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.