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McCormack, William (1879–1947)

by K. H. Kennedy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William McCormack (1879-1947), miner, trade union organizer and premier, was born on 27 April 1879 at Purnam near St Lawrence, central Queensland, fourth of six children of Melbourne-born Patrick McCormack, carrier, and his Irish wife Mary, née Brennan. Educated at the local state school, McCormack worked on his parents' small grazing property before turning prospector in the Mount Morgan district. In 1904 he departed for the North Queensland base-metal fields and was engaged by the Stannary Hills Mines & Tramway Co. There he experienced the hardships of working underground for low wages in high temperatures and along poorly ventilated drives where safety regulations were virtually ignored.

In 1906 McCormack met a young Irvinebank miner E. G. (Ted) Theodore, who extolled the benefits of organization. Largely on their initiative members for the Amalgamated Workers' Association of North Queensland were recruited from September 1907. Six months later McCormack became inaugural vice-president. Local conditions augured well for the A.W.A.'s success: as managers had cut wages, many miners joined the union. By July McCormack was general secretary. With a successful conclusion to the Etheridge railway dispute in September, the A.W.A.'s penetration of non-mining occupations was almost as spectacular as its record for winning strikes in mining areas. Forced to leave Stannary Hills and find employment at Nymbool, McCormack was elected full-time secretary at the first A.W.A. conference at Chillagoe in February 1909; he was paid £200 a year after victimization by his employers. With Theodore aspiring to State parliament, McCormack increasingly shouldered the A.W.A.'s organizational responsibilities and championed amalgamation proposals to incorporate rural workers, miners, smelterers, sugar-workers, railway navvies and town labourers. He also steered the union towards political action 'to secure direct representation of Labour in Parliament'.

In 1910-12 McCormack was North Queensland's most influential industrial leader. He achieved an amalgamation in December 1910 of several smaller unions including the Amalgamated Sugar Workers', and six months later, 'to justify ourselves', orchestrated a sugar strike which lasted over three months. The settlement terms on pay, hours, bonuses and employment conditions were vindicated by the 1912 royal commission on the sugar industry. McCormack's health, however, was seriously impaired by strain and a subsequent recurrent coronary condition. With A.W.A. headquarters now at Townsville, McCormack predicted that 'we are not likely to have a great deal of peace in the future'. Within a month the 1912 general strike had been called, much to his consternation.

Although McCormack supported the strike initially, he considered the pretext flimsy and, detecting signs of impending defeat, ordered the A.W.A. back to work. His intuitive pragmatism thus ensured that the A.W.A., unlike some other unions, emerged from the dispute largely intact. With the labour movement rudderless after the strike, McCormack made new amalgamation proposals. By 1913 McCormack and Theodore had engineered the modern Australian Workers' Union, following a series of conferences with interstate non-craft unions. McCormack accepted the A.W.U.'s vice-presidency in 1913. Meanwhile, politics had captured his imagination. He narrowly won the Legislative Assembly seat of Cairns in April 1912, and from the back-bench concentrated on industrial relations and the sugar industry.

After T. J. Ryan's electoral victory in 1915, he seemed certain to enter the ministry, having bowed out of union affairs; however, he was defeated in caucus by parliamentary experience and intrigue. A consolation was his election as Speaker. Maintaining his strong links with the Labor machine, McCormack was blatantly partisan in his rulings from the chair. He served on the party executive, was a delegate to conferences, attended caucus meetings and chaired party sub-committees. In the assembly he regularly prejudiced debate, passing notes to ministers and arbitrarily invoking standing orders against the Opposition. During the 1916 anti-conscription campaign he often addressed rallies while parliament was in session, ruling out of order subsequent questioning of his behaviour. In November 1917 McCormack devised tactics to expose censorship of Labor leaders' anti-conscription addresses. By 1919, however, he was anxious to relinquish the Speakership. He nominated for a Federal seat but withdrew during a reshuffle which culminated in Ryan's entry into Federal politics.

McCormack became an efficient home secretary in the Theodore ministry until 2 July 1923. Few reforms were introduced, because of the nature of the office and because ill health necessitated his absence on 46 of the 126 sitting days. During his subsequent twenty-eight months as secretary for public lands, however, he introduced nineteen bills and emerged as the cabinet strongman. In Theodore's absence he was acting treasurer.

When Theodore stepped down in February 1925, McCormack was favoured over the deputy premier W. N. Gillies but, to his surprise, was narrowly beaten, having made many enemies in caucus; he became deputy leader. However, Gillies' leadership was found wanting in the settlement in September of the week-long railway unions strike. By-passing the State arbitration court, the government met the union's demands in full, despite economic ramifications. On 22 October Gillies retired and McCormack was elected leader, and thus premier. His troubled inheritance included financial difficulties and conflict with militant unions. Appreciating these electoral liabilities he was determined to assert firm leadership from the outset.

McCormack's relations with the Trades Hall unions had been deteriorating since July 1917, when he condemned Townsville strikers for defying the arbitration court. In 1921 he clashed with militants over Labor's socialization objective, and two years later at the Emu Park Labor-in-Politics convention he abused advocates of direct action, claiming that workers had obtained significant material gains under Labor's arbitration legislation. Sniping continued at the central executive level and mutual intolerance was reflected in the February 1925 leadership ballot. In one of his first actions as Labor premier, McCormack manoeuvred the exclusion of militant union delegates from the central executive and ultimately the party, for failing to sign the anti-communist pledge. The ruthlessness with which he cynically exploited this ideological issue for sectional and personal advantage rebounded upon him later in his premiership, when his critics had remustered their forces. Meanwhile, he led Labor to a handsome electoral victory in May 1926.

The barren legislative period from 1926 to 1929 reflected the government's realistic handling of State finances. Drought, losses on state enterprises and accumulated deficits obliged McCormack, as treasurer (and chief secretary), to introduce stringent economies. Unprofitable state undertakings were shut down, taxation increased, government expenditures pruned. Probably one of the most significant initiatives was taken in May 1927 when McCormack, in London raising loans, agreed to concessions which permitted the development of Mount Isa. The 1928-29 budget showed, however, that McCormack had achieved his economic goals, and could finance attractive election promises after the May 1929 poll. But his government was in deep trouble.

McCormack's show-down with the unions had come in August 1927 on his return from overseas. A strike at the South Johnstone sugar-mill had snowballed, with railwaymen being suspended for refusing to handle 'black' sugar. To uphold the railway commissioner's authority, and that of the government, McCormack dismissed all railway workers, insisting on a signed undertaking to abide by the commissioner's rulings as a condition of reinstatement. The lock-out provoked a storm of protest from the labour movement but applause from the press, Opposition and general public. The unions capitulated twelve days later, after which many officials pledged themselves to a campaign to discredit the premier.

He retained his seat but his administration was swept from office in May 1929. McCormack contributed heavily to Labor's defeat by a restrictive financial policy, a negative policy speech, the abandonment of state enterprise, opposition to wage claims, roughshod treatment of many union leaders, and there was also the taint of corruption. Despite self-justifications he resigned from the leadership on 16 May.

For many years allegations of his involvement with the Mungana Mining Co., which sold properties to the State for £40,000, had circulated in North Queensland. Challenged by his opponents, he persistently denied any connexion. In late 1929 he was exposed for misrepresenting his shareholdings in Mount Isa; in February 1930, the month that he resigned from parliament, a royal commission was set up to investigate Mungana. Its report was a political bombshell: it declared not only McCormack to be 'guilty of fraud and dishonesty', but also Theodore, then Commonwealth treasurer. Although the Crown failed in a subsequent civil prosecution, the damage was done, ruling out a return to political life.

Only 52, McCormack retired to his Annerley home, financially comfortable from investments from which he supported his spinster sisters. He entered business in Sydney and, in later years frequently visited the Queensland parliamentary gallery. Following months of ill health, McCormack died, unmarried, of hypertensive heart disease, on 21 November 1947 at Annerley, and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Catholic rites. He was remembered by his contemporaries as a warm, but not colourful personality, strong-willed and dogmatic. Within his party, he was not a popular premier, although cabinet loyalty was a feature of his term in office. To the public, however, the spectre of political corruption remained; his name evoked recollections of the railway lock-out of 1927, and his unswerving friendship with Theodore.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland and Queenslanders (Brisb, 1936)
  • I. Young, Theodore (Syd, 1971)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • K. H. Kennedy, ‘William McCormack: forgotten Labor leader’, in D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978), and for bibliography
  • K. H. Kennedy, The Mungana Affair (Brisb, 1978)
  • Australian Quarterly, June 1929
  • K. H. Kennedy, ‘The South Johnstone strike and railway lockout, 1927’, Labour History, Nov 1976, no 31
  • K. H. Kennedy, ‘Theodore, McCormack and the Amalgamated Workers' Association’, Labour History, Nov 1977, no 33
  • Whips of the Queensland Parliamentary Labour Party 1893-1981 (typescript, 1981, Queensland Parliamentary Library)
  • Executive Members of the ALP (Queensland branch) PLP, 1893-1981 (typescript, 1981, Queensland Parliamentary Library).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

K. H. Kennedy, 'McCormack, William (1879–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccormack-william-7320/text12699, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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