‘Curse the Press!’: Arthur Calwell’s battles with the Australian media and the perils of resentment politics

Presented by ANU College of Arts & Social Sciences

Arthur Augustus Calwell was Australia’s Minister for Information (1943-49) and its first Minister for Immigration (1945-49). These roles required strong governmental and press co-operation in pursuit of the national interest. Yet Calwell’s relationship with the press was often hostile. He instigated libel actions against newspapers he felt had slandered him, and denounced the owners of the Murdoch and Packer empires as treacherous fifth-columnists. Calwell, in turn, was lampooned in the media as both a buffoon and an authoritarian who threatened Australian liberal freedoms and the country’s international reputation. He was commonly caricatured as an angry white cockatoo, repeatedly shrieking ‘Curse the Press’.
In this paper I examine the relationship in more detail, centred upon the crucial wartime and postwar reconstruction years of 1941-1949. The tumultuous dynamic undoubtedly reflected ideological and political differences between media organisations and the ALP generally. A deeper explanation lies in Calwell’s personality and what I term his ‘agitator’ style of leadership and ‘resentment’ politics: a dualistic tendency towards deep moralism, empathy, supreme self-confidence and constructive creativity, and contrariness, bitterness, dogmatism and aggression. This duality was mirrored in his relationship with the press, which oscillated between envy and resentment, embrace and rejection. Yet resentment politics did not completely characterise Calwell’s outlook and behaviour. His visionary post-war immigration program, for example, successfully co-opted the press to sell his immigration message to Australia and the world.

DR GWENDA TAVAN is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy at La Trobe University. She has published widely on the politics and history of immigration in Australian and global contexts, leadership studies, political communication, citizenship and national identity. Her current projects include a monograph on Arthur Calwell, and a political history of the Commonwealth Department of Immigration.