Review by Paul Henderson

The Curse of Mungana By David E. Moore,

  • Publisher: Boolarong Press, 2017
  • RRP $34.99
  • ISBN: 9781925522112

From 1788 in Australia there have been numerous cases of governors (such as William Bligh) governors-general, prime ministers, ministers, colonial and state premiers, members of parliament and local government leaders who have left office, either willingly or unwillingly, over a variety of issues. These issues have included misuse of allowances, alleged fraud, tax issues, import duties, overseas trips, non-disclosure of assets, misconduct etc.

However, to a large extent, these “scandals” were dealt with in a variety of ways at the time, and the nation moved on. Not so the “Mungana Affair” which, about 90 years after it happened, still remains a matter of debate and conjecture.

In short, the Mungana Affair involved the sale to the Queensland Labor government after the First World War of some mines at well above their true market value. It was later found out that Queensland Labor politicians William McCormack and Ted Theodore secretly held shares in the mines which were bought by the Labor government at inflated prices.

Many books, papers, articles and chapters in books have been written about these events in the 1920s and 1930s. David Moore’s book, published in 2017, entitled The Curse of Mungana is yet another. However, as the author explains, he has unearthed new material and has delved into the nest of intrigue with great attention to detail. As such, it is a book well worth reading.

David Moore has provided hundreds of endnotes in this excellent work as he unravels fact from fiction. As the author explains throughout the text, there are a number of myths about what may or may not have happened in the Mungana issue and in federal politics at this time.

The author is meticulous in researching what happened leading up to the events at Mungana. For instance, he explains that many of the mines in northern Queensland had not been hugely successful in returning large profits, long before the 1920s. This was certainly true in the Chillogoe mines and the Mungana mines. Later in the book, he also carefully explains the political systems at both the state and federal level, the different ways of trying to handle the 1930s Depression and analyses the main players thoroughly.

The book starts with the behaviour of four men: Ted Theodore (a Premier of Queensland and later Federal Treasurer), William McCormack (a Premier of Queensland), Peter Goddard (manager of the Mungana mines) and Frederick Reid (who negotiated the sale of the mines to the Queensland Government), and the other people who became involved with one or more of the four. While all four are prominent throughout the book, Theodore’s career was the most interesting for a variety of reasons.

Theodore was involved in trade unions from an early age. He joined the Amalgamated Miners’ Association (AMA) and helped start the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) in Queensland. When these unions combined, with Theodore at the helm of this centralisation, the AWU became even more powerful. Theodore for three years was State president of the AWU.

Upon entering the Queensland parliament in 1909, Theodore quickly rose through the ranks to become party whip, Treasurer and then Premier in 1919. As Premier, again he exerted his power. He appointed the Governor and stacked the Legislative Council, who voted themselves out of existence, without Theodore going to the people for a referendum on the issue. Ever since, Queensland has had only a lower house. As Premier, he established government financed business enterprises, one of which was the Chillagoe Company in the Mangana region.  The financing of the mines was controversial, to say the least

Having left Queensland politics, Theodore won the safe NSW seat of Dalley in the House of Representatives. This is another area of controversy – as to whether people were offered financial inducement to make way for Theodore. He quickly became Deputy Leader and Treasurer. Again Theodore’s authoritarian approach was evident when all ALP members had to sign an anti-communist pledge. Then the Mungana investigation began, leading to his resignation, at the height of his career. As the Smith Weekly wrote as early as 1922: “The only thing that will kill Theodore is Theodore himself”.

The Country National Progressive Government in Queensland – led by Arthur Edward Moore – set up a commission to examine what was going on with the reopening of the Mungana mines and the issue of distribution of shares. It was a legitimate inquiry and not politically motivated, although it was set up by a non-Labor government. The newspapers joined the case, being critical of the Mungana deal. The commission’s Report was damning of the major players.

The Bruce-Page national Government – led by Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Bruce Page – also set up a Royal Commission to examine how Theodore won pre-selection for a safe Labor-held seat in the House of Representatives. The Commission found that one sitting member was offered money to give up his seat. Another ALP member, who actually resigned his seat, appears to have done so in return for money.

The author is meticulous in providing the details of both Royal Commissions.  The Queensland Commission found Theodore and McCormack guilty of fraud and dishonesty. The findings of this report had an enormous effect on Theodore’s career in federal politics. All the evidence supports that the the Commission got it right. However, the civil trial that followed the Commission in Queensland looking into the Mungana mines reopening found that all four men were not guilty –  which the author believes is strange, based on the material presented at the trial.

Meanwhile John Latham, a member of the Federal Nationalist Party, tried unsuccessfully to get Theodore suspended from parliament.  Joseph Lyons and a couple of other Labor MPs, partly because of Theodore’s activities, left the ALP to join the Nationalist Party. However, the ALP Prime Minister Scullin reappointed Theodore to all his former positions, which he held until the ALP lost the 1931 election in a landslide. In this tumultuous environment, the Governor of NSW, Sir Phillip Game, sacked the Premier, Jack Lang. At a time of incredible instability, Theodore may well have been the person with the best ideas about how best to handle the Great Depression, if he were still in parliament.

The author throughout the book refers to the many myths that surround contemporary political events, particularly in Queensland. He is very careful and extremely detailed in his investigations about transactions and payments concerning the reopening of the Mungana mine in 1920.  The only people who made money out of the reopening of the mine were the major shareholders: McCormack, Reid and Goddard. McCormack gave part of his shares in money to Theodore. Certainly Theodore had received gifts of shares, without having owed shares in Mungana. Clearly all four men had a conflict of interest in Mungana matters.

Was so much of all of this politically motivated? The author says NO and on reading his account I would draw the same conclusion. But certainly Stanley Melbourne Bruce and John Latham made the most they could out of the ALP’s pain.

One minor fault is that the author in his final chapter – in looking at the myths in the case – repeats what he has already said in great detail. However, the book is a fine read, interesting, informative and thorough. There are many tragic figures in the book, not the least of which is Ted Theodore – who another author, Trevor Sykes, wrote: “remains the best Prime Minister Australia never had.”

Paul Henderson is an author and educator