Our Forgotten Prime Minister

Stephen Holt

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 very latest Prime Minister.

Joseph Cook was our Prime Minister from 1913 to 1914. There is a federal seat of Cook. Its current holder is Scott Morrison.

Joseph Cook was indeed a Prime Minister but his name means little to most people whereas another Cook – James Cook – has been famous since the eighteenth century. Cook the navigator swamps Cook the PM in the recognition stakes.

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

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

In 1969 Cook became a seat once more, strongly Liberal this time and based on 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 Captain 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 New South Wales parliament in 1891. Rejecting caucus solidarity in 1894, he became a minister in the Free Trade ministry of George Reid.

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 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 in 1914.

When the Labor Party split during the Great War, 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’s 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 did come across as plodding and humourless.

Cook and his wife Mary had eight children. He was an exemplary family man who 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 Canberra suburb of Cook does nothing to perpetuate the memory of our sixth Prime Minister. It is co-named after James Cook whose fame continues to obscure Joseph Cook. He is fated to remain our forgotten Prime Minister.

(First published Canberra City News 3 Oct 2018)