RANKIN, Dame Annabelle Jane Mary (1908–1986)
Senator for Queensland, 1947–71 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Annabelle Jane Mary Rankin, the second woman to sit in the Senate, was born at South Brisbane on 28 July 1908, elder of two daughters of Colin Dunlop Wilson Rankin and his wife Annabelle Davidson Rankin, née Thomson, both born in Scotland. The family lived first near the small Queensland town of Childers where Colin was a sugar grower, and Annabelle rode her pony to Childers State School. Colin had seen active service in the Boer War and from 1905 to 1915 was the Member for Burrum in the Queensland Legislative Assembly. He joined the AIF in August 1915 and served as a commanding officer on troopships until his discharge in December 1916. On the death of his brother Charles in 1919, Colin took over as managing director of the Queensland Collieries Company Ltd, a London-based firm established in Howard in the Burrum district that had been originally managed by his father.

With the family settled in Howard, Annabelle attended Howard State School, later going to Glennie Memorial School, in Toowoomba, as a boarder. After leaving school, and with the financial support considered at that time the due of the daughter of a well-to-do family, Annabelle became actively involved in the life of the town. She was a teacher in the Anglican Sunday school, sang in the church choir, and started and ran the local girl guides company. Her strong interest in community welfare was established during these early adult years. In mid-1936 she travelled extensively in Japan, China, England, Scotland and Europe. In London, she spent some time assisting organisations in providing relief for the underprivileged.

After her return to Australia, Rankin entered the workforce as an employee of the Union Trustee Company of Australia in Brisbane. She also became involved in the war effort in Queensland, joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment in 1940. In 1942 she left the Trustee Company to become State Secretary of the Girl Guides Association and in 1943 was Assistant Commissioner of the YWCA War Services in Queensland. Formally attached to the army, she was responsible for the welfare of all women’s services in Queensland and carried out many official military duties. After the war she was appointed state organiser of the Junior Red Cross in Queensland. Other activities at this time included support of the Country Women’s Association, the Royal Empire Society, the Victoria League, the Centaur Memorial Fund Appeal and the cause of handicapped children. [1]

By the mid-1940s the short-lived Queensland People’s Party (QPP) was moving towards affiliation with the federal Liberal Party, while women in Queensland, like their sisters elsewhere in Australia, were demanding political inclusion, some even daring to complain to the male-dominated hierarchy within the party. Rankin was by no means a militant: she was part of a conservative political establishment that strongly supported a fair society and rights for women and men. In 1946 she turned down an offer from the United Nations Refugee and Rescue Association for a position in Greece, opting instead for a place in Australian politics. On 22 July she was selected by the QPP (responsible for appointing the Liberal Party team for the 1946 federal election) ahead of the long-serving Senator Foll on the non-Labor Senate ticket. She told the Courier-Mail:

I am proud and pleased at my selection. During the war I met thousands of servicewomen, and this will give me my chance to assist them in their rehabilitation … Senator Tangney [q.v. WA] and Dame Enid Lyons are the only two voices women have in Parliament. It is time the women had a greater say in the running of the country. Queensland women have been clamouring for years to have one of their sex representing them in the Federal Parliament. I offer my services.

Her opening campaign speech in Maryborough in July 1946 attracted one of the largest crowds ever to attend a political meeting in that town, the number including almost twice as many women as men.[2]

Successful at the federal election of September 1946, Rankin took her seat on 1 July 1947. At that time the Liberal Party and Country Party were in opposition and were represented in the Senate by three Queensland senators, who were dubbed by a wag ‘the three bears’: Walter Cooper, who was Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Neil O’Sullivan, who was Deputy Leader of the Opposition, and Rankin herself, who became Opposition Whip. As one commentator remarked: ‘Senator Rankin should have an easy job, unless the Leader and Deputy-Leader fall down on theirs’.

The situation meant that Rankin was early called upon to put the party’s case on many issues, and she found herself talking on ‘subject after subject’. In a well-researched first speech, she spoke on defence and development issues, expressed support for Dorothy Tangney of the ALP, argued for the rights of housewives, ‘for whom … there is no such thing as pressure politics or a 40-hour week’ (a favourite theme), and, doubtless with the many isolated Queensland women in mind, exhorted the Postmaster-General to provide ‘better services for the women of Australia’.[3]

Though she rejected any suggestion that she represented only a woman’s point of view—‘I come to the Senate by the grace of, not only women, but also fathers, husbands and sons who have seen fit to combine with women to elect me to this chamber’—she was an effective ambassador for women during the difficult postwar years. During debate on the establishment of a broadcasting control board she suggested that one of the members should be a woman, a view rejected by Senator Donald Cameron, who doubted whether ‘any women would be able to carry out the work’. In debate on an appropriation bill she questioned why male trainees were paid greater living allowances than females, and spoke up for the housewives who ‘have scarcely anybody to fight for the betterment of their working conditions’. She demanded that sales tax on refrigerators and heating systems, especially needed by women and children in remote parts of Queensland, be either reduced or abolished. She favoured the engagement of Australian women in Australia House in London as advisers to female migrants.

Her speeches in opposition were often vigorous with a precise focus on social issues. She urged the Chifley Government to cooperate with the states on improved housing for pensioners through the establishment of ‘garden settlements’. She called for ‘sympathetic administration’ of widows’ pensions, especially in cases where all welfare disappeared when the eldest child reached sixteen. ‘The Australian Government should always lead’, she said. ‘It should always be the best employer; it should provide the best amenities for its employees; and … the best service to the people’. Mothers and babies were ever her concerns, both in Parliament and in her column, ‘My Week’, in the Courier-Mail, whose readers, in these postwar years, were troubled by the lack of such commodities as soap and washing powder.[4]

With the success of the Liberal Party at the 1949 election, Rankin’s career entered a different phase. Her speeches during this period become less interesting to read, due to her endless congratulations to her party for their introduction of one or other piece of legislation, and her repeated expressions of pride in her party’s accomplishments. Such attitudes lend some credence to the view expressed in 1967 that Rankin was ‘an order-taker rather than a leader’. In 1950 she became a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, where she was able to bring about some improvements in the provision of amenities for women in public buildings. In 1951 she left the committee to become Government Whip in the Senate, a post she held for fifteen years, during a time when the coalition parties did not always have a majority in the Senate. This necessitated negotiation with ministers to amend bills in order to get them through the Senate. Something of a head prefect by nature, Rankin described herself as a ‘hard whip’, a view certainly shared by her colleague in the Liberal Party, the feisty Senator Nancy Buttfield , who, unlike Labor’s Fred Daly, MHR, who was full of admiration, later wrote disparagingly of Rankin.[5]

In January 1966 Rankin was appointed Minister for Housing in the Holt Government, having missed out on an appointment to Menzies’ ministry in 1958. In 1966 the women’s movement was becoming increasingly vociferous and private home ownership had peaked. While the position did not carry Cabinet rank, Rankin became the first woman to administer a government department, one of only two new faces in Holt’s ministry. When John Gorton became prime minister, she continued to serve as Minister for Housing. The housing portfolio included responsibility for administering the home savings grant scheme, the Commonwealth–state housing agreement, the war service homes scheme and the Housing Loans Insurance Corporation. Rankin’s department was also responsible for Aboriginal housing and accommodation for newly arrived migrants. She considered her proudest achievements as minister to be the housing scheme for aged single pensioners and extensions of the Aged Persons Homes Act. She was a sound, rather than dynamic, minister and one who could be guaranteed not to rock the boat. It was this that made her the brunt of a satirical attack on housing policy made by Maximilian Walsh in the Australian Financial Review, a short time before the 1970 Senate election.

As a minister, Rankin also represented in the Senate portfolios held by ministers sitting in the House of Representatives, including immigration, social services, Postmaster-General and health, and she was also Acting Minister for Repatriation for a time. She remained fervent about her favourite constituent, the housewife, whose plight she had discussed even during the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in 1950, attributing most of the housewife’s worries ‘to the activities of Communists’. She supported the concept of equal pay for equal work, but, like other Liberal women of the period, would not have voted contrary to Menzies’ wishes, holding much the same attitude as she had had in 1946: the principle was right, but ‘what about marriage, the home, and children’. Health was also a key issue. In a speech in 1959 she advocated the provision of geriatric wings in all hospitals.[6]

Rankin had been created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire on 13 June 1957. The honour was well deserved. She had long been an indefatigable worker for a large number of community welfare groups. These included the Asthma Foundation, Children’s Hospital Foundation, the Salvation Army Girls’ Home in Toowong, Queensland Spastic Children’s Welfare League, Business and Professional Women’s Club, Soroptomist Club, Multiple Handicapped Children’s Association, Cystic Fibrosis Association, Outward Bound, and the Mental Health Association. She was also patron of Wings Away, an association of former Trans-Australia Airlines hostesses. With her obvious energy and social sense, she was always willing to open fetes, present school prizes or head an appeal for funds. She was a member of the Australian delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Conference in Ottawa in 1952, and represented Australia in March 1968 at the independence celebrations in Mauritius.

On 24 May 1971 Rankin resigned from the Senate to become High Commissioner to New Zealand, where her promotion of Australia’s interests included negotiations in regard to Australian–New Zealand trade following Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community. On her return to Australia in 1974, she continued to take an active part in public life. She was honorary vice-president of the Queensland Ballet Company, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Utah Foundation, the Board of Directors of ‘Later Years’, a charitable foundation for the ageing, and a member of the Committee of the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. The federal seat of Rankin was named after her in 1984.[7]

Rankin died on 30 August 1986 at the Peninsula Private Hospital in South Brisbane, and was cremated after a state funeral in St John’s Anglican Cathedral. Photographs (part of her collection of papers held at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra) depict a woman of a smiling and confident mien and a purposeful air, who impressed most people as a warm and friendly personality. For much of her life, she lived with her sister Jean, who survived her. Rankin’s life of public service seems to have been part and parcel of a decision not to marry, her record of ‘firsts’ impressive. She was the first woman to enter federal Parliament for Queensland, the first woman to hold the office of parliamentary Whip, the first female minister to head a government department, and the first to head a diplomatic mission. She was an exemplar for other women and showed that the Government and people could indeed ‘trust the women’.[8]

Sylvia Marchant

[1] Dame Annabelle Rankin, Transcript of oral history interview with Pat Shaw, 1983–84, POHP, TRC 4900/15, NLA, pp. 1–4; Waveney Browne, A Woman of Distinction: The Honourable Dame Annabelle Rankin D.B.E., Boolarong Publications, Ascot, Qld, 1981, pp. 1–27; Rankin, Dame Annabelle, Press statements and speeches, M1569, 41, NAA.

[2] Rankin, Transcript, pp. 8–9; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 23 July 1946, p. 1; Maryborough Chronicle, Wide Bay and Burnett Advertiser, 25 July 1946, p. 1; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 25 July 1946, p. 3.

[3] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 20 Oct. 1947, p. 7; Westralian Worker (Kalgoorlie), 24 Oct. 1947, p. 4; Rankin, Transcript, p. 11; CPD, 22 Oct. 1947, p. 1045.

[4] CPD, 22 Oct. 1947, p. 1044, 10 Nov. 1948, p. 2725, 28 Oct. 1948, p. 2286, 27 Nov. 1947, pp. 2798–9, 24 Oct. 1947, p. 1320, 14 Oct. 1948, pp. 1623–4, 27 Oct. 1948, pp. 2178–80, 9 Sept. 1948, pp. 317–19; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 10 Nov. 1947, p. 7.

[5] Management Newsletter (Syd.), 28 Mar. 1967, p. 10; Marian Sawer and Marian Simms, A Woman’s Place: Women and Politics in Australia, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1993, p. 132; CPP, 17/1950, 35/1950, 54/1951, 55/1951; Rankin, Transcript, pp. 15–16; Browne, A Woman of Distinction, pp. 44–5; Nancy Buttfield, assisted by June Donovan, Dame Nancy: The Autobiography of Dame Nancy Buttfield, Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide, 1992, pp. 97–8, 110; Fred Daly, From Curtin to Kerr, Sun Books, South Melbourne, 1977, p. 94.

[6] Daily News (Perth), 27 Jan. 1966, p. 4; Ian Hancock, John Gorton: He Did It His Way, Hodder, Sydney, 2002, pp. 81, 100; Browne, A Woman of Distinction, pp. 64–7; AFR (Syd.), 4 Sept. 1970, p. 2; CPD, 31 May 1950, p. 3447, 24 Feb. 1959, p. 136; Rankin, Press statements and speeches, M1569, 34, 37, 41, NAA.

[7] Rankin, Press statements and speeches, M1569, 47, NAA; Browne, A Woman of Distinction, p. 59; CT, 4 June 1971, p. 13; Rankin, Transcript, pp. 24–7.

[8] Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 1 Sept. 1986, p. 5; CPD, 16 Sept. 1986, pp. 433–8.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 275-279.

RANKIN, Dame Annabelle Jane Mary (1908–1986)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1947–71

Minister for Housing, 1966–71

Senate Committee Service

Joint Standing Committee on Broadcasting, 1947–49

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1947–50

House Committee, 1947–50

Library Committee, 1947–50

Printing Committee, 1947–50

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1947–50

Standing Orders Committee, 1947–51

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1950–51