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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Duncan, Malcolm Bruce (1956–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Malcolm Duncan described his activities on his own website as ''thinking, drinking, cross-examining, standing unsuccessfully for parliament and getting up people's noses''. He accomplished those things in a relatively short time, having only been a lawyer since the mid-1980s. Before that, he had been a military psychologist.

In his quarter-century as a lawyer, he revealed himself as a Kings Cross identity, a battler, stirrer and passionate advocate. But behind some periodic buffoonery was a man deeply committed to the welfare of others, particularly people trodden on by the system.

Malcolm Bruce Duncan was born in Kings Cross on July 14, 1956, the son of a dentist, Bruce Duncan, and Joy (nee Lord). He went to school at Coogee Boys Preparatory School and the Scots College, where he was a piper in Scots College Pipes and Drums. In that capacity he participated in the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in 1973. He then attended St Paul's College at the University of Sydney.

He debated for the university, at one stage beside future politician Malcolm Turnbull. Graduating with an arts degree with honours, majoring in English literature, he joined the Australian Army and spent five years as a corporal in the Psychology Corps. Following that, he re-enrolled at the University of Sydney, gained a law degree and, in 1986, was admitted as a solicitor. Two years later, he was admitted to the bar. He was briefly married to Wendy Reade, now an archaeologist at the University of Sydney.

In 1989, Duncan first hit the metropolitan press by becoming one of 10 signatories in a letter to the NSW attorney-general complaining about what they saw as an alleged attempt by police to pre-empt an inquest into the death of David Gundy, an Aboriginal man shot dead during a police raid.

In that period, when banks were taking a tough line in the rural sector, Duncan represented landholders, including an embattled farmer in Longreach who felt so oppressed he committed suicide. Westpac Bank offered to pay the funeral costs. Duncan's partner of 20 years, Suzanne O'Connor, said: ''Malcolm said, 'There has to be something we can do for people. The only way is to get into parliament.'''

In 1996, after the resignation of the former premier, John Fahey, from parliament, Duncan stood unsuccessfully as an independent for his seat, Southern Highlands. He got his deposit back.

Returning to law, he represented a fundamentalist Christian, Dr Allen Roberts, in an action brought against him by an academic, Dr Ian Plimer, over lectures Roberts had given on Noah's Ark.

Two years later, Duncan stood for parliament again, this time as an independent for the seat of Bligh. He took legal action against the practice of candidates putting their posters on power poles. The issue continued for years, saw him physically tearing down candidates' posters and allegedly brought him into a scuffle with a Liberal Party candidate.

In 2000, Duncan represented the Kings Cross Chamber of Commerce against the establishment of a legal injecting centre in Darlinghurst Road. Often acting pro bono, he broadened his representation to include a residents' association, the Kings Cross Community and Information Centre and some other bodies.

Duncan then took on the case of a teenage boy who was accused by the state government of having put in his diary that he was planning a ''Columbine-style'' school massacre. The row was long and bitter.

Duncan was accused of grandstanding and earned himself a warning from the NSW Bar Association that he might be referred to the professional conduct committee. The newspaper columnist Mike Carlton said: ''What a droll fellow is Malcolm Duncan, barrister at law. Pudgy, pink-cheeked, bespectacled …'' The former premier, Bob Carr, referred to him, a little less kindly, as the ''Rumpole of the lower traffic courts''. But Duncan won and the then minister for education, John Aquilina, was obliged to apologise.

Duncan stood again for parliament in 2003, running a campaign slogan ''Come and have a beer with Duncan''. Again unsuccessful, he returned to the law, taking on a starring role again when he represented Tony Johansen in an action to declare that the winning Archibald Prize entry, of David Gulpilil, was a drawing and not a painting.

He stood up for residents at the opening of the Cross City Tunnel, which he said would bring traffic chaos.

In 2005, Duncan founded the Taxation Reform Party, which aimed to block further tax measures and introduce cost-cutting legislation. That year, he also made a celebrated gesture – presenting a cardigan to the incoming NSW premier, Morris Iemma – suggesting Iemma was little changed from a predecessor, Barrie Unsworth.

Last year, Duncan nominated as an independent for the federal seat of Wentworth and one of his first acts was to complain that a letter Lucy Turnbull had written to voters supporting her husband, Malcolm, was in breach of the Electoral Act. Apart from referring to serious issues such as Australian troops in Afghanistan, his campaign also advocated ''strict knife controls for politicians''. Referring to an urban myth that Malcolm Turnbull had once strangled a cat, he said: ''No cat to be ever strangled again in Wentworth.'' But his old debating partner retained the seat.

Duncan was registered as an independent candidate for the seat of Sydney in the state election on March 26 but he died suddenly and unexpectedly in his sleep. Malcolm Duncan is survived by his parents and O'Connor.

Original publication

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Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Duncan, Malcolm Bruce (1956–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/duncan-malcolm-bruce-16736/text28632, accessed 27 June 2022.

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