Saturday, February 11, 2012

Aymever Days 1 - genesis

This post is the start of a story of dreams faded, a memory of a past now diminished. Yet those dreams remain and drive me in my present writing. The posts have been triggered by Carolyn Heinemann, a former staff Aymever 3 member, who found and copied the old company brochure to send to me.

This first reproduction shows part of our head office in Armidale. We occupied most of the top floor of this building, including the tower.

Some elements of the story will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, others will not. But I wish to record the story as a tribute to those who joined us in the dream. I still hold the faith that began with what Bob Quiggin came to describe as the Belshaviks, those of us who wanted to reshape Australia's industrial future.

Today when we live in world of narrow performance indicators and a locked-in past, it is helpful to remember that dreams do have an effect even in failure. In the story that follows I am not giving detailed links to my writing. This post is a personal indulgence,  a story that I remember even as the dark clouds sometimes swirl around me.

I am now a writer, someone who uses his pen as his primary weapon. Yet I remember when I did, when the doing was central. Even now in my daily work, in my striving, I try to bring improvement.

The focus may be different. Just at the moment my immediate concern is Aboriginal housing, something far removed from the story in this post. But despite the differences, the drivers remain the same.

The year is 1980. It's a Friday afternoon, about six o'clock.

I had just come across from Treasury to head up the Department of Industry and Commerce's Economic Analysis Branch. In Treasury I had made it a practice always to go to the Social Club Happy Hour - Friday afternoon drinks - because I enjoyed it and it kept me in touch across areas. I was determined to do the same thing in my new Department even though I had noticed that, unlike Treasury, few senior staff attended.

I was interrupted by John Martin, then Director of the Finance and Tax Section in my Branch, Keith Purcell, the First Assistant Secretary in charge of the Policy Division, had received an urgent call from the Minister (Sir Philip Lynch) and wanted to see me at once.

Keith explained to me that Prime Minster Fraser was very worried about the decline in Australian manufacturing and had asked our Minister for urgent advice not just on the causes, but on what might be done. We had to have advice on the Minster's desk first thing Monday morning. So we started calling staff in setting up for a weekend's Aymever 2work.

Quite frankly, this was one of the least satisfying experiences of my professional life. A week end to try to provide sensible advice on this issue was bad enough. But we also lacked the policy framework and supporting analytical tools required to say anything new and useful. So in the end we provided statistics with some fairly superficial supporting analysis. I swore that I would never put myself in this position again.

This next photo shows Liz (not Lis) Noble and John Nightingale on the stairs leading up to the flag tower in the first photo. Liz was Senior Research Officer with our information services business with a special interest in the media. John, then a senior lecturer at the University of New England, was especially interested in technology and the way that one technology replaced another. I still use his concept of competing technology regimes.

At the end of 1980 I went back to the University of New England on leave to work on my PhD. My topic was a biography of my grandfather, David Henry Drummond.

In my posts, I have spoken often of DHD and the influence he had on me. I absorbed many of his views, but by the time I returned to UNE the influence of those views was greatly reduced. They just didn't seem relevant any more.

A funny thing then happened. As I sat in my small office working my way through the papers or worked in my old bedroom at home, my old views re-ignited. Suddenly, I saw the things that had interested me as relevant once more.

Part of the reason for this lay in my renewed residence in the area that I loved. Part, too, lay in my recent experience as senior Commonwealth public servant, for I now filtered Drummond's views and experiences through the prism set by experience. I found myself nodding and saying that's right.

You can see the continuing influence of that experience in my writing today. For example, I describe myself as a New England populist. I would not have done so in 1980. Indeed, I would have been hard pressed to define what the term meant. It just wouldn't have seemed especially relevant.IMG_0002

This next graphic shows a New England new state car sticker. This was one of the two new state stickers on my bedroom window as I wrote. My renewed support for New England self-government was another linked element in my rediscovery of my own past.

I returned to Canberra early in 1983. Later in that year I was given responsibility for the creation of a new branch, the Electronics, Aerospace and Information Industries Branch, to provide a new focus on the high technology industries. This reflected a Departmental worry that too many resources were tied up in declining industries, too few were committed to new industries.

Drawing on my experiences including that episode I described earlier, I tried to develop new policy approaches. I described this in Case studies in public administration.

On 15 March 1987 Denise and I married. Denise was pregnant with Helen, and it seemed an appropriate time to chart new directions.

I had become increasingly frustrated at the early stage impact of what we now call managerialism because the combination of the reassertion of control by the central coordinating agencies with new hierarchical structures in my own department just made it so much harder to get anything new done. Again, you can see the influence on my present writing.

I decided to start a new consulting business in Armidale centred on the electronics, aerospace and information industries. Essentially, I was putting my personal money where my professional mouth had been. The Armidale location reflected my family and New England interests. My contribution to New England development would be the creation of a new high tech node.

I had made a decision in principle, but was still very undecided.

I had a good job and a career path. I was also very comfortably of financially, indeed quite wealthy with guaranteed superannuation, four houses plus a share portfolio. All I had to do was to sit and let compound interest work its miracles. I also met with opposition from my industry colleagues who wanted me just where I was.

A few weeks back I went to farewell drinks with Brian and Irene Lovelock. At the time we are talking about, Brian was a senior executive with Computer Sciences Australia (CSA). Later, he would become an Aymever client, while Irene became one of our associates on the training side.

Bob Cassell was at the drinks. Bob was CEO of CSA at the time Brian was there. The year before the events I am talking about, I organised a group of industry people to go to Armidale for the Picnic Races. Bob flew up in his private plane. Then, and this was something Bob's wife remembered, I took them all sapphire shopping before the races.

Bob was adamant. I must not resign. I had started something worthwhile, and I must try to drive it through despite the growing difficulties.   

In the end, it was a small thing that triggered my move. I had not been especially secret in my musings about new directions. David Charles as head of the Department called me in. What were my intentions?

I started to explain my dilemmas. Then David said: "I don't care what you feel. I am only interested in the impact on the Department." The die was set. That day I gave notice.

In my next post in this series, I will talk about Aymever's early days.              


Anonymous said...

This is going to be interesting Jim. Just a follow up on a recent mention of Aymever - I've only this week received my 'library card' for the National Library, and went immediately to access your paper but then found the work is only available via direct physical attendance - at least that is how I interpret the website.

So, I still intend to follow up on that, but it will have to wait on my next visit to our capital.

Now off to 'Snippets'.


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. Thought that might be the case. There is still more stuff off-line than on!