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Rae, Arthur Edward (1860–1943)

by Frank Farrell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Arthur Edward George Rae (1860-1943), by unknown photographer, 1910-14

Arthur Edward George Rae (1860-1943), by unknown photographer, 1910-14

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an25012433

Arthur Edward George Rae (1860-1943), unionist, journalist and senator, was born on 14 March 1860 at Christchurch, New Zealand, son of Charles Joseph Rae, painter and glazier, and his wife Ann Elizabeth, née Beldan. His father, as secretary of the Railway Employees' Association, at 70, played an important role in the New Zealand 1890 railway strike. Arthur attended Blenheim Public School and had some training as a mechanic, but later worked as a shearer and a labourer, joining the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia on its formation in 1886.

In 1889 he moved to Australia and worked on railway construction jobs and ringbarked trees in Gippsland, Victoria. He organized for the shearers union's Creswick and Wagga Wagga branches in Victoria and New South Wales. In 1890, charged under the Masters and Servants Act (1857), he was sentenced to 'sixty-one consecutive fortnights' imprisonment' for bringing the Riverina shearers out in support of the maritime strike and refusing to pay the alternative fines. However, the New South Wales government, under pressure of public indignation, released him after one month in gaol at Hay; Rae had 'displayed almost satanic ingenuity in setting the regulations at naught'. He was made a life member of his union for his efforts during the bitter strike conflict. In 1891 he inspired the Wagga branch to produce a small union newspaper, the Hummer, that in 1893 became the Australian Worker. On 28 July 1892 at Blenheim, New Zealand, he married English-born Annie Fryer. A vice-president of the shearers' union in 1893, following its merger in the Australian Workers' Union (1894) Rae became president in 1895, secretary in 1898-99, and held many other offices.

In 1891 he was one of the first Labor members returned to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, for Murrumbidgee. In 1894 he lost the seat by seven votes and failed again in 1895 and 1898 and for the Federal seats of Hunter (1903) and Parramatta (1907). He was elected to the Senate in 1910 but lost his place in 1914. In 1912 Rae had moved from the Riverina, where he had been wheat-farming, to Glenorie, north of Sydney, where he became a fruit-grower before moving to Marrickville in 1918.

Rae quickly moved away from his earlier radical socialism, merging his militancy in Labor populism and nationalist enthusiasm. He was influenced towards advanced views on women's issues and welfare by the social reformer Rose Scott. In 1908 he favoured the abolition of State parliaments in favour of smaller legislative bodies and the transfer of industrial powers to the Federal government. He was 'dead agin' borrowing, by Federal or State governments, but was an influence on the direction of Federal Labor's 1914 domestic reforms.

During World War I Rae began to return to radical ideas. Caught up in attempts to maintain traditional Labor principles, he moved the anti-conscription motion at the April 1916 conference of the New South Wales Labor Party that produced a chain of expulsions of party members throughout the nation. He also suffered personal tragedy. Only one of his three sons who served in the Australian Imperial Force returned alive. His wife never recovered from the blow. She died in 1929.

In 1920 he was excluded from holding further office in the A.W.U. when he refused to sign a pledge of loyalty to those in control of the union. Rae's conflict with the leadership resulted from the split in the New South Wales Labor Party in 1919 when he had supported the 'breakaway' One Big Union led by Jock Garden and A. C. Willis. Rae turned to journalism and was subsequently a member of the Coal Miners' Federation and the Australian Journalists' Association. He wrote for the Labor Daily and supported J. T. Lang in factional struggles in 1926-27.

In 'The curse of compulsory unionism' (Pan Pacific Worker, April 1928) Rae attacked the arbitration system and the 'moral harm' it had done to workers who had 'like Esau of old … sold their birthright for a mess of pottage'. Now 'doped with legalism', in his view, they were unable to conceive of self-reliant unionism and were threatened with a system of industrial slavery imposed by employers and the state. Rae urged a new united front of the working class. He supported the unsuccessful attempt by communists and militants to establish a separate pastoral union and undermine the A.W.U. in the early 1930s. Back in the Senate in 1928-35, in 1931 he joined the breakaway Lang Labor group.

His recreations included axe-work and mountain-climbing. Rae died on 25 November 1943 at Liverpool, and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £820. Two sons, two daughters and an adopted daughter survived him. The Worker in 1914 had saluted him as 'one of the Napoleons' of the cause: 'tell the history of Arthur Rae and you tell the history of the Australian Labor Movement'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Syd, 1981)
  • Pan-Pacific Worker (Sydney), 1 Apr 1928
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 7 July 1891
  • Australian Worker, 5 Nov 1908, 5 May 1910, 17 Sept 1914, 6 Dec 1917, 5 Sept 1918, 11 Dec 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sept 1929
  • R. Markey, Labour and Politics in New South Wales, 1880-1900 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Wollongong, 1984)
  • J. Simpson, Damned Radicals and Blasted Realists: The Australian Workers' Union and the One Big Union, 1915-1925 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1985)
  • Rose Scott correspondence (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Rae, Arthur Edward (1860–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rae-arthur-edward-8148/text14237, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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