Premier Lang, Sacked by the Right, Destroyed by the Left

Edgar Ross

It is one of the ironies of history that while it was the political Right which in 1932 guided the hand of New South Wales Governor Game in sacking Premier J.T. Lang, it was the Left which took up the running and brought his political career to an end.

For after his dismissal Lang determined to retain his leadership of the Labor Party and return to his position as Premier.

The first phase has been well documented by historians, notably Dr Andrew Moore in The Secret Army and the Premier. But the second phase has been somewhat neglected. And it is quite a story.

For his reforms and demonstrative refusal to meet financial commitments to the Federal Government for the payment of interest to foreign bondholders Lang was the recipient of mass idolatry on a scale unparalleled in Australian history. The New South Wales branch of the party having been expelled by the Federal authority, Lang established a cave in the Commonwealth Parliament led by Jack Beasley, a former president of the New South Wales Labor Council. The New South Wales branch also ran candidates in opposition to those endorsed by the Federal executive.

Workers in their thousands proudly sported badges proclaiming “Lang is Right”. But the terminology was an unfortunate choice for the intention, because Lang was indeed Right in a fundamental ideological sense. His rhetorical denunciations of the bondholders were sheer demagoguery.

As the revelation came, Lang’s supporters began to desert him en masse. However, he was a skilful “operator” and entrenched himself on top of a ruthless bureaucracy. Becoming known as The Inner Group, its key figures were the members of McCauley family and a few Right -wing party officials.

Harold McCauley was Lang’s private secretary and speech-writer. His brother Norman was installed as editor of the Labor Daily, the Group’s main propaganda instrument. Their father, P J. McCauley, was the paper’s sub-editor. Incidentally, the McCauley family were also the principal shareholders in Labor Motor Funerals Ltd and six other companies associated with it which came under unfavourable notice for company malpractices.

The Inner Group set to work to consolidate Lang’s position in the branches and affiliated unions, employing many questionable methods which led to some violent confrontations.

Showing his true colours, the Big Fella, as he was known, declared war especially on the activists of the Socialisation Units he had himself set up in the party to propagate socialism, began attacking militant trade union leaders, particularly communists. In fact, he openly joined the Right in espousing its national and international policies.

But Lang committed the greatest “crime” of all in the eyes of trade union and branch members, who were looking for some relief from the ravages of unemployment and onslaught on living standards of the Great Depression – he could no longer win elections. It was bad enough that his group had been responsible for the defeat of a Federal Labor Government, but to be incapable of winning elections himself was unforgivable.

So, there developed a groundswell of opposition to the former idol with a determination to get rid of The Inner Group and democratise the party, the officials of which had become notorious for their intimidation of critics and ballot-rigging. movement became engulfed in a sea of conflict.

The focal point in the struggle was the Labor Daily, established in 1924 with funds from the trade unions, headed by the Miners’ Federation, which even downgraded it’s own publication, Common Cause, by agreeing to it being issued as a supplement of the Daily.

But also Lang had long cast envious eyes on the New South Wales Labor Council’s wireless station, 2KY and in a counter-attack on the “rebels” he sought to get control of it, the charge being made that he resorted to dubious practices to get delegates elected to the Council pledged to support a proposal to form the station into a company which the McCauleys were to run.

In a peculiar twist, international issues became part of the struggle, specifically the call for economic sanctions to be employed against Italian fascism over Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). In Australia, as elsewhere, the forces lined up for and against.

Enter Jock Garden, a foundation Member of the Communist Party, who had earlier eulogised Lang as “greater than Lenin” but now applied for the role of his chief executioner. He announced that he had a trump card to defeat Lang’s moves to take over 2KY.

After alerting me to take a verbatim note – I was at the time the official reporter of Labor Council proceedings – Garden, who had been secretary of the Council before entering parliament, made a sensational speech charging that Norman McCauley had issued instructions that the Lang group in the Commonwealth Parliament oppose sand ions and vote for a continuance of trade with Italy, including the delivery of arms.

The exposure was claimed to be decisive in frustrating Lang’s bid to get control of 2KY. Be that as it may, the move failed and the wireless stations remained firmly in Labor Council hands. The New South Wales party executive expelled Garden.

The Lang Inner Group’s vendetta against the Left reached the level of hysteria with the election in 1934 of the first communists to national union positions in the persons of William Orr, as General Secretary, and Charles Nelson, as General President, of the Miners’ Federation (followed shortly afterwards by similar successes for communists in the Seamen’s Union and in other trade unions).

As Orr and Nelson set about changing Federation policy in a Left direction the Lang Inner Group responded by sabotaging the Common Cause supplement, including the exercise of censorship, the Federation leadership initiated action to take it out of the hands of the Labor Daily and also demanded the repayment of loans made to the paper. Towards the end of 1935 the Federation succeeded in removing the Common Cause supplement from the Labor Daily and it was issued as an independent weekly again under my editorship.

The leaders of the Federation and other communists became prominent in the drive against the Inner Group in an effectual united front as seventy-eight union leaders, hellded by officials of the Labor Council and including Charles Nelson, issued a manifesto denouncing Lang and calling for the disbandment of the Inner Group. Lang countered by calling upon unions to disaffiliate from the Labor Council (and a couple did).

The anti-Lang forces launched a campaign to unseat the occupants of The Labor Daily Board “lid replace them with nominees of the rebels, namely Nelson, J.P. O’Reilly (secretary of the Hairdressers’ Union), J.F. Wilson (secretary of the Printing Employees’ Union) and Jack Kilburn (secretary of the Bricklayers’ Union). The Langites executed a manoeuvre to strengthen the paper’s position by raising capital ostensibly for the publication of a Sunday paper, The Express.

There was an exciting incident when Lang decided to address personally the members of shareholding unions and at a packed meeting was challenged from the floor to a public debate by Nelson. Lang responded by stalking out of the meeting flanked by his “muscle men” to the jeers of those assembled.

The struggle of the rebels continued to gain momentum, but a serious weakness was the failure of any members of the parliamentary wing to join the ranks, while it was an open secret that the majority were disenchanted with the Big Fella.

A breakthrough came at last when RJ. Heffron (who had been a tutor for the Communist Party in its early years) openly repudiated Lang. He was joined by C.C. Lazzarini. Then, the Barrier District Assembly of the AL.P. instructed its local members and F.M. Hersington to give their support. A conference in August, 1936, called by the Labor Council to review the situation was attended by about 150 delegates from thirty-three unions representing a membership of 120,000. An invitation had been extended to all Federal and State Labor parliamentarians. Only the Heffron group responded, but also present as observers were ex-Senator Arthur Rae and AC. Crofts, secretary of the AC.T.U.

The conference carried a resolution exposing the machinations of the Labor Daily, specifically condemning the Sunday Express ploy. It also called for greater democracy in the party, including greater representation for unions on the party’s governing bodies. It protested against the expulsion of Garden and urged is reinstatement. The conference set up a continuations committee to implement its decisions. Stepping up his campaign, Lang openly intervened in the Miners’ Federation elections, running a “ticket” against Orr and Nelson and, unprecedentedly, stumped the coalfields himself to address the miners.

A strengthened rebel conference was held in 1937 “to unify the forces against Lang”, being attended by 300 delegates from 70 unions with a combined membership of 250,000. I was the minutes secretary for the conference, from which there emerged the New Labor Party, which met with early resounding success as two of its candidates, Clarrie Martin and Clive Evatt won by-elections (they both later became Ministers in a Labor Government).

In January 1938, the rebels took a further step in declaring themselves the official Labor Party and set up a provisional executive headed by F. O’Neill as President, J.R. Hughes (assistant secretary of the Clerks’ Union) vice president, and W. Evans (Municipal Employees’ Union) secretary. (The latter two were members of the Communist Party.)

A further conference in June, to which unions and AL.P. branches submitted agenda items, confirmed the declaration and gained recognition from the party’s national executive.

In the same year, after a long legal battle, the anti-Lang “ticket” gained control of The Labor Daily Board, with Nelson as managing director. A.C. Willis, first general secretary of the Miners’ Federation, who had been Lang’s right hand man in his halcyon days, emerged as a key figure in the drive to win support for the paper.

I unsuccessfully applied for the editorship but was employed as leader-writer, with well known communist Rupert Lockwood as news editor and W.A Wood, another communist, as foreign editor. The managing editor was Alec Pratt, a mysterious figure from Victoria’s academia. He showed little knowledge of newspaper practice and his standard instruction to me on my daily interview with him was “Lift the roof!”… which I proceeded to do.

The new Labor Daily staff completely reoriented the policies of the paper in the direction of the political Left. And we soon ran into trouble as the Second World War developed and we found ourselves at variance with the Curtin Labor Government’s plans to support the Allied war effort. We were warned on a “hot line” from Canberra when we publicised moves within the Government for the formation of a coalition government with the conservative parties (moves which were rejected in favour of the alternative of an all-party National War Council.)

The Langites did everything possible to sabotage the paper, inducing advertisers to withdraw their support, and urging the unions and A.L.P. branches to boycott it. Lang demanded the immediate repayment of a debenture taken out by him in 1932 but really consisting in party funds. A clause in the debenture specifically excluded it from the provisions of the former Premier’s own Moratorium Act. The total amount involved was approximately £18,000. The problems of the paper were accentuated when the Federal authority of the party withdrew its support.

Then events took an intriguing turn. Nelson had entered into a close personal relationship with Sir Alfred Davidson, manager of the Bank of New South Wales (named by Dr Andrew Moore in his book as an influential member of the Rightist Old Guard). The bank had loaned money to the paper and in default of repayment, in January, 1939, put in a Receiver in the person of Norman McCauley.

The paper’s name was changed to the Daily News and there was appointed as editor one Jack Bellew, from the staff of the Telegraph, owned by Frank Packer’s Consolidated Press. Bellew took with him to the Daily News two sub-editors and several other staff members from the Telegraph.

The new controllers of the paper launched into a highly suspect lavish spending spree and in July, 1940, it was sold to Consolidated Press and The Left reign was at an end as we were all issued with dismissal notices.

In a cynical bit of humbug Consolidated Press announced that the Daily News would maintain its pro-Labor policy. But in a few weeks publication was discontinued and, after a brief period of being mentioned as “incorporated” in the Telegraph, even that pretence was abandoned and the passed into oblivion.

So, as History rail full circle, the political Right came into its own again!

Lang was deposed as leader of the party, which was united under W J. McKell, chosen as a “compromise” leader, ‘to become Premier. However, R.J. Heffron eventually took over the position, with McKell becoming Governor General.

Lang was expelled by the Labor Party and made a futile attempt to regain his status as leader of a Non- Communist Labor Party. He entered Federal politics for a brief period but made little impact, and settled down at the desk of his paper, the Century, to attack the official party from alternating Right and Left positions.

The Left lost its leadership of the Labor Party in New South Wales when it opposed the policies and measures of the Curtin Government in support of the Allied position in the Second World War. The “hard core”, headed by Hughes and Evans, became officials of a breakaway “State Labor Party” which eventually amalgamated with the Communist Party.

Nelson supported the Commonwealth Government’s position on the war, was expelled by the Communist Party, and was “caught out” accepting money from a slush fund set up by W.M. Hughes to bribe union officials and others, lost his position in the Miners’ Federation and retired to a farm, where he stayed for the rest of his life.