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McDonald, Charles (1860–1925)

by Tim Moroney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Charles McDonald, by Broothorn Studios, 1910s

Charles McDonald, by Broothorn Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, 23378649

Charles McDonald (1860-1925), watchmaker and politician, was born on 25 August 1860 in North Melbourne, son of Charles Thomas Young McDonald, confectioner, and his wife Harriet, née Pape. The family moved around four colonies and McDonald left the public school at Mudgee, New South Wales, to become an apprentice printer. He later transferred to watchmaking, and worked as a tradesman in New South Wales before establishing his own business at Charters Towers, Queensland, in 1888.

McDonald energetically organized local goldminers and shop-assistants into trade unions. He was famous as a cyclist and on one campaign reportedly rode over 3000 miles (4828 km). In 1890 he was the Charters Towers delegate to the first general council of the Australian Labor Federation in Brisbane which launched the Labor Party in Queensland, and was elected president (1890-92). Despite the enthusiasm of McDonald and other delegates its socialistic political platform was rejected by the majority of member district councils. As president of the A.L.F. he attended the Intercolonial Trade Union Congress at Ballarat in 1891. During the 1891 shearers' strike, he was sent to Barcaldine as an emissary of peace, but when negotiations failed he organized support for the strike among the central Queensland trade unions. In 1893 'Fighting Charlie' won the seat of Flinders and entered the Queensland parliament with fifteen other Labor members including Andrew Fisher, Andrew Dawson, John Hoolan and Mat Reid. On 11 October 1892 he had married Mary Ann Tregear with Wesleyan forms at Charters Towers.

McDonald was a small, wiry, athletic man, with a drooping moustache, whose oratory, 'persistent as a summer fly', made up for his lack of size. He gained a reputation for his knowledge of standing orders, which he was reputed 'to sleep with … under his pillow'. One challenge to the chair's ruling, during debate on the peace preservation bill in 1894, saw him suspended with other Labor members. McDonald was a delegate to the Queensland Labor-in-Politics conventions of 1898, 1901 and 1905, a federal conference delegate in 1900 and 1905, and a member of the central political executive of the Queensland Labor Party from 1898 to 1903.

He opposed Federation 'as a middle-class device for diverting the needs of Labour', but with the issue decided, he resigned from the Queensland parliament and in 1901 successfully contested the outback Federal seat of Kennedy, holding it until his death in 1925. Hansard reveals his concern for the working class on such issues as pensions, taxation and monopolies. He was chairman of committees in 1906-10 and Labor's first Speaker from July 1910 to June 1913 and again from October 1914 to June 1917. As a noted republican he abandoned the traditional Speaker's wig and gown and had the mace removed from the table of the House. An anti-conscriptionist, he remained with Labor after the 'split' of 1916, serving the remainder of his parliamentary life on the back-bench.

In visibly declining health for many years with paralysis agitans, despite a recuperative voyage in 1924 to Britain McDonald died in Melbourne of cerebro-vascular disease on 13 November 1925. After a state funeral, he was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him. His portrait by Josephine Muntz-Adams is in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1979)
  • Queenslander, 14 Aug 1897, 21 Nov 1925
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 13 Nov 1925.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Tim Moroney, 'McDonald, Charles (1860–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 July 2021.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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