The fabulous coat-hanger, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, began construction in July 1923 and was completed in January 1932. In March of that year, it was inaugurated, and the world watched on.
A British Pathe newsreel scarcely conveys the incredible story and immense drama that accompanied the ceremony. Vast parades crossed the bridge including the building workers and symbolic floats. The governor Sir Philip Game and governor-general Sir Isaac Isaacs in all their regal regalia flanked Lang. Game read out a statement on behalf of the King. Yet, the event is best known for when Francis De Groot attempted to slash the ribbon with his ceremonial sword as he lurched forward on his horse ahead of Premier Jack Lang while dressed in his regimental finery. The ribbon was cut but argument persists as to whether he actually slashed it. One eyewitness believed his horse broke it with his hoof while rearing.
De Groot was an Irishman who served with the 15th Hussars in WW1 and was a member of the reactionary New Guard.
Following his attempt to deprive Premier Lang of this auspicious honour he was bundled into a guard house by police. But his actions, which led to him being found guilty of offensive behaviour in a public place and fined five pounds, went some ways to cooling an atmosphere that was bordering on a civil war in Sydney and across New South Wales. The New Guard whom he belonged to, his horse having been supplied by the daughter of a friend of New Guard leader Colonel Eric Campbell, were placated since they believed Lang had been symbolically upstaged.
Likewise, Jack Lang, who those from the New Guard regarded as a Marxist (despite the fact he despised communists), gave a speech that is reputed to have been comparable with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. It did not save his Premiership, but his reconciliatory words bespoke the nobility of the man as he addressed his countrymen and the world with a message of ‘things Australians strive for’.
Trouble is, we don’t know what he actually said, and it might be a testament to the contempt that Lang was held in by record keepers that we cannot locate a transcript. An academic paper that hypothesises about his speech exists, but no link, nor any segment of his address is included in either the text or notes. We are told he spoke around 360 words which are the average length of a typical tabloid article. The author of the essay to which we refer concludes “Lang’s intent was to both renew faith in democracy and to strive for societal reconciliation”. This was, surely, an honourable gesture, and in the volatile climate of the day not unwise. But where did it get us? We will offer our conclusion once we revisit this remarkable story.
When Labor was unanimously swept into power less than three years earlier in 1929, Prime Minister James Scullin arrived in Canberra on the day news broke of the American stock market crash. This was, obviously, not good. Unemployment was running at 13%, Australian trade had fallen with our major exports, wheat and wool, dropping by a third. The overseas debt was rising and something had to be done. Tent cities were popping up like toadstools and a bowl of watery slop from a soup kitchen was for many Australians all the sustenance they could look forward to. Families were being evicted from their homes by landlords feeling the pinch and politically things were becoming explosive. Socialists and communists were pushing for ‘direct action’, in conflict with the rising numbers of the New Guard.
The Labor government, so boisterous at its lift to power, was in disarray as to how to deal with the crisis. Plans were put forward. One of those was the ‘Lang Plan’.
The Lang Plan was radical. Significant to it was abolishing the gold standard and replacing it with a ‘goods standard’ fixing the amount of currency circulating to the number of goods being produced. But it was his idea to inject money into the economy for things such as business growth and welfare spending by withholding interest payments to Britain that spiked the ire of the reactionaries. This was seen as pure Bolshevism. For Colonel Eric Campbell and all those behind the conservative pro-British establishment anything that didn’t bow or curtsy to a portrait of King George V was a rabid Communist. You can just imagine that their rantings might well have mimicked the dialogue in an episode of Black Adder for absurdity. Robert Menzies, later to become Australia’s longest-serving prime minister reportedly said, “Australians would be better off starving than abandoning cherished principles.”
By this, he was not merely speaking of the moral principle of repaying our debts. Considering it was to Britain the money was owed, which these conservatives regarded as being the holy capital of Australia, viewing themselves as loyal Brits serving the Empire in a part of the world separated only by leagues of ocean, such action was treasonable. To the Langites, the sacrifices of World War 1 had levelled the field in terms of equality. By shedding 60,000 lives, Australia had come of age, and surely earned Britain’s respect. Considering much of the debt to Britain was accrued in the efforts of aiding them in the Great War the proposition was more than reasonable. Moreover, Britain had no problem in allowing such measures of other indebted Commonwealth states.
However, The Australian Labor Party was divided. The bailout plan known as The Premiers’ Plan, agreed to by all Federal and other state governments in 1930, involved too much stringent cutting of government spending for the Langites. The very idea was to be of assistance to those ordinary Australians who had elected them. By revoking spending, the people would be left to suffer while waiting for the market to sort itself out. They needed imminent relief. Lang and his faction followed former Labor cabinet member Josh Lyons, who had quit to form the United Australia Party (which became the conservative Liberal party) and crossed the floor to vote against the government. This action split the Labor party. Federal Labor squared off against Lang Labor.
The Harbour Bridge had been one project of Public Works which employed variously up to 2000 workers per day. Now it was completed. The cutting of the ribbon opening the Bridge was not merely to be a ceremonial performance but signalled a political act. Sir Philip Game, the NSW governor had desired to be the one to cut the ribbon. He was supported by the New Guard who, in light of his “unorthodox” financial policies, regarded the premier snipping it as tantamount to open revolt against the crown. Plans were afoot to sabotage this occurrence by whatever means. A scheme was hatched for the New Guard to kidnap Lang and others wanted him dead. Nevertheless, the crown decided that allowing the Governor to cut the ribbon would send an anti-democratic message given the New Guard’s threats. The State was on alert. Eric Campbell boasted that his New Guard outnumbered the police force “sixty-to-one”. He wasn’t joking. What’s more, they were armed to the teeth. It was easily feasible for them to storm the parliament house and place the premier under arrest. As such, a situation had brewed that pitted the Police against the New Guard. However, the crown had expressed its wish that the democratically elected premier should perform the ceremonial cutting off the ribbon. After all, the eyes of the world would be on Sydney.
The narrative playing out on the bridge was of Loyal Citizens of The Crown vs ‘things Australia Strives For’, or the loyalists against dangerous radicals, depending on your viewpoint. Lang’s speech, once De Groot had been bundled away, was received in a sympathetic spirit by all. The crisis, at least in terms of imminent insurrection by the New Guard had momentarily waned. But the financial establishment would not be quieted. Joseph Lyons and his United Australia Party were now in federal office. NSW had accumulated the largest debt of any of the other states pursuing its public works program and welfare spending. Lyons preferred an orthodox approach to finances. He then called in and began repaying the interest on the states’ overseas debts, passing the Financial Agreement Enforcement Act 1932 especially to make Lang cough up NSW’s share.
But Lang was not letting go so easily. Since it meant that NSW would not be able to pay the wages of its public servants, he argued this amounted to slavery, and challenged its legitimacy on the basis slavery was prohibited throughout the Empire. He then withdrew all the State Government’s money from Government bank accounts and stashed the cash at Trades Hall to defy the Federal Government. The State Governor declared this act unconstitutional and threatened Lang with the sack. On May 13, 1932, he did just that. Labor was subsequently suffered a massive defeat at the next election. Lang went on to lead the NSW opposition but in 1942 was booted out of the party. He formed a non-communist ALP on a keen anti-communist platform. Lang admitted in his memoirs that at the time Game had threatened to oust him he considered putting him under arrest which would really have set the flame upon the powder. Nonetheless, both men were actually fond of each other, and exchanged Christmas gifts.
It is ironical that Sir Philip Game, who had Lang replaced as NSW Governor, and who was a sympathiser of the erroneously described ‘fascist’ New Guard went on to quell Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists’ vaunted fascist march through the streets of London as his appointment as the Commissioner of London Police.
Taking an audit of Australianness 80 years down the track, as of that time, and it’s hard to see exactly what the hell it was we were striving for. Jack Lang and those who shared his democratic socialist perspective of nationalism knew, but the vision, the man, and Australia were thwarted by those who history describes as nationalistic but were plainly reactionary forces who helped to swat that vision on the bridge of its idealistic nose.
Strange that now the young folks are finding exactly that same ‘nationalism’, which was not nationalism but conservatism, and who identify with this New Guard that when pressed they show scant understanding of. A nationalism that is subservient to a foreign state, even if it once was a parent nation is not nationalism, nor is it when it apes their culture rather than searching for its own in its new land.
Thus, an audit of Australianness now has irrefutable traits and they are Anglo-Celtic-European lineage. Possessing that heredity and appreciating it is however separate from idolising it as if it is a be-all and end-all without a necessary vision to ‘strive’ towards.
We no longer speak of Englishness since that is gone, and it’s a fight for our English cousins to preserve. This requires a return to a past so that they are capable of seeing ahead anew. We have not that luxury since those former Anglophiles traded the Empire for the United States. We can reminisce about Lang and the Australian labour movement — the Australia firsters — for inspiration and spiritual guidance but the task for us is all the more invidious. It was made that way by the likes of the New Guard and those whose obsequiousness to a dying parent empire dragged its child down with it. Being adopted by the United States only put us in the foster care of an ineffectual guardian who structured us every bit as surely as the crown did. We retain the crown, although it is an anachronism we cling to, or rather those atavists of Lyons’ ilk grip like a holy relic as barbarians batter down the gates.
In conclusion, we are still striving, but it’s the understanding of who ‘we’ are without Lang’s naïve overture to ‘inclusivity’, perhaps the man’s finest virtue while also being his greatest flaw, which will enable our ballast. Nowadays, inclusivity means the acceptance not of reactionaries or those with differing political outlooks but a Babylon of races and a twisted dimension of outright freaks. It is strange how the same conservative atavists who would see themselves reflected in the New Guard are an oeuvre so dedicated to the protection of capital that they fail to see the real cause of the Satanic mess of our age is caused less by ‘lefties’ and more by the corporations they grovel to.
Being Australian is a start, sharing the requisite attributes, but it is what we strive for that will determine who we end up because right now we’re about to become mongrel Asians, cosmetically and chemically altered non-gender humanoids, and any disturbing creation of the Woke church and its god the almighty shekel.
In place of the nation, we have corporations. This is the legacy of deference to foreign power and capital imparted by the reactionaries of Lang’s day.