It is with great sadness that I rise to speak tonight on the recent death of the Governor of Tasmania, His Excellency, the Hon. Peter George Underwood AC. Peter’s life was one of great service to Tasmania and to the Tasmanian people. While not a short life, it was perhaps shorter than it could have been, and that is a loss to us all.
I know I can speak on behalf of all Tasmanian senators in this place, and the broader Tasmanian community, when I say that Governor Underwood was a good man, and a great man, respected by all that had the fortune to meet him. In my personal dealings with him, I found him to be warm, caring and witty. He was a learned man with a brilliant mind, dedicated to the law, the arts, legal education and social justice. He was a dedicated professional, an absolute gentleman, a courageous and honourable leader. He served as Governor of Tasmania with distinction for six years and three months. He brought dignity and gravitas to the position of governor. Tasmania is a better place, and the role of governor has been enhanced, by his service.
Like many that live in our nation and serve it with dedication, Peter was born overseas, arriving by boat from England as a teenager in 1950. He spent his adult life in, and dedicated to, the state that he loved so dearly, Tasmania. He studied and practised law in Tasmania. He married in Tasmania and raised children in Tasmania.
He practised law as an advocate for 20 years, including for the Commonwealth on the Franklin Dam case, and also served for over a decade as the Director of the National Heart Foundation. From 1984 he began his service to the people of Tasmania as a judge of the Supreme Court, as chief justice from 2004 to 2008, and finally as governor. His dedication to public life was all encompassing.
The role of governor is not an easy one, or one with duties that can be taken lightly. It takes a special kind of person to fill the role well, and Tasmanians know that only too well. Peter was not only more than qualified for the position; he also had the personal qualities to match. The skills and detailed understanding of the law he developed during his career as a judge and chief justice served him and the people of Tasmania well in his role as governor of Tasmania. His advice to the premiers of our state was thoughtful, measured and considerate. As former Premier David Bartlett said:
[He had] an extraordinary legal mind made purposeful with wit and incredible attention to detail.
On more than one occasion he had cross-referenced other existing legislation and pointed out the inconsistencies between that and the freshly minted bill we were asking him to sign …
Peter was a man respected widely, both before and during his time as Governor, and this was recognised by a number of honours and distinctions he gained through his career. In 2001 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Tasmania in recognition of his service to legal education, the arts and the administration of justice. He was appointed an officer of the Order of Australia in 2002 and was invested as a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2009 at Buckingham Palace by the Queen.
As a compassionate and generous man, he had the remarkable ability to quickly and genuinely connect to people from all walks in life—a trait that led to him being called ‘the people’s Governor’. Whether in Government House, at a school or on a farm, he was at ease and made others at ease. Whether he was visiting small groups or large ones, he had the ability to make every person he talked to feel special and valued. It is but one of the many wonderful personal traits he brought to the role.
Peter was a man of deep faith and conviction. He would always choose the path that he believed was right, even if he knew it might not be popular. It was this faith that guided him in his own actions and in the values he put forward in his speeches. A key theme of his addresses was peacemaking: a concern for addressing the causes of conflict in order that conflict would be resolved by peaceful means. While this theme may not have been popular with some, it is a theme that we should all, both in this place and in the broader community, reflect upon more.
Peter always acted with great integrity. Whether during his time as a lawyer, a judge or Governor, he was respected as an honest man who treated fairly all those he dealt with. He was dedicated to legal education—an area that he was passionate about. He saw it as his responsibility as a learned legal professional to help train the next generation of legal professionals. Even as Governor, he still dedicated part of his time to giving an occasional lecture or providing advice or guidance to young lawyers. Peter also reformed case management in the Tasmanian legal system. When he retired as Chief Justice, he was described by fellow judge Ewan Crawford as a driving force behind improving the quality of the service the court provided. The legal profession in Tasmania is more professional and wiser through his efforts.
But there was more to Peter than just his professional life. He was a loving and caring husband, father, step-father, father-in-law and grandfather. For him, family was the foundation for everything, which could be seen in the way he absolutely adored his grandchildren. He felt the Tasmanian people were an extension of that family and treated everybody with the same concern. Peter had a great love of the sea and served in the Royal Australian Navy, first as a national serviceman and then in the Reserve as a sub-lieutenant. This love of the sea continued throughout his life.
Peter had a lifelong passion for the arts. He served as chairman of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra board from 1997 to 2006, a period in which the TSO broke away from the ABC, and played a large part in its continued survival. The current chairwoman, Pat Leary, said he ‘put in place the company and the orchestra which leaves a legacy forever of a world-class symphony orchestra for the people of Tasmania’. He was also instrumental in the development of the TSO’s new home, the Federation Concert Hall, where his state funeral will be held on Monday. Before becoming Governor, he also held directorships on the Tasmanian Theatre Trust Board, the Tasmanian Arts Advisory Board and other performing arts organisations.
Not only was he concerned with legal education, he was concerned with education more broadly. He served as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Board of Governors of the Friends’ School from 1989 to 1994, a school that he cared for greatly and where his wife Frances was principal until her retirement in 2004. Peter’s life was one of service to the Tasmanian people, of love to his family and those around him and of learning and the arts. Perhaps he is summed up best in a quote from his step-daughter, Madeleine Ogilvie, who said to me that he was a man of ‘deep intellect, moral courage and integrity’.
I would like to take this opportunity to pass on my sincerest condolences to his wife Frances, children and step-children Jean Lopes, George Underwood, Sophie Underwood, Sarah Heathcote, my dear friend Madeleine Ogilvie, Lucy Ogilvie, William Underwood and his many grandchildren. Tasmania has lost one of its most dedicated and passionate advocates and one of the finest men to hold the position of Governor. Peter left the state better for his service to it and we all owe him a great debt of gratitude. He will be fondly remembered by all who have had occasion to meet him, including me. The people of Tasmania will truly miss ‘the people’s Governor’.