By Peter Sekuless

Connor Court Publishing 2023

ISBN: 9781922815385

RRP: $19.95 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


For a woman of so many firsts, Senator Dame Annabelle Rankin has, as writer Peter Sukeless puts it, “been overlooked for too long”. Now, Connor Court’s Australian Biographical Monograph Series has taken a worthy step to put that to rights.

Annabelle Rankin was the first woman to represent Queensland in the Senate, entering parliament after the 1946 federal election as a Liberal Party senator. She followed that by becoming the first woman to be a government whip in both the Australian parliament and the British Commonwealth and, after two decades in the Senate, became the first woman with responsibility for a government department. Then, on retirement from the Senate, she was the first woman to represent Australia as a diplomat when she became Australia’s High Commissioner to New Zealand in 1971.

Senator Rankin, born in 1908 as the elder daughter of Colonel Colin Rankin who was also managing director of the Queensland Collieries Company and the State MP for Burrum, was very familiar with political life long before she threw her hat in the ring for nomination as a senator. After her “grand overseas tour” post schooling and funded by her well-off family, Annabelle Rankin took up work as State Secretary of the Queensland Girl Guides Association. As the war took over, she became involved with the women’s sections of the civilian military joining as a blue-uniformed member of the Voluntary Aid Detachments and later in the khaki of the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service. She was awarded medals for her service.

As part of her war service, Rankin was sent to address meetings soliciting support for the services. At one of these meetings, she impressed lawyer Charles Wanstall who was an executive member of the Queensland People’s Party and a state MP. He later encouraged her to put her name forward for the Senate selection due in a few months. Rankin’s time in the services and as leader of the Guides had improved her confidence and presentation style to a point that she had become a serious contender for a life in a man’s milieu.

This was a daunting challenge for a young woman in 1946 to take such a step. And one possibly likely to fail. Registering many of the doubts and reservations of women at the time – even Enid Lyons had to be pushed by a daughter to stand in Darwin (Tasmania) in 1943 – Rankin took the plunge. And she won. It was a small victory also for her federal leader as – in the preselection – she had defeated long time Senator Harry Foll for the spot. Harry Foll had led the party revolt against Robert Menzies in August 1941 which led to his resignation as party leader and PM.

Sekuless notes that at the time of the pre-selections for the Queensland senate candidates in 1946, the Queensland division of what was to become the Liberal Party of Australia showed confidence. It had selected an unmarried woman, albeit of untainted conservative background, alongside a Brisbane solicitor of Catholic background, Neil O’Sullivan. Neither could be said to be in the traditional non-Labor style and Sekuless argues this showed the party had made “a vote of confidence in the future”.

The 1946 federal election campaign saw Rankin speaking in rural outposts, even from the back of trucks, on a 2,500-mile tour of northern and north western Queensland made with Neil O’Sullivan. It was a tour to make or break the new senator, but she used it as a learning curve, eventually equipping herself with a portable step ladder to help with the climb onto the trucks in her skirt. Anxious about having to face random questions from her roadside and rural audiences, the most frustrating query of all seems to have been questions about her lack of marital status – something hard to imagine eight decades later.

Rankin undoubtedly was advantaged in the timing of her preselection with so many men caught up in the war. Indeed, her personal popularity showed in the fact that, in spite of being in the third spot on the Liberal/Country Party ticket, she won almost twice as many first preference votes as Neil O’Sullivan in second spot on the Liberal ticket at the 1946 election. Senator Walter Cooper retained his spot at the head of the ticket.

With the old voting system for the Senate until 1948, where the party winning the most votes in any state took all the Senate seats up for election for that state, the Liberal/Country Party coalition held just three (Queensland) senate seats in the new Senate after the 1946 election. This meant a very weakened opposition but also offered Rankin a unique opportunity to gain parliamentary experience in rapid time.

As a woman of so many firsts, Rankin attracted the interest of the national media much of which focused on her looks and presentation as if in a modelling role. She was soon leaning on the support of Enid Lyons, an old hand at politics who advised her to use her feminine advantages and not annoy the male order of things. Lyons recognised where her female power lay – even if at times at a disadvantage in the pecking order. Rankin was soon engaged to write a weekly column for the Brisbane Courier Mail which appeared every Monday. In addition, she was elected opposition whip in the Senate.

Such a chance at political experience and media marketing would not have come to any new male senator and Rankin grasped it with both hands. Sekuless charts Rankin’s time in her early years in the Senate through to the 1949 election, showing her attacking the Chifley Government’s handling of housing and postal services and taking part in the Liberal/Country Party’s popular campaign against Labor’s bank nationalisation legislation. It was a heady introduction to politics. With the election of the Menzies Government in December 1949, however, Rankin found herself relegated to lesser opportunities as the surge of incoming new male MPs took up the portfolios and even her spot as Senate whip.

The experience was daunting and Rankin downloaded her misgivings to Enid Lyons who pushed her to go on. She should master the job as well as her male colleagues and persist. Then she would be recognised. And that is what happened with Rankin developing speeches that moved away from a focus on women and children to broader issues such as defence and the development of northern Australia. In June 1951, after the double dissolution election, Rankin was elected Senate government whip.

Sekuless follows Rankin’s parliamentary career closely, revealing a busy life and much of the tactical performance required behind the scenes often not understood by those without parliamentary experience. It took Rankin two decades to be given a portfolio but her time as government whip in the Senate saw her conduct much artful leadership as the government worked to pass difficult pieces of legislation in a Senate where it had a majority of two. In the telling, Sekuless provides a window on parliamentary practice not often open to view.

Undoubtedly, personal popularity saw Rankin retain her Senate seat even at elections such as that of 1955 when her third spot on the Coalition ticket for Queensland left her open to the loss of her seat to a Labor candidate. At that election, in spite of a majority of first preferences for the Coalition candidates, Rankin scored a hefty 16,886 votes in her own right.

In spite of being tipped for a portfolio, it was not until Menzies’ retirement that Rankin made it to the ministry. New Prime Mnister Harold Holt made her Minister for Housing, sworn in on Australia Day 26 January 1966. Whether Rankin had been the victim of a paternalistic Menzies view of male and female capabilities is not canvassed by Sekuless but it is possible. Holt also removed the ban on women holding permanent positions in the Commonwealth Public Service. In the year to follow, Rankin secured the passing of the Loans (Housing) Bill which injected much needed money into the housing industry, as well as aiding single and aged residents in finding affordable housing. She also oversaw the Housing Agreements Bill to enable a further five-year extension of the Commonwealth-State Housing Agreement.

Annabelle Rankin’s time as a senator would end suddenly with the announcement of the ministry of new prime minister Billy McMahon on 22 March 1971 after John Gorton was deposed in a tide of factional warfare within the Liberal Party. Rankin found she had been allocated to the back bench, where she joined Malcolm Fraser who had also been demoted. She resigned from the Senate two days later. Her new posting as High Commissioner to New Zealand was seen as her consolation prize.

Peter Sekuless has brought the life of Annabelle Rankin into the light after decades forgotten. A tenacious and assiduous member of the Senate for the Liberal Party of Australia, she made the most of her opportunities for the good of the party and women in politics. As Sekuless shows, she was a trailblazer who still offers a way forward for young female political aspirants decades later.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.