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James Cunningham (1879–1943)

by Ralph Pervan

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Cunningham (1879-1943), politician, was born on 28 December 1879 at Warabraer, South Australia, son of James Cunningham, stonemason and farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Herrin, domestic servant. His parents could not write and Cunningham had little formal schooling. From about 1899 he was prospecting and mining on the eastern goldfields of Western Australia, and he later suffered severely from silicosis. On 29 October 1907 at Kalgoorlie he married Alice Daly. Active in the infant trade union movement, in 1914 he became full-time secretary of the Kalgoorlie and Boulder branch of the Goldfields Amalgamated Miners' Union of Workers of Western Australia.

Cunningham was a member of the Western Australian Legislative Council in 1916-22 and of the Legislative Assembly in 1923-36. Following Labor's 1924 victory, he was elected honorary minister and, in 1927, minister for goldfields and agricultural water supplies, a position he held until the government's defeat in 1930. In 1933 however, when Labor regained office, he was not re-elected to the ministry or even to other non-cabinet positions. This most unusual rebuff occurred largely because of his serious alcohol problem.

In 1936 Cunningham was defeated in the ballot for party re-endorsement. Subsequently it was announced that a number of voting papers had been discovered mixed in with those for other ballots: there followed a long intra-party struggle, in which it was clear that he had significant support from mining union officials. It was decided to allow all three candidates to contest the seat in the State election under the Labor banner. Thus he received a second and most favourable chance; however, he lost to H. H. Styants by a convincing margin and retired to his farm at Mullewa.

In 1937 Cunningham was elected to the Senate for Labor and in 1940 he became deputy leader of the party there. In July 1941 his remarkable come-back reached its zenith with his election as president of the Senate. The circumstances of the election were unusual: the absence of two non-Labor Senators (one on active service, the other unexpectedly admitted to hospital that very morning) resulted in a tied vote; in the draw to resolve the deadlock, Cunningham won.

Throughout his life Cunningham remained part of the strong network of moderate views and personal loyalty which bound together the leading members of the Labor Party in Western Australia. He died of coronary-vascular disease on 4 July 1943 at Albury, New South Wales, and was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Karrakatta cemetery, Perth, following a state funeral. Significant among the tributes paid to him were those of political opponents who lauded his friendliness and the common sense and fairness he displayed as Senate president. He was survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1941, 1st session, p 565, 1943, 1st S, p 11
  • Westralian Worker, 31 May, 5, 21 June 1935
  • West Australian, 21 Oct 1935
  • Australian Labor Party (Western Australia), Styants's appeal file, and State executive minutes, 27 June, 1 July, 5, 19 Aug, 7 Oct 1935, and General council report, 1935, and Parliamentary Labor Party minutes, 19 Apr 1936 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ralph Pervan, 'Cunningham, James (1879–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


28 December, 1879
Warabraer, South Australia, Australia


4 July, 1943 (aged 63)
Albury, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.