MacDONALD, John Valentine (1880–1937)
Senator for Queensland, 1922, 1928, 1932–37 (Australian Labor Party; Federal Labor Party)

John Valentine MacDonald, journalist, was born on 14 February 1880 in Opotiki, New Zealand. He was the son of Norman, policeman and farmer, and Alice, née Davis, and grandson, on the paternal side, of John, a pioneer of the Victorian pastoral industry. MacDonald attended briefly state schools in New Zealand and New South Wales. From the age of eight he accompanied his nomadic father and elder brother through Victoria and New South Wales in search of pastoral work. From his father, he imbibed an understanding of prolonged unemployment, and of what it meant to be a member of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union and to engage in militant industrial action. Returning to New Zealand after shearing shed work in the early 1890s, he entered the printing trade and later helped found a branch of the Typographical Association in Napier. Dedicated to self-improvement, he studied at private commercial colleges, attaining distinction as a shorthand writer with the ‘remarkable speed of 240 words a minute’. He graduated a fellow of the Phonographic Society and became, during 1903 and 1904, a shorthand instructor at the Gisborne Technical College in New Zealand. Mastery of shorthand helped him advance from journeyman to journalist and for six years from 1901 he was chief of staff and sometime acting editor of Gisborne’s Evening Herald.

In 1907 MacDonald recrossed the Tasman to work in Melbourne on the Argus and Age newspapers where his assignments included covering the parliamentary press gallery. In 1910 he became a foundation member of the Australian Journalists’ Association in Melbourne. The following year he visited the United Kingdom where he contributed to British newspapers, worked with the Australian Press Association and studied at the University of London’s School of Economics and Political Science. On 2 November 1912, at Melbourne’s Richmond Presbyterian manse, he married Emily Grace (known as Grace) Fletcher, born in Lebrina, Tasmania.[1]

While MacDonald was proud of his Scottish ancestry, his uncritical admiration for Britain gradually diminished. During the Boer War (1899–1902) he accepted the popular view that the war was ‘waged by Great Britain in the interests of civilisation, of liberty and democracy’ and only a physical disability kept him out of uniform. He afterwards changed his mind, believing the defeat of the Boers signalled the unfortunate displacement of European labour in South Africa by Asian immigrants. He regarded Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s Industrial Democracy as ‘perhaps the finest work on industrialism that has ever been written’. But it took firsthand experience to disabuse him of an idealised view of British industrial relations. In 1911 he had expected to find in the United Kingdom ‘a model of industrial stability and sweet reasonableness’. Instead, in London, he watched the mobilisation and deployment of 40 000 troops to confront striking railwaymen and was affronted by ‘the awful conditions of slumdom’ blighting British cities.

As foundation editor (1912–22) and managing editor (1913–14) of Labor’s Daily Standard (Brisbane), the well-read MacDonald helped to fill a theoretical vacuum in the traditionally pragmatic Australian labour movement. He was an independent editor, able to resist attempts by Labor leaders to suppress dissension within the party. MacDonald was one of twelve editors chosen by the Commonwealth Government to tour the Western Front during World War I. He strongly objected to the filtering of war news. A particular source of frustration was the Daily Standard’s dependence upon cable services, ‘owned and controlled by the capitalistic jingo press’ whose messages were further distorted by Commonwealth military censorship. Later, in the Senate, he would argue that in regard to reading material ‘the average Australian can be trusted to look after himself’.[2]

On 11 July 1922 MacDonald was chosen by Queensland’s Legislative Assembly to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate. The Labor Premier, E. G. Theodore, declared that MacDonald had ‘the confidence of the Labour organisations of Queensland’ while a conservative opponent, referring to MacDonald’s editorship of the Daily Standard, protested querulously that he was ‘a straightout advocate of communism’. He achieved prominence in agrarian Queensland by joining with other federal Labor members in a successful battle to extend an embargo on imported sugar. He was subsequently praised in the state Parliament for ‘one of the best fighting speeches on the sugar industry that has ever been delivered in the Senate’. This did not save him from defeat in the December 1922 general election, after which he found employment writing tourist publications for the Queensland Government Tourist Bureau, including Central Queensland (1929) and a series of smaller publications on Queensland’s scenery and natural resources.

MacDonald maintained his profile in the Queensland labour movement by writing for the Worker, taking advantage of the opportunity to perpetuate his 1922 Senate image as a warrior for Queensland’s sugar industry. He similarly enhanced his standing in June 1925 when he narrowly failed to win a by-election in the Greater Brisbane City Council’s Merthyr ward as part of a Labor counter‑attack against a strongly conservative municipality. MacDonald had been a delegate to the 1916 Queensland Labor-in-Politics Convention and was again a representative at the conventions of 1923 and 1926. While not prominent in convention debates he strenuously advocated that the labour movement should accord priority to the establishment of a national chain of daily newspapers. This was in keeping with his pragmatic socialism and recognition of the entrenched conservatism of the Australian electorate. He argued that the battle for public opinion had to be won before the movement could embark on the more radical projects of the socialisation of industry and the One Big Union.[3]

MacDonald’s high standing in the Queensland labour movement was demonstrated when on 1 August 1928 the Queensland Legislative Assembly elected him, for the second time, to fill a casual vacancy for the Senate. Again his tenure was brief, truncated by the ensuing November general election. After some hardship, including eight months’ unemployment and indebtedness, he was returned to the Senate at the December 1931 general election. With Gordon Brown and J. S. Collings, MacDonald was one of three senators elected for Queensland’s anti-Lang Federal Labor Party. The experience of personal insecurity added to MacDonald’s determination to use his Senate seat to speak for those ground down by the Depression. He urged his fellow senators to speak out against the real ‘rulers of the world’, not governments but international financiers, ‘the money powers of New York and London’. This reflected his distrust of global economic forces and a conviction, based on ‘twenty years of much writing and reading of political and economic subjects’, that Australian industries had to be protected from international competition.

High levels of unemployment during the Depression, peaking at 30 per cent in mid-1932, were of ‘paramount importance’ for MacDonald. He used the Senate to advocate programs of amelioration, particularly government-funded development projects, and welfare. He urged ‘a vigorous policy of public works’ as the only sure means of reducing unemployment and cited, approvingly, Labor Premier William Forgan Smith’s Queensland initiatives in this area. He was particularly conscious of the strategic vulnerability of the sparsely settled Northern Territory and urged its development through a ‘measure of socialism’ and the construction of a Darwin–Queensland railway. He insisted that welfare was an entitlement rather than charity and campaigned against the low levels of unemployment relief. He attacked the Government’s deflationary response to the economic crisis on the grounds that it financially advantaged the wealthy and enabled them to ‘wring the withers of the workers’.[4]

Family history, personal experience, prodigious reading, ideological predisposition and the Depression convinced MacDonald that capitalism would ‘cut its own throat in the end’. He looked to the Soviet Union for an alternative economic, social and political model and, though sympathetic, was sceptical about the more extravagant claims made on behalf of the great socialist experiment. In this judgment he was vindicated by history. On another occasion he was sadly wrong about historical forces: some four years before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, he predicted that there would not be ‘another world war for a generation or two at least’.

Such a misreading of the European state system could have arisen from MacDonald’s belief in the greater salience of race. He did not easily distinguish between race and nationality and advocated a White Australia that he defined as ‘Australia for the European races’. He used his first speech in the Senate in July 1922 to identify himself as a third generation Australian deeply attached to ‘these lands under the Southern Cross’. With an optimism that did not survive the onset of the Depression, in 1929 he proclaimed that Australia could evolve into ‘the greatest nation the world has ever seen’. He dismissed any Asian threat to the territorial integrity of Australia on the grounds that, should it materialise, ‘every white nation would immediately spring to arms and come to our defence, in order to preserve Australia for the white race’. In this context, he regarded European state rivalries as secondary to the more fundamental struggle to maintain Caucasian global supremacy. A little over a decade later he returned to the same racial theme when he spoke on Australia’s geo-political mission, though, in the meantime, Britain’s importance had been elevated somewhat above that of the more nebulous racial concept: ‘Australia is the main centre of British influence in the south Pacific. This country is charged with the guardianship, in this part of the world, of British interests, and the security of the white race’.

While the prism of race constrained MacDonald’s analysis of international relations, he stood out in the 1930s Senate for his progressive views on Australia’s indigenous people, drawing on the 1910 Australian Year Book to support his opinions. In a farsighted contribution he urged that Aboriginal people should be fairly treated and their skills employed in the defence of Australia’s vulnerable north. But the frame for this enlightened vision was that of the looming threat of racial invasion and contamination from Asia. MacDonald pinpointed the Northern Territory as ‘Australia’s danger point’, which could be best safeguarded by ‘a contented native race . . . living on friendly terms with the white population’.[5]

MacDonald defined himself as a ‘Labour representative’ in the Senate who stood for the interests of all workers, including farmers. He also maintained that he occupied his seat to protect Queensland against the possibility that Victoria and New South Wales would ‘gain such a measure of control in this Parliament as would enable them to trample down the rights of the smaller States’. He urged greater Commonwealth support for Queensland’s tropical agriculture and revealed his experience as a tourism writer when he detailed Queensland’s appeal as a travel destination, lingering over images of its ‘arboreal beauties’ and ‘tropical delights’.

In carrying out his parliamentary duties MacDonald was conscientious and independent. He risked short-term unpopularity to uphold the Senate’s integrity, insisting, for example, on a quorum for debate on unemployment relief. He relished the intricacies of Senate procedure, familiarised himself with standing orders, and defended the right of senators to be heard. He was conservative in his estimate of the power of the Senate to press requests on the House of Representatives and, in the opinion of the Parliament’s historian, Gavin Souter, he ‘scandalised’ his fellow senators when he sided with the House against the Senate on the issue.

Peers acknowledged MacDonald’s probity and conscientiousness. On 23 September 1935 he was elected Whip by his federal parliamentary Labor colleagues and three days later was appointed to the Senate’s House Committee and, more importantly for such a strong advocate of civil rights, to the Regulations and Ordinances Committee. In keeping with his printing and publishing background, he served also on the Senate Printing Committee. Between 1935 and 1937 he was as a temporary chairman of committees.

There was no opportunity for further recognition. On 17 August 1937 MacDonald died in Brisbane at his New Farm home, survived by his wife Grace, his daughter Janet, and sons Edward and William. He was cremated two days later at Brisbane’s Mt Thompson Crematorium after a funeral service at New Farm’s St Michael’s and All Angels’ Church of England. Among the mourners were Queensland’s Premier, William Forgan Smith, and George Lawson, MHR, representing the Leader of the federal Opposition, John Curtin.

John MacDonald was a parliamentarian whose achievements were limited by service in opposition and a premature death. He used the Senate to press the case of the disadvantaged, and to defend the interests of Queensland. He earned the respect of political friends and foes, an achievement acknowledged editorially by the conservative Courier-Mail. That he was twice appointed to the Senate by a Queensland Labor Government to fill a casual vacancy pointed to the esteem in which he was held inside the labour movement. He had earned the movement’s loyalty, principally through his journalism. In the Queensland Legislative Assembly, Forgan Smith paid tribute to MacDonald’s representation of Queensland in the Senate and what made it possible, his ‘splendid service to the Labour movement’ as editor of the Daily Standard.[6]

Rodney Sullivan 

[1] Argus (Melb.), 18 Aug. 1937, p. 12; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 18 Aug. 1937, p. 15; Worker (Brisb.), 1 June 1922, p. 6, 24 Aug. 1937, p. 13.

[2] CPD, 5 July 1922, p. 153, 10 Apr. 1935, p. 1160, 22 Sept. 1928, pp. 7211, 7213, 5 July 1922, p. 151; J. Larcombe, Notes on the Political History of the Labor Movement in Queensland, Brisbane, 1934, p. 8; D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan: A Political Biography, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1975, p. 3; E. H. Lane, Dawn to Dusk: Reminiscences of a Rebel, William Brooks & Co., Brisbane, 1939, pp. 143–5; Argus (Melb.), 18 Aug. 1937, p. 12; Raymond Evans, Loyalty and Disloyalty: Social Conflict on the Queensland Homefront, 1914–18, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1987, pp. 32–3; CPD, 12 Dec. 1934, p. 1057.

[3] QPD, 11 July 1922, p. 133; CPD, 13 Sept. 1922, pp. 2127–37, 12 Oct. 1922, pp. 3705–6; QPD, 1 Aug. 1928, p. 87; Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau, Central Queensland, Brisbane, 1929; Worker (Brisb.), 24 Aug. 1937, p. 13, 12 Feb. 1925, p. 4, 25 June 1925, p. 6; D. J. Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880–1920, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1975, pp. 181–2, 221; ALP, Official records of the eleventh and twelfth Queensland Labor-in-Politics conventions, 1923, 1926.

[4] QPD, 1 Aug. 1928, pp. 84, 94; Daily Standard (Brisb.), 15 Jan. 1932, p. 6; CPD, 21 June 1933, p. 2488, 14 June 1933, p. 2307, 31 May 1933, p. 2010, 14 Sept. 1932, p. 433; Stuart Macintyre, The Oxford History of Australia: The Succeeding Age, 1901–1942, vol. 4, OUP, Melbourne, 1986, p. 253; CPD, 28 Mar. 1935, p. 407, 8 Apr. 1935, p. 909, 8 Nov. 1932, p. 1998, 29 & 30 Sept. 1932, pp. 946–7.

[5] CPD, 28 Mar. 1935, p. 408, 10 Apr. 1935, pp. 1159–60, 5 July 1922, pp. 149, 151, 10 Apr. 1935, p. 1160, 5 July 1922, p. 155, 17 Nov. 1933, p. 4768, 6 Dec. 1933, pp. 5591–2.

[6] CPD, 14 Nov. 1934, p. 211, 8 Nov. 1932, pp. 2001–4, 28 Mar. 1935, p. 407, 1 Aug. 1934, pp. 969, 975–6; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 294; Patrick Weller (ed.), Caucus Minutes 1901–1949, vol. 3, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1975, p. 106; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 19 Aug. 1937, p. 1, CPD, 24 Aug. 1937, pp. 3–4, 24 Aug. 1937, pp. 10–11; CourierMail, (Brisb.), 19 Aug. 1937, p. 14; QPD, 24 Aug. 1937, p. 59.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 348-353.

MacDONALD, John Valentine (1880–1937)

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1922, 1928, 1932-37

Senate Committee Service

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1922

Printing Committee, 1922, 1932–37

House Committee, 1935–37

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1935–37