Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cooper, Frank Arthur (1872–1949)

by Manfred Cross

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

Frank Arthur Cooper (1872-1949), clerk and premier, was born on 16 July 1872 at Blayney, New South Wales, seventh child of Charles Cooper, a miller from England, and his Irish-born wife Mary Ann, née Scott. Educated at Blayney Public School, Frank was employed as a clerk in a Sydney warehouse until 1890 when he moved to the Church of England's Sydney diocesan registry and eventually rose to chief clerk. In 1900 he joined the Westinghouse Brake Co. Ltd. After postings to New Zealand, Melbourne and Sydney, he was sent in 1909 to Ipswich, Queensland, where the State's main railway workshops were located.

A member of the Brisbane Clerical Union, Cooper became vice-president, president and secretary of the Ipswich Workers' Political Organisation, and secretary of the Ipswich and West Moreton Eight Hour Day Union. He was a founding member of the local branch of the Workers' Educational Association, and was active in repertory theatre and the debating society. After publicly expressing support for coalminers in the general strike of 1912, he was sacked by Westinghouse. With enhanced standing in the labour movement, he worked as a journalist for several years.

In May 1915 Cooper won the Queensland Legislative Assembly seat of Bremer and joined the first majority State Labor government under T. J. Ryan. Intelligent, well read, energetic and popular, Cooper held his seat for more than thirty years. He sat on royal commissions into the administration of the railways (1917-18) and public works (1922-32), and was temporary chairman of committees in 1920-32. In addition, he was an alderman (1924-27) and deputy-mayor of Ipswich City Council. On 29 June 1925 he had married 23-year-old Agnes Maisie Hardy at All Saints Anglican Church, Booval.

The Labor government was defeated at the elections in May 1929, but Cooper survived narrowly. During A. E. Moore's administration, he distinguished himself in the Opposition with hard-hitting, well-researched speeches. Following Labor's return under William Forgan Smith, Cooper was secretary for public instruction and assistant-treasurer (1932-38). The priorities of this government, which led Queensland out of the Depression, lay in public works and improvements in health and agriculture. While neither side of the House saw any need to extend secondary education, Cooper presided over a restoration of Moore's budget cuts, some expansion in technical and rural education, and a steady increase in government scholarships.

Elected to the Queensland central executive of the Australian Labor Party in 1938, he joined its executive committee in November 1939. Having also been appointed treasurer in Forgan Smith's government on 12 April 1938, Cooper concerned himself with careful management and his second budget was the first to show a surplus since 1927. He was elected deputy-leader of the State parliamentary party in September 1940. During World War II he served on the four-member Council of Public Safety which wielded overriding powers. Japan's entry into the war on 7 December 1941, only two months after the formation of the John Curtin Federal Labor government, introduced a new element of urgency and Queensland mobilized its resources behind the war effort.

In May-June 1942 the Commonwealth government introduced uniform taxation. Queensland was one of four States which immediately but unsuccessfully challenged the measure in the High Court of Australia. Although Queensland accepted the decision, Forgan Smith decided to resign and on 9 September Cooper was elected leader. He became premier on 16 September 1942; he was, at 70, the oldest person to take this office for the first time. Cooper co-operated closely with Curtin, supporting him at A.L.P. and premiers' conferences, even when the Queensland central executive opposed the decision taken by the A.L.P. federal conference in January 1943 to permit the Militia to serve in the South-West Pacific Area. After a conference of Federal and State governments, in November the Commonwealth called for a referral of powers for the duration of the war and five years thereafter. In the following months only Queensland and New South Wales passed the necessary draft amending bill. Cooper subsequently campaigned, with his Federal colleagues, in the unsuccessful referendum held on 14 August 1944.

Preparing for the 1944 State election, Cooper travelled throughout Queensland, revitalizing party organization and delivering his policy speech—a comprehensive programme for postwar reconstruction—at Ipswich. His government was returned with a reduced majority on 15 April and E. M. Hanlon took over the treasurership. In March 1945 Cooper departed on a tour of Britain. As acting-premier, Hanlon carried legislation to establish a Queensland Housing Commission and to approve agreements with the Commonwealth for housing and hospital benefits. Cooper resumed his duties on 5 November 1945, but was prepared to make way for Hanlon: he resigned as party leader on 6 March 1946 and as premier next day.

Appointed lieutenant-governor on 24 April 1946, Cooper was acting-governor until Sir John Lavarack was sworn in on 1 October. Cooper was a member (from 1946) of the senate of the University of Queensland and of the Anglican synod; he was also president of the Church Army and of the Brisbane City Mission. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 30 November 1949 at his Kedron home and, after a state funeral, was cremated. His constructive role as a wartime premier has been overshadowed by the achievements of his vigorous predecessor Forgan Smith and by those of his able successor Hanlon. Widely respected for his sincerity, great charm of manner and quiet dignity, Cooper was a capable politician and a gifted speaker, blessed with a delightful sense of humour.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Lack (compiler), Three Decades of Queensland Political History, 1929-1960 (Brisb, 1962)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942-1945 (Canb, 1970)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1980)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 10 Sept 1942, 7 Mar 1946
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 20 July 1943
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 1 Dec 1949
  • Worker (Brisbane), 5 Dec 1949
  • Anglican Church Diocesan Archives, Brisbane.

Citation details

Manfred Cross, 'Cooper, Frank Arthur (1872–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooper-frank-arthur-9820/text17363, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 3 September 2014.

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

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