Tom Playford as premier transformed South Australia from a predominantly agricultural economy to a modern industrial state

to protect South Australia's interests above all


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.



elected MP opposed to Richard Butler's push for industrialisation

The first Tom Playford's breakaway Christians build chapel in Bentham Street, Adelaide, in 1848

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 Playford II a protectionist South Australian premier; promoter of federation

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.

Tom Playford IV learns at 13 from taking his father's farm fruit and veg to East End markets

Thomas Playford IV, born in 1896 at Norton(‘s) Summit in the Adelaide Hills, described Adelaide’s East End fruit and vegetable markets as his university. At the age of 13, he left Norton’s Summit Public School to manage the family’s 34-acre farm when his father Tom (III) broke his leg. For six months, young Tom would leave a 11pm each Sunday to drive a horse-drawn trolley on a two-hour trek on steep and winding roads down to Adelaide’s wholesale morning markets on East Terrace, Adelaide. He learned a lot about honesty from the process of haggling over prices. When his father regained mobility, he left young Tom in charge of the farm. As a fruit grower, Tom Playford III had diverted from the path of his grandfather (a fundamentalist Christian pastor) and father (the South Australian premier 1887-89, 1890-92). He was regular Baptist churchgoer but his only political involvement was a short time of East Torrens Council. His more dominant wife Elizabeth was the local correspondent for The Advertiser, the church’s devout leader and treasurer, and a teacher. She influenced her son Tom’s relative puritanism and life-long choice to abstain from alcohol smoking, and gambling (although he didn’t attend church regularly like his family). As the one son with three sisters, young Tom was spoiled by his parents. At the one-room one-teacher school, he was an adept at learning but often argued with the teacher and was the first student to be caned there. Although he left school at 13, Playford continued to learn. He joined the local Norton Summit Literary Society, and took part in classes and debates. 

Teetotal in World War I, Tom Playford later insists on letting only ex Diggers drink at night

As a teetotal member of the 27th Battalion, Tom Playford was regularly assigned to picket duty, trying to keep order among drunken Australian soldiers also frequenting the brothels of Cairo in 1915. Playford served in World War I at Gallipoli for three months and on the western front, in the battles of Pozières, where he was promoted to corporal in 1916, the Somme and Flers. A German machine-gun bullet at Flers shattered when it hit his belt buckle, opening a large cavity in his chest and shredding his abdomen. Evacuated to England, he had many operations and, while convalescing, read English history. He rejoined his battalion in 1917, fighting at Passchendaele, Ville-sur-Ancre, Hamel and Amiens. He was made second lieutenant in 1919 and promoted later to lieutenant before returning to Adelaide. Playford suffered pain caused through life from the 30 pieces of shrapnel still in his body. As a member of the South Australian parliament in 1934, Playford succeeded with a private member’s bill allowing the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia to sell liquor in its clubs from 8am until 11pm except on Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. This was done, despite opposition from the premier and many others. Although he conceded that ex-servicemen’s evening gatherings needed drink, the drunkenness Playford had seen in Britain (1917-19) convinced him to oppose any easing of lawful access to alcohol for the poor. From 1935, he opposed all moves to extend hotel trading hours. Six o’clock closing of pubs remained law in South Australia until 1967.

Tom Playford stirs up 1933 South Australian politics from maiden speech in Assembly

Tom Playford burst onto the South Australian parliamentary scene in 1933, after a quiet post-war period as an orchardist and clearing land near his parents’ Adelaide Hills property where he built a home for Lorna Clark whom he married at Prospect Baptist Church in 1928. Playford did join the local branch of the new Liberal Federation and the Producers’ Fellowship Lodge of Freemasons at Ashton. Archie Cameron, parliamentary leader of the Country Party and Playford’s friend since they had fought together in France, persuaded Playford to stand successfully for the seat of Murray in House of Assembly at the 1933 state elections. Playford became part of the newly merged Liberal Federation and the State Country Party under premier Richard Layton Butler. He immediately became an "unusually insolent and disloyal" backbench MP.  Ignoring convention, he delivered his maiden speech during the address-in-reply debate on the parliament’s second sitting day. His laissez-faire anti-government theme targeted the Butler ministry’s policies on land settlement, employment and transport, ridiculed the incompetence of individuals on government boards such as the Employment Promotion Council. He argued that entrepreneurs who bungled their ventures had no claim to government money. He said that government was obliged to act with prudence when encouraging former servicemen to become farmers. Instead of being heard in the usual silence of a maiden speech, Playford’s kept being interrupted by angry interjections – from both sides of the house, including premier Butler.

Richard Butler's exit in 1938 sees Tom Playford as unanimous choice to be the next LCL premier

Richard Layton Butler resigned as South Australian premier in 1938 to contest the safe federal parliamentary seat of Wakefield, opening the way for Tom Playford to start his Australian record term of 26 years and 216 days as the state leader. Seven months earlier, Butler invited his troublesome backbencher Playford to join the cabinet ministry as commissioner of crown lands, minister of repatriation and minister of irrigation. During the previous five years, Playford had been the scourge of statutory corporations, country hospitals, the police force and bureaucrats. Playford attacked ministers who played the parish pump or delayed answers to questions. He closely studied the auditor general’s annual reports. He opposed the spending money on public works simply to relieve unemployment. Playford criticised Butler for persisting with South Australia afforestation, saying it could never compete with cheaper Scandinavian timber. He also denounced subsidising dairying in districts where it was uneconomic. When Playford agreed with government initiatives, he proved a valuable ally in debate as an effective, though not polished, speaker. When Bulter resigned, the Liberal and Country League parliamentarians unanimously elected Playford as leader, and he became premier, treasurer and  immigration minister. Playford was regarded as a compromise transition candidate who appealed to urban voters and the rural sector unhappy with Bulte's moves towards industrialisation of the South Australian economy.


uses gerrymander and Labor's backing to nationalise key bodies

J. W. Wainwright key to new strategy by South Australia under Butler, Playford as premiers

J. W. (John William) Wainwright, South Australia’s auditor general 1934-45, is credited with strongly influencing premier Richard Butler and then Tom Playford in the way to change the state’s economic strategy away from a primary industries base. Wainwright, a Naracoorte-born former schoolteacher son of a head teacher, he rose from 1908 as one of the more educated members of the South Australian public service by completing an Adelaide University BA degree and accountancy course at evening school.  The university later employed Wainwright as a part-time lecturer in public finance. Parallel to Wainright's rise in the public service, Leslie Melville had been appointed South Australia’s public actuary, at the age of only 22, in 1924, and became foundation professor of economics at Adelaide University five years later. Melville and Wainwright wrote a 1929 pamphlet,The Economic Effects of Federation, highlighting the shift in balance between commonwealth and state powers, with tariff policies disadvantaging states (such as South Australia) that produced the least-protected goods and relied most on exporting primary products. Wainwright became a general economic adviser to South Australian government. His consistent Keynesian approach, with effective business regulation, advocated a whole-of-industry approach by the government, including price controls to preserve cost cutting as an incentive when competing for enterprises with other states. Wainwright also saw public enterprises as efficient as private ones, as long as they were run by a non-executive board of directors of experts and laypersons

Edward Holden/Frank Perry back strategy for industrialisation of South Australia in 1930s

South Australian business leaders Edward Holden and Frank Perry joined state auditor-general J. W. Wainwright in persuading the Liberal Country League government in the 1930s/40s to shift its focus from supporting primary industry to promoting secondary industry. They helped refine strategies to attract manufacturers to South Australia. These policies were put in place largely by premier Richard Butler and fully adopted by Thomas Playford. Edward Holden, who joined the family firmin 1906, oversaw it expanding into highly automated mass motor-body production. With General Motors, Holden's dominated the Australian car market. In 1929, the company employed 3400 workers and was the British empire's biggest car body builder  – before the Depression hit and, with General Motors rejecting a merger, Holden was replaced in the managing director but remained board chairman until 1947. Frank Perry joined his uncle Samuel’s foundry business in 1903. After buying James Martin & Co. works at Gawler in 1915, it became South Australia’s biggest engineering firm, with Frank as chairman and managing director from 1930 when his uncle died. Perry and Holden went into politics in the 1930s: Holden in the Legislative Council (1935-47) and Perry representing East Torrens in the House of Assembly (1933-38). They continued leading the state's industrialisation as president (Holden) and deputy president (Perry) of the chamber of manufactures. They formed a secondary industries committee in 1935, replaced in 1937 with the Industries Assistance Corporation. 

Tom Playford opposed as MP to Richard Butler's push for more industry, pipeline, housing trust

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's hard work wins British Tube Mills factory in 1939 over interstate bids

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.


Tom Playford gets more wartime industry from Labor's John Curtin than Robert Menzies

South Australian premier Tom Playford has more success in getting World War II federal industry spending by dealing with Labor prime minister John Curtin than his predecessor, the conservative Robert Menzies. In 1939-41, Playford regularly complained that South Australia, with nearly 9%of the nation’s population, was receiving less than 0.1% of the extra millions of pounds the federal government was spending on defence – nearly all going to Victoria and NSW. Playford stressed the strategic advantage of South Australia’s industrial towns: further from the open sea than in other states, they were less vulnerable to surprise attacks from carrier-borne aircraft. Prime minister Menzies ignored these appeals but John Curtin grasped the point when he took over. During the war, munitions works began operating at Hendon, Finsbury, Salisbury and country centres. Adelaide’s motor-body works won contracts to make parts for Royal Australian Air Force planes. BHP was commissioned to manufacture shells and to build corvettes for the Royal Australian Navy at the Whyalla shipyards, with its adjacent steel blast furnace. Australian Cotton Textile Industries opened a Woodville factory and other plants making armed-forces clothing were set up at Wallaroo, Clare, Port Pirie, Mount Gambier and Lobethal, with flaxmills at Morphett Vale and the mid north. British Tube Mills plant at Kilburn supplied huge amounts of precision steel components to the armed forces. Adding to precision expertise, Australia’s first metrology centre was introduced at the South Australian government railway workshops at Islington.

Tom Playford legendary, notorious for winning big slice of federal funds for South Australia

South Australian premier Tom Playford became a legend in his home state and notorious in the rest of the country for the financial support he won from federal Liberal and Labor federal governments. Playord made constant personal effort to achieve this, by numerous short visits to Canberra without any publicity, and writing thousands of letters, sometimes two or three a week, to prime ministers, on many subjects. Intense and unconventional, Playford was a "tough-minded bargainer: he is a shrewd one as well, aided by a retentive memory and the apparently guileless manner of an orchardist’s tactics”. Playford also was helped by having a disproportionate South Australians, Liberal and Labor, in the federal ministry. He received special support from South Australians George McLeay and Philip McBride in the cabinet. Most publicised aspect were Playford’s dealings with the Commonwealth at premiers’ conferences and Australian Loan Council meetings, often emerging with more than his state’s fair share of the national cake. Credit for this also was due to South Australian government under treasurers Fred Drew (1946-60) and Gilbert Seaman (from 1960) who were usually better prepared than other states' bureaucrats. Conservative prime minister Robert Menzies, reluctant to meet Playford around World War II, complained and complimented him as not knowing “intellectual honesty if he met it on the end of a pitch fork but he does it all for South Australia, not for himself, so I forgive him”. Playford gained national repute as “a good South Australian but a very bad Australian”. Playford remained unrepentant

Tom Playford plays high court card in extracting maximum federal funds for South Australia

Tom Playford, as South Australian premier, made full use of the threat of taking the Australian government to the high court to challenge the federal government powers over the states. Playford was unhappy when the high court allowed John Curtin’s federal Labor government in 1942 to gain exclusive powers to levy income tax. Playford believed this rendered the states “completely subservient”. But, even before that, Playford was extracting the most from the federal purse. In the 1936 deal with previous South Australian premier Richard Butler, BHP agreed to pay two shillings per 1000 gallons for water delivered to Whyalla via the Morgan pipeline. To encourage BHP to speed construction, Playford let it have water for half that price but charged Canberra five times as much for water from the same pipeline for the Commonwealth Railways at Port Augusta. When the communists' victory in China left new locomotives ordered by General Chiang-Kai-shek on the commonwealth’s hands, Playford agreed to take 10 at £30,000 each but persuaded the federal government to pay to convert them to 5 ft 3 ins gauge and ship them to Adelaide. In 1958, Playford’s threat to take the federal government to the high court led to South Australia getting more compensation under the 1915 River Murray Waters Agreement for loss of water from the Snowy River going to NSW and Victoria. He also went to the high court to have Canberra pay half of standardising the Broken Hill-Port Pirie line guage. The high court dismissed his claim but Playford manoeuvred prime minister Robert Menzies into paying the whole cost.

Premier Tom Playford in 1940 shocks LCL MPs – and Labor – with law to improve workers' homes

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.

Labor supports premier Tom Playford in passing its mission-impossible 'socialist' policy agenda

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.


nationalising the savings bank, electricity supply and much more

Government sawmill at Nangwarry among first of Tom Playford's forays into his state socialism

Forestry was another sector where Tom Playford as South Australian premier recanted views expressed as a troublesome government backbencher. Just as he'd voted against starting the South Australian Housing Trust, backbencher Playford criticised his own government, led by Richard Butler, for starting pine plantations and setting up a sawmill, in 1931, at Mount Burr in the south east. He argued South Australia couldn’t compete against Baltic timber imports. World War II ended these imports and Playford more than ended his hostility to South Australian forestry. In 1940, he presided over a second government-owned sawmill opening at Nangwarry in the south east. Under Geoffrey Rodger, conservator of forests, South Australia met wartime demands and emerged with good prospects as a high-grade softwood lumber came from maturing pine plantations. Playford made later “socialistic” forays into forestry by building and operating, from 1958, the huge Mount Gambier State Sawmill. This mill opened to absorb plantation timber available beyond the capacity of the Cellulose Australia mill, opened in 1941. The Playford government also bought a big stake in this mill. Playford state socialism extended into other rural areas. His government built the extraordinary dog fence (1946-47) spanning 2,200 km of South Australia. Smaller farmers sold land to the government under the Marginal Lands Act 1940 for it to be reallocated to larger neighbours. The government compulsorily bought land for soldier-settlement farms. The first soldier-settler farmhouse was built by housing trust contractors at Mingbool in 1947.

Tom Playford uses the government's State Bank/Savings Bank to develop South Australia

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.

Labor's Ben Chifley happy to help Tom Playford nationalise Adelaide Electricity

Premier Tom Playford’s showdown with Adelaide Electricity Supply Company, South Australia’s near-monopoly power generator and retailer, began with industrial strife in the early 1940s at New South Wales coal mines. South Australian completely relied on black coal from these inefficient mines. Because Adelaide Electricity was reluctant to build up coal reserves, Playford secured eight months supply before it dwindled and he had to resort to bringing in South African coal. As an alternative, Playford advocated using brown coal from South Australia’s dormant Leigh Creek mine. State and federal money went into reviving the mine and town infrastructure and it started producing brown coal in 1944. Adelaide Electricity responded by buying boilers that could only use black coal. The company showed signs of relenting in its conflict with Playford but, in 1945, he called a royal commission that recommended Adelaide Electricity be nationalised. A few months later, heavy strikes in NSW forced factory shutdowns in South Australia. When Playford, leading the only conservative government at that time in Australia, asked the Labor prime minister Chifley for funds to nationalise Adelaide Electricity, he was greeted with glee. On October 11, 1945, Playford presented a bill to the South Australian to nationalise the Adelaide Electricity and create the Electricity Trust of South Australia.An astonished Labor party backed the bill that passed the House of Assembly 29-6. In the conservative-dominated Legislative Council, only five members supported the nationalisation and the bill failed at that first attempt.

Vote for Leigh Creek and Electricity Trust of South Australia in 1946 upsets the conservatives

Tom Playford’s bill to take over Adelaide Electricity Supply Company and replace it with the government-owned Electricity Trust of South Australia passed the Legislative Council by a one-vote majority in 1946. It hinged on months of campaigning by Playford to change the mind of Liberal and Country League (LCL) member, Jack Bice. He voted in favour with five other LCL members and the only four Labor council members. Other LCL members, fiercely for free enterprise over undue government intervention, tried to water the bill down to allow government control of Adelaide Electricity for only a brief time.The decision to nationalise Adelaide Electricity and develop Leigh Creek proved prescient. In 1947, mines in New South Wales were again crippled by strikes and a worse one, in 1949, forced prime minister Ben Chifley to send in the armed forces to extract coal. While the other states suffered industrial power rationing, reduced factory output and unemployment, South Australia escaped as the miners at Leigh Creek worked around the clock. Within four years, the mine was operating at a surplus. From 1947, the mine’s output rose tenfold to almost two million tons a year. Transport infrastructure was improved, European immigrant workers were recruited and twin power plants at Port Augusta completed in 1960. The new plants only used Leigh Creek coal and, by 1970, the whole state was self-sufficient in electricity. The electricity nationalisation gave Playford enduring control over his party but it angered some staunch LCL conservatives who refused to talk to him for a long time.

Tom Playford cultivates cooperation from unions and Labor in the push for state development

Premier Tom Playford courted South Australian trade union leaders who sought better benefits for their members rather than radical action. In the 1940s, Clyde Cameron of the Australian Workers’ Union, in return for being secretly authorised to certify who was suitable to be employed at Leigh Creek, ensured no members of the militant Miners’ Federation of Australia got a job there. Albert Thompson of the Australasian Society of Engineers arranged regular meetings at the Trades Hall for South Australia’s auditor general J. W. Wainwright, architect of the state’s new industrial strategy, to brief union organisers on how they could help the government’s plans in exchange for improved conditions. Playford had a comfortable relationship with Labor parliamentary opposition leader Mick O’Halloran (1949-60) that included cosy private deals and weekly dinner meetings to discuss state development. As Playford had more opposition from his Liberal and Country League colleagues in the Legislative Council than Labor, O'Halloran was often described as the premier's “junior partner". Playford called Labor “our opposition”, in contrast to opponents in his own party whom described as “critical without being helpful”. This cooperative nature of South Australian party politics didn’t change until Don Dunstan’s prominence in the Labor party during the late 1950s. Even then, Playford wasn’t criticised for his economics but for his government's comparatively low expenditure on public services such as education and healthcare.

Big American deal for Radium Hill uranium as pro-nuke Tom Playford cashes in on Cold War

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.


but social changes in South Australia in 1960s work against him

Tom Playford, the jovial despot, uses alternative cabinet of bureaucrats and business leaders

Premier Tom Playford’s informal and jovial style masked his personal control of running the government. When Playford took office in 1938, there was no premier’s department. He operated from his treasury department where his advisers were career public servants. Tall and portly, Playford dominated his cabinet ministers, even physically, by resorting to horseplay wrestling with anyone who disagreed with him. Biographers have described Playford as a “benevolent despot”, “shrewd, persistent and persuasive ... ruthless and cunning”. He often made deals with interstate and overseas industrialists before informing his ministers. Delegations seeking funds preferred to see Playford rather than relevant ministers because, as treasurer, he controlled finances. Government ministers such As Lyell McEwin, R. J. Rudall and George Jenkins were capable but Playford’s personalised style allowed him to set up an alternative of valued public servants and business leaders. One of Playford’s most valued public servants was Alex Ramsay, the South Australian Housing Trust general manager. The trust became a powerful authority but run on Playford style's: informal, accessible and cost conscious. Playford took that informality statewide and his profile was bolstered by The Advertiser newspaper under chairman and managing director Lloyd Dumas. Playford started weekly broadcasts on 5AD, The Advertiser group’s radio station, and then its television station, ADS7, from 1959. Television didn’t suit Playford’s style, especially against rising Labor party star Don Dunstan.

Tom Playford builds a manufacturing fortress with migration, price control and low wages

Premier Tom Playford efforts to lure manufacturing industries to South Australia saw factory worker numbers rise by 167.9% by 1965, with the highest value of secondary production per capita of all states. South Australia’s population between 1938 and 1965 almost doubled as it received a higher-than-average proportion of the migrants and refugees from Europe. Playford kept wartime price controls on rents, basic food, beer and electricity for many years after all the other states had abolished them. The aim was to keep workers with lower wages that attracted businessmen to set up industries. This persuaded Philips Electrical Industries of Australia to move a factory from NSW in 1947 and General Motors to give South Australia a share in making the Holden, at Elizabeth. Industrial disputes stayed far lower than other states and, in the 1950s, South Australia led the manufacture of whitegoods and TV sets. Car production became the state’s largest industry when Chrysler Australia began assembling Simca sedans and station wagons at Keswick (1959) and Valiants at Mile End (1962). Playford coaxed Chrysler to stay and expand at Tonsley Park where the housing trust helped install infrastructure, as it had at Elizabeth. When Playford left office, Holden and Chrysler employed around 11,000 workers – 11% of the state’s manufacturing workers. After earlier failure to lure a tyre factory to Adelaide, 1960s plans for Port Stanvac oil refinery, able to produce hydrocarbons, convinced Dunlop Rubber-Olympic and SA Rubber Mills (later Bridgestone Australia) to start operations.

Elizabeth crowns South Australian Housing Trust's dominant role in Playford era 1950s/60s

The South Australian Housing Trust’s dominating role in the era of premier Tom Playford was expressed in planning and building the Adelaide city of Elizabeth from the 1950s. The housing trust was a prime instrument in enabling the Playord’s postwar industrialisation push. By the 1960s, the trust had taken South Australia to the highest level of public housing ownership in Australia. The trust backed the industry strategy with affordable homes for Port Augusta workers at the new Commonwealth railway workshops and Electricity Trust of South Australia in the 1950s, for Whyalla’s expansion with steelworks and shipyards, and Mount Gambier’s forestry enterprises. The housing trust, run by influential Alex Ramsay from the modest Paringa Building in Hindley Street, Adelaide, for nearly 20 years, built Elizabeth on the British neighbourhood concept anticipating mostly English migrants for its 25,000 people. Elizabeth was unique among postwar suburban projects with lavish open space, thousands of planted trees, sewerage from the start and underground powerlines. Elizabeth became a model for public housing and town planning. Its town centre was followed by later Adelaide shopping centres with its department store, supermarket, mall and big off-street parking. The first neighbourhood of Elizabeth South, its Goodman Road shop and first factory (Pinnock Manufacturing), all built by the housing trust, opened in 1955-57. Employment was available at the weapons research establishment (WRE) but the main industry was General Motors-Holden’s car plant, with housing trust  infrastructure.

Premier Tom Playford's penny pinching helps South Australia escape mendicant state status

Government finances improved so dramatically under premier Tom Playford that in 1959 he could announce that South Australia was no longer one of the mendicant states needing special assistance from the commonwealth grants commission. This was helped by Playford’s notorious penny pinching. He recycled huts that had housed prisoners of war for use by schools and the university, He built spur lines to new factories but generally the state’s rail system was neglected under Playford’s preference for road transport. Playford spent proportionately less on libraries, hospitals and social welfare than other states. He believed prosperity would move most individuals to contribute toward services. The successful start, in 1960, of Adelaide Festival, without government funding, reinforced his view. But the pressure of population growth forced major spending on hospitals and schools. The crammed Royal Adelaide Hospital was extended, with the Queen Elizabeth (1954) at Woodville and Elizabeth’s Lyell McEwin (1959) hospitals added. Between 1947-58, South Australian schoolchildren rose by 110%. Adelaide Boys High (1951), Brighton High (1952), South Road Primary (1952) led a flurry of new schools. Playford’s commitment to making Elizabeth a success is said to have overcome his reluctance to spend money on such luxuries as books and, in 1957, he opened the Elizabeth (South) library. Conversely, the State Library was also financed by a direct government grant to the Libraries Board and, in 1940-60, this increased from £24,000 to £426,200 –­ greater than for the next 20 years.

With churches' support, Tom Playford content with South Australia being the 'wowser' state

Premier Tom Playford was unfazed by South Australia being regarded, going into the 1960s, as the wowser state, although he was no longer a teetotaller himself – despite only drinking lemonade, water or milk in public. His anti-gambling side came through when he banned horse racing in 1942, claiming it was to control wartime manpower. The ban was lifted in 1943. Protestant church leaders, who believed Playford was “on their side”, remained a vigorous pressure group for “moral and social wellbeing” through legislation. In 1940, Playford ended 65 years of secular education by allowing clergy to conduct weekly religious instruction in government schools. In 1947, teachers were themselves permitted to conduct these sessions. Playford marked Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 by presenting a copy of the New Testament to every South Australian schoolchild. The conservatism of Playford and the Liberal and Country League stood by strong police powers, with “no loitering” laws and gambling restricted. It didn’t match a changing South Australian society. There was dissatisfaction with curbs on drinking hours. The constituents who loudly demanded changes were mostly immigrants, used to freer conditions in their original countries. The Labor party promised changed social legislation. Playford had no interest in this and he didn’t budge at the fatal 1965 election. He campaigned on a strong economy with incomes increasing.

Premier Tom Playford damaged by handling of Rupert Max Stuart royal commission in 1959

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.

Pro-development Tom Playford shows little regard for built heritage or the performance arts

The utilitarian South Australian premier Tom Playford had no interest in the “frills not fundamentals” and “non-productive” arts and heritage – issues that concerned the emerging middle-class. Playford was mocked for his "philistinism", with the interstate newspaper The Nation declaring that the premier “draws his orchard spray gun at the mention of the word ‘culture’ ”. The critics also were on Playford’s Liberal and Country League (LCL) side of politics. Arthur Rymill, LCL member of the Lesiglative Council, failed to get funds from Playford to save the deteriorating Theatre Royal in Hindley Street, Adelaide, from being demolished. After Adelaide City Council rezoned much of the city centre from residential to commercial, in 1955, many old houses and the Exhibition Building on North Terrace were pulled down. Playford rebuffed pleas to preserve the city’s historic character. He claimed many of the buildings being razed were substandard. The Adelaide Festival, Australian Dance Theatre and State Theatre Company started in the 1960s with minimal government funding. Playford finally agrees to give money to build Adelaide Festival Centre. While Playford used government powers for price controls to restrain living costs and attract industrial workers to South Australia, he was reluctant to bring in consumer protection laws. He was opposed to compulsory pasteurisation and other milk standards, wary of offending his rural support. Playford also held back of regulating tradesmen such as builders, electricians and plumbers – seen as coming from his enthusiasm as a do-it-yourself handyman.

Education exposes South Australian premier Tom Playford as out of step with the changing times

Education was an aspect of South Australia that exposed premier Tom Playford as out of step with a changing society. Fewer than 1% of the state’s population had university degrees when Playford left office in the mid 1960s. But university attendance had more than tripled, and secondary and technical school enrolments rose five times, far ahead of the 77% population growth during his time. Although government spending on education increased from 10% to 17% during 1945-59, class sizes increased as insufficient new teachers graduated. The premier's education policy was criticised as too conservative. He didn’t allow languages other than English to be taught: "English is good enough". University academics and public examinations board were rejected in calls for biology to be a subject and for a broader senior high school curriculum. In 1963, the minimum school leaving age was raised to 15 but still lower than most Australian states. The premier was suspicious of Adelaide University and tertiary education generally. He thought its scientific research wasn’t practical. The antipathy originated from Playford's days as a backbencher when he complained to the university about a lecture by a political science professor about Marxism. His outspokenness about political curricula angered academics, with one describing Playford as “an uneducated country colonial”. Playford doubled the annual grant to Adelaide University in 1949 but he opposed a second university. Schoolteachers were increasingly active politically. Many became Labor supporters and played a part in Playford’s downfall.

Don Dunstan's election to Norwood in 1953 changes dynamics of Tom Playford and Labor

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.


his state socialism endures but state capitalism gradually wilts 

Tom Playford defeated in 1965 poll after middle-class social change overtakes rural bias

Premier Tom Playford went into the 1965 South Australian elections confident of building on his 1962 result. Labor was continuing to concentrate on individual seats, particularly Barossa, where northern Adelaide urban sprawl was overflowing into a rural and conservative electorate, and Glenelg, a younger generation of professionals and their families were settling. Both seats fell to Labor with big swings and the Liberal and Country League (LCL) lost power for the first time in 35 years. In seats contested by both parties, Labor led the primary vote 52.7% to 43.3%. Playford had been premier for 26 years and 126 days. He continued to lead the LCL opposition for one and a half years. But he'd become less assured in parliament before the election, especially under attack from Don Dunstan who particularly targeted the Playmander electoral rural bias. When Frank Walsh’s Labor government arranged a plebiscite to approve a state lottery, Playford argued that “one does not put poison into the hands of children”. The 71% “Yes” vote devastated him. Playford hadn’t adjusted to social changes he’d created with urban development and middle-class demands in education, public healthcare, the arts, environment and heritage. Other factors such as declining church attendance since the 1950s went against him. Playford retired before the 1968 election. Steele Hall, a small farmer like Playford, led the LCL to victory at the election with the Playmander still in place. Playford hadn’t favoured a successor. He retired, declaring that “I couldn't cope with the change in the attitudes of some MPs, even some in the highest places." 

Tom Playford retires on a record of integrity, thrift and putting South Australia first always

Tom Playford retired from South Australian parliament with a pension of $72 a week. He’d resisted higher pensions to ministers or long-serving MPs throughout his time as premier (1938-65). His main assets at retirement were the orchard he’d inherited from his father, his house and a 1963-model Holden car. The Playmander voting system aside, Playford’s premiership was noted for integrity, with no complaints of corruption or government largesse.  Playford forbad his ministers from sitting on the board of directors of public companies or owning shares. In retirement, he returned to his Norton Summit orchard and orchid growing but kept his interest in South Australian politics without giving public opinions. He was consulted in private by Liberals and his closeness to Labor figures didn’t end either, offering advice to their South Australian ministers. In line with his South Australia-first repute, Playford also privately lobbied the Liberal government in Canberra on behalf of state Labor for more infrastructure funding. In 1977, when Don Dunstan celebrated his 50th birthday party, Playford was the only Liberal invited. Playford served on boards, notably the electricity trust and housing trust. This also created some difficulties for the other board members, reluctant to disagree with their former boss, even when he stumbled from lack of scientific knowledge. But Playford’s legendary thrift didn’t stop. He was constantly forcing the trusts to use cost-saving methods and old vehicles for their work. This extended to his family property. He vigorously opposed his son's plan to install a new irrigation system in the orchard.

Government controls and enterprises used by Tom Playford in his whole-of-state push

Tom Playford (South Australia premier 1938-65) died from a long heart condition in 1981. After his state funeral at Flinders Street Baptist Church, thousands watched the procession to Norton Summit cemetery where he was buried with his forebears in a grave inscribed: “A good man who did good things”. Playford who'd been knighted in 1957 via Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies, had, as long-time opponent Don Dunstan acknowledged, “worked tirelessly and effectively for the good of the state as he saw it.” The physical legacy of Playford’s timeis the infrastructure of government enterprises such as the South Australian Housing Trust and Electricity Trust of South Australia. Playford has no qualms about using government powers such as post-World War II price controls.  This was all part of his development drive – overdrive in instances such as preserving heritage. Playford was a zealous convert to a whole-of-state approach by South Australia to assert itself against bigger eastern states. Prime movers in this approach were public servants: auditor general J. W. Wainwright, guilding light of Playford’s industrialisation strategy, and housing trust general manager Alex Ramsay. They were involved in a peculiarly South Australian movement called Common Cause during World War II. It brought together unlikely bedfellows such as communist secretary of the Gasworkers Union, Tom Garland, and St Peter’s College headmaster, the Rev. Guy Pentreath, to urge a united “whole concentration” on “service to the nation”. Playford applied that to South Australia in its peacetime challenges.

General Motors-Holden in 2017 the last of big manufacturers from Playford era to leave

When Tom Playford stepped down as premier in 1965, South Australia's population had doubled from 600,000 in the late 1930s to 1.1 million, the highest growth rate among the states. The economy and personal wealth increased at the same rate, second only to Victoria. During Playford's 27 years in power, jobs in manufacturing in South Australia increased by 173%. Its share of Australia's manufacturing increased from 7.7% to 9.2%. But Playford has been criticised for not diversifying secondary industries enough, relying too much on car making with Holden and Chrysler making up 15% of the economy. The lowering of Australian import tariffs in the 1980s severely exposed the Australian car industry and other manufacturing. General Motors-Holden plant at Elizabeth, in 2017, was the last of a list of big manufacturers lost by South Australia from the Playford era: British Tube Mills, Bridgestone Australia, Chrysler Australia (followed by Mitsubishi car makers), Phillips Industries and more. The other criticism was that Playford had concentrated too much on attracting overseas and interstate companies. But South Australian-born companies also continued to be vulnerable to economies of scale from interstate. Industrial giant Adelaide Steamship was a prime example of being wiped out by the 1980s corporate excesses by outside forces. Even in 1966, a year after the death of Frank Perry, one of Playford’s influential advisers on industrialisation, Perry Engineering merged with Melbourne's Johns and Waygood Holdings. In the end, Playford couldn’t control state capitalism as much as state socialism. 

Playford Memorial Trust scholarships look into strategic industries for South Australia

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.

Thomas Playford V stands against Liberals; goes from Baptist to a Uniting church minister

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.

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