CAMERON, Donald Newton (1914–1998)
Senator for South Australia, 1969–78 (Australian Labor Party)

One of seven members of the Commonwealth Parliament named ‘Donald Cameron’, including another Labor senator of that name, Donald Newton Cameron was distinguished superficially by his middle name (the first name of his maternal grandmother, said in family legend to have been descended from the English scientist, Sir Isaac Newton) but much more importantly by his industrial and life experience.

Donald Newton Cameron was a brother of the more widely known Clyde Robert Cameron (MHR 1949–80) and similar to him in many ways—in ideology, outlook, occupation and trade union activity—but markedly dissimilar in a sweetness of temperament that was much remarked upon during his lifetime and after. His term in Parliament was relatively brief, and many thought that he left somewhat before his time. He did not much like Canberra, or to travel to it. Although he is best remembered for the achievements of his earlier years within the Labor Party and his union (the Australian Workers’ Union), he was a very capable senator, remaining active and influential in labour politics after his sojourn in the Senate.

Donald was born on 13 January 1914 in Murray Bridge, South Australia, the second of four sons of Robert Cameron, once a shearer but by then a dairyman, and Adelaide, née Hilder, a squatter’s daughter. Robert claimed to have been involved in the formation of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia, the precursor of the AWU, but Adelaide, a Quaker, seems to have been the radical of the family, and taught her sons the doctrines of socialism and especially of Henry George.

The family’s modest house at Loos, near Gawler, to which they moved from McLaren Vale soon after the first sons were born, had a ‘profusion of books … scattered or heaped in all four corners, some on a small table but most on the floor’. The childhood of the Cameron boys was thus intellectually stimulating, if hard in other ways. They went barefoot to school, worked early and late in the dairy in support of their idle father, slept under blankets made from superphosphate and fertiliser bags and as young men suffered the contempt of many for their receipt of ‘rations’. In 1919 Don went to the McLaren Flat Primary School for one year, then to Loos Primary School and completed about 1927, after one year at Gawler High School.

All four sons were to become active in politics. They followed very similar paths: leaving school early, working as shearers, and becoming active in the AWU—Clyde and Don sheared together in New Zealand from 1938 to 1939, when they became officials within the union—although only Clyde and Don, less than a year apart in age, were successful in entering Parliament. Although it may seem an invidious comparison, it is difficult to tell Don’s story without reference to Clyde’s rapid ascent to state secretary of the AWU in 1941 when he was only twenty-eight, to the federal Parliament eight years later and then to a long career before his retirement from Parliament in 1980. This may be to see things too much as Clyde’s prolific writings and polemics portrayed them. Senator Quirke may have been right to emphasise that ‘much of what [Clyde] did was possible only because [Don] played a significant and key role in the trade union movement in South Australia’.[1]

Don Cameron was elected to the Senate at the House of Representatives election of 25 October 1969, filling an existing casual vacancy created by the death of K. A. Laught on 13 May, which had been filled temporarily by Martin Bruce Cameron, Martin being defeated by Don at the next election. Standing again, at the half-Senate election of 21 November 1970, Cameron was returned in third place, again defeating Martin. Later, with all other senators, Don had to survive the double dissolutions of 1974 and 1975. At the time of his retirement in 1978, he had never lost an election.

Cameron entered the Senate relatively late, at the age of fifty-five. He came with a considerable reputation, especially within the close-knit group of Labor senators from South Australia, all of similar age. Cameron’s entry brought their total number to six. They ‘did stick together quite a bit’, Cameron later remembered. Although their number declined to five and then to four across Cameron’s term, the strength of the group in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a sign that Labor’s political tide was running positively in South Australia.

Cameron’s political activities in the 1950s and 1960s had contributed significantly to this outcome. He remained a shearer well into his thirties and though active locally in the AWU did not enter the union in a paid capacity until he was elected to the post of organiser in 1951, succeeding one brother, Larry, and defeating another, Archie. Apart from home war service in the 2/10th Battalion between 1941 and 1942, he was a shearer continuously from 1934 until 1951, and he later recalled that he was not especially interested in politics until he took the organiser’s position. Thereafter he rose through elected positions in the state branch (vice-president from 1955 to 1959 and president from 1959 to 1964) and in the national organisation (delegate to the AWU convention from 1956 to 1969, executive councillor and federal vice-president from 1966 to 1969). He became state secretary in 1964, a position he held until he entered the Senate. His growing activity in the Labor Party paralleled his union activity: he was a regular delegate to state conferences from the mid-1950s, rising to state president of the party from 1967 to 1968 and delegate to the Federal Conference in 1969.

Don was famously involved in the long fight that the Cameron brothers waged against the dominance of Tom Dougherty over the AWU until Dougherty’s death in 1972. In 1959 Cameron was notable for incurring Dougherty’s wrath in moving a resolution favouring affiliation with the ACTU. His election as state secretary in 1964 precipitated one of Dougherty’s most notorious acts, his attempted sacking of Cameron and nine other officials elected with him, an act that was overturned after legal action led by Roma Mitchell QC in the Commonwealth Industrial Court. A number of those involved on Cameron’s side in the dispute went on to play large roles in the South Australian Government of Don Dunstan a decade later. At the time the experience was not comfortable. As a colleague later put it, Cameron had to ‘go out and get whatever work he could get. He was out on a broom for … nine months to feed his wife and kids while the court case was going on—and Don never wavered’.[2]

Cameron was a ‘very quiet senator but a very ardent worker in this place’, as a political opponent said on the occasion of his retirement. He was, to be sure, anything but loquacious. He chose his interventions in debate with care, speaking usually only once or twice a session and invariably on subjects about which he felt deeply and had considerable knowledge. Conciliation and arbitration was his favourite topic and the subject of his longest speech, in May 1972, opposing the second reading of the McMahon Government’s Conciliation and Arbitration Bill. He attacked increased penalties for workers breaching the legislation, and the imposition of barriers to union amalgamation, claiming that the Government had ‘usurped the functions’ of the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission by seeking to dictate the basis on which its judgments were given. His address was still less than an hour in length, and overall his speeches in his nearly nine years in the Senate averaged less than twenty minutes. He thought it would be ‘wasted time’ if it were not possible to say what one had to say in thirty minutes. He was much more active as a questioner, asking Questions without Notice relatively frequently (a dozen or so in an average session) and on a broader range of topics.[3]

Cameron’s first speech, on the Address-in-Reply in March 1970, foreshadowed the nationalism that pervaded many of his later interventions. He regarded foreign investment in Australia as excessive and dangerously uncontrolled, and condemned the Government for its support of the United States in the ‘iniquitous war in Vietnam’. He attributed his opposition to the war in part to his mother’s pacifism, as well as to his own belief that it was a ‘civil war’ and ‘nothing to do with Australia’. He emphasised the need to educate and reskill the labour force, and in later years was a persistent questioner about unemployment, and social welfare benefits, especially cases of injustice involving pensioners. He advocated a supporting father’s benefit. He was well-informed on health issues and an advertisement, placed by the South Australian branch of the ALP before the 1974 election, gave Cameron’s office phone number as a source of information about Medibank. Cameron was not aware of this until ‘the phone calls started coming in, and for two days non-stop’. His questions were usually well researched and factually based and almost always drew a reasoned response from the minister involved. On state matters, he was concerned that effective TV coverage should reach those in the bush, and that local content in radio broadcasting should be maintained, and he followed closely the fortunes of the state’s primary producers, especially the wine industry. His interest in international affairs was well developed and he was a frequent questioner on trade relations with China, relations he believed should be developed rapidly. Cameron visited China in 1975, had contacts with Chinese diplomats, and enjoyed close relations with the Chinese community in Adelaide, offering help and advice on immigration matters. He continued to provide assistance after his retirement.[4]

If he was not a frequent or lengthy speaker, Cameron was in other ways a hardworking member. He took his full share of committee work, and in his relatively short tenure was twice a delegate to conferences of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. He made a notable speech at the IPU Conference in Sofia in 1977 on the racial situation in South Africa, arguing from the case of Papua New Guinea that a violent outcome was not inevitable. It was the pattern of his attendance in the chamber and in divisions that marked him out. His absences without leave were rare (a total of six days across his total tenure of 618 sitting days), and Cameron was much more regular in voting in divisions than were his South Australian colleagues, at least until G. T. McLaren entered the Senate in 1971.

Assiduity in attendance is not necessarily an indicator of influence, and Cameron was modest about his contributions as a senator. He downplayed his part on the Publications Committee, remarking that it was not ‘a very responsible Committee’, and on the Library Committee, where the duties were ‘very light’, with ‘very little responsibility’. He found the work of the estimates committees relatively arduous, but felt that it was often a waste of time as their recommendations were frequently ignored by Treasury. His major contribution, he thought in retrospect, was probably his work as chair of the Manpower and Government Enterprises Committee of the Labor Caucus from 1974 to 1978, where, especially between 1974 and 1975, his activities meshed closely with those of his brother Clyde, who held the labour and immigration portfolios during that time.[5]

In the double dissolution of 1974, Cameron was elected to the sixth position as the third Labor senator and thus to a ‘short term’, with this term due to expire on 30 June 1976. By the time of the further double dissolution of 1975, he had already been selected for the first position on the Labor ticket. According to his own account, he settled for the third position and the likelihood (and as it turned out the actuality) of another short term of three years. This was his preference; he ‘didn’t want’, he said, a six-year term. If he had his time over again, he later reminisced, he ‘wouldn’t have gone into Parliament, not in the Senate anyhow’. He would, he declared, ‘have preferred a State seat in the House of Assembly’, where he would have had an electorate to serve.

In retirement, Don maintained regular involvement with the AWU and the Labor Party. His brother Clyde recorded that in the week before his death Don and a friend ‘called at my home and we spent the morning discussing economic rationalism and the privatisation of public assets’. Don Cameron died at his Adelaide home on 5 June 1998, and was cremated at Enfield Memorial Park. On 29 November 1945 he had married Colleen, née Venables, at St John’s Church of England, Darlinghurst, Sydney. Colleen survived him, as did their two sons. His son Terry, elected as a Labor member of the South Australian Legislative Council in 1994, left the party two months after his father’s death. Becoming an independent, he went on to lead the South Australia First party from 1999 until its disbandment in 2002, when he continued as an independent. He was defeated in 2006.

After his death, Don Cameron was described as ‘an intensely private man’, with a capacity for friendship and the provision of ‘quiet advice’ about ‘the morality, the ethics and the consistency of what one should believe in’. In that way, it was said that ‘he had an influence much greater than most would believe’. His friendships were not confined to one side of the chamber. Liberal senator Neville Bonner noted that Cameron had helped him in many ways during his first years in the Parliament. ‘We had’, Bonner said, ‘many good games of pool down in the corner when things were not very busy’. Clyde described Don as the ‘favourite brother of all his brothers’.[6]

Geoffrey Hawker

[1] Bill Guy, A Life on the Left: A Biography of Clyde Cameron, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 1999, pp. 14, 18–19, 25, 30, 52, 348–52; Clyde R. Cameron, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 19131990, as told to Daniel Connell, ABC Enterprises, Crows Nest, NSW, 1990, pp. 1–7, 20–1; Robert S. Cameron (comp.), Cameron Genealogies, 3rd edn, Robert S. Cameron, Leura, NSW, 2000, p. 876; CPD, 22 June 1998, pp. 3593–8; Donald Newton Cameron, Transcript of oral history interview with Bruce Edwards, 1988, POHP, TRC 4900/81, NLA, pp. 1:2–3, 2:4–5, 4:7, 4:13–14; CPD, 10 June 1978, pp. 2784–5; Michael Cannon, The Human Face of the Great Depression, Michael Cannon, Mornington, Vic., 1996, pp. 246–7; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Jenny Woodley, Principal, McLaren Flat Primary School, SA; Clyde Robert Cameron, Transcript of oral history interview with Mel Pratt, 1971–72, TRC 121/24, NLA, vol. 1, pp. 153, 160.

[2] Donald Cameron, Transcript, pp. 1:3–4, 1:11–17, 3:4; CPD, 22 June 1998, pp. 3594, 3596–8; Clyde Robert Cameron, Transcript, vol. 2, pp. 148–9; Cameron, Donald Newton—Defence Service Record, B884, S53399, NAA; Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), SA branch, Annual reports, 1956–64, 1966–69; AWU, SA branch, Official reports of annual conventions, 1956, 1959, 1966–70; ALP, SA branch, Official reports of the 64th and 65th annual state conventions, 1967–68; ALP, Official report of the 28th Commonwealth Conference, 1969; Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles, One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers Union 18861994, CUP, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 259–68; Greg Patmore, ‘Dougherty, Tom Nicholson Pearce’, ABD, vol. 14; Cameron v. Duncan (1965) 8 FLR 148.

[3] CPD, 10 June 1978, p. 2784; Donald Cameron, Transcript, pp. 2:5, 2:8; CPD, 25 May 1972, pp. 2113–21.

[4] CPD, 4 Mar. 1970, pp. 87–90, 23 Feb. 1972, p. 94; Donald Cameron, Transcript, pp. 2:9, 3:11–13, 3:19, 4:11, 4:13; CPD, 11 Feb. 1975, p. 11, 27 May 1975, p. 1831, 31 May 1978, p. 2119, 31 May 1977, p. 1730, 18 July 1974, p. 260, 17 Mar. 1977, pp. 301–2, 26 Feb. 1976, p. 263, 24 Aug. 1976, p. 213, 30 Sept. 1970, p. 979, 8 Apr. 1974, p. 709, 2 Dec. 1971, pp. 2291, 2294, 10 Dec. 1971, pp. 2696–9, 26 Oct. 1970, pp. 1442–3, 2 Mar. 1972, p. 368; Clyde Cameron, The Cameron Diaries, Allen & Unwin, North Sydney, 1990, p. 596.

[5] CPP, 11/1978; Donald Cameron, Transcript, pp. 2:6, 3:6–7, 3:10, 3:23.

[6] Donald Cameron, Transcript, 4:3–4, 4:7, 4:13–14; Labor Herald (Adel.), Aug. 1998, p. 44; Advertiser (Adel.), 11 June 1998, p. 83; CPD, 22 June 1998, pp. 3596–8, 10 June 1978, p. 2786.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 250-254.

CAMERON, Donald Newton (1914–1998)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for South Australia, 1969–78

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee E, 1970–73, 1975

Publications Committee, 1971–78

Standing Committee on Health and Welfare, 1972–75

Estimates Committee D, 1973–74

Estimates Committee F, 1974–75

Library Committee, 1975–78

Standing Committee on Trade and Commerce, 1976–78