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Bailey, John (Jack) (1871–1947)

by Scott Stephenson

According to historians, John (Jack) Bailey was a corrupt, violent, ‘tyrannical’ ‘dictator’ within the New South Wales (N.S.W.) Labor movement. This paper will examine Bailey’s life as a whole and assess the validity of this historiographical consensus.

John Bailey was born on 14 June 1871 at Manus Creek, N.S.W. He was the second son of Australian-born parents, Thomas Henry Bailey, labourer, and his wife Rosanna, née Reilly or Colman. Jack left school at a young age and worked as a shearing shed tar boy, a farm labourer and then a shearer. He also competed as a bare-knuckle boxer. On 20 November 1891, he married Esther Elphick at Tumut and they had two sons and two daughters.

Bailey lived through the failed 1891 shearers’ strike. According to the Australian Worker, this experience explained his lifelong advocacy of arbitration and opposition to strike action. In or before 1894, he joined the Wagga Wagga branch of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia (from 1894 Australian Workers’ Union (A.W.U.)). Becoming involved with the Political Labor League (from 1918 the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party (A.L.P.)) in 1898, he assisted A.W.U. organiser William Holman in his successful election campaign.  At Holman’s request, the A.W.U. hired Bailey as a paid organiser (1901-19 and 1926-32). He was a delegate to the A.W.U. convention (1906-33) and the N.S.W. Labor Party conference (1909-23). President of the central branch of the A.W.U. from 1915-33, he was also vice-president for N.S.W. on the A.W.U. federal executive (1914-23 and 1927-33).

During World War I, Bailey fought against conscription and was chairman of the second No-Conscription Campaign Committee in 1917. That same year, Bailey and Australian Worker editor Henry Boote were convicted of interfering with the administration of justice for criticising Donald Grant’s prison sentence.

A tough man of stern expression and muscular build, Bailey possessed a rugged personal magnetism. He rarely gave speeches or sought publicity, preferring to utilise his impressive political organising skills surreptitiously. From 1916-23, he was the leader of the politically moderate A.W.U. faction that commanded a dominant position within the extra-parliamentary N.S.W. Labor Party. He was a founding member of, and A.W.U. delegate to (1916-19), the Industrial Section (from 1918 Industrial Vigilance Council) that won extra-parliamentary control of the party at the 1916 conference.

For the N.S.W. Labor Party, Bailey was a member of the executive (1916-18), vice-president (1918-19) and a representative on the A.L.P. federal executive (1922-23). At the 1919 N.S.W. Labor conference, Bailey and the A.W.U. faction allied with the parliamentarians to defeat the radicals’ ‘One Big Union’ campaign.

Unsuccessful in his bid for the House of Representatives seat of Eden-Monaro in 1917, Bailey won a by-election for the N.S.W. Legislative Assembly seat of Monaro the following year. He represented Goulburn from 1920-25.

As a Labor member of parliament, Bailey spoke on rural issues, lobbied for better wages and conditions for workers, encouraged government assistance for the poor and vulnerable, and agitated for the abolition of the Legislative Council. He also implicated Labor ministers James Dooley and Thomas Mutch in a bribery scandal. A royal commission eventually cleared them of any wrongdoing.

In 1923, the N.S.W. Labor executive expelled Bailey for ballot corruption using ballot boxes with sliding panels. The evidence essentially came down to the word of Bailey and his co-accused versus that of Labor politician Thomas Smith, and ballot box builder John Cummings. In September 1923, an A.W.U. inquiry found that there was no reliable evidence on which to convict Bailey. The following year, a federal A.L.P. executive committee found likewise. Queensland Labor premier Ted Theodore conducted a final inquiry in 1924 and found against Bailey. No longer a member of the Labor Party, he did not contest the 1925 N.S.W. election.

Always maintaining his innocence, in November 1929 Bailey successfully sued Albert Willis and the four other members of the original ballot box inquiry committee for defamation. The jury found that the committee had acted with ‘prejudice or ill-will’ in finding against Bailey. This was one of many instances in which Bailey used (or threatened to use) defamation lawsuits against his political enemies.

At the 1928 royal commission into the alleged sale of seats in the House of Representatives, Bailey testified against Theodore. He received nationwide media attention for his claims that a portion of the Russian government’s £700,000 British Empire propaganda fund had entered Australia through the All-Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Joining the anti-Lang New South Wales federal branch of the A.L.P. in 1931, Bailey entered an uneasy alliance with his former enemies James Catts, Dooley, Willis and Theodore. Bailey was the party’s vice-president (1931-34) and unsuccessful 1931 Senate candidate.

The A.W.U.’s opposition to popular N.S.W. Labor leader Jack Lang caused a rapid decline in the union’s membership. In 1933, the A.W.U. federal executive amalgamated the central branch and Railway Workers’ Industry Branch into a single ‘N.S.W. branch’ and demanded the resignations of all branch officials. Completing the coup, the executive then bypassed the usual members’ poll and swept Bailey and his allies out of office.

Moving to northern Australia, Bailey turned his full attention to gold mining. In 1930, he had established and served as the chairman of directors for the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company that unsuccessfully sought Lewis Lasseter’s [q.v. 9] lost (and probably non-existent) gold reef. Undeterred, in 1933 Bailey had become the managing director of the successful Arnhem Land Gold Development Company. Making a surprise return in the 1938 N.S.W. branch A.W.U. election, he won the presidency on an anti-Lang platform. However, the federal executive overturned the result due to multiple ballot irregularities.

A fit man of ‘remarkable physique’, and a lifelong non-drinker and non-smoker, Bailey led an active lifestyle right up to the time of his death. Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, he died after falling off a ladder at Stanmore, Sydney, on 26 October 1947 and was cremated. A lifetime member of the A.W.U., the union’s general secretary Tom Doherty was one of many trade union and Labor Party figures in attendance at his funeral.

To date, the historiography has only presented one perspective on this polarising figure. To his enemies, Bailey was the unscrupulous man that historians have described. To his supporters, however, he was the tough and capable union and faction leader that was required in the circumstances. In the end, it seems that he was wronged as often as he wronged others in the bitter factional warfare that defined his era of N.S.W. Labor politics. 

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Scott Stephenson, 'Bailey, John (Jack) (1871–1947)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 January 2022.

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