Australian Biography: Sir Zelman Cowen


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2006, 26 Minutes.

Lawyer and academic Sir Zelman Cowen served as Governor-General of Australia from 1977 to 1982.

When Zelman Cowen finished high school as one of the top students in the state, he realised it was possible to get to the top…if he worked hard. Born in Melbourne in 1919 to a Jewish family, Sir Zelman graduated in arts and law from Melbourne University. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, which he took up in 1945 after serving in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve and distinguished himself at Oxford, where he was made a Fellow of Oriel College. (He would later serve as its Provost, from 1982 to 1990.)

Sir Zelman returned to Australia as professor and dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Melbourne in the early 1950s - a period he saw as exciting and forward-looking, “there was a feeling we were going somewhere”. He became vice-chancellor of the University of New England in 1967 and of the University of Queensland in 1970. That appointment coincided with a time of social turmoil and Sir Zelman handled student unrest characteristically by insisting that above all else the university must uphold the values of a civil society.

Then, in 1977, he was asked to take on another challenging public position as Governor-General of Australia. After the political upheaval involving his predecessor Sir John Kerr, his task, as he saw it, was to stabilise the country.

In this interview, Sir Zelman reflects on his many achievements in Australia and internationally as well as some of the reasons behind them - the encouragement of his ambitious mother, the support of his wife and “incredible luck” and “good fortune”.

A Film Australia National Interest Program. © 2011 National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

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NB The Australian Biography series (1-11) are only available for sale within the territories of Australia and New Zealand.


Producer/Director: Rod Freedman

Interviewer: Robin Hughes

Year: 2006

Running Time: 26 Minutes

Classification: Exempt from classification

Curriculum Links: SOSE/HSIE, Civics & Citizenship, Law/Legal Studies, Australian Studies, Education and English.

SKU 200402204
Brand Film Australia

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