Story: Mulholland, William Walter

Page 1 - Biography

Mulholland, William Walter

1887–1971

Farmer, farmers' union leader

This biography was written by W. J. Gardner and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

William Walter Mulholland was born at Greendale, on the Canterbury Plains, on 8 January 1887, the eldest son of Frances Horrell and her husband, Daniel Mulholland, a shepherd who later farmed at Darfield. Walter (as he was known) received primary education at Darfield School. He developed a lifelong passion for reading, and taught himself shorthand. A branch of the New Zealand Farmers' Union (NZFU) was formed at Darfield and in 1904 Mulholland was elected its secretary at the age of 17.

On 31 March 1915 at Darfield, Walter Mulholland married Daisy Eveline Campbell. They were to have five children. On their Darfield farm, Ladybank, Walter showed himself to be a successful farmer, a skilled self-taught mechanic, and a pioneer in mechanisation. He purchased a tractor in 1919, a steel threshing-mill in 1925 and a header-harvester in 1929. That year he founded an association of 'tin-mill' owners, which aimed to control labour costs. He was the first to experiment in the bulk handling of grain from the paddock to the mill. Yet he found time to teach Sunday school, and for fishing and photography.

In 1918 he had become a Darfield delegate to the North Canterbury district of the NZFU, and was elected president in 1922. While a member of the dominion executive, he played a significant part in negotiations leading to the establishment of the New Zealand Meat Producers' Board (1922), of which he would later become a member (1943–61). Mulholland firmly opposed the attempts of freezing works to join in a cartel-like imposition of high charges.

After the lifting of wartime controls on wheat in 1923, a series of makeshift agreements between growers and millers failed to stabilise production and prices. In 1929 Mulholland was the leading figure in setting up the New Zealand Wheatgrowers' Co-operative Association (the so-called Wheat Pool), and was elected chairman. This organisation, which accounted for 40 per cent of growers, bought members' grain and sold it. It had limited success in bad times, and folded in 1931. In 1932 Mulholland formed a joint-stock company for the same purpose, and achieved a virtually compulsory pool. Next year, the government set up the Wheat Purchase Board to take over control. Mulholland was to be a long-serving member (1933–67).

Walter Mulholland was elected president of the Dominion NZFU in 1936. This was the beginning of a nine-year tenure. He was a firm believer in farmer co-operation, and the political situation underlined his aim. From late 1935 the NZFU faced a Labour government backed by a united trade union movement. Mulholland set out to deal with the government and unions from the strongest sectional position he could achieve. He sought to promote the union of all primary producers within the NZFU, and to make the organisation their effective voice in politics, on a non-party basis.

From 1936 until 1946 Mulholland was chief spokesman for the farmers in their dealings with the Labour government. He described Labour's economic policy as 'the opposite to what had been advocated by the Farmers' Union', but offered assistance in order to make that policy work 'in the interests of the Dominion'. It helped that he got on well with Walter Nash. In 1936 the government guaranteed prices for dairy products, winning the support of dairy producers, but he believed that other Labour policies demanded the vigilance of farmers.

In 1939 Mulholland announced that he would put politics aside to promote the war effort. He was appointed to the War Council, the National Patriotic Fund Board and the National Council of Primary Production. However, he advocated a coalition government, and reserved the right to make political criticisms of the Labour ministry. In 1940 he castigated some ministers as 'slackers' and official patriotism as 'anaemic'. Peter Fraser, the prime minister, demurred but hastened to add that Mulholland was doing 'very good work'.

By 1944 farmers' discontent about marketing, pricing and labour policies was rife. Mulholland claimed that farmers were expected to work for 1939 prices while paying current costs, that stabilisation was robbing farmers of income necessary to promote high production, and that they could not retain farm labour. Fraser testily called him the 'political head of the non-political Farmers' Union', but Mulholland retorted that the prime minister had not consulted farmers, and reaffirmed his non-party stance.

Mulholland's campaign for farmer unity was long thwarted by separate interest groups. The NZFU was dominated by established middling farmers – mostly South Islanders like himself. Outside its ranks, on the one hand, were several specialist farming organisations, especially the powerful New Zealand Sheepowners' and Farmers' Federation. On the other hand, the large Auckland branch of the NZFU guarded its sizeable assets and its semi-independence. Its members included many new, struggling farmers who had turned to social credit and Labour.

Mulholland toured New Zealand in the cause of farmer unity. His sincerity and conciliatory manner won converts – at a price: he and his associate, B. V. Cooksley, had to make one compromise after another to achieve progress. Rising farmer dissatisfaction with government policies gave them an audience. Yet final success did not come until 1946, the last stages being marred by confusion and acrimony. In October Mulholland was elected first president of Federated Farmers of New Zealand (FFNZ), a united organisation which was primarily his achievement. However, with unity came North Island predominance. Mulholland was defeated in 1947 by W. N. Perry, an Auckland farmer.

After the war Mulholland continued his membership of the national FFNZ as elder statesman until 1961. He attended international conferences in 1946 and 1947. In 1946 he was made an OBE and in 1956 he was knighted. The variety of organisations he founded, participated in, or led has few parallels in New Zealand's farming history. Among his various activities may be singled out his interests in all research affecting farming (a research fellowship was established in his name), his efforts to provide short-term credit for Canterbury farmers, and his involvement in founding the Darfield branch of the Women's Division of the NZFU.

Walter Mulholland made a new and distinctive contribution to farming organisation and politics. His pragmatic watchword was 'fairness': fair prices, fair wages and fair standards of living – and not only from a farmer's point of view. He undertook no project or advocacy without meticulous preparation, especially from a wide range of agricultural, technical and economic sources. He once wrote, 'I dislike very much making statements which may not be quite correct'. He stuck to his case tenaciously. Although some found him dour and long-winded, far more found him friendly and good-humoured. Mulholland was a teetotaller, and kept a clear head for business, but he was tolerant of others with different proclivities. He was the outstanding farmer leader outside Parliament of his time, and probably in our history. He died on 9 November 1971 at Christchurch, survived by his wife, Daisy, and two sons and a daughter.