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Peter Stephen Wilenski (1939–1994)

by Jack Waterford

Peter Wilenski, who died yesterday after a long battle with cancer, was one of the most accomplished and unusual public servants of his generation, who leaves the landscape scattered with his monuments; not least much of the shape of modern public service.

By the time of his death he had headed four government departments and the Public Service Board, had played a major role in inquiries that had caused major change in the Commonwealth and state public administrations, had advised foreign governments, including Zimbabwe, on the shaping of their governments, and even had had a tilt, as Australia's Ambassador to the United Nations, at reforming the greatest Augean stable of them all.

He can be particularly associated with equal-opportunity programs and the promotion of women within government, with a strong occupational health and safety focus in the public service (including the pioneering of smoking bans) and with a sharp shift of focus in public administration towards devolution of management and management for results.

By the time he, ill with lymph cancer, stepped aside as Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade, in May 1993, he was the most senior and experienced public servant. Yet he was always a loner and an outsider. Though most of his finest work was in the nuts and bolts of administration rather than policy development, he was seen as intensely political by Coalition politicians: none of which ever gave him a senior promotion and not a few of which had marked him for transfer on any change of government. Even a few of his colleagues treated him with reserve, long after he had established that he had gone well past any inside run he might once have been thought to have had from close service with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam — an avenue to preferment now far more common and unexceptionable.

And some of his manias once thought eccentricities are now so settled as doctrine that to attack them would not only be politically incorrect but actually stupid.

This is not to deny his politics. Wilenski was as much interested in what was done as how it was done, but he was first and foremost a student of the mechanisms and the structures, and, in seeking Peter Wilenski and Bob Hawke at the launch of Dr Wilenski's book, Public Power, on October 14, 1986, to achieve change, was focused on implanting it by playing with the mechanisms rather than merely imposing things from above.

He saw the senior Public Service he first encountered nearly 30 years ago, indeed almost the whole Public Service, as hide-bound by an elitist and closed culture out of touch with the broad community. As he saw it, he wanted to let the air in, by bringing wider values and other experiences to bear within it, by policies focused on hearing the voices of women, migrants, ethnic groups, even people of different political streams, and on focusing far more on performance and on better management practices more likely to make policies realities.

This was far more subversive than simply seeking to impose change on unwilling underlings; it leaves an institution that will bear his fingerprints for several genertions.

Peter Wilenski was born in Poland shortly before the outbreak of the war and came to Australia in 1943. He went from Sydney High School to the University of Sydney, where he studied medicine while dabbling in student politics, a standout even in a remarkable group of students. He graduated in medicine, but decided very quickly that it was not for him, going to Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics before joining the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1967. Three years later, after service in Saigon, he went to Treasury, where he became head of its overseas economic conditions and aid and development section, and had his first clashes with John Stone, then a first assistant secretary.

It was about then that he formed an informal study group, which met regularly for dinners at Queanbeyan, looking at public service ways and structures, how things were achieved and how not. It was this background that was to serve him well when he became principal private secretary to the Leader of the Opposition, Gough Whitlam, in 1972; when Whitlam became Prime Minister, late in the year, Whitlam, per Wilenski, had his own draft administrative arrangements orders made up, and rejected those drafted, on the basis of platform and policy documents, by the Public Service.

Whitlam and his ministers, particularly the latter, had a very uneasy relationship with the Public Service, which they tended, somewhat wrongly, to see as both corrupted by years of service to Liberal-Country Party governments (its top men were as much men inspired by Chifley) and as too slow, too conservative and too unresponsive to implement a rapid program of radical change.

The apolitical nature of the service came to be seen as a somewhat self-serving conservative myth, disguising deep hostilities to what an elected government was seeking to achieve. In some quarters there was, of course, bureaucratic resistance to Labor's policy ideas; in other cases the cautious professionalism of the bureaucrats was seen as obstruction. In any event, some, including Wilenski, came to see many of the failures and disasters of the Whitlam period as being a result of the "unresponsiveness" and essential conservatism of the Public Service: a view that shaped many of Wilenski's later ideas.

Whitlam's appointment of Wilenski as a special adviser to the Coombs Royal Commission into Australian Government Administration in 1974 passed without much negative comment (though Wilenski had stood and was very nearly successful for Labor preselection for Fraser that year) but led to speculation that he was marked to take over the Public Service Board on Alan Cooley's retirement.

However, his appointment as Secretary of Labour and Immigration in 1975 caused a furore. It became seen as an arch example of political patronage, service at the right hand of the Prime Minister being seen as in no way making up for the fact that he had only been at the top of the Third Division when he had gone to that post, or for his clear political affiliations.

The incoming Malcolm Fraser soon stood him aside, while preserving his rights. Fraser offered him the post of Ambassador to Hanoi: rejected by Wilenski as an insult.

Dr Wilenski cooled his heels, without portfolio, until offered the foundation professorship at the Australian Graduate School of Management. While there he conducted a review of the NSW Public Service for the Premier, Neville Wran, enthusiastically promoting policies of more open government (more or less rejected by Wran), opening selection systems and promoting equal opportunity and pushing for tighter, more managerially focused systems.

In 1981 he took a chair with the Social Justice Project at the Australian National University, stepping down to become Secretary of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs on the election of the Hawke Government in 1983. Later in the year he became chairman of the Public Service Board.

His term there saw him working to implement the agenda that had been promoted by the Coombs commission and by himself in NSW: he played a major part in the Government's White Paper on the Public Service and in the Public Service Reform Act, which resulted in the creation of the Senior Executive Service, a significant push for widening access to the service, and a sharp focus on achieving government objectives.

Wilenski wanted results orientation, a more entrepreneurial spirit and a stronger focus on people and on departmental creative climates, including, of course, that produced by ready access by people with different backgrounds and values.

He was an enthusiast for open government; to complaints about the cost of the Freedom of Information Act he once dryly observed that the United States Government spent more money maintaining golf courses at foreign military installations than on FOI.

His ideal Public Service manager of the future he described, in 1986, thus: "She will have a more varied background than her present-day counterpart. She will have worked in both Canberra and the States. She may well have spent time in private enterprise or a trade union or voluntary organisation ... she will, above all, be a good manager of change, entirely at ease within an environment of reform and innovation. Her commitment will be to a consultative, participatory style of industrially democratic management... She will focus on results."

Yet, if he bears some share of responsibility for what some critics call the managerialism of the modern Public Service (and for some of the carelessness about the difference between enthusiastically carrying out government policy and being attached to it) it would be quite unfair to hold him accountable for a simultaneous trend: what some of the critics would call the economism of the service and the obsessions some of it showed for the beauties of the free market. Dr Wilenski believed in big and strong government (if one in which politicians called the shots) and deplored the philosophies of the New Right.

Having played a role in the creation of the mega departments in 1987, which saw the effective demise of the board, he became head of Transport and Communications, where he worked under Senator Gareth Evans in beginning the process of restructuring the department into government business enterprises.

Less than a year later he was sent to the UN, the shift itself being an afterthought in a Byzantine attempt to organise a shuffle in other Public Service areas rather than any reflection on his performance.

Dr Wilenski threw himself enthusiastically into UN work, including making manful attempts to reform the notoriously sclerotic UN administration and in developing some of the modern thinking on UN peacekeeping.

He married his second wife, Jill (he had previously been married to Gail Radford), and adopted two children.

He returned to Canberra to head his original department, Foreign Affairs and Trade, in 1992, having a unique opportunity to put in an immediate stamp there, since he inherited a department with three vacant deputy-secretary positions just as the Government was seeking a major restructuring of the department to reflect its new emphasis on trade and Asia. Soon after, however, he became ill with cancer. He struggled on, but eventually asked to be allowed to step aside in May 1993, the Government announcing that he would continue to act as a Secretary-level adviser when his health allowed.

Peter Wilenski was a fitness fanatic, and kept his eye on trends in the field in which he had obtained the first two of his eight academic degrees. He once spoke ruefully of being at the ANU Staff Club, feeling somewhat lonely and unappreciated, when the public address system called, "Professor Wilenski, phone call from Gough Whitlam". He made his way,to the phone to admiring stares to have the great man say to him, "Comrade, I've got the shits. What were those yellow pills you used to prescribe for me?"

Peter Wilenski never did quite shake the notion that, in the top echelons of the Public Service, he was not quite "one of them". Most of the time, of course, it was something of which he was quite proud; for years his Who's Who entry proudly listed his membership of the down-at-heel Forrest Tennis Club to match the Commonwealth Club of others. He scorned the trappings of power and would talk to anyone, yet could be abrupt with those he thought were wasting his time.

His visions were radical, his achievements substantial; it is perhaps his monument that so much of a radical dream became, in his time, so much a part of the mainstream.

Peter Wilenski, born May 10, 1939; died November 3, 1994.

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Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Wilenski, Peter Stephen (1939–1994)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 April 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 May, 1939
Lodz, Poland


3 November, 1994 (aged 55)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lymphoma)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

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Political Activism