Saturday, December 08, 2007

Saturday Morning Musings - endings, beginning and the role of the tribal elder



Gordon Smith's photo blog is an old and familiar friend, one that constantly refreshes me.

At present, Gordon is back at the Dorrigo Show. This photo shows a handler in one of the cattle classes during judging probably, as Gordon surmises, a school category. Living in the city as I now do, I still miss the rhythms of country life.

I see that Neil put up Patterson's The Geebung Polo Club as his Friday poem. I really enjoyed this poem as a kid, and it was nice to read it again.

I see that Neil is putting up lists of his best posts for 2007 on Old Lines. I think that this is a good idea and will certainly have a browse. I am less sure about Neil's latest restructuring, although no doubt I will get used to it. This time I have left all my bookmarks in place, using what is now Old Lines as an entry point. Just in case there is another round of changes!

This week marked the end of this family's school period. At least until, and this is an odd thought, there are any grandchildren! I will miss school, although we will not miss the fees. Now we move forward to a new period.

Also during the week, Helen got through her uni exams. We were all a bit worried about this. She was sick during the exams, and had also struggled a bit during the year to find proper study time given work and other commitments.

So few "full time" students now actually have the luxury of studying full time. I wish we could have afforded to give the kids the opportunity I had to study full time in a genuine university environment, but we could not. I fear that those days have gone for ever. The institutions themselves have changed, while society itself is no longer prepared to pay the price involved.

At the moment I am struggling with an odd problem, that of becoming in some strange and peculiar way a tribal elder. This is a difficult issue.

We live in an ageist society, something that I must write on at some point. It is not in my personal or professional interest for people to recognise my age. If they do, all sorts of subtle discounts come in in the way I am treated. So it's in my interest to present as a very modern person. Yet I cannot help myself.

Part of the problem is a formal one. The nature of current systems requires the provision of information such as date of birth or full career record. So on one side society says discrimination on the basis of age is wrong, on the other it forces revelation of information that brings ageism into play.

Beyond the formal problem, there is a far more complex, subtle and difficult problem.

In many ways I have been blessed, lucky in ways that I am only now coming to recognise.

At dinner the other night we were talking about Australian Prime Minsters. I have actually met seven Australian Prime Ministers - Page, Fadden, McEwen, Fraser, Whitlam, Hawke, Howard. The meetings may have been fleeting, but I have met them.

Then look at work. In the public service slice of my career, just over half of my working life, I have worked under the Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke Governments. Now I am doing some work under the Iemma Government in NSW.

I remember the public service impacts when Mr Holt vanished at the start of my working career. I remember the sometimes chaos of the start of the Whitlam Government, of the dismissal with the scenes on the steps of Parliament House just across from where I was working in Treasury. I remember the enthusiasm that greeted the start of the Hawke Government. Now I am wrestling with the complex Government procedures in NSW, measuring it against my own writings on the NSW system.

I first read Australian history in the 1950s. I did Australian History and pre-history at UNE in the mid sixties, including participation in Isabel McBryde's pioneering work in Australian pre-history. Then I was back at UNE full time in 1981 and 1982 doing my PhD thesis, again in Australian history. Now in 2007 I am still writing on similar topics.

I had a grandfather who was one of the founders of the Country Party (Progressive Party) in 1919-1920 and who remained in Parliament until 1963. I handed out CP how to vote cards in the fifties, I listened to budget speeches and read the papers so that I could argue with him.

With a cousin, I went with him on his last election campaign in 1961. I was there when the news of Earle Page's illness came through, when Fah ditched his own campaign to try to save Cowper and my cousin and I hitched back to Armidale.

Then there was Ian Sinclair's pre-selection campaign when Uncle Jim decided to run. He did not inform or ask advice from his father in law, something that created a problem. I was there as a delegate from the Young Country Party.

Jumping forward, in 1972 I ran for pre-selection for Eden-Monaro. To do this, I played a role in re-building the Country Party in Eden Monaro. I remember a meeting at which I was asked a question on the White Australia policy. I carefully explained that the policy had had a place, but was no longer tenable because of Australia's evolving engagement with Asia. After the meeting Ian Sinclair, who was present, congratulated me.

Losing this preselection campaign, I then ran for Armidale where my views on the Vietnam War became a central issue. I lost. I remained active in the Country Party as a reformist, arguing for change. I became a member of the McEwen House Group, a newly established Party think tank. With others, I used to gather in Doug Anthony's office each budget night to write his reply.

South Vietnam collapsed during this period. Despite my views on the war, I was outraged at what I saw as the Whitlam Government's betrayal of those who had supported Australia. With others, I used my links to Ian Sinclair to try to place pressure on the Government to admit people as refugees.

Time passes. Now, in 2007 in a different world, I am arguing the need for the National Party to renew itself.

Accepting that each Australian is unique, my personal life has been a little outside the norm. I grew up outside the metros in an academic family in Australia's only university city. I grew up in a world that combined an international academic perspective with a country and regional focus.

In this world I talked about the evils of Sydney domination while discussing agricultural development programs in Northern Thailand or conflicts in international economics or anthropology. Oxford, Cambridge or LSE were more relevant than Sydney or Melbourne U.

In professional terms, I have probably written most about my public sector experience. Yet as a consultant I have also completed or managed over 300 assignments for some 100 clients.

In all aspects of my working life I have been exposed to, often arguing for, new development in policy or management. This is in fact one of the hardest areas, because it is here that I have seen the greatest failures and have changed my own position. See, for example, Australia's Universities - a personal Mea Culpa.

All this has become pretty long-winded and may sound very self-indulgent. Returning to my point, at personal and professional level it is very hard for me to isolate all this experience and history from my day to day activities.

To avoid the problem of ageism, I really need to do so. Twenty years is about the maximum before agest responses kick in. The more I remind people of my past, the greater the problem. Yet I cannot help myself.

This links to my point about becoming in some ways a tribal elder, part mentor, part custodian of the past.

As an example, I was talking to younger female colleague. In my view, she is both interesting and very competent. I also think that she under rates herself, in part because she has limited benchmarks against which to measure her performance or capacity. So I told her that I thought that she was very good, that I would love to have had her working for me in some of my past roles. She blushed, but I think took the message.

In all this, there is one group that is most interested in Australia's past, and that is our new arrivals.

Those who have come to Australia quite recently see Australian differences in a way that most of us born here do not. They are also interested in and indeed fascinated by our past and the variations in the Australian experience in ways that those educated here ignore.

Take people from Hong Kong who have only lived in a city environment and who have come to Sydney, another city. They are very interested in the history of the Chinese in Australia, but often know nothing about it. But they can also be fascinated by our language, our broader history and especially non metro life.

Maybe I just have to accept that whether I like it or not I have become an elder, and focus instead on that role.

3 comments:

ninglun said...

I notice Blogspot no longer supports commenting with a non-Blogspot site address. So my new front page is New Lines from a Floating Life...

Thanks for your remarks. I hope that list proved useful.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Neil. The list will almost certainly be useful, Better, it will eb enjoyable!

Nit sure that I understand when you say that that Blogspot no longer supports comments with non-blogspot address?

ninglun said...

You just get three choices: Google/Blogger; Nickname; Anonymous. You used to be able to put your WordPress (or other) address in the middle one. No longer.