The Forgotten Founding Father of the Liberal Party

May 31 marked the 100th anniversary of the election of the Cook government, the first popularly elected Liberal majority government in federal Australian politics. Sir Joseph Cook is a figure often forgotten, a victim of a Liberal Party propensity to forget its pre-Menzies history. His role in demonstrating that a small-government liberal ideology could be successful at a federal level has seldom been acknowledged.

Cook, a former trade unionist and one of the first Labor members of the New South Wales parliament, led the Commonwealth Liberal Party away from Deakinite interventionism and towards a more classical interpretation of liberalism. In doing so Cook was able to win the outright parliamentary majority that neither Alfred Deakin nor George Reid had been able to achieve. The ideas Cook took into the 1913 election were by no means new to Australian politics, but Cook was able to overcome regional and fiscal divides to make these ideas succeed for the first time at a federal level. Although a double dissolution election that was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War cut short the life of the Cook government, the ideological impact of Joseph Cook on Australian liberalism is still felt today.

The story of Joseph Cook’s rise to political power is a classic tale of a self-made man. The title of one of the biographies of Cook, Pit Boy to Prime Minister, captures the story well. Born in the Staffordshire mining town of Silverdale, Cook had to become the family bread-winner from an early age when his father died in a pit accident. After marrying, Cook migrated to Australia where he continued to work as a miner and quickly became a leading member of the trade union movement. He played a role in the strikes of 1890 and a year later was elected as the Labor Party member for Hartley in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly. By 1893 Cook had become leader of the parliamentary Labor Party but the very next year he left the party after the introduction of the pledge of caucus solidarity that took away Labor members’ voting freedom in parliament.

Because he left the Labor Party, Cook has often been labelled the first in a line of Labor “rats” that includes Billy Hughes, William Holman and Joseph Lyons. Unlike these three however, Cook did not leave the Labor Party with the prospect of power. Cook left because he felt that the pledge took away his liberal right to form his own opinion. A fact often forgotten by those who try to portray Cook as an opportunist or a class traitor for his switch to non-Labor politics is that when he lived in England he had been a member of a Liberal club, hence although his politics moved to the right later in life he had always been a supporter of liberal individualism.

After being elected as an independent Labor candidate in 1894, Cook was offered the position of Postmaster-General in the Reid government. Reid’s version of liberalism was attractive to Cook, who had supported key government policies including free trade and the introduction of a land tax even when he was in the Labor Party. Cook took up the position he was offered and quickly became a dedicated follower of Reid. As the government’s relationship with the Labor Party became strained, Cook, like his leader, began to doubt whether the Labor Party truly represented the interests of working people. Throughout the years of the Reid government, the Labor Party became less and less willing to compromise its increasingly ideological platform. Labor defeated several pieces of legislation that it supported in principle, such as Reid’s local government bill, because it could not get everything it wanted. Later in life Cook would argue that the Labor Party should be referred to exclusively as the “socialist Labor Party” as it did not represent the views of the majority of the labouring classes. Eventually the Labor Party, which had won the balance of power in the 1898 New South Wales election, threw out the Reid government.

Cook contested the 1901 federal election as a member of Reid’s Free-Trade Party, winning the seat of Parramatta. Until the fusion of the non-Labor parties, in which Cook was to take a central role, federal politics was a three-way contest between the Protectionists, the Free-Trade Party and the Labor Party. Accordingly Cook spent most of his first term in federal parliament denouncing the Protectionist government, not Labor. This was to change in late 1904 when Reid formed a coalition government with many of the Protectionists and embarked on his anti-socialist campaign. The campaign was largely inspired by the Queensland Labor Party’s adoption of the socialist objective advocating the “nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange”, an extreme policy that represented the culmination of the dogmatic evolution that the Labor Party had undergone since many of its early members, like Cook, had left. Cook, who had been one of the first to denounce Labor’s caucus system, quickly joined Reid’s campaign.

Cook’s biographer John Murdoch attacks Cook for joining the anti-socialist campaign, claiming that “without any delay he became a vigorous defender of anything which could help rich men”. Murdoch simply does not understand Cook’s ideological opposition to socialism and to caucus-controlled government. Even when Cook had been a leading trade unionist and Labor Party member he had always been a believer in liberal individualism, which is why he gave up the leadership of the party when it introduced the pledge. As Reid argued, liberalism and Labor only divided once Labor began to advocate that illiberal privileges be given to the working classes and in particular the trade unions. Australian liberalism had been founded on a rejection of class privileges, and Reid could see no difference between the privileges of the squatters, which liberals had fought against in the 1850s, and the new union privileges advocated by Labor. Cook was one of many founding Labor members who had left the party and it must be said that the Labor Party had drifted to the left at least as much as Cook’s politics had drifted to the right.

Reid had to leave Cook out of his cabinet to make room for his Protectionist coalition partners, but Cook was appointed deputy chairman of the newly established Australian Liberal League, giving him a central role in organising the anti-socialist campaign. He delivered a number of public speeches where he spoke as the liberal voice of those working people who opposed Labor’s socialism. Denouncing socialism as a threat to the economic foundations of the fledgling Australian nation, Cook argued that “it is one thing to see that labour gets its fair apportionment of the fruits of the industrial tree … it is another thing to lay the axe at its root in a mad endeavour to bring it down”. Here we see that Cook had not abandoned his working-class origins in advocating anti-socialism, as some of his detractors have portrayed it; he understood that working people relied on a successful private sector that was being threatened by the prospect of mass nationalisation and lop-sided industrial arbitration.


In July 1905 Alfred Deakin, who had publicly acknowledged the dangers of socialism and caucus, withdrew his support for the Reid government that he saw as a threat to the Protectionist cause. The Reid government fell and in the aftermath Cook was elected deputy leader of the opposition. In the event Cook was more often than not the leader of the opposition in the House as Reid went on long tours of the country preaching his liberal anti-socialist message. Cook attacked gag measures brought in by the Labor-supported Deakin government that were meant to help it pass union label legislation, which would encourage employers to hire only union labour. He also denounced the “new protection”, an interventionist Deakinite policy that linked protectionist tariffs with improved working conditions, as “thinly disguised socialism”. In true liberal fashion Cook viewed labour and capital as “two sides of a sphere” that were not enemies and that would both be damaged by Labor’s class-warfare ideology.

Reid’s anti-socialist campaign culminated in the 1906 election, when, without the support of the Protectionists, he was unable to win government. The Deakin government continued with Labor support, despite the fact that the Protectionists were now the smallest of the three parties. In the ensuing term Deakin passed the high Protectionist tariff for which he had abandoned Reid in 1905. With the tariff now settled, Deakin was willing to pick up the anti-socialist ideology from which he had previously distanced himself. Despite Deakin’s rediscovery of the dangers of the socialist policies his erstwhile Labor allies were advocating, his animosity to Reid still stood in the way of an anti-Labor fusion. So Reid gave up the anti-socialist leadership, handing it over to Cook, who negotiated a fusion with the Protectionists that gave Deakin the leadership of the new party. The newly formed Commonwealth Liberal Party supported Deakin’s tariff, which has led many historians to claim that the Protectionists “won” the fusion. Deakin’s tariff had already been passed however, so support for protection was in effect a continuation of the “fiscal truce” Reid had called for during the anti-socialist campaign. Another common misconception is that because the new party did not support laissez-faire it represented a triumph of Deakinite interventionism. This was not the case, as Reid had never supported a laissez-faire ideology and, while his beliefs were more small-government than Deakin, the differences between the two have been greatly exaggerated. In practice the new Commonwealth Liberal Party’s main ideological feature was the liberal anti-socialism it inherited from Reid; hence it could be argued that the Free Traders managed to win the fusion without winning free trade.

The fusion party Deakin led had the first absolute majority in the Australian parliament. Despite these advantages it was hard for Deakin to advocate effectively an anti-socialist ideology that he had previously opposed in favour of protection. Even when Deakin had been arguing for protection he had not had much electoral success (the Protectionists had lost seats in both the 1903 and 1906 elections when he had led the party) and in 1910 when he had to fight an election by preaching Reid’s anti-socialist message he led the new Commonwealth Liberal Party to an unmitigated disaster: Labor won forty-three seats to the Liberals’ thirty-one, and they also gained control of the Senate. Despite this result, the individual prestige Deakin still held in Melbourne meant that he was able to hold onto the leadership until he retired for health reasons in early 1913.


After the failure of Reid’s anti-socialist campaign and Deakin’s devastating electoral defeat, small-government liberal anti-socialism might have been wiped off the federal political landscape had it not been for Joseph Cook. Cook, who had been schooled in liberal anti-socialism by Reid, narrowly won the Liberal leadership over former Protectionist John Forrest. Within months he would have to face an election against his Labor opponents that would be complicated by six referendums, all of which were designed to increase the power of the federal government. In many ways these referendums would help Cook, as they substantiated the warnings that Reid had made about the socialist expansion in the size of government that would take place if Labor won power. The Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher was attempting to give the Commonwealth government power over industrial matters, trade and commerce, monopolies, trusts, railway disputes and corporations. All these powers would be essential to the carrying out of a socialist program, and the power over monopolies in particular raised the threat of mass nationalisations. With the “socialist tiger” readying its claws, Cook launched headlong into a campaign to defend the Constitution as it stood and prevent a massive increase in the role government played in the lives of individual Australians.

Cook’s 1913 election campaign was laced with classical liberal ideology that opposed a large increase in the powers of the state as inherently despotic. He implored people to elect the Commonwealth Liberal Party, insisting, “You will have again that liberalism for which this country is pining and yearning.” Echoing the sentiments of many liberals of his era he insisted that he was not a conservative but a supporter and defender of freedom. He denounced all of the referendum proposals as representing an unnecessary concentration of power in the hands of the federal government. This argument foreshadowed the preoccupation of many later Liberals with the need to maintain the role of the states in a federal system. Cook’s defence of states’ rights was also coloured by classical liberalism, as the powers of the states were essentially seen as a brake on federal control that would help prevent a tyranny of the majority.

One of Cook’s main criticisms of the Fisher government was that it was spending extravagantly and amassing a large public debt that jeopardised Australia’s future. Support for economy in government was not new to liberal Australian politics. Cuts to government spending were a key plank of the post-Federation Kyabram movement, and Joseph Carruthers had won the 1904 New South Wales election by criticising the debt that had been accrued under Edward O’Sullivan’s proto-Keynesian public works program. This was the first time that public debt was central to federal political debate, and in many ways Cook’s attacks can be seen as a blueprint for the modern Liberal Party’s focus on achieving budget surpluses. But while economic government became a central pillar of New South Wales liberalism, this was not the case in Victoria. Stanley Melbourne Bruce, the first truly non-Labor Prime Minister after Cook, amassed a large public debt that hastened Australia’s descent into the Great Depression.

Another key theme of Cook’s election campaign was his opposition to union preference in government employment. He believed that it was inherently wrong to make “the political creed of the applicant the test of his ability for public employment”. It is important to note that this former trade union leader was now equating membership of a union with a belief in a particular political creed. This was not a reflection of the “reactionary” views Cook now held, but a personal lament at the politicisation of unions following the rise of the Labor Party. This situation had been foreseen by Reid, who long before he had embarked on his anti-socialist campaign had suggested that unions be prevented from donating to political parties. Cook, who firmly believed that the Labor Party did not represent the views of most working people, regretted that the trade union movement he had once been a part of had become a front for Labor and the socialists.

On May 31, Joseph Cook’s Commonwealth Liberal Party won the 1913 election by a single seat. Despite this small margin the election was a tremendous victory as it proved that a small-government liberal ideology could be successful in a federal election. Even more positive was the fact that every single one of Labor’s referendum proposals was defeated. The results upheld the Constitution and ensured that the Commonwealth government would play only a limited role in people’s lives. Unfortunately this victory would later be eaten away by a High Court that favoured increased Commonwealth power. Labor maintained a firm control over the Senate, where even among the seats that were contested in 1913 they won eleven seats to the Liberals’ seven, despite receiving fewer votes.

With a dogmatic Labor Party controlling the Senate, Cook had little hope of passing any meaningful legislation. He introduced a bill that would end the illiberal practice of favouring union workers in government employment. After the bill was rejected by the Senate, Cook negotiated with the Governor-General to get a double dissolution. Cook should have felt reasonably confident he could win the ensuing election. After all he had just won more votes in both the House and Senate elections while the Labor Party had proven itself extremely stubborn by refusing to budge in the Senate.

Unfortunately for Cook, the First World War broke out before the election was held. The Liberals, who had been concerned by the debt problem they inherited from Labor, were criticised for not having spent enough on defence. They lost the 1914 election comfortably, and Cook later became involved in the discussions that led to the formation of the Nationalist Party. In the extreme circumstances of the First World War small government liberalism was sacrificed in the face of an immediate threat to the survival of the British Empire. A federal “Liberal” party would not re-emerge until towards the end of the Second World War and even then it would be tainted by interventionist Keynesianism.


The Cook government lasted less than two years and his small-government liberal ideology was largely lost, at least until the rise of neoliberalism. In these circumstances it must be asked: Why is Joseph Cook important?

There are a number of reasons why modern Liberals should remember Joseph Cook as an important figure in the history of their party. First of all he won the first elected federal Liberal majority government, proving to all who followed him that it could be done. His success also proved inspirational to many who believed in small-government liberalism, helping the ideology survive the Nationalist and United Australia Party eras and arguably the era of the modern Liberal Party in which it upheld the “Australian settlement”. While Liberals should lament the temporary demise of classical liberalism in Australia, they should also be proud that, unlike the Labor Party, their political ancestors were willing to compromise, helping Australia to survive the triple disasters of the two world wars and the Great Depression.

Liberals should also know that while the immediate electoral success of Reid and Cook’s anti-socialism was not great, it helped to quell Labor extremism, because when faced with strong opposition the Labor Party shed itself of its more socialist ideas in favour of success at the ballot box. This anti-socialism has also been an enduring ideological legacy of Cook and Reid, clearly resurfacing as anti-communism in the Menzies era.

Liberals should also remember Cook for his economic foresight, as he warned of the economic problems of public debt well before most other federal politicians. Most of all, Liberals should remember Cook as a hero of the liberal cult of opportunity, as a man who rose from nothing; not as a class traitor, but as one who believed in the possibilities of a free and liberal society.

Zachary Gorman recently began his PhD candidature at the University of Wollongong, where he is researching the legacy of Sir Joseph Carruthers for Australian and New South Wales Liberalism.


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