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Ernest Durack (1882–1967)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Ernest Durack (1882-1967), politician, accountant and storekeeper, was born on 10 August 1882 at Mutton Falls, New South Wales, son of Thomas Durack, storekeeper, and his wife Mary, née Webb; both parents were born in the colony. Educated at All Saints' College, Bathurst, he had some local farming experience and became an accountant. At his marriage on 18 November 1903 at Rydal to Cora Emmaline Armstrong, a butcher's daughter, he was described as a grazier.

Appointed a justice of the peace on 30 April 1913, Durack narrowly won the Bathurst seat for Labor in the Legislative Assembly elections of December. He was typical of the new breed of young, Australian-born politicians who were to replace the party founders in the coming crises; from August to November 1916 he was acting chairman of committees. Opposed to conscription, he was one of the Labor members who on 31 October withdrew support from William Holman's ministry; he became their temporary leader. Next day he attempted to move a censure motion but Holman secured a postponement and eventually formed a Nationalist coalition. On 6 November Durack defeated John Storey for Labor Party leadership because he was 'the abler debater, and a much harder worker'. When the vote of no confidence was taken next day, he found himself leader of an Opposition comprising 21 against the government ranks of 53. Holman could afford to congratulate him on discharging 'his duties as the elected leader of the disaffected Labor members with undoubted ability'. Over the next few months he was an effective spokesman for Labor; in John Thomas Lang's assessment Durack had modelled himself on Holman, proving a polished speaker with a good analytical mind.

But personal problems were to undo him. In August 1916 a child which he later acknowledged to be his was born to a woman not his wife. On 21 February 1917, four days after Holman had unexpectedly announced the date for a general election, Lang, as secretary of the parliamentary Labor Party, announced that he had received Durack's resignation, on grounds of ill-health. In Bert Evatt's words he 'had mysteriously disappeared from the political scene'.

A few days later Durack withdrew from the forthcoming contest for Bathurst. He enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force on 21 September, embarked for overseas service in December and was taken on strength of the 1st Training Battalion in the United Kingdom on 13 February 1918. But in April he was found medically unfit for active service; he returned to Australia and was discharged from the A.I.F. in August. He did not go back to his wife (d.1956) and his movements for the next thirty-two years are not known.

In 1950 Durack was a storekeeper and postmaster at Wimbledon near Bathurst. He married Frederica Henrietta McNab in Sydney on 7 July 1959. In the 1960s they moved to Auburn. Survived by his wife and their daughter and by two sons and three daughters of his first marriage, Durack died in hospital at Lidcombe on 16 November 1967. His body was given to the University of Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Sydney), 1940)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1916, p 2439, 2667
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Aug, 8, 11, 16 Nov, 5 Dec 1916, 21, 23 Feb 1917.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Durack, Ernest (1882–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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