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Cole, George Ronald (1908–1969)

by R. J. K. Chapman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

George Ronald Cole (1908-1969), headmaster and politician, was born on 9 February 1908 at Don, near Devonport, Tasmania, one of the five children of George Cole, labourer, and his wife Alice, née Rutter, both native-born. Alice was a staunch Methodist who imbued her children with the work ethic and a sense of social values. Educated at Devonport High School, young George became a student-teacher in 1925 and later studied at the University of Tasmania. While playing for New Town, in 1928 he won the Wilson J. Bailey trophy for best and fairest in the Tasmanian Australian National Football League; he also represented his State at the 1930 carnival in Adelaide. Cole's earnings from the game helped his family during the Depression.

On 28 March 1932 he married a hairdresser Kathleen Mary Cuttriss at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Hobart. By this time Cole was converted to Catholicism. A successful and popular teacher and headmaster, he became a certificated assistant (1938) and subsequently first assistant at West Devonport Practising School. He enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces in March 1939 and was posted to the 12th-50th Battalion; promoted lieutenant in April 1941, he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 18 September 1942. Next year he briefly had charge of a prisoner-of-war camp near Darwin where he formed an amicable relationship with the inmates, most of whom were Italian. Cole later carried out instructional duties in Australia until his appointment terminated on 7 September 1944.

Returning to Devonport, he was successively headmaster of primary schools at Strahan (1946), Longford (1947) and Latrobe (1948-49). He joined local sporting teams and was an organizer for the Australian Labor Party. Cole's earlier interest in politics intensified after World War II and he won Labor pre-selection for the Senate in 1949. Supported by his wife and children, who helped him with electioneering, he was returned that year. The choice of a Senate seat would prove significant after the A.L.P. 'split' in 1955.

Although the debates within the party over the industrial groups and the convulsions in Victoria of the early 1950s had little effect in Tasmania, Cole's anti-communist spirit distanced him from his colleagues. Believing that Arthur Calwell would have the numbers to defeat H. V. Evatt, at the federal caucus meeting on 13 October 1954 Cole moved that all leadership positions be declared vacant. He was the lone Tasmanian to vote for the motion which was defeated by 52 votes to 28. In March 1955 he joined the right-wing boycott of the A.L.P.'s federal conference in Hobart. These actions did not diminish his standing with the rank and file, and a week later he topped the poll for places on the Tasmanian executive. Evatt's supporters, however, were in the majority on the executive and Cole's party membership was immediately suspended.

On 24 August 1955 Cole announced that henceforward he would represent the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist) in the Senate. That party was to become the Democratic Labor Party in 1957. The Menzies government outraged the A.L.P. by granting Cole status as a party leader. In 1956 F. P. McManus joined him in the Upper House, where they held the balance of power and were able to influence the government's welfare and housing policies. Cole went to Melbourne to launch the D.L.P. campaign for the 1958 election. He stressed that his party's differences with the A.L.P. were to do with anti-communism and foreign policy rather than domestic issues. When Evatt offered to stand down as A.L.P. leader in exchange for D.L.P. preferences, Cole countered by insisting that the A.L.P. take up the fight against communism in the unions and ban unity tickets. He was re-elected that year with 16.98 per cent of the Tasmanian vote.

Cole's Catholic affiliations do not seem to have been the sole determinant of his political actions: while he admired B. A. Santamaria's world view, he opposed the National Civic Council's attempt to take over the D.L.P. His attitude to foreign affairs led him to support British atomic-bomb testing in Australia and the Vietnam War. In domestic affairs he believed in European immigration, the importance of the family as a unit, universal home ownership, and in an Australia free from social strife and committed to 'a fair go' for all. Late in 1964 he collapsed in parliament with appendicitis and was in poor health thereafter. Having lost the Senate election that year, he unsuccessfully endeavoured to maintain the Tasmanian branch of the D.L.P. Cole died of chronic renal failure on 23 January 1969 at Latrobe and was buried in Mersey Vale Memorial Park cemetery, Devonport; his wife, three sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1970)
  • P. Ormonde, The Movement (Melb, 1972)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 14 Sept 1928, 24 Jan 1969
  • Examiner (Launceston), 24 Jan 1969
  • Advocate (Hobart), 24 Jan 1969
  • private information.

Citation details

R. J. K. Chapman, 'Cole, George Ronald (1908–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cole-george-ronald-9781/text17285, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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