The man who more than anyone else came to symbolise Federated Farmers was born in Dunedin on 29 December 1902. Alexander Paterson O’Shea was the youngest of 10 children of John O’Shea, a law clerk, and his wife, Alice Marion Clark. His father was a Roman Catholic and his mother a Presbyterian; this, and a strong background of traditional learning, encouraged debate. Two sons became lawyers; a third became registrar of Auckland University College. Two daughters achieved distinction in nursing and social work. An early love for reading, especially classical literature, was reflected in O’Shea’s later life when he became noted for quoting from such varied sources as Old Testament prophets, Roman orators, Shakespeare and Rudyard Kipling.
After having been dux at his primary school and achieving top-stream status in his third and fourth form classes at Otago Boys’ High School, O’Shea was looking forward to a legal career. It was a bitter disappointment when, in 1918, chest problems and pneumonia caused his parents and doctor to decide that he should be sent to work in the countryside for the sake of his health. He undertook a rural cadetship at Ruakura Farm of Instruction near Hamilton and then returned to a cropping farm in South Otago where, he later boasted, he was one of the last to learn to drive a seven-horse team. From there he moved to Glenorchy as a high country shepherd; his final farm job was shepherding on a large station at Muriwai, near Gisborne. In 1927 a back injury caused him to return to the city.
His brother John, who was solicitor for the Wellington City Corporation, arranged a clerical job for him in the tramways department and he later became cashier for the milk department. In 1928 he commenced part-time work at Victoria University College for his accountancy and bachelor of commerce degree, graduating in 1936. He took a particular interest in economic history and was greatly influenced by Professor B. E. Murphy, an advocate of classical and neo-classical economic theory. In later life he described the neo-classical economist Alfred Marshall as the St Paul of economics.
University gave him the chance to sharpen his debating skills. In 1930 he won the public-speaking contest of the Wellington Accountant Students’ Society and he led its debating team for several years. He also indulged his great love of rugby. Although his work precluded him from regular team play, he was a successful coach and administrator. He became captain of the Victoria University Rugby Football Club and served on the New Zealand Universities Rugby Council. On 12 February 1935, at Wellington, he married Vera Isabell Cooper, a BA student; they were to have one daughter.
In September 1935 O’Shea became dominion secretary of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union. Membership and finances were very low. The largest and most financial province, Auckland, operated virtually independently of the dominion organisation and there had been a proliferation of smaller provincial organisations. O’Shea initiated a strong recruitment campaign and made regular personal visits to all the provinces, encouraging them to re-amalgamate and strengthen their financial situations.
With the election of a Labour government in November 1935 it was important for the Farmers’ Union to be seen to be politically neutral. In 1936 the dominion president, William Polson, a New Zealand National Party MP, was replaced by Walter Mulholland, who, along with O’Shea, vigorously stressed that the Farmers’ Union was concerned with principles, not party. O’Shea established excellent working relations with the ministers of agriculture and labour, and by the early 1940s had succeeded in rebuilding the Farmers’ Union as a powerful pressure group. Farmers benefited by having labour directed to them during the war, while avoiding the controls imposed on other industries.
O’Shea’s organisational abilities were critical in achieving the restructuring of the Farmers’ Union as an amalgam of all farming interest groups. In 1939 he had mooted the idea of a farmers’ organisation that would allow the various types of farmer to maintain autonomy within their own areas. This proved to be a crucial factor in the successful formation of Federated Farmers. The autonomy of provinces and branches was another stumbling block largely overcome by O’Shea’s careful negotiations. He had a major hand in drawing up the constitution under which Federated Farmers of New Zealand was incorporated in December 1944, and in promoting the federation to farmers prior to the first dominion conference in October 1946. After four years Federated Farmers had recruited over 80 per cent of its potential membership.
O’Shea came to personify Federated Farmers. Friendly, with a dry sense of humour, and yet with a capacity for confrontation, often glowering disapprovingly over his gold-rimmed spectacles when annoyed, he developed an imposing presence. His trademarks included bow-ties and a seldom unlit pipe. He maintained a loyal and long-serving staff, thus enhancing the efficiency of head office. As well as having an administrative ascendancy over the federation’s elected officials, he had a greater grasp of economic policy than most of his farmer employers. With his mastery of words he was often required to redraft or rephrase the remits and policy statements of the officials, who were generally reconciled to allowing him to take the limelight.
O’Shea espoused a free-trade philosophy, contending that protectionist measures and import licensing undermined New Zealand’s comparative advantage in agricultural trade. (He likened the system to early Stuart monopolies.) He was particularly critical of the Department of Industries and Commerce, and the economic philosophy of W. B. Sutch (the department’s secretary from 1958 to 1965). He considered that the department’s two objectives of protecting local industry and developing overseas trade were diametrically opposed. Federated Farmers played a significant role in causing the government to abandon in 1962 the scheme to establish a cotton mill at Nelson, which had been intended to foster manufacturing.
O’Shea gained considerable publicity articulating Federated Farmers’ concern over the cost–price squeeze on export producers. Inflation had driven up costs, which exporters could not readily pass on in their prices. The situation grew so serious that a government committee was set up in 1963 ‘to inquire into the economic position of the farming industry’. When the government finally decided to set up an Agricultural Development Conference in 1963, O’Shea was instrumental in ensuring that one of the major committees would deal with farm costs.
O’Shea acted as industrial advocate for the New Zealand Sheepowners’ Industrial Union of Employers in the Court of Arbitration, where he found a forum to air many farmer grievances and to fulfil some of his frustrated ambitions to be a lawyer. He enjoyed provocatively cross-examining witnesses and arguing with the judge over legal niceties. In 1963 he had a reluctant Sutch subpoenaed to appear, and then asked the judge to have him held in contempt of court as a hostile witness when he refused to answer a question to O’Shea’s satisfaction. In 1962 he attempted unsuccessfully to have a New Zealand Federation of Labour general wage order claim ‘non-suited’. O’Shea alleged that in many cases employer associations and the trade unions were acting in collusion over wage bargaining, because employers such as meat companies simply passed on the wage increases in the form of higher charges to farmers. Much of his grandstanding was designed to draw attention to this point.
Early in 1964 he left Federated Farmers to take up a position, newly created by the New Zealand Meat Producers’ Board, as marketing representative for North America. He was well qualified for his new appointment through his involvement with the International Federation of Agricultural Producers, from which he knew a number of farming leaders in both the United States and Canada. However, he found that working with a statutory body did not allow him the same freedom of expression he had enjoyed with Federated Farmers. He also found it frustrating trying to promote marketing opportunities when the New Zealand meat industry was still reluctant to invest in the further processing which would have supplied the new markets with the meat cuts that were demanded.
On their return to New Zealand late in 1968 the O’Sheas again took up residence in Wellington. At the age of 66 Alex was still an active participant in public life. He had earlier served a six-year term on the Wellington Hospital Board, and now became president of the Wellington Citizens’ Association and stood as its unsuccessful mayoral candidate in 1971. He still retained some farming connections, such as a directorship on the Hatuma Lime Company. A regular column, ‘Alex O’Shea on his Soap-box’, for the New Zealand Company Director & Professional Administrator , provided an outlet for his economic views. He participated in the Civil Service Club, of which he had been president in 1953; he was made a life member in 1976. He also remained active in the Masonic Grand Lodge of New Zealand, of which he had been a grand lecturer in the 1950s.
In 1982 Alex and Vera O’Shea moved to Kerikeri, where their daughter and son-in-law were living. Sadly, for such an avid reader, O’Shea’s eyesight was failing. He had received a number of public honours including the Coronation Medal in 1953, and he was made a CMG in 1962. In 1950 he had been a member of the Legislative Council when it voted itself out of existence; in September 1990 he was awarded a 1990 commemoration medal as the last surviving member of the council. Although he had been confined to a wheelchair at Kaikohe Hospital, he stood up without support for the first time in six months in order to receive his medal. He died on 24 December of that same year, survived by his wife and daughter.
As a professional battler for farmers, Alex O’Shea brought practical farming experience to his office, and despite holding definite economic views did not allow ideology to overrule common sense. Nor did his strongly expressed opinions interfere with close friendships. He shared many convivial whiskies with public opponents such as the Federation of Labour president, F. P. Walsh. He opposed National Party ministers and reserved one of his highest accolades for two Labour ministers of agriculture, William Lee Martin and Jerry Skinner, describing each of them as ‘a man you could go fishing with’. The epithet might well have been applied to himself.