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Cosgrove, Sir Robert (1884–1969)

by W. A. Townsley

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

Sir Robert Cosgrove (1884-1969), grocer, trade unionist and premier, was born on 28 December 1884 at Tea Tree, Tasmania, son of Michael Thomas Cosgrove, a farmer from Ireland, and his wife Mary Ann, née Hewitt. Educated at Campania, Sorell and Richmond state schools, and at St Mary's School, Hobart, Robert entered the grocery trade and was soon actively involved in the fledgling Labor Party and the United Grocers' Union. He was a founder of the Shop Assistants' and of the Storemen's and Packers' unions. From 1906 he spent three years in New Zealand where he held office on the Trades Hall Council, Wellington.

On 10 January 1911 at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Hobart, Cosgrove married Gertrude Ann Geappen (1882-1962); they were to have four children. President of the local Trades Hall Council, in 1916 he stood unsuccessfully in the Denison electorate for the House of Assembly. He supported the temperance movement in its campaign for the 6 p.m. closing of hotels and opposed conscription in 1916-17.

Returned in 1919 as a member for Denison, Cosgrove promoted legislation on shop trading hours and workers' compensation. At the 1920 State conference of the Australian Labor Party he was elected president of the Tasmanian branch. Although he lost his parliamentary seat in 1922, he worked pragmatically with Joe Lyons and Albert Ogilvie to temper socialist doctrine and win Catholic support.

Regaining a seat in Denison in 1925, he became Labor's whip under Lyons and was a member (1926-27) of the select committee which inquired into civil law reform. Defeated again in 1931, he returned to his grocery business in Liverpool Street, Hobart. He kept aloof from the party's ideological confusion and its threats to secede from the federal body over the next three years.

Led by Ogilvie, on 9 June 1934 Labor won power with the support of an Independent. In August Cosgrove was given the portfolios of agriculture, forests and the Agricultural Bank. Travelling widely in the State, he built a reputation for common sense, won the confidence of the predominantly rural community and reorganized the Department of Agriculture.

Following Ogilvie's sudden death on 10 June 1939, Edmund Dwyer-Gray, aged 69, was elected premier on the understanding that he would resign after six months. Cosgrove defeated Thomas D'Alton for the deputy-leadership. As treasurer, Cosgrove introduced his first budget late that year and co-operated fully with the Commonwealth in putting the economy on a wartime footing. He also favoured control of prices and rents under the National Security Act (1939) and took steps to set up fair-rents boards. Tasmania's economy was emerging from the Depression and there were plans for further hydro-electrical development. Exchanging offices with Dwyer-Gray, Cosgrove became premier on 18 December. His style of leadership lulled the Opposition and the Legislative Council into underestimating his intellectual ability and strength of character. Yet, while Cosgrove was calm in temper and approach, he was determined to govern effectively and to have his way. Giving whole-hearted support to the war effort, he advocated Eire's active participation in World War II 'as an ally of Great Britain in defence of their common liberties and those of the Empire'.

Having refused to placate the party's left wing in 1941, Cosgrove was criticized by Bill Morrow of the Trades Hall Council, Launceston, but quietly prepared for the State election. On 13 December Labor won 20 of the 30 seats in the assembly, with Cosgrove topping the poll in Denison. During 1942 he co-operated with John Curtin and Ben Chifley; he refused to join four other States in challenging uniform taxation proposals in the High Court of Australia, and received an increased reimbursement grant for Tasmania. In the same year, when the States opposed Bert Evatt's move to extend the Federal government's powers for postwar reconstruction, Cosgrove proposed that certain rights be 'referred' to the Commonwealth for five years after the war. To Cosgrove's annoyance, Evatt's plan was blocked by the Legislative Council in Tasmania. About this time Cosgrove came to distrust Evatt's arrogance.

In August 1944 lack of manpower almost halted construction of the hydro-electric dam at Butlers Gorge. Cosgrove pressed the Commonwealth for labour through the Allied Works Council. As premier, he presided over a smooth transition from war to peace amid Commonwealth controls and many shortages. In 1946 the Tasmanian government was obliged to appoint a royal commission to inquire into allegations of bribery in timber deals; the former minister for forests D'Alton was charged with corruption, but acquitted. In November Cosgrove won the election with 16 seats in the assembly to the Liberals' 12, though his own vote dropped considerably.

Cosgrove now dominated his government and saw Tasmania recover slowly, but soundly, in the postwar period. Orderly and punctual in his daily routine, he appeared calm and unruffled, and graciously received visitors—however lowly—in the executive chamber. He was shrewd in transacting business, and quick to recognize and promote talent; he faced problems with courage, doggedness, and with a clear understanding of other people's weaknesses and of his own limitations. A political survivor, against all odds he gained a reputation for electoral invincibility. Each Saturday he relaxed by dining and dancing with his wife at the Wrest Point Hotel.

Gertrude was a staunch companion to her husband in his political career and a devoted mother to their children. Their elder son Robert was killed in 1940 while serving with the Royal Air Force. Mrs Cosgrove was treasurer of the West Hobart women's branch of the A.L.P. and active in the Australian Comforts Fund, the Country Women's Association, the Australian Red Cross Society and the Victoria League. From 1916 she worked devotedly for Elizabeth Street State School; her leisure activities included gardening and crochet. Appointed D.B.E. (1947), she was invested at Buckingham Palace, London, by King George VI in 1949.

Resigning as premier on 18 December 1947, Cosgrove appeared before Chief Justice Sir John Morris on 10 February 1948, charged with bribery, corruption and conspiracy. He spent ten hours in the witness box and was acquitted on all counts on 22 February. Three days later caucus re-elected him premier.

On 8 July the Legislative Council, by a vote of 13 to 3, agreed to grant only two months' supply, provided that the government agreed to call a general election. Following a campaign fought on constitutional issues, on 21 August the voters returned 15 Labor, 12 Liberal and 3 Independent members to the assembly. Cosgrove polled well in Denison. A chastened Legislative Council saw his government continue with the support of an Independent W. G. Wedd. Cosgrove entered the most difficult period of his career. The turbulence of Federal politics—the defeat of Chifley in 1949, (Sir) Robert Menzies' move to ban the Communist Party of Australia, Evatt's leadership of the A.L.P. and eventually the Labor 'split'—spilled over into Tasmania, despite Cosgrove's efforts to prevent its so doing.

A good, though never too obvious Catholic, Cosgrove disliked and distrusted communists; he said that the world was well rid of Joseph Stalin on his death in 1953. On radio Cosgrove boldly advocated forward defence against communist insurgency in Malaya until the A.L.P. federal executive ruled against it. From the referendum campaign in 1951 to Labor's 'split' in 1955, he used his diplomacy to avoid any breakaway in Tasmania. He steered clear of Evatt's meetings, smoothed over ideological differences, meticulously accepted party decisions and made compromises at party conferences. In the end, he just failed to prevent a 'split' and some of the disaffection within the Labor Party was to bedevil the Tasmanian branch for the next twenty years.

Tasmanian politics remained in the doldrums. Cosgrove's party had no majority in parliament and he faced and survived elections in 1950 and 1955. Next year one of his ministers C. A. Bramich crossed the floor and gave the Opposition a majority. Cosgrove obtained a dissolution and was again returned to office with the support of an Independent. His tribulations continued when his treasurer R. J. D. Turnbull repeatedly breached cabinet solidarity, and was also tried and acquitted on charges of bribery and corruption in 1958.

Despite such political instability, Cosgrove had piloted Tasmania to prosperity in the 1950s. Well regarded by Menzies, he obtained good financial grants, enabling rapid expansion of the hydro-electricity scheme and attracting industries to the State. As minister for education (1948-58), Cosgrove introduced an extensive school-building programme. His popularity reached its meridian at the time of the visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in 1954: 'Cossie', as he was affectionately known, and his wife appeared everywhere, benign, tireless, immaculately groomed, and widely respected.

In July 1958, amid the Turnbull crisis, Cosgrove became ill; after undergoing surgery in Melbourne, he retired on 25 August. Except for two months in 1947-48, he had been premier for a record term of almost nineteen years. On leaving parliament, he quietly pursued a new interest in real estate as chairman of Willowdene Development Co. Pty Ltd. Cosgrove was knighted in 1959. He continued to attend State party conferences until 1968: in that year he failed to bridge a gap between his generation and Young Labor which was convinced that the old man had organized a Catholic voting-bloc with Brian Harradine. Among his many interests, Cosgrove was chairman of the Tasmanian Tourist Council and of the Southern Tasmanian Trotting Association; he was, as well, a member of the council of the University of Tasmania (1940-46 and 1948-55) and of the local branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society, and president of the Royal Hobart Golf Club.

Although his political reputation went into an eclipse, in his prime Cosgrove had some of the qualities of a statesman. Survived by a son and two daughters, Sir Robert died on 25 August 1969 in Hobart; he was accorded a state funeral and buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopaedia of Tasmania (Hob, 1931)
  • R. Davis, Eighty Years' Labor (Hob, 1983)
  • T. Newman, Tasmanian Premiers 1856-1988 (Hob, 1988)
  • W. A. Townsley, Tasmania (Hob, 1991)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 1 Jan 1947, 23 Feb 1948
  • private information.

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Citation details

W. A. Townsley, 'Cosgrove, Sir Robert (1884–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cosgrove-sir-robert-9832/text17389, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

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