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Issue #1762      January 25, 2017

The singer at the gates of dawn

A short story by Peter Mac

The Department concert was organised by one of the division managers as an attempt to boost staff morale during the government’s selective retrenchment program. Some members of management sympathised with the employees because they knew that the government’s real agenda was to abolish the entire Department.

Sydney‘s General Post Office, one of Australia‘s best 19th Century government buildings, was given a multimillion dollar face-lift by the government Department of Housing and Construction before the Keating government leased it to Macquarie Bank.

The performers were drawn from all ranks of the staff. An architect whose name I’ve long forgotten did a creditable job of Summertime, which he played bush-style with a bow on a long, ancient cross-cut saw! I myself sang I’m reviewing the situation from Oliver, in which Fagan muses on his meagre prospects for comfort in his old age.

An engineer surprised us with a moving performance of Old Man River. Tall and thin, with a very deep voice, he always spoke quietly and courteously, and never at all about his time as an unwilling conscript in Vietnam.

But the biggest surprise came with the last item. The compere loaded into the hi-fi set one of the disks he’d provided to accompany the performers. He turned the volume up and announced laconically: “Rita’s going to give us a song about a girl who decides to write a letter to someone she loves, but can’t make up her mind to send it.”

Invariably cheerful, Rita Jones from the Plan Records section was known as “the hummer” because of her habit of humming along and brushing back her tousled hair as she worked.

As the opening bars rose to a climax, we guessed what she was going to sing. Someone called out: “Just hum it, Rita!”, and I heard a friend mutter: “Christ, she’ll never make it”.

But she did. Her singing voice was beautiful and wonderfully powerful; it leapt and soared, and for 11 minutes we sat dumbfounded, gripped and helpless like Kenneth Graeme’s small animals at the gates of dawn, while this small, frail woman gave a tremendous, passionate interpretation of Tatyana’s “letter scene” from Eugin Onegin.

The stunning impact was magnified because it was totally unexpected. We knew relatively little about her. She was raising two children on her own, and there were rumours of a desperately unhappy former marriage with an abusive husband. Everyone had heard her hum, but no one had ever heard her sing, and no one realised she was mentally practising lines from opera while she hummed away at work.

Struggle

In the months after the concert, union members fought a determined, often bitter campaign against the redundancy program.

We achieved a cancellation of the first stage, during which mid-ranking professionals were pressured to nominate members of their staff who were the least efficient and therefore most deserving of consignment to the retrenchment section, nicknamed “the holding tank”.

Of the few who co-operated in this shameful exercise, some were found to have nominated people with whom they’d never worked, and in one case a person nominated someone he’d never met.

Management conducted the initial appeal interviews without union representation, but following our protests a former arbitration commissioner was recruited to take charge, and he insisted that union representatives be present. We got several decisions overturned, but our triumphs were short-lived.

The government said the Department had to be profitable, and the management decided to buy computer-aided drafting (CAD) equipment. One union delegate calculated that stand-alone CAD machines (the industry standard) could have been purchased for every professional employee nationwide for $5 million.

But the managers got a loan of $50 million (according to our estimate) from the government itself, with interest set at the prevailing commercial rate, and bought a grossly complex second-hand wide area network CAD network from a bankrupt US architectural firm.

It was far in excess of our requirements and was little used. The management soon defaulted on the repayments, and the government claimed the Department was commercially unviable and had to be closed down. And we suddenly found that the leaders of our unions weren’t prepared to take on a Labor government in an attempt to save the Department. The coalition won the next election and finished off the job.

On the last day of business for what remained of the Department, the few of us who were left could have taken the day off or done nothing. But we all came in and worked hard throughout the day, tying up loose ends, struggling to deal with the last rush of requests from client departments and mourning in silence the passing of this part of our lives. Afterwards a few of us went out and got very drunk.

We fulfilled our role as public servants and I was very proud of my workmates on that day.

Losses and lessons

The department employees were highly dedicated and had a strong sense of social responsibility. In Sydney immediately after the Granville railway disaster the Department’s office was almost deserted because the staff had walked out en masse and had gone to Sydney Hospital to donate blood.

The employees included highly talented people who had designed, documented and supervised the construction of most of the government buildings in the post-war period.

The closing down of the Department not only involved the loss of employment for a large group of Australian citizens, it also resulted in the loss of a valuable public asset.

The Department had won architectural and engineering awards over many years, and it played a key role in urban reconstruction in one capital city, after one of the nation’s most catastrophic weather events.

Years after it was abolished three young workers died during the Rudd government’s rushed and hopelessly supervised thermal insulation program. These tragedies could almost certainly have been avoided with proper control by a federal construction authority like the Department, which had a national staff of electrical works supervisors.

After retrenchment, most of the professional specialist employees were cherry-picked for employment by private firms. But others who had dedicated their lives to public service experienced difficulty in dedicating themselves to maximising profits for shareholders.

And many found themselves tarred with the brush of failure. The government had deemed the Department commercially non-viable, and by association its former employees were seen the same way. As any asylum seeker forcibly detained on a remote foreign island can tell you, if the government rejects you, others will do the same.

The worst off were middle-aged employees with young children and mortgages, particularly those working in administration or professional support roles. Many joined the ranks of the unemployed.

One of the first to be transferred to the “tank” became unbearably worried, moody and bad tempered. His wife walked out with the kids; he sank into a deep depression and was finally admitted to a psychiatric ward.

The Department had employed some people with minor mental disabilities for simple administrative tasks. Good workers, helpful and cooperative, they left quietly. Their outlook was particularly bleak.

And Rita Jones from Plan Records disappeared. Her friends suggested she had moved interstate to escape her obsessive, control-freak husband, and that she had always avoided the limelight of a vocal career in order to avoid him.

There were good memories as well as bad for all of us. For me, one outstanding memory was the night when Rita lifted the spirits of her workmates in a moment of unexpected musical ecstasy, and shone a brilliant light in a darkened hour.

But there were lessons as well as memories. If a government wants to abolish a department, its objective will undoubtedly be to benefit the private sector by getting rid of a competitor and to convert a public asset into a source of private profit. The biggest lesson is that we can and must challenge any such move. It’s a matter of serving the public interest.

Next article – A rich history

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