Jack Lang's Early Life
John Thomas Lang - familiarly known as "Jack" and nicknamed "The Big Fella" during his political career - was born on December 21, 1876 into an impoverished family in the slums of Sydney. His father was a watchmaker and jeweller, however he was chronically ill and often unable to work. While still of primary school age, young Jack was compelled to sell newspapers on the streets of downtown Sydney to help support his family. Jack only ever received a minimal education at a Catholic primary school near Central railway station.
During the banking crash of the 1890s which devastated all parts of Australia, the teenage Jack became interested in politics, spending time frequenting radical bookshops and helping print newspapers and publications for the infant Labor Party which contested its first election in New South Wales in 1891.
Lang then worked odd jobs in the agricultural districts near Parramatta, driving a horse bus and hiring out on poultry farms. He soon moved back to Sydney with his parents, where at the age of 19 he married Hilda Bredt, the seventeen year old daughter of prominent feminist and socialist Bertha Bredt.
Lang then became a junior office assistant for an accounting practice, where his shrewdness and intelligence saw his career advance. Around 1900 he became the manager of a real estate firm in the then rural suburb of Auburn, 19 kilometres (12 miles) west of Sydney on the Main Suburban Railway. He was so successful in this job that he soon set up his own real estate business in an area very much in demand by working-class Sydneysider families looking to escape the squalor and overcrowding of the inner-city slums.
Lang Enters The Political Arena
Jack Lang continued in his political pursuits, soon becoming an Alderman on Auburn Municipal Council and eventually Mayor. He was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of the Parliament of New South Wales in 1913 for the electorate of Granville, serving as a backbencher in the Labor Party government led by William Holman.
His high levels of financial acumen and self-made wealth made him the ideal choice to become Treasurer of New South Wales in Premier Storey's Labor Government from 1920 to 1922. Due to the post-WW1 financial recession the State's accounts were in a persistent deficit, and Lang managed to cut this deficit significantly.
After the ALP lost government in 1922, Lang was relegated to the Opposition benches, where he was elected as Opposition Leader in 1923 by his fellow Labor Party MPs. He led the ALP to victory in the 1925 NSW general election and became Premier until he lost the 1927 election.
Lang's First Term
Lang's first term was one of the most progressive administrations New South Wales has been governed by. Among the many reforms and social programmes introduced were:
Lang's Second Term and The Depression
In 1930, over one in five adult males in New South Wales was without a job. In impoverished inner-city Sydney suburbs such as Newtown and Darlinghurst, this figure was as high as 50% of adult males. Australian Governments responded to the Depression with measures that made circumstances even worse - cuts to government spending, civil service salaries, public works cancellations, et cetera.
Therefore it was no surprise that Jack Lang - who had skilfully refined his populism and oratory early in his Parliamentary career -- was elected in a landslide in October 1930.
However, Australia was - and still is - a constitutional monarchy with a federal system of Government, and only the Federal Government in Canberra had the power to control the Depression - only Canberra could control monetary policy, trade policy, customs duties and foreign relations.
As a result, Jack Lang's courageous yet futile attempts to control the Depression failed. He refused to cut Government salaries and spending, which only made New South Wales' fiscal position even more parlous. His laws restricting the rights of landlords to evict defaulting tenants was too little, too late. His policy of paying the Basic Wage to all workers on relief projects restricted the number of men who were hired on these make-work schemes.
Bridge Over Troubled Water
In March 1932 Lang opened the Sydney Harbour Bridge, an engineering marvel that is still the widest bridge in the world and the most easily recognisable symbol of Sydney. However, Lang caused some controversy when he insisted on officially opening the Bridge. Protocol demanded that such an honour go to the Governor as the King's representative in New South Wales.
A member of the paramilitary New Guard - a secretive Fascist and ultra-conservative organisation that engaged in widespread violence against Communists and Labor Party members in the 1930s - named Captain Francis de Groot sneaked into the official opening procession disguised as a ceremonial guard riding a horse in the parade. Just before Jack Lang was about to cut the ribbon to open the Harbour Bridge, Captain de Groot galloped up to the ribbon and slashed the ribbon with a sabre and declared the Bridge open in the name of the British Empire. This famous incident caused the New Guard to lose much of its credibility and popularity in the community, and the ribbon was hastily re-tied to be cut for a second time - this time by Lang.
Early in 1931 Jack Lang released his own plan to combat the Depression, this became known as "the Lang Plan". This was in contrast to the "Melbourne Agreement" which all other State Governments and the Federal Government had agreed to in 1930. While the Melbourne Agreement was orthodox and cautious, the Lang Plan was daring, audacious and radical. Key points of the Lang Plan included:
Soon afterwards, the Commonwealth Government (ironically, also a Labor Party Government led by Prime Minister James Scullin) passed a law - the Financial Agreement Enforcement Act 1931 - forcing New South Wales to adhere to its debt commitments and to cut government spending. Jack Lang refused outright.
It was clear that, questions of morality and economics aside, Jack Lang was acting in contravention to the Australian Constitution. Lang also withdrew all the State Treasury's money from government bank accounts so the Federal Government could not confiscate the money under Federal legislation. This meant that all cheques drawn on the State's funds were bouncing, including welfare and unemployment relief cheques. Governor Sir Phillip Game was left with no choice but to dismiss Lang and install the conservative Opposition Leader Sir Bertram Stevens as temporary Premier pending a state election.
Aided by the ultra-conservative print media and physical intimidation by the Fascist paramilitary called the New Guard, the ensuing election campaign saw a level of hysteria not seen often in Australia. Lang's campaign appearances attracted fervent rallies and adoring crowds sometimes in excess of 200,000 people. However, many New South Welsh people were appalled at what was widely perceived as Lang's disloyalty to the British Empire and fiscal irresponsibility in refusing to pay interest on Government debts raised in London. Lang and the Labor Party lost the June 11, 1932 election in a massive landslide.
Lang's constant disagreements and controversies with other Labor Party politicians including James Scullin, and his refusal to co-operate with any other authority to combat the Depression, led to his expulsion from the Australian Labor Party soon after. Lang then set up his own Labor Party, Lang Labor, which belligerently co-existed with the official Australian Labor Party for much of the rest of the 1930s.
Lang was ousted as NSW Opposition Leader in 1939 by the Labor Party's Parliamentary Caucus and was replaced by William McKell who became Premier in 1941. Lang was expelled from the ALP once again in 1942, and he once again started his own parallel Labor Party. He remained a member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly (lower house) until 1946, when he was elected as the Member for Reid in the Commonwealth House of Representatives.
He remained in Federal Parliament until 1949 when he lost his own seat to an official ALP candidate. He was never to be elected again, despite a failed bid to be elected to the Commonwealth Senate in 1951.
He spent his retirement as a much sought-after orator on the public speaking circuit, often speaking at schools, universities and press clubs. He wrote several books about his political life, including "The Great Bust", "I Remember" and "The Turbulent Years". Right until the end of his life, he proudly proclaimed that "Lang Is Right" - his famous election slogan from 1932. He was finally re-admitted to the Australian Labor Party in 1971, aided by his young protegé Paul Keating.
John Thomas Lang died in his beloved Auburn on September 27, 1975, and was comemmorated with a packed house and overflowing crowds outside Sydney's St. Mary's Cathedral at his Requiem Mass and memorial service.