This article was first published in PNG Attitude on 19 September 2007
NOOSA - As regular readers will know, PNG Attitude has been pursuing the story of Alf Conlon, the erratic genius who conceived the idea of the Australian School of Pacific Administration, ASOPA, and then engineered it into existence.
The saga of Alf Conlon's departure from the School is told in John Kerr's 1978 autobiography, ‘Matters for Judgment’.
When he returned to the Sydney bar from ASOPA in 1948, Kerr had handed his principalship of the School to Conlon, who began a losing battle with Canberra over making ASOPA a research-oriented colonial training college with the status of a university.
Conlon, a reclusive figure, also began battling his ASOPA colleagues, who had begun to resent his lack of collaboration and isolationist behaviour.
In 'Matters for Judgement' Kerr writes:
In the end, [James] McCauley led a revolt six weeks or so after Conlon took over. The Registrar rang me in my chambers, said there was a grave crisis at the School, and asked me to go over. And he meant a crisis, there and then.
The staff had had a meeting and had decided that unless Conlon left the School that day they would take some action - I do not think it was actually expressed in the language of a strike; but in reality there was a real risk of teaching ceasing.
McCauley had delivered Conlon an ultimatum, and the Registrar said Conlon had locked himself in his room and was in a state of profound depression. That day at the School he let me in to see him and I said, “What's it all about, Alf?”
“Oh”, he said, “they just ... don’t want me”.
And I said, “You really shouldn't be here, Alf. I think you should go back and finish your medicine”.
He said, “I don't want to be thrown out, and I think they mean it. They just won't teach tomorrow”. He suggested he be given six weeks to find a means of rationalising why he was going.
The tension among the staff was so great it was doubtful whether they would agree to six weeks. I went out to the others and held some negotiations with McCauley.
As I remember it, McCauley said, “Well John, he's got to go, physically, now. As far as we're concerned it can appear publicly for six weeks that he’s still Principal but he must not come into the place - he must stay away”. So something along these lines was worked out and Conlon accepted it”.
And so, having been eased out by Kerr, Conlon left ASOPA at the age of 41 to finish his medical degree and ultimately to practice psychiatry – an apt profession you might suppose. After Conlon’s death in 1961, Kerr told an interviewer:
He was eccentric and unorthodox, and he rubbed a great number of people up the wrong way. He left behind him in Canberra, amongst the bureaucracy, a trail of what one might call oppositionists, and as soon as Alf lost the power he’d got by delegation, [his mentor Field Marshal Sir Thomas] Blamey’s power in other words, Canberra cut itself off from him.