Address-In-Reply to Her Excellency Governor Marie Bashir: Legislative Council 9/09/2014


Delivered in the Legislative Council, September 9, 2014.

On behalf of Labor members I reply to the opening remarks of Her Excellency Professor the Honourable Dame Marie Bashir, Dame of the Order of Australia, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, the thirty-seventh Governor of New South Wales. The sheer length of Her Excellency's full title says much of the person, the career and the service that we celebrate today, although I trust the Governor will forgive me if I confine her title to "Her Excellency" from here on. I trust that today's debate will surely be the most agreeable this Chamber has seen in some time. In a House where we are often singing from different hymn sheets, today we give voice to a united chorus such is the respect and admiration that Her Excellency effortlessly commands across our political parties and across our State.

In fact, to recall a time when the Houses of this Parliament spoke with such universal agreement and admiration one might go to Hansard to see the remarks of members at the announcement of Governor Bashir's appointment. The then Opposition leader, Ms Chikarovski, lauded the Governor designate's obvious qualifications and opined that Professor Bashir would set a new standard for the office. The then National Party leader, Mr Souris, announced that he "could not think of a better appointment". Former Opposition leader, Mr Collins, welcomed an "impeccably qualified" and "ideal choice" and noted that when he had confronted difficult issues as health Minister, the first person he spoke to was often Professor Bashir. Outside this Parliament the praise was no less united. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on a "warm-hearted" press conference, surely a rarity in this town, although journalist David Marr made it clear that the warmth of the media was towards the Governor and not the parliamentarians when he posed the question:

What could be more valuable behind the scenes in Macquarie St than this woman's unique expertise with troubled adolescents?

I thank David Marr for the reflection, but striking a higher note, the Sydney Morning Herald also predicted that the Governor would be a "powerful advocate for the powerless". It is wonderful to see the Sydney Morning Herald get something so right, for that is indeed what happened. From the outset Governor Bashir brought her personal and professional interests to bear in the role like few before her. She immediately and openly shaped her duties to include a focus on Indigenous health, mental health, social inclusion and diversity. She did so in a way that reshaped the role of Governor while respecting its every tradition. Given her background, this was perhaps not surprising.

From the outset of her career Professor Bashir had constantly sought ways to use her considerable intellect and knowledge to the benefit of those least likely to otherwise benefit. Once established in medicine, she sought out the then greater challenge—the emerging field of adolescent mental health. Once practising in that field she constantly addressed issues of access, equity and fairness within health administration. She looked to advancement in child and adolescent depression, mental health issues affecting refugee and immigrant children, juvenile justice and Indigenous health. These are each deeply difficult challenges, matters that many a busy practitioner or academic might wish to place in the too-hard basket—but not Marie Bashir. Indeed, it appears that one man's too-hard basket is this woman's in-tray.

Professor Bashir oversaw substantial change in the provision of public sector mental health services in Sydney. She utilised her academic position to establish collaborative teaching programs in Vietnam and Thailand. Indeed, in all of her professional roles she looked not only to the substantial duties she already had but also to how she could extend those in a new direction. While never political, she was a natural reformer. She is also a pragmatic reformer. The deep respect and love she attracts in Australia's Indigenous community derives not only from her extensive knowledge of Indigenous culture, history and issues—a knowledge that she has acquired through extensive travel to speak to communities on the ground—but also from how she has converted great intellect and goodwill into real and innovative solutions.

Her partnership with the Aboriginal Medical Service to establish the Aboriginal mental health units providing clinics and counselling across Sydney is but one example. Her work chairing the Implementation Group on Mental Health to find practical solutions to extend this support to regional and remote communities is another. It is perhaps no surprise that this career brought her to be a natural choice for recommendation when the Carr Labor Government sought a new Governor in 2000. Those close to the former Premier have remarked that Marie Bashir was the only name on his short list. While much was made at the time of the fact that the choice was a woman, Marie Bashir viewed the significance of her appointment on many other levels. She recalled:

It seemed to me to be symbolic about the way our country was advancing in a sophisticated manner … that we would ask not only a woman … but a woman whose work is in a field that is not always popular.

It is not popular to work in mental health, to work with the disadvantaged, with indigenous people.

It is not always popular to have children and work, to be from a non-English-speaking background, to be a woman of opinion.

Premier Carr believed that all these characteristics made Marie Bashir the perfect representative of the diverse, intelligent and mature State that New South Wales had grown into after 36 governorships. So much so that he felt to choose otherwise would be an insult to the history of our State. Of course it cannot be stressed enough that no amount of symbolism would ever substitute the sheer weight of substance that Professor Bashir would bring to the office. As Premier Carr put it at the time, "In terms of direct experience, knowledge and understanding over a range of issues and problems of deep community concern there has never been a more highly qualified Governor of New South Wales."

It goes without saying that the faith of the Premier, the Government he led, his Parliament and the community who received her appointment so warmly were all very well placed. Her Excellency has not just been a great Governor or a popular Governor, she has also reshaped the very role of Governor. As with her professional and academic roles, she has somehow found a way to deliver every requirement and tradition of her office yet at the same time to innovate and extend the office into new directions. She has done so openly and intelligently, shying away from the broadcast tools of media and embracing direct interaction with the people of the State. This makes her great popularity all the more remarkable. For if a New South Wales citizen admires Her Excellency it is not through the glitz of television or Twitter but by virtue of the direct connection she has made through her great many engagements with our diverse communities.

Her Excellency has contemporised the role of Governor of New South Wales, yet in doing so has deepened and enriched the rich tradition the office holds in our constitutional democracy. Mr President, all Governors bring their professional identities to the role. Perhaps those of military background naturally bring command and tradition and those of a judicial background naturally bring consideration and constitutional reasoning. Governor Bashir was a professor by background and true to the word's origin she naturally opened New South Wales to new conversations and new illuminations. Both the office and our State are the richer for her remarkable service. Her Majesty's loyal Opposition sincerely thanks and salutes Her Excellency Governor Marie Bashir.