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Blackburn, Maurice McCrae (1880–1944)

by Susan Blackburn Abeyasekere

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Maurice McCrae Blackburn (1880-1944), by H. D. S. , 1942

Maurice McCrae Blackburn (1880-1944), by H. D. S. , 1942

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H40271

Maurice McCrae Blackburn (1880-1944), lawyer and politician, was born on 19 November 1880 at Inglewood, Victoria, son of Maurice Blackburn, bank manager, and his wife Thomasann Cole, née McCrae. He was a grandson of James Blackburn and Captain Alexander McCrae. After his father died in 1887, his mother took her two sons and two daughters to Melbourne, where she worked as a music teacher.

Blackburn was educated at Toorak Preparatory Grammar School and from 1893 at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He matriculated in 1896 and, since money was not available for further education, became an office-boy in a legal firm. From 1902 he studied at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1906; LL.B., 1909) while working as a teacher and librarian. In 1910 he was admitted to the Bar and in 1914 assisted in the consolidation of the statute law of Victoria. In 1922 he founded the firm of Maurice Blackburn & Co., which mainly dealt with trade union law. However, he also appeared in civil and police-court cases, especially those involving civil liberties. On 10 December 1914 he and Doris Amelia Hordern were married by Frederick Sinclaire.

Blackburn became interested in politics when he was involved in the anti-sweating campaign and the Gas Consumers' League. He joined the Labor Party about 1908 and was active in the Victorian Socialist Party from 1911, editing its newspaper, the Socialist, in 1911-13. An omnivorous reader in politics, history, economics and the literatures of several languages, he was especially influenced by the English liberal and socialist traditions and by guild socialism. One of his guiding beliefs was the complementarity of industrial and political action. Through his generously proffered legal advice, Blackburn proved himself invaluable to the unions and the Labor Party. He was frequently consulted on drafting resolutions and bills, and much of his work is unacknowledged.

In July 1914 Blackburn was elected as Labor member for Essendon in the Legislative Assembly. However, his strong stand against the war cost him the seat in 1917. Despite strong pacifist sympathies he supported the concept of a citizen army, based on compulsory military training for national defence. He consistently opposed conscription for overseas service on the grounds that it could lead to imperialist aggression. Early in World War I his revulsion against the diminution of civil liberties and what he regarded as the useless slaughter in Europe turned him against the patriotic fervour of the times. In a meeting of the two Victorian Houses of Parliament in June 1915, he declared he would not help the recruiting campaign in his constituency. From 1916 he was in the forefront of Labor anti-war activities in Melbourne, addressing anti-conscription rallies and working within the party to force Labor politicians to oppose conscription.

In the pacifist, international socialist atmosphere of the labour movement in the immediate post-war years, Blackburn was at the height of his popularity. He was elected vice-president of the Victorian central executive in 1918 and president in 1919, was editor of Labor Call in 1918-20, and frequently tutored for the Victorian Labor College. At interstate Labor conferences he moved and seconded resolutions on peace and conscription, and was prominent in the debate on the socialization objective. At the Brisbane conference in 1921, he achieved a modification of the collective ownership aim when he carried the declaration that the party did 'not seek to abolish private ownership even of any instruments of production where such instruments [were] utilized by their owners in a socially useful manner and without exploitation'. This so-called Blackburn Interpretation was restated in 1948. However, even in the 1920s he was at odds with the party on two issues which proved crucial in his career. When its mood was increasingly anti-militarist and isolationist, he persisted in defending a citizen army and stressed international socialist issues, such as opposition to Mussolini.

Blackburn also had problems in winning pre-selection for parliament. The most dramatic incident occurred at Fitzroy in 1925, when John Wren's group tried to rig the preselection ballot; a less-publicized attempt occurred in 1934. Blackburn alienated people by his stubborn independence. Being a strict (though tolerant) teetotaller, he campaigned in parliament for shorter drinking hours and for local option. He was known to be sympathetic towards Communism because in 1924 he opposed the Labor Party's decision to exclude Communists from membership. He was also considered by many to be an atheist or at least anti-Catholic. Raised in the Church of England, he had soon moved beyond the bounds of sectarian Christianity and was for many years a member of the Free Religious Fellowship, a group which held political and literary discussions as well as informal religious services conducted by Sinclaire.

As member for Fitzroy in the assembly from 1925, Blackburn succeeded in carrying his Women's Qualification Act (1926), which aimed at removing discriminations against women in public affairs and professions. In 1927 he was elected to the new seat of Clifton Hill. At the onset of the Depression, he actively opposed the E. J. Hogan Labor government's retrenchment measures, fought to obtain improvements in unemployment relief and attacked the Premiers' Plan as inequitable and ineffectual. He was president of the Melbourne section of the International Class War Prisoners' Aid, set up to assist the movement of protest by the unemployed. However, he was still highly respected and popular in parliament and was elected Speaker of the assembly in 1933 when Labor was not in office.

Next year Blackburn moved into Federal politics, winning Bourke which he held until 1943. His years in Canberra were dominated by his preoccupation with international Fascism and by clashes with the Victorian executive of the A.L.P., which was more concerned about Communism. During 1935 he became active in the Victorian council of the Movement Against War and Fascism, which many of his fellow members of the Victorian executive regarded as a Communist front. He was also involved in moves to prevent the deportation of the noted Czech anti-Fascist Egon Kisch. The break between Blackburn and the executive was triggered by the Abyssinian crisis. On this issue he was also at variance with the Federal Labor Party; in parliament in October 1935 he voted in favour of sanctions against Italy, thus defying his leader John Curtin. Although the Victorian executive had ruled that Labor members were not permitted to associate with the council, Blackburn continued his activities and was expelled in December. After some wrangling with the executive over terms, he was finally persuaded to leave the council and was re-admitted to the A.L.P. at Easter 1937.

In 1936 Blackburn participated in the campaign against Fascism in Spain, fearing that another world war was imminent. From 1938 he was active in the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, becoming its president in 1940 in close association with Brian Fitzpatrick, its secretary; he often brought before parliament issues referred to him by this council. After the outbreak of war, Blackburn led the Labor opposition to (Sir) Robert Menzies' first national security bill, on the grounds that it needlessly eroded civil liberties and evaded parliamentary control. At first the A.L.P. was in general sympathy with Blackburn's actions, but as the war became more serious most Labor members, apart from a few like Frank Brennan and Eddie Ward, drew away from him, often leaving him as the sole watch-dog for his major concerns: civil liberties and opposition to conscription for overseas service.

However, Blackburn's second break with the party occurred not on these issues but on one related to his earlier expulsion. As a long-time sympathizer with the Soviet Union as a 'great experiment in government', he became active in the Australia-Soviet Friendship League, although he was never a member. The strongly anti-Communist Victorian central executive excluded Blackburn from the party in October 1941 when he refused to observe its rule that A.L.P. members could not participate in league activities. Ironically, Russia soon became a respected ally, causing the executive to reverse its ruling. But Blackburn did not again apply for readmission to the party: after the Curtin government took office in October 1941 and after Pearl Harbor, he sensed that the tide was turning in favour of conscription for overseas service. From December 1942 he presided over the No Conscription Campaign in Victoria, and was the only member of parliament to vote against the defence bill which introduced limited overseas conscription in February 1943. In August he was defeated in the general election by the official Labor candidate.

At a large meeting of prominent citizens held in his honour in October, a Maurice Blackburn Testimonial Fund was established. On 31 March 1944 he died in Melbourne of cerebral tumour and was buried in Box Hill cemetery, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter, and by his mother. His estate, which included a fine library, was sworn for probate at £2552.

Unambitious for high office, Blackburn had acted as a conscience of the labour movement. He had always been an admirer of George Higinbotham; morals and principles dominated both men's political behaviour. He was consistent in the defence of underprivileged groups and of civil liberties, and in his internationalist Socialism. His publications included several pamphlets on the conscription issue. His articles and speeches were models of unimpassioned, reasoned prose; his obvious sincerity and his 'magnificent, rich voice' were impressive, although some complained that he was too calm and thoughtful and that his speeches were like lectures. From 1924 he had been a trustee of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria. In his personal relationships Blackburn was noted for his simple tastes, his tolerance and his sense of fun. Sir Frederic Eggleston described him as 'the most honest man I have ever met, and chivalrous to a degree'. Large, cheerful, upright, he was regarded most affectionately by almost everyone who knew him.

Doris Blackburn (1889-1970) was born on 18 September 1889 at Auburn, daughter of Lebbeus Hordern and his wife Louisa Dewson, née Smith. Before her marriage she was campaign secretary to Vida Goldstein. A woman of 'great conscience and personal integrity', she supported the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, was president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and resigned from the A.L.P. in 1938 to remain a member of the International Peace Congress. She was a founder of the Aborigine Advancement League and of the Federal Council for Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders. Other interests included the Save the Children Fund and education, especially pre-school.

In 1946-49 she held her husband's former seat of Bourke as an Independent Labor member. She died in Melbourne on 12 December 1970 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • W. J. Hudson (ed), Towards a Foreign Policy, 1914-1941 (Melb, 1967)
  • S. Blackburn, Maurice Blackburn and the Australian Labor Party, 1934-1943 (Melb, 1969), and for bibliography
  • J. Robertson, J. H. Scullin (Perth, 1974)
  • L. Ross, John Curtin (Melb, 1977)
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential notes (Australian National University Library)
  • B. Fitzpatrick papers (National Library of Australia)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Susan Blackburn Abeyasekere, 'Blackburn, Maurice McCrae (1880–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blackburn-maurice-mccrae-5258/text8861, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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