Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Peter Henry Karmel (1922–2008)

by Keith Hancock

Peter Karmel, 1982

Peter Karmel, 1982

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-663

Peter Henry Karmel, President of the Academy from 1987 to 1990, died on 30 December 2008. He had been elected to the Social Science Research Council, forerunner of the Academy, in 1952.

His career comprised a bewildering number and variety of roles. Trained as an economist, with a specialty in demography, he had a rare ability to combine his disciplinary expertise with uncanny judgement, plain common sense, zeal for the public interest, an acute understanding of policy processes and a keen desire to influence the course of events. He had no difficulty in keeping several balls in the air at the same time. Bob Wallace, who worked closely with Peter in the Adelaide Economics Department and remained a close friend, has written to me:

I marvelled at his capacity to focus on an issue, deal with it methodically, and then switch to another topic. His ego was always under control— he was proud of what he did but never arrogant. He never wasted time on regrets—he never believed he was right—he did believe that, on the day, on the evidence available to him, he had made the ‘best’ decision, but in time that may prove to be not the best decision.

Peter had a prodigious capacity for work, complemented by an extraordinary ability to ensure that his efforts were fruitful. There were few defeats. It was always a good thing to have him on your side.

After taking a first at Melbourne in 1942, he worked for three years in the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics; was for a short time a Lecturer in Economic History at Melbourne; did his PhD at Cambridge in 1947–48; returned to Melbourne as a Senior Lecturer in Economics in 1948; and in 1950 was appointed the George Gollin Professor of Economics and Dean of the Faculty at the University of Adelaide. In those days, the ‘club’ of senior economists was a small one, but Peter was a very influential member. He participated actively in contemporary discussion of the Australian economy. Max Corden, for example, has drawn my attention to Peter’s ‘influential and pioneering article’ on ‘The Economic Effects of Immigration’, published in 1953, and praises his contribution to the series of articles published in The Economic Record, in the early 1960s, about the state of the economy.

Here I confess an interest. I joined Peter’s department in 1959. It already contained several future Fellows of the Academy: John Grant, Geoff Harcourt, Frank Jarrett, Eric Russell and Bob Wallace. Russell Matthews (later a Fellow and Treasurer of the Academy), as Professor of Commerce, was effectively one of the group. Allan Barton arrived at the same time as I did, and soon afterwards we were joined by John Dillon and Alan Powell. As Allan Barton said at Peter’s funeral, he had built his department into one of the top economics departments in Australia. He was a first-rate stimulator of debate about whatever happened to be the economic issue of the day. His presence in the tearoom was a magnet that drew everyone there. Geoff Harcourt has rightly written in Agenda that Peter ‘created an atmosphere of exciting intellectual teamwork’.

In 1961, the University of Adelaide decided to establish a new campus at Bedford Park, a southern suburb, and appointed Peter as its principal-designate. The decision to create a new campus was taken on the basis that enrolments at the existing campus would reach their limit in the mid-60s. There was an expectation that the new institution would remain part of the parent university for some years, but a politically motivated decision of the state government led to the establishment of Flinders University in 1966, which was the first year of teaching at Bedford Park. Peter was appointed Vice-Chancellor. In the preceding years, I had the good fortune to participate in the planning process and to observe his methods at first hand. He promoted his own ideas effectively, but also displayed a readiness to solicit and select from the ideas of others, to assemble experts as required and to co-ordinate the overall progress toward the objective of establishing a viable and exciting institution.

Also in 1961, Peter was appointed a member of the Committee on the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia (the Martin Committee), whose recommendations had a profound impact on the subsequent development of the university system.

With one important exception, his appointment to Bedford Park very largely marked the end of Peter’s career as a professional economist, though the methods of economics always influenced his approach to policy and practice. The exception was his membership of the Committee of Economic Enquiry (the Vernon Committee), which sat between 1963 and 1965—the period when the planning work for Bedford Park was at its most intense. As we now know, the creation of the committee was a cynical manoeuvre of the Menzies Government to take heat out of criticisms of its economic policies in the recession of the early 1960s. By the time the committee reported, the government no longer had any use for it and largely ignored its recommendations. In terms of practical outcome, then, this was one of the less productive enterprises in which Peter involved himself. The report, however, remains a valuable resource for those who are interested in the modern economic history of Australia. 

In the five years of Peter’s vice-chancellorship of Flinders, the infant university was successfully launched. Peter seemed to have little difficulty in steering it, aided as he was by near-unanimous staff approval of his leadership, which, in turn, was strengthened by his willingness to listen to advice. The university incorporated the ideas that Peter and his colleagues developed in the planning period. Students were required to structure their studies so as to combine course coherence and familiarity with cognate disciplines; at the time, this was a departure from the more traditional ‘smorgasbord’ character of many Australian degrees. The governance arrangements of Flinders were designed to ensure all staff had opportunities to participate in the development of the academic programs. Max Brennan believes that the early success of Flinders ‘was built on the academic and administrative structure developed by Peter— academic autonomy of the Bedford Park campus, a structure of four Schools, and a substantial allocation of internal funds for research’. During Peter’s term as Vice-Chancellor, the first steps were taken toward the creation of an outstanding medical school, linked to an on-site hospital, which began teaching in 1974.

Peter’s expertise was in demand for wider purposes. In 1969–70, he chaired the Committee of Enquiry into Education in South Australia. He also became involved in the creation of the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), first as Chairman of the Interim Council (1965–69) and then as Chancellor (1969–70). Ken Inglis, who became Vice-Chancellor of the UPNG, has written to me that the university ‘at first was incarnate only in Karmel and a Bursar, BJ Meek, who between them had an “action sheet” ready for the interim council to endorse at its first meeting’. Inglis continues:

Not for UPNG, unlike new universities within Australia, the luxury of leisurely advance planning. Having started late on the making of an educated elite, the Australian authorities were now ready to do it in a hurry. They could not have chosen a better person to start the job … Karmel’s prestige enabled him to get his way with the Australian government on crucial decisions, among them that staff could be appointed without referral to the Commonwealth Department of Territories or the PNG administration, and that in order to attract the Australian academics whom UPNG would need to recruit in its early years, salaries had to be ‘effectively higher’ than in Australia.

I asked Ken Inglis why Peter had been selected for the task. He referred me to a passage in A Thousand Graduates, by Ian Howie-Willis (1980), who said that the Secretary of the Department of the Territories, George Warwick Smith, had wanted for the UPNG politically safe appointees who would tackle their duties vigorously. In P.H. Karmel, the Chairman of the UPNG interim council, he got everything he wanted: Professor of Economics at Adelaide University and Vice-Chancellor designate of the new Flinders University of South Australia, Karmel was reputedly one of the most able university administrators in Australia. Smith’s critics agreed he made up for his delay in implementing the Currie Report by choosing Karmel. And Karmel quickly vindicated his appointment.

In 1971 Peter left Flinders, ending 21 years in Adelaide. He became the Chair of the Australian Universities Commission (AUC) and then, in 1977, of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC). These commissions had the roles of protecting universities and (from 1977) other tertiary institutions from direct political and bureaucratic interference, while operating within the limitations of governments’ willingness to provide funds; representing the collective interests of the institutions to government; and causing the institutions to behave as members of a system, rather than disregarding the presence and interests of other institutions and the limits of community need for particular kinds of educational provision. CTEC survived Peter’s departure by six years, before being swept away in the Dawkins reforms. The principle of coordination by an independent authority, embodied in the AUC and CTEC, has not been revived and is controversial. This is not the occasion to activate the debate. But it can safely be said that Peter’s administration of the coordinated system was admired and respected. Opponents of the concept would, I think, accept that he put the best possible face on it.

Characteristically, Peter, in these years, took on diverse ‘side’ tasks. To mention just a few: he chaired the Interim Committee for the Australian Schools Commission (1972–73), the Committee of Enquiry on Medical Schools (1972–73), the Committee of Enquiry on an Open University (1973–74), the Australia Council (1974–77) and the Committee on Post- Secondary Education in Tasmania (1975–76); he led the first Cultural Delegation from Australia to China (1974) and OECD Reviews of Education in the USA (1978–79) and New Zealand (1980–82); and he was President of the Australian Council of Educational Research (1979–99).

There was some surprise when, in 1982, Peter left CTEC to become Vice- Chancellor of The Australian National University. When Sir John Crawford, Chancellor of the ANU, learnt of Peter’s availability, he lost no time in concluding the appointment. I had no first-hand knowledge of Peter’s work at the ANU. Allan Barton, whom he appointed to be Treasurer, comments particularly on the reforms to the University’s financial and asset-management systems, which Peter implemented. Allan said at Peter’s funeral: 

Peter was highly admired as VC. He always discussed proposals for major change in University operations with key staff members and included their suggestions in the final plans. He was clearly an outstanding manager and an inspiration to work with. His management reforms significantly reduced administration costs, generated substantial investment income, funded construction of many new buildings and improved the quality of University buildings and grounds.

Don Aitkin, who was Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies for part of Peter’s term, describes him as ‘an ordinary bloke who had an extraordinary effect’.

Peter’s retirement from the ANU, at age 65, coincided roughly with the inception of his term as President of the Academy. Bruce Miller comments on Peter’s roles in both the ANU and the Academy:

I knew him in two contexts, first as Vice-Chancellor of the ANU, then as President of ASSA for part of my period as Executive Director. In both these roles he showed the same set of characteristics. Foremost amongst these was his lack of pretentiousness … He was always friendly and courteous, treating everyone the same. But he was no shrinking violet: when he wished to make a point it was always put with force but in reasonable terms—and he listened … He was both a strategist and a tactician. He stated his view carefully when the time was come, having prepared for the conditions that would obtain at the time. He seemed always to display and to engender goodwill.

When I read these comments, it struck me that the same things could have been said about Peter both in the Adelaide Economics Department and at Flinders.

Retirement, of course, did not entail inactivity. One commitment that deserves special mention is Peter’s chairmanship of the National Council on AIDS (1988–92). Australia’s handling of the AIDS epidemic was outstanding, mainly because of the pragmatic, rather than moralistic, stance that was taken. Peter’s innate pragmatism was ideal for his role with the council.

The most time-consuming of his post-retirement tasks was his work with the Institute of the Arts. This was one of a number of tasks that Peter undertook for the ANU. It dovetailed well with Lena and Peter’s abiding interests in music and the visual arts. After assisting with the creation of the institute, he chaired its board from 1992 until 2003. David Williams said at Peter’s funeral: 

Peter’s leadership was the lynchpin in the success of these developments. He used his influence to ensure Institute representation at high level budget discussions [in the ANU] and the inclusion of Institute membership on various senior level University committees. Peter himself took on the Chair of the revived ANU Creative Arts Fellowship Committee … Peter was always interested in the progress of the students, the achievements of the teaching staff and what all those involved at the Institute were doing with their exhibitions and performances … In the ANU Jubilee Year 1996, Peter and Lena very generously endowed the Peter and Lena Karmel Anniversary Scholarship for outstanding graduating students each year in music and art.

A range of other activities included membership of the Council of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (1990–94), chairmanship of the Selection Committee for Australia-at-large Rhodes Scholars and chairmanship of the Advisory Board of the Centre for the Economics of Education and Training at Monash University. It was only because of deteriorating health that Peter reduced his public commitments in the 2000s. He had experienced a major illness in the early 1960s—about the time of his taking up the position of principal-designate for Bedford Park. Decades later, Lena Karmel revealed that the prognosis had been poor. Peter was resolute that, if his time was short, the institution he was creating would be a good one. Fortunately, with the help of modern medicine, he achieved more than a normal lifespan. But in his last few years, his condition declined. What seemed to distress him most was the restriction of his ability to talk with people. He continued to write, and shortly before his death sent a submission to the Bradley Committee on Higher Education.

In the course of the 20th century there was a series of men who began their careers as professional economists but became outstanding administrators and policymakers: Copland, Mills, Walker, Wilson, Melville, Coombs and Crawford are names that come to mind. Karmel must be added to this list. Don Aitkin, indeed, thinks that ‘he was probably the outstanding government adviser of the second half of the 20th century’. Though the competition is formidable, I would not disagree.

None will dispute that Peter Karmel was a great Australian. Those who knew him will add that he was a fine man. He had a great sense of humour. It was a privilege to be his friend.

The backdrop to Peter’s achievements and personal strength was a happy marriage and a rich family life. Lena, six children and 16 grandchildren survive him. He died, as he had wished, at home in the care of the family.

* Originally published by the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (2009).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Keith Hancock, 'Karmel, Peter Henry (1922–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024