Power Without Glory
A Reflection of Life in the Victorian Public Service
Paul Barker (bio)
Paul Barker joined the Victorian Public Service (VPS) as an Administrative Officer in 1964, initially being posted to the then Education Department. He subsequently moved, on promotion, to the Department of Labour and Industry in 1969, to the Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation in 1973 and to the Forests Commission in 1982. Along with the Commission’s other staff Paul was transferred to the newly created Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands in late 1983.
In February 2001, in part due to deteriorating health, Paul retired. Four months later however he was re-hired by the Department, through an agency, as a part-time consultant. As his health continued to deteriorate, Paul finally departed the VPS in June 2003, after an almost forty-year career.
The care and management of Victoria’s publicly-owned forest and woodlands would seem primarily a scientific and technical and, at times, an economic undertaking. But organisations obviously involve people, finance and administration more generally. Paul’s story is, in many ways, typical of the hundreds of non-technical staff who made major contributions during the 20th century to advances in the care and management of the State’s ‘wild’ lands.
In the course of his career, Paul developed a knowledge and understanding of Victoria’s bureaucratic heritage and the documents and systems that underpinned its legacy. During the latter decades of his career, and in retirement, Paul has always been ready to assist bureaucrats, students, researchers, NGOs (including, importantly, the FCRPA) and others wanting to draw on this valuable historical resource.
During the post-1985 era in Victoria, when departmental re-organisations became regular events, Paul was also in the frontline when it came to the preservation of the State’s, often threatened, documented history.
As Paul briefly details below, in 2006 he received a belated diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease; which progressed to quadriplegia. Subsequently, Paul has needed ‘24/7’ care and in December 2015 he entered the Olivet Aged Care Home as a permanent resident.
Nonetheless, and thanks to the development of marvellous computer-related technology, Paul has been able to continue being an essential ‘go-to’ specialist for those interested in Victoria’s history.
Below, Paul chronicles his life and times in the VPS, in what he terms ‘the Public Circus’.
…………Editor - May 2019
In early January 1964, I saw a recruiting advertisement for Administrative Officers in the Victorian Public Service. I sat the entrance examination comprising an English test and IQ test at the Exhibition Building, and came 14th out of 400. After being advised to avoid the Lands Department with its antiquated system of paperwork, I started work in the Education Department on the 12th February 1964, in the Secondary Schools Branch.
My duties gave me access to personnel information on all high school teachers and old enemies sounded worried when I had to ring them up. The office was so overcrowded with desks and staff, the only way to keep up to date sometimes was to work overtime three nights a week and all day Saturday. After a while the staff realised that they were so desperately needed, that they demanded to be allowed to drink beer at their desks on Saturday afternoons in summer time, otherwise they would go home. We also played pranks like sending to Rainbow High School, teachers named Mr Green, Mr Black, Mr White, Mr Grey, Mr Bluett and Mr Brown. After two weeks the Principal rang to ask when it was all going to stop.
As I had just failed my Year 12 with an average of 46%, I enrolled to do four subjects at night at University High School, four nights per week, in spite of being advised to only do two at once. As I continued to play sport and chase girls of course, there was little time left for homework after working all day. So I failed again, but this time with an average of 48%.
In the 1960s there were few migrants in the Public Service but racial discrimination and even bullying occurred in my department until two notable events took place. The first was when Dennis Kelaart, a dark Sri Lankan, was appointed leader in the Records Section. After suffering jibes about his colour he finally stood up one day and shouted out to his tormentors, "I was born with the suntan that you Aussies go through agony to get every summer.” There was dead silence and the following week he was invited to play in the department's cricket team and starred. When Malcolm Bulner, another Sri Lankan, joined the department all bullying stopped. He was a friend of the underdog and when bullies learned that Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali) had just managed to beat him on points at the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, before winning the gold medal, everybody respected Malcolm Bulner. Forty years later, when refereeing boxing matches, he was still the ‘best boxer in the ring’.
In 1965 I was transferred to work in the Teachers (personnel) Branch in accordance with departmental policy for staff rotation. I tried to continue my education by enrolling in a Diploma of Public Administration course with RMIT and attended classes two nights per week, and actually passed at the end of the year, despite many arguments with my Economics teacher. In the Teachers Branch, I had the rare experience of working on records in leather bound volumes, various card systems, and even the start of computerised records which stood me in good stead for the rest of my career. The head of the branch was an ex-colonel from the siege of Tobruk and up to 25% of his staff resigned each year due to his tough managerial style.
One day the phone rang in the office and Lesley Rose, a young girl next to me, picked it up and said “yeah, whaddya want?” thinking it was someone in the office nearby. A voice boomed out from the old bakelite phone “this is the Minister speaking” to which she replied “oh yeah, what religion?” ‘Bloomfield, the Minister of Education’, was the booming reply. “Oh shit!” she said as she slammed the phone down and ran out of the room to hide in the ladies toilet for the next half hour. Thirty seconds later, the Minister burst through the door to ask who answered that phone. Everyone denied knowing so the Minister left. That afternoon the Public Works Department chauffeur said his Minister told him about an amusing phone conversation he’d heard about that day.
Throughout 1966 I continued in the Primary Teachers Branch and complained to the Chief Clerk about my meagre wages of £12 10 s (later $25) a week, with my camera often ending up in the pawnshop. He replied that I was not eligible for a Living Away From Home Allowance as I did not come from the country. The junior wage structure assumed that all metropolitan minors were living at home whereas I had left home at 17 so I kept working overtime three nights a week and all day Saturday whenever it became available. During 1966 I left the flat I was sharing upstairs and moved in with three other fellows to Flat 2, downstairs at 12 Scofield Street, Essendon, where I lived for the next three years.
I completed the second year of my Diploma studies, but my appendix burst on 22nd October 1966 so I was unable to sit my exams. New exam papers cost $40 each, which I could not afford. By this time I realised that whilst some of the most inefficient public servants were highly qualified, some of the best had no qualifications at all. I concluded that hard work and honesty would eventually be rewarded with a promotion so I stopped studying.
My duties in the Teachers Branch of the department were becoming more responsible and I relished the power that came with them. My duty at that time was to administer the department’s rent register comprising over 2,000 houses. I soon discovered that some occupants had not paid rent for years. One District Inspector was very upset to have to pay three years back rent, while the Minister's chauffeur had to start paying full rent to the department and not half rent in cash personally to the department's cashier. Another Education Department land deal scandal had been sorted out without media attention.
We also played pranks with the staffing of primary schools and one day we appointed Ruth Easy as a Sewing Mistress to a school whose Head Teacher was named John Randy. Just as we were wondering how the conversation went when they introduced themselves, the phone rang from the Head Teacher pleading for her to be transferred to stop the jokes.
In 1967, as my 21st birthday approached, I reminded my mother that throughout my teenage years she had promised me a 21st birthday party if I kept out of jail before turning 21. She kept her promise and organised a party. Presents of a portable record player and rock and roll LP records proved most useful for years, as I became a regular disc jockey at parties around Melbourne. These parties allowed me to meet many girls who had also left home and lived in flats with their girl friends. During the next week, my friend Bruce and I would be invited to visit these girls and bring along our record collections. Sometimes we were out seven nights a week. If we didn't have a party to go to, we would attend a rock dance. In those days dances were conducted mostly in the big town halls attracting over 1,000 people, with alcohol banned within 100 metres, to minimise trouble.
My second car, costing only $350, was a 1958 Austin Westminster auto 6/105 (GTX-217) that developed 105 brake horsepower. This rare car had a 3 litre, 6 cylinder engine with twin SU carburetors and 16 inch wheels that allowed it to accelerate from 50 to 105 miles an hour and leave most other cars in the 1960s behind. My friend Bruce and I drove the Austin to Sydney one night in 10½ hours, on the old single lane Hume Highway. As we travelled downhill at 110 mph, a semitrailer tailgated us and then passed us, obviously in neutral, as the sign on the back of Eastoe’s refrigerated semitrailer said “Speed limited to 60 miles per hour.”
In 1968 the branch manager, Reg Biggs, ordered all males to wear white shirts every day ‘to look more presentable’ when attending the enquiry counter. Soon after, I arranged for my young colleagues to wear blue shirts on Mondays, green on Tuesdays, pink on Wednesdays, yellow on Thursdays, etc. After two days the boss could see that the staff were organised against him and he was forced to allow all staff to wear coloured shirts and attend to counter enquiries once more. ‘I know you are behind this Barker’ he said, ‘so I’ll be watching you’.
By 1968, Biggs was getting a little frustrated with me as I had not yet resigned like the other staff he had leaned upon. I did not fit in well with him and his deputy Jack Minter and some of the other section heads who were members of the Returned Soldiers League, as I was an outspoken opponent of conscription for the Vietnam war. I boasted that if my birthdate was selected in the ballot then I would go to jail rather than Vietnam. I was an objector on political grounds, not religious grounds, in those days and would not shoot Vietnamese farmers in their own country because, as I saw it, they wanted to remove a Roman Catholic military dictatorship that enforced rent collection for absentee landlords.
One day while discussing my leave credits with the branch manager Biggs, he stood behind his desk and put one foot on top of the old hot water heater in front of the open window three-storeys up. While talking to me he misunderstood one of my replies and lost his temper. His foot then slipped off the heater and out of the window just as he said to me “I’ve had enough!.” His deputy thought that he was going to commit suicide so he leapt out of his chair and wrestled the branch manager to the floor between the desk and the heater, seeming to fight each other. While stifling laughter I quickly returned to my desk and tried to explain to the other staff what had happened.
On another occasion Biggs sent me down to the basement of 2 Treasury Place, East Melbourne, to retrieve a file from a storeroom. After finding the file I explored the dingey storeroom and noticed a large tin trunk behind high shelving so I climbed up ten feet and over the other side to open the tin trunk. To my surprise it was full of 90 year old photographs of every school in Victoria. I grabbed a fistful and returned to the office with the file and some photographs. Biggs blasted me for doing something I had not been told to do and ordered me to return the photographs. I had to pass the Director of Primary School’s office so I showed him the photographs. He was rapt with the discovery so he excitedly hurried to see Biggs and tell him what a marvellous officer I was for using my initiative. I followed the Director and stood behind him facing Biggs, soaking up the verbal praise while Biggs tried to maintain his dignity. These old photographs were used to illustrate the three-volume history of the Education Department titled ‘’Vision and Realization’’. Subsequent episodes caused Biggs to order me not to use my initiative until I was given permission.
About 1968 my mother asked me one day: “Do you believe in evolution or creation? And, how do you think you got here, because you don’t seem to know where you are going in life and you don't seem to know where you came from!” This caused me to read many books about evolution and creation, which I still do, and I continue to ask other people the same questions. I recommend “The Achilles Heels of Evolution” and “The New Answers Book“.
By mid-1969 I had been a permanent E-class officer for five years and my ‘seniority’ for promotion was approaching. When interviewed for a vacancy by the Head of the Department of the Premier he said to me “We already have a very good junior officer doing the job on higher duties, so why should we promote you?” I had been warned that the Premier’s Department only promoted their own staff so to teach him a lesson I stood up and replied, "I won’t bother wasting my time talking to you because I have an important job to perform in the Education Department!” As I turned and walked out he lost his temper and demanded that I return. When I returned to my office and told the other staff they were amazed that I had carried out the prank. Soon afterward the phone rang in my boss's office and the Premier's Department head demanded I be punished. My boss replied that he deserved my insulting walkout.
Later in 1969 I worked as a Poll Clerk at the Moonee Ponds Town Hall for the Federal Election. At 7 AM we set up the booths, tables and ballot boxes and counted our ballot papers. Early shoppers streamed in until a sudden lull at 12 noon when we discovered a rubber stamp of the Returning Officer’s initials that should have used on the ballot papers before their issue. After some quick thinking the supervisor agreed to turn a blind eye as we loaned our Electoral Roll and A-D sign to the next table. Then we took our ballot box out to the rear kitchen table where we emptied it and unfolded the ballot papers, to rubber stamp and re-fold them, before returning the refilled box when no ‘strangers’ were watching. The scrutineers never found out.
Labour and Industry Department
In mid-1969 I was promoted to the position of Staff and Stores Clerk in the Department of Labour and Industry. The Department had 312 staff in those days and I was kept very busy while sharing a room with the Chief Clerk, performing duties that would these days be done by a Personnel Branch and a Stores Branch.
The Secretary of the Department of Labour and Industry wanted to buy the Rambler Rebel sedan allocated to his position. Just before he retired he carefully arranged for the vehicle’s mileage to be just over 50,000 kms, so that it would become available for him to buy after it was traded in. All this contriving came to naught a week before he retired, when the car smashed into a concrete wall, denying him this rare American luxury car. It was only coincidental that the Secretary had recently tried to stop a workers compensation claim by the chauffeur for back strain when lifting a potato sack into the car boot at the Queen Victoria Market for the boss’s wife.
On another occasion the Secretary had new carpet laid in his office, which required reconnection of his telephone and intercom system. I managed to prevail upon Plessey Communications to send my good friend, Ron Cameron, to reinstall the intercom system through the carpet. As Telecom could not come for another week to install the telephone, I pulled out a penknife and cut the carpet and rewired the telephone myself, earning his lasting admiration that later saved my skin when I misunderstood a quotation and overspent $200.
Until late-1970, the Minister, John Rossiter, was also the Assistant Minister of Education, whose duties included the official opening of schools. One morning during a tour of the Mallee, the Minister was ‘unfit for duty after a hard night’, so the Chauffeur Bill “Weary” Orton, who resembled him, donned the boss’s suit and ‘pork-pie’ hat and loaned his chauffeur’s uniform to the Private Secretary. Having witnessed many official openings, the Chauffeur performed the ceremony admirably and after politely declining morning tea, the two brave impersonators ‘got the hell outta there’.
During my days as a public servant I occasionally tried my hand at being a bush-lawyer. In that role I once upset the Heads of the three Wages Boards of Victoria - Dan Cullen, Ron Saker and Doug Duncan. I told them that their own employment conditions were unsatisfactory as they had no defined sick leave provisions; nor did anyone keep records of their sick leave taken. Calculating a date of retirement on account of ill health following sickness was therefore impossible. Changes were soon made and the Permanent Head was delighted with their embarrassment.
At the Department’s 110 Exhibition Street, Melbourne building, papers dropped between the lift floor and floor landings. The lift’s oily cables then dripped onto papers in the lift-well that were inevitably ignited by a cigarette. After the lift-well funnelled smoke into the top-floor office of the Chief Inspector of Lifts and Cranes, all lift wells in Victoria were required to be inspected for oil soaked papers.
I was transferred after two years, in accordance with departmental staff rotation policy, to the Apprenticeship Commission, with its then notoriously scheming Secretary, where I worked for the next two years. While maintaining statistics for the 43 apprenticeship trades at the time, I was given free-rein to improve all forms and letters used by the Commission. I changed the order of information on application forms to facilitate efficient data entry into the Commission’s computer system, which served nearly 40,000 apprentices, their parents, employers and schools. All outgoing letters soon had the recipient’s address in a panel that showed through a window-faced envelope when the A4 letter was folded at two marked lines.
Just before lunch one day, the Secretary, Lyn Brown, rushed into my room and said he had left his wallet home and needed a $20 petty-cash advance to cover the cost of an official luncheon, after which he would submit an official claim. I judged him to be in a hurry so I didn’t bother making him sign a temporary receipt and just opened the safe next to my desk, handing him a $20 note. Soon after lunch, the department’s Accountant and his assistant arrived and said they had come to do a ‘snap audit’ of the $300 petty-cash imprest I controlled. I distracted them by inviting them to take a seat as I unlocked the large safe again and opened the petty cash tin inside the safe, to transfer $20 from the tea club box next to it. The books balanced due to some quick thinking, necessary when scheming managers tried to outwit me. I advised the Secretary later that the snap audit balanced, however it contravened the regulations to borrow money from his junior officers or their tea clubs.
Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation
By 1973, as I was starting to build a variety of employable skills, my next promotion was to the Department of Youth, Sport and Recreation (YSR) at 570 Bourke Street, Melbourne. A few weeks later as I was walking towards the lift reading a piece of paper, I just noticed that the lift doors were open but there was no lift. I managed to stop myself and looked down 23 floors of lift shaft. I could not believe how the lift doors were open after the lift had gone. The lift access doors were repaired quickly, but my nerves took longer.
As the new Secretary of the State Youth Council my duties included the processing of applications from many Victorian youth groups, organisations and clubs for annual government grants. After purchasing a secondhand book on the legalities of conducting meetings, I learnt that the minute book should be signed by the chairman as a true and correct record of the previous meeting after the relevant motion was passed. As the Chairman of the State Youth Council had not been doing this, I requested him to sign the Minute Book in accordance with Australian Law. Judge Gillard of the Supreme Court did not appreciate being told of his legal requirements by an underling. He then requested that I address two members of the Youth Council properly by calling the Catholic priest "Father" and the Methodist minister "Reverend". I explained to him that the Catholic priest was not my spiritual father and that I did not recognise the term ‘reverend’. He then asked me to produce an index of the Minutes which I could not finish, because the Department had placed large display ads in daily papers inviting youth clubs in Victoria to apply for a government grant. My telephone was besieged with hundreds of calls asking for the application form.
The Minister Brian Dixon was also the member for St. Kilda, with a large Jewish population. The Jewish Youth Camp on Mount Macedon applied for funding, but they would not share the Kosher serviced facilities with other youth clubs. On my recommendation, the Jewish Board of Deputies received $50,000 instead to renovate their youth camp at the old Ballarat airfield, provided that other organisations could hire this large, non-kosher facility when vacant. Weeks later I was transferred from my position for “inefficiency” as I had not produced the Minutes-index as requested.
After being transferred to manage the Records Section I realised that I had fallen on my feet, so to speak, as I now had three staff to supervise, while I set up the department's new filing system. I needed a bigger desk to hold all the index cards so I moved an abandoned huge wooden executive desk from the car park storeroom one night after work. Next day there was much consternation among the senior staff as I now had the biggest desk in the department which in their eyes, was a monstrous status symbol. To rub salt into the wound I visited the Public Works Department second-hand furniture store in Port Melbourne and requisitioned a huge executive chair to match my desk and a bookcase for my reference books. To assuage the jealousy of my cohorts I also chose a few executive chairs for them.
As I knew nothing about records management, I purchased, as usual, secondhand books and taught myself. Consultants from the Public Service Board (PSB) were called in to the department to recommend a numbering system for all the files. I convinced them that a combination of numbers and letters would work best, together with coloured file spines to save search time. Although the Permanent Head never made a decision on the system this numbering system quickly became popular with staff because they could remember the special number allocated to the same sport in each municipality.
Having become proficient in the concepts of records management, I attended a Victorian Government Public Service conference on the problem of overcrowded offices in the Melbourne CBD caused by filing systems that had not been culled for decades; and partially archived to the Public Record Office Victoria. The government was paying millions to store thousands of little-used files. After the conference, which was attended by Records Managers from all government departments, it was agreed that training courses were necessary for all records management staff. I agreed to serve on a steering committee and co-author a Victorian Government department training manual. Thereafter I was asked by the Public Service Board Training Section to assist in the delivery of 12 training courses for records staff as well as speaking on other training courses.
The Department of Youth Sport and Recreation was a very interesting workplace during the 1970s. One initiative, by the Minister Brian Dixon, was the introduction, throughout Victoria of the "Life Be In It" campaign, which subtly encouraged people to exercise. (The campaign was subsequently was to be adopted nationally). One day while sitting at my desk quietly working, the Minister rushed into the room and said "Barker, what are you doing this afternoon?" I said "Sitting here working as usual, sir," and he said "No you're not, you're playing football for the VFL all-stars." I said I hadn't played football for years and he said “That’s too bad, as we can’t get Ted Whitten out of the pub so you’re taking his place.” I asked him who we were playing and he replied "The prisoners at Pentridge." I had my football boots in the locker along with other things for such occasions as required for media stunts. I started on the back line next to Ron Barassi and in the first quarter the prisoners’ full forward kicked four goals on Ron who asked Dixon to move him to half-back, as the full forward was ‘killing him’. Dixon said, "If you don't shut up he will, he's in for murder." The VFL veterans finally won with the help of Wayne Richardson, the ex-Collingwood star.
‘Light ale’ beer was introduced to Victoria in the 1970s and I developed a preference for it as one did not get affected by alcohol so quickly. Being DJ for the office Christmas party, I had to use my car to transport the records and hi-fi, though I wanted a light beer as well. The social club was not interested in light beer so I suggested to the Minister that YSR set a good example by having light ale available, to which he agreed. He told Premier Dick Hamer who immediately ordered that all departmental parties have light ale options. My social club soon guessed where Hamer’s idea originated.
When the Victorian Government bid for the 1988 Olympic Games for Melbourne, the only major facility lacking was an olympic games village costed at $500 million that would not all be recouped. I suggested to the Minister that he organise a compulsory brain-storming session for all staff, where I suggested that large cruise ships be leased for a secure athletes village, with transport by boats up the Yarra to the MCG etc. When most staff laughed at the idea the Minister glared and said it was a very good idea, reminding them it was a brain-storming session, and asked what suggestions did they have. Melbourne only missed out by one vote for the Olympic Games in 1988 because Australia’s Sydney-based delegates, John Coates and Kevan Gosper, secretly voted against Melbourne's bid, as they wanted the games in Sydney one day, which eventually happened in 2000.
Dixon was also Minister for Social Welfare at one stage, and his portfolio included the Prison Farm on French Island which, suddenly, became a National Fitness Camp under YSR. At this time he also acquired the Howmans Gap ski resort chalet at Falls Creek for the National Fitness Council. Next winter the chalet toilets overflowed and the skiers were sliding over 'brown snow'. I related the problem to my friend Norris Jenkins at the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works who provided excellent advice from a European workmate. The ski resort toilets only needed to be fed dog biscuits over summer to keep sufficient bacteria alive for the ski season in winter. One kilogram of dog biscuits a week saved $500,000 for a new sewerage system.
Many famous sporting stars were often seen in the corridors of the Department. The staff were often asked to stay back after work and entertain overseas sporting teams. The department also employed a number of famous sportsmen including Perry Crosswhite, Laurie Fowler, Peter Norman and Maurice Rioli. Sport was played every lunchtime and the Minister joined in the cricket matches until he smashed the glass of the fire alarm. He hid in his office while the staff explained to the Fire Brigade how some unknown person had accidentally broken the glass. The Minister usually chose me for his table tennis doubles partner knowing that I hated to lose as much as he did.
Dixon often asked me to duplicate ministerial press releases after 6 PM pm, to which I agreed only after I had proof-read them and corrected the spelling. He even borrowed my good English reference books to win arguments with the Director-General, who sent his secretary to borrow the same books for the same argument.
The Minister came to me one day and said that he had a conscience vote on abortion in Parliament the following day and his Private Secretary and Personal Assistant were unable to help. He knew that I read the Bible so he asked me to give him a one page summary of what the Bible said about abortion, to be on his desk at 9 AM the following morning. “Yes sir!” I said and of course produced it after some late night homework.
While Dixon was approving government grants from the YSR and Education departments, many country towns would often request funding for a municipal indoor sports stadium and another one for the local secondary school. Dixon prevented this duplication by amending the Education Act to allow state schools owned by taxpayers to open their facilities to the ratepayers of their community. Suddenly the Principals had to have extra keys cut for hiring out their gymnasiums or school buildings after school hours, saving Victoria millions.
I took a month’s long service leave (LSL) in 1977 to paint our house. Instead I caught chickenpox from my baby daughter and spent the first two weeks in the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital, where I was treated like a leper. After recuperating at home for another two weeks I called work to enquire whether I could have my LSL cancelled by a medical certificate and changed to sick leave. The Public Service Board advised the department to tell me to just go away for another four weeks and take what they called "leave in lieu of LSL", which I did. When I returned to work I studied the regulations and found no provision for illness during LSL, so I strongly suggested to the PSB that they change their regulations but they declined. I then rang the Victorian Public Service Association (VPSA) and suggested that they ask for a regulation change, to which they quickly agreed. I called the PSB back and told them that the VPSA was going to demand this change to the regulations at their annual battle, so the Board quickly changed them before the union could score a victory. What my personnel officer said was impossible to arrange only took me three phone calls.
Forests Commission of Victoria
After nine years in YSR I obtained promotion to the vacant C2 position of managing the Forests Commission filing system. I moved across the road to 601 Bourke Street in September 1982 and inherited four young staff and a filing system that was over 60 years old but in good shape. The position of Records Manager required a knowledge of every departmental procedure as well as understanding the terminology associated with the department’s operations, and there was a lot to learn.
On the 8th of February 1983, when the temperature hit 43⁰ C., news passed around that a strange, big cloud was approaching Melbourne so I went to the 10th floor 601 Bourke St to look. By 2.45 PM about 30-40 staff, including the Commissioners, were already looking out the west windows in awe as they tried to guess the cause. When the dust storm reached the city I cheekily said “See what happens when you cut down all the trees”. Commissioner Ron Grose then tapped me on the shoulder and said with a grin “careful they might hear you”. A few months later he asked me why I looked glum. When I replied that staff ignoring file procedures dis-heartened me, he taught me the unofficial motto that he had learnt at the Victorian School of Forestry (VSF): ‘Nils Carborundum illegitimi” (the mock Latin motto: “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”) which I have never forgotten. (The phrase perhaps complements Don Chipp’s advice to: ‘Keep the bastards honest’).
In 1983 I was asked to find information on wattlebark, an important resource in the tanning of leather decades ago. Chromium salts are used now instead of wattlebark, but it was not available then from South Africa due to an 'apartheid' trade ban; or from Russia as a result of the cold war ‘curtain’. The Forests Commission files soon produced all the information needed. They also provided valuable information for the historical interpretation of the Kurth Kiln near Gembrook which made ‘producer gas’ last used during WW2 petrol rationing. Making producer gas to power a car involved re-burning charcoal to make carbon monoxide.
A ‘young Italian stallion’ working in my section had a very low opinion of girls’ intelligence and needed some unorthodox staff training of his own choosing. My 2IC, Russell Anderson was always ready for a prank, so we taught the two girls in our section how to solve lots of match-stick puzzles before a staff lunch in a Collins Street hotel. The ‘misogynistic marvel’ soon agreed to scull his drink and remove one clothing item if the girls could solve a puzzle quicker. When he got down to his underpants we grabbed his clothes and hurried out the door back to the office, leaving him sitting there while he plucked up the courage to run back to work.
One of these girls became a serial prankster, but her turn came a year later when she resigned and requested a personal reference. The other staff soon helped me to compile one filled with double meanings such as ‘whoever gets her to work for them will indeed be lucky’, ‘she communicated readily with other staff at all times’, ‘her filing was always done quickly and when papers were found again, her comprehension level never ceased to amaze’. A week after leaving she rang up and said, following some doubts she had shown the letter to her aunt (to our horror) at the Public Service Board, who advised her to just get another one. Another great practical joke that nearly backfired. Some pranksters live dangerously.
During bushfires I volunteered to deliver urgently needed supplies to fire-camps. The first trip saw me Heywood-bound in a brand-new Holden station wagon which slowed to a stop for about 10 minutes every 80 kms. When I returned the keys to the Transport Section, I reported the vehicle's strange behaviour and my diagnosis that the petrol tank-cap breather valve was faulty. The disbelieving Transport Manager soon admitted I was right. My second trip in a new Toyota Hilux ute started with a pickup of bulldozer gaskets and dieseline from South Melbourne at 6 pm, then collection of a solar panel in Wendouree all for urgent delivery to the fire HQ on top of Mount Hotham. After crossing Victoria, I reached Bright about midnight, talked my way around a police road-block and crawled past fires up the foggy mountain, arriving at 3 am. After working all day the overtime payment at time-and-a-half and double-time amounted to hundreds of dollars. After being admonished for expensive heroics I was thanked for saving a bulldozer from being burnt out. My third trip took me to the Porepunkah fire-camp HQ for the Bright bushfire. I heard that firebombing helicopters were so desperate for water that they filled their buckets at the local sewerage treatment plant and ‘accidently’ dropped some on the fire crews.
During the 1980s a new job classification method called the “Points Factor Evaluation System", designed by consultants Cullen, Egan and Dell, was introduced into the Victorian Public Service. The system assessed – knowledge needed, skills used, task difficulty and the value of resources that a position controlled. The system broke down when assessing Records Management positions because the PSB Inspectors only valued a file at one dollar. Stores Managers were reclassified upwards while Records Managers were being declassified downwards. Records Managers met regularly and were a well-organised group having access to nearly every piece of paper in the Victorian Public Service. A copy of the consultant's system soon came to hand and I arranged for 40 copies to be produced at the Government Printer and distributed them to the other Records Managers. The PSB Inspectors tried to tell both us, and the Public Service Association, that we didn't know what we were talking about, as we didn't have a copy of the top-secret system. Soon a meeting was called and 20 of us produced our copies, to their amazement, and we forced the Inspectors to reconsider the value of files.
Conservation, Forests and Lands Department
Late in 1983, the new Cain Labor Government created the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL) by amalgamating the following agencies: the Ministry for Conservation (including the National Parks Service, Fisheries and Wildlife Division and Soil Conservation Authority), State Forests Department and Forests Commission, and the Department of Crown Lands (and later, ‘Survey’).
One of the PSB consultants, Hugh Bucknell, was appointed as Personnel Manager of CFL and he had a fair idea who was leaking copies of the new job classification scheme, so he tried to change my classification. I responded by producing another 20 photocopies of the restricted document, and distributed them to all my new manager friends, to enable them to calculate their own position’s classification. I was popular with the other managers but disliked by the Personnel Manager, who left to join Myers shortly thereafter. The value of a government file soon became more evident to myself and others in the new Department.
A new Freedom of Information Act (1982) generated many requests from the public for the new department. Sometimes the request even gave the government file number and page numbers that were wanted, indicating that an insider was leaking information; while the applicant wanted a legally obtained document copy. Occasionally the department ‘wished’ the file couldn’t be found but being a great believer in FOI, I always managed to find the record requested, and even maintained an open-door policy to records before 1978, which predated the new FOI arrangements. Only one researcher ever ignored my request to not quote public servants’ opinions from these old files when the people involved were still alive. When one researcher revealed embarrassing information from a file, I told his contemporaries that in future I might have to lock up the old files again, so they ‘sent him to Coventry’ for a while. I always traded giving access to researchers, for any information they knew or discovered about the old records that would help me in archival decisions like their history, usefulness, future retention and description when boxing. I needed to learn a lot on the job and enjoyed making useful discoveries with most of them.
In 1983 and 1984 big changes occurred in most Victorian Government departments, affecting filing systems, which were shut down or split between new departments. In CFL seven old filing systems were closed off and one new filing system replaced them. After months of investigation we selected a sequential numbering system with a year prefix for Head Office and Regional Office administration files that lasted until Agriculture management took over 12 years later; and a computer-generated number for Public Land Parcel files that still survives.
To establish the new filing system in the amalgamated department required training courses, and a procedure manual to win the co-operation of staff from 18 Regional Offices. I was given the task of organising these training courses and ran them in country facilities like the VSF at Creswick, and at the MMBW Camp at Rawson, to save the cost of city accommodation. It was an exercise fraught with danger for Head Office management as when the country staff got together they realised each had the same problems with Head Office and quickly formed a pressure group. The four-day training courses were so popular that some country staff repeated their attendance at later courses.
Having been responsible for distributing the Forests Commission Procedural Documents for two years enabled me to assist my branch manager to establish a system for CFL which used Instructions, Guidelines and Bulletins to assist country staff to exercise delegated decision-making power, when administering the 100 Acts of Parliament assigned to CFL.
When the Personnel Branch knew I had my own copy of the PSB Job Classification System they decided to make me use it. I had to sit on a number of small committees to decide how big each section and branch should be in the Corporate Services Division; to the point of determining the duties and classification of each position.
About 1985 I was given the keys to the department’s storerooms in the basement of 2 Treasury Place and the old Government Printer Building. The four storerooms that I inherited were nick-named "The dungeons" or “the vaults” and were each about 20 by 30 feet and 12 foot-high. They were packed with wooden shelving to the ceiling and held handwritten documents, some dating back to Victoria's establishment in 1837.
Doctorates in Australian History had been awarded to Joe Powell and Ray Wright after they interpreted some of the old land records. The three main Victorian universities wanted me to study with them for an Arts degree in Australian History, but the urgency of moving and protecting the records always ruled my priorities. I felt a bit like the Wizard of Id when he applied for the job as the “prophet of doom”. When asked what his qualifications were, he replied “I couldn’t see the point in getting any”. This ‘special project’ like all the others was too urgent for me to become an academic expert first.
During the previous five years about twenty unemployed people had been hired with Commonwealth Government funds to empty a Lands Department storeroom to the Public Record Office. To assist in clearing these rooms, I asked for staff but none were available as ‘archiving could always be done later’. At this time, the Victorian Government introduced Community Based Orders in lieu of jail time; whereby offenders worked for non-profit organisations for up to 500 hours. I considered my department would qualify so I contacted Justice Department staff who agreed with my interpretation, but my supervisor said I was not to proceed. I asked his manager, and then the Personnel Officer who both refused permission. Not to be thwarted, I contacted the Director of Corporate Services, Phil McCallum, who told me that he was expecting a visit from me, and said I could proceed as long as the VPSA would not be too upset. I assured him that the Union would not protest as no paid, self-respecting public servant in his right mind, would work in such conditions.
Soon I had four people a week working for me in the dungeons of Treasury Place. They did various jobs such as vacuum cleaning, and sorting books and papers into order. Some of them had been released from prison early, while others had been given a few hundred hours work as their sentence. Even though we were not supposed to ask what their crimes were some colourful stories emerged. A Romanian with a Master’s degree in IT was given 200 hours for wife-beating, which he thought he had the right to do. He returned with 400 hours after hitting a policeman who had tried to stop him re-offending. He helped me with Excel while I tried to advise him to respect Australian laws. Another offender serving 400 hours was a short stocky woman who, after seeing a man selling drugs to her daughter, armed herself with a carving knife and chased the dealer while shouting “I’ll kill you!”. Someone called the police who tried to stop her so she assaulted six of them and was arrested while the dealer escaped. She had already earnt the Tim-tams I gave her. I also shared my bluestone dungeons with ’bottom-of-the- harbour’ schemers, but no drug addicts as it took me too long to correct all their mistakes caused by their fuzzy brains. One of Julian Assange’s mates from Melbourne University showed us how to hack into computers and after finishing his 300 hours for stealing computers, he returned early one morning to take the IBM 386 he had been using.
I found that my time was profitably spent giving history lessons, supervising, unlocking doors and signing time sheets for my so-called prisoners. Over the next 10 years I saw about 50 of them come, and go with new knowledge, skills and a job reference. Thousands of hours of free data entry work were achieved in these years but I was left with a lot of organising and physical work. I regularly had to shift 10 kg boxes up and down ladders or with a trolley-load up or down steps which soon took its toll on my back, as I was not built for manual labour. After pioneering the deployment of people serving Community Based Orders in a government department, my permanent staff agreed to accept them working in head office.
We also offered work experience placements to year 10 secondary school students and volunteer positions for the long-term unemployed. Some of these volunteers were able to find temporary positions as they were immediately useful and some even gained permanent employment in the department for years. On one occasion the IT Manager counted 20 heads working at desks and asked what was going on as there were only 15 people on the payroll. I replied that we had up to five unpaid people some days. He shrugged his shoulders and said “Barker I don't know how you do it” and walked away. We provided unpaid workers with a reference stating what skills they had acquired, although these job references contravened the Public Service regulations. When volunteers went downtown on official messages for the department, we supplied a travel ticket which also allowed travel to and from work. The accountant, Keith Williams, at first thought these weekly travel cards were a misuse of petty cash, but conceded it was good value, after he realised that they were for unpaid volunteers.
Conducting job interviews provided many interesting experiences, such as one for an Administrative Officer level 3 position. When we questioned an applicant with a Master of Business Administration from the Forests Division, he could not name the other divisions in the department or say what surrounding staff in his office did. He said he “didn’t answer their phones’’ even though the department had suffered his study leave antics for years. The interview panel was so disgusted that it sent a detailed report to the grateful Personnel Officer who arranged his transfer in 14 days to the exciting Veterans Affairs department.
As the 2 Treasury Place building of 1872 was about to be refurbished all the department’s historic records in the basement had to be cleaned and transferred into nearby basement storage under the old Government Printing Office. This older building was constructed in the 1850s to print the first Acts of Parliament and still retains evidence of many remarkable architectural features, such as an internal wooden railway and a hydraulic lift powered by water pressure. There is also evidence in various rooms of a steam boiler-driven take-off shaft to power the printing presses. On realising the importance of these features, I contacted the Historic Buildings Council and asked them to visit the building for a guided tour. Lunchtime historic tours of the dungeons were also conducted for Head Office staff to try and instil an appreciation of departmental history.
The first Director-General of CFL, P.A. (Tony) Eddison, was recruited from the UK in 1984 to lead the Corporate Management Team. When introduced he said “call me Tony” but many staff used the moniker ‘Cadge More Tobacco’. After rumours circulated of an inappropriate promotion, a Victorian Ministerial Adviser supposedly spotted Tony in a potentially comprising situation at Victoria Market one Sunday morning in November 1986. This followed earlier ‘difficulties’ and was apparently the last straw for the government. The professor was soon gone, with former FCV Commissioner Gerry Griffin appointed to act in the D.G.’s role.
The Public Service Act was written when ‘sleeping with the boss’ was rare, but six cases that I knew about all seemed to be tolerated by other staff, at least until a promotion ensued. Two females were transferred into head office to get them away from frosty treatment, but the grapevine caught up with them and most staff would not help or deal with them. Their subsequent departures confirmed the old Victorian Public Service motto “Inter Vivunt Se Mortales Mutua” (live by mutual dependence) as every effective public servant soon learns. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, so the agency heads involved also went shortly later, with one being a ‘little unhealthy‘, while the other was at his ‘victorious peaks’ no longer.
In the 1990s I met a worried ex-CFL friend now in the Law Department. He explained that he was to be fined $1,000 for emailing a nude photo. He accepted the charge, but not the fine and told management that he would see them in court. Now the Law Department didn’t realise they were dealing with a clever computer systems operator. When I next saw him, he was grinning as he related how the charge and fine were withdrawn when he produced a list of high-level Law officers, who also emailed the photo they received from ‘Mr. A. Nonymouse’.
A few further matters….
The Professor of Surveying from Melbourne University requested help regarding the ability of the Burke and Wills expedition to calculate longitude. Wills had studied medicine in England but preferred to use his mathematical skills and knowledge of astronomy, so he assisted George Balthasar von Neumayer at the Observatory, in the Flagstaff Gardens, and then helped with the Geodetic Survey of Victoria. A Lands Department volume of ‘Circulars to Staff’ held a four-page instruction by Wills in 1858 on calculation of longitude at night. It included measuring the changing distances of the moon from chosen nearby stars at an exact time. The evidence from the archives suggested that Burke and Wills always knew their exact latitude and longitude and therefore previous maps, which guessed their path to the northern coast and back, were incorrect. Excited University staff then drove their air-conditioned Range Rovers up the Birdsville Track and beyond, and with their GPS units found the marks on the gum trees exactly where Wills had recorded them.
About 1991, the Land Conservation Council (LCC) had to vacate its St. Kilda Road premises and had nowhere to store its unsold publications so it asked for my help. I said that the publications had been too expensive for CFL to supply multiple copies to its country staff. It was in everybody’s best interests if their unsold publications were made available for me to distribute. Our country staff would then better know what they should be doing to implement government approved LCC recommendations. LCC management consented and our country staff thought that I was Santa Claus when I sent them 50 boxfuls of government publications, worth $15,000 that they needed to do their job properly. The distribution took me two weeks but I forgotten to ask for my manager's permission first and, after a few days, when he caught me sorting the publications he asked, "Who are you working for this week Barker; the taxpayer, the department or yourself?’’ I replied "All of them on this occasion".
On another occasion LCC staff needed to know from which forest had the 60 m. poles come from that supported the roof of the famous Murtoa wheat storage shed, which had been built about 1941, as there were no forests of that height in the Wimmera region. The filing systems were scant on this subject, but revealed who was in charge of the operation. I then rang Jack Gillespie who told me the trees came from Mount Cole, and the name of the timber cutter. This detailed reply amazed the LCC staff who thought that the information was irretrievable. It is not always what you know or can find out. Sometimes it’s who you know and how to contact them. The telephone numbers of all the retired officers proved useful at times when the filing system was deficient, and I found that all retired public servants were happy to assist when they could.
The amalgamation of CFL produced some unusual events. The public servants in the department were so passionate about their work that they instructed their union to tell the Trades Hall Council to tell the Labor Government how to run the department. At times it seemed like the lunatics were in charge of the asylum, and were doing a better job.
In 1990 the State Savings Bank of Victoria was sold for $2 billion, being $1.5 billion in debt due to loans from its trading arm. Tricontinental lent to Christopher Skase for a Port Douglas Mirage, John Friedrich’s National Safety Council for helicopters and Alan Bond for GTV-9. Steve Crabb became Minister of the newly named Department of Conservation and Environment (DCE) in April 1990, at a time when the government was desperate for ways to save money. Crabb tried to decentralise head office divisions by sending Forests to Traralgon, Soil and Water Conservation to Bendigo, Parks to Wangaratta, Land Administration to Seymour, and Fisheries to Geelong.
The seven years of improved co-operation between these groups was now manifested, as the staff decided it was the Minister who would go, together with his Director-General. During the struggle for supremacy each official memo was contradicted by staff-written bogus memos that were often distributed via our mailroom. When detailed reports of these struggles appeared in The Age, Crabb asked the Police to obtain the faxes from the newspaper, only to discover that the Minister’s Office fax machine had been used to send them. Crabb then employed someone to find the authors and publishers of the bogus memos. He first numbered the glass on every photocopier, only to discover that the next bogus memo was photocopied on the machine in his locked office. Mystified and outwitted, he left three months later.
Steve Crabb had created such resistance that hundreds of public servants assembled and walked along Victoria Parade to the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) to be addressed by their leaders. One of the marchers asked me "Why are you taking an interest in these proceedings?" and I replied that my mother used to work in the building as a secretary to Joe Thornton, the Secretary of the Iron Workers Federation and occasionally for Albert Monk, the Secretary of the VTHC. I also pointed out that I was interested in the state of the building which was on Crown land. The restricted Crown grant in 1853 was a world first by a government to a trade union, but stipulated that any buildings on that site must be kept in good repair, which was not happening. (When the premier, Joan Kirner, became aware of this, her Labor government promised $3 million to the VTHC to repair the historic building. After Jeff Kennett was subsequently elected, he withdrew $2 million of the unspent funds and with Mark Birrell, the new Minister for Conservation and Environment, considered revoking the land deed because the building needed repair. To avoid ‘blood on the streets’ the Premier apparently took Minister Geoff Coleman’s advice to forget the demolition).
During the country-relocation struggle, and after Premier Kirner’s Williamstown electorate was letterboxed with pointed leaflets late in 1991, demanding the removal of Crabb, the local member contacted the Union. To keep the government’s one seat majority in the Legislative Council, Kirner gave Crabb a sinecure as Water Resources Minister in January 1992. Crabb, an actuary, presumably needed to remain a Minister and Member of Parliament until the October election, to qualify for his parliamentary pension.
By 1992 I started regretting the job title ‘Special Projects Officer’, which I had invented for myself to gain a reclassification. The Labor Party had promised to implement a waste paper recycling scheme and now three and a half years later the Premier Joan Kirner was facing re-election without fulfilling this promise. The ‘Special Projects Officer’ in the Admin. Services Section of the Support Services Branch, in the Corporate Services Division, as usual copped the special project which no one else wanted to know about. I researched libraries for a week and plagiarised every good idea I could find. My scheme provided a green wheelie bin outside the lifts on every floor of the building to collect only used bond paper for recycling by Visy or Smorgons. I reached agreement with Smorgons that they would empty these bins once a fortnight and pay the department $30 a ton. After the first payment they refused to pay us again even though the waste paper collection scheme was now snowballing to other government departments and the community. I suspected at the time that they had formed a cartel with Visy recycling, as both companies refused to pay for collected paper and argued that they were providing a community recycling service. My suspicions proved correct when Richard Pratt and Smorgon’s illegal cartel was finally exposed many years later in the media.
Just after Jeff Kennett's election in 1992, the Victorian Public Service Union called a snap strike seemingly because a Liberal government had been elected. The public servants were amazed at this action by their Union leaders, who subsequently acknowledged that the newly elected Union President and Secretary were secret Trotskyites. Many Victorian public servants refused to strike of course and Kennett swiftly banned the deduction of union subscriptions from salaries; which stopped 80% of union income and membership. The President and Secretary were ousted at a union election but the union never recovered.
One day in 1993, an elderly lady walked into my office and asked for help researching her grandfather, Robert Hoddle who was appointed in 1837 to survey Melbourne. Although I thought the lady must be Hoddle's great, great granddaughter, I decided to humour her and showed her various instructions stored in the vaults from Major Thomas Mitchell to Hoddle. One of the instructions directed that aboriginal place names be used for parishes. This resulted in aboriginal names being used in 1500 out of 2004 Victorian parishes today. When the lady left, I consulted the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the departmental library that confirmed Hoddle was born in 1794, and 200 years later I was talking to his granddaughter. He had married again at 67 and was still fathering children at 80, and his son likewise at 60 fathered a daughter late in life. I mentioned my experience to the Keeper of Public Records who also admitted trying to correct her, as had the State Governor.
In the early 1990s the Soil Conservation Authority head office at 378 Cotham Road Kew, had most of its old files stored near some basement toilets. Electric pumps were supposed to automatically keep storm water out of the sewer lines. After one heavy downpour, sewerage erupted out of the toilets and flooded the records storage area to about half a metre deep. It wasn't in my job description, but my instinct was to preserve historic public records, so it was shoes and socks off, roll up the trousers, and into it, to rescue the piled-up cardboard boxes full of historic public records on soil conservation in Victoria. I toiled alone for hours, there being no other volunteers or conscripts available. As I was finishing the rescue, staff from the Public Record Office turned up and saw my heroics. This stood me in good stead later when they suspected I had destroyed old records before obtaining official permission.
Under the Treasury Place building, one day, the PRO staff noticed 20 green wheelie bins full of old licence payment cards that obviously had come from the Lands Department vaults. I had consulted widely on their historic value but had not first obtained destruction approval. I pointed out that with limited time and space, other valuable historic records would be damaged within days, such was the rude haste of emptying the building.
Another project which distracted me from archiving arose when the Director of Corporate Services enlisted my scheming help to carry over $250,000 from one financial year to the next instead of returning unspent funds to the State Treasury as is required of all government departments. After early meter readings we paid our gas and electricity bills in June, and then bought $50,000 worth of ‘VG” (Victorian Government) perforated postage stamps to use on outgoing mail throughout the department. However, the scheme became unstuck months later when Australia Post increased postage rates, making our stockpiled denominations useless until the department spent thousands more dollars on supplementary denominations. Our country offices even refused to buy the old denominations and it took us about three years to 'lick' the problem and make it disappear. Our share of the carry over provided $50,000 to be juggled into our salary budget the next year, which funded our overtime in the vaults and dungeons at night. During those nights a lot of work was achieved by the day staff, as well as a few last-minute pranks. Sometimes the lights went out unexpectedly and the doors to the dungeons were slammed shut to muffle the screams from within.
Practical jokes were not unknown in the ‘public circus’ especially on a young Support Services branch manager who tried to cultivate respect because of his rank. The circuit board from an old transistor radio was taped to the back of his desk drawer and then he was accused of leaking secrets he had been entrusted with ‘because his position was so important’. His father had worked for MI5 so he predictably soon discovered the ‘listening device’ which fed his ego for weeks. Later, while on a phone call from a conspirator, he invited a female conspirator to be seated and read his showy modern business magazines. After ‘discovering’ a Playboy magazine pre-planted underneath, she feigned loud disgust saying Personnel will see this as she quickly departed. He never caught her, but had a difficult conversation with Personnel staff we also tipped off about the prank. After he carried home and back, a heavy metal tape dispenser planted in his briefcase, revenge finally came my way. Halfway home on my crowded train, my briefcase started ringing which forced me to take out the condom packet holding a pager to remove all the tape around it, much to the amusement of all onlookers.
The ‘Special Projects Officer’ was also asked to help reduce the cost of the telephone bill for the department. After demanding an itemised paper account from Telecom instead of a diskette ‘to save paper’, I discovered that the department had been paying for disconnected phones in empty buildings. I then dialled all private telephone numbers on the accounts to see who answered. A few lines led to houses where the account had been paid by the department for a special reason, but the current occupant was not now entitled. The new computerised telephone system in Head Office allowed me to control the STD access for thousands of public servants by adopting a four-digit quick-dial system that only led to our country offices. I blocked access to ‘dial a recipe’, ‘your horoscope’ and ‘TAB results’ etc.; but this did not stop many prankster-instigated calls, like asking for Mr Lyon at the Zoo number, or Mr Nutt at the asylum. Then I spread a rumour that the switchboard computer was programmed to print out a list of all numbers and their duration, dialled by each officer, for weekly analysis. My manager was terrified that the union would scream about the invasion of privacy, but I assured him that the guilty would not dare complain, especially without proof, so local outward calls soon dropped by about 20%. Knowledge of human nature can help maintain honesty. I was not popular with some staff but the Director of Corporate Services saved in total about $500,000 and added these tactics to his repertoire when he trained the accountants of other Departments.
In the ‘Trading Post’ one Thursday night I saw an advertisement for two Victorian explorers’ reports to Parliament, illustrated with coloured maps for $600 each. I considered that these reports were worth either $60 each without maps or worth over $6,000 with the unique coloured maps provided to Parliament. Next morning, I went to Parliament House and asked the librarian if they still had their copies of these reports. “Of course we have" she replied, so I said “go and check”. When she came back white faced, I said, “the reports are for sale in the “Trading Post” so I advised her to seek immediate police help to retrieve them. A week later, the Library advised me they had recovered the stolen books together with many others taken by a trusted university student and I was welcome to use the Parliamentary Library.
After working in the Treasury Place vaults one afternoon, I walked past some dump-masters and instinctively checked the contents to discover a complete collection of leather-bound Victorian Statutes from 1855 to 1957. Excitedly I loaded them into my car and next day offered them to the Parliamentary Library 200m. away. They eagerly accepted them as the leather bindings on this Law Department collection were far better than the worn Parliamentary copies saving them thousands of dollars on rebinding. They gave me their worn volumes which enabled me to improve three collections in CFL and send another set to our Bendigo office.
When the Agriculture Department vacated a building behind 3 Treasury Place, it gave all its spare Victorian Yearbooks to the Parliamentary Library, which gave them to me for CFL, so after ensuring that my department had a complete set, I took the rest home.
When seven old agency libraries were amalgamated into CFL, multiple copies of some books ended up in the nearest wheelie bin. It took me half an hour after work sometimes to retrieve good books and then give them to the most relevant, grateful officer in the department the next day; which library staff should have done. I had trouble explaining to my doctor how I incurred a compressed vein of the abdomen caused by leaning into wheelie bins too often.
CFL employed many experts who I tested at times. When Assistant Divisional Forester Bob Waugh visited from Traralgon one day, he said he was resigning to become a consultant. I quickly produced a round gumleaf from my drawer and asked him where it came from. He confidently replied that it was a juvenile leaf from a rare Buxton Gum, and asked me if I enjoyed my cup of tea in the Buxton off-road picnic shelter as I plucked the adjacent tree.
My next visitor wanting access to the filing system was Norm Endacott, ex District Forester and overseas consultant, who was researching forest history. I tested his credentials by showing him a brown pod. “That’s a seed pod from a rare Chinese loquat1 tree; where did you find it?” said Norm. I replied that it came from the corner block over King Street, Melbourne. He said it should be on the Register of Significant Trees and soon arranged it, forcing the current site building to be built around it.
One day I presented a skull to a departmental Australian Mammal expert, Peter Menkhorst, and asked if he could tell me where it came from. “Thank you”, he said, “I don’t have a quokka skull from Rottnest Island”. While I only managed to trouble Ian Mansergh, the manager of the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Branch, who could never explain why new species weren’t evolving or the mechanisms of their origins, despite his Ph. D in taxonomy. Our lunchtime creation vs. evolution discussions entertained his branch for weeks yet we still remain friends respecting each other’s world view.
In 1995 a request was made for information about salt springs around Victoria. From the archives I produced information from the Soil Conservation Authority files and from squatters in the 1840s describing where aboriginals were camped and the existence of naturally occurring salt springs. These salt springs are critical to water management in Victoria as dry land salinity was thought to be only caused by European farming methods. This seemed to suggest that more historical research needs to be done before action is taken on dry land salinity in future.
The Agriculture, Energy and Minerals Department, in 1995, asked for my opinion on what should be done with historic records in their basement storeroom at 115 Victoria Parade. I gave them advice on their large map collections and then out of curiosity I opened the top drawer of a steel filing cabinet and was amazed to find over 100 five-inch square, glass plate photographic negatives. A quick inspection showed that they dated back to the 1850s and some had been used by the public servant, Robert Brough-Smyth, to illustrate his books at that time. Most of these rare photos were taken by Richard Daintree, an assistant to Alfred Selwyn, the government’s Mineral Surveyor, and were of mining districts in a 50-mile radius from Melbourne, from Bacchus Marsh around to Wonthaggi. After moving the glass plates to the bottom drawer, I did my best to have them transferred to the State Library of Victoria for computerised scanning. Management refused and thought they could publish the photographs, but I suspected they were not competent enough to do this, and to my knowledge they have not yet been scanned and published.
In 1996 my workplace suddenly changed when the government announced that the Department of Agriculture, Energy and Mineral Resources would be amalgamated with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (CNR), to become the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE). To fill most of its top jobs for its earlier Head Office move to Bendigo, the Agriculture Department had been forced to raise their job classifications to attract suitable staff away from Melbourne. This resulted in that Department ending up with corporate staff classified one rung higher than normal, so when the two departments were amalgamated, staff of the Agriculture Department, in many cases, had been promoted recently, sometimes perhaps beyond their capabilities and classified higher than the staff in my department, CNR.
When CFL was created back in 1984, the best procedures were selected from one of the seven old administrations; whereas the managers from Agriculture wanted only to use its old department’s methods, even though CNR methods were usually superior. The new ex-Agriculture records manager had no idea what to do and orders to my staff were soon countermanded by me as I resisted this inefficient, dictatorial regime.
Whenever staff conferences were called to make announcements, I usually stood up and asked questions that the new management said they would answer privately later. Knowing that others agreed with me, I demanded simple answers to simple questions there and then, and the crowd called out in support. I soon became very unpopular with the new management of the department but somehow survived for the next seven years. The two female managers above me, from Agriculture, were ‘interesting’ and it was reported that they actually fought each other on the floor of a pub one night.
A male manager, appointed in 1997 by these two existing managers, systematically dismantled my well-trained team and changed all our procedures for the worse. An efficient department was ruined within a few years by this, in my view, incompetent takeover by Agriculture. Within five years most of these ‘takeover’ managers were either dismissed or transferred, but by that stage I had moved to the Lands Division of NRE.
In 1996, I wrote out my resignation and left it sitting unsigned on my desk to see what would happen. To my surprise, a few days later the manager of the Native Title Section in the Lands Division requested my transfer to her section. Before transferring however, I demanded and received personal reassurances that I was needed and welcome in the Branch, as I had seriously upset its current Branch Manager some years previously.
The main focus of my new position was to provide the documentary history on how each parcel of Crown land had been used, presumably to extinguish claims under new Native Title Act 1993 (Cwlth.). My first task was to assist David McCullough to prepare Victoria’s Wik Schedule to the Native Title Act. I then arranged the creation of a computer indexed collection of Crown Solicitors’ Opinions from the seven old Agencies, on all relevant departmental Acts, which proved most useful to the department, while saving thousands of dollars. My two new female managers were as pleased to have me as the previous two were to get rid of me.
In 1996 I was asked to assist Dr Lynette Peel to locate records relating to the history of the Agriculture Department as most of its files had been destroyed. Only a few documents could be found in the Lands Department records so I sold her my own collection of Victorian Year Books to avoid her travelling to and from a library each day. She gladly paid me $200 and I later was told that she was paid $250,000 to write the history of the Agriculture Department. A few years later my wife found the same yearbooks in an opportunity shop in Hawthorn and after buying them back for $20, I sold them again for $200 to another history researcher.
In January 1997, an anthrax outbreak occurred southwest of Tatura which spread quickly, causing panic and costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to contain. In desperation the Chief Veterinary Officer came to my desk and asked me for any history that might explain the outbreak as he didn’t know where to establish vaccination control lines. The outbreak map he left me covered a number of farms so I started by researching records when the area was used by only one farmer’s herd. Pastoral Run maps showed that one squatter was leasing a Run that stretched from the Waranga Basin nearly to Tatura, fitting the infected area like a glove. Further research showed that in 1872 this squatter didn’t pay the annual lease, having abandoned the Run after all his cattle died, leaving the carcasses no doubt, unburnt and unburied. This event probably influenced the formation of an Agriculture Branch in the Lands Department in 1872 (now ‘the tail is wagging the dog’). After explaining all this to the Chief Veterinary Officer, the next day, I also suggested that a geographic database be compiled of all old anthrax sites in Victoria, which he considered unnecessary.
By 2017 the 1872 outbreak had still not yet been researched or admitted because orthodox veterinary belief says spores don’t survive that long; nor had collation started of old anthrax sites where vaccination lines can be quickly drawn if future excavations by ignorant landholders disturb spores. (My understanding is that the author of the History of the Agriculture Department, mentioned above, also expressed a less than flattering opinion of the Department’s recent management, and the Department subsequently refused to publish her completed manuscript).
About 1997 our Bendigo staff reported that the Commonwealth Government was trying to sell a large parcel of land in Longlea, just east of Bendigo. This land had been gifted by the Victorian Government during WW2, on condition that when the Commonwealth Government no longer needed the land, it would be returned for one pound to the State Government. I retrieved the documentary evidence from the Forests Commission files and submitted it through the official channels to Premier Jeff Kennett the next day. Victoria offered $2 and the old letter instead of the $2,000,000 asking price, however this move was thwarted when the Commonwealth Government withdrew its 'For Sale' sign and subsequently used the land for road testing the Aussie Bushmaster armoured personnel carrier.
When all the vaults were finally emptied in 1998, only 40 bays of empty steel shelving remained that I had earlier retrieved from site dump-masters. The new records manager rejected my suggestion that they be moved to our store in Collingwood where they were needed. Being second-hand they would have been dumped again so ‘someone’ sought quotes from dealers. The $3,500 cheque was made out to an Indian orphanage that needed it more than a public servant who forgot to arrange a “Board of Survey of Unwanted Goods’’ for the Auditor-General.
In 1999 I dragged my leg when I walked, so after chatting to my Departmental transport officer friend I was allowed to park in the 240 Victoria Parade basement. Increasing disability and a false diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis led me to resign two days before my 55th birthday in February 2001. This allowed me to withdraw all my personal superannuation contributions with a cash benefit of $30,000 more than retiring after age of 55.
Four months after resigning, the Department rehired me through an agency as a part-time consultant, as no replacement could be found for my position. In the meantime, I had started working one day a week as a volunteer at the Public Record Office to sort out its huge stockpile of superseded aperture cards of microfilmed Cadastral Record Plans. By December, I had made up sets for the PRO, Royal Historical Society of Victoria and Genealogical Society of Victoria and took the remainder home for Monash University and my own archive.
In 2002, Crown Land Administration was reunited with the Surveyor-General staff at 570 Bourke Street. When I could no longer drive a car, I bought a two-wheel electric scooter, which enabled me to ride from our back door to the train and then from Flagstaff station along the footpath, into the lift and through the building to my desk. I had to use the computer mouse with my left hand and spent most of the day proof-reading documents, correcting databases and arranging the scanning of historic documents onto CDs for future reference. Due to my deteriorating mobility and government funding restrictions, I had to finish work in June 2003, after nearly 40 years in the ‘public circus’; serving under seven Premiers and eighteen Ministers.
The department let me take home a DVD copy of all the databases I had worked on so I have been happy and able since to help research by the department, the Public Record Office, and fellow members of the Forests Commission Retired Persons Association. A belated diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease, in 2006, preceded quadriplegia needing 24/7 care, so in December 2015 I entered the Olivet Aged Care Home as a permanent resident. Fortunately, I still get to go home Tuesdays and Fridays 2-10 pm and can use a gyroscopic head-mouse with dwell-click software and an onscreen keyboard to research and email.
Centuries before braille and guide dogs, the brilliant 17th century English poet, John Milton, went blind and wrote a famous 14-line sonnet ‘On blindness’ which ended, “they also serve who only stand and wait”. He later explained to a blind friend that the extremely disabled can also serve a purpose by faithfully maintaining that Jesus Christ will return and heal them.
1The tree Paul describes is listed on the National Trust ‘Significant Tree Register’ as a Honey Locust (Gleditsia sinensis); a native of China, the tree is believed to be the only specimen of this species in Victoria. …..Editor