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Lang, John Thomas (Jack) (1876–1975)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

John Thomas Lang (1876-1975), by unknown photographer

John Thomas Lang (1876-1975), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L21428

John Thomas (Jack) Lang (1876-1975), estate agent and politician, was born on 21 December 1876 in George Street, Sydney, son of James Henry Lang, watchmaker of Edinburgh, and his wife Mary, née Whelan, of Galway, Ireland. His father's illness and financial problems in the mid-1880s forced him to live with an uncle at Bairnsdale, Victoria, where he went to the local convent school. Back in Sydney Jack sold newspapers and attended St Francis Marist Brothers' School, Haymarket. In 1889 he worked on a poultry farm; later he drove a horse-bus, and served in H. J. Douglass's bookshop; at 17 he became an office-boy in an accountant's office. He was a gangling youth, darkly handsome.

On 14 March 1896 at St Francis Church Lang married 17-year-old Hilda Bredt, stepdaughter of W. H. McNamara who kept a well-known socialist bookshop in Castlereagh Street. Henry Lawson married Hilda's sister. The Langs lived with the McNamaras and their first child was born in June.

By 1899 Lang was an accountant's clerk in R. Harley's real estate office at Auburn. In 1901 he and H. H. Dawes became land agent and auctioneering partners there. Lang lived at first in Carnarvon Street, from 1912 in a stately house in Adderley Street where he remained for most of the rest of his life. Beginning as a pinched, semi-rural, western suburb, Auburn grew slowly as a mainly working-class district with some home ownership but much absentee investment for needy tenants; it slowly became industrialized. Lang became absorbed in the area, nourishing its middle-class aspirations and adjusting to its growing radical tinge.

In 1901-13 Lang consolidated his contrary traits of uncouthness and a yearning for respectability. He grew into a large, solid, man, 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm) tall. His black moustache spread as his hair receded, making him more striking in appearance, formidable to men and not unattractive to women. His auctioneering produced a crude but effective public speaking style: rasping voice, snarling mouth, flailing hands, sentences and phrases punctuated by long pauses. Increasing wealth did not disturb or surprise him, and he wore the uniform of the successful Edwardian man — three-piece suit, watch and chain, stiff collar, sober tie, polished boots, obtrusive felt hat. He was not a punctilious churchgoer, but he was religious and had a good Catholic faith, which, however, he regarded strictly as part of his private life. He denounced sectarianism.

Lang seldom laughed; his rare smiles highlighted his jutting jaw. He was insecure with people, but they were attracted by his appearance of strength. He gained many followers but no real intimates, and in the 1920s T. D. Mutch said he would die without a friend. He was ruthless, calculating and shrewd, adept at short-term judgements that fostered his own interests, the model of the self-seeking house and land agent. In 1906 he became secretary of the Starr-Bowkett Ballot and Sale Society, a workers' co-operative home-buying group. But he had no view of integrated improvement. His reading had been desultory. His social ideas were meagre. But he was determined, tireless and ambitious, if more than a little suspicious, cautious and defensive. He liked walking and punctuality. He came to loathe gambling and affected a horror of elegant hotels.

In 1903 Lang was secretary of the Granville Labor League, in 1906 of the Nepean Federal Council of the party, and in 1913 president of the Granville Electoral Council. He was also secretary of the Newington Progress Association. He was associated with St Joseph's Hospital and took part in Catholic social life. In 1907-14 he represented Newington Ward on the Auburn council and was mayor in 1909-11. By 1910 W. A. Holman's great organizing was bringing suburban areas within the Labor Party's ambit and, after a conflict with G. Cann over pre-selection had been settled, Lang took the local seat of Granville in 1913.

For a while Lang was out of his depth in parliament and revealed his chagrin and envy of Holman by unruly behaviour. He was a good local member, exhibiting his habitual persistence, becoming a justice of the peace in 1914. He shrewdly waited on events in 1915-16 as the premier's difficulties with the party increased. From 1911 Lang had noted the resentment towards Holman of some trade unions, led by the Australian Workers' Union; he observed the opposition of organized 'industrialists' at the 1916 Labor conference, though he had little understanding of or sympathy with unions. But he supported the conference's ban on conscription for overseas war service; the consequent mass expulsions, including Holman who formed a National ministry, enabled Lang to become caucus secretary in 1916-17 and whip in 1917-18, favourable positions from which to judge the new groups contending for party power in the post-Holman era.

Lang perceived the rising strength of trade union influence though it was riven by conflict between the A.W.U., led by J. Bailey, and a divided extremist section in which A. C. Willis of the miners' federation and J. S. Garden, secretary of the Labor Council of New South Wales, were prominent. By 1919 Bailey had won, but he failed to control the parliamentary party — it comprised mainly middle-class reformists; Lang fitted in nicely, his ambition gradually tuning into the new factionalism.

Labor narrowly won the 1920 general election, held under proportional representation. Lang gained one of the Parramatta seats and became treasurer in the Storey ministry; he continued in office until the fall of the Dooley government in 1922. He failed to win the deputy leadership in 1921. Stressing his own rectitude, he managed the State's finances as he had his Auburn business. His tight-fistedness riled some trade unions, but Sir John French of the Bank of New South Wales described him 'as one of the best Treasurers'.

The A.W.U. and Bailey still influenced the State executive and were powerful in the Federal party. In 1923 Dooley defied the executive which replaced him with J. J. G. McGirr. Lang distrusted the A.W.U., backed Dooley, and with P. Loughlin's support, sought Federal intervention. Overcoming his distaste for the Trades Hall, Lang found that he could attract devotees even there: two powerful moderates, E. C. Magrath of the printers' union, and T. J. Tyrrell of the municipal workers', supported him and helped to keep Garden in check. With Willis's help Lang partially manipulated the 1923 conference, and he liked the experience. This was real power. Bailey was expelled, the A.W.U.'s dominance shaken. In August caucus elected Lang as leader and Loughlin as his deputy.

Lang knew that members of the Communist Party of Australia had infiltrated the Labor Party, and he was determined to eliminate them. He was always implacably opposed to communism. But he also argued that 'Capitalism must go'. Conservative forces, already fearing him, responded with a constant attack linking Labor with revolution, even after communists were banned in 1924.

Lang's abrasiveness and pugnacity increased with his new assurance. He was irked by caucus restrictions and by 1924 had seen the opportunity of increasing his power by gaining the backing of conference and executive. He became a director of the Labor Daily, the party's official organ, founded by Willis's union. But his unsubtle deceit alienated many of his colleagues and in June he defeated Mutch, supported by the A.W.U., by only one vote for the leadership. Willis, president, and Tyrrell, vice-president, of the party executive later went to Parliament House to rally caucus behind Lang.

Garden's 'Trades Hall Reds' also proved difficult for Lang. In a speech in June he promised a 44-hour week, preference to unionists, and socialization of industry. Garden responded next month with a trade union conference which demanded Lang's expulsion. Lang scorned it, was supported by Willis, and attacked Garden and other communists. Meanwhile, he continually scored against the government. The press, especially the Sydney Morning Herald, intensified its bitter campaign against him. Nevertheless, he led Labor to a two-seat victory at the May 1925 general election.

Lang became premier and treasurer. At once he forced the resignation of (Sir) B. S. B. Stevens, a senior officer of the Treasury, whose actions and politics had displeased him. To the dismay of many Labor parliamentarians he quickly appointed Willis to the Legislative Council and ministry. Magrath, now president of the executive and Tyrrell, vice-president, were also put into the council. Lang increased his support from unionists, the party machine and branches as the government reinstated the 1917 transport strikers and restored the 44-hour week. But he remained a loner and a hater. Nor was he a good administrator: cabinet work was unbalanced. The council rejected and mutilated legislation, including the death penalty abolition bill, and Lang gained wide party agreement when he decided to abolish it. After much opposition from the governor, Sir Dudley de Chair, twenty-five Labor members were appointed in December but, at the crucial vote in February 1926 some of them reneged on their pledge, and the council survived. In March Lang sent the attorney-general, (Sir) E. A. McTiernan, to London to complain about de Chair. (Sir) T. R. Bavin, leader of the Opposition, said Lang wanted to pose as 'a strong man' at the next Labor conference.

At the April conference Magrath and Tyrrell were under fire from the A.W.U. and various radical unionists. Lang stood aloof and was rapturously received. J. A. Beasley, president of the Labor Council, said that the trade unions 'would stand solidly behind' him. The majority of unionists, whatever their ideologies, now appreciated the premier's apparent strength and welcomed the Widows' Pensions and Workers' Compensation Acts; many sought his patronage. In September even Garden embraced Lang, but was not yet readmitted to the party. But the agitation of many caucus members intensified; Loughlin said that they would not tolerate communists in the party; they were further alarmed by conference's decision that Lang rather than caucus select Labor candidates for the Upper House.

The Nationalists and their newspaper allies now claimed that Lang was subverting the State's constitution. Their fury increased when Lang announced that he would extend 'a hearty welcome' next year (1927) to the Duke and Duchess of York. The premier attempted to improve his position by appointing A. D. Kay, a member for North Sydney, to the Metropolitan Meat Industry Board and having one of his own supporters replace him. In the turmoil in September 1926 Loughlin resigned his portfolio and opposed Lang for leadership; he objected to 'Red' infiltration and subversion of the party's rules; he also said that the government's legislation was based on the party's platform and caucus pressure and not solely on Lang. The vote was tied and Lang remained premier. The Labor Daily published wild allegations that certain caucus members had been open to Nationalist bribery to oust Lang. H. V. Evatt chaired a select committee on it and later criticized Lang's evidence, his vanity, his apathy towards sport, and his 'resorting to abuse and insult'.

Most unions and party branches supported Lang, but the A.W.U.'s hostility was sharpened by the intervention of E. G. Theodore from Queensland. Garden's strong, if often embarrassing, backing was helpful. In November a special conference confirmed Lang as parliamentary leader. Loughlin again resigned from the ministry and with R. T. Gillies and V. W. E. Goodin threatened to bring down the government. But in the censure debate the premier made a stirring defence; the dissident trio did not vote and Lang survived. The government held on tenuously, bringing in family endowment after further conflict with the Legislative Council in March 1927. But there was more cabinet strife, centred on Willis and the April conference chaired by W. H. Seale; in May the governor approved Lang's reconstructed ministry subject to an early election.

The April conference had chilled the Labor caucus. It had expelled Loughlin, Gillies and Goodin, consolidated Lang as leader, or 'dictator' as his opponents put it, provided for regional conferences, and arranged future conference and executive representation by a group-elective system — a blow to communists and the A.W.U. but a boon to Lang. Despite its reaffirmation of the communist ban, it was dubbed the 'Red Rules' conference; Lang re-emerged as the 'Red Terror' and the press's 'song of hate' grew louder. This obscured his personal defects and administrative deficiencies and, as Evatt claimed, ensured him undue credit for the government's legislation. Labor's non-parliamentary section had capitulated to him. The A.W.U., Theodore and caucus rebels had favoured a rival executive under F. Conroy, but a 'unity' conference in July 1927, organized by the federal executive, recognized the Seale regime, after a strong campaign by Lang had won more votes for his candidate than the Conroy-federal nominee at the Warringah by-election. He soon commanded the 'Inner Group', based on the Trades Hall, which ran the State party machine. The end of the industrialists' drive for power since 1916 was the ascendancy of a maverick parliamentarian, 'the Big Fella'. But he lost the October elections.

Caucus was now cowed and Lang dominated the 1928 conference. He kept up his campaign against communists and insisted that Labor alone could achieve social justice. Garden rejoined the party in 1929 and continued as an acolyte, helping to repel renewed aggression from the A.W.U. Lang criticized the Commonwealth financial agreement bill, 1928, arguing that the Loan Council it set up gave the Commonwealth excessive power over State development, but in November the Loan Council became part of the Australian Constitution. He welcomed the Scullin Labor Federal government in October 1929, but next year again castigated Theodore, now Commonwealth treasurer; it was suggested that Lang should enter the Federal parliament.

The Depression was now biting, with severe unemployment and balance of payments problems forcing orthodox deflationary policies. Lang ignored its social dangers and took the opportunity not only to attack the Bavin State government, but also the Scullin government, especially when it sought advice from the Bank of England and the Sir Otto Niemeyer mission arrived in July 1930. His policy for the October general election included extensive public works to reduce unemployment, restoration of reductions in public service salaries, markets for farmers' produce, and double payment for each family's first child. He also promised to balance the budget and rejected repudiation. He won the election by twenty seats.

In December Lang's legislation gave relief to mortgagors and tenants, and restricted evictions and the sale of tenants' furniture. But his request for forty to fifty new members of the Legislative Council was refused by the governor, Sir Philip Game. Hard-pressed for revenue, he introduced a State lottery, a 10 per cent tax on winning bets, and increased the unemployment tax on wages and salaries from threepence to one shilling in the pound. He appealed for help to the banking system, but Sir Robert Gibson, chairman of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and of the Bankers' Conference, insisted that all borrowings by governments should be handled by the Loan Council. Lang argued in January 1931 that the need to free 'ourselves from the power of the money-ring transcends everything else confronting Australian governments'. He was assisted by several 'publicity officers', including H. R. McCauley and J. H. C. Sleeman.

At a Federal-States conference in Canberra in February it was agreed that budgets should be balanced within three years. Lang proposed 'the Lang Plan', that interest payments to British bondholders should be suspended, that interest on Australian government borrowings should be reduced to 3 per cent, and that a new form of currency should be based on 'the goods standard'. The scheme was opposed by Scullin and Theodore and soon divided the Australian Labor Party, with the New South Wales executive ruling that all party members should support it. A Federal cabinet spill backed the Scullin-Theodore line and Lang's henchman Beasley lost his portfolio of assistant minister of industry. But Lang's supporter E. J. Ward won the March East Sydney by-election. The conflict between State and Federal Labor branches hardened. Lang's policy, now being represented as mainly repudiation, received some nation-wide party approval.

In March 1931 Lang announced that interest due in London on 1 April would not be paid; he said dole commitments should come first. Scullin met the debt. The State party conference endorsed the Lang Plan and Lang and Garden campaigned interstate for its adoption and split Labor further. Lang's ultimate objective was the leadership of the Federal parliamentary party. In May the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales was forced to close. Next month the Premiers' Conference in Melbourne with Lang's agreement adopted a severe deflationary policy, including cuts in wages and pensions. Lang proposed that public servants' salaries should not exceed £500. The Herald asked 'Are we to be driven to desperation … before the Governor dismisses him?' The governor still refused additional appointments to the Legislative Council which continued to obstruct Lang; Willis, now agent-general in London, was discussing it with the Dominions Office. In November Game agreed to twenty-five new members.

Lang renounced 'the Premiers' Plan' and his five Federal parliament followers, led by Beasley, harried Scullin about it. Lang had left the Loan Council but, as the State Treasury became depleted, requested Federal aid to meet his commitments. A huge Labor rally in the Domain responded enthusiastically to his justification of his actions. The New Guard, under E. Campbell, organized counter-demonstrations. On 6 August 1931 public servants' salaries were not paid. 'Socialisation Units' in the State party were saying Lang was not radical enough. At last he began to wilt: he rejoined the Loan Council which provided him with £500,000 of Treasury bills, but his budget deficit was £11.5 million. Recovering his confidence, he told the eight-hour day dinner in October that 'the revolution has come … by Act of Parliament'.

Two Labor parties had emerged in New South Wales. In November 1931 Beasley brought down Scullin, and at the December elections the government lost disastrously. Theodore was defeated by a Lang candidate: only three Federal Labor candidates were returned in New South Wales. Lang Labor lost three seats, but won two. F. S. 'Judge' Swindell, who wanted a licence for 'tin (mechanical) hare' coursing, paid for the party's electioneering advertising. Lang had engineered the defeat of a Labor government, but the voting figures showed his own electoral support had been seriously sapped, following soon after defeat in country local elections, and preceding losses in metropolitan council voting in January 1932.

The new prime minister, J. A. Lyons, indicated that the Commonwealth would use the law to check Lang. New South Wales was being isolated from the national attempt to alleviate the Depression, and Lang's 'State rightism' and fitful populism produced no viable alternative. The fearsome newspaper image of Lang seemed at last correct, but he was powerless to change events. 31 per cent unemployment prevailed in 1932. The party's metropolitan conference in February told him that 'socialisation of industry [must be] the main issue at the next State elections'. In parliament he faced charges of corruption in the operation of the 'tin hares'. Lyons's Financial Agreements Enforcement Act provoked Lang to withdraw more than £1 million in cash from two Sydney banks. His opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 19 March was an exciting solace. But next month the Federal government used its new powers to take over the revenues of New South Wales, depriving Lang of banking facilities. Massive demands were made on the governor to dismiss him. Trades Hall rumours were that a 'Red Army' would defend him, and a great multitude gathered at the Town Hall to hear him vindicate himself. The High Court upheld the validity of the Commonwealth's financial enforcement legislation. His response on 12 May was a law requiring mortgagees to pay to the Treasury 10 per cent of every mortgage, 'an act of war and pillage'.

Governor Game had been examining Lang's circular instructing public servants not to pay money into the Federal Treasury as required by law. He judged it was illegal. Lang refused to withdraw it and on 13 May the governor dismissed him. 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. There were surreal aspects to his offensive on 'the secret money power', for he was trapped in constitutional realities and contemporary economic orthodoxy which at heart he accepted. He took his dismissal with relief: 'I must be going', he said, 'I am no longer Premier but a free man. I have attempted to do my duty'. Loughlin claimed he had sought dismissal. At the June elections Lang Labor seats fell from 55 to 24; but it polled 40 per cent of the vote while Federal Labor gained only 4 per cent, with no seats. Swindell again paid for Lang's advertising. Stevens became premier.

Lang never regained his electoral appeal as leader. In 1931-38 he lost 3 Federal elections, 3 State, 3 Sydney Municipal Council, and the Legislative Council reform referendum. These failures only gradually eroded his entrenched power in the New South Wales Labor Party. At the 1933 conference Garden, in helping to eliminate the Socialisation Units, proclaimed him 'greater than Lenin'. J. B. Chifley headed the Federal Labor group in 1934 but, after receiving much interstate, especially Victorian, help at that year's Federal poll, Lang won nine seats in New South Wales to Federal Labor's one. But he regarded the national results as unfavourable to his plan to become Federal Labor leader. In 1935 John Curtin replaced Scullin and Lang's chances had gone. Curtin wanted unity in New South Wales, and in February 1936 the State's Federal party was abolished and Lang's group became the official branch of the Australian Labor Party: the Langites oppressed many of their former opponents.

In 1933 Lang had broken with Willis, calling him 'a top-hatted gentleman'. In 1936 he fought Garden for control of the Labor Council's radio station 2KY, and lost: their struggle accentuated growing industrial opposition to Lang and in May a Trades Hall meeting of union secretaries condemned the Labor Daily's attacks on them and sought its control from Lang. Magrath parted from him. R. A. King, secretary of the Labor Council, O. Schreiber of the furniture workers' and J. J. Maloney of the bootmakers' were the chief organizers against Lang. They wanted basic reform of the State party. The disaffection spread to the wavering Labor caucus and in July W. F. Dunn, R. J. Heffron and (Sir) W. J. McKell were mentioned as possible leaders: Lang's response to the sustained defiance was a special conference in August that expelled Heffron, three other parliamentarians and sixteen union leaders, including King and Maloney. Next year King said, 'If I have been a fool for 10 years in indulging in hero-worship … I am not going to do it any longer'.

In February 1938 Lang at last lost the Labor Daily, and was paid £17,889 for his debenture over it, plus interest. In April he began another paper, the Century. He lost the State elections. Party turmoil increased. Next year Heffron's Industrial Labor Party won by-elections at Hurstville and Waverley, and precipitated a major caucus revolt in which federal intervention was demanded. The federal executive organized a unity conference in August at which all the pent-up opposition to Lang exploded on the floor and a free fight broke out in the gallery. The conference decided to revise the party's rules and directed that caucus should elect its leader and other officers: on 5 September McKell defeated Lang by twenty votes to twelve.

Lang retained many followers in the party, especially as communists had penetrated the State executive. At the 1940 conference a motion in effect demanded 'Hands off Russia', and in April Lang formed the Australian Labor (Non-Communist) Party, with supporters in both the Federal and State parliaments. The new party demanded home defence as World War II developed. Curtin again sought unity and the New South Wales executive was replaced. The Langites rejoined the official party in February 1941; Labor won the May State elections. In October Curtin formed his first wartime ministry including Beasley, whose defence views now diverged from Lang's, favouring Curtin's policy of modified conscription, with Japan threatening Australia; next year the Century attacked the policy and Lang was expelled in March 1943. He ran for the Federal seat of Reid but lost and was re-elected for Auburn in October. Next year he started a new Lang Labor Party (he labelled it the 'Australian Labor Party' and added 'Non-Communist' in 1948).

At the 1946 Federal elections Lang won Reid. He began in parliament by describing the government as 'the right wing of the Conservative Party', and remained a trenchant critic, solitary, bitter, aloof, resentful of Chifley, now prime minister. In 1947 he attacked the government's immigration scheme; he said it endangered the White Australia policy, which he had always defended. He opposed Chifley's plan for the nationalization of banking and the 1948 referendum on rent and price control; and claimed that communists were permeating government departments. He slaked his envy on the eve of the 1949 elections by accusing Chifley of lending money in Bathurst at exorbitant interest rates, hoping in vain to prevent him rebutting the charge before the poll. Lang lost his seat. He failed to win a Senate place in 1951.

He continued to make pronouncements, opposing compulsory unionism in 1953, Labor's 'industrial groups' in 1954, and the extension of legalized gambling in 1958. But in 1951 he had supported Evatt's campaign against the referendum to ban communism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he emerged as a 'folk hero', addressing schools and universities on his career and current topics. When a bank opened on the site of the Lang and Dawes office at Auburn in 1967, a plaque paid 'tribute to a distinguished man of the people'. After a rebuff in 1970, next year he was readmitted to the Labor Party.

Lang's articles in the Century were reputedly written by A. C. Paddison. His other publications (probably ghosted) included Why I Fight (1934), Communism in Australia: A Complete Exposure (1944), I Remember (1956), The Great Bust (1962) and The Turbulent Years (1970).

He died in St Joseph's Hospital, Auburn, on 27 September 1975, survived by three of his four daughters and one of his three sons. After a requiem Mass at St Mary's Cathedral he was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at $38,594.

The Century's last issue was on 30 January 1976.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977) and for bibliography
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Syd, 1981)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 June 1925, 21 Oct 1926, 29 May, 16 June 1927, 28 Oct 1930, 3 June 1932, 12 Dec 1933, 12 Aug 1970, 29 Sept 1975
  • Truth (Sydney), 5 June 1927.

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Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Lang, John Thomas (Jack) (1876–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lang-john-thomas-jack-7027/text12223, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 30 August 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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