CUNNINGHAM, James (1879–1943)
Senator for Western Australia, 1937–43 (Australian Labor Party)

James Cunningham was born on 28 December 1879 at Wirrabara, South Australia, the son of James Cunningham, a stonemason and farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Herring, domestic servant. Young Jimmy had little formal education. From 1899 he was a prospector and goldminer, working at Norseman until 1905, and then at Boulder and Kalgoorlie. Fifteen years in the mines left him with a legacy of silicosis in later life, and an enduring concern for the health of miners. From 1914 to 1916 he was full-time secretary of the Kalgoorlie–Boulder branch of the Federated Miners’ Union.[1]At a by-election in July 1916, Cunningham, an independent Labor candidate, was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Council, representing the North-East Province. Defeated as an ALP candidate in 1922, he won the Legislative Assembly seat of Kalgoorlie at a by-election in January 1923. When Labor came to power in 1924 Cunningham was given the post of Honorary Minister in the Collier Ministry. From 1927 until the Government’s defeat in 1930, he served as Minister for Goldfields and Agricultural Water Supplies. According to Senator E. B. Johnston, Cunningham was ‘responsible for the utilization of the wonderful rock catchments throughout the wheat belt’—‘a monument to his administrative capacity and his desire to assist in the development of that State’. Paul Hasluck, who was in charge of the gallery reporting staff for the West Australian during the 1920s, remembered Cunningham as ‘a thick-set and rather podgy man’ who was ‘genially drunk for about three-quarters of his time in the chamber’. Hasluck conceded that Cunningham ‘seemed to attract the affectionate regard of his colleagues even when they did his work and covered up his faults’. It seems too that Cunningham was conscientious in attending to the concerns of those constituents who waylaid him in the street. If no writing material was to hand, he would scribble notes of the conversation on his celluloid cuffs. The next time he met the voter, Jimmy would respond somewhat as follows: ‘“I ’aven’t forgot yer . . . ’Ere it is all writ down”’ and shoot his cuffs ‘to reveal the pencilled note still there’.[2]

Labor returned to office in 1933, but Cunningham was not re-elected to the ministry: his drinking problems had become too acute. In 1935 he lost preselection for Kalgoorlie. After a protracted dispute about the validity of the preselection ballot, he was one of three Labor candidates allowed to contest the seat at the 1936 state election. Cunningham came a distant second and returned to his farm at Mullewa. His political career seemed to have reached an inglorious end, but he retained solid support from the union movement. A place was found for him on the 1937 Senate ticket and he was elected at the top of the poll, thus becoming eligible under current law to fill the casual vacancy then occupied by T. Marwick vice Carroll. Cunningham took his seat from the date of his election. Despite concerns about the validity of his appointment to the casual vacancy all was correct and above board, the only problem being that few people could understand the relevant provisions of the Senate Elections Act.[3]

Cunningham’s speeches, both in the Western Australian Parliament and in the Senate, were consistent in theme. Often rambling rather than cogent, he could rise to the occasion on issues of particular concern to him. He spoke lucidly on electoral reform, the rights of Western Australia under the federal system and the struggles of local primary producers, especially wheat farmers and goldminers. In 1941, he acted as a member of the Western Australian War Industries Committee, whose report was placed before Cabinet on 11 July. His Senate addresses were more effective than his post-1930 Western Australian parliamentary contributions, suggesting a determined effort to manage his alcohol intake and sustain his parliamentary comeback. At fifty-eight years of age, he had few other ways of earning an adequate income.[4]

Appointed Deputy Leader of the Labor Opposition in the Senate in 1940, Cunningham, who, in 1938, had represented Prime Minister Curtin at meetings of the ALP’s Federal Executive, was the party’s candidate for the presidency of the Senate in July 1941, an election held in the chamber by secret ballot, which caused Labor to deny pairs. The vote was close. Two non-Labor senators were absent; Senator MacDonald had that day been taken to hospital by ambulance, and Senator Wilson was overseas with the AIF. In each of two consecutive ballots Cunningham and the sitting President, Senator J. B. Hayes, were tied. The Clerk proposed the matter be determined by lot in line with Senate standing orders. One name was then drawn from a box, and, as Senator Gordon Brown put it, ‘the Senator who stops in is in, and the Senator who comes out is out’. Hayes came out and Cunningham was in, completing a startling political resurrection.[5]

Cunningham was a competent Senate President, with some experience in the chair, as he had served as a temporary chairman of committees between 1938 and 1940. If he was largely following the advice of his Clerk, he did so in a straightforward and calm fashion, applying ‘a sturdy measure of common sense’ to the interpretation of standing orders at a time when uncertainties in the voting among non-Labor senators made his post more testing than usual.[6] These qualities were in evidence during a heated debate on 3 July on a matter of privilege in regard to Tasmanian press reports which claimed that, during the secret ballot that resulted in Cunningham’s election, labor’s senators Lamp and Darcey and Aylett had placed ‘party before State’ and voted against the United Australia Party’s Senator Hayes, thereby disadvantaging Tasminia. The story seems to have been given to the press by A. J. Beck, the UAP’s Member for Denison.[7]

In mid-1942, Cunningham’s interpretation of the Senate’s privileges provoked a more damaging dispute with the press. The Senate, on Cunningham’s deciding vote against his party, refused to lift a regulation banning the sale of beef from the Werribee sewerage farm in Victoria, although the removal of the regulation was sought as an urgent wartime measure. Richard Hughes, in the Sydney Sunday Telegraph, responded with an article, ‘Those Meddlesome Old Men of The Senate’, in which he berated senators in scathing personal terms. No apology was forthcoming from the paper’s proprietor, Frank Packer. On Cunningham’s initiative, representatives of the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph were banned from the precincts of Parliament House. The ban, which annoyed at least one Labor minister, was lifted in September.[8]

On 4 July 1943, while on his way home to campaign in the forthcoming general election, Cunningham died in Albury. He was given a state funeral in Perth, and after a service at St Mary’s Catholic Church, Leederville, he was buried in Karrakatta Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Alice, née Daly, whom he had married at St Mary’s Church, Kalgoorlie, in 1907, and by his daughter Mary, and two sons, John and Martin. One of his political opponents noted that Cunningham had experienced ‘many ups and downs and in his early career as a miner and as a farmer he received many hard knocks’. Those experiences made him generous—especially towards other strugglers—and tolerant of human failings. A likeable and caring man, Jimmy Cunningham’s rapid rise from party discard to Senate President was due in part to sheer luck, but also owed much to the firm friendships, such as that of the Prime Minister, John Curtin, built up over a lifetime of service to the labour movement.[9]

Geoff Browne

[1] Ralph Pervan, ‘Cunningham, James’, ADB, vol. 8; WAPD, 6 Dec. 1932, pp. 2223–5; CPD, 30 June 1938, p. 2931.

[2] CPD, 2 Dec. 1937, pp. 115–16; Paul Hasluck, The Chance of Politics, ed. Nicholas Hasluck, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 32–4.

[3] Records of the Australian Labor Party (WA Branch), LISWA; West Australian (Perth), 21 Oct. 1937, p. 21, 13 Nov. 1937, p. 22; Peter Heydon, Quiet Decision: A Study of George Foster Pearce, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1965, p. 197; Senate, Journals, 30 Nov. 1937.

[4] WAPD, 18 Aug. 1920, pp. 133–40, 15 Nov. 1923, pp. 1470–2, 27 July 1933, p. 164, 6 Dec. 1934, pp. 1845–7; CPD, 30 Nov. 1938, pp. 2316–19, 1 Dec. 1938, pp. 2469–72, 30 Nov. 1939, pp. 1803–5, 31 May 1940, p. 1788; Report of the Western Australian War Industries Committee, A620/W7/1/10, NAA.

[5] Patrick Weller (ed.), Caucus Minutes 1901–1949, vol. 3, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1975, pp. 237, 282; Patrick Weller and Beverley Lloyd (eds), Federal Executive Minutes 1915–1955, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1978, p. 217; CPD, 1 July 1941, pp. 565–6; Harry Evans (ed.), Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice, 10th edn, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2001, p. 247; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 338; SMH, 2 July 1941, p. 9.

[6] CPD, 23 Sept. 1943, p. 13; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1929–1949, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1963, p. 127; West Australian (Perth), 5 July 1943, p. 2.

[7] CPD, 3 July 1941, pp. 784–804.

[8] CPD, 2 June 1942, p. 1806, 3 June 1942, p. 1897, 3 & 4 June 1942, p. 2187, 13 May 1942, pp. 1104, 1131; C. J. Lloyd, Parliament and the Press: The Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery 1901–88, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, pp. 149–52; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 17 May 1942, p. 21; SMH, 3 June 1942, p. 6, 4 June 1942, p. 9; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 440–1; CPD, 29 Sept. 1942, p. 1003.

[9] SMH, 5 July 1943, p. 7; Kalgoorlie Miner, 5 July 1943, p. 2; Argus (Melb.), 5 July 1943, p. 3; West Australian (Perth), 5 July 1943, p. 2, 16 July 1943, p. 6; Herald (Melb.), 9 July 1943, p. 5; Age (Melb.), 10 July 1943, p. 3; Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 23 July 1943, p. 1; CPD, 23 Sept. 1943, pp. 11–14, 20–2; Lloyd Ross, John Curtin: A Biography, Sun Books, Macmillan, South Melbourne, Vic., 1983, p. 314.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 51-54.

CUNNINGHAM, James (1879–1943)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1937–43

President of the Senate, 1941–43

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council,  North-East Province, 1916–22

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Kalgoorlie, 1923–36

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1937–38

House Committee, 1937–38, 1941–43

Printing Committee, 1938–41

Library Committee, 1941–43

Standing Orders Committee, 1941–43