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James Patrick Digger Dunn (1887–1945)

by David Stephens

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Patrick Digger Dunn (1887-1945), by unknown photographer, 1920s

James Patrick Digger Dunn (1887-1945), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23596849

James Patrick Digger Dunn (1887-1945), politician, was born on 20 August 1887 at Kirkdale, Liverpool, Lancashire, England, son of Thomas Dunn, marine officer, and his wife Margaret, née Kavanagh. He went to sea aged 16 but jumped ship in South Africa, where he became an apprentice engineer at Simonstown. After the South African War he worked in Sydney for the Glencairn Glass Co. and then in New Zealand as miner, timber-trucker and wharflabourer. He became vice-president of the Westland Trades and Labour Council, founding president of the Greymouth Drivers' Union and was defeated as the Waterside Workers' Union candidate for the Greymouth Borough Council elections in April 1909. After his involvement in the Blackball miners' coal strike he moved to Queensland.

A member of the Australian Workers' Union Dunn was active in the 1911 sugar strike. In 1912 he worked as an engine driver at the Cockatoo Island dockyard, Sydney; he joined the Federated Ironworkers of Australia in September 1913, and in January-June 1914 was delegate to the Trades and Labor Council and the Iron Trades Federation, although he attended meetings infrequently. He then served with the Australian Naval and Military Force in New Guinea and in November 1915 enlisted with the Australian Imperial Force. He was gassed in France in 1918.

On his return to Australia in 1919, Dunn ran unsuccessfully as a Labor candidate for Wentworth in the Federal elections. A member of the central executive of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1921, he was defeated as Senate candidate several times before his election in 1928; in the Senate he joined the Jack Beasley group of John Thomas Lang supporters. He was party, then government whip until March 1931 when he formally defected with Beasley. Dunn remained leader of the Lang Senate group of two until his defeat in 1934. From June 1935 he worked as tariff consultant, manufacturer and advertising agent.

Dunn's limited importance derived from Lang's need for Federal contacts. In 1931 he had helped to defeat Scullin's Federal Labor government in a way typical of his role as go-between. Information given to Dunn that Edward Theodore had corruptly distributed unemployment relief work was used by Beasley in November for a censure in the Lower House; the timing stemmed from Sir Hal Colebatch's advice to Dunn that some of the Beasley group might soon return to Federal Labor. Dunn, through Colebatch, ensured that all Opposition Nationalists were present for the crucial vote. Generally Dunn's flamboyance helped compensate for the lack of numbers of the Lang group. He described Theodore as a 'political turkeycock'; Sir George Pearce, he said, possessed 'a mind as dirty and filthy as a sewer'; he raged against 'the rich man's gold'.

Adopting the name 'Digger', Dunn showed concern for ex-servicemen in his parliamentary speeches and questions. In 1945 he vainly opposed the appointment of a non-returned man to the Australian Broadcasting Commission. His loyalty to ex-servicemen finally led to his second break with Labor. After failing at Leichhardt in the 1938 State elections and at Manly in 1941 and 1944, he was not pre-selected for the Manly by-election in September 1945; complaining that the selected candidate was not a returned soldier, he resigned from the party to stand on behalf of the Soldiers' Party. His preferences assisted the Liberal candidate to win and his 'scurrilous campaign' against Labor precipitated his expulsion. He died of cardiac disease on 21 November 1945 at Dee Why and was buried in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Frenchs Forest, survived by two sons and a daughter. Dunn had married Alice Mary Hynes on 2 February 1924 at Paddington. After much personal and financial stress, he divorced his wife in 1933.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Robertson, J. H. Scullin (Perth, 1974)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1929, p 65, 301, 1931, p 1810, 1935, p 397
  • Grey River Argus (New Zealand), 19 Mar, 28 Apr, 13 May 1909, 14 Jan 1910
  • Australian Worker, 20 Nov 1919, 27 Nov 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Apr 1925, 18 Feb, 7 Sept 1932, 17 Mar, 28 June 1933, 5 July 1935, 18 Feb 1937, 10, 11, 17, 24 Apr, 25 Aug, 29 Sept, 30 Oct, 22 Nov 1945
  • Federated Ironworkers of Australia (Sydney) minutes, 1913-14, E 102/31 (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

David Stephens, 'Dunn, James Patrick Digger (1887–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

James Patrick Digger Dunn (1887-1945), by unknown photographer, 1920s

James Patrick Digger Dunn (1887-1945), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23596849

Life Summary [details]


20 August, 1887
Kirkdale, Lancashire, England


21 November, 1945 (aged 58)
Dee Why, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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