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McNeill, John James (1868–1943)

by J. R. Robertson

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John James McNeill (1868-1943), union official and politician, was born in 1868 at Tantanoola, South Australia, son of John McNeill, farmer, and his wife Jane, née McBride. Educated to primary level, McNeill worked on the family farm and as a shearer before becoming a selector at Woosang, Victoria, in the 1890s. He sold out to join the gold rush to Coolgardie, Western Australia, and on his return settled at Macarthur. On 9 February 1896, at the Roman Catholic Church, Hamilton, he married Mary Ann Mills (d.1905). An active member of the Shearers' Union (later the Australian Workers' Union) in its campaigns to improve conditions, he was an organizer for the Victoria-Riverina branch of the A.W.U. for six years, and contested the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Glenelg for Labor in 1906.

In 1908 McNeill went to Roma, Queensland, as a settler and when defeated by conditions organized the Charleville branch of the A.W.U., and became its secretary. In 1913 he succeeded John Barnes as secretary of the Victoria-Riverina branch of the A.W.U., holding the post until 1922, when he narrowly won the Federal seat of Wannon. President of the Ballarat Trades and Labor Council, he was a director of the Ballarat Evening Echo, a Labor daily. On 11 January 1915 at St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat, he married Catherine, sister of J. H. Scullin. In 1923-24 he was president of the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party. He was defeated for Wannon in 1925, but held it again in 1929-31.

McNeill spoke infrequently in parliament. He was a staunch proponent of White Australia, advocating the development of the north and a self-reliant defence policy. A supporter of closer settlement and a critic of large-scale commercial enterprise, he was concerned for the poverty-stricken wheat-farmers. On 3 March 1931 he was appointed minister for health and minister for repatriation. Previously an occasional opponent of Scullin in caucus, in cabinet McNeill supported his Depression financial policies.

From 1933 until his death, McNeill was general secretary of the New South Wales branch of the A.W.U. and from 1938 federal general president, having been vice-president since 1930. During World War II he was a member of the Commonwealth Wool Board and A.W.U. representative on the Trades Union Defence Advisory Panel. He died on 14 June 1943, at Coogee, Sydney, of coronary occlusion and, after a state funeral and service in St Patrick's Cathedral, was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His wife and their two sons, and his two sons and a daughter of his first marriage, survived him.

His cheerful and kindly nature belied by his dour appearance, McNeill was widely respected for his experience and integrity. He opposed conscription in 1916-17 and admired Australian servicemen, praising in March 1943 the soldiers opposing the Japanese in New Guinea as 'men of pure British race'. He was a staunch nationalist who enjoyed bush literature and kept his pact with Barnes and Andrew McKissock to plant Cootamundra wattles on their graves.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1923, 102, p 118, 1924, 105, p 25, 108, p 2799, 1929-31, 131, p 4008, 4251, 1940-43, 175, p 3
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Oct 1929, 12, 14 Dec 1931, 16 June 1943
  • Australian Worker, 1 Jan 1930, 4 Mar 1931, 10 Mar, 16 June 1943
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 June 1943
  • Labor Call, 17 June 1943.

Citation details

J. R. Robertson, 'McNeill, John James (1868–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcneill-john-james-7434/text12941, accessed 23 November 2017.

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