COOPER, Sir Walter Jackson (1888–1973)
Senator for Queensland, 1928–32, 1935–68 (Country and Progressive National Party; Australian Country Party)

Walter Jackson Cooper, grazier and Minister for Repatriation in the Menzies Government, was described by political commentator Don Whitington as ‘a quiet, hard working, earnest man, well liked by his colleagues and his staff’. He was born in England on 23 April 1888 at Cheetham, Lancashire, the son of Joseph Pollitt Cooper, a salesman, and Sarah, née Jackson. Educated at Bedford Grammar School, Bedford, and Wyggeston Boys’ School, Leicester, he served as a reservist in the Leicestershire Imperial Yeomanry and in the Royal Horse Artillery. In 1910 Cooper migrated to Western Australia, and worked his way to Queensland, where he set himself up as an indent agent in Brisbane. Courteous, tall and good looking, Cooper was also prepared to take a risk. Late in 1912, at the seaside town of Southport, he helped assist swimmers from dangerous surf in which three people drowned. He was awarded the Certificate of Merit for this act by the Royal Humane Society of Australasia in 1913. Not long before the outbreak of World War I, Cooper drew a successful ticket in a land ballot that provided him with 11 331 hectares of land west of Winton. He raised sheep, and gradually acquired neighbouring properties.

In June 1915 Cooper enlisted in the AIF at Emerald, Queensland, and was commissioned as second lieutenant. Embarking in August, he joined the 15th Battalion at Lemnos in October. He served on Gallipoli and in Egypt and was promoted to lieutenant in March 1916 and captain in April. In June, Cooper arrived in France where, on 10 August, at Mouquet Farm, he was wounded badly in the right leg. The historian of the 15th Battalion, who described Cooper as ‘a determined combative leader’ whose loss from the battalion was ‘deeply deplored by his men’, claims that he was accidentally shot by one of his own men. In September 1916 the limb was amputated above the knee at the 3rd London General Hospital. While convalescing in England, Cooper received a pamphlet in which he read that any member of the forces who lost a leg or an arm would be provided with employment as a caretaker or a lift attendant. Cooper later commented:

The idea underlying the dissemination of that information was probably quite good; but to me, as a young man with some ambition, the prospect of spending the remainder of my life as a caretaker or lift attendant was not encouraging … Men who are badly injured … need some psychological treatment, so that they will realize that they can still render useful service to the community and become successful citizens.

In October 1917 Cooper transferred to the Australian Flying Corps as a temporary adjutant. On 14 February the following year, he married Louie Dorothy Crick, the daughter of a farmer, at St Peter’s Church of England, Leicester. In September he was posted for duty with 4 Squadron, in France. He was mentioned in despatches, and served with the Army of Occupation in Germany from November 1918 to February 1919. In 1919 he undertook an eight-month course in the Department of Textile Industries at the University of Leeds as part of the AIF’s repatriation and demobilisation program. In October he was appointed MBE for distinguished services during the war. Cooper embarked for Australia in 1920. He was demobilised in 1921.[1]

Cooper returned to his sheep farm, riding around his property, which he now named Brackenburgh (after Brackenburgh Towers, where he had convalesced during the war), and using a leather socket as a stirrup for his artificial limb. He joined the Country and Progressive National Party in 1927 and successfully sought preselection for the Senate in 1928. Country Party MHR Arthur Fadden later recalled that although Cooper gave a poor speech to the selection panel, he showed ‘that he was the man for us’ by his sincerity, physical courage, and determination.

At the November federal election, Cooper won in fourth place, defeating J. V. MacDonald , who was filling the Senate casual vacancy caused by the death of Thomas Givens the previous June. Under the existing—and complicated—electoral legislation, Cooper could fill the vacancy only until the expiry of Givens’ term of service, which would have been 30 June 1932. At the December 1931 federal election he failed in his bid for a Senate periodical vacancy. Before leaving the Senate in 1932, he wrote to the Clerk, George Henry Monahan, ‘Was very sorry that I was unable to say Au Revoir to you today. You will notice that I say Au Revoir as I intend to come back again if humanly possible’.

Cooper made his comeback at the September 1934 election, which gave the non-Labor parties a clear majority, though the United Australia Party (UAP) could no longer form a government on its own. The resultant coalition between the UAP and the Country Party was, of course, advantageous to Cooper. An active backbencher from the start, in October 1935 he was appointed to the Senate Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, one of many positions he would hold on committees.

Cooper was also willing and able to take on parliamentary and party positions in the Senate. While he was not a great orator, he was a sound speaker and widely respected. After his re-election in September 1940, he came close to being elected as Chairman of Committees when, in July 1941, he tied with Senator Gordon Brown; the contest was decided, in accordance with standing orders, by the drawing of lots. Brown won, and Cooper continued his service on committees, including becoming a member of the Joint Committee on War Gratuity in 1944. In March 1947 he became Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, and in June Leader of the Opposition in the Senate. From July, the Opposition consisted of Cooper, and the Liberal Party’s Annabelle Rankin and Neil O’Sullivan, a situation that lasted until 1949, and placed a heavy burden on all three Queenslanders. The situation also provided a compelling reason for Cooper to support the introduction of proportional representation for the Senate in 1948, though the non-Labor parties had, in general terms, long supported this electoral change. With the advent of the Menzies Government in 1949, the Country Party’s numbers were increased and Cooper became leader of the party in the Senate, a position he held until the end of 1960.[2]

Cooper’s early speeches in the Senate show a deep concern for farmers in isolated regions of Australia, and especially those in the wool industry:

The grower of wool is dependent on world prices for his product, but he must produce it in a country in which manufactured goods are highly protected. He is faced with the prospect of recurring droughts, and, in good seasons, of floods and fires. So many and so great are the risks, that it is a wonder that pastoralists can make a living at all. Only by their heroic efforts can they carry on.

He spoke of the city/country divide, so strong in twentieth-century Australia. When graziers, he said, lost over 3 million sheep (as a result of drought) in a matter of weeks in July 1935, few urban dwellers knew or cared, but had ‘a catastrophe of that magnitude occurred in any of the capital cities of Australia, the newspapers would have had headlines an inch high’. He urged that the Loan (Farmers’ Debt Adjustment) Act 1935 be amended to give farmers assistance to restock their depleted flocks. He lobbied for funds for a regional radio station for far west Queensland, asking the Postmaster-General, A. J. McLachlan, if profits from postal services could be used to provide communication facilities, such as telephones, to which McLachlan responded, with a touch of acerbity:

The Post Office Act does not allow, and I am sure the Treasury would not permit, such an interesting method of bookkeeping to prevail in the department. It may sound harsh to those who know that money has been saved by the department, but we have to look at these matters in the light of the law, the practice of the Treasury, and the opinions of the Auditor-General.[3]

But it was in the area of repatriation that Cooper was most interested. In December 1936 he told the Senate that he believed that, on the whole, ‘the general public, as represented by the Federal Parliament, have treated the repatriation of returned soldiers on a very liberal basis’. With the National Health and Pensions Insurance Bill before the Senate in 1938 (passed though never put into effect), Cooper sought advice from Commonwealth public servants who drafted the legislation on the bill’s likely effect on war service pensions. He was gratified to find that ‘the treatment of returned soldiers entitled to repatriation benefits [was] most generous’, though with the outbreak of World War II, and the advent of John Curtin’s Labor administration, Cooper declared he was less satisfied with the situation of many newly repatriated servicemen, and continually raised questions on the subject.

In addition to the broad issue of the level of benefits, he was attentive to matters such as vocational training for war-disabled men, and the injustice of returned servicemen, discharged as medically unfit, being eligible for repatriation benefits only if they had served in operational areas. More than once he raised the issue of preference in employment for returned ex-servicemen, and his concerns for the psychologically damaged. He remained deeply concerned about personnel suffering from war neurosis. In 1950 while referring to out-patient centres and treatment at general hospitals as part of repatriation policy, he spoke of a ‘repatriation pavilion’ at Wacol, Queensland, claiming this to be ‘the most modern and best equipped mental hospital in the Commonwealth’.[4]

In early 1942, the Diggers Association (Queensland) convened a public meeting in Brisbane in support of the internment of enemy aliens. The Curtin Government prohibited the meeting, and Cooper, through J. M. Fraser, the Minister Assisting the Minister for the Army, questioned the Government’s decision. Cooper was told that the meeting was banned for security reasons. While he accepted the official decision, he urged the Government to beware of potential fifth columns in Australia. He claimed that if the Japanese chose to mount parachute landings in North Queensland many ‘aliens’ would be eager to help them. Citing the effects of fifth columns in occupied European countries, he warned: ‘Naturalised enemy aliens often have better opportunities to do damage than unnaturalised aliens. I ask the Government to do all that it can to speed up the work that it has already commenced in Queensland in order to remove this menace from our midst’.[5]

In March 1944 Cooper resigned from the Joint Committee on Social Security over a row between the members of the committee and the somewhat belligerent Speaker of the House of Representatives, J. S. Rosevear. Rosevear wanted to replace the committee’s secretary, Roy Rowe, a former ministerial private secretary, with the Second Clerk Assistant of the Department of the House of Representatives, S. F. Chubb. The joint committee was outraged at Rosevear’s interference, while the department jealously guarded its right to appoint its own staff to parliamentary committees. This is an issue that still surfaces occasionally, though the time has long gone when either the President of the Senate or the Speaker of the House of Representatives would, or could, behave as Rosevear did. Finally, a compromise saw Chubb appointed as secretary while Rowe was fobbed off with responsibility for particular enquiries within the joint committee. Cooper returned to the joint committee in July, and served for another two years.[6]

With the election of the Menzies Government in December 1949, Cooper became Minister for Repatriation. Soon a Cabinet subcommittee of parliamentary ex-servicemen was set up to examine repatriation. In the meantime, the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia (RSSAILA) impatiently lobbied Menzies and Cooper for immediate action on increases to pensions and allowances paid to ex-servicemen and their dependants, citing the supposed shortcomings of the Chifley Government in such matters. These concerns, which had been reflected in Menzies’ 1949 policy speech, were addressed by amendments to the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Bill, which became law in 1950. One anomaly thus corrected related to children born to World War I veterans after 30 June 1938 who were not eligible for government assistance; another to inconsistencies between war pension entitlements for the two world wars; and a third to the extension of entitlements to personnel formerly or currently serving in Malaya and Korea.[7]

Pension increases became a hallmark of Cooper’s term as Minister for Repatriation and he was proud of it. The demands of the RSSAILA were addressed in Menzies’ first budget in 1950, and by 1953, according to Cooper, four years of the Menzies Government had done more for repatriation than other governments had done over the previous thirty years. He claimed that by September 1954, government spending on repatriation had doubled since 1949, with further increases due by 1956. He mentioned greater allowances for the soldiers’ children education scheme and substantial increases in family incomes for the totally and permanently incapacitated and for war widows.[8]

For some years Cooper had been lobbied by Jessie Vasey, President of the War Widows’ Guild, established in 1945. Vasey had lobbied successive governments to have section 43 of the Repatriation Act repealed. This was the notorious ‘snooping’ clause under which widows could be deprived of their pensions if suspected of having a relationship. The offending section had first appeared as section 37 in the Australian Soldiers’ Repatriation Act 1920. It read: ‘A Board may reject a claim for a pension by a dependant of a member of the Forces, or may terminate any pension granted to such a dependant, if the Board is satisfied that the grant or continuance of the pension is undesirable’. Following a federal conference of the War Widows’ Guild in Adelaide in 1952, Vasey sent Cooper a telegram: ‘Keep door open arriving next week. Federal Conference Adelaide asks complete removal of Section 43. VASEY’. At the subsequent meeting between Cooper and the small delegation of war widows, Vasey pointed out that the Government was prepared to provide a pension for a de facto wife and her illegitimate children, but to a war widow said, in effect: ‘You look sideways and we will stop your pension’. The irrepressible Vasey then turned to Cooper in order to remind him that ‘all cats are grey at dusk’. The Act was amended in October 1953.[9]

Cooper was a committed and hands-on minister who had a sound working relationship with his officials. He once told the Senate that repatriation should not be a party political matter, but ‘something that we should accept as a duty’. Cooper was intensely interested in the detail of his portfolio, and Senator Byrne later commented that he answered questions on repatriation in the Senate ‘in a most compendious manner’. He also tried out new types of artificial legs produced by departmental ‘Limb Factories’, thus earning the disdain of Major-General Sir George Wootten, Chairman of the Repatriation Commission from October 1945, who believed it undignified for a minister to act as a departmental testing laboratory. In September 1956 Cooper claimed that the type of artificial leg supplied by the department could not ‘be bettered anywhere in the world, except perhaps in Germany or the United States of America’. In May 1960 Cooper travelled to New Zealand, the United States of America, Canada, England and Germany inspecting ex-servicemen’s medical facilities and developments in the making of artificial limbs.[10]

Knighted in January 1959, in November 1960 Cooper donated five and a half tea chests of his parliamentary records to the University College of Townsville (later James Cook University) and on 29 December relinquished his portfolio. The Queensland Digger commented that ‘Australian servicemen will lose the best friend they have had at court’. He did not contest the November 1967 election, completing his term of service—thirty-six years and six months—on 30 June 1968, a record exceeded only by George Pearce. He had sold Brackenburgh after becoming Minister for Repatriation in 1950. Cooper died in the Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital in Brisbane on 22 July 1973, and was cremated at Mount Thompson. Accorded a state funeral, he was survived by Dorothy. There were no children. During the Senate obituaries, the leader of the Australian Country Party in the Senate, Senator Drake-Brockman, referred to Cooper’s long and respected association with ex-service organisations, which, he said, had led to Sir Walter having two nicknames: ‘Cabinet’s First Gentleman’ and ‘the Diggers’ Friend’.[11]

Brian Stevenson

[1] Margaret Bridson Cribb, ‘Cooper, Sir Walter Jackson’, ADB, vol. 13; Don Whitington, Ring the Bells: A Dictionary of Australian Federal Politics, Georgian House, Melbourne, 1956, p. 43; Cooper, Walter Jackson—Defence Service Record, B2455, NAA; Ulrich Ellis Papers, MS 1006, box 1, folder 3-1, NLA; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 30 Dec. 1912, p. 4; Royal Humane Society of Australasia, Annual report, 1913, p. 33; T. P. Chataway, History of the 15th Battalion Australian Imperial Forces War 1914–1918, William Brooks & Co., Brisbane, 1948, p. 130; CPD, 24 Mar. 1943, p. 2233; Sir Walter Cooper Papers, MS 2160, box 4, folder 33, NLA.

[2] Letter, Cooper to Bill Bolton, 20 July 1966, Cooper Papers, MS 2160, box 1, folder 4, NLA; Townsville Daily Bulletin, 24 Nov. 1966, p. 2; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 23 July 1973, p. 5, 14 Sept. 1968, p. 9; Senate Registry File, A8161, S57, NAA; CPD, 1 July 1941, pp. 570–1; CPP, 10/1953; CPD, 19 Mar. 1947, p. 783, 4 June 1947, pp. 3294–6, 5 May 1948, pp. 1356–65; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 29 Mar. 1967, p. 13.

[3] CPD, 23 Apr. 1936, p. 857, 29 June 1937, pp. 668–9, 23 Sept. 1936, pp. 387–8, 18 June 1937, p. 48, 9 June 1939, p. 1579, 1 May 1942, p. 775, 30 June 1937, p. 713.

[4] CPD, 2 Dec. 1936, p. 2585, 23 June 1938, pp. 2571–2, 18 Sept. 1941, p. 349, 24 Sept. 1941, pp. 429–30, 10 Feb. 1943, p. 404, 24 Feb. 1944, pp. 507–8, 24 Mar. 1943, p. 2234, 22 June 1950, pp. 4704–10.

[5] CPD, 5 Mar. 1942, pp. 70–1, 25 Mar. 1942, pp. 357–8.

[6] CPD, 29 Mar. 1944 (R), pp. 2203–24, 30 Mar. 1944, pp. 2281–4.

[7] SMH, 10 Jan. 1950, p. 1; G. L. Kristianson, The Politics of Patriotism: The Pressure Group Activities of the Returned Servicemen’s League, ANU Press, Canberra, 1966, pp. 99–100; CPD, 14 Oct. 1953, p. 550, 2 Mar. 1950, p. 256, 23 Mar. 1950, p. 1099, 22 Nov. 1950, pp. 2803–8.

[8] CPD, 14 Oct. 1953, p. 548, 15 Sept. 1954, p. 284, 19 Sept. 1956, p. 343.

[9] Mavis Thorpe Clark, No Mean Destiny: The Story of the War Widows’ Guild of Australia 1945–85, Hyland House Publishing, South Yarra, Vic., 1986, pp. 151–2; Clem Lloyd and Jacqui Rees, The Last Shilling: A History of Repatriation in Australia, MUP, Carlton, Vic., 1994, p. 318; CPD, 8 Oct. 1953, pp. 459–60.

[10] CPD, 20 Sept. 1956, pp. 395–7, 21 Aug. 1973, p. 6; Lloyd and Rees, The Last Shilling, p. 308; Minister’s Overseas Visit, 14 May–16 July 1960, Cooper Papers, MS 2160, box 3, folder 25, NLA.

[11] Townsville Daily Bulletin, 24 Nov. 1966, p. 2; Queensland Digger (Brisb.), Dec. 1960, p. 7; Courier-Mail (Brisb.), 29 Mar. 1967, p. 13, 23 July 1973, p. 5, 25 July 1973, p. 48; Age (Melb.), 23 July 1973, p. 14; CPD, 21 Aug. 1973, p. 5.

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. 263-269.

COOPER, Sir Walter Jackson (1888–1973)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator for Queensland, 1928–32, 1935–68

Minister for Repatriation, 1949–60

Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, 1947–49

Senate Committee Service

Library Committee, 1929, 1947–50

Printing Committee, 1929–32, 1943–50, 1962–68

Standing Orders Committee, 1929–32, 1947–50

House Committee, 1935–50

Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1935–50

Joint Standing Committee on Public Works, 1937–43

Select Committee on the Discharge of Captain T. P. Conway from the Australian Military Forces, 1939

Joint Committee on Social Security, 1941–44, 1944–46

Joint Standing Committee on Broadcasting, 1942–43

Joint Committee on War Gratuity, 1944–45, 1948–49, 1951

Committee of Disputed Returns and Qualifications, 1947–50, 1962–68

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, 1962–66

Select Committee on the Metric System of Weights and Measures, 1967–68