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Frank Cain, Jack Lang and the Great Depression.

Frank Cain, Jack Lang and the Great Depression, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2005, x + 393 pages; ISBN 1 74097 0748.
 Jack Lang is regarded as a 'dodgy'
 character in Australian history-no
 historian has a good word for him. And
 this is because his involvement in the
 Depression and the complexity of
 issues relating to it have become so
 difficult to disentangle that it has been
 simpler to describe him as a political

So begins the preface to Frank Cain's account of Lang and the Great Depression. The preface also notes that much research, which included bank archives in Sydney and London, and time, granted by a patient publisher, were needed to 'unravel' the 'many threads of the complex Lang story and set them out in a book length study'. Lang and the Depression slip easily enough into the more sensational episodes of Australian history, prone to oversimplification and exaggeration and Cain's viewpoint is rigorous and refreshing. The author's achievement is a satisfyingly detailed and analytical study of the patterns of events and the constitutional, financial and political structures of the time. Instead of revisiting Lang and putting in 'a good word' for him, Cain turns to the task of putting Lang's responses to the Great Depression into context. This context is largely left to speak for itself, so Cain's work sheds a diffuse light. And Lang himself is not used as a source of illumination, so we are not distracted by the glare of his powerful personality and eventful political life.

Cain does not directly defend Lang against such taunts as 'arch repudiationist', the term his opponents used to exaggerate his policy of requesting extension of London loan terms and deferment of interest to tide the state over the Depression. Neither is much space given to arguing whether or not he was indeed 'manipulating politics' and plotting some sensational upheaval of civilisation, a notion that ballooned into nightmare proportions for New South Wales Governor Sir Philip Game. Avoiding this kind of historical slanging match, Cain's terms of reference as far as Lang is concerned are limited to his office as Premier, where he had to face the real and immediate necessity of 'manipulating' finances to sustain the unemployed. By book's end, it seems a tragedy that Lang's political foes, along with the press and such powerful men as Sir Robert Gibson, conservative head of the Commonwealth Bank, read the man rather than his office and the wider context of economic depression and need, and so failed to make large minded and timely decisions.

Describing that wider context is no easy task. Cain tackles it boldly, taking us back well into the nineteenth century, when New South Wales was master of its financial affairs. At the risk of oversimplification, the gist of this book is that problems for premiers had their beginnings in the Commonwealth's powers under the Constitution to commandeer revenue from the states and use this capacity to bargain for more powers, for example, the establishment of the centralised Loan Council, which Lang resisted during his first government. By his return to office New South Wales had given in, and so was cut off from its customary, and customised, loan funds and financial contacts in London. It had to fall back upon the mercy of the Commonwealth in difficult times, a corner made even tighter by the already heavy burden of servicing debt from the Great War. A politically hostile Federal government could mean serious financial restrictions, uncomfortably reminiscent to the reader of economic sanctions. These were certainly useful for 'cat and mouse' harrying of unfavoured state governments.

Just how embattled Lang, the duly elected parliamentary leader in New South Wales, became under this flawed power structure is illustrated in one of Cain's plentiful examples of how the Commonwealth's punitive attempts to seize revenue pushed Lang to apparently odd behaviour; 'The Master Butchers' Association and the Wholesale Grocers' Association offered their bank account systems to the government for payment of the numerous butchers and grocers participating in the relief scheme and thereby thwarted the Commonwealth's confiscation of New South Wales monies in the banking system'. Forced to resort to such unorthodox methods, Lang seemed at the mercy of the Auditor General, but that officer when sent in to investigate found the Premier's methods unorthodox but not improper. This thwarted Governor Sir Philip Game, who in increasing desperation was casting about for some pretext to dismiss Lang, but now, having toyed twice with pulling rank, decided to pounce. He called Bertie Stevens to form a government, but acting rather above his constitutional powers, took care to prorogue parliament so that the Assembly could not vote Stevens straight out. When Stevens was elected New South Wales was presented with a fait accompli and no awkward questions about Game's actions reached their mark.

Cain delivers this kind of episode in fine narrative and analytical detail, in this case with a close examination of Game's dealings with his Imperial masters and the constitutional issues of what taking advice from his ministers meant, and what Game wanted it to mean. The book indeed makes some demands on those of us who read general history and biography for pleasure, a sense of humanity and events and a touch of gossip and intrigue. These elements are there for us in this book but we are required to take a considerable detour into the 'City', the world of economics, bank note issues, trustee funds, loan conversions and various constitutional and legal matters in order to see where the real intrigue lay. Getting a grasp of these aspects is essential and the effect is unexpectedly moving: there were fiscal measures available that could have alleviated the Great Depression in New South Wales, Lang knew a good deal about them and many of them were made available after Lang was ousted.

The 'threads' of the factors at work certainly take some 'unravelling' and Cain does this painstakingly, storing each untangled strand in a compartment under subheadings, for example, 'Australian commodity sales to Britain', 'The stoppage of London loans', 'Brief history of the GSB (Government Savings Bank) of NSW', 'Discouraging Shallow optimism: Niemeyer's prescription for Australia'. Sir Otto Niemeyer visited Australia, with some subterfuge, for the purpose of investigating the nation's financial position for the Bank of England, and amongst the careful studies Cain gives us there is the occasional bite; Niemeyer 'looked like an affable bookmaker rather than an agent of Britain's financial centre'. Despite a certain amount of compartmentalising, the book's structure is chronological and the style has narrative momentum. The paperback edition reviewed here is a plain production, with eight pages of black and white photographs and cartoons, and the generously spaced text is a subtle luxury. The main disappointment to readers might be that, despite the title, they will not find Jack Lang in the limelight, but for me that is Cain's achievement.

Lynn Milne
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Author:Milne, Lynn
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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