Rory O’Malley was born in Central Otago in 1946, and grew up in Dunedin, NZ. His father was a rabbiter, a shearer, then a milk vendor. After studying agricultural science and economics at Lincoln Agricultural College, near Christchurch, in the 1960s, he spent twenty-five years in Wellington as an economist. This was the era of ‘stagflation’ when the shibboleths of the ‘Keynesian’ consensus were breaking down. Profound changes took place in the organization of the economy, including a marked reduction in the regulation of labour and centralized wage fixing.
In the 1990s he became interested in Australian history and became aware of the conflict between New Zealand and Australian shearers over wide combs. These arose because of differences in the history and traditions of grazing and farming, and accordingly some cultural distinctions within the respective shearing industries. Put simply, because New Zealand is a land of frequent rain and productive soils, profitable farms were small. Shearers mainly came from farming backgrounds and did not harbour visceral distrust and dislike of their sheep farmer employers. In the dry dusty outback of Australia it was quite different. Properties were vast and the “squatters” had little in common with the rough-mannered shearers who came to their properties once a year. It was a situation which gave rise to a “class war” atmosphere, and unionization.
Subsequent intensive research into the history of Australian shearing led to the publication of “Mateship and Moneymaking”. There were two interwoven and contradictory themes in the history of shearing in Australia. Both emanated directly from the intense conflict and bitter strikes of the 1890s. The strikes are landmark events in the history of Australia. They were instrumental in the foundation of the Labor Party in 1891. They also had a profound impact on the overall political and economic ideology of the new Commonwealth of Australia which was formed in 1901 as a result of the federation of the six previously separate colonies which had governed European settlement of the continent hitherto.
The first of the responses in shearing was the consolidation of the powerful Australian Workers Union. The union became a fanatical advocate of the value of industrial arbitration to maintain “peace” in shearing sheds. The union signed up members with ruthless efficiency and it became almost impossible to shear in an Australian woolshed without a union ticket.
The second response was that the organization of shearing changed dramatically and surprisingly quickly. Graziers had been accustomed to hiring their own shearers. The introduction of shearing contractors revolutionised this system. Shearers found this suited them much better because it became easier to get continuity of work, and it diluted the feelings of intense discontent and disgruntlement that had led to unionization in the first place.
The two trends coexisted uneasily throughout the twentieth century. At times the awkward alliance threatened to blow apart. There were some notable strikes in the 1920s and 1930s, a radical breakaway union with communist connections called the Pastoral Workers Industrial Union caused considerable instability, and there was a major strike in 1956. However, it all held together until the changing social pressures of the 1980s and the wide comb dispute. The system of shearing contracting survived and remains a cornerstone of the shearing industry today. Union control did not.
Rory O’Malley now lives in Dunedin.