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Barbour, Peter Robert (1925–1996)

by David McKnight

This article was published online in 2020

Peter Robert Woolnough Barbour (1925–1996), soldier, director-general of security, and diplomat, was born on 5 October 1925 at Geelong, Victoria, son of Robert Roy Pitty Barbour, warden of University College, University of Melbourne, and his wife Edith Elizabeth, née Woolnough. Peter was educated at Scotch College, Adelaide, and Geelong Grammar School, where he was a prefect and a member of the cricket and tennis teams and the cadet corps. In 1943 he won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne (BA, 1950), from which he graduated with first-class honours in German and Latin.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 10 March 1944, Barbour trained as a signaller and as a Japanese interpreter. From April 1945 he served as a sergeant on the staff of the prisoner-of-war camp at Lae, New Guinea. In September he was transferred to the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section and the next month was sent to Rabaul, New Britain. He assisted with the administration of the Japanese surrender and with the Australian Military Court trying war criminals. Returning to Australia in October 1946, he was discharged from the AIF on 6 December.

Barbour in 1949 began postgraduate study in German literature at the University of Melbourne, remaining until April 1951, when he was recruited to the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) by its director-general, (Sir) Charles Spry. He had met Penelope Elizabeth Nuttall, a third year arts student, in 1950 and they married in the Trinity College Chapel at Melbourne University on 10 March 1951. His career with ASIO began in the counter subversion (B1) branch, where he was one of the organisation’s few university graduates. He was posted in 1953 to the Australian embassy in The Hague as a security screening officer and in 1955 to Rome, where he was responsible for checking the political backgrounds of potential migrants to Australia. While in Europe he underwent training with the British security service (MI5), with which ASIO had a close relationship. He returned to Australia in 1956 to oversee ASIO’s role on the Bangkok-based committee of security experts, part of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. On this committee he mixed with intelligence officers from Britain, the United States of America, and South-East Asian countries.

In 1959 Spry transferred Barbour to ASIO’s counter-espionage branch (B2) and assigned him to the Canberra office, from which he planned the surveillance of Ivan Skripov, a KGB (Committee of State Security) officer posing as a Soviet diplomat. This period resulted in Barbour’s rapid promotion, a fact that surprised him and his colleagues. In 1964 he was appointed deputy director-general and, after Spry’s retirement in 1969, he became director-general.

Barbour and Spry were very different leaders. A quiet, studious, shy person, Barbour was a cautious intellectual. Spry, in contrast, was an autocrat imbued with a military ethos. While Barbour modernised ASIO’s internal structure and personnel management, he shared Spry’s view of ASIO’s operational priorities by treating anti-Vietnam War activities and similar dissent as subversive. With the election of the Labor government in December 1972, ASIO began to take a different approach to dissent. Believing ASIO was withholding information on Croatian terrorism from the new government, the attorney-general, Lionel Murphy, ordered a raid on its headquarters on 16 March 1973. Barbour protested, but soon chose to help the government save face at a subsequent parliamentary inquiry into the raid. This angered some senior ASIO officers who began to undermine him and the government by leaking documents to the media and the Opposition. In August 1974 when the government announced a royal commission to inquire into ASIO and other intelligence agencies, he supported the decision. But he quietly defied another instruction from the government to sever ASIO’s ties with its intelligence partners in the United States.

He resigned suddenly in September 1975 after advice to the government from the royal commissioner, Justice Robert Hope, who commented adversely on the direction of ASIO and on Barbour’s relationship with a female member of staff who accompanied him on an overseas trip. A series of senior diplomatic posts followed, including those of consul-general in New York (1975–78) and Los Angeles (1978–81), and ambassador to Venezuela (1981–85), which encompassed Colombia, Ecuador, Grenada, and Curaçao. Retiring in 1985, he returned to live in Adelaide. As befitting the head of a security organisation, he led a very private life. He rarely offered opinions in his social life and was well groomed and quietly spoken. For recreation, he enjoyed golf, tennis, and squash. Survived by his wife and three daughters (two sons had predeceased him), he died on 7 November 1996 at Stirling and was cremated.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Barbour, Peter. Interview by David McKnight, 31 May 1992. Transcript held by author
  • Blaxland, John. The Protest Years: The Official History of ASIO. Vol. 2, 1963–1975. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2015
  • Blaxland, John, and Rhys Crawley. The Secret Cold War: The Official History of ASIO. Vol. 3, 1975–1989. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2016
  • Canberra Times. ‘Security Chief with ASIO for 20 years.’ 27 November 1996, 7
  • Herald Sun (Melbourne). ‘Man of Many Secrets.’ 6 December 1996, 95
  • Horner, David. The Spy Catchers: The Official History of ASIO. Vol. 1, 1949–1963. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014
  • McKnight, David. Australia’s Spies and Their Secrets. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1994.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

David McKnight, 'Barbour, Peter Robert (1925–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/barbour-peter-robert-29669/text36653, published online 2020, accessed online 16 October 2021.

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