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McDonald, Sir John Gladstone Black (Jack) (1898–1977)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Gladstone Black McDonald (1898-1977), by unknown photographer

John Gladstone Black McDonald (1898-1977), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria

Sir John Gladstone Black (Jack) McDonald (1898-1977), orchardist and premier, was born on 6 December 1898 at Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland, second child of Donald Macdonald, licensed grocer, and his wife Ann Elizabeth, née Henry. Educated locally at Carmuirs School, Jack emigrated to Australia in 1912 with his widowed mother, brother and two sisters. The family began farming at Shepparton East, Victoria, but lost their entire dairy herd in the drought of 1914.

On 4 March 1916 McDonald overstated his age and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 37th Battalion, he served on the Western Front from November that year until he was shot through the chest in February 1917. While in hospital he had a lung removed: he kept his condition a secret for most of his life. Discharged on 4 January 1918, he returned to Shepparton where he established an orchard in partnership with his brother Rodney. On 10 December 1932 at the Presbyterian Church, Ashfield, Sydney, he married Mary Cosser Trotter, a 24-year-old schoolteacher who was to become a community activist, involved in at least fourteen committees at Shepparton.

A 'practical irrigator' with good organizing abilities, McDonald soon participated in agricultural organizations. He was president of the Shepparton Irrigators' Association; vice-president of the Northern Victorian Fruitgrowers' Association and of the Australian Canning Fruit Association; a regular delegate to the Victorian Fruit Marketing Authority; and an original shareholder in, and board-member (1937-70) and chairman (1965-70) of, the Shepparton Preserving Co. (later S.P.C. Ltd). Maintaining a long association with the Shepparton Football Club, he was president of its second XVIII. During his one term (1928-29) on the Shepparton Shire Council he clashed with other councillors.

After (Sir) Murray Bourchier retired from parliament, Jack McDonald won an absolute majority over three other endorsed Country Party candidates at the by-election for the Legislative Assembly seat of Goulburn Valley on 19 September 1936; he held the seat until it was abolished in 1945 whereupon he transferred to the new seat of Shepparton. He was Country Party whip in 1938-43.

Appointed minister without portfolio in the Dunstan-Hollway coalition government on 28 June 1943, McDonald received the portfolios of Water Supply and Electrical Undertakings on 18 September. He maintained his commitment to irrigation and 'would talk water at the drop of a hat'. In 1945 he transferred the control of all river management to the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission; later, as premier, he signed the contract on the Big Eildon storage project which greatly increased the capacity of Eildon Reservoir.

At the elections on 10 November 1945—following the defeat of the Dunstan-Hollway government in September and Ian Macfarlan's ensuing 51-day premiership—the Country Party lost seven seats. A minority Labor government led by John Cain was formed. Dunstan, who had been publicly criticized by his colleagues, chose not to contest the Country Party leadership and his 'protégé' McDonald was elected in his place.

McDonald led the official opposition until the Cain government's defeat in October 1947. On 20 November a Liberal-Country Party coalition was formed with Hollway as premier. His deputy, McDonald, was president of the Board of Land and Works, commissioner of Crown Lands and Survey, and minister of Water Supply and of Soldier Settlement. Portfolios were shared equally between the parties, but Hollway was angered when Dunstan received a ministry. The coalition soon degenerated into a 'welter of cross-purposes and a tangle of jarring discords, animosities, jealousies and conflict'. Hollway accused Dunstan of disloyalty, and McDonald grew suspicious of the premier's close friendship with Cain.

Although he 'ruled the [Country] party with a rod of iron', McDonald was unable to contain differences within the cabinet when he acted as premier while Hollway was abroad in late 1948. McDonald adopted a forceful approach to a strike involving tramway workers. On his return the premier initially backed his deputy, before negotiating a compromise with his friend J. V. Stout of the Trades Hall Council. The Country Party alleged betrayal and withdrew from the ministry. In retaliation, the Liberals renamed (1949) themselves the Liberal and Country Party, and attempted an unsuccessful takeover of the Country Party. From 3 December 1948 Hollway remained in power and McDonald reverted to leader of the Opposition.

An agreement negotiated between the Country and Labor parties installed McDonald as premier and treasurer on 27 June 1950. His government's major achievements included the extension of adult franchise to elections for the Legislative Council and the establishment of the Mental Hygiene Authority. In 1951 his cabinet refused to commute the death sentence passed on Jean Lee, the last woman to be hanged in Victoria. Stung by the Federal government's cut in loan funds to Victoria in 1951, McDonald openly criticized Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies. Sections within the State Labor Party remained opposed to propping up a Country Party government and, when McDonald vacillated on the vexed issue of the abolition of rural electoral weighting, his position became precarious. He attempted to secure the premiership by an arrangement with Leslie Norman, the new leader of the Liberal and Country Party.

In September 1952 Hollway moved an unsuccessful no-confidence motion against McDonald's government and was expelled from the L.C.P. McDonald retaliated by establishing a royal commission to investigate allegations that Hollway had offered bribes to politicians to support the motion. The commission adjourned indefinitely after Hollway issued writs for libel against the Age newspaper. On 21 October 1952 Labor and two of Hollway's supporters blocked supply in the Legislative Council. McDonald failed to secure a dissolution and resigned. Hollway was commissioned to form a ministry. His Electoral Reform Party held office for only three days, from 28 to 31 October. McDonald was again commissioned premier, and the governor Sir Dallas Brooks granted a dissolution. The elections on 6 December 1952 gave Labor its first majority government in Victoria.

McDonald remained in parliament, but was shaken by the death of his brother during the 1952 election campaign. The '2 for 1' electoral redistribution, which he had so vehemently opposed, determined in 1953 that his seat would be abolished, and his health began to be more affected by his war-wounds. He decided not to contest the 1955 election. On 27 September that year the Country Party honoured him and his deputy Keith Dodgshun at a public function at the St Kilda Town Hall. McDonald was knighted in 1957.

Despite deteriorating health, Sir John remained active in his retirement. A 'dour, hard-headed and strong-minded man', he 'spoke with a rich Scottish burr'. In addition to his farming interests, he became a director of Goulburn-Murray Television Ltd and continued his close involvement with S.P.C. Ltd. When S.P.C. recorded a $1.4 million loss in 1969/70, a 'reform group' of shareholders organized proxies to remove him as chairman.

Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, McDonald died on 23 April 1977 at Mooroopna and was cremated. One week later a state memorial service was conducted at Shepparton. An undistinguished portrait of Sir John, painted from a photograph, is held at Parliament House, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • L. G. Houston, Ministers of Water Supply in Victoria (Melb, 1965)
  • R. Wright, A People's Counsel (Melb, 1992)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 26 Apr 1977
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 4 Sept 1936, 14 Nov 1952, 22 July 1955
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 July 1970
  • Age (Melbourne), 11 July 1970, 25 Apr 1977
  • Shepparton News, 25 Apr 1977, 8 July 1983.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'McDonald, Sir John Gladstone Black (Jack) (1898–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-sir-john-gladstone-black-jack-10933/text19425, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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