Sir Zelman remembered in Parliament

February 8, 2012 by J-Wire Staff
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As Parliament resumes, Prime Minister Julia Gillard moved a motion paying respect to the late Sir Zelman Cowen, the second member of the Jewish community to attain the honour of being theGovernor-General of Australia. He passed away last December.

Sir Zelman Cowen

The Prime Minister moved: “That the House express its deep regret at the death on 8 December 2011 of the Right Honourable Sir Zelman Cowen AK, GCMG, GCVO, QC, a former Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia from 1977 to 1982, place on record its appreciation of his long and meritorious public service, and tender its profound sympathy to his family in their bereavement.

On 8 December 2011 Australia lost one of its greatest statesmen with the death of our nation’s 19th Governor-General, Sir Zelman Cowen. Born in 1919, Sir Zelman grew up in the marvellous Melbourne of the 1920s where he had two of the finest role models an imaginative and impressionable young boy could have—John Monash and Isaac Isaacs. Like them, he enjoyed the transformative experience of a superb education which took him, as it carried them, to the very summit of achievement and success. Like them, he united innate ability with extraordinary application and hard work but it was not all seriousness and study. Sir Zelman wrote movingly about long afternoons at the beach, the cricket or the movies, or watching his beloved St Kilda unsuccessfully fight for a flag. It was a very Australian life.

Sir Zelman was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1940, which he deferred until 1945 so that he could complete his war service with the Royal Australian Navy. He went on to become a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and returned to Australia in 1951 as professor and dean of law at the University of Melbourne, where he was to remain for 16 years. Vice-chancellorships of the University of New England and the University of Queensland followed in what were dramatic years for university leaders around the world. On Bastille Day 1977 came the unexpected but very welcome announcement that Professor Zelman Cowen would be Australia’s next Governor-General. It was one of Malcolm Fraser’s finest decisions.

Sir Zelman came to office when the role of Governor-General and the fabric of our political system had been placed under enormous duress. He rightly identified the need for a touch of healing and, through his wisdom and dignity, delivered it. The healing continued throughout his 4½ years as Governor-General where he sought to interpret the nation to itself and recognised those whose voice was not always heard. There have been just 25 governors-general since the advent of Australian nationhood in 1901. None has served with more distinction than Sir Zelman Cowen. He set the template for all of his successors.

Sir Zelman’s long list of honours and achievements could not alone define him. He was a loving and much loved husband and father and we are honoured today by the presence in the gallery of Lady Cowen—You are very welcome here—and Sir Zelman’s son, Rabbi Cowen. Thank you for being among our number.

Sir Zelman was a man of enormous warmth and humour, a music lover and patron of the arts, a humanitarian dedicated to justice and public welfare, a proud member of the Australian community, a proud member of the Jewish community and a leader of both, but above all Sir Zelman Cowen was a good and decent man, open-minded, tolerant and wise. To put it simply, he was a gentleman. I am not sure these terms would have sat well with Sir Zelman because his way was understated and humble. Serving his country, whether in the Navy, as a teacher, an administrator or a viceroy was not a chore; it was an honour. He always understood public service as a vocation.

If we measure a life by the void it leaves, then Sir Zelman Cowen’s passing has left our nation with a large gap indeed, but the strength of his legacy ensures that it endures in all those whose lives he touched—in his wife and great support Anna and his children and grandchildren, in all of the young people he mentored who now adorn the public life of our country, including the member for Kooyong, and in all those who felt included and inspired by his generosity of spirit during that time of healing. If there was one regret it was the fact that St Kilda never won another flag after that miraculous one-point victory in 1966, held on the Festival of Yom Kippur. The Saints are among many who have mourned the loss of a friend.

A life like this deserves to be remembered not only in our hearts but through institutional means that will endure. Already there is the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University in Melbourne and the Sir Zelman Cowen Trust Fund for Australians studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since Sir Zelman’s passing, there have been a number of new proposals for the recognition of his work.

Among these is a scholarship proposed by the General Sir John Monash Foundation to honour Sir Zelman’s profound contribution to the law, academia, government and the nation. The government will create such scholarships, working with the foundation. The aim would be to create a prestigious award that would enable further study overseas at the highest level. This would be most appropriate, mirroring the life-changing nature of Sir Zelman’s own studies overseas. It is also appropriate because the nation should remember. And we will remember.

Sir Zelman once wrote that his old friend, the American jurist Erwin Griswold, had led a great, a distinguished and an honourable life. He could have been writing about himself. Sir Zelman was indeed a great, distinguished and honourable man. We were enriched by his life and are diminished by his passing. He will be long remembered and very greatly missed. On behalf of the government and the people of Australia I extend to Lady Cowen and her family our sincere sympathy in their bereavement.”

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