DUNN, James Patrick Digger (1887–1945)
Senator for New South Wales, 1929–35 (Australian Labor Party; Lang Labor)

James Patrick Digger Dunn, unionist and soldier, was born on 20 August 1887, probably in Kirkdale, Liverpool, England, son of Thomas, a marine officer and Margaret, née Kavanagh. All his life Dunn proudly proclaimed his Irish ancestry. His parents arranged for him to go to sea as a young man, but Dunn deserted in South Africa, later going on to Sydney and subsequently to New Zealand where he worked as a miner, timber trucker and wharf labourer. He became active in union affairs and was elected vice-president of the Westland Trades and Labor Council, and formed the Greymouth Carters’ and Drivers’ Union. In 1909 he ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Greymouth Borough Council elections. He was involved in the Blackball coalminers’ strike and around 1910 left New Zealand for Queensland. As a member of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) he participated in the 1911 Queensland sugar strike. Dunn later obtained a job as an engine-driver at Cockatoo Island dockyards in Sydney. In 1913, as a member of the Federated Iron Workers’ Association, he was a delegate to the New South Wales Trades and Labour Council and vice-president of the Combined Iron Trades Federation.[1]

At the outbreak of World War I Dunn joined the Royal Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force in New Guinea. He returned to Australia suffering from malaria in 1915, and in November enlisted in the AIF. In March 1916 he embarked for overseas, served in the Middle East and was gassed in France in 1918. He was discharged in November 1919, returned to his old occupation at Cockatoo Island, and became patron of the New South Wales Returned Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Labor Club. Dunn was also for some time a publican at Kempsey on the New South Wales north coast, but his real interest was in Labor politics, in which he became increasingly prominent. In 1919 he stood for the federal seat of Wentworth, but was defeated. In 1921 he became a member of the central executive of the New South Wales branch of the ALP. After unsuccessful attempts to enter the Senate in 1922 and again in 1925, he won second place as a senator for New South Wales at the 1928 election.[2]

Three months prior to the election he had made the politically strategic decision to add his sobriquet, ‘Digger’, to his Christian names by deed poll. In the Senate, the famous military leader, Senator ‘Pompey’ Elliott poured scorn on this, causing Dunn, who pointed out that he had served under Elliott in the 59th Battalion, to recite his own war record and that of family members:

As a member of the Australian Navy I was one of the landing force which left Australia on the 16th August, 1914, for German New Guinea . . . Mr Ridley, one of the Senate messengers, was one of my non-commissioned officers. At that particular time Sir Neville Howse [MHR] was in charge of the hospital arrangements . . . When I was certified O.K. again I joined up with the naval bridging train, still serving under Non-Commissioned Officer Ridley, and also under Non-Commissioned Officer George Maunder, one of the senior permanent waiters in the refreshment room of this building . . . I soldiered on in Egypt and elsewhere for five years and one month . . . and took my share of the heat and the burden of the day . . . My eldest brother, Thomas, was killed at the war. My brother, Joseph, served for five years, and was personally decorated by the King of Belgium. My brother, William, served for five years, while my brother, John Edward, served for three and a half years, enlisting when only 17. He was shot through the right eye, and may be totally blind in four or five years’ time. My sister, Katherine, also played her part in the war. Yet, in this National Senate, I was insulted by a man under whom I served abroad.

During debate in the Senate Dunn spoke on issues ranging from the Cockatoo Island dockyard to the seventieth birthday of Senator Rae. He made fiery and passionate attacks, not only on individuals, but on the social, industrial and economic systems that Labor felt powerless to control as the Depression deepened. He singled out the ‘international money power, which controls the very existence of every man and woman in the capitalist-controlled countries on this earth’, and accused the British Labour Government of being ‘political labour piebalds’.

An aggressive, abrasive debater, frequently called to order, his hard-hitting style provoked heated interjection. As he said not long after his election: ‘I am not thin-skinned; nor am I a squealer or a quitter: I will take all that is coming to me; but, when I retaliate, honourable senators also should take what is coming to them’. On many occasions the President of the Senate was forced to intervene and on one occasion Dunn was suspended. During one of Elliott’s panegyrics explaining why he had refused as a military commander to give an order to attack during World War I, Dunn responded as a private: ‘I had to go where they sent me. If I had not obeyed the orders that I received on active service from such gentlemen as Senator Elliott, Senator Glasgow and Senator Sampson, I might have left my carcase in France’.[3]

Dunn was one of seven Labor MHRs and senators, all supporters of New South Wales Premier, J. T. Lang, who walked out of the federal Caucus on 12 March 1931. This followed Scullin’s successful motion that members elected on policies other than those of the federal ALP were not eligible for Caucus membership. The issue referred to the Member for East Sydney, E. J. Ward, who had been elected the week previously on a New South Wales, not a federal platform. As a result the federal Lang group formalised to become Lang Labor and Scullin lost his majority in the House of Representatives. By 19 March Dunn was removed from the position of Labor Whip in the Senate, which he had held since 1929. Instead he was now ‘leader’ of the two-member Lang group in the Senate, trenchantly described by the Telegraph as consisting of Dunn himself and ‘his deputy leader, whip, assistant whip, and rank and file, Senator Rae’. On one occasion, perhaps to swell the numbers, Dunn brought into the Senate a bust of J. T. Lang, causing the Nationalist’s Senator Thompson to inquire of the President: ‘I desire to ask you, sir, if it is permissible for my aesthetic susceptibilities to be offended by the introduction into the Senate of a very questionable bust such as that now facing me on the desk of Senator Dunn?’ The President ruled that it was not in order for senators to have such objects on their desks.

Lang continued to use Dunn for his own political purposes. In March 1931, Dunn was among the group who lobbied for the Lang cause in South Australia. On 12 November he alleged that E. G. Theodore had used the distribution of relief funds at Cockatoo Island for the purpose of future electoral advantage, despite the fact that Dunn had supported the reappointment of Theodore as Treasurer in January. Ominously for the Scullin Government, which now depended on the support of the Lang group to stay in office, Dunn, on 19 November, warned that the allegations would be raised in the House of Representatives the following week. With all UAP Opposition members in the House for the debate on 25 November, members of the Opposition and Lang Labor combined to defeat the Scullin Government. It has been suggested (originally by the historian, B. K. de Garis) that Dunn had told his UAP friend, Senator Sir Hal Colebatch that some of the Lang group were considering ‘defecting’ back to the ALP, thereby ensuring a full Opposition attendance. At the subsequent election Labor was defeated and would not regain power at the federal level until 1941.[4]

This political turmoil was matched by a growing crisis in Dunn’s personal life. On 2 February 1924 he had married, according to the rites of the Roman Catholic Church, Alice Mary Hynes, of Woollahra. During 1931 and 1932 Mary was tried, and ultimately imprisoned for one month, on charges of obtaining money under false pretences. In October 1932 Dunn was granted a decree nisi dissolving the marriage.

Dunn’s term in the Senate was not due to end until 1935. At the 1934 Senate elections he ran as a Lang Labor candidate and was defeated. Nothing daunted, he established a ‘chemical manufacturing company’. His main product was a headache powder, ‘the Digger Dunn A. P. C.’. When Labor was returned to office federally in 1941, Ward, then Minister for Labour and National Service, gave Dunn a job in his department, though the position was terminated in November 1943 when Ward moved to another portfolio.[5]

In these years Dunn continued to seek political office. In the New South Wales election of 1938, he had unsuccessfully contested the seat of Leichhardt. By now, he had forsaken Lang for Industrial Labor (also known as the Heffron Party after its leader, R. J. Heffron). He was unsuccessful in 1941 and 1944 when he tried to win the New South Wales Legislative Assembly seat of Manly for Labor. In 1945 he contested Manly at a September by-election, this time without official Labor endorsement, as a Soldiers’ Party candidate. On 28 September he was expelled from the ALP. Earlier that year, Dunn had been an unsuccessful aspirant for an appointment to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He failed in an attempt to take out a High Court injunction against the Commonwealth on the grounds that the successful contender, J. S. Hanlon, unlike himself, was not a returned serviceman.

A Roman Catholic, a non-smoker and teetotaller, Dunn devoted much of his time to bringing up his three children, James, Rita and John. Two months after his final break with Labor, on 21 November 1945, he died suddenly at his home at Dee Why, survived by his children (James was then in the Royal Australian Air Force). He was buried in the cemetery at French’s Forest.[6]

David Clune 

[1] David Stephens, ‘Dunn, James Patrick Digger’, ADB, vol. 8; Australian Worker (Syd.), 20 Nov. 1919, p. 5; CPD, 27 Nov. 1929, p. 301; SMH, 1 Apr. 1925, p. 18; Australian Worker (Syd.), 27 Nov. 1929, p. 7.

[2] Dunn, J. P.—War Service Record, B2455, NAA; CPD, 27 Nov. 1929, p. 302; SMH, 7 Oct. 1932, p. 5; Australian Worker (Syd.), 27 Nov. 1929, p. 7.

[3] Ross McMullin, Pompey Elliott, Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Vic., 2002, pp. 642–3; CPD, 27 Nov. 1929, pp. 301–2, 3 Dec. 1930, p. 870; John Robertson, J. H. Scullin: A Political Biography, UWA Press, Nedlands, WA, 1974, p. 199; CPD, 4 Sept. 1929, p. 485, 5 Dec. 1929, p. 742, 13 Dec. 1929, p. 1270, 14 Mar. 1930, p. 165, 2 May 1930, pp. 1392–4, 28 Mar. 1935, pp. 397–9, 2 July 1930, pp. 3548–50.

[4] Patrick Weller (ed.), Caucus Minutes 1901–1949, vol. 2, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1975, pp. 421–2; Robertson, J. H. Scullin, pp. 317–18; Telegraph (Syd.), 10 Nov. 1933, p. 13; CPD, 24 May 1932, p. 1231; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, Vic., 1991, p. 179; Robertson, J. H. Scullin, p. 300; CPD, 12 Nov. 1931, pp. 1646–7, 19 Nov. 1931, pp. 1807–9, 25 Nov. 1931, pp. 1888–906; Robertson, J. H. Scullin, pp. 365–70.

[5] Sun (Syd.), 15 Feb. 1932, p. 7; SMH, 7 Sept. 1932, p. 10, 7 Oct. 1932, p. 5; Labor Daily (Syd.), 8 June 1935, p. 8; Smiths’ Weekly (Syd.), 2 Nov. 1935, p. 3; Century (Hurstville), 26 Nov. 1943, p. 3.

[6] SMH, 18 Sept. 1945, p. 4, 3 Oct. 1945, p. 5, 29 Sept. 1945, p. 4, 11 Apr. 1945, p. 11, 17 Apr. 1945, p. 4, 24 Apr. 1945, p. 5; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 15 Apr. 1945, p. 19; SMH, 22 Nov. 1945, pp. 5, 12; CPD, 13 Mar. 1946, p. 169.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 404-407.

DUNN, James Patrick Digger (1887–1945)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1929–35

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1929–31

House Committee, 1929–35

Select Committee on the Central Reserve Bank Bill, 1930