Story: Sullivan, William

Page 1 - Biography

Sullivan, William

1891–1967

Builder, politician

This biography was written by Hugh Templeton and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

William Sullivan was born on 8 December 1891 in Inglewood, Taranaki, the sixth and youngest child of Samuel John Sullivan and his wife, Sarah Maria Acton. His parents, both of southern Irish farming stock, had emigrated to Australia before moving to Invercargill in 1880, and then to Inglewood, where they took up land. Samuel Sullivan died in January 1892, and Sarah remarried a year later. Willie Sullivan (later known as Bill) attended school at Inglewood and Stratford, where he also took correspondence courses, before setting up as a builder at Whakatane in 1913.

On 12 September 1916, at Stratford, Bill Sullivan married Elvina Coral Brayshaw, a clerk; they were to have four sons and three daughters. He served as an instructor at Trentham Military Camp during the First World War, reaching the rank of sergeant major. After the war he became prominent in Whakatane, founding the local chamber of commerce and becoming chairman of the harbour board (1923–26), mayor (1925–38) and, in 1930, chairman of the unemployment committee. His wide-ranging interests also saw him involved in the local fire brigade, the winter show association, the historical society and the yacht club.

After standing for Parliament unsuccessfully in 1931 and 1938, ‘Big Bill’ Sullivan won the Bay of Plenty seat for the New Zealand National Party in a by-election in December 1941. As a representative of small businessmen, he proved an ardent champion of private enterprise and an energetic critic of socialism. In the difficult days of wartime shortages he blamed mounting industrial unrest on ‘the wreckers’ and ‘the “red heads” of trade-unions’. He also experienced personal sorrow like many other New Zealanders when his eldest son, Michael, was lost in December 1943 in an RAF pathfinding mission over Germany.

In opposition from 1941 to 1949, Sullivan pressed for effective rehabilitation programmes and for the development of the Bay of Plenty’s land and timber resources, making his name both in the House of Representatives and on the hustings with a simple, straightforward eloquence and an easy wit. In his maiden speech he described Hitler as ‘the heathen of Europe’ who wanted ‘to place the world in an “octopus clamp” ’. His close relations with local Maori were reflected in his concern for Maori housing, health and education, particularly trade training.

When National won the general election in 1949, Sullivan, who had spent all his life among working men, became minister of labour in the Holland government. He was also minister of employment, mines, immigration and, from 1953, housing. As one of the ‘big four’ (with Sidney Holland, Keith Holyoake and T. C. Webb) in cabinet, Sullivan proved to have inherited the most demanding portfolios.

On taking office the National government had to face the challenge of union militancy and industrial disruption. To offset the stranglehold of the miners on the nation’s coal, Sullivan directed the rapid development of open-cast mines. In an attempt to bring peace to the waterfront and ensure the flow of goods, especially essential foodstuffs, he visited ports and re-convened the Waterfront Industry Authority. By the spring of 1950, however, with the export season ahead, New Zealand faced continuing unrest on the wharves. To Sullivan, the authority of the government became the issue. When cabinet wavered, during the so-called lampblack dispute in September 1950, he insisted on action. On 20 September the government invoked the 1932 Public Safety Conservation Act. Sullivan was firm: ‘It just cannot go on. No self respecting government could tolerate it’.

The dispute was resolved, but faced with ongoing disruption on the waterfront, on 21 February 1951 the government invoked the Public Safety Conservation Act again, and the next day gazetted emergency regulations which gave Sullivan sweeping powers. On 28 February it deregistered the militant New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union and ordered servicemen to work the wharves. Despite threats to himself and his family, Sullivan refused to deal with the union’s leaders, Jock Barnes and Toby Hill. By May, amid widespread unrest and intimidation, new port unions were being formed and in July, after 151 days, the watersiders were defeated. The government immediately called a snap election, which it won with an increased majority.

Sullivan’s courage, determination and good sense, combined with his ability to work with F. P. Walsh and the New Zealand Federation of Labour (who fiercely opposed the watersiders), had proved decisive during one of the most intense political crises of the century. In 1954 he was able to report that, compared with the 294,600 working hours lost to disputes in 1949, the waterfront had lost only 6,300 hours that year, while cargo handling was up by an average of 25 per cent.

Sullivan was heavily involved in planning New Zealand’s post-war development. In 1953, as minister of housing, he introduced a group building scheme to encourage the construction of new houses and initiated the first indicative planning conference on housing; as minister of immigration he stepped up the flow of building tradesmen. In the state mines and forests, as on the waterfront, he promoted mechanisation, and he was involved in planning the Tasman pulp and paper project at Kawerau, built to utilise the great Kaingaroa pine plantations. The need for investment in such projects led him to advocate New Zealand membership of the World Bank, not accomplished until the second National government in 1961.

Straight-talking, tough, energetic and resolute, Sullivan was seen as a likely successor when Prime Minister Holland’s health began to fail. Instead, on 13 February 1957, following the death of his son Bruce, he resigned from Parliament to take over the family business interests. He was made a KCMG later that year. In 1965 he gifted a sculpture of the foundress of Whakatane, Wairaka, to his home town. Bill Sullivan died in Whakatane on 17 March 1967, survived by three daughters and a son; Elvina had died in 1963. His enduring reputation rests on his courageous and decisive leadership during the waterfront crisis of 1951, which, many believed, helped lay the foundations for New Zealand’s economic and social progress in the 1950s and 1960s.