CRAWFORD, Thomas William (1865–1948)
Senator for Queensland, 1917–47 (Nationalist Party; United Australia Party; Independent)

Thomas William Crawford, sugar farmer, sugar industry advocate and politician, was born on 31 January 1865 at East Collingwood, Melbourne, son of Thomas and Ellen, née Lawson. Crawford senior had left Armagh, Ireland, in search of a better life in Australia. He opened a store at Woods Point on the Gippsland goldfields in Victoria, and soon after, in 1864, married the English-born Ellen. As returns from Woods Point goldmining declined the Crawfords were able to select farming land adjacent to the Gippsland Lakes. The holding was marginal, and after Crawford’s father mysteriously disappeared in 1879, Thomas junior, fourteen years of age and with limited schooling, was left to support his mother and six younger siblings. He secured a printing apprenticeship with the Gippsland Mercury in Sale and pursued self-improvement in a debating society where, at sixteen, he gave his first speech in favour of protection. He sought advancement on the Australasian in Melbourne, spending two years there before moving to Brisbane and a position on the Brisbane Courier. On 17 September 1886 he married Emily Muntz at the Wesleyan Parsonage, Bowen Hills, Brisbane. Also from Melbourne, Emily had been active in Collingwood’s Wesleyan Methodist Church, where she met Crawford, a fellow worshipper despite his Church of England baptism.

Crawford probably brought to Brisbane experience in the Melbourne Typographical Society, the largest and strongest printing union in Australia. He quickly became prominent in the Queensland Typographical Association (QTA), which in the late 1880s rivalled its Melbourne counterpart, particularly in its drive for completely unionised workplaces. In mid-1887 Crawford became QTA secretary and in the following year he toured provincial Queensland, dramatically extending the QTA’s reach and membership. In the industrially turbulent 1890s Crawford left the Courier for the new Queensland Worker. He joined a deputation to the Colonial Secretary on behalf of unemployed compositors and served, with labour sympathies, on the 1891 Royal Commission into Working Conditions in Shops, Factories and Workshops in the colony. Crawford also represented the QTA on the Brisbane district council of the Australasian Labour Federation, and in February 1892 assumed the presidency of the association. This was a difficult time as industrial conflict and economic depression eroded the QTA’s membership and resources. Crawford retired as president in July 1893; by 1895 the association’s very existence was in doubt.[1]

These developments made 1895 a turning-point in Crawford’s life. He was ambitious, had a wife and four children to support, and was facing a future that looked bleak for unionism and the labour press. His capacity to embark on a new career was enhanced by thriftily accumulated savings and some support from his wife’s family. On 29 April 1895, he joined his brothers-in-law in the management of the Brie Brie Estate, a canegrowing property near Mossman in far north Queensland. He subsequently bought a 400‑acre block of the estate. Crawford was a shareholder and secretary of the Mossman Central Mill when it began crushing in 1897 and thereafter served as director and chairman. He became the biggest sugar grower in the Mossman district and was prominent in local affairs as Methodist Trust secretary, Justice of the Peace and supporter of the Farmers’ Association as well as the local school, show and hospital. Crawford’s political career began in local government. In 1902, with the endorsement of the Mossman Farmers’ Association, he was elected to the Port Douglas Divisional Board, serving on it and its successor, the Douglas Shire Council, until 1911.

As non-European labour was rapidly phased out of the sugar industry after 1901, north Queensland employers contended that the supply and quality of white labour was inadequate to fill the vacuum. The Townsville Chamber of Commerce organised a conference of sugar industry employers in 1904 to deal with the issue. In December 1906, at Crawford’s instigation, the directors of Mossman Central Mill requested a further assembly, complaining that the industry was threatened with extinction because, for the most part, the available white labour was ‘of the most inferior description’. The 1907 conference on ‘the future supply of labor for the canefields’ opened in Townsville on 25 February with representatives from all Queensland sugar growing districts. Crawford was prominent during the proceedings, moving the first motion calling for action to overcome a labour shortage for the coming harvest. He alleged Mossman sugar land had been left unplanted the previous year for want of competent workers and pointedly praised the performance of an Italian gang who cut cane at more than twice the rate of the Australians they replaced. He announced that the Mossman Hill Company had applied to the Prime Minister to import fifty Italian workers for the coming season. He clashed heatedly with Thomas Foley, later a Queensland MLA and minister, who at this time was the sole labour representative from the Townsville Workers’ Political Organization. An important outcome of the conference was the establishment of the Australian Sugar Producers’ Association (ASPA). The inaugural meeting of the ASPA Council was held in Townsville on 12 August 1907. Crawford, the Mossman delegate, was elected vice-president. In 1909 he assumed the presidency, which he held for an unbroken record term of thirty-four years, until his retirement in 1943, after which he continued as an executive member until 1945.[2]

The ASPA presidency ensured Crawford’s Queensland prominence as an employers’ advocate during the 1911 sugar strike. He earned the enmity of Myles Ferricks, who, years later, accused him of bringing southern strike-breakers up from Sydney to Mossman to displace inadequately paid local men. In the wake of the strike Crawford was appointed to the Commonwealth Government’s 1912 Royal Commission on the Sugar Industry. He did not sign the majority report but, in a ‘dissentient memorandum’, endorsed its assumptions regarding the indispensability of sugar for national security and White Australia, and the continuing need for protection. Crawford’s differences with his fellow commissioners lay in his sympathy for the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) and his silence on the subjects of a minimum wage and improved conditions for workers.

At the 1910 federal election, Crawford contested the Herbert electorate as a Deakinite Liberal, campaigning on states’ rights, White Australia, protection, immigration, defence and support for the ‘great Queensland sugar industry’. He fielded an interjector’s allusion to his trade union past by declining ‘to become autobiographical’. Although defeated by the incumbent Labor Party candidate, he scored sufficiently well in the sugar districts to be included on the Liberal Party Senate ticket in 1914. Again unsuccessful, he nevertheless contested the May 1917 general election on the Nationalist Party Senate ticket. He had the backing of the Australian Sugar Journal, the organ of ASPA, as one ‘who has personal interests, both as a grower and as a director of a central mill’. Crawford opened the campaign in Cairns arguing that Prime Minister William Hughes’ new coalition would deliver ‘the last man and last shilling’ to the British Empire’s war effort. His sincerity was underlined by the enlistment of two of his sons in the AIF, one of whom, Hugh, won the Military Medal for bravery in action. In Babinda, Crawford’s entire speech was devoted to the welfare of the local district and Queensland’s other sugar areas, all languishing as ‘far-distant foreign possessions’ of metropolitan Australia. He topped the Senate poll in Queensland.[3]

From the time of his arrival in the Senate Crawford presented himself as a representative of the Queensland sugar industry and pursued sugar industry interests almost exclusively. His first words were in defence of CSR and throughout his public career he rebutted allegations that the company profiteered and exploited growers. As far as Crawford was concerned CSR was ‘one of the chief bulwarks of the industry’. Crawford’s defence of CSR attracted criticism, particularly from Senator Ferricks who believed CSR abused its refining monopoly at the expense of growers, consumers and retailers, and claimed that Crawford spoke ‘semi-officially’ for CSR. Crawford, however, went even further, linking the sugar industry to White Australia and the need to preserve the global ‘domination of the white races’.

During the first half of the 1920s the Commonwealth Government prohibited sugar imports and increased the price of the local product. In the sugar districts of Queensland Crawford was, with some justification, credited with this protection and was regularly returned to the Senate. In 1918, with fellow north Queenslander, F. W. Bamford, MHR, he had presented a parliamentary report, ‘Cyclone Devastation in North Queensland’, which examined the effects of a March cyclone on the Cairns–Innisfail region. He served on the Joint Committee on Public Accounts. In February 1923 Crawford represented the Queensland Nationalists as an Honorary Minister in the Bruce–Page Government, acting at times as minister for the various portfolios of Trade and Customs, Repatriation, Home and Territories, and Postmater-General, until displaced in a November 1928 Cabinet reshuffle. He was sacrificed to mollify Tasmanian voters disaffected by their state’s lack of Cabinet representation. In 1925 and 1926 he also served as Minister Representing the Minister for Defence and Health and the Postmaster-General in the Senate.[4]

In May 1941 Crawford withdrew from the United Australia Party, believing that the new Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, had vetoed him from the ministry because of his support for W. M. Hughes in the leadership ballot following the death of Joseph Lyons. Crawford thereafter acted as an independent and became increasingly isolated. He was the only non-Labor senator to vote against a proposed Opposition amendment to the Defence (Citizen Military Forces) Bill 1943. The amendment would have required members of the Citizen Military Forces to serve outside Australia in areas beyond the Curtin Government’s South-Western Pacific Zone.

Crawford was prone to personal rancour. A rift with his Senate colleague and campaign partner, Hattil Foll, deepened. The two had sniped at each other during Senate debates in the 1920s but Crawford dated Foll’s ‘attitude of hostility’ to their unsuccessful candidatures for the Senate presidency in 1935. On 2 July 1941 their rivalry erupted into a sustained exchange ranking among the most bitter and personal ever heard in the Senate. In launching the diatribe Crawford was able to take advantage of a campaign by Smith’s Weekly alleging the export of lead from the Mt Isa Mines to Japan and the complicity of Foll, Minister for the Interior, and a director of the Mt Isa Mines. Foll was forced to resign from Mt Isa Mines board the following day, but his reply was a devastating audit of Crawford’s shortcomings as a senator including irregular attendance, an income from ASPA and evidence pointing to his authorship of defamatory anonymous letters.[5]

Crawford’s health and parliamentary performance deteriorated in the latter stages of his long career. From 20 November 1940 to 1 July 1943, he was absent without leave for thirty-nine days of the 114 for which attendance was recorded. From at least July 1940 there were moves from within ASPA to have the 75-year old senator ‘gracefully retire with honour’. That he should have acquiesced was made clear in 1944 when, after voting with the Labor Government on a constitutional bill, he left the chamber shouting at senior Opposition figures: ‘I’ll please myself what I do. You mind your own business’. George McLeay, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, then requested Crawford not to use the Opposition party room.[6]

Crawford left the Senate in June 1947. He died almost a year later, on 9 June 1948, at his home in Indooroopilly, Brisbane. He was cremated at Mt Thompson after a service at the Albert Street Methodist Church. Crawford was survived by his wife, four daughters, Annie, Florence, Edith and Hazel, and three sons, William Hugh (known as Hugh), Charles and Arthur. Hugh and Charles were canegrowers on the Brie Brie Estate and Hugh was also a director of the Mossman Central Mill. Arthur was a sugar chemist at the Goondi Mill, having had experience in Fiji. Crawford’s grandson, Don Watson, carried on the family tradition as director of Brie Brie Estate and chairman of Mossman Central Mill and in 1979 became president of ASPA. Crawford left a substantial estate valued at $42 122 in Queensland and $79 870 in Victoria.

He had traversed the ideological spectrum from trade union leader to conservative agrarian politician. Fittingly, he is described in a standard history of Queensland as ‘Mr Sugar’.[7]

Rodney Sullivan

[1] Ann G. Smith, ‘Crawford, Thomas William’, ADB, vol. 8; Marjorie Pagani, T. W. Crawford: Politics and the Queensland Sugar Industry, James Cook University, Townsville, Qld, 1989, pp. 1–17; CPD, 14 June 1933, pp. 2284, 2277; Australasian Typographical Journal (Melb.), Mar. 1890, pp. 2013–14, Feb. 1891, pp. 2106–7, Mar. 1892, p. 2222; QPP, Royal Commission into Working Conditions in Shops, Factories, and Workshops in the Colony, report, 1891.

[2] Punch (Melb.), 19 Aug. 1920, p. 2; Australian Sugar Journal, 15 June 1948, p. 146; Queenslander (Brisb.), 19 Sept. 1929, p. 59; Pagani, T. W. Crawford, pp. 26–46; G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away: A History of North Queensland to 1920, ANU Press, Canberra, 1970, pp. vii–ix, 209–11; North Queensland Herald (Townsville), 14 Jan. 1907, p. 45, 2 Mar. 1907, p. 43, 17 Aug. 1907, p. 30; Australian Sugar Journal, Nov. 1975, pp. 376–7.

[3] Australian Sugar Journal, 6 July 1911, pp. 173–7, 184, 189, 213–15; CPD, 11 Apr. 1918, p. 3816; CPP, Royal Commission on the Sugar Industry, report, 1912; North Queensland Herald (Townsville), 5 Mar. 1910, pp. 29–32; Brisbane Courier, 20 July 1914, p. 7; Australian Sugar Journal, 5 Apr. 1917, pp. 6, 8, 7 June 1917, p. 212; Cairns Post, 6 Apr. 1917, p. 4, 11 Apr. 1917, p. 3.

[4] CPD, 21 Aug. 1919, pp. 11774–83, 5 Sept. 1917, pp. 1642–4, 14 July 1922, pp. 469–83, 17 Sept. 1919, pp. 12364–7, 20 Aug. 1919, pp. 11676–82, 3 June 1942, pp. 1964–6, 5 Dec. 1935, pp. 2574–80; Ross Fitzgerald, From 1915 to the Early 1980s: A History of Queensland, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1984, p. 65; CPD, 13 May 1931, p. 1812; Senate, Journals, 19 Sept. 1918; CPD, 24 Mar. 1927, p. 1009; Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law 1901–1929, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1956, p. 261; CPD, 11 June 1925, p. 45, 14 Jan. 1926, p. 27.

[5] SMH, 30 May 1941, p. 9, 28 June 1941, p. 15; CPD, 18 Feb. 1943, pp. 873–8; Daily Mirror (Syd.), 17 Feb. 1943, p. 5; Pagani, T. W. Crawford, pp. 138–9; CT, 24 Sept. 1935, p. 1; Age (Melb.), 3 July 1941, p. 6; Smith’s Weekly (Syd.), 3 May 1941, pp. 1–2, 10 May 1941, pp. 1–2; Geoffrey Blainey, Mines in the Spinifex: The Story of Mount Isa Mines, A & R, Sydney, 1960, pp. 180–1; CPD, 2 July 1941, pp. 669–77.

[6] Pagani, T. W. Crawford, pp. 137–8; Sunday Telegraph (Syd.), 5 Mar. 1944, p. 8; Senate, Journals, 22 Mar. 1944, 23 Mar. 1944; SMH, 23 Mar. 1944, p. 7, 24 Mar. 1944, p. 4, 30 Mar. 1944, p. 6.

[7] Pagani, T. W. Crawford, pp. 140–1; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 10 June 1948, p. 3; Townsville Daily Bulletin, 10 June 1948, p. 1; Australian Sugar Journal, 9 July 1942, p. 125, 15 June 1948, p. 146; John Kerr, Northern Outpost, 2nd edn, Mossman Central Mill Company, Mossman, Qld, 1995, pp. 68–70; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 23 Mar. 1979, p. 6; Fitzgerald, From 1915 to the Early 1980s, p. 65.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 329-333.

CRAWFORD, Thomas William (1865-1948)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Qld, 1917–47

Honorary Minister, 1923–28

Acting Minister for Health, 1925, 1926

Acting Minister for Defence, 1925, 1926

Acting Post-Master General, 1925, 1926

Acting Minister for Trade and Customs, 1927

Senate Committee Service

Joint Committee of Public Accounts, 1918–20

Standing Orders Committee, 1921–22, 1929–47

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1932–43