SPEECH: Arthur Calwell Memorial Lecture, Thursday 30 April 2015








Arthur Calwell once said, ‘I am Labor because I am Australian and Australian because I am Labor’.

He was talking about a sense of Australian identity that is based on values, not on birth.

A sense of Australian identity based on choices, not on chance.

To be Australian, Calwell was saying, is to believe as Labor believes, in fairness, in egalitarianism, in standing together in good times and in bad — what in other countries is called solidarity and in Australia we call mateship.

He was talking about the confidence and hope that come from living in country with both the oldest and some of the newest cultures on earth. A successful multicultural nation.

To be Australian is to love this country and to want to make it better in equal measure.

That is a fitting idea from the man who was Australia’s first Immigration Minister.

There were two founding principles beneath Calwell’s support for immigration. One was the understanding that immigration is good for Australia. The understanding that immigrants bring their skills and talents with them; the understanding that migrants create jobs and strengthen the economy. They grow and build and strengthen our nation; they contribute new ideas and innovations. Migrants contribute $200 billion to the Australian economy annually.1

Calwell understood, as Labor understands, unity is strength, and diversity is wealth.

Calwell’s second founding principle was that Australia has a responsibility as a good global citizen. While the idea of ‘British migrants first’ was very popular in the media and in parts of the community, Calwell signed an agreement with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) in 1947 to bring 12,000 Displaced Persons from refugee camps in Europe to Australia every year.

It is absolutely true to say that the post-war immigration program run, and championed by Arthur Calwell changed Australia.

What is not always realised is the strength of the opposition which he overcame.

The Labor Government came under sustained and damaging criticism in Parliament and from the press for offering refuge to those who surely, in the late 1940s, needed it most: Europe’s Jews. Refugees from Displaced Persons camps were regarded with just as much suspicion. Frankly racist arguments were advanced. Newspapers caricatured migrants as slackers, a drain on Australian welfare, lazy, dirty and unskilled — sadly familiar and as false then as it is today.

In fact a 2000 study found that first-generation migrants depend less on social security than Australians who were born here.2

The success of the post-war immigration scheme can be largely attributed not only to Calwell’s advocacy but to his organisation.  He coined the term ‘New Australian’ to emphasise that migrants were part of the Australian community. The Immigration Department put great effort into orienting New Australians in their new lives, with the aim of minimising conflict between old traditions and new homes. To encourage cultural exchange in the other direction, Calwell encouraged “New Australian festivals” where migrants could introduce their new neighbours to their traditions.

Australia’s multiculturalism was not left to haphazard chance, but carefully nurtured by Government policy.

As a child of that multiculturalism, I was particularly disappointed to see the Abbot Government’s cuts of $11.5 million from the Building Multicultural Communities Program[1] and $53.7 million from the SBS. [2] – cutting away at programs that contribute so strongly to our social cohesion.

Jobs and housing were not left up to chance in the 1940s and 1950s, but carefully planned, allaying fears in the community and from many in the Trade Union movement of migrants crowding suburbs and taking employment.

Calwell understood that a migration program which undermined working conditions for Australian workers, or stretched the services and resources of Australian cities beyond capacity, would undermine all his efforts to gain community support. The need for planned migration which meets Australia’s needs and fits within Australia’s capacity remains an underpinning principle of Labor’s policy.

I still remember my own parents calling themselves New Australians.

For the 50th anniversary of the Snowy Mountains Scheme I went to Cooma with my family. I’d always thought my father was a bit quirky, but as I walked around the park there in Cooma, with the flags of so many nations flying, I saw hundreds of men like him: Strong straight bodies worn by work; with the women they loved faithfully and the children they were proud of; the men and women who built the Snowy showing their children and grandchildren the concrete representation of the deep and abiding contribution they have made to our nation.

When we talk about the benefits of multiculturalism in Australia, the conversation often starts with cuisine. Sometimes it goes no deeper, or only as far as the wonderful diversity of cultural experiences now available to Australians in every city and suburb around the country.

In a country where, still, too many people express fears of the effects of migration, of changes to our country’s laws, values, sense of self, it’s tempting to reduce multiculturalism to cooking and costumes. Nothing’s changed, the argument goes, we’ve only gained the opportunity to get a kebab on our way home from the pub.

Of course that’s wrong. Of course Australia has been changed by migration. A nation is a collective project to which we all contribute.

We are changed by the hope and confidence new migrants invest in their country of choice; the preparedness to work hard; the sacrifice they have made – leaving behind everything familiar and comfortable for the uncertainty of starting again in a new place.

Many migrants bring with them a financial investment – the professional skills or capital they bring with them; but also something less tangible but more powerful: the confidence that drives them to do well in a new place; the hope that life will be better for their children because they’ve taken this chance.

An Australia which had not been changed and challenged by welcoming so many new citizens, new languages, new ideas, in the 1940s and 1950s, would not have been able to so successfully welcome later groups of migrants from countries outside Europe.

This cooking and costumes attitude misses what I believe to be the most important thing — the deepening of our links to other countries.

And it misses the point that the changes don’t threaten what’s best and strongest about us.

Because of our multicultural heritage we have not just government-to-government and business-to-business links with other countries, we have people-to-people links too.  This builds deeper understanding and connections. We have become a nation whose ties to the world are not theoretical, not only economic, not simply formal agreements or alliances. They are ties of kinship and friendship to pretty much every nation on earth, ties much easier to maintain in these days of email and Skype than they were in my parents’ time.

There are, of course, those who do not understand that these bonds across the globe strengthen our country — who demand migrants abandon and denounce their heritage to prove their loyalty.

A halal butcher from Lakemba once told me that becoming an Australian citizen was like having a second child: you can’t imagine you’ll ever love another child as much as you love this first precious baby, but then your second child comes and you find that you don’t have to divide your love, but the love has grown to be more than enough for both. So too, he explained, he didn’t love the land of his birth any less, but that did not diminish the love and loyalty he had for Australia.

That’s why I love saying our citizenship pledge, and that’s why I think children should learn it at school. “Australians by choice: say:

From this time forward
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.

Isn’t this a creed we can all sign up to?

We are diverse, we are open, we are forward looking, but we are united by our democratic values, the rights and liberties we hold dear, and a legal framework which holds every Australian equal.

Calwell’s immigration decisions looked forward, to Australia’s future, and outward, to Australia’s place in the world. He strove to communicate his vision — Labor’s vision — of a strong, confident, more diverse Australia. He was largely successful.

It is the Labor way to look outward and forward — and it is a guiding value in my own Shadow portfolio, Foreign Affairs — unlike the Liberal way to play to a domestic audience and look nostalgically toward the past.

Australia played a key role in the founding of the United Nations, and in shaping it into more than a club for the powerful nations of the world, but into a forum for all and a focus for the development of international law and of humanitarian efforts.  Our belief in the importance to our national interest of having a role in shaping multilateral organisations, is why Labor campaigned for Australia to have a spot on the UN Security Council.

Labor has always believed that the path to a secure and stable world requires the recognition and protection of human rights for all people. This was the position Doc Evatt so successfully prosecuted at the formation of the United Nations, and it is our position now.

Given that, we must also bear in mind that we cannot expect others to behave in ways we do not. If we believe in the importance of multilateral commitments to human rights, we cannot, as this government has done, respond to criticism of our own conduct with complaints about being ‘lectured’ by the UN. This is why I signed Australia up to the optional protocol to CEDAW when I was Minister for Women – because we cannot ask other countries to be accountable to internationally agreed human rights instruments while refusing to be accountable ourselves.

Above all, Labor believes that to chart Australia’s course in the world we must have a long-term vision. We must have a plan for our engagement with the changing world that extends beyond the news cycle – that extends decades into the future.

When Labor was in government, we commissioned the Asian Century White Paper – recognising that in the decades ahead, the changes in our region will have a major impact on Australia.  One of the first things this Government did was to erase the Asian Century White Paper in what has been described as an electronic book-burning – with nothing put in its place.

That’s why we announced many months before the Abbott Government that we would sign up to the Asian Infrastructure Bank, and why we welcomed the Government’s eventual agreement.

Labor has always looked further than our borders and the electoral cycle. We have always believed that acting according to our values, being guided by our sense of what is right and what is Australian, is not just ethical, but also in our national interest.

In the coming century, we must think strategically and long term about our engagement with our region. We must continue to look forward, to Australia’s future, and outward, to our place and role in the world.

The challenges we face are different from those faced by the post-war Labor Government of which Arthur Calwell was such an important part, but our guiding values remain the same.

The Australian values, the Labor values, of fairness, of egalitarianism, of lending a hand to those in need both here at home and, as Ben Chifley said, anywhere we may.

Of striving to make our country stronger, fairer, more secure – to build a better Australia.