Of persons and personalities

I enjoyed working in that office. The staff were obviously selected for their personal and communication skills, apart from necessary skills in analysis and report-writing. The members of the Board were generally courteous and competent, even though the odd senior public service appointee could be preoccupied with his relative status.

… Of all the members of the Board I had worked with, one was a particularly charming man. He was often seen dining or even travelling with attractive, polished ladies, all of whom seemed to be his nieces. He had a lot of them. He had no airs and was always willing to ask for explanations.

One day, he claimed to have difficulty with the idea of the high cost of final products resulting from the tariff applicable to the materials in the intermediate chain of production. I offered a reasonable analogy of the process whereby DDT accumulated in meat. “Aha!” he said, “I now understand!” He represented the rural sector.

Unfortunately the humourless chairman of that enquiry apparently felt that my ‘bizarre’ sense of humour would one day get me into trouble – but he was a stuffed suit. “No bird soars too high if it soars with its own wings.”

During the six happy years I spent in that office, I was promoted twice, rising to be the first operational team leader, or sectional head. On each occasion, the question was raised: how would the Aussie staff accept me? However, did anyone ask how I would manage a team of Aussies? Apparently there was no doubt about that. I had learned to call a spade a spade and, occasionally, a bloody shovel or, for that matter, a f***ing shovel. That is, I spoke the language of the masses and had the approach of an Aussie manager to staff. I also worked ridiculous hours, rewrote pages of our reports, and took full responsibility for anything I put up the line, i.e. I gave my team total protection and loyalty.

My colleagues were a mixture of Masons, Catholics, golfers, other Christians and “calathumpians” (a term used by my mother-in-law to refer to religious people with no readily identifiable label). The Masons complained that they had to be twice as good as the others, as the CEO (another Mason) leant over backwards to prove that he did not favour the Masons. The Catholics were never heard to complain. The golfers, being a species apart, were happy to be promoted when opportunities arose, as long as they were free to stop and tell anyone who was not smart enough to avoid them, about their weekend golf – hole by hole, stroke by stroke.

The other Christians and calathumpians were normal people with no special distinguishing features. Irrespective of faith, affiliations, or interest, we all drank together every Friday evening. The only risk was that a third-generation Irish-Aussie would bring out his ancestral accent by seven o’clock in the evening and, on Monday morning, would want to tell you the joke that you had told him on Friday – with one variation; he told you the punch line first. It was a cohesive office.

Relating to industry was interesting. I found co-operation and courtesy at every level. … One company came for increased protection for almost every product; yet the company as a whole usually made a great profit. The difficulty for us was that the piecemeal approach to a company’s tariff needs did not enable the agency to examine the company as a whole.

In my last year in that agency, I let an accountant loose on that company (when many of its products came under examination). He came to the conclusion that the company had a profit centre from which all supplies, including furniture, needed anywhere in the company’s operations, were marked-up heavily before being sent out to operational centres. How clever and how profitable.

… However, by the end of my term in the agency, there had been another sea-change. The office began to recommend reduced effective protection to inspire increased competitiveness in global markets. When this began to happen, the industry department’s social club threw out those of us who worked for the agency (although we still worked for the same Minister). We were the free traders, and thus operating against the received wisdom of government. So we formed our own social club, which I led for a year.

I then left, looking for different work. Strangely enough, many of the economics-oriented people also left at about the same time.

(The above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ suggest how, in the 1960s, the Australian government protected an inefficient manufacturing sector dominated by foreign enterprises. These were allowed to produce only for the local market; the car industry today – with 3 remaining manufacturers – is an excellent example.

The enabled high-consumption nation is increasingly dependent upon service industries. It seems that we do not want to learn from dynamic nations such as Singapore in preparing for a competitive long-term future, which includes manufacturing.)