The Energy of Playford

Posted by on October 28, 2018 in General, Issue 89 Oct 2018

The Energy of Playford

David Faber

Australia, and with it South Australia, stands at an historical crossroads of socioeconomic development. With climate change a pressing peril, the need to rely on emerging renewable energy technologies for new, lower cost employment in sunrise industries is imperative. Only innovative thinking superseding outdated dogma and vested interests will suffice. The weakness of the defunct National Energy Guarantee (NEG) was the unnecessary reliance it placed on vested interests seeking to perpetuate investment in old coal technology which fuels global warming. Fortunately, a tendency to innovative thinking, while not unalloyed, has been one of the strengths of South Australian society since colonisation by imperial utopians in 1836.
Progressive people don’t care who does the right thing by the public interest so long as it is done and done pronto. It is possible that South Australia’s Liberal Environment Minister, Dan van Holst Pellekaan, being a conviction politician with a scientific, engineering background, understands all this. The first party to implement an energy policy which is not in denial about global warming will lay the foundation for an electoral ascendancy for a couple of terms at least. Pellekaan has indicated, in response to the parliamentary implosion of Federal Liberals over just this question, that the NEG will have to be refurbished by the States if the State Coalition parties are to save Liberal-conservatism’s scorched bacon.
Where energy questions are concerned, the figure of Sir Thomas Playford (1896-1981) is inspirational. As SA State Premier he broke the mould of Liberal small-State ideology to intervene in the energy sector immediately after the Second World War. He thus set a peripheral economy on a course of State fostered industrialisation and diversification. The legend that he single-handedly diversified the State economy and guaranteed generations of prosperity independently of international and national conditions is exaggerated. But he achieved a great deal through State economic leadership and nationalisation of the conservative and unenterprising Board of the Adelaide Electricity Supply Co.
This was done in the teeth of resistance from his party and its old money, patrician constituents but with the support of the Labor Opposition. The tale of how he accomplished this in the public interest is instructive. It identifies factors to which recourse must likewise be had in the future. It is a story of more than regional significance at the current juncture, given that South Australia will in time benefit from playing a leading national role in promoting the transformation of energy infrastructure on a low-cost renewable basis.
The crisis which faced Playford came when the AESC refused point blank to replace imported NSW coking coal. The supply of this had been interrupted during the War in part due to industrial strife. . Playford was sufficiently conservative, prejudiced and unfamiliar with the labour movement that he thought the strife, which did threaten South Australia’s interests however it was caused, was due to Communist union officials duping the miners. Indeed, his biographer, Stewart Cockburn, commits the historical howler of supposing that the Communist Party fomented unrest to sabotage the war effort in the name of the Nazi-Soviet Pact!
Labour historian Tom Sheridan, in analysing Cold War industrial relations, has found that such myths flew in the face of the fact that, if anything, the men `exploited’ Communists by voting to back them in to union office because of their superior work ethic as proletarian representatives. This was acknowledged at the time by Anti-communists like Santamaria and senior ALP exponents.
Be this as it may, Playford’s response was to practice class collaboration with South Australia’s constitutionally more moderate labour movement to mollify it, contributing to ongoing reduced wages and wage costs compared to interstate which were made palatable to labour given a lower cost of living and higher employment. As Clyde Cameron said, `he preferred to seduce us rather than raping us.’ This was the basis of a reasonably beautiful understanding which long endured between a labourist labour movement and a progressive conservative benevolent despot, as his biographer has hailed him. Of course, as MHA Frances Bedford has commented, he benefitted in this from the Playmander, which secured his rear. As an agrarian conservative he inherited the necessary mechanisms and sense of entitlement from the colonial era.

Playford recognized that natural monopolies of energy inputs were best organised as public utilities. Needing to prime recovery from the Great Depression if he was to relieve unemployment and stay in office, he was persuaded by the economic analysis of his Auditor General, `Bill” Wainwright. Wainwright argued for economic diversification through State fostered and led industrialization to alleviate South Australia’s excessive reliance on agrarian exports. He argued that the industrialised eastern States benefitted from national protectionism at the expense of South Australia, which paid for the associated costs in terms of the higher prices of consumer products and manufacturing items and inputs. He had an arguable point.
With his political future on the line, the practical and pragmatic Playford fully endorsed the reasoning of this fearless Keynesian public service advice, backing Wainwright to the hilt. Wainwright, who had a moderately unconventional economic education, was the theoretical father of postwar prosperity in SA. Playford was the entrepreneurial leader who implemented his vision. What is needed now in South Australia is more of the same leadership, animated by what President George Bush senior called `that vision thing.’

Playford wished to fuel his policies by exploiting the undeveloped resource of the Leigh Creek reserves of low grade hard brown coal, which unlike softer coking coal burned at a higher temperature with little bitumen in its core. The AESC had long declined to take an interest in developing a commodity which did not suit its antiquated boilers which fed the steam to turbines. They refused to reinvest in specialised, new-fangled boilers capable of exploiting Leigh Creek coal,. Then they went out of their way to thumb their noses at Playford’s interventionism, buying brand spanking new old-fashioned boilers to replace those which were incapable of further operation. At this offense against the public interest, Playford pounced, carrying enough of his own party’s Members with him to drive nationalisation legislation through both Houses of the South Australian Parliament with delighted ALP support. The game was up for conservative resistance to the Playford and Wainwright dispensation.

One test of historical significance of past experience is its contemporary legacy. Both major political parties can lay some claim to different aspects of the Playford legacy of State intervention in the name of progressive conservative development. Playford was a ruthless operator when necessary. In the good sense of the term he was a principled Machiavellian, a Liberal Premier capable of enforcing what were effectively social democratic socioeconomic policies in the public interest with Labor parliamentary votes over the heads of most of his colleagues of conservative persuasion. The modern lesson is the political potential of entrepreneurial progressive energy policy. That is to develop new energy sources for pioneering development on an ecologically safer and socioeconomically savvy and less costly basis. It is available to all who have the vision and courage to seize it.

David Faber is an Adjunct Research Fellow at Flinders University

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