Sir Zelman Cowen passed away on 8 December last year, aged 92. December 8 was a significant date, being the 34th anniversary of his swearing-in as the 19th Governor-General of Australia in 1977. Sir Zelman Cowen, who was once famously quoted as saying his achievements were simply down to luck, was humble and understated throughout his life. He left a legacy of which his family can be justifiably proud and a nation grateful.
When Sir John Kerr’s turbulent period of office as Governor-General ended with his early resignation in 1977, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, offered Cowen the post. He served 4½ years as Governor-General, from December 1977 to July 1982, and was instrumental in reunifying the country and our political institutions with his poise and his intellectual command of all things constitutional and through the respect he received from all Australians. Malcolm Fraser said of Sir Zelman that he ‘restored Australia’s faith in the office of Governor-General’.
Sir Zelman Cowen was born in Melbourne on 7 October 1919. During the Second World War he served with the Royal Australian Navy. As a Territorian I should recognise that he was stationed in Darwin during its bombing in February 1942. After the war he went on to become a distinguished constitutional lawyer, academic, Oxford Rhodes scholar and respected leader of the Australian Jewish community. Later in life, Sir Zelman became dean of law at the University of Melbourne and later Vice-Chancellor of the University of New England and then the University of Queensland. Sir Zelman Cowen’s contribution to the law was not limited to Australia. He was regarded as one of the leading constitutional lawyers in the English-speaking world, an achievement highlighted by the number of colleagues who travelled from England and many other parts of the world to attend his state funeral in Melbourne.
Some beneficiaries of Sir Zelman Cowen’s expertise and presence were the British Colonial Office, where he advised on constitutional matters to the governments of Ghana and Hong Kong and provided a wide range of advice on the formation of constitutions across a number of emerging nations. Sir Zelman was also a frequent visiting professor at American universities, including the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois and the University of Washington. Sir Zelman was also a member of the board of Fairfax, including a period as chairman.
As a Victorian, he was passionate about Aussie rules football and served as patron of St Kilda Football Club. In an honour the true magnitude of which can perhaps only be fully understood by fellow Victorians, after his death St Kilda placed a notice which said simply, ‘Farewell, St Zelman’. On a personal and family note, Sir Zelman was married to his wife, Lady Anna, for 66 years. He had four children—Shimon, Yousef, Kate and Ben—and 16 grandchildren and was, at the time of his death, the proud great-grandfather of six—a family that can trace their heritage back to a truly great Australian. Vale Sir Zelman
Question agreed to, honourable senators standing in their places.
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120207 Condolence – Cowen, Rt Hon. Sir Zelman, AK, GCMG, GCVO, QC.pdf