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Fowler, James Mackinnon (1863–1940)

by G. N. Hawker, G. C. Bolton and B. K. De Garis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

James Fowler, by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

James Fowler, by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, 23367014

James Mackinnon Fowler (1863-1940), politician, was born on 20 June 1863 at Strathaven, Millholm, (anciently Evandale), Lanark, Scotland, son of James Fowler, farmer, and his wife Mary, née McKinnon, who was thought to be related to Lachlan Macquarie. After education locally and at the Athenaeum, Glasgow, he entered a counting-house in 1884. There is a rumour that he served in the Black Watch (Royal Highland) Regiment, and he worked in drapery warehouses in Glasgow and Manchester before migrating to Australia in 1891. He prospected in Victoria and Western Australia, helped found the Victorian Socialist League, and settled in Perth in 1898. A widower, that year on 2 December he married Daisy Winifred Bastow at Subiaco; they had a daughter and three sons.

A propagandist and secretary of the Western Australia Federal League in 1899-1900, in 1901 Fowler won the Perth seat in the House of Representatives in the first Commonwealth parliament, as a revenue tariff candidate. He joined the Labor Party. One of its main spokesmen on finance, he served on the royal commission on customs and excise tariffs in 1904-07. He spoke in 'a high-pitched voice of great penetrating power and great Scotchness', but his speeches were often 'of criticism and complaint'. Within the party he opposed W. M. Hughes and helped to thwart his ambitions when Andrew Fisher became prime minister.

In June 1909 after the fall of Fisher's first ministry, partly because of his distrust of Hughes, Fowler left the party. He claimed that it was becoming too centralist and he refused to join it in opposing the Liberals' proposed financial arrangement, discussed in 1909. Critics alleged that he was vexed at failing to achieve ministerial office, but Fowler's version fitted his opinions throughout his career. Having joined the Liberals, he retained Perth at the 1910 elections despite a swing to Labor; but he was critical of Sir John Forrest's style. Fowler was chairman of committees in 1913-14, a member of the joint committee of public accounts 1914-17 and chairman 1920-22. In 1916 he was involved in a brawl in Collins Street, Melbourne, with Henry Chinn.

Fowler was an early advocate of a Commonwealth literary fund. A freelance journalist, in 1919 he published a polemic against Hughes, now prime minister—Statesman or mountebank: an Australian study. He posted a copy to every Nationalist member of parliament outside the ministry, suggesting that they read it instead of attending the party meeting. He was embittered by attempts to deny him pre-selection at that year's elections and broke formally with Hughes early next year. Fowler particularly resented increased tariff protection. In 1921 the Bulletin commented that he would have 'achieved Ministerial rank long ago if he hadn't been such a good hater'. He lost party endorsement and was defeated at the 1922 elections.

Fowler's creed had been consistent: the Scottish free trade radicalism of his youth, adapted to a Western Australian mistrust of the centralizing and protectionist tendencies of a Commonwealth dominated by Victoria and New South Wales. Yet he was never thoroughly assimilated into the West. Earnest, short-sighted, with a heavy moustache, he was too prickly, and his political manner too stand-offish and philosophical, to command widespread affection, although he showed solid qualities as a local representative and skill in financial argument.

After his defeat he lived in Melbourne and built up a private library of 4000 volumes. He continued writing: novels, short stories, newspaper articles and a film synopsis, often on the subject of his goldfields experiences. Sometimes he used the pseudonyms 'Hamish Mackinnon' and 'James Evandale'. He published Australia's perils, real and imaginary (Melbourne, 1926) warning of the dangers of Asian immigration, and False foundations of British history (Melbourne, 1943, edited by his son Richard), a study of the origins of the Anglo-Saxon race. He contributed to the Age, the Australasian and other journals in Britain and Australia and was associated with Sands & MacDougalls's. After fighting 'cruel pain and blindness' in his last years, Fowler died in Melbourne on 3 November 1940 and was buried in Springvale cemetery. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • Bulletin, 5 Jan 1905, 14 Apr 1921
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1912
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 5 Jan 1916
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 4 Apr 1901
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1940
  • MS 1540, Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • MS 2280, Fowler papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

G. N. Hawker, G. C. Bolton and B. K. De Garis, 'Fowler, James Mackinnon (1863–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 June 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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