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

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Patrick Joseph (Pat) Lanigan (1925–1992)

[Patrick] Pat Lanigan, 67, a colourful and controversial former Secretary of the Department of Social Security who retired early to make a successful career at the NSW Bar, died in Turkey last week, apparently of a heart attack when he set off walking after his car had become bogged.

He was thought to be in the process of realising one of his last dreams — of visiting Gallipoli — having just realised another — of visiting St Petersburg — while in Europe attending an International Bar Association conference.

Anyone familiar with the usual chaos of Pat Lanigan travel arrangements would understand that no-one quite knows whether he got to Gallipoli or not, or whether he was going to Gallipoli or returning to Istanbul when he left his vehicle.

Through his career he was famous for missing aircraft, for deciding on the spur of the moment to visit a departmental operation at Cairns instead of the scheduled Perth, where his staff thought he was, or being simply uncontactable in days before mobile telephones.

On one occasion, he came rushing from departmental premises at Treasury Place, Melbourne, told the Commonwealth car driver to hop into the passenger seat because he had only 20 minutes to catch his flight at Tullamarine and did not want to expose him to a speeding ticket. Though he is thought to have set a land speed record for the trip, he still missed his aircraft by a minute. He once drove to Sydney then flew back, forgetting he had driven there.

Characteristically, he also missed his last flight. His body had been supposed to arrive home on Sunday, but was transferred to another aircraft and arrived only yesterday morning.

Perhaps his most famous encounter with aircraft was in 1984. Pat, who had learnt to fly in his early 50s, was flying a single-engine Piper Cherokee from Port Macquarie to Bankstown in Sydney and ran out of fuel a few minutes before landing. He put down on a suburban street in Sefton, three kilometres from Bankstown Airport, his aircraft clipping overhead wires and flipping into a tree. Freed from the cockpit by residents, he was back at his chambers within a few hours. Not long after, the social club in his old department held a raffle in which the second prize was a free flight with Pat Lanigan.

Pat Lanigan was brought up in the Melbourne seaside suburb of Hampton, went to the Christian Brothers' College at St Kilda and to the University of Melbourne (where he did Arts and Commerce — many years later he did a part-time law degree at the Australian National University). He served in the Australian Imperial Forces in New Guinea, and joined the Taxation Office in 1950, when he was 25.

He rose up the ranks in that department, eventually becoming Second Commissioner, before being appointed head of Social Security in 1977.

His term there saw him become one of the best-known public servants of his time. The department was embroiled in a host of controversies, some originating before his time but the fallout of which he had to manage. There was the Greek Social Security scandal, which saw the Commonwealth Police conduct disastrous dragnet raids on Greek Australians alleged to be defrauding sickness benefits; the Government's decision to withdraw unemployment benefits from school leavers (which occurred before his appointment, but he had the carriage of defending it); the implementation of dole tests and decisions to pay unemployment benefits in arrears.

This new higher profile of the department was accentuated by strong tensions between Lanigan and his minister, Dame Margaret Guilfoyle, particularly over strategy and tactics of handling the political fall-out of the Greek scandal, and by the fact that Lanigan was a personality not afraid to mix it with journalists or to take on all comers in debate in a bar.

He was an able administrator, who extensively reorganised his department, particularly on small-group lines and who oversaw important developments in computerising the system, as he had done earlier in tax. He picked young and bright middle managers, not a few of whom have prospered since, and was strong on developing training programs.

During one management seminar at Leura, he called besuited managers into a sauna and addressed them naked for some considerable period.

His public profile was, somewhat unfairly, as a hard man: he would complain of welfare "scroungers", of people getting only strict entitlements and of needs to "tighten the system" (which he did). In this he was carrying out clear government policy.

When the Fraser Government introduced early retirement legislation, Lanigan talked openly of going. About this time he also became president of the Australian Society of Accountants.

He would occasionally joke to journalists that the real reason he was thinking of going to the Bar was to devote his final days to suing everyone who had ever written of him, but, though he made a few threats, no writs ever eventuated.

He had a busy and successful career at the Bar — a man better for a chancey or unlikely case (because he had occasional strokes of brilliance) than for the straightforward case.

Pat Lanigan is survived by his wife, Margaret, and four children, Sandra, Melissa, Peter and Amanda. A funeral service will be held at the Uniting Church at Crows Nest, Sydney, tomorrow morning.

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'Lanigan, Patrick Joseph (Pat) (1925–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

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