Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Lanigan, Patrick Joseph (Pat) (1925–1992)

by Sue Pidgeon

This article was published online in 2017

Patrick Joseph Lanigan (1925-1992), public servant, accountant, and barrister, was born on 20 February 1925 at North Fitzroy, Victoria, only son and eldest of three children of Stephen Lanigan, railway worker, and his wife Millicent May, née Walshe. Pat completed the Leaving certificate at Christian Brothers' College, St Kilda (1940). After the death of his father in a road accident in November 1942 he became the main breadwinner for his family. He worked for the Postmaster-General’s Department as a postal assistant until mobilised on 22 March 1943 for service in the Citizen Military Forces in World War II. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 1 September, he served in New Guinea (1944–45) with the 2/5th Battalion and in New Britain (1945–46) with garrison units. He was promoted to corporal in March 1946 and discharged from the AIF on 24 December.

Educated at the University of Melbourne (BCom, 1950; BA, 1952), Lanigan joined the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) in 1950. He returned to university in 1957 to undertake part-time studies in law. On 24 April he married Margaret Cynthia Llewellyn, a secretary, at St Peter’s Catholic Church, Toorak. Early in 1958 he was transferred to Canberra, where he continued his legal studies at the Canberra University College, graduating with honours from the Australian National University (LLB, 1963). He was admitted to the Bar on 15 October 1964.

Rising through the ranks of the ATO, Lanigan became interested in management, particularly in the use of information technology to modernise processing systems. Believing that the ATO should become a leader in technology, he urged it to acquire its own computer equipment rather than continue sharing that of the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. In 1976 he was appointed OBE for public service.

The Fraser government appointed Lanigan director-general of the Department of Social Security in August 1977. Both the department and the general field of social security policy had been under review, given the demands arising from the economic recession. Of particular concern was evidence of extensive overpayments of benefits at a time of expenditure restraint. He introduced major changes to the department, improving efficiency in processing welfare payments and in detecting fraud. With an emphasis on training and new management ideas, he bolstered legal and audit capabilities,  enabling the department to respond to developments in administrative law, financial management, and new technology. He promoted young, bright officers, many of them female, over officers he thought resistant to change. Expanding the department’s regional office network, he decentralised day-to-day decision-making from formerly powerful State-based offices.

To the public Lanigan became the face of the government’s harder line on welfare. Whether those were his instructions from the prime minister, as the media suggested, or whether he was simply responding to the extent of overpayments, his administration was characterised by widespread crackdowns on eligibility for welfare benefits and pensions. His methods appeared at odds with the sensitive approach sought by the minister, (Dame) Margaret Guilfoyle.

Lanigan’s relationship with Guilfoyle deteriorated during what came to be known as the ‘Greek conspiracy case.’ Late in March 1978 Commonwealth police launched early morning raids on 160 homes and five doctors’ surgeries. Dozens of people of Greek ethnicity were taken into custody, accused of pension fraud arising from false medical reports. With further arrests over the following weeks, 181 people, including six doctors, were charged with conspiracy to defraud the Commonwealth. More than seven hundred people had their invalid pensions or sickness benefits suspended pending re-examination of their eligibility. Proceedings became bogged down in the courts, with most prosecutions ultimately failing amidst revelations of unauthorised phone tapping by police and tainted evidence. The minister came under attack in the Senate, on several occasions providing information that later was found to be wrong or questionable. She began qualifying her answers with words such as ‘I am advised by my Director-General that …’ (Guilfoyle, pers. comm.).

In 1981 Lanigan took advantage of new legislation enabling early retirement, leaving a department which had significantly changed under his stewardship. His approach had made him unpopular with many, some seeing him as more interested in maintaining a hard line on benefits than in providing welfare services. A planned departmental farewell did not go ahead but his core supporters did hold an unofficial function to mark his departure. His departure from the public service allowed him to pursue a new career in law. He went to the Bar in Sydney, building a successful second career.

Despite his successes, Lanigan was widely seen as an eccentric for his unconventional habits and interests. Yet even his detractors considered him highly intelligent and able. Outside work, he loved skiing and was a member of the Canberra Alpine Club. He gained his pilot’s licence in 1979 and enjoyed flying himself to meetings interstate. In July 1984 he was flying from Coffs Harbour to Bankstown airport when he lost his bearings and ran out of fuel in the early hours of the morning. In an emergency landing on a suburban street in Sefton the aircraft clipped a power pole and landed nose down on the footpath. He emerged unscathed and was back in court arguing a case the same day. Survived by his wife, three daughters, and a son, he died on 29 September 1992 in Turkey. He had been in Europe for an International Bar Association conference and decided to visit Gallipoli, something he had always wanted to do. He was found dead, apparently of a heart attack, by the Eceabat-Kabatepe road. After a funeral service in Sydney, he was cremated, and his ashes placed at Northern Suburbs Memorial Gardens, North Ryde.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Andrews, Ross. ‘Lanigan: The Man and his Methods.’ Canberra Times, 1 March 1981, 7
  • Australia. Senate. Parliamentary Debates, No. 46, 14 November 1979, 2249–2267
  • Australian. ‘Pat Lanigan Plays Guilfoyle’s Perfect Foil.’ 14 July 1980, 7
  • Guilfoyle, Margaret. Personal communication
  • Lanigan, Margaret. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX93353
  • Simson, Stuart. ‘The Welfare Czar.’ National Times, 2 December 1978, 18-19
  • Waterford, Jack. ‘An Extraordinary Life’s Journey.’ Canberra Times, 7 October 1992, 4
  • Wilkinson, Marian. ‘The Biggest Conspiracy Case in Australia’s History.’ National Times, 3 February 1979, 9–13

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Sue Pidgeon, 'Lanigan, Patrick Joseph (Pat) (1925–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lanigan-patrick-joseph-pat-25493/text33831, published online 2017, accessed online 20 April 2019.

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