Max Falstein*

Jeff Shaw**

Falstein, Sydney Max (1914-1967), politician, lawyer and businessman was born on 30 May 1914 at Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, son of Abram Max, a country businessman, and Rosa (nee Goldman) Falstein1 Educated at Sydney High School, Sydney Grammar School and the University of Sydney, Falstein graduated BA in 1934 and completed the Bar admission examinations in 1940.2

This academic progress was interrupted, at the age of 22, by a period spent in New Zealand (campaigning for the Labor Party), following estrangement from his wealthy mother as a result of marrying Ila Brenda Greig out of the Jewish religion.3 But his career soon accelerated. In the same year as his admission to the Bar (1940), Falstein was elected to the House of Representatives as the ALP Member for (the Sydney eastern suburbs seat) Watson. He was re-elected in 1943 and 1946, though defeated in 1949 when he stood as an independent. 4

A man of hubris, handsome and energetic, Falstein’s promising and, as it proved, short career was marred by unproductive clashes with authority and dubious business ventures.

Within the Parliamentary Labor Party, Falstein became an active participant in the anti-leadership forces, particularly aligned with A A Calwell. 5 In his first speech to Parliament, Falstein eschewed a non-partisan approach and referred to the ‘worsening’ of Australia’s war position, complained of the infrequency of parliamentary sittings and alleged that the non-Labor government was acting to break the hearts of the workers. 6

In subsequent contributions to debate he championed widows’ pensions, 7 attacked the ‘gang’ system of employment on the waterfront,8 lent support to the 40-hour working week9 and alleged Egyptian confiscation of a post war Jewish relief cargo. 10 On one occasion, he openly clashed with Curtin, provoking the Prime Minister to protest about disclosures of Air Force strength and to dispute Falstein’s criticism of wartime censorship and discussion of Empire air training as ‘wrong’ and ‘utterly incorrect’. 11 In another incident he.joined Calwell in arguing that Attorney-General H V Evatt should have done more to secure the release of right-wing internees. 12

The young MP impressed his colleagues as blunt and impetuous13 with a streak of recklessness which made controversy inevitable. One prescient observer proffered the view that Falstein ‘has the superb confidence in himself that leads either to a big success or a big crash’.14

Falstein’s approach to wartime military service was a case in point. Despite his youth, he initially declined to enlist saying that while the non-Labor government remained in office ‘I shall not offer my services to Australia…. ‘15 clarified, the next day, to a ringing declaration that if the nation were invaded he would be in the front line and prepared to shed his blood. 16

In July 1942 he joined the RAAF and, in 1943, Falstein was the first Australian MP to be appointed a pilot officer in that war.17 But in September 1942, he was court-martial led for using insubordinate language to a superior officer, convicted and sentenced to 28 days’ detention. An appeal to the Air Board was dismissed 18 despite Falstein’s flurry of telegrams to fellow MPs. 19

After discharge from the forces in 1945, Falstein commenced business activity which was to lead to conduct not readily explicable by youthful exuberance. In 1946 he set up a company to import goods from the Far East. 20 In July 1946 he was the subject of an attack by Mr E J Harrison (MHR for Wentworth) for taking advantage of a government licence given to ex-servicemen to import an annual quota of Swiss watches to the value of £2,700.21

In September 1948, Falstein was convicted of six offences under the Customs Act 1901 involving the falsification of documents with a view to understating the value of imported wrist watches. He was fined £320.22 The embattled MP launched a major challenge to his conviction. Over five days before the Full Court of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, counsel for the applicant launched a detailed attack on the inferences drawn by the magistrate, although Falstein had not given evidence himself. The appeal failed.23

The Court gave its judgment on 16 November 1948. Apparently as a direct consequence, the New South Wales Branch of the ALP rejected Falstein’s application to contest the preselection ballot for the seat of Watson in December 1948.24 In September 1949 the New South Wales ALP Executive refused the sitting MP’s application to reconsider that refusal of endorsement, despite strong support from the Minister for Immigration, A A Calwell, who argued that the convictions only amounted to ‘technical offences’. Instead, a member of the Boilermakers’ Union, D J Curtin, was endorsed as the Party’s candidate for Watson.25

Characteristically, Falstein was not inclined to acquiesce in his removal from public life. When the December 1949 election was called, he nominated as an Independent Labor candidate for Watson. The Maroubra Junction Branch of the ALP promptly expelled him, an action which Falstein branded as vindictive, complaining that he had resigned as an ALP member some weeks earlier.26 A vigorous campaign ensued, during which Falstein assailed the ‘Room 32’ party leadership, said that he had been denied fair play, and claimed that, like H V Evatt and J B ChifIey, he was fighting to restore democracy to the Labor party.27

In the result, the colourful lawyer was soundly beaten by the ALP’s more orthodox nominee.

During the 1950s, Max Falstein endeavoured to support his family by business dealings. He played no further substantial role in politics. But, curiously, in a letter to the editor which is, perhaps, partly ironic and partly embittered, he did appear to urge Labor support for the new Menzies government’s bill outlawing the Communist party.28 It is true that Falstein had publicly expressed his detestation of Communism, 29 but he had also contended for ‘socialisation’ of industry30 and supported the recognition of Communist China.31 Falstein’s name surfaced in the 1954 Petrov Royal Commission when erroneous references to him in a 1949 entry in Soviet documents were used by H V Evatt in an attack on their authenticity.32

On 12 August 1958, the former politician was made bankrupt, with unsecured liabilities of £34,553 and assets of £1,581.33 In the course of an attempt to obtain a discharge from bankruptcy. 1962, a judge (Clyne J) found that Falstein’s conduct ‘exhibited very little sense of business morality or of honest dealing’.34

His resilience was not yet exhausted. In March 1961, Falstein recommenced practice as a barrister. And he appeared for himself before the High Court of Australia in a challenge to Clyne J’s refusal to exempt his income from the Bar from the bankruptcy order. In November 1962, Falstein argued to the Court (presided over by Sir Owen Dixon) that a barrister was not in receipt of his fees until they had been paid and that such fees were not income within the Bankruptcy Act 1924, because the barrister could not sue to recover them. The Court, however, was not persuaded by his advocacy, and dismissed the appeal.35 Nor was the Court, in a separate appeal, prepared to approve Falstein’s discharge from bankruptcy.36

On 18 May 1967, Falstein died, at the age of 52, after a long illness, in the Repatriation General Hospital at Concord, Sydney. The following day, a service in the Jewish faith was conducted at Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, Sydney, and he was cremated at the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium. He was survived by his wife, three of his four sons and a daughter.37

*A substantially shortened version of this biographical note will appear in Volume 14 of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, to be published in 1996.
**A New South Wales Member of Parliament.

  1. J Rydon, A Biographical Register of the Commonwealth Parliament 1901-1972 (Canberra. 1975), P 73; Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia (Canberra, 1991), P 320; Who’s Who In Australia, 1944 (p 334) and 1947 (p 325); Smith’s Weekly, 12 October 1940; author’s interview with Anthony Falstein (eldest son).
  2. University of Sydney academic records; Smith’s Weekly, 12 October 1940.
  3. Rydon,op. cit.; Smith’s Weekly, 12 October 1940.
  4. Parliamentary Handbook of the Commonwealth of Australia, op. cit.; C. Kiernan.
    Calwell – A Personal and political Biography (Melbourne, 1978), pp 70, 93.
  5. ed P Wel1er, Caucus Minutes 1901-1949, Vol 3, p 307 and passim
  6. PD (Cwlth), 22 November 1940, pp 129-132.
  7. PD (Cwlth), 7 November 1941, p 195.
  8. PD (Cwlth), 22 June 1943, p 71.
  9. PD (Cwlth), 15 May 1947,p 2445.
  10. PD (Cwlth), 16 June 1948, p 2049.
  11. PD (Cwlth), 14 September 1944, p 857; Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 1944.
  12. P Crockett, Evatt: A Life (Melboume, 1993), p 124.
  13. F Daly, From Curtin to Kerr, (Melbourne, 1977), p 22.
  14. Smith’s Weekly, 12 October 1940.
  15. PD (Cwlth), 19 June 1941, p 187.
  16. PD (Cwlth), 20 June 1941, pp 230, 231.
  17. Parliamentary Handbook and Record of Elections for the Commonwealth of Australia (Canberra, 1953), P 115; Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 1967.
  18. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 September 1942; 23 September 1942.
  19. Daly, op. cit., p 22.
  20. Smith’s Weekly, 30 March 1946.
  21. PD (Cwlth), 4 July 1946, pp 2240-2245.
  22. G Souter, Acts of Parliament (Melbourne, 1988), p 392.
  23. Ex parte Falstein: re Maher (1949) 49 State Reports (NSW) 133.
  24. Sydney Morning Herald, 18 December 1948.
  25. Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 1949.
  26. Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November 1949.
  27. Smith’s Weekly, 19 November 1949.
  28. Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May 1950.
  29. PD (Cwlth), 10 October 1947, p 642.
  30. PD (Cwlth), 14 September 1944, p 859.
  31. PD (Cwlth), 5 October 1949, P 972; for an earlier attack on the Kuomintang government see Sydney Morning Herald. 27 September 1947.
  32. Crockett, op. cit., p 263.
  33. Sydney Morning Herald, 23 November 1962.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Falstein V Official Receiver (1962) 108 Commonwealth Law Reports 523.
  36. This judgment of the High Coun has not been published in the law reports but is noted in (/962) 36 Australian Law Journal Reports 267.
  37. Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 1967.