The Most Covertly Powerful Person in Australia – Peter Shergold, Australia’s “Sir Humphrey”

It is not difficult to know where to start when talking about the significant achievements in the career of Professor Peter Shergold, who graduated from Hull in 1968 with a First Class BA (Hons) American Studies and Political Studies joint degree. As Australia’s most senior public servant he was, in the words of the Australian Financial Review, one of the country’s most covertly powerful people. His own, slightly depreciative version, is perhaps more illustrative: he was an equivalent of Sir Humphrey from ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. It is, however, difficult to know where or how to end the list of achievements, given that he has accomplished so much in the public arena, as an academic and, currently, in his portfolio career on the board of private, community and academic sector organisations.

“My life has been moulded by serendipity, happenstance and unexpected opportunities,” he says, when asked about the first chapter in his academic career which took him from Hull to the University of Illinois in Chicago, to the London School of Economics and then on to become a lecturer in Economics at the University of New South Wales.

It was perhaps one of those moments of happenstance that first brought him to Hull, where he arrived in 1965.

“My school library had just taken possession of a new book by Geoffrey Moore on American Literature. Browsing through it I first read the poetry of E. E. Cummings. Suddenly Bob Dylan wasn’t the only poet in my life. Moore, I noticed from his introduction, was a Professor at Hull. You can imagine my surprise when I found I could study something called ‘American Studies’ and combine it with Politics. I had no idea such innovative choices existed.

“Travelling to Hull was for me a big adventure. My time at University was fun. I briefly became the very untalented lead singer of a pop group formed by a group of students at Ferens Hall. We called ourselves the Yupes and played the Tiger at Cottingham and at the zenith of our brief success, the Skyline Ballroom above the Co-op (which also hosted Jimmy Hendrix, the Moody Blues and the other rather more famous bands of the late 1960s).

“I met my wife Carol at Hull University in 1966. She was studying French. We lived together with another student, Annette, with whom we’re still good friends, in the long-faded elegance of one of the grand Victorian mansions on Salisbury street. In those distant days the University acted ‘in loco parentis’ of its students. Carol and I had to keep this living arrangement discreetly hidden from the University authorities.”

Academically Professor Shergold became captivated by American History and was inspired to pursue his interest in the immigrant experience by two teachers, Fred H Matthews and Philip Taylor.

“It was because of them that I decided to head off to the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1968, arriving just in time for the fiery Democratic Convention and the Yippies’ ‘Festival of Life’ in Lincoln Park. It was a heady introduction to the USA.”

Pursuing his PhD at the London School of Economics, another moment of serendipity and unexpected opportunity lead him to move to Australia where he has lived ever since, and where he has made his most significant achievements.

“Whilst writing my doctoral thesis at LSE my supervisor, Charlotte Erickson, told me that an ex-colleague of hers was now a Professor of Economic History at the University of New South Wales and on the lookout for a ‘bright young thing’. Generously she put me forward as fitting the bill. Unexpectedly – given that I’d had no interview – I received a telegram offering me a job for 3 years, return economy-class airfare included. I’ve never left, and was pretty confident I wouldn’t after the first 48 hours in Sydney.

“After 16 years as an academic I received a similarly unexpected approach to join the Australian Public Service to establish an Office of Multicultural Affairs. It was a result of my academic research leading me to become heavily engaged with Australia’s wonderful diversity of ethnic groups. I was appointed initially for 2 years and stayed for 2 decades.”

After three years in his initial role, Peter went on to head several different commissions before serving his final years as Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The idea of being a civil servant might have seemed to be “worthy but dull”, but Peter quickly discovered that it really wasn’t.

“In public administration I found I was actually pretty good at getting other people to get things done. I discovered that public service was a vocation. I enjoyed the opportunity to influence public policy and to make sure it was delivered. Helping to design and deliver government policy, for all its inevitable frustrations, is worthwhile and often (please believe me) exciting. It’s also vital to our futures. I despair at the declining trust in politicians and waning commitment to democratic governance. Good public servants can play a key role in driving reform. They can analyse problems, imagine solutions, listen empathically, speak persuasively, manage risks and increase a sense of participatory citizenship.”

Even after a long passage of time, the influences from his student life in Hull continued to be important to him.

“I was persuaded by my politics lecturer, Bhikhu Parekh, of the value of public policy. Many of his views found expression in the National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia which I drafted, and which gained bipartisan political support in 1989. Of course I never imagined in the late 1960s that the young Bombay lecturer who would take an interest in my adolescent thoughts on politics would go on to become Baron Parekh of Kingston upon Hull!”

Having retired from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter is still busy imagining solutions, influencing and persuading and continuing to have a positive impact on people’s lives by remaining active in public life. He has created a portfolio career on the board of private, community and academic sector organisations and has taken on a role as Co-ordinator General of Refugee Resettlement.

“My goal is to ensure settlement services are delivered as well as possible to the increased number of people now being accepted into Australia on humanitarian visas. My focus is on tapping the work ethos and entrepreneurial spirit that so many refugee families bring.”

In addition, he has returned to academic life as Chancellor of Western Sydney University.

“[It’s] an institution which is providing learning opportunities for students who, a generation ago, could not have aspired to University. A quarter of our undergraduates come from disadvantaged families, a third of our domestic students speak a language other than English when they go home at night and almost three-quarters are the first in family to attend university. Universities are crucial to maintaining equal opportunity and social mobility. I learned from Hull just how a university can open up a world of possibilities. That ethos continues to motivate and inspire me.”

Peter and his wife returned to Hull in 2014 to find memories in a city that was at once familiar and different.

“The city had changed so much, but less so University precinct and the halls of residence. We were surprised but pleased to see the status now accorded Phillip Larkin : the University’s poet-librarian had lived up to his fearsome reputation in 1965 when he responded to my request to write an introduction to a poetry magazine which I edited with a succinct but unambiguous ‘fxxx off’.

“The visit brought back many fond memories (not least when we helped ourselves to a generous portion of bread-and-butter pudding with custard in the University cafeteria). We also remembered the biting wind. Perhaps the bigger surprise was realising how far we had walked to and from university as students, generally eschewing unnecessary outlays on bus fares. The past, as L.P. Hartley wrote, is a foreign country: they did things differently there!”

Interview with David Simpson, Alumni Engagement Manager

One thought on “The Most Covertly Powerful Person in Australia – Peter Shergold, Australia’s “Sir Humphrey”

  1. An excellent piece and brought back many memories for me. I was in the same seminar group as Peter (was it in Ferens Avenue?) Very impressed with the journey taken by Peter. Probably a better bet than pursuing a career as a pop star!


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