Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McAulay, Ronald (Peter) (1932–1995)

by Bill Wilson

This article was published online in 2019

Ronald McAulay (1932–1995), police commissioner, was born on 30 November 1932 at Alberton, Adelaide, younger son of South Australian-born parents Angus Babbington McAulay and his second wife Daisy, née Wilkins. Always known as Peter, he attended Streaky Bay and Alberton primary schools and Woodville High School. Leaving school after gaining his Intermediate certificate, he worked as a junior audit clerk at the Adelaide Steamship Co. Ltd and General Motors Holden Ltd before joining the South Australia Police (SAPOL) as a junior constable in 1951.

Appointed a probationary constable in 1953, McAulay gained permanent status on 13 October and was posted to Port Adelaide Police Station. On 26 December 1953, at St Margaret’s Church of England, Woodville, he married Eileen Mavis Day; they later divorced. Between 1956 and 1967 he had four postings: Central Division in Adelaide, Woomera, Elizabeth, and Christies Beach. He undertook a Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) course in 1959, his instructor describing him as ‘easily the best student in the course’ (Potts 1995). In 1967 he became the youngest person appointed to the rank of inspector in SAPOL. Seconded to the Australian contingent to the United Nations (UN) Civilian Police in Cyprus in 1968, he returned there in 1970 at the invitation of the UN secretary-general as police adviser.

Back in South Australia in 1972, McAulay worked in SAPOL’s major planning and research unit and later served as a consultant to the Papua New Guinean government on the implementation of a patrol system for Port Moresby. In 1975 he was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal and in 1978 was appointed detective chief superintendent in charge of CIB headquarters, SAPOL. He married Avril Shirley Holdstock, former principal of a British services school, Cyprus, at the Adelaide Registry Office on 16 March 1978. Offered a position with the UN in New York, he declined in favour of the role of commissioner, Northern Territory Police, which he assumed in August 1978.

The first Northern Territory police commissioner after self-government, McAulay boosted morale, upgraded equipment, closed unnecessary stations, and introduced innovative programs such as the Police Aide Scheme, which saw Aboriginal people become involved in policing within their own communities. The Chamberlain case occurred during his time as commissioner. On 17 August 1980, nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family’s tent at Ayers Rock (Uluru), allegedly taken by a dingo. In 1981 Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of her daughter’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment; her husband, Michael, was convicted as an accessory and released with a suspended sentence. Following the chance discovery of a piece of Azaria’s clothing in 1986, McAulay supported calls for an inquiry into the Chamberlains’ convictions, including the quality of the police investigation. Justice Trevor Morling concluded that the manner in which the Northern Territory police had conducted the investigation had not prejudiced the trial; instead, the ‘great difficulties for the defence arose out of the scientific evidence’ (Australia 1987, 341). McAulay’s insistence on police probity at a time of searing media examination undoubtedly helped him to avoid undue criticism when, in September 1988, the Northern Territory Court of Appeals overturned both convictions owing to inconsistences and errors in the forensic evidence. Later, McAulay led moves to establish a national institute of forensic science.

McAulay became commissioner of the Australian Federal Police in January 1988. He was concurrently Australia’s representative to the International Criminal Police Organization. In June 1988 he was appointed AO. Aware of the need for reform in the AFP, he sought to establish a more efficient organisation that included changing the structure of ranks, and he encouraged the investigation of allegations of police corruption. More broadly he sought to address the problems of crime across State and Territory borders and organised crime. On 10 January 1989 his long-time friend and colleague Assistant Commissioner Colin Winchester was shot and killed outside his Deakin home. A lengthy police investigation led to the former public servant David Eastman being charged with the murder. Although much of the evidence was circumstantial, Eastman was found guilty in November 1995 and sentenced to life imprisonment; however, in 2018 he was exonerated. McAulay, who had retired in 1994, never disclosed his personal feelings about Eastman’s guilt or innocence.

A courageous, ethical, and visionary commissioner, McAulay made a major contribution to effective policing throughout Australia. A big man—six feet two inches (188 cm) tall—with grey eyes, dark hair, and a dark complexion, he was considered ‘hard’ (Holdstock, pers. comm.) by some; not one to be dismissed lightly, he had a firm handshake and determined set of jaw. He was also known to be scrupulously fair and honest and was admired for his ‘common touch’ (Bates 1995, 14). During his last years he suffered from a respiratory illness. Survived by his wife and two sons from his first marriage, he died on 14 November 1995 at Woden Valley Hospital, Canberra, and was cremated. The Peter McAulay Centre (formerly Berrimah Police Complex), Darwin, is named for him.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. Royal Commission of Inquiry into Chamberlain Convictions. Report of the Commissioner the Hon. Mr Justice T. R. Morling. Darwin: Government Printer, 1987
  • Bates, Brian. ‘Police Chief with Common Touch.’ Australian, 24 November 1995, 14
  • Canberra Times. ‘The Amazing Case of the Chamberlains.’ 31 October 1982, 2
  • Clack, Peter. ‘Tough Cop at the Top.’ Canberra Times, 28 July 1990, 17
  • Holdstock, Avril. Personal communication
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Potts, R. J. Letter to W. Wilson Re: Ronald (Peter) McAulay, 13 November 1995. Copy held on ADB file
  • Wilson, Bill. ‘McAulay, (Ronald) Peter.’ In Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol. 3, edited by David Carment and Helen J. Wilson, 386–87. Darwin: Charles Darwin University Press, 1996

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bill Wilson, 'McAulay, Ronald (Peter) (1932–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcaulay-ronald-peter-27693/text35261, published online 2019, accessed online 8 December 2019.

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