New South Wales Governor Dame Marie Bashir bows out of vice-regal office today ending a 13-and-a-half-year term of widely admired service. Described most frequently as the “people’s governor”, Bashir’s tenure encompassed some of the most tumultuous years in the state’s history, covering six premiers and five opposition leaders.

Bashir was raised and educated (at a state school) in Narrandera in south-western NSW. Her parents were first-generation immigrants from Lebanon. A psychiatrist by training, Bashir has dedicated her life to a string of causes, most notably Aboriginal and children’s health, mental health and welfare, juvenile justice and the resettlement and housing of refugee families.

She is especially admired in Aboriginal communities from Arnhem Land to Moree, where she is known as “Marie” or “Aunty Marie”. She was the prime mover in the establishment of the Aboriginal Mental Health Service in Redfern.

When she is not touring regional NSW giving encouragement to rural communities, she is abroad deepening Australia’s medical links with field workers involved in projects in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia and Burma.

Anecdotes about her compassion abound. There’s the night she stopped her chauffeured GOV1 limousine to pick up a dishevelled man lying drunk on the pavement, found out his address and dropped him home. The next day she phoned him and gave him a piece of her mind about drunken behaviour.

On another occasion a timid schoolgirl told the Governor she wouldn’t visit their town because it was too small. “Why don’t you ask me?” the Governor replied. The girl went away and arranged an official invitation, which Bashir accepted. The visit to the outback township concluded with the Governor saying to the girl: “Now you can do something for me. I want you to finish your schooling and pass the HSC.” The schoolgirl and the Governor stayed in touch over the years, and now the young woman is completing a teacher training course.

“Sydneysiders have been amazed to bump into Bashir in local grocery shops and supermarkets doing her own shopping. ‘I like to test the quality of the veggies,’ she usually responds.”

A little-known fact is Bashir’s membership of the Master Plumbers and Mechanical Contractors Association. Her connection with the plumbers began when she was asked: “I don’t suppose you’d come to a function for the plumbers?” Of course, she accepted at once and has been attending annual dinners ever since. She now holds an honorary contractor licence for plumbing, draining and gas-fitting and carries her gold membership badge in her handbag on all occasions.

Premier Mike Baird told MPs last week in a tribute speech: “Anyone who has leaking taps knows where to go when the Governor has more time on her hands.”

Bashir’s appointment as the 37th NSW governor in 2001 gave the state the added blessing of her partner, Sir Nicholas Shehadie, as her consort. “Two for the price of one,” a commentator remarked. A former Sydney lord mayor and SBS chairman from 1981-1999, Shehadie is also the child of Lebanese immigrants and won 30 caps playing front row and second row for the Wallabies between 1947 and 1958.

Former NSW attorney-general Greg Smith SC recalled that on his first tour against the Lions after World War II, Shehadie gained a reputation when he took out one of the top British Isles forwards. During a second tour, a county newspaper in Ireland described him as one of the most hated men in Ireland, second only to Oliver Cromwell.

Sydneysiders have been amazed to bump into Bashir in local grocery shops and supermarkets doing her own shopping. “I like to test the quality of the veggies,” she usually responds.

One of her most devoted subjects is former premier Barry O’Farrell, who once remarked: “She is an angel masquerading as a governor.”

Since the Liberal Party took office in Canberra and Sydney, the first woman to be governor-general, Dame Quentin Bryce, and the first woman to become NSW governor, Bashir (both Labor-appointed) have been replaced by Australian Army generals who were former chiefs of the Australian Defence Force.

General Peter Cosgrove was installed at Yarralumla in March, and General David Hurley will be sworn in tomorrow at 10am at Government House in Sydney.

Having an army man in the NSW governorship harks back to a 19th and 20th century tradition, when a succession of 19 governors all had military backgrounds.

Khaki is the new royal blue.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey