PEARSON, Rex Whiting (1905–1961)
Senator for South Australia, 1951–61 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Rex Whiting Pearson, farmer and politician, was born at ‘Rutland Farm’, Tiparra, south of Kadina, upper Yorke Peninsula, on 13 January 1905, eldest of four sons of Thomas William Pearson and his wife, Julia Adams, née Rowe. The family, staunch Methodists like so many in that part of South Australia, share-farmed at Sandilands, south-east of Maitland, and Rex and his brother Glen attended local schools. In September 1916 when Rex was eleven (and his other brothers, Howard and Keith, three years and two months respectively), his father was killed in France on active service. His mother nevertheless ensured that Rex completed his schooling at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide. Entering in May 1918 at thirteen, he topped the class in his final year in 1920, in the commercial form designed for ‘country boys who were going back to work on the farm as well as for boys aiming at a position in a business house’. Pearson would retain a connection with his old school, joining the Old Collegians and serving as president in 1950. The friends and contacts made and maintained were to advance his career, as did his keen membership of several masonic lodges, which included the combined St Peter’s Collegiate Lodge and Prince Alfred Collegians’ Lodge, known as the United Collegians’ Chapter.[1]

After a brief stint with the firm, Harris Scarfe, Pearson worked for several years on farms around Sandilands. In March 1927, leaving Glen at Sandilands, the family moved to Jamestown to live on the property of Julia’s brother, Len, and his wife, Alice, where Rex continued to share-farm. (Cousin Colin Rowe, then in his teens, was also to enter politics, serving in the South Australian Parliament from 1955 to 1965 as Attorney-General.) At Jamestown, Rex met Laurel Hooper, second daughter of Mr and Mrs R. J. Hooper of Kapunda, a woman some ten years his senior, who taught at the local school and boarded with the Rowes. They married on 26 September 1929 in the Kapunda Methodist Church. Their only child, Trevor, was born in July 1930.

The Jamestown venture did not prosper, and in 1935 Julia moved to Westbourne Park in the southern suburbs of Adelaide so that Howard and Keith could complete their education, while the two elder sons struck out on their own. In answer to an advertisement for a sharefarmer, Rex, Laurel and Trevor drove in convoy with Glen and his wife Mavis and baby son to the Cockaleechie district, near Cummins, central lower Eyre Peninsula, a heroic journey via Middleback station, flooded creeks and the dog-proof fence. The following year Rex moved some twenty kilometres north to Yeelanna to share-farm with Albert Will, from whom he was later able to purchase the property. In their years of struggle to transform their properties into model farms, the brothers were early purchasers of one of the new Lanz Bulldog tractors, and a caterpillar tractor later commandeered by the army in 1941. Postwar, Rex acquired one of the newly available diesel bulldozers.[2]

Pearson’s first tilt at parliamentary politics came early, when in 1937 he went for preselection for the Liberal and Country League (LCL) for Flinders (the local Eyre Peninsula seat based on Port Lincoln), where he won over the redoubtable Mrs J. H. (Janetta) Octoman. He claimed to have been interested in politics since leaving school, and stressed his credentials as a practical local farmer, whose father had farmed in the Lake Wangary district to the south some thirty years earlier. A member of district cricket and football teams, Pearson was on the local school committee, and, more significantly, president and vice-president of the Yeelanna branches of the South Australian Wheatgrowers’ Association and the Agricultural Bureau, respectively. He would also be a member of the state Advisory Board of Agriculture (1945–54), and in 1952 became a life member of the Agricultural Bureau of South Australia.

In the subsequent March 1938 state election Pearson was defeated, despite out-polling the Labor candidate, whose preferences went to re-elect an independent, the single tax enthusiast, E. J. Craigie, local member since 1930. (The widespread disillusionment with the ‘complex and burdensome direct taxation system’, which had seen Henry George’s ideas blossom after World War I, was waning, and Craigie’s obsession with land tax would soon be seen to conflict with the interests of the wheat farmers he represented.) Pearson’s case at the time was probably not assisted by his warm endorsement of the Butler Government and the experiment of a five-year parliamentary term (1933–38), neither of which were to survive.[3]

Consolidating his prospects for the next poll, Pearson became president of the local branch of the LCL and in 1940 president of the League’s Flinders district committee. In the wider LCL organisation, he was a member of the Primary Producers’ Committee and on the LCL state executive. He had also become a Justice of the Peace in June 1939 and in 1940 president of the South Australian Wheatgrowers’ Association. Again, Mrs Octoman ran him close in the preselection plebiscite for the 1941 state election, but Pearson prevailed. Success came in the election of 29 March, a poll marked by a low turnout of voters, and the last before compulsory voting was enacted in South Australia. It was also a ‘khaki poll’, and Pearson was at pains to establish that he had only decided to run, once his offer to enlist had been rejected because of his occupation as a food producer. (Brother Keith, in the naval reserve, had been called up already, and Glen joined the RAAF the following year.) Craigie was defeated this time by the swapping of preferences between Pearson and the Labor candidate, part of a pattern as both Labor and Liberal sought to eliminate the fifteen independents who had made normal operations so difficult during the 1938 to 1941 Parliament. Craigie’s opposition to the introduction of religious instruction into schools was also believed to have told against him in this conservative and God-fearing district, where Pearson was a well-known lay preacher. At the declaration of the poll, Craigie criticised some bad sportsmanship in the contest, notably the drowning out of his final address from the foreshore rotunda in Port Lincoln by an amplified version of a Playford policy speech, delivered from a nearby boat.[4]

Pearson began his period as a backbencher in the Playford Government. The family moved to Adelaide, living first in the near southern hills suburb of Belair and then moving down to the plains in southern suburban Lower Mitcham, closer to Mrs Julia Pearson. By 1943 Methodist missionary brother Howard was missing in New Guinea; his death as a POW in the sinking of the Montevideo Maru was confirmed after the war. The farm was worked by a succession of manager-couples, Pearson making the arduous journey to his distant electorate and farm whenever he could. At the 1944 election Pearson was successful again, having once more thwarted Mrs Octoman at preselection; she then ran as an unendorsed Liberal, while the perennial Craigie taunted Pearson for not living in the electorate. In the 1947 poll, a two-horse race, Pearson won a clear two-thirds of the vote, and in 1950 was returned unchallenged.[5]

Pearson retained a strong interest in farming, his parliamentary contributions reflecting rural concerns, especially those of the wheat industry. As a farmer from a marginal growing region, he strongly supported wheat stabilisation, continually monitoring the effects of various schemes on his vulnerable constituents. He was critical of the Farmers’ Assistance Board, seeking to bring it under ministerial control. A strong advocate of soldier settlement, especially on the Eyre Peninsula, he reiterated the need for the Government to develop the land before handing it over to returned servicemen, to avoid the heavy debts that had crushed many soldier settlers of the previous generation. The general problems of people living on the Peninsula were always on his mind, especially the need to augment the coastal shipping services with sealed roads, the need for a reliable water supply, and the expansion of the Port Lincoln freezing works. Post-primary education increasingly concerned him as his son grew older. Pearson was associated with the establishment of the Cummins Area School in 1942, the second such school in the state, and by 1943 he was elected to the executive of the South Australian Schools Committees’ Association. He used his 1944 Address-in-Reply speech to urge the creation of a seventh cabinet minister with responsibility solely for education.[6]

A loyal Playford supporter, Pearson had entered Parliament as ‘a Party man’, but one who would speak and vote according to his judgment. But he lacked the streak of independence of Arthur Christian, LCL member for the adjacent seat of Eyre. On electoral matters, he supported the bipartisan legislation to introduce compulsory voting in the House of Assembly, but sided with most of the LCL to defeat Labor and independent moves to apply the bill also to the Legislative Council. He defended the Playmander 4:1 weighting of rural electorates with more conviction than some of his metropolitan confrères, on the standard grounds of the isolation and lack of amenities endured by voters in electorates like his own. The proportional representation option had some attraction, but anything that involved reducing the number of country MPs he could not countenance. In September 1945 he became Government Whip, having acted in the position for some months previously.[7]

On moral issues, such as drinking and gambling (‘a mug’s game’), he was comfortable with the generally non-conformist attitudes of the South Australian Parliament, but went further in seeking to prohibit the consumption of alcohol at dances and weddings. As a typical rural employer he was against the extension of the provisions of the Factories Act to country establishments. He continued to resist even after two fatalities at the freezing works, arguing that enforcing the Industrial Code in rural areas would create a rift between employers and men, and that a 40-hour week was impractical for farm workers.

On the ideological bug-bear of the day, communism, he was predictably hostile. He was thankful that South Australia had ‘less Communistic influence than any State in the Commonwealth’, and made the point that there was no need to embark on the ‘provocative policy’ of trying to ban the Communist Party in South Australia. This moderation was to fade later.[8]

Pearson might have remained a typical rural state member had not Prime Minister Menzies brought on a simultaneous dissolution in 1951 to clear the newly expanded Senate of its Labor majority. Pearson was by then the state representative on the federal rural committee of the Liberal Party, and according to the Adelaide Advertiser ‘recognised as one of the ablest of the younger men’ in Liberal ranks. Returning from a meeting of the Eyre Peninsula Local Government Association, Pearson was encouraged to offer himself as part of the Liberal Senate team, to be led by Senators Mattner, McLeay and Hannaford. Resigning at short notice from the state Parliament, Pearson was preselected ‘with an overwhelming majority’ for the winnable fourth position on the Senate team, ahead of K. A. Laught. All five Liberals were elected on 28 April 1951. (In the subsequent by-election for Flinders, brother Glen won easily, going on to carve out a distinguished two-decade career in state politics, including fourteen years in Cabinet and a knighthood in 1970.) Because of his position in the order of election, Pearson was appointed a short-term senator, standing again in 1953 when he was returned easily, although the Labor Party won three of the five seats on that occasion. In 1958 he was returned at the head of the Senate team.[9]

Unsurprisingly, Pearson saw communism as the enemy, regretting the failure of the September 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party as a lost opportunity ‘to destroy the greatest menace to production in this country’. He deplored militant trade union activity, and those who ‘continued to preach class hatred’. In May 1952 Menzies, in response to lobbying within the Parliamentary Liberal Party, created several party policy committees, no doubt in the hope of keeping his increasingly restless backbench gainfully employed. Pearson was appointed to committees on general economic policy, defence preparations, and defence and fighting services. During the absence of Annabelle Rankin at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) conference in Canada in late 1952, Pearson served as Government Whip and from 1953 to 1961 was a temporary chairman of committees.[10]

A highlight for Pearson was his attendance as one of six delegates at the CPA conference in Nairobi, Kenya, in August 1954. Speaking at a Commonwealth Club lunch in Canberra on his return, he announced that ‘the colored people of Africa were not yet ready for self-government’. In Parliament he pursued the theme of the general beneficence of Europeans in Africa, and rejected what he saw as the ALP’s anti-colonial negativism. He also addressed a Methodist Men’s Fellowship gathering in Kadina on his impressions of Kenya. His interest in a wider world now stimulated, on 29 February 1956 he was appointed to the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, established by Parliament in 1952. The power of the committee (until its scope and independence was widened in 1967) was limited, especially as a sceptical Labor Party refused to join, a fact lamented by some Liberals, such as the future prime minister, John Gorton. The only report in which Pearson was involved was that on extradition, tabled (but not published as a parliamentary paper) in October 1956.[11]

The bread and butter issues of Eyre Peninsula and regional South Australia remained Pearson’s primary concern. Always the rural socialist, he continued to support wheat stabilisation schemes. Even after a decade of exceptional harvests that left large surpluses, he was grateful to the munificence of the Government, which continued to guarantee prices to growers. He was, nevertheless, concerned at the long-term prospects for the wheat trade. Returning from an overseas trip with his wife, he commented on the ‘fierce competition’ Australian exporters would face to retain their prime British market. A loyal state representative, he kept a wary eye on the Commonwealth regarding standardisation of the states’ railway lines (especially the Port Pirie to Broken Hill section), and also the River Murray Agreement. He deplored the growing power of the Commonwealth over education, and, like some others, railed against uniform taxation, calling for a review of Commonwealth-state financial relationships. He also found the Commonwealth ‘rather too conservative’ in its consideration of land recommended by the South Australian Land Board for the purposes of soldier settlement.[12]

Increasing affluence had enabled Pearson to buy a house in Hawthorn Crescent, Hawthorn, near Mitcham. (The family connection with the district was enhanced years later when brother Keith served as Mayor of Mitcham.) Pearson’s son Trevor, having learned his farming skills from his uncle Glen, had taken over the property at Yeelanna. In the late 1950s Pearson became seriously ill. Never as physically robust as Glen, he now walked with a limp and lost his skill as a pianist. Further illness in 1961 forced him to take two months leave. He died in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woodville, on 11 September, and was buried the following day at Centennial Park Cemetery in Adelaide. His wife and son survived him, Laurel spending over twenty years at Aldersgate, the Uniting Church retirement home at Felixstow, until her death in 1987. Gordon Davidson filled Pearson’s seat until the next election in 1963. Colleagues remembered Pearson as a quiet and courteous man with firm convictions.[13]

Jenny Tilby Stock

[1] Clem Christopher, Pearson Family Tree, rev. edn, Adelaide, 1994, pp. viii, 37; Arnold D. Hunt, This Side of Heaven: A History of Methodism in South Australia, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, 1985, pp. 108, 117–19; Information provided by Brian Baldwin, Archivist, Prince Alfred College; J. F. Ward, Prince Alfred College: The Story of the First Eighty Years 1867–1948, Gillingham & Co., Adelaide, 1951, pp. 119, 130; Prince Alfred Chronicle, Jan. 1921, p. 462; Much information in this entry has been taken from an interview by the author with Edna Pearson (niece), 7 Feb. 2001.

[2] LCL Papers, SRG 168/1/36, SLSA; Kapunda Herald, 18 Oct. 1929, p. 2; Yeelanna Book Committee (comp.), From a Sea of Mallee: An Illustrated History of Yeelanna and District, Yeelanna, SA, 1986, p. 225; CPD, 13 Sept. 1961, p. 482; Wendy Treloar (ed.), Cummins: Its People and History, Adelaide, 1988, pp. 380, 405.

[3] Port Lincoln Times, 4 Mar. 1938, p. 3; Helen Jones, In Her Own Name: A History of Women in South Australia from 1836, rev. edn, Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 1994, pp. 317–19; LCL Papers, SLSA; Caroline Guerin, One Hundred Years on the Land: The History of the Agricultural Bureau of South Australia, Advisory Board of Agriculture, Adelaide, 1988, pp. 225, 259; Port Lincoln Times, 8 Apr. 1938, p. 7, 11 Mar. 1938, p. 12; Reece Jennings, Barnacles and Parasites: Independent Members of the South Australian Parliament 1927–1970, Nesfield Press, Plympton, SA, 1992, pp. 15–16, 135.

[4] Port Lincoln Times, 26 Sept. 1940, p. 9, 20 Mar. 1941, p. 7, 10 Apr. 1941, p. 7; LCL Papers, SLSA; Jones, In Her Own Name, p. 319; Ivy K. Freeman (comp.), The History of Tumby Bay and District, District Council of Tumby Bay, Tumby Bay, SA, 1981, p. 130; R. M. Gibbs, A History of Prince Alfred College, Peacock Publications, Kent Town, SA, 1984, p. 274; Hunt, This Side of Heaven, pp. 85, 241–3.

[5] SAPD, 1 Aug. 1950, p. 151; Advertiser (Adel.), 5 Apr. 1944, p. 5, 25 Apr. 1944, p. 8; Port Lincoln Times, 27 Apr. 1944, p. 7.

[6] SAPD, 29 July 1943, pp. 71–6, 12 Aug. 1947, pp. 259–62, 266–8, 1 Oct. 1941, pp. 815–16, 7 Dec. 1943, pp. 889–90, 14 July 1942, p. 41, 20 Nov. 1945, pp. 1013–14; Colleen Qualmann, The Tumby Bay–Wanilla Soldier Settler’s Scheme 1949–1999, Seaview Press, Henley Beach, SA, 1999, pp. vii, 1, 22; SAPD, 17 July 1941, pp. 141–4, 13 Aug. 1941, p. 327, 13 Nov. 1947, p. 1375; CPD, 27 July 1944, pp. 65–7.

[7] SAPD, 17 July 1941, pp. 141–2, 27 Aug. 1942, pp. 493–6, 31 July 1945, p. 109, 5 Nov. 1947, pp. 1239–42, David Goldsworthy, ‘Playford, the LCL and the “Powers” Referendum Issue’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Dec. 1966, pp. 400–16; Advertiser (Adel.), 25 Sept. 1945, p. 4.

[8] SAPD, 13 Nov. 1945, p. 909, 27 Nov. 1945, pp. 1105–6, 28 Nov. 1945, p. 1133, 16 Nov. 1948, p. 1353, 17 Nov. 1948, pp. 1405–6, 2 Aug. 1949, pp. 112–14.

[9] Advertiser (Adel.), 31 Mar. 1951, p. 5; Port Lincoln Times, 29 Mar. 1951, p. 1, 5 Apr. 1951, p. 1; Advertiser (Adel.), 18 Nov. 1958, p. 7.

[10] CPD, 20 June 1951, p. 99, 16 Oct. 1951, p. 635, Advertiser (Adel.), 1 Mar. 1956, p. 11; Inside Canberra, 1 May 1952, p. 1; Advertiser (Adel.), 16 May 1952, p. 2, 24 July 1952, p. 3; L. F. Crisp, The Parliamentary Government of the Commonwealth of Australia, Longmans, in association with Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 1961, p. 216.

[11] Advertiser (Adel.), 15 Apr. 1954, p. 2, 19 Oct. 1954, p. 5; CPD, 24 May 1955, pp. 394–8; Advertiser (Adel.), 13 Sept. 1955, p. 2; T. B. Millar, Australia in Peace and War: External Relations 1788–1977, ANU Press, Canberra, 1978, p. 29; Ian Hancock, John Gorton: He Did It His Way, Hodder Headline Australia, Sydney, 2002, p. 67; Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, report relating to extradition, 1956, Table Office, Department of the Senate.

[12] CPD, 2 Nov. 1954, pp. 1135–6, 20 Sept. 1955, pp. 203–7, 19 Oct. 1956, p. 789, 30 Mar. 1960, pp. 356–60; Advertiser (Adel.), 18 Aug. 1956, p. 3; CPD, 15 Mar. 1960, p. 125, 24 Sept. 1958, pp. 600–1, 17 Oct. 1956, p. 639, 14 Nov. 1957, pp. 1266–71, 19 Nov. 1959, p. 1682.

[13] Advertiser (Adel.), 19 May 1961, p. 2, 14 Aug. 1961, p. 1; CPD, 23 Aug. 1961, p. 162; Advertiser (Adel.), 12 Sept. 1961, pp. 3, 34; CPD, 12 Sept. 1961 (R), pp. 1035–6, 13 Sept. 1961, pp. 481–3.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 320-325.

PEARSON, Rex Whiting (1905–1961)

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, SA, 1951–61


South Australian Parliament

Member of the House of Assembly, Flinders, 1941–51

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1956–59