Public servant stood tall among greats

PETER ERNEST FREDERICK KIRBY, AO PUBLIC ADMINISTRATOR 2-6-1939 - 14-3-2012

PETER ERNEST FREDERICK KIRBY, AO

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATOR

2-6-1939 - 14-3-2012

By PETER HARMSWORTH

and ZANA SMITH

PETER Kirby, a giant of the public service who was recognised as a major policy reformer at both federal and state levels, has died of cancer in hospital in Mornington. He was 72.

Kirby's record of achievement in public administration set him apart, as did his humility, grace, charm and dignity.

The eldest of six siblings, Kirby was born at Reading in Berkshire, and moved to Australia with his wife, Sheila, and young family in 1972 on a two-year exchange posting between the British Civil Service and Australian Public Service. At the end of that period, he took up the post of first assistant secretary in the Department of Employment and Industrial Relations in Canberra and soon established an outstanding reputation in labour market reform, education and training.

In 1984, his impressive record led to his appointment as chairman of a committee of inquiry into labour market programs. The committee's report highlighted the importance of training for people on the dole and promoted the notion of traineeships for young people seeking work. It is still a milestone document in labour market and industry training policy.

In 1985, Kirby was appointed to the Victorian government's ministerial review of post-compulsory schooling, and in the same year was appointed to the federal committee reviewing the quality of education. The federal findings, known as the Karmel Report, broke new ground, proposing strategies to raise Australian standards of communication, literacy and numeracy, and to improve links between secondary schooling and later employment and education.

After a period as director-general of Employment and TAFE in South Australia, Kirby accepted an offer from Victorian premier Joan Kirner in 1991 to become secretary of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, at a time when the economic situation in Victoria was deteriorating rapidly. Following a change of government in 1992, premier Jeff Kennett offered Kirby his choice as secretary of one of the new mega-departments. He chose the Department of Education, which combined schools, TAFE, adult and further education as well as higher education in a $4 billion portfolio.

Working with the director of schools and the director of training and further education, Kirby oversaw some of the most significant changes in Victoria's education and training history.

In schools, new curriculum frameworks were developed, greater responsibility was vested in "Schools of the Future", and new accountability processes were established, all during a period of substantial budgetary restraint. TAFE institutes were given a high level of independence and more than 800 private TAFE providers were registered with the department to provide depth to a competitive training market.

In 1994, Kirby became president of the Institute of Public Administration Australia in Victoria, and led a renaissance of interest in public administration and involvement by public servants at the institute. He laid the foundations for the division's continuing success.

Kirby retired from the public service in 1996, but it was retirement in name only. Premier Kennett invited him to chair the Suicide Prevention Task Force, and its report established the scope and breadth of suicide in the Victorian community and formulated an integrated strategic framework around the key areas of primary prevention, early intervention, intervention and post-intervention.

Further reviews and appointments followed. Two were particularly influential. The ministerial review of post-compulsory education and training pathways in Victoria focused on ensuring better education, training and transition outcomes for young people as well as achieving a better prepared workforce. This was followed by the independent investigation into the operations of Victoria's private prisons. The report made sweeping recommendations designed to improve the management and operation of the state's prisons.

Kirby's contribution to public administration in general, and the education sector in particular, was recognised through many awards including: TAFE Gold Medal (1991) fellowship of the Australian College of Education Sir James Darling Medal (1997) national fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (1998) and Officer in the Order of Australia (2004).

Governments of all political persuasions over a 30-year period recognised Kirby as a leading figure at the forefront of public administration. Many thousands of young people have benefited from the reforms he introduced in education and training.

His record allows him to stand among the giants of public administration since federation.

Kirby is survived by his wife, Sheila, sons Simon and Timothy, grandchildren Sam, Jamie, Jake, Jessica and Lachlan, and his siblings, Barry, Roger, Rosemary, Philip and Andrew.

Bill Griffiths contributed to this tribute.

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