Story: O'Brien, James
Miner, engine-driver, trade unionist, politician
This biography was written by Len Richardson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
James O’Brien belonged to the cluster of Australian labour activists who reached New Zealand in the first decade of the twentieth century, as the nation’s trade union movement was beginning to assert itself industrially and politically. Born at Forest Creek, near Castlemaine, Victoria, on 8 June 1874, he was the son of Bridget O’Leary and her husband, Terence O’Brien, a miner. Although christened Peter James, he never used his first name and was usually known as Jim or 'Briney’. Like his fellow Victorians Michael Joseph Savage and Paddy Webb, who crossed the Tasman in the same wave of migration, he was of Irish descent and raised in the Catholic faith. Arriving in New Zealand in 1904, after a decade or more of moving around the mining districts of Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, he began work as a coalminer at Reefton on the West Coast. From 1906 he was employed as a miner and engine-driver at the newly established state mine at Runanga. On 29 June 1909, in Greymouth, he married Kate Teresa Flaherty.
O’Brien soon became an active member of the noisy socialist vanguard then emerging in the Grey valley. He was elected president of the Westland Certificated Engine-drivers’ and Firemen’s Union, and by 1911 had helped build its membership to more than 100. He also served as president of the Runanga Co-operative Society in 1911–12. Although an effective campaigner on street corner and pit top, and a solid committee man, he stood in the shadow of more flamboyant leaders such as Webb, Bob Semple and Pat Hickey. In 1912 O’Brien was part of the socialist ticket that swept into office as the inaugural Runanga Borough Council on a programme of municipal socialism. Amid the industrial upheavals of 1912–13 he was a delegate to the July 1913 Unity Congress, organised to bring the warring factions of the labour movement together. A supporter of independent working-class political activity, he was immediately involved in the by-election campaign that saw Webb win the seat of Grey. He later became president of the Runanga branch of the Social Democratic Party.
The conscription controversy during the First World War thrust Jim O’Brien into national prominence. More than any other issue it demonstrates the convergence of class, religion and nationality which shaped his politics. He rejected military conscription because it failed the test of equality of sacrifice: workers fought while capitalists prospered. His opposition to compulsion grew as conflict in Ireland deepened in 1916–17. Irish issues were never far from the surface in the Catholic communities of the West Coast, and the 1913 Grey by-election had been contested in a climate of sectarian bitterness. Indignant Protestants denounced Webb’s victory, achieved with Liberal Party support on the second ballot, as the product of an unholy alliance of socialists and Catholics. The conscription controversy fuelled these simmering tensions.
In March 1917 O’Brien played a leading role in the establishment of the Greymouth branch of the New Zealand Labour Party. The following month local government elections provided a public platform for the anti-conscriptionist case. O’Brien was soon in the thick of the conflict: while campaigning on the Labour ticket for the Greymouth Borough Council, he was arrested, charged with seditious utterance and sentenced to 11 months’ imprisonment. After his release from prison in January 1918 he resumed his duties as prospector in charge of boring operations at the Seddonville and Runanga mines.
The following year O’Brien was one of the driving forces behind the purchase of Greymouth’s morning paper, the Grey River Argus, by a coalition of local labour groups. As a member of the paper’s board of directors and its manager from 1920 to 1922, an executive member of the Labour Party’s Greymouth branch and a delegate on the Grey District (later Westland) Labour Representation Committee, O’Brien was now at the hub of the West Coast labour movement. His wife, Kate, also played a key role, serving on the party’s branch executive and on the Grey Hospital Board; she later became one of the town’s first women justices of the peace.
The pioneer labour daily, as its founders proudly proclaimed it, provided Jim O’Brien with a springboard into parliamentary politics. In 1919 he was selected as the party’s candidate for the Westland seat. It was to take him a decade to secure Labour’s hold in an electorate where the Liberals benefited from the candidature of T. E. Y. Seddon, son of the legendary premier from Kumara, Richard Seddon. Defeated in 1919, O’Brien won the seat in 1922 but lost it (by 12 votes) in 1925. Regaining it in 1928, he was to hold Westland until his death in 1947. During these years he also served on the Greymouth Borough Council (1921–28) and the Grey Electric Power Board (1925–29).
In 1931 O’Brien and six friends, all of Irish origins, bought a large gold dredge and formed the Brian Boru Gold Dredging Company, with a capital of £27,000. The returns came slowly and the Brian Boru was soon silent. As an MP O’Brien was a strong advocate of the development of local industry and closer settlement of the land, particularly in south Westland. He retained a keen interest in the working conditions and welfare of miners, and in 1930 introduced an Invalid Pensions Bill; it eventually became law in 1936. One of the founding generation of the Labour Party, he narrowly missed inclusion in Savage’s first cabinet in 1935; after initially favouring O’Brien, the prime minister preferred his old mate Webb. O’Brien chaired the Goldfields and Mines and Native Affairs committees, and was junior and then senior party whip.
While he was no ideologue, O’Brien was counted among the radical rump of the party, which sought to push the leadership further down the socialist road. Throughout 1937 he was prominent in a concerted effort inside caucus for the immediate nationalisation of the Bank of New Zealand. Such was his reputation among the generally younger radicals that they tried to force him into cabinet to promote their programme. He in turn loyally supported even the more outspoken critics within caucus. When the party leadership orchestrated the expulsion of John A. Lee in March 1940, O’Brien defended the maverick MP. In December 1942, at the age of 68, he was elected to cabinet and appointed minister of transport and marine; he was to hold these portfolios until his death. An able administrator, he also served as minister of labour and mines for six months in 1946.
Jim O’Brien died in Wellington on 28 September 1947, survived by his wife, Kate; there were no children of the marriage. His public career had been based upon the twin pillars of reformist socialism and the West Coast’s own brand of Irish Catholicism. The economic and social forces upon which they rested were already being transformed by the 1940s, however, and his death marked the end of an era in local labour politics.