Loyal public servant to 7 prime ministers rides into the sunset

They just don't make careers like this anymore.

Peter Bailey worked closely with seven prime ministers, broke the news of Harold Holt's disappearance to Holt's wife, and helped found the Human Rights Commission.

Billy McMahon threw a glass of wine at him, Bailey and Gough Whitlam developed their own code for sizing up Canberra public servants and he swapped observations on politics and life with Malcolm Fraser over a shared back fence. 

After a 40-year public service career like that, some people might call it a day, but then, in 1987, Professor Peter Bailey, AM OBE embarked on his second career, at the Australian National University, as one of the nation's foremost human rights academics.

But after a career spanning seven decades, Professor Bailey, aged 89, is definitely calling it quits on his remarkable working life, riding into the sunset on his gleaming red Vespa. 

When Harold Holt disappeared into the surf off Victoria's Cheviot beach in December 1967 it fell to Peter Bailey, his loyal public servant, to break the news to the Prime Minister's wife.


"Holt's press officer Tony Eggleton rang me and we agreed I should be the one to tell Holt's wife Zara that the Prime Minister was missing, while he arranged for a VIP plane to Melbourne" Professor Bailey recalls.

"Zara asked me if Holt had been wearing his sandshoes and when I said 'yes' I remember she said with horror: 'Oh, he's gone'.

"I never dared to ask her why she thought that, but that's what she said."

But, Professor Bailey says, there was no question of Holt being depressed before he disappeared, in fact he was feeling chipper when he began his fateful holiday after prevailing in a blazing row with Nationals leader 'Black' Jack McEwen just before he left Canberra.

"I think he was a good Prime Minister and he would have been a better one if he'd had a few more years," Professor Bailey said.

But Professor Bailey said the best he saw was Sir Robert Menzies.

"You had three minutes to talk to him and that was it," Mr Bailey said.

"If he nodded, then you would just leave, but if he was interested, he'd start asking questions, get involved, pull out a cigar, ask some more question and when he was done, he'd nod and you'd just depart.

"He was the most careful listener and the most effective of the prime ministers I saw."

Under Malcolm Fraser, who was "really quite a socially conscious chap", Professor Bailey was given the job of setting up the Australian Human Rights Commission and served as the commission's chief executive for five years.

He is appalled by the attacks on the commission in recent years by Coalition politicians and the right-wing media.

"I'm really angry ... It's just monstrous," Professor Bailey says.

At his going-away event at ANU, the Dean of the uni's College of Law, Stephen Bottomley, praised Professor Bailey's 30-year effort at the institution.

"Peter is one of Australia's foremost thinkers and contributors in the law on human rights," Professor Bottomley said.

But now with 12 grandchildren, two great grandchildren and another on on the way, Professor Bailey is retiring again and this time he means it.

"70 years of work is probably enough," he said.


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