William (Bill) Edward Parry was born at Orange, New South Wales, in 1878. He was one of 13 children of John Parry, a goldminer and prospector, and his wife, Emily Wright. The hardships faced by his family were to be a formative influence on him. Parry left school at the age of 12 and worked in the goldmines at Barmedman. He also developed a love, which he never lost, for the Australian outback.
Parry first came to New Zealand in 1902, but after a short time in Auckland and two years mining at Karangahake he returned to Australia. He married Georgina Fowke at Wyalong, New South Wales, on 15 April 1906, and migrated with his wife, widowed mother, a brother and a sister to New Zealand in the same year. Bill and Georgina Parry were to have two daughters.
Parry had educated himself in socialist thought by long hours of reading, and now became involved in union affairs at the Waihī goldmines. From 1909 until 1912 he served as president of the Waihī Amalgamated Miners' and Workers' Union and its successor. During that time he was appointed both a miners' inspector and a member of the 1911 Royal Commission on Mines.
One of the founders of the New Zealand Federation of Labour, Parry was its vice president from 1911 to 1913. He was prominent in both the 1912 Waihī strike, during which he was imprisoned in Mount Eden for four months, and in the 1913 waterfront and general strikes. Parry had been at first reluctant to strike at Waihī, but was forced into a more militant position by supporters of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Blacklisted in Waihī after the defeat of the strike, Parry worked during 1913 and 1914 as an organiser for the Manawatū Flaxmills Employees' Union. At the time of the 1913 strike he was living in Palmerston North, and the United Federation of Labour, successor to the 'Red Feds', sent him on a fund-raising mission to Australia. He moved to Auckland in 1915 to become an agent for the Maoriland Worker newspaper.
He was an executive member of the Social Democratic Party from 1914, and joined the New Zealand Labour Party on its creation in 1916. Parry had toured the country in 1911 forming anti-militarist leagues, and participated in the anti-conscription campaign during the First World War. In 1917–18 he was secretary of the Waikato Flaxmills Employees' Union before briefly becoming secretary of the New Zealand Miners' Federation.
Bill Parry was a close personal friend and strong political ally of Michael Joseph Savage. They had worked closely together in establishing the Labour Party and promoting the Maoriland Worker in Auckland. They were also closely associated in relief work during the 1918 influenza epidemic and were frequent visitors in each other's homes. Following his election as MP for Auckland Central in 1919, he and Savage shared a room in a Wellington boarding-house during parliamentary sessions.
Parry was not a major contributor to Labour's policy development, nor to its parliamentary strategy. Nevertheless, he was an automatic choice for Savage's first cabinet in 1935, and served as minister of internal affairs until 1949; he was minister in charge of pensions from 1935 to 1938. After Walter Nash implemented the Social Security Act 1938, it became Parry's ministerial responsibility from 1940 to 1949. He favoured higher pensions than did Savage and was more inclined to support monetary reforms, but remained steadfastly loyal during Savage's lengthy battle with John A. Lee and other caucus critics. He also was in charge of government advertising from 1935 to 1940 and tourist and health resorts from 1943 to 1949. An administrator rather than an innovative policy maker, as minister of internal affairs Parry relied heavily on his outstanding permanent under-secretary, Joseph Heenan. He strongly supported Heenan's introduction of state funding for the arts.
Throughout his life Parry was an enthusiastic practitioner of and advocate for physical fitness and health education, including vegetarian diets. He was responsible for the Physical Welfare and Recreation Act 1937 which authorised local authorities to finance the recreational needs of their communities. A big, very strong and energetic man, he was a noted cyclist in his youth and subsequently became an ardent shooter and angler. He was a regular attender at the parliamentary gymnasium.
Bill Parry represented Auckland Central until 1946, when he transferred to the adjoining seat of Arch Hill. He retired in 1951. His leadership and imprisonment during the Waihī strike gave him great mana in the New Zealand labour movement for the rest of his life; but despite his 32 years in Parliament and 14 years as a minister he never achieved a similar reputation as a politician.
Conscientious, humane and universally well liked, Parry was not a good speaker. Never an ideologue, his socialism aimed at fulfilling people's practical needs. He took a broad view of politics, and his promotion of physical recreation and cultural activities was based on his belief in active and responsible citizenship. He died on 27 November 1952 in Auckland, survived by his wife and daughters.