NEEDHAM, Edward (1874–1956)
Senator for Western Australia, 1907–20, 1923–29 (Australian Labor Party)

Edward (Ted) Needham was born at Ormskirk in Lancashire, probably on 30 September 1874. His parents were Patrick Needham, a labourer, and Margaret, née Fahy, both of Irish Roman Catholic background. Ted Needham was very short of stature. During his years in the Senate, he and another Labor senator, Arthur Rae, used to ridicule each other’s lack of height. Once, when asked by a visitor to Parliament House if he were Senator Rae, Needham replied, ‘No! No! He’s that little chap over there’.

Educated at St Mary’s Roman Catholic School in Sunderland and at Seaham Harbour, County Durham, Needham began work at the age of twelve as a trapper-boy in a coal mine. Two years later, his family moved to Scotland, where he found employment in the weaving and shipbuilding industries. At sixteen, he became involved in the labour movement, when—as a ship worker on the Clyde—he was elected president of the Renfrew branch of the Amalgamated Shipyard Helpers Society of Scotland. In 1901, he decided to migrate to Australia. He later stated that he saw Australia as ‘the land of promise’ and that, in this, he had never been disappointed. Needham arrived at Fremantle entirely without friends or relatives anywhere on the Australian continent. His first job was chopping rock at the Rocky Bay quarry. Later, he became a boilermaker’s assistant at the Government Railway Workshops at Fremantle. On 7 January 1908, at St Brigid’s Roman Catholic Church in West Perth, he married Lilian Helen Gosden, a saleswoman, the daughter of Charles Gosden, an engineer, and Mary, née Mooney.

Needham’s first experience of Parliament occurred when he visited the public gallery of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1903—two years after his arrival in Australia. He later recalled being ‘confused’ by the proceedings, but liked to tell a story that, as he was leaving the House, he met one of the members, who asked him what he was doing there. Needham claimed to have jokingly replied that he had ‘marked his seat’ for the next Parliament. True enough, when the next Parliament assembled in August of the following year, Needham occupied a seat in the Legislative Assembly as the Member for Fremantle in Western Australia’s first Labor Government, led by Henry Daglish. One MLA, clearly aware of Needham’s stint in the Rocky Bay quarries, remarked that it was a case of ‘out of the quarry, into the quagmire’. The Daglish Government fell after only twelve months in office, and Needham was defeated at the next state election. [1]

In December 1906, Needham was elected to the Senate. Years later, he remembered his initial disappointment with the Commonwealth Parliament: ‘… I suppose I found that the great orator was almost as dead as the great auk’. In a speech on 4 July 1907, the sixth anniversary of his arrival in Australia, he called for the cessation of the naval subsidy—a payment from the Australian Government of £200 000 a year to Britain for ‘the phantom fleet we have in our waters’. Needham recommended the establishment of shipyards so that Australia could build and run its own fleet. He would continue to support the raising of an independent Australian navy. He opposed proposals for the introduction of preferential voting, and expressed support for surveying a possible trans-Australian railway route.[2]

During 1908 and 1909, Needham successfully piloted the first private senator’s bill through the Senate. This became the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1909, which changed the operation of proceedings before the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court by introducing ‘penalties against employers dismissing employees because of union activity, and against employees refusing to work for employers because of activity in employers’ associations’. In his Bill, Needham also attempted, but without success, to prevent lawyers appearing in disputes before the Court. He described this controversial issue as the Bill’s ‘storm centre’.[3]

In August 1913, he criticised the Cook Government for holding up work and dismissing workers on the site of the proposed naval base at Cockburn Sound in Western Australia. When Britain declared war on Germany the following year, Needham supported Australia’s involvement on a voluntary basis, but emerged as a strong opponent of conscription for overseas military service. He was the only Western Australian among the thirty-four signatories of an October 1916 anti-conscription declaration which stated: ‘We, the undersigned members of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, are opposed to the conscription proposals of the government and will do our utmost to urge the people to vote “No” at the forthcoming referendum on 28 October’.

After the Australian people rejected conscription for military service overseas at the 1916 referendum, the Prime Minister, W. M. Hughes, formed a new federal ministry of pro-conscriptionist Labor members, which became known as the National Labour Party. In January 1917, the Liberals agreed to form a coalition with National Labour—the Nationalist Party—with Hughes remaining as Prime Minister. During this time, state Labor caucuses expelled their pro-conscriptionist members, losing five senators including Hugh de Largie and George Henderson and one member of the House of Representatives. Needham was the sole Western Australian senator to remain in the Labor Party. However, he continued to support the war effort itself, becoming a member of the parliamentary recruiting committee during 1917 and 1918.[4]

Heavy military casualties on the Western Front in the European summer of 1917 resulted in further pressure on the Hughes Government to secure impossible recruitment quotas. Hughes decided to go again to the people, this time with the question: ‘Are you in favour of the proposal of the Commonwealth Government for reinforcing the AIF overseas?’ Needham was prominent as an anti-conscription campaigner prior to the referendum on 20 December. When the West Australian reported extracts of a speech in which he was purported to have made ‘false statements’ concerning the number of Australian divisions at the front, he faced the possibility of being charged under the War Precautions Act. (James Howard Catts, MP, was already being prosecuted for making similar statements in public.) Despite Senator Pearce’s efforts to pursue Needham, legal counsel advised against bringing charges. The matter did not come to court.[5]

Between March and June 1917, Needham was Opposition Whip in the Senate, serving also as assistant secretary of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. (On a number of occasions between 1917 and 1919 Needham kept the minutes of the Caucus.) Later, he would describe how as Senate Whip he had taken part in delaying tactics in an effort to defeat the choice of Canberra as the federal capital.[6]

Needham was defeated at the general election of December 1919; possibly a reaction from the strongly pro-conscriptionist Western Australian electorate (70 per cent of those who voted in the 1916 referendum were in favour of conscription). An unsuccessful candidate for the state seat of North Perth in 1921, Needham devoted himself to the state labour movement and to the cause of the unemployed. Between 1921 and 1923, he was secretary of the Metropolitan District Council of the Australian Labour Federation (ALF) in Western Australia, and also a trustee of the ALF and a member of the state disputes committee.

Needham was re-elected to the Senate on 16 December 1922. During this third and final term, he served as a member of the public accounts committee. One of the committee’s tasks was to investigate the operation of the federally funded Commonwealth shipping line, especially in relation to overhead expenses and alleged overstaffing. The committee’s majority report recommended that the line be transferred to a company, which should be guaranteed such government services as mail contracts, the carriage of goods and the transport of immigrants. Needham, no longer a member of the committee when its final report was tabled on 28 September 1927, opposed the Bruce–Page Government’s move to sell the shipping line. He told the Senate that the line had saved the Australian people—and farmers in particular—from exploitation during World War I by keeping freight rates lower than those charged by commercial companies. He emphasised the recurring benefits to Australian industry of retaining a government-owned national shipping line. Predictably, the Labor Opposition’s no-confidence motion on this issue in the House of Representatives was lost.[7]

Needham was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate from 1 July 1926 to 25 June 1929 (he had held the position as deputy from 1925 to 1926). During his term as Leader, there were at most only seven Labor senators; doubtless a frustrating situation for Needham and his colleagues, especially as many of the bills concerned industrial reform and related issues.

On 1 December 1927, the antipathy between Pearce and Needham that had developed during the conscription issue surfaced once more, this time in relation to strikes on the waterfront. Pearce, as Leader of the Government in the Senate, moved that the Senate support the Government ‘in taking any action the Government thinks necessary, in co-operation with the Governments of the States so far as possible, to maintain law and order and to ensure the continuance of services essential to the well-being of the Commonwealth’. Needham responded by stating that had the Government realised its responsibilities earlier there would have been no need to act in the manner proposed. He claimed that the Bruce–Page Government intended to issue a proclamation under the Crimes Act of 1926 and in this way was trying to create an atmosphere which would provoke the strikers to commit acts of violence. He accused the Government of deliberately suppressing the fact that the industrial troubles had been caused by shipowners interfering with the arbitration process.

Needham proposed, unsuccessfully, an amendment to Pearce’s motion: ‘… that consultations should be immediately held by the Government with the various State Governments affected and organisations concerned, with a view to a clear understanding of the matters [at] issue and the settlement thereof by means of conference and conciliation’.

Despite these frustrations, Needham pressed on, this time with amendments to the Commonwealth Employees’ Compensation Bill as he unsuccessfully attempted to put federal legislation in line with the industrial reforms already in place in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. He proposed raising the maximum compensation payable to workers, objecting also to the differentiation made between married and single men.[8]

After his defeat at the 1928 federal election, Needham’s career entered the doldrums for a while. He stood unsuccessfully for the seat of Perth at the House of Representatives election in 1929; then failed to secure a position on the board of the Commonwealth Oil Refineries. In July 1930, he was appointed by the Scullin Federal Labor Government to assist the Western Australian Government to collect payment of migrant loans, granted in the form of passages from Britain. In January 1932, the Lyons Government terminated his appointment. It was claimed that, during the time of his employment, Needham had been paid £65 to collect £57 worth of debts. In 1931, he had had another try for the Senate. In April 1933, he won the state seat of Perth (after an unsuccessful attempt in 1930) where he remained until 1950; he topped off his political career with a further three years as the Member for North Perth. Addressing the Legislative Assembly in 1952, Needham reiterated his 1904 opinion that the office of State Governor should be abolished.

Sadly, when Needham died in St John of God Hospital, Subiaco, on 26 October 1956, tributes were not forthcoming from either the Federal or the Western Australian parliaments, despite the fact that he had given approximately twenty years service in each. After a Requiem Mass at the Redemptorist Monastery, North Perth, the funeral cortege moved, via the Perth Trades Hall, to the Roman Catholic Cemetery, Karrakatta, where he was buried. His wife and sons, Edward and Kevin, survived him. As a public figure in the West, he had worked for the blind, the maimed and the limbless. He had also lent a helping hand to the women’s service guilds in Perth, in 1927 asking questions in the Senate on a possible site in the federal capital for a building for women’s organisations.

In 1929, Needham had spoken, with some modesty, of his election to the Senate in 1906: ‘Here was I, six years’ residence [in Australia], raised from the humblest to one of the highest positions within the gift of the people of my adopted country’.[9]


Bobbie Oliver


[1] Herald (Melbourne), 20 July 1929, p. 17, 11 April 1933, p. 8; J. S. Battye (ed.), The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol. 1, 1912, Hussey & Gillingham, Adelaide, pp. 307–308; Morning Herald (Perth), 29 June 1904, p. 6.

[2] Herald (Melbourne), 20 July 1929, p. 17; CPD, 4 July 1907, pp. 77–79.

[3] Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 203; CPD, 24 September 1908, p. 328, 8 October 1908, pp. 917–920, 932–933; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901–1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1956, p. 70.

[4] CPD, 27 August 1913, pp. 498–499; Australian Labor Federation (Western Australian Branch), state executive, correspondence file no. 27/1689A, Battye Library, LISWA; Argus (Melbourne), 22 June 1917, p. 8; CPD, 14 June 1917, p. 28, 11 July 1917, p. 8.

[5] Western Australian Military Intelligence file, correspondence file no. 1/12/70, no. PP14, PROWA;Arthur Hoyle, ‘Catts, James Howard’, ADB, vol. 7.

[6] Herald (Melbourne), 20 July 1929, p. 17.

[7] CPP, Reports of the joint committee of public accounts on Commonwealth Government shipping activities, including Cockatoo Island dockyard, 1926–27; CPD, 9 November 1927, pp. 1055–1068, 11 November 1927, p. 1329; H of R, V&P, 11 November 1927.

[8] CPD,1 December 1927, pp. 2342–2347, 2378–2379; Souter, Acts of Parliament, pp. 205–207; CPD, 10 May 1928, pp. 4698–4699, 17 May 1928, pp. 4959–4960.

[9] Argus (Melbourne), 15 July 1932, p. 8; WAPD, 27 August 1952, p. 573, 5 October 1904, p. 605, 27 August 1952, pp. 572–573; Letter, Needham to Bessie Rischbieth, 12 March 1952, Rischbieth Papers, MS 2004, NLA; CPD, 14 December 1927, p. 3166, 15 December 1927, p. 3261; Herald (Melbourne), 20 July 1929, p. 17; WAPD, 12 December 1952, pp. 3122–3124; CPD, 15 March 1929, pp. 1286–1288.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 360-364.

NEEDHAM, Edward (1874–1956)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, WA, 1907–20, 1923–29

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1926–29

Western Australian Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, Fremantle, 1904–05; Perth, 1933–50; North Perth, 1950–53

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1910, 1913–14, 1926–29

Standing Orders Committee, 1911–13, 1926–29

Select Committee on the General Elections, 1913

House Committee, 1914–20

Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, 1916–20

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1923–29

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1923–26