April 2009

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Paul Keating & Jack Lang

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

More than 30 years after his dismissal from office, ‘The Big Fella' was little more than a historical footnote, a near-forgotten figure. But to the 18-year-old Paul Keating, he was a living legend, a man still worth knowing.

A self-taught self-improver of the old school, Jack Lang worked his way up from a paperboy and horse-bus driver to lower-middle-class respectability as an auctioneer and real-estate agent. Elected premier of New South Wales in 1925, he introduced widows' pensions and workers' compensation, earning the undying enmity of the Establishment. Returning to power in 1930, he found himself neck-deep in a world financial crisis that had thrown 20% of the state's breadwinners out of work, a level comparable to Weimar Germany. His solution - a stimulus package funded by deferring interest payments to British banks - was slapped down by the federal Labor government. Facing confiscation of NSW's deposits at the Commonwealth Bank, he tried to run the state on a cash basis, providing the pretext for his sacking by the King's representative, a retired English air-force officer.

A towering presence and a snarling, powerful orator with "more followers than friends", Lang remained a polarising presence in the ALP until he was finally expelled, in 1943.

Born the following year, Paul Keating was raised in a household where Lang's name cut no small ice. In 1962, a junior clerk at Sydney County Council and tyro apparatchik, young Paul visited the spartan Nithsdale Street office of the Century, Lang's one-man newspaper, and introduced himself to the ancient, near-deaf giant.

A creature of habit, Lang still wore a detachable collar and cuffs, a waistcoat with a gold watch chain and braces. Thrusting his massive jaw forward and banging on the table, "he talked at you."

Mr Keating, as Lang called him, was so impressed that he came back. Twice a week for the next eight years, he helped the old warhorse with the proofs of his paper and soaked up Labor lore, tales of treason and loyalty larded with Lang's take-no-prisoners philosophy.

A quick study, the disciple was soon throwing his own political punches. At 25, he was a federal MP. In 1971, as the Member for Blaxland, he finally succeeded in having Lang, then 95, readmitted to the Labor Party.

Lang died in 1975, shortly before another dismissal swept Keating out of his first ministry.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: April 2009
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