News National Peter Cosgrove, celebrated soldier, our new GG
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Peter Cosgrove, celebrated soldier, our new GG

Peter Cosgrove
AAP
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· Timeline: Peter Cosgrove’s rise to head of state

General Peter Cosgrove, who was named as 2001′s Australian of the Year, is seen as a popular, apolitical choice to be the Queen’s representative in Australia.

He formally takes on the role in March, when Quentin Bryce’s five-year term comes to an end.

Known for his strength, intelligence and compassion, General Cosgrove came to prominence in 1999, when he led the international peacekeeping mission in East Timor.

Known as the “soldier’s soldier”, he was appointed chief of the Army, and was named chief of the Defence Force in 2002. 

General Cosgrove retired from active service in 2005 but in 2006, he was called on to lead the taskforce to rebuild communities in far-north Queensland, following the devastation of category-five Cyclone Larry.

But his springboard was East Timor where he gained enormous respect and affection as head of INTERFET, the multinational peacekeeping force during the country’s traumatic transition to independence.

In his trademark slouch hat, he was calm, authoritative and straight-talking. His care for his troops – Australian and others – and compassion for the East Timorese was palpable, it was said.

He’s also said that in East Timor he enjoyed a privileged front row seat for an Australian “sunshine moment” – all the Australians troops, police and aid workers doing everything they could to help the East Timorese.

Biographer Patrick Lindsay said Cosgrove is an “Australian Everyman” who exemplifies the courage, ingenuity, compassion, larrikinism and humour that Australians admire in their diggers.

The military is in Cosgrove’s blood, with both his father and grandfather having been soldiers. And two of the three sons he and wife Lynne had together joined the army.

Born in 1947 and brought up in Paddington long before the inner Sydney suburb was gentrified, Cosgrove went to Waverley, a nearby Catholic School, and Royal Military College, Duntroon.

He was a successful, if sometimes too exuberant, allrounder. Playing squash, he almost took an eye out of future Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett.

After a posting in Malaysia, Cosgrove was sent to Vietnam in 1969.

As a 22-year-old platoon commander and, as he much later acknowledged, full of the arrogance of inexperience, he won the Military Cross for courage under fire during an assault on an enemy position.

Unlike some, he respected the Viet Cong.

“They are a skilful, courageous enemy who seeks to kill you and will do so using any device … but nonetheless I never found hatred for them,” he has said.

After Vietnam, Cosgrove rose steadily. Among his early posts was aide-de-camp to Governor-General Sir Paul Hasluck.

But he was scarcely known to the outside world when he was sent to East Timor in 1999.

Among the many admirers he gained from East Timor was Prime Minister John Howard, who’s widely thought to have helped to accelerate his subsequent career and the former PM was one of those to praise the appointment.

General Cosgrove’s rise to Chief of Army in 2000, just before he was named Australian of the Year, and CDF in 2002, certainly looked fast-tracked; and some observers thought he was more effective as a commander on the ground than as a largely desk-bound top military bureaucrat.

About the only public blip on Cosgrove’s image came in 2004 when he, for what looked like political reasons, disagreed with AFP Commissioner Mick Keelty’s view about the link between terrorism and the invasion of Iraq.

Cosgrove retired – sort of – in 2005. But the following year he was put in charge of the taskforce rebuilding north Queensland communities devastated by cyclone Larry. Many other positions followed.

They included Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University and a board member of Qantas and the Australian Rugby Union.

Cosgrove is the second career soldier to be elevated to Yarralumla this century, with Howard selecting Michael Jeffery in 2003.

Political reaction

The appointment has been publicly praised by both sides of politics. Prime Minister Abbott and General Cosgrove held a joint press conference in Canberra, the PM later using social media to reflect on the appointment.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also took to Twitter to express his confidence in the former soldier.

Attitudes to the monarchy

In public Peter Cosgrove has managed to steer clear of taking sides in the debate about the monarchy and an Australian republic.

Now, the former army chief once tipped to be Australia’s first president will become the Queen’s representative as the nation’s 26th governor-general.

While some people see his appointment as an endorsement of a constitutional monarchy, General Cosgrove has managed to keep his thoughts to himself.

In 1999, as Australians prepared to vote for or against a republic, he was nominated as an “ideal first president” by a former Liberal Party federal president.

The then-commander of the Interfet force for East Timor brushed the endorsement aside, saying he was flattered, but focused on his role in the army.

Australian monarchists are pleased with his latest appointment.

The Australian Monarchist League, incensed by comments made last year by outgoing Governor-General Quentin Bryce about a future republican leader, said it was confident the vice-regal appointment would “behave admirably”.

“We welcome the way he’s always conducted himself in passing and his state of balance in all manner of controversy, as a governor-general should,” chairman Philip Benwell said on Tuesday.

Republicans said General Cosgrove was the “right person, wrong job”.

“No matter how distinguished the person, the role just doesn’t fit modern, equal-opportunity Australia,” Australian Republican Movement chairman Geoff Gallop said in a statement.

For his part, General Cosgrove never thought he would be president or governor-general.

When he was tipped for the job as the Queen’s representative in 2000, he diplomatically turned that down, too.

“I see myself being a soldier until I get a gentle nudge in the ribs at some future time,” he said at the time.

That time has come.

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