It will stand as one of the best political speeches delivered in Australia’s Federal Parliament one of the most resounding and prescient, and one of the bravest.

I am referring to the speech written by Graham Freudenberg and delivered by the then-Opposition Leader, Arthur Calwell, on 4 May 1965. The speech opposed the decision of the Menzies Government to send a battalion of Australian troops to Vietnam. Part of the speech is reprinted in this issue of New Matilda, in the excerpt we are running from Freudenberg’s memoir, A Figure of Speech.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

Calwell’s speech was brave because it dared to go against popular opinion of the time, which firmly supported America’s intensification of the Vietnam War. It was only after the setbacks of the 1968 Tet Offensive, that public opinion shifted towards an anti-American position. The Labor Party had to endure a number of further defeats (and some may argue that their policy on Vietnam contributed to their disastrous result in the 1966 election).

But the significance of the 1965 Calwell speech was that it signaled the Labor Party’s resolve to stand up and be counted on matters of principle. It signaled a clear-sighted attempt to advocate on behalf of policies or measures that might not be popular in the short term, but would be vindicated and applauded in the future.

I worry that this approach to politics is now, increasingly, looking quaint and outmoded.

Last week, the New Matilda editorial attacked the ALP for not standing up to the acknowledged inadequacies and dangers of Howard’s Anti-Terror laws as a matter of principle, rather than trying to cynically manage the political process to minimise flak from the Government and commentariat. This week’s raids in Melbourne and Sydney will, of course, make it less likely that the ALP can rise to the challenge soon.

What would be of enormous help to the ALP at the moment would be a strong commitment to a set of underlying principles acting as a guarantee of the basic freedoms of all Australians. The relativism and jockeying for short-term political leverage that characterises much of every debate in Canberra is all too apparent even now, while we contemplate the possibility that police will be able to detain and ‘control’ people who have not committed a crime. (See Kirk McKenzie’s analysis of the second draft of the Anti-Terrorism Bill in this issue of New Matilda.)

Ironically, there is growing interest in the advantages of a statutory Bill of Rights from the Coalition side of politics. Steven Ciobo, the Liberal member for Moncrieff, stood up and enunciated his support for such an idea in Parliament last week and an edited version of that speech is available (link: here).

New Matilda‘s campaign for a Human Rights Act for Australia continues apace. After the Sydney launch on 5 October, the campaign will move to Canberra on 5 December (where it will be launched by Fr Frank Brennan SJ AO, author and long-time human rights activist), and then to Adelaide on 7 December (where it will be launched by The Hon John von Doussa QC, President of the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission). For more information and details of how to book go to New Matilda.

Meanwhile, the guarana seems to have been diluted in Mr Howard’s herbal tea. Not only did we not have to be distracted on Melbourne Cup Day by the prospect of something of national significance happening in Canberra, but now we learn that the Senate will actually be given time to read the Anti-Terrorism legislation before passing it.

New Matilda subscribers have continued to write and email and telephone their parliamentarians to protest the unholy haste with which we are being lumbered with Howard’s laws. We thank those subscribers and encourage others to persist in contacting your representatives. It may be hard to tell if your calls have contributed to the Government’s more measured approach of late. But you can be sure that, if you hadn’t written/emailed/called, your silence would have been interpreted by them as a solid endorsement of the proposed measures.

New Matilda has helped organise a performance entitled ‘SEDITION!’ in Sydney on Sunday, 13 November, to protest against the section of Howard’s legislation dealing with this outdated charge, which even Philip Ruddock admits is badly drafted. The performers confirmed for ‘SEDITION!’ are Max Gillies, Gerry Connolly, Wil Anderson, Eddie Perfect, the Wharf Revue (Jonathon Biggins, Phil Scott, Drew Forsythe, Genevieve Lemon), and the boys from The Chaser. Speakers will include Tom Keneally, Chas Savage, Spencer Zifcak and José Borghino (New Matilda), and Dave Madden (Get Up). The show will be hosted by Wendy Harmer and Andrew Denton. This performance has been sold out. We thank all who bought tickets and supported this event.

For more information about the sedition section of the Anti-Terrorism laws, we refer you to a briefing paper developed by Dr Ben Saul of the UNSW Faculty of Law (link here).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.