GRANT, Donald MacLennan (1888–1970)
Senator for New South Wales, 1944–59 (Australian Labor Party)

Described as ‘one of the men who gave fire and colour to the Labor tradition’, Donald MacLennan Grant was born at Inverness, Scotland, on 26 February 1888, son of Donald Grant, an insurance agent, and his wife Mary, née McLennan.[1] He was educated in Inverness, left school at twelve and was later apprenticed as a dental mechanic. Grant became involved in socialist politics at an early age and was associated with James Maxton and the Independent Labour Party.

Emigrating to Australia, in 1910 Grant settled in Sydney and soon became active in left‑wing causes. He worked in paper mills for some years until he was dismissed for his political activities. Grant was a member of the Australian Freedom League, which opposed the introduction of compulsory military training, and later was a prominent anti-conscriptionist. As early as 1912 he was also a member of the Sydney branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), for whom he worked as a propagandist. Spare of build with flaming red hair and a striking appearance, Grant spoke till the end of his life with a strong Scots brogue. He was a gifted mob orator able to captivate, inspire and arouse his audiences. On the platform he was ‘fluent, fast talking, picturesque, drawing upon the Bible and Shakespeare . . . likeable, fiery, humorous’. In his speeches, Grant ‘inveighed against conscription and expounded the IWW’s aggressively militant policies of industrial action, including sabotage, by which it hoped to hasten the collapse of capitalism’. He was immensely popular in Sydney’s Domain and on Melbourne’s Yarra Bank, regularly drawing audiences of thousands.[2]

Grant’s association with the IWW led to his involvement in one of the most notorious trials in Australian political history. In 1916, Tom Barker, a prominent IWW member, was gaoled for his anti-conscription activities. Some of Barker’s colleagues urged a campaign of incendiarism to secure his release and, in a Domain speech, Grant spoke the words that would become famous: ‘For every day Barker is in jail it will cost the capitalists ten thousand pounds’. There was a series of mysterious fires in Sydney and in late 1916 Grant and eleven other IWW members were arrested and tried for arson, sedition and conspiracy to defeat the ends of justice. All were found guilty and Grant was sentenced to ‘fifteen years for fifteen words’, in the well-known phrase of Henry Boote, editor of the Australian Worker and a dedicated campaigner for Grant’s release. Ian Turner, the author of the definitive account of the IWW trial, concluded: ‘Of the Twelve, it was Grant’s case which aroused the most passion—for the reason that there was no case against Grant at all’. Grant subsequently served four years of his sentence before being freed in 1920 by the newly elected Labor Government of John Storey.[3]

Although deeply affected by his experience of prison, on his release Grant’s socialist fervour seemed undimmed. He resumed his fiery public denunciations of capitalism and fiercely attacked the perpetrators of the IWW trial. He was gaoled in 1927 for taking part in an unauthorised demonstration over the execution in America of the anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, and was convicted in 1931 of using insulting words in a Domain speech.

At the New South Wales general election of March 1922, Grant stood as an Industrial Labor Party candidate for Sturt (Broken Hill). However, in 1923, he finally broke with the IWW and joined the Labor Party, urging other labour militants to do the same. In 1925 he unsuccessfully contested the Senate on the Labor ticket (he was a scapegoat for Labor’s defeat) and in 1931 was endorsed (amid ‘wild scenes of disorder’ at a state ALP executive meeting) and elected a Labor alderman on Sydney City Council (a position he retained until 1944). In the ALP, Grant became a strong supporter of J. T. Lang. He was elected in 1930 to the Socialisation Committee set up by Labor’s annual conference to bring about ‘socialism in our time’. However, in the last resort, Grant always sided with Lang’s ‘Inner Group’ (a majority faction within the party at that time) in opposing any attempt to commit the ALP to a strong socialist policy: ‘This was the apostasy of Donald Grant, militant socialist’.[4]

In November 1931 Grant became a member of the New South Wales Legislative Council, one of a group of twenty-five appointed on Lang’s recommendation, as Premier, in his attempt to swamp the conservative majority. The Labor Daily described Grant’s first speech in somewhat melodramatic terms: ‘They saw a lean stranger, gaunt-eyed and unafraid, his unruly hair a flickering fire, his arms beating a tattoo of conviction, his eyes blazing a challenge none could ignore. They heard, those “die-hards” of the Council; they heard—and they seemed afraid’.

By 1939, however, Grant had had enough. He described the Legislative Council as ‘a useless anachronism that will be a perpetual barrier to a Labor Government in New South Wales’, and did not recontest his seat when his term expired in April 1940. Grant also broke with Lang and in 1940 refused to leave the official ALP for Lang’s Non-Communist Labor Party. His new objective was the federal Parliament: ‘My hobby is international affairs. I have studied the subject closely, and I aim to use my knowledge in Commonwealth politics’. Elected to the Senate in 1943 he noted that ‘the Senate had not played the important part it was assumed it would play when Federation took place, and that failure was especially marked in foreign affairs’. He said he would ‘like to see the Senate take up the attitude adopted by the Senate in the United States and give a lead to the House of Representatives’.[5]

Grant’s contributions in the Senate reflect his interest in his commitment to a more just and equitable world. While remaining a staunch advocate of socialism, blaming capitalism for economic depressions and wars, he vigorously denounced the Soviet Union: ‘I have been fighting Stalinism for 30 years, not because it is socialism, but because it is the very antithesis of socialism. I am a socialist and I have never denied it. I have lived to see the Russian revolutionaries turn their country into the worst police State that the world has ever known’.

Grant believed that the ‘only alternative to the Marxist philosophy is the Keynes philosophy’. His position on the postwar international situation was best summed up in a speech in 1950:

The fight to-day is between one form of imperialism and another, and I am not much interested in it. While there may be some degree of idealism in what is described as the American way of life, I know that Stalinism cannot be beaten by trying to preserve monopoly capitalism . . . If I had to choose between Russian imperialism and American imperialism, I should probably lean towards the latter because, in spite of ‘Jim Crowism’, at least it envisages some measure of democracy; but American imperialism will never beat Russian imperialism unless the Americans alter their tactics.[6]

Grant’s interest in international affairs was recognised when, at the invitation of H. V. Evatt, he joined the Australian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. He also represented Australia at the International Labour conference in Montreal in that year. Grant was little impressed with the Paris proceedings: ‘In my view, the conference was largely a waste of time, because “the Big Four” had the decisions of the conference “all sewn up”’. However, he also took the opportunity to visit Inverness where a dinner was held in his honour. In 1954 he was part of the Australian contingent at a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Kenya. Having travelled extensively in Asia immediately prior to World War II, Grant was a keen advocate of closer relations with the emerging nations of the region, particularly China (‘I believe that we shall have to recognise the Republic of China’), although he opposed the diplomatic rehabilitation of Japan. He believed that ‘our destiny is tied up with that of Asia, whether we like it or not’, and that ‘the lesson of the last war, so far as Asia is concerned, is that economic and direct white domination of the Asiatics have gone for ever’. Following his return from Africa he vigorously criticised South Africa’s policy of apartheid and the Australian Government’s support for the South African regime. Despite this, he was no advocate of unrestricted immigration, citing, among other examples, the problems arising from ‘the introduction of Indians to Fiji’.[7]

In December 1957 Grant lost preselection for the Senate. There was a feeling in some sections of the ALP that he was not pursuing his duties energetically enough. Grant was initially close to Evatt, serving as an adviser when Evatt was Minister for External Affairs, and strongly supporting him following the split of 1955. But by 1959 he had become disillusioned with Evatt as Leader of the Opposition (1951–60) and actively promoted his old friend, E. J. Ward, the Member for East Sydney, as an alternative. Again he uttered fifteen memorable words: ‘If Machiavelli were alive he wouldn’t qualify to hand out leaflets at an Evatt meeting’. Nevertheless, he rejected rumours that he intended to betray the party: ‘To me, the Labour movement is above everything else in the world’. As good as his word, later that year he left hospital, following an operation, in order to help the Opposition defeat the Government in a censure motion on the budget. He appeared in the Senate chamber in a wheelchair, wearing pyjamas, and amid scenes of uproar, he gave Labor a majority of one.[8]

After leaving the Senate in 1959, Grant lived quietly at his home at 531 New South Head Road, in Sydney’s Double Bay. He died in St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, on 9 June 1970. On 3 November 1943, Grant had married Elizabeth Jane Dowse, who died on 2 September 1951, and, on 18 August 1955, he married Marjorie Frances Templeton. Both marriages had taken place at his home in Double Bay in accordance with Presbyterian rites: Marjorie survived him; there were no children of either union.[9]

David Clune 

[1] Grant’s middle name of McLennan is spelt variously, sometimes as MacLennan.

[2] SMH, 12 June 1970, p. 4; Frank Farrell, ‘Grant, Donald McLennan’, ADB, vol. 9; Sunday Sun and Guardian (Syd.), 15 Oct. 1939, p. 9; Leslie C. Jauncey, The Story of Conscription in Australia, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1935, pp. 69, 185; W. McNamara, ‘Donald Grant—A Tribute’, Labour History, Nov. 1970, pp. 63–4; Ian Turner, Sydney’s Burning, Heinemann, London, 1967, p. 13; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 1 Feb. 1959, p. 69.

[3] Turner, Sydney’s Burning, pp. 14-19, 29, 32, 37–8, 49-50, 55-9, 65–6, 181–2, 211–13, 228, 230-1; McNamara, ‘Donald Grant—A Tribute’; Australian Worker (Syd.), 14 Dec. 1916, p. 1; H. E. Boote, The Case of Grant: Fifteen Years for Fifteen Words, Worker Print, Sydney, 1917; Ernest Scott, Australia During the War, A & R, Sydney, 1943, pp. 684-93; Century (Hurstville), 29 July 1949, p. 4.

[4] Donald Grant, Through Six Gaols, Central Press, Sydney, 1921, pp. 186–90; SMH, 30 Aug. 1927, p. 12, 9 Sept. 1927, p. 15, 10 Sept. 1927, p. 16, 14 Aug. 1931, p. 5, 4 Sept. 1931, p. 6; Labor Daily (Syd.), 17 Aug. 1931, p. 1; Barrier Daily Truth (Broken Hill), 23 Feb. 1922, p. 2, 25 Mar. 1922, p. 1; Australian Worker (Syd.), 28 Feb. 1923, p. 6; SMH, 12 Nov. 1925, p. 15, 19 Nov. 1925, p. 11, 5 Sept. 1931, p. 12, 24 Nov. 1925, p. 11, 15 Sept. 1931, p. 9; Robert Cooksey, Lang and Socialism: A Study in the Great Depression, ANU Press, Canberra, 1991, pp. 6-9, 17-18, 44-8.

[5] Bede Nairn, The ‘Big Fella’: Jack Lang and the Australian Labor Party 18911949, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1986, p. 249; NSWPD, 25 Nov. 1931, p. 7091; Labor Daily (Syd.), 3 Dec. 1931, p. 1; Sunday Sun and Guardian (Syd.), 15 Oct. 1939, p. 9; SMH, 23 Apr. 1940, p. 12, 17 Sept. 1943, p. 6.

[6] CPD, 6 Dec. 1950, pp. 3749–50, 21 Nov. 1951, p. 2372.

[7] Letter, Evatt to Grant, 10 Apr. 1946, Grant Papers, MS 3188, NLA; SMH, 18 July 1946, p. 4; CPD, 19 Mar. 1947, p. 820; Newspaper cutting, 13 Sept. 1946, p. 5, Grant Papers, MS 3188, NLA; CPD, 13 Sept. 1945, pp. 5368-70, 22 Sept. 1948, pp. 676-7, 15 June 1949, pp. 946–7, 19 Oct. 1949, p. 1561, 23 Oct. 1957, pp. 736-7, 2 Oct. 1945, p. 6197, 19 Mar. 1947, p. 818, 28 Apr. 1955, p. 120, 7 June 1955, pp. 688-91, 29 Feb. 1956, p. 199, 18 June 1948, p. 2323.

[8] CPD, 13 Sept. 1945, p. 5366, 19 Mar. 1947, p. 825, 19 Oct. 1949, p. 1561; SMH, 11 Dec. 1957, p. 9; Daily Mirror (Syd.), 27 Jan. 1959, p. 11; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 1 Feb. 1959, p. 69; CPD, 27 Mar. 1958, p. 434, 17 Sept. 1958, p. 391; SMH, 18 Sept. 1958, p. 1.

[9] McNamara, ‘Donald Grant—A Tribute’; SMH, 12 June 1970, p. 4.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 447-450.

GRANT, Donald MacLennan (1888-1970)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1944–59

New South Wales Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, 1931–40