MORROW, William (1888–1980)
Senator for Tasmania, 1947–53 (Australian Labor Party)

William (Bill) Morrow, railwayman, union official and peace activist, was born on 22 October 1888 at Rockhampton, Queensland, the fourth of eleven children of William Morrow, railwayman, and his wife Amelia, née Greenhalgh. When Bill was nine the family, who had lived in various towns and camps in central Queensland, moved north to Mareeba, where Morrow senior was employed as a permanent-way inspector on construction of the Mareeba to Atherton railway. Young Bill left school at ten to work on the same railway as a water joey; later he became a fettler, then a ganger, guard and fireman, and finally an engine-driver on the construction of a number of north Queensland railway lines.

While still in his teens, Morrow worked for the establishment of railway unions. In 1911 he joined the Amalgamated Workers’ Association (AWA), established by E. G. Theodore and William McCormack in 1907. Morrow was blacklisted for taking part in the 1912 Brisbane tramways strike, known as the ‘badge strike’, but after a period of itinerant employment was reinstated as an engine-driver. He became a member of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) in 1913, when the AWA amalgamated with the larger body, and, in 1915, became a member of the Queensland Railways Union (QRU). Transferred to Charters Towers, he was secretary and conference delegate of the local branch of the QRU, and later secretary, then president, of the local Trades and Labour Council.[1]

Morrow had joined the Workers’ Political Organization (WPO)—the organisational form of the Labor Party in Queensland—in 1908, and two years later, on 22 November 1910, married, in Mareeba, according to the forms of the Presbyterian Church, Katherine Victoria Scateni, an Italian miner’s daughter, born in Gympie, Queensland, and a member of the WPO. Katherine gave her husband strong support when he took an active part in the anti-conscription struggle, and when he was prime mover in holding up a train of police reinforcements moving against the striking Townsville meat workers in 1919. Bill and Kate had two daughters, Milleese and Cecily, and one son, William. (Milleese and William would survive him.)

In 1921, when the Australian Railways Union (ARU) was formed by an amalgamation of state railway unions, Morrow, who had been acting northern district secretary of the QRU, was confirmed in that position for the ARU and moved with his family to Townsville. He was now a full-time union official. In 1922 he was elected to the ARU state council. The Industrial Workers of the World had had a strong influence on Bill Morrow, but in Townsville, though still members of the ALP, the Morrows were more strongly influenced by a ‘communist group’. Dissension inside the ALP branch, disappointment over the Queensland central executive’s abandonment of socialist principles, as well as overwork, led to a breakdown in Morrow’s health, and he resigned his union job in 1925. Over the next ten years he worked as a hotel-keeper in Townsville, a travelling salesman in outback Queensland and the Northern Territory, and a storekeeper in Mt Isa, where he was also a Cloncurry Shire councillor from 1934 to 1935.[2]

Then, in 1936, at the urging of his old union associate, Tim Moroney, state secretary and general president of the ARU, Morrow agreed to take the position of secretary of the poorly performing Tasmanian branch. Moving to Launceston, he began by trying to get for his members the same level of wages and conditions as applied on the mainland, and came into conflict with the Ogilvie Labor Government. In 1938, Morrow again clashed with Ogilvie over defence, and was expelled from the ALP for his opposition to the Government’s support of ‘universal physical training’—which he interpreted as a euphemism for compulsory military training. He became leader of Tasmania’s disaffected industrial left, and withstood right-wing attacks from within the union as well as attempted inroads by a government-sponsored rival, the National Union of Railwaymen. In 1942 he was readmitted to the ALP with his political influence undiminished, and elected to the Tasmanian state executive in 1944. In the meantime, he served on the Australian Council of the ARU (1937-47), spending five years as senior vice‑president (1937-42), inaugurated an annual conference of Tasmanian unions, and became president of the Launceston Trades Hall Council (1942). In 1941 he stood unsuccessfully in elections for Launceston City Council, and in 1942 as a candidate for the Tasmanian Legislative Council. He gained Labor preselection for the Senate in 1946, and was the second of three successful Labor candidates at the September general election.[3]

In the Senate, he declared his socialist faith, affirming that he represented the working class, ‘the useful people’. In his first speech, on 22 October 1947, his fifty-ninth birthday, Morrow declared:

I am a product of the trade union movement of this country. I have been elected by the people to endeavour to implement Labour’s policy, and I intend to do that if possible, with the assistance of my colleagues. I do not pretend to represent the whole of the people of Tasmania. I shall be quite honest about that. I represent only those individuals who make up the great working class in this country. That class consists of trade unionists, small businessmen, and small farmers. These people constitute about 95 per cent of the population. The other 5 per cent consists of those interested in monopolies and combines, and they can be represented by the Opposition.[4]

He was particularly critical of the basic wage, which by his reckoning had changed little in value since its inception, despite a huge increase in national income. He also spoke out on behalf of the coalminers and, in 1949, was one of the few Labor members who openly opposed the Chifley Government’s intervention in the coal strike.[5]

Morrow supported the Chifley Government’s banking legislation and proposals for constitutional change. ‘Capitalism’, he argued, ‘is now decadent, and is on its last legs. The only way to secure the well-being and happiness of the community is to socialize completely the ownership of the means of production’. He deplored the limitations placed by the Constitution on government enterprise. He was also anxious to prevent ‘the subjugation of this country by American interests’, advocating the maintenance of a strong system of empire preference and urging Australia to look also to eastern Europe for its trade.[6]

Morrow regarded the Cold War as the consequence of hysteria generated by armaments manufacturers, especially those in the United States, seeking to make profits from war. He saw the Americans as the aggressors in the deepening divide between East and West. In 1950 he spoke against the Communist Party Dissolution Bill, although the Labor Party had agreed to let it pass. He noted that Hitler’s anti-communist bill was followed shortly afterwards by an anti-socialist bill ‘by means of which the German equivalent of the Labour party was suppressed’, adding, correctly as it happened, that ‘Australians will not stand for legislation of this kind’. He condemned the reintroduction of national service, and vehemently opposed Australia’s participation in the Korean War, attacking both the United Nations and the United States. Morrow called for a truce and a negotiated settlement. He also advocated recognition of the People’s Republic of China, trade with socialist countries and the recognition of the rights of Australia’s Aboriginal people.[7]

While Labor was in power it tolerated the leftist views expressed by some of its members. Morrow’s position worsened when the Menzies Government came into office following the 1949 election. His membership of the Communist Party had been long suspected, but never proved. A report for the Director of the Commonwealth Investigation Service (the forerunner of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) stated: ‘He has covered his tracks very cleverly, and he is either a sympathiser or else a most dangerous man’. Questions were asked in Parliament about Morrow’s participation in peace conferences, which even the ALP regarded as communist fronts. He was, in effect, accused of being a communist, the implication being that the ALP tolerated communism. Further questions were asked in 1951, when Morrow’s speech against the war in Korea was broadcast on Radio Moscow. His stance on various issues, his continued advocacy of socialism, and what Senator Wright once described as his ‘obvious and definite Communist sympathies’ made him the butt of government attacks. In 1951 Senator Gorton suggested that if Morrow was ‘not a Communist he is very definitely a “Commibut”, which means a man who says, “I am not a Communist but I follow everything they do, and I believe in everything they say”’.[8]

Morrow became increasingly unpopular in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. He survived the April 1951 election (which followed the simultaneous dissolution of both houses) after a preselection stratagem against him failed, but the following year was deprived of endorsement for the half-Senate election of May 1953. When Morrow’s supporters in Tasmania began to organise protests against his non-endorsement they were expelled from the ALP. Morrow then resigned and stood with two supporters as ‘Tasmanian Labour’; they were not successful, but Morrow was not sorry to leave the Senate.[9]

Immediately after his defeat, Morrow left for the World Peace Council conference in Budapest as a delegate of the Australian Peace Council, travelling extensively in Europe and Asia. He was accused by Liberal Senator Marriott of taking his parliamentary gold pass ‘behind the “iron curtain”’. In fact, the pass was returned a week after the expiry of Morrow’s term.[10] In 1954, when he was invited to become secretary of the New South Wales Peace Council, his passport was withdrawn by the Government to prevent his travelling overseas, and he was called to appear before the Petrov Royal Commission. The following year, Kate Morrow was paralysed by a stroke and it was only Milleese’s offer to care for her mother that enabled Morrow to continue his peace work, which he did for the next eight years. Elected a member of the Bureau of the World Peace Council, he made frequent trips overseas to meetings and conferences, at which he met leaders of the Third World and some outstanding figures in the peace movement—Zhou Enlai, Walter Sisulu, Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson, and Jessie Street (a bureau colleague who became a close friend). In 1957 he was one of the organisers of the Third World Conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs, held in Tokyo. He was awarded the Joliot-Curie Medal by the World Peace Council in 1959, and, in 1961, the Lenin Peace Prize, a gold medal, now in the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, and the sum of £12 000. He gave all the money away. An attempt to rejoin the ALP in 1956 had not been successful.

When Kate died in 1963, Morrow resigned his position in the peace movement and retired to Brisbane. He maintained relations with a number of unions and worked for the cause of friendship between Australia and China. He visited China three times as a guest of the Chinese Government, and became a member of the national executive and Queensland state president of the Australia-China Society. He continued his lifelong advocacy of socialism, and enjoyed addressing young people on causes dear to his heart. Bill Morrow died in his ninety-second year, on 12 July 1980, while visiting Milleese in Sydney. Despite the harsh conditions of his early life, his conversation was characterised by enthusiasm and good humour. After his death the librarians of Queensland University’s Fryer Library wrote to Milleese that they would miss his sense of fun.[11]

Audrey Johnson


[1] The author’s biography of Morrow (Audrey Johnson, Fly a Rebel Flag: Bill Morrow, 1888-1980, Penguin, Ringwood, Vic., 1986) has been used throughout this entry; Advocate (Brisb.), 10 June 1925, p. 13; Margaret Bridson Cribb, ‘The A.R.U. in Queensland: Some Oral History’, Labour History, May 1972, pp. 13–19; D. J. Murphy, R. B. Joyce and Colin A. Hughes, Prelude to Power: The Rise of the Labour Party in Queensland 1885–1915, Jacaranda Press, Milton, Qld, 1970, pp. 129–30.

[2] Cribb, ‘The A.R.U. in Queensland’, pp. 19-22; Militant (Brisb.), 7 July 1920, p. 17; Advocate (Brisb.), 10 Apr. 1925, p. 5, 10 June 1925, p. 13, 15 Feb. 1926, p. 3; D. J. Murphy, R. B. Joyce and Colin A. Hughes (eds), Labor in Power: The Labor Party and Governments in Queensland 1915–57, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1980, p. 369–72.

[3] W. A. Townsley, Tasmania: From Colony to Statehood 1803-1945, St David’s Park Publishing, Hobart, 1991, pp. 357, 373, 377, 383, 418, 424-5, 433, 440; Richard Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903-1983, Sassafras Books and University of Tasmania, Hobart, 1983, pp. 34-40, 124, 126; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, South Melbourne, Vic., 1991, pp. 193, 237; ARU, Biennial Reports, 1937–1948, NLA; Examiner (Launc.), 7 Dec. 1942, p. 2, 4 May 1942, p. 4, 15 Nov. 1943, p. 4, 20 Nov. 1944, p. 4; Mercury (Hob.), 30 Sept. 1946, p. 11.

[4] CPD, 16 Sept. 1948, p. 499, 22 Oct. 1947, p. 1067.

[5] CPD, 16 Sept. 1948, pp. 501–6; McMullin, The Light on the Hill, p. 252; Patrick Weller (ed.), Caucus Minutes 1901–1949, vol. 3, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1975, p. 488.

[6] CPD, 22 Oct. 1947, p. 1070, 24 Nov. 1947, pp. 2537-41, 24 Nov. 1948, pp. 3364-6, 22 Oct. 1952, pp. 3489-92.

[7] CPD, 6 May 1948, p. 1496, 16 Mar. 1949, pp. 1504-9, 13 Oct. 1949, pp. 1353-7, 17 Oct. 1950, pp. 839-45; Mercury (Hob.), 19 Oct. 1950, p. 1; SMH, 20 Oct. 1950, p. 1; CPD, 6 Dec. 1950, pp. 3754-5, 26 June 1951, p. 332, 27 June 1951, pp. 469-73, 21 Nov. 1951, p. 2384, 1 Oct. 1952, pp. 2392-3.

[8] Letter, Acting Deputy Director to Director, Commonwealth Investigation Service, 4 May 1948, in Morrow, William Robert, A6119/84, NAA; CPD, 19 Apr. 1950, pp. 1570-1, 27 Apr. 1950, pp. 1924-7, 5 July 1951, pp. 967-8, 10 July 1951, pp. 1178-9, 8 Mar. 1951, pp. 132-6, 22 Nov. 1951, pp. 2462-3, 23 Nov. 1951, pp. 2644-6, 27 June 1951, p. 474.

[9] McMullin, The Light on the Hill, pp. 261, 268; Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor, pp. 49-50; W. A. Townsley, Tasmania: Microcosm of the Federation or Vassal State 1945-1983, St David’s Park Publishing, Hobart, 1994, pp. 28, 46, 63, 67, 77, 96; Advocate (Burnie), 6 Aug. 1952, p. 3; Clarion (Launc.), 17 Apr. 1953, p. 1; Examiner (Launc.), 1 Apr. 1953, p. 13, 10 Apr. 1953, p. 1, 11 Apr. 1953, pp. 1, 2, 3, 13 Apr. 1953, pp. 1, 2, 18 Apr. 1953, p. 2, 25 Apr. 1953, p. 2, 2 May 1953, p. 2, 17 Apr. 1953, p. 1.

[10] CPD, 16 Sept. 1953, p. 51, 14 Oct. 1953, pp. 513-14.

[11] National Office News, Sept. 1980, p. 3, S32, Noel Butlin Archives Centre, ANU; Information provided by Guy Hansen, Curator, National Museum of Australia; CPD, 19 Aug. 1980, p. 3.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 213-217.

MORROW, William (1888-1980)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1947–53

Senate Committee Service

Standing Orders Committee, 1950–51

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1950–53

Printing Committee, 1951–53