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Sir Donald Mackinnon (Don) Cleland (1901–1975)

by H. N. Nelson

This article was published:

Donald Mackinnon Cleland (1901-1975), by unknown photographer

Donald Mackinnon Cleland (1901-1975), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 000422

Sir Donald Mackinnon Cleland (1901-1975), soldier and administrator, was born on 28 June 1901 at Coolgardie, Western Australia, eldest son of Adelaide-born Elphinstone Davenport Cleland, mine-manager, and his second wife Anne Emily, née Mackinnon, from Scotland. After a childhood on the goldfields of Kalgoorlie, from 1912 Don attended the Church of England Grammar School, Guildford, where he was captain (1919). Excluded on medical grounds from the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory, he enlisted in the Militia in July 1919 and rose to captain in the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade before resigning in 1928. On 18 December that year he married Rachel Evans at St George's Anglican Cathedral, Perth.

Appointed to the Australian Imperial Force on 13 October 1939 as staff captain, 6th Divisional Artillery, Cleland arrived in the Middle East in February 1940. He was promoted temporary major in November. For his work as deputy assistant quartermaster general, I Corps, during the campaigns in Libya, Greece and Syria in 1941, he was appointed M.B.E. (1942) and mentioned in dispatches.

After a brief period in Australia early in 1942, Cleland was appointed temporary colonel and posted as D.A.Q.M.G., Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, Port Moresby. In October he was promoted temporary brigadier and from March 1943 held the additional position of chairman of the Australian New Guinea Production Control Board. Effectively chief of staff, Cleland was responsible for the day-by-day civil administration of Papua and New Guinea, for the running of the pre-war plantations and for A.N.G.A.U.'s operational commitments. The military administration raised standards of health care and labour supervision, and began a new education scheme. Again mentioned in dispatches, Cleland was elevated to C.B.E. in 1945 and transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 12 May. He was to be made honorary colonel of the Pacific Islands Regiment in 1958.

Before World War II Cleland had worked as an articled clerk, qualified as a solicitor and barrister in 1925, and practised as a partner with Villeneuve, Smith & Keall. Active in conservative politics, he was president (1936-38) of the National Party of Western Australia and thrice stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly (1933, 1936 and 1939). On his return to Perth in mid-1945, he was elected vice-president of the State branch of the Liberal Party. When John Curtin died, Cleland—showing 'an itch for public service and a gaucherie of platform manner'—was defeated in the by-election for the seat of Fremantle in the House of Representatives. In October he was appointed director of the federal secretariat of the Liberal Party, and in that position organized the effective 1949 campaign.

An applicant to be administrator of Papua and New Guinea in 1945, he believed that he was rejected for (Sir Jack) Murray on political grounds, yet Cleland's appointment as assistant-administrator in 1951 was denounced as being 'political', and the 'howl' increased when Murray was asked to resign and Cleland became acting-administrator, then administrator in 1953. (Sir) Paul Hasluck, minister for territories, pointed to Cleland's record in A.N.G.A.U. where Murray had been junior to Cleland. In their twelve-year partnership Hasluck was the public figure, but he was dependent on Cleland's assiduous administration and both men crossed roles, with Cleland setting policy and Hasluck forcing action from the bureaucracy. According to Hasluck, Cleland was 'cool-headed, firm and decisive', with a 'clear view of his loyalties', though he did not always get prompt action from his officers. Under Hasluck's less influential successor Charles Barnes, Cleland resisted direction from Canberra.

Cleland was pragmatic, balancing commercial, mission and government interests against what he thought was primary: the orderly development of the indigenous people. Publicly, he measured success in terms of building roads, bridges and airstrips, the increase in government revenue and the expansion of the public service. He chaired the Legislative Council, his 'pride and joy', until 1964 and directed the introduction of the first House of Assembly elected by full adult franchise; he restructured the public service so that it would be dominated by Papua New Guineans, paid at a rate the country could afford; and he continued the elimination of discriminatory legislation, most obviously ending the liquor ban in 1962. While his reports were methodical, in his diary he made quick, shrewd judgements of people and events. He was knighted in 1961. When he retired in 1967 he regarded talk of Papua New Guinea becoming a seventh State of Australia as 'completely impractical' and cautioned against premature independence. Energetic, with broad interests and deft social skills, Rachel complemented his dour, sometimes gruff, manner, and eased contact with diverse people. She was to be appointed D.B.E. in 1981.

In retirement Cleland lived in Port Moresby, the only administrator of either territory to choose to stay there. He was pro-chancellor and chancellor (from 1971) of the University of Papua New Guinea, and chancellor (from 1967) of the Anglican diocese of Papua New Guinea. Survived by his wife and two sons, Sir Donald died on 27 August 1975 in Port Moresby; accorded a state funeral, he was buried in the cemetery at Bomana. Cleland won the trust of ambitious lieutenants, he was stoic in the face of criticism, and his integrity and judgement were undoubted. He did not court popularity, but was widely respected, and remembered with affection.

Select Bibliography

  • The History of Melanesia (Port Moresby, 1969)
  • P. Hasluck, A Time for Building (Melb, 1976)
  • I. Downs, The Australian Trusteeship (Canb, 1980)
  • R. Cleland, Papua New Guinea (Perth, 1983)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, June 1952, Mar 1953, Feb 1967
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Aug 1945
  • personal papers (privately held).

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'Cleland, Sir Donald Mackinnon (Don) (1901–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Donald Mackinnon Cleland (1901-1975), by unknown photographer

Donald Mackinnon Cleland (1901-1975), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 000422

Life Summary [details]


28 June, 1901
Coolgardie, Western Australia, Australia


27 August, 1975 (aged 74)
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

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