An unlikely healer and a steady hand – tributes flow for Sir Zelman Cowen

by Symptom Advice on December 11, 2011

HE became Governor General after one of the most turbulent periods in the office's history and leaders from across the political spectrum described Sir Zelman Cowen as a healer.

The respected lawyer and academic took the surprise call from Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser in April 1977, just 17 months after his predecessor John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam government in one of the most divisive decision in Australian political history.

But in his ensuing five years as the Queen’s representative Sir Zelman did much to repair the reputation of the office, redefining the role of the Governor General in the process.

Sir Zelman died aged 92 in Melbourne on Thursday evening after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. His wife, Anna was by his side.

Sir Zelman spoke at almost 700 events during his time as Governor General, delivering speeches on any topic he believed worthy and widening the role of the office.

A collection of his speeches was published under the title a Touch of Healing.

"My appointment seemed to me to be beyond imagining, a miracle, proof that anybody in this country could aspire to its highest office," he said in a 2003 ABC interview.

Mr Fraser yesterday described him as a gentle person and said Australians owed Sir Zelman a debt for the way he reinvigorated the role.

"Respect for the office had to be restored amongst all Australians," mr Fraser said.

"he accomplished that, I believe, in an exemplary way. Nobody could have worked harder in the office.

"he made innumerable speeches, met many thousands of Australians in all parts of the country.

"he had a great sense of, in Roman terms gravitas and dignitas, which stood him in good stead."

Before he was appointed to Yarralumla, Sir Zelman was a relatively unknown academic, serving as vice-chancellor at the University of Queensland when approached by mr Fraser.

Born on October 7, 1919, in Melbourne, Sir Zelman attended the University of Melbourne before gaining a Rhodes Scholarship.

He delayed his studies so he could serve in the RAN during the Second World War, which saw him stationed in Darwin during the Japanese attacks.

He went on to advise the British military on legal matters and returned to Australia in 1951 to take up a string of academic posts before becoming a top constitutional lawyer.

After his four and half years in Yarralumla Sir Zelman became provost of Oriel College Oxford from 1982 to 1990.

A respected member of the Jewish community in Melbourne, he was patron of the St Kilda Football Club and a board member and chairman of Fairfax for many years.

In the late 1990s he began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, first noticing symptoms nearly 15 years ago.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Australia had lost one of its greatest statesmen.

"With great dignity and humility, Sir Zelman entered the role in 1977, determined to bring a ‘touch of healing’ to our nation. And he did," Ms Gillard said.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott also described Sir Zelman as a healer.

"he was a great Australian and he did bring a touch of healing to the headship of state after the trauma of the Whitlam dismissal," he said.

Sir Zelman is survived by Anna, his wife of 66 years and his children Shimon, Yousef, Kate and Ben, 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

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