One of many firsts for new Governor of Victoria

By Liz Banks-Anderson

In my view, the state's diversity represents its greatest strength and greatest challenge.

Governor of Victoria Linda Dessau (LLB (Hons) 1973) is reflecting on her first few months in the vice-regal role, since assuming office in July this year. 

"Strength, in that we have such a vast range of people who bring so much from all different backgrounds and experiences. Strength in the wonderful variety of activities across sport and culture. 

"Strength too in the range of distinctly different geographical beauty, from snowfields to rugged coastlines, and then there is the variety of clever industries which range from smart agribusiness to world-leading neurosciences," she says. 

The Governor has learned the challenge will be finding common round among such diversity, but strongly believes in the importance of social cohesion in Victoria now and into the future. 

"Challenge, in that it is imperative that we strive to ensure there is harmony and cohesion within those differences: that we all recognise there is more that unites than divides us," she says. 

Diversity is something Governor Dessau knows much about. The former Family Court judge and AFL Commissioner is no stranger to setting precedents and shattering stereotypes, as the State's first woman Governor. 

Her appointment follows 28 men occupying the role of guardian of the constitution over 160 years. 

When asked why, even in 2015, there are still so many firsts for women, the Governor champions diversity as a way to transcend the discrepancy in male and female appointments to senior roles. 

"I so genuinely believe in diversity because I think it makes any organisation or community stronger. Currently we do not always draw on the full talent pool, whether that is based on gender, ethnicity, age or other characteristics," she says.

Governor Dessau's remarkable career at the Bar, in the Arts as a trustee of the NGV and President of the Melbourne Arts Festival and as a judge of the Family Court of Australia from 1995 to 2013, illustrates her great commitment to advocating for social justice.

In truth, Governor Dessau's first career choice was social work, but she was too young to enrol in the degree at the time.

"On that basis, it probably doesn't strike you as strange that I ended up practising law for a good portion of my career in 'helping' areas of law: criminal law and family law.

"But that is more by chance than design. As I got further into my Law degree, my favourite subjects were Equity, Taxation and what was then called Legal Persons.

But soon after I started practising, the new Family Law Act started. I was interested and saw an opportunity of becoming expert in brand new legislation and I readily grasped it

The Governor is a great advocate of studying law, due to the possible career paths within the legal profession and outside the law.

"The disciplined thinking, the understanding of institutions and processes, the rigour of grappling with and thinking through a particular issue, and the research skills stand anyone in very good stead," she says.

Moreover, Governor Dessau says her career in the law brings a strength to her role as Governor of Victoria which will also be helpful with regard to the constitutional duties of the role.

Her work in the law taught her a lot about people and the complex relationships and family dynamics which can either unite people or push them apart. 

"The areas of law in which I practised taught me a great deal about families, young people, the varied shape of modern families, and about some of the issues that confront them. I have no doubt that will stand me in good stead," she says.

The Governor is effusive about the many highlights of the role, citing the variety of people met and places visited.

"I can honestly say that I have loved the first few months in this role. There are many highlights. The role has extraordinary variety. No day so far has been the same.

A particular highlight for me has been my first regional tour of Central Goldfields Shire and Loddon Shire. It confirmed for me there is no better way to learn about regional Victoria than to spend time immersed in the local communities

Governor Dessau says that the opportunity to engage with people from different backgrounds appealed most about the role.

"Within the parameters of the constitutional, ceremonial and community aspects of the role, there is great scope to be creative in how people are brought together, how achievements are recognised and celebrated, how social cohesion is promoted, and in how broader external engagement is fostered."

The Governor has previously stated that she plans to be a 'Governor for the 21st Century'. This involves reaching all demographics, including younger Victorians.

She says that, while continuing to respectfully acknowledge tradition, it is necessary to be "relevant to the people we serve".

Tradition, she acknowledges, is important so far as it underpins or promotes our democracy, and our respect for institutions and people, but not just for the sake of it.

"If, for example, we still dressed in black tie for dinner each night as was done for many years in the past, it would simply be an anachronism. On the other hand, if we didn't try to connect with the people and organisations we serve – via social media for example – we would not be reaching the people we need to reach," she says.

Governor Dessau says she aspires to work hard in each part of the role of Governor, as guardian of the Constitution on behalf of the people of Victoria and as a community leader who works to recognise and facilitate good community work and social cohesion.

Within that aspiration, I particularly hope that Victorians will understand the significance of a Head of State, someone who is separate and outside of politics and who has the time and interest to engage with them broadly

"I also hope that young Victorians will appreciate the role and how it might add to the value of their work within the community. The contribution of the best and brightest is integral to Victoria's future," she says.

Governor Dessau has crafted her career based on some sage and trusted advice given to her by a mentor early on – to throw herself only into tasks, both paid and voluntary, that truly interested her.

"I must say that when he said that, I did jettison the odd committee that I wasn't really enjoying. Since then, applying that simple test, I have loved everything that I have done.

"I think, in fact I am sure, that is how you can throw yourself into a range of activities with energy and enthusiasm," she says.

Governor Dessau's enthusiasm for the tasks ahead is also inspired by a love of learning.

Perhaps it is this philosophy that makes it so difficult to name a particular lesson from her career.

"We learn on so many levels. In fact, that in itself is one of the main learnings: that we continue to learn forever. It is a lifetime pursuit.

"It is the main joy and privilege of this new role. I am learning so very much about the State in which I have grown up. Whether it is visiting regions, meeting people or seeing business and discoveries not otherwise known to me, I am conscious of and actively learning. That is invigorating," she says.

Governor Dessau was sworn in as Governor of Victoria on 1 July, taking over the role from the Hon Alex Chernov AC QC, another Melbourne Law School graduate.

Banner image: The Hon Linda Dessau AM, Governor of Victoria
Credit: supplied, Office of the Governor

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 14, October 2015.