DUNCAN-HUGHES, John Grant (1882–1962)
Senator for South Australia, 1931–38 (United Australia Party)

John Grant Duncan-Hughes, lawyer and pastoralist, was born into the politically minded Duncan family on 1 September 1882 at ‘Hughes Park’, near Watervale, South Australia. He was the eldest of the four sons of John James (later Sir John) Duncan, pastoralist and politician, and Jean Gordon, née Grant. His brother Walter would become a member of the South Australian Legislative Council from 1918 to 1962, and President of the Council from 1944 to 1962. John Grant’s surname was changed to Duncan-Hughes when he was a child, in memory of his childless great-uncle, Sir Walter Watson Hughes, a pastoralist, whose fortune from copper mines on Yorke Peninsula helped found the University of Adelaide, and whose property, including Hughes Park, was left largely to John Duncan on condition that his son take the Hughes name.

Known as Jack, John Grant was educated at St Peter’s College, Adelaide, and, during a family sojourn in England, at Cheltenham College. He went on to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated Bachelor of Arts (1905) and Bachelor of Laws (1906), becoming Master of Arts in 1910. He was admitted to the Bar at the Inner Temple, London, in January 1907, and to the South Australian Bar in December 1908, practising as a solicitor in Adelaide from 1909. On 20 September 1910 Duncan-Hughes married Gertrude Rosalie Dean, daughter of Brigadier General G. H. Dean, CBE, VD, at St Matthew’s (Anglican) Church, Kensington. The Duncan‑Hughes family were part of South Australia’s social elite. John was a member of the exclusive Adelaide Club from 1907 to 1962, serving as president from 1935 to 1937. He was also a member of the Australian Club in Sydney from 1927 to 1962.

Travelling to England after the outbreak of World War I, Duncan-Hughes was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery (Special Reserve) in September 1915. He served with distinction in France and Belgium, rising to the rank of acting major. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1918 and the Belgian Croix de Guerre. In 1920 he was appointed aide-de-camp, then private secretary to the Governor-General, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson. Attached to the staff of the Prince of Wales during the 1920 Royal visit to Australia, Duncan-Hughes was made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order.[1]

He entered politics following the split between the Liberals and Nationalists in South Australia. Standing as a Liberal candidate for the seat of Boothby in the House of Representatives at the 1922 federal election, he defeated the incumbent Nationalist, W. H. Story, and Labor’s Henry Kneebone. Upon entering Parliament Duncan-Hughes aligned himself with the Nationalists and was absorbed into that party when the rift in South Australia was healed. Returned in 1925 he served as a temporary chairman of committees from October 1927. While in the House of Representatives he became firm friends with J. G. Latham (from 1925 Attorney-General in the Bruce–Page Government). Surprised by his narrow defeat to Labor at the federal election of November 1928, Duncan‑Hughes wrote wistfully to Latham of missing the experience of being an MHR, especially ‘the talk—desultory and special’ with Latham, J. G. Bayley, and Sir John Gellibrand. He mentioned plans to ‘go Home [to Britain] for a year or 18 months’. In the 1931 election, he stood successfully as a senator for South Australia, accepting his party’s nomination with some reluctance for, as he wrote to Latham, he hardly felt ‘old enough for the Senate, though doubtless sufficiently pompous’.[2]

At the federal poll in December Duncan-Hughes had defeated Henry Kneebone who was filling a casual vacancy vice John Hedley Chapman. Under existing law this enabled Duncan-Hughes to fill the remainder of the vacancy immediately, before taking up his normal term. He therefore made his first speech in the Senate on 18 February 1932. Moving the Address-in-Reply, his speech commenced with a motion affirming loyalty to the King. ‘Few men’, he said, ‘could so well deserve [our loyalty]’. Turning to the economic situation in Australia, he criticised the New South Wales Premier, J. T. Lang, for repudiating ‘his Government’s obligations’ and thus jeopardising ‘the financial stability of the Commonwealth’, and the Empire. He asserted that Lang did ‘not even enjoy the confidence of the whole of the Labour party in his own State’. Indeed, if the New South Wales Labor Party were one party, ‘then it must be hydra-headed’.[3]

The antipathy between Duncan-Hughes and Lang and his supporters was first evident during the 1932 New South Wales election campaign when Duncan-Hughes joined the fray on behalf of the Nationalist Party and ended up being bombarded with eggs and banana skins. Perhaps this influenced his attitude to Lang; a few months after his first speech in the Senate, Duncan-Hughes reflected, in a letter to Latham, Minister for External Affairs, that one of the benefits of his taking up his seat from the date of the election was being able, with his colleagues, to push through the various ‘Acts competing with Lang’. He added that ‘there was not much worth calling “opposition” in the Senate, except that Colebatch [Senator Hal Colebatch] . . . was frequently rather a trouble’. With regard to the Opposition overall, he thought ‘a more hopeless lot than the Scullinites have lately been you could hardly imagine’.

He was a consistent defender of the smaller states, whose dependence on primary industry made them especially vulnerable during the Depression. The themes of the lack of economic protection for farmers and of Australia’s emotional, economic and defence debt to Britain recurred in Duncan-Hughes’ speeches, as in the debate on the second reading of the Customs Tariff Bill of 1936. He reiterated that farmers were not operating in a protected market and therefore could not afford to employ extra workers; yet he favoured the granting of bounties to primary producers rather than the adoption of protective tariffs. In the same debate Duncan‑Hughes observed that Britain took almost 90 per cent of Australia’s exports. He urged the need to carry out, ‘genuinely and fairly’ the terms of the Ottawa Agreement of 1932, under which Australia had agreed to ensure that the British producer enjoyed tariff reductions while Britain gave preference to some Australian primary products—but not wool. In line with earlier expressions of internationalism, Duncan-Hughes drew attention to Australia’s poor balance of trade with European countries, stating ‘we do not import enough from them’. High tariffs, he believed, caused ‘hostility and antagonism’ and were ‘likely to lead to war’. In the same vein, he claimed that ‘the protection given to us by the British Navy is the one thing that enables us to compete at all’.

Duncan-Hughes always championed the cause of the woolgrower. In a debate on ‘the necessity for the Commonwealth of taking immediate steps to counter the anti-wool campaign’, he reminded his fellow senators that the wool industry was ‘the mainstay of the country’, and that ‘anything which imperils the stability of this industry is a direct threat to our national life’. The ALP, he asserted, had shown little sympathy for woolgrowers because the growers employed small numbers of workers who were not ‘readily amenable to industrial control’. Perhaps he was alluding to the woolgrowers’ triumphs in the bitter industrial strikes of the 1890s and 1921.[4]

During the first half of 1937 Duncan-Hughes travelled to Britain and Europe and was in Britain at the time of the coronation of King George VI and of the 1937 Imperial Conference. He supported Britain’s rearmament policy ‘for purely peaceful purposes’. He urged Australia to follow the same path, and to train soldiers to defend not only Australia, but Britain in the event of a military attack upon that country. The Labor Party’s insistence that it was the duty of Australians to defend Australia first was criticised by Duncan-Hughes as ‘poor-spirited’ and ‘mean’ on the grounds that Australia might need Britain to ‘come to our assistance’. In 1941 Duncan-Hughes became a member of the Manpower and Resources Survey Committee, which consisted of parliamentarians from both houses and reported directly to the Advisory War Council. The events of the next few years, notably the Commonwealth’s Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Act 1943, were to vindicate, in some measure, Labor’s defence policy, but by then Duncan-Hughes had long since left the Senate. To the end, however, he championed rearmament and compulsory military training. One of his last substantial speeches in the chamber was devoted to this matter.[5]

Duncan-Hughes did not always find himself in accord with the views of his own party, though bipartisan attitudes were more acceptable for a backbencher than for those in the ministry, as Senator Brennan discovered. A member of the Regulations and Ordinances Committee since its inception in 1932, Duncan-Hughes was an influential chairman of the committee from 1935 to 1937. An opponent of retrospective regulation, in October 1935 he persuaded the Senate, against the wishes of the Lyons Government, to disallow Statutory Rules, 1935, No. 29, amending the Dried Fruits Export Control Regulations. The third report of the committee, which dealt with this and similar instances of what it regarded as inappropriate regulation, got a cool reception. In 1936 he directly challenged the Government. His amendment to the Acts Interpretation Bill, which was designed to ensure that in future all regulations would be approved by the Attorney-General, Solicitor-General or an authorised officer of the Attorney-General’s Department, had the support of the Senate, but the bill was set aside in the House of Representatives. When it was reintroduced in 1937 a similar amendment proposed by Duncan-Hughes was defeated, in a tied vote. Senator Brennan announced that under new administrative arrangements, the Attorney-General’s Department would check all proposed regulations for legality. Throughout the debate on the bill, Duncan-Hughes saw the issue as a ‘trial of strength . . . between a majority of members of the Senate and the Executive power’. In his view, ‘the real purpose’ of the Government was ‘to restrict the scope and functions of the Senate Regulations and Ordinances Committee with a view to giving the Executive fuller power, and to over-ride the Senate’—a view difficult to combat.

Duncan-Hughes did not stand for re-election in 1937, leaving the Senate at the expiration of his term on 30 June 1938. Despite the defeat of a number of his colleagues, which he considered the result of the existing system of preferential voting, he deplored ‘any suggestion to alter the method of election of members of the Senate’. He believed that proportional representation or proposals to form Senate electoral divisions within each state, if carried out, would see the end of the Senate as a States House. In September 1940 he was returned to the House of Representatives as the Member for Wakefield but was defeated in August 1943, and from then on divided his time between Adelaide and his property at Watervale.[6]

Duncan-Hughes was proud of his Scottish heritage and, as a keen amateur historian, amassed a collection of small books and periodicals on the colonial history of South Australia. In October 1939 he gave an address entitled ‘The Scots Invasion of South Australia’ at the annual meeting of the Pioneers’ Association of South Australia, in which he spoke of the achievements of Scottish Presbyterian and Baptist settlers, without reference to himself or his family, though he did mention his great-uncle, Walter Hughes. A member of both the Round Table and the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Duncan-Hughes was widely travelled and favoured the rapid expansion of the Department of Foreign Affairs. He drew on the work of Australian historians, in particular W. K. Hancock, whom he introduced to Latham in 1929 in order that Hancock could ‘study the Federal Scene on the spot’.

Duncan-Hughes died on 13 August 1962 at his home of fifty years in Robe Terrace, Medindie, aged seventy-nine, and was buried at Penwortham Cemetery, survived by his wife. There were no children of the marriage. It was said by one observer that ‘in the Australian sense Duncan-Hughes was born to the purple and he certainly wore it as much with modesty as with dignity and grace’. He had been active in cultural and charitable organisations, including the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, the South Australian Institution for the Blind and Deaf and Dumb, the Orpheus Society, the Prisoners’ Aid Association, the Caledonian Society and the Presbyterian Church. In 1927 he gave his late parents’ residence, ‘Strathspey’, to the Presbyterian Church for use as a residential college (St Andrew’s) associated with the University of Adelaide. In 1963 his widow donated Duncan-Hughes’ library, some five thousand books of English and European literature, history, politics and international affairs to the National Library of Australia.[7]

Bobbie Oliver 


[1] Observer (Adel.), 29 Apr. 1922, p. 7; John James Duncan file, ADB, ANU; Ken Preiss and Pamela Oborn, The Torrens Park Estate: A Social and Architectural History, Stonyfell, SA, 1991, p. 44; Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, 29 Jan. 1920, 2 Sept. 1920; The editor is indebted to the University of Adelaide Archives, the University of Cambridge Archives, the Supreme Court of South Australia Registry, the Adelaide Club and the Australian Club for information.

[2] Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901–1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1956, pp. 221, 223, 256–7; Letters, Duncan-Hughes to J. G. Latham, 31 Dec. 1928, 3 Aug. 1931, Latham Papers, MS 1009/1/1847–50, 2128, NLA; A. Grenfell Price, ‘The Emergency Committee of South Australia and the Origin of the Premiers’ Plan, 1931-2’, South Australiana, Mar. 1978, pp. 5–47.

[3] CPD, 18 Feb. 1932, pp. 40–6.

[4] Letter, Duncan-Hughes to Latham, 22 June 1932, MS 1009/1/2365–6, NLA; CPD, 29 Apr. 1936, pp. 932–41, 23 Apr. 1936, pp. 850–1.

[5] CPD, 7 Sept. 1937, pp. 526–9, 9 Sept. 1937, pp. 791–4; Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939–1941, AWM, Canberra, 1952, pp. 391–5; CPD, 4 May 1938, pp. 765–70.

[6] CPD, 22 Oct. 1935, pp. 870-3, 884-7; CPP, Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, third report, 1935; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 226–7; CPD, 14 May 1936, pp. 1710-23, 17 Sept. 1936, pp. 193-201, 212-13, 24 Sept. 1936, pp. 447–60, 3 Dec. 1936, pp. 2814–15, 2821, 25 Aug. 1937, pp. 65-78, 25 Sept. 1936, pp. 543-5; Robert Walsh and John Uhr, ‘Parliamentary Disallowance of Delegated Legislation: A History of the Basic Provisions in the Acts Interpretation Act’, Legislative Studies Newsletter, no. 10, 1986, pp. 11–21; CPD, 2 Dec. 1937, pp. 107–10; Information provided by Walter Duncan (great-nephew).

[7] J. G. Duncan-Hughes, The Scots Invasion of South Australia: A Talk, [Pioneers’ Association of SA, Adelaide, 1939]; Leonie Foster, High Hopes: The Men and Motives of the Australian Round Table, MUP in association with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Carlton, Vic., 1986, p. 206; CPD, 5 Feb. 1943, p. 372, 3 Dec. 1935, pp. 2338–40, 7 Dec. 1937, pp. 271–2; Letter, Duncan-Hughes to Latham, 14 Jan. 1929, MS 1009/1/1854, NLA; J. G. Duncan-Hughes, ‘The Prospects of Nationalism in Australia’, Australian Quarterly, 15 June 1931, pp. 64–76; Advertiser (Adel.), 15 Aug. 1962, p. 3; E. J. R. Morgan, The Adelaide Club, 1863-1963, The Adelaide Club, 1963, p. 88; Observer (Adel.), 29 Apr. 1922, p. 7; Duncan-Hughes Papers, PRG 126, SLSA; Information provided by Walter Duncan; Minute book, St Andrew’s College Papers, SRG 2, SLSA; Information provided by Kate Boesen, Reference Librarian, NLA.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 268-272.

DUNCAN-HUGHES, John Grant (1882–1962)

National Library of Australia
nla.pic-vn4668518

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1931–38

Member of the House of Representatives for Boothby, 1922–28; Wakefield, 1940–43

Senate Committee Service

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1932–38

Library Committee, 1934-38

Joint Committee for the Survey of Manpower and Resources, 1941–42