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Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Big Fella and the Big Bridge

One of my favourite things in NSW Parliament House is the portrait of Jack Lang. Head tilted, square jaw jutted; the anti-guardian angel of the Parliament. I've been looking for an excuse to talk about Jack Lang for some time, and what better opportunity than today's 75th anniversary of the opening of the Harbour Bridge, as well as the final week before the NSW election.

As this year's election approaches, voters could not be more phlegmatic. Regardless of who wins - and the fact that it's already pretty certain says a lot in itself - things won't change much. Standards of living will still be much higher than most of the world, most people will have jobs and homes. Contrast this to NSW under Jack Lang's leadership. The Depression bit harder in Australia than in nearly every other country, including America. Thirty percent of the workforce was unemployed; people who lived in their generation's equivalent of the McMansion one week lived in shanty towns the next. Political extremism, at both ends of the spectrum, was growing.

In response to what he saw as the Federal Government's inequitable and ineffective policies to mitigate the Depression, Lang proposed the controversial `Lang Plan', which included the withholding of interest repayments to foreign interests in order to revive the economy of NSW - a plan which culminated in the hoarding of NSW reserves at NSW Trades Hall to prevent its access by the Federal Government and ultimately, his dismissal by the Governor - one of only two such dismissals in Australian history (the other, of course, was Gough Whitlam.

This was a time when politics were real - when leaders and decisions had a deep, immediate impact on peoples' lives. There's something quite exciting about that today, when politics often seem more like a parlour game or a spectator sport.

It's ironic that unions have been requested not to politicise today's bridge crossing, given that the original opening of the bridge was a politically charged event. Of course, the bridge itself was intended to represent a literal and figurative jumping of the political gap - the working class South now given direct access to the wealthy, isolated North (a noble intention; however, Sydneysiders still define themselves based on the compass points, even 75 years later). Lang's decision to open the bridge himself rather than allow the Governor to do so was controversial. Meanwhile, the famous usurping of Lang at the Harbour Bridge opening by the sabre-wielding Francis De Groot was no mere case of a crazy old man getting a little over-excited. De Groot was a member of an extraordinary organisation, the New Guard.

The New Guard was a right wing grassroots paramilitary that reached its height of influence during Lang's reign. It was no rag-tag underground movement, but a highly organised citizen's militia with a reputed 200,000 members - many of whom were experienced WWI veterans - and an astonishing military arsenal. Photos of New Guard meetings show imagery that would become disturbingly familiar in later years, including a straight-arm salute (Hitler was, after all, elected only a year after the Harbour Bridge was opened). Their plans were nothing short of audacious - primarily, to kidnap Lang, bring NSW under martial law and effect a coup d'etat - possibly a bloody one. These plans were well advanced and came alarmingly close to fruition, with a co-ordinated kidnap attempt foiled only when Lang, by chance, gave his driver the night off and drove home in an unfamiliar car, down a Parramatta Road lined with New Guard members poised and ready to pounce.

Over time, various historians have tried to reasses Lang's impact - to unravel his real legacy from the dedicated worship or pathological hatred with which he was viewed at the time. I find it impossible to figure out which of the two camps I would have been in. Would I have, like so many Sydneysiders, been mesmerised by the powerful oratory of the populist, his `Us versus Them' ideology, and his genuinely progressive welfare and infrastructure policies? Or would it all have seemed a bit mad? Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but it necessarily excludes context, and subjective opinion is dictated almost exclusively by context.

One thing's for sure. It's exciting to think of a time in NSW politics where the decisions were bigger than desalination or recycled, or who's in the budgie smugglers and who's racing Ferraris - where the participants included the ordinary person, and not just the political elite.

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