Red Ted’s Fall and Recovery
The Curse of Mungana
by David E. Moore
Boolarong Press, 2017, 336 pages, $34.99
Widely known as “Red Ted”, Edward Granville Theodore was Queensland Premier from 1919 to 1925 and federal Treasurer during James Scullin’s federal Labor government from 1929 to 1931. He was arguably the greatest Australian politician never to become prime minister.
In large part Theodore’s political career was killed by what became known as the Mungana Mines scandal. The Mungana mining leases were situated twenty kilometres north-west of Chillagoe, a north Queensland town which was part of Theodore’s state electorate from 1909 until 1925. The financial scandal surrounding Mungana intimately involved Theodore’s friend and co-founder of the Australian Workers’ Union, William McCormack, who was Premier of Queensland from 1925 to 1929. However it was Theodore who was the most prominent casualty of what David E. Moore calls “the curse of Mungana”.
Ironically it was David E. Moore’s grandfather, Arthur Moore, who, while he was Country and Progressive National Party Premier of Queensland from 1929 to 1932, pursued his Queensland Labor adversaries. This included setting up a royal commission to inquire into the Mungana-Chillagoe mining enterprises.
The ensuing report of July 1930 found that McCormack, Theodore and two other persons were, as Moore puts it, “guilty of fraud and dishonesty in procuring the State Government to purchase the Mungana Mines”. In particular, the revelation that from 1920 to 1926 Theodore received regular payments from McCormack at the same time as McCormack received income from the Mungana leases, and which equated to approximately 50 per cent of McCormack’s receipts from Mungana Mines, was a bombshell.
As a result of these findings and other accusations that he had benefited financially from the mines at Mungana, Theodore had to stand down as federal Treasurer at a time when his economic policies might well have averted the worst excesses of the Great Depression which was plaguing Australia.
Even though Theodore was never found guilty of any criminal or civil offence, the curse of Mungana stayed with him throughout his life, and well beyond. During the bitter federal election campaign in December 1931 when Theodore lost his Sydney-based seat of Dalley to a Lang Labor candidate who had previously been his campaign manager, he was persistently jeered at meetings with “What about Mungana?” It had become a millstone around his neck. Often, the anti-Theodore crowd would chant, “Yes, we have no Munganas!” echoing a popular song. Moreover, as I wrote in ‘“Red Ted”: The Life of E.G. Theodore’, which was published by University of Queensland Press in 1994, “the word ‘Mungana’ scrawled on a lavatory wall was enough to turn a vote”. In contrast to the 77.9 per cent he had polled two years earlier, Theodore received a mere 19.6 per cent of the vote. After his overwhelming defeat and the utter routing of the Scullin Labor government, he said: “That finishes me with politics.”
He then devoted much of his time to a highly successful business career. As Moore explains, in particular this involved “teaming up with the 27-year-old Frank Packer to become half-owner in the Sydney Newspapers syndicate in November 1932 to acquire the ‘World’”. This floundering AWU-sponsored Sydney afternoon daily newspaper had been bleeding money. Theodore, who was the chief negotiator, became the founding chairman of what turned into a flourishing print empire, with Packer as its managing director.
As Moore points out in this richly and copiously illustrated book, the first edition of the ‘Australian Women’s Weekly’ in June 1933 was an instant success. In 1935 Sydney Newspapers bought a Sydney morning newspaper, the ‘Telegraph’, creating a new entity, Consolidated Press Limited. The renamed ‘Daily Telegraph’ and later the ‘Sunday Telegraph’ made substantial inroads in the Sydney market, becoming, as Moore puts it, “sufficiently powerful to refuse a takeover bid by the acquisitive Keith Murdoch in mid-1938”.
In the early 1930s Theodore, in association with Packer, Patrick Cody, and Ted’s friend the notorious Collingwood-based “entrepreneur” John Wren, invested in a highly lucrative gold-mining venture in Fiji, employing 1700 people. Theodore, who had management responsibility for the Emperor Gold Mining Company, soon also became managing director of the smaller, but highly lucrative, Loloma Gold Mines N.L. In mid-1935 their public flotations were heavily oversubscribed. Under the shrewd direction of Theodore, who lived in Fiji for much of the time, both gold-mining companies continued to generate huge profits.
In the middle of the Second World War, in February 1942, Labor Prime Minister John Curtin appointed Theodore Director-General of Public Works, a position with extraordinarily wide powers. As Moore explains, Theodore, who refused to accept any payment, was a highly successful director of the Allied Works Council, which recruited 50,000 workers “for a wide range of production and support services”. When Theodore resigned as Director-General of Public Works in October 1944 Curtin wrote:
“I wish to express to you on behalf of my colleagues and myself our most grateful thanks for the inestimable service you have rendered to Australia … At the most critical stage of our country’s history you accepted entirely without financial reward a responsibility of gigantic proportions.”
When Theodore died on February 5, 1950, exactly twenty-five years after his resignation as Premier of Queensland, his estate was equivalent to $25 million today.
While there is no doubting Theodore’s enormous political, economic, financial, business, bureaucratic and administrative talents, the taint of Mungana still poisons some people’s perceptions of him. In ‘The Curse of Mungana’, Moore argues powerfully for Theodore’s guilt — especially given that he received from McCormack almost exactly 50 per cent of all McCormack’s income from Mungana. Yet, in my opinion, the case, although it appears to be strong, cannot be proved absolutely. Available documents show that McCormack, over six years, periodically gave Theodore substantial sums — the provenance of which is uncertain. Hence any conclusion about Theodore’s guilt still has to be conjecture. As I have written elsewhere, “the credits to Theodore’s account were certainly paid by McCormack. Beyond this, their nature was unclear.”
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.” Interpret that as you will.
Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University, Ross Fitzgerald is the author of thirty-nine books, including ‘“Red Ted”: The Life of E.G. Theodore’ and the recent satire ‘Going Out Backwards: A Grafton Everest Adventure.’ He reviewed Rowan Dean’s ‘Way Beyond Satire’ in the March issue.
QUADRANT, April 2017, pp 67-68.