PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA: I rise to add my comments to the condolences that we have heard today and yesterday on the passing of Sir Zelman Cowan on 8 December last year, the day that marked the 34th anniversary of his swearing in as Australia’s 19th Governor-General in 1977. Sir Zelman was a true giant in our nation. There are few in Australia’s short history whose public contributions can match those of Sir Zelman. Sir Zelman Cowan’s name sits comfortably in a long line of Jewish-Australian patriots who have contributed so much to the building of our great nation—names such as Sir John Monash and Sir Isaac Isaacs come to mind.
Sir Zelman was born in 1919 in Melbourne, where he was educated at Scotch College and Melbourne University. He was a brilliant student, dux in his school and, as the former speaker said, the top of every single subject that he did at university. He became a Rhodes scholar and later completed a further degree at Oxford University, where he remained for some time.
In 1951, at the age of just 31, he returned to Australia and became the dean of the law faculty at the University of Melbourne, a faculty that I attended some years ago. Later, he was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England and then as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland. By this time, he was regarded as one of the top constitutional lawyers in the English-speaking world.
Having already made an incredible contribution, Sir Zelman is best known for his exemplary service as Governor-General of Australia, the position which he held from 1977 to 1982. He, of course, served in this role at a time when the institution had come to be mistrusted by a proportion of the Australian people, something that might have boded ill for our nation’s unity if it were not for Sir Zelman’s statesmanly vice-regal approach. He served with great distinction and grace and restored trust in the institution of Governor-General. He was, as many people have noted, the great healer of our nation at that time.
Among his many other talents was his ability to perceive, recognise and nurture the talented amongst those his junior. The member for Flinders, Greg Hunt, touched on this. For instance, as Greg and many others have noted, he was an important professional and personal mentor to my great friend and colleague Josh Frydenberg, the member for Kooyong. I never had the privilege of knowing Sir Zelman Cowen as well as Josh did. As is often the way, we often only understand that our not knowing someone is regrettable when the opportunity no longer exists. But I do hope that the story of Sir Zelman Cowen’s life and his legacy is made more widely known among younger Australians so that they might be inspired by his example as a scholar and as a servant to the public in the best possible sense of that term. We will all miss this great Australian—a scholar, a leader, a healer and a patriot. Our condolences go to Lady Anna Cowen and the Cowen family.