THOMAS PLAYFORD'S 26 YEARS (1938-65) AS SOUTH AUSTRALIAN PREMIER – an Australian record for a government head – are still affecting the state.
Playford transformed South Australia from a predominantly agricultural economy to a modern industrial state. But it was an industrial state built behind high tariff walls that have since been pulled down to make way for the globalised economy.
Playford’s protectionism only accords with his socialist moves such as nationalising the state’s electricity supply, bolstered the housing trust and making the state bank and savings bank officially government arms. He subsidised Holden’s expansion and lured companies like Philips and Uniroyal here with government help, plus the controlled incentives of cheap land and labour.
Playford’s term saw South Australia’s population grow from around 591,000 to more than a million. In 1937, production in the state’s factories was around £34 It had jumped to around £457 million when he left.
Whether Playford’s approach is called socialism or pragmatism, his overriding concern in dealing with his or the other side of politics was to advantage South Australia, especially against the bigger eastern states.
From a socially conservative background, Playford was not moved by middle-class demands for more government action on education, healthcare, the arts, environment and heritage. He remained committed to restrictive laws on alcohol, gambling and police powers. His handling of the Max Stuart murder case also dogged him at the end of his term.
GREAT GRANDFATHER A FUNDAMENTALIST MINISTER; GRANDFATHER A SOUTH AUSTRALIAN PREMIER
The first of five generations of Thomas Playfords arrived in South Australia in 1844. Having fathered a child by a local schoolteacher, Playford enlisted in the Life Guards in 1810, serving in Portugal and Spain 1812-13 and at the battle of Waterloo. He had no clearly defined early religious views, attending Church of England, Wesleyans and Dissenters services until, in the 1820s, he believed he saw visions and joined a Wesleyan Methodist society. Playford was deeply influenced by premillennialism, emphasising the imminent return of Christ. In 1837 joined Robert Aitken’s White’s Row Chapel in London, preaching his premillennial views. In 1837, he married his second wife Mary (his first wife had died), with Thomas the oldest of their seven children. They migrated to South Australia where Playford had bought a town acre in Adelaide seven years earlier. He bought land at Mitcham, where he farmed. He also preached at the Methodist New Connexion chapel in Hobson Place, Adelaide. Those who agreed with his teaching on the imminent second advent formed an independent congregation in 1848, as “believers in Christ with no other name but that of Christians”. From voluntary contributions, they built their chapel in Bentham Street, Adelaide, accommodating 400. Playford acted as pastor for the rest of his life. In 1849, he was a founding member of the Adelaide Benevolent and Strangers’ Friend Society, and early in his ministry he maintained close relations with the Baptists. He published several collections of “discourses” and a Christian Hymn Book, including his own compositions.
Thomas (“Honest Tom”) Playford II was elected to the South Australian parliament in 1868 representing the seat of Onkaparinga but his blunt manner led to defeat three years later. He returned in 1873 as Member for East Torrens and became Reforming Commissioner for Crown Lands and Immigration before losing and regaining his place in parliament in 1887. Playford had two terms (1887-89, 1890-92) as premier and treasurer. He is credited with South Australia’s first systematic tariff system and cutting the province’s debt, although he spent most of his second term in India. Charles Kingston made Playford treasurer in his liberal government in 1893. But, after a term as agent general in London, Playford returned to bring down the Kingston government over threats to the Legislative Council’s power. Playford helped plan the federation of the Australian Commonwealth (his suggested name) and draft the Australian Constitution. As a moderate protectionist, endorsed by the conservative Australasian National League (formerly National Defence League), Playford became a senator in 1901. Two years later, in Alfred Deakin’s government, Playford became leader of the government in the senate and vice president of the executive council. He was minister for defence from 1905 but defeated in the next year’s election, the first serving minister to suffer this fate. Playford made another unsuccessful attempt to get back into the senate at the 1910 federal election.
FROM 1938, TOM PLAYFORD MOVES FROM LAISSEZ FAIRE TO STRONG GOVERNMENT ROLE IN ECONOMY
As South Australian premier from 1938, Tom Playford changed his mind in opposing his predecesor Richard Butler's moves to transform the state's economy. Butler (1925-38) had eventually taken auditor general J.W. Wainwright’s advice to move South Australia's economy from a primary industries base by boosting manufacturing. To attract outside industrialists, Butler lowered company tax. He defeated the New South Wales government’s efforts to have the Port Pirie smelters move to Newcastle and Victoria’s attempts to take part of the motor-body industry. Butler secured alkali works at Port Adelaide, a cardboard factory in the south east region, and, while doubling the royalties BHP paid for each ton of iron ore it mined in the Middleback Ranges, he passed laws (1937) for a deal where the company would set up a blast furnace at Whyalla. Under the BHP Indenture Act, the government in return would build for pipeline to take River Murray water to Whyalla. Playford criticised what became the Morgan-to-Whyalla pipeline as a fantasy that should be “totally ruled out”. He also opposed creating the housing trust. Playford was more concerned at that stage to revive primary production and deregulate transport so farmers could produce to market more cheaply. As premier, Playford was converted to embracing Wainwright's strategy, with elements such as the pipeline and housing trust as key elements of it. Playford embraced it to the full extent of going against the ideology of his Liberal and Country League party.
Tom Playford, as state premier from 1938, had a rapid conversion to being in favour of industrialising the South Australia’s economy. This effort was boosted in a short time because of World War II. But Playford had to work hard in the late 1930s to get investments from interstate and overseas industrialists, such as British Tube Mills (Australia), to set up their plant in Adelaide, and for Hume Steel to build a pipe-making plant at Port Pirie. Playford successfully completed negotiations for these enterprises, started under previous premier Richard Butler, despite intense competition from the NSW and Victorian governments. British Tube Mills was a major industrial coup. Formed by Tube Investments (UK) and Stewarts & Lloyds (Australia), its plant at Kilburn, from 1939, was the only Australian factory making precision steel tubing for products such as hypodermic needles, milking machines, locomotives, golf clubs and bicycles. During World War II, it produced huge quantities of tubing for aircrafts, naval ships and guns, as well as anti-tank gun handles, and parts and gas cylinders for aircraft. Its workforce grew from 300 to 840. This workforce grew to 1500 after the war when British Tube Mills (Australia) was making steel tubing components for industrial and household needs: refrigerators, frame tubing, pram handles, golf shafts, spanners, tubular steel furniture and steam pipes. By 1946, the expanded Kilburn side covered more than 400,000 square feet. In 1969, British Tube Mills became a division of Tubemakers Australia, The Kilburn factory closed in 1993, with operations transferred to NSW.
The Housing Improvement Act, introduced to the South Australian parliament in 1940, was the first of several gestures by premier Tom Playford that would shock his conservative Liberal and Country League (LCL) colleagues – and the opposition Labor Party. In 1936, backbench MP Playford had voted against the South Australian Housing Trust being set up to provide low-cost rental homes for workers. As premier from 1938, Playford had increased funds for the trust that he realised was essential for low-cost industrial growth. By providing cheap housing, workers could accept lower salaries, keeping production costs down. His 1940 legislation extended the housing trust’s role accommodate pensioners and very poor people, and replace the slum-like “insanitary, old, crowded or obsolete dwellings” in central Adelaide with new buildings. The law forced landlords to provide a minimum standard of housing and enacted rent controls, At the time, many landlords had bought large numbers of low-quality dwellings and charged tenants exorbitant prices. The expanded role of the housing trust would undercut this rentier class. The Labor party was stunned that a conservative government was delivering a policy more left-wing than other Labor governments across Australia. Labor helped to pass the legislation that threatened the landlords who usually supported the LCL. By 1965, the housing trust had built 56,000 homes and more than 20 factories and had become the national leader in urban planning and development. During one 15-year period, trust rents weren't increased once despite inflation.
Tom Playford became South Australian premier in 1938 as head of a minority government with 13 independents holding the balance of power. These independents were dissatisfied rural members, elected in 1938 as an unintended consequence of the Liberal and Country League’s 1936 law change that created 39 single-member electorates, with a 2:1 or 26:13 ratio in favour of country over Adelaide. This 2:1 country bias was confirmed under Playford’s predecessor premier Richard Butler. But, because Playford didn’t do anything to fix the gerrymander, it became the "Playmander". Playford did bring in compulsory voting for the 1944 election, aimed at property owners and occupiers. Playford achieved majority government in 1941 and 1944 by shifting to the right on social issues. But, on economic issues, Playford had a harder task to keep country interests on his side. South Australia had been persistently in deficit as an agriculture-dominant state relying on commodity prices. The strategy, initiated by public servants and industrialists and adopted by premier/treasurers Butler and then Playford, aimed to overcome this. The Playford transformation wasn't achieved by total support from his own party but from the Labor side. Opening his 1950 election campaign, Labor Party leader Michael O’Halloran called Playford’s policies “more socialistic than Labor could ever hope to implement" and described Playford as “the best Labor premier South Australia ever had". Playford was enacting measures a Labor government could never get through the Legislative Council.
LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL LEADER COLLIER CUDMORE CALLS PREMIER TOM PLAYFORD A 'BOLSHEVIK'
Premier Tom Playford made the Savings Bank of South Australia – a statutory institution managed by trustees – a fully state-government-owned bank in 1945. This was a response to the federal Labor government move to formalise the Commonwealth Bank of Australia’s role as the nation’s central bank. Under this arrangement, the Savings Bank of South Australia had to lodge £8 million in a special reserve account with the Commonwealth Bank. By making the Savings Bank state owned, the Australian constitution exempted it from this payment. Playford also extracted an £8 million loan from the Commonwealth Bank to the South Australian Housing Trust at only 1% interest. The Savings Bank wasn't South Australia's first government-owned bank. In 1896, the State Bank of South Australia was started as the state government bank, in the wake of other Adelaide banks collapsing during 1890s land speculation. The role of a state government bank was resented by the private banks, especially in the 1920s when the State Bank of South Australia was empowered by the Gunn Labor government to provide 1000 homes for returned servicemen and the needy in the new suburb of Colonel Light Gardens. Playford increased the role of the State Bank and the bigger Savings Bank of South Australia. He used them was a key tool of his vision for South Australia’s rapid economic and industrial development, including financing Electricity Trust and the Housing Trust. The Savings Bank allowed people to deposit savings or borrow for mortgages, while the State Bank was used for larger projects.
An advocate for nuclear power, South Australian premier Tom Playford tried, in the 1950s, to have a nuclear reactor based in the state. But the Australian Atomic Energy Commission chose Lucas Heights, on Sydney’s outskirts, as the site. Playford pushed South Australian mining of uranium as enmeshing the state in the Cold War campaign that extended to having atomic bombs tested by the British in its far north and a defence industry input started with the weapons research establishment at Salisbury. Significant state government research money was directed to the uranium found at Radium Hill. When the Korean war started, Playford exploited the American government’s anxiety to get uranium for nuclear weapons. He secured “the easiest and most generous [deal] in the history of uranium negotiations”. The highest Cold War uranium buy by the Americans contributed £4 million toward infrastructure of Radium Hill mine. From 1954, almost a million tonnes of uranium, worth £16 million, was mined over seven years, with its product treated at the South Australian government-owned and -operated plant in Port Pirie. Playford funded the mines department’s wider exploration using sophisticated instruments and deep drills. Iron ore was found in the Middleback Range on Eyre Peninsula and Playford helped Santos find oil and natural gas. After Leigh Creek coal mining started in 1942, Playford dealt with complaints about its quality by recruiting engineers who modified industrial boilers and engine fireboxes, enabling the coal to be used on the railways and the new Port Augusta power stations.
PREMIER TOM PLAYFORD'S RELENTLESS PUSH TO INDUSTRIALISE AND DEVELOP STATE FLOWS ON
The Rupert Max Stuart murder case contributed to the fall of the premier Tom Playford’s long-standing South Australian government in 1965. Stuart's execution was set for July 7, 1959. Of letters to The Advertiser, 75% of writers favoured the sentence being commuted and petitions with thousands of signatures backed this. On the morning before, the first petition supporting the execution arrived by telegram with 334 signatures from Ceduna, Thevenard and districts. Playford’s executive council considered the petitions for 20 minutes before issuing a statement that the execution would go ahead next day. But Playford’s failure to curb discredited statements about Stuart’s English-speaking ability by police association president Paul Turner, who was involved in the case, prompted the Law Society of South Australia’s appeal to the Privy Council, putting a stay on the execution. Playford’s next move was to appoint a royal commission. Including chief justice Mellis Napier and justice Geoffrey Reed, both involved in the trial and appeals, as commissioners sparked a worldwide uproar, including bias claims from the president of Indian Bar Council, UK Liberal Party leader Jo Grimond and former British prime minister Clement Atlee. A clash between Mellis Napier and Jack Wentworth QC, over questioning of a detective, added to the front-page headlines from the commission. Labor Party MP Don Dunstan’s questions in parliament played a major role in Playford's decision to commute Stuart's sentence to life imprisonment, two months before the commission's findings, upholding the death sentence.
Young lawyer Don Dunstan was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly as the Labor member for Norwood in 1953. Dunstan was, from the start of his parliamentary career, a standout in his party and an excellent orator. Dunstan and Playford were principal antagonists. Playford, used to cooperating with Labor leaders, sensed Dunstan's promise and attempted to establish bonds. After late sessions of parliament, Playford would give Dunstan a lift home to George Street, Norwood, on the way to Norton Summit. Although Playford, according to Dunstan, talked to him in a paternalistic way, the two built mutual respect without forming the bond Playford had with earlier Laborites. Before Dunstan,, Playford would meet Labor leaders to discuss bills and ensure bipartisan support with little discord in the House of Assembly. The only belligerents were rural independent members. Even while the economic boom continued, the Liberal and Council League (LCL) vote gradually declined after 1941. The LCL never held more than 23 seats and only in Holdfast Bay area and the eastern crescent of Adelaide metropolitan area. It relied on preferences from minor parties and independents and the rural-biased “Playmander” electoral system. It did win most two-party-preferred votes, except for 1944 and 1953, until 1962. Because of the Playmander, Labor began directing its efforts at individual seats. It gained Norwood in 1953, followed by Murray, Millicent and Frome in 1956, and Mount Gambier and Wallaroo in 1957-8 byelections. Playford's dominance over the LCL also was blocking ideas and talent emerging.
TOM PLAYFORD SOWS SEEDS OF HIS DEMISE WITH ADELAIDE URBAN DEVELOPMENT
Long-time South Australian premier Tom Playford is remembered through the Playford Memorial Trust that awards $190,000 through more than scholarships each year to post-secondary school students in areas such as horticulture, mining, environmental management and aquaculture. Trust scholarships encourage high achieving South Australian students to do studies in areas of strategic importance to South Australia. The trust deed requires the scholarships to be in science, mathematics, agriculture, mining, environmental science, horticulture, marine science, geoscience and engineering It helps students from regional areas with the expenses of relocating to Adelaide, as well as providing first-year undergraduate scholarships; honours and fourth-year scholarships; and masters and PhD scholarships. Defence honours scholarships and defence and STEM internships are available through the department of state development and the Defence Teaming Centre. The trust offers TAFE study awards in areas related to horticulture, agriculture, mining and food technology. Playford Memorial Trust was set up more than 30 years ago, with the bipartisan support of the South Australian parliament. It is governed by a voluntary board and is administered with help from the department of the premier and cabinet. Scholarships funds come from sources including an investment fund, donations, state government grants and industry partnerships.
Tom Playford V carried his family’s tradition of church and politics into the 21st Century – but with some twists. As a Baptist minister, in 2002, the son of South Australia's longest-serving Liberal premier first ran as an Independent for Integrity in Parliament against the Liberal sitting member for the Adelaide Hills state seat of Kavel (previously held by another former Liberal premier, John Olsen). Playford polled 19% of votes. His repeat bid for Kavel was in the 2006 state election against Liberal Mark Goldsworthy. Playford scored 15% of votes, this time representing the Family First party that, he said, fitted with his values. He conceded “that this area is very strongly conservative … they are more loyal to the Liberal Party than the Liberal Party has been to them”. Playford returned to the political spotlight at the 2018 state election, featured in an advertisement endorsing Nick Xenophon and his SA Best party. He said in the advertisement that his "old dad" would likely have voted for SA Best because his father was honest and hard-working – a lot like Xenophon. Playford added that his father would have had trouble accepting money from poker machine operators – and that ruled out supporting the Liberal and Labor parties. Thomas Playford V made another switch in 2013 – from being a Baptist minister to accepting an invitation to be pastor of the Mount Torrens Community Uniting Church. His mother, Lorna Clark, was born in Mount Torrens and had spent her first 12 years in the town, living above the general store that her father owned.