AN UNSOUND INVESTMENT: The Memoirs of Sir Peter Lawler
by Peter Lawler
Privately published, Canberra
Hardcover; three volumes in slipcase: 933 pages
Reviewed by John Barich
An Unsound Investment is the title of the memoir of one of the Australian Family Association’s national patrons, Sir Peter Lawler. The memoir has been published posthumously in three volumes.
Volume I covers Sir Peter’s Anglo-Celtic roots until his graduation from Sydney University in 1943 and he is offered a position in the Department of Post War Reconstruction (PWR) in Canberra.
Volume II begins in 1944, when Canberra’s population was about 10,000. Today it is 340,000. The volume covers his work in PWR from 1944 to 1952, when the director-general of the department was H.C. (Nugget) Coombs and his Deputy was Allen Brown.
In 1950 Sir Peter was transferred to the Prime Minister’s Department. Bob Menzies had won the 1949 election and the new government was assessing the political allegiance of key public servants. One who eventually left was Dr John Burton, a protégé of Dr Evatt’s. Ronald Wilson was made Commonwealth Statistician and later head of Treasury. (When my wife and I arrived in Canberra in 1962, we rented a house opposite the Wilsons’ home in Forrest.)
Sir Peter was also on the suspect list because he had been president of the Canberra branch of the Labor Party. Allen Brown was made Secretary to the Prime Minister’s Department and Frank McKenna was his Deputy.
Sir Peter reminisces: “I remember that my parents, years afterwards, regarded [Billy] Hughes as every species of Labor rat. Hughes at the time was convinced the Catholic Church was a prime mover in the defeat of the conscription referenda during World War I. He had witnessed Archbishop Mannix rallying people to the ‘No’ side. Whatever the context, Hughes determined that all Catholics working in the Prime Minister’s Department were to be identified and, since their loyalty was suspect, transferred to less sensitive areas.
“Frank [McKenna] recounted how his seniors were tasked by the Prime Minister to make up a list of the suspects. The deputy secretary brought the list to Frank, who was sufficiently senior to have his own office in the administration. The deputy informed Frank of the Prime Minister’s remit and its background. He said, ‘Mr McKenna, I want you to check this list with me to try to make sure we have it right.’ Frank pointed out he might not necessarily know whether people were Catholic or not, or if they were, the level of their practice, but he agreed to go through the list. So the two of them pored over the list, name by name, with Frank saying, ‘Yes, he’s a Catholic,’ or ‘No, he’s not, even if he has an Irish name,’ or ‘Don’t know about him.’ They got to the end and the deputy thanked him. Whereupon Frank said, ‘There is one name left off that list.’
“Surprised, the deputy asked, ‘Whose?’
“ ‘Mine, you bastard,’ said Frank. Rising from his chair, and taking his coat and hat off the stand, he said, ‘I’m going now to Archbishop Mannix to inform him about what you are doing.’
“He walked out of the office pursued by an agitated deputy pleading that he desist. ‘I didn’t go the Archbishop,’ said Frank. ‘I simply walked round the block and came back to the office.’ ”
The Prime Minister’s remit was carried out and the suspect Catholics were moved from the Department, Frank McKenna himself was transferred to the Department of Defence, a move that, in view of the Hughes remit, seemed to lack logic.
In 1951, Sir Peter was seconded to the British Cabinet Office focusing on economic issues.
Volume III begins with Sir Peter returning to the Prime Minister’s Department in 1954. In 1956 he attended a meeting of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East in Bangkok. In 1969 and 1970, I was also seconded from the Prime Minister’s Department to SEATO in Bangkok.
In 1958, Sir Peter was part of a delegation to a meeting of officials held in London. The delegation was headed by Sir John Crawford (one of Canberra’s gnomes).
In volume III, Sir Peter mentions some notable Australians.
Archbishop Eris O’Brien: His civilised presence as Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn became decisive for change. Moving urbanely among politicians, intellectuals and senior public servants, he talked up a measure of local state aid for Catholic schools. The Archdiocese would build the schools made necessary by the government’s relocation policies; but would the Commonwealth subsidise interest payments?
In the lengthy battle for educational justice, this agreement was a significant first step forward. When Prime Minister Menzies wrote his memoirs, years later, he paid tribute to Archbishop O’Brien’s personal contribution to this historic development, calling him “one of the best informed, mildest-mannered and persuasive of advocates”.
Sir John Eccles: John Eccles of the John Curtin School, at the time one of the eminent Catholics at the ANU.
“Eccles would go on to share a Nobel Prize for Medicine. I well recall the party at University House which celebrated that achievement. I would meet Eccles again in Rome when I was Ambassador and he was attending a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Science. It was on the occasion when John Paul II was presented with a model of a space vehicle to the applause of that multicultural, multi-faith and rather secular papal body.”
Jim Killen: The book perpetuates the myth that it was Killen’s seat that won government for Menzies in 1961. In fact, as documented by John Howard in The Menzies Era, it was B.A. Santamaria, via the DLP, which prevented the ALP from winning by stopping the loss of government seats in Victoria.
Senator John Gorton: Gorton, after the disappearance of Harold Holt, was able to win the post of prime minister. Most people in the PM’s Department were hoping for Paul Hasluck to win but I – and, I think, Peter Lawler – preferred Gorton.
Gough Whitlam: John Menadue was chosen as head of the Prime Minister’s Department rather than Peter Lawler. Whitlam interrupted a meeting to say that the senior public servants would never appoint a Catholic to lead a department. Sir Peter was eventually given Special Minister of State with Senator Don Willesee.
Australian Federal Police: Sir Peter was a driving force behind the establishment of the AFP, which has the distinctive power to operate overseas, unlike the FBI.
Bob Hawke: In 1983 Bob Hawke became Prime Minister and Sir Peter was appointed as ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See. Hawke requested that during his Rome visit Sir Peter ask the Pope to bless 50 Oggetti Sacri (Sacred Objects) to give to members of his cabinet.
St John Paul II: Sir Peter was asked to join the Pope for dinner in his cabin, on the flight back to Rome. This, Sir Peter says, was perhaps the most memorable occasion of his public service career.
Apart from the 11 years I worked with Sir Peter in the Prime Minister’s Department – he worked for eight PMs, I for six – for the last 10 years of his life we were quite close, in regular contact by phone. I visited him in Canberra and proposed him as National Patron of the AFA.
Four omissions from his memoirs deserve mention.
One. When elected, Gough Whitlam said he would stop Vietnamese refugees from entering Australia because he considered them to be like the Balts, who would never vote Labor.
Two. The AFA was instrumental in having pornographic X-rated videos banned in every state but failed in the ACT despite an enormous rally in Bruce Stadium addressed by Brian Peachey, Professor George Zubrzycki (another patron of the AFA) and attended by the Member for Canberra, Ros Kelly. As a result, X-rated videos were mass produced in Canberra and posted to clients all over Australia, which impacted negatively on a whole generation.
Three. In 1973, the Lamb-McKenzie Bill to legalise abortion in the ACT was defeated by a large margin. Over 7,000 people demonstrated outside Parliament House.
Four. Senator Lionel Murphy gave Australia no-fault divorce, which, since 1975, has affected 16 million people – husbands, wives, children and grandparents – and led to a great number of suicides (mostly male) and drug taking by men, women and children.