BY David Clune

Australian Biographical Monographs – Connor Court 2022

ISBN – 9781922815019

RRP: $19.95 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


In Dame Enid Lyons’ memoir So We Take Comfort, she wrote of how her husband Joseph Lyons, following one of his first acts as Prime Minister, had said that:

if he never did anything else in Federal Parliament he would always remember with the greatest pride that he had had the honour and the pleasure of introducing the legislation that brought about the downfall of John Thomas Lang.

In David Clune’s crisp and informative booklet on J T Lang, in the Australian Biographical Monographs series, he describes former Labor NSW premier Lang as one who “devastated the Labor Party, created bitter social divisions, almost bankrupted the state and brought New South Wales to the brink of civil war”. One could add that he almost single-handedly was the cause of a debilitating split in Labor for over a decade. A split that cost it at the ballot box and took years to mend.

For all that, it remains one of the mysteries of the Australian Labor Party’s tribal nature that Jack Lang is more highly regarded in Labor circles than Joseph Lyons who led Labor as premier in Tasmania and was a senior minister in the Scullin Labor government before leaving Labor in March 1931, largely due to the Lang’s disruption, joining the Nationalists to create the United Australia Party.

As Clune rightly notes, such was the backlash against Lang in New South Wales Labor, from the 1940s on under its leader Bill McKell it sought and found a middle way – moderate, pragmatic, electorally appealing – governing New South Wales from 1941-65 and avoiding the damaging federal and Victorian split of the 1950s into the 1960s.

Much has been written about Jack Lang in Australian historical research. His towering personality seems to have grabbed not only his erstwhile fan club but also the record. Born the sixth of ten children in the household of a Sydney watchmaker with health and financial problems, Jack Lang began his working life in manual jobs until he became a real estate agent’s clerk in Auburn 1896. There, his real estate career took off and he was soon living with the trappings of a gentleman. He was soon a prominent figure in the area’s Political Labor League and entered local politics, was the Mayor of Auburn from 1909-11 and became the Labor MLA for Granville in 1913, representing the district until 1946.

In a booklet the length of a long essay, Clune can only capture the essence of this Labor giant – one of mythical proportions whose contradictions and pugilistic nature damaged Labor in NSW and federally for decades. Clune draws the outline with no space for the drama created year by year and stirred by this mesmerising political figure. Yet, Clune’s acute analysis leaves little room for honour. He writes:

Lang never had a consistent ideology, other than promoting himself by any means possible – although he had a residual sympathy for the working class as a result of his upbringing. Lang was gifted with native cunning, an instinctive sense for the main chance, personal charisma, and an impressive physical appearance. … Rabble rousing cliches were more his style than studied conclusions. He was not overly encumbered by scruples or principles. Personal loyalties and obligations counted for little in his egocentric world. Lang had a permanent sense of grievance as a result of his deprived childhood: “get square” with life, no matter how, was an over-riding trait. Bullying, mendacity, and megalomania were increasingly dominant characteristics. … He had admirers and disciples, but few, if any, friends.

The value to the record of such a cameo of Jack Lang is its pointed summary of Lang’s contribution and effect on Australian politics. Longer accounts exaggerate the size of the man, invariably softening the effect. Clune’s account is more a judgement or critique than a biography.

Thus, a reader learns quickly of Lang’s energy in parliament, of his rapid grasp of parliamentary politics and how to lay claim to his stake in Labor circles. Clune describes him as a frequent contributor to parliamentary debates, albeit with few ideas or vision but quick on interjections and responses and a persuasive orator – or as Clune describes it with “the bludgeon rather than the rapier”. He often resorted to insinuations and personal attacks and was advantaged by the Labor’s World War I conscription split which removed around half of Labor’s team, including the most talented MPs.

In the volatile politics of post-World War I, Lang played the numbers and his opponents to become NSW Opposition leader in 1923, after serving as NSW Treasurer in the 1920-22 Labor government. It was a time of political instability where a change to proportional representation at the NSW 1920 election resulted in slim majorities for government. When Lang took office as premier and treasurer in June 1925, he used his determination to carry out a true Labor program of reform as his domination of the party. The leader who could deliver.

For all that Clune concludes that, “Lang’s first government ended in disarray, mainly due to disputes with his colleagues”. It was also not helped by his disputes with the NSW Governor de Chair over appointing additional members of the Legislative Council where Labor was short of members. The Lang bullying, hectoring style would only intensify after taking office as NSW premier again in 1930.

The onset of the stock market crash of 1929, the credit crisis that followed and the global depression of the 1930s, would spur Lang to heights of megalomania which had a devastating effect on a divided Labor in office federally. In the late 1920s, Lang fought off communist influences in NSW Labor and various factional rivals to take total control of the NSW Labor Party. Meanwhile, by 1930, the Scullin Labor federal government was falling into serious divisions over handling the global financial crisis. Lang supporters in the federal caucus further inflamed these divisions by defying any push to honour debt repayments or curb spending.

Lang rode high on a populist claim to be the workers’ friend while the NSW economy sank to record depths, debts mounting and credit draining. Added to this, Lang’s rivalry with Scullin government treasurer Ted Theodore was, as Clune describes it, like “two scorpions in a bottle”. In November 1931, supporters of Lang in the federal parliament crossed the floor and brought down the Scullin government. Joe Lyons’ United Australia Party went on to a record landslide win at the ensuing election.

Lang’s dismissal as NSW premier in May 1932 was a dramatic climax to Lang’s legacy as one of Labor’s best known players in its history. It is a sorry story that Clune handles deftly in the space he has and without guilding any Labor lilies. Lang’s chicanery is exposed fully.

Clune also deals in summary with the rise of extremist right wing militia, such as Eric Campbell’s New Guard, and the New State movements. The times were tense, but these groups came nowhere near real power. Clune quotes Andrew Moore’s assessment in The Secret Army and The Premier: “The movement’s growing desire to mount a fascist putsch did not mean that this would succeed.” The best they achieved was when a shabbily dressed Frank De Groot cut the ribbon at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, before the premier could do it, in March 1932.

David Clune’s Jack Lang is a compact but penetrating look at a larger than life figure in Australian politics, one who went on to echo down the years as a Labor hero even though expelled and later readmitted to the party. That he lived to influence former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating as a youth says much about Labor’s tribal culture. But David Clune spikes the myths in a long overdue assessment.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.