RAE, Arthur Edward George (1860–1943)
Senator for New South Wales, 1910–14, 1929–35 (Labor Party; Lang Labor)

‘No Compromise’ and ‘No Surrender’ were statements which formed the basic political policy of diminutive labour militant Arthur Rae, and which encapsulate his long life of unremitting struggle on behalf of the working class. Bush worker, shearer, fanner, fruit grower, journalist, trade unionist, party official, peace activist, sometime poet and frequent politician, Rae was relentless in his avowal of socialism. Honest, forthright, combative and provocative, he was a man of humour and humanity, capable of being both entertaining and infuriating. In 1930 he told the Senate:

On various occasions I have been accused of being an extremist, a bolshevik, a ‘red’ and other evil things. Whatever may be said of me along those lines to-day could with equal truth have been applied to me 30 or 40 years ago, for I have not altered my principles in any way whatever in the meantime. I was born more or less a rebel, and I see enough in our social system to make me more a rebel to-day than I was in the past.[1]

Arthur Edward George Rae was born on 14 March 1860 at Christchurch, New Zealand, son of Charles Joseph Rae, painter, and Ann Elizabeth, née Beldan. Educated at Blenheim Public School, from age sixteen he worked ‘on farms or stations, and on bush and various other classes of country work’. He also served as a volunteer in the defence force. He was an active member of the Australasian Shearers’ Union (by 1887 the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union of Australasia), joining the New Zealand branch on its formation in 1886. Arriving in Australia in 1889, he worked in Victoria and New South Wales as a union organiser, narrowly escaping prosecution. He was not so fortunate during the Maritime Strike of 1890, when, as secretary of the Hay Shearers’ Union, he was sentenced to some two and a half years imprisonment for having incited the shearers to strike. Released after serving one month, the experience left Rae disdainful of the judiciary and with a healthy regard for the rigours of incarceration. He once suggested that ‘any one who deliberately sentences a person to solitary confinement ought to be shot at sight’.[2]

In 1891 Rae was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly representing Labor for The Murrumbidgee. From the outset he propounded the benefits of state socialism, and, although an ardent free trader, dismissed the ‘shandygaff’ policies of both Free Trade and Protectionist parties in New South Wales, arguing that ‘you will find monopoly’ either way. He soon made his mark, opposing a condolence motion following the death of the Duke of Clarence, earning for himself the epithet ‘Republican Rae’, and giving voice to themes that would recur throughout his public life. An outspoken democrat (Rae was a friend of Rose Scott and a member of the Womanhood Suffrage League) he advocated adult suffrage. A teetotaller, he supported a ban on alcohol in the parliamentary refreshment rooms. He advocated land reform: the imposition of a land tax, cooperative settlement, and the appropriation of land by leasehold. He opposed militarism in any form.[3]

Notwithstanding his parliamentary duties, Rae’s life outside Parliament continued at a frenetic pace. He co-founded the Hummer (later the Worker) in 1891, and, in the following year, travelled extensively through Tasmania and New Zealand. On 28 July 1892, while in New Zealand, at Blenheim, he married Annie, the daughter of Harriette and William Fryer. As president of the General Labourers’ Union (1893–94) and vice-president of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union, he helped create the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) in 1894. He was also active in promoting William Lane’s New Australia scheme.[4]

Defeated at the 1894 election, Rae maintained his place among the leading tacticians of the developing Labor Party, especially when, with the formation of the Political Labor League (PLL) in 1895, he served on the PLL’s first executive. He was re-elected to the executive in 1900, 1905, 1910, 1914, 1915 and 1916. He was president of the AWU and had been a champion of the Australasian Labor Federation. At some this time he took up land as a selector at Coolamon, near Wagga, farming wheat. Rae stood again for The Murrumbidgee in 1895 and in 1898 (when he was endorsed by both the Labor Party and the Liberal and Federal Party), but was unsuccessful on both occasions. He was general secretary of the AWU for eighteen months from 1898 to 1899. Around 1901 he gave up wheat farming to become a fruit grower at Glenorie, north-west of Sydney, where he remained for some seventeen years. Life in the first decade of the twentieth century was comparatively quiet by Rae’s standards. He was a member of the Anti-War League at the time of the Boer War, and stood belatedly and unsuccessfully for the federal seat of Hunter in 1903, and the state seat of Parramatta in 1907.[5]

His political fortunes began to revive in 1909 when he won Senate preselection. In April 1910, Rae, Allan McDougall and Albert Gardiner, became the first Labor men elected to the Senate to represent New South Wales. Rae made an energetic contribution to the work of the Senate. His first speech, a lengthy personal manifesto, challenged those around him, and particularly his Labor colleagues, to embrace the coming of socialism, and his ideological predilections continued to inform his views on virtually every matter under debate. Thus, he believed that arbitration, to have any validity, must be ‘founded on the idea that those who create the wealth of the country have a right to use the political machine to secure an ever-increasing proportion of that wealth until they ultimately eliminate the middleman and the speculator, and secure the whole of it’. He adopted ‘absolutely the Socialistic view, that the wealth of the world belongs to the world’s workers’. Similarly, while he was now prepared to support New Protection, he regarded it as a mere palliative. Rae was willing to stand up for his principles in relation to any matter, even to the point of defying the law. He was in the Senate to legislate for the working classes: ‘The other side are well able to take care of themselves’. Nevertheless he was a realist: ‘I have been too long a student of politics to imagine that any party, however strong, can bring about great reforms in a moment  . . . ’ In November 1912 he earned the distinction of becoming the first senator to be suspended from the sitting of the Senate for disorder.[6]

Despite Labor’s success at the general election of 1914, Rae was defeated. True to form, he lost little time in returning to the centre of things. A member of the PLL executive and a federal conference delegate in 1915, he gained Senate preselection in 1916. At the PLL conference of 1916 he put himself at the very heart of the approaching storm by moving a motion against conscription for World War I, his victory ensuring there would be no equivocation upon this divisive issue. He was active in the first conscription referendum, and the following year was secretary and press representative of the No-Conscription Campaign, in which capacity he added his share of vitriol to an already poisonous debate. In December 1917 he was prosecuted for making misleading statements, but escaped conviction. Rae’s own experience of the war was ultimately a cruel one. Three of his sons, Charles, William and Donald, enlisted in the AIF. William was killed in August 1918, and Donald died in January 1919. Annie Rae, who died in 1929, never recovered from the shock.[7]

Rae was unsuccessful in his bid for the May 1917 federal election, but maintained his influence within the ALP. In 1918 he was acting secretary of the New South Wales branch, and attended the controversial federal conference in Perth. Later that year he became founding editor of Labor News, precursor to the Labor Daily. In August 1918 he attended the trade union congress in Sydney at which he proposed the establishment of the One Big Union under the name of the Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia, becoming a founding member of its executive. Rae would soon join the ‘industrialists’ (the extremists) in an out-and-out advocacy of socialism. He told the New South Wales Labor conference in June 1919 that the ‘only salvation for the workers was the courageous advocacy of the socialistic doctrine’, adding that it was ‘no use depending on the politicians—some of them had no more sense than a wet hen’. In August he joined the powerful miners’ leader, A. C. Willis, and other prominent militants in forming a new party. As a result Rae was dismissed as editor of Labor News, vilified in the Labor press, and expelled from the AWU of which he had been made a life member.[8]

Thus removed from centre stage, he became active on the radical margins of politics. He was secretary of, and in 1922 Senate candidate for, the Socialist Labor Party. He was also a member of the Anti-Deportation League and the Plebs League. He continued with his journalistic career, now working with Common Cause, official organ of the Miners’ Federation of Australia, and was soon active in ‘white-anting’ the AWU through the Bushworkers’ Propaganda Group. In 1930 he was instrumental in forming a rival organisation, the Pastoral Workers’ Industrial Union (PWIU) of which he became inaugural president.[9]

Rae’s return to the Labor fold began in 1923 with Willis’ victory over the AWU at the New South Wales Labor conference of that year. At the end of 1924 Common Cause was incorporated into the Labor Daily, giving Rae broader scope for the articulation of his views—and his attacks on the AWU. With the rout of the AWU in 1927 by Willis and Jack Lang, Rae was readmitted to the ALP ‘with full continuity of membership’. The following year he became Labor’s candidate for the Senate vacancy caused by the death of John Grant. It was a controversial selection, and Rae’s old colleague, Albert Gardiner, came forward as an alternative candidate. Gardiner, with the support of the Nationalists, was elected at a joint sitting of the New South Wales Parliament. Rae’s equally controversial preselection for the forthcoming general election survived two ballots. Along with J. B. Dooley and J. P. D. Dunn he was elected to the Senate for New South Wales in 1928, and took his place in 1929.[10]

Rae’s second term was characterised by the enunciation of a more sophisticated—and more radical—brand of socialism. Indeed, though not a member of the Communist Party, he willingly identified himself with communism, and participated openly in organisations regarded as communist fronts. He now espoused racial equality, though not the abandonment of White Australia. He was also active in advocating peace and denouncing war. Ironically his new internationalism inspired a belief in isolationism and economic self‑reliance. He felt that Australia’s interests were best served during this time of economic crisis and growing international tension by stepping back from the turmoil threatening the rest of the world. Despite his continued advocacy of free trade in principle, he had become a protectionist.[11]

Rae’s radicalism made him an uncomfortable ally for his Labor colleagues. His ambivalence on key questions of Labor policy (such as compulsory arbitration), his hostility to the AWU, and his overtly ‘Red’ associations were all cause for embarrassment. Moreover, he signalled early his opposition to the Premiers’ Plan. Inevitably, Rae joined his fellow Langites when the ALP split in March 1931, and thereafter formed a vocal, if not particularly effectual, double act with Dunn, defending the policies of Lang and pouring scorn upon those of their opponents. In moments of excitement he even made threats of civil war and revolution, but for the most part was content with the strategy of Cato the Elder who, he said, ended every speech:

‘ “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delenda—For the rest, I vote that Carthage must be destroyed’. I should be out of order if I said more than once each time I rose, ‘There is no remedy for the existing trouble other than the destruction of capitalism” ’.[12]

Rae was defeated at the general election of September 1934, a setback he took in good part. Indeed, he was already preoccupied with other matters. He was a member of the Movement Against War and Fascism, and between December 1934 and February 1935 toured New Zealand helping to organise the local peace movement. He was also still active in the PWIU. Rae departed the Senate in April 1935 expressing ‘the kindliest feeling towards every honorable senator’. Despite his advancing age, during the Spanish Civil War he took a leading role in the Spanish Relief Committee, and during World War II was involved in Russian Medical Aid and the Friendship with Russia League. Indeed, his long public life only ended with his death, aged eighty-three, in Liverpool Hospital, Sydney, on 25 November 1943. He was survived by two sons, Charles and Ashton, three daughters, Grace, Dulcie and Rangi, and an adopted daughter, Belle.

Rae was remembered by John Curtin as ‘fearless and undaunted in expressing his views’, one who ‘did much throughout a long life to improve the lot of the Australian worker’. For that, added Curtin, ‘his name will be revered’. It is perhaps a tribute to Rae’s rebellious spirit that the most effusive eulogies came not from the ALP, or the Parliament, but from communist Norman Jeffery, Rae’s friend and colleague from the PWIU, and that other unquiet child of Labor’s pioneering days, Billy Hughes. ‘He fought for Labor’, said Hughes, ‘when to be a unionist was to be an Ishmaelite, an outcast, a marked man against whom all the forces of wealth and privilege were relentlessly directed’.[13]

[1] Common Cause (Syd.), 8 Dec. 1922, p. 3; Worker (Syd.), 15 Feb. 1902, p. 2; For examples of Rae’s poetry, see Hummer (Wagga), 9 Jan. 1892, p. 2, 7 May 1892, p. 3, and Worker (Syd.), 12 Feb. 1898, p. 3; JAFp, A 831 Rae, NLA; CPD, 9 Apr. 1930, p. 965.

[2] Frank Farrell, ‘Rae, Arthur Edward George’, ADB, vol. 11; CPD, 9 Apr. 1930, p. 967; Mark Hearn and Harry Knowles, One Big Union: A History of the Australian Workers’ Union 1886–1994, CUP, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 38–9; W. G. Spence, History of the A.W.U., Worker Trustees, Sydney, 1961, pp. 26–7; SMH, 13 Dec. 1890, p. 7, 19 Dec. 1890, p. 6, 24 Dec. 1890, p. 8, 9 Jan. 1891, p. 6; D. J. Murphy (ed.), Labor in Politics: The State Labor Parties in Australia 1880–1920, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1975, p. 112; DT (Syd.), 7 July 1891, p. 3; NSWPD, 2 Mar. 1892, pp. 6011–17, 15 Feb. 1894, pp. 798–9, 19 May 1893, p. 7380.

[3] NSWPD, 18 Aug. 1891, pp. 950–1, 19 Jan. 1892, p. 4397; Worker (Syd.), 4 Aug. 1894, p. 2, 29 Sept. 1894, p. 2; NSWPD, 27 Jan. 1892, pp. 4640–1, 18 Jan. 1892, pp. 4299–300; Hummer (Wagga), 30 Jan. 1892, pp. 2–3; Judith A. Allen, Rose Scott: Vision and Revision in Feminism, OUP, Melbourne, 1994, p. 97; NSWPD, 30 July 1891, pp. 517–20, 2 Nov. 1892, pp. 1631–2; CPD, 17 Nov. 1910, pp. 6300–3; NSWPD, 29 Nov. 1892, p. 2211, 1 Feb. 1892, p. 4695, 18 Oct. 1892, pp. 1209–13, 14 Feb. 1894, pp. 732–5, 14 Mar. 1894, pp. 1558–60.

[4] Hummer (Wagga), 19 Oct. 1891, p. 1; John Merritt, The Making of the AWU, OUP, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 204–5; Hummer (Wagga), 2 July 1892, p. 2, 17 Sept. 1892, p. 2; Worker (Syd.), 5 Aug. 1893, p. 2; NSWPD, 29 Mar. 1894, pp. 1862–3; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party 1891–1991, OUP, Melbourne, 1991, p. 23.

[5] SMH, 27 May 1895, p. 3; Bede Nairn, Civilising Capitalism: The Beginnings of the Australian Labor Party, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, pp. 135–7; Murphy, Labor in Politics, pp. 112, 59; NSWPD, 3 July 1930, p. 3635; Spence, History of the A.W.U., p. 124; CPD, 16 Nov. 1933, p. 4584; Worker (Syd.), 16 Feb. 1901, p. 4, 5 Dec. 1903, p. 4, 29 Aug. 1907, p. 9.

[6] Worker (Syd.), 26 Jan. 1910, p. 5; CPD, 13 July 1910, pp. 300–15, 18 Aug. 1910, p. 1697, 13 Sept. 1911, pp. 376–7, 1 Nov. 1912, p. 4996.

[7] Australian Worker (Syd.), 17 Sept. 1914, pp. 5, 17, 11 May 1916, p. 19; SMH, 4 Dec. 1917, p. 7, 7 Dec. 1917, p. 8, 19 Dec. 1917, p. 13, 16 Sept. 1929, p. 16.

[8] SMH, 23 Apr. 1918, p. 5; Australian Worker (Syd.), 8 Aug. 1918, p. 5, 15 Aug. 1918, p. 16; SMH, 4 Aug. 1919, p. 7; Australian Worker (Syd.), 12 June 1919, pp. 7, 17, 7 Aug. 1919, pp. 9, 22, 10 July 1919, p. 7, 22 Jan. 1920, p. 7; SMH, 20 Jan. 1920, p. 6, 17 Feb. 1920, p. 6.

[9] Labor News (Syd.), 24 Jan. 1920, p. 9; Australian Worker (Syd.), 7 Aug. 1919, p. 9; Communist (Syd.), 6 Apr. 1923, p. 4; Common Cause (Syd.) 8 Dec. 1922, p. 8; Australian Worker (Syd.), 2 Jan. 1929, p. 3; Shearers’ Strike Bulletin (Syd.), 25 Aug. 1922, p. 1; Pan-Pacific Worker (Syd.), 1 Nov. 1930, p. 329; Hearn and Knowles, One Big Union, pp. 143, 176; United Bushworker (Syd.), 16 Jan. 1937, p. 3.

[10] Communist (Syd.), 6 Apr. 1923, p. 4; Labor Monthly (Syd.), 1 Sept. 1926, pp. 2–4; Australian Worker (Syd.) 27 July 1927, p. 8; SMH, 31 May 1928, p. 13, 4 June 1928, p. 9, 1 June 1928, p. 11, 6 June 1928, p. 15, 12 June 1928, p. 4.

[11] CPD, 27 Mar. 1930, pp. 572–8, 19 Nov. 1931, pp. 1774–6, 21 Oct. 1931, pp. 961–4, 29 Sept. 1932, pp. 912–14, 2 July 1931, pp. 3311–13; SMH, 27 Apr. 1928, p. 6; CPD, 21 June 1933, p. 2515, 30 Nov. & 1 Dec. 1933, pp. 5224–33, 1 Aug. 1934, pp. 990–1, 4 July 1933, pp. 2809–10, 5 July 1933, pp. 2848–9.

[12] Pan-Pacific Worker (Syd.), 2 Apr. 1928, pp. 16–18; Australian Worker (Syd.), 2 Jan. 1929, p. 3, 6 Feb. 1929, p. 17; CPD, 20 Mar. 1931, pp. 475–8, 26 Nov. 1931, pp. 1924–5, 8 July 1931, pp. 3488–9; McMullin, The Light on the Hill, p. 171; CPD, 10 & 11 Mar. 1932, pp. 996–1004, 16 July 1931, pp. 3968–83, 7 Sept. 1932, pp. 250–1, 29 June 1933, p. 2733.

[13] CPD, 10 Apr. 1935, pp. 1160–1, 11 Apr. 1935, pp. 1258–9; United Bushworker (Syd.), 19 Sept. 1936, p. 2; Tribune (Syd.), 2 Dec. 1943, p. 3; CPD, 9 Feb. 1944, pp. 9–10.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 381-385.

RAE, Arthur Edward George (1860–1943)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1910–14, 1929–35

New South Wales Parliament

Member of the Legislative Assembly, The Murrumbidgee, 1891–94

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1910–14, 1929–35

Select Committee on the Case of Mr H. Chinn, 1913

Select Committee on the Fitzroy Dock, 1913

Select Committee on the Advisability or Otherwise

of Establishing Standing Committees of the Senate, 1929–30

Standing Orders Committee, 1929–35

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1932–35