Story: Semple, Robert
Coalminer, trade unionist, politician
This biography was written by Len Richardson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996
Robert (Bob) Semple was born on 21 October 1873 at Crudine Creek, near Sofala, on the New South Wales goldfields. He was the son of John Semple, a shepherd, and his wife, Mary Ann Ryan. He attended the Sofala school, but at nine years of age began work in the Lithgow coalmines. Throughout the late 1880s and 1890s he worked in a number of mines near Newcastle, before moving to the Victorian lignite mines. He began to make his way in union affairs before, like many Victorian miners, being drawn to Western Australia by the goldrush of the early 1890s.
Semple married Margaret MacNair at Outtrim, Victoria, on 27 June 1898. They lived initially in Western Australia, but Margaret's illness forced an early return to Victoria. By the turn of the century the couple had settled in Gippsland and Semple found work at Korumburra. He became president of the local branch of the Victorian Coal Miners' Association, in which capacity he was involved in a lengthy, bitter and violent industrial dispute.
Blacklisted in the aftermath, Semple left for New Zealand using an assumed name in late 1903 or 1904. He found work at the newly opened state coalmine at Runanga. He cut a dashing figure: high prominent cheek-bones, a drooping moustache that accentuated sunken cheeks, and spareness of build gave the impression of a tall, angry young man. Yet apart from the appearance of pugnacity, there was little about his initial impact at Runanga to suggest a revolutionary figure in the making. In 1904 or early 1905 he was elected the inaugural president of the Coal Creek State Mines Union, but within months a lull in mining at Runanga saw him drift away to work as a tunneller on the Midland railway. By 1906 he was back in Runanga supporting moves by the state miners to register with the very Court of Arbitration that he and his fellow radicals were later to condemn as an instrument of state oppression.
Despite these conventional beginnings, by 1907 unionism at Runanga was beginning to exhibit a certain distinctiveness. Union leaders successfully launched the Runanga Co-operative Society in 1906 and two years later opened a miners' hall. The slogans on its walls captured the ethos of the new community: 'United we stand, divided we fall'; 'The world is my country, to do good my religion'; 'Not for a race, but for all mankind'; 'World's wealth for world's workers'. The doctrines of industrial unionism were at the heart of Runanga radicalism, and its emphasis on the creation of national unions – organised so as to maximise the combined strength of the working class – appealed to Semple's combative instincts.
As a part of this loosely organised socialist vanguard, 'Bob the Ranter' or 'Fighting Bob', as Semple was popularly known, stood ready to burst into national prominence. The strike of Blackball coalminers in 1908 for 30 rather than 15 minutes' 'tucker time' provided Grey Valley activists with an opportunity to promote their cause. While not directly involved in the unfolding of the dispute, Semple was one of its most notable beneficiaries. He was quick to proclaim the successful outcome as a victory for industrial unionism, an illustration of the ease with which miners could throw off the constraints of arbitration. Together with Patrick Hickey he stumped the West Coast, drumming up support for a regional industrial union that would bring all labour into one organisation as a first step towards abandoning the arbitration system. Rebuffed by Greymouth watersiders, who preferred the certainties of the existing order, Semple and Runanga radicals turned their attention back to the coalfields, where they attempted to build a purely miners' organisation.
Bob Semple and the apostles of socialism had to convince the union establishment centred on Denniston and Brunner that change was necessary. It was a challenge that Semple was peculiarly fitted to meet. A dynamic, flamboyant and earthy speaker, he moved from pit to pit cajoling, bullying and demanding that miners use the industrial power he believed they possessed to win justice for their class. He presided over the critical meetings that established the New Zealand Federation of Miners in late 1908. There were difficulties convincing some of the older officials to endorse withdrawal from the arbitration system. None the less, in 1909 Semple and the socialists persuaded the state miners' union to cancel its registration. In the same year New South Wales miners struck and Semple seized the chance to trumpet this as an example of industrial unionism in action. He grandly telegraphed the strike leader: 'Your fight our fight. Will take any action considered necessary to insure victory.' The new assertiveness worried employers, who feared the socialist contagion might spread beyond the coalfields.
It was this same confidence that led Semple to advocate successfully a widening of the miners' organisation to include transport workers and watersiders. Accordingly, in 1909 it was renamed the New Zealand Federation of Labour. Semple was appointed organiser and from early 1910 became a roving advocate of industrial unionism, moving about the country frightening employers with threats of widespread industrial revolt. Few were prepared to put his threats to the test, and whistling up Semple, the 'Red Fed' bogey man, became a strategy open to unions with neither the capacity nor the intention of engaging in a showdown with their employers. In the view of militants, however, by stitching up agreements between workers and employers, Semple was effectively propping up the capitalist system. In the process the FOL was losing its revolutionary potential and becoming an acceptable alternative to the arbitration system. It was a criticism that Semple struggled to rebut.
Semple's role in attempts by the federation to combat the employers' strategy in the crisis years of 1912–13 reveals a hard-headed pragmatism that his wilder utterances sometimes obscured. Semple had been a boxer and his instincts were against leading with the chin. He warned against a direct and lengthy confrontation with capital, but conceded that where workers were faced with inhuman conditions they should mount 'united, dreadful and short' strikes. He became even more wary after the Reform Party came to power in 1912. W. F. Massey, the new prime minister, was prepared to restore industrial peace by adding the power of the state to that of the employers so as to drive all unions back into the arbitration system.
Semple's caution was well founded. The government seemed to believe that his wilder outbursts might fuel, especially among West Coast miners, an uncontrollable demand for a general strike. The police monitored Semple's activities closely. He remained for the most part colourful but careful. He told miners at Dunollie, angry about the killing of Fred Evans during the Waihi strike of 1912, that he would not trust the police with 'a diseased cat'. If, as the police alleged, Evans had shot a policeman, then he was, Semple thundered, 'doing his duty and should have shot more of them'. Yet, as the police constable reporting his address noted, though Semple condemned the police for breaking the Waihi strike, he steered away from all suggestions of a general strike.
The defeat of the Waihi strike led to a desire for unity between labour factions, and thus to the creation of the United Federation of Labour in 1913. Its officials were, however, unable to resist the pressure from below for a showdown with capital. Semple played little part in the strikes of 1913. Together with Harry Holland and Peter Fraser, he was arrested; Holland was gaoled, the others bound over to keep the peace. Semple's absence from the helm allowed him to escape the opprobrium heaped on the vanquished leadership. In the post mortems that followed the defeat, Semple disowned all strikes and presented himself successfully for the post of organiser in the reconstructed national organisation.
The outbreak of war in August 1914 created a context in which Semple's talents as a propagandist flourished. Semple had been one of the most consistent critics of compulsory military training since its introduction in 1909. In 1913 he had been prosecuted for failing to reveal his son's age to a defence officer; he was subsequently arrested when he refused to pay a £4 fine, only to be released when Runanga citizens paid it for him. When the government introduced conscription in 1916, Semple sought to use the industrial bargaining position of the miners to force the abandonment of compulsion. He hinted darkly but obliquely at the prospect of a general strike on the coalfields. He publicly berated Blackball miners for a series of wildcat stoppages, not because they were undesirable but because they were unlikely to be effective. This was frightening talk to a government increasingly concerned about the very real prospect of coal shortages.
The government sought every opportunity to pick off anti-conscriptionists whose utterances seemed likely to produce unrest or provoke discontent. Semple provided an easier target than most. In 1915 he had been appointed organiser for a new national federation of coalminers, a body determined to achieve a reform of working conditions. Part of the miners' industrial strategy was to link opposition to conscription with a campaign for improved wages and conditions. Semple was in his element railing against both government and coal owners. In December 1916, after advising miners not to be 'lassoed by that Prussian octopus, conscription', he was arrested in Christchurch; denied a jury trial under the recently introduced War Regulations, he was imprisoned for 12 months. His whistlestop tour of the coalfields after his release in September 1917 was immensely popular. Audiences warmed to his original vocabulary, pithy humour and caustic criticism: trial by jury was denied labour men, he told one audience 'but it was extended to the murderer and the sexual pervert'.
Semple and his family had left Runanga for Wellington in 1913 and he was by now a national figure. Little more than a year after his release from imprisonment he was elected to Parliament as member for Wellington South, representing the New Zealand Labour Party.
Semple took time to adjust to his new forum. He began by warning Parliament that Labour members had 'not come to this House to perpetuate a class war or to create class division. The class war is already here in all its hideousness.' It was, he said, Labour's purpose to 'obliterate the class-line' and build a society on 'reasonable and democratic lines'. Despite the fact that he represented an urban seat, his most telling parliamentary interventions were on behalf of the community he knew best. He defiantly challenged a parliamentary opponent to 'live in the same shacks that the miners have to live in', and to try his hand at toiling as a miner did, 'stripped almost as naked as the day he was born'. It would be an experience, said Semple, that would 'trim some of the conservative notches off him'. On the eve of the 1919 general election, as part of an assessment of the performance of all Labour members, the Maoriland Worker concluded that 'the rabid declamator using wild and whirling words and windmill gesticulations' was adjusting to his new environment. The electors were not so impressed and Semple was rejected at the polls.
It was to be 10 years before he returned to the political arena. From 1921 until 1924 he was the manager of the Orongorongo co-operative tunnelling work, and thereafter worked for the New Zealand Workers' Union as an organiser. And while he was no longer at the centre of power in the labour movement, Semple was never far away from the political platform. Between 1925 and 1935 he was a Labour representative on the Wellington City Council. In the 1925 general election he stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Otaki, and one year later was elected president of the New Zealand Labour Party. In 1928 he won his way back into Parliament and represented, until he retired in 1954, the seats of Wellington East (1928–46) and then Miramar.
Semple was on the margin of the Labour Party in the 1920s and took little part in the modifications of policy that prepared it for power. None the less, when Labour won office in 1935 he was among the first chosen by M. J. Savage for the cabinet, as minister of public works.
Bob Semple brought to the post the same ability to capture headlines as he had displayed as a publicist for the Red Feds. He was at his flamboyant best mounted in the driving seat of a huge Caterpillar tractor driving straight over an old wheelbarrow and shovel. Yet if there was frequently more display than doctrine in Semple's politics, his energy and desire to get things done placed him at the cutting edge of Labour's attempts to refloat the economy by increasing state spending. Under his stewardship, the Public Works Department threw off the notion of relief work and resumed its original function as the development arm of the state. Semple was an interventionist minister whose approach veered from the paternal to the authoritarian. He could be generous to workers and often overrode permanent officials on their behalf. All relief workers – including Maori, who had previously been paid lower rates – were placed on standard rates of pay. Yet those professional staff who feared that Semple would radically alter labour management techniques and hand over effective control to workers' committees were reassured by his endorsement of co-operative contracts as the surest way of the state getting value for money.
The Second World War brought out the authoritarian element in Semple's makeup. He saw criticism of the war effort and of the Labour government as subversive and dealt severely with alleged dissidents within the Public Works Department. In 1940 he was given the important national service portfolio and briefly handed over public works to H. T. Armstrong. In this new capacity, Semple, the anti-conscriptionist of one world war, drew the marble for the first conscription ballot in the next.
His support for the introduction of compulsory military training in 1948 marked, in the eyes of his left-wing critics, a form of betrayal. To Semple there was no inconsistency; the spread of communism endangered the free world. Communism had to be confronted internationally and its advocates rooted out of the New Zealand trade union movement, where he believed they had a far greater influence than their numbers warranted. He denounced communist union officials and those he saw as fellow travellers as 'wreckers', and clashed openly with them. When hydro workers at Mangakino struck in 1948 after the alleged victimisation of a communist tunneller, Semple billed their dispute a trial of strength between communism and the government. In the same year he published a pamphlet, Why I fight communism, in which the nation was warned to be on guard against the communist menace; Semple himself may not have been the author.
Semple remained in Parliament after the defeat of the Labour government in 1949, although ill health severely limited him in the last few years of his public career. He retired before the 1954 general election and died at New Plymouth on 31 January 1955, survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons.
Bob Semple was one of the most colourful leaders of the New Zealand labour movement in the early twentieth century. Despite his sometimes extravagant rhetoric, he was essentially a pragmatist whose aim was to improve the lot of the working class. Like many of his colleagues, he spent his best years in the struggle to gain political legitimacy for the labour movement. He achieved his objectives with the enactment of the policies of the first Labour government; thereafter, he was determined to defend the gains the working class had made. His increasing authoritarianism made him many enemies among old allies, but his achievements helped to determine New Zealand's social and economic pattern for two generations.