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Cowan, David Bruce (1926–2011)

by Malcolm Brown

Bruce Cowan was told to go into politics by his family doctor, whom Cowan had seen for a foot problem. The doctor's advice was: ''Bruce, you stutter a lot – go into public life!''

Cowan did go into public life – beginning with membership of the Junior Farmers' Movement – and lost his stutter. He went on to representation in local, state and federal government, reaching a career pinnacle as the NSW Minister for Agriculture and Minister for Water Resources.

Cowan, who served in Federal Parliament as the member for Lyne for 13 years, was a quiet achiever. He was described this week by the NSW National Party leader, Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner, as ''an outstanding member on the mid-north coast, at both state and federal level, [who] brought a quiet dignity to political life and was loved by all who knew him''.

David Bruce Cowan was born in Taree on the mid-north coast, son of farmer David Cowan and Bessie (nee Kent), on January 15, 1926. He went to a state public school on Oxley Island, a large slice of land near Taree bounded by the Manning River, then to Taree High School.

He left school at 14 to work on his father's farm. He was organising the opening of an Oxley Island junior farmers' show when he encountered the local MP, Les Jordan, who encouraged him to join the Country Party.

Cowan quickly became assistant secretary of the Oxley electorate council and later chaired the Oxley Island branch and both the Oxley and Lyne electorate councils. He was campaign manager for local state and federal MPs and, at the age of 23, stood unsuccessfully as a Country Party candidate for Gloucester.

He belonged to the Oxley Island branch of the Primary Producers Union, of which he became branch president then district president and a member of the state executive. Cowan also became the secretary of the Oxley Island Drainage Union. In 1954 Cowan left farming on medical advice – his fair skin and the risk of cancer – and started a real estate business, which also became a stock and station agency.

He became the country real estate representative on the NSW Council of Auctioneers.

He married Laura (Marion) Bidner, with whom he had two daughters, Rosemary and Jane. In 1957 Cowan was elected an alderman of Taree Municipal Council. A year later, he was again elected to the central executive of the Country Party. In 1959 he was elected the deputy mayor of Taree, a position he was to hold for six years. In the 1965 election Cowan contested Oxley as the Country Party candidate against Les Jordan, who had defected to the Liberal Party.

He decided to be a grassroots politician and started making annual, intensive tours of his electorate, leaving no village or town unvisited – reporting to the community on his work in Parliament and dealing with concerns such as roads, drainage and school bus runs.

On December 17, 1975, the premier, Tom Lewis, appointed Cowan the minister for agriculture and for water resources. Cowan held those portfolios until the Coalition lost office on May 14, 1976. In opposition, Cowan was appointed the spokesman on conservation and water resources. In November 1978 the new leader of the opposition, John Mason, appointed him the spokesman on local government and roads.

In August 1980, after the NSW seat of Oxley was abolished in a redistribution, Cowan decided to contest Country Party preselection for the federal seat of Lyne, which had been vacated by the decision of Philip Lucock to retire from politics.

Winning preselection, Cowan then went on to win the seat on preferences from the Liberal candidate, Milton Morris.

In December 1987, Cowan suffered personal tragedy when he and Marion were seriously injured in a horrific head-on smash at Bulahdelah. Marion died of her injuries.

In 1988 his daughter Rosemary, then working in the office of NSW transport minister Bruce Baird, met an up-and-coming young man, Barry O'Farrell. That year Cowan was appointed a member of the Order of Australia for services to Parliament and the community. In 1991 he married Jan Churchill, and the following year saw Rosemary and O'Farrell wed.

Cowan held the seat of Lyne comfortably until retirement in 1993. In January 2001 he was awarded the Centenary Medal for services to society through Parliament. Cowan continued his interest in the local region, in particular Manning River environmental issues, and watched with interest his son-in-law's rise through the political firmament.

In March, although suffering from cancer, Cowan had the satisfaction of seeing his son-in-law win government and bring the Coalition parties in from 16 years in the cold. He was too ill to attend the victory party but was elated with the result.

Cowan died in Taree last Thursday. A memorial service was held at St John's Anglican Church, Taree, on Monday.

He is survived by Jan, sister Leila Brown, daughters Rosemary and Jane, Rosemary and Barry's sons, Tom and Will, his stepson, Peter, Peter's children, Sheridan and James, his stepdaughter, Mandy, and Mandy's children, Xiao Lian and Xin Hu.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April 2011

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Cowan, David Bruce (1926–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cowan-david-bruce-16727/text28623, accessed 22 April 2019.

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