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McPhee, Sir John Cameron (1878–1952)

by R. P. Davis

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

Sir John Cameron McPhee (1878-1952), businessman and politician, was born on 4 July 1878 at Yan Yean, Victoria, son of Donald McPhee, storekeeper from the Isle of Skye, Scotland, and his Victorian-born wife Elizabeth, née McLaughlin. Educated at state schools until 14, after a time on the family farm John was apprenticed to a printer. A period on a Bairnsdale newspaper, reporting, advertising and typesetting, was followed by work as a compositor in the Government Printing Office, Melbourne. At night-school McPhee learned shorthand, typing and business principles. As a keen temperance worker (once a trainee for the Presbyterian ministry), a debater in the Australian Natives' Association and a shorthand reporter studying the orators of the day, he laid the basis for his political career.

In 1908 McPhee moved to Hobart where he bought Hedley Button's Central Business College, conducting it for fifteen years as the Remington Business College and relinquishing his interest only in the 1940s. He also established a stationery and office equipment company, J. C. McPhee Pty Ltd, became co-proprietor of the Huon Times and was a director of several Tasmanian firms. On 17 April 1911 at Christ Church, Longford, he married Alice Bealey Crompton Dean. About this time he became an Anglican and was subsequently a lay reader and a member of the Tasmanian synod.

Supported by temperance interests, McPhee contested Denison in the 1916 State elections and in a 1917 by-election. He lost, but won a Denison seat as a Nationalist in 1919, holding it until 1934. In August 1922 he entered John Hayes's ministry as chief secretary and minister for railways but resigned, for business reasons, next June. In October 1923 (Sir) Walter Lee, Nationalist premier since August, was overturned by National and Country Party dissidents, and Joe Lyons formed a Labor government. McPhee was one of seven Nationalists whose vote on 31 October helped to defeat an Opposition motion of no confidence in the new ministry; as leader of the Opposition from 1925 he continued to work with Lyons in co-operative rivalry.

In June 1928 McPhee led the Nationalists into government. As well as premier he became treasurer, minister for forests and minister controlling the Hydro-Electric Department. His personal austerity, as teetotaller and virtual non-smoker, made him an appropriate leader in a period of national belt-tightening, and in the 1931 elections he won the greatest victory over Labor since the full implementation of Hare-Clark voting—the sole Australian premier to triumph electorally during mid-Depression. Albert Ogilvie, leading Labor, had campaigned on an expansionist policy, while McPhee accepted the expenditure cuts required by the subsequent Premiers' Plan.

In March 1932 McPhee exchanged the portfolio of hydro-electricity for that of agriculture. Troubled by persistent heart problems during the following two years, he resigned the premiership to Lee in March 1934 and retired from politics. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in June.

Short and stocky, identifiable by his black Homburg and pince-nez, McPhee, in contrast to the aggressive Ogilvie, was a low-key political figure. An infrequent parliamentary speaker, cautious in decision, he inspired confidence through modesty and sincerity. Conservative in economics, he rejected state industrial ownership in favour of free enterprise with minimal government control. He believed, however, that Tasmania's indissoluble Legislative Council should be forced to election if in disagreement with the Lower House.

McPhee failed in an attempt at a political comeback in 1937 when he was defeated for the Federal seat of Denison. But in 1941, amid a landslide victory for Labor under (Sir) Robert Cosgrove, he narrowly won a Franklin seat in the House of Assembly. He retired in 1946 to concentrate on business and charitable interests. His humanitarian work for the Tasmanian Institution for the Blind, Deaf and Dumb, the Tasmanian Sanatorium, the Temperance Council, Red Cross Society and war loans organizations was substantial. A justice of the peace and a council-member of the University of Tasmania, McPhee belonged to the Royal Autocar Club, the Tasmanian Club and Hobart Rotary. A cyclist as a youth, he played bowls in retirement.

McPhee died in his sleep of coronary vascular disease in Hobart on 14 September 1952 and was cremated. His wife, five daughters and the second of his two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Aug 1922, 22 Feb, 8 May 1923, 29 June 1928, 19 May 1932
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 June 1934, 27 July 1937, 30 May 1931
  • Mercury (Hobart), 1 Nov 1923, 14 May 1925, 15, 17 Sept 1952
  • private information.

Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'McPhee, Sir John Cameron (1878–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcphee-sir-john-cameron-7437/text12947, 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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