MacDONALD, Allan Nicoll (1892–1978)
Senator for Western Australia, 1935–47 (United Australia Party; Liberal Party of Australia)

Allan Nicoll MacDonald was a youthful migrant to Australia and a survivor of Gallipoli. Both these experiences clearly informed his political activities and attitudes as a senator. The son of Alexander McDonald, the retired manager of a jute mill at Gourapore, India, and his wife Helen Christie, née Nicoll, he was born at Lochee, Dundee, Scotland, on 25 August 1892. (His father’s name appears as McDonald on Allan’s birth certificate.) Allan was educated at Arbroath High School and arrived in Australia in 1911. Tall, strong, and solidly built, he spent a period at Collie, Western Australia, working in a bakery, and as a teamster. After moving to Perth, he joined Rankin Morrison, chartered accountants, and began evening classes in commerce and accountancy at Perth Technical School.

On 17 August 1914 MacDonald enlisted in the AIF. He embarked for Egypt with the 8th Battery, Australian Field Artillery, on 26 October 1914. Present at the Gallipoli landing, he attained the rank of Acting Warrant Officer and was demobilised at his own request on 4 June 1919 in order to join the American Red Cross Commission to Palestine. He served with the commission in Palestine, Syria, Armenia, Mesopotamia and Turkey. At Wandsworth Registry Office, London, on 4 October 1919, he married Christiana Hildreth, a wartime ambulance driver he had met while in a London hospital. They sailed for Australia in 1920, when MacDonald took up his previous occupation as an accountant with Rankin Morrison in Perth.

Soon after his return, MacDonald became active in the National Party of Western Australia, quickly becoming a leading figure. A campaign organiser,in 1925 he was secretary of the Western Australian Consultative Council,the party’s city-based fund-raising business group. In the state election two years later, he was campaign director of the National Political Organization, and performed the same service in the federal election of 1931. From 1930 until 1935 he was secretary of the Western Australian party.[1]

At the general election of September 1934 MacDonald was elected to the Senate for Western Australia. He was due to take up his seat on 1 July 1935, but when Sir Walter Kingsmill died in January, MacDonald, under existing electoral legislation, became eligible for the ensuing casual vacancy. Appointed by the Western Australian Governor-in-Council (in accordance with his position on the poll), MacDonald became a senator on 5 March 1935. He was re-elected in September 1940.

The opposite of complacent, MacDonald was personable, with a lively eye, adventurous mind and a vibrant personality. Speedily distinguishing himself, he was appointed Minister Without Portfolio Assisting the Minister for Commerce from November 1937 to November 1938. From November 1938 to April 1939, he was again Minister Without Portfolio, but now assisting the Treasurer. MacDonald rarely spoke without offering a solution, and was capable of a rapier dry wit, which he did not overindulge. His speeches were businesslike, usually brief and to the point, and, even if politically conservative, informed by the need for development and modernisation.

He was a constructive rather than plaintive advocate for the interests of his state, including its trade and produce (primary, and especially heavy, industry), and mining, particularly of gold—which he admitted to be ‘a wonderful stand-by for Western Australia’. With Senator E. B. Johnston, on 20 September 1939, he crossed the floor to vote with the Labor Party Opposition to defeat the motion for the second reading of the Gold Tax Bill. MacDonald was adamant that the bill represented ‘too drastic a departure from the ordinary principles of taxation’. Whether it was this that prevented him receiving further ministerial appointment can only be a matter of speculation. He had ideas for broadcasting (he was a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Broadcasting from 1943 to 1944) and waxed eloquent on the need for a standard rail gauge. That ‘monotonous and tiresome journey’ from the West eventually defeated him and he moved his entire family to rented accommodation in Canberra.[2]

As befitted a man whose club was the Anzac, who wore the RSL badge and attended returned soldiers’ conferences, he was a spokesman on defence and military issues, including enlistment and repatriation. An advocate in 1937 of universal training MacDonald was more prepared to put his trust in the British navy than the League of Nations. He urged measures for empire defence and intelligence gathering as early as 1937, as well as the need for forward planning and the organisation of manpower in New Guinea. During World War II he periodically appealed, like the rest of his party, for a national government to deal with the war crisis. His health was never dependable, and in 1941 he had leave of absence from the Senate for some months, hospitalised by an ulcer.

Very much a liberal in his concern for the small man, he was persistent on behalf of the disadvantaged, and relatively generous on social issues, especially pensions, compensation, housing and, specifically, conditions of work for nurses and seamen. He was also a strong advocate of a contributory national insurance scheme. Emphatic about the need for immigration on the grounds that ‘otherwise our ownership will be disputed’, he would have preferred British migrants because of established empire connections, but condemned the notorious dictation test as irrational and outmoded, and had a wider tolerance of ‘aliens’ than many of his political colleagues.[3]

He gave long service to the influential, and largely bipartisan, Regulations and Ordinances Committee, serving from 1939 to 1947. In 1943 he was a member of the Empire parliamentary delegation to Great Britain and Canada, when Britain’s war efforts strengthened his allegiances, and caused him to claim some credit for personally promoting a visit to Australia by the royal family after the war. Another bout of illness occurred while he was in London, and was repeated in early 1945. (He would later recall one of the many ‘sympathetic little acts’ of the Prime Minister, John Curtin, who rang Mrs MacDonald from Canberra to reassure her about her husband’s well‑being in London.) Nevertheless, he was unsparingly busy in 1945 and 1946. A monarchist and imperialist, speaking with a pronounced Australian accent, he saw no conflict between his origins and his committed Western Australian patriotism. As early as 1944 he was an advocate of sustained postwar reconstruction, including national water conservation, and urged serious attention to more extensive diplomatic representation for Australia, as well as methods for gaining better publicity overseas.

MacDonald was defeated at the general election of 28 September 1946.After leaving Parliament, he returned to Perth and became engaged in extensive private estate management. In 1948 he was appointed to the Western Australian Lotteries Commission, and was its chairman from 1961 until 1965. His staff found him loyal, thoughtful and considerate. His liveliness and a certain hint of flamboyance persisted; he remained a dapper dresser, frequently sporting a bow tie. Survived by his wife, two daughters, Hildreth and Jeanne, and three sons, Alexander, Ross and Bruce, he died on 18 January 1978, at the Hollywood Repatriation Hospital, Perth, and was cremated with Anglican rites at Karrakatta.[4]

Margaret Steven

[1] David Black, ‘MacDonald, Allan Nicoll’, ADB, vol. 15; Information to author from MacDonald’s son, Ross, and from Ruth Yates; West Australian (Perth), 23 Jan. 1978, p. 13; MacDonald, A. N.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; CPD, 22 Feb. 1978, p. 15.

[2] CPD, 9 Oct. 1936, p. 985; Senate, Journals, 20 Sept. 1939; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, p. 29; CPD, 20 Sept. 1939, pp. 747–9, 29 Mar. 1944, pp. 2126–8, 23 June 1937, p. 215, 29 Sept. 1942, p. 1021.

[3] CPD, 2 Dec. 1936, pp. 2583–4, 29 Sept. 1942, p. 1022, 7 Sept. 1937, pp. 508–10, 12 Sept. 1939, pp. 371–2, 22 Apr. 1940, pp. 255–6, 20 July 1944, pp. 263–4, 2 Apr. 1941, p. 494, 21 Nov. 1941, pp. 699–700, 3 Apr. 1941, pp. 603–4, 22 Aug. 1940, p. 609, 8 Oct. 1942, p. 1489, 28 Sept. 1945, p. 6124, 23 June 1937, p. 216, 26 Nov. 1936, p. 2374.

[4] SMH, 4 May 1943, p. 9, 14 June 1943, p. 6; CPD, 5 July 1945, p. 4110, 4 Dec. 1946, pp. 937–8, 29 Mar. 1944, pp. 2125–8, 21 Feb. 1978, pp. 16–17, 22 Feb. 1978, p. 15.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 46-48.

MacDONALD, Allan Nicoll (1892–1978)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1935–47

Minister Without Portfolio Assisting the Minister for Commerce, 1937–38

Minister Without Portfolio Assisting the Treasurer, 1938–39

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1935–37, 1940–47

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1939–47

Joint Select Committee on the Commonwealth Bank Bill, 1942–43

Joint Standing Committee on Broadcasting, 1943–44