previous presenters of the Calwell Memorial Lecture.

Building Australia: A Stark Choice for Voters

When Bob Hawke gave his Calwell Lecture in 1976, he did so to Labor faithful still shell-shocked by the dismissal of the Whitlam Government the previous year, and Labor’s sudden and devastating return to Opposition. He concluded with an analysis of where Labor “went wrong” and what to do about it.

Similarly, when Lindsay Tanner gave this lecture in 2003, he spent a lot of time talking about where Labor had gone wrong in the 2001 election and in Opposition more generally. Lindsay gave quite a firebrand speech, not all of which I agree with.

However, one paragraph did resonate with me in its relevance to today’s political discourse. Lindsay complained that the “intensity of political conflict has increased” and he chastised the then Labor Opposition for it.

“Violent language and macho posturing are no substitute for vision. Brutality in politics might entertain but it will never persuade,” he said.

“Courage and compassion require content, not calumny.”

I can’t think of better words to describe the approach of Australia’s current alternative government.

Mr Abbott will blow the whole place up if he thinks it’s in his narrow political interest. The national interest doesn’t enter into his calculations and, like a medieval warlord, he is happy to burn down the whole village if he thinks it will help him capture it.

He has pledged to terminate, and even reverse, significant economic and budgetary reforms: the National Broadband Network, the mining tax, the private health rebate means test. And, of course, he has engaged in an incredible feat of political contortionism to block the legislation needed to give effect to our Arrangement with Malaysia, designed and required to save lives at sea.

As Bob Hawke said of the Whitlam Government in his 1976 speech:

“In the storm of reactionary rhetoric which a Labor Government seems inevitably to set in motion, much of what is done is ignored.”

Indeed, I was particularly amused to read Hawke’s reference to Whitlam-era social and economic reforms that were “the subject of sustained reaction and attack in the Parliament and from interest groups aggrieved by the prospect of loss of advantage”.

To a certain degree, this is the inevitable story of Labor Governments – we reform and build, which leaves us open to scaremongering, negativity and carping. But, of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Just as the Liberals claimed the end of the world when the Whitlam Government introduced Medibank, when the Hawke Government introduced Capital Gains Tax and when the Keating Government expanded superannuation (to name just a few Labor reforms), so the Liberals oppose and seek to wreck now.

Bob Hawke spoke in 1976 of how difficult it was for Labor to govern without a majority in the Senate. When you consider that the current Government doesn’t have a majority in either House of Parliament, the Labor Government’s present achievements are all the more remarkable.

Importantly, we need to emphasise all the good work we are doing – in a hung Parliament – to increase superannuation from 9 to 12 per cent, to give Australians a greater share of the resources wealth that belongs to all of us, to build world-leading telecommunications infrastructure, to keep our economy strong as the world continues to struggle through the second round of global debt crises.

This is a record of achievement that any progressive government in the world would be pleased with, even envious of.

In recent weeks, there has been no shortage of people calling for new ideas for Labor, for us to renew what we stand for.

I’m reminded of JK Galbraith’s observation that, “To proclaim the need for new ideas has served, in some measure, as a substitute for them.”

And, of course, like every organisation – whether it be a company or a political party – Labor does need to reform, to adapt to the economic and social changes that have transformed Australia over the last 30 years.

We need to recognise that an organisational model which relies on a dominant manufacturing sector and strong unionisation is in need of modernisation; that the rise of social media has changed the way people want to be politically involved and active.

The success of previous Labor Governments have, in many ways, transformed Australia remarkably since the days of Calwell.

The Whitlam Government opened up tertiary education to people of working class backgrounds who previously never would have dreamed of having the life changing opportunity of university open to them.

Every so often, people ask whether Ben Chifley, the railwayman from Bathurst, could win preselection and rise to lead modern Labor. With respect, this is the wrong question.

The Ben Chifley, the smart and dedicated young working class man, of today would have had a range of high-paying professions available to him.

The challenge of modern Labor is, partly at least, to appeal to aspirations, dreams and hopes of the modern Chifleys.

Likewise, the far-reaching economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating Governments created 20 years of uninterrupted economic growth, which has opened up economic opportunities and aspirations for traditional Labor voters with far-reaching societal and political ramifications.

And, as a final example, the expansion of superannuation by Paul Keating has meant millions of people, who were previously destined to be clients of welfare for the rest of the lives, now have a privately funded retirement and a heightened interest and stake in Australia’s economic growth.

Now, it’s important that we are clear – if we adapt to the changes that continue to transform Australia, then Labor’s future is bright.

Australia needs a strong Labor, pushing reforms, providing hope and opportunity.

People have written Labor off before – in Chifley’s time, in Evatt’s, Calwell’s and Whitlam’s.

But our cause is too important for us to lie down and accept such defeatism.

Australia has changed – in no small part due to visionary Labor reforms. But the need for fairness, for progressive values, for a voice for the aspirations of the hard-working Australians everywhere is as strong as ever.

We are the Australia political party which best represents the liberal values, best expressed by that great thinker of the British Labour Party, Tony Crosland, who 30 years ago insisted on the pursuit of “equality and the protection of freedom – in the knowledge that, until we are truly equal, we will not be truly free”.

Labor is at its best when a party of the middle, dedicated to a social liberalism which recognises the role of government is ensuring each individual is able to fully participate in the opportunities of society and each to their full potential.

It means clearly articulating why we care so much about education, about indigenous inequality, about equal access to health care services. Because a truly liberal party believes that equity is the key to individual freedom and each individual being able to be all they possibly can be.


Arthur Calwell was an inspiration because of his tenacity, his belief that the force of Labor values would eventually win through and that we should, in the words of his autobiography, “Be Just and Fear Not”.

It was his vision, his fighting spirit, and his legacy in the modern diverse and cosmopolitan Australia that we currently enjoy that it is my honour to pay tribute to tonight.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Malcolm Farnsworth
© 1995-2024