Jobs 3

Public Servant

At the time I finished my Arts degree, taking the public service examination was one of those things you did.  Unless you were set on further study (apart from the Dip Ed or, for combined law students, the balance of the law degree, a rarity) there wasn’t really much else.  I sat the graduate entry exam, which the Commonwealth Public Service used to determine (along with other factors) its annual graduate intake of Assistant Research Officers (AROs).

I almost didn’t join up.  Two things clinched it: the determination of the relevant department in the face of my non-commital non-communicativeness (they even sent a telegram), and, more determinatively, the beginnings of a relationship with a friend who had accepted a post-grad scholarship at the Research School for the Social Sciences (RSSS) at the ANU.

I joined the decidedly unglamorous Department of Administrative Services.  This was a grab-bag of support functions brought together under the Secretary, Sir Peter Lawler.  The minister was Kevin Newman.  Later, the department split and I went into the Department of Special Minister of State, which constituted the more “white-collar” portions of the previous DAS.  Under the Labor Government, our minister was Mick Young and then, I think, Kim Beazley.

We AROs were treated quite well in many ways: there was quite a big effort made to provide us training, and we got up close to some quite interesting people.  We had monthly courses at a residential college at ANU, run by an ex-Jesuit, Michael Breen.  He was always trying to get us to do touchy-feely training things, and we were always giving him a hard time.  We were placed on “rotation” in various parts of the department.  Apparently, the securing of AROs was a matter of some status competition between the different divisions.  However, as with so many temporary training positions of this sort, the problem was that there was often not any real work available for us – often we were fobbed off with vanity projects and make-work of one sort or another.

There are others who read this blog who could give a more detailed account of being a public servant than I could.  It’s not a rare occupation, but it is difficult to sum up the elements of the mindset (which, in any event, is not homogenous).  A good starting point is probably Yes Minister, which started during the time I was in Canberra and was very popular.  Three little vignettes which come to mind, and which may represent an era now past are:

  • Tea ladies (though I don’t think they were in every division);
  • in the morning, a good half hour could be taken up by experienced staff members with a few cigarettes and the newspaper;
  • in the Protective Services Co-ordination Centre, my supervisor was a Cambridge graduate who had been shunted aside for some undisclosed misdemeanour in the past.  Everything was very genteel – it was “Mr [Marcellous] pls [do whatever].”  He was on the circulation list for the airmail editions of The Times and I borrowed his copies.  At meetings, attended by ASIO representatives (for some reason, always staunchly Presbyterian) another colleague would draw the curtains across the windows, in case some undisclosed hostile agent was checking the attendance or lip-reading with binoculars.

A year after I went to Canberra, my friend U also joined the same department.  She told me that the moment which gave her the most sinking feeling was the statement (I think in relation to Superannuation) that “normal retirement age is 65.”  Needless to say, neither of us lasted the distance.  Sydney people were the least likely to do so, because it was always too easy to head back up the road to Sydney for the weekend, which worked against settling down in Canberra.

As this suggests, much about my experience in the public service overlaps with my experience of living in Canberra, which I will probably say something about on another occasion.  Having only just moved out of home into the exciting (to me) inner city the year before, I don’t think I was ready to give up such excitement for the different pleasures of Canberra life.  After 2 years in Canberra, I took a scholarship back in Sydney.

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