ORMONDE, James Patrick (1901–1970)
Senator for New South Wales, 1958–70 (Australian Labor Party)

James Patrick Ormonde, miner and journalist, was born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, on 23 March 1901, the son of Jeremiah Ormonde and Bridget, née Reilly. Ormonde came to Australia with his family at an early age, and grew up in Kurri Kurri on the New South Wales northern coalfields. He was educated at Marist Brothers College, West Maitland. On leaving school, he became, like his father, a miner at the Pelaw Main at Kurri Kurri. He was still a miner at Kurri Kurri when he married Margaret May Fraser, a nurse, on 12 February 1927, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney,

Ormonde trained as a journalist and worked on the Labor Daily. In 1934 he stood unsuccessfully for the New South Wales federal seat of Wentworth as a Labor candidate. He was a strong supporter of state Labor Leader J. T. Lang and on 22 April 1939 contested a by-election for the Legislative Assembly seat of Waverley as Lang’s candidate. This poll was to prove something of a watershed in New South Wales political history. Ormonde was defeated by C. E. Martin, the candidate of the breakaway Heffron Labor Party (also known as Industrial Labor). This, and a similar defeat in a March by-election for Hurstville, demonstrated clearly that Lang, who was deposed later that year, was a spent electoral force. [1]

Ormonde subsequently moved away from Lang and became a supporter of the anti-Lang and anti-communist group that controlled the NSW Labor Party from 1940 to 1952. In 1939 he became a founding member of the Ketteler Guild, which was formed by Sydney’s Catholic Action organisation to oppose communism in the unions. In the mid-1940s, Ormonde edited NSW Labor’s official newspaper, the Standard Weekly, succeeding the founding editor, Leslie Haylen (MHR Parkes 1943–63) in January 1944. One of his main tasks was to counter the propaganda of Lang’s newspaper, Century, which was engaged in a vitriolic campaign against the federal and state Labor governments. The Standard Weekly attempted to capture the attention of the Labor faithful by adopting a lively, popular tone, with plenty of emphasis on sport. A particular feature of the Century was the regular open letters of ‘Demos’, which contained bitter attacks on Labor leaders John Curtin and Bill McKell. The Standard Weekly countered with the letters of ‘Mermos’. For example, after Labor’s 1944 election victory in New South Wales ‘Mermos’ commented:

Dear Demos,

Your impudent attempt in last week’s ‘Century’ to justify scabbing is only equalled by your expressed sadistic pleasure at the confusion your lying campaign caused among innocent, easily led citizens.

Your degrading attempt to falsify the issues before the people received a deserved answer. The electorate has spoken in plain language. The unprecedented victory of the McKell Government, in spite of your worthless machinations, should forever debar you posing as a Labor man.

In 1943, Ormonde supported the expulsion of his former mentor, Lang, from the ALP. For twelve months, until August 1947, Ormonde was a feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, contributing a weekly column: ‘Labour Man’s View’.[2]

Elected to the New South Wales executive of the ALP in 1942, Ormonde was a New South Wales delegate to the ALP Federal Executive in 1948. He was deeply involved in machine politics. Although a staunch Catholic, Ormonde was influential from an early stage in the struggle against the ALP Groups. Despite having been one of the creators of the Industrial Groups in New South Wales, he had become increasingly alarmed about the single-minded anti-communism of ‘the Groupers’ and their relentless pursuit of power, and also by their close connection with B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement. Ormonde’s son, Paul, remembered his father

coming home from a suburban branch meeting of the Labor Party in Sydney and saying something to the effect: ‘A group of boys from the local church joined the branch tonight. I tell you, they are trying to take over the party’ … My father said he objected because the youths were joining the party, not to associate themselves with the party’s general social and political objectives, but to fight Communism.[3]

The Groupers took control of the New South Wales ALP in 1952, when Ormonde was dropped from the party’s executive. He became a key member of the anti-Group faction. Close to federal Opposition Leader H. V. Evatt, Ormonde was one of a small circle of advisers to Evatt when the latter released his now famous statement attacking the Industrial Groups in October 1954. Former federal minister Tom Uren gave this description of Ormonde’s subsequent activities:

During late 1954 and 1955 I worked closely with Jim Ormonde … His press contacts were quite remarkable. More than any other person, Jim masterminded the anti-Grouper cause in the daily press. I sat in his office on many occasions and the several telephones on his desk never seemed to stop ringing. On one occasion Jim had Doc Evatt on one line and Alan Reid from the Daily Telegraph on the other. It was a political education to watch Jim operate. He was a cautious man, but a remarkable communicator behind the scenes.

In 1956 the Federal Executive of the ALP intervened in New South Wales, and set up a ‘balanced’ executive composed of those both for and against Evatt, controlled by a centre group around the party officers. Ormonde, as one of two vice-presidents, remained influential, holding this position until 1958.[4]

In December 1957, Ormonde was preselected as a Senate candidate for the federal election of November 1958. Despite the sectarian bitterness of the preselection contest, his status as backroom operator and troubleshooter had been enhanced by the turbulence of the mid-1950s. In July 1958 Ormonde was appointed by the New South Wales Governor to the casual vacancy in the Senate caused by the death of W. P. Ashley, and he was sworn in the Senate on 26 August. His success at the November federal election meant that his six-year term was extended by another year.

Not unnaturally, a major theme of Ormonde’s in the Senate was the ALP and communism:

the industrial groups failed because they committed the cardinal offence, the great error in judgment, of localizing their point of view to a single object—the defeat of communism. But communism cannot be defeated that way. It can be defeated only by a broad policy which will bring security, happiness and comfort to the Australian people … I have spent a lifetime trying to beat the Communist party, and I was sorry when my methods—they were largely my methods because I was one of the architects of the opposition to communism in New South Wales—were thrown out for the methods of people who knew nothing of the problem with which they had to deal … Their methods were infantile, hence the trouble in the Labour party and the fact that the Liberal–Australian Country party Government is in office.[5]

In 1947 Ormonde had been appointed Public Relations Officer to the Joint Coal Board by the Chifley Government and he was a key ally of Chifley in dealing with the 1949 coal strike in New South Wales. Reappointed by the Menzies Government in 1949, Ormonde enjoyed a strong working relationship with the Minister for National Development, Senator Spooner, sharing Spooner’s desire to rid the coal industry of communists. In the Senate, Ormonde used his detailed knowledge of the coal industry to attack the Menzies Government’s policies in that area. In 1959 he said that ‘a colossal amount’ still remained to be done to modernise local coal production methods and reduce waste, and referred to the creation of plastics and synthetics from coal by-products in the USA. Ormonde described the powers given to judges in the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission as ‘sheer lunacy’. He wondered how they could possibly determine difficult economic questions beyond their area of expertise, and suggested that the court have its own economic advisers. Though his committee service was limited, he spoke well in debate and took a keen interest in health, and the high cost of health insurance, medicine and drugs. He was a strong opponent of the Vietnam War.[6]

In April 1970 Ormonde announced that for personal reasons he would not seek re-election to the Senate. His health was not good, and there had been suggestions that the New South Wales party may not have preselected him. He was still in office when he died on 30 November, at Hughlings Private Hospital, Darlinghurst. He was survived by Margaret and their four children. Requiem Mass was celebrated at St Canice’s Church, Elizabeth Bay, conducted by Ormonde’s brother, Father Tom Ormonde, and was followed by burial at the Northern Suburbs Lawn Cemetery. Ormonde was remembered as the friend and confidant of Ben Chifley and H. V. Evatt, and for his skill at backroom politics. His fellow senators referred to his good humour and complete absence of rancour. In 1972 his son Paul published The Movement, whose dedication referred to his father as one ‘who always distinguished between the Church and its leaders’.[7]

David Clune

[1] CPD, 16 Feb. 1971 (R), pp. 4–6; ALP, NSW branch, Biographical sketches, MLMSS 2083/400, item 1022 (KH 7400, folio 209), SLNSW.

[2] Bruce Duncan, Crusade or Conspiracy? Catholics and the Anti-Communist Struggle in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2001, p. 25; Leslie Haylen, Twenty Years’ Hard Labor, Macmillan, South Melbourne, 1969, pp. 26–7; J. T. Lang, The Turbulent Years, Alpha Books, Sydney, 1970, pp. 267, 295; Standard Weekly (Syd.), 8 June 1944, p. 2; SMH, 7 June 1943, pp. 4, 7, 21 Aug. 1947, p. 2.

[3] ALP, NSW branch, Central executive minutes, 1942, MLMSS 5095, item 464x, SLNSW; CPD, 16 Feb. 1971 (R), p. 4, 1 Mar. 1962, p. 286, 26 Aug. 1958, pp. 214–17; Tom Uren, Straight Left, Random House, Milsons Point, NSW, 1994, p. 83; Paul Ormonde, The Movement, Thomas Nelson (Australia), Melbourne, 1972, p. 34.

[4] Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 122–4, 129, 177–9, 183, 189, 281, 289–91, 299–301; Clyde R. Cameron, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913–1990, as told to Daniel Connell, ABC Enterprises, Crows Nest, NSW, 1990, p. 120; Uren, Straight Left, p. 83; Graham Freudenberg, Cause for Power: The Official History of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, NSW, 1991, p. 234; Michael Hogan and David Clune (eds), The Peoples Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century New South Wales, vol. 2, Parliament of New South Wales and University of Sydney, Sydney, 2001, p. 360; ALP, NSW branch, Central executive minutes, 1956–58, MLMSS 5095, items 467x–468x, SLNSW.

[5] Sun-Herald (Syd.), 24 Nov. 1957, p. 9; CPD, 26 Aug. 1958, pp. 216–17.

[6] ALP, NSW branch, Biographical sketches, MLMSS 2083/400, item 1022 (KH 7400, folio 209), SLNSW; SMH, 1 Dec. 1970, p. 9; Sun (Syd.), 30 Nov. 1970, p. 8; Sun-Herald (Syd.), 15 Dec. 1957, p. 26; Tom Sheridan, Division of Labour: Industrial Relations in the Chifley Years, 1945–49, OUP, South Melbourne, 1989, pp. 298, 309–10; CPD, 18 Sept. 1958, pp. 435–8, 1 Mar. 1962, p. 287, 15 Mar. 1960, pp. 139–45, 1 Sept. 1959, pp. 384, 388–91, 27 Feb. 1964, p. 98, 6 Nov. 1968, pp. 1719–20, 9 Sep. 1969, pp. 548–9, 7 Apr. 1965, pp. 352–6, 4 Apr. 1967, pp. 487–9.

[7] Australian (Syd.), 6 Apr. 1970, p. 3; SMH, 4 Dec. 1970, p. 6; Australian (Syd.), 1 Dec. 1970, p. 2; CPD, 16 Feb. 1971, pp. 4–8; Ormonde, The Movement, p. v.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 404-408.

Ormonde, James Patrick (1901–1970)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1958–70

Senate Committee Service

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1962–63

Printing Committee, 1962–67

House Committee, 1967–70

Select Committee on Air Pollution, 1968