Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir Robert Ross McDonald (1888–1964)

by G. C. Bolton and Tresna Shorter

This article was published:

Sir Robert Ross McDonald (1888-1964), lawyer and politician, was born on 25 January 1888 at Albany, Western Australia, son of Angus McDonald, bank manager, and his wife Mary Jane, née Elder. Ross was educated at Fremantle School, Scotch College, Perth, and the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1913). After passing Barristers' Board examinations, he was admitted to the Western Australian Bar on 15 March 1910 and in 1912 formed a partnership with L. W. Lohrman. On 15 February 1916 McDonald was commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force. He served with the 4th Division Artillery on the Western Front in 1918 and his appointment terminated on 2 November 1919.

Back in Perth, McDonald joined Robinson, Cox, Jackson & Wheatley and became a partner in 1921. His reputation in commercial law was recognized by his appointment in 1923 to the royal commission inquiring into the Kendenup land schemes of C. J. De Garis. A founding member (1928) of the Law Society of Western Australia, he lectured part time at the university in 1928-31. He took silk on 10 February 1936.

One of Perth's most eligible bachelors, McDonald chose not to marry. He was honorary aide-de-camp (1925-31) to the governor Sir William Campion, a foundation member of Perth Rotary Club (president 1929-30), and president (for twenty years) of the local branch of the Victoria League. Elected to the Legislative Assembly as the Nationalist member for West Perth on 8 April 1933, he became party leader and deputy-leader of the Opposition in April 1938. McDonald was a polite and constructive antagonist to moderate Labor governments. In 1945 he oversaw the incorporation of the Western Australian Nationalists into the Liberal Party. Believing that the new party required rural leadership, he offered to stand down as leader early in 1946, but was persuaded to remain until replaced by (Sir) Ross McLarty in December.

On 1 April 1947 the Liberal-Country Party coalition took office. McLarty appointed McDonald attorney-general, minister for police and minister for native affairs; in January 1948 he exchanged the two former portfolios for housing and forests. As attorney-general, he opposed what many Western Australians saw as the encroachments of the Federal Labor government. In his other ministries he was a force for reform, showing a lively concern for the living standards of timberworkers, and infusing fresh vigour into Aboriginal policy with the appointment of the Papua-trained S. G. Middleton as commissioner for native affairs. Resigning from cabinet in October 1949, and from parliament in March 1950, he was knighted in the following June.

Well liked and respected, but marked by a gentlemanly reticence, McDonald was a trustee (1950-58) of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia, a member (1950-61) of the senate of the University of Western Australia, and chairman (1954-56) of St Catherine's, the first women's college at the university. He was also a director of numerous companies, chairman (1956-60) of the Royal Perth Hospital board and a foundation member of the State branch of the National Trust of Australia. Sir Ross died on 25 March 1964 in Perth and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery with Presbyterian forms. His estate was sworn for probate at £48,773.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Biskup, Not Slaves, Not Citizens (Brisb, 1973)
  • P. Firkins, A History of the Rotary Club of Perth, 1927-1987 (Perth, 1987)
  • West Australian, 12 Apr 1933, 16 Dec 1946, 26, 27 Mar 1964.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton and Tresna Shorter, 'McDonald, Sir Robert Ross (1888–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 April 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]


25 January, 1888
Albany, Western Australia, Australia


25 March, 1964 (aged 76)
Perth, Western Australia, 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.