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John Edmund (Jack) Duggan (1910–1993)

by M. French and D. B. Waterson

This article was published:

John Edmund Duggan (1910–1993), politician, was born on 30 December 1910 at Port Augusta, South Australia, eldest of six children of Queensland-born parents John Stephen Duggan, auctioneer and storekeeper, and his wife Charlotte Mary, née Matthisen. Although Catholic, Jack attended state schools at Hergott Springs (Marree) (1916 and 1921–22) and Hoyleton (1917–20). He worked as a junior messenger with an Adelaide wholesale grocer and, briefly, as a fruit-picker at Berri. Following the deaths of his mother (1922) and father (1924), his siblings went to live with an uncle, Maurice Duggan, at Toowoomba, Queensland, and he followed in March 1925.

Rejected for various office positions, Duggan worked as a shop assistant with the Downs Co-operative Stores Ltd and embarked on a vigorous program of self-education and self-improvement: reading voraciously, joining a debating society to improve speech and diction, and achieving minor success in athletics. In later life he would take up tennis and acquire a taste for classical music. While undertaking compulsory (from 1928) and then voluntary (after October 1929) service in the 25th Battalion, Citizen Military Forces (CMF), he decided to seek a career as a professional soldier. He gained promotion to lieutenant in August 1929, hoping to improve his chances of selection for the Royal Military College, Duntroon, Federal Capital Territory. His ambition was thwarted, however, by cuts in the defence budget and what he perceived as class discrimination. After a period of severe mental depression, he abandoned the army in 1933 and devoted himself to trade unionism and the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

By 1933 Duggan was vice-president of the Toowoomba branch of the Queensland Shop Assistants’ Union, secretary of the city’s Trades and Labour Council, and president of the local branch of the ALP. On 14 December 1935 he comfortably won a by-election for the State seat of Toowoomba. He married Beatrice Mary Dunne, a dressmaker, on 26 December that year at St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Described as ‘clean-living’ (Chronicle 1935, 4) and as ‘a dapper, chubby-faced young man with slicked-back hair,’ ‘a wide smile,’ and ‘the self-possession of a matinee idol’ (Courier-Mail 1936, 14), Duggan had conducted a polished election campaign that impressed seasoned political reporters, one of whom dubbed him ‘the boy who carries the A.L.P. banner’ (Connolly 1936, 2). Within a year some informed commentators regarded him as a future premier. His confident and erudite maiden speech, delivered at a fast-paced 220 words per minute on 25 August 1936, sorely tested Hansard reporters. His parliamentary speeches in the aftermath of the Depression demonstrated his discontent with the world and showed more than a passing acquaintance with socialist and left-liberal ideas, especially those of Harold Laski and J. M. (Baron) Keynes; he was an early subscriber to the Left Book Club from 1936. Despite his abilities, his political progression was hampered partly by Premier Forgan Smith’s muted antagonism towards him but mostly by his own refusal to join a faction: ‘I always had this view that I would stand on my own legs and I either succeeded as Duggan or I failed as Duggan, not just some nincompoop from a faction’ (French 2016, 160).

On 27 September 1940 Duggan was reappointed as a lieutenant in the CMF and posted to his old unit, the 25th Battalion. Granted leave from parliament and recently promoted to captain, he began full-time duty on 17 September 1941. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 10 July 1942. The battalion arrived at Milne Bay, Papua, later that month. As commander of ‘D’ Company and Clifton Force, he initially reconnoitred the Dogura region but returned to Milne Bay on 31 August, towards the end of the battalion’s involvement in the major battle that had begun six days earlier. His appointment on 26 November as adjutant of the battalion was interrupted by staff training in Australia between April and August 1943. From October he was a staff captain at 7th Brigade headquarters, near Port Moresby. Failing eyesight prompted his repatriation in January 1944, transfer to the Reserve of Officers on 21 March, and return to parliamentary duties. He did not claim his service medals. The mateship he experienced in the army in World War II gave him ‘a revised estimate of my fellow man’ (Truth 1954, 19) and a more positive view of the world.

Appointed as minister for transport on 15 May 1947, Duggan would hold this office until 29 April 1957. He was confronted with a railway network debilitated by wartime service and an aggressive road-transport lobby based at Toowoomba. After a tour of American and European railways (April-July 1951), he oversaw the introduction of the first diesel locomotives and air-conditioned trains in Queensland and planned the electrification of Brisbane’s suburban lines. The road hauliers’ challenge to licences and road taxes, their internecine feuds, and their abuse of section 92 of the Constitution (requiring free trade between the States) raised legal issues during his term that would culminate under his Liberal Party successor, (Sir) Gordon Chalk.

The ‘factionless’ Duggan was elected as deputy premier in January 1952, the third member of an uneasy triumvirate—with the premier, Vince Gair, and the treasurer, E. J. Walsh—in a Catholic-dominated ministry. When the fissures between the ALP party organisation and the Gair government became a chasm—notionally over the question of three-weeks annual leave but essentially over the Industrial Groups’ challenge to the traditional party dominance by the Trades Hall—Duggan, though increasingly distant from Gair and the ‘groupers,’ nevertheless attempted to bridge the animosities by compromise and negotiation; he failed. Although opposing the Queensland central executive’s decision to expel Gair in April 1957, he refused to be part of the collective ministerial resignation and to join Gair’s Queensland Labor Party. Instead, displaying a mate’s loyalty to the party that had nurtured him, he became leader of the official, rump ALP. In the following vituperative election campaign (August) Toowoomba’s Catholic hierarchy, both clerical and lay, demonised Duggan (and his wife, who was snubbed in the street by former friends). He bore the calumny stoically and calmly. With the QLP candidate taking 16.9 percent of the vote, he gained only 38.7 percent, enabling the Liberal aspirant to win with 41.2 percent.

After unsuccessfully contesting the seat of Gregory at a by-election in October 1957, Duggan dismissed a move to Federal politics and established himself briefly as an industry consultant and share trader until he was re-elected (with comfortable majorities) for North Toowoomba at a by-election in May 1958 and Toowoomba West at the general election two years later. As leader of the ALP and of the Opposition from 1958, he had to contend with a resurgent Country and Liberal parties’ coalition and with the growing influence of (Sir) Jack Egerton in the Brisbane Trades Hall. He resigned on 11 October 1966 as a self-imposed penalty for inadvertently failing to declare capital appreciation on shareholdings in his tax returns from 1955 to 1962; all political leaders expressed sympathy. However, he had surrendered any chance of becoming premier and he retired from State politics on 17 May 1969.

On 4 April 1970 Duggan was elected to the Toowoomba City Council, serving as deputy (1970–81) to Nell Robinson, Queensland’s first female mayor; as her successor from 27 August 1981 to 27 March 1982; and as a very effective honorary treasurer (1972–81) of the Local Government Association of Queensland. The Robinson-Duggan administration, husbanding funds for a third city dam, was noted for its anti-development stance, its parsimonious financial administration, and low rates. He was appointed AO (1982) for services to parliamentary and local government.

Duggan died on 19 June 1993 at Toowoomba. His wife had predeceased him in 1984 and his son and daughter survived him. Following a Catholic funeral, he was buried in the Drayton and Toowoomba lawn cemetery. Eulogised by both sides of politics, he received the most apt tribute from the local paper:

In his heyday, the Labor man was the most popular politician Toowoomba had ever known. So popular was he, in fact, that conservative voters would admit openly that they had voted for Jack Duggan—and their associates would understand (Chronicle 1993, 10).

Although born in South Australia, and despite the setback of the ALP split, he became Toowoomba’s favoured son. A local park and street were named in his honour.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Chronicle (Toowoomba). ‘Farewell to a Man Who Served Us Well.’ 22 June 1993, 10
  • Connolly, Roy. ‘Toowoomba is Proud of the Boy who Carries the A.L.P. Banner.’ Daily Standard (Brisbane), 11 December 1935, 2
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘Gallery Notes: Back to Work: Two Make Debut.’ 26 August 1936, 14
  • Dick, Ian. ‘Wounds Heal after 40 Years.’ Chronicle (Toowoomba), 12 August 1994, 12
  • French, Maurice. Jack Duggan: A Political Biography. Vol 1, The Boy Who Would Be Premier. Toowoomba: Tabletop Publishing, 2016
  • French, Maurice. ‘The Making of a Queensland Politician: Jack Duggan’s Life before Parliament 1910–1935.’ In From The Frontier: Essays in Honour of Duncan Waterson, edited by Paul Ashton and Bridget Griffen-Foley, 76–88. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2001
  • French, Maurice. Toowoomba: A Sense of History 18402008. Toowoomba: University of Southern Queensland, 2009
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX36184
  • Toowoomba Chronicle and Darling Downs Gazette. ‘Toowoomba Seat: Labor Plebiscite: Mr. J. E. Duggan’s Success: Attitude of the Q.C.E.’ 9 December 1935, 4
  • Truth (Brisbane), ‘Rivals Call Him the Boy Wonder.’ 3 January 1954, 19

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Citation details

M. French and D. B. Waterson, 'Duggan, John Edmund (Jack) (1910–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 December, 1910
Port Augusta, South Australia, Australia


19 June, 1993 (aged 82)
Toowoomba, Queensland, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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