Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McLachlan, Alexander John (1872–1956)

by Graham Loughlin

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

Alexander John McLachlan (1872-1956), lawyer, businessman and politician, was born on 2 November 1872 at Naracoorte, South Australia, son of Alexander McLachlan, grazier, and his wife Mary, née Patterson. He was raised in the atmosphere of a Gaelic-speaking family and workforce, and educated privately at Hamilton Academy, Victoria, and Mount Gambier High School, South Australia.

In 1890 he was articled to Davison & Daniel of Mount Gambier, subsequently transferring his indenture to E. B. Grundy of Adelaide. McLachlan completed the Final Certificate in Law at the University of Adelaide and was admitted to the South Australian Bar in 1895 (and to the Victorian Bar in 1929). After practice at Gladstone and Petersburg (Peterborough), he entered into partnership with Charles Kingston in 1897. Owing to Kingston's political involvements, McLachlan effectively conducted the business until the partnership was dissolved in 1905. He subsequently took several partners including W. J. Vandenburgh and (Sir) Mellis Napier. His professional career was marked by success in several leading cases, but Chief Justice Sir George Murray refused to nominate him for silk. With Edward Benham, he revised the Magistrates' Guide (1906). On 1 June 1898 he had married Cecia Antoinette Billiet (d.1941) at St Andrew's Church, Adelaide.

McLachlan was chief of the Caledonian Society in 1899-1902 and lieutenant in command of a South Australian Scottish Corps in 1901. For some years he was legal adviser to a small company, Hume Bros., and when the Hume Pipe Co. (Aust) Ltd was formed in 1920 he joined the board and became its second chairman.

Between 1896 and 1922 McLachlan unsuccessfully contested six parliamentary elections: for the House of Assembly districts of Victoria in 1896 and Adelaide in 1912; the Legislative Council (Southern District) in 1905; the Federal electorate of Adelaide in 1908 and 1910; and the Senate in 1922. He was a founding organizer and second president (1913-16) of the South Australian Liberal Union, forged from several non-Labor groups. Following the 1916 Labor split he was involved in merging the new National Party into the S.A.L.U., to form the Liberal Federation.

McLachlan was eventually elected to the Senate in 1925. In the normal course of events he would have occupied his seat in July 1926; however, following the resignation of Senator Benny, McLachlan was appointed to fill the casual vacancy in January. In August he was appointed honorary minister (to discharge the functions of the absent attorney-general) in the Bruce-Page government. On the return of Attorney-General (Sir) John Latham he continued to serve as 'a sort of offsider to the prime minister', doing the work of any ill or absent minister. In 1928 he led the Australian delegation to the League of Nations, where he defended Australia's tariff policy and signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact on behalf of Australia. He lived mainly in Melbourne from about 1930.

In the Lyons government McLachlan was vice-president of the Executive Council (1932-34). As minister in charge of development and scientific and industrial research (1932-37) he promoted the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's work in the fishing industry, salinity control in the Murray, and coal hydrogenation. When postmaster-general (1934-38) he permitted extensive commercial licensing of wireless stations. In 1937-38 he was leader of the government in the Senate.

Throughout this period McLachlan advocated greater preparations for war, including the formation of an Empire naval fleet to supplement the Royal Navy. His advocacy at public functions, he recalled, was 'received with a dumb silence'. Nor were his opinions on defence supported by Lyons, with whom his relationship was deteriorating. McLachlan's public support of sanctions against Italy made him unpopular in cabinet. Lyons's procrastination over the national health and pensions insurance bill of 1938, which McLachlan pressed through the Senate and which he was anxious to have proclaimed, further strained relations. On 3 November 1938 a parliamentary question was asked which implied that the postmaster-general had misused his position to influence the letting of contracts to the Hume Pipe Co. Although no evidence was adduced and the claim was denied by McLachlan, Lyons was less than fulsome in his defence. McLachlan's resignation the same day ('one's personal honour is dearer than all the pelf on earth') caused a sensation.

He remained on the Senate back-bench until June 1944 and was disappointed not to be appointed a privy councillor. In 1943 he failed to secure pre-selection for a further Senate term. His autobiography, McLachlan: An F.A.Q. Australian was published in 1948. Tall, burly and genial, he enjoyed golf and bridge, and was chairman of the South Australian Football League (1920-25).

McLachlan died childless on 28 May 1956 at the Mercy Hospital, East Melbourne, and was cremated after a state funeral. His estate, sworn for probate in Victoria at £127,161, was left largely to his nephews.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Farr, Origins of the Liberal Party and Country League of South Australia (Adel, 1969)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 12 Sept 1913, 10 Sept 1915, 26 Apr 1922, 7 Sept 1925, 4, 11 Nov 1938, 30 May 1956
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 1956.

Citation details

Graham Loughlin, 'McLachlan, Alexander John (1872–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclachlan-alexander-john-7404/text12877, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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