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Donald Mackinnon (1859–1932)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Donald Mackinnon (1859-1932), politician, was born on 29 September 1859 at Marida Yallock, Boorcan, Victoria, eldest son of Daniel Mackinnon and his wife Jane, née Kinross. He was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School and Trinity College, University of Melbourne. A family friend (Professor) Herbert Strong introduced him to New College, Oxford, where his first tutor and later friend was W. A. Spooner (famed for 'Spoonerisms'). Mackinnon's first impression of Oxford was that 'the young men here seem to be very effeminate, they are painfully fond of laughing at nothing and talk in a very affected way'. He studied classics and jurisprudence; a serious student, he had hopes of second-class honours but took a 'good' third-class B.A. in 1883. At 5 ft 11 in (180 cm) and 11½ stone (73 kg) he rowed, was on the fringe of the university cricket team as a round-arm bowler, and learned French and German in long vacations on the Continent. He was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1883 and admitted to the Victorian Bar next year.

In Melbourne Mackinnon built a modest Bar practice while writing for the Argus and Australasian. He joined the Melbourne and Bohemian clubs, and went in for amateur theatricals but regretted having to 'waste' many evenings on 'dinners, routs, dances and fool-playing generally' at the height of the boom. In 1889 Chief Justice George Higinbotham selected him to assist in his massive consolidation of the Victorian statutes; they worked together far into the night for many months. Higinbotham later commended his fidelity, industry, skill and exact knowledge.

On his father's death in 1889 Mackinnon inherited Marida Yallock, which his brother William Kinross Mackinnon (1861-1943) managed for most of his life. On 19 August 1891 at All Saints Church of England, St Kilda, he married Hilda Eleanor Marie Bunny, daughter of Brice Bunny and sister of Rupert Bunny.

Despite his pastoral background and wealth, Mackinnon became a radical liberal politician. Although wide reading had induced well-informed, liberal and tolerant views, in the late 1880s he was considering standing for Western District constituencies in the pastoral interest and was perturbed by the rise of the Shearers' Union. It is likely that his association with the great popular tribune Higinbotham so changed his outlook that he accepted the traditions of radical Victorian liberalism as expounded also by Alfred Deakin and Henry Bournes Higgins. The collapse of the boom and the subsequent terrible depression further shaped his mind.

After standing unsuccessfully in 1897 for Prahran, where he was president of the Australian Natives' Association branch, Mackinnon was narrowly elected in 1900 as 'the next best thing to a Labor man'. Supporting the Turner and Peacock ministries in 1900-02, he served usefully on royal commissions into the University of Melbourne and local government. After losing office to (Sir) William Irvine the Peacock Liberals provided only weak opposition. Early in 1904 Peacock passed the leadership to Mackinnon and the Progressive Liberal Association, linked with the Federal Deakinites, was formed.

Mackinnon condemned both government and railway strikers in 1903 for class hatred. He had strongly opposed Irvine's constitutional reform measures, holding that the Legislative Assembly must predominate over the Legislative Council whose veto power should be reduced to one of delay. He supported direct taxation, raising the threshold of income taxation to £200 a year, and religious instruction in schools; he opposed gambling which should be kept 'as disreputable as possible'. He favoured extension and strengthening of the Factories Act: the state had a duty to protect the weak. Above all he was a land reformer, supporting closer settlement and compulsory acquisition. 'The history of all countries shows that the occupying peasantry or yeomanry are the very salt of the country'. According to (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, Mackinnon was full of 'zeal to reform his own class and interest'. He 'remains an aristocrat, but some of Higinbotham's democracy hangs about him still', the Bulletin conceded.

The Mackinnon Liberals polled much better at the June 1904 election, but won fewer seats in the smaller reformed House, becoming generally known as 'the Victorian XI'. They sympathized with the Labor Party and often voted with it, but could not stomach Labor's extra-parliamentary organization and the pledge. Moreover Labor's fast-growing support threatened them. By early 1907 the government of (Sir) Thomas Bent, who had succeeded Irvine, was losing support and Mackinnon as Opposition leader agreed to a fusion or coalition. The Liberals gained little other than further factory legislation. The vital issues were the land valuation bill (the basis for a future land tax), under Mackinnon's control as minister without portfolio, and the Western District land scheme. Bent withdrew both pieces of legislation and in October 1908 Mackinnon, Peacock and George Swinburne resigned in disgust. Bent soon lost office and an election, and John Murray formed a ministry. Mackinnon claimed a victory for land reform, but it was a dying issue. During 1909, as fusion proceeded, his group lost its identity in a broadened Liberal Party.

Mackinnon remained a back-bencher until 22 December 1913 when, after a seven-month overseas trip, he became attorney-general, solicitor-general, minister of railways and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works in the Watt and subsequent Peacock ministries. He took particular satisfaction in presiding over (Sir) Leo Cussen's further consolidation of the statutes and, on the outbreak of war, carrying anti-profiteering measures.

When Peacock was forced to reconstruct his ministry in November 1915, Mackinnon was content to withdraw and concentrate, with conspicuous success, on chairmanship of the Victorian recruiting committee. From May 1916 he was also chairman of the State War Council, primarily concerned with repatriation. After the failure of the conscription referendum, on 29 November Mackinnon was appointed Commonwealth director-general of recruiting, without pay. He set up a structure of central recruiting committees in every Federal electorate and local government area, and recruiting officers in towns. He travelled constantly to speak and confer, and himself wrote many propagandist pamphlets and articles. His policy was that recruiting must be persuasive and conciliatory, not offensive to anyone.

Mackinnon was perhaps the sanest man in the country on the issues which were bitterly dividing the nation. He criticized the British Army Council's demand in mid-1916 for 175,000 additional troops within a year as an 'over-estimate' and 'a hindrance and discouragement to recruiting'. He often asserted that those still advocating conscription were wrecking recruiting; he reprimanded hecklers of Labor speakers who shared his platform. The second referendum of December 1917 made his task even more difficult. He fought for increased allowances for soldiers' dependants, criticized unrealistically high medical standards for recruits, condemned the conscriptionist Melbourne press for belittling the voluntary movement, attacked the censorship for not permitting the people to know how serious the war situation was. He recognized how extraordinary it was that so many had volunteered. Mackinnon chaired the governor-general's almost useless conference on recruiting in April 1918 and earned James Scullin's tribute that 'he had acted throughout in an absolutely impartial way'. His elder sons had been serving with the British Army; the younger died from illness in August. In November the government formally thanked him for his 'sturdy optimism' and 'unfailing perseverance'.

Early in 1919 he took a long holiday in Tasmania but had energy enough to write articles describing the State. On return he chaired the soldier settler qualification committee, then on 5 June his friend Premier (Sir) Harry Lawson called on him to take over soldier settlement as minister without portfolio. Still a yeoman idealist at heart, Mackinnon threw himself into the work, searching crown lands all over Victoria for possible new farms and negotiating for purchase and compulsory acquisitions. The number of intending settlers and the speed of their repatriation was unexpected, but in fifteen months he settled some 4000 ex-servicemen. He was now, rather than a social reformer, an exponent of 'Australia Unlimited', a 'wholehogger' on immigration with visionary hopes of thickly settling the Riverina by joint planning with New South Wales and extending Victorian railways to the Northern Territory and western Queensland. But, to wide distress, he lost Prahran at last at the October 1920 election to Labor.

In twenty years as a parliamentarian Mackinnon had been a minister for five years. He never quite lived up to popular expectations. He was too much an intellectual, too principled, too conciliatory, suspect because of his background, insufficiently a demagogue, to be adequately equipped as a political leader. In his early days he was widely regarded as being an idealistic crank. But his integrity and unpretentiousness gave him moral authority; his manner displayed him as 'a sensible man talking plainly and tolerantly to sensible people'.

From June 1923 to November 1924 Mackinnon was Australian commissioner in the United States of America, promoting trade and closer relations; he believed he did something to put Australia on the map. He knew Franklin Roosevelt and foretold his greatness. On his return he unsuccessfully sought National Party pre-selection for the Federal seat of Henty, stood as an Independent Nationalist and lost decisively to (Sir) Henry Gullett. In the next few years he travelled extensively by motor in the outback.

In his later years Mackinnon's chief interest was Geelong Grammar School whose council he had joined in 1909 and of which he was chairman from 1922. He took the lead in the appointment as headmaster from 1930 of (Sir) James Darling with whom he then worked in close co-operation. His other favourite activity was his active presidency, since 1906, of the Victorian Cricket Association. He continued as chairman of directors of the Equity Trustees, Executors & Agency Co., the Victorian Insurance Co. and the Talbot Colony for Epileptics. He was also president of the Victorian Scottish Union and chairman of trustees of Scots Church, Melbourne; his Christian faith was central to his philosophy. Like his great Victorian exemplars, he refused any honour (except a French decoration). In 1931 Herbert Brookes described him as 'one of the finest democrats this country has thrown up from the native soil' and recalled that both of them had imagined when young that Australia could be made a paradise.

Mackinnon died in Melbourne of cardiac disease on 25 April 1932, and was cremated. His wife and three sons and two daughters survived him. His son Donald (1892-1965) was a pastoralist and ambassador to Brazil; Ewen Daniel (1903-1983) was a grazier, Federal Liberal member of parliament and ambassador to the Argentine, Peru and Uruguay; and Kenneth Wulsten, Q.C. (1906-1964), was prominent at the English Bar. Mackinnon's estate was sworn for probate at £142,262. In his will he had provided for the statue of Higinbotham which stands adjacent to the Treasury Building, Melbourne. Mackinnon's portrait by Rupert Bunny is at Marida Yallock.

His brother James Curdie (1865-1957) was educated at Geelong Grammar and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. In his youth he managed the family property, Marion Downs, in western Queensland. In partnership with William and Edward Manifold and his brother William, he purchased Wyangarie station on the Richmond River, New South Wales, and by 1916 had managed its subdivision into one hundred dairy farms. He became chairman of directors of the Union Trustee Co. of Australia, Strachan & Co. Ltd, and Trufood of Australia Ltd. He did not marry.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 3 (Melb, 1905)
  • E. H. Sugden and F. W. Eggleston, George Swinburne (Syd, 1931)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Early Pioneer Families of Victoria and Riverina (Melb, 1936)
  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • L. L. Robson, The First A.I.F. (Melb, 1970)
  • J. R. Darling, Richly Rewarding (Melb, 1978)
  • Bulletin, 24 Mar 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13 Apr 1904, 31 Jan, 2 Dec 1918, 18 Nov 1920
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1926
  • Punch (Melbourne), 7 Feb 1907, 4 Jan 1917
  • Mackinnon papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Herbert Brookes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • K. Rollison, Groups and Attitudes in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, 1900-1909 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1972)
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Mackinnon, Donald (1859–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 June 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]


29 September, 1859
Boorcan, Victoria, Australia


25 April, 1932 (aged 72)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.