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Ross, Lloyd Robert Maxwell (1901–1987)

by Michael Easson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Lloyd Robert Maxwell Ross (1901-1987), adult educator, trade union official and writer, was born on 28 February 1901 in Brisbane, elder child of Sydney-born Robert (Bob) Samuel Ross, printer, and his Brisbane-born wife Ethel, née Slaughter. Lloyd attended University High School, Melbourne. While still at school, he followed his father, then secretary of the Victorian Socialist Party, in opposition to conscription during World War I; in addition he joined the young socialists’ Y Club and assisted with the management of Ross’s Book Service.

With the help of a scholarship Ross studied at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1923; MA, 1925; LL.B, 1928). He was president of the Students’ Representative Council, and while on the staff of the student paper Farrago, he also wrote for the Melbourne Herald. He was an inaugural member of the Melbourne University Labor Club. On 2 February 1926 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he married with Anglican rites Elvira Christina (Stina) Adelskold, an Australian of Swedish descent; six days later they sailed to New Zealand.

At Dunedin, Ross was a tutor-organiser in adult education with the Workers’ Educational Association, often acting in conjunction with unions. He also lectured in economic history at the University of Otago. Awarded a Rockefeller Foundation travelling scholar grant, in 1929-30 he went to Britain, briefly studying at the University of Manchester and the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he met many socialist intellectuals, including the Oxford academic G. D. H. Cole. Ross wrote a thesis on the Australian labour movement (including material on the Depression), for which he was awarded a D.Litt. by the University of New Zealand in 1935.

On his return to Australia in 1933, Ross took the post of tutor-organiser with the Newcastle branch of the WEA, teaching drama, economics and international affairs. In 1934 he was appointed acting assistant director of tutorial classes at the University of Sydney. He arranged lunchtime classes at railway workshops and also produced plays and engaged in other semi-propagandist activity. These activities brought him into contact with members of the Australian Railways Union. In 1935 Ross secretly joined the Communist Party of Australia, while retaining Australian Labor Party membership. That year a combination of CPA members, left-wing activists and rail workers succeeded in having him appointed as New South Wales State secretary of the ARU.

The union’s members were poorly organised, earned low wages and often suffered atrocious conditions. Ross did much to improve the ‘dignity of labour’ and was one of many in the labour movement to civilise capitalism effectively. At that time, however, he saw his activities in more radical terms. He agitated for improvements in rail workers’ wages and conditions, produced pamphlets and propaganda, strategically took industrial action, including strikes, and aggressively manipulated the industrial relations system. With Jack Ferguson, the ARU senior organiser, Ross toured the State on a two-seater motorbike, dubbed ‘the red terror’. Ross was concerned with health and safety issues; sandy blight and trachoma were problems faced by workers, as he discovered on visits to western New South Wales in the mid- and late 1930s.

At the beginning of World War II Ross supported the CPA line. During the State ALP conference in 1940, he led debate on the notorious ‘Hands Off Russia’ resolution, claiming that the Allies wanted to align with Germany and attack the Soviet Union. Soon, however, he grew disillusioned, reasoning from a Marxist, then a democratic-socialist perspective, that the CPA was an enemy of freedom and that the totalitarian menace was real. The CPA expelled Ross in 1940. Together with Ferguson, he was able to persuade a majority of his ARU colleagues to stick with the official Labor Party (rather than supporting the Hughes-Evans State Labor Party, which merged with the CPA in 1944). He supported John Curtin, whom he had grown to respect. Ross’s political trajectory had led him to an anti-Soviet, independent socialist position that mirrored his father’s outlook. R. S. Ross’s pamphlet Revolution in Russia and Australia (1920) had argued for a democratic, socialist and Australian alternative to Bolshevism. In contrast, Lloyd’s brother, Edgar, stayed with the Stalinists, editing the Miners’ Federation of Australia newspaper, Common Cause. After J. B. Chifley sent troops into the coalmines in 1949, the brothers were estranged for many years.

Lloyd had been an Australian delegate to the Institute of Pacific Relations Conference, Canada, in December 1942. The next year, after undertaking a three-week speaking tour for the Office of War Information in the United States of America, he was attached to the Ministry of Information, Britain. Later that year he was appointed to the Commonwealth Department of Post-War Reconstruction, in which he served as director of public relations. Following the election of the (Sir) Robert Menzies government in 1949 and the abolition of the department and his dismissal from the public service, Ross recommenced writing, hoping to complete a biography of Curtin. He rejoined the Melbourne Herald.

In 1952 Ross returned to the ARU as New South Wales secretary, succeeding Ferguson. Consumed by the faction fights and the exhausting work of a leading trade union official, he had little time for reflection, research or writing. He played a significant role, however, in articulating a liberal and democratic-socialist alternative to the sillier ideas of left and right in the labour movement. In the 1950s he had an impact on the ALP Industrial Groups, which he hoped would become a radical and thoughtful force within the Australian labour movement. His articles in the late 1940s and the 1950s in the Catholic journal, Twentieth Century, laid the theoretical foundations for such a perspective. But this came to naught. In his ‘movement of ideas’ speech in 1954 given at the Melbourne Catholic Social Studies Movement inner sanctum, B. A. Santamaria conveyed suspicion about his non-Catholic allies, Laurie Short (in the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia) and Ross, fearing that they might embrace a ‘third way’ and adopt the woolly thinking of soft leftists.

During the ALP split Ross was one of the seventeen delegates who walked out of the 1955 national conference in Hobart. But that was as far as he went. He believed that the formation of the Democratic Labor Party was a colossal mistake and a misunderstanding of Labor traditions. As the ‘grouper’ New South Wales Labor Party machine fell, Ross was put forward as the candidate of the right for party president in 1956, but was defeated. Ross and Short stuck with Labor and the ‘live to fight another day’ strategy, thereby helping to minimise the impact of the Labor split in New South Wales.

The 1950s and 1960s were periods of significant technological change for the railways—introduction of diesels to replace steam engines, the electrification of the metropolitan network, country depot closures and relocations. Ross found these transformations hard to manage, as his union was no longer one of the largest in New South Wales. He advocated improvements in consultation and ‘worker participation’ in management.

Ross was president (1961-69) of the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom (publishers of Quadrant); vice-chairman of the Australian Productivity Council (from 1961); director (1954-78) of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and a member (1961-69) of the Sydney Opera House Trust. In 1969 he retired from the union. He was appointed OBE in 1972. His published books were William Lane and the Australian Labour Movement (c.1935) and John Curtin (1977), the latter finished more than thirty years after he started it. A biography of his father, ‘Red Blood and Black Ink: A Biography of an Australian Rebel’, was not completed.

In many ways the odd man out, Ross was the first person to hold a doctorate of letters and a leading position in an Australian blue-collar union, an atheist among mostly Catholics in the New South Wales ALP in the 1950s, and a labour intellectual whose mind turned to contrary positions. He stood his ground on the issues he believed in. But he instinctively looked for allies, believing in coalitions of fractious allies that, depending on the cause, might include conservatives, liberals, laborists, social democrats, democratic socialists and people of no political allegiances. Thus he aroused suspicion from those who were more narrowly aligned.

Ross would likely have seen his greatest achievement as obtaining for unskilled rail workers—shunters, cleaners, tradesmen’s assistants—more in their wage packet, better conditions and increased respect and dignity. He also helped the ALP to survive and added some substance to the debates then raging—especially in clarifying a credible, tolerant, yet proudly social-democratic line. Although the standard of his writing is uneven, a number of his articles and books made significant contributions to labour history; the articles he wrote for Labour Voice in the 1920s and 1930s, an unpublished biography of Frank Anstey and the Twentieth Century articles stand out. Predeceased by his wife (d.1981) and their son (d.1966) and survived by their daughter, Ross died on 7 September 1987 at Lane Cove, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Holt, A Veritable Dynamo (1996)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Sept 1987, p 4
  • Lloyd Ross papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Michael Easson, 'Ross, Lloyd Robert Maxwell (1901–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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