RANKIN, George James (1887–1957)
Senator for Victoria, 1950–56 (Australian Country Party)

George James Rankin was a soldier first and a politician second. In some ways he was representative of the politics of his day. His status as a soldier—indeed a war hero—gave him an advantage in gaining entry into the federal Parliament during the late 1930s. Rankin was born on 1 May 1887 at Bamawm, a tiny hamlet near the town of Rochester in northern Victoria. He was the youngest of ten children, his mother, Sarah Rankin, née Gallagher, dying within two years of his birth. His parents had migrated to Australia from Donegal in north-west Ireland, probably in the early 1860s. His father, James, was one of the earliest settlers of the Bamawm district in the late 1860s, and had pioneered the use of irrigation to establish a small but thriving farm on which he grew wheat and fruit, but, above all, raised dairy cattle. That George grew up among crops and animals does much to explain not only his lifelong interest in farming but also his later affinity with the Light Horse. Leaving school at an early age, throughout his life he saw himself as a self-made man, and was openly contemptuous of highly educated, professional people, especially academics.[1]

First commissioned as a second lieutenant in a Light Horse regiment of the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) in 1909, Rankin, with Albert David Reid, served in the 4th Australian Light Horse Regiment during World War I, seeing action at Gallipoli and in Sinai and Palestine. In October 1917 he took part in the famous charge on Beersheba. His flair for the use of horses in the desert as well as his dash and cunning were early recognised. He emerged from the war as a major, having won the DSO (with bar) and been twice mentioned in despatches. After helping to put down a rebellion against British rule in Egypt in 1919, he brought the 4th back to Victoria as its commander.

For most of the inter-war period the army—and, to a lesser extent, the farm, which he inherited from his father in 1914—occupied much of his time. He was in command of the 17th Light Horse Regiment (1920–26), of the 5th Cavalry Brigade (1926–32), and from 1935, of the Second Cavalry Division. Stationed in Bendigo the Second Calvary Division was then the second biggest cavalry unit in the much depleted Australian army. In 1938 he was promoted to the rank of major-general. As a farmer and a Light Horseman, it is not surprising that soon after the war he had joined the newly formed Victorian Country Party. After helping to found the Bamawm‑Rochester branch in 1928, he went on to serve as its president for several years from 1930, by which time the state organisation was known as the United Country Party.[2]

The year 1937 was something of an annus mirabilis for George Rankin. The Victorian branch of the Country Party for many years had been divided between the radicals, who wanted the party’s parliamentarians to remain completely independent of the United Australia Party, and the moderates, who were not averse to joining what were called ‘composite ministries’. As the choice of the moderates, Rankin became chief president of the United Country Party at its much publicised congress in Geelong in April. Three months later he was preselected for the federal seat of Bendigo, and went on to wrest the seat from the UAP with a comfortable majority. Only reluctantly did he then give up the state presidency, which it seems, in accordance with party practice, he was obliged to do.[3]

Rankin had several times declared that he was opposed to composite ministries, but immediately upon entering the House of Representatives he joined the federal parliamentary party—an act that angered the state council, which responded by forcing him to withdraw from the federal coalition. Thereafter, Rankin’s position was a tenuous one. Not until 1943 could he fully deem himself a member of the Australian Country Party. From 1937 he had to refer to himself as belonging to the Victorian Country Party and from 1940 to the United Country Party.

The new MHR for Bendigo was a solid, distinguishedlooking, middle‑aged man, who believed his half‑century in farming and his nearly thirty years in the army entitled him to enter Parliament as an advocate of his region, the ‘man on the land’, and both the serving and returned soldier. He also saw himself as an authority on matters of defence. Throughout his nearly eighteen years in federal Parliament—twelve in the House of Representatives and five and a half in the Senate—he seldom failed to make mention of defence or of a military-related subject.[4]

In most ways, he was a typical Country Party MHR of that era. He favoured rural interests over urban concerns, and frequently claimed that the country was subsidising the city. He was a staunch opponent of the left whether it be found in the Communist Party, the ALP, or even occasionally in the UAP. In fact, in the late 1940s, one journalist remarked that ‘if there were a House competition for the first member to see Red in anything, it probably would be won by Major-General George Rankin’. Perhaps above all, he was a good local member. In the late 1990s there were still some of his former constituents who best remember him for having done a great deal for his electorate.[5]

As a Victorian, he demanded increased government assistance for small producers such as dairy farmers and fruit growers. Indeed, he frequently claimed that federal governments of either ilk had assisted the large primary industries of the north, particularly beef and sugar, in preference to those of the south—dairying, pigs, and tobacco. Moreover, he was keen to attack foreign ownership of huge grazing properties in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia. Some of his most venomous comments were reserved for companies like the Vestey Brothers, William Angliss, and Bovril. Because he represented a large part of the north-west of Victoria he carried a special brief for wheat farmers. As the member for a once famous mining district he frequently pressed the interests of the waning gold industry.[6]

In his first speeches to Parliament in 1937 and 1938 he raised defence issues, which he would pursue throughout his political career. He urged the federal Government to take its share in the defence of the empire, by supporting industries that could be readily converted into munitions factories, by standardising the country’s railway gauges, and vigorously assisting the search for local oil. In the context of defence, he would later stress the importance of developing primary industries and increasing population in northern Australia, especially northern Queensland. During World War II he urged the amalgamation of the AIF and the militia (although he had actually voted against conscription for overseas military service during the conscription plebiscites of 1916 and 1917), and after the war demanded the reintroduction of compulsory military training.[7]

It would be difficult to identify in federal Parliament a more consistent advocate of the rights and interests of the soldier. He insisted that preference for ex-servicemen (and women) in government employment must be maintained, and alleged that federal Labor governments between 1941 and 1949 were not observing that principle. He claimed that returned soldiers were granted inadequate leave and that those suffering from war neuroses were being inappropriately interned in state mental asylums. He advocated the settlement of returned soldiers on the land after the war, especially in the north, and that a special allowance of petrol be made to country members of the CMF. He criticised the Government for ungenerous treatment of war widows and insisted that at least some soldiers serve on a proposed courts-martial appeal tribunal.[8]

Later Rankin would be described as ‘a fighter in whatever sphere he was engaged’ and a man ‘fearless in pursuit of the objective he had in hand’. Warm tributes were paid to him in Parliament upon his retirement in June 1956 and after his death in December 1957. But what at these times was praised had earlier irritated and angered his parliamentary colleagues. While Rankin had many drinking companions on both sides of the House of Representatives and the Senate, he was a constant thorn in the side of the Labor Party. His statements often had only a kernel of truth in them. He delighted in needling people, such as Labor’s former Minister for Commerce and Agriculture, W. J. Scully, MHR, and abusing those to whom he was, politically speaking, diametrically opposed, such as the Member for East Sydney, Eddie Ward. As the years went by he was less an irritation to Labor than an embarrassment to the coalition parties. His most active years in Parliament were in the House of Representatives between 1943 and 1949.[9]

In March 1949, while still serving as an MHR, he nominated for Senate preselection and, as a result of a ballot of delegates at a Country Party conference, was successful. Completing his term in the House of Representatives, he was placed second to John Armstrong Spicer on the joint Liberal Country Party and Country Party ticket, and was successful at the federal election in December. His years in the Senate saw his parliamentary activity and public visibility drop enormously. Perhaps his appointment as a temporary chairman of committees in the Senate in June 1951 obliged him to act with more decorum and circumspection. By then his health seems to have been failing as he spent more time in Bendigo, where he made the Old Crown Hotel his second home, and less time in Canberra.[10]

As early as September 1938 he had been arrested in Melbourne on a drink-driving charge. It was said that by the late 1940s he frequently spoke in the House of Representatives while ‘under the influence’. The situation reached its peak in the Senate in February 1956 when Rankin declared that the government of Indonesia, which was then seeking to take over former Dutch New Guinea, was a ‘gang of pro‑Japanese quislings’. A few days later he attacked the Minister for External Affairs, Richard Casey (who had apologised to President Soekarno for Rankin’s behaviour), for ‘crawling to a gang of thugs’. Rankin’s hostility to Indonesia was based on bitter memories from World War II. No other incident in his long political career elicited such publicity.

Rankin’s term in the Senate expired in June 1956. He had not been a candidate for the election of December 1955, probably due to poor health; for most of the previous twenty years he had been grossly overweight. He died in the War Memorial Hospital, Rochester, on 28 December 1957. On 17 July 1912 he had married Annie Isabella Oliver, in the Presbyterian manse, Rochester. Fourteen years his senior, Annie had borne no children, and passed away only four months after him. Fittingly, Rankin was given a military funeral the like of which Rochester had never seen.[11]

Malcolm Saunders

[1] Letter, Lundy Rankin to author, 12 July 1999; Mary Thompson, Bamawm: The Changing Scene, privately published, Bamawm, Vic., [1976], pp. 13, 14, 107–10; Bendigo Advertiser, 30 Dec. 1957, p. 1.

[2] Rochester Irrigator, 8 Jan. 1958, p. 1; Rankin, G. J.—War Service Records, B2455, B884, NAA; David Holloway, Hooves, Wheels and Tracks: A History of the 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse Regiment and its Predecessors, Regimental Trustees, 4th/19th Prince of Wales’s Light Horse Regiment, Fitzroy, Vic., 1990, pp. 172, 190; Neil Smith, Men of Beersheba: A History of the 4th Light Horse Regiment 1914–1919, Mostly Unsung Military History Research & Publications, Melbourne, 1993, pp. 79, 95, 98, 103, 123, 139, 146, 207; Chris Coultard-Clark, Soldiers in Politics: The Impact of the Military on Australian Political Life and Institutions, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, NSW, 1996, pp. 124–5, 178; Bendigo Advertiser, 29 Sept. 1937, p. 8.

[3] Ulrich Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party, MUP, Parkville, Vic., 1963, pp. 220–6, 243; Bendigo Advertiser, 15 Apr. 1937, p. 8; Countryman (Melb.), 16 Apr. 1937, p. 3, 22 Oct. 1937, p. 2; Bendigo Advertiser, 25 Oct. 1937, p. 5; Countryman (Melb.), 10 Dec. 1937, p. 4; Australian Country Party Monthly Journal (Syd.), Aug. 1937, p. 1, Nov. 1937, p. 3; Argus (Melb.), 3 May, 1939, p. 1, 6 May 1939, p. 1.

[4] CPD, 21 & 22 June 1956, p. 1845, 9 Dec. 1940 (R), pp. 616–19.

[5] Personal communication by author with local residents, Rochester and Bendigo; CPD, 20 Sept. 1945, p. 5755, 2 June 1949, pp. 470–8, 22 June 1950, p. 4752.

[6] CPD, 4 & 5 June 1947, p. 3451, 16 Feb. 1943, p. 708, 2 Mar. 1944, p. 839, 2 June 1949, p. 476, 21 Sept. 1949, p. 411, 25 July 1945, p. 4534, 8 Mar. 1946, p. 148, 9 Dec. 1940, p. 616.

[7] CPD, 1 Dec. 1937, pp. 50–1, 4 May 1938, pp. 827–32, 14 May 1947, p. 2328, 25 Oct. 1949, pp. 1940–1, 2 June 1949, pp. 475–6, 16 Dec. 1941, p. 1105, 7 June 1939, p. 1410, 12 Nov. 1941, pp. 291–3, 7 Dec. 1950, pp. 3876–8, 3896–7.

[8] CPD, 18 Mar. 1943, pp. 2018–19, 5 May 1948, p. 1441, 6 Aug. 1940, p. 221, 16 Nov. 1944, p. 1832, 10 Nov. 1948, pp. 2748, 16 Nov. 1948, pp. 3010–1, 8 Dec. 1948, pp. 4127–8, 28 Sept. 1948, p. 889, 3 June 1948, p. 1636, 26 May 1955, pp. 486–7.

[9] Rochester Irrigator, 8 Jan. 1958, p. 1; CPD, 21 & 22 June 1956, pp. 1845–6, 25 Feb. 1958, pp. 10–12; Percy Spender, Politics and a Man, Collins, Sydney, 1972, p. 30; CPD, 20 July 1945, p. 4365, 5 & 6 Dec. 1946, p. 1164, 22 Apr. 1940, pp. 324–6.

[10] Argus (Melb.), 15 Mar. 1949, p. 3, 18 Mar. 1949, p.1; CPD, 12 June 1951, p. 19.

[11] Argus (Melb.), 16 Nov. 1938, p. 13; CPD, 20 Nov. 1947, p. 2394, 16 Feb. 1956, pp. 18, 23, 1 Mar. 1956, pp. 245–9; Age (Melb.), 17 Feb. 1956, p. 3, 21 Feb. 1956, p. 4, 22 Feb. 1956, p. 4, 28 Dec. 1957, p. 1; CPD, 25 Feb. 1958 (R), pp. 7–10; Bendigo Advertiser, 31 Dec. 1957, p. 1, 1 Jan. 1958, p. 1.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 169-173.

RANKIN, George James (1887–1957)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Vic., 1950–56

Member of the House of Representatives for Bendigo, Vic., 1937–49

Chairman of Committees, 1951–53

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee on Taxation (including Sales Tax), 1941

Joint Committee on War Expenditure, 1943–46

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1950–51

House Committee, 1950–56

Standing Orders Committee, 1951–53