There seemed no way out of the impasse – until he had one of those lightbulb moments, rushed into Chief Minister Paul Henderson’s office and proclaimed: “Let’s call Tyrrell.”
Paul Tyrrell, who had been head of the Territory’s public service for a decade, was hauled out of retirement to achieve something that would mean so much to cancer sufferers in Northern Australia.
Within weeks, the deal was signed, sealed and delivered – and the Alan Walker Cancer Care Centre was on the way.
Paul, a quietly-spoken but tough former engineer, has done more to advance the Territory’s economy than anyone in history.
Public servants even coined a word in his honour: tyrrellise – to get things done, even if meant treading on toes and moving less-effective bureaucrats aside.
As one former politician says: “He didn’t suffer fools lightly.”
Many observers thought Paul achieved what was beginning to seem impossible by “talking the talk” with old mates in the Federal public service about the $20 million cancer treatment centre.
But he says: “That’s not true. You can never talk the same language as Commonwealth public servants. They’ve always been a challenge.”
Instead, the job was done by taking over the project and developing a unique, cutting edge and effective private-public partnership with a consortium from Royal Adelaide Hospital.
Paul heaps praise on the hospital team for their expertise during the design, development and subsequent operations – and Halikos, the Darwin-based construction company that built the project.
“They were all marvellous,” he says. “The Alan Walker Cancer Treatment Centre has now been operating successfully for 13 years.”
Paul is best known for masterminding the Territory Government’s extraordinary filching of the multi-billion-dollar INPEX gas project from Western Australia, an audacious move condemned as “theft” in the WA Parliament but lauded as a stroke of genius in the Territory.
INPEX employed more than 9000 workers at the peak of construction and even during operation today employs nearly 500 – and supports thousands of other jobs through subcontractors – and pumps $500 million a year into the NT economy.
The project “made” many Territory companies and firmly established Darwin as a world-class LNG hub.
But despite this amazing achievement, Paul gets most satisfaction from his role in getting the cancer treatment centre over the line.
“I’ve been involved in many more complex, more expensive projects, but the deep satisfaction I got from the cancer centre puts it at the top for me,” he says.
“Patients really appreciate that now they don’t have to go to Adelaide and stay in a motel, often on their own, while fighting a life-threatening illness.”
Paul played a pivotal role in nearly every major economic development in the Territory for 29 years as a public servant and many more years as a consultant.
He was heavily involved in the tortuous wheeling and dealing that led to the building of the Alice Springs to Darwin railway, a nation-building project talked about since the early 1900s, and was trackside to see the first train arrive – a few minutes ahead of schedule after a 1500 kilometre journey.
“The train was 100 years late and 20 minutes early.”
Paul drove other significant projects, including the East Arm port development, the Waterfront and Convention Centre Precinct, and the Darwin Marine Supply Base.
But it may be another initiative that will have the most benefit.
His work promoting Darwin as a LNG hub and pushing for downstream manufacturing spawned the Middle Arm Sustainable Development Precinct, which could well become a global producer of green energy products and support thousands of jobs.
Paul served many governments, including the CLP administration of Paul Everingham, when there was a rush to develop the Territory, and that of the NT’s first Labor Chief Minister Clare Martin, who was determined to see the Waterfront built.
He has always graciously acknowledged the good work of others in the Territory’s advance.
For instance, during the celebrations of the Alice Springs-Darwin railways, he said: “It was everyday Territory public servants – through sheer commitment, determination and willingness to solve problems, and by mixing it with the best in Australia and overseas and overcoming the risk-averse nature of some of our colleagues interstate – who realised the dream.”
Paul and his younger sister Julie were born in Forrest (population then 300 but now only 230), 160 kilometres south-west of Melbourne, where his parents, Norm and Betty, were dairy farmers.
He went to the local state primary school and then to Colac High School, 35 kilometres from his home, where he excelled at athletics – at the John Landy Athletics Field, Geelong, he ran the 100 yards in a record 10 seconds flat, only .7 seconds outside the world record at the time – and Australian Rules football.
“I wasn’t a good student. I mucked about a lot. But I passed all the exams by cramming the night before. Of course, I didn’t allow my own kids to do that.
“Life on the farm was tough but I enjoyed my childhood; it passed far too quickly.”
After school, he went to the Gordon Institute of Technology to study civil engineering and then went to work for the Country Roads Board and the New South Wales Department of Main Roads.
He met Kaye, his wife-to-be, at a party and they married in 1968.
The couple lived in Papua New Guinea from 1971-78 – and were there to watch the raising of the bird of paradise flag at independence in Port Moresby.
Paul, who gained a degree in economics by correspondence from Queensland University while living in Port Moresby, enjoyed his government job but was lured away to somewhere almost as unusual as New Guinea by an advert for a chief engineer in Darwin just after Self-Government.
He oversaw many important NT projects, including building Lasseter’s Highway, the Bagot Road overpass and stretches of the Stuart and Barkly highways.
Chief Minister Marshall Perron appointed him chief executive of the Lands Department in 1989 and he was made head of the whole NT public service nine years later by Chief Minister Denis Burke.
He retired in early 2008, only to be retained as a consultant and as chair of the Gas Task Force, Darwin Waterfront Corporation and AustralAsia Railway Corporation.
Paul found time to return to Papua New Guinea to walk the Kokoda Track in 2012 – “an almost spiritual experience”.
It was obviously a time for reflection because he returned to Darwin and resigned from all boards to finally retire and concentrate on family, friends and travel.
“I told myself, rather late in life, that there was more to life than work.”
A few years later, he was back as part of Team NT, which examined economic development opportunities.
He re-established the Gas Task Force, which drew up a five-point plan to grow and diversify the Territory’s gas industry, expanding the existing LNG industry, given the prospects of Beetaloo and the development of the Middle Arm precinct and gas manufacturing.
In early 2020, he really did resign and a short time later moved to Lennox Head in northern New South Wales. Paul says two things shaped him: his father’s attitude to life and having to design and carry out technical studies for a large highway in Papua New Guinea in only four months – and source staff and equipment from four countries. The two are inextricably linked – Paul’s father always said there was a solution to every challenge and the highway job proved him right at an early stage in his career. “Dad used to say that you should draw a picture in your mind of what you wanted to achieve and then work hard to get there.”
Paul says the most important thing in his life has always been his family, although he admits that work stopped him spending as much time with them as he would have liked.
“I pay great tribute to Kaye for doing the lion’s share of raising our kids while also studying to become a teacher.”
The couple have three sons: Christopher, Cameron and Evan, with partners Bec, Sarah and Julia, and six grandchildren.
Paul, who is now 78, is remembered in the Territory as a man who defied all the cliched perceptions of public servants.
“The challenge of getting things done in the public service is to know the rules and know how to bend them without breaking them,” he says.
“Always ask yourself, ‘What would I say to the royal commission’.
“There is flexibility if you know where to look. You’ve got to think creatively.” Paul had a reputation of being a hard taskmaster. He once summoned a group of senior bureaucrats to a Friday lunch.
One said: “I licked my lips at the thought of a juicy steak washed down by a few glasses of good red.”
But when the waiter deferred to the boss and asked “What would you like to drink?”, the public servants were aghast when they heard the reply: “Orange juice.” The other drink orders followed: orange juice, water, ginger ale…
Paul wasn’t in the habit of having booze-ups at taxpayers’ expense. This was a working lunch.
His politics have always been a source of much speculation. Some Labor people say he was the CLP’s man; some CLP people say he was Labor’s man.
But the few who know him well say the truth is much simpler – he’s always been the Territory’s man.