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Rodgers, Donald Kilgour (1906–1978)

by C. J. Lloyd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Donald Kilgour Rodgers (1906-1978), journalist and press secretary, was born on 20 May 1906 at Newcastle, New South Wales, son of Australian-born parents Robert Howden Rodgers, clerk, and his wife Jessie Edith, née Kilgour. Educated locally, Don worked as a journalist on the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miner's Advocate and the Newcastle Sun. In 1931 he joined the Labor Daily in Sydney. While attached to that newspaper's bureau at Parliament House, Canberra, he emerged as an accomplished political reporter. At Scots Church, Sydney, on 21 March 1936 he married with Presbyterian forms Edna Ida Dorothy McNevin, a 22-year-old usherette. In September 1937 he was seconded to assist John Curtin in campaigning for the forthcoming Federal general election. The transfer was intended to be for one month only, but he 'hit it off' with Curtin and accepted a permanent post as his publicity officer (later press secretary).

Rumours circulated for many years that Rodgers drafted Curtin's article published in the Melbourne Herald on 27 December 1941, which contained the famous declaration: 'Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom'. In a letter written in June 1976 and opened after his death, Rodgers confirmed that he had been the 'author' of the statement. He travelled constantly with the prime minister by train, often sharing a sleeping-compartment with him. Curtin had a cast in his left eye, and Rodgers faced the problem of obtaining a publicity shot giving him something like a 'straight-on appearance'. He finally found a 'beauty' in the Illustrated London News, 'of all places', and it became Curtin's stock image.

Rodgers also had to counter the inopportune public statements of Curtin's wife Elsie whom he described as a 'champion political brick dropper'. He took long walks with Curtin during his fits of melancholia, lifting the prime minister's mood with disquisitions on reform programmes such as introducing the 'Continental Sunday' to wartime Australia. These 'pipe dreams' were usually shelved as politically unacceptable. Rodgers was privy to most of Curtin's major wartime consultations and attended virtually all of the prime minister's meetings with General Douglas MacArthur. Curtin discussed his decisions with Rodgers, once explaining why he had given his old rival Eddie Ward the portfolios of transport and external territories: 'the Japs have got the external territories and the army's got the transport'! Rodgers also organized and sustained Curtin's gruelling schedule of twice-daily press conferences.

Following Curtin's death in 1945, Rodgers settled in comfortably as press secretary to J. B. Chifley. The new prime minister held fewer press conferences and was less receptive generally to the demands of journalists. Rodgers performed his most memorable duty for Chifley in 1947 when he released to the press a statement announcing the government's decision to nationalize the banks. He later recalled: 'I've never seen a man with such a look of pleasure on his face [as on] that Saturday morning . . . he had written it out in his own hand . . . thirty-five words it was, and he said, ''Get that out, Don!''' After the Labor government was defeated in 1949, Rodgers believed that he should 'move on', but he could not bring himself to leave the warm, personable Chifley, a man who even exchanged letters with the young Rupert Murdoch about the virtues of socialism. When Chifley died in June 1951, Rodgers worked briefly for H. V. Evatt, whom he disliked.

In September that year Rodgers was appointed to the Australian News and Information Bureau. He moved to Sydney in 1955 as editor of news services for radio-station 2UW. Although he retired in 1971, he continued to work indefatigably, covering local government for the Manly Daily, providing political reports for John Laws's radio programme and serving as a press officer for Royal North Shore Hospital. Despite his long association with the Labor Party, he was objective in his political assessments, arguing that the Depression government of J. A. Lyons had achieved greatness because 'it had got Australia back on its feet'. From the late 1950s Rodgers drew closer to the Liberal Party. A political consultant (1959) to its New South Wales branch, he directed the party's campaign (1965) for the Labor-held seat of Wyong. He admired the political style of Premier (Sir) Robert Askin.

Rodgers followed cricket, and Rugby Union football which he had taken a leading part in bringing to the Federal (Australian) Capital Territory. He was a lifelong member of the Australian Journalists' Association. In 1973 he was appointed M.B.E. A robust, gregarious man, with an acute 'news-sense', Rodgers was a master of political communication at a time when the printed word dominated. He was not the first of Australia's prime ministerial press secretaries, but he was the most influential and effective. Survived by his wife and their three sons, he died on 2 May 1978 in his home at St Ives, Sydney, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 22 Aug 1942
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Sept 1951, 2 June 1973, 3 May 1978
  • M. Pratt, interview with Donald Rodgers (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia)
  • Rodgers papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. J. Lloyd, 'Rodgers, Donald Kilgour (1906–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rodgers-donald-kilgour-11553/text20615, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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