Daniel Giles Sullivan was born on 18 July 1882 at Waltham, Christchurch, the son of Florance (Flurence) Sullivan, from County Kerry, Ireland, and his wife, Mary Dow, from Dundee, Scotland. They had a large family and were comparatively poor, with Florance working as a labourer and a carter. As a child Daniel assisted the family by selling newspapers. His formal education ended at the age of 11 when he passed proficiency after attending the Marist Brothers’ and St Mary’s schools. However, he continued to read voraciously, particularly in social history and the biographies of philosophers, politicians, explorers and scientists. He worked for a year in a market garden and was then apprenticed to learn french polishing. After completing his apprenticeship, he headed for London in 1900.
Sullivan made the journey partly to improve his trade skills, but also to visit places he had read about, and to learn more about the labour movement. He sold his own hand-made furniture door to door in Melbourne and other Australian cities to raise his passage to Britain. There he was at one stage reduced to sleeping on the Thames Embankment in London. He later maintained that his political career was strongly influenced by a determination to prevent the kind of poverty he witnessed overseas from developing in New Zealand, and by the dedication of British trade unionists. He also visited northern Ireland and North America. He then returned to Christchurch, where, on 23 November 1905, he married Daisy Ethel Webster. Although Sullivan was a staunch Catholic, they were wed at the Anglican Church of St Mary in Merivale.
Sullivan attributed his early interest in trade unionism to the influence of a foreman active in the Christchurch United Furniture Trades Union (CUFTU). He had gained his first elected office, secretary of the committee organising the union’s annual picnic, at 16, and had briefly been a delegate to the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council. He held at various times the posts of president and secretary of both the CUFTU and the New Zealand Federated Furniture Trade Union, and was elected vice president (1907, 1909 and 1910) and president (1911) of the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council. He served on the executive of the Trades and Labour Councils’ Federation of Labour, and in 1914 he was president of the United Federation of Labour. Two years earlier he had begun writing on labour issues for the Lyttelton Times. From 1915 to 1920 he was a journalist with the Christchurch Sun, and in 1919 he published Dan Sullivan’s Magazine. He helped found the Christchurch Journalists’ Union, and was adept at arguing cases through the industrial conciliation and arbitration system.
Sullivan joined the Independent Political Labour League of New Zealand in Christchurch after hearing James Thorn speak during the 1905 election campaign. He became a regular weekend speaker in Cathedral Square, and in 1908 was the league’s president and electoral candidate for Avon. Although a ‘close student’ of the writings of Karl Marx and Henry George, Sullivan later claimed to have been particularly influenced by the ideas of Michael Flürscheim, a German advocate of land nationalisation. The budding young politician was moderate labour, both by principle and temperament. He favoured industrial arbitration, advocated limited businesslike state ownership to promote competition, and supported land settlement through improvements in rural conditions.
Sullivan joined the league’s successor, the first New Zealand Labour Party, and was its candidate for Riccarton in 1911, cycling many miles in the evenings after work to address meetings in country areas. He was secretary of the conference that formed the overwhelmingly moderate United Labour Party of New Zealand in 1912, and then accompanied other moderates into the Social Democratic Party, being its Avon candidate in 1914. He served on the Christchurch strike committee in 1913. During the First World War he was on the executive of the Christchurch Patriotic Committee and on the local Citizens’ Defence Corps, although he opposed conscription.
In 1919 Dan Sullivan finally won Avon for the second New Zealand Labour Party. He represented it for the rest of his life. During the early 1920s he was prominent in the largely Christchurch-based moderate opposition to Harry Holland in caucus, supporting the leadership challenges of Lyttelton MP James McCombs and making one himself. He was, nevertheless, Labour’s senior whip (1921–35). A strong anti-communist, Sullivan was a supporter of guild socialism during the First World War, and was influenced by Catholic thought on co-operation between social classes. This led Ormond Wilson, a fellow Labour MP, to refer later rather carelessly to his ‘ideas linked with fascism’.
Sullivan served on the Christchurch City Council (1915–1923 and 1925–31), heading the poll on four occasions. He chaired the council’s Housing Committee, helping to develop a scheme whereby funds borrowed by the council were lent on mortgage to prospective homeowners. He also chaired the Finance Committee (1927–30). Elected mayor in 1931 after an unsuccessful bid in 1923, Sullivan strove to alleviate poverty and maintain order in Christchurch during the depression. While supporting a conservative financial approach by the Labour-controlled council, he worked hard, typically with non-Labour notables, to raise funds for the relief of distress, interviewing thousands of people and frequently helping them personally. Significant violence occurred, nevertheless, mostly during the 1932 tramway dispute, which he struggled to resolve. In 1936 he reluctantly decided that the mayoralty was incompatible with a heavy ministerial load in the first Labour government.
Sullivan was always a strong advocate for manufacturing in New Zealand, publishing two booklets on a local leather industry (1916, 1918) and one on post-war reconstruction (1918). As minister of industries and commerce (1935–47) he tried to develop new industries and was sometimes frustrated by limited progress. Exchange control and wartime shortages presented new opportunities, and Sullivan enthusiastically fostered these as minister of supply (1939–41) and of supply and munitions (1941–47). The close relationship he developed with Australian ministers helped in this. Sullivan was also minister of railways (1935–41), and in charge of scientific and industrial research (1935–40 and 1941–47). He acted intermittently as minister of finance, and from 1942 accepted the onerous responsibility of minister in charge of stabilisation.
During 1944–45 Sullivan represented New Zealand at the Chicago International Civil Aviation Conference and visited Canada, Britain, Ireland and Egypt. While visiting New Zealand forces in Italy, he typically insisted on speaking personally to each of the 850 wounded New Zealanders in a military hospital at Bari. As a Cantabrian he had a special interest in the wheat industry, and negotiated a favourable arrangement with Australia in 1945 when the wartime policy of self-sufficiency was abandoned.
Sullivan ranked fourth in cabinet until M. J. Savage’s death in 1940. He considered contesting the succession, but deferred to caucus’s choice of Peter Fraser. Thereafter he ranked third, serving in the War Cabinet for its duration, as deputy prime minister in 1942 and as acting prime minister for some months in 1942 and 1944. He was physically sturdy, but his punishing workload almost certainly contributed to his failing health during the mid 1940s.
Sullivan still looked surprisingly youthful in his 50s. Cartoonists distinguished him by his shock of dark curly hair, and particularly one lock that hung down over his forehead. A teetotaller, he was a strong supporter of prohibition, using the slogan ‘For Labour, for temperance and for the Empire’ during the 1914 election compaign. He was involved with the New Zealand Alliance for the abolition of the liquor trade in the early 1930s. He was given an honorary title by Ngāi Tahu, partly for assisting with their land claim.
Dan Sullivan was liked and respected across the political spectrum for his personal warmth, conciliatory nature, integrity, humanitarian ideals and hard work. He died of coronary disease at Lewisham Hospital in Wellington on 8 April 1947. Some 15,000 people filed past during the day his body lay in state in the Civic Theatre in Christchurch, and his funeral was attended by vast crowds. He was survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.