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Cameron, Donald James (Don) (1878–1962)

by Graham Dunkley

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Donald James Cameron (1878-1962), by Alice Mills, 1938

Donald James Cameron (1878-1962), by Alice Mills, 1938

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23566751

Donald James (Don) Cameron (1878-1962), trade unionist, labour journalist and politician, was born on 19 January 1878 at North Melbourne, son of Alexander Cameron, a Scottish slater, and his wife Mary Ann, née Nairn. He was educated at the City Road primary school, South Melbourne, and South Melbourne College. His earliest work was with various slaters and plumbers. He went to Western Australia about 1895 in search of gold but, apart from weekend fossicking, he worked mainly with the Coolgardie Miner as a junior machinist, later as a compositor, and experienced his first strike. He completed a printer's apprenticeship.

After a brief sojourn in Perth Cameron returned to Melbourne in 1899, and married Georgina Eliza Werrin according to Free Christian Church forms on 26 April. In 1901 he volunteered for the South African War, serving with the 5th (Victorian) Mounted Rifles, was wounded and carried a bullet in his leg for the rest of his life. More importantly, however, the war awakened his consciousness of social injustice. He was discharged in 1902, returned to Perth next year, and worked as a plumber, wharf labourer and miner. He was a member of the Fremantle Lumpers' Union in 1910-12 but was not active in its organization. After leaving the wharves he worked as a plumber with the railways, becoming secretary of the Plumbers' Union in 1912-19. At various times he was also part-time secretary of the Undertakers', Saddlers' and Musicians' unions.

His earliest active political involvement was with a small 'socialist propaganda group', though he did not believe in purely direct action. Cameron became an active member of the Australian Labor Federation (the Western Australian branch of the Labor Party), was a member of its metropolitan district council and was a delegate to the party's interstate conferences of 1915 and 1918. A leading figure in the anti-conscription movement, he was president of the Western Australian Anti-Conscription League during the split in the party. He was Labor candidate for the State seat of Canning in the 1917 elections, but in polling only 43 per cent failed to unseat Attorney-General R. T. Robinson, partly because he campaigned from Victoria where he was detained on union matters.

Cameron was also a member of the Western Australian Socialist Party, a small offshoot of the influential Victorian Socialist Party, regularly contributing a Western Australian column to the Socialist. Impressed with Cameron during his 1917 visit to Victoria, R. S. Ross and other V.S.P. leaders decided to offer him the job of party organizer. Cameron accepted, taking up the position in March 1919, later editing the Socialist (1920-23) and holding the V.S.P. secretaryship (1920-32). During this time, however, he retained his membership of the Australian Labor Party.

In the trade union movement Cameron was an active member of the Marine Stewards' Union; for many years he was its delegate to the Melbourne Trades Hall Council and to national trade union congresses. He also represented the Kalgoorlie branch of the Australian Tramway Employees' Association at its national conferences. He was president of the Melbourne T.H.C. in 1930-31 and was elected assistant secretary in August 1934. He was a foundation member of the interstate executive of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (from 1927) and was a regular member of its emergency committee between 1927 and 1937. As such he played a major part in the A.C.T.U.'s development. In the 1920s and 1930s he was a prolific contributor to labour journals including the Tramway Record and the Marine Stewards' Journal, both of which he at one time edited, and the Union Voice and Labor Call, his articles ranging from bread and butter issues to ideological polemics.

Within the A.L.P. Cameron was a regular member of the Victorian state executive in 1928-49, president of the Victorian branch in 1932 and a delegate to federal conference in 1934-48, attending fourteen conferences in all. He was also frequently a delegate to the federal executive. He was the unsuccessful Labor candidate for the Federal seats of Balaclava in 1929, and Fawkner in a 1935 by-election against a future prime minister, Harold Holt. Cameron headed the Victorian Labor Senate ticket for the 1931 elections, but no Labor candidates were elected. In 1937, placed only second on the ticket, he was elected to the Senate, taking his place on 1 July 1938; he was re-elected in 1943, 1949, 1951 and 1955.

Cameron was a member of the standing committee on regulations and ordinances (1938-41); minister for aircraft production from 7 October 1941 to 2 February 1945; minister assisting the minister for munitions from 7 October 1941 to 27 February 1942 and member of the production executive of Cabinet (1941-45). Throughout the war he maintained his opposition to conscription for overseas service. After a reshuffle in February 1945 Cameron became postmaster-general, holding the portfolio until 19 December 1949. From 18 June 1946 to 19 December 1949 he was deputy leader of the government in the Senate and he served on the select committee on the Commonwealth Bank bill (1950) in 1951. He was president of the Melbourne Technical College in 1934-38 and a member of the Melbourne University Extension Board. Having become very deaf, he retired from the Senate on 30 June 1962, at the end of his fifth term, aged 84.

Cameron, if not leaving a clear personal imprint on the labour movement, was one of its great activists this century. Although an avid reader of most works influencing the labour movement and a polemical writer, at times bordering on the iconoclastic, he never fully shared the scepticism about labour in politics which pervaded the V.S.P. ideology, or supported the direct actionist, anti-parliamentary stance of the industrial unionists at a time when these attitudes were dominant in the movement. He was diffident about the One Big Union concept which, around the early 1920s, had widely been seen as a panacea for the political and industrial weakness of the working class, suggesting that it could lead to a 'trades hall dictatorship'. Instead, he preferred a strong national superstructure for the trade union movement to be erected on the existing, though rationalized, base, and hence he threw his weight behind the formation of the A.C.T.U. which he saw as embodying this principle.

Cameron's opposition to the Soviet communist model, which he once described as 'ultra-capitalism', was firmly rooted in his belief in democracy and working-class struggle within the arena of parliament. The objective of socialization of industry was, he believed, consistent with this model of political action. Although he considered that revolution was possible, and during the Depression hailed its approach, he always insisted that capitalist rulers must not merely be replaced by socialist rulers as in the Soviet Union, but that the new order must be based on an educated and politically conscious public and an open system of government. His political career exemplified the development of these views, though he was often accused of opportunism by V.S.P. contemporaries during his early enunciation of them.

Square-jawed and bushy-browed, with a mop of silver-grey hair, Don Cameron was a quiet person, reticent about himself and his past, even to his immediate family, but was liked in parliament for his shrewd and pithy humour. He disclaimed any religion. Less than two months after retiring from parliament Cameron died at East Malvern on 20 August 1962 and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £23,174. He was survived by his wife and three sons; his third son Roy was active in Victorian Labor politics and the union movement from the 1930s and particularly from the 1950s.

Select Bibliography

  • Socialist (Melbourne), 17 Feb, 8 Nov, 1922
  • G. Dunkley, The ACTU 1927-1950: Politics, Organization and Economic Policy (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1974)
  • D. Cameron papers (National Library of Australia)
  • I. Turner, interview with Senator Don Cameron (1960, State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graham Dunkley, 'Cameron, Donald James (Don) (1878–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/cameron-donald-james-don-5474/text9303, accessed 23 November 2017.

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