COLE, George Ronald (1908–1969)
Senator for Tasmania, 1950–65 (Australian Labor Party; Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist); Democratic Labor Party)

George Ronald Cole, first national leader of the Democratic Labor Party, was born on 9 February 1908 at Don, near Devonport, Tasmania. He was one of five children of Tasmanian-born parents, George Cole, a labourer, and Alice, née Rutter. George Ronald was educated at Devonport High School, gaining matriculation to the University of Tasmania. In 1925 he became a probationary student teacher, in 1927 a junior teacher at Don State School, and in 1928 attended Philip South Teachers’ College, Hobart. On 28 March 1932 he married Kathleen Mary Cuttriss, a hairdresser, at St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Hobart. From 1932 to 1937 Cole was head teacher at Upper Mountain River and from 1938 to 1941, certified assistant teacher at West Devonport Practising School. A keen Australian Rules footballer, in 1928 Cole won the Wilson Bailey gold medal for the best and fairest in the Tasmanian Football League, playing for New Town.

On 3 March 1939 Cole joined the Citizen Military Forces at Milford, Tasmania. Posted to the 12th/50th Australian Infantry Battalion, he was called up for full-time duty on 1 October 1941. In September 1942 he volunteered for the AIF, serving in the north of Australia and becoming an instructor. He was discharged from the 30th Australian Infantry Training Battalion in September 1944 with the rank of lieutenant.

Cole became head teacher of primary schools at Strahan (1946), Longford (1947) and Latrobe (1948–49). By 1949 he was president of the Latrobe branch of the ALP, and later that year was preselected for the Senate for the December federal election, his campaign advertisement in the Hobart Mercury reading: ‘GEORGE R. COLE. Endorsed Labor Candidate for the Senate. Headmaster Latrobe State School. Returned Soldier, 1939–45. Former New Town Star Centreman and Tasmanian Carnival Footballer. President Latrobe Branch A.L.P. … Good Soldier. Good Sportsman. Good Citizen’.

Popular in the North-West, Cole won seventh place in the Senate poll on 10 December 1949 at which the number of senators was increased from thirty-six to sixty. The 1949 poll also marked the introduction of proportional representation as the method of electing senators. Both the increase in senators and the manner of their election arguably had an impact on Cole’s future political career.[1]

At first, Cole saw the Senate as ‘the home of glory without power’, and without sufficient work to occupy its members, though he confessed that as a senator he was not eager to abolish it. A centralist, he was in strong, though amiable, disagreement with the Liberal Party’s Reg Wright. On policy matters relating to Tasmania, such as the support of local industries and agriculture (especially peas, potatoes and berry fruits), and on social security measures, Cole could be relied upon to uphold Tasmania to the utmost, but his first speech in the Senate, on 15 March 1950, was an indication that his anti-communism would override all else. He stated that the Menzies Government’s Communist Party Dissolution Bill would result in communism going underground, making it more attractive as a secret society. Communism, he said, was based on ‘a fallacy—the denial of God’. It could best be tackled by governments providing economic security and ‘democratic education’. Arguing for comprehensive federal funding for education, he noted overcrowded classrooms, inadequate school buildings and furnishings, and the shortage of teachers, and commented: ‘When I observe the amenities that are provided for members of the Parliament and compare them with those generally provided for teachers, I feel somewhat ashamed’. He wanted to see free education, the fostering of Australian culture in schools with facilities for art and music, improved gymnasiums, and better canteens. ‘How can any one try to teach nutrition and hygiene when children arrive at school with sticky jam sandwiches for lunch?’ Democratic education, he concluded, would sound the ‘death knell of that pernicious doctrine—communism’.[2]

Cole, whose portraits depict a man with a straight eye and a powerful jaw, would soon be deeply involved in the Labor Split of the mid-1950s. A member of the party’s Federal Executive in 1952 and 1953, he had joined forces with the anti-communist Industrial Groupers by 1953 in an attempt to dispose of Pat Kennelly as federal secretary of the ALP. At a meeting of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party (the Caucus) on 20 October 1954, Cole, believing the Leader of the Opposition, H. V. Evatt, to be in league with communists in the trade unions, moved a motion for a leadership spill. According to Clyde Cameron, Cole, looking directly at Evatt, said: ‘I think that you, Dr Evatt, have failed this Party in your leadership because you’ve put your personality above the principles of the Party’. The motion was defeated by fifty-two votes to twenty-eight.

During the ALP Split, Victorian pro-Evatt and anti-communist groups sent two separate delegations to the ALP’s conference in Hobart in March 1955. Cole, representing the Australian Railways Union Industrial Group, joined the push for the anti-communists. On 15 March he was among the seventeen non-Victorian delegates who signed a letter announcing their intention to boycott the conference, and stipulating that both delegations should be excluded until such time as the conference, now a shambles, decided which one should represent Victoria. In joining the boycott, Cole had broken a rule of his party’s state executive, thereby risking suspension. By 17 March a conference resolution ensured that ALP state branches would withdraw their official recognition of the Industrial Groups, and that any effort to combat communism would be a matter for trade unions alone. At the subsequent Tasmanian state conference in late March, Cole was elected at the top of the poll for the state executive but, by 30 May, pro-Evatt forces, including the influential Senator McKenna, had secured his suspension for eight months until the next conference hoping he would resign. Despite an appeal, he was not reinstated. On 16 August 1955, he formally resigned from the ALP.[3]

On 24 August Cole announced in the Senate that he would represent the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist), led by the MHR for Ballaarat, Robert Joshua. Cole stated: ‘I have joined with the other members of this Parliament who refused to accept the leadership of Dr. Evatt and the pro-Communist policies laid down by an unconstitutional rump conference held at Hobart earlier this year’. In the discussion that followed, the ALP’s Justin O’Byrne referred to Cole’s conversion to Catholicism at the time of his marriage, and his links with B. A. Santamaria’s Catholic Social Studies Movement, and quipped: ‘The honorable senator will become known as Senator Maria’. O’Byrne also referred to the ‘farce of having one-man parties’, citing Cole’s access to secretarial staff and travel, provided by a grateful Liberal–Country Party Coalition Government, as ‘the misuse of public funds’, an accusation that the ALP did not allow Cole to forget. Records indicate that Cole received no allowances as a party leader either from the Department of the Senate or from the Prime Minister’s Department, although in 1955 the Prime Minister approved the engagement of a private secretary, and in 1959, an assistant private secretary. He had a secretary typist, and the private secretaries’ allowances included official travel expenses. Free travel for Cole included the representation of his party on official business, and four additional trips to and from Canberra each year for his wife, with some additional facilities for car travel. Cole also had a ‘separate room’ at Parliament House, a significant privilege in that crowded establishment.[4]

While the federal election of December 1955 saw Joshua’s political demise, it brought the election of another Anti-Communist senator, in the person of Frank McManus, who would be classed as Cole’s deputy in the party of two, which now held the balance of power in the Senate. On 8 May 1956 Cole announced himself the leader of the Australian Labor Party (Anti-Communist). The party increased to three when, following the split of the Queensland ALP in April 1957, Condon Byrne moved to the cross benches to sit with Cole and McManus. In March, Cole had presented an unexceptionable statement of his party’s policy to the Senate, which he summarised as one ‘which accepts our social responsibility and at the same time maintains our liberties’. In fact, it brought him closer to coalition policies. In August Cole attended a national conference in Canberra of various anti-communist splinter groups, at which the Australian Democratic Labor Party—soon to be the Democratic Labor Party (DLP)—was formed, Cole telling the Senate that the ALP’s foreign and defence policies were ‘so un-Australian that we would have nothing more to do with them’. On social security measures, he remained closer to the ALP.

In October 1958 Cole launched the party’s campaign for the forthcoming 1958 federal election, at what Labor historian Robert Murray has described as ‘an amazing rally of about 7,000 people at the new Olympic Pool in Melbourne’, where the ‘fervour of the speeches … and of the reception they met from the huge crowd, often bitter to the point of frenzy, remained long in the memory of those who saw them’. When, during the campaign, Evatt made his extraordinary offer to stand down as leader of the ALP in exchange for DLP preferences, Cole countered by insisting that he would only negotiate if the ALP itself would take up the fight against communism in the unions and ban unity tickets between Labor and communist candidates at union elections. With Labor thus divided, the election was another victory for the Liberal–Country Party Coalition. Cole, who retained a strong personal following, was re-elected with 14.6 per cent of the first preference votes.[5]

By 1960 Cole, conscious that the Senate had provided him with a platform, had changed his early view of its value. Suspicious of the work of the Joint Committee on Constitutional Review, he now stated he would be disappointed if his fellow senators agreed to any reduction of Senate power. While his Catholicism was not the sole determinant of his political values, he saw the liberalisation of divorce in the Matrimonial Causes Bill 1959 as an ‘insidious undermining of the family life of Australia’. He remained keenly interested in foreign affairs and defence, was strongly in favour of the Vietnam War, and hoped, in vain, to be placed on the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. He regretted the Menzies Government’s 1960 decision to abolish compulsory national service. When McManus was defeated at the federal election of December 1961, Cole once again was the only parliamentary member of his party, the Melbourne Sun heading its article: ‘Sen. Cole (Without a Party) is Still Party Leader’.[6]

On 11 August 1964 Cole asked Senator Paltridge, the minister representing the Prime Minister in the Senate, whether a speech made to ‘the Communist-inspired Hiroshima gathering in Sydney’ by the Labor MHR for Yarra, Dr Jim Cairns, was ‘treasonable’. Cairns had been reported as calling for a cease-fire in Vietnam, and for Australia not to follow the United States line. In September Cole collapsed in the Senate. He recovered sufficiently to make a policy speech for the forthcoming election in November, in which he focused on the reintroduction of conscription and the development of an Australian nuclear deterrent. Something of a boost to his slight hopes of re-election was the defeat of the Santamaria-inspired National Civic Council’s move for control of the Tasmanian branch of the DLP. At the Senate election of 5 December, Cole lost his seat, but two years later, expressed the hope of returning. In June 1968 he retired as president of the Tasmanian DLP, commenting that the only way for his party to get members into the House of Representatives was by joining the right wing of the ALP.[7]

Cole died at Latrobe on 23 January 1969. Kathleen and their five children survived him. In the Senate valedictories, Reg Wright said he felt a ‘stern admiration’ for Cole as a ‘courageous parliamentarian’, while Senator Byrne saw his party colleague as ‘a man of courage and integrity … incapable of personal resentment or bitterness’.[8]

Ralph J. K. Chapman

[1] R. J. K. Chapman, ‘Cole, George Ronald’, ADB, vol. 13; Ken Pinchin, A Century of Tasmanian Football, 1879–1979, Tasmanian Football League, Hobart, 1979, pp. 65–6; Cole, George Ronald—Defence Service Record, B883, TX6319, NAA; Tasmania, Education Department, Personal files of teachers–Cole, George R., ED190/1/12, AOT; Mercury (Hob.), 9 Dec. 1949, p. 26.

[2] CPD, 29 Sept. 1954, pp. 582–3, 9 Nov. 1950, pp. 2174–5, 15 Mar. 1950, p. 725, 15 Sept. 1954, p. 312, 15 Mar. 1950, pp. 742–6.

[3] Patrick Weller and Beverley Lloyd (eds), Federal Executive Minutes 1915–1955, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1978, pp. 508–9, 526; Robert Murray, The Split: Australian Labor in the Fifties, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1970, pp. 125–6, 191–3, 223–9, 241, 267; John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre (eds), True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2001, pp. 96–7, 214; Clyde R. Cameron, The Confessions of Clyde Cameron 1913–1990, as told to Daniel Connell, ABC Enterprises, Crows Nest, NSW, 1990, p. 109; ALP, Official report of the 21st Commonwealth Conference, 1955; Richard Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor: The ALP in Tasmania, 1903–1983, Sassafras Books and the History Department, UTAS, Hobart, 1983, p. 52; SMH, 31 May 1955, p. 3, 28 June 1955, p. 12, 26 July 1955, p. 2; Examiner (Launc.), 13 July 1955, p. 1; SMH, 16 Aug. 1955, p. 1.

[4] CPD, 24 Aug. 1955, pp. 4–7, 27 Oct. 1955, pp. 785–8, 2 May 1956, pp. 466–7; Age (Melb.), 8 Aug. 1962, p. 8; Department of the Senate, Typescript notes, probably prepared for the Clerk of the Senate, c. 1959.

[5] SMH, 13 Dec. 1955, p. 1; Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, pp. 39–40; CPD, 8 May 1956, p. 592, 30 Aug. 1956, p. 10, 21 Mar. 1957, pp. 113–17, 27 Aug. 1957, p. 12; Murray, The Split, pp. 334–5, 345; SMH, 22 Oct. 1957, pp. 1, 2.

[6] CPD, 16 Mar. 1960, pp. 201–3, 25 Nov. 1959, pp. 1826–9, 27 Nov. 1959, p. 1983; Sun News-Pictorial (Melb.), 7 Aug. 1962, p. 1.

[7] CPD, 11 Aug. 1964, p. 8; SMH, 12 Aug. 1964, p. 14, 22 Sept. 1964, p. 5; Age (Melb.), 25 Nov. 1964, p. 6; Examiner (Launc.), 1 Aug. 1964, p. 4, 29 Sept. 1964, p. 1, 31 Oct. 1966, p. 4; SMH, 17 June 1968, p. 1.

[8] SMH, 24 Jan. 1969, p. 7; CPD, 25 Feb. 1969, pp. 30–4.

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. 129-133.

COLE, George Ronald (1908–1969)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Tasmania, 1950–65

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1951–56

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1956–65