70-year career draws to an end for Professor Peter Bailey

Posted 18 Jan 2017

Story by Australian National University

There is something poetic about being able to finish a 70-year career by riding off into the sunset, even if it’s on a bright red Vespa crammed with farewell flowers and decades of office memorabilia.

By 1986, Adjunct Professor Peter Bailey AM OBE had worked closely with seven prime ministers over four decades and should have been winding down and preparing for retirement. Instead the 59-year-old swapped policy for teaching and research, becoming a Visiting Fellow at the ANU College of Law. This week, after 30 years and several significant publications, Professor Bailey will finally retire.

“I’ve been here 30 years and I thought if I don’t move on now when I’m 89, I’d possibly never move,” he said.

“I really want to be able to do other things. I have got other interests than the academic interests. I have a family and I’m a member of a lot of bodies like Relationships Australia which I’ve been a member of for a long time.

“I just thought I’d like to escape the rigour of the academic environment and relax a bit.”

Professor Bailey’s wife Leila was diagnosed with dementia in the same year that he joined ANU Law, and sadly she died in 1989.

“I think if she hadn’t died, and if she’d said lets retire, let’s go down to the coast I would have said yes,” he said.

“But I thought I’d stay here because I was interested in my job.”

Professor Bailey was one of the earliest ANU Law graduates, finishing a Bachelor of Laws at the ANU’s forerunner, the Canberra University College in 1950, and gaining a Masters of Laws at ANU in 1954.

He began his long career in the public service as personal assistant to Sir George Knowles, who at the time was Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department. He moved across to Treasury then rose through the ranks to become the First Assistant Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister. He worked closely with seven prime ministers from Menzies to Fraser, and was the FAS to Prime Minister Harold Holt when he disappeared off the coast of Victoria.

“Holt’s press officer Tony Eggleton rang me and said I had to be the one to tell Holt’s wife Zara that the Prime Minister was missing,” he said.

He said she asked him if he’d been wearing his sandshoes and when he said yes she believed he was gone.

“I never understood why she said this.”

In 1972 he was awarded an OBE and in 1999 he received an OAM. He negotiated the establishment of the Australian Human Rights Commission and became the inaugural CEO and Deputy Commissioner from 1981-86.

As that role came to an end Professor David Hambly, the then Dean of the ANU College of Law offered him a role teaching human rights in the new civil liberties course.

At a morning tea on Wednesday, the College’s current Dean Professor Stephen Bottomley noted to Professor Bailey’s illustrious career, contribution to ANU Law and the esteem in which he is held among staff.

“Peter is one of Australia’s foremost thinkers and contributors in the law on human rights, and in his time here many generations of students have had the immense benefit of his knowledge, wisdom and insight,” he said.

“As his colleagues we have also greatly enjoyed his involvement in our teaching, research and administrative activities. In his quietly spoken but passionate manner, Peter has been the embodiment of the collegial spirit that we strive to maintain.”

When Professor Bailey started at ANU College of Law he rode in on a BMW 800. While that model is a tad too heavy these days, he will proudly ride out on his shiny red Vespa.

This article has been repurposed with permission from the ANU. To view it in its original form, click here.

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