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John Thomas Lang

John Thomas Lang

Jack Lang (1876-1975) was an Australian politician and premier of New South Wales. His career was among the stormiest in Australian political history, and his defiance of Labor prime minister James Henry Scullin contributed to the latter's defeat in 1931 and the decline of the Labor party in Australia.

John Thomas Lang, known as Jack, was born in Sydney, Australia, on December 21, 1876. In 1913 he entered the lower house of the New South Wales Parliament as a Labor member. He was soon secretary and whip of the state parliamentary Labor party, served as its treasurer in 1920-1922, and became its leader in opposition in 1923. The party won state elections in 1925 and held office with Lang as premier and treasurer until it went into opposition again in 1927.

Political Maneuvering

During this period, Lang concentrated on extending social services and introducing legislation favored by the trade unions, notably for compulsory unionism. He held dictatorial power over the party machine in New South Wales, personally took control of party funds, and dominated the labor movement in the state for a decade.

In November of 1930, when the worldwide economic depression had spread to Australia, Lang won the New South Wales election on a platform opposing retrenchment and defying an agreement to balance the state budgets, which state premiers had agreed to earlier in Melbourne.

The effect of Lang's election was a sharp drop in Australian securities on the London stock exchange and a split in the federal Labor party. There was some support for Lang's policy of repudiating or postponing debt payments.

Although Lang's plan was criticized by conservatives as unethical, it did draw attention to the need for equality of sacrifice to reduce costs and balance budgets and of ensuring that bondholders' interests as well as workers' wages were affected. On March 28, 1931, a special conference of the federal Labor party expelled the New South Wales branch. This split in the party brought about the defeat of the Labor prime minister, James Scullin in 1931.

A Split Party

Lang's premiership in New South Wales was particularly boisterous. He attempted unsuccessfully to destroy the state's legislative council by asking the governor to appoint enough new members of the right persuasion to ensure passage of the council's wishes. Lang further outraged conservative interests by what they regarded as his extreme measures and evident hostility toward banks, insurance companies, and the business world in general.

The final drama came when Lang defied federal legislation ordering the banks to pay to the federal government money held on state account. The governor, Sir Philip Game, warned Lang that he was defying federal law and gave him the opportunity to alter his policy. When Lang refused, Game dismissed him from office and called on the leader of the opposition to form a ministry, which accepted responsibility for paying state debts in full. At the ensuing general election, Lang's party was overwhelmingly defeated, and its representation in the New South Wales Parliament more than halved.

Lang remained leader of the state Labor party, but after 1937 there was a struggle among party factions to dislodge him, and in 1939 he was evicted from the party executive. In 1946 he won an election to the federal parliament but finally lost elective office in 1949. In his later years he maintained a violently anti-Communist weekly publication and remained a force to be reckoned with.

Lang was active into a vigorous old age and in 1962 published his own story of the Depression years. He was accused of being a fascist and a Communist. Although he did not fit readily into any of political category, in the interwar period his administration in New South Wales did more than any other in Australia to implement socialist ideals. Jack Lang died in Sydney on September 27, 1975.

Further Reading

Lang wrote some self-revealing works: Why I Fight (2d ed. 1934), I Remember (1956), and The Great Bust (1962). There is no adequate biography of him. The constitutional propriety of his dismissal from office is discussed by H. V. Evatt, The King and His Dominion Governors (1936), and Bethia Foott, Dismissal of a Premier (1968). W. Denning, Caucus Crisis (1937), is an account of the rise and fall of the federal Labour government in the Depression period. □

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