DUNCAN, Walter Leslie (1883–1947)
Senator for New South Wales, 1920–31 (Nationalist Party)

Duncan’s career is understandably seen within the shadows of the more powerful men he supported, first within the trade unions of the pre-war period and then, when he followed W. M. Hughes over conscription, the Nationalist Party of the 1920s. His political role was distinctive, however, and his career, relatively long within his life, extended over thirty-three years, from his first unsuccessful contest in 1907, aged twenty-four, to his last in 1940, when he was again unsuccessful. He was the only ex-Labor man supporting Hughes within the Nationalist Party of the 1920s who had not been a member of Parliament at the time of the split over conscription. His trajectory from labour industrial politics to alliance with Hughes and Nationalist preselection during and after the war was unique, preserving certain values of the ‘middle ground’, and his position in the Senate in association with Hughes was important to events from 1929 to 1932.Walter Leslie Duncan was born at Armidale on 14 March 1883, the only child of John Mackie Duncan, a flour miller, and Margaret, née McDowell, both formerly of Victoria. The family was Protestant, Duncan referring to himself as a Presbyterian. After some education at the Armidale Public School Duncan moved to Sydney and, though he returned to his country origins in his last years, was known throughout his career as a Sydney-based politician with a marked set against the emerging Country Party.

Duncan found clerical employment and came to prominence within the trade union movement under the influence of Henry Mercer of the Clerks’ Union in the period before 1910, when both political and industrial labour were finding strength in New South Wales. He was a youthful and enthusiastic Labor candidate for the state seat of Granville in 1907 and for Waverley in 1910. At that year’s end he married, on 31 December, Ellen Cousins Riley, a clerk; her father Edward, long prominent in the Trades and Labour Council (TLC), had won a seat in the federal election six months earlier, and her brother was to win another in 1922. Duncan moved to the vice-presidency and then presidency of the TLC in 1910 and 1911, the years when Labor’s harmony was fiercely disrupted in disputes between W. A. Holman and the industrial movement. Though the presidency, which at that time rotated strictly through numerous affiliates, was less important than the organising committee of the TLC, the events of 1911 in particular thrust Duncan into considerable prominence before he was thirty. He had been one of those reflecting ‘the dominance in the labour movement at this stage of moderate laborists, and their commitment to arbitration’, but his militancy quickened under Holman’s ascension and by 1912 he was president of the new Labor Principles Defence Committee. Its membership, he remarked caustically, ‘lived in hourly dread of a measure that would make membership a capital offence’. In those circumstances, he was not a likely Labor candidate for Parliament and he did not contest the 1913 election.

If it had not been for conscription, Duncan might have been one of those involved in the machinations of industrial and political labour around J. S. Garden in the postwar years. But conscription changed everything, and Duncan was as resolute in renouncing every past association to follow Hughes as he had been until that time in opposing Holman (who necessarily became a new ally). In moving to Hughes and the conscriptionist cause, Duncan was in a minority within the Labor Party and in a smaller minority within industrial circles, and he showed steel in explaining his cause (and would again when he parted with the Nationalists fifteen years later). That the early split must have tested him is suggested in some measure by the continuance within ‘official’ Labor of Ellen’s family.[1]

Duncan again contested the state seat of Granville against J. T. Lang in March 1917 as a Hughes Nationalist and did well in a three-way contest, though not well enough to push Lang to a second ballot. In December he enlisted in the army, describing himself as an accountant, and seeing service abroad for four months in late 1918. He remained a soldier until his election to the Senate in December 1919.

War service assisted his change of identity and he campaigned in press advertisements as ‘Private’ Duncan, a serious figure in slouched hat under the first-ranked Nationalist, Brigadier General Charles Frederick (‘Fighting Charlie’) Cox. Duncan had been posted as a sergeant, but his war service in any event was seen to be ‘distinguished’. In the easier circumstances of the 1925 campaign, he retained second place under Cox in an election that returned four Nationalists for the state, but by then his differences with the Nationalist Party were emerging.[2]

Duncan’s labour background gave him a distinct place within the party at the outset of his Senate career. He was consistent in his emphasis on a White Australia within the Empire but with a unique national character, a Commonwealth government of ample power (seated in Canberra) and effective arbitration in industry. He supported, where necessary, regulation of business, coupled with high protection, and was suspicious of foreign powers such as the United States. He was early regarded as a well-informed senator who chose his interventions with care, so that he was not a very frequent speaker or interjector. Nor was he excessively garrulous, though his speeches were generally buttressed with factual support, typically from manufacturing associations concerned with tariff or industrial issues or from meetings of public servants that he had convened.[3]

His first sessions as a senator must have been overshadowed by domestic events, as Ellen died in 1922, aged thirty-seven, leaving him three sons under fifteen. Duncan remarried within the year at St John the Baptist Church, Canberra, on 6 June 1923, a few weeks before the budget session opened in Melbourne. His wife was Kathleen Annie Flemming, a bank clerk, and the following parliamentary sessions, leading to the election of 1925, were perhaps his most successful. Discomfited when Hughes lost the prime ministership in February 1923, Duncan claimed autonomy from his party, with rather more emphasis than his fellows, in his first term, though not to the degree that he later exhibited. ‘Why make a song about it?’, asked Drake-Brockman, just elected government Whip. Duncan, acting Whip in 1924, succeeded to the Whip’s position himself in 1925 and became a vice-president of the party organisation for two terms (1924–25 and 1926–27). He was also a temporary chairman of committees from 1926 to 1931. His inside knowledge of the Labor Party was useful to S. M. Bruce in the federal election campaign of 1925, when Duncan explained, for example, that stolen army rifles were going to ‘the cause of the Red revolution in Australia’.[4]

Still it was plain that he was bound to Hughes, shown characteristically in his approval of Hughes’ reaction to the 1925 High Court decision in the Walsh and Johnson deportation case immediately after the election. From this point on, he was Hughes’ only consistent defender in the Senate and his regularity of attendance and support of the Government in divisions steadily declined. After the election of October 1929 brought Bruce down, Duncan was excluded from the Nationalist Party along with Hughes, W. M. Marks and G. A. Maxwell in the House of Representatives, Massy-Greene in the Senate also resigning in protest.

These members were the parliamentary core of Hughes’ new Australia Party and Duncan had been included in Hughes’ projected ministry of September 1929. But only with Duncan did Hughes not soon quarrel. It was important to Hughes that he had a sitting senator at his side at meetings over the next eighteen months. In the Senate Duncan found tactical reasons to speak sympathetically of the Scullin Government. His claim, in the dark days of the Premiers’ Plan, that it was ‘Australia’s crowning misfortune that there should be sitting in Westminster today, a government with a Whitechapel outlook—a government that seems to have no regard whatever for the welfare of the Empire’, was reported gleefully by the Labor Daily. Denied preselection in November 1931, Duncan then had to contemplate the completion of his Senate term and certain defeat at the looming election. He chose instead to resign (1 December 1931) and to contest the House of Representatives seat of Warringah against the sitting member, Archdale Parkhill. Running as a candidate for the All for Australia League but continuing to claim adherence to true Nationalist principles, Duncan was unsuccessful. He was replaced for the balance of his Senate term by Patrick Frederick Mooney for Lang Labor.

Duncan accused the Graziers’ Council and the Country Party of opposing him because of his ‘active advocacy . . . of the present tariff’. His replacement on the Nationalist ticket for the Senate, Charles Hardy, certainly suited those interests better. Nevertheless Duncan was, like Hughes, able to return to the United Australia Party of the 1930s and win endorsement—in Duncan’s case for difficult or impossible seats. He was not expected to win the state seat of Illawarra against the sitting Labor member in 1935, though his vote of 42 per cent was substantial in a field of four. In 1940, however, he received barely 10 per cent of the vote as one of five UAP candidates for the federal seat of Werriwa.[5]

Duncan left political life shortly thereafter, returning to active military duty in July 1941 when he gave his profession as ‘journalist and editor’. He was living in Wollongong when his second wife died on 3 October. He served with the Australian Military Forces until June 1943 when he transferred as a lieutenant to the Citizen Military Forces. In July he joined forces with Hughes once again as his secretary prior to the August federal election. Later he would be a supervisor of Commonwealth war loans. On 18 April 1946 he married for a third time, in Tamworth, where he was then resident, giving his conjugal status as ‘bachelor’. Duncan’s age at this time was recorded as fifty-five though he was in fact sixty-three; his bride, Eileen Eliza Coutman, was forty-three. Duncan died a little over a year later, on 28 May 1947, at West Tamworth, and was cremated at nearby Beresfield with Presbyterian rites. Eileen and Edward, John and Alan, sons of his first marriage, and a daughter, Pamela, from his second marriage, survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £1376, of which Eileen received £300 and Pamela the greater portion.[6]

Geoffrey Hawker 

[1] David Stephens, ‘Duncan, Walter Leslie’, ADB, vol. 8; Raymond Markey, In Case of Oppression: The Life and Times of the Labor Council of New South Wales, Pluto Press in association with the Lloyd Ross Forum of the Labor Council of New South Wales, 1994, pp. 76, 141, 150–60, 560; DT (Syd.), 12 Aug. 1912, p. 6.

[2] Duncan, W. L.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; Fighting Line (Syd.), 27 Nov. 1919, p. 15; SMH, 9 Dec. 1919, p. 5.

[3] CPD, 13 Aug. 1924, pp. 3027–9, 24 June 1926, p. 3440, 6 Dec 1927, p. 2597, 18 June 1926, pp. 3283–6, 11 Sept. 1928, p. 6524, 5 July 1923, p. 719, 29 July 1920, pp. 3062–4, 1 Sept. 1920, pp. 4011–17, 12 June 1928, pp. 5851–9, 5 Nov. 1931, pp. 1482–6, 6 Nov. 1931, pp. 1504–8, 18 Aug. 1922, pp. 1530–1, 3 July 1931, pp. 3373–4.

[4] CPD, 14 Mar. 1923, pp. 369–71, 2 Apr. 1924, pp. 206–10.

[5] L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger 1914–1952: William Morris Hughes: A Political Biography, vol. 2, A & R, Sydney, 1979, pp. 511, 546, 559, 579–80, 591–4; Land (Syd.), 24 Feb. 1928; Dagmar Carboch, The Fall of the Bruce–Page Government, F. W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1958, pp. 172–3; SMH, 19 Nov. 1929, p. 11; Labor Daily (Syd.), 5 Mar. 1930, p. 5; CPD, 9 Apr. 1930, pp. 975–81, 3 July 1931, p. 3373; Labor Daily (Syd.), 4 July 1931, p. 1, 2 Dec. 1931, p. 5, 10 Dec. 1931, p. 5; CPD, 17 Feb. 1932, p. 6; DT (Syd.), 28 Nov. 1931, p. 1.

[6] Duncan, W. L.—War Service Record, B884, NAA; Armidale Express, 4 June 1947, p. 8.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 386-389.

DUNCAN, Walter Leslie (1883–1947)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1920–31

Senate Committee Service

Select Committee on the Officials Engaged In and About the Senate, 1920–21

Standing Orders Committee, 1920–29

Select Committee on the Discharge of Warrant Officer J. R. Allen from the Australian Military Forces, 1923

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1926–31

Joint Select Committee on the Moving-Picture Industry, 1927