The transformation from pit boy to Prime Minister is a remarkable one, though Joseph Cook shares it with one other Australian Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher. Both emigrated to Australia from Britain, and both were founders of the Australian Labor Party – Cook in New South Wales and Fisher in Queensland.
Joseph Cook became Labor Member for Hartley in the New South Wales parliament in 1891, and 3 years later was a minister in George Reid’s Free Trade government. He became a Free Trade member of the first federal parliament in 1901, and in 1909 was Defence Minister in Alfred Deakin’s Fusion government. When Deakin resigned in 1913, Cook became leader of the Liberal Party, and 6 months later won the election that gave him his year as Australia’s sixth Prime Minister.
Joseph Cook was born in Staffordshire in England on 7 December 1860 to William and Margaret (Fletcher) Cooke. At the age of 9, he started work in the mines as a pit boy. Cook joined the local Primitive Methodist Church, and read and studied to make up for his lack of education. At the age of 16, he was a lay preacher and active in the local trade union. During this period he began spelling his name ‘Cook’ without the final ‘e’.
By 1885, Cook was earning a living as a railway worker. He married a local schoolteacher, Mary Turner, on 8 August 1885, and on Christmas Eve that year emigrated to Australia. After the couple’s first child was born in 1886, Mary Cook joined him in Lithgow, New South Wales, where both her husband and her brother worked in the coalmines.
Member for Hartley
In Lithgow, Joseph Cook led a busy life. He worked in the mines and was an active unionist. He was studying to become a Methodist minister, as well as learning typing, shorthand and book-keeping. In 1888, a few months after the Cooks’ second son, Albert, was born, Joseph Cook became general secretary of the union. He was an avowed republican and a member of the Land Nationalisation League, a group campaigning for a single tax on landowners. Cook was a member of the defence committee coordinating the 1890 maritime strike when a third son, Joseph William, was born.
In May 1891, Cook became president of the Lithgow branch of the Labor Electoral League, forerunner of the Labor Party. At the election the following month, he won the local seat of Hartley in the New South Wales parliament. On 17 October 1893, 2 years later, hard work, drive and ambition were rewarded when Cook was elected leader of the New South Wales parliamentary Labor Party. Within 6 months, however, Cook had left the Labor Party. The third annual conference in March 1894 had adopted the solidarity pledge, but Cook refused to commit himself to accept Caucus rule. He stood as Independent Labour at the July 1894 election.
When GH Reid became Premier in August 1894, Cook joined the Free Trade Party and became Postmaster-General in the Reid government. Though he and the new Premier were very different, Cook liked and admired Reid. The two men shared a deep commitment to reasoned choice as fundamental to democracy. By the time their fourth son, John Hartley, was born in 1897, Joseph and Mary Cook had bought their own house in central Lithgow. A daughter, Annette, was born the following year.
Cook spent a great deal of time in Sydney, either at Parliament House in Macquarie Street, or at his department’s headquarters in Martin Place. One of his staff at that time, Malcolm Shepherd, later remembered the strained relations between the minister and senior officers of the Postmaster-General’s Department.
When the Reid government was returned in 1898, Cook became Minister for Mines and Agriculture. Cook was a diligent and sound administrator. His four ministerial years were productive, and he enforced high standards in both portfolios. In Agriculture, he achieved firm quarantine regulations and help for farmers in eradicating diseases, and appointed William Farrer to the new position of government wheat experimentalist.
Cook was a less than ardent federationist. He voted against the first referendum in 1898, but campaigned throughout mining areas for the ‘yes’ vote in the 1899 referendum. When the Reid government fell in September 1899, Cook remained a busy representative for his electorate. In 1900, the Cooks’ sixth child, Winifred, was born.
Member for Parramatta
Apparently at George Reid’s insistence, Cook stood for the House of Representatives seat of Parramatta at the first federal election in March 1901. He won the seat and joined Reid’s Free Trade Opposition in the first Commonwealth parliament. With Cook now often in Melbourne, when their seventh child, Cecil, was born in 1902, the family moved to the Sydney suburb of Marrickville.
Cook had achieved a reputation as a shrewd and hardworking parliamentarian, and a master of parliamentary strategy. Like Reid, Cook saw the Labor Party as sectional and socialist, was equally critical of the Protectionist governments of Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin, and was sceptical of the cooperation between Deakin and Labor leader Chris Watson which led to Watson becoming Prime Minister in April 1904.
Despite their shared views, when Reid formed government in August 1904, he did not make Cook a minister. Cook was, however, elected deputy leader of the Free Trade Party the next year, with Reid commenting to Patrick McMahon Glynn that Cook’s only qualifications were ‘leisure to attend and eagerness to attack’. Glynn apparently shared this view of Cook’s limitations, responding that he was ‘not the ideal deputy. It is the choice of circumstances; but Cook is plucky and consistent’. Though Mary Cook managed a family of eight small children (their sixth son, Raymond, was born that year), a busy family life was no obstacle to Cook’s ‘leisure to attend’ to parliamentary and party duties.
In 1906, Cook was unopposed in his electorate at the December election. The family’s ninth child, Constance, was born that year and, in 1908, the family moved to Baulkham Hills in Sydney. That year, Cook’s consistency was rewarded. A week before Labor withdrew support from Deakin on 13 November 1908 and Andrew Fisher took government, George Reid resigned from the Free Trade Party. This removed the key obstacle to a coalition of non-Labor groups, and Cook became the new leader of the Free Trade Party.
The rocky path to Fusion
Under Cook’s leadership, the Free Trade Party joined Alfred Deakin’s Liberals in an anti-socialist ‘fusion’. The negotiations with Deakin to form the new Fusion Party were far from smooth. In January 1909, Cook noted in his diary:
Deakin policies before parties. He is not to lay down policy for us. Things to be thrashed out and decided … Don’t recognise his right to whistle as he pleases and expect us to come. We can’t and won’t come in any such way.
But Cook’s opposition to Labor was firm and forceful on all issues, most importantly on the nature of the Federation. On the Labor policy to alter Commonwealth industrial powers he noted: ‘Fisher’s proposals will kill the States’.
For Cook and Deakin, arguments over defence policy dominated the rocky path to coalition. Cook observed that the Liberal leader ‘nails his flag to the mast of compulsory training. I nail mine to the mast of increased naval subsidy’. Unlike Deakin, Cook saw no need for an Australian navy, arguing Australia had more to lose from British naval defeat than Britain itself: ‘It means for them white dominance; it means for us brown-coloured’.
By February 1909, Cook had lost patience, noting in his diary that:
Deakin grinds the air: indulges in casuistry and sophistry and does nothing of the practical work of the nation. It is weary work waiting for timorous and vacillating men.
But by May 1909, the 3 non-Labor groups had hammered out an historic agreement. Cook’s Anti-Socialists, Deakin’s Liberals and John Forrest's ‘Corner’ together built the enduring Labor and non-Labor coalition structure that has shaped Australian parliaments since.
A more immediate reward, was the defeat of Andrew Fisher’s Labor government in the House of Representatives on 27 May 1909. The Fusion Party took government under Alfred Deakin’s leadership on 2 June 1909.
Defence Minister 1909–10
In the new government, Joseph Cook was no longer confined to attacking defence policy from the sidelines, whether Andrew Fisher’s or Alfred Deakin’s. His role in the Fusion coalition, his senior Cabinet position as Defence Minister and his own doggedness gave him considerable influence.
Defence was the key concern of the final session of the third parliament. The Defence Act 1909, provided for a compulsory military training scheme. Deakin’s aim was achieved in a defence agreement with Britain that included the establishment of an Australian navy. With the support of the Opposition, construction of the flagship, the battle cruiser HMAS Australia, began the same year.
In January and February 1910, Cook was host to British Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, who was visiting at the Fusion government’s request to advise on Australian defence. With Germany developing its military power and an aggressive stance, both the United States and Britain had increased their own capabilities. The ‘Great White Fleet’ visit in 1908, part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s show of United States naval strength, had been a huge success in Australia. Kitchener’s visit had the same effect.
An amendment to the Defence Act in January 1911 implemented most of the recommendations in Kitchener’s report, including the establishment 6 months later of a military training institution like West Point – the Royal Military College at Duntroon.
Cook proved a loyal deputy leader to Alfred Deakin, with that liking and respect a leader inspires once his followers take their seats on the government benches. The Fusion government remained firm in the parliament, but lasted less than a year.
At the general election on 13 April 1910, voters returned a Labor government, and 10 days later Andrew Fisher was again sworn in as Prime Minister. The Fisher government had a comfortable majority in both Houses – a first in the Australian parliament’s short history.
The Fusion Party, renamed the Liberal Party, remained in Opposition for three years. Cook was a key figure in establishing the organisational structure of the party and in shaping its ‘anti-socialist’ policies in opposing the Labor Party. Though he was a man of little magnetism, Cook’s sense of purpose attracted attention when he was in attack mode. His response to the spending program in the government’s 1912 budget was published in the Sydney Mail as the ‘financial carnival’.
With Alfred Deakin’s health in obvious decline, he resigned the leadership of the parliamentary Liberal Party on 20 January 1913. In a contest with John Forrest, Cook was elected leader by 1 vote.
Cook opened the Liberal’s election campaign on 3 April 1913 with a policy speech drawing its weight not from a positive Liberal program, but from an almost ferocious anti-Labor stance. Among his ‘socialist’ targets were Labor’s industrial relations changes, the proposed land tax and the maternity benefit. Cook depended on Labor for his own appeal to the electorate. His colleague Patrick McMahon Glynn observed:
Cook, being a pure fighter, somewhat measured or without glow in speech, is not at his best on the platform.
But his appeal was – just – enough at the time. At the election on 31 May 1913, Cook’s Liberals won government by 1 seat.
- Crowley, FK, ‘Joseph Cook’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 8, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1966.
- Murdoch, John, Sir Joe: A Political Biography of Sir Joseph Cook, Minerva Press, Sydney, 1996.
- Nairn, Bede, Civilising Capitalism: The Labor Movement in New South Wales 1870–1900, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1973.
- Souter, Gavin, Lion and Kangaroo: The Initiation of Australia 1901–1919, William Collins, Sydney, 1976.
- George Reid to Patrick McMahon Glynn, 30 July 1905, McMahon Glynn papers, National Library of Australia, MS 4653/3/5
- Joseph Cook Diary, 1909, Cook papers, National Library of Australia, MS 2212
From the National Archives of Australia collection
- Joseph Cook Diary, 1913, Sir Joseph and Dame Mary Cook collection, NAA: M3580, 5