During one university vacation of nearly three months, an Indian student (a close friend) and I were employed by the defence authorities to help process the payment of war gratuities to former defence personnel. We were to transfer personal details and amounts of money due from appropriate pieces of paper to the processing form, to be approved by the audit officers for payment. Week by week, more and more students were employed in this summer vacation job, as it was obvious that this was the way to get the job done quickly. Soon my friend and I were now checking work done by the newer, temporary employees.
It was gratifying for us to be so treated. In reality, we had not expected that, in view of what happened with the office sweep for the Melbourne Cup, which was run shortly after we commenced work. The Cup is a race conducted early in November. It is one of a number of races held that day. It has been described as the longest race held in Australia, with the most able horses so handicapped by weights as to give the least able an even chance. However that may be, when that race is run, Melbourne comes to a halt. In my experience, the public service everywhere else also comes to a halt.
The week we started work with this office, my friend and I were invited to buy tickets in the sweep – which was quite large. We bought three tickets – including one for my friend’s Aussie wife. Guess who walked off with the three prizes! Some of the staff would not talk to us for days. At the end of our period of employment, my friend and I were processing four to five hundred payments per day each.
Looking back, I realise that we must have been ridiculously efficient. I doubt if full-time government servants would ever achieve that level of output. They would be preoccupied with process and not necessarily on outcomes. They had no incentive to increase productivity, whereas my friend and I were bored. Indeed, I learnt many years later how some (backed by their union) worked to a “darg”, i.e. a specified number of tasks per week, a target set by each individual. The managers had no say.
Later … I worked in another office with many part-time students. Most of us worked a full day, as we had to support ourselves. Within a short time, I was made a supervisor. The laziest workers I supervised were two priests, working in-between theology courses. I caught both cheating in the first week; they were reading books hidden under a pile of papers. Some role models they were going to be.
My fellow workers were studying a range of courses – from anthropology to theology; we solved legal problems, analysed theories in psychology, economics and ancient history, for their plausibility and relevance. We talked about the usefulness of the structure and content of medical education.
One of my colleagues, a very loquacious fellow, subsequently became an eminent politician; another, a successful lawyer. I befriended and corresponded with one of the priests for a couple of years. Another worker, a lay preacher and schoolteacher, had trouble with my Hindu philosophy being combined with the need to analyse everything, including his theology.
A student of anthropology and history was learning to be a full-time military officer – he was sufficiently a thug (but an educated one) to succeed in his chosen profession. Another student studied art and philosophy, buying art books each pay-day; we perused these before he could take them home. These fellow workers offered a tremendous insight into the workings of Australian society. After all, this was not the usual workplace.
(These extracts from my first memoir ‘Destiny Will Out’ now remind me of very interesting times – although my personal life was precarious – and of some young men who had great futures to fill. That I was so efficient, and clearly seen as reliable, was a wonderful psychological boost. I may have been sent to Australia not just to lend much-needed colour!)