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McAulay, Ronald (Peter) (1932–1995)

by Peter Clack

The death yesterday of former Australian Federal Police commissioner Peter McAulay came unexpectedly after he spent two weeks in Woden Valley Hospital receiving treatment for a respiratory illness.

Mr McAulay, 63, had retired from the force in May, last year, after a record police career spanning 43 years — 16 of them as a police commissioner.

He was commissioner of the Northern Territory Police Service for 10 years before joining the AFP in February, 1988. In the Northern Territory, he was responsible for the investigation into the death of Azaria Chamberlain. He had later asked the Federal Government to reopen the controversial case on the basis of new evidence when the matinee jacket was found near Ayers Rock.

The Chamberlain case had been a burning one for Mr McAulay and he told The Canberra Times before he retired that police setbacks were a result of not having access to DNA testing and that the case had hinged "almost totally" on forensic evidence.

"Some day I will write a book about the absolutely unbelievable circumstances [in which] that jacket was found, almost suggesting divine intervention," Mr McAulay had said. DNA blood typing would have put the issue "beyond doubt" but his personal view over guilt or innocence was "not for publication". The case had given him "a whole lot" of sleepless nights.

Among the major investigations under Mr McAulay's supervision was the murder of Assistant Commissioner Colin Winchester and the search for the former head of the National Safety Council of Australia, John Friedrich.

Mr McAulay spoke out on a number of issues at the time of his retirement. He had criticised the redirection of criminal justice resources into courts, prisons and legal aid instead of police services. He said state and federal governments had failed to overcome the problems of cross-jurisdictional crime and that no effective national criminal code had been put in place.

His views were made clear to the Federal Government in the AFP's 1992-93 annual report in which he criticised the impact of the efficiency dividend system as "counter-productive", forcing police to curtail operations and reduce staff. He has been proved correct with the AFP seeking a reduction of about 60 officers this year.

Mr McAulay had been critical of the adversarial nature of criminal prosecutions, which searched for admissible proof rather than the truth. He said the rules of evidence were so rigid that some innocent people had been convicted and many guilty people had escaped conviction. Mr McAulay was a champion of the fight against organised crime and had urged more resources and more coordination between police forces and government agencies.

Many operational police spoke highly of him and the reforms he introduced — in particular to the structure of ranks and management measures to combat corruption.

Commissioner Mick Palmer, who succeeded him, said the police community would feel a great sense of loss. "Peter passed on a wealth of experience to the AFP, combining a strong approach to fighting crime with compassion and humility," he said.

Justice Minister Duncan Kerr said, "We will all miss Peter's energy, drive and enthusiasm."

Mr McAulay was an Officer of the Order of Australia and held the Queen's Police Medal for Distinguished Service and the Cyprus Medal (United Nations). He is survived by his wife, Avril, and sons Peter and Angus.

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Peter Clack, 'McAulay, Ronald (Peter) (1932–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/mcaulay-ronald-peter-27693/text36886, accessed 19 January 2020.

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