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Cooke, Ebenezer (1832–1907)

by G. N. Hawker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Ebenezer Cooke (1832-1907), accountant, parliamentarian and public servant, was born on 14 May 1832 in London, son of John Cooke, a Baptist clergyman. He entered the office of a London accountant and in 1862 migrated to South Australia to take up a position as accountant to the English and Australian Copper Co. He was quietly efficient and in 1872 became its general manager. His advocacy of a northern railway won him public attention and in 1875 the Flinders seat in the House of Assembly. He retained the seat at the next two elections, but resigned in October 1882 to become commissioner of audit; in that position he made his major contributions to the colony.

Cooke was appointed commissioner at a difficult time. The standing of his office had declined under his two predecessors: neither had secured independence for the position nor moved beyond a narrow emphasis on its accounting functions. Cooke also had the disadvantage of being a member of parliament at a time when few politicians were appointed to the South Australian civil service. However independent-minded, he was a supporter of Bray's ministry; the Opposition's heavy criticism led the government to appoint a second commissioner in order to negate claims that the rights of long-serving officers had been ignored. The powers of the two commissioners were supposed to be exercised jointly but their relationship was poorly defined, a fact which Cooke exploited. It was soon evident that he signed the great bulk of departmental correspondence, wrote the annual audit reports alone, exercised a general superintendence over the whole department and was better known to parliament and public. The second commissioner was abruptly retired in 1895, leaving Cooke as sole commissioner.

The Audit Act of 1882, which followed Cooke's work as chairman of the royal commission on finance in 1880-82, gave him advantages which his predecessors had not enjoyed. Unexpended balances of votes from the revenue fund had to be revoted annually and Cooke himself had extended powers to comment on the financial work of departments and could not be dismissed without parliamentary approval. He could not enforce changes in the mode of departmental book-keeping, but comforted himself by claiming that 'no department would care to resist instructions which [he] gave in such matters'. Certainly he made maximum use of his powers and did not hesitate to advise governments on a wide range of matters apart from book-keeping and auditing procedures. His elaborate annual reports included special statements on such subjects as the financial condition of the colony, purchase of bonds overseas, management of the Northern Territory and amalgamations in certain departments of the civil service; he played a valuable part in revealing financial swindles connected with the system of tenders for government contracts. His suggestions had no binding power on governments, and he often despaired that his work would be recognized, but his innovations were important if only because they represented a move away from the narrow work of the Audit Office in earlier years. Within the office Cooke succeeded in establishing audit officials as a distinct branch of the civil service. He played a part in regulating other sections of the service by acting as chairman of several interdepartmental committees and he supported the formation of the Public Service Association in 1884 at a time when most heads did not. He was the first president of the association and a member of its governing council for five years.

Like other departmental heads of the day, Cooke was paternal to his staff but jealous of his authority. In later years his physical appearance, ample girth, strong white beard, top hat and morning coat, adequately reflected his mastery of his department. Outside the office he was known as a man of 'wide information and culture, a lover of the fine arts'; he built up a private art collection and enjoyed tinting photographs. He was a prominent member of the Anglican Church and a senior Freemason. Cooke retained his office until he died at his home in Adelaide on 7 May 1907. He was twice married: first in London in 1859 to Eliza Peyton, née Ogden, who died soon after arriving in Adelaide; second, to Rosa, daughter of James Phillipps of Adelaide. Of his six children, two achieved prominence: William became government astronomer in Western Australia and John was mayor of Unley and a member of the South Australian Legislative Council.

Cooke made the commissionership one of the most coveted positions in the civil service and firmly established uniform audit procedures throughout the government departments and most statutory authorities. He may, however, have served too long; his reforms were the products of his early years and his later work was of conservation. The three auditors who came after him had grown up in his shadow and were content to follow quietly the paths he had developed; but that was perhaps Cooke's best memorial.

Select Bibliography

  • Public Service Review (Adelaide), May 1907
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 8 May 1907
  • G. N. Hawker, The Development of the South Australian Civil Service 1836-1916 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1967).

Citation details

G. N. Hawker, 'Cooke, Ebenezer (1832–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooke-ebenezer-3252/text4921, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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