McCALLUM, John Archibald (1892–1973)
Senator for New South Wales, 1950–62 (Liberal Party of Australia)

John McCallum was that relatively rare phenomenon, a scholar in Parliament. Intellectual, teacher, broadcaster and senator, he lived a turbulent private and public life. Born in Mittagong on 31 July 1892, John was the eldest surviving child of Catherine Margaret, née Protheroe (born in Brecon, Wales, in 1865), and Archibald Duncan McCallum (born on 26 January 1857 in Glasgow). The McCallum family, who arrived in New South Wales when Archibald Duncan was four, established a prosperous coach-building business in Mittagong. John later told the Senate: ‘My father and his brother were the proprietors, but they . . . were not mere entrepreneurs . . . everyone in the shop worked on a level of equality’.[1]

John attended Mittagong and Bowral public schools, and Sydney Boys’ High School. He became a pupil teacher in 1910, went to teachers’ college, and taught at Parramatta High School. He enlisted in the AIF on 27 September 1915, embarked overseas on 23 December 1915, and served with the 55th Battalion in Egypt, France and Belgium during 1916 and 1917. He was wounded in action, in the right leg, at Polygon Wood on 28 September 1917, and was in hospital in France and then England, being discharged and repatriated on 21 April 1919. His experiences in France strengthened a Francophilia that lasted throughout his life; he became especially upset when the Nazis entered Paris during World War II. In the Senate on one occasion, he spoke at some length about France and his knowledge of it, saying he had ‘been studying that country’ all his life.[2]

On his return from the army in 1919 McCallum studied history at the University of Sydney under George Arnold Wood. His love of history, and his affection for Wood as a genuine ‘liberal’ were long-lasting. On Wood’s death in 1929 McCallum wrote to his widow: ‘I never had a better friend and I never knew a better man’. McCallum’s political activism began while he was a student when he became a member of the central committee of the short-lived Public Questions Society, which formed study groups on a range of national and international political issues. He became an excellent debater, and four years after graduating was a member of the debating team representing the University of Sydney against Oxford University in 1925. As a student he loved English literature, later telling his fellow senators: ‘I remember one night when I heard Christopher Brennan deliver a lecture which altered the whole course of my reading, and which has influenced me right to the present day’. But it was in history that he gained First Class Honours and the University Medal in 1921.[3]

From 1921 McCallum was active in the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), teaching history and economics at Broken Hill and Newcastle, and contributing to its journal, Australian Highway. He resumed high school teaching in 1922, taught history at Grafton High School from 1924 to 1927, returned to Sydney to teach at Canterbury High School for two years, and went back to Grafton High School as deputy headmaster from 1929 to 1931. On his second and final return to Sydney in 1931, he again taught English and history at Canterbury High School, where he trained the school debating team, which won a state‑wide competition in 1935. After a period at Sydney Boys’ High School, he became, from 1937 until 1947, an examiner for the Education Department, working at its head office in Bridge Street. His last position before entering the Senate was as a lecturer in history at Balmain Teachers’ College from 1947 to 1949. During this period he wrote historical articles, such as ‘Lachlan Macquarie’, which appeared in Australian Quarterly.[4]

While a university student, he met a bright young student at Sydney Teachers’ College, Eda Lockwood. She had grown up in a log cabin on an orange orchard in Matcham on the central coast, but had won a scholarship to Newcastle High School and later to Sydney Teachers’ College. She specialised in remedial education, sharing a class with the novelist, Christina Stead, and at the beginning of 1921 began teaching mentally handicapped children at a school called ‘Mayvilla’. She and McCallum had a lot in common: both were members of the WEA, voted Labor, were well read, and were friends of Marie Byles, the first woman solicitor in New South Wales.

John married twenty-year-old Eda on 17 December 1921 at Christ Church, Sydney. She resigned from teaching on her marriage, as was then required. Immediately after their wedding, they both attended the WEA summer school. They set up home at Concord West, where their first child, Douglas McCrae, was born on 11 September 1922, followed by Barbara Lindsay (the author’s mother) in 1924, Wallace Lincoln in 1925, and Jacqueline Mary in 1928. During 1927 and 1928 the marriage seems to have reached a crisis point, though this was temporarily resolved. Just before Jacqueline was born, Eda developed Parkinson’s disease.

While teaching at Grafton High the second time, McCallum met Edith Ellen Ernestina (Ena) Fay, who was a student in his fifth‑year English class, and who later became his second wife. By 1932 the marriage between John and Eda had ended, with John moving to live with his mother in Hurlstone Park. He continued to support the family financially, paying for a housekeeper, and many years later bought Eda a small house in French’s Forest, where she lived for the last years of her life. The divorce became final in 1938, and on 27 November 1940 John married Ena, now a music teacher. They were happy for a while, but this marriage also broke down. John later lived alone in a flat in Maroubra, finally settling in a pleasant suburban house at 124 Middle Harbour Road, Lindfield.[5]

In the 1920s, McCallum, a strong Labor man with a special interest in foreign affairs, became a member of the Round Table. In 1922 and 1923 he joined the editorial board of New Outlook, contributing articles on politics and foreign affairs. In 1925 he joined the University of Sydney Labor Society under the presidency of H. V. Evatt, and around the same time became a director of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Institute of Political Science, presenting papers at its summer schools and publishing articles on Australian politics in its journal, Australian Quarterly, and its edited books, Trends in Australian Politics and Federalism in Australia. McCallum gradually became disillusioned with the ALP, and resigned from it some time after J. T. Lang was defeated in the 1927 election because, as he wrote later: ‘I distrusted Lang and refused to do anything to help him’.[6]

In 1931, when he returned from Grafton, he was persuaded by his next-door neighbour to join the right-wing All For Australia League (AFAL). When the AFAL decided that same year to join with the Nationalist Party to form the United Australia Party, McCallum’s intense dislike of the Nationalist Party resulted in his rejoining the ALP, describing it in an article in the Australian Quarterly as the ‘party of momentum’. He then served on its federal executive, and was elected New South Wales state president.[7]

McCallum now tried to enter Parliament, standing unsuccessfully for Labor for the seats of Lakemba in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly in 1932, and the House of Representatives seat of Martin in 1934. Thereafter, he gradually became disillusioned with the party for the second time, remaining bitterly opposed to the autocratic Lang, who retained control of its New South Wales branch. He saw the ALP as lacking sufficient interest in, and knowledge of, foreign affairs as it followed a policy of appeasement under the influence of the Catholic Church that in 1937, he thought, led it to adopt a neutral policy on the Spanish Civil War. Strongly opposed to Labor’s isolationism, he left the party for good in 1938. Some insight into his understanding of the ALP thereafter can be gained from a speech in the Senate on 26 August 1958: the ALP, he said, in its early days was a native product setting out to right ‘certain definite wrongs that existed in this country’, but after 1916 socialist forces from the Continent had entered the ALP and it had never got rid of them.[8]

As Labor politics lost their appeal, McCallum turned to other ways of expressing his political views. As well as letters to the press, he reviewed books for the Sydney Morning Herald and wrote pamphlets such as Hitler and the Trade Unions. From 1937 to 1949 he was a commentator on international affairs for ABC radio, notably on a schools program, ‘The World We Live In’, and on ‘Personalities in the Public Eye’. During the war he regularly gave a foreign affairs commentary on 2BL after the seven o’clock news, and because of his inability to say ‘r’ was affectionately known thereafter as ‘submawines in the meditewanean’. He continued to participate in the Australian Institute of Political Science, representing it at the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi in 1947.[9]

After seven years as a non-party citizen, in 1944 he became a foundation member of the Liberal Party, and served on its state council in 1945. He was fiercely anti-communist, a position he shared with his eldest son, though not his two daughters, both of whom joined the Australian Communist Party in the 1940s and remained active members until the internal splits in 1970.

At the federal election of 1949, McCallum was successful in his bid for the Senate. He would be re-elected in 1951 and again in 1955. In his first speech, he spoke in support of Menzies’ attempt to outlaw the Communist Party: ‘I cannot find any justification for allowing to exist a society or organization that intends to subvert by force and violence the whole of existing society . . . I do not regard communism and fascism as being opposed. I regard them as being different species of the same hateful thing’.[10]

He served on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs from 1952 to 1955 and 1959 to 1962, a committee whose formation he supported in his first speech and again the following year. He spoke with great knowledge but often, it seems now, with little force, in debates on foreign affairs and defence matters. He referred to the importance of defending the ‘great tradition of European civilization’, and of resisting communism. He consistently argued that Australia was European not Asian, but should attempt to understand Asian traditions, on one occasion advocating the creation of ‘schools of study on Asia’ in Australian universities.[11]

His love of history was evident throughout his Senate career, and he frequently remarked, in the Senate and outside it, that a better knowledge of history would enable people to conduct politics more wisely. In one of his later Senate speeches, he urged the writing of Australian history from the original documents, since no substantial history of Australia had yet been written. He praised the establishment of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.[12]

It is not surprising that a man with such a love of books and learning was a member of the Library Committee from 1950 to 1962, and of the National Library Inquiry Committee from 1956 to 1957. He praised the National Library for its service to parliamentarians and government departments, and for keeping ‘the record of our national life, and the keeping of archives including our national literature’. He urged the construction of a national library building in Canberra.[13]

Most notable, perhaps, in his Senate career, was his role in the development of Canberra. At the time, Canberra was small and poorly developed, with a housing shortage, many temporary buildings and poor footpaths and gardens. McCallum, like many parliamentarians, stayed at the Hotel Kurrajong while Parliament was in session. He began a campaign in the Senate, pressing for something to be done for Canberra. On 12 July 1951 he asked the Minister for the Interior: ‘Does the Minister consider that the architecture of Canberra’s buildings is dull and unimaginative?’ A little later, in 1952, he asked whether any steps were being taken to attract private industry to the Australian Capital Territory, and the following year, on 9 September 1953, returned to the question of the undistinguished character of many of Canberra’s buildings, seeking some guiding principles on attitudes to temporary buildings, an architectural competition and the need for lasting standards.[14]

On 7 October 1953, in the Appropriation Bill debates, he made a major speech on the subject. He outlined the history of Canberra, and praised the ‘pleasantness, picturesqueness, and absolute grandeur’ of the site, the excellence of the original plan, and the attractions of having so many trees. He regretted that the site was not matched by its buildings, the only one of substance being the Australian War Memorial. He deplored the temporary government offices, which he considered ‘utterly unworthy to be the government offices of the smallest State’. He noted that when Canberra was first made the national capital, politicians and bureaucrats stayed for as little time as possible, but that now many regarded Canberra as their home. ‘This city’, he said, ‘should become a community’. He considered that if Canberra were costly, that state of affairs had ‘flowed from an obligation placed upon the Parliament by the Constitution’. Canberra, he said, was ‘a most difficult place for any stranger to find his way around’. To this point McCallum had been seen as something of a crank on the subject, but it seems the royal tour of 1954 helped convince the Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, that something needed to be done to make the capital more worthy of the nation. On 3 November 1954 McCallum moved the appointment of a Senate select committee on the development of Canberra, emphasising the importance of the nation having a great and worthy city. The motion was successful.

McCallum then chaired the committee, which presented its report in September 1955. The report was strongly critical of the management of Canberra and urged the creation of a single authority, responsible to Parliament, to oversee the development of the city. Its recommendations for the establishment of various institutions and cultural bodies in the capital included the High Court, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, a national museum and an opera house.[15]

During debate in the Senate on 20 March 1956, McCallum said:

The love of the capital city of one’s country is a major ingredient in a sensible patriotism: the Englishman loves London, the Scot loves Edinburgh, the Frenchman loves Paris . . . I hope that the time will come when every Australian will be proud of Canberra.[16]

Many of the report’s recommendations were adopted, and from it arose the National Capital Development Commission, so important for the later development of Canberra. McCallum’s interest continued. He spoke at length about Canberra in the Address-in-Reply debate on 21 March 1957, and chaired the Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory from 1957 until the end of his term in the Senate on 30 June 1962.[17]

The creation of the Australian National University was also important to him. He was a member of its council from June 1952 to June 1959, seeing it as essential to the development of Canberra, and looking forward to the contacts between intellectuals and politicians that would result. He supported the Government’s spending on universities in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, and its decision to amalgamate the Canberra University College and the Australian National University. In the debate on the Australian National University Bill, he said that in Scotland, ‘the country from which my forefathers came’, it had been ‘accepted for 250 years that an education has to be undertaken for its own sake, and not merely to give you a skill that will enable you to earn money’. He warmly supported the amalgamation on the grounds that ‘in a university research and teaching are twin brethren’. He envisaged occasional lectures from outstanding research scholars, and the mingling of staff and students in a vibrant university community.[18]

McCallum was wont to make long scholarly speeches and occasionally to adopt the habits of the schoolmaster. When serving as a temporary chairman of committees, a position he held from 1951 to 1955, he once instructed Labor’s Senator Donald Grant to ‘leave the room’. On another occasion, Grant matched his own wit with McCallum’s undoubted learning and scholarship:

Senator McCallum: Let the honourable senator read his speech in Hansard and he will know what he said. As I said before, it was a desert of drifting words.
Senator Grant: Is that original?
Senator McCallum: No, it is not original. It is a quotation from Kipling.
Senator Grant: Why does not the honourable senator say something original?[19]

In a preselection contest in 1961, in a result which the Sydney Morning Herald described as ‘a major surprise’, McCallum lost to Mrs Mabel Eileen Furley, the first woman to be preselected for a New South Wales Liberal Senate team.

Brought up in a strict Presbyterian household, McCallum remained a Presbyterian throughout his life, and was an active Freemason. He was, his daughter Barbara remembered, very prudish, very shy with women, and had a very high opinion of his intellect. He loved to read to his children and taught them to treat books with very great care, never turning down the corners of the pages, or in any other way mutilating them. He hated gossip and would never let his children gossip—or stare. He adored poetry, had a great memory for it, and was apt to recite it.

McCallum died on 30 December 1973, his four children surviving him. Senator Murphy described him as ‘a kindly and forthright man with strong views on a number of subjects’. Senator Kenneth Anderson expressed ‘the tremendous regard and affection that we all had for him’, and Senator T. Drake-Brockman, Leader of the Country Party in the Senate, remembered his genuine friendliness, great charm, and ‘wealth of knowledge and wisdom’.[20]

Ann Curthoys 

[1] Michael Easson, ‘McCallum, John Archibald’, ADB, vol. 15; Barbara Curthoys, Do We Ever Know our Mothers? A Memoir of Eda McCallum, (unpub.), 1999; CPD, 26 Aug. 1958, p. 219.

[2] McCallum, J. A.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; Curthoys, Do We Ever Know our Mothers?; CPD, 17 Mar. 1960, p. 282–7.

[3] Brian H. Fletcher, History and Achievement: A Portrait of the Honours Students of Professor George Arnold Wood, Braxus Press, Sydney, 1999, pp. 55–6, 63; CPD, 6 Apr. 1960, p. 511.

[4] Fletcher, History and Achievement, pp. 170–2, 77; Australian Highway, 1 Feb. 1922, p. 8; J. A. McCallum, ‘Lachlan Macquarie’, Australian Quarterly, June 1948, p. 45.

[5] Curthoys, Do We Ever Know our Mothers?

[6] Leonie Foster, High Hopes: The Men and Motives of the Australian Round Table, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1986, pp. 221, 245; Fletcher, History and Achievement, pp. 163–4, 77, 166–8; Federalism in Australia, Papers read at the Australian Institute of Political Science, fifteenth summer school, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1949, pp. 109–34; W. G. K. Duncan (ed.), Trends in Australian Politics, A & R in conjunction with the Australian Institute of Political Science, Sydney, 1935, pp. 44–71; Inglis Papers, MS 389, NLA.

[7] John Cramer, Pioneers, Politics and People: A Political Memoir, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1989, pp. 20–2; Ian Hancock, National and Permanent? The Federal Organization of the Liberal Party of Australia 1944–1965, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 2000, p. 11; Fletcher, History and Achievement, p. 77.

[8] Fletcher, History and Achievement, pp. 183–4; J. A. McCallum, ‘Political Ideas in Australia’, Australian Quarterly, Dec. 1932, pp. 26–37, ‘The Australian Labor Party’, Australian Quarterly, Mar. 1936, pp. 68–74, ‘Thoughts on the Present Discontents within the Labour Party’, Australian Quarterly, Sept. 1939, pp. 65–9; CPD, 26 Aug. 1958, pp. 217–18.

[9] J. A. McCallum, ‘Hitler and the Trade Unions’ in Through Australian Eyes, A & R, Sydney, 1940, pp. 3–28; Information from Geoffrey Harris, ABC Archives, Sydney; J. A. McCallum, ‘Personalities at the Indian Conference’, Australian Quarterly, Sept. 1947, pp. 39–44, ‘The Political Situation in India Before Partition’, Australian Quarterly, Dec. 1947, pp. 78–80; Fletcher, History and Achievement, pp. 166–8.

[10] Curthoys, Do We Ever Know our Mothers?; Fletcher, History and Achievement, pp. 183–4; Harry Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 10th edn, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2001, pp. 121–2; CPD, 23 Dec. 1950, p. 39.

[11] CPD, 23 Feb. 1950, p. 37, 27 June 1951, pp. 480–4; 27 Feb. 1952, p. 414, 28 Apr. 1959, p. 1078.

[12] Fletcher, History and Achievement, pp. 184–5, 264–6; CPD, 5 Sept. 1961, p. 376.

[13] CPD, 16 Sept. 1954, pp. 356, 360; CPP, Report of the National Library Inquiry Committee, 1956–57, 1957.

[14] Fletcher, History and Achievement, p. 241; CPD, 12 July 1951, p. 1458, 28 May 1952, p. 890, 9 Sept. 1953, p. 9.

[15] CPD, 7 Oct. 1953, pp. 369–75; A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies: A Life, vol. 2, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1999, pp. 383–7; Eric Sparke, Canberra 1954–1980, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, pp. 38–42, 49–50, 52; Fletcher, History and Achievement, p. 241; CPP, Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, report, 1955.

[16] CPD, 20 Mar. 1956, p. 292; Sparke, Canberra 1954–1980, p. 31.

[17] CPD, 20 Mar. 1956, pp. 278–82, 285–92; Sparke, Canberra 1954–1980, pp. 54, 63; CPD, 21 Mar. 1957, pp. 101–2, 15, May 1962, pp. 1340–1.

[18] CPD, 7 Oct. 1953, pp. 372–3, 25 Aug. 1959, p. 273, 8 Dec. 1960, pp. 2228–9, 6 Apr. 1960, pp. 510–14.

[19] CPD, 5 Mar. 1974, p. 14, 9 Apr. 1957, p. 399.

[20] SMH, 21 Oct. 1961, p. 1; Hancock, National and Permanent?, p. 199; Curthoys, Do We Ever Know our Mothers?; CPD, 5 Mar. 1974, pp. 13–15.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 451-457.

McCALLUM, John Archibald (1892–1973)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1950–62

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1950–62

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1952–55, 1959–62

Select Committee on the Development of Canberra, 1954–55

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1957–62