Sir Zelman Cowen's Centenary

By The Hon Dr Barry Jones AC

In the centenary year of his birth, the late Rt Hon Sir Zelman Cowen AK GCMG GCVO QC (LLB ’40, LLM ’41, LLD ’73) has been honoured through photographs, artefacts and stories at Melbourne Law School’s 2019 Golden Alumni Reunion. The Hon Dr Barry Jones AC gave a speech, of which this is an abridged version.

Zelman Cowen was born in Crimea Street, St Kilda on 7 October 1919.

His parents were both Australian-born but both sets of grandparents had migrated to Australia from what is now Belarus.

Educated at St Kilda Park State School, then Scotch College and the University of Melbourne, Zelman was a tutor at the University at age 19. He joined the RAN when World War II was declared, became the Rhodes Scholar from Victoria for 1941, but was unable to take up the scholarship until after hostilities had ended. He worked for a time in the cipher unit in General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters in Brisbane.

He married Anna Wittner in 1945.

At New College, Oxford, he completed a BCL, became Vinerian Scholar and a Fellow of Oriel College (1947-50). He was also a legal consultant to the British Army of Occupation in Germany.

In 1950, aged 30, he was appointed as Professor of Public Law at Melbourne. On returning from Oxford in 1951 to take up his appointment, he was immediately thrust into the position of Dean of the Law School after Professor George Paton became Vice Chancellor.

Australia then had seven universities, with a total enrolment of about 33,000 students, overwhelmingly male. At a time when the legal profession in Victoria was extremely conservative, and patriarchal, Zelman created a very strong Law Faculty. Wolfgang Friedmann was already here and the faculty included Pat Donovan, Harold Ford, Arthur Turner, Norval Morris, David Derham, Hans Leyser, Peter Brett, Julian Philips, Sandy Clark and Louis Waller.

For the first time, staffers were mainly full-time professional teachers, a number of whom had been exposed to the rigorous and stimulating methods of the best American law schools.

At various times, Zelman was a Visiting Professor at the Universities of Chicago, Harvard, Utah, Illinois, Washington, Calcutta and Virginia. I can recall hearing him described as ‘the Visiting Professor from Harvard’.

Zelman was an outstanding teacher and one of the finest orators I ever heard. He became a very effective broadcaster and effortlessly made the transition to television.

He became the prototype for ‘the public intellectual’. Journalists classified him as ‘AA’ – always available.

We were both regular panellists on two radio quiz shows, Information, Please on what was then 3DB, belonging to The Herald and Weekly Times, and later, on the ABC, Beat the Brains, a reincarnation of Information, Please.

I hasten to add that these were not quiz shows like Hard Quiz, when contestants compete with each other for prizes: they were in the apostolic succession to the BBC’s Brains Trust, where an expert panel collaborated in finding answers to complex questions submitted by listeners.

Zelman regarded himself as a ‘liberal conservative’ but he was an outspoken and exceptionally lucid advocate for many progressive causes:

  • Opposition to Menzies’ Referendum in 1951 for the abolition of the Communist Party
  • Opposition to the death penalty
  • Author of the official ‘Yes’ case for the 1967 Referendum on recognizing Aboriginal people in the Constitution
  • Opposition to White Australia Policy
  • Liberalising censorship
  • Promoting civil liberties
  • Recognising the Peoples’ Republic of China
  • Advocating an Australian Republic

He was a member of the Victorian Anti-Hanging Committee – formed first to campaign against Premier Henry Bolte’s decision in August 1962 to hang Robert Peter Tait and revived in 1966 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the execution of Ronald Ryan.

He spoke very powerfully on the Tait case and was part of the legal team which tried to persuade the Supreme Court to order a stay of execution. Ultimately, the High Court intervened and within a few days Cabinet commuted Tait’s sentence.

He delivered the ABC’s Boyer Lectures for 1969, The Private Man, on the erosion of privacy.

He also served with Michael Kirby on the Australian Law Reform Commission 1976-79 (which overlapped with his Governor-Generalship).

His books included Sir John Latham and Other Papers (1965) and Sir Isaac Isaacs (1967), the latter becoming his DCL thesis
at Oxford.

He was absent from Melbourne from 1967, when he took up the Vice-Chancellorship of the University of New England (UNE), until 1990, when he returned from Oxford.

Appointed CMG in 1968, he left UNE in 1970 to become Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland in 1970.

He was knighted in 1976, courtesy of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, then Premier of Queensland. It was not for nothing that Brisbane was known as ‘the city of dreadful knights’ but Sir Zelman was unusually deserving.

Later, he was appointed PC, AK, GCMG and GCVO.

In 1977, Zelman Cowen became the first and, so far, the only academic appointed as Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia. There have been thirteen British peers, three Australian soldiers, four politicians, four judges and one archbishop. Quentin Bryce has been the closest in background to Zelman.

Gough Whitlam made one very bad appointment as Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, while Malcolm Fraser made two very good ones. The Dismissal, 11 November 1975, was a turning point in how the Governor-General’s role was regarded.

Even after his term of office as Governor-General ended, Sir Zelman never directly commented on the actions of his predecessor.

After the Dismissal, while Fraser won the 1975 election handsomely, Kerr became an increasingly embarrassing remembrance of things past. By mid-1977, Fraser was steering Kerr towards the exit, especially as his public appearances were becoming more florid.

Ian Sinclair, former Leader of the National Party, was the MP for New England and observed Zelman at close quarters in his period as Vice Chancellor of the University of New England. He was a significant influence in convincing Fraser to nominate Zelman as Governor-General.

As Governor-General, Zelman saw his role as providing ‘a
touch of healing’, adopting the words of Jawaharlal Nehru. He and Anna Cowen were exemplary in their openness, empathy and accessibility.

But after five years in Yarralumla, the appeal of the dreaming spires proved irresistible and he returned to Oxford as Provost of Oriel College, also doubling up as Chairman of the UK Press Council and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Oxford.

Back in Australia, he chaired John Fairfax Holdings and was active on many other boards. As chairman of Fairfax, he negotiated a charter of editorial independence and described it ‘as my most significant achievement’ (A Public Life, p. 368).

The Law School at Victoria University and the Music School at Monash are named for him and he played a valuable role in establishing the Australian National Academy of Music.

He died on 8 December 2011 at the age of 92, much honoured.

Zelman Cowen’s achievement was extraordinary: scholar, mentor, communicator, administrator and – as Governor-General – healer.

He did nothing by halves. His enthusiasm and energy, and urge to spread it around, made him a force of nature.

At a time when many in the Australian community are losing faith in our institutions, we do well to honour the memory of our great achievers, who challenged us with important ideas and concepts, did not evade, conceal or infantilise.

Zelman Cowen gave Australia tremendous service and his centenary gives us much to think about.

Banner image: Sir Robert Menzies (LLB ’16, LLM ’18, LLD ’43) compares Sir Zelman Cowen to the portrait of him by Melbourne artist Louis Kahan.

Credit: The Age Archives, 17 April 1969.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 22, November 2019