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Labor must rekindle the flames of idealism to connect to real people

By Lindsay Tanner - posted Friday, 26 September 2003

Few Australian political leaders have influenced the shape of our modern society more than Labor’s Arthur Calwell.

History has unfairly portrayed him as a symbol of the White Australia Policy. He should be remembered as the very person who made the end of White Australia possible.

Arthur Calwell's immigration program made modern Australia. Calwell pushed the boundaries of racial inclusion at a time when it was extremely politically risky to do so. He had the heart and imagination to see the part this nation could play in relieving the suffering of millions of European refugees.


Through passionate advocacy and dogged determination, Arthur Calwell won community acceptance for an enormous influx of people he dubbed “New Australians” - and he was so successful that the term itself later came to be seen as condescending.

Our generation of political leaders now faces the challenge of achieving community acceptance of Asian, African and Middle Eastern immigration. As we continue the struggle for racial tolerance and understanding, we should never forget Arthur Calwell’s contribution.

The agonizing process of changing Australia into a truly multicultural society began with Calwell. Subsequent leaders from both sides of politics made important contributions to this process of transforming Australian society. Menzies, Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating advanced the cause.

All that progress came to a shuddering halt under John Howard in 2001.

For over thirty years Australian leaders from both sides of politics have chosen not to exploit latent racism in the Australian community for political gain, conscious of the longer term damage it could do to our country. John Howard had no such scruples. Under serious political pressure he responded with the cunning and morality of a cornered rat.

Right now helpless children are incarcerated in Australia because their parents sought a better life by trying to come to our country.


Labor’s support for the Howard Government’s brutal approach to asylum seekers in the 2001 election was the most traumatic experience of my political career. Labor’s capitulation to the tactics of group vilification and racial discrimination in 2001 may be forgiven, but should not be forgotten. That battle can't be fought again, but Labor can learn from this terrible episode.

Labor must never again allow itself to be forced to jettison fundamental values in pursuit of political survival.

Values are not a dispensable item for a political party. Without coherent values a party has no identity, no recognizable brand. In the wake of the asylum seekers debate, Labor stands on the brink of losing its identity.

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Arthur Calwell Memorial Address delivered in Melbourne on 19 September, 2003.

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About the Author

Lindsay Tanner is Shadow Minister for Communications and Shadow Minister for Community Relationships and the Labor Member for Melbourne.

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