McLACHLAN, James (1870–1956)
Senator for South Australia, 1935–47 (United Australia Party; Liberal Party of Australia)

Senator James McLachlan had community spirit and public service in his blood. A successful rural businessman, he was born on 12 March 1870, at Alma Plains, South Australia, the son of James McLachlan, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née McColl, both from Scotland. Young James, whose mother died the year after his birth, received a thorough education both at the local state school and at Whinham College, Adelaide, before returning at seventeen to the family holding, ‘Dalkeith Farm’, near Owen. He later took up farming on his own account near Dalkey, and on 22 August 1894 married Ellen Louisa Jury, of Magill. The following year James was appointed clerk (1895–1914) of the Dalkey District Council, of which his father was chairman for many years. James McLachlan senior (1842–1904) was himself active in civic affairs: he was president of the local branch of the South Australian Farmers’ Co-operative Union (1889–91), and represented Wooroora in the South Australian House of Assembly from 1893 until 1902 as a Liberal, an Independent Liberal and a Conservative, creditably contesting the seat also in 1890 and 1902.

Following a severe drought, James abandoned farming in 1902 to become a general storekeeper and stock agent at Owen, where he built the first private house in what previously had been only a rural business depot. He continued to play an important part in the development of the township, being a founding member of the Owen Institute, and chief magistrate of the district. A pastoral area, Dalkey was also one of the largest wheat-growing districts in the state. Owen, the central township, rapidly acquired a public school, debating society, and churches for Methodist, Lutheran and Church of Christ congregations—in the last of which the McLachlan family was prominent.

Around 1905 McLachlan sold his business and joined rural agents Bagot, Shakes and Lewis (later acquired by Goldsbrough, Mort and Company) as an auctioneer and salesman. He also became a Justice of the Peace. When he was promoted manager of the firm’s stock department in 1916 he moved to the head office in Adelaide. McLachlan was fairly thickset in build, and in his prime his already striking gravitas was emphasised by a handlebar moustache that, even in a hirsute age, was an undoubted triumph. In 1923 he took up an appointment as organiser for the Stockowners’ Association of South Australia, resigning from Bagot, Shakes and Lewis—though a year later he returned to commercial business as a partner in Fischer, Copley and McLachlan.[1]

Several years previously McLachlan had followed his father into state politics. One of seven candidates for Wooroora at the general election of 1918, he topped the poll, then, and at subsequent elections, against strong competition. Initially a ‘Coalition’ representative for the National Party and the Liberals, he stood as a Liberal in 1921 and 1924, and contested the 1927 election under the ‘Liberal–Country Party Pact’. A cautious social radical in 1918, he stood by his hustings pledge ‘that I would give women equal rights with men, but go no further’, insisting that ‘we must keep our home life pure if our nation is to remain great’. He steadfastly supported the property qualification for the Legislative Council, and opposed industrial arbitration. His central concern, however, was for the welfare of farmers. In 1919 he told the House of Assembly: ‘The farmers of this State are . . . the backbone of the country. They want more roads and better roads; they want our water schemes extended; they want at least reasonable educational facilities; more help for their country institutes; and more assistance in building local hospitals’. A member of the Joint Standing Committee on Public Works from 1927, he resigned from the South Australian Parliament on 31 January 1930, following his appointment as one of three members of the Pastoral Board of South Australia, and for the next four years travelled throughout the state valuing pastoral leases.[2]

At the federal election of 15 September 1934 (the year in which his wife died) McLachlan was elected to the Senate as a member of the United Australia Party. He came to the Senate a seasoned performer. Unlike his father, who ‘had no sympathy with much talking’, McLachlan believed profoundly in the civilising value of debate. His speeches—methodical, logical and thoughtful—were salted occasionally with anecdote and pawky humour, but delivered in the patriarchal tone of a man used to being listened to. He was stalwart in defence of the significance, position, and mechanisms of the Senate as a result of his conviction that senators were there ‘to legislate, not for any particular section of the community, but for the people of Australia as a whole’. A temporary chairman of committees from December 1937 to June 1938, and Chairman of Committees from 1 July 1938 to 30 June 1941, McLachlan promised strict adherence to standing orders. He was concerned to maintain the dignity and decorum of the chamber and to preserve an atmosphere ‘conducive to thoughtful discussion’. His careful impartiality was guided by innate courtesy and the recognition of the value of the personal contacts that he cultivated—and recommended—with political rivals.

As foreign affairs increasingly intruded into debate he offered an informed opinion, as he did equally over the issues of defence and war policy that emerged, accepting easily the imperial connection without doing violence to patriotic sentiment: ‘I have already said that I am an Australian; I am also a Britisher’. The significance of war in Abyssinia, the League of Nations, Munich and imperial conferences, all were expounded—often pointedly for the benefit of members of the Labor Party. Following the ascendancy of Labor into Government in 1941, he kept up his party’s running crusade for the formation of a national war government, but was rarely partisan in his assessment of war requirements (railways, shipping, the air force, munitions, women in industry and the development of the Northern Territory).[3]

McLachlan, while determined to get the best he could for the wheat farmers of Australia, was a persistent advocate of rural industries. He gradually extended this support to manufacturing, especially automobile industries, and, during World War II, to the containment of industrial unrest. Genuinely proud that in social and industrial legislation Australia led the world, he proposed: ‘Improvement of the quality as well as the number of its people should be the aim of every country’. In South Australia’s House of Assembly in 1923, when debating immigration, he had declared a family tradition of dogged independence: ‘My father and mother came out, and walked from Port Adelaide [to their rural destination], with half a crown between them’; but nevertheless, social legislation, especially that affecting unemployment, pensions, child endowment, and returned soldiers’ benefits, attracted his generous support. On the ubiquitous question of immigration, he believed that for a migration policy to be successful, migrants must be guaranteed the ‘freedom to work’. In 1943 he supported a Labor Party conference proposal to overhaul the White Australia policy as not only timely, but ‘sensible’.

Fiscal and financial measures always brought a gleam to his eye—and it was a sharp eye—because, as he reminded the Senate, ‘people have the right to see that their money is judiciously expended’. McLachlan’s mastery and enjoyment of figures invaded most issues he debated, not merely those concerning states grants, supply bills, loans and taxation: nor could parliamentary colleagues expect any immunity from his scrutiny of their expenses. He kept a benign watching brief on the development and amenities of Canberra, a national capital he was pleased to promote, finding it ‘scandalous’ that its citizens, however few, were deprived of parliamentary representation. Adroit, when necessary, at appealing to the principle of ‘unripe time’, he invoked its application in 1946 in the debate on a proposed national research university at Canberra. The necessary funds, he argued, would better be used to ameliorate substandard conditions at the lower levels of education, rather than in providing for what he feared could turn out to be ‘a monumental white elephant’.[4]

On 7 November 1946 McLachlan was appointed to the Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings. He had not contested the election in the previous September, leaving the Senate when his term expired on 30 June 1947. In Adelaide he pursued his previous profession as a valuer. The same year, a family political dynasty embracing nearly half a century in parliamentary representation was created when his son, Roy McLachlan, the Mayor of Naracoorte, was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly, holding the seat of Victoria until 1953. James McLachlan died at his home at 7 Bridge Street, Kensington, on 1 December 1956, and was buried privately, according to the usages of the Church of Christ. He was survived by two sons, ‘J. G.’ and Roy, and two daughters, Catherine and Jean.[5]

Margaret Steven 


[1] H. T. Burgess (ed.), The Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol. 2, Cyclopedia Company, Adelaide, 1909, p. 407; Jean V. Wood, People of the Plains, Owen District Community Development Board, Owen, SA, 1986, pp. 41, 66-7, 160-4; Advertiser (Adel.), 4 Dec. 1956, p. 3; Alma-Dalkey 1875-1975: The District Council of Owen, Centenary of Local Government, Junction Printery, Hamley Bridge, SA, [1975], p. 11.

[2] SAPD, 15 Oct. 1918, p. 881, 13 Aug. 1918, pp. 182-3, 13 Aug. 1924, p. 241, 10 Aug. 1920, p. 150, 17 Aug. 1922, p. 326, 15 July 1919, p. 40, 24 Oct. 1922, pp. 1090-3, 13 Aug. 1918, p. 184; Advertiser (Adel.), 31 Jan. 1930, p. 27.

[3] Advertiser (Adel.), 27 July 1934, p. 23; CPD, 29 Nov. 1935, pp. 2207-9, 29 Apr. 1936, p. 931, 1 July 1938, p. 3018, 6 Oct. 1938, p. 443, 6 Sept. 1939, p. 17, 21 June 1940, p. 109, 13 Nov. 1941, p. 349, 13 Nov. 1941, p. 972, 17 Sept. 1942, pp. 409, 416, 14 Oct. 1943, pp. 545–7, 2 Oct. 1942, pp. 1367–8, 21 June 1938, pp. 2346–7.

[4] CPD, 6 Oct. 1938, p. 447, 1 Dec. 1938, p. 2495, 31 May 1940, pp. 1751–3, 3 Apr. 1941, p. 618; SAPD, 30 Nov. 1923, p. 1880; CPD, 23 June 1938, pp. 2576–9, 22 May 1947, pp. 2736–9, 18 July 1944, p. 75, 27 Sept. 1944, pp. 1472–4, 29 Sept. 1943, pp. 140–4, 10 Dec. 1940, p. 644, 7 June 1939, p. 1349, 17 May 1940, p. 972, 3 June 1942, pp. 1919–23, 19 Sept. 1944, pp. 931–41, 25 July 1946, pp. 3052-4.

[5] CPD, 4 June 1947, p. 3296; Advertiser (Adel.), 4 Dec. 1956, p. 3.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 278-281.

McLACHLAN, James (1870–1956)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1935–47

Chairman of Committees, 1938–41

South Australian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Wooroora, 1918–30

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1935–41

Standing Orders Committee, 1938–41, 1944–47

House Committee, 1944–47

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1946–47

Joint Committee on the Broadcasting of Parliamentary Proceedings, 1946–47