Cosgrove promises to listen but avoid public controversy

Prime minister Tony Abbott has formally announced General Peter Cosgrove as Governor General designate. AAP/Alan Porritt

Governor-General designate Peter Cosgrove wants to visit “stressed” indigenous communities in tandem with Australian of the Year Adam Goodes to see what their conditions are like.

But Cosgrove, 66, whose long-expected appointment was formally announced today, indicated he would be careful to avoid political controversy, saying the governor-general’s responsibility was “to shine light but not to generate heat”.

“You’ve got to listen a lot and take in everything that you see but you’re not a participant in the political process,” he told a joint news conference with prime minister Tony Abbott.

His caution was evident when asked his views on the monarchy and a possible future republic. Retiring governor-general Quentin Bryce spoke up for a republic late last year.

“I’ve been labelled as a staunch this and that and a closet something else … I would say I’m a very staunch Australian.”

“The will of the people is always the overriding governor of what my responses will be. I’ve served a particular system since I was a lad. And if the Australian people retain that system, that will be my guiding light, and it is now. If they ever change at some future time, then the will of the people will prevail.”

Cosgrove made it clear he did not want to be typecast by his military background, which included serving as chief of the Australian Defence Force from 2002 to 2005. Cosgrove became widely known for his much praised role commanding the international force that oversaw East Timor’s transition to independence.

While he was identified with the military and the centenary of World War 1 would be a special part of the social landscape, he stressed he would be a governor-general for every part of the community.

His appointment saluted the men and women of the defence forces and he would visit them “but only as part of my duties in the wider community”.

Goodes’ selection had reminded him of his own period as Australian of the Year when he had travelled widely in Australia and gained insight into “the strength and spirit of out communities, far and wide, large and small”.

Asked what went through his head when first offered the post, Cosgrove recalled that he’d said over the years that he didn’t see himself as governor-general. “I thought, ‘wow, somebody else does!’”.

When “there’s a call to arms, so to speak, as an old soldier, you just get on with it”.

Abbott said: “General Cosgrove has dedicated his life to serving and supporting the Australian community”.

He said the governor-general’s task was to “provide leadership beyond politics.

"The governor-general has important constitutional responsibilities, is looked to by community groups and their members throughout the length and breadth of our country for support and encouragement, and – in Sir Zelman Cowen’s words – can help to interpret our nation to itself.”

Acting Opposition leader Tanya Plibersek welcomed the appointment.

Cosgrove takes office in March. Both he and Abbott paid tribute to Bryce, with the PM saying she had carried out her duties with “distinction and grace”.