House of Representatives Speech- Sir Zelman Cowen Condolence 2011

In one of those curious coincidences that life sometimes brings, Sir Zelman Cowen wrote an excellent biography of Australia's first Australian-born Governor-General, Isaac Isaacs, after whom my electorate is named. Isaacs was also the first Jewish Governor-General. Sir Zelman did not imagine that 10 years after the biography was published the Prime Minister would ask him to follow in Isaacs' footsteps and in doing so become Australia's second Jewish Governor-General.

In one of those curious coincidences that life sometimes brings, Sir Zelman Cowen wrote an excellent biography of Australia's first Australian-born Governor-General, Isaac Isaacs, after whom my electorate is named. Isaacs was also the first Jewish Governor-General. Sir Zelman did not imagine that 10 years after the biography was published the Prime Minister would ask him to follow in Isaacs' footsteps and in doing so become Australia's second Jewish Governor-General. Sir Zelman, speaking of the moment at which Malcolm Fraser proposed to him that he should be the successor to Sir John Kerr, said:

Among the thoughts that crowded into my mind was the one that it was an extraordinary thing that I should have been a biographer of Isaacs.

Sir Zelman described his appointment as Governor-General, and service from 1977 to 1982, as 'totally unexpected, but it was the greatest experience of my life'. We are all the beneficiaries of his service to our country. At a media conference after his appointment was announced Sir Zelman was asked what he hoped to do. He said, as always with simple and carefully chosen words:

I hope that I may bring a touch of healing.

He achieved that hope. The Australian newspaper editorialised in 1979:

Call him the healer. Zelman Cowen has achieved in two short years what many Australians believed was impossible after the events of November 1975.

So much of the coverage of Sir Zelman's passing has referred to his healing role in restoring Australians' confidence in the Governor-Generalship, much needed after the involvement of Sir John Kerr in the sacking of the Whitlam government. Some have suggested that Sir Zelman became such a successful Governor-General because he avoided partisanship, but in no sense did he avoid the great issues of public affairs during his life. Sir Zelman had strong, carefully reasoned and clearly expressed views on those issues. He commented frequently in speeches, on radio and on television, opposing the Communist Party dissolution referendum in 1951, opposing capital punishment and the Victorian hangings in the 1960s and defending free speech and the right to protest in the early 1970s. In the 1990s he came to support an Australian republic because he believed the nation was ready for it. He spoke on asylum seekers during the Howard government and his words show us the wonderful man that he was. He said:

I consider that being as generous as we can is the most likely way to get the best result. My background gives me a sense of a powerful urge to find something better. Compared to many nations in the world our circumstances are comfortable, even enviable. We have, I think, an obligation as part of the international community to behave with magnanimity to those who arrive here carrying little else but their hopes for a better life.

Sir Zelman's life was a life of service, both before and after his Governor-Generalship. He served our country in the Navy in World War II. He became the Dean at the Melbourne Law School at 31 and served in that role from 1951 to 1966. He continued to serve the cause of higher education for the rest of his life in the formal roles of Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland and Provost of Oriel College, and in countless other roles. I am very pleased to hear the Prime Minister's announcement of the establishment of scholarships in Sir Zelman's name through the General Sir John Monash Foundation.

Sir Zelman was a great participant in the Jewish community. I saw him from time to time at Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, the synagogue where his father Bernard was president, the synagogue where in 1945 he married Anna, who is with us here today, and the synagogue where his state funeral was held on 13 December 2011.

He often attended Jewish community events and was always ready to assist the community. Just in August last year he provided a well-written message for the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission for its fundraising appeal, which included, as so often from Sir Zelman, his care for the future. He said:

We must educate both the youth of our own community and the next generation of Australians to know that racism and anti-Semitism must never be tolerated.

I went to visit Sir Zelman on a Saturday afternoon in July 2010 with Irwin Cotler, a current member of the Canadian parliament and former Attorney-General of Canada but also an eminent professor of constitutional and human rights law—someone with a very long association with Sir Zelman. Sir Zelman was watching the football on TV, following another of his passions, the St Kilda Football Club—a passion I regrettably share, because it has meant mostly disappointment since 1966. He interrupted watching the game to immediately engage with his visitors on issues of the day in Canada and in Australia. That was the Sir Zelman I knew, late in his life, always engaging in matters of public concern and still seeking to serve in whatever way he could.

State funerals do not always capture the essence of the public figure they honour but Sir Zelman's funeral was an exception. There were deeply moving eulogies from Rabbi John Levi; from Sir Zelman's son, Rabbi Shimon Cowen, who is also here with us; from Dr Donald Markwell, the Warden of Rhodes House, University of Oxford; from Steven Skala AO; and from the member for Kooyong.

John Levi spoke from the ancient teachings of the three crowns—the crown of learning, the crown of priesthood or faith and the crown of royalty, all of which Sir Zelman bore—and of a fourth crown, the crown of a good name, which excels them all. Steven Skala said, rightly and eloquently, in words that I cannot improve on, that Sir Zelman's 'life's work in public and private reflected the deepest concern for the dignity of every person', that 'he embedded in us a love of learning, the pursuit of ideas and the power of reason in achieving justice, simply by being who he was', and that 'to understand Sir Zelman Cowen is to understand that the public man and the private man were the same: humane, decent, civil, loyal and committed to helping'.

I end with some more of Sir Zelman's own words from his memoirs, reflecting on something that he used to say at citizenship ceremonies—all of us in this House speak at these ceremonies and we all seek to capture in our different ways something of the spirit of our nation. Sir Zelman drew on the background that he shared with Isaacs. He said:

On occasion, when I spoke at citizenship ceremonies, I would recount the story of Isaacs, the son of poor immigrants, who had arrived in Australia only a year before my birth. I could reflect that my own story, while different in some respects, was not so very different, and I said that I believed that this should carry a message to those who participants in such ceremonies, and who could see the evidence of great human opportunity in such life stories. We have reason to be very proud of a country which makes this possible and actual.

We do have reason to be very proud of our country, but we also have reason to be very proud of Sir Zelman Cowen, a truly great Australian. We mourn his passing and we will miss him.