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Story: Paul, John Thomas

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Paul, John Thomas


Compositor, trade unionist, politician, editor, journalist, censor

This biography, written by Erik Olssen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

John Thomas Paul was born near Boort, Victoria, Australia, on 16 August 1874, the son of Mary Tomkins and her husband, Daniel Fisher Paul, who farmed a small selection and worked as a railway employee. Tom served his apprenticeship as a compositor on the Bendigo Independent. On 10 November 1897 he married Ethel Blake at Bendigo; they were to have two sons and a daughter. It is not clear why they left Australia, but in 1899 they arrived in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Paul found employment as a compositor with the Otago Daily Times and Witness Newspapers Company. Before long he had become the leading figure in the typographers' chapel and in the Otago Typographical Association. As president (1902–4) he helped to negotiate an agreement with the Otago Daily Times which established the compositors' control of the new linotype technology. He also represented the typographers on the Otago Trades and Labour Council (TLC) and the Workers' Political Committee. His wide knowledge of social issues and his persuasive speech, no less than his ability to deal courteously with everybody he met, quickly saw him become Dunedin's most prominent unionist.

In 1904 Paul used his considerable powers of persuasion to push through a resolution at the national conference of Trades and Labour Councils establishing the Political Labour League of New Zealand (PLL). He almost certainly believed that this would supplant the Liberal party, but cannily refrained from saying so, hoping to force the Liberals to pay more attention to labour issues. As president of the Otago TLC (1903–5) he cajoled the delegates into building their own hall in Moray Place, and pushed through negotiations to buy the Otago Liberal. In 1905 he gave up the presidency to edit this weekly, later renamed the Beacon. He left the editorship in June 1906, and the paper went bankrupt in 1907. Paul's respectability, caution, and pragmatism saw him elected president of several unions, including the tailoresses' national association.

Paul's prominent role in establishing the PLL had doubtless persuaded Premier Richard Seddon to appoint him to the 1905 royal commission on Crown lands. Two years later Seddon's successor, Sir Joseph Ward, appointed him to the Legislative Council. He soon established himself as one of the labour movement's national leaders. He kept his hand in as a journalist by writing free-lance columns for the Otago Daily Times, including a weekly column about labour matters, and he continued to play an active role in the Dunedin labour movement.

The PLL's failure in the 1908 elections disappointed Paul, but he soon had other problems to worry about. The rise of the militant New Zealand Federation of Labour dismayed him. He denounced American methods and ideologies; he repudiated strikes and class war, and the idea that socialism could be achieved without resort to politics. Within Dunedin he enjoyed considerable success. He knew the local leaders of the New Zealand Socialist Party well – indeed two of them were his neighbours in St David Street – and helped to maintain co-operation with them. At the national level events proved harder to control. Although he pushed the TLCs to speed up the development of plans for a national federation of labour, the 'Red Feds' had stolen the name and the initiative. Paul worked for unity but without success. He also played an important role in 1910 in committing the TLCs to replacing the PLL with the first New Zealand Labour Party.

In 1911, when the Trades and Labour Councils hired W. T. Mills to promote unity, Paul had no hesitation in joining his campaign to establish the United Labour Party of New Zealand (ULP); he became the first president. Mills's vision of socialism as an ethical imperative won Paul's enthusiastic support: his view of the transition from a competitive to a co-operative society as being evolutionary was able to accommodate both Paul's deep nonconformist religious convictions, and his passionate support for such causes as free public libraries, temperance, rating on unimproved land values, and proportional representation. Paul now began assiduously collecting historical source materials and wrote a succession of important histories, notably those about the bootmakers, the tailoresses and the Otago Trades and Labour Council, all expressing his political philosophy.

Following the defeat of the Waihi strike of 1912, Paul attended the unity conferences of 1913 as did Mills, but he and about one-third of the delegates walked out because they disapproved of national control over the right to call strikes and impose levies. This led to a break with Mills, who denounced the ULP rump. Paul tried to give up the presidency but stayed on to help his friend David McLaren, locked in a torrid conflict with the Reds during his campaign for the mayoralty of Wellington. During the 1913 strikes Paul tried, without success, to dissuade the government from mobilising special police, but his demand that the government force the employers to negotiate a settlement helped repair the breach between him and many leading Red Feds. For militants, however, the reappointment of Paul to the Legislative Council in 1914 only confirmed the view that 'Old Tom' had become 'Uncle Tom'. Even friends like McLaren were disappointed that he accepted: 'I would rather see you in the House'.

Paul and the Otago TLC now severed links with all national organisations to ensure that the political strength of Otago's unions did not get sacrificed on the altar of national disputes. In 1914 they formed the Otago Labour Council (OLC) as the political and industrial arm of the unions. This step did not appease local supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), but after much furious debate they finally agreed to work together on condition that the OLC surrender control of politics after the election. Paul, the proud architect of this arrangement, then helped mastermind a deal with the Liberals to ensure that the anti-Reform vote was not wasted. He refused to resign from the Legislative Council to contest a seat for Labour, however, but must have felt vindicated when one of his protégés, Andrew Walker, won.

Paul strongly supported New Zealand's entry into the First World War in August 1914. He had been a commander of the National League of New Zealand (later the National Defence League) since 1906 and helped to organise a patriotic and welfare committee in 1914. He had no doubt that civilisation stood in the balance and helped to swing the OLC behind the war effort. Paul served on the Otago recruiting committee, and in 1915 came to believe that conscription might be necessary; a majority of Otago's unionists shared his views. When the United Federation of Labour – which the OLC had joined in 1915 (Paul becoming a member of the executive) – proposed convening an anti-conscription conference, Paul alone objected. He helped guide the OLC towards a middle ground which would avoid the extremism of the Social Democratic Party yet reflect the deep preference of unionists for voluntary enlistment. Paul used every argument he could think of to caution the federation's leaders about the dangers of identifying Labour with disloyalty, but agreed that 'If [conscription] ever comes…it should be conscription all round – men and money.'

Few Otago unions sent delegates to the first anti-conscription conference, but Paul's fear that such a gathering would deepen the split in the ranks of the unions proved unfounded. Although annoyed that those who opposed conscription most vehemently did the least to make the voluntary system work, he recognised that Labour's unity and eventual political success depended on finding a formula that all could accept and which could be defended against the mounting accusation that Labour was disloyal. His proved to be the formula. In June 1916 Paul voted against the Military Service Bill, because it failed to provide for the conscription of wealth. Unlike many leading members of the SDP, however, he would brook no talk of general strikes or direct action. In July 1916 he attended the founding conference of the second New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) and sat on the committee which drafted a new constitution and platform. He insisted on a clause which committed the party to repealing conscription by constitutional means. He further underlined Labour's loyalty by becoming the first chairman to the Advisory Board for the Federation of New Zealand Patriotic War Relief Societies.

Paul's course had antagonised some of his oldest allies on the Otago Labour Council and disturbed others. Although the Dunedin factions formed a Labour Representation Committee (LRC) to affiliate with the NZLP, when Paul (and other NZLP leaders) signed a message to the Australian voters, urging them to vote against conscription, the local situation exploded. Paul's oldest ally and friend, Bob Breen, almost persuaded the OLC to repudiate Paul; it disaffiliated from the LRC. The vice president of the LRC resigned; three members of the Patriotic and Welfare Committee resigned rather than sit in the same room with Paul.

By urging a new system of national service Paul won back many old friends, but he recognised that he could best hold the Otago movement in line by resuming office as secretary of the OLC. He worked hard to persuade the intemperate and impatient to work within the Labour Party rather than resign. From one committee to another he fought for sanity, unity, and democratic procedures, and he began to command the respect of men who had once dismissed him as a weak-kneed embodiment of the craft unionist's commitment to respectability. Indeed, he greeted 1917 by declaring that 'the old craft form of organisation is passing'. Paul, one of the most effective critics of the myth of industrial unionism, now preached what once he had damned as 'bunkum'. Those who had once damned him, however, now recognised his worth and accepted the need to work for socialism by constitutional means.

Under Paul's guidance the Otago Labour Council rejoined the Labour Representation Committee. Paul helped shape the latter's remits for the NZLP's 1917 conference, but then had to work hard to prevent everything unravelling over the issue of prohibition. Otago delegates wanted a referendum on prohibition; Auckland delegates had the issue of state control added. The party's prohibitionist president, James McCombs, resigned and it was left to Paul and M. J. Savage to engineer a compromise.

Paul also threw his weight behind the idea of a Central Labour Office for Otago, in part a step to save costs and in part the first step towards creating a local foundation for 'One Big Union'. He helped to ensure that the OLC accepted this scheme, much beloved by the former members of the SDP and opposed by many old friends and allies. Paul had given up the secretaryship of the OLC, although he still kept a close eye on it. In 1918 he led the Otago delegation to the NZLP's second annual conference and was elected president. He was by now one of the labour movement's elder statesmen. The only prominent member to have had a hand in founding every labour party, with the exception of the SDP, he brought to the task an unrivalled knowledge of the problems and challenges. The new party's ability to assert its authority over the various regional organisations and the diverse ideological factions, not to mention some extraordinarily powerful personalities, owed much to Paul and the secretary, Savage.

Paul also worked vigorously to promote unity among the unions, although he lost interest as a new generation of syndicalists began to condemn political action. He now supported guild socialism's advocacy of workers' control and profit sharing. In 1919 he resigned from the Legislative Council to contest Dunedin South for the Labour Party. He would have won easily had the long-serving Liberal member, T. K. Sidey, been allowed by the Liberal party to resign, as he wanted, but finally lost by a mere 84 votes. Paul was undoubtedly disappointed. Over the previous two years he had given himself without stint, only to be rejected by people who still damned him as a traitor. The poisonous letters kept coming. He always replied at once and swore that he merely turned the other cheek, but the depth of hatred clearly upset him.

Paul now had to find work. Sir George Fenwick, the managing editor of the Otago Daily Times, offered him work as a journalist, and he completed his long campaign to unify the nation's clothing workers in one union. He joined the board of King Edward Technical College, and busied himself with patriotic funds administration, the Patients' and Prisoners' Aid Society, the Workers' Educational Association and other good works. He also found more time for yachting. In 1922 the unions of Otago begged him to let himself be nominated for a parliamentary seat; he refused, and in 1924 Fenwick offered him the editorship of the weekly Otago Witness. He was not an outstanding editor, but indulged his enthusiasm for history.

In 1932 the Witness went bankrupt and Paul was thrown back into the struggle to earn a living. It is not clear how he survived the next few years, although he served on the National Centennial Historical Committee. During the Second World War, however, as well as being a member of the National Patriotic Fund Board, he became director of publicity and, in effect, chief censor. He and Peter Fraser, the prime minister, saw eye to eye and Paul used his powers to prevent the publication of information which, in his judgement, might hinder the war effort. His instinctive gentlemanliness, remarked on by most who met him, helped make policy acceptable and he later justified his and the party's record with his Humanism in politics. In 1946 he was appointed once again to the Legislative Council. He assumed that the Labour councillors would meet with the MPs in caucus, with full voting rights (as had happened from 1911 to 1919), but it was not to be.

Labour lost power in 1949 and the National government set out to abolish the Legislative Council. Paul discovered himself to be a constitutional conservative and devoted himself to its salvation. After the abolition of the Council in 1950 he played an active role in founding and promoting the Constitutional Society. He spent a couple of years in Auckland with his daughter and enjoyed the chance to see old friends, but his wife's lengthy illness soon turned him into a nursemaid. Not that he minded at all; service to others constituted the meaning of life for Paul. Ethel Paul died in 1961, and Paul himself died at Raumati, north of Wellington, on 25 July 1964. He was survived by his two sons.

Paul was a modest, unassuming man who made friends easily. His religious convictions and commitment to parliamentary democracy placed him among the moderates of the labour movement, while his experience with unions and unionists made him a firm socialist. His personal qualities and his beliefs combined to allow him to play a key role in uniting labour's factions into a serious political party.

How to cite this page:

Erik Olssen. 'Paul, John Thomas', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3p16/paul-john-thomas (accessed 12 April 2024)