Obituary: Sir Peter Lawler OBE  (1921-2017)


When today’s Australians rejoice in their multicultural society, and when they rest assured that they are being protected from the threat of terrorism, they have Peter Lawler to thank.

Sir Peter Lawler, who died on April 1, was one of the foremost public servants of his generation. He served governments headed by every prime minister from Sir Robert Menzies to Bob Hawke.  He was responsible for drafting the Cabinet paper that led to the abolition of the White Australia policy and for heading the taskforce that established the Australian Federal Police following the 1978 Hilton bombing in Sydney.

He was a trusted servant of governments of all political persuasions even though he was well known as a longtime supporter of the Australian Labor Party. He served as Secretary or Deputy Secretary of several departments of state including those of the Prime Minister, Cabinet, Special Minister of State, and Administrative Affairs. When Gough Whitlam appointed him Secretary of the Department of the Special Minister of State in 1973, Sir Peter was proud to be one of the first Catholics appointed to head a Commonwealth government department in the post-war decades.

Upon his retirement from the public service, he served as Australia’s Ambassador to Ireland and the Holy See from 1983 until 1986, and was involved with arrangements for Pope John Paul II’s visit to Australia in December 1986. He was a key advocate for a full-time ambassadorship at the Holy See, which Kevin Rudd established in 2008 at the conclusion of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Australia for World Youth Day.

His political and religious leanings were similar to those of B. A. Santamaria, and, for the last decade, he served as a Patron of the Australian Family Association, which was established by Santamaria in 1980.  His concern for his ordinary fellow Australians never left him and deeply influenced the advice he gave as a senior civil servant.

For his services to the state, he was honoured by the Queen, who appointed him as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1965, and subsequently knighted him in 1981; and for his services to the Church, he was honoured by the Pope, who appointed him as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Pius IX in 1986.

In recognition of his commitment to labor politics and the Catholic Church, ACU hopes to establish the Sir Peter Lawler Visiting Fellowship at the PM Glynn Institute.  This will enable a visiting scholar to undertake research and write a short book about the history and future of the relationship between the labour movement and Catholic social teaching in Australia.

Sir Peter was a great Australian and a great Catholic lay man who made a distinguished contribution to our country by working quietly in the background of public life for many years. Our prayers and deepest condolences go to his family at this time. May he rest in peace.


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