The New Guard was formed in Sydney, Australia in February 1931 as a paramilitary offshoot from a conservative tradition defending loyalty to King and Empire, sound government, law and order, individual liberty and property rights. Apprehensions about extremist threats were often overreactions, yet they were widely shared and greatly sharpened by recent Australian experience. Founded by a group of concerned citizens, it was led by Lt. Colonel Eric Campbell, a First World War veteran.
Politically, the end of the Great War in 1918 left Australians unusually discontented and polarised. Venomous campaigns for the 1916-1917 conscription plebiscites had contributed a heavy dose of sectarianism and of rhetoric about disloyalty and extremism. The 1917 Australian General Strike had also left a bitter legacy. The union movement resented the vindictive suppression of the strike; conservatives saw the strike as proof of union extremism sparked by foreign theorists. Similarly, Bolshevik success in the 1917 October Revolution in Russia increased the credibility of a revolutionary strategy in the eyes both of those who feared it and of those who favoured it.
The labour movement reflected this sour mood. Its parliamentary strategy had been partly discredited by the desertion of leaders in the conscription split. After the war, impatient unions signalled their interest in methods proposed by the syndicalist "One Big Union" movement. Thwarted at the Australian Labor Party's 1919 Annual Conference, supporters of this approach failed in their attempt to set up a breakaway party; but Jock Garden (Secretary of the NSW Labor Council) did manage a merger of socialist groups to form the Communist Party of Australia in August 1920. For a time the Labor Party managed to contain its hard-core socialists. In October 1921 its Federal Conference did adopt a socialist objective. This was carefully qualified, becoming a timeless target to be pursued by constitutional and parliamentary methods. But unsurprisingly, the ideological conflict alarmed conservatives. So too did NSW Labor's uncomfortable relationship with the Communists. In 1925 the Labor Party Annual Conference even resolved to allow the Communist Party to affiliate with Labor. Although the Party quickly reversed this decision, Communist penetration would remain a credible threat to the labour movement and a basis for "Red bogey" rhetoric.
Jack Lang and the Depression
Jack Lang’s reputation for radicalism arose during his 1925-27 term as Premier. Graham Freudenberg aptly terms his programme “solid Labor reforms clothed in provocative language”.:139–142 and intimidating most of his parliamentary colleagues, Lang built a fervent following in the unions and branches as the leader, at last, who could be trusted to implement Labor policies.
The “Big Fella” was a remorseless faction fighter and a formidable demagogue. He was no revolutionary nor anyone’s puppet. When necessary, he could use support from “Trades Hall Reds”, but still opposed Communist infiltration of the Labor Party. To achieve the Labor reforms he sincerely wanted, he focussed upon shoring up his personal control, carefully polishing his image as the champion of the unions, the branches, the little people. On the other hand, his aggressive style and rhetoric provided an easy target for cartoonists and press sensationalism. His rough handling of symbolic issues like the role of the upper house, the rights of overseas bondholders or the role of the King’s representatives at important ceremonial occasions reinforced conservatives’ image of Lang as a “Red wrecker”.
After a landslide win in October 1930, Lang faced eighteen months of overlapping crises associated with the Great Depression. An open economy, dependent on overseas markets and investment, Australia was hit hard by a collapse of world prices for its exports. Large overseas debt repayments could only be met if Australian governments heavily cut other expenditures.
Lang’s mission was to fight orthodox economic policies eroding the people’s hard-won living standards through cuts in pensions and wages, together with reduced spending on public works which could have countered already severe unemployment levels. His relentless push for the abolition or at least taming of the Legislative Council reassured Labor supporters but deeply alarmed its opponents, especially when the Council, after new appointments, on May 13, 1932 passed the contentious Mortgages Taxation Bill.
More damaging was his feud with the Commonwealth Government over Depression policy and control of NSW Labor. Eventually a Lang Labor breakaway group helped bring down the Scullin Government and Labor’s Federal Conference expelled Lang Labor. Both competed at the December 1931 election, won by the new United Australia Party. This heralded a decade in the wilderness for Labor at both levels. To the horror of conservatives, the same period saw a socialist resurgence. At the 1930 Annual Conference Lang’s “Inner Group” did not openly oppose a proposal to educate members and workers to prepare the way for “socialism in our time”. The energy of the subsequent campaign produced a rapid expansion of “socialisation units” whose leadership became a rival for control of Labor’s machine. The 1931 Annual Conference actually passed a Three Year Plan for “socialism in our time”. It was rescinded on the following day after intense lobbying and ideological counter-attack by the “Inner Group”. Tension remained until the socialisation unit organisation was disbanded in 1933.
During the 1930 election campaign Lang denied any intention of repudiating overseas debt. Nevertheless, in February 1931 the Lang Plan proposed that Australian governments should pay no further interest to British bondholders until Britain dealt with Australia’s debts as it had settled its own with America. For conservatives this was an issue with strong overtones of unsound finance and disloyalty to Britain. A young R.G. Menzies conceded that the depression burden might need to be more fairly shared, but in May 1931 warned against violating the rights of bondholders. “If Australia was to surmount her trouble only by abandonment of traditional British standards of honesty, justice, fair play and honest endeavour, it would be better for Australia that every citizen within her boundaries should die of starvation during the next six months”.:74 Lang played effectively upon the prejudices of his day, demonising landlords, moneylenders, Jewish international financiers. His perfect target was the deflationary advice of Sir Otto Niemeyer, a Bank of England representative invited to report upon Australian prospects when the Scullin Government asked that Bank to fund Australia’s London debts. Unable to get a moratorium or to have the Commonwealth take over a substantial part of NSW debt, Lang announced in February 1932 that NSW would default on April overseas loan payments. After meeting the bill, the new UAP Government sought repayment. Lang defiantly withdrew over £1m of NSW revenue from banks to be held by the NSW Treasury and ordered NSW departments to deposit revenues there in cash. When the Commonwealth on May 6 required NSW officials to pay revenues into the Commonwealth Bank, Lang instructed NSW departments not to do so. This arguably illegal behaviour became the immediate cause of Governor Game’s decision to dismiss the Lang Government, though not tested in the courts.
New Guard and Old Guard
One difficulty in assessing the New Guard’s impact is that other separate but similar groups were also active, so that it was not always easy to assign responsibility for particular activities. In the countryside many groups protesting against perceived neglect, like the Riverina Movement, saw possible escape from Sydney domination and an opportunity to dissociate themselves from the “New South Welshers”. Behind the scenes a well connected Old Guard exercised considerable influence within such groups, through a network of relationships with traditional country institutions. By contrast, the New Guard was largely a Sydney organisation with only about 3000 country members. Yet it was the very public face of paramilitary activity. Often its name served as an umbrella term for all such activities. So the extent of Old Guard influence was usually not fully recognised, while that of the New Guard overstated.
What was “New”?:158–163 The New Guard began as a breakaway from the Old Guard after Campbell had been invited to resign, following his open criticism of the "cowardly secrecy and timid inaction" of Old Guard leaders. Nevertheless, the two groups remained very similar in their values and purposes, their distaste for selfish machine politics, their extremist/socialist targets, and even to some extent in their methods. Indeed, in its first few months the New Guard tried hard to negotiate acceptable terms for amalgamation. Some support for reunion continued even after this approach ended in April 1931.
Yet there were significant differences in their tactical emphases. These reflected differences in the nature of their leadership and the political resources available to them. The Old Guard’s basic strength was that its leaders were part of Sydney’s social and economic elite, including eminent AIF leaders, churchmen, businessmen. For example, one was a director of the Bank of New South Wales, which provided its bank draft. Another with links to the Defence Department, as secretary of the Royal Agricultural Society could accommodate horses and troops if country light horsemen needed to be sent to Sydney. As president of the Royal Sydney Golf Club, another could provide a convenient site for armed militia to drill. As influential insiders, the Old Guard leaders preferred to wait until threats to social order crystallised. If the civil authorities seemed unable to cope, they were to act as auxiliary guardians in support. Their role was to be a disciplined force prepared to intervene effectively to avert social breakdown, as their predecessors had earlier acted against union militants and socialists to ensure the maintenance of essential services.
Old Guard practice was not quite this restrained. For example, in November 1931 at Grenfell they disrupted an open-air meeting addressed by Jock Garden. On the following day plans for similar action in Cowra were dropped when a large Australian Labor Army force turned up to defend Garden. In many country towns vigilance committees were encouraged to drive out the local subversives. An impressive mobilisation occurred in Dubbo to deal with its hundred or so “human dingoes”. Despite the anti-climax, which resulted in one person being kicked out, this exercise was favourably received; one newspaper described the incident as staunch bushmen “exterminating Red pests”.:127–132
Nevertheless, the New Guard had a stronger taste for vigilante action. It would not merely wait in reserve nor escape responsibility for its actions by hiding behind allegedly spontaneous vigilance committees. One of its divisional commanders foreshadowed its direct action methods against “Communist and other reptile meetings”. “Particularly obnoxious vermin” were to be dealt with by select tarring and feathering and horse whipping. He reported that the boys treated the idea “with much joy and flexing of muscles”.:146
The regular disruption of opponents’ meetings was partly a consequence of the New Guard’s more limited political resources. Its finances were always under strain and it lacked the support network associated with the Old Guard. It was a “second-string” force with few socially significant leaders. Lacking the easy legitimacy of high social status and insider influence, it became increasingly wild in the early months of 1932.
Arguing that the time for talk was over, Campbell stepped up the programme of disruption and issued directives on the techniques of street fighting. At a more theatrical level, Francis de Groot's cutting of the ribbon at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge on March 19, 1932 saved face for Campbell who had promised that Lang could not be permitted to usurp that ceremonial duty. De Groot, an Irish-born veteran of the First World War and furniture maker, infiltrated a mounted parade at the official opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Wearing his old 15th Hussars uniform, he slashed the opening ribbon with a cavalry sword before Lang could perform the ceremony. He declared the bridge open "in the name of the loyal and decent people of New South Wales". Arrested by police, he was taken to a mental hospital for examination. The ribbon was hastily retied and duly cut by the premier.
By May 1932 it seemed that at least some New Guard members were ready for a coup d’état, as rumours spread of plots to kidnap Lang and to imprison State Cabinet at Berrima. The Old Guard worried that it might have to protect the social order from the New Guard as well as the socialists.:163
New Guard capability
Although Labor Daily enjoyed taunting the “Boo Guard”, Lang Labor did defend itself by forming its Australian Labor Army and also providing for the recruitment of special constables. Yet there is room to doubt whether the New Guard was capable of mounting a successful coup. For propaganda reasons, New Guard membership was often exaggerated, as when Campbell foreshadowed a procession of 100,000 men along Macquarie Street to present a petition to the Governor. Police estimates were perhaps 38,000 in Sydney and 3000 in the countryside, not all active or solidly supportive. Meetings were penetrated by spies and informants, while the New Guard’s own intelligence operations were unimpressive. For example, its directors unrealistically asserted that there were 252,473 Communists in ten Sydney electorates alone.:147
Its administration was unwieldy, with frequent squabbles within its overcomplicated command structures. Campbell was unconvincing in the role of charismatic great leader and was often criticised within his movement for his rash and abrasive leadership style. Often New Guard operations were surprisingly amateurish. For example a June 1932 “Operation Bushfires” seemed a good public relations opportunity in the countryside. Despite a considerable effort, transport and equipment bungles and inexpert personnel only irritated locals. On another occasion New Guard members from adjoining areas brawled, each believing the other to be an Australian Labor Army group.
In addition, the New Guard operated under considerable constraints besides labour movement counter-measures. Even the Old Guard resisted its attempts to expand and eventually came to see it as a threat to social order which might have to be taken on. Commonwealth authorities were hostile to its sabre rattling. In the face of a coordinated police campaign, the New Guard even showed some signs of wilting.:148–154,169–173
Between the wars, fascism appealed to many who felt liberal democratic institutions were failing to cope. Its alternative was centralisation of authority in the hands of a charismatic leader seeking a regeneration of society, generally upon a basis of unquestioning nationalism tinged with militarism. This overriding cause justified violent suppression of opposition from selfish sectional interests and included fierce anti-communism.
The New Guard did display many of these features. In particular, Campbell’s interest in fascism strengthened in the early 1930s. At first he was coy about what might replace the old machine politics. Perhaps a small commission of “disinterested gentlemen” with irreproachable records might provide an interim administration for about three years, or longer if wanted? In 1932 he asserted: “The New Guard is the vanguard of a crusade for moral regeneration….we will bridge all classes to work for a common goal…and prove that the British race does not deteriorate under Southern skies…Inspired by the example of Italy, the New Guard will create in Australia a new spirit in the people.”:137,161 On his return from a 1933 European tour, he wrote The New Road which favoured Italian corporatism. He also adopted the symbolism of bodyguards, escorts, uniforms, and the Nazi salute.
Also within the New Guard were splinter groups like the Fascist Legion whose militancy worried even Campbell. Legion members wore Ku Klux Klan style gowns and hoods at meetings to guarantee anonymity. Besides investigating disloyalty and laxity within the New Guard, they engaged in actions like a home invasion to bash militant unionist Jock Garden, and were reported to be planning kidnaps and raids upon police arms stores. Such activities contributed to a “stampede” of resignations which began even before Lang’s dismissal.
Was NSW close to civil war by May 1932? Certainly political life was fearful, angry, close to violence. Many victims of the Great Depression looked desperately for better answers. While advocates of system change included revolutionary socialists, there seems little basis for the contemporary hysteria about insurrection from that source. A much more credible threat was penetration of the labour movement whose other elements at times barely survived this challenge. But it was rather the self-styled guardians who seemed poised for a coup. Andrew Moore suggests that Campbell (and even more the Fascist Legion) were ready for an effort to fulfil their fascist potential. But he also argues that the New Guard lacked the capability to succeed in that attempt.
By mid 1932 the New Guard was largely a spent force, though it drifted into the mid 1930s and even enjoyed an after life as a bogey in the early 1970s. The rapid fall away of New Guard membership with Lang’s dismissal does seem indirect evidence of a lack of support for a fascist agenda. Yet there is no way to know what events might have been sparked if a coup had been attempted in so tense a context. Fortunately, it was not. Characteristically, the Old Guard waited, preferring first a heavy-handed attempt to influence Governor Game to dismiss the Lang Government. Eventually, after cautious and open consideration, Game’s timely intervention did release the tension. Although his polarising style had been a major cause of the crisis, Lang also contributed to the resolution of the crisis. He apparently considered pre-emptive action to prevent his dismissal, but refrained. Nor did he have any desire for armed struggle in the streets. Instead he fought on through traditional parliamentary methods. Perhaps he believed he would at least keep control within NSW Labor, to return triumphant as he had after defeat in1927.
On May 13 the UAP leader, Bertram Stevens, was sworn in as a caretaker Premier. A general election was held on June 11 which overwhelmingly rejected Lang’s bid to regain office. Tension between Commonwealth and NSW law enforcement authorities, which had seemed on the verge of confrontation, cooled down. The story of the rise and decline of the New Guard suggests that, for the citizens of NSW, the habits of living with liberal democratic institutions remained entrenched.:238
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