The New Guard

Originally published in Workers Online 2003:

Andrew Moore

Who were Australia’s fascists in the 1930s and was John Howard’s father in the New Guard? Labour historian, Andrew Moore, uncovers some surprising information about Australia’s fascist past.

The New Guard, Australia’s equivalent of Hitler’s Nazis, had a few well-known names. Many would recognise the name of Frank de Groot, the antiques dealer and New Guardsmen who slashed the opening ribbon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1932, depriving Premier Jack Lang of the kudos. At a pinch, some might remember the name of Eric Campbell, the leader of the New Guard.

In the 1930s Colonel Campbell, a Sydney solicitor, was Australia’s most enthusiastic homegrown fascist. He visited Germany, Italy and Britain and talked to fascist leaders there. He got on particularly well with Sir Oswald Mosley of the British Union of Fascists. Campbell was lucky not to have been interned during World War Two.

But who comprised the rank and file of the New Guard? Were some workers in the movement? Are there any interesting names amidst the piles of paper assembled by the New South Wales police about the movement?

While the New Guard was largely a middle-class phenomenon, a significant number of workers was also involved. A substantial link was via the Railway Service Association, the so-called ‘loyalist’ union, formed among the 1917 scabs. On 31 March 1931 Bill Fletcher, the RSA’s secretary, attended a meeting of the General Council of the New Guard. According to the minutes of the meeting Fletcher promised that ‘about 90% of his union would…stand behind the New Guard should trouble arise and maintain law and order in respect to maintaining the railway service.’ With more than 5000 members the RSA was a substantial foothold in the working class for the New Guard.

Perhaps around 60,000 males (plus a small number of women in an auxiliary) passed through its ranks in 1931 and 1932. Therefore it is well nigh impossible to assemble a detailed social profile of membership. But a break down of individual groups- for instance the branch in the Sydney suburb of Five Dock, then a semi-rural enclave on the edge of the city, proves to be instructive. In his memoirs Eric Campbell specifically extolled the working-class character of this group. At one meeting at Five Dock Campbell recalls he asked for a show of hands as to the number of workers and trade unionists present. The ‘ready response showed over 60 per cent’, Campbell claimed. For the organisation as a whole, at least 50 per cent, Campbell surmised, were trade unionists. For Campbell this reflected the fact that ‘the New Guard valued a man for what he was and not how he voted, and from my experience the “workers” made as good a contribution to the movement as the best of them’.

Apart from being rather pompous, Campbell’s memoirs (The Rallying Point) are also unreliable. Sixty per cent of workers is almost certainly an exaggeration. An analysis of the social background of the Five Dock group completed by former UWS honours student Jean O’Mara, suggests that the overall number of workers was about eighteen (18) per cent. Of a total of 304 members whose occupational status could be identified, there were seventeen labourers, eleven carpenters, eight plumbers, thirteen drivers and nine mechanics. Two railway workers who were victimised by the ARU because they were members of the New Guard- a minor cause celebre within the organisation- were members of the Five Dock locality. Still, even eighteen per cent of workers is surprisingly high and conflicts with the customary understanding that Premier Lang commanded undivided support from New South Wales workers.

Joseph Blumenthal, the Five Dock New Guard administrator, Jewish and a master painter, was unusually attentive to trade union issues. Members were advised to seek the support of ‘moderate and decent’ unionists within the ALP (presumably those other than Lang Labor) and the Australian Workers’ Union. In a tactic later employed by B.A. Santamaria and The Movement, Five Dock New Guardsmen who were also trade unionists were encouraged to infiltrate their union branches, in order to:

receive definite instructions to act in concert. Get hold of rules and study same. Carefully note leading opponents. Group together and as occasions present themselves, move motions, dissent from chairman’s ruling, question constitutionality, make loud exclamations and frequent in support of their speakers, shout down and insult the opponents. Report back of progress.

Blumenthal was ambitious. His long-term goal was to sever the ALP’s connections with trade unionism and ‘formulate plans to capture the union. … It must be a long range policy. It means steady and consistent work’.

For various reasons the New South Wales police were especially attentive to the New Guard. No doubt there were individual policemen who were pro-fascist because they were anti-Communist. Nonetheless, for essentially pragmatic reasons, the general policy of Commissioner Walter Childs and Acting Metropolitan Superintendent Bill MacKay, the Glasgow-born hardman who had led the baton and bullet charge against locked out miners at Rothbury in 1929, was to practice surveillance, as well as legal and physical intimidation against the New Guard. MacKay wanted to ping the movement’s leaders with the charge of ‘seditious conspiracy’, using, ironically enough, the same legislation that had successfully crushed the left-wing Industrial Workers of the World in 1916.

The New South Wales police were assiduous in their inquiries. Police shorthand writers attended every major meeting of the New Guard. Undercover detectives infiltrated the movement and submitted their reports. The registration numbers of motor vehicles parked outside New Guard rallies and suburban meetings were copied down and the details of their owners recorded.

With this in mind, I recently trawled through the reams of paper preserved at State Records, New South Wales with the particular hope of establishing one particular detail – was the father of John Winston Howard a fascist? For while Lyall Howard is occasionally mentioned as a possible member of the New Guard, (see SMH, 7 January 1989) there has never been any proof that this was so.

In the Howard family there are disparate versions. All agree that Lyall, a motor garage proprietor of Dulwich Hill, a veteran of the Great War, was bitterly anti-Lang and a keen King and Empire man. That certainly sounds like the social profile of the average New Guardsman. The New Guard was very strong in the inner west of Sydney. Thanks to a piece of ‘socialist’ legislation Premier Lang introduced to assist the NSW Railways, motor garage proprietors were a dime a dozen in the movement.

Dr Bob Howard, research fellow in Government at Sydney University, feels that, on the balance of probability, more than likely his father was a member. However, the eldest son, Wally, now retired to the Blue Mountains, feels that more than likely he was not. Nonetheless, born in 1926, Wally was still a young boy at the time of the New Guard, so it would have been subsequent conversations rather than first-hand observations, watching his father practise baton charges and the like, that would have informed his knowledge.

The police records do throw up some interesting names. Sam McMahon, brother of Sir Billy, was involved and even on the periphery of the group of zealots who bashed ‘Jock’ Garden, secretary of the Labour Council, at his home in Maroubra in 1932. Sam and Billy’s grandfather, a rough as guts Irish-born carrier known as ‘Butty’ McMahon (due to his willingness to use head buts as a bargaining tool), would no doubt have been proud of his grandson’s willingness to engage in fisticuffs.

But amidst the reams of paper recording meetings and registration details, the name of one Lyall Howard does not emerge. Not so much as one stray reference to his car being parked outside a New Guard meeting in the inner-west- though of course he could have had it registered in the garage’s business name, or he might have power-walked to the meeting. Any related insight into the formative influences of John Winston Howard are therefore denied, though from the number of references to Lyall Howard on the Prime Minister’s web site, it is clear that he has a very high regard for his father.

One of the stock-in- trade activities of the New Guard was to attend Labor or left-wing meetings in order to disrupt them. No one could accuse the New Guard of believing in freedom of expression. The tradition of course did not die with the New Guard. During the Cold War being on the left in Australia was often physically dangerous.

Buried in Peter Collins’ memoirs, The Bear Pit, (Allen & Unwin, 2000, p. 22) there is a curious reference to a political meeting held at Gordon on 10 February 1966, the beginning of opposition to the Vietnam War. According to Collins, Francis James, the anti-war campaigner, faced a determined opposition from pro-Vietnam hecklers who were there ‘in force’. They included, again according to Collins, ‘Killara and Vaucluse Young Liberals, plus John Winston Howard, then of the Liberal Party State executive, … augmented by Sydney University Young Democrats including myself’. According to another source, Bob Connell and Florence Gould’s Politics of the Extreme Right, (Sydney University Press, 1967, p.47) the meeting was ‘completely broken up’.

While Collins has every right to incriminate himself in such illiberal activities, suggesting that John Howard was contemptuous of an opponent’s right to freely express his political opinions is scandalous and quite possibly defamatory. Surely it is unlikely that such a respectable citizen, a man who disdains any suggestion of union ‘thuggery’, would have condoned rough tactics to intimidate an opponent? Is not tolerance and respect for free speech the very essence of the democratic system to which John Howard has devoted his political life? Indubitably John Howard only attended Francis James’ meeting in order to inform himself about the great issues of the day.

Arthur Smith, the well-known Australian Nazi of the period, has recently admitted to starting much of the aggravation at Gordon that night, grabbing the microphone from James and shouting, ‘He speaks for Hanoi, and I speak for Australia and we don’t have to put up with this’. At this point all hell broke loose. Smith also told Peter Henderson, author of an important recently completed PhD thesis at the University of Western Sydney, ‘The hall was full of these hyped up Liberals…I’d like to write to John Howard and thank him for his support when he was cheering me’.

No doubt John Howard took little active part in that night’s proceedings. Perhaps Mr Smith misconstrued the character of Howard’s ‘support’. Then again, John Winston is Lyall Howard’s son. It is just possible, if Lyall Howard was a New Guardsman, that his fourth son may have been genetically programmed to display his much-vaunted ‘ticker’ in politically inappropriate ways.

Further reading:

Peter Henderson, ‘A History of the Australian Extreme Right since 1950’, PhD thesis, UWS, 2002.

Andrew Moore, ‘Workers and the New Guard: proletarian fascism in New South Wales 1931-35?’ in Brad Bowden and John Kellett, (eds), Transforming Labour-Work, Workers, Struggle and Change. Proceedings of the 8th National Labour History Conference, Brisbane, 2003, pp.237-244.

Andrew Moore, ‘Policing Enemies of the State: the New South Wales Police and the New Guard, 1931-32’, in Mark Finnane (ed), Policing in Australia: Historical Perspectives, New South Wales University Press, Kensington, 1987, pp.114-142.

Jean O’Mara, ‘Guarding Five Dock: A Study of the Five Dock locality of the New Guard’, 1931-1935′, BA Hons thesis, UWS, Macarthur, 1997.