Lang's Labor pains
Premier Jack Lang opening Sydney Harbour Bridge, 1932
Photograph courtesy of News Ltd. Photo library
Controversial and charismatic, he was twice NSW Premier, dismissed once as leader and expelled twice from his political party. Nor did a lifelong commitment to Labor stop Jack Lang opposing his own party federally.
Immensely popular as "the people's champion", he was disliked by Sydney's middle-class who feared he would wipe out their savings.
His dismissal in 1932 as NSW Premier came as little surprise despite Lang winning a landslide election victory 18 months earlier.
Of a solid build and standing 193cm tall, his public speaking voice nurtured by years as an auctioneer, he struck a formidable figure and was dubbed the "big fella".
John Thomas Lang was born in Sydney on December 21, 1876, the sixth of 10 children of Edinburgh watchmaker James Henry Lang and his wife, the former Mary Whelan of Galway, Ireland.
When Jack was seven, his father was struck by rheumatic fever. With his family plunged into poverty, Jack went to live with an uncle in Victoria.
A rebellious schoolboy, his clashes with teachers led to his formal education ending at 13. Returning to Sydney he sold newspapers, worked on a poultry farm, drove a horse bus, served in a bookshop and became a clerk in an accountant's office.
His mother tried to help the family finances by selling jewellery house-to-house but still the Langs were forced to move to a city slum. It is thought this experience coloured Jack's views; he blamed the likes of bankers who did not help his family.
In his youth, Lang often visited McNamara's bookshop in Castlereagh St, a centre of radical, socialist thought. Here he met many Labor leaders plus the poet Henry Lawson who was married to McNamara's step-daughter Bertha Bredt.
In 1896, Lang married another McNamara step-daughter, the 17-year-old Hilda Bredt. Five years later, Lang and auctioneering partner HUH. Dawes became real estate agents in Auburn, the Sydney suburb where he was to live for the rest of his life. It was here, he became mayor from 1909-1911.
Elected to State Parliament in 1913, Lang attacked Federal Labor leader Billy Hughes over conscription plans in World War I, claiming young Australians were being replaced by cheap non-white workers.
On Labor's return to power in NSW in 1920, Lang became treasurer in Premier John Storey's Government, tackling an unemployment crisis by ordering a spate of road building.
Within two years, he was a prominent Labor figure and in 1923 became party leader, but by then the Nationalist Party was in power.
Lang argued against capitalism but was also determined to eliminate communists. In 1924, they were banned from the Labor Party.
When the Great Depression struck in 1930, he bitterly opposed Labor Prime Minister James Scullin. He attacked suggestions of retrenchments and government spending cuts made by Bank of England representative Sir Otto Niemeyer.
Lang's policies for the 1930 election included extensive public work to create jobs, overturning earlier cuts in public service pay and finding markets for farm products.
Labor won 55 of 90 Legislative Assembly seats. Despite signing a 1931 premiers' plan to cut wages, he later refused to do this and passed laws stopping the Commonwealth carrying out the agreement in NSW.
His popularity reached an unprecedented height. He said electors in Auburn influenced his decisions by putting him in touch with the reality of dole queues, evictions and soup kitchens.
From March 1931, Lang refused to pay interest on foreign loans in favour of dole commitments. Prime Minister Scullin paid NSW's debts, trying to get Lang to repay the cash.
In April 1931, Lang was expelled with his controlling faction of the NSW branch by the Federal ALP, and was not readmitted until July 1936.
By mid-'31, there was a three-way split in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. One group, with six Lang supporters, precipitated the defeat of the Federal Government in the 1932 poll. The nationalists, renamed the United Australia Party, had a landslide victory.
But a huge rally in the Domain supported Lang. With the depletion of the State Treasury, he now asked for Federal aid to meet his commitments.
Meanwhile, there was talk of a plot to kidnap Lang, allegedly being hatched among the 37,000-member pro-monarchist, anti-Communist New Guard. Eric Campbell, leader of the movement pledged to unswerving loyalty to the throne, was determined to "stamp out the bushfire of Langism". In a protest against the Premier, New Guard member Captain Francis de Groot disrupted the opening ceremony for Sydney Harbour Bridge on March 19, 1932, cutting the ribbon before Lang.
A month earlier, Joseph Lyons's Federal Government had passed an Act to meet NSW's debts by taking over the State's assets, if necessary.
Lang imposed a 10 per cent levy on all mortgages in the State, a move vehemently opposed by businesses.
He also instructed government departments not to pay money due to the Federal Treasury. Asked by NSW Governor Sir Philip Game to withdraw the orders, he refused and was dismissed as premier on May 13.
In the ensuing elections, Labor lost 31 seats, plunging from 55 to 24 MPs.
It was the end of Lang's power play, although he did serve a term in Federal parliament from 1946.
He was also expelled by NSW Labor in 1941 -a ban that lasted 31 years after he set up an ALP (Noncommunist) group.
Jack Lang died on September 27, 1975, aged 98.