Part 3 of 3
The NSW Governor, Sir Philip Game, dismissed Jack Lang’s government on 13 May 1932.
Had Game acted correctly in so doing?
On 23 April Game had written to London that:
“I feel it far better that the Commonwealth and State Governments should decide the quarrel without my intervention.”
His action on 13 May was quite different from that expressed view.
The dismissal of a popularly elected government by the King or the King’s representative was something that could not have happened in Britain where the Crown’s power in respect of Parliament had been severely curtailed.
Further, Game’s stated ground for the dismissal – that the Lang Government was acting illegally in ordering public servants to ignore the Commonwealth directive for the forwarding of NSW income to the Commonwealth – was based only on his own determination of illegality. Notwithstanding that matters of constitutionality had previously been determined by the Courts, the Governor dismissed Lang at his own behest. There was no video ref in such matters in 1932.
Whether Lang had acted legally and properly was buried in a wave of congratulations and approval.
Stone notes that the Prime Minister on radio that night thanked Game and said:
"I feel sure that the nation tonight – not only the people of New South Wales but the nation as a whole – will heave a sigh of relief."
George V’s private secretary, Lord Wigram, wrote to Game:
"We are enchanted with your triumph over Lang… From being the villain of the piece you have been exalted to the hero of the day…. The King trusts that a fresh era of prosperity, contentment and happiness is in store for New South Wales."
The Australian Dictionary of Biography justifies the dismissal in a short summation:
Constitutionally the grounds were dubious as the courts had the duty to determine illegality; but socially and politically Game was justified. Civil disorder threatened; Lang's inner resources were exhausted, his policies as bankrupt as his Treasury, his popular backing decimated.
It is not correct that Lang’s popular backing was decimated at the time of his dismissal. Rallies by Lang drew hundreds of thousands of supporters, in one case 200,000 persons, who rallied under the slogan that they had chanted when he disputed the Melbourne Agreement: Lang is Right.
In his book The Turbulent Years, published in 1968 when he was aged 92, Lang wrote that when he received Game’s letter withdrawing his commission to hold government, he contemplated defiance and the arrest of Sir Philip Game:
"There it was, and I had to face up to the question as to whether I would accept the dismissal or not.
While I had no doubt that members of the New South Wales Police Force would carry out their orders, at the same time I realised that it would bring about a clash with the armed forces of the Commonwealth. We had information that the Commonwealth, fearing that such a clash might take place, had placed all arms of the service in Sydney in a state of alert. Arms and ammunition had been distributed to the troops at Victoria Barracks, at Middle Head and Constitutionally the grounds were dubious as the courts had the duty to determine illegality; but socially and politically Game was justified. Civil disorder threatened; Lang's inner resources were exhausted, his policies as bankrupt as his Treasury, his popular backing decimated. at Liverpool, to the naval ratings at Garden Island and Air Force at Richmond. The Commonwealth had also recruited officers to supplement the Commonwealth Police Force.
While I was satisfied in my own mind that there would be hundreds of thousands of people in the State who would rally to the defence of their elected Government, I was not prepared to risk the creation of a situation resulting in bloodshed, particularly as the Commonwealth would have its forces fully armed and our supporters would largely be the unemployed, without weapons of any kind.
If we defied the authority of the Governor, we would be denying the authority of the King, whose representative he was. This might be accepted as an open invitation to the intervention of the British navy and end in the arrival of British warships off Sydney Heads to shell the city. So, rather than risk civil war and have bloodshed in the streets of Sydney, I decided to accept the dismissal."
Stone observes in his book 1932: A Hell of a Year that there were other options available to Lang, short of arrest of the Governor and the prospect of civil war. Lang could have challenged the dismissal in the courts, the Royal Instructions under which Game acted being outdated and inconsistent with self rule. With a majority in Parliament, Lang could also have sought the King’s recall of Game on the ground that Game had acted unconstitutionally.
One school of thought holds that for whatever reason, Lang courted dismissal by Game.
Sir Bertram Stevens:
In the same way as Sir John Kerr appointed Malcolm Fraser a caretaker some 73 years later, Sir Philip Game installed one Bertram Stevens as caretaker Premier until an election could be called. Stevens called the election immediately, scheduling it for 11 June.
Stevens had been made Under-Secretary and Director of Finance of the State Treasury in 1924, positions which brought him into conflict with Lang during Lang’s first term in office. That conflict with Lang caused him to resign
In 1927 he became an alderman on Marrickville Council, also being elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly that same year as the Member for Croydon.
When the Nationalist Party was absorbed into the United Australia Party in 1932, Stevens became the leader of that merged party.
Stone describes the election which followed the Lang dismissal as “the dirtiest election campaign in Australian history - a veritable mudslide of smears and lies.” It was characterised by:
- biased reporting by all the newspapers;
- deliberate untruths about Lang;
- much more favourable reporting of the opposition;
- smearing of Lang as a communist with a hidden agenda of communist takeover;
- false reporting that conditions were improving with Lang gone.
Caretaker Stevens defied convention of not introducing new policy initiatives by establishing 3 separate and different Royal Commissions to investigate alleged misconduct within Lang’s previous administration.
As New South Wales went to the polls, the people supporting and opposing Lang could be summed up as:
- Monarchists saw Lang as disrespectful of the monarchy and probably committed to its abolition in Australia.
- The middle class and the wealthy viewed Lang as a Communist, dedicated to the seizure of their wealth and assets as part of a Communist agenda.
- The middle class and the Federalists saw Lang as bringing shame to Australia by failing to honour loan repayment commitments, all the more shameful in that the loans were due to mother England.
- The members of the fascist New Guard saw in Jack Lang everything they opposed, plus someone who was dedicated to a communist takeover of government. As a consequence, armed and ready, they declared themselves ready to protect king and country.
- Mortgage lenders were alienated by the proposed Mortgages Taxation Act, whereby lenders would need to pay 10% of the loan amount to the New South Wales government.
- To the poor and the working class, Lang was a man who was willing to fight for them when no one else was willing. Lang referred to the people he represented as “my children”.
- The unemployed saw Lang as their champion, concerned for their welfare and the creator of jobs at a time when other governments in Australia, particularly the Federal Government, were following policies that created more unemployment.
- Communism adherents did see Lang as a force for their movement, notwithstanding that Lang was an anti-communist all his political life and did try to have communists banned from membership of the Labor Party.
The election resulted in Lang Labor being heavily defeated. The seats of Lang Labor fell from 55 to 24, but Lang Labor still managed to secure 40 per cent of the votes cast. Federal Labor gained only 4 per cent, with no seats,
Stevens became Premier and the rest, as is often said, is history.
What happened to them?
Lang remained a Member of Parliament until 1949.
The United Australia Party won the elections of 1935 and 1938, from which time Federal Labor began to gain ground in NSW, Lang having lost the confidence of the union movement in his ability to win an election. In 1939 he was ousted by William McKell as leader of the Opposition, McKell becoming Premier in 1941.
Lang was expelled from the ALP in 1942. In response he started his own party, the ALP (Non-Communist).
Lang lost office in 1949. A Senate bid in 1951 failed.
He spent the remainder of his years publishing a newspaper, The Century, and wrote several books. As he grew older he became increasingly conservative. Lang supported the White Australia Policy long after it had been abandoned by the rest of the labour movement
Lang was in popular demand for lectures and discussions at schools and universities.
In 1971 he was readmitted to the Labor Party, assisted by his protégé Paul Keating.
Lang died in Auburn on 27 September 1975, aged 98, and was buried at Rookwood Cemetery. His funeral service at St Marys Cathedral, Sydney, overflowed into the street and was attended by prominent Labor leaders, including Gough Whitlam.
Ironically a short time later, on 11 November 1975, the Governor General Sir John Kerr, the Queen’s representative in Australia, would withdraw Whitlam’s commission, thereby dismissing the popularly elected Federal` Labor Government.
Prime Minister Joe Lyons:
Lyons died of a heart attack in 1939, aged 59, the first Australian Prime Minister to die in office. His United Australia Party Government had been crumbling as a result of internal disputes and he himself had become increasingly depressed as the prospect of war impacted upon his pacifist views.
His death was met with widespread grief, having been one of the most popular Prime Ministers.
Sir Philip Game:
After his term of office ended, Sir Philip game returned to London where he served as Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis from 1935 to 1945.
He died in 1961, aged 85.
Game’s oldest son, Bill, finished his studies at Sydney University and returned to England, where he lost both his wife and child in childbirth. He later married the daughter of the Chancellor of Sydney University and formed a friendship with Jack Lang.
Sir Bertram Stevens:
The United Australia party won the elections of 1935 an 1938. For most of that time, Stevens was his own Treasurer whilst Premier.
In 1936 the Deputy Leader of the UAP, Spooner, moved a no confidence motion in him for not running a balanced budget. It passed by 2 votes and Stevens resigned as Premier.
Despite Menzies’ advice not to do so, he resigned his Legislative Assembly seat in 1949 to run for the Labor held seat of (wait for it).. Lang. He was unsuccessful.
Stevens died in Concord West in 1973.
(The NSW seat of Lang originally included the suburbs of Kogarah and Marrickville, but by the time it was abolished in 1977, it covered the suburbs of Lakemba and Belmore. It was named after Rev John Lang, a member of the NSW Legislative Assembly and advocate of Australian independence).
The Wall Street crash, marking the start of the Great Depression, occurred 2 days after Scullin was sworn in as Prime Minister. The common historical perception of Scullin these days is that he was both conscientious and well-meaning but that the events that were happening at the time overwhelmed him and his government.
In 1931 Lyons and the United Australia Party won the election with Lyons becoming PM. Scullin remained leader of the Federal Labor Party until he lost another election in 1934, thereupon resigning the leadership. Scullin remained in Parliament and became an advised for later Labor prime Ministers John Curtin and Ben Chifley. He retired in 1949 and died in 1953.
George V was not a well man when the Lang events happened. A heavy smoker, he long suffered from emphysema, bronchitis, chronic obstructive lung disease and pleurisy. At one stage he retired for a brief period to the seaside resort of Bognor Regis, giving rise to the myth that his last words, on being told he would soon be well enough to visit Bognor Regis, was “Bugger Bognor.”
In 1936 George died at Sandringham, his doctor Lord Dawson recording in hi diary that George’s last words were “God damn you”, addressed to his nurse who gave him a sedative. Dawson admitted that he gave George a lethal injection of cocaine and morphine, both to end the strain on the family when George was dying and so that the news of his death could be announced in the morning edition of The Times newspaper.
During his funeral procession part of the Imperial State Crown fell from the top of the coffin and landed in the gutter. The new king, Edward VIII, saw it fall and thought it may be a bad omen for his reign. Before the year was out he abdicated the throne with his brother Albert taking over as king.
In 1908 Hilda had filed a petition for separation and custody of the four children of herself and Jack Lang on the basis of his adultery and cohabitation with one Nellie Anderson. Lang was living with Nellie Anderson and deeply in love with her. Lang had only just begun his political career as an alderman on Auburn Council and the scandal, if it became public, may well have ended his political career before it even started. For whatever reason she chose to do so, she withdrew the application three days later, probably on the promise that he would return to Hilda. The liaison with Nellie continued and in 1910 she bore him a son, James Christian. His attempts to end the affair were unsuccessful on his part and Stone refers to Nellie Anderson as the great love of his life. In 1911 Nellie suddenly died from an infection contracted after a miscarriage. Lang was shattered and channelled his emotions and passion into politics. Whether by reason of her mother’s upbringing and outlooks or some other reason, she displayed a remarkable sense of charity and forgiveness. James Christian was brought into the family home, being treated and regarded as one of her own. Two years later when she gave birth to a daughter, the child was named Nellie Louisa.
Hilda assisted with campaigning for Lang in 1925 and 1931 and remained by his side during his triumphs and his defeats.
She died in 1964.