Peter James Lawler was of Irish ancestry, of which he was very proud; convicts and hardworking people who made Australia their own. He was born on March 23, 1921, the only surviving child of James and Ann Lawler. They were humble beginnings, in a very basic dwelling at Wandella, inland from Cobargo on the NSW South Coast.
Sir Peter James Lawler OBE KGCP
(March 23, 1921– April 1, 2017)
The early death of his father, when Peter was seven, and the situation that placed him in shaped his life. This was in the depths of the Great Depression and his mother and he barely scratched out an existence.
Peter’s academic prowess was clear early on, when he received a bursary to attend St Joseph’s College, Hunters Hill, in 1934. He then went on to a number of schools, completing high school at St Stanislaus College in Bathurst.
One defining moment occurred when he was 14 and suffering chronic respiratory problems. He was sent to Sydney for expert medical help. While awaiting a double lobectomy (an operation that requires the removal of the bottom half of both lungs), his mother met the Catholic chaplain at the hospital, who advised her: “Don’t let him operate on the boy; he’ll kill him.”
His mother preferred the advice of the chaplain to that of the doctor and took Peter out of the hospital that day, with the doctor’s words ringing in her ears: “His blood be upon your head!” After a year he recuperated, but his lungs were always weak.
Peter won a University Exhibition and a NSW Education Department scholarship to study at Armidale University, which he accepted. The NSW Education Department subsequently deemed him on health grounds to be “an unsound investment”. How wrong they were!
Working as a costs clerk at Emmco in Sydney during the day and attending lectures at night, Peter obtained an economics degree through Sydney University. This led to him accepting a position in the newly established Department of Post-war Reconstruction in Canberra.
In November 1944, Peter married Patricia Thornton, his first love. Life was busy for them as the family started to grow, establishing strong links within the Catholic community, and developing a career with the Australian Public Service. His secondment to the UK Cabinet Office in 1951 was an early highlight. This secondment resulted in many memorable family experiences in the British Isles and Europe.
Peter and Patricia had five children – two girls and three boys – and a happy life, first in Turner and later in Forrest, until Patricia died suddenly in Sydney, aged 33, while giving birth to their sixth child, Gerard, who was stillborn. This was a blow of enormous magnitude: five young children, little family support and the need to continue to work to support the family.
The following year, 1958, Peter married Mary Doreen Robinson, the second love of his life, whom he met through church circles. Mary Doreen unselfishly took on the task of raising five young children who were not her own. She and Peter went on to have two sons together.
Peter’s return from the UK Cabinet Office ensured that the Westminster system of government he had been exposed to, and its governance and due process practices, were cemented into the Australian Public Service. It also put him at the centre of power, in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, later as its Deputy Secretary, Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet Office, Secretary of the Department Administrative Services and Secretary of the Special Minister of State.
Among his more notable achievements was the role he played in establishing the Australian Federal Police, his role in establishing the Australian Honours System, as well as in the establishment of the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, and his role in delivering Expo ’67. He received the OBE and was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 1981, receiving a Knight Bachelor award for public service.
In addition to his public service role, Peter was very involved in church matters and spent many hours visiting and helping newly arrived migrants to Canberra, through his work with the Legion of Mary and later with Opus Dei.
He embraced our indigenous culture, principally through communities at the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart settlement at Port Keats in the Northern Territory. He recounted being accepted into the Murrinhpatha community by Nym Bundak, an elder and renowned indigenous painter. He was given the tribal name Chenami.
Peter worked with the Catholic Church to secure state aid for Catholic schools and later in the establishment of Calvary Hospital. He was never far from any initiative to improve the inequity often experienced by Catholics in Australia at the time. He received a Papal Honour as a Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Pope Pius IX for his work with the Church in Australia.
In 1983 came his posting as Australia’s ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See. He arranged for visits to Australia for the Pope and the President of Ireland.
Peter Lawler retired on January 7, 1987, and afterwards worked on a number of projects including an unsuccessful attempt to purchase Bond University and create a Catholic Pontifical University. He also worked on the Plasma Fractionation Review Committee.
Peter was involved in and was a strong supporter of a range of organisations including Opus Dei, the Australian Academy of Forensic Science, the Australian Family Association, the Canberra Wine and Food Club, the Melbourne Club and University House, and was a life member of the Canberra Southern Cross Club.
Peter’s funeral mass was celebrated by his parish priest, Fr Kevin Brannelly, and 10 priests, as well as Canberra-Goulburn Archbishop Christopher Prowse and the Apostolic Nuncio, Most Reverend Adolfo Tito Yllana. Long-time friend Fr Paul Stenhouse delivered the homily.