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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 390


Mr WYATT (Hasluck) (10:47): I rise to speak on the condolence motion on the death of Sir Zelman Cowen. Sir Zelman was Australia's 19th Governor-General. He died after suffering an illness at his Toorak home. His wife, Anna, was by his side. He is survived by his wife; his four children, Simon, Yosef, Kate and Ben; 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. He was 92.

Much has been said by my parliamentary colleagues and I endorse the sentiments that they have expressed in the chamber and the Federation Chamber. I vividly recall the appointment of Sir Zelman Cowen as the Governor-General following Sir John Kerr's 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government. In the events that unfolded, I was working as a primary school teacher and, on that day, I came back in from yard duty and the message was very clear: the Whitlam government had been dismissed, setting in train a sequence of reactions, emotions and bitterness. It divided a community and it divided a nation, as debates occurred at dinner tables, events and functions that people attended. But the other part of this that was important was that I was teaching at the time, and the year 7s I was teaching wanted to know about those events and the subsequent appointment of Sir Zelman Cowen. That was my introduction to him as an individual and to the contribution that he had made prior to his appointment.

I certainly witnessed the raw anger expressed by many and the bitterness at the events which unfolded on 11 November 1975 and afterwards. I attended political rallies in Forrest Place, Perth, to hear the various members of parliament and was concerned at the level of anger and bitterness about the dismissal of the Whitlam government. As a young man I honestly wondered how we, as a nation, would move on from a period that was unparalleled in Australian history. Michael Gordon and Michelle Grattan, in their article in the Sydney Morning Herald of 9 December 2011 titled 'He "restored Australia's faith": Sir Zelman Cowen dies at 92,' wrote:

One of Australia's most distinguished constitutional lawyers and academics, Sir Zelman was appointed to the vice-regal post by Malcolm Fraser in 1977. Critics said the role had been politicised by the controversial sacking but he won respect from both sides.

I recall from the commentary in the media and from conversations at the time that there prevailed a strong view that the office of the Governor-General had been compromised and that our faith as a nation in the impartiality of that office would never be the same. Political wounds leave incredible scars of pain because of our passion as individuals for the philosophy that we hold dear and the party that we support. The challenge was to heal those wounds and restore the faith in the impartiality of the Governor-General.

The appointment of Sir Zelman Cowen certainly raised interest. What I found about Sir Zelman was that he was attentive and cared deeply about the pain that was created. He was highly compassionate and empathetic to the needs of others, seeking to bring peace and integrity to Australian society at large. He wanted to heal and correct the conflicts that divided political and social groups. He was committed to things that were positive and made extraordinary sacrifices in an attempt to achieve the ideals that were important to all Australians and he related to all those whom he met and influenced. I heard Sir Zelman Cowen speak on one occasion and was taken not only by the content of his message but more importantly by the gentle way in which he delivered that message and the way that he projected. I was made to feel that I was part of an audience he was talking to individually. Mark Leibler, a Jewish community leader, said in a recent interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that Sir Zelman was one of Australia's greatest Jews and a man whose advice and guidance was sought frequently. I think that advice and counsel was sought by many outside the Jewish community who valued a man of principle and integrity. We owe Sir Zelman a debt of gratitude for healing our nation and for the work he did in serving this country.

I want to conclude with the words of Josh Frydenberg, the member for Kooyong, who paid tribute to a humane and decent man: 'He was interested in your own personal development. He was always a source of sound advice and he took great pride in mentoring many people. He was much loved and respected by people from all walks of life and will be remembered as one of the greatest Australians to ever live.' I think there are times when we are fortunate to meet people who have the capacity to bring together those who have been scarred or hurt by the pain of an event and then to reflect within their thinking and psyche a peaceful approach that restores that which existed prior to the event. A man of that integrity, or any leader who has that quality, is someone who is to be admired greatly. My condolences go to Anna and to Sir Zelman Cowen's family.