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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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Peter Keaston Reith (1950–2022)

by Rob Harris

Peter Reith, by Loui Seselja, 1997

Peter Reith, by Loui Seselja, 1997

National Library of Australia, 25020491

Amid the messy fallout from the 1998 waterfront dispute, Peter Reith visited John Howard at Kirribilli House and offered his resignation.

The High Court had just ruled port operator Patrick Stevedores could not terminate workers’ employment, and it was a major blow to the Coalition government, which had picked a fight and was struggling politically just two years into its first term.

Reith felt completely isolated among his cabinet colleagues, many of whom had refused to publicly back him. But Howard scoffed at the suggestion he quit, and told his friend he had his full support.

“I’ll tell you what he [Howard] said to me,” Reith recalled a decade later. “My kids think you’re great. You know that was sort of a more emotional way of him saying, ‘I’m still supporting you,’ because when John Howard says his kids support you, you know you’ve got [his wife] Janette as well. That’s pretty good.”

Reith, who died on Tuesday aged 72 after a battle with Alzheimer’s disease, was the hard man of the early years of the Howard government. Tall and stoop-shouldered, he took up the ideological and unpopular battles on behalf of his boss – on the policy front and in parliament – that others dared not.

But the bitter industrial relations dispute was the defining political struggle of its time.

Chris Corrigan, the boss of Patrick, set a bold plan in motion, with the backing of Reith and Howard, to unleash an unforgettable chain of events. Foreign-trained mercenaries, balaclavas, rottweilers, picket lines and, as Reith once described it “old-fashioned biffo on the docks”.

Both Reith and his family received threats of physical violence and needed a federal police protection detail for months.

“You could say, well, the government took a beating,” he told the ABC in 2008. “Well, every government has taken a beating in the past on waterfront reform. We took a bit more beating than usual but, then again, we’re the only ones who ever got anything done either.”

Both sides claim victory two decades on. The Maritime Union of Australia maintained its near monopoly of the waterfront, while Patrick won significant increases in profitability.

Michael Kroger, a rival of Reith within the Victorian faction of the Liberal Party, says it was clear he was Howard’s “favourite”.

“He was the man of steel in that dispute,” he told Sky News. “While all ministers and backbenchers and others ran for cover and when things got hard, Reith never wavered and John Howard always appreciated that enormously.”

Three years later Reith was in the hot seat again, in the middle of what became known as the Children Overboard Affair, in which the government falsely claimed that asylum seekers had thrown their children out of their leaky fishing boat.

It was a low point in the divisive politics over immigration policy at the time, and it severely damaged his credibility, enraging his political opponents on the left, where he’d become the lightning rod for growing disdain for the Howard government.

He rarely conceded an argument or gave ground, even as a political commentator into his later years on both Sky News and in the opinion pages of newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

But Howard never wavered in his support for his number one guy either, telling parliament upon the Victorian MP’s retirement in 2001 that of all the people with whom he’d been associated in politics, there was none he’d held in higher regard than Reith.

“I shall never forget the incredible courage that the then minister, Peter Reith, displayed at the time of waterfront reform,” he told the House of Representatives.

“He became the architect of what is arguably the greatest systemic change of all in the economic industrial sector of Australia, that is, the transformation of our industrial relations system.

“No minister in my government in the past five-and-a-half years has been under more sustained pressure and abuse than Peter … He displayed an intense composure under enormous pressure. He was always calm; he was always quite capable of arguing a case and of assessing reality.”

Former ACTU assistant secretary Tim Pallas, now the Victorian Labor treasurer, once observed that as a political operative Reith was “the most effective member of the Coalition government and therefore the most dangerous”.

Born on July 15, 1950, Reith went to Brighton Grammar and later read economics and law at Monash University. He went to work at Cowes, a then sleepy village on Phillip Island. He later was elected to the island’s shire council and became shire president in 1981.

On Phillip Island he helped establish Newhaven College, an independent school, and a penguin research facility.

He won the Flinders byelection in December 1982 after the retirement of Sir Phillip Lynch. Lynch, who served as a minister under three prime ministers, had been the minister for army, leader of the house and deputy Liberal leader, three roles that Reith would later emulate.

Reith held the seat against the odds, which was widely seen as a final blow to Bill Hayden’s Labor leadership. Bob Hawke took over in February and an election was called for March. Reith, just a few months into his new job and not even sworn in, lost his seat. But he regained the seat in 1984.

From there he held a variety of portfolios in opposition from 1987 and earned his reputation as a political head kicker during the 1988 referendum campaign where he helped destroy Labor’s proposal of four-year parliamentary terms. He also effectively blocked Labor’s one-vote, one-value proposal, which would have redistributed the electoral divisions of the House of Representatives.

In 1999, despite flagging his republican sentiments, he trashed the so-called “politicians’ republic” and campaigned for a directly elected presidential model.

“Peter Reith is as much a republican as John Howard,” Malcolm Turnbull, then head of the Yes campaign, said at the time. “This is just part of his usual destructive, cynical tactics to hold back constitutional reform in Australia. It’s perfectly obvious what he’s up to. He is trying to wreck this by putting up a populist fantasy.”

The final years of Reith’s parliamentary career were engulfed with controversy when he was investigated over the use of his phone card, which had incurred charges totalling $50,000.

He admitted that he breached parliamentary rules by giving the card and his personal identification number to his son Paul in 1994. But his son could account for only $950 worth of calls, meaning that the people who subsequently obtained the card and made 11,000 free phone calls from 900 different locations over a period of five years did so without Reith’s knowledge or permission.

Howard was faced with calls to sack him while talkback radio was enraged. Labor claimed it was a political cover-up.

Reith gave two reasons for his decision to eventually pay up – that taxpayers had a reasonable expectation it should be paid by him and that it was affecting the standing of the government.

“I don’t have much choice about it,” he said. “The situation will be ... I’m paying the money and that’s the end of the matter as far as I’m concerned.”

He served in federal cabinet from 1996 to 2001 and maintained a diary and extensive records of those tumultuous years through the 120 notebooks he filled with conversations with colleagues, cabinet discussions and his uncensored thoughts and predictions. They were published in 2015, with a dust-jacket quote from former ministerial colleague Amanda Vanstone saying: “There aren’t too many people from my time in politics that I would trust completely. Reith is one of them.”

After politics, he became a London-based director of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. He also led a Victorian gas taskforce that warned that jobs and living standards were at risk because of a ban on onshore gas.

In 2017, amid fierce fighting within the Victorian Liberal Party, he challenged Kroger as state president but pulled out of the race after suffering a stroke. He had not made a public appearance since.

“Peter Reith was one of the very biggest of the many big figures in the Howard government,” his cabinet colleague and former prime minister Tony Abbott said.

“He came to the fore in an era that was characterised by strong leadership, policy courage and personal integrity. He was a fine role model for everyone who’s in public life to make a difference.”

Reith is survived by his wife, Kerrie, and four sons, Paul, Simon, David and Robert, from his first marriage.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rob Harris, 'Reith, Peter Keaston (1950–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/reith-peter-keaston-33277/text41524, accessed 18 July 2024.

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