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Wednesday, 8 February 2012
Page: 398


Mr MATHESON (Macarthur) (11:33): I rise today to pay tribute to a fine Australian who has been remembered as one of the great political healers of our time. Sir Zelman Cowen served for 4½ years as Australia's 19th Governor-General, from December 1977 to July 1982. He was described as a great and dignified Australian after being hand-picked in 1977 as a unifying figure to help heal the politics of the nation after the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.

Sir Zelman was appointed to the position of Governor-General by Malcolm Fraser in 1977. In his later years he described the appointment as 'totally unexpected' but 'the greatest experience' of his life. The Sydney Morning Heraldrecently quoted Malcolm Fraser, when he said:

Sir Zelman "restored Australia's faith in the office of governor-general".

Malcolm Fraser went on:

"Sir Zelman took over the position at a more difficult time than any other governor general and served in the role with great distinction …

According to Fraser:

"Sir Zelman worked extremely hard to see as much as he could and to talk to as many Australians as possible."

I would like to express my condolences to Sir Zelman's wife, Anna, and their four children, Shimon, Nick, Kate and Ben, and his 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. I am sure that, while they grieve the passing of a man they loved so much, they are also very proud of the contribution that he made to our nation and the faith that he restored in our political system.

At his funeral, Sir Zelman's son, Shimon, said his dad:

… rebuilt or healed a divided nation and indeed throughout his life constantly sought to work consensus by modelling mutual respect and decent values.

He said his dad was not philosophical and that he was a doer, who dedicated his life to humanity.

Sir Zelman was labelled as the 'perfect choice' for the post of Governor-General in 1977. He was a distinguished Australian, with an international reputation in the field of law and education. Between 1951 and 1966 he was the Dean of Law at the University of Melbourne. He was appointed the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, in 1966. In 1970 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland in Brisbane.

He was regarded by his peers as one of the leading constitutional lawyers in the English-speaking world. He won a Rhodes scholarship in 1940 and decided to join the Royal Australian Navy. He served in Darwin in February 1942 during the Japanese air raids on Darwin and Northern Australia.

Later in the war he worked as a sublieutenant on the staff of General Douglas MacArthur. Sir Zelman was also a proud member of the Jewish community and, in 2003, he urged all Australians to show more compassion and generosity towards refugees. Even in retired life he set a fine example for other Australians to follow.

After his retirement, Sir Zelman pursued a range of other interests, including serving for five years on the board of Fairfax newspapers and being patron of St Kilda Football Club.

Sadly, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1990 and, as a result, he lost his voice in recent years. At his funeral, Shimon said this gave his father a new view of life and spirituality. He said that his dad responded to his condition without anger or irritation and that he was cast into an entire new modality of listening and receptivity.

It is clear that Sir Zelman was a great man both in his public and private life and, whilst he gave so much to his country and humanity, I am sure he gave a lot more to those who loved him the most—his family.

Sir Zelman was a great leader in both the Australian and Jewish communities and someone whom all politicians could aspire to today. He showed great humanity and dignity during his time in office and championed many important causes. He set a great example for all of us who serve our communities here in this place, and I believe this is one of the greatest legacies he has left behind.

I am proud to see so many of my colleagues pay tribute to Sir Zelman today. He was a great Australian who deserves the kind words which have been spoken about him. I only hope that his death will not be in vain and that we all take a page from his book and continue to work hard to bring great integrity and dignity to the jobs which our communities have elected us to do.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Sir Zelman for his contribution to our nation and for the great legacy he has left behind for his children and his country. I would also like to note that, before I spoke in this chamber today, the member for Kooyong sat through and listened to a number of speeches of my colleagues on the condolence motion for Sir Zelman. Sir Zelman was a great mentor for the member for Kooyong and we see the member for Kooyong, a great shining light, come into this House. I am sure that Sir Zelman would have been very proud of his performances not only in this House but also within his community. I am sure we all would have liked to have had a great mentor such as Sir Zelman. I am looking forward to watching the member for Kooyong grow in this House and in what he achieves for his community. The Australian people will be proud of the member for Kooyong in the way he performs his duties in this House.