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McGirr, James (Jim) (1890–1957)

by David Clune

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

James McGirr (1890-1957), by unknown photographer, 1932

James McGirr (1890-1957), by unknown photographer, 1932

State Library of New South Wales

James (Jim) McGirr (1890-1957), pharmacist and premier, was born on 6 February 1890 at Parkes, New South Wales, seventh child of Irish-born parents John Patrick McGirr, a road contractor who turned to farming, and his wife Mary Teresa, née O'Sullivan. Jim grew up on a small dairy farm. After early schooling locally, he attended St Stanislaus' College, Bathurst. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to his brother John Joseph McGirr, a pharmacist at Parkes. Jim was an accomplished horseman and soon abandoned pharmacy to work at the nearby stockyards. Thrown from his horse while mustering, he badly broke his leg and spent three months in bed. After this experience he resumed his apprenticeship. Having passed chemistry (1910), botany and materia medica (1911) at the University of Sydney, and the required examinations under the Pharmacy Act (1897), he was registered as a pharmacist on 12 August 1913. McGirr was employed in a large chemist shop in Sydney and joined the Shop Assistants' Union of New South Wales before operating pharmacies in partnership with his brother Greg. He began his own pharmaceutical business at Parkes, specializing in veterinary products, and bought an 800-acre (325 ha) property in the district.

Like his brothers Greg and Patrick Michael, Jim McGirr was active in Labor politics. He joined the Parkes branch in 1906 and held various offices. In 1922 Greg vacated his Legislative Assembly seat of Cootamundra for a Sydney electorate, simultaneously arranging through party intrigue for his place to be taken by Jim, who was elected that year. The other Labor member for Cootamundra, Peter Loughlin, was a strong opponent of Greg McGirr and successfully prevented Jim from being pre-selected for the 1925 election, despite appeals to the federal and State executives. In the face of some initial local resistance, Jim was selected and stood for Cumberland. A strong campaigner and a powerful orator, he was duly elected. With the return to single-member electorates in 1927, he won Bankstown, which he retained until 1950, then represented Liverpool.

When Labor under Jack Lang won the 1930 elections, McGirr—described by Lang as 'the solid type, entirely different to his brother, the flamboyant Greg'—came equal first in the ballot for the ministry with 39 out of 55 votes. He served as minister for health (4 November 1930 to 17 June 1931) and held the local government portfolio (17 June 1931 to 13 May 1932). The government combined railways, tramways, main roads and motor transport under a single portfolio and, on 22 March 1932, McGirr also became the State's first minister for transport. The press dubbed him 'Commissar for Transport'. At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, on 15 October that year he married 28-year-old Valerie Cecilia Armstrong.

Throughout the ensuing decade of political reverses for Labor and the bitter struggle between Lang and his opponents for control of the party, McGirr was a staunch Langite. In 1940 Lang temporarily left the Labor Party; McGirr was one of seven State parliamentarians who followed him. None the less, when Labor returned to power under (Sir) William McKell in May 1941, McGirr was included on the premier's ticket for cabinet (the only ex-Langite to be so) and became minister for local government and for housing. He attempted to implement McKell's Greater Sydney scheme and consequent local government amalgamations, but made little headway in the face of strong opposition. In 1942 he established the Housing Commission of New South Wales. Following the May 1944 elections, with housing shortages looming as a major issue, McKell made housing a separate portfolio under McGirr. With the end of World War II the problem grew more acute. McGirr tackled his responsibilities with determination and courage, winning credit for his efforts.

In February 1947 McKell resigned to serve as governor-general. The struggle for the succession was bitter, the two main contenders being McGirr and the minister for education Robert Heffron who had the support of the party executive, the majority of cabinet and McKell himself. McGirr drew his strength from the anti-McKell forces in caucus. His chief organizers were Clive Evatt and a back-bencher C. H. Matthews. The Langite rump strongly backed him. As a practising Catholic with a rural background—in contrast to the former trade-union radical Heffron—McGirr also attracted support from his co-religionists and country members. On 6 February he finally triumphed (by two votes) on the fourth ballot, and was sworn in as premier and treasurer. A number of members were so infuriated by McKell's decision to participate in the ballot that they voted against Heffron as a protest. McGirr was a leader commanding only the barest of majorities.

Straightforward, decent and humane, the new premier was personally well liked and noted for his loyalty. McGirr could be a vigorous foe and a doughty fighter when roused, but he was also given to hesitation and procrastination, and was overly suspicious of those around him. He lacked McKell's political astuteness, and his ability to master the complexities of the premiership. As McGirr's term progressed, the backlog of files in his office accumulated and increasingly disappeared into his 'refrigerator—a repository of many schemes which the Premier never bothers to defrost'.

The early days of the McGirr premiership indicated a clear break with his predecessor's style. At his first premiers' conference, McGirr made a highly publicized, intemperate attack on Prime Minister Ben Chifley over Commonwealth-State financial relations. Such outbursts were to become a recurrent feature of his administration. In addition, McGirr moved quickly to introduce the 40-hour week (something McKell had opposed) before any other State, and while the claim was still before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. Another sign of a want of restraint and careful planning was McGirr's policy speech for the 1947 elections: his party was long to regret its rash array of promises.

The new term began with an unsuccessful attempt to oust ministers who had supported Heffron for the leadership in 1947. Two McGirr supporters (Matthews and William Sheahan) succeeded in joining the unpredictable Evatt in a cabinet still largely dominated by the McKell old guard. In regard to the 1947 election promises, the government's response was to push on as quickly as possible, whatever the consequences. Works were commenced throughout the State with more concern for political considerations than long-term implications. The public works programme began its descent into disarray. Growing industrial unrest, culminating in the 1949 coal strike, further weakened the government's position, as did constant blackouts and electricity shortages. Moreover, the electoral backlash against the Federal Labor government had an impact on its New South Wales counterpart.

Internal conflict and dissension continued. The State government's attempt to shore up its electoral position through a redistribution led to a serious revolt by Labor's rural members in mid-1949. McGirr clashed publicly with his former chief supporter Evatt. The most serious split of all occurred on the eve of the 1950 elections. Four Labor members who had not followed the ticket in the ballot for the Legislative Council in 1949 were, as a result, disendorsed. McGirr unwisely took up their cause and, when rebuffed by the executive, announced that he intended to resign as leader. A week later he changed his mind.

Labor narrowly survived in office, but the balance of power was held by two of the members who had lost their endorsements, J. W. Seiffert and J. L. Geraghty. Both indicated that they would support Labor, and McGirr was thus able to form a government on 30 June 1950. Seiffert voted consistently with Labor. Geraghty, however, proved to be a more uncertain ally. He gave McGirr anxious moments as he used his key position, amid much publicity, to apply pressure on the government. The arduous demands of coping with a hung parliament, and presiding over a fractious cabinet and caucus, took an increasing toll on McGirr's health. On 2 April 1952 he resigned as premier. He left parliament on the following day to become chairman of the Maritime Services Board, a position he held until 1955, despite a furore about his lack of technical qualifications.

'Big Jim' was a physically imposing man, over six feet (183 cm) tall and weighing sixteen stone (102 kg). Although a heavy smoker, he did not drink. He never lost his love of the land, and regularly spent time on his farm near Liverpool. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of a coronary occlusion on 27 October 1957 at Homebush and was buried in the cemetery at Parkes. His estate was sworn for probate at £52,795.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lang, The Great Bust (Syd, 1962)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 29 Oct 1957, pp 1384, 1402
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13, 15 Mar, 4, 8 Nov 1924, 4 Nov 1930, 17 May 1941, 5, 6 Feb, 22 Aug 1947, 2 Apr 1952, 1 Jan 1955, 30 Oct 1957
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 14 Mar, 13 May 1924, 21 Apr 1925, 25 Jan 1947, 17 Mar 1949, 2 Apr 1952, 28 Oct 1957
  • Labor Daily (Sydney), 31 Mar, 19 July 1924, 18 Apr, 5 May, 18 July 1925
  • Sun (Sydney), 27 Mar 1932, 5 Feb 1947, 1 June 1950, 1 Apr 1952, 7 Feb 1955
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 5 Feb 1947, 1 Apr 1952
  • Truth (Sydney), 6 Apr 1952
  • D. Clune, The Labor Government in N.S.W. 1941-1965: A Study in Longevity in Government (Ph.D. thesis, Department of Government, University of Sydney, 1990)
  • private information.

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Citation details

David Clune, 'McGirr, James (Jim) (1890–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgirr-james-jim-10957/text19473, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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