Scandal that stole Red Ted’s chance to tackle top job
FORGET Simon Crean and Kim Beazley. Forget Joan Kirner and Carmen Lawrence. To my mind, the most talented Labor politician never to be prime minister of Australia was Edward Granville “Red Ted” Theodore, who became premier of Queensland and state treasurer on October 22, 1919. Exactly 10 years later, Theodore became federal treasurer in the ill-fated ALP government of James Scullin.
His Labor credentials were impeccable. Born in Adelaide on December 29, 1884, Theodore – who was of Romanian background – left school at 12 to gain work in the mines to help his family financially. Shortly after he arrived in North Queensland in 1907, fresh from Broken Hill, Theodore and his future successor as Labor premier, William McCormack, became leaders of the Amalgamated Workers Association, which later was absorbed by the Australian Workers Union with which Theodore was associated for all his political life.
In 1909, Theodore was elected a state Labor MP for the Chillagoe district that was to remain the union and political base of a brilliant career, which led to Theodore becoming premier of Queensland from 1919 to 1925. Early in his parliamentary life, he benefited from elocution lessons and from his regular practice of using emphasis and cadence in all his speeches. During his premiership, in 1922, Theodore organised for the abolition of the legislative council, which is why to this day Queensland has a one-house parliament.
It was the Queensland Royal Commission into Mungana Mines, near Chillagoe (instituted by the state Nationalist Country Party government of A. E. “Boy” Moore in the hope of discrediting McCormack’s 1925 to 1929 government in Queensland) that forced Theodore to stand down as federal treasurer in July 1930.
But there was a double whammy. Soon after Theodore moved to Sydney to become federal Labor member for Dalley at a byelection in February 1927, he had a huge falling out with the vengeful NSW Labor leader Jack Lang – otherwise known as the “Big Fella”. Lang and his supporters feared Theodore’s intrusion into NSW ALP affairs because of his association with the AWU and because of what they regarded as his intention to become the leading Labor politician in NSW.
This apprehension was not entirely misplaced. In October 1929, Theodore became Jim Scullin’s treasurer as well as deputy leader of the party. Yet the first federal Labor government in 13 years was not four months into office when the seeds of Theodore’s demise were being sown by the NSW branch of the party and by the so-called “Mungana Mines scandal”.
On July 2, 1930, Scullin announced his intention to travel to London for the Imperial Conference of Dominion Prime Ministers. Theodore was nominated as acting prime minister for the several months of his absence.
Two days later, on July 4, 1930, a blow fell that would not only remove Theodore from active politics during the next six months, but also irreparably taint his reputation during his lifetime and beyond: Theodore’s political opponents in Queensland released a judicial report finding fault with his conduct over the state Labor government’s acquisition of the Mungana mines.
Tragically, Red Ted – an early follower of the theories of John Maynard Keynes – was rendered powerless precisely when his economic and fiscal abilities were most required. At that point, when he could most have helped our country to deal with large-scale unemployment, he was forced to stand down as treasurer.
Although Scullin reappointed Theodore as treasurer in January 1931 – on the basis that the Queensland government had not charged him with any offence – by then it was too late. The Australian economy was out of control and the federal Labor government was on the nose.
After the electoral rout of the Scullin government in late 1931, Joseph Lyons became prime minister and leader of the United Australia Party in January 1932.
Theodore could well have become our ablest prime minister. But instead of voting for Theodore’s advanced economic and fiscal policies, the country chose a compromise candidate in the form of Lyons, who believed in reducing expenditure as a means of dealing with Australia’s financial and economic crisis. Theodore, who was thrashed in his seat of Dalley, never stood for parliament again.
After federal politics, Theodore helped redeem himself in the public eye when, for no payment, he took up the post of Director-General of the Allied Works Council during World War II. Ironically, the itinerant mine worker and energetic union official became an owner of the hugely profitable Emperor Gold Mines in Fiji – with the infamous entrepreneur John Wren and the wealthy capitalist Frank Packer. With the latter, Theodore founded the hugely successful ‘Australian Women’s Weekly’.
Even today, apart from being something of a cult figure in the Treasury, Theodore is esteemed by both sides of politics. For example, the ex-Bjelke Petersen minister and now independent federal MP for the vast north Queensland seat of Kennedy, Bob Katter, describes Theodore as “a very great Australian – the person I most admire in Australian politics”. Former Labor PM Paul Keating regards Theodore and Lang as his two great Australian political heroes. Tellingly, the day after Red Ted’s funeral, Lang wrote: “Of all my political opponents E. G. Theodore was the toughest – when he was beaten he didn’t squeal.” If only Julia Gillard could follow Theodore’s example!
Theodore died in Edgecliff, Sydney, on February 9, 1950 – aged 65. Shortly before his death a friend asked, “Was it true about Mungana, Ted?” Theodore reportedly replied: “There is no more beautiful sight than Sydney Harbour on an autumn afternoon.”
Ross Fitzgerald’s book ‘”Red Ted”: The Life of E. G.Theodore’, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize and the National Biography Award.
The Weekend Australian April 13 14, 2013, Inquirer p 16