Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lewis McDonald (1881–1936)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published:

Lewis McDonald (1881-1936), printer and Labor Party administrator, was born on 22 December 1881 at Auchterhead, Lanark, Scotland, son of Lewis McDonald, farmer, and his wife Isabella, née Lyon. With his parents he migrated to Victoria in 1883, moved to Fiji and arrived in Queensland in 1886. Educated at the Brisbane Central School and at university extension classes, McDonald became an apprentice printer but fell ill and in 1905 moved to Mourilyan, North Queensland, where he helped to organize the Amalgamated Sugar Workers' Union.

Returning to Brisbane in 1908, he resumed printing and became an organizer of the Queensland Typographical Union. He joined the Fortitude Valley Workers' Political Organisation as secretary and, a protégé of Albert Hinchcliffe, became assistant secretary to the central political executive of the Queensland Labor Party on 30 August 1909. McDonald was its first paid full-time secretary from 1 October 1910. He attended all subsequent State Labor conventions, every interstate Labor conference after 1912, except one, and was a Queensland representative on the federal executive from 1915 until his death. McDonald inherited Hinchcliffe's mantle but lacked his innovatory skills and political feel. He faithfully served the Queensland conventions and executives which, after 1916, were increasingly dominated by the Australian Workers' Union and its chiefs E. G. Theodore and W. McCormack.

Secretary of the Queensland anti-conscription campaign committees in 1916-17, McDonald used his considerable administrative abilities to facilitate a 'No' vote both times. He was also a pamphleteer and prominent in the Brisbane Workers' Educational Association. Appointed to the Legislative Council in 1917, he remained until its abolition in March 1922 but spoke infrequently and contributed little except to organize government business. He unsuccessfully contested Toowong in 1912, the Brisbane mayoralty in 1921 and the Senate in 1934.

An extrovert, McDonald enjoyed a beer, could tell a good story and liked old-time musical comedies. While he used his secretarial skills in the interests of the A.W.U. faction, he was never personally self seeking, but he certainly facilitated the growth of an 'official' machine which, with its complaisant politicians, ultimately controlled the movement at the expense of the grass roots and the militant unions. Ernest Lane saw him as 'a faithful servant of the reactionary section of the Movement', the key-cog in that well-oiled, purged, and successful oligarchy which politically ran Queensland in 1915-29 and 1932-57.

McDonald's conciliatory and manipulative powers helped to heal rifts in the federal Labor movement during the Depression. But his declining health caused questioning of his administrative efficiency and J. S. Collings took increasing responsibility for the State executive. In his last days McDonald tired visibly and lost the confidence of Forgan Smith and C. G. Fallon.

John Curtin called him 'an admirable officer with sound judgement and resolute decision [whose] capacity for makeshift endeared him to all'. Others, excluded from office and influence, were less charitable about this gentle, persistent, rule-mongering functionary. McDonald's early craft-union radicalism and personal political hopes were submerged by those structures, rules and manipulations endemic in that Queensland Labor establishment which he had done so much to construct, refine and facilitate.

McDonald died suddenly of cerebral haemorrhage at Highgate Hill, Brisbane, on 18 September 1936. He had married Alexandra McDonald Hunter at Corinda on 16 January 1911 with Presbyterian forms; she survived him with three sons. Although cremated with Anglican rites, McDonald had long maintained no formal creed.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Larcombe, The Labor Government in Queensland (Brisb, [1915])
  • E. H. Lane, Dawn to Dusk (Brisb, 1939)
  • D. J. Murphy, T.J. Ryan: A Political Biography (no date)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1919-20, p7
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 11, 12 Oct 1917, 8, 9 July 1921, 10 July 1934
  • Worker (Brisbane), 9 June 1921, 22 Sept 1936
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 18 Sept 1936
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 19 Sept 1936
  • Truth (Melbourne), 20 Sept 1936
  • private information.

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'McDonald, Lewis (1881–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 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]


22 December, 1881
Auchterhead, Lanarkshire, Scotland


18 September, 1936 (aged 54)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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