AUSTRALIAN HISTORY by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Thomas Playford: ideology no barrier to development
, May 9, 2015
South Australia is a proud state. For one thing, it never had convicts.
Sir Thomas Playford
The main driver in the early days of settlement was the colonisation scheme devised by Edward Gibbon Wakefield. The scheme aimed to provide an elite of property-owning gentry supported by a working yeomanry. Indeed, South Australia’s civic institutions were far superior to those of Western Australia, a land of which it was famously said consisted of “sin, sun, sand and sore eyes”.
South Australia could point to its beautiful cricket ground, graced in later years by adopted son Don Bradman; the Art Gallery of South Australia, which to this day has one of the nation’s finest collections of early Australian art; and the four terraces that frame Adelaide’s “Square mile”, the commercial and residential heart of the city. The University of Adelaide is the nation’s third oldest.
South Australia’s problem was that it was an agricultural economy. When overseas markets collapsed, so did the state’s economy. In the worst years of the 1930s Depression, one in three men was unemployed. The state government did what it could to alleviate the suffering, but its finances also were in a bad way. The state needed a balanced economy which could ride out the rough spots.
South Australia needed a man of energy and vision to realise this dream. That man was Thomas Playford.
Playford came from an old South Australian family. His family was by no means rich, and became no richer during Playford’s record-breaking stint as premier. He left politics no better off than when he went into public life. He was premier in the Liberal and Country League interest from 1938 to 1965, becoming the longest serving premier in the nation’s history.
Despite his severe moral conservatism, he became known as “the best Labor premier in South Australia’s history”. His strict nonconformist upbringing gave him an aversion to alcohol and gambling. Six o’clock closing was the rule for pubs, and South Australia had to do without the most innocuous forms of gambling, such as a state lottery.
Playford knew that South Australia had to industrialise. He encouraged this vision in several ways. He actively pursued major projects and became personally involved in negotiations. He also put in place government policies that would benefit industry, such as keeping wages below those of neighbouring states through the mediation of the South Australian state wages board.
The South Australian government also built tens of thousands of cheap, affordable houses. This had the effect of giving the working man and woman more disposable income, because lower rents meant that disposable income was higher than elsewhere.
If one word were needed to sum up Playford, it would be “pragmatist”. He had no education beyond high school and relied on what could best be described as common sense. Playford was strict with his children and tolerated little in the way of diversions from hard work. The same might be said of the governance of South Australia. He had a great memory and was quick on his feet, and he could also analyse a bill expertly. Due to the propensity of Hansard writers and editors to make sense out of the sort of gibberish many politicians utter on the floor of the House, his speeches look good at a distance, and most of them probably were worthwhile. In his era, Playford dominated his state as few other politicians have done.
Playford did not allow doctrinaire notions of laissez-faire capitalism to dominate his economic thinking. A prime example of this was the nationalisation of the electricity industry and the development of the Leigh Creek brown coal mine to fuel the Electricity Trust of South Australia’s generators. What had initially been a means of sparing the state the disruption caused by striking New South Wales miners and seamen became an economic advantage to the state.
Playford was not of the landed gentry. He was an orchardist, sprung from the solid yeoman stock that kept South Australia solvent through good times and bad. He understood his people, but he helped create a middle class that did not understand him. The agricultural base had been transformed into an industrial economy with a working class that wanted more than just more hard work. The middle class wanted the Adelaide Festival; a state that had the reputation of being “the Athens of the South”.
Looking at the Playford legacy, one must say he was a man of his time. No other state economy has suffered more from the collapse of Australia’s industrial base. Some of Playford’s “newtowns” have become outer suburban slums. Unlike Victorian premier Henry Bolte, he didn’t know when to leave. He did not learn the lesson that there is no one more ex than an ex politician.
Even so, it’s rather sad that a solid, hard-working state should be defined by a show pony in hot pants rather than a man who understood that a steady job is the foundation of society and the family.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, originally from Perth.