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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dunstan, William John (1873–1930)

by Betty Crouchley and H. J. Gibbney

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

William John Dunstan (1873-1930), trade union official and public servant, was born on 13 October 1873 at Eldorado, near Beechworth, Victoria, son of Ralph Henry Dunstan, a Cornish farmer, and his Irish wife Bridget, née Morrissey. 'Thrown early on the labour market', he led a roving life for nearly 40 years. He joined the Australian Workers' Union in 1892 as a shearer and in 1894 was a prominent militant in the Nelyambo strike camp in western New South Wales. From there he followed a gold rush to Mount Drysdale near Cobar, had no success and drifted in to Broken Hill. At the end of 1895 he went to the Bulloo River opal field in Queensland, but came back to Broken Hill and in 1899 was organizer for the Adelaide branch of the A.W.U. in the north of South Australia.

About 1901 Dunstan went to Western Australia. He was mining at Bonnie Vale in 1902-03 and at Black Flag in 1904-05. Returning to Broken Hill in 1906-09, he was president of the local branch of the Labor Party and the local representative of the A.W.U. In 1910 he became organizer then president of the Adelaide branch of the union; he was also active in the United Labourers' Union of South Australia.

After the merger of the Amalgamated Workers' Association and the A.W.U. in Queensland in January 1913, jealousy grew between their officials, and Dunstan was invited to become a neutral general secretary for Queensland. His appointment by the executive was questioned at his first convention and subsequently, but with the aid of the president, William James Riordan, and eventually, of Edward Theodore, he brought the union under firm bureaucratic control. Industrious, with a capacity for detail, he established an efficient and centralized organization that provided a base for the Labor Party to secure great influence over Queensland politics in 1920-52.

A pragmatist, Dunstan was anathema to the left wing led by Ernest Lane, and is frequently pilloried in his Dawn to Dusk (1939). Dunstan and Riordan were in the centre of battles over the One Big Union movement of 1916-21 and earned more opprobrium by their claim that the A.W.U. was already the O.B.U. Before 1915 the A.W.U. had been a leading and aggressive union, but good arbitration awards and access to political power later removed most of the need for militancy. As an advocate Dunstan tended to specialize in pastoral problems, but he also helped to secure many of the acceptable awards in other fields.

He was a delegate to every union convention but one in 1911-25, and was vice-president for Queensland on the national executive council of the union. In 1916-18 and 1920-26, Dunstan was a member of the Queensland Central Executive of the Labor Party; in 1920-23 he was a vice-president and a member of the executive committee of the Q.C.E. (the inner executive). He attended all interstate party conferences in 1915-25. Besides these multifarious offices he was a director of Labor Papers Ltd, and chairman of the board of directors of the Worker. Before leaving Broken Hill, he had been a director of Barrier Daily Truth.

In February 1920 Dunstan was appointed to the Legislative Council as one of those sworn to its abolition. In 1921 he was selected to contest the Federal seat of Maranoa. As a city machine official trying to replace a popular country man, he waged a defensive campaign throughout and he was defeated by 1422 votes. Nineteen months after the Legislative Council was abolished on 23 March 1922, Dunstan and William Gillies were appointed as members of the Board of Trade and Arbitration. Here, too, Dunstan failed to satisfy some of his old colleagues. Accused of being too objective in the 1927 sugar and rail strikes, he was criticized in 1926 for abandoning the principle of equal pay for women; inquiry, he said, might show that 'neither males nor females are doing all the work they might do'. In 1930 he was appointed as conciliation commissioner for two years by the Moore government. A serious street accident in 1926 had permanently affected his health, and on 13 September 1930 he died, unmarried, of chronic nephritis. He was buried in Toowong cemetery with Anglican rites. His estate, valued for probate at £5720, was left to relatives.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Lane, Dawn to Dusk (Brisb, 1939)
  • Government Gazette (Queensland), 31 Oct 1925, 25 Jan 1930
  • Advocate (Brisbane), 15 Sept 1926
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 15 Sept 1930
  • Worker (Brisbane), 17 Sept 1930
  • J. D. Armstrong, Closer Unity in the Queensland Trades Union Movement 1900-1922 (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1976)
  • G. M. Dalton, The Queensland Labor Movement, 1919-1929 (B.Econ. thesis, University of Queensland, 1974).

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Citation details

Betty Crouchley and H. J. Gibbney, 'Dunstan, William John (1873–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

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