Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Donald Macdonell (1862–1911)

by Frank Farrell

This article was published:

Donald Macdonell (1862-1911), shearer, trade unionist and politician, was born in January 1862 at Stuart Mill, Victoria, son of Alexander Macdonell, Scottish migrant of Catholic Highland extraction, and his wife, Christina née McMaster. His parents were hard working, industrious and frugal and imparted these virtues to Donald and his brother and sisters. From boyhood he accompanied his father through shearing sheds and mining camps in search of regular income to supplement the uncertain returns from the family's small farm. He became an accomplished woodsman and shearer, moving 'up the track' to the far west of New South Wales when 23. He briefly visited New Zealand before returning to Australia early in 1890.

At the outbreak of the maritime strike of 1890 Macdonell was shearing at Tinapagee on the Paroo River in north-western New South Wales. He had been a founding member of the shearers' union in 1886 and soon became prominent as a rank-and-file leader of the strike. He also defended arrested shearers in court and later was active in dealing with scabs—his immense physical strength and wiry 6 ft 3 ins (191 cm) frame probably helping to persuade recalcitrant workers to accept the union's point of view. During the 1891 Queensland shearers' strike he led a party from the Bourke sheds to assist the strikers, narrowly escaping arrest after an assault on a 'blackleg'. Yet he was widely respected for his kindness and generosity to complete strangers. As a 'ringer' he sheared 214 sheep with hand-shears in a day at Belalie station in 1892.

In 1893 Macdonell was elected secretary of the Bourke branch of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia and was prominent in bringing about its merger with the General Labourers' Union; he moved the resolution which adopted the name, Australian Workers' Union, at its first convention at Albury in January 1895. When the 1896 A.W.U. convention decided to suspend publication of the Worker he persuaded the Bourke branch to continue publication until the union's finances had improved. He succeeded Arthur Rae as general secretary of the union in 1899.

With other A.W.U. figures, such as W. G. Spence and Hector Lamond, Macdonell began to exert increasing influence in the Labor Party. He had lost a Legislative Assembly by-election for Bourke in December 1891, and was defeated for the Barwon (as an independent Labor candidate) in 1894, and in 1895 and 1898. He had been a delegate to the first Labor Party conference of 1892 and emerged at the 1897 conference as perhaps the most outspoken opponent of the socialists. He argued that while 'it is one thing to capture a conference' for socialist policies, 'it is quite another to get electors to vote the ticket'.

When Spence moved to the House of Representatives in 1901 Macdonell was elected unopposed for his seat, Cobar, in the Legislative Assembly and held it until 1911. He was a delegate to the Labor Party's federal conference in 1902 and 1905 and a member of its New South Wales executive in 1901-10. In parliament he was primarily concerned with trade union affairs. Following the passage of the Arbitration Act of 1902 the A.W.U. sought registration in the State court but was frustrated by registration of the bogus Machine Shearers' and Shed Employees' Union. Macdonell chaired a select committee into its evasion of the Arbitration Act in 1903 and persuaded the government to appoint a royal commission. He successfully fought a defamation case against the new union's newspaper, the Shearer, and eventually succeeded in having the A.W.U. formally registered. However he strongly favoured a Federal award for the pastoral industry and battled for years to overcome the legal obstacles to the presentation of a case.

When the first Labor government took office in New South Wales in October 1910, Macdonell became colonial secretary and minister for agriculture. However, plagued by increasing illness over sixteen years, he suffered a complete breakdown of health in January 1911. In February he moved to Melbourne for rest, but went into hospital immediately and remained there. He retained his portfolio as chief secretary but relinquished agriculture in September, when his seat was formally declared vacant because of his absence from parliament. He was re-elected unopposed but died of cancer on 26 October 1911. Unmarried, he was survived by two sisters. Widely honoured by unionists and parliamentarians from both sides of the House, he was buried at Stuart Mill after a state funeral with Catholic rites. Among the many tributes accorded him was the naming of Macdonell House, the headquarters of the A.W.U. in Sydney.

Of all the A.W.U. leaders in 1886-1910, Macdonell was the only one to conform to the mythical standards of the eastern Australian countryman. His experience, combined with his physical attributes, intelligence, compassion and political skills, set him apart from his several union colleagues who were also elected to the New South Wales parliament up to 1910: as Henry Lawson said of him in 1899, he was 'the tallest, straightest, and perhaps the best of the Bourke-side bush-leaders'. But his early death prevented the fulfilment of his great potential.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. Spence, Australia's Awakening (Syd, 1909)
  • W. G. Spence, History of the A.W.U. (Syd, 1911)
  • P. Ford, Cardinal Moran and the A.L.P. (Melb, 1966)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 22 July 1901
  • Catholic Press, 24 Dec 1902
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Oct 1911
  • Worker (Sydney), 22, 29 Oct 1951.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Macdonell, Donald (1862–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 12 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


January, 1862
Stuart Mill, Victoria, Australia


26 October, 1911 (aged 49)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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