Saturday, October 28, 2006

Confessions of a Policy Adviser - 2:Beginnings

In my first post in this series I spoke of the sudden request to provide advice on the reasons for the decline in Australian manufacturing together with ideas as to what might be done to turn this round. l explained why we failed and spoke of my reactions to that failure. Taking this example as an entry point, I suggested that it might be interesting to explore the way in which policy is developed and implemented, in so doing looking at some of policy debates with a special focus on industry policy.

I have been thinking about the best way to approach this task.

I want to set out a personal view, I want to show how things work in terms that are understandable to someone outside as well as within Australia, I want to draw out changes and show the clash of ideas set against the broader sweep of change in Australia and overseas. I also want to tell the whole thing as a story.

I think that the best way to manage all this is to tell the story chronologically. At the same time I do not want this story to completely dominate the blog, part of the fun in writing is to be able to go in different directions, so I am going to do perhaps one in two or one in three posts in the series. Because it is a story, I will put a list of previous posts at the end of each post to make it easier for people who are interested or become interested to read back.

Armidale 1966

In 1966 I was doing history honours at the University of New England with a special focus on the Aborigines and the prehistory of Australia.

While I had been interested in economics and had done an extra unit to maintain it as a major, I swore that I would never become an economist. There were just too many economists in the family including Dad (then Professor of Economics at UNE) and Uncle Horace Belshaw, one of New Zealand's best known economists.

Under the influence of Isabel McBryde, I had become very interested in prehistory, ethnohistory and anthropology, going on various digs and survey missions and working as a research assistant during vacations. Even then economics retained some interest, since I selected the economic basis of aboriginal life in New England at the time of European intrusion as my topic and endeavored to use concepts developed from economics to provide an analytical framework.

While I was interested in a career in Australian prehistory I was also interested in the possibility of going to Canada for a year to work with Frontier College, in doing some form of postgraduate work in the United States or possibly working as a stock broker. The one thing that I had not considered was the Public Service.

In the meantime, I was having just too much fun to worry.

New England was then a very special place. Full time undergraduate numbers were small, we knew each other and the staff very well, nearly everybody was on some form of scholarship so very few had to work in the way now common, there was an active social and intellectual life.

While the formalities that had been attached to university life were starting to break down (my year was the first year that insisted on being called by their first name instead of the more formal Mr or Miss), we still all wore green undergraduate gowns with gold bars marking the year (so four for fourth year). Coats and ties were still compulsory for men while attending lectures. Which almost inevitably led one of my friends to attend a lecture wearing a coat, tie, gown and almost nothing else!

All this was to go during the late sixties and especially the seventies, the tip decade that marks the break in the previous long continuity of Australian history and its replacement by the Australia of today.

We were obviously aware of the changes, although the scale was not clear.

The Beatles were popular early marking a new type of pop music, we debated new theology at the Methodist Youth Fellowship (this was a large and active town group with heavy student involvement), we spent a lot of time in the Union drinking coffee and arguing. There were also the first student demonstrations centered on the decision of the University Council to ban room visits between members of the opposite sex. Most students lived in college, so this became a major issue to the point that it galvanised the entire student body into concerted opposition that ultimately forced Council to revoke the decision.

The introduction of conscription by the Menzies Government in 1964 had a polarising effect on campus. To that point, Vietnam had not been a major issue. Now students were forced to address it. My age group was the first to go into the ballot and I faced a very real personal problem.

In 1957 my parents had decided to send me to TAS (The Armidale School). While I later came to love the place, my first years there were simply awful. I was shy and uncertain and did not know how to relate to the other boys. I was bullied, not physical but emotional, heckling that made going to school a horror. I spent a lot of time being sick, something I became quite expert at.

The bottom point was the 1959 cadet camp. Cadets were compulsory at TAS and this was my first camp. I hated it. Upon my return I told my parents that they were to withdraw their approval for my participation in cadets. They agreed to do so, although it turned out that they did not, possibly because they thought that I might in some way grow out of it.

From this point I simply stopped going to cadets. Some of the masters must have known, Brian Mattingley for one since he kept seeing me in the classroom on Friday afternoons while everybody else was out parading on Front Field, but nobody apparently told the master in charge of the corp or the school sergeant. It was almost twelve months before they found out.

I was called into the school sergeant's office to be interviewed by he and the master in charge. They told me that cadets were compulsory and that consequently I must attend cadets or leave the school.

By now I had worked my way through the worst of the problems, the heckling had stopped, I had friends, I was doing well enough in sport to fit in there and had carved out an acceptable if slightly eccentric position in the school. So I did not really want to leave. However, I still loathed cadets and was not prepared to shift my position. Despite the pressure (this was not an easy interview for a fifteen year old), I held my ground, said that if the choice was cadets or leaving the school, I would leave the school. They said that they would discuss the matter with Gordon Fisher, the headmaster. The head ruled in my favour.

Conscription brought all this back. But I also had another problem in that my religious views had evolved to the point that I saw taking of life as immoral. One possibility here was to register as a conscientious objector. However, the logic of my position was such that if it was immoral to kill then even registration was immoral because it recognised the state's right to conscript people to kill. So my instinctive reaction was to refuse to register, to follow the same course I had with cadets.

This created a degree of consternation and led to some vigourous argument among friends and family. I was fortunate here in having support from Richard Udy, the local Methodist minister. I do not think that he tried to convince me one way or the other. Rather, he helped me talk through the issues. We finally agreed that I would register as a CO, but would also offer to serve an equivalent two year period in overseas missionary work if called up.

My number did not come up, so in a sense the issue went away. However, it had had had an impact on the way I thought and was also to have important downstream affects on my life.


The Commonwealth Public Service recruiters arrived on campus in the middle of 1966. The Service had undergone considerable expansion and wanted to build up the number of graduates in the service. In doing so, they faced certain problems.

While universities had begun to expand, the number of graduates was still relatively small by today's standards, so there was a fair degree of competition for applicants. Further, Sydney and Melbourne graduates were very reluctant to accept jobs in Canberra. This meant that public service graduate recruitment had a special focus on universities outside those cities.

At that stage New England students considering the Commonwealth Public Service option had five major choices.

The Department of External Affairs (now Foreign Affairs and Trade) had the highest pulling power because Australia's rapidly growing Diplomatic Service offered a variety of overseas positions and considerable prestige. Our diplomats were regarded as a special cadre that carefully selected and then grew its own. Stories about their selection techniques abounded, especially the cocktail parties put on for applicants during which behaviour was carefully tested. I had vaguely thought of applying, but then ruled it out because of my views on the Vietnam War and military service.

The Department of Primary Industry and its research arm, the Bureau of Agricultural Economics, attracted UNE's agricultural economists and at that stage was almost a UNE club because of the number of UNE people. Alf Maiden, the Department's permanent head, had been one of Dad's first students at the New England University College. I was not interested having ruled economics out at that point.

The same argument applied to Treasury. One of the original departments set up at Federation, Treasury had developed from a core financial control and book keeping function into Canberra's most powerful policy Department, ranking in external prestige only second to the Department of External Affairs. Treasury tried to recruit only good honours economics graduates, so I might not in fact have got in even had I been prepared to consider this option.

Treasury's main Canberra rival, the Department of Trade and Industry, was the fourth possibility. Also a foundation Department on the trade side, DTI had become a very powerful Department under John McEwen as Minister, J G (Jack) Crawford as permanent head.

In retrospect, DTI would have been a logical choice for me if I was going to join the Commonwealth Public Service. I had linkages with the Country Party, the party McEwen headed, while Crawford was a friend of my father. I had aspirations to become a Country Party parliamentarian, so DTI experience might have provided an added base.

The DTI recruiter in fact tried very hard to get me to apply, but none of the potential advantages occured to me because the Commonwealth Public Service Board recruiter had already interested me on an alternative option, the Administrative Trainee Program.

At that point the Board faced a major graduate recruitment problem. The Departments I have talked about had sufficient power to attract graduates, but the Board wanted to build graduate numbers across the whole Service and was struggling because of negative attitudes not just about Canberra but about the Service itself. The Administrative Trainee Program had been developed to overcome this.

I saw the Board representative out of curiosity but with no clear intention of applying to join the Public Service. Although I did not know it at the time, I fitted the profile the Board was looking for. I was articulate and reasonably bright, had reasonable academic results, but had also been actively involved in student life including editing the student newspaper and holding office positions in a number of student societies. He therefore set out to sell me on the Program

He explained that the scheme had been developed to train future Public Service leaders. If accepted, I would go through a year's training combining a mix of formal courses with job rotations. At the end of the year I would be placed with a mutually agreed Department. I was attracted to the concept and ended up applying, if still with no firm intention of taking it up.

My exam results that year - second class honours division two - were not as good as I had hoped. Had I got a two one I would probably have gone straight on to a PhD since I was very happy as a student. The two two meant that I had to do my masters first, and the extra time involved did not attract me. So when the offer to become an Administrative Trainee arrived I decided to accept it.

Previous Posts in this series


Anonymous said...

This is fascinating stuff, Jim. I'll get back to it, and refer to it, when I have finished my current sidetrack (?) into Islam and other matters.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil.

I have, of course, been following your material on Islam and other matters. I haven't commented because I think that you are playing a good role in disentangling issues and haven't had anything productive to to add.