The wreckage they left behind
07 October 2021
TUMBY BAY - After leaving Papua New Guinea I went to work for the South Australian Museum in a new unit responsible for Aboriginal heritage legislation.
There were less than a dozen of us and shortly after I arrived we were shifted from the museum to a warehouse with attached offices out in the suburbs.
It was a decidedly casual arrangement and on most days when I wasn’t doing fieldwork I turned up at the office in shorts and tee shirt.
Our clientele tended to drift in and out of the office at will. It wasn’t unusual to find several elderly men and women sitting around on the floor in the main office discussing heritage issues with an assortment of grandchildren in their laps.
There was a patch of lawn out the back with a shady tree and a barbeque pit where people liked to sit close to a warm fire in winter.
If you opened a filing cabinet in the office you were just as likely to find a half-eaten pizza that someone had stored there along with the file you wanted.
In short, our largely indigenous clientele felt quite comfortable with the surroundings.
This suited us admirably and we achieved a great deal.
Then one day we were advised that the department now controlling the museum planned to bring in consultants to spearhead plans for a reorganisation.
I went to a couple of the mandatory staff sessions they were conducting in the city.
The spiel delivered by the consultants had the hallmarks of a first year psychology tutorial.
The vibe was ‘feel good and friendly’, but the main feeling I had was uneasy.
Sometime later we were moved out of our warehouse and relocated to the seventh floor of a high rise in the middle of the city.
Our four wheel drives and other bush gear were moved to a disused government building near the airport.
This was all inconvenient but worse was to come. We were reorganised into a new unit that covered both European and Aboriginal heritage.
This effectively made us an afterthought in the scheme of things but it also made it easier for the department to control our sometimes loud concern about the mining companies and developers destroying Aboriginal sites.
Our Indigenous clientele from the old suburban office wouldn’t have a bar of it and resolutely stayed away.
Old men and women coming in from the bush to see us just couldn’t cope with the traffic or confusing things like lifts.
This suited the new management perfectly.
They had introduced a security system to keep pesky clients at bay. They also put us on time clocks.
Their days were spent with the latest batch of consultants designing interminable organisation charts and shifting the furniture around.
On any given day it was hard to work out who your actual superior was or where you were supposed to sit.
One of the consultants they brought in had the job of designing special corporate uniforms for us.
I tossed mine in a bottom drawer and continued wearing my shorts and tee shirts in summer or jeans and jumpers in winter.
Our old Land Cruisers were replaced with Holden station wagons and we were instructed that while on fieldwork we had to stop work at 5 pm and weren’t allowed to work on weekends.
If you are lumbering across the dunes in the outback with a car load of elders stopping at five o’clock on the dot tended to be inconvenient.
So was sitting around the scrub whiling away a weekend. We didn’t do that but you get the idea of the absurdity of the proposition.
The upshot of this consultant driven idiocy was that we conducted a great deal of our work away from the office.
This necessarily entailed a great deal of administrative fudging on our part. Time clocks and vehicle log books had to be creatively organised to cover our tracks.
This worked reasonably well. An attempt to charge me under the Public Service Act for misusing a government vehicle went nowhere.
That’s when they decided to purge our half of the unit. A consultant was brought in to accomplish the task.
I can still hear his boast that he knew absolutely nothing about Aboriginal heritage and that made him ideal for the task.
He very quickly came up with a new organisation chart and announced we would have to re-apply for our jobs, which would be advertised externally.
That’s when I decided it was all too hard and started making a real bastard of myself.
I was offered a generous separation package and jumped at it.
I used some of the funds to set up a private heritage business.
And lo and behold, the first job I landed was carrying out a heritage survey that normally I would have performed in my old job – except this time I earned four times as much.
Apparently there is still an Aboriginal heritage branch in the South Australian government. It is located near the top floor of a building on Adelaide’s centrally located Victoria Square.
I’ve never met anyone who knows what it does.
Thanks Phil. I guess loop hole ridden legislation is a perfect way to appear to be doing something whilst, in fact, doing something quite different.
As an example, I give you this state's newly de-fanged ICAC. It still exists but has little real power to investigate the political class. The perfect watch dog: debarked and defanged.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 07 October 2021 at 08:46 PM
Thanks Chris. It is a sad story and I've only skimmed over the details. I was asked to write a longer history of the branch but I discovered that I didn't have the stomach for it.
The reorganisation I refer to was the first of many reviews. Along the way even the well-regarded anthropologist, Peter Sutton, had a go but his advice was largely ignored.
The guy who claimed he didn't know anything about Aboriginal heritage was rewarded with the job of rewriting the legislation under which we operated and he produced what is now the current version replete with loopholes that makes it easy for developers to destroy Aboriginal sites.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 07 October 2021 at 03:55 PM
Thank you Phil for this sad story. Those of us who worked in the South Australian public service will all have had similar experiences.
Reorganising the public service is a very popular and profitable exercise. Careers can be built upon such changes, many of which are politically driven in one way or another.
There are frequent changes of names, locations and logos to confuse both the hapless public and more than a few public servants as well.
Comparatively small functional units such as the Aboriginal Heritage Branch become mere pawns in this game.
Sometimes entire departments can be transmogrified into illogical monstrosities such as when the Health and Community Welfare Department's were inexplicably amalgamated to form the Department of Human Services.
The linkages between running enormous and expensive hospitals and, say, the provision of child protection services or adoption services entirely escaped me, beyond the fact that they all involved people.
As might be expected, this gigantic new department soon spiralled out of control when a new executive team was appointed, none of whom had even worked in a hospital let alone actually managed one. What could possibly go wrong?
The key decision makers literally had no idea about the implications of their decisions. Money was diverted from one program area to another according to the policy priorities of the bureaucracy, mostly without regard to its actual intended purpose.
In particular, money was taken from the supposedly bloated and inefficient hospitals and diverted to things like services for the homeless.
This may or may not have been very admirable in a moral and ethical sense but, pretty soon, as waiting times for surgery blew out and doctors began to publicly complain about lack of resources to treat cancer patients, the government experienced what would become lethal existential pain.
This grand experiment lasted four years before a new incoming government finally put it out of its misery and divided it once more into its logical parts.
There will be many other examples of this sort of large scale madness, where a combination of political and bureaucratic ambition, ideology and a fervent belief that organisational problems can always be 'managed' by reorganising as distinct from confronting them head on, have ended up making things materially worse.
Perhaps I can make a few dollars explaining this as a consultant?
Posted by: Chris Overland | 07 October 2021 at 08:28 AM