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Rankin, George James (1887–1957)

by Malcolm Saunders

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

George James Rankin (1887-1957), by Vincent Kelly, 1938

George James Rankin (1887-1957), by Vincent Kelly, 1938

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23492534

George James Rankin (1887-1957), farmer, soldier and politician, was born on 1 May 1887 at Bamawm, Victoria, tenth child of Irish-born parents James Rankin, farmer, and his wife Sarah, née Gallagher. George was educated at the local state school and later farmed at Nanneella. At the Presbyterian manse, Rochester, on 17 July 1912 he married Annie Isabella Oliver, a 39-year-old dressmaker. He had joined the Militia in 1907 and been commissioned (1909) in the 9th Light Horse Regiment. On 20 August 1914 he was appointed lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, and posted to the 4th L.H.R.

The unit reached Gallipoli in May 1915. Rankin was wounded in July and promoted captain in December. Appointed major in March 1916, he participated in operations in the Sinai where he showed a brilliant grasp of light-horse tactics. As second-in-command of his unit from August 1917, he was present at the famous charge at Beersheba on 31 October, and subsequently took an important part in reorganizing the unit and consolidating positions on the town's outskirts. In 1918 he won the Distinguished Service Order for his gallantry in action around Jerusalem. He was also mentioned in dispatches. For his leadership during the capture of Damascus he was awarded a Bar to his D.S.O.

In March 1919 units of the Light Horse were sent to Egypt to help the British put down a rebellion. Rankin sailed for Australia in June and his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 23 September. Resuming his service in the Militia, he gained steady advancement: he commanded the 2nd Cavalry Division as a brigadier (from October 1936) and as a major general (from July 1937).

Rankin developed an interest in politics. In 1928 he helped to form the Bamawm-Rochester branch of the Country Party, over which he presided from the early 1930s. He was elected chief president of the Victorian United Country Party in 1937, but, under party rules, had to resign that year when he won the seat of Bendigo in the House of Representatives. Although he had denounced participation in composite ministries to appease those who wanted the Country Party to remain independent from the United Australia Party, he immediately aligned himself in parliament with Country Party members who sought to form a coalition with the U.A.P. under Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. His stand angered the State council of the V.U.C.P. which forced him to back down.

Concentrating on issues relating to defence and primary industry, Rankin earned a reputation as an authority on—and unswerving advocate of—the interests of returned servicemen and wheat-farmers. He was placed on the Unattached List in February 1942, but continued to play an active role (until July 1944) as colonel commandant of the North-West Group, Volunteer Defence Corps, Victoria. By 1943 he was again sitting with the federal parliamentary Country Party and had become a tenacious and aggressive critic of the Labor government. He had a number of Labor friends, but the party as a whole viewed him as a thorn in its side.

In 1949 the electoral boundaries of Rankin's seat were redrawn to exclude Rochester and Echuca, towns where he enjoyed overwhelming electoral support. He stood for the Senate in December, and won. In April 1951 he was again returned as a senator, but the number of his speeches and interjections decreased. He served as chairman of committees in 1951-53 before his frequent illness led to absences from parliament. While consolidating his reputation as a bitter anti-communist, he maintained a blunt, fearless and no-nonsense approach which rankled the coalition government headed by (Sir) Robert Menzies, as it had previous Labor ministries. There were some in all three major parties who were relieved when he chose not to contest the 1955 elections, due to poor health.

Survived by his wife, Rankin died of cerebrovascular disease on 28 December 1957 at Rochester and was buried in the local cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £50,096. Throughout his adult life he had been loyal to the army and to his district. That loyalty was reflected in the tributes paid to him. Yet many distrusted the big, overweight, genial and abrasive old soldier, who drank heavily and thought nothing of being ejected from parliament after a slanging match with his political opponents. Rankin valued public service, but his rough manners, learned in the country and reinforced by army life, probably disqualified him from higher office.

Select Bibliography

  • U. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • P. Spender, Politics and a Man (Syd, 1972)
  • D. Holloway, Hooves, Wheels and Tracks (Melb, 1990)
  • N. Smith, Men of Beersheba (Melb, 1993)
  • Rochester Irrigator, 8 Feb 1957, 8 Jan 1958
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 30-31 Dec 1957
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 16 Jan 1958
  • private information.

Citation details

Malcolm Saunders, 'Rankin, George James (1887–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rankin-george-james-11486/text20483, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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