Story: Anderson, George James

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Anderson, George James

1860–1935

Compositor, proofreader, newspaper editor and manager, politician

This biography was written by R. J. Cuthill and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

George James Anderson was born at Back Creek, Bendigo, Victoria, Australia, on 22 January 1860, the son of John Anderson, a carpenter, and his wife, Matilda Pattinson. As a young child George was brought to Lawrence, New Zealand, by his parents who were presumably attracted by the discovery of gold. He was educated at the Lawrence Grammar School, which he left at the age of 14 to work as an apprentice compositor on the Tuapeka Times. Later, he worked on the North Otago Times in Oamaru and on the Christchurch Star. He was active in the Canterbury Typographical Association and in the Knights of Labor.

Anderson married Mary Annie Ball at Christchurch on 13 September 1890. In the same year he became a proofreader for the Otago Daily Times in Dunedin, remaining there for the next 11 years. In 1901 Anderson became part-owner and business manager of the Mataura Ensign, a newspaper published in Gore. There he took an active part in local affairs, serving terms on the Southland Education Board, the Gore School Committee, and the Gore High School board of governors. He was an active Anglican and Freemason and a member of the Gore Club, and of the Gore Racing and Trotting clubs. All helped to make him a well-known personality in a small community.

In 1908 Anderson took over the editorship of the Mataura Ensign. In the general election of that year he stood as opposition candidate for the Mataura seat against Robert McNab, minister of lands and minister for agriculture, who had been responsible for legislation unpopular in rural areas. The opposition attacked the government on grounds of corruption and mismanagement of state enterprises, especially the railways, and Anderson accused McNab of manipulating the affairs of his department to further the private interests of a Liberal supporter. Anderson won the seat. The defeat of a cabinet minister by a newcomer to politics attracted nationwide attention.

Anderson worked hard for his electorate. He was responsible for the roading that opened up the bush districts of central Southland, pressed his electorate's claims for public utilities and works, and attended to a variety of personal requests. He was re-elected in 1911. When the Reform Party defeated the Liberal government in a parliamentary vote in July 1912, he became a member of several select committees. He was chairman of the Labour Bills Committee for five years and of the Joint Library Committee for nine years. Anderson also became known as a contributor to the press, writing mainly on political subjects.

His work on these committees raised his standing in the parliamentary party, and he was appointed minister of internal affairs in 1920. He relinquished this portfolio to W. Downie Stewart in 1921, and from then until 1928 held the labour, mines and marine portfolios, along with several minor ones.

As a minister, Anderson was noted chiefly for his administrative ability and his attention to details. In 1922–23, as minister of marine, he intervened in a seamen's strike by suspending legal manning provisions; the shipowners broke the strike by employing unqualified crews. He steered many difficult bills through Parliament and was praised on all sides for his tactful handling of labour issues. His humble origins and comparative lack of formal education may have given him more in common with labour leaders than with some of his own colleagues. He was responsible for amendments to the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act in 1921–22; the Coal-mines Act 1925 and the Mining Act 1926 improved safety regulations for mines. Anderson later won generous tributes from Labour MPs.

Anderson may have become over-confident of his hold on the voters of Mataura. In 1921 he moved his residence to Wellington; illness led him to travel to London in 1928 to consult a heart specialist. Although a general election was imminent, he did not hurry back, travelling in Europe, South Africa and Australia on the way home. He returned to New Zealand to find that he had been defeated in Mataura by the United Party candidate, David McDougall.

Continuing health problems kept Anderson out of public life until 1934, when he was appointed to the Legislative Council. He died at Wellington on 15 December 1935, survived by his wife, four daughters and a son.