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Sir Thomas (Tom) Playford (1896–1981)

by P. A. Howell

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Thomas Playford, by Kerwin Maegraith, 1951

Thomas Playford, by Kerwin Maegraith, 1951

State Library of South Australia, B 21774

Sir Thomas Playford (1896-1981), politician and orchardist, was born on 5 July 1896 at Norton(’s) Summit in the Adelaide Hills, third of four children and only son of South Australian-born parents Thomas Playford, fruit-grower, and his wife Elizabeth Annie, née Pellew. ‘Honest Tom’ Playford, a former premier of South Australia, was his grandfather. Young Tom, spoilt by his parents and elder sisters, who dubbed him ‘the Crown Prince’, attended Norton’s Summit Public School. Physically strong, he left at 13 to manage the family’s 34-acre (14-ha) farm while his father was laid up for six months with a broken leg. At 11 p.m. each Sunday he set out, driving a horse-drawn trolley laden with fruit and vegetables on a two-hour trek down steep and winding roads to Adelaide’s East End wholesale markets. Haggling over prices gave him insights into human nature; he learned how to bluff and to discern who was honest and trustworthy, afterwards claiming that the market had been his ‘university’. When his father regained mobility he left his son in charge. Tom became an enthusiastic member of the Norton’s Summit Literary Society, where he was encouraged to read widely and to develop public speaking, debating and acting skills.

Having served in the Militia, Playford enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 17 May 1915. He was posted to the 27th Battalion and embarked for training in Egypt on 31 May. As he was then a teetotaller, he was regularly assigned to picket duty, charged with trying to keep order among Australian soldiers spending time off in Cairo. He served at Gallipoli for three months and then on the Western Front, taking part in the battles of Pozières, where he was promoted to corporal on 4 September 1916, the Somme and Flers. On 5 November at Flers a German machine-gun bullet shattered upon hitting his belt-buckle, opening a large cavity in his chest and shredding his abdomen. Evacuated to England, he underwent many operations and, while convalescing, read much English history. He rejoined his battalion in October 1917, fighting at Passchendaele, Ville-sur-Ancre, Hamel and Amiens. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in January 1919 and promoted to lieutenant in April, he returned to Adelaide in July. His appointment terminated on 31 August. He was to suffer lifelong pain caused by the thirty pieces of shrapnel that remained in his body.

Playford resumed fruit-growing and joined the local branch of the newly formed Liberal Federation. He had ceased formal Christian worship with his Baptist mother before the war but continued to share much of her puritanical outlook, shunning tobacco, philandering and gambling, and refusing to get into debt. He became an active member of the Producers’ Fellowship Lodge of Freemasons at Ashton. Thereafter, Freemasonry and its rituals provided him with a substitute for church attendance, support for his moral principles, and contacts with many leading citizens. During a three-year engagement to Lorna Beaman Clark, he levelled the site for, and erected a modest house, not far from his parents’ home on the orchard. On 11 January 1928 he and Lorna married at Prospect Baptist Church.

In 1932 the Liberal Federation and the State Country Party merged to form the Liberal and Country League. Archie Cameron, the parliamentary leader of the Country Party and a friend of his since they had fought together in France, persuaded Playford to stand for the House of Assembly. At the 1933 general election, when the new party won power under the leadership of (Sir) Richard Layton Butler, he was returned in the three-member seat of Murray.

Playford became a rebellious back-bencher. Ignoring advice that he should be content with asking questions during his first months in the House, he delivered his maiden speech during the address-in-reply debate, on the new parliament’s second sitting day. He denounced the new ministry’s policies on land settlement, employment and transport, ridiculed the incompetence and inexperience of many who sat on government boards and complained about profiteering and possible corruption. Holding that entrepreneurs who bungled their ventures had no claim on the public purse, he added: ‘It is not our duty to worry whether people go broke or not’. Nevertheless he insisted that government had an obligation to act with prudence and foresight when encouraging ex-servicemen to become farmers. Instead of being heard in the silence customarily accorded novices, he was much interrupted by angry interjections from both sides of the House.

The speech charted Playford’s course for the next five years. He established himself as the scourge of statutory corporations, country hospitals and the police force, and those bureaucrats who seemed to lack a sense of fair play. He inveighed against ministers who played the parish pump, procrastinated in answering parliamentary questions or, instead of exercising leadership, accepted everything public servants told them. To master the mysteries of public finance, he studied the auditor-general’s annual reports. He opposed the policy of spending money on unproductive public works simply to relieve unemployment, insisting in 1934 that expenditure was legitimate only when ‘based on some definite benefit to the State’. Critical of Butler for persisting with the State’s afforestation program—he was convinced it could never become a profitable enterprise due to competition from cheap Scandinavian timber—he also denounced subsidising dairying in districts where the industry was uneconomic. He mocked the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration for basing its awards on living standards: ‘The standard of efficiency has never been considered, except perhaps in a few industries’.

In 1934, despite opposition from the premier and many others in and outside the legislature, he succeeded in enacting a private member’s bill authorising the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia to sell liquor in its clubs from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. except on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. Yet from 1935 he opposed all proposals to extend hotel trading hours. Although he had conceded that ex-servicemen’s evening gatherings needed proper lubrication, the drunkenness he had witnessed in Britain (1917-19) convinced him that any easing of lawful access to alcohol for the poor, especially the unemployed, would be detrimental. He even fought a proposal to let hotels stay open until 7 p.m. As a result of his stance, six o’clock closing remained the law in South Australia until 1967.

When Playford agreed with government initiatives, however, he proved a valuable ally in debate for he was an effective, though not a polished, speaker. In April 1938 Butler calmed his troublesome back-bencher by inviting him to join the cabinet as commissioner of crown lands, minister of repatriation and minister of irrigation. Thenceforward he was answering rather than asking parliamentary questions, and instead of flagellating statutory authorities or moving for the disallowance of regulations he was championing them. Seven months later Butler resigned to contest a Federal seat. Playford’s grandstanding had brought its reward. The LCL parliamentarians unanimously elected him as their new leader, and he became premier, treasurer and minister for immigration on 5 November. He was to remain premier for 26 years and 126 days, an Australian record. Throughout that time he dominated his State and its parliament; holding together the disparate factions within the LCL became the most remarkable of his political achievements, especially as he used state resources in an interventionist way that sat ill with his party’s ideology.

During Playford’s term in office ‘premier’ remained a courtesy title, without any statutory basis. As there was no premier’s department he conducted government from the seat of the principal department that he headed, the Treasury, where his advisers were a handful of career public servants. Though several of his fellow ministers were able, notably (Sir) Lyell McEwin, R. J. Rudall and (Sir) George Jenkins, he dominated cabinet. If charm alone could not secure his objectives he could resort to bluff and bullying; any minister who disagreed could find himself wrestled to the floor because the premier long retained his youthful delight in horseplay. He frequently concluded deals with interstate and overseas industrialists before informing his colleagues. Delegations from organisations, when seeking better facilities and equipment, found it more profitable to wait upon him rather than the relevant minister, for he held the purse strings and often gave an immediate answer.

Over six feet (183 cm) and carrying sixteen stone (102 kg) well, Playford generally charmed people by genial behaviour and his love of jokes. He cultivated respect and popularity through visits to all parts of the State, always ready to listen to what people had to say. Making weekly radio broadcasts in the manner of President F. D. Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’ in the United States of America, he explained his government’s initiatives in simple and persuasive language, encouraging listeners to believe that he was taking them into his confidence and to feel good about South Australia’s progress. Television broadcasting, which commenced in 1959, did not suit him so well: in interviews, which television producers preferred to talks, he could not match the performance of the Australian Labor Party’s rising star, Donald Dunstan.

Until 1941 Playford led a minority government. Despite a switch in 1938 to single-member House of Assembly electorates (after which he was the member for Gumeracha), thirteen Independents held the balance of power. He showed skill in keeping them onside and, later, in persuading voters to reject most of them. In 1942 he made voting compulsory because records showed that owners and occupiers of property, who comprised the overwhelming majority of those entitled to vote for the Upper House, had been significantly more lackadaisical about exercising the franchise than was the general population.

A key component of the LCL’s formation had been an undertaking, by all members of the merging parties, to preserve the provision in the Electoral and Constitution Acts since 1855-56 of a 2:1 ratio of rural to metropolitan seats, even though by 1932 Adelaide and its suburbs contained more than half the State’s population. Playford became the chief beneficiary of this renewed malapportionment; over-representation of country districts enabled him to retain office after some elections in which Labor won a greater share of the votes. Some political scientists have dubbed the malapportionment the ‘Playmander’, although it was Butler’s ministry that had legislated to confirm its place in the State’s constitutional arrangements in 1936, when Playford was a back-bencher.

In 1938, when Playford became premier, most of South Australia’s wealth was still generated by its farmers and graziers. Adelaide was primarily a commercial centre, servicing the rural industries. By 1965, largely as a result of Playford’s efforts, a host of manufacturing industries had been established, the number of factory workers had risen by 167.9 per cent and South Australia had the highest value of secondary production per capita of all the States. He was in power for so long that since 1970 many writers, assuming that the social and economic transformation was largely the fruit of his efforts, have given him credit for developments that had been initiated by Butler, on advice from the auditor-general, John Wainwright. Butler had lowered company tax to encourage industrialists to establish factories in South Australia. In 1937, while forcing a doubling of the royalties that Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd paid for each ton of iron ore that it mined in the Middleback Range, he passed the Broken Hill Proprietary Company’s Indenture Act ratifying a deal under which the company agreed to build a blast furnace at Whyalla. Playford had criticised these initiatives, being more concerned to revive primary production and deregulate transport. He even suggested that provision in the legislation for piping water from the Murray River to Whyalla was a fantasy that should be ‘totally’ ruled out.

As premier, Playford broadened his vision. He quickly established good working relations with the top civil servants and the captains of industry, began to appreciate the merits of Butler’s policies and made further industrialisation his main objective. Wainwright helped him to correct earlier mistakes. When the outbreak of World War II put an end to imports of Baltic timber, Playford shed his hostility to establishing new pine plantations and further delighted Labor by opening in 1941 an additional State-owned sawmill, at Nangwarry in the south-east. In 1936 he had voted against the establishment of the South Australian Housing Trust, created to provide low-cost public rental accommodation for workers. As premier, he increased its funding, realising that cheap and decent housing was essential for industrial growth and would help to keep workers in South Australia. In 1940 he extended the trust’s brief so that it could also accommodate pensioners and other very poor people, and replace ‘insanitary, old, crowded or obsolete dwellings’ in central Adelaide with new buildings. These changes were the first of several pieces of legislation that dismayed conservative members of the LCL but passed with support from the Opposition. In 1961 Playford authorised the trust to erect factories under lease-purchase agreements, as a means of attracting new entrepreneurs. By 1965 the trust had constructed 56 000 dwellings and more than twenty factories and had become the national leader in urban planning and development.

In later life Playford claimed that the challenges posed by World War II had allowed him to achieve in a short time development that normally would have taken twenty-five years. But he had to work hard to secure investments from interstate and overseas industrialists at that time of crisis. For example, negotiations that Butler had begun with British Tube Mills (Australia) Pty Ltd to set up their Australian plant in Adelaide, and for Hume Steel Ltd to build a new pipe-making plant at Port Pirie, were brought to a successful outcome, despite intense lobbying and offers of incentives from the governments of New South Wales and Victoria.

Playford became a legend in South Australia and notorious in the rest of the country for his successes in winning Federal government financial support for his plans. This, too, required constant effort. He made numerous short visits to Canberra, without any publicity, and wrote thousands of letters, sometimes at the rate of two or three a week, to prime ministers, on all manner of subjects. In the short term he received useful support from two South Australian members of the Federal cabinet, George McLeay and (Sir) Philip McBride. Factories making clothing for the armed forces were established at Wallaroo, Clare, Port Pirie, Mount Gambier and Lobethal, and flax-mills were built at Morphett Vale and in the mid-north. Australia’s first metrology centre, producing machine tools that could measure to one ten-thousandth of an inch (0.0254 mm), was established in the government railway workshops at Islington. The advent of heavy industry at Whyalla afforded many men more secure and better-paid work. BHP’s blast furnace, capable of producing more than 200 000 tons of pig-iron a year, became operational in 1941. Before it was complete the company had also begun creating shipyards on adjacent land. In 1942 Australian Cotton Textile Industries Ltd opened a factory at Woodville. The government-built pipeline, bringing water from the Murray, was opened in March 1944. It proved so beneficial to communities along its route that over the next fifteen years a 6000-mile (9650-km) network of large water mains was constructed, making Murray water available to 90 per cent of the State’s households.

In 1939-41 Playford had regularly complained that South Australia, with nearly 9 per cent of the nation’s population, was receiving less than 0.1 per cent of the additional millions of pounds that the Federal government was spending on defence, nearly all of which was directed to Victoria and New South Wales. He stressed the strategic advantage of South Australia’s industrial towns: further from the open sea than those in other States, they were less vulnerable to surprise attacks from carrier-borne aircraft. Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies ignored these appeals but John Curtin grasped the point. Munitions works were established at Hendon, Finsbury, Salisbury and country centres, notably Peterborough, Gladstone, Naracoorte, Tailem Bend and Murray Bridge. Adelaide’s motor-body works won contracts to make parts for Royal Australian Air Force planes. BHP was commissioned to manufacture shells and to build corvettes for the Royal Australian Navy. The town’s population grew from 1100 in 1939 to 8000 in 1945. It rose further after BHP began building bigger ships, including oil-tankers and iron-ore carriers, and in 1960 commenced the construction of a steel mill. By 1965 Whyalla had 21 000 people.

Playford made special efforts to promote and assist the search for, and development of, mineral deposits and especially new sources of energy. He funded the Department of Mines to undertake much geophysical exploration work using sophisticated instruments and drills probing great depths. Large-scale mining of coal at Leigh Creek commenced in 1942. Faced with complaints about its poor quality, Playford and the director of mines, (Sir) Ben Dickinson, recruited a team of combustion engineers who developed successful modifications to industrial boilers and the fireboxes of engines, enabling use of the coal on the railways and in new power stations at Port Augusta. This diminished dependence upon imported fuels proved valuable during maritime strikes and the protracted Newcastle (New South Wales) coal strikes of the late 1940s. Meanwhile, new mountains of iron ore were found and exploited in the Middleback Range, and in the longer term there was a resumption of copper mining. Playford assisted Santos Ltd in its successful quest to find commercial deposits of oil and natural gas.

The most publicised aspect of Playford’s dealings with the Commonwealth was his performance at premiers’ conferences and meetings of the Australian Loan Council, from which he often emerged with more than his State’s fair share of the national cake. The political journalist Katharine West adjudged him ‘more than a single and tough-minded bargainer: he is a shrewd one as well, aided by a retentive memory and the apparently guileless manner of an orchardist’. Due to the efforts of the under-treasurers (Sir) Fred Drew (1946-60) and Gilbert Seaman (from 1960), Playford’s claims upon the Commonwealth ‘were usually more carefully prepared than those of any other State’. At home he was often penny-pinching. He recycled for school and university use the prefabricated huts that had accommodated enemy aliens and prisoners of war; while he was happy to build spur lines to connect new factories to the State’s rail system, he was convinced that it was being eclipsed by the convenience and lower handling costs of road transport and was therefore unwilling to upgrade it with modern equipment.

He took a different attitude, however, if the Federal government could be induced to foot the bill. In BHP’s deal with Butler in 1936, the company had contracted to pay two shillings per thousand gallons (4550 l) for Murray water delivered to Whyalla. That would have yielded enough to repay, within a reasonable time, the loan needed to construct the necessary pipeline. To encourage BHP to speed further construction work, Playford let it have the water for half that price, but charged Canberra five times as much for water from the same pipeline, supplied to the Commonwealth Railways at Port Augusta. When the victory of the communists in China left new locomotives ordered by General Chiang-Kai-shek on the Commonwealth’s hands, Playford agreed to take ten at £30 000 each, but then persuaded the Federal government to pay the costs of converting them from 4 ft 8½ ins (1.44 m) to 5 ft 3 ins (1.6 m) gauge and of shipping them to Adelaide. If negotiation failed, he found that taking out a High Court of Australia writ could prompt a quick solution. This worked, for example, when in 1957 he learned that New South Wales and Victoria were to share the water diverted from the Snowy River into the Murray; invoking the River Murray Waters Agreement of 1915, he secured his State a fair share of the water. In 1963, after the High Court dismissed his claim that the Commonwealth should meet half the expense of standardising the Port Pirie-Broken Hill railway, he duped Menzies into paying the whole cost. For such actions he was often styled ‘a good South Australian but a very bad Australian’.

In 1945 the Federal government legislated to formalise the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s role as the nation’s central bank. Playford saved the largest local bank, the Savings Bank of South Australia—a private institution managed by trustees—from having to lodge £8 million as a special account with the enhanced Commonwealth Bank, by making the SBSA a State-owned bank. As such, the Constitution of the Commonwealth gave it exemption from Federal law. But Playford’s price was that it had to lend the £8 million to the Housing Trust at a mere 1 per cent, but this was higher than the Commonwealth Bank was permitted to pay on special accounts. This agreement survived for more than thirty years. When the Adelaide Electric Supply Co. Ltd proved resistant to pressure to extend its services to country districts and to use Leigh Creek coal to power its turbines, Playford compulsorily acquired its assets, transferring them to a new statutory authority, the Electricity Trust of South Australia. Several LCL members in each House denounced Playford and voted against the legislation but, with Labor support, it passed (1946). Other ‘socialistic’ measures included compulsory acquisition of land for soldier-settlements and for drainage, purchase of a substantial stake in Cellulose Australia Ltd, opening a huge State-owned sawmill at Mount Gambier (1957), and founding novel government-run enterprises such as a uranium mine at Radium Hill (1954) and a uranium-processing plant at Port Pirie. As the workable deposits at Radium Hill neared exhaustion due to heavy overseas demand, Playford became the chief advocate of exploiting vast bodies of ore discovered at Roxby Downs.

In Playford’s view Federal politicians were fair game because they had violated the balance of the Constitution by building up central power at the expense of the State governments. Defending his position at an Australian Institute of Political Science summer school in 1949, he expressed special displeasure with the Curtin government’s legislation giving the Commonwealth a monopoly on collecting income tax, claiming it had not only resulted in the States receiving a lower portion of the total revenue from taxation but had also let Canberra’s use of special purpose and conditional grants render the States ‘completely subservient’ to the Commonwealth. Nevertheless, he had become friendly with the Labor prime minister Ben Chifley who, to keep Adelaide’s gas-works operating during the New South Wales strikes, allowed him to buy 56 000 tons of bituminous coal from South Africa.

After 1949 Playford’s dealings with Menzies were generally more fruitful than those he had sought to negotiate during the latter’s first prime ministership, and it was on the nomination of Menzies that in 1957 he was appointed GCMG. South Australia provided much infrastructure to support the Commonwealth’s development of the Woomera rocket range and relocation of the Weapons Research Establishment to Salisbury. Playford’s appeals that maternity benefits and invalid, old-age and widows’ pensions be extended to all Aboriginal people caused consternation, with one Federal official noting that no other premier had ever suggested it. The Menzies government eventually yielded and the payments commenced in 1959. Confident that he could prioritise needs better than any Federal bureaucrat, Playford sometimes diverted Commonwealth specific-purpose grants to projects other than those for which they had been made, but seems never to have been penalised for doing so. He also developed the blame-the-Commonwealth syndrome that his successors have continued to practise in preference to exercising greater responsibility in spending those funds that remained under the full control of the State government.

Playford courted those trade union leaders who sought better benefits for their members rather than promoting revolution. Thus in the 1940s Clyde Cameron of the Australian Workers’ Union, in return for being secretly authorised to certify who was suitable to be employed at Leigh Creek, ensured that no member of the militant Miners’ Federation of Australia obtained a job there. Albert Thompson of the Australasian Society of Engineers arranged regular meetings at the Trades Hall for Wainwright to brief union organisers on how they could assist implementation of the government’s development plans in exchange for improved conditions. Playford had a comfortable relationship with Mick O’Halloran, leader of the Opposition in 1949-60: cosy private deals negotiated between them covered matters both great and small. In opening his 1950 election campaign, O’Halloran pronounced Playford’s policy ‘more socialistic than Labor could ever hope to implement even if it were in office’. He even described Playford as ‘the best Labor Premier South Australia ever had’, because Playford was, with Labor’s help, enacting measures that a Labor government could never get through the Legislative Council.

The premier worked effectively to ensure that South Australia received, in relation to its Australian-born population, a higher than average proportion of the migrants and refugees arriving from Europe. Between 1938 and 1965 the number of residents almost doubled. Playford maintained wartime price controls on rents, basic foodstuffs, beer and electricity for many years after all the other States had abolished them, so that workers would be content with the slightly lower wages that attracted businessmen setting up new industries. This assisted in persuading, for example, Philips Electrical Industries of Australia Pty Ltd to relocate a factory from New South Wales in 1947, and General Motors Pty Ltd to give South Australia a share in the manufacture of ‘Australia’s own car’, the Holden. The level of industrial disputation leading to loss of production remained far lower than in the neighbouring States and, in the 1950s, enabled South Australia to gain predominance in the manufacture of white goods and television sets. Playford founded the satellite city of Elizabeth that, at its establishment in 1955, represented world-best-practice in urban planning. It became the production base of Holden motor vehicles and home to great numbers of postwar British migrants. Motor-vehicle production was confirmed as the State’s largest single industry when Chrysler Australia Pty Ltd began assembling Simca sedans and station-wagons at Keswick (1959) and Valiants at Mile End (1962), and in 1964 completed a factory at Tonsley Park as the centre of its Australian manufacturing operations. South Australia’s financial position improved so dramatically that in 1959 Playford announced that it had been able to quit the demeaning position of being one of the mendicant States needing special assistance from the Commonwealth Grants Commission.

In his obsession with development and raising living standards, Playford spent proportionately less on libraries, hospitals and social welfare than did governments in other States. He believed that, besides encouraging philanthropy, prosperity enabled most individuals to make personal contributions towards the cost of services. The successful establishment (1960) and running of the Adelaide Festival of Arts, without any government funding, reinforced his view. His pride in having done all the wiring and plumbing when erecting his home and in continuing to be a do-it-yourself enthusiast caused South Australia to lag behind other States in imposing standards in the building trades.

During Playford’s term the quality of public education suffered through a lack of resources, and schoolteachers were increasingly active politically; many became Labor supporters and played a part in his ultimate downfall. In 1949, however, Playford had agreed to double the annual grant to the University of Adelaide. This enabled it to establish twenty-eight additional tenured teaching and research posts and to introduce new salary scales, study leave and postgraduate scholarships. In the 1960s representations about the escalation in the number of tertiary students prompted Playford to grant the site of a former chest hospital at Bedford Park to the university for its future expansion. The next ministry chose to make the new campus a separate institution: in 1966 it opened as the Flinders University of South Australia.

Katharine West claimed in 1965 that ‘no non-Labor Leader in post-war Australia has had such dedicated support from an influential daily newspaper as Playford has had from the Advertiser’, then under the firm direction of its chairman and managing director, Sir Lloyd Dumas. Dumas endorsed, for example, Playford’s opposition to calls for the abolition of capital punishment, which intensified following the conviction in 1959 of Rupert Max Stuart for the rape and murder of a 9-year-old girl. Playford prevaricated for months before finally agreeing in October to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. Critical comment, however, came freely from the Melbourne fortnightly, Nation, and Adelaide’s evening paper, the News, conducted from 1952 by its hands-on proprietor, the young Rupert Murdoch.

Playford was unperturbed by those who regarded South Australia as the wowser State. Few people realised that he had not continued to be a teetotaller, for in public he continued to drink lemonade, water or milk. The prosecution and fining in South Australia of Max Harris, for publishing ‘obscene’ matter in the ‘Ern Malley’ edition of his Angry Penguins in 1944, illustrated the temper of the times. Leaders of the Protestant churches remained a vigorous pressure group, demanding that the government continue to promote ‘moral and social well-being’ through restrictive legislation. They gave Playford and his party significant support, believing that he was ‘on their side’. Yet when he banned horse racing in March 1942 he claimed that the motive was manpower control, not ethical considerations. The ban was lifted in October 1943. Many were delighted when, in 1940, he had ended sixty-five years of secular education by allowing clergy or their accredited representatives to conduct weekly religious instruction classes in government schools. In 1947 teachers were themselves permitted to conduct these sessions, at their own request and if authorised by a religious denomination. Playford marked the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II by presenting a copy of the New Testament to every South Australian schoolchild.

The steady drift of people to urban areas eventually had an impact on election results as some electorates that had been dominated by yeomen farmers became proletarianised. Also, the secularisation of the community that had been gathering pace since the mid-1950s, reflected in declining rates of church attendance, had produced a corresponding rise in resentment of many of the restraints church leaders had striven to retain. After the 1962 elections Playford retained office only by courtesy of support from two Independents and in 1965, despite the electoral malapportionment, lost power. He was unhappy in the role of leader of the Opposition. When the Frank Walsh ministry authorised a plebiscite seeking approval for the introduction of a State lottery, he scorned the proposal saying that ‘one does not put poison into the hands of children’; he was devastated when 71 per cent voted ‘Yes’. He retired from parliament on the eve of the 1968 election. His main assets were the orchard that he had inherited, his house and a 1963-model Holden motorcar that served him to the end.

In the first half of Playford’s life his favourite recreation had been fishing. In the second it was horticulture: he created an exquisite garden around his home and in retirement cultivated orchids. In 1969-78 he served on the board of the Electricity Trust. Revered for his personal integrity as much as for his public achievements, Sir Thomas died on 16 June 1981 in Adelaide, survived by his wife and their son and two daughters. After a state funeral at Flinders Street Baptist Church he was buried in Norton Summit cemetery. In 1991 his long-time opponent Don Dunstan conceded that Playford had ‘worked tirelessly and effectively for the good of the State as he saw it. The State owes him much.’ The South Australian parliament holds a portrait of Playford by Sir Ivor Hele and a sculptured bust by John Dowie. A portrait by Robert Hannaford is in the State Administration Centre, Adelaide.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (1965)
  • D. Nicholas, The Pacemaker (1969)
  • N. Blewett and D. Jaensch, Playford to Dunstan (1971)
  • W. Crocker, Sir Thomas Playford: A Portrait (1983)
  • S. Cockburn, Playford: Benevolent Despot (1991)
  • B. O’Neil et al (eds), Playford’s South Australia (1996)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, South Australia), 12 July 1933, p 100, 31 July 1934, p 294, 21 Aug 1934, p 628, 19 Oct 1937, p 1123, 26 Aug 1965, p 1312
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 June 1981, p 1
  • Adelaide Review, Aug 1991, p 30
  • GRG24/6 (State Records South Australia)
  • correspondence files, series A9343, A461 and B2455, item B2455/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • personal information.

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Playford, Sir Thomas (Tom) (1896–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Thomas Playford, by Kerwin Maegraith, 1951

Thomas Playford, by Kerwin Maegraith, 1951

State Library of South Australia, B 21774

Life Summary [details]


5 July, 1896
Norton Summit, South Australia, Australia


16 June, 1981 (aged 84)
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.