SEMPLE, Hon. Robert
Trade union organiser, Labour member of Parliament, and Minister of the Crown.
A new biography of Semple, Robert appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Robert Semple was born in Sofala, New South Wales, on 21 October 1873, the son of John Semple. He was educated at the Sofala primary school and at an early age began work as a miner and trucker on the Australian goldfields. In 1898 he married Margaret, daughter of Thomas McNair, of Gippsland, Victoria (and formerly of New Zealand). In 1902–03 he was involved in the bitter Victorian mine strike and after the defeat of the miners and the blacklisting of their leaders he came to New Zealand, where he obtained work at the Runanga State Coal Mine, on the West Coast.
In 1907, as president of the Runanga Miners Union (and already known as “Fighting Bob”), he first met P. H. Hickey, a New Zealander who had recently returned from the west coast of the United States, and P. C. Webb, a recent immigrant from Victoria. Influenced by the syndicalist ideas of the American Western Federation of Miners, parent body of the Industrial Workers of the World, Semple, Webb, and Hickey determined to assault the arbitration system. Spreading the gospel of industrial unionism and the strike, they set to work organising a federation of all the mining unions on the coast. At the same time, for good measure, they formed branches of the New Zealand Socialist Party in many centres. Semple was president of two conferences in 1908, at Greymouth and Wellington, which established the New Zealand Federation of Miners. The following year, in opposition to the moderate Trades Councils which accepted the Arbitration Court, the organisation was broadened to include transport workers and watersiders and was renamed the New Zealand Federation of Labour. Shortly afterwards Semple became the full-time organiser of the “Red Federation”, as the militant new organisation was soon dubbed.
“In his organising and propaganda work”, P. H. Hickey wrote later, “Mr Semple was very frequently unsparing in his criticism of the craft union and its official. His forceful personality, his fiery eloquence and his extraordinary capacity for illustration stung many a reactionary official to the quick …”. His resourcefulness was such that when the Federation's weekly paper was being hard pressed for arrears of rent, he successfully negotiated to buy the building. He was not, of course, a man for delicacy or for compromise, and on two occasions he clashed with the law. In the course of the great 1913 strike he was imprisoned and subsequently bound over to keep the peace (on the highest bond, as he was proud to claim, imposed on any Labour leader); in 1916, a forceful advocate for the repeal of conscription, he was sentenced to three years' gaol and served 12 months.
He was elected to Parliament in 1918 for Wellington East as a candidate for the newly formed New Zealand Labour Party, only to lose narrowly at the general election the following year. Between 1920 and 1928, when he was again elected for Wellington East (a seat, later renamed Miramar, which he held until almost the end of his life), he was at various times engaged in cooperative tunnelling work and union organising. The break in his parliamentary career may, perhaps, have caused him to lose touch a little with the central core of Labour leadership. When the Labour Party won office in 1935, however, his appointment to the Ministry of Public Works and related portfolios was an obvious choice. After the defeat of the Government in 1949 he played no active role in Parliament. A serious operation left him in precarious health and he moved quietly about the corridors of the House and seldom spoke. He did not contest the 1954 general election and retired to live in New Plymouth, where he died on 31 January 1955. He left a widow, three sons, and two daughters.
In his early days “Bob” Semple was accounted one of the most wild and dangerous of the wild and dangerous “Red Feds”; it was not uncommon for him to be refused hotel accommodation in the course of his organising journeys. But in public estimation his early militancy is now outweighed by memories of his spectacular verbal imagery and by his popular association with the introduction of the bulldozer. He mellowed with the years both in personality and in conviction. Even in 1919 a sympathetic observer commented that “from being a rabid declamator using wild and whirling words and windmill gesticulations” he was rapidly developing into a good parliamentary debater. He remained an arresting speaker, although he sometimes overplayed the part of being a “character”. In later years he became a trenchant critic of “wreckers” who advocated direct action. His pamphlet Why I Fight Communism, published in 1948, is reputed to have sold 20,000 copies (although it may be doubted whether he wrote much of it himself). As a Minister he possessed energy and imagination and to him justly belongs a substantial portion of the credit for the modemisation of the New Zealand public works and transport systems. In all, he stands out in the Labour Movement less as a man of exceptional ability than as a strong and colourful personality.
by Bruce Macdonald Brown, M.A., New York Office, Department of External Affairs.
- Red Fed Memoirs, Hickey, P. H. (Wellington, 1925)
- Standard, 9 Feb 1955.