SPEECH FOR LAUNCH OF
“BONEGILLA’S BEGINNINGS”

Mary Elizabeth Calwell
History House
Sydney, NSW
6 March 2008


I thank Ann for inviting me to launch this book that brings such responsible scholarship to our history.  It is important that we know how our society developed.  This book encapsulates the panorama of Australian history in one small piece of land from the first human settlement as we know it to the arrival of European explorers, pastoral settlement, the impact of World War 1, involvement in World War II and the arrival and integration of Displaced Persons seeking a new life free from the tragedies of political and social divisions.  It is a valuable resource for everyone who cares about these topics. Ann Smith has meticulously researched every aspect of this subject with detailed information that includes names and photos of many people from Bonegilla from settlers to soldiers and refugees and must be congratulated for this achievement.

The stories of indigenous peoples were recorded by some anthropologists and others but have only been more accessible in recent times.  The achievements of European explorers have tended to be ignored in modern history.  The contribution of settlers and the evolution of our distinctive egalitarian society is too rarely mentioned and in this context I would like to say that my father’s mother’s family lived for a time at Carlsruhe, near Kyneton, Victoria that is part this story.  Many people today have little idea of the impact of two World Wars on Australia.  Even more concerning is that the history of post-World War II immigration has become a maelstrom of myth and misrepresentation.  This book promotes awareness of these strands in our history and will hopefully encourage people to investigate them more fully.

Australia had a population of seven and a half million people at the end of World War II while 39,366 service personnel had been killed and many more wounded.  The Depression of the 1930s resulted in about one-third of the workforce being unemployed while a low birth rate meant there were relatively few young people.  Arthur Calwell became the first Australian Federal Minister for Immigration in 1945 and in his first speech announced a Scheme to complement the birth rate and bring people from Britain, Europe and the USA under existing legislation ‘to come here and make their homes.’  

When he became the third Federal Member for Melbourne in 1940, he said he represented the most cosmopolitan Electorate in Australia and condemned the treatment of Aborigines, Chinese and Lebanese people under laws of the time. As Chairman of the Aliens’ Classification and Review Committee from 1942 to 1944, he was responsible for the release of most detainees from internment.  Arthur Calwell supported the Melbourne Italian Community throughout  World War II and had many close friends among them. He had promoted  immigration for some years while being proud of his Australian identity and Irish, Welsh and American heritage.  Many different nationalities had settled in Australia but the population was predominantly from English and Celtic backgrounds.  However, they generally identified with a distinctive Australian culture.  In 1944, Calwell commented on some contemporary attitudes and wrote to Chifley declaring his determination to develop 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.

Post-War immigration was discussed while Curtin was Prime Minister and, when Chifley succeeded him in July 1945, Calwell suggested that there should be a Department of Immigration with him as Minister with certain functions.  This happened and the new Department began with 24 officers in Canberra, Melbourne and London while Tasman Heyes became Secretary of the Department.  Shortly afterwards, representatives of the Jewish Community visited Calwell to plead for survivors of the Holocaust and he allowed them to bring in their own typists to expedite applications so that Australia has the biggest number proportionately of survivors of the Holocaust outside Israel.

In his first speech as Minister for Immigration, Calwell stated Australia had learnt that that we could not hold this land for ourselves and our descendants unless we greatly increased our population needed for defence and economic expansion. He stated: ‘any immigration plan can only succeed if it has behind it the support and goodwill of the Australian people.’  Priority would be given to the re-establishment of Defence Personnel, provision of housing and of shipping devastated by the War.  He declared that the activities of people who fostered anti-migrant campaigns on religious or racial grounds could not be too strongly condemned as they caused discord and bitterness, harmful at home and abroad.  The media were hostile and James Gobbo recalled that the polls opposed immigration.  Calwell announced that his Department of Information was moving into a new phase ‘in the light of Australia’s post-war needs for markets, migrants and capital.’

On 19 June 1947, Arthur and Elizabeth Calwell and his Secretary, Bob Armstrong, left Rose Bay, Sydney arriving in London on 27 June.  The next morning, Calwell held a conference with UNRRA and the IRO to discuss how to bring Displaced Persons to Australia.  Between 8 and 22 July, they visited several European countries including camps in the American and British zones of Germany where they were appalled at some living conditions.  On 21 July, Calwell and A. J. Altmeyer, on behalf of Australia and the IRO, signed an Agreement that 12,000 Displaced Persons per year would come to Australia, conditions applying included no discrimination on race or religion, the right to bring families, all legal rights and protection of Australians, employment, the same wages and living conditions as Australians, unemployment benefits, the right to join a union and the right to obtain Australian citizenship.  Hundreds of thousands of British people wanted to come here and they had been a traditional source of migrants.  The Calwells and Armstrong also travelled to Ireland, the US and Canada visiting 23 countries in 12 1/2 weeks.  Calwell arranged shipping to the end of 1952 and 182,212 Displaced Persons arrived as assisted migrants from the end of 1947 to January 1952.

On that visit he met an Italian Government representative in Augusta, Sicily and discussed assisted immigration with the Italian Minister in London but a Peace Treaty was not signed until 1948.  He agreed to a Grand Opera Company coming here in 1948 that tested the attitude of Australians to Italians who had recently been our enemy.  It was a tremendous success so there were no more worries about the acceptance of Italian immigration.  He met a Greek representative in Cairo but a civil war was raging there.  He made agreements with some countries including the Netherlands and Malta.  He amended legislation to assist Chinese and Lebanese people while introducing legislation including an Act establishing Australian Citizenship.  He initiated the term ‘New Australian’ and many people came as sponsored migrants from several countries.

Bonegilla was established to educate non-English-speaking people about Australia and provide transitional accommodation and when the Genera Stuart Heinzelman arrived the media were extremely enthusiastic.  I knew many New Australians and was at the first naturalisation ceremony and the first Citizenship Convention.  Had they settled in cities when they arrived they would have been competing with returned servicemen and other Australians for jobs and the Scheme would have failed whereas they made major contributions in fulfilling needs and became successful.  In the official history of the ILO, it is stated that: ‘Australia was the only country which, from the beginning conducted its own orientation work.’  This important initiative brought traumatised people to live together far from their homelands.  The achievement of Arthur Calwell is even more impressive when it is realised that this was a unique scheme and it worked as also shown by the successful lives of many people who are here tonight.  Ann must be congratulated for recovering this important contribution to our history that is also being launched by Tiiu Salasoo.  Ann and many of you would agree with Geoffrey Blainey that the political decision that changed Australia the most was probably Calwell’s scheme ‘that landed a host of migrants from continental Europe.’


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