Peter Cox and his wife Olive were returning to Australia from an overseas study tour in 1982, along with Gordon Messiter, the New South Wales Transport Department’s Assistant Secretary, when the Alitalia flight on which they were travelling was hijacked at Bangkok Airport. The Coxes and other passengers were released after 18 hours as hostages.
An apocryphal yarn went that the hijacker decided to release women and children and that apparently Cox had disguised himself as a woman to aid his escape. Others cruelly observed that Cox may have used the opportunity to regale his captor with his aspirations for the NSW Transport System; the hijacker said ‘No more’ and was happy to release him. These stories were of course untrue: Thai authorities paid the hijacker off. Yet such was his enthusiasm for his Ministry that Cox used any domain to expound on his favourite subject. Politics was Cox’s passion in life.
Peter Francis Cox AO, KSG was born in Bathurst, NSW on 4 December 1925 and died aged 82 on Monday, 6 October, 2008. He was one of the eight children of Edwin Herbert, a plumber with the State Railways, and Annie Cox (nee Young). Peter Cox was touched by Labor politics before birth. Future Prime Minister and then railway man, Ben Chifley, lived near the Cox family in Bathurst and drove Edwin Cox’s wife, Annie, to hospital in an old Ford for Peter’s birth.
Cox was educated at St Joachim’s Catholic Primary School at Lidcombe, the Marist Brothers’ Benedict Junior College, and Marist Brothers’ Senior College at Auburn. Peter was an old school Labor politician; no tertiary education and no real desire other than to try and help the lot of the working class. He grew up with a strong awareness of the social stratum and the ways in which workers were exploited by the bosses.
Following his secondary education, Cox joined the Department of Motor Transport in 1942 as a Clerk and was an Executive Member of the Australian Transport Officers Association. His World War II service interrupted his career and he joined the 2/10 Australian Imperial Forces. After jungle training in the Atherton Tablelands he embarked from Cairns seeing active duty against the Japanese in Borneo where he was part of the initial forces landing at Balikpapan.
Like most ex-servicemen, Cox spoke little of his life during the war. Approaching death he opened up a little bit about his experience as young trainee soldier in Cowra during the Japanese prisoner breakout. He described how the soldiers-in-training were given bayonets but no guns or other arms and were sent out to round up the escaped Japanese. He hated war and knew there had to be a better way to resolve disputes.
After the war Cox resumed his public service career in the field of public transport. Those experiences, in the words of his son, John Cox, meant that he
made connections within the industry that would later assist him in his role as shadow and later Transport Minister. It also exposed him to the union movement, one of the strong foundations in his life. Within the union he took on an Executive position and was instrumental in establishing the Motor Transport Credit Union [an] important [body] in those days for assisting workers in obtaining cheaper loans and banking facilities.
It was no surprise that in Cox’s maiden speech to the NSW state parliament, he asked for ‘an immediate decision to implement a credit union Act [and] for representation of all interested bodies on the credit union advisory committee’.
At this time Cox enjoyed playing cricket, tennis, golf and rugby league, packing down in the scrums of a Catholic Youth Organisation competition opposite Jack Ferguson, who was to become Deputy Premier under Neville Wran. He was a proud and devoted ‘Westy’ to the end and loved the Western Suburbs Magpies. When Cox was Member for Auburn, he was deeply involved in the community – from the local Labor Party meeting to the fetes, balls and various school functions that he would attend. His home telephone number was always listed in the telephone book.
On 11 September 1961 Cox (then 35 years of age) married Olive May Murphy. They had five children – Patricia Ann, Helen Louise, Kathleen Mary, John Edwin, and Brian Anthony – and were grandparents to Sean, William, Isabel, Jack, Sophia, Eloise, Sarah, Thomas, Benedict, Charlotte, Henry, Leo, Patrick and Luke.
Cox had joined the Australian Labor Party in 1949 and was a Branch Secretary for 12 years, Secretary of the Auburn State Electorate Committee and President of the Blaxland Federal Electorate Committee for eight years. At 39 he gained ALP pre-selection for the state seat of Auburn, a safe working-class electorate, winning a tightly fought contest with the sitting member, Tom Ryan, a former railway worker who had held the seat for ten years. Cox was elected to Parliament at the 1965 state general election.
Cox’s parliamentary career mirrors the history of the Wran era. His introduction to Parliament plunged him straight into Opposition when the defeat of John (Jack) Renshaw’s government ended Labor’s 24 year rule. In 1968 he became Shadow Minister for Transport under the new leader, Patrick Darcy (Pat) Hills. Cox’s union links helped apply pressure on ministers, including Transport Minister, Milton Morris: ‘He was quick with catchphrases, such as “the rustbucket railway” and “the Calga deathway”. His revelations about dodgy car insurance companies were damaging’.
His knowledge of public transport was legendary and soon earned the respect of his Liberal opponent Milton Morris: ‘When I was Minister for Transport I lived in fear of Peter Cox’. On the morning of Cox’s funeral, Morris was quick to add that he believed Cox to have been the second best Minister for Transport the state had known. David Hill, Wran’s Ministerial Advisory Unit Head, who was appointed by Wran as the first Chief Executive of State Rail Corporation, remembers vividly the pivotal role Peter Cox played in developing transport policy. Rodney Cavalier hailed Cox’s stellar record on the crucial issue of public transport: ‘Coxie was magic’.
In 1973, after another election loss, Wran, who had been an ALP member of the Legislative Council since 1970, claimed the party’s leadership by the narrowest of margins. At the same time, Cox unsuccessfully challenged for the Deputy Leadership. However he was a crucial factor behind Labor’s 1976 one-seat election triumph and the subsequent 1978 ‘Wran slide’. Peter was a dynamic shadow minister, and together with Sid Einfeld, Kevin Stewart, George Pacuillio and Frank Walker kept the pressure on the government. Transport, particularly public transport, which became the big issue of the 1976 state election campaign on which the ALP campaigned hard. The party’s television commercials featured Wran on crowded trains travelling from Gosford and the Blue Mountains with Cox, promising to fix and expand the transport system, and complete the long-promised Eastern Suburbs railway.
When at last Cox became a Minister he divided the cumbersome Public Transport Commission into the Urban Transit Authority and State Rail Authority, appointing David Hill as the SRA chief executive. He lifted public transport from long decay by cutting rail fares by 20 per cent to win back passengers, and ordering extra buses, double-decker trains, new signalling systems, track upgrades and new ferries. He completed the Eastern Suburbs railway and electrification to Newcastle, Wollongong and Macarthur. He pushed through national emission standards for motor vehicles, and introduced lead-free petrol, and the random breath test.
Cox was Minister for Transport and Minister for Highways from 1976 to 1984. Together with Paul Landa, he revised inner-city freeway proposals that would have demolished much of Pyrmont and Glebe, and broadened heritage laws. Later he became Minister for Mineral Resources and Energy, Minister for Industry and Small Business and Minister for Energy and Technology and Minister for Public Works and finally as Minister Assisting the Premier.
In 1986 Wran was succeeded as ALP Leader and Premier by Barrie Unsworth, who was subsequently defeated by the Nick Greiner-led conservative Coalition at the 1988 election. Cox retired as Member for Auburn at that election after nearly 23 years service, musing that he was ‘going to learn the piano’.
Cox was active outside politics. He was a committee member of the Northern Beaches Refugee Sanctuary, a charity which raises funds and facilitates the passage of refugees into the country by providing them with loans and assisting with jobs and accommodation. He was also a supporter and volunteer at St Vincent de Paul at Lidcombe for many years and helped establish the Holyoak Foundation (now a part of Centacare), helping to provide assistance for families affected by alcoholism or drug dependency.
He knew what it was like to be an alcoholic, and asked for it to be acknowledged at his funeral. His son John complied with this wish by including the following remarks in the eulogy he made to his father:
In the early 1980’s Dad reached a turning point in his life, he knew that he needed to reddress the way he was living. With great courage Dad entered a detox facility to deal with his drinking. At the same time Dad joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) on 11 November 1983, the day of his last drink. [He] remained a member up until his death … Dad made AA part of his daily life: he would walk across Macquarie Street where he would take in the midday AA meeting at St Stephen’s Church.
Cox worked with the Maryfield Recovery Centre in Campbelltown. He had also been a Director of St Joseph’s Hospital, Auburn. He was a Papal Knight, a Knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great and a Member of the Order of Australia.
Cox spent his final years living in Manly and was a member of the local ALP and was made a Life Member in 2002. He died at Mona Vale House Nursing Home. His Requiem Mass was held on Monday, 13 October 2008 at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, Manly. The 400 mourners included The Premier, Hon. Nathan Rees, Hon. Milton Morris and David Hill. Cox’s interment took place at Rookwood Cemetery (he had been a Board Member of the Rookwood Catholic Cemetery Trust for some 25 years) and was followed by a wake at the Lidcombe Catholic Club.
On 21 October 2008 the NSW Parliament noted the passing of Peter Cox. Both Premier Rees and Opposition Leader, Barry O’Farrell, praised his contribution to the Parliament, to public life, his party and to the Australian community. A formal Condolence Motion was debated in the Parliament on 20 February 2009 attended by members of the Cox family. Speakers to it included John Aquilina, the last remaining member of the House to serve in the Wran and Unsworth Governments.
The final word however goes to his son: ‘Dad lived a wonderful life and achieved many things as the son of a railway worker from Bathurst’.
Damien Stapleton is President of the Mosman Branch of the Australian Labor Party and was the federal secretary of the Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees Association, 1970-1984.
- John Cox’s eulogy to his father was reproduced in full in the Australian Labor Party Southern Highlands Newsletter, no. 147, December 2008. I have drawn heavily from it in preparing this obituary on Peter Cox. I also acknowledge the assistance of various readers and thank them for their comments and assistance.