She helped make the law more welcoming to women and in the process became the first female judge of the Federal Court. Now, Margaret Beazley, with her husband, Dennis Wilson, has taken on a new role: Governor of NSW.
Arriving at Government House, there’s an immediate sense of a meticulous environment.
The spacious gardens are immaculate, and the house itself is suitably majestic with its sandstone structure kept in flawless condition.
Inside the sense of order continues. The grandly furnished rooms are dust-free with no hint of the staleness you might expect from a house built in 1845. While formal and less formal events happen here four to six times a week and throughout the year, there is a sense of serenity.
SAM is shown to a side drawing room where a small dining table is set with three glasses of water and petits fours. A staff member in full and pristine military uniform genially explains the protocols; the Governor is ‘Your Excellency’ or Governor, her husband is Mr Wilson. You should stand when they enter the room. The Governor and Mr Wilson are attending a ceremony at the Cenotaph in the city, so they must leave at seven minutes to eleven.
Soon after, the military staff member re-enters the room, formally introduces SAM to the Governor and Mr Wilson, then leaves us to our conversation.
Allowing that Margaret Beazley has only been Her Excellency since May 2019, a matter of months, the opening question seems obvious: how have the last few months been? The vice regal couple look at each other for a shared answer.
Finally, Beazley says with enthusiasm, “I think they’ve been wonderful!”
Wilson agrees, “Yes, really wonderful.”
The Governor is measured in how she speaks, sometimes pausing to find the right word, though this serious demeanour doesn’t stop her laughing, easily and freely, often at a wry remark dropped gently into the conversation by Wilson.
Where she does become visibly uncomfortable is talking about the characteristics that allowed her to achieve so highly. It’s left to Wilson, who lists them off easily in a way that says he has a deep understanding of his wife, now the Governor of New South Wales.
“Brilliance, insight, humility, empathy, occasionally sympathy,” at which they both laugh heartily. “And patience.”
Finally, Beazley, still with some reluctance, adds one more thing, ‘I like people and I like to interact with people.”
“I couldn't get briefs; they told me to go and do family law; I was sent to different chambers because they didn’t like having women around."
This makes the significant community aspect of the Governor’s role a real joy for them both. They talk with equal passion about meeting volunteers which they do through events at Government House and regular trips throughout the city and regional New South Wales.
“You quickly realise that volunteers are so terribly important, and they come from every part of the community,” Wilson says in his deep, rounded voice. “I don’t know where we’d be without them.”
Being acquainted through their shared profession of the law, it was some years before Beazley and Wilson joined in what is now seven years of marriage. The Governorship has wrought some changes there too. The marital home is now a private apartment above the formal rooms.
Beazley was born in the modest southern Sydney suburb of Hurstville, to parents who missed out on an education due to their depression-era upbringing. Her father was a milkman and her mother encouraged the five children to value learning, but with no expectation of university. Only Beazley and her brother studied beyond high school.
Admitted to the legal profession in 1975, the Governor has since achieved notable firsts. In 1993, she was the first woman appointed to sit as a judge of the Federal Court, then in 1996, she was the first woman appointed to the NSW Court of Appeal, becoming its first female president in 2013.
She is only the second woman to be Governor of NSW - the first being Dame Marie Bashir (MBBS ’56 MD ’02) - and only the third Governor without a military background.
In various places, Beazley’s career in the law has been described as pioneering, though she bats that idea firmly away. “There were extraordinary pioneering women before me,” she says. “It’s true I went to the bar very young, when I had young children,” she says. “And I kept working, which wasn’t too commonplace. I just organised my life to allow for my family.”
When asked about the bias she faced as a young lawyer, you can see the sense of outrage re-engage, “I couldn't get briefs; they told me to go and do family law; I was sent to different chambers because they didn’t like having women around. That kind of thing was daily fare,” She knows things have improved for young women lawyers, but she still hears stories that suggest the battle isn’t over.
For his part, Wilson’s journey to Government House started in the United States, where he was born. His American soldier father took his Australian war-bride back to the US with him then, in 1957, they returned for a new life in the central western NSW town of Dubbo, bringing with them their young son.
Leaving Dubbo High School, Wilson couldn’t get any scholarships because of his citizenship. Taking a job as an article clerk at a local firm of solicitors, he became a lawyer by studying at night, so he missed the broader University experience. That came to him later in life.
“At sixty-five, I realised that all the solicitors who sent me work at the bar, were either retired or dead,” he says. “So, I went back to Sydney and did two master’s degrees.” It was then that a lecturer told him about the climate change crisis unfolding for the South Pacific nations. This chimed with Wilson’s long-standing interest in the environment (at the bar he was in environmental law and development planning) and he has written passionately about it ever since.
“The sense of impending climate emergency that’s there now, reflects what's been in the community's mind, and in my mind, for years,” he says.
These days Wilson works in alternative dispute resolution, while making room for life at Government House.
The NSW Governor represents the monarch. The first Governors had tremendous power and autonomy, and their names read like features of the Australian landscape – Darling, Hunter, Brisbane and Macquarie. It was the landing of the first Governor, Captain Arthur Phillip, at Port Jackson on January 26, 1788, that is now celebrated as Australia Day or marked as Invasion Day.
The modern Governorship is more symbolic, and community focussed, but with an important constitutional role, including appointing the Premier and the ministry after an election and assenting to bills passed in Parliament as laws.
When the offer of the Governorship came via a phone call from the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian, a quick decision was needed. The highly respected Governor at the time, David Hurley, had just been called by the Federal Government to serve as Governor General on the national stage. The announcement of a replacement had to be made with minimum delay.
“That's the way it is with judicial appointments as well,” she says. “I had been a judge for a long time and president of the court for six years, which I really enjoyed. But to get a new and distinct challenge at this time of life is a rare thing.”
A gentle knock on the door signals the Cenotaph event awaits. Soon the vice regal couple take their leave as Wilson offers a warm, farewell handshake. The Government House machine sees them quickly in their car. As it heads down the driveway, the time is seven minutes to eleven.
Written by George Dodd
Photographs at Government House by Louise M Cooper