Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ian James Kennison (1920–2000)

by Rex Stevenson

This article was published online in 2023

Ian Kennison, n.d.

Ian Kennison, n.d.

photo supplied by author

Ian James Stodart Kennison (1920–2000), businessman and intelligence chief, was born on 19 December 1920 at South Yarra, Melbourne, only son of Victorian-born Geoffrey Stodart Kennison, clerk, and his New South Wales-born wife Dorothy Madeline Westwood, née Rockett. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Ian began studies for an arts degree at the University of Melbourne in 1938. A tallish, well-built man, of fair complexion, he rowed competitively at school and while at university earned a half-Blue with the rifle-shooting team.

In 1939 Kennison abandoned his university studies and enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces for service in World War II. Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in May 1941, on 2 June he was commissioned as a (probationary) lieutenant in the Royal Australian Artillery. Promoted to temporary captain in February 1943, he was posted to a training unit, the 10th Field Artillery Regiment. In December 1943 he was court-martialled for inadequately supervising a draft of recruits, resulting in their obtaining and consuming liquor. He was found guilty on two of four charges, and reprimanded. Following the Japanese surrender, on 20 August 1945 he joined the 2/7th Field Regiment on Tarakan Island, Borneo. He served until late February 1946 as a member of an Australian military court based at Morotai considering Japanese war crimes. After returning to Australia he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 6 April 1946; he would remain active in the reserves for a further ten years.

On 12 June 1943 Kennison had married Patricia (Pat) Northmore Altorfer, a journalist, at Perth College Chapel, Mount Lawley, Western Australia. Settling in Melbourne, he spent more than eight years in business, first as publicity manager for the drapery firm Hicks, Atkinson and Sons, and then from 1950 as a branch manager with the footwear company Wittners Pty Ltd. Pat’s vivacious, outgoing personality complemented his more reserved bearing, and the couple were active on the social scene. She would later pursue a career in the art world, promoting young emerging artists.

Kennison’s recruitment into the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) on 8 November 1954 almost certainly resulted from his acquaintance, since school days, with the founding director-general, Alfred Brookes. His business and financial experience proved as valuable as his military service in a new organisation located outside the regular Commonwealth Public Service. He served initially in financial and administrative positions, before moving progressively into the senior ranks of the intelligence and operations streams throughout the next two decades. These roles included a two-year attachment overseas with an allied service.

Promoted to deputy director-general in September 1973, Kennison was appointed director-general on 8 November 1975 on the recommendation of Justice Robert Hope, following the dismissal of the service chief, Bill Robertson. In taking up the role he became the first officer to have entered the service at recruit level and made it to the top. He took over at a politically difficult time, with the service’s future under the Australian Labor Party government of Gough Whitlam uncertain. Allied services welcomed his appointment for the continuity and stability it provided. He was a man of quiet authority and integrity, calm and measured in approach but not afraid to take risks when he believed them necessary. His period in office was one of consolidation: implementation of the Hope royal commission on intelligence and security recommendations, internal reform, and incremental operational expansion. The latter was disappointing to some officers as the final classified report on ASIS by the Hope commission in October 1977 was positive about its performance and management.

ASIS’s operational capabilities and the career opportunities it was able to offer, especially for women, improved during Kennison’s tenure. His reforms included amalgamating the intelligence officer and research officer streams (the former being largely male and the latter largely female); initiating discussions with the Department of Defence on wartime contingency planning; and significantly investing in intelligence officer training in Australia, after twenty-five years of such training being largely conducted offshore with allied services. He accelerated planning to relocate the service from Melbourne to Canberra, which was completed a few years after he retired in July 1981. In June that year he had been appointed CBE.

Retiring in Melbourne, Kennison pursued his interests in photography, birdwatching, and bookbinding. He maintained ‘the discretion that had marked his … career’: on one occasion, when he spoke publicly about his time with ASIS, his wife anticipated finally learning something of his work, but he revealed nothing that was not already ‘on the public record’ (Canberra Times 2000, 11). He died on 8 April 2000 at East Melbourne, and was cremated; his wife and their adopted daughter and son survived him.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Self-Effacing ASIS Director.’ 21 April 2000, 11
  • National Archives of Australia. A471, 52031
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Woodward, Edward. ‘Ian Kennison.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 2000, 33

Additional Resources

Citation details

Rex Stevenson, 'Kennison, Ian James (1920–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 26 May 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ian Kennison, n.d.

Ian Kennison, n.d.

photo supplied by author

Life Summary [details]


19 December, 1920
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


8 April, 2000 (aged 79)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lung)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Military Service