No spilt milk

From 1972 to 1984, my boss was Ian Cox, Director General of the Department of Community Welfare. He was an extraordinary man, a visionary who could carry people with him. He was also gutsy. Before my time running McNally Training Centre, brand new in his job, he had gone there at 7.00 o’clock one morning, and walked in on a scene where the Superintendent was caning a boy. The scene was recorded by an amateur historian as follows:

‘Although not as harsh as in the old reformatory, discipline was still extremely strict. For minor infringements of the rules, boys could be placed “on the line.” This was the removal of all privileges including smoking, weekly lolly issue, and attendance at entertainment within the Centre. A boy “on the line” was made to run around the gymnasium for hour after hour. Those who came up to expectations received the “privilege” of being allowed to scrub the stone floors of the ablution area.
Until 1969, corporal punishment was still a feature of treatment with the Centre. After being brought back from absconding, a boy was changed into Khaki shorts and shirt and placed in solitary confinement in a cabin for up to 48 hours. He was then publicly caned by the Superintendent. All the boys in the centre would form a hollow square in the gymnasium and the boy would be led into the centre of the square. The Superintendent then came into the gymnasium and the school was called to attention.
Eight strokes of the cane across the buttocks were administered and the boy was then placed in a solitary confinement cabin for another 24 hours.
He then received a period of up to one month “on the line”.
This was considered as a deterrent to absconding but report of the witnessing of such public punishment indicated that it was a sickening experience.’
(Dave Walsh, “Weekend Notes’ April 11 2014)

Ian Cox walked straight up to the Superintendent and took the cane from him, saying, ‘This stops now.’ After 100 years or more, the cane was put away permanently. This was only one of many sweeping changes he introduced between 1970 and 1980, including a new executive development scheme that gave me the opportunity to be part of momentous reforms. Many institutions, including orphanages, homes for girls to have their babies and then have them taken from them, rehabilitation farms in country areas and reformatories, were phased out, to be replaced with home care, intensive casework, small group homes, bail schemes, community mentors for young offenders, and ‘one stop-shops’ for all welfare services in the main streets of suburbs and country towns.

He did have a couple of serious blind spots however. For one, he was rather straight-laced, and some of the new women who were moving up through the ranks of the public sector obviously rattled his sense of propriety. He would have been aghast to know how several of his executives were using drugs, especially dope, but his chauvinism made him especially likely to imagine the worst of the women amongst us. The other problem was that he was a better talker than a listener, and some very lack-lustre people got to the top because he mistook complete agreement with him for strategic intelligence. ‘Yes Mr Cox, will do Mr Cox’ could get you a long way.

In the early 1980s, the new Minister for Community Welfare became openly doubtful about Ian Cox’s ability to deal with a new wave of necessary reforms, and the atmosphere at the top became increasingly tense. He told me one day—in the back of the Ministerial car— ‘I’m going to have very few opportunities to change a Director General, and I’m going to make sure it happens soon.’ To me it just sounded like he got a thrill from being powerful. Luckily, he made a very good choice.

Sue Vardon was only 36, previously a Regional Director of the welfare department in New South Wales, and widely recognised as a star in the making. She had worked for the notorious Rex Jackson, who later went to jail for corruption. As her Minister, he was a shocking misogynist bully, regularly yelling at his staff, throwing things at them, and using language like ‘Fuck off of all you, useless cunts’ when he wanted to finish a meeting. Sue said the first time this happened to her, she ran to the toilet and cried. Soon she was able to stay in control, anxious and angry, but outwardly composed. Within a couple of months of working closely with him, she was able to sit quietly while he raged, then continue where she had been cut off, as if nothing had happened. She told me, ‘Once he’d had his tantrum, I could usually get him to do what I wanted. All I had to do when he was yelling was imagine him as a little boy naked in the bath, screaming because he didn’t want his hair washed.’ By the time she got to us, her ability to stay attentive, focused and decisive under pressure was the best I have ever encountered.

I was responsible for child protection and multicultural welfare services. Both had been regarded as poor career choices; child protection because there were no good answers, and multicultural matters because the head of the relevant branch was impossible to work with, but well-connected politically. As usual, I had relished taking the unpopular route, and I was delighted when Sue called me in to say I had chosen to lead in the two areas she cared about most. We spent a lot of time together, and I still look back on those days as my best education in what real leadership looks like.

I was able to take some hard, controversial decisions because I knew she would have my back, as long as I had kept her informed. Such as telling the multicultural welfare advisor that his policies were wrong in part, especially where matters of child abuse were involved. No culture believes that children should be neglected and abused, and I was not going to tell our workers to back off when a young child was being hurt because ‘You don’t understand what you’re getting into.’ We needed to do our work better in culturally appropriate ways, but his sort of advice was no help with that. After a couple of difficult meetings, which I reported to Sue, it all ended suddenly when he was charged with misuse of government resources, I think involving cars. The timing seemed to good to be true—I’ve often wondered if his political capital ran out just when he needed it. Anyway, now I could recruit a new, more useful, advisor.

Sue taught me so much. I never met anyone with a greater ability to not cry over spilt milk. She could suffer a huge defeat one day, and literally have forgotten about it the next morning as she concentrated on the next objective. For a department dominated by social workers, to have a leader who needed no time to process her feelings was very strange, but it was a big bonus for me, because I’m much the same, just not as capable of a fast turnaround as she was. I asked her about it once and she said ‘The main thing is to have strong views on as few things as possible. You’ve got this much space to make decisions (indicating with her hands about 60 centimetres apart). Each fixed position uses up some of that space. Choose your few with great care. If you want to give good leadership, that free space, where you are listening with an open mind, not defending your position, is where it comes from. I only get hurt when I lose a battle about one of my fixed ideas.’

We eventually did have a major disagreement about something that touched on one of those fixed ideas, which was that that women and girls had been given a raw deal in most cultures ever since cavemen ran things. Of course, that’s right. But we came to an impasse over what to do about the management of sexual abuse by the legal system. After some high-profile scandals, there was a major government inquiry into child sexual abuse. I was head of the legal responses task force. I had a volatile mixture of people there; a police superintendent, a defence lawyer, a legal adademic, a public prosecutor, the manager of a rape crisis centre, a doctor in charge of a sexual assault service and the Director of the ‘Childrens’ Interest Bureau’.

In our initial discussions, it was clear we agreed on very little. I only avoided total walk-outs by a hair’s breadth on a few occasions, such as when the policeman referred to the rape crisis workers as ‘you girls’ several times in one meeting, even after I asked him not to.

Sexual abuse of children arouses the strongest possible feelings in most people, and this group was no different. The way forward ranged from ‘cutting their balls off’ to more therapeutic services for men, and all points between. The legal academic saved us, by suggesting we look at responses to child sexual abuse in other countries. This gave us some breathing space, as we had to wait to gather the details on several examples. In the interim, I suggested we take time to visit each other’s agencies, and see for ourselves how they went about their work. I particularly remember a group of defence lawyers, who saw the whole exercise as an attack on the presumption of innocence, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who told us pompously that ‘Most of these defendants are simple, brutish men of little intelligence.’ When I suggested that was probably because he was only seeing the men too stupid to realise that pleading not guilty would almost certainly keep them out of court, he was frosty in the extreme. I found out later he thought I was ‘A rather rude young man.’

With a bit of mutual respect coming out of most of these inter-agency jaunts, the task force started to have productive discussions about new ways of handling legal processes. Within a few weeks, we ended up agreeing to recommend a closer look at an approach being used in Santa Clara County in California. This involved asking the alleged perpetrator not to respond to the allegations until they had watched a video, usually of of their child, detailing the abuse. They were then asked to think about a maximum of ninety days in jail followed by a treatment program for two years if they chose to plead guilty immediately, or risking up to life imprisonment if they denied it and the matter went to trial. In South Australia, the rate for guilty pleas was less than 5% (and still is). In Santa Clara, it had shot up to 75%. We agreed to discuss this with our agency bosses. I went to see Sue.

She flat-out refused to even discuss the idea. ‘I’m never going to be party to letting men who sexually assault children get off lightly.’ I ploughed on, explaining that even the rape crisis centre, a radical feminist collective, wanted to explore this, because it resulted in so many more children being believed. I repeated that the current system saw most men get off completely, while their victims were left with a lifetime among family members who didn’t know who was telling the truth. Sue just repeated that there was no way she would allow further discussion. One of her fixed ideas was under attack, and she did not have the space to be a leader on this one. I glumly reported back to the working party that I couldn’t get any support, to find several others had the same problem. I wasn’t surprised the police had found their colleagues were unimpressed, but the defence lawyers were also outraged by this ‘perversion of basic principles of the criminal law’ as one Queens Counsel put it. He actually threw my interim report across the room and stalked out.

Sue and I got on just fine on almost everything else. I found myself in a swirling rumble of discontent from many of my male colleagues, who thought ideas such as setting a target of 50% of our executive group being women was a travesty. In 1987 this was fairly radical stuff, but it was way overdue. Nearly 80% of our front-line workforce was female, but eight of the top twelve people in the department were male. I heard every bad joke about feminists, every male whine that we hear now from Trump, and I did my best to steer around it all. Things got very tense when the top three positions ended up going to women, but I look back with admiration for all of them.

Sue went on to become the founding CEO of one of the biggest organisations in Australia, Centrelink. This was after being sent to run Corrective Services by an incoming South Australian government that didn’t like her style. She showed them, by reforming the prison system in two years, and becoming the ‘Telstra businesswoman of the year’ in the process. I saw Sue the day she was sent to Corrective Services. It was about nine in the morning. She had already been up for hours reading about current issues in corrective services. I asked if she had any sadness about losing her previous job. ’Oh, I think I shed a few tears after the Premier rang me, but that was yesterday. Do you know that our jails are sitting on 99% full most days? That’s got to be fixed’ Off and running; there was never going to be any spilt milk for Sue Vardon.

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