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Tuesday, 7 February 2012
Page: 6


Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (14:25): Sir Zelman Cowen was a second generation Australian. He was born Zelman Cohen in Melbourne in 1919 to a family originally from Belarus, then part of tsarist Russia. Originally from Ballarat, the Cohen family lived in St Kilda, even then a Melbourne suburb with a significant Jewish population. His father was variously employed as a car salesman and manager of an oil company and changed the family surname by deed poll to Cowen in 1922. Like so many of us, he was guided by his mother Sara, who, by his own admission, had strong ambitions for her son, which I would say he more than amply fulfilled.

For all of his national and international repute, Sir Zelman Cowen was a St Kilda man at heart and never forgot the suburb where he was born—a suburb which I am proud, obviously, to represent in this parliament. He never forgot his boyhood on the streets of inner-city Melbourne and his immigrant heritage, as the member for Isaacs so aptly referred to earlier. In his autobiography, Sir Zelman recalls his first day at St Kilda Park Primary School, looking at the blackboard and thinking he would never make sense of what was there. Well, he did, of course, and more than most.

I had the privilege at the end of 2011, just prior to his funeral, of dedicating brand new extensions to St Kilda Park Primary School, just around the corner from my electoral office in Melbourne Ports. I noted the dedication of Sir Zelman Cowen as the school's most distinguished alumni. I know Sir Zelman would have approved of these extensions. His wife, Lady Anna Cowen, told me quite movingly at lunch that, while he was Governor-General, he was actually counted out—Sir Ninian Stephen took the role as his replacement while he was doing his last function at St Kilda Park Primary School.

My friends from the Chabad movement and his son, Rabbi Shimon Cowen, would probably think it is, as they say, beshert—ordained—that that very morning, in a function that was organised long before his death, I would go there to make those extensions and then walk from there to Temple Beth Israel to his funeral service. St Kilda Park Primary School has had many distinguished alumni, including the great cricketers Ponsford, Miller and Johnson, and Sir William Dargie, who won eight Archibald Prizes. But Sir Zelman is the school's most distinguished alumni.

He was a Saints man because the Junction Oval was just across the road, and he was their No. 1 supporter and patron. Lady Cowen very proudly showed me his life membership tag at lunch. Sir Zelman could never be called inconsistent in his lifelong support of the Saints and, until recently, attended St Kilda games. I remember attending one very memorable and sad one with him in the Long Room some years ago against Melbourne. On the Saints football club's obituary page for Sir Zelman, the team has posted a particularly apt and charming photo of Sir Zelman smiling with delight with that great character of Aussie Rules football Kevin 'Cowboy' Neale, who kicked five goals in the 1966 grand final. Perhaps our team, St Kilda, could benefit by inscribing what sometimes was stated in Sir Zelman's philosophy of life: 'the next thing and the next thing'.

I had many experiences with Sir Zelman over the decade since I became active in student politics—including with Steven Skala, who is present in the chamber with the family and Sir Zelman's son Nick—perhaps most memorably during the republic debate, on which the member for Berowra accurately cited Sir Zelman's view in favour of a parliamentary system of electing an Australian head of state. My most memorable encounter with Sir Zelman involved learning about Australian history. One day we fell into deep conversation about the Japanese attack on Darwin, which he was present at as a young naval intelligence officer. He explained to me that perhaps Australians were not quite as brave and as fearless as some of us would like to imagine and that history is perhaps more complicated than we realised. He and Australian naval intelligence played a great role in the defeat of the Japanese naval forces through the signals they sent for the crucial Battle of Midway. Sir Zelman rightly enters the pantheon of great Australians of the character of Monash and Sir Isaac Isaacs.