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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McDonald, Sir William John (Black Jack) (1911–1995)

by James C. Murphy

This article was published online in 2019

Sir William John Farquhar ‘Black Jack’ McDonald (1911–1995), grazier and politician, was born on 3 October 1911 at Binnum, South Australia, only surviving child of John Nicholson McDonald, farmer, and his wife Sarah, née McInnes, both born in South Australia. Jack was educated at Binnum Public School, then as a boarder (1925–29) at Scotch College, Adelaide, before returning to the family farm. In 1931 he purchased Brippick station, near Neuarpurr, Victoria, where he raised merino sheep and shorthorn cattle. He married Evelyn Margaret Koch on 15 August 1935 at the Catholic Presbytery, Naracoorte, South Australia.

Following the outbreak of World War II in 1939, McDonald was called up for full–time duty in the 19th Machine Gun Regiment (later Battalion), Citizen Military Forces, on 7 November 1941. Commissioned as a lieutenant in April 1942, he was transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in June, and posted to the headquarters of the 23rd Brigade in December, and then to the headquarters of the 3rd Division twelve months later. As a temporary captain, he served in New Guinea (from July 1944) and on Bougainville (November 1944 to April 1945), before transferring to the Reserve of Officers in Australia on 29 June 1945.

After the war McDonald entered politics, serving as a councillor (1946–55) of Kowree Shire, including a term as shire president (1948–49). Representing the Liberal Party of Australia, he was elected to the Victorian Legislative Assembly division of Dundas in 1947. He lost the seat in 1952 but successfully recontested it in 1955, holding it for another fifteen years, including twelve as Speaker of the assembly (1955–67). Six feet (183 cm) tall, with jet-black hair and a stentorian voice, ‘Black Jack’ was an impressive figure in the Speaker’s chair, strict but dignified. For his services to the parliament he was knighted in 1958.

In 1967 Sir William joined the cabinet as minister of lands, soldier settlement, and conservation. Although he was commended for his innovative response to a drought in 1967, his plan to develop the Little Desert in Victoria’s north-west, along the lines of previous agricultural settlement schemes, proved controversial. It was hotly opposed by Victoria’s burgeoning environmental movement, by farmers sceptical of the project’s viability, and even by Liberal politicians, including a young Bill Borthwick, who later replaced McDonald as minister. The scheme became a major crisis for Sir Henry Bolte’s government. The Age, fiercely critical, ran months of reports and editorials opposing the plan. On 4 October 1969 a front-page story revealed a road to be built through the desert would end at the property of McDonald’s brother-in-law, Charles Koch. McDonald denied any collusion and demanded an apology from the Age for what he deemed ‘the tactics of low-class spectacular journalism’ (Age 1969, 1). Three days later, after hours of stormy debate in the assembly, the Labor and Country parties put a no-confidence motion against the minister. It failed to pass.

McDonald remained defiant and indignant. When an apology from the Age was not forthcoming, he sued for libel, eventually settling out of court. But this was not before the defeat of the Little Desert scheme. On 4 December 1969 the Labor and Country parties combined in the Legislative Council to block a bill that included funding for roads through the desert. Two days later the Liberals lost the Dandenong by-election to Labor in a landslide. On 8 December the cabinet decided to rethink its plans, ultimately shelving the scheme. The crisis resulted in a significant change in the government’s direction, including new conservation and environmental protection bodies, expansion of the State’s national parks, and the dumping of other controversial development plans.

Out with the government’s aggressive developmentalist approach went ‘Black Jack’: he would lose his seat to Labor at the election in May 1970, when the Country Party directed preferences against the Liberal Party across the State. Planning to recontest Dundas in 1973, he won preselection but withdrew to once again defend his honour, suing the journalist Peter Blazey for repeating the claims of the Age in his biography of Bolte. Blazey later observed that the legal proceedings ‘died for lack of interest’ (Blazey 1990, xiii). Sir William did not return to politics. He was a trustee (1967–93) of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and a council member of the Victorian Amateur Turf Club. The McDonalds sold Brippick station in 1980, retiring to Toorak, Melbourne. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1987) and survived by his two daughters, he died on 13 September 1995 at Malvern and was buried in Naracoorte cemetery, South Australia.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne). ‘Stormy Debate on Little Desert: Sir William Calls for an Apology.’ 8 October 1969, 1
  • Blazey, Peter. Bolte: A Political Biography. 2nd ed. Port Melbourne: Mandarin Australia, 1990
  • Clode, Danielle. As If For a Thousand Years: A History of Victoria’s Land Conservation and Environment Conservation Councils. Melbourne: Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, 2006
  • Colebatch, Tim. Dick Hamer: The liberal Liberal. Melbourne: Scribe, 2014
  • Dunk, Lionel. ‘Bolte May End Little Desert Plan.’ Age (Melbourne), 9 December 1969, 1
  • Dunk, Lionel. ‘Little Desert May Force Snap Poll.’ Age (Melbourne), 5 December 1969, 1
  • Messer, John. ‘New Facts on the Little Desert: Minister’s Relatives Live at Road’s End.’ Age (Melbourne), 4 October 1969, 1
  • Morton, Ian. ‘Rural Visionary Gave All for Family and Electorate.’ Age (Melbourne), 12 October 1995, 18
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX134691
  • Thompson, Lindsay. ‘Strict, Yet a Generous Speaker.’ Australian, 3 October 1995, 15
  • Victoria. Legislative Assembly. Parliamentary Debates, 3 October 1995, 233–34

Additional Resources

Citation details

James C. Murphy, 'McDonald, Sir William John (Black Jack) (1911–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-sir-william-john-black-jack-27610/text35011, published online 2019, accessed online 24 September 2020.

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