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John Joseph (Joe) Cahill (1891–1959)

by David Clune

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Joseph Cahill (1891-1959), by unknown photographer

John Joseph Cahill (1891-1959), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L21842

John Joseph (Joe) Cahill (1891-1959), railway fitter, trade unionist and premier, was born on 21 January 1891 at Redfern, Sydney, son of Irish-born parents Thomas Cahill, labourer, and his wife Ellen, née Glynn. The family was part of the tightly-knit community of railway workers that had grown up around the Eveleigh railway workshops. Educated at St Brigid's convent school, Marrickville, and Patrician Brothers' School, Redfern, on 2 July 1907 Joe was apprenticed as a fitter at Eveleigh. He joined the Workers' Educational Association, regularly attended lectures and developed his public-speaking skills in debating societies.

An officer of Marrickville branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (Amalgamated Engineering Union from 1920), Cahill went as a delegate to union conferences. He was dismissed from his job on 14 August 1917 for his part in a railway strike and his personal file was annotated 'agitator'. There followed a lean period in which Cahill found it difficult to obtain regular employment. At one stage he was reduced to selling insurance. Prominent in the early 1920s in an unsuccessful revolt by a group of activists against the A.E.U.'s governing body, he was banned from holding office in the union until mid-1925. In May 1922 he was re-employed by the railways. At St Brigid's Church, Marrickville, on 11 November that year he married Esmey Mary Kelly; they were to have a long and happy family life.

Defeated as the official Labor Party candidate for Dulwich Hill at the March 1917 elections, Cahill was elected to the Legislative Assembly for St George in May 1925 (Arncliffe from 1930). He spoke frequently in the House, mainly on railway and constituency matters. Rumours—made public by the Labor Daily—proliferated late in 1925 and through 1926 of attempts to bribe four Labor members to cross the floor and bring down J. T. Lang's first government. Cahill was named and, although the charges were totally discredited, he suffered most of the four. The experience soured his relations with Lang and he voted for P. F. Loughlin in his leadership challenge to the premier in September 1926.

Nevertheless, Cahill was one of the few of Lang's back-bench opponents to retain pre-selection. Lang was returned to office in October 1930 and caucus elected Cahill government whip. He became a staunch defender of Lang's policies and the 'Big Fella' was later to pay a fulsome tribute to his performance as whip. Defeated in the anti-Lang landslide in June 1932, Cahill was forced to obtain work; he was a shop-inspector for the Fashion Centre Shoe Store until re-elected for Arncliffe in May 1935 (Cooks River from 1941).

When Labor won government in May 1941 under (Sir) William McKell, Cahill became secretary for public works and in June 1944 was also given the local government portfolio. Proving more than equal to his demanding duties, he set up the State Dockyard at Newcastle and the State Brickworks; he also supervised the establishment of the Electricity Authority (which brought electricity to much of rural New South Wales) and the Cumberland County Council. Cahill took a personal interest in this pioneering town-planning scheme and carried through major local-government amalgamations in the late 1940s. While he was minister in charge of energy supply, generating capacity doubled in the postwar years and by the early 1950s 'blackouts' had been eliminated. On 21 September 1949 he became deputy-premier.

Elected party leader and commissioned as premier on 2 April 1952 in succession to the ailing James McGirr, Cahill proved to be a gifted politician and a capable administrator, renowned for his ability to work hard and to withstand the pressures of office. His combination of toughness and political acumen was to make him a formidable leader. Discipline was restored to cabinet: Cahill insisted that ministers kept in command of their portfolios and, when necessary, took action to ensure that they did. He relied on Wallace Wurth, the powerful chairman of the Public Service Board, as a source of information on what his ministers were doing and as a means of controlling them. In cabinet Cahill tended to scrutinize matters more for their political than their administrative implications. He was an acknowledged master of the difficult art of handling caucus.

An easy mixer, Cahill retained good relations with his colleagues and regularly attended functions in their electorates. In addition, he made himself accessible to back-benchers through the parliamentary dining- and billiards-rooms. By a mixture of bullying and cajoling, the premier usually managed to get his way in caucus. Although generally popular, he was close to few; R. R. Downing was a trusted confidant and adviser. Cahill devoted attention to ensuring that there were no major conflicts between the government and the extra-parliamentary party. He ran brisk and businesslike meetings with the party officers every week (on the day before the State executive met), thereby ensuring that they were fully briefed on the government's activities. Moreover, his government was at the forefront in important industrial reforms, such as improvements in leave and workers' compensation.

During his term of office Cahill carefully coaxed the business community. The government's emphasis on promoting development made for a certain commonality of interest. As one who greatly enjoyed the ceremonial aspects of the premiership, he mixed frequently with business and community leaders at official functions. In parliament, he was an aggressive performer, consistently able to outclass and outmanoeuvre the Opposition. Under Cahill the New South Wales Labor style was tough, competent and conservative, with a marked preference for behind-the-scenes manipulation and back-room deals. He won a landslide victory in the February 1953 elections.

Cahill's premiership was dominated by conflict with the Menzies government, by allegations of official corruption and by internal strife within the Australian Labor Party. Wily at exploiting the Federal conservatives' real and alleged failings, he was also convinced, with some justification, that the whole basis of Commonwealth-State financial relations was inequitable, specifically in terms of what New South Wales received from the Federal government through the Loan Council and tax reimbursement grants.

Allegations of scandal and impropriety involved the notoriously corrupt, Labor-controlled Sydney City Council and the police. Two ministers (J. G. Arthur and A. Landa) had charges against them investigated by royal commissions in 1953 and 1958 respectively. In general, the government's attitude that such allegations were politically-inspired attacks, best dealt with by obfuscation and concealment, seems to have been misguided and counter-productive.

By far the greatest test of Cahill's political skills was the need after 1954 to minimize the damage caused by the Labor 'split'. Although he and the majority of government members had no ideological quarrel with the industrial groups formed to counter communist influence in trade unions, they became increasingly disenchanted with the abrasive style of extremists among the 'groupers'. Memories of the chaotic Lang period and the long, cold years in Opposition strengthened the resolve of many Labor parliamentarians to prevent a major party split in New South Wales that would destroy the government.

Cahill's strategy involved presenting a united, non-aligned parliamentary party as a secure rallying point for Labor moderates from every faction. Using all his political skills, he was able to preserve the support of the majority of caucus and to avoid any open breach in the parliamentary party. He and Downing began talks with moderates on the federal executive to try to achieve a compromise that would leave the State party machine in the hands of the more reasonable pro- and anti-'grouper' elements who wanted to keep Labor in power in New South Wales. Cahill made it clear that he was prepared to see some of the die-hard 'groupers' purged to achieve this end. Negotiations with Cardinal (Sir) Norman Gilroy and the Catholic hierarchy in Sydney ensured that the 'groupers' received no encouragement to split from the Labor Party. Although the outcome was at times far from certain, after much intricate and onerous parleying Cahill very largely achieved what he had set out to do. In March 1956 Labor won the State elections and in June the government and the moderates on the federal executive agreed to a modest re-structuring of the New South Wales branch of the A.L.P. In return, only the most intransigent 'groupers' were to be purged and control of the party was left to a coterie from the centre that formed around the party officers.

In his final years in office Cahill grew increasingly in public stature: he received honorary doctorates from the universities of Sydney (LL.D., 1952) and New England (D.Litt., 1956), and from the New South Wales University of Technology (D.Sc., 1956); and he visited Britain (1953) and North America (1958). Overcoming significant internal opposition, in 1957 Cahill committed the Government to the construction of the Sydney Opera House - perhaps his most enduring legacy.  He triumphed in the March 1959 elections when Labor, against all odds, narrowly clung to power. In June Cahill became the longest continuously-serving New South Wales premier. His personal integrity, his determination to do what he believed to be right for the State and his qualities of leadership had won him a measure of respect from even his staunchest opponents. A 'small, thickset man' with 'a broad Irish smile', he had few recreations other than work, but liked an occasional bet, enjoyed a good cigar and had a regular, early-morning swim. He was a trustee and president (1952-59) of Royal National Park.

The premier died of myocardial infarction on 22 October 1959 at Sydney Hospital and was buried in Rookwood cemetery; his wife, three sons and two daughters survived him. Cahill had been motivated and sustained by dedication to his family, devout Catholicism and a determination to improve the lot of the ordinary Australian through the labour movement.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lang, The Turbulent Years (Syd, 1970)
  • T. Sheridan, Mindful Militants (Cambridge, 1975)
  • B. Nairn, The 'Big Fella' (Melb, 1986)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 29 Oct 1959, p 1573
  • Newsday, 5, 1959
  • Labor Daily (Sydney), 7 Sept 1932, 24 May 1935
  • Sun (Sydney), 2 Apr 1952, 23 Oct 1959
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 2 Apr 1952, 22 Oct 1959
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 Oct 1959
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Oct 1959
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 25 Oct 1959
  • D. Clune, The Labor Government in N.S.W. 1941-1965: A Study in Longevity in Government (Ph.D. thesis, Dept of Government, University of Sydney, 1990) and for bibliography
  • railway service personal history card: John Joseph Cahill (State Records New South Wales)
  • Cahill papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Clune, 'Cahill, John Joseph (Joe) (1891–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

John Joseph Cahill (1891-1959), by unknown photographer

John Joseph Cahill (1891-1959), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200, L21842

Life Summary [details]


21 January, 1891
Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


22 October, 1959 (aged 68)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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