Arthur Calwell  by James Franklin and Gerry O’Nolan

Australian Biographical Monographs 20

 Connor Court Publishing, 2023

ISBN:  9781922815811

RRP: $19.95




Brian Harradine – by Keith Harvey

Australian Biographical Monographs 21

Connor Court Publishing, 2023

ISBN:  9781922815866

RRP: $19.95

Reviewed by Gerard Henderson


Judged by their electoral performances Arthur Calwell (1896-1973) was one of Australia’s least successful political campaigners – whereas Brian Harradine (1935-2014) was one of the most successful.

Calwell led the Labor Party to three successive election defeats – in 1961, 1963 and 1966.  Harradine, on the other hand, was elected as an Independent senator for Tasmania on six occasions – 1975, 1980, 1983, 1987, 1993 and 1998.  Only Labor’s Bert Evatt has matched Calwell’s performance as what some contemporary opponents called them – “three time losers”.  In modern times, no Independent senator has achieved Harradine’s success of winning six consecutive elections –  before retiring undefeated.

As series editor of Australian Biographical Monographs, Scott Prasser continues to make an important empirical contribution to an understanding of Australian history – as does Anthony Cappello at the publisher Connor Court.  There has not been a biography of Calwell for around half a century since Colm Kiernan’s hagiography Calwell:  A Personal and Political Biography (Nelson, 1978).  This is the first study of Harradine.  Both men played a significant role in Australian national politics – with particular reference to the labour movement.


James Franklin and Gerry O’Nolan have written a short biography of Arthur Calwell which is sympathetic but not uncritical – which is what good biographies should be.  Their emphasis is on Calwell’s role as Australia’s Minister for Immigration, in the Chifley Labor government, between July 1945 and January 1949 and his broadly successful campaign to encourage migration to Australia after the end of the Pacific War.  Calwell was a “populate-or-perish” type – being concerned that Australia’s small population led to security vulnerability during the Pacific War.  He aimed to rectify this by seeking migration from Europe, much of which was war-torn in 1945. He was the minister responsible for the “ten pound Poms” scheme aimed at attracting British immigration to Australia (at £10 per adult) – and not long after made possible the arrival in Australia of displaced East Europeans – many from the Baltic States.

However, what emerges from this study is a man who wanted to get to the top but lacked the courage to be ruthless enough to get there.  The authors report that Calwell, an employee of the Victorian Public Service, became secretary of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Labor Party while still in his teens and remained in this position until 1940.  The Labor MP for Melbourne was Dr William Maloney, a general practitioner. Elected to the seat of Melbourne in 1904 he retired on 27 August 1940 and died two days later at 87 years of age. I remember in the 1950s my uncle, who grew up in the Melbourne electorate, telling me that Calwell should have challenged Maloney in a pre-selection in the 1920s or 1930s. Robert Menzies and Bert Evatt, who were only two years older than Calwell, first entered politics at 31 years of age.  Calwell, soon after he turned 44.

My uncle believed that Calwell lacked courage.  The authors comment: “Calwell remained loyal to him [Maloney] and made no attempt to persuade the ‘little Doctor’ to stand aside or to seek preselection elsewhere”. Clearly, Calwell wanted a safe seat in the electorate where he lived and was prepared to wait until Maloney retired or died. It was a long prelude.

Bert Evatt – who liked to be called “the Doc” – succeeded the recently deceased Ben Chifley as Labor leader in June 1951.  He narrowly lost the 1954 election to Menzies – and was primarily responsible for the Labor Split that occurred the following year.  The authors write that, by 1954, the ALP “badly needed a leader with better anti-communist credentials, and better mental health, than Evatt”.  They concede that “arguably Calwell’s duty as deputy leader was to challenge for leadership”.  But he never did so.

One of Labor’s problems in the early 1950s was that its anti-communist base, much of which was Catholic, lacked a leader. Calwell was a Catholic who believed in Catholic social justice theory and an anti-communist who had spoken out strongly against the Communist Party of Australia.  But he declined to give leadership to the anti-communists within the Labor caucus.

The authors maintain that Calwell announced that he would stand for leadership if a motion to spill Evatt’s leadership in October 1955 was successful.  In fact, according to Robert Murray’s The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties (Cheshire, 1970) all that happened is that Calwell let some of his colleagues know of his intentions to challenge Evatt in the event of a leadership spill – but never made this public. In other words, he did  not take a leadership role. When the spill motion was moved by others in the Labor caucus on 20 October 1955, Calwell did not speak – although he voted for the unsuccessful motion, which was defeated by 52 to 28 votes.

Calwell made no move to challenge for the Labor leadership after Evatt’s subsequent election defeats in 1955 and 1958.  He waited (much as he had waited with respect to Maloney) until Evatt left politics per courtesy of an improper appointment as Chief Justice of NSW by the NSW Labor government in February 1960 – and then became Labor leader on 7 March 1960. In his memoir Be Just and Fear Not (Lloyd O’Neill, 1972), Calwell barely covered Labor affairs in the 1950s – and did not state that he ever attempted to challenge Evatt. Nor did John Murphy in his authoritative Evatt:  A Life (NewSouth, 2016).

According to the authors: “The Split and Evatt’s instability left little energy for taking the fight up to the Menzies Government, which cruised to successive victories in 1955 and 1958; the ALP did not choose to change leaders either time.”  That’s one way of putting it.  The other is to state that Calwell lacked courage when it came to taking a political risk.  Calwell narrowly lost the 1961 election, lost again in 1963 and led Labor to a disastrous defeat in 1966.  He hung around in politics – until stepping down before the December 1972 election – spending considerable time sniping at his successor Gough Whitlam.

The authors quote Calwell as stating in the House of Representatives  on 23 February 1972 as saying this: “I have made a lot of mistakes in my life and I have gone on record as saying that half the problems that I have encountered in life I have created for myself.” Well, at least he had a degree of self-awareness – with respect to half his problems.

On the plus side, as post-war Minister for Immigration, Calwell not only popularised the need for immigration – he also set up the structures in his department to make large scale immigration possible into the future.  The Coalition government elected in December 1949 continued this policy, with Harold Holt succeeding Calwell as immigration minister.  Holt administered the immigration portfolio with greater empathy concerning Asians who had made it to Australia in spite of the White Australia Policy.  Calwell always favoured a white Australia and in 1972, by which time he had become increasingly erratic, said that migrants of colour “live on the smell of an oily rag and breed like flies”.

That’s one example of Calwell’s negative mode. There are many others.  During World War I, Calwell was an avid anti-conscriptionist.  There was a plausible case for being for or against conscription in 1914-1918.  However, by the time of the Pacific War over two decades later, Australia’s security was at risk. Possibly as a result of an invasion by Imperial Japan. More likely, following an interdiction of Australia’s sea-lanes and air-lanes by Japan. Calwell was more committed to opposing conscription than to defending Australia.

Prime Minister John Curtin who, like Calwell, had opposed conscription during the First World War – introduced compulsory military service for a limited area in the South West Pacific in 1943. This was a necessary action by a responsible war-time prime minister.  But Labor’s Calwell and Eddie Ward gave Curtin a very hard time for taking a courageous decision in the national interest. For long periods, Curtin refused to speak to Calwell.  It was not Calwell’s finest hour.

The authors describe Calwell in the early 1940s as not a team player.  He not only opposed the limited form of conscription introduced by the Labor government but vehemently disagreed with Curtin’s position that preference should be given to winning the war rather than to social change in line with what Calwell called Labor’s “socialist policy”.  In short, Calwell was a “butter-before-guns” person at a time when Australia was at war.

The strength of this monograph turns on the fact that it is not a hagiography. Calwell could be extraordinarily bitter and resentful. But he readily forgave the mentally disturbed man who shot him through the car window during the 1966 election campaign, injuring his face.  Calwell was once an outspoken anti-communist. But towards the end of his life contributed to a pamphlet – Lenin: Through Australian Eyes (Novosti Press Agency 1970) – which extolled the Bolshevik Revolution in general and the Soviet Union dictator Vladimir Lenin in particular. Both matters are cited in the monograph.

The authors make the point that Calwell was a great family man much admired by his wife Elizabeth and daughter Mary Elizabeth.  He never got over the tragic death of his son Arthur Andrew, at age 11 due to leukemia. Also Calwell enjoyed a good personal relationship with Menzies.

Calwell was a great admirer of the Irish Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Daniel Mannix.  But when Mannix supported B. A. Santamaria and backed the Democratic Labor Party after the Labor Split – he once referred to the fact that the (then) ageing Catholic leader was facing “the angel of death”. Nevertheless he attended “Raheen” in Melbourne on 6 November 1963 and, according to the authors, “wept at his [Mannix’s] deathbed”. Calwell never supported Santamaria or his anti-communist Movement.

Arthur Calwell lived in a different generation when his views on the White Australia Policy were common.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the two organisations openly opposed to the WAP were the Communist Party of Australia and B.A. Santamaria’s Movement which became the National Civic Council.  An unusual unity ticket, to be sure. The authors argue, correctly, that the likes of Calwell should be judged according to the times in which they lived.

There is no doubt that Arthur Calwell played a very important role in the development of modern Australia – and one of the strengths of the monograph is that it records Calwell’s greatest achievement.  However, after reading the sympathetic but not uncritical portrayal of Calwell by Franklin and O’Nolan, it is understandable why some – including this reviewer –  believe that Australia was fortunate that he never became prime minister.



Like Arthur Calwell, Brian Harradine was born, lived and died a Catholic. Calwell’s funeral mass was held at St Patrick’s Cathedral Melbourne on 11 July 1973 – Harradine’s at St Mary’s Cathedral on 23 April 2014. Both were State Funerals. Calwell and Harradine were committed members of the Australian labour movement broadly defined – and both presented as supporters of what was once called the working class.  Calwell was wont to quote from the Catholic social justice theory he learnt as a boy and young man – initially at school, later in various Catholic organisations and at church.  As Keith Harvey points out, Harradine left “few published documents penned by him”. His many speeches in the Senate focus on the family and industrial relation matter – but he did not frequently refer to the social justice encyclicals of Pope Leo XIII or Pope Pius XI.

Brian Harradine had many political enemies on the left.  Occasionally sneering references were made to his Catholicism by reference to him as “the father of 13 children”. Brian married Barbara Ward in 1962 – they had six children.  She died in 1980 and Brian later married Marian Sheehan, a widow with seven children.  As the author mentions, all Brian’s “children and stepchildren were in the Senate gallery for his valedictory speech”.  He was very much a family man.

I first saw Brian Harradine in 1968.  He was reading newspapers in what was then the Newspapers reading room in the State Library of Victoria on Melbourne’s Swanston Street.  At the time, Harradine was not just reading the news – he was the news.  And he remained newsworthy – as Keith Harvey demonstrates in this monograph – until his retirement close to half a century later.

And now for some background. Brian Harradine was born in Quorn, South Australia in January 1935 but the family soon settled in Bordertown, not far from the South Australia/Victoria border.  After school, one of Brian’s sisters joined the Josephite order – the Sisters of St Joseph founded by Mary McKillop. And he joined the Passionist Brothers but did not take vows and left after three years.  He worked in the South Australian railways and later with the Postmaster-General Department before  accepting a job in Hobart Tasmania  in 1959 working for the Clerks Union. He soon moved to the Tasmanian Branch of the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA).  Both unions at the time were controlled by anti-communist forces in the labour movement.

Harradine was recruited by John Maynes, who was an honorary senior official in the Federated Clerks Union and a full time official in B.A. Santamaria’s National Civic Council (previously termed The Movement). While in South Australia, Harradine was a member of the Democratic Labor Party for about 18 months. He said he was never a member of the NCC.

The Democratic Labor Party was formed following the Labor Party Split of 1955.  The DLP, which gave its preferences to the Coalition, was strong in Victoria and, later, Queensland – but had little support in South Australia or Tasmania.  Soon after arriving in Tasmania, Harradine joined the Australian Labor Party. In 1964, aged 29, he was elected secretary of the Hobart Trades and Labor Council (later known as the Tasmanian TLC). As secretary of the TTLC, Harradine won election as the Tasmanian trade union movement’s representative on the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) executive.  In early 1968, the ALP’s Tasmanian branch elected Harradine as one of its two delegates to the ALP federal executive.

So, while still a young man, Harradine had been elected to the membership of the ALP federal executive and the ACTU executive.  At a time when the labour movement was divided between left and right – Harradine gave strong support to the anti-communists in the union ranks.

It was for this reason that, what Santamaria called the pro-communist left in the ALP opposed Harradine’s election to the ALP federal executive.  He responded, perhaps unwisely, that he was being opposed by “the friends of the Communists”.  Unwise, but true.

At the time, Gough Whitlam had his own problems with the left of his party. The journalist Max Walsh, who gained access to the minutes of the ALP federal executive, described the action taken against Harradine as a “kangaroo court”.  Walsh observed that the opponents of Harradine in the ALP federal executive were also the opponents of Whitlam – namely Bill Hartley (Victoria), Martin Nicholls (South Australia), Joe Chamberlain (Western Australia) and Senator Lionel Murphy (NSW).

Whitlam supported Harradine’s appointment to the federal executive but the motion was lost on a show of hands.  Opposing Whitlam were his Caucus colleagues Lionel Murphy, Sam Cohen, Martin Nicholls and Jim Keefe. Whitlam regarded this as a repudiation of his leadership.  Especially since Murphy and Cohen were respectively leader and deputy leader of the Labor Opposition in the senate. Whitlam chose to resign and re-contest the leadership.  This put Harradine at the centre of the national political debate in Australia.

In a surprise move, the Victorian left-winger Jim Cairns had decided to challenge Whitlam.  Whitlam won narrowly by 38 to 32 votes. Phillip Adams was Cairns’ unofficial campaign manager for the leadership challenge which went close to de-authorising Whitlam.

It was Whitlam’s near defeat by Cairns in 1968 – and Labor’s failure to win seats in Victoria in the 1969 election – that convinced Whitlam to reform the Labor Party in Victoria, then controlled by Bill Hartley.  Labor came to office in December 1972 having won seats in Victoria for the first time since the Labor Split in 1955.  The Whitlam government lasted three years over two terms.  It had a number of rogue ministers who caused Labor considerable harm – among them Lionel Murphy (attorney-general) and Jim Cairns (treasurer),  both strong opponents of Harradine.

From his early thirties until his retirement at age 73, Harradine was a player in Australian national politics. He was finally expelled from the ALP in 1975 but remained on the ACTU executive until he entered politics.   Harradine was aligned with Santamaria’s NCC from around 1959 until the NCC split in 1982.  However, the NCC had no official membership list and, consequently, he was not a member of the NCC.  But, at the very least he was a fellow traveller.  In the event, Santamaria wanted Harradine to remain as head of the Tasmanian TLC and on the ACTU executive. But Harradine decided to try out for politics.  This indicated that Santamaria in no sense controlled Harradine.

Keith Harvey traces Harradine’s Senate career in some detail. In December 1975, a Senate quota in Tasmania was 20,211 votes.  Harradine scored 28,561 primary votes in the December 1975 double dissolution election and was the third candidate elected after the Liberal and Labor parties.  He won his highest vote in 1980 (40,640) and his lowest in 1998 (24,254).  The author points out that Harradine did little formal campaigning and held no public rallies.  He primarily kept in touch with his supporters throughout Tasmania by personal contacts (mainly home meetings) and his relatively high profile in a small state.  He also enjoyed the support of many Christians due to his social conservatism.

The peak of Harradine’s success as a senator occurred after the election of John Howard-led Coalition in 1996 – resulting in Harradine having the balance of power in the Senate.  The Howard government agreed with a Harradine amendment to the Therapeutic Goods Amendments Bill 1996 which ensured that the abortion-inducing RU486 drug could not be imported into Australia without the permission of the Minister for Health – previously this had been the decision of the Commonwealth Department of Health.  Harvey points out that the Howard government’s decision was not part of any decision to give special grants to Tasmania.  Here the facts are contrary to the prevailing mythology.

Harradine did support the partial – but not the full – privatisation of Telstra, following which certain benefits flowed to Tasmania per courtesy of the Howard government.  Harradine also played a crucial role in passing the Native Title Act following negotiations with John Howard.  He was criticised by some Indigenous Australians for this – but Harvey makes a convincing case that Harradine’s role was supportive of native title and that, two decades after the legislation was passed, no attempt has been made to change it.

Harradine was not an easy touch.  He refused to support the implementation of a Goods & Services Tax in Australia, despite the fact that the Howard government obtained a mandate to do so at the 1998 election.  As a result, Howard had to deal with the left-of-centre Democrats to get the legislation through the Senate and was required to make a number of policy concessions.

Always an anti-communist, Harradine took a strong stance against the visits to Australia of the Romanian dictator – Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1988 and Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2003.  He remained a strong supporter of the rights of workers.  Towards the end of his monograph, Keith Harvey writes:

At his retirement, and after his death in 2014, tributes flowed freely to Brian Harradine.  Frequently he was described as “wily”, a good negotiator who played his cards close to his chest, sought the best deal and kept everyone guessing until the last minute as to where his vote would go.  He operated as a genuine independent, beholden to no other political force.

Speaking after Harradine’s state funeral, John Howard said:  “He was a just man and he identified with principles and stuck with them.  He never deviated. If he gave his word on something he stuck to it.  When he wouldn’t give his word on something, you knew you had no hope of getting it.”

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Until the publication of the work by James Franklin and Gerry O’Nolan, Arthur Calwell had almost been forgotten.  Their monograph reminds readers of Calwell’s important role in the shaping of what became modern Australia through the encouragement of immigrants who were not Anglo-Celtic in addition to those who were.

Keith Harvey’s study of Harradine reminds us of a time when the labour movement in Australia was divided between pro-communists and anti-communists. Harradine played a significant role in pushing back against the pro-communist left in the trade unions and in his unique contribution to policy-making as a senator.

The Australian Biographical Monograph Series demonstrators that authors can paint important biographical portraits, with supporting documentation, in some 20,000 words in an increasing time-challenged world.

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Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute – and author most recently of Cardinal Pell: The Media Pile-On & Collective Guilt (Connor Court, 2021).