With no graduate career prospects in the private sector, I had no alternative but to accept a job in Canberra (the national capital). The job offer was well packaged. I was to work in the Statisticians’ Branch of the Treasury, and I was to reside in Reid House, which I visualised as a red-brick guest house. I arrived to find myself working for the Bureau of Statistics and living in a retired army camp.
My room was a poky eight foot by ten cubicle in a hut, the whole establishment of huts being set in a dry, sandy environment with no grass and a few distant trees. The food was, predictably, the boiled and par-boiled kind, with the once-a-week steak apparently coming from the soles of old army boots. I felt that it was very much like being offered a job in the home science division of a major boutique and finding oneself in the cookhouse of an army camp, with bed and board in commensurate quarters.
On the first day, I found that I was a Base Grade Clerk – there was no one at a lower level. Above me were many employees without any qualifications, only some clerical experience. My previous work experience seemed irrelevant.
My incredibly boring job covered extracting and adding up figures, using the copying machine, and running errands. Within two weeks, I showed that the office had made an error the previous year in its published balance of payments statistics. No one wanted to accept that. However, that established that I was a statistician.
I was transferred to another area where I helped to create (just like cooking) balance of payment figures for publication. It was not cooking like the way one cooks the results of chemistry experiments, working backwards from the expected results. Balance of payment figures were a compilation of detailed statistical measures as well as estimates. It is in the latter that the art came in, as well as the judgement. We merely produced the estimates. We let the Treasury handle the political interpretation and presentation of our figures.
I did everything I could to get excited about everything I did (boredom was killing). I apparently became valued, and stayed there nearly five years, receiving four promotions in all. Each promotion also reflected some other agency wanting me, e.g. the Prime Minister’s department wanted me because I was well read on the developing European Economic Community (EEC). I did this while I cut out bits and pieces from economic newspapers; I read as I cut. I quite enjoyed meeting deadlines and the networking required to obtain the raw material for our “cooking”.
I was able to enjoy my work because I was working with civilised people. … Yet, at no stage did I feel that anyone was sensitive about my colour, my apparent accent, my ethnicity or my country of origin. There were many European migrants in the agency; all were promoted, it seemed to me, according to relative merit. One could not be fairer. As the secretary of the department’s social club for two years, I came to know many of those of migrant origin; there were the usual gripes, but no evidence of denial of equal opportunity.
Another contributing factor was that my chiefs were not that much older than I was. By treating them as my social and intellectual equals, I found myself debating with them all manner of topics without being made aware of my lowly status; and drinking at the preferred watering hole with very senior officers from the three agencies located in that block. Occasionally, I met some very interesting men at the watering hole (there were not women yet) from other agencies.
One day I overheard an extended argument about intelligence tests between my branch head and his deputy. The latter had been in the air force during the war and he had been exposed to IQ tests. The chief’s background was unknown to me, but we knew him to be a brilliant man. After a while, the base grade clerk started to twitch; how could these two rave on the way they did? Without thinking, I suddenly said, “Bull” to something they were apparently agreed upon.
Whereupon the chief said, “What would you know about a subject like that?” I realised then that he had assumed that, like most economics graduates, I knew nothing else. When I explained why they were both on the wrong track, the discussion suddenly ended. I was not to know until later that my boss was married to a child psychologist.
(These extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ show that, by just being myself, I could make progress in my work. That is, I acquired more knowledge and skills than necessary for each job, and displayed my normal reliability – all without any display of ego – and confidence. I had survived this far, and I would keep on trekking!
It was with some amusement that I discovered a little later that my conversations in those early years had contained a lot of social science concepts and jargon. I had no idea.)