Is ordinary Joe our most forgotten PM?

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Australia’s sixth prime minister Sir Joseph Cook pictured in 1927… diligent and scrupulously loyal but came across as plodding and humourless. Image: National Archives of Australia

AUSTRALIAN prime ministers get to have a Federal electorate named after them after they die.

There are 22 deceased Australian prime ministers and after the latest redistribution there are, seemingly in line with this practice, 22 Federal seats bearing the name of a deceased prime minister.

There is an anomaly though and it bears directly on our latest PM.

Joseph Cook was prime minister from 1913 to 1914. There is a Federal seat of Cook. Its current holder is Scott Morrison.

Despite this, Joseph’s name means little to most people whereas another Cook – James Cook – has been famous since the 18th century. Cook the navigator swamps Cook the PM in the recognition stakes.

Joseph Cook (c.1913). Image: National Library of Australia

Capt Cook was always going to have a seat in the national parliament named after him. An electorate called Cook was created in 1906. An inner-Sydney Labor seat, it lasted to 1955 when a population decline led to its abolition.

In 1969 Cook became a seat once more, strongly Liberal this time and based in Sydney’s south-east suburbs. It was named solely in honour of the sailor and not the politician even though Joe Cook, having died (in 1947), was eligible.

In 2006, the Australian Electoral Commission proposed that the seat be jointly named for Joseph Cook.

This step was unknown by Scott Morrison when he gave his first speech as member for Cook in 2008. He was chuffed to note that Capt Cook was “the namesake of my electorate”. Cook, he said, “landed at Kurnell and so began the modern Australian story”.

There was no mention of Joseph Cook. The AEC’s belated initiative in co-naming the seat had not registered with Morrison or with anyone else for that matter.

This was hardly surprising since Joe Cook, who was born in England in 1860, was very much into fudging and switching his identity. This process began when he altered his name after he embraced Methodism. His discarded original surname was Cooke.

A colliery worker, Joe migrated to Lithgow in 1885. He was a founding member of the Labor Party and was elected to the NSW parliament in 1891. Rejecting caucus solidarity in 1894, he became a Minister in the Free Trade ministry of George Reid.

Sir Joseph and Dame Mary Cook.

Cook entered Federal parliament as a member of the Reid faction in 1901. In 1909 he joined the Protectionist Alfred Deakin as his deputy in a coalition government. The coalitionists rebadged themselves as the Commonwealth Liberal Party. Cook became its leader when an ailing Deakin had to retire.

In 1913 Cook was the first Liberal Party leader to win a majority in an election for the House of Representatives. In a preview of our own times he became the first elected Liberal Party Prime Minister to be frustrated by a hostile Senate. He lost a double dissolution election, Australia’s first, in 1914.

When the Labor Party split during World War I Cook fused with Billy Hughes in another expedient coalition. The Liberal Party dissolved itself and the name lapsed until the 1940s.

Cook served as Hughes’ deputy until retiring from politics in 1921. Previously he had been a solid deputy to both Reid and Deakin. He was efficient, diligent and scrupulously loyal but came across as plodding and humourless.

Cook, who was knighted in 1914, and his school teacher wife Mary had eight children. Despite being an exemplary family man, he was eminently forgettable as a public figure. It took almost six decades for a Federal electorate to be co-named after him – hardly a giant step – such was his overwhelming self-effacement.

The name of the Belconnen suburb of Cook does nothing to perpetuate the memory of our sixth prime minister. It’s also co-named after James Cook whose fame continues to obscure Joseph Cook. He is fated to remain our forgotten prime minister.

Stephen Holt (sjholt@fastmail.fm) is a Belconnen writer.

 

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