northsider meets former Governor General, Sir Peter Cosgrove and his wife, Lady Lynne
This interview first appeared in northsider magazine Spring 2020
As they stepped through the gates of Admiralty House for the final time in July 2019, Peter and Lynne Cosgrove decided to take a walk. Passing through the quiet streets of Kirribilli, they made their way to their new home in Milsons Point, with Luna Park now right on their doorstep. The choice of location is something Peter finds fitting as the couple start to take a step back from public duties.
“So much of our life has been a rollercoaster,” he tells northsider. “Life’s never been dull that’s for sure!” Lynne adds.
Married for 44 years, the couple have been each others’ constant throughout the thrills and spills of a life of service to Australia.
“Partnership is the right word for Lynne and I,” Peter says. “I couldn’t have done any of it without her.”
The 73-year-old’s new memoir, You Shouldn’t Have Joined..., recounts his distinguished career, which began in the Army. Service in Vietnam was followed by a Military Cross and overseas postings, including the UK, US and India.
In 1999, as commander of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), Peter oversaw the peacekeeping mission during East Timor’s transition to independence. It was this work that led him to becoming publicly well-known.
“What I really loved was being part of the way that the armed forces reintroduced themselves to the people of Australia - by helping helpless people.”
Left to right: Peter and Lynne on their wedding day in December 1976 and Admiralty House in Kirribilli on its annual open day
The Chief of Army role followed and by 2002, Peter was Chief of the Defence Force.
“I’d come home at night, my mind whirling about things still going on,” he remembers.
“Lynne did so much for the family, she spoiled me. She allowed me to almost become obsessed with the work side.”
“In the mornings, I’d get dressed up in my uniform and then all day I’d be a general,” Peter continues. “When I finished work and went home and walked down the path, I was still a general...”
But as soon as he was through the door, Peter was treated like any other dad by the couple’s three sons, Stephen, Philip and David. “The kids were very grounding,” he smiles.
“You’re asked to be the first citizen of the nation for five years. You’d have to have a pretty good reason not to do it”
Peter retired from the military in 2005, going on to lead a taskforce rebuilding communities in Queensland after Cyclone Larry. In January 2014, he received the call from then PM, Tony Abbott, asking if he’d serve as the Queen’s representative in Australia.
“I wouldn’t say yes to Tony straight away,” Peter recalls. “There had to be a discussion with Lynne first.”
“My first thought was oh, another move!” Lynne laughs, referring to the 27 homes the pair have had during their marriage. “Seriously though, I was so overjoyed for Peter. It’s an amazing honour.”
Peter and Lynne, left, perhaps considering a rollercoaster ride at Luna Park, near their new home.
“We both knew we were going to do it,” Peter continues. “You’re asked to be the first citizen of the nation for five years. You’d have to have a pretty good reason not to do it.”
Peter was sworn in on the 28 March 2014 and was also made a Knight of the Order of Australia on the same day.
“I was very surprised that we didn’t have any guidelines or handbook,” Lynne says as she remembers stepping into their new role. “But we really had all the experience we needed.”
While there was no handbook for protocol, such as the dos and don’ts of meeting The Queen, there were resources to draw on when it came to constitutional matters.
“I rather like the atmosphere and the tempo of the north shore”
“You’re the last set of eyes before something becomes law,” Peter says. “I’m thankful to the constituitonal fathers who wrote the Constitution because they wrote it in fairly clear language. And there’s been enough historical usage that you can always read the histories. Hardly anything will be new under the sun in the political area. In over 100 years of federated life the political high jinks have been many and varied. You can read what happened at the time and the analysis and start to understand what role the Governor General had and think well alright, that seems to cover a few situations.”
For five years, the couple’s feet barely touched the ground. During one 12 month period, they clocked up 900 hours on planes and could attend up to 11 official functions in a 24 hour period.
From representing Australia at sobering occasions, such as the memorial for flight MH17, to visiting regional Men’s Sheds, cheering on Olympians, navigating the Constitution welcoming overseas dignitaries, politicians, Royalty and more…no two days were the same.
“I remember standing in Port Hedland, in 51 degree heat, wearing boots, a hard hat, goggles and gloves and watching 3km long trains coming in to the port and emptying out their iron ore,” Lynne says. “I never expected to see something like that. I thought wow, this is one of the things that made us such a lucky country. I felt so privileged to experience that.”
As much as the couple clearly loved hosting each and every guest, meetings with Her Majesty hold a special place in their hearts.
“The Queen’s the woman of my lifetime,” Lynne says. “She made a vow all those years ago and has not waivered. She has amazing strength.”
“It was the most enormous privilege to have had a job that allowed me to interact with the sovereign,” Peter adds. “Here is a woman who loves this country. We have a long cherished history with the monarchy and she’s been the monarch for so much of this time.”
“It’s uplifting to think we have the Westminster system, which puts the people who govern us in Parliament to be quizzed, challenged, criticsed if necessary,” he continues. “Those same people in the minds of the electorate do quite well, passably well or not well enough at all, and we chuck them out and get a new lot. I don’t want to ever see that go.”
After all their hard work for Australia, the couple can now take some time for themselves.
“They say moving is one of the most stressful things people can do and that each time you move, it takes 12 months off your life,” Lynne laughs. “I should have been dead years ago with all the moves we’ve had!”
“We always loved coming back to Sydney,” she continues. “We’d race out on to the verandah at Admiralty House as soon as we arrived, even if it was the middle of Winter, and watch people climbing the bridge, the boats going in all directions…”
“We’re Sydney folk,” Peter adds. Northsiders to be precise, having lived in Lavender Bay, Neutral Bay, Kirribilli and Milsons Point over the past 15 years.
“There’s pizzazz in the CBD,” Peter continues. “But over here we gaze out on that and we say ‘I rather like the atmosphere and the tempo of the north shore.’
“We have so many mates here, so many places you can take your ease, it is a delight.”
Now, the pair are looking forward to time with family and friends, lending their support to charities and social enterprises, including BizRebuild bushfire recovery, and enjoying strolls to their favourite restaurant, Piato, in McMahons Point. “We’ve rolled with the rollercoaster,” Lynne says. And what an incredible ride it continues to be for the Cosgroves.
You Shouldn’t Have Joined…a memoir by General Sir Peter Cosgrove, Allen and Unwin, is available now from all good book shops.
Words: Anna Gordon Main photo of the Cosgroves: Belinda Spillane
All other photos taken from You Shouldn't Have Joined (Allen & Unwin)