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James Joseph Kenneally (1879–1954)

by Ralph Pervan

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Joseph Kenneally (1879-1954), politician, was born on 15 May 1879 in Sydney, son of Patrick Kenneally, engine-driver, and his wife Charlotte, née Young. He was educated by the Christian Brothers and moved to Western Australia in 1899 where he became a locomotive cleaner, then engine-driver, with the railways. He was president of the West Australian Locomotive Engine-drivers', Firemen's and Cleaners' Union of Workers in 1914 and secretary in 1919. On 15 November 1911 in Adelaide he had married Mary Anne Flaherty, a teacher.

In 1927 Kenneally was president of the State branch of the Australian Labor Party and was elected member of the Legislative Assembly for East Perth. Next year he became federal president of the A.L.P., and was later a central participant in the bitter struggles which eventually destroyed the Scullin Federal government and split the party. At one level Kenneally's vigorous opposition to J. T. Lang can be seen as an assertion of the final authority of the federal branch. At another, his attack on Lang partly reflected Kenneally's basic fiscal 'respectability' and the fact that Lang, in his efforts to secure control of the New South Wales branch, had been engaged in a savage factional dispute with the Australian Workers' Union, an organization with which Kenneally was closely associated. At the 1930 federal conference he asserted that conference 'should be strong enough to say that those who did not observe [its decision] should go outside' the party.

Kenneally was urging that, although the consequences might be grave, the party's rules could not be ignored. However, in 1931 and 1933 Kenneally, as chairman of the federal executive, made two extraordinary decisions. He ruled that the Premiers' Plan was not in conflict with Labor's official policy, and that members of the Parliamentary Labor Party 'are at liberty to use their own discretion when dealing with the Premiers' Plan'. The latter implied a free vote in parliament in conflict with party rules.

Within the State labour movement Kenneally was a leader of the dominant moderate group and showed skill and firmness in maintaining its control. His important role was most clearly demonstrated during his time as a minister in the Collier government in 1933-36. Although he was without ministerial experience, Kenneally's seniority and his ability ensured him a leading place. His principal portfolio in this Depression period was employment; he was also minister for industrial development and child welfare until March 1935, then minister for a year for public works and labour.

He had the primary responsibility for applying the policy of preference to unionists on government relief works. Leaders of unions covering government employees urged that relief workers be compelled to join the relevant union. But officials of other unions whose members were being forced out of their normal occupations on to these projects, urged that they should be permitted to remain in their original unions. Kenneally applied the former policy although the government could not obtain approval for it from the party executive.

Kenneally's role was even more apparent in the destruction of the newly formed 'Relief and Sustenance Workers' Union' led by T. J. Hughes, the previous Labor member for East Perth. This union was successful in attracting members — many felt it unfair to expect men on part-time work to pay the full union fee, which in the case of the A.W.U. was 25 shillings, and it was claimed that the A.W.U. had insufficient sympathy for part-time workers' problems. Recognition for the new union was bluntly denied by Kenneally.

The major effect of the government's policy was the strengthening of the A.W.U.: between the A.L.P.'s 1932 and 1935 general councils A.W.U. membership almost trebled. This meant the union's voting strength rose from under 10 per cent in 1932 to 20 per cent in 1935. The A.W.U. was a strong backer of the State Labor government when its policy was being criticized within party conferences. Clearly this support was a major reason why there was little opposition within Labor ranks in this difficult period, despite the government's cautious policies.

Kenneally also alienated many by his alleged policy of moving 'militants' on government relief works to areas where their effect was diminished. By his firmness and vigour, particularly against those whom he saw as threats to party stability, Kenneally won both friends and opponents. Many of the latter campaigned against him at the February 1936 State election. The Labor government was returned but Kenneally lost his seat to his old rival Hughes.

Kenneally was a man who, when not working, enjoyed literature, cricket and the races. Shortly after his defeat he was appointed chairman of the Lotteries Commission. Later the Curtin Federal government appointed him to the Commonwealth Grants Commission and he was reappointed to this by the Menzies government. He retained both positions until his death of hypertensive heart disease on 9 October 1954. Survived by his wife and two of their five children, he was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party 1901-1951 (Lond, 1955), and Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • Labour History, Nov 1970, no 19
  • West Australian, 11 Oct 1954
  • R. F. Pervan, The Western Australian Labor Movement, 1933-47 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1966).

Citation details

Ralph Pervan, 'Kenneally, James Joseph (1879–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1879
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


9 October, 1954 (aged 75)
Western Australia, 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.