COTTON, Sir Robert Carrington (1915–2006)
Senator for New South Wales, 1965–78 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Robert Carrington (Bob) Cotton, accountant, timber producer and company director, was born in Broken Hill on 29 November 1915, the first of seven children of Hugh Leslie (Les) Carrington Cotton and Muriel Florence, née Pearce. Les Cotton had established a mercantile agency at Broken Hill, which included the supply of materials to the local mine. Bob Cotton was educated at Burke Ward Public School, Broken Hill (1924–28), and at St Peter’s College, Adelaide (1929–32). A good student, he reached intermediate standard and won a scholarship to study agricultural science, but in Depression times his family could not afford the costs of further education.

Cotton began his working life as an office boy in his father’s firm, before spending three months as a jackeroo on a Queensland cattle station, located on Cooper’s Creek. Returning to the family business, Cotton gained by correspondence an Associate Diploma from the Federal Institute of Accountants in 1936, with honours in all subjects. Becoming a partner in the firm, by this time known as H. L. C. Cotton & Son (Accountants and Mining Supplies), he developed considerable expertise in hardwood timber and began to expand that side of the business.

From 1941 to 1942 he worked in the Department of Munitions for the Directorate of Timber Control, which was engaged in the planning of timber production and allocation of supplies. Rejected as medically unfit for the RAAF in 1940 on account of an eyesight problem, later corrected, Cotton enlisted in the Citizen Air Force in Adelaide in July 1942, training to become a pilot in Broken Hill. As the war in the Pacific increasingly affected the importation of American wood for the mines, the Cottons, working with the New South Wales Forestry Commission, studied timber production in the Oberon area of New South Wales, with the intention of using Australian hardwood in Australian mines. Subsequently, the Cottons built a saw mill at Oberon, with Bob (who was, in effect, released from the Air Force in May 1943) as managing director. Within a few months, Timber Industries Pty Ltd was in operation, and Bob and his family well settled in the district. Timber Industries, which later used softwoods as well as hardwoods, pioneered the supplying of Australian industries with timber processed by Australian-owned companies. The business worked on an incentive and profit-sharing basis, with staff encouraged to become shareholders. Years later, Cotton boasted that Timber Industries had ‘never lost a minute over industrial trouble’. During the 1950s, assisted by his brothers, Monty and John, who went to the USA to examine new methods in timber production, Bob established a factory in conjunction with the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. and Fletchers of New Zealand, manufacturing particle board. He became vice-president of the Associated Country Sawmillers of New South Wales, and chairman of the Australian Timber Producers’ Panel from 1964 to 1967. [1]

From 1947 until 1950 Cotton, who once described his Liberal philosophy as ‘part Liberal, part Labor, part Country Party’, was a member of the Oberon Shire Council, also serving as president. In 1949 and 1951 Cotton was preselected by the New South Wales Liberal Party to stand against Ben Chifley in Macquarie. He was unsuccessful on each occasion. Increasingly active in the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party, Cotton was the party’s country vice-president (1956, 1964–65), state president (1957–60), acting state president (1965), country representative on the state executive, chairman of the Liberal political centre, and a member of the rural, Liberal philosophy and finance committees. He was federal vice-president (1960–62), delegate to the Federal Council, New South Wales representative on the Federal Executive, chairman of the executive’s rural committee, member of its finance committee, policy research group and a member of the party’s joint standing committee on federal policy. In his state party positions, he worked with the state chairman of the Country Party, Colin McKellar, to establish a closer relationship between the two parties in New South Wales. Between 1958 and 1960, Cotton was a leading figure in opposing the Liberal Party’s Federal Council in its bid for centralised fund-raising.[2]

On 2 August 1965 he was selected to fill the casual vacancy arising from the resignation of Senator Spooner, and on 17 August 1965 was sworn in the Senate. His early speeches centred on rural interests—timber, meat, water resources and cotton subsidies. Increasingly, he focused his attention on economic matters, especially income tax legislation. ‘Senator Cotton’, wrote the Sydney Morning Herald in 1967,

though not an orator, is one of the soundest Government debaters in the Senate … He has paid particular attention to Federal–State financial relations, arguing for a new basis to end the yearly wranglings between the States and the Commonwealth … He has been tipped as a future minister.

Between March 1968 and November 1969 Cotton served as chair of the Senate Select Committee on Off-shore Petroleum Resources, which sat for four years to determine whether the Petroleum (Submerged Lands) Bill 1967, which Cotton supported as an excellent example of federal–state cooperation, conformed to the constitutional responsibilities of the Commonwealth and states, and made adequate provision for Australian ownership and control. Cotton left the committee before the publication of the report.[3]

When the Liberal Prime Minister, Harold Holt, disappeared on 17 December 1967 and Country Party leader John McEwen was appointed as his interim successor, Cotton made it clear that he would oppose McEwen continuing as Prime Minister. Cotton’s public statement also declared that the Treasurer, William McMahon, had neither his support nor that of the New South Wales Liberal Party, as a prime ministerial candidate. Veteran political commentator, Alan Reid, saw Cotton’s statement as a ‘watershed’ in dashing the hopes of both McEwen and McMahon. Despite Cotton’s support for Paul Hasluck in the leadership contest won by John Gorton, Cotton was appointed Government Whip by Gorton in March 1968. Twelve months later, Cotton moved the motion in the party room condemning the Liberal dissident Edward St John (MHR Warringah 1966–69), who had publicly attacked Gorton’s private conduct. According to Reid, Cotton’s action was in keeping with his belief ‘that where an individual threatened the existence of a Liberal government or the Liberal Party the individual had to be ruthlessly destroyed’.

Appointed Minister for Civil Aviation on 12 November 1969, Cotton also represented in the Senate the ministries of the interior, national development, shipping and transport, and customs and excise. When McMahon succeeded to the prime ministership in March 1971, Cotton added to his earlier Senate ministerial responsibilities those of Trade and Industry, and Tourism.

In the civil aviation portfolio, Cotton developed a close rapport with his departmental head, Don Anderson. The major issue faced by Cotton was the implementation, in 1972, of a new five-year agreement for the continuation of the government-sanctioned duopoly, which had existed since 1961, permitting Ansett Transport Industries (ATI) and the government carrier, Trans-Australia Airlines (TAA), to divide up the domestic market between them. Cotton did not regard it as part of his brief to revisit the fundamentals of the policy, but he was determined to introduce significant modifications, including the reduction of parallel services, reinvigoration of rural services (which had been reduced by ATI), a requirement that ATI provide an annual statement of its results for presentation to Parliament, and the breaking of ATI’s monopoly on routes within Western Australia. Cotton viewed Reg Ansett, founder and chairman of ATI, as ‘a thorough pain in the neck’ and pushed the new agreement through Cabinet, despite determined lobbying by Ansett, who had friends in Government including Prime Minister McMahon.

In November 1971 Cotton participated in a seminar at the Australian National University on the future of federalism. His contribution recognised the presence of ‘strong centralizing pressures’, and the need for adaptation. He proposed ‘a scheme of cooperative Federalism’: the establishment of a national council to determine the allocation of resources between the three tiers of government. He was prescient in suggesting the introduction of a value added tax for the benefit of the states. Subsequently, Cotton obtained from the Prime Minister a government grant to establish the university’s Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations.[4]

From January 1973 until March 1975 Cotton, who saw himself as the economic and financial spokesman for the Opposition in the Senate, held the shadow portfolios for the Postmaster-General’s Department, and for housing and works. When Malcolm Fraser became Leader of the Opposition, Cotton took responsibility for manufacturing industry and industrial development. In debate on the Industries Assistance Commission Bill in late 1973, he moved six amendments. Four were carried with the support of the Democratic Labor Party and Country Party, including an amendment providing for a separate authority to establish claims for temporary assistance. During Liberal Party machinations prior to Malcolm Fraser’s appointment as Leader of the Opposition on 21 March 1975, Cotton had been one of the coterie in the Senate who schemed to depose Billy Snedden in favour of Fraser. Active in Senate debate during this period, on 12 June Cotton raised, as a matter of urgency, the ‘failure of the Government … to make full disclosure to Parliament regarding overseas loan transactions’, and, in October, moved that the appropriation bills (1) and (2) ‘be not further proceeded with until the Government agrees to submit itself to the judgement of the people’.

Following the constitutional crisis of 11 November, and Fraser’s subsequent victory at the December election, Cotton again entered the Cabinet, serving as Minister for Industry and Commerce, and representing in the Senate several associated portfolios. Industry and Commerce posed particular difficulties for Cotton. Under the Whitlam Government there had been fundamental changes in Australian tariff policies. The establishment of the Industries Assistance Commission (IAC) in 1974, headed by the anti-protectionist Alf Rattigan, was followed by radical tariff cuts. In 1975 the Jackson Report recommended further small, gradual cuts. In Cotton’s view, the momentum towards free trade had to be weighed against a state of crisis in the Australian manufacturing industry, with rising unemployment and intense pressure for temporary protective measures from industry and unions. A White Paper on Manufacturing Industry, commissioned by the Fraser Government, exposed sharp divisions within Cabinet, leading to a redrafting of the document. Treasurer Phillip Lynch and Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock opposed further protection, while Cotton, supported by the Prime Minister, argued against any more tariff reductions until such time as the economy had absorbed the changes that had already occurred. He also proposed additional assistance by way of guaranteed market shares. The activities of the IAC were curbed. Cotton shared the opinion of Fraser that ‘we would sooner have jobs than dogma’. He took pride in the establishment of the Australian Manufacturing Council, and of a number of industry advisory councils, to provide practical and unfettered advice about readjustment.[5]

Cotton was appointed a KCMG on 1 January 1978, and resigned from the Senate on 13 July following the announcement in the previous December of his appointment as Consul-General in New York. In 1976 the London Financial Times had referred to his ‘mild mannered parliamentary style and unfailing courtesy’, qualities which made him well suited to head a large number of parliamentary delegations between 1966 and 1977—to Spain, Switzerland, Romania, Taiwan and the Soviet Union, South-East Asia and the Pacific.

Returning from New York in 1981, Cotton was appointed a member of the board of the Reserve Bank, and in 1982 was back in the USA as Australian Ambassador in Washington, remaining in that post until 1985. While in the USA, Cotton, a keen black and white photographer, held exhibitions of his photographs, as he did later in the Wagner Gallery in Sydney. In 2004 he collaborated with Jane Weinberger, the wife of former US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger, to produce a book of photographs of the historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. Cotton was associated with, or director of, a number of companies and organisations, and from 1981 to 1991 was founding chairman of the Australian Political Exchange Council. From 1991 to 1994 he was chair of the National Gallery of Australia Foundation.

Cotton married Eve Elizabeth Macdougall, a typist at a Broken Hill newspaper, on 11 November 1937, at St Peter’s College chapel in Adelaide. Eve had studied piano at the Sydney Conservatorium, and later became a successful sheep breeder in Oberon. She died in 2000 and, on 11 January 2003, Cotton married Beryl Betty Krummel, née Eden. Cotton died on Christmas Day 2006, survived by Betty, and the three children of his first marriage. His funeral service was held at St Peter’s Anglican Church, Cremorne.

Colleagues and acquaintances remember Cotton as a man with a strong handshake and a sympathetic gaze. Urbane, he steered a middle course in politics and business with good humour and charm. In 1970, journalist Laurie Oakes described him as ‘a keen, earthy, lively talker’, who was ‘always available to see anybody—management or unions’. His easy manner concealed subtlety and serious intent. The years spent in the higher echelons of the Liberal Party before entering Parliament made him a particularly effective behind-the-scenes operator. As a minister, he did not change his style, eschewing the limelight. He once said, ‘I am not a sideshow politician … I am interested in the job of politics, not the appearance’.[6]

John Graham

[1] Sir Robert Carrington Cotton, Transcript of oral history interview with Ron Hurst, 1987–90, POHP, TRC 4900/86, NLA, pp. 1:2–5, 1:10–13, 2:16; Cotton, Robert Carrington—Defence Service Record, A9301, 419078, NAA; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Robert Fisher, Archivist, St Peter’s College, Adelaide; Ian Hudson and Paul Henningham, Gift of God, Friend of Man: A Story of the Timber Industry in New South Wales 1788–1986, Australian Forest Industries Journal, Sydney, 1986, pp. xi, 156–63; Liberal Opinion (Syd.), Nov. 1949, p. 9; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 25 May 1970, p. 8; Liberal Opinion (Syd.), Jan.–Feb. 1957, p. 1. 

[2] SMH, 11 Feb. 1971, p. 7; The editor acknowledges the assistance of Elizabeth Pollock, Oberon Council; Liberal Opinion (Syd.), June 1956, p. 3; Australian Liberal (Syd.), Mar. 1964, p. 1, Mar. 1965, p. 1; Liberal Opinion (Syd.), Jan.–Feb. 1957, p. 1; Australian Liberal (Syd.), Dec. 1960, p. 6, June 1965, p. 1; Liberal Party of Australia, NSW division, Reports of annual general meetings, State Council, 1956, 1962/63, 1968; Australian Liberal (Syd.), Feb. 1963, p. 1; Liberal Party of Australia, Federal Council annual meeting minutes, 1959–60, MS 5000, box 188, NLA; Australian Liberal (Syd.), Oct. 1961, p. 17, Dec. 1962, p. 31; Age (Melb.), 31 Dec. 1975, p. 7; Australian Liberal (Syd.), Nov. 1957, p. 8; Ian Hancock, National and Permanent? The Federal Organisation of the Liberal Party of Australia, 1944–1965, MUP, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 189–91.

[3] SMH, 3 Aug. 1965, p. 4; CPD, 1 Sept. 1965, pp. 261–2, 18 Nov. 1965, pp. 1614–18, 4 Apr. 1968, pp. 605–7, 23 Apr. 1969, pp. 996–8, 21 Oct. 1970, pp. 1363–6; SMH, 18 Nov. 1967, p. 11; Cotton, Transcript, p. 5:16; CPP, 201/1971.

[4] Alan Reid, The Power Struggle, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1969, pp. 147–8, 153–5; Cotton, Transcript, pp. 8:11–12, 9:1, 9:3, 9:5; Senate, Journals, 12 Mar. 1968, p. 4; Alan Reid, The Gorton Experiment, Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney, 1971, p. 228; John Gunn, Contested Skies: Trans-Australian Airlines Australian Airlines 1946–1992, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1999, pp. 248–9, 252, 256–7; Robert Cotton, ‘The Future of Australian Federalism: A Liberal View’, in R. L. Mathews (ed.), Intergovernmental Relations in Australia, A & R, Cremorne, NSW, 1974, pp. 281–9; ANU, Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations, Report, 1973.

[5] Cotton, Transcript, pp. 12:13, 13:15–16; CPD, 28 Nov. 1973, pp. 2231–4; CT, 6 Dec. 1973, p. 27; Gavin Souter, Acts of Parliament, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1988, p. 531; Alan Reid, The Whitlam Venture, Hill of Content, Melbourne, 1976, pp. 149, 323, 325, 329–30; CPD, 12 June 1975, pp. 2600–3, 16 Oct. 1975, pp. 1221, 1241; G. S. Reid and Martyn Forrest, Australia’s Commonwealth Parliament 1901–1988: Ten Perspectives, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1989, p. 330; John Warhurst, Jobs or Dogma? The Industries Assistance Commission and Australian Politics, UQP, St Lucia, Qld, 1982, pp. 54–9; CPD, 24 May 1977, pp. 1256–61; National Times (Syd.), 9–14 May 1977, p. 20; Press release, ‘Industry Advisory Councils’, Minister for Industry and Commerce, 7 May 1976, 76/30, Cotton file, CPL.

[6] Senate, Journals, 15 Aug. 1978, p. 279; Senate Registry File, A8161, S59, NAA; Australian (Syd.), 23 Jan. 1980, p. 2; Financial Times (London), 8 Sept. 1976, p. 20; Reserve Bank of Australia, Report and financial statements, 30 June 1982; CT, 22 May 1982, p. 3; SMH, 4 July 1985, p. 11, 8 Mar. 2005, p. 13; CT, 23 Mar. 1986, p. 6; Robert Cotton, The C&O Canal in Photographs, Windswept House, Mt Desert, Maine, 1986; Australian Political Exchange Council, Annual report, 1991–92; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 25 May 1970, p. 8; SMH, 4 Jan. 2007, p. 14.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 3, 1962-1983, University of New South Wales Press Ltd, Sydney, 2010, pp. 434-439.

COTTON, Sir Robert Carrington (1915–2006)

National Archives of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for New South Wales, 1965–78

Minister for Civil Aviation, 1969–72

Minister for Manufacturing Industry, 1975

Minister for Science and Consumer Affairs, 1975

Minister for Industry and Commerce, 1975–77

Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1965–68

Standing Orders Committee, 1965–69, 1976–78

Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1967–68

Select Committee on Off-shore Petroleum Resources, 1967–69

Estimates Committee B, 1973–74

Select Committee on Foreign Ownership and Control of Australian Resources, 1973–74

Standing Committee on Finance and Government Operations, 1973–74

Estimates Committee D, 1974–75

Estimates Committee A, 1975