SYDNEY 1983-84 – In 1973, with Papua New Guinea having achieved self-government as its final step on the way to independence, the old colonial training institute, the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA), was reconceived and rebadged.
Early in 1974, as the International Training Institute (ITI), it accepted its first trainee middle managers from developing countries. It was a 180 degree shift from its colonial roots.
Initially the Australian government-funded fellowships in business, local government, management, finance and a few other subjects were mainly provided to Papua New Guineans.
Most courses were of three months duration, six running simultaneously for three terms a year.
But soon the trainees, who would number up to 90 a term, became increasingly multinational – with people from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean joining the programs.
It was a marvellous idea never fully realised. In reaching out to professionals from more than 60 developing countries, Australia was building a significant constituency of people who would become national leaders.
But in 1987, after 14 years, ITI was to be senselessly shut down by the Australian government, foregoing a great opportunity for Australia to establish close and durable relationships at a professional level with much of the Third World.
Meanwhile, late in 1982, after four years I was pondering my possible departure from 2SER-FM when a press advertisement appeared for lecturers’ positions at ITI.
I thought a period lecturing and reading further in communications would be a useful interim step while I considered how I might move on with my career in broadcasting.
When the interview came, I decided not disclose I was running for parliament until I was offered the job, not wanting that impediment to get in the way of the selectors’ consideration.
As it turned out, I got the gig and no sooner had I accepted than Malcolm Fraser called a federal election.
I was quick to phone ITI principal Bob Heron and reassure him that it was highly unlikely I would win the conservative seat of Mackellar. It turned out to be a safe prediction.
A few days after the election, I turned up at ITI, my new colleagues, who had been following my progress in the press, a little awed by my presence.
Although I had been a visiting lecturer at ITI for a couple of years, it felt strange entering this place as an employee.
For the previous eight years I’d effectively been running my own show and I’d just come from the extraordinary experience of a high-powered election campaign. This quiet place was very different.
I cast an eye over my fellow lecturers. They were an odd mix of old colonials, including the eminent former district commissioner Fred Kaad, former NSW teachers’ college lecturers and young graduates with good degrees but little or no developing country experience.
I also discovered there was an old guard-new guard division on campus which principal Bob Heron, in my estimation a fine man, was gamely trying to manage. I found the attitudes of some of the old guard hostile and borderline racist.
But I was busy settling in and had a three month course in development communication to prepare. It was to start in about a month.
I quickly selected the 15 personnel for my first course. They came from PNG, Fiji, the Caribbean, Uganda, Lesotho, Thailand, Brunei, Pakistan and the Maldives. Most were middle managers. Some I knew.
Occupying my attention off campus was an important project to establish a Public Broadcasting Foundation as a funding mechanism for public radio in Australia.
2SER-FM had been fortunate in having two universities as legacy funders but most stations in the sector were small community-based operations and revenue was a chronic problem. The PBF was meant to address that.
I had been Treasurer of the Public Broadcasting Association (PBAA) for a couple of years and getting the PBF up and running was a major goal.
With the assistance of colleagues, I prepared a strong submission for the incoming Labor government which, in opposition, had said it would provide $5 million (about $18 million today) to set up a foundation.
Part of our case was that public broadcasting had become instrumental not only in providing local radio where there was none already but also in training young broadcasters who would move almost seamlessly to creative positions in the ABC or commercial radio.
Most of the considerably talented people in public broadcasting who entranced their audiences were little known to the public at large. Many of them are today big names in Australian radio and television.
Public (now called community) broadcasting has made a significant and largely unheralded contribution to broadcasting in Australia.
To my chagrin and disappointment, the new Labor government reneged on providing the PBF with $5 million (“nothing in the piggy bank mate, Fraser spent it all”), but it did commit a couple of million dollars which was enough to get the foundation going.
In early 1983 an honorary PBF board was appointed and I was elected president. One of our first decisions was to select experienced public broadcaster Brendan O’Dwyer as full-time executive director.
Between my work for ITI and the PBF I was fully occupied and felt that life after 2SER-FM and post-politics was continuing to be exhilarating and meaningful.
Then, around Easter, my marriage of 17 years fell apart. If you’ve ever been through such an experience – and I’m sure many of you have – for everybody affected it is traumatic and painful. For me, it was three or four months of sheer misery.
But life goes on and as Spring descended and the wattle bloomed, so my spirits lifted. The distress alleviated and life settled into an easier rhythm.
Separation from Sue now a permanent reality, I began to go out with other women. One of them, a fellow lecturer at ITI, Ingrid Hallein, and I were to marry in 1985. (We recently celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary.)
In mid-1984, deputy principal of ITI, anthropologist Dr Peter McLaren, a shy and nervous man, resigned and the position was advertised nationally. I applied – and got it.
I’d been assisted in some large part by my 12 years of management experience and by trying to build the reputation of ITI through public relations and an active publications program, including publishing the first annual report produced by the institute.
In my primary lecturing role I had also designed and taught a number of new three-month courses in development communication, media management, media technology and environmental broadcasting.
To these I added a seminar series to open up ITI as an institution eager to engage in discourse with mainstream academics and professionals In Australia.
But my appointment did not please the old guard, especially when I introduced a range of reforms including course assessments by trainees, more social mixing of staff with our overseas visitors and regular monthly reporting by lecturers.
I had not really settled into the new role when two event happened almost simultaneously.
Much to the horror of my ITI foes, two of whom had applied for the deputy’s position and were appealing against my appointment, I was tasked to take over ITI when principal Bob Heron departed on long leave.
At the same time, an advertisement appeared for a number of senior management vacancies in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, which had just undergone a major upheaval under chairman Ken Myer and new managing director Geoffrey Whitehead.
The job that caught my eye was head of education. But Ingrid, with whom I now rented a flat in Mosman, pointed to another further up the page.
It had a strange title - ‘controller of corporate relations’ - and was responsible for the ABC’s government, media, community and international relationships and in-house publications.
Ingrid suggested I apply for that instead of the lesser role. Being an agreeable person, I did.
So late in 1984, within a few weeks of finding myself at the principal’s desk at ITI, I was also sitting in the ABC managing director’s office at Broadcast House in Elizabeth Street being interviewed by a panel of board members.
They were looking at me and I was looking through the window at Hyde Park
Well prepared for the encounter I was. Over a few days in the ITI library I’d scoured the last six months’ newspapers to identify the full scope of the critical political and media problems being experienced by the ABC.
I’d analysed them, investigated their causes and developed a general strategy and some specific ideas for dealing with them.
The panel seemed impressed by my performance but later in the day, when the phone call came, it was to say they could not make up their minds and there would need to be a second interview.
The field had been reduced to two - me and an insider holding down the controller’s job temporarily until a formal appointment was made.
Ah, I thought, I have to come in over the top of an incumbent who knows the job and has built up allegiances. Always a tough hurdle. But not being an insider also has advantages in a struggling organisation with a new chief.
The second interview was not as easy-going as the first. Right from the start, assistant managing director, Stuart Revill showed his allegiance to the incumbent with a question from left field.
“Mr Jackson,” he asked, “do you own a suit?”
As at the first interview, I was wearing my best and just dry-cleaned pair of navy blue slacks, a crisp white shirt and an immaculate grey-blue coat, my only one.
A striped tie had been chosen from my small selection, and it fell to the right length for 1984. I’d also recently had a haircut and had expertly polished over the scratches in my blue shoes. I was as presentable as I was ever likely to be.
But I had to answer the unexpected and apparently hostile question about whether I owned a suit.
“I don’t own a suit, Mr Revill,” I said, “but if you give me the job I’ll go out and buy one.”
The selection panel, except for Revill, laughed.
And I got the job.
Beginning at the end of January 1985, just after turning 40, I would become the ABC’s first Controller of Corporate Relations reporting to managing director, Geoffrey Whitehead, and heading a department of more than 40 people.
Now my broadcasting career was back on track.