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Ian Macfarlan (1881–1964)

by R. Wright

This article was published:

Ian Macfarlan (1881-1964), premier, was born on 21 November 1881 at North Carlton, Melbourne, tenth child of Scottish-born parents James Macfarlan, storekeeper, and his wife Mary, née Nairn. Named John Robert, he attended Princes Hill State School and the Melbourne Education Institute. On 1 November 1897 he joined the Victorian Railways where he worked as a clerk. He won a scholarship to Ormond College, University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1907), topped his final year and was awarded the Supreme Court judges' prize. From this time, possibly from a preference for the Gaelic variant of John, he called himself Ian.

Articled to E. J. Guinness, the crown solicitor, in 1907, Macfarlan was admitted as a solicitor by the Supreme Court on 4 May 1908 and to the Bar on 4 August. He earned a reputation for wide legal knowledge and telling expository skills that were the more effective for being understated. The contrast with his brother, the socially genial but judicially irascible (Sir) James Macfarlan, future senior puisne judge of the Supreme Court, was marked. On 12 August 1918 at St George's Presbyterian Church, East St Kilda, Ian Macfarlan married 24-year-old Beryl Johnstone Wardill King. One month earlier he had enlisted in the Royal Australian Garrison Artillery; he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 7 November and was discharged in December without serving abroad.

In April 1928 Macfarlan stood as a National Party candidate and won the by-election for the seat of Brighton in the Legislative Assembly, narrowly defeating the housewives' advocate Eleanor Glencross. Believing that political and professional life should be separate, he accepted no further briefs. He won rapid parliamentary promotion, serving as attorney-general and solicitor-general (November 1928-December 1929) in Sir William McPherson's ministry. From September 1930 he was deputy-leader of his party in opposition. He returned to the government benches as chief secretary (May 1932-April 1935) and minister in charge of electrical undertakings (May 1932-July 1934) in the Argyle-Allan coalition, but lost the deputy-leadership of the United Australia Party to (Sir) Robert Menzies in June 1932. Again attorney-general (July 1934-April 1935) and solicitor-general (July 1934-March 1935), he took silk on 27 November 1934. He was also a member of the 1935 select committee on the shorter working week.

At the elections on 2 March 1935, Macfarlan retained Brighton after a close and bitter contest with (Sir) Edmund Herring, the unendorsed U.A.P. candidate who was supported by a group of Young Nationalists. On 2 April (Sir) Albert Dunstan, leader of the parliamentary Country Party, became premier. Macfarlan led a cross-bench, country-liberal faction of the U.A.P. that advocated conditional negotiation rather than rigid opposition in dealings with Dunstan's minority government. In 1937, disenchanted with the U.A.P.'s strategic inflexibility, he left the party to serve as a liberal Independent, in which capacity he was a member (from July 1940) of the bipartisan State War Advisory Council. Persuaded to rejoin the party as deputy-leader to Thomas Tuke Hollway on the formation of a Country Party-U.A.P. coalition in September 1943, he was appointed attorney-general and solicitor-general, and given the portfolio of health. As minister of public health, he set up the hospital and charities commission, introduced additional kindergartens and centres for the care of the aged and the mentally ill, and banned cigarette-smoking in cinemas (although he smoked heavily himself). His organizational abilities, lucid explanations of complex bills, and vigorous debating skills made him the dominant U.A.P. figure in the government.

Macfarlan, however, chaffed under Premier Dunstan's 'do-nothing' leadership which, on 25 September 1945, provoked five dissident Liberals (the State parliamentary U.A.P. had changed its name to Liberal in March that year), two Independents and two breakaway Country Party members to combine with Labor, block supply and defeat the government. Macfarlan had voted with Dunstan, but, when party differences prevented the formation of any majority government and the passing of supply, he reluctantly agreed to head a 'stop-gap' ministry of dissidents to break the impasse, pending an election. Widely criticized, he responded that 'unity of party was of primary importance' and it had been subordinated 'only to give the people a government that would carry on lawfully until the election'.

On 2 October 1945 Macfarlan was sworn in as premier, treasurer, attorney-general and solicitor-general. With Labor support for his ten-member government on this one matter only, supply was passed. Macfarlan's 51-day premiership was competent and decisive. He settled a major tram strike in Melbourne, introduced the five-day week for Victorian public servants, and approved a State gift of £25,000 worth of war-relief foodstuffs for dispatch to England. Having been disendorsed by the State executive of the Liberal Party, he contested the general election on 10 November as leader of the Ministerial Liberals. His ministry was defeated and he lost his seat. Following an unsuccessful attempt to regain Brighton in 1947, Macfarlan retired from public life, though he privately assisted the Cain government (1952-55) with legislative consolidations.

Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, barrel-chested, with a fresh complexion and receding sandy-red hair, Macfarlan was devoted to his family. As a young man he had rowed in three Ormond College crews, twice represented the university in interstate races, and competed for the Civil Service Club. In middle age he exchanged rowing for a morning swim. His only social club was the Australian Natives' Association. Survived by his two sons, he died on 19 March 1964 at Sandringham and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Barbor, They Went Their Way (Traralgon, Vic, 1960)
  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • P. Aimer, Politics, Power and Persuasion (Syd, 1974)
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • S. Sayers, Ned Herring (Melb, 1980)
  • Australian Bar Gazette, June 1964
  • Table Talk, 17 Jan 1929
  • Age (Melbourne), 1-3 Oct 1945
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 Oct 1945.

Citation details

R. Wright, 'Macfarlan, Ian (1881–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Macfarlan, John Robert

21 November, 1881
Carlton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


19 March, 1964 (aged 82)
Sandringham, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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