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Born on 28 June 1901 at Coolgardie, Western Australia, eldest son of Adelaide-born Elphinstone Davenport Cleland, mine-manager, and his second wife Anne Emily, née Mackinnon, from Scotland. On 18 December 1928 he married Rachel Evans at St George's Cathedral, Perth, Western Australia. Energetic, with broad interests and deft social skills, Rachel complemented his dour, sometimes gruff, manner, and eased contact with diverse people. She was appointed DBE in 1981.
Cleland stood for the Legislative Assembly seat of Claremont at the 1933 and 1936 state elections, on both occasions with the endorsement of the Nationalist Party. His chief opponent on both occasions was Charles North, the sitting Nationalist member since 1924 and a future Speaker. The margin between Cleland and North was 378 votes in 1933 and 79 votes in 1936 – Cleland polled 49.05% of the vote on the latter occasion.
For his work as deputy assistant quartermaster general, I Corps, during the campaigns in Libya, Greece and Syria in 1941, he was appointed MBE (1942) and mentioned in despatches. In October 1942 he was promoted temporary brigadier. Again mentioned in despatches, Cleland was elevated to CBE in 1945.
Administrative career in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea
He chaired the Legislative Council of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea (which became Papua New Guinea) until 1964 and directed the introduction of the first House of Assembly elected by full adult franchise; he restructured the public service so that it would be dominated by Papua New Guineans, paid at a rate the country could afford; and he continued the elimination of discriminatory legislation, most obviously ending the liquor ban in 1962. He was knighted in 1961 and retired in 1967.
In retirement Cleland lived in Port Moresby, the only administrator of either territory to choose to stay there. He was pro-chancellor and chancellor (from 1971) of the University of Papua New Guinea, and chancellor (from 1967) of the Anglican diocese of Papua New Guinea. Sir Donald died on 27 August 1975 in Port Moresby. Accorded a state funeral, he was buried in the cemetery at Bomana. He was survived by his wife, Lady Rachel (née Evans), and their two sons and she went on living in their house on Lawes Road in Port Moresby.
- H. N. Nelson, 'Cleland, Sir Donald Mackinnon (1901–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, Melbourne University Press, 1993, pp 440–441.
- Black, David; Prescott, Valerie (1997). Election statistics, Legislative Assembly of Western Australia, 1890–1996. Perth: Parliamentary History Project. p. 58. ISBN 0-7309-8409-5.
- Cleland, Donald Mackinnon, Brigadier (1901–1975), www.generals.dk