Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Peter Stephen Wilenski (1939–1994)

by Chad Mitcham

This article was published:

Peter Wilenski, by Heide Smith, 1982

Peter Wilenski, by Heide Smith, 1982

National Library of Australia, 14514430

Peter Stephen Wilenski (1939–1994), diplomat and public servant, was born on 10 May 1939 at Łódź, Poland, only child of Jan Wilenski, textile engineer, and his wife Halina, née Glass. Part of a wealthy and well-connected Jewish family, the Wilenskis were detained in a Soviet internment camp soon after the outbreak of World War II. After two years Jan escaped to Britain and joined the Polish armed forces, while Halina and Peter fled to Sydney, where Jan’s parents had settled in 1941. In his grandparents’ flat at Potts Point, Peter grew up ‘shy and bookish in a household of adults’ (SMH 1994, 2). Jan arrived in May 1946 and grudgingly became a jeweller while submitting claims for wartime capital losses. The family attended Temple Emanuel, Woollahra, a pluralist synagogue. An exceptionally bright scholar, Peter was educated at Double Bay (1945–48) and Woollahra (1949–50) Public schools, before continuing at Sydney Boys’ High School (1951–55). He was naturalised in January 1951 along with his father.

Encouraged by his parents, Wilenski studied medicine at the University of Sydney (MB, BS, 1963). While there he became active in youth politics. At the World Assembly of Youth in Accra (1960), he was elected to the executive committee and attended its Vienna meeting (1961). He chaired the International Students Conference’s research and information commission, travelling widely and preparing literature on crisis spots. In 1963 he led a delegation to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea and made a submission to the latter’s commission on higher education. Locally he was president of the Sydney University Union (1962–63), fellow of the University of Sydney Senate (1963–64), and president of the National Union of Australian University Students (1963–64). In the latter position he advocated for a third Sydney university and supported increased Asian immigration. Having been active in both the Liberal and Labor clubs, he became a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1962.

At university Wilenski met and became romantically involved with Gail Gordon Radford, a veterinary science student (BVSc, 1966). An independent-minded feminist and a director of the Sydney University Women’s Union, she would profoundly influence his outlook on women’s rights. After graduation he worked as a resident medical officer at Royal North Shore Hospital (1963–64) but left to pursue his passion for politics. Moving to England, he studied international relations, politics, philosophy, and economics at St Antony’s College, Oxford (BA Hons, 1966). On 28 April 1967 he and Gail married at the register office, Oxford.

The couple returned to Australia in May 1967 when Peter joined the Department of External Affairs in Canberra. Posted soon after, he was second secretary at the Australian Embassy, Saigon, Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), and then at the Australian High Commission in Ottawa (1968–69), Canada. Granted leave, he completed a master of arts in international affairs at Carleton University, and a master of public administration at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, United States of America. There he attended Godkin lectures given by British Labour politician Richard Crossman that provided an insider view of prime ministerial government and highlighted that the civil service was a barrier to reform.

Recalled to Canberra in late 1970, Wilenski developed foreign aid policy. In the following year he was elected president of the Abortion Law Reform Association of the Australian Capital Territory. Also in 1971 he was promoted to chief finance officer of the aid and development section, Department of Treasury. On leave from September to November 1972, Wilenski was an honorary fellow of the department of international relations, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University (ANU), and worked on a project examining health service delivery in China. For the ALP he also organised a small informal group of public servants who studied the state of the public service; in 1972 they presented Gough Whitlam with a strategy to overcome anticipated resistance to Labor’s planned administrative reforms when next in power.

After becoming prime minister in December 1972, Whitlam appointed Wilenski as his principal private secretary. Australian embassy officials in Washington, DC, were unhappy when, in May 1973 at Whitlam’s request, Wilenski circumvented established diplomatic channels by travelling secretly to the United States to discuss Australia’s foreign policy framework with the head of the National Security Council, Henry Kissinger. Wilenski was also influential in Australia’s finally ratifying, in June 1973, the International Labour Office’s 1958 Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention. In December he was a central figure in the establishment of the Australian Development Assistance Agency and in 1974 was briefly its first assistant director-general.

Wilenski unsuccessfully stood for ALP preselection for the Australian Capital Territory’s new seat of Fraser in the House of Representatives in April 1974. From June he was seconded as special adviser to the royal commission on Australian government administration, headed by H. C. Coombs, which recommended major reforms, including increased opportunities for women and the removal of tenure for top-level public servants. In December he was appointed secretary of the Department of Labour and Immigration—the first immigrant to hold that position. The Opposition and some senior public servants would describe him as an ambitious opportunist (Stone 2014, 56) and attributed his rapid rise solely to political patronage. In this role he was involved in the oversight of the selection and admission of the first Vietnamese refugees to Australia.

In December 1975 the newly elected Liberal-Country parties’ coalition government, under Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, initiated a reshuffle that split Wilenski’s department, resulting in the loss of his position. A month later he declined the government’s offer to appoint him as ambassador to Vietnam. Instead he retained his status while on the unattached list. Shifting his focus to academe, he took five years unpaid leave to become a foundation professor at the Australian Graduate School of Management, University of New South Wales, Sydney, in late 1976. In January the following year the New South Wales premier, Neville Wran, commissioned him to review the State’s public service. Wilenski openly criticised the practice of discrimination against women, and the lack of migrants from non-English speaking countries in top-level jobs. His influential Directions for Change: An Interim Report (1977), urged more openness, merit-based employment, community participation, better targeting of services, external scrutiny of public servants’ work, emphasis on service, and the achievement of policy objectives through improved management practices.

During 1977 Wilenski also became an honorary councillor of the (Royal) Australian College of Medical Administrators, and a director of the Australian Institute of Political Science. He was in demand as a consultant to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and reform-minded governments, including those of Zimbabwe, Tasmania, South Australia, and Papua New Guinea. From the early 1980s he held positions at the National Academy of Public Administration, Washington, DC, and the social justice project, Research School of Social Sciences, ANU. In May 1982 he produced a second report on the New South Wales public service, which recommended reforms to freedom of information legislation, the senior executive service, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, other statutory authorities, and budgets.

As Wilenski and his wife had pursued busy and divergent careers they had grown apart, and they divorced in 1981. After a brief stint as secretary of the Department of Education and Youth Affairs, he was appointed chairman of the Public Service Board (PSB) in October 1983. That year he was made a fellow of the Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration. He was a key figure in the preparation of the Hawke government’s white paper Reforming the Australian Public Service (1983) and the Public Service Reform Act 1984. As chair, he also continued to press for equal opportunities for women and was prominent in the board’s pioneering decision to implement a total smoking ban in public service offices by 1 March 1988.

From the mid-1980s Wilenski was also a member of the publicly financed Commission for the Future. He was president of the interim council of the University of Western Sydney (Chifley University) (1986–88). In July 1987, after the PSB was replaced with the much smaller Public Service Commission, he was appointed secretary of the Department of Transport and Communications. In that role he oversaw the introduction of a smoking ban on Australian flights and began restructuring departmental elements into government agencies. He was simultaneously a commissioner of Telecom Australia and a director of the financially troubled government-owned AUSSAT Pty Ltd, Australia’s domestic communications satellite system. Earlier in 1987 he had been appointed AO.

In June 1988 Wilenski was, without prior consultation, appointed Australian ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations. It was a development that the Federal Opposition again protested was ‘blatant political patronage’ (Canberra Times 1988, 3). His statement, soon after arriving in New York in March 1989, voicing Australia’s support for a resolution condemning Israel for violence against Palestinians, was deplored by senior Australian Jewish figures. He would thrive at the UN, become a leading contributor, particularly in discussions about the complex matter of change within the organisation. In November 1991 in a report titled Five Major Areas of Reform, he advocated the transformation of top-level administration to meet new challenges, while addressing the aspirations of both industrialised and economically developing countries. He chaired the unofficial ‘Wilenski Group,’ composed of thirty permanent representatives, which by early 1992 had submitted reform recommendations, elements of which were reflected in Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s initiatives several months later. Wilenski was also chairman (1989–92) of the panel of international advisers on reform of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and became an advocate for equal opportunities, status, and rights for women in the UN secretariat.

Meanwhile, the Labor parliamentarian Ros Kelly had introduced Wilenski to Jill Elizabeth Hager, a teacher; they would marry on 1 February 1990 in Paris. Two years later the Australian government initiated a major restructuring of its foreign affairs apparatus, appointing him secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He stridently asserted the controversial view that Australia was part of Asia. But his opportunity to make an impact at DFAT was suddenly curtailed when tests in late 1992 revealed he had lymphatic cancer. On 14 May 1993, at the summit of his career, he resigned and returned to Sydney for chemotherapy treatments. When his health permitted, he continued to work from home as a Commonwealth special advisor. In 1994 he was elevated to AC.

Balding, short in stature, and with a lazy eye, Wilenski was often described as intellectually brilliant, politically astute, a visionary reformer, and a talented communicator. He was an advocate, rather than an ‘ideas man.’ Although he was seen as softly spoken, gentle, shy, and a loner, he could also be ambitious, overt, and arrogant. His ‘constant and consistent objectives’ were ‘gender equity and a healthy workplace’ (Whitlam 1997, 288) and he believed in and pursued passionately racial equality. His leisure interests included reading, running, tennis, theatre, and modern art. He served two further terms on the University of Sydney Senate (1975–88, 1993–94) and was deputy chair of the council of the National Gallery of Australia (1992–94). He died on 3 November 1994 in St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated; his wife and their son and daughter survived him. Following his funeral at Temple Emanuel, a memorial service was held in the Great Hall at Parliament House, Canberra.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Alaba, Richard. Inside Bureaucratic Power: The Wilenski Review of New South Wales Government Administration. Sydney: Hale & Iremonger with the Royal Institute of Public Administration (ACT Division), [1994]
  • Canberra Times. ‘Wilenski Appointment Condemned.’ 4 June 1988, 3
  • Evans, Gareth. ‘The World after Wilenski: An Australian Who Mattered.’ Inaugural Peter Wilenski Memorial Lecture, Canberra, 22 June 1995. Accessed 4 December 2019. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives of Australia. A3211, 1966/7307
  • National Archives of Australia. A435, 1950/4/6522
  • National Archives of Australia. A261, 1945/1490
  • Radford, Gail. Interview by Sara Dowse, 2–3 April 2009. National Library of Australia
  • Radford, Gail. ‘My Life in Canberra.’ The Women Who Made Canberra exhibition floor talk, Canberra Museum and Gallery, Canberra, 7 March 2013. Accessed 4 December 2019. Copy held on ADB file
  • Stone, John. ‘Economic INSANITY.’ Australian Financial Review, 23 October 2014, 56
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Australia’s Voice at the UN and a Powerful, Reformist Public Servant.’ 4 November 1994, 2
  • Walter, James. The Minister’s Minders: Personal Advisors in National Government. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1986 Whitlam, Gough. Abiding Interests. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1997

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chad Mitcham, 'Wilenski, Peter Stephen (1939–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Peter Wilenski, by Heide Smith, 1982

Peter Wilenski, by Heide Smith, 1982

National Library of Australia, 14514430

Life Summary [details]


10 May, 1939
Lodz, Poland


3 November, 1994 (aged 55)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (lymphoma)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

Key Organisations
Political Activism