An Australian of the wider world

Peter King: 1936-2016
Jake Lynch

The middle decades of the 20th Century saw the emergence of a distinctive modern, Australian intellectual consciousness. The best and most important strand of this consciousness was internationalist in its orientation and approach, and dedicated to making world affairs intelligible to an increasingly well-educated general public.

Standing in a distinguished line that connects the diplomacy of HV ‘Doc’ Evatt, who helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the art criticism of Robert Hughes, and the journalism of John Pilger, Professor Peter King, of the Department of Government at the University of Sydney, who has died after a short illness, embodied the scholarly dimension of this Australian brand of engaged public intellectuality.

Indeed, Peter King blazed a trail by securing what was then a rare and prestigious university post without the standard qualification possessed by most of his peers, of at least one degree from an overseas – usually British or American – seat of learning. He earned his Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Political Science from Melbourne, where he forged a reputation as a Renaissance man. As admired for his prowess in the Athletics team (as a sprinter) as for his eloquence in debate, King became President of the Student Representative Council.

Later, equipped with a PhD in International Relations from the Australian National University, King arrived in Sydney. It was 1965, and the government of Robert Menzies was coming under pressure from sections of domestic opinion – the churches, as well as the Labor Opposition – to back a negotiated settlement to the growing crisis in Vietnam. In the event, Menzies’ devious commitment of Australian troops to join the intensifying US-led war effort, in support of the doomed government in Saigon, handed the Left a grievance and a cause that radicalised campuses across the country and galvanised the peace movement throughout that decade and beyond.

It was at this point that Peter King came into his own. “Reading maketh a full man”, the Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon famously remarked; “conference a ready man; and writing an exact man”. Embodying all three scholarly virtues, King emerged as a leading radical voice. Students of the time remember a “jaunty” figure, who attended anti-war demos in a proletarian cap – worn at a rakish angle atop his trademark dapper linen ensemble – and was not above the occasional trompe-l’oeil at the outset of a lecture, to grab their attention.

At one, on nuclear proliferation, he walked in, wrote Einstein’s formula, E = mc 2 on the board; asked for any questions and then, faced with bewildered silence, made as if to walk straight back out… before being called back, as it were, by acclaim. King’s influence spread through appreciation for his dry humour, his kindness and generosity to doctoral students as well as his erudition on this and other topical issues of the day. Among those who jostled for elbow room at his Politics classes were many who went on to become luminaries of public life, including Meredith Burgmann, former President of the Legislative Council of New South Wales, who has recalled being “radicalised” by him.

It helped, of course, that King wrote not merely with scholarly exactitude, but with a gift for pithy summary and subtle sense of irony that make his expertise an agreeable companion for the reader. Following Indonesian independence in 1949, the former Dutch colonialists, he notes wryly, “set about achieving the human and administrative development in Papua that had barely interested them when their colonial rule was unchallenged”, even recognising the symbols of Papuan independence. “Vain promise and hope!”, King continues. “The United States had by now decided that there was less political risk in supporting [Indonesian president] Sukarno’s Irian campaign than in trying to frustrate it”.  

The words are from his 2004 classic, West Papua & Indonesia Since Suharto: Independence, Autonomy Or Chaos?, and reflect one of the chief preoccupations of Peter King’s intellectual maturity. He spent three formative years of the early 1980s as Professor of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Papua New Guinea, on secondment from his Sydney post. As the book explains, the Papuan conflict was one in which competing claims for self-determination became wrapped around Cold War machinations and rivalries, with Australia, through its diplomacy at least, deeply complicit. There was a pressing need for the Australian scholarly, political and general community to develop a much clearer understanding of the issues in Papua; of our part in creating them, and our responsibility to foster progress towards a just peace.

On his return from Port Moresby, King found what would turn out to be the ideal vehicle for a sustained intellectual and political engagement with the Papua question: Sydney University’s then nascent Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), of which he became first President, then Director, combining the role with his duties as a Senior Lecturer in Government.

A short spell overseas followed, as Professor of Australian Studies at the University of Tokyo. Peter King then came home to Australia to take up his final full-time post before retirement, as Professor of Politics at the University of Wollongong, before launching CPACS’ West Papua Project, in 1999. It opened a rich seam. For every PhD thesis supervised, there was a hard-hitting public report, none more so than the widely publicised pamphlet, jointly authored with John Wing, which raised the question: did Indonesia’s treatment of the West Papuan people amount to Genocide? The WPP’s impact on the profile of the issue can be felt in its current prominence in regional diplomatic fora such as the Melanesian Spearhead Group. Moreover, its work inspired the occasional, but persistent thread of Australian journalism on the subject – ensuring that King’s passing was marked by generous tributes from members of the Papuan émigré community. 

Later, King returned to his interest in nuclear disarmament: like Papua, a question on which there is a distinctive Australian and regional perspective, following the WWII atomic bombing of Japan, and decades of Pacific nuclear testing. Reviving the moral thrust of the 1990s Canberra Commission, which put forward a plan for all the world’s nuclear weapons to be dismantled, King joined with others including the veteran campaigner John Hallam to launch a Human Survival Project at CPACS. Its latest eyecatching public initiative, a people’s tribunal in which the leaders of nuclear-armed states were put ‘on trial’, attracted international attention and participation, and dominated what turned out to be the final weeks of Peter’s life.

Michael Kirby, the former High Court judge who was president of the University of Sydney Union when King joined the Department of Government, paid tribute. King, he said, “never gave up the effort to open the eyes of today’s generation to the fearsome dangers of nuclear proliferation... All of us should take inspiration from his efforts… This will be his legacy”.

Peter King is survived by two sons, Daniel and Nick, from his first marriage to Inese, as well as his second wife, Xue, and their daughter Madeleine. The family has requested donations to be sent, in his memory, to benefit the West Papua Project or the Human Survival Project of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

Associate Professor Jake Lynch, BA, Dip Journalism Studies, PhD Chair, Department of Peace and Conflict Studies Executive Member, Sydney Peace Foundation. The Sydney Peace Prize Winner 2016 is Naomi Klein: You can but tickets at link here.


Suggested citation
Lynch, Jake, 'An Australian of the wider world', Evatt Journal, Vol. 15, No. 5, August 2016.<>