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Category: Interviews »

Subject: Cultural Studies »

Moss Cass on the struggles in the 1960s to end White Australia in the labor movement and the ALP

Moss Cass and Mara Moustafine.

Former politician Moss Cass describes the struggles in the 1960s to end White Australia.



Date Added:

31 March 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

33.3 MB





... so I then was nominated to stand for the Kooyong electorate in the 1961 election campaign against Menzies, a group had started up, which I had nothing to do with, at the university, it was Rohan Rivett's brother who ran it. And they were going round interviewing all the candidates for that election to find out what their view was about White Australia Policy. And again, I didn’t – wasn’t involved, other than they came and started talking to me. So I told them what I thought about White Australia Policy, I opposed it, disagreed with it.


And they said, “Yeah but you’re standing in an election for the Labor Party and if you get elected, what would you do in the parliament?” I said, “Well, if it’s the Labor Party policy I’d vote for it, but you know, that doesn’t stop me talking against it and arguing against it. And they left and I didn’t – then I got a phone call: would I attend a public meeting? Because they had visited me in my home, you know, private – “We’re calling a public meeting on this White Australia Policy thing and would you come?” I said, “Yeah, sure. Why not?”


And they invited apparently all the other candidates too, but no one else turned up, I mean Menzies obviously didn’t – there was a communist standing against me and a Nazi standing against – at the same time, all against Menzies, not against me, against Menzies. But I was the only one who fronted up and it was in a private house but it had been advertised I think in the paper. And all that turned up were the few die-hard probably members of the immigration reform group, plus some journalists and so I was asked the same sorts of questions and I said, “Well, I oppose it, I think it’s wrong.”


And, “Yeah, if I get elected, I’d have to vote for it, but it doesn’t stop me arguing against it in the Labor Party.”


And then at the end of that meeting and this was, you know, the campaign had started, I noticed as I went out, a young fellow on the phone, talking. Very quickly to – I gathered it was The Age , he – all ready to send in his report and the next morning, came big headlines about, White Australia Policy and me attacking it and all that stuff. And I didn’t hear anything more about it, and kept going and no one bothered to ask me any more after that.


But after the election, I was told by – independently by Cyril Wyndham who was the secretary of the party, and then by Sam Cohen that Calwell had asked – phoned each of them after the meeting, so the day after when The Age reported in and Calwell at the time had been in Western Australia, talking to federal secretary of the Labor Party at the time Chamberlain


And Calwell and they were furious –and Calwell rang – rang Cyril Wyndham, Cyril told me afterwards, after it was all over and said that he told me to – he wanted – Calwell wanted Cyril to tell me to shut up. And Cyril said to him, “Calwell, you just say nothing. If you’re asked by the press what it’s all about, just simply say the policy in your party is whatever it is and don’t say anything about it.” And I said – “Because it’s embarrassing Menzies, not you or the Labor Party.” And then Sam Cohen again after the election told the same thing.


Anyhow, Calwell wouldn’t take it lying down, he then decided again in cahoots with Chamberlain, that those who belonged to the Immigration Reform Group and who were members of the Labor Party, had to either resign from the reform group or resign from the Labor Party. Now I wasn’t even a member of the ruddy thing. And I think I learnt about that, from a fella called Bill Thomas who was a young, I think he was still a university student. But he was a right-winger, but pretty active, Bill Thomas it was.


And he rang me up. And I said, “Oh well, I’d better join the thing because I don’t even belong to it.” He said, “But you know, there are a number of us in the Labor Party and we’re going to have to resign and we want to have a meeting to talk about it. And Jim Cairns, one of the group and he’s involved too and he wants to come to the meeting.” So, “Okay we’ll have a meeting at my place.” And I don’t know why I offered it at my place, it must have been because it would have been easier, because everybody else was all over the place. And I was pretty near – not far from where Jim lived and he was going to come home and come to the meeting.


So, we had the meeting, I remember it was a stormy night and at one stage we had a blackout and we had the meeting by candlelight, but that’s beside the – well maybe it was an omen [laughs]. But Bill had received a phone call from Jim because he couldn’t come, because there was something or other happening in the house and he couldn’t get a pair it was important that he stayed there. But he told Thomas that he would go along with whatever we decided to do. If we were all going to resign en masse from the Immigration Reform Group, he would, but if we were going to resign from the Labor Party because we were sticking to our principles, then he would be prepared to do that too.


That’s what Thomas said to me. So we had the meeting and we discussed it and we decided we wouldn’t resign from the Labor Party, we’d resign en masse from the Immigration Reform Group but we’d all sign a letter which said, we agree with what they were doing and we wished them luck and we were going to continue to work inside the Labor Party. Which is what we did. And we all organised to get motions coming up from the branches. Now I’d experienced, I knew that you know, every year there were a couple of motions on the business pages for the Victorian branch opposing the White Australia Policy, but you know, it was always ignored, there were dozens on other sorts of issues and the White Australia Policy was a thorn in the side of everybody and so no one was ever going to talk about it.


On this occasion there were, I think 23 motions on the notice paper against the White Australia Policy, the result of that was that the executive and the agenda committee couldn’t ignore it. They had to do something about it, so they proposed at the subsequent state conference, a motion referring the issue to the federal executive and asking that an inquiry be set up to look into it. And that was the motion that was presented to the Victorian state conference in the old trades hall council before it burned down. And when I arrived, and I was a delegate to the conference, I don’t quite know why, but I was. And a fella called, Peter Cullen organised a group of us to talk in favour of this motion because he was – had been informed that that’s what the motion was going to be, you see. I knew nothing about it.


And Cairns was going to speak, he was going to speak and Barry Jones was going to speak and he asked me whether I would speak. So I said, “Okay.” I supposed since I’d been a thorn in the side that it prompted the whole fiasco.


At the meeting, I remember two things about it are significant: Pat Kennelly and Ted Peters turned up and they usually didn’t to meetings but they were there. And also when the debate was called, mostly – most people were not, well that’s not true, but a lot of people were not in the hall, they’d come and they’d vote if they had to. They were over at the pub or at the races. But this was scheduled and everyone knew it was going to be and the hall was so full there were some people were actually sitting on the stairs because there weren’t seats available. And the debate was started by Cyril Wyndham as the secretary of the branch, proposing this motion to refer the issue to the federal executive and ask them to establish an inquiry into whether – a review of the policy – wasn’t even suggesting, just simply asking them to review the policy as I recall now.


And he was seconded I think by Peter Cullen who spoke passionately in favour of it, and then Senator Kennelly spoke against it. And I don’t remember what anybody said, but he spoke against it and then Jim Cairns spoke for it and Barry Jones spoke for it. You could have two for, or two against and then one, if there’s no further speaker after two have spoken in favour of something, then that was the end of the debate. But managed – after Kennelly spoke, then Cairns then Jones spoke and then Teddy Peters spoke and then it was my turn and I spoke.


Then to my surprise, Teddy Innes got up, got the call. You know he was a trade unionist, the only trade unionist so far. I thought he was going to oppose it. But he spoke in favour of the motion also. A good speech, you know, “We’re part of Asia and we’ve got to recognise Asians are human.” And all that stuff. It was a good speech. And then call for any further speakers and no one else prepared to oppose it. So that was the end of the debate.


And Bob Brebner who was in the chair, called, “those in favour, if they would affirm a motion.” “Aye.” “Those against.” There were a few who opposed it, it wasn’t unanimous by any means but it was overwhelmingly in favour of review and during the course of the debate I don’t recall any interjections or catcalls or anything, people really listened, it was the most impressive debate I’ve ever been to and thankfully also participated in at a state conference. And so it was passed and somebody had the fore – the presence of mind to ask the chairman, the point of order now – he recognised that it was a referral to the federal executive to review the policy but given the tenor of the debate, which had been for or against White Australia Policy, could it be indicated to the federal executive that the policy of the Victorian branch was opposition to the White Australia Policy.


In favour of changing. And Brebner said, “Yes.” And that’s how it happened. So of course, then – I don’t know what – how it happened up there but Don Dunstan was appointed to chair a committee to review it and of course, came out with a report that –which would be changed and so it was changed. That’s how it happened.


The Immigration Reform Group was based in Melbourne University and I know, look maybe I’d read something about it, they’d probably been campaigning before the election and I just – I’d probably never thought about white Australia before that, I’m no saint, you know. And I just – well yeah. A reffo parents myself, I thought well, you know, bit funny. When we started the immigration after the war, we realised, or we accepted that maybe Italians weren’t black after all. And when I got into parliament in ’69, we discovered that Turks weren’t black either.


But until then, you know, they had been. So, I guess that my gaffe if you like in opposing the party’s policy, helped excite the Victorians who were already interested to – well that’s what it was, I – then Bill Thomas again, I had nothing to do with Bill Thomas other than disagree with him before that. Because he was right-winger and I was a leftie. I didn’t particularly like him. I didn’t dislike him as a person, I just disagreed with his views. He was the one who organised the meeting at my place and it was just an accident it was at my place.


And Cairns was into it, well you know, Jim was a bit more aware of all this than I ever was. At that stage, I didn’t even know Jim very well at all. In fact, I doubt whether I’d even met him by then. Just knew about him. So I can’t explain it. If you want me to take a punt, during the war I remember, my dad saying and we were New South Wales at the time and the Labor Government was having problems with the Victorian unions, he said, “The unions in Victoria are always much more left wing and active than anywhere else in the country.” That’s what he said to me. I don’t know. And by the same token of course, the business, the heads of the business committee were mainly in Victoria in those days too.


End transcript