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Robert Cosgrove

Robert and Gertrude Cosgrove (AOT, PH30/1/3577)

Robert Cosgrove (1884–1969), politician, was born at Tea Tree, the fourth of eight children of Michael and Mary Ann Cosgrove. He attended local state schools and St Mary's Catholic School in Hobart, then became a grocery shop assistant. The end of the nineteenth century saw the strengthening of the labour movement in Australia and Cosgrove became an organiser in the Shop Assistants' and Storemen and Packers' Unions. He spent three years working at the Trades Hall Council offices in Wellington, New Zealand. In 1911 he married Gertrude Geappen, and he and his wife had four children.

Cosgrove's career in politics commenced when he was elected in 1919 as a Labor Party MHA for Denison. Labor was in opposition during his first term. In 1920 he was elected State President of the Labor Party. Cosgrove was interested in shop trading hours and workers' compensation issues. At the 1922 election he lost his seat, but the 1925 poll re-elected the Labor Government headed by Joseph Lyons, and Cosgrove was returned for Denison. He became Government Whip and was known for his moderating influence on socialist policies. Lyons and Cosgrove shared a commitment to the Catholic Church and were factional allies. The Nationalist Party under John McPhee won the elections of 1928 and 1931, on the second occasion Cosgrove again losing his seat. He returned to grocery shopkeeping.

At the 1934 election Labor under Albert Ogilvie was elected to minority government, and Cosgrove re-entered Parliament. He was made Minister for Agriculture, instituted a departmental reorganisation and travelled widely to consult farmers. Following the death of Ogilvie and the resignation of Dwyer-Gray after six months in office, Cosgrove defeated Tom D'Alton to become Premier of Tasmania in December 1939. He continued his moderate social policies and maintained the major capital works initiatives (such as hydro-electric power projects) started by Ogilvie, which had pulled Tasmania out of the Depression. He enjoyed a reputation as a cautious, calm and effective leader.

The election of 1941 saw Labor and Cosgrove win with a big majority (20 to 10, which remains a record). His majority dropped to 16 at the 1946 election. In 1947 Cosgrove resigned as Premier to face charges of bribery and corruption, but was acquitted and re-elected Premier in 1948. Shortly after, the Legislative Council obstructed the government's budget and Cosgrove went to the polls. He was returned, and governed in minority from then until the end of his time as Premier. A consummate diplomat both in government and within the ALP, he worked to soften hard-line stances taken by the party's left and right wings, but was unable to stop the ALP split of 1955, though he did minimise its local impact. He co-operated with the federal government in various wartime measures and enjoyed the confidence of federal politicians on both sides of politics. The expansion of power projects led to statewide industrialisation and increased migration, principally from Europe, during the latter part of Cosgrove's term. As Minister for Education he presided over rebuilding and rapid expansion of schools. It was a time of growing prosperity and Cosgrove, the political survivor, was a man for his times, earning the respect of the people during his long leadership. Following a bout of illness, Cosgrove retired as Premier and MHA in 1958. His two periods amounted to a record as Premier of Tasmania. He received a KCMG in 1959. Upon his death in 1969 he was accorded a state funeral.

Further reading: ADB 13.

Peter Bennison