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Paul Barratt AO

By Dr Alison Broinowski AM

With the death of Paul Hunter Barratt in Armidale on 3 October, Australia lost one of the last of his kind: a man whose selfless dedication to public service and rational, progressive governance is becoming all too rare in our nation’s bureaucracies.

Coming from a rural background and educated at The Armidale School, Paul Barratt earned an honours degree in physics from The University of New England where both his parents, Shirley Egan and Paul Eric Hunter Barratt, worked in psychology. Paul’s father had been UNE’s first student, with ID 001, and became its third Professor of Psychology.

Education remained central in Paul’s life, too: he later supported his old school as a member of its governing company and served as a Director of the UNE Foundation for 13 years, including four as its Chair. Paul received a Distinguished Alumni Award from UNE in 1997, became an Adjunct Professor in 2015, and followed that in 2019 with an honorary Doctor of Letters.

After graduation in 1966, Paul and a friend drove a truck to Canberra, and he decided to stay. This led to Paul joining the Joint Investigation Bureau in the Defence Department. Even in those early days, Paul gained a reputation for being able to pick up and handle whatever task government set for him, progressing from Defence to Primary Industry, and Treasury. During the minerals boom he held senior positions in the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Trade, and later DFAT. He advised successive governments on uranium mining, the Multifunction Polis, the bridge Australia built over the Mekong River, international trade negotiations, and much else. In 1998-99, as Secretary of the Defence Department, his intelligence, Canberra observers realised, was more than a match for his Minister’s.

In what was possibly the first politically motivated sacking of a department secretary, Paul was dismissed 18 months into his five-year contract by then Defence Minister John Moore, who said he “had lost trust and confidence” in Paul’s abilities to perform his duties.

As political reporter Katharine Murphy later wrote about the affair: “Barratt was sacked … because he and the then defence minister did not get along.”

Paul took legal action but his appeal was dismissed by the Full Bench of the Federal Court. He later told ABC Radio’s PM program that it was a “complete derogation of any sensible principle of public administration … that one of the most senior officers in the service of the Commonwealth can be removed from office simply on the basis of the Minister reciting a formula to the effect that ‘I have no confidence in the Secretary’.”

Having taken a degree in Asian Studies at the ANU in the 1970s, Paul went on to a stellar career in business, consulting and research after his departure from Defence, always with the aim of improving Australian society and expanding Australia’s role in the world. He spent four years as CEO of the Business Council of Australia.

For his service to public administration, public policy development, business and international trade, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1999.

Australia21, the ‘think tank for the public good’, of which Paul was a co-founder in 2001 and chairman from 2011 to the end of his life, produced a series of reports from evidence-based research on a broad range of “wicked” public policy problems, including climate change, ecosystem services, drug policy, refugee policy, wealth inequality and post-traumatic stress, to all of which Paul was a key contributor.   

Paul found new intellectual and cultural interests – summer courses in Cambridge, Sibelius festivals in Finland, and sponsoring the Howard Hinton collection of Australian art from the 1880s-1940s at the New England Regional Art Museum. He also remained an active member at Rotary Armidale.

As well, he found time to present seminars at UNE on Australia’s defence policy, the corrosion of public service integrity, post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders, and the strategic implications of COVID-19 for Australia. With the arrival of Ezidi (Yazidi) refugees in Armidale, he initiated a Regional Employment Agriculture Project to help train them, and made representations about the program to the Federal Government. These efforts were honoured with the gift of a replica of the Collins Class submarine build of which he and his friend and colleague Admiral Chris Barrie oversaw when Paul was Secretary of Defence.

Another project, which Paul co-founded in 2012, was the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry, which led in 2015 to Australians for War Powers Reform, and later its campaign, No War Without Parliament. Having served governments of both persuasions, Paul pressed many politicians to recognise that the gravest decision a government can make is sending forces into armed conflict. He persuaded many parliamentarians and citizens that reform of the war powers is urgently needed, as AWPR continues to advise. Recent polling of Australians shows that 83 per cent in 2020 and 87 per cent in 2021 agree.

A habitué of social media, Paul was also a great communicator. Who else could dismiss all four of the usual objections to War Powers Reform and have audiences laughing? In a speech on 6 March 2003, launching The Real Face of War, Paul quoted Les Murray: ‘The blow struck now will be weaker than the blow not struck’. That made people think.

An accomplished raconteur with a prodigious memory, Paul recalled being asked for advice by Doug Anthony on a difficult issue. Anthony told Paul, ‘Your job is to get the policy right, then mine is to work out how best to explain it and sell it.’ Those days, John Hewson later lamented, are long gone, adding that the policy wisdom and experience of a Paul Barratt will be sorely missed.

Another colleague who admired Paul’s service to Australia was Lieutenant General Peter Leahy. ‘You were short-changed as Secretary of Defence’, he wrote to Paul, ‘where many of us held real hope that your skills and knowledge as a Public Servant of integrity and vast experience would make a real difference.’

Following Paul’s surgery for a brain tumour in April, many other former colleagues wrote to him. Dr Richard Hodge recalled from their days at Defence, ‘You lit a fire in me…When we lost you from Defence, we lost the keystone for change. If the government had been even half as courageous as you, Defence would have been in a much better place. A case where too much money spoiled the integrity of decision making. Paul, you have continued to drive for systemic change in this nation.’

Paul was described by another former DFAT colleague, Scott Burchill, as ‘a pillar of common-sense and human decency.’ Broadcaster Julie Macken said, ‘Sometimes in our pandemic saturated lives, we miss important developments in the world around us. One such event was the departure of the co-founder and president of Australians for War Powers Reform, Paul Barratt. His capacity to combine determination with patience, conviction with tolerance, and achievement with humanity will be sorely missed in our leadership circles.’

In an extraordinary coincidence, both Paul and Sir John Chilcot died on 3 October. It was Chilcot’s report on the Iraq War which inspired Paul and his colleagues to call for a similar investigation in Australia.

Paul is survived by his family, Tom, Anna, Pauline, and Oscar, and dearest friend Angel.

Additional Tributes 

Losing Paul Barratt 

With a razor-sharp mind, Paul Barratt was dedicated to progressive governance

Former public servant and Australia21 Chair Paul Barratt dies age 77

In memory of Paul Barratt 

Paul Barratt Speaking Highlights video

When Paul stepped down as President from AWPR due to illness we received many heartwarming messages from the public they can be read here

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