The Late Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC
7 October 1919 – 8 December 2011
Zelman Cowen was born on the seventh of October 1919, in St Kilda, Melbourne, the son of Bernard and Sara Cowen. His mother was the strong influence of his childhood. 'She had strong ambitions for me…she taught me that my name was KC (King's Counsel).' (I'm not just a token, says Sir Zelman, Sandra Harvey, Sydney Morning Herald, 17.12.1991). His secondary education was at Scotch College, where he was dux of school. At the University of Melbourne he studied Arts and Law, being named the Supreme Court Prizeman in 1941. In 1940 he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. His studies were interrupted by the war; from 1941 to 1945 Sir Zelman served in naval intelligence and was based in Darwin during the Japanese attack of 1942. He was later a sub-lieutenant on General Macarthur's staff in Brisbane. After the war, he studied at Oxford, revelling in 'the blazing richness of life, in intellectual and cultural terms', and thriving academically in the system of 'close relationship between teacher and student'. In 1947 he was the Vinerian Scholar in Law, and from 1947 to 1951 he was lecturer in law and a fellow of Oriel.
In 1951 he returned to Melbourne as a very young Professor of Public Law. 'It was one of the most exciting times of my life. We were all very hard working, proud, community-focused. They talk about the dull fifties...for me, we were building great visions.' From 1967 to 1970, Sir Zelman was vice-chancellor at the University of New England, and from 1970 to 1977 vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland. In 1969 he became an academic member of the Board of the Hebrew University and in 1977 he was chairman of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee. Between 1976 and 1977 he was a Law Reform Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Australia. His time at the University of Queensland coincided with a certain turbulence in Australian society, as respect for authority waned and the war in Vietnam aroused strong feelings in his students. Sir Zelman, with an equal commitment to the rule of law and to civil liberty, was the man for the task, and 'dealt with a difficult situation with firmness and dignity.' (Guiders of our destiny, V M Branston, in 1000 Famous Australians).
In 1977, he was made Governor General, the second Jew to be called to the high office. His immediate predecessor's tenure had been an unhappy one, and Sir Zelman responded to his 'totally unexpected' appointment with purpose and energy. He believes that the role of the governor general is to interpret all that is good in the nation to itself, and to that end he travelled and spoke extensively. In 1982, when his term was completed, he returned to Oriel as Provost, a position he held until 1990. He was also pro-vice chancellor of the University between 1988 and 1990. From 1983 to 1988 he was chairman of the British Press Council. Sir Zelman's contributions to the law and to Australian society have been recognised by signal honours. In 1976 he was awarded a knighthood of the Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, and in 1977 he was honoured with a knighthood of the Order of Australia and with a knighthood of the Grand Order of Saints Michael and George. In 1981 he was made a Privy Counsellor.
His publications and speeches attest to the number and breadth of his interests. He was much in demand as a speaker; among his more recent speeches are the Boyer lectures, the first Sir Robert Menzies Lecture in Britain in 1988, and the second Annual Bob Hawke Lecture. He has written on international law, the law of evidence, the freedom of the press and the rights of the individual, and most recently has been engaged in the republican debate. He has spoken for the Jewish Historical Society and in memory of outstanding members of the Jewish community, of which he has been a loyal and active member all his life. He has written a biography of the first Jewish governor general, Sir Isaac Isaacs. Sir Zelman has said that he took to Melbourne University 'like a duck to water…I loved the freedom, the opportunity to debate anything.' The joy of intellectual exercise has never left him, and his eagerness to bring scholarship and reason to bear on the issues of the day is one of his salient qualities. Although Sir Zelman describes himself as 'not particularly religious', his essential commitment to justice as the goal and guide of human activities is profoundly Jewish. So too is the commitment to using well, and for public welfare, all the time that one has been given.
Sir Zelman passed away on Thursday 8 December 2011 aged 92.