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McCallum, Alexander (Alick) (1877–1937)

by Wendy Birman

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Alexander (Alick) McCallum (1877-1937), bookbinder and politician, was born on 28 October 1877 in Adelaide, son of Hugh McCallum, labourer, and his wife Margaret, née McPhee. At 14 he was apprenticed to a bookbinder. In 1898 he left for Perth where he worked in the Government Printing Office. A member of the Bookbinders and Paper Rulers' Industrial Union, McCallum spoke for printing industry employees in general, sometimes so vehemently that his job was at risk. He married Elizabeth (Bessie) Ferres with Baptist rites at Fremantle on 1 January 1902.

McCallum became a radical Labor politician; his party pledge was paramount. He was a forceful early leader of Western Australian trade unionism, an energetic and innovative cabinet minister, and finally a compassionate bank commissioner. Serious and intense, he abhorred fools and was trenchant in attack. He was also systematic, persistent and slow to delegate. Considered 'bossy' by parliamentary colleagues, he was nicknamed 'Musso' (Mussolini). In other company 'Alick' was known as kindly, even sentimental, gregarious and a good listener. Although abstemious, he enjoyed smoke socials at the Fremantle Workers' and Leisure Club. A stocky, sturdy man, with pigeon-toed gait, McCallum had square jowls, large eyes and dark hair with a cowlick. In his youth he excelled as a runner and was later a keen gardener and bird-fancier.

By 1905, when he stood unsuccessfully for South Fremantle, McCallum was president of the Coastal Trades and Labour Council, and secretary of the metropolitan division and the South Fremantle branch of the Political Labor Party. He first worked in a galvanized iron lean-to described as a 'corner of Hades'. Mainly through his efforts, the Perth Trades Hall was built in 1911. He failed to win election to the House of Representatives in 1913 and 1914 but that year was appointed general secretary of the Australian Labor Party in Western Australia. His early reputation as a 'red ragger' was probably exaggerated. Despite his relish for the cut and thrust of bargaining, he was a conciliator: 'the ordinary trades union official is busy enough and has sufficient anxiety without a strike'.

A skilled arbiter, in court and on the job, he defused the potentially explosive 'Battle of the Barricades' on Fremantle wharf in May 1919, when Premier (Sir) Hal Colebatch intervened in the Dimboola dispute. Likewise in December 1924, through McCallum's perspicacity, and despite their president's objections, Fremantle waterside workers withdrew support from the national Seamen's Union in favour of arbitration by the A.L.P. disputes committee. This culminated in George Ryce's expulsion from the union and the defection from the Labor Party of Thomas Hughes, who was unforgiving; he aimed to 'get McCallum'.

McCallum had suffered a nervous breakdown in May 1916 and, helped by unionists' contributions, went to Adelaide to recuperate. At its triennial conference in June the Western Australian Labor Party refused to commit itself against conscription. On 6 November, in response to a telegram from Perth, McCallum left Adelaide for Melbourne to attend a national executive meeting and a special interstate conference. Following his brief, though not from personal conviction, he voted against the non-conscription motion. In Perth next year he printed his speech attacking his former hero Billy Hughes whom he accused of 'dictatorship' for defying caucus and precipitating Labor's conscription split. McCallum toured the goldfields to appease the disaffected but in September failed to wrest the Yilgarn seat from a Labor defector.

But McCallum's power was growing. As a director of the restructured Westralian Worker, he was close to the new editor John Curtin. The paper's declared policy was to support any campaign undertaken for the improvement of labour, politically or industrially. McCallum had been a member of the royal commission into the alleged shortage of artisans (1911) and was treasurer from 1914 of the Workers' Educational Association (W.A.). He was union representative at discussions in 1917 with employers, employees and educationists on training apprentices, which paved the way for the Apprenticeship Board he was to set up in 1926. In 1918 he was appointed to the Western Australian Repatriation Board.

McCallum won the South Fremantle seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1921. He was minister for public works, labour, water supply and state trading concerns in 1924-30 in Philip Collier's cabinet and deputy leader of the Opposition from 1930, until he resumed his previous portfolios (except trading concerns), with the added status of deputy premier, in April 1933. McCallum was acting premier during Collier's absence for two months in 1934-35. Next March he resigned to become chairman of commissioners of the reconstituted Agricultural Bank.

In debate McCallum vigorously presented the Labor case. He simultaneously led the parliamentary party's resistance to the State executive's attempt to influence government unduly. It was enough, he argued, for parliamentarians to honour the pledge; government must make its own decisions. He created a Department of Labour—the culmination of his long career in labour relations. Despite an obstructive Legislative Council and resentment from the industrial sector, he amended the Arbitration Act, established the Court of Arbitration in 1926 and appointed its first president (Sir) Walter Dwyer, thereby shifting a backlog of disputes. Legislation for a 44-hour-week, a State basic wage award, the formation of the State Government Insurance Office, and workers' compensation was passed. He instituted a major reorganization of the Public Works Department (1926), development of the metropolitan water-sewerage scheme, expansion of the water supply and construction of Canning Dam, and administered Federal funding for extended State roads. Perhaps his most creative legislation was a Town Planning Act (1928) and the Swan River reclamation scheme (1925); a riverside park in Perth bears his name.

In 1932 McCallum was strongly criticized for abandoning his union constituents by voting for bulk-handling of wheat at a time of low employment. But he was so concerned about unemployment and monopolies that he called for and sat on a select committee of investigation on which he was the sole dissenter. McCallum never lacked detractors; the most persistent was T. J. Hughes, who accused him of dishonesty and political expediency. The two had fought over the One Big Union concept in 1918-20 (McCallum promoted the Australian Workers' Union plan); and in parliament Hughes attacked McCallum about his farm, Koojarlee, at Muntadgin, the licensing court, and his part-ownership, with Senator Edward Johnston's wife, of the Captain Stirling Hotel. McCallum was exonerated by a royal commission in 1937. The conservative West Australian said: 'he lived long enough and performed ably enough to survive the distrust of his political opponents … a prodigious worker; a fair, if forceful fighter; a zealous industrial reformer, a trusted colleague and opponent'.

He suffered from exhaustion in 1912, dengue fever in 1921, and nervous breakdowns in 1916 and 1928. After two years poor health he died of chronic nephritis on 12 July 1937 and, following a state funeral, was buried in the Methodist section of Fremantle cemetery. McCallum's photograph was hung in the Perth Trades Hall and his probate was sworn at £13,836. His wife and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In (Perth, 1972)
  • R. Pervan and C. Sharman, Essays on Western Australian Politics (Perth, 1979)
  • C. T. Stannage (ed), A New History of Western Australia (Perth, 1981)
  • West Australian, 16 Oct 1905, 4 Mar, 11, 13, 27 May 1921, 6 Dec 1929, 4, 19 Oct 1934, 20 Apr 1935, 13, 14 July 1937
  • Westralian Worker, 20 Oct 1905, 22 Dec 1911, 23 May 1913, 19 July 1937
  • Metropolitan District Council, minutes, 1910-1920, 1933-1935 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • State Executive, ALP, Minutes (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'McCallum, Alexander (Alick) (1877–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mccallum-alexander-alick-7300/text12661, accessed 23 November 2017.

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