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Duncan, Walter Leslie (1883–1947)

by David Stephens

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Walter Leslie Duncan (1883-1947), politician, was born on 14 March 1883 at Armidale, New South Wales, son of John Mackie Duncan, miller, and his wife Margaret, née McDowell. He was educated at Armidale Superior Public School, worked as a clerk and became president of the United Clerks' Union of New South Wales and of the Labor Council in 1911. In 1914-16 he was on the executive of the Coke Workers' Association of New South Wales. He contested the Legislative Assembly seats of Granville in 1907 and Waverley in 1910 as a Labor candidate, but, a devoted follower of W. M. Hughes, left the Labor Party over conscription and stood for Granville in 1917 as a Nationalist.

After serving in the Australian Imperial Force in 1917-19 Duncan was elected to the Senate in 1919, his pre-war industrial and political experience standing him in good stead. Strongly protectionist, he remained over the next decade a representative of the ex-Labor element of the disparate National Party, and an ally of Hughes's in his occasional battles with the Liberal elements among the Nationalists. Duncan encouraged the idea of a progressive centre party. He served on the royal commissions on the Navigation Act (1923-25) and on the moving-picture industry (1927-28) and was briefly acting government whip (1924) and temporary chairman of committees (1924-25). He was a vice-president of the National Association of New South Wales in 1924-25 and 1926-27.

Duncan, as a senator, did not take part directly in the fall of the Bruce-Page government in 1929, but his support for Commonwealth arbitration and protection, and his opposition to the entertainment tax paralleled the views of some of the House of Representatives dissidents. He was close to W. M. Marks, a key rebel, as well as to Hughes. Excluded from the National Party after the election, he helped Hughes to establish the Australian Party and became a vice-president and a parliamentary representative until the party's demise in 1930. After his attempt to gain selection for the new United Australia Party in 1931 had been vetoed by its Country Party allies, he stood unsuccessfully for the All-For-Australia League in Warringah. In 1935, however, he contested Illawarra in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly elections for the United Australia and Country Party coalition, and in 1940 he stood for the House of Representatives in Werriwa as a United Australia Party candidate; he was defeated both times.

Duncan married three times: to Ellen Cousins Riley on 31 December 1910 at New Town, to Kathleen Annie Flemming on 6 June 1923 in Canberra, and to Eileen Eliza Coutman on 18 April 1946 at Tamworth, New South Wales. His first wife was the sister of Labor politician E. C. Riley. Duncan, a Presbyterian, died of pneumonia and nephritis on 28 May 1947 at West Tamworth, leaving three sons from his first marriage and a daughter from his second. His estate was valued for probate at £1376.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Wildavsky and D. Carboch, Studies in Australian Politics (Melb, 1958)
  • T. Matthews, ‘The All for Australia League’, in ‘The great Depression in Australia’, Labor History, 1970, no 17
  • Labor Council of New South Wales, Report, 1908-16 (copy, NL)
  • Fighting Line, 27 Nov 1919
  • Bulletin, 2 Dec 1931
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Dec 1931.

Citation details

David Stephens, 'Duncan, Walter Leslie (1883–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 28 February 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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