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Cormack, Sir Magnus Cameron (1906–1994)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published online in 2019

Sir Magnus Cameron Cormack (1906−1994), grazier and politician, was born on 12 February 1906 at Wick, Caithness, Scotland, eldest of five children of William Petrie Cormack, doctor, and his wife Violet Macdonald, née Cameron. The family migrated to South Australia in 1912, a decision influenced by William’s health. Educated in Scotland, then at Tumby Bay Public School and the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide (1917-23), Magnus worked for Dalgety & Co. Ltd and, from 1926 to 1931, as production manager for Holden Motor Body Builders (from 1931 General Motors-Holden’s Ltd). He also grew potatoes with his two brothers in the early Depression years, and tried dairying before buying into a grazing property, Koijak, at Apsley in Victoria’s west Wimmera region. On 22 November 1935 he married Mary Isabell (Mavis) Gordon Mcmeikan, a divorcee, at the Registrar-General’s Office in Melbourne.

Having completed his universal training, Cormack continued in the Citizen Military Forces, serving in the 18th Light Horse Regiment (1924–29) and rising to lieutenant in 1926. After World War II broke out, he spent three months (July-October 1940) in the Australian Imperial Force in Victoria, before being categorised as having a reserved occupation and discharged. On 12 June 1941 he resumed full-time duty, on this occasion in the CMF as a lieutenant, Australian Army Service Corps. He was promoted to temporary major in December (substantive 1944) and transferred to the AIF in August 1942, while occupying staff posts in Australia. From July 1943 to May 1944 he was deputy assistant quartermaster-general (air) on New Guinea Force headquarters, responsible for supplying troops where there were no roads. His experience with General Motors enabled him to bypass habitual methods and improve efficiency; he was mentioned in despatches for his work. Back in Victoria, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 17 November 1944.

Although his maternal grandfather, John MacDonald Cameron, had sat in the House of Commons, and Sir Josiah Symon, a prominent South Australian politician, was a kinsman, Cormack had no interest in politics until after the war. Influenced by the Depression years and his army experience, he joined the Liberal Party of Australia in 1946. By 1948, after his success in organising the party’s 1947 State election campaign and his appointment to the Federal policy committee, he became State president. He ‘stood in no awe of politicians’ (Aimer 1974, 166). Having persuaded his friend, (Sir) John Gorton, to leave the Country Party for the Liberals, Cormack convinced the Liberal leader (Sir) Robert Menzies to accept Gorton for a winning position on the Senate ticket for the same 1949 Federal election in which Cormack just failed to win the House of Representatives seat of Fawkner.

Elected to the Senate in 1951, Cormack lost his seat in the 1953 electoral swing against the Menzies government. After several preselection setbacks, he returned full time to sheep and cattle production and to the countryside he loved. He won the top spot on the Liberal and Country parties’ coalition Senate ticket for the 1961 election. Sir William Anderson, a long-standing friend and former Federal president of the Liberal Party, had encouraged him to nominate after earlier making him promise never to become a minister—because ‘ambition erodes integrity’—and to endeavour to 'drag the Senate out of its lethargy as a constitutional part of the Australian Parliament’ (Cormack 1987, 2:30).

Cormack cited the first promise, and his strong−minded independence, for declining Gorton’s offer of a ministry in 1968. Although the Labor senator Lionel Murphy is credited with introducing the Senate committee system, Cormack claimed ownership of the idea and that he had influenced Murphy. He made his public name as the first chairman of the select committee on securities and exchange which was one of the best known of the early select committees and, within parliament, his reputation as a fierce champion of the Senate’s role as a check on the power of executive government. In 1970 he was appointed KBE. Although still a Gorton loyalist, he won the Liberal Party’s nomination for the Senate presidency in August 1971 after Prime Minister (Sir) William McMahon had sacked Gorton from cabinet. Admired for his non−partisan approach, a deeply hurt Cormack surprisingly lost his position in the Senate by one vote when senators elected a new president after the 1974 double dissolution election.

Stocky, silver−haired, and with a weathered face, Cormack combined the manners of a gentleman farmer with the scheming of a politician. Although he admired Menzies for his advocacy and ‘statecraft,’ the two had a ‘vehement argument’ in 1951 over Menzies’s attempt to proscribe the Communist Party, with Cormack telling the prime minister ‘you can’t exterminate an idea by Draconian law’ (Cormack 1987, 3:2–3). ‘There was always an edge in our relationship’ (Cormack 1987, 3:27), he acknowledged. He had less time for Malcolm Fraser (who had beaten him for preselection for Wannon in the 1954 Federal election), resenting his ‘bulldust’ (Cormack 1987, 6:9) and likening his approach in the party room to that of ‘head boy of Melbourne Grammar School’ (Cormack 1987, 6:14).

Sir Magnus retired from the Senate in 1978. He had sold his farm and, after a long illness that prevented him from indulging his passion for sailing, died at Kew on 26 November 1994 and was cremated. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1986), he was survived by his three daughters and a son, he had requested that ’no market place post-mortem panegyrics’ be delivered in the Senate. Instead of condolence motions in the parliament, there was a memorial service at Old Parliament House. A portrait by Bryan Westwood, painted in 1973, is held in the Australian Parliament House Art Collection.

Research edited by Joy McCann

Select Bibliography

  • Aimer, Peter. Politics, Power and Persuasion: The Liberals in Victoria. East Hawthorn, Vic.: James Bennett, 1974
  • Browne, Geoffrey. ‘Cormack, Sir Magnus Cameron (1906−1994).’ In The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate. Vol. 3, 1962−1983, edited by Ann Millar and Geoffrey Browne, 33–40. Sydney: UNSW Press Ltd, 2010
  • Cormack, Sir Magnus. Interview by Allan Fleming, 13–14 September 1989. Transcript. Parliament’s Oral History Project. National Library of Australia
  • Cormack, Sir Magnus. Interview by Tony Hannan, 24 September–10 November 1987. Transcript. Parliament’s Oral History Project. National Library of Australia
  • Hancock, Ian. John Gorton: He Did It His Way. Sydney: Hodder Headline, 2002
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX108016

Additional Resources

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Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Cormack, Sir Magnus Cameron (1906–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cormack-sir-magnus-cameron-27119/text34664, published online 2019, accessed online 12 December 2019.

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