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Red Ted Versus The Big Fella

16 November 2013 952 views No Comment

Politicians nowadays are often so carefully managed and so terrified of offending that many are mere cardboard cut-outs whose minders do everything they can to suppress their personalities.

Former New South Wales Premier J.T. (“Jack) Lang wouldn’t have put up with that. This larger than life politician with a bristling black moustache and a distinctive rasping voice was utterly unforgettable.

Lang was perhaps our most feisty parliamentarian – who served two terms as NSW Premier from 1925-27 & 1930-32.

Another equally fascinating character was the reformist Labor Premier E. G. (“Red Ted) Theodore who, exactly 10 years after becoming premier of Queensland on 22 October 1919, became Federal Labor Treasurer during the depths of the Great Depression.

Theodore was largely self-educated and left school at twelve. And there’s a connection between the two men.

In the autumn of 1925, Theodore had actively campaigned for Lang, who after becoming NSW Premier in May wrote to Theodore expressing his thanks. However, when Theodore moved to Sydney from Queensland, trouble lurked in their competing ambitions.

After winning the state seat of Granville for Labor in 1913 by just 407 votes, Lang , who left school at fourteen – had gained power in NSW by ousting the powerful Australian Workers Union with whom E.G. (“Red Ted) Theodore was closely allied.

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Although the NSW AWU was often at odds with the Federal AWU, Theodore remained one of the union’s leading national figures. Since Lang’s power was derived from opposition to the AWU, Theodore’s intrusion into ALP affairs in the state was viewed as a threat.

Aware of Theodore’s formidable reputation, Lang knew that the ex-Queensland premier was seeking pre-selection for a federal seat in New South Wales. Moreover Theodore was groomed by the federal AWU to be the next big leader in Australian Labor, which is just what Jack Lang wanted to be and certainly thought he was.

After William Mahony MHR , an insignificant party hack – resigned from the inner-suburban working-class electorate of Dalley in January 1927, the NSW Labor Caucus unanimously approved Theodore’s endorsement to stand for the forthcoming federal by-election.

But Theodore was not only criticized in the press for the way he had obtained his endorsement, but his move into New South Wales was unfavorably compared with that of his predecessor as Queensland premier, T.J. Ryan, who had been Queensland Labor premier from 1915 to 1919 before he gained a federal seat in Sydney.

Theodore’s federal pre-selection was at least in part due to the influence of Collingwood’s most famous ‘entrepreneur’, John Wren, who had almost certainly encouraged Mahony’s resignation by providing him with a ‘gift’ of £5,000.

Theodore opened his campaign at Balmain Town Hall on 31 January 1927 supported by Dr H.V. Evatt, then a local state MLA.

At Leichhardt Town Hall on 1 February 1927, Theodore launched a slashing attack on the ‘inactive and incompetent’ Bruce-Page federal coalition Government, denouncing their conservative administration as ‘pitifully barren of achievement’.

Such was the publicity engendered by Theodore’s relatively short by-election campaign that one might be forgiven for mistaking it for a general election. The complacent coalition government had every reason to be apprehensive about Theodore’s entry into federal politics. On 26 February 1927 he was comfortably elected the ALP’s federal Member for Dalley.

Despite his prominence, Theodore’s position within the ALP was far from impregnable. Although he brought a formidable reputation from Queensland, Theodore showed a less sure touch in an unfamiliar environment. In particular he made a number of tactical mistakes through misunderstanding and underestimating the factional character of Labor in New South Wales.

Despite earlier appreciation of Theodore’s support, Lang saw him as attempting to undermine his leadership. In I Remember, Lang claims that ‘Theodore then set to work in an effort to displace me as leader in this state.’

Unlike Lang, who had huge capacities for revenge, Theodore demonstrated little lust for vengeance. In part this may have been a result of his extraordinarily rapid rise through the labour movement and the ALP. While Theodore had been Premier of Queensland at the age of thirty-four, Lang was forty-nine when he became Premier of New South Wales in 1925.

At the polls of October 1927, Lang was defeated as Premier. However the so-called ‘Big Fella’ (he was 193cms tall) won the new seat of Auburn (which he was to hold until September 1946) and continued as leader of the NSW opposition.

On 22 October 1929, Theodore became Federal Treasurer. Soon after, the NSW branch of the Party and the Federal Labor Government began to take quite divergent paths.

Theodore became the main target of Lang’s displeasure with Jim Scullin’s federal Labor Government. Indeed Theodore’s presence in NSW was the catalyst in erecting a comprehensive political machine — a newspaper (the Labor Daily), a radio station (2KY), an ‘inner group’ of numbers men, and a State Executive whose office bearers were the recipients of Lang’s patronage.

Apart from factional conflicts ‘normal’ to the ALP, especially in New South Wales, in federal parliament Theodore had to face the trenchant opposition of premier Lang’s federal supporters – the so-called Langites. Later this was to be extended to include the right wing of the Labor Party – led by the moralistic James Fenton and ‘Honest Joe’ Lyons who opposed Theodore’s progressive economic policies.

Sir Otto Niemeyer’s visit on behalf of the Bank of England, although disastrous for the Australian working class, was a boon for Jack Lang. The ‘Big Fella’ was guarded at first about Niemeyer’s deflationary budgetary proposals, not wishing to put forward too radical an image before the elections in New South Wales that year. As the October 1930 NSW election grew nearer, Lang grew more confident, tapping into anti-semitism by labeling Niemeyer, incorrectly, as a Jew. Holding up an enemy for bloodthirsty voters to vent their anger at was one of Lang’s great populist skills. Lang knew how to stir the crowd and how fear could bring wavering colleagues into line.

An Auburn Labor League branch member recalled Lang making a speech during the 1930 state election campaign: ‘When he spoke of Niemeyer and the Bank of England he’d sneer and it would go right up the side of his face’. On 25 October 1930 Lang won the NSW election easily — with a majority of twenty seats in the Legislative Assembly. He was again sworn in as Premier – on 4 November 1930, the day Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup.

In contrast to Lang, who advocated defaulting on our debt, in order to counter massive unemployment throughout Australia Theodore advocated a fiduciary notes bill and substantially increased spending on public works.

On 2 July 1930 Labor PM Scullin announced his intention of traveling to London for the Imperial Conference of Dominion Prime Ministers scheduled for October and November. Theodore was nominated as Acting Prime Minister during the several months of his absence.

It seemed as if Theodore was destined to fill with Scullin the same role he had experienced in Queensland with T.J. Ryan: the loyal and able deputy who would eventually take over.

But two days later, on 4 July 1930, a blow fell that would not only remove Theodore from active politics during the next six months but would irreparably damage his reputation. It was on that day that Theodore’s political opponents in Queensland released a judicial report finding gross fault with his conduct over the Queensland government’s acquisition of the Mungana mines near Chillagoe in north Queensland.

Theodore’s reputation was tainted by the Mungana affair and, after briefly returning as Federal Treasurer, he was decisively defeated by a Lang candidate in the federal election of December 1931 – which swept Labor from power.

At the same time, Lang continued to defy the Federal Government and the British bondholders until he was dismissed as premier by NSW Governor Sir Philip Game in May 1932 and soundly defeated at the ensuing polls.

Professor Ross Fitzgerald is author of ‘”Red Ted”:The Life of E.G.Theodore’, which was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Prize and the National Biography Award.

The Daily Telegraph, November 16, 2013, p 66.