Service before self

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Looking out across at the Botanical Gardens from his Macquarie Street office, he reclines back in his leather chair while chatting warmly, arms waving about as he makes his point.

He laughs into the phone before signing off “God Bless ya mate”.

A proud Catholic, this month he marks one year since retiring as Australia’s 26th Governor General and more than 50 years’ service to his country.

Retirement is not really a concept Sir Peter Cosgrove recognises. He is the patron of about 40 organisations, sits on a number of international boards and has been tasked with getting businesses affected by both the January bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic back on their feet.

He is also Director of the Australian/American Leadership Dialogue, a non-government group established to deal with issues of mutual interest including security, business and immigration.

Retirement is not really a concept Sir Peter Cosgrove recognises PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

Lately, he’s been “zooming ferociously” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the Queen’s representative, the role of GG is essential to Australia’s modern democracy.

However, meeting the tens of thousands of Australians who contribute to making the country what it is remains one of his favourite duties.

Equally at home dining with the Queen or enjoying a beer with strangers at the local, his warmth, humour and straight-talking style make him personable and easy to like.

Many want to meet him and he’s just as happy to meet them.

The gruffly-spoken statesman said that being the former GG opens “quite a few doors” and he wants to use that notoriety to quite simply “help those in need”.

“These days I see myself as an agent of good will,” he says as he smiles warmly.

“Australian people cannot be restrained from their generosity, it’s what I call ‘muscular Christianity’ – sleeves rolled up ready to help – and I want to be there to encourage that help.

“I always said I won’t just be a name on a letterhead, I have to be able to contribute in some way.”

And contribute he has during a remarkable life of “service and sacrifice”.

The son of a soldier, he was born in the-then working-class Sydney suburb of Paddington, where he attended Sunday Mass and primary school at St Francis of Assisi on Oxford Street.

He had a long association with the parish – but a short career on the altar.

“I was about 9 and as parishioners up there every Sunday I’d look up on the altar and you’d see the boys playing what I thought was a prominent part of the Mass so when the word went around that they were looking for altar boys of course I put my hand up,” he laughs.

“Although I did an unwise little boy thing of popping on the priests vestments and taking the micky out of parish priest Fr Pat and unfortunately I got caught.

I was simply ‘being’ the parish priest and organising the lads to genuflect and got caught.

“I was simply ‘being’ the parish priest and organising the lads to genuflect and got caught.

“Despite being ‘sacked’ I still loved going to Mass with my family. It was who we were and helped shape who I am today.”

It was during his final year at Waverley College … or so he thought … that he decided to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s combat boots and join the army.

He did the leaving certificate in 1963 and after earning “pretty average marks”, repeated it again in ‘64 and accepted into the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

“When I told Dad I wanted to join the Army he talked through all the negatives, obviously the possibility to get your head shot off but also the absences from family life. But nothing could sway me,” he said.

“So he relented, and as a warrant officer, he said if you want to join, try and be an officer.”

Originally untidy, disorganised, unfit and cocky, he said he was a day-to-day proposition but used his time to mature and by the time he had graduated greatly admired the warrior ethos, “someone who stands between their community and danger”.

“I had such a loved upbringing that I wasn’t a knock about, so my first year there I had to learn to cop it on the chin and get organised,” he says.

“Although in time I matured and decided I wanted to be a warrior like my father and grandfather, to me it became my vocation.

“It was a case of ‘you need to be protected [and] I will protect you’, that real sense of service before self.”

Lieutenant General Peter Cosgrove on a visit to East Timor to speak with UN and East Timorese Officials and meet with Australian Peacekeeper PHOTO:

Aged just 22, he fought in the Vietnam War and was awarded the Military Cross for his performance and leadership during an assault on enemy positions.

“As a platoon commander I led men in combat which is not an enjoyable process because it’s so dangerous and you are engaged in lethal actions against other human beings,” he reflects.

“But there is also the exhilaration of surviving battle, looking around and counting heads and your guys are still ok and you think ‘thank you God’.

“It is very true that there are no atheists in fox holes. At the end of combat and you’ve been successful, if you are at all human, you do feel some sadness.

“Looking back over my military career I am most proud of the preservation of life as we did some pretty dangerous things from Timor and Iraq to Afghanistan straight after 9/11.

“Wearing a uniform your whole life you never accept that loss of life is inevitable.

“However when it did happen I would never allow myself to cry. I once saw a general cry and it made a profound impression on me in the negative. I try to empathise but no tears.

It is very true that there are no atheists in fox holes

“You can be as sad as you like, but you’re there to comfort people.”

From 1983 to 1984, he was commander of the 1st Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, and later served as commander of the 6th Brigade and the 1st Division.

However, it was in 1999, when he led international forces (INTERFET) in a successful peacekeeping mission to restore peace to East Timor during its transition to independence from Indonesia that he burst into the national consciousness. He was promoted to Chief of Army, then to head the entire defence force, succeeding Admiral Chris Barrie.

Hanging up his khaki following the end of his term as Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), he was named the Australian of the Year in 2001, and also appointed as a Companion of the Order of Australia. He subsequently accepted positions on numerous boards including QANTAS, Cardno and his beloved Australian Rugby Union.

The Queensland Government then appointed him to lead the taskforce rebuilding communities following the devastation caused by Cyclone Larry in 2006. He later chaired the Council of the Australian War Memorial and served as Chancellor of Australian Catholic University.

Peter Cosgrove, Australian governor general , at left in front pew, attends a Dec. 16 Mass in Sydney’s St. Mary’s Cathedral for all those involved in the Martin Place siege. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney tried to help comfort the people of the city during the Mass. (CNS photo/Giovanni Portelli, The Catholic Weekly) See SYDNEY-MASS Dec. 16, 2014.

Sir Peter’s achievement as one of Australia’s outstanding Catholic laymen was recognised in 2012 when he was made a Knight of the Grand Cross in the Order of St Gregory the Great by Pope Benedict XVI.

However it was in 2014 that  he received the “greatest honour of his life” when he was sworn in as Governor General, succeeding Dame Quentin Bryce.

As the nation’s first citizen, he met dignitaries and heads-of-state from all over the world and lists former Prime Minister John Howard, Queen Elizabeth and The Pope as three of the most inspirational.

“John Howard is a truly great leader, a real man of the people. And well what can you say about The Queen? Her longevity, wisdom, stoicism and stamina is quite inspirational,” he says.

“And then there’s Pope Francis. He is an extraordinary person to meet and confirmed the simple but empathetic manner of his being.

“In an audience I had with him I spoke about things on behalf of Australia not about things on behalf of the Catholic Church.

“I wasn’t asking as Peter Cosgrove, Catholic from Sydney, it was from Peter Cosgrove representing Australia and it was something the Government wanted me to raise.

“Although the last time I met with him we did have a funny moment. All gifts for him need to be approved however I had an additional gift which I wasn’t sure how it would be received.

Pope Francis accepts a jersey from Peter Cosgrove, governor general of Australia, who was accompanied by his wife Lynne, during a private audience at the Vatican. (CNS photo: Alessandro Di Meo, Reuters pool)

“Australia were competing in the Soccer World Cup so I had a jersey with His Holiness printed on the back ready to give him.

“He was presented with the traditional gifts and then I said ‘I’ve got one additional item Your Holiness’ and as he loves his soccer I asked if he would pray for Australia who had to beat Peru to go forward to the next round.

“He immediately asked if I wanted him to put it straight on and I said no but you should wear it when you are watching the game and maybe say a few prayers for us.

“I don’t know if he did but we got done like a dinner.

“I subsequently found out the president of Peru visited him the previous year and had given him a Peru shirt. I had to laugh and felt like asking him to return it.

“Looking back it was a very happy meeting and one that will always stay in my mind.”

The only other “saint” Sir Peter admits to meeting during his 72 years is his Anglican wife Lynne.

The woman he met on a blind date has been by his side for almost 45 years. He says his illustrious career would not have been possible without her.

And if he has any regrets looking back, it’s being an absent father to his three sons.

“It has been a terrific privilege, I have been very blessed in so many aspects of my life.” PHOTO: Alphonsus Fok

He said Lynne often played the role of both parents, looking after their children for many, many months at a time completely on her own.

“She’s so close to being Catholic you wouldn’t know she’s Anglican,” he laughs.

“She has almost achieved personal sainthood and gone rapidly through the processes and I reckon she’s at the blessed stage, one off being canonised.

“As CDF I was all defence personnel’s father, although I have to admit I’m not sure it made me a better father to my boys because it took so much of my time. They might have had a famous dad but I don’t think I was the best dad I could have been to them.

“Looking forward my wife and I want to do some overseas travel. I want to be a little less busy so I’m much more available to my kids, their partners and wives and my grandchildren.”

Spending most of his working life taking care of others, he describes himself in one word: “Australian” and laments he has enjoyed immensely his life of “service and sacrifice”.

“It has been a terrific privilege, I have been very blessed in so many aspects of my life,” he says.

When I do finally meet God I’m sure his response will be ‘Gee this is a surprise’.

“When I do finally meet God I’m sure his response will be ‘Gee this is a surprise’.

“My favourite Saint would have to be my namesake, St Peter, because the gospels show him as a very ordinary man entrusted with the foundation of faith on earth. He was imperfect and denied Christ but in the end was the epitome of a saint.

“In the end when they carry me out at my funeral I think I’d like it to be to the old Vera Lynn tune Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye and I can, hand on heart, say I did my best, mate.”

Sir Peter Cosgrove’s new book You Shouldn’t Have Joined if You Couldn’t Take a Joke will be published in October by Allen & Unwin.