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Macdonald, Thomas Lachlan


Farmer, politician, high commissioner

This biography, written by Malcolm Templeton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000. It was updated in August, 2011.

Thomas Lachlan Macdonald was born in Invercargill on 14 December 1898, the son of Thomas Forsaith Macdonald, a farmer, and his wife, Margaret Ann Matheson. Tom took great pride in his Scottish descent: one of his great-grandfathers, Alexander Macdonald, had sailed from Wester Ross, Scotland, to Samoa as a missionary in the 1830s, and thence to Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait. Another great-grandfather, Thomas Spencer Forsaith, sat in New Zealand’s first parliament in 1854, and was a member of its shortest ministry.

After matriculating from Southland Boys’ High School, Tom Macdonald joined the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, serving as purser on a number of the company’s ships. In 1918 he volunteered for military service and went to the Middle East with the final draft of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. On his return from the war he worked as a teamster and shepherd, then in 1923 acquired his own farm at Rankleburn, near Tapanui. He was married in Tapanui on 7 April 1926 to Elsie Ann Stuart, a fellow Southlander. A keen rugby player, he represented West Otago in 1925. He also belonged to the local Masonic lodge, becoming its worshipful master in 1931.

In 1937 Macdonald sold his farm and moved to Gore. At the general election in 1938 he stood for Parliament as the New Zealand National Party candidate in the Mataura electorate, winning comfortably against the long-serving independent MP and former mayor of Gore, Davy McDougall. Macdonald’s move showed considerable self-confidence, for the first Labour government (which McDougall supported) was still riding high.

Enlisting again as a private in 1940, Macdonald would have the rare distinction among MPs of serving in the Middle East in both the First and Second NZEF. During his second stint of active service he rose to the rank of captain before being invalided home in 1943 because of persistent illness.

Later that year he was re-elected unopposed in the Mataura electorate. In 1946, when the electorate disappeared, he succeeded the former leader of the National Party, Adam Hamilton, in the neighbouring electorate of Wallace. Three years later he was appointed to Sidney Holland’s cabinet as minister of defence, a portfolio he held until his retirement from politics in 1957. Late in 1954 he acquired the additional portfolios of external affairs and island territories.

Macdonald was thus responsible for the conduct of New Zealand’s defence and foreign policy during an important transition in the country’s international relations. In 1954, on becoming a member of the South East Asia Collective Defence Treaty, New Zealand transferred its defence commitment from the Middle East. The following year it established its first diplomatic post in South East Asia, and in 1956, in a new peacetime initiative, stationed armed forces abroad with the Commonwealth Far East Strategic Reserve in Malaya.

As the spokesperson for the armed forces in cabinet, Macdonald had to contend with considerable indifference and even outright antagonism on the part of the prime minister, who as minister of finance was consistently reluctant to contemplate any increase in military commitments or expenditure. By contrast, Macdonald was highly regarded by his officials, whose only reservation was that he was too modest and insufficiently assertive: he simply ‘does not realize that he is quite as good as he is’, wrote the secretary for external affairs, Alister McIntosh. In 1957 McIntosh recorded that Holland had ‘worked up the most intense obsession against Tom Macdonald, whom he accuses of having kept the defence proposals from him for months with the intention of presenting him with a cut and dried plan’. It seems likely that frustration with Holland’s obstructionism over defence commitments and expenditure was the dominant motive in Macdonald’s decision to retire from politics before the 1957 elections.

Macdonald’s relations with Holland’s successor, Keith Holyoake, were also cool. He was seen as an obvious choice to fill the vacant high commissionership in London when National was returned to power in 1960, but he was not, apparently, Holyoake’s first preference, and his appointment was not made for some months. Although his original term, beginning in 1961, was extended until 1968, Macdonald was particularly aggrieved that he was not authorised to take leave in New Zealand during the whole of that period.

His appointment coincided with mounting concern in New Zealand at the prospect that Britain might join the European Economic Community (EEC) and that unrestricted access of New Zealand’s agricultural exports to the United Kingdom would be put at risk. Whereas his predecessors had been able to delegate most of their substantive work to their staff, Macdonald had to lead from the front in seeking to persuade the British government and public that if Britain were to join the EEC, special measures would be needed to allow the continued entry of New Zealand’s agricultural products, especially butter, cheese and lamb, for which Britain had been the traditional market. He was notably successful in establishing first-name contacts with people who mattered both in politics and business, and his devotion to Freemasonry undoubtedly opened doors in the City of London.

During his high commissionership, Macdonald was appointed concurrently as New Zealand’s first ambassador to the EEC in 1961, and its first ambassador to Ireland in 1966. Although Britain did not in fact join the Community until after his retirement, maintenance of New Zealand’s place in the British market remained his principal concern during his seven years in what was then regarded as New Zealand’s most important diplomatic post. In 1963 he was knighted (KCMG). During his time in Britain he often stayed with his cousins in Wester Ross and in 1963 he was named Scotsman of the Year.

After returning to New Zealand, the Macdonalds lived in Waikanae. In his retirement Tom was able to pursue his interest in tramping, photography and gardening. He also enjoyed and had a talent for composing light verse. He died in Wellington on 11 April 1980, survived by a daughter. His wife had died in 1975. ‘Burly and beaming, wise and weather-beaten’, Tom Macdonald was known throughout his varied and eventful career for his common sense, friendliness and integrity.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm Templeton. 'Macdonald, Thomas Lachlan', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000, updated August, 2011. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5m11/macdonald-thomas-lachlan (accessed 17 June 2024)