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A Governor for her time

News

Cite as: July 2015 89 (7) LIJ, p.28

Victoria's first woman Governor Linda Dessau has had plenty of preparation for her vice-regal role. By Carolyn Ford

Don’t be surprised if you happen upon Victorian Governor Linda Dessau watching a football match in the outer at the MCG this season.

Victoria’s 29th Governor enjoys public and members seating equally but she is also keen to reinforce the accessibility of her new role and its sense of community.

“We are well located for the ‘G’. My aim is to do normal things when I can; head to the footy, have a hotdog in the outer and possibly even express the odd opinion about the umpiring too,” said Governor Dessau who spoke to the LIJ in the weeks leading up to 1 July – the first day of her historic five-year term.

At the time, she was busily filling her diary with back to backs months in advance, preparing to tour her new home, trying to holiday, but more than anything, reading about Victoria’s history and previous governors.

“That’s the lawyer in me, that preparation. It’s everything. But preparation only goes so far. There’s a lot you can’t know in advance, I learned that as a judge,” Governor Dessau said.

The eminent jurist and former AFL commissioner was “shocked and delighted” by the appointment which will see her go down in history as the state’s first female Governor of Victoria after 28 men in the role over 160 years – the last, the Hon Alex Chernov, retired on 30 June. Chief Justice Marilyn Warren is Lieutenant Governor.

The appointment brings Victoria into line with every other Australian jurisdiction as having appointed a woman as a vice-regal representative.

Fast facts

1995–2013

Family Court of Australia

2010

Member of the Order of Australia

2008

AFL Commission

1986–1995

Magistrates’ Court

Children’s Court

Coroner’s Court

“It’s a huge honour but it causes me to reflect that in 2015 there are still so many firsts for women. We all long for the time when it’s unremarkable and the community is using the whole talent pool, not just 50 per cent of it. And yes, rightly or wrongly I have always felt some sense of responsibility to do well so more women get appointed to these roles,” said Governor Dessau.

“Men don’t get up in the morning and say, how can I make life difficult for women today. Unconscious bias is something I reflected on a great deal as a judge. We’ve all got biases, nobody is a blank canvas.

“In the upper echelons of the legal profession there is no doubt still a lot of unconscious bias. The solution? I don’t know but we do need to talk about it, enlist men to champion women and women do need to pick their battles.”

A barrister at the Victorian Bar and in Hong Kong, Governor Dessau, 62, joined the judiciary at 33. She was a magistrate in the Magistrates’, Children’s and Coroner’s Courts. She was a Family Court judge from 1995 until 2013 and during that time chaired family violence and child abuse projects. She was awarded an Order of Australia in 2010 for services to family law and the community.

Governor Dessau puts her successful career down to hard work and good luck, to support and self-belief. She was encouraged at home, school (St Catherine’s) and professionally. Former Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson and former LIV president Ian Dunn were valued mentors to the University of Melbourne law graduate.

“When it comes to proving yourself in your job, I’ve always believed in just doing it rather than talking about it. It’s preferable to say nothing but work very, very hard and well and let people realise the world hasn’t fallen off its axis because a woman is in the particular role.

“I have been in the right place at the right time at various stages in my career. I admit to an element of good luck. I have also had terrific support around me. I have a husband [County Court judge Tony Howard] who wouldn’t think twice about my career taking me wherever it might go, and family who are loving and helpful. All those things have helped make me in my work.

“Tony is excited about my new role. He is wonderfully supportive and enthusiastic and very keen to engage with the community issues as well. He will accompany me whenever he can.

“I love my family and I love my work. I am very fortunate.”

Governor Dessau admits to a healthy dose of apprehension about her new role – the sheer size of it will be a challenge, she believes. And there will be many new experiences such as chairing the executive council and hosting events at Government House. But she says that she knows these things will become comfortable once they get underway, so she is not unduly daunted.

Governor Dessau acknowledges that there may be times when the role might feel lonely.

“There’s not a lot of people to chat to about the Constitution or the lifestyle but the experience of being a judge is good practice for that. It makes you robust enough to get on with it.”

In her new role, Governor Dessau will continue to mentor and work with business and community groups to promote women in leadership roles. Families and young people are other areas of interest for the mother of two adult sons – both lawyers. She also wants to increase understanding of the role of Governor.

“I want to communicate why this role matters, particularly in the 20-40 age group. A lot of people think it’s about giving parties. It is so much bigger than that. The constitutional role, for example, is fundamental to protecting our system of government.

“It’s a lot of work but it’s all absolutely fascinating. I will be exposed to parts of the community I haven’t been exposed to before.

“People say judges are in ivory towers, but in many ways that couldn’t be further from the truth. You are at the coalface of the community but you are still only seeing slices of it. I am yearning to get out and see an even bigger slice.

“I want to celebrate people doing wonderful work across industry and in the community, and help that work flourish.

“It’s very exciting. Life is short, you have to love what you are doing.”

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