Teeth at risk

In 1999 I did a short stint as CEO of the South Australian Community Housing Authority, while the agency’s future was being reviewed. The previous CEO had left under a bit of a cloud, so a ‘steady hand’ was needed for six months or so. It was fun, and the mission to deliver housing for low-income people certainly fitted my values, but a bigger challenge came along sooner that I expected.

Another CEO had fallen out with his Board of Directors and resigned, but this time the conservative Liberal Party government was talking about winding up an icon of progressive healthcare, the South Australian Dental Service—known to all as SADS. Private dentists had long argued that they could do all the dental work for school-age children and poor people with improved subsidies, and that there was no need for salaried dentists to be employed as public servants. The Australian Dental Association, really the private dentists’ lobby group, had the ear of the Health Minister. The end of SADS was nearly fait accompli, when the Human Services Department Chief Executive persuaded her Minister that installing a ‘trouble-shooter’ CEO for 12 months was worth a try. My name was put forward, and that nearly scuttled things, because the Health Minister and I had a chequered history, dating back to my role in closing a mental hospital.

A Liberal party elder statesman was sent to see me, to suss me out. He was extremely blunt, telling me that he agreed with the private dentists, and that I’d have a hard job convincing him that ‘a pack of chardonnay socialist public servants’ could do a better job than private enterprise. He looked at my CV, we talked for quite a while, and he decided that it was worth a try, as long as he became a Board member, ‘to keep an eye on you’, and that I undertook to (a) get the budget back into balance within six months and (b) ‘Get the Australian Dental Association and that pain in the arse Professor of Dentistry from Adelaide University to both stop bothering the Minister and Premier with a string of complaints about SADS.’ I do like a clear brief, and I said I’d take on the job.

The Chair of the Board, a recent government appointment, was a private dentist, but he shared with me early on that he had real doubts about winding up SADS, because his best guess was that there was no way his colleagues could do the amount of dentistry required for the same cost. In other words, privatising this public service would most likely cost taxpayers more. But I knew from several politically sensitive previous jobs that the facts are weak in the face of ideology and party platforms, so this was going to be about really good information at my fingertips, a quick return to budget discipline and building solid relationships with the main complainers.

The honeymoon period in any change leadership job is extremely valuable, and I tried not to waste it. I shook a lot of hands, talked to many meetings of staff, and called up briefing papers on every topic that seemed related to SADS losing so much political capital that it had nearly been closed down. The Board, at least half of them Liberal Party stalwarts, several thriving on their role of disseminating damaging stories about SADS, were my first target for spreading the love. I had one-on-one meetings with all of them within the first couple of weeks. It was quickly obvious that a balanced budget would give me some breathing room to assemble more good news about SADS’ value, so that became the top priority.

It took several heated management meetings, and complete re-jigging of financial reporting, to clarify that we were heading for a deficit of about $2.5 million by the end of the financial year, less than nine months away. With a total annual spend of $35 million, most tied up in salaries and essential dental supplies, this was a scary assignment. Not one of my senior colleagues thought it could be done. But we did it, over six weeks of analysis, debate and difficult decisions. Workloads were increased, periods between scheduled dental check-ups were extended, stock-piling of dental supplies was refined to ‘just in time’, capital works projects were deferred or spread over more years, vacancies in non-essential areas were left unfilled, leases were re-negotiated and more dentistry was farmed out to private dentists willing to accept our low rates. No patient was going to miss out on urgent care, we sacked nobody, but we were going to break even. The Board were satisfied, and we had the temporary reprieve we needed to start working towards a better future.

I think my management team surprised themselves with this achievement. What they didn’t know was that I was amazed. This was the most serious bit of cost-cutting I had ever attempted, by far, and my confident demeanour in the first few weeks was more about hope than certainty. Patient, detailed, sometimes gruelling dissection of every spending line gradually yielded up a clear path to survival. It was exhilarating. We had come up with an austerity budget that hurt nobody.

While all this was underway, I was getting to know the ‘stakeholders’ of dentistry, or oral health as it was becoming known. The Australian Dental Association, which had a fearsome reputation as a lobby group, was quite easy to win over. My predecessor had stayed right away from them, but I asked for their help on several matters, especially finding dentists who would take on some of our work at our rates. They did this quickly and graciously, and seemed to thrive on being asked at last. Together with the Professor of Dentistry mentioned above, we worked out a scheme for private country dentists to provide placements for final year dental students. This had been on the back-burner for years, and country people were being denied the extra services that these young trainees delivered under supervision. It was so easy to arrange, and now the Board had the first of the good news stories that I thought might save SADS. The Liberal Party elder statesman, whose constituency was in the country, was delighted. The SADS whisperers in the corridors of power were starting to say the right things.

Dentists, and the dental therapists, hygienists, prosthetists and assistants who work with them, were an entirely new type of colleague for me. Their world was very narrow, focused on the number of ‘teeth at risk’—I kid you not, that was how they measured demand. Most of them had gone directly from high school into the teeth business, and it showed. Except for the specialist dentists, including orthodontists, endodontists, maxillo-facial surgeons and others, most were very shy outside of the oral health world, a bit defensive around medical doctors, and convinced that nobody else could understand their work. Although many were long-serving senior people, they had minimal networks in the bureaucracy and politics of government, which helps explain how they had failed to see the dangers I was brought in to deal with.

The dental therapists were an unusual lot in several ways. They had mostly been recruited about fifteen years before, in a scheme to bring dentistry to all primary school children at an affordable cost to the taxpayer. They were trained to a level where they could do inspection and cleaning of all teeth, and extractions and fillings on milk teeth in younger children. Along with fluoridation of water, the School Dental Scheme was credited with giving South Australian children the equal-lowest rate (along with Norway) of tooth decay in the world. Private dentists were apoplectic about this threat to their monopoly at the time, and they fought successfully against any further recruitment. They were still making scurrilous remarks about the incompetence of therapists when I came along.

The other unusual thing, besides this one cohort all being women and about the same age; 35 to 40 when I knew them; was that they all seemed to be very good-looking. Two of them had been ‘Miss South Australia’ around the time they came into the scheme. I found out later that one of my predecessors had managed the whole selection process, which was swamped with applicants, and he had used his power to fill his working world with beautiful women. I can only wonder how many talented people, men and women, might have come into that scheme if they’d had the chance.

And, like most of their oral health colleagues, all of them had perfect teeth. Before this job, I had never really noticed teeth much, although I was self-conscious that mine were a bit battered and small. Within a few months of being in SADS I was planning my own major upgrade, at considerable cost. Sitting in meetings where everybody had a Hollywood smile does that to you. A friend of mine was/is a very successful private dentist, and he had been telling me for some time that the up-front cost was trivial compared to a lifetime of comfortable eating and a confident smile. Now I was ready. He said ‘If you bought a new car, within a few months you would have forgotten how much it cost—it will be the same with this.’ I had the feeling it wasn’t my new car we were talking about, and I did see him in a brand-new Mercedes convertible soon afterwards. I probably paid for the leather seats.

Over the next year, SADS became the poster-child of the health system in many ways; reducing waiting lists, working pretty much harmoniously with private dentistry and their professional association, and, most importantly, not blowing its budget. We were given extra funding to reduce country waiting lists, and we delivered all of that through private dentists. I involved all of the staff who wanted to participate in a strategic planning process; focusing the priorities for the next few years. It was very satisfying, particularly as I watched jaded people start to get excited about their work.

A few remained grumpily uninvolved. There was a Professor of Dental Surgery who told me to ‘Keep out of my way unless you want me to withdraw my services.’ He ran a clinic in the Dental Hospital. People were told they had a morning appointment or an afternoon appointment. This meant waiting for hours, often to be told to come back tomorrow. I challenged him about it, and he said ‘These people would just be sitting at home watching daytime TV—they’re better off here.’ I stayed in his face until he compromised and divided the day into four sessions. I hate those attitudes to people doing it tough, and luckily he wasn’t typical of most SADS professionals.

With a new strategic plan, a budget that we all knew could work, and a supportive board, we had managed to get fully on-side with the Liberal Party-led Government, just in time to see them get kicked out of government in an election that brought Labor back into power. I found it ironic that this whole change-management process would most likely never have happened if Labor had been running things all along, but they were delighted to give us a small budget increase and take all the credit for saving the public dental service. All’s well that ends well, etc.

My tenure as CEO was short-lived. The new Minister of Health said to me privately that ‘We might use you for some other projects we have in mind.’ I wouldn’t have minded staying with SADS a bit longer, to see the new plan unfold, but it wasn’t to be. The nation’s best dental administrator, who was running the Victorian equivalent of SADS, wanted to come home, and he took over from me shortly after that chat with the Minister. My next ‘trouble-shooter CEO’ job was great, but I have some very happy memories from the time I ran the dental services.

For the first time in my life, most days I had felt fairly confident that I knew what I was doing; that the processes I was leading, and the understandings I could call on to back my judgements were generally about right. I’d learned to be patient, and to be a better listener, and it was working. And I still have those new teeth. As my dentist friend said at the time, ‘Only the best for the boss of SADS’.

A very silly risk

In 1981, I was the District Officer of the Salisbury Community Welfare Department, north of Adelaide. Somewhere in the hot January of that year, the receptionist, a tiny woman prone to grumpiness, came into my office to say that no-one would respond to an urgent call from a man I’ll call John, because they thought he might be dangerous. ‘He’s mostly bluff, but none of this lazy lot will get out there and do the job they’re paid for. This man needs some help. You’re the boss; in my opinion you should either give some orders or do it yourself.’

Winning her over would have to wait; I was looking for a good distraction that day, so I went and grabbed the file, saw the address and took off in the car. Bone-dry winds were swirling leaves in the air as I parked outside a small house, with a bare front yard behind a chain-link fence. I opened the file, registering for the first time that it was very thick, to find that he was a ‘serial and vexatious complainer who sometimes threatened violence when he thought he had been wronged.’ He had a couple of restraining orders in place, from his ex-wife, and a neighbour. The Housing Trust had been trying to evict him from this house because of ‘continually living in squalor’ but he had refused to budge.

‘What a dickhead; should have at least read the file first.’ I was thinking, not sure what to do now. There were no mobile phones then, so discussion with my colleagues wasn’t an option. Then I saw the front blinds move; someone was watching me. I couldn’t just sit there. As usual with me, impatient bravado prevailed and I went to the front door, uncertainty making my heart beat a little faster. There was a rusty screen door, and before I could knock, I heard a male voice. It was glaring sunlight outside; I couldn’t see in, and when I opened the door at his request, the room looked very dark.

‘If you’re alone, come in slowly, and close that door behind you.’ I did, and as my eyes gradually adjusted, I saw I was in a sort of walkway between two high piles of newspapers, leading to someone sitting in a chair facing me. Medium-sized, skinny; the file said he was 30 but my impression was of an older man, although I couldn’t see his face properly. A couple of metres in front of him was another chair, and he said in a low, quiet voice, ‘Just sit down there please.’ As I did so, I saw that he had a rifle in his lap, one hand near the trigger, one in front. As a teenager in the country, I had used rifles a lot, and I knew that position; ready to shoot. By now I was icy calm on the outside, heart thudding in my chest, full of regret, trying to think clearly.

I said ‘Hi John, I’m David Meldrum, from Community Welfare, nice to meet you.’ I leaned forward to shake hands and he stopped me with a hand signal. I took a chance. ‘It’d be easier for me to talk if you put that gun away.’

‘That’s not going to happen David.’

‘Ok, you called the office to ask for someone to come and see you about an urgent issue. How can I help?’

‘You probably can’t.’ Not the answer I wanted to hear. By now I was assessing my chances of making a run for it—zero was the obvious conclusion. I ploughed on. ‘Is this about the Housing Trust?’

‘You know about that? How they think my house is filthy? Look around. What do you think?’ Well, it certainly was overfull. Every chair had a pile of books on it and the floor was covered in waist-high stacks of newspapers. With the curtains drawn and no lights on it was hard to comment on cleanliness, but I was able to say truthfully ‘It doesn’t smell dirty.’

There was a long silence. I guessed he was thinking about whether I was being honest, or just lying to keep the peace. I doubt he had a proper appreciation of how difficult it was to have a polite chat in these circumstances. But then he went on to explain why he kept the newspapers. It was sadly delusional, all about watching for patterns of reporting that showed the government’s real plans for us all. ‘People just aren’t paying attention; the clues are all right there.’ This line of argument went on for many minutes, while I parried with such zingers as ‘Do you really think so?’ and ‘You may have a point there.’ Inane, but all I could think of that wouldn’t sound patronising or even remotely combative. All the time trying not to look at the gun. I was scared to try to move the conversation to an end-point, because I had a sinking feeling what that could be.

It must have been about half an hour after I came in when I took a risk and said, ‘I have to get back to the office soon John. Is there anything I can do that would be of help to you?’ Silence from him. Dry mouth for me. Then he said ‘Tell the Housing Trust this is my house, I’ve been paying the rent on time for seven years, and it is not filthy like they say. I am not moving, and if they try to evict me, I’m not going without a fight.’

I felt a crazy urge to say something honest like ‘John, this can only end badly. You just can’t threaten people with guns and expect everyone to say Oh, alright then, you can stay.’ Instead I said, ‘I can do that John. Thanks for your time, it’s been a useful meeting, and I’m quite clear what you’re asking for. I’ll make sure the Housing Trust understands your point of view.’ I also wanted to say ‘Can I go now, please.’ But I could feel that might come out in a high-pitched squeal, so I just stood up carefully and waited. He didn’t move. I said brightly, “Well, I’ll see you later.’ Turned my back on him and walked very slowly between the newspaper piles back to the front door, trying to breathe evenly. Even outside the door, the path to the front gate was directly in his line of sight; that was such a long way. It wasn’t till I drove away in the car that I breathed out fully, and my hands started to shake.

He did get to keep his house. The Housing Trust people read my report and stayed away for the longest time. The mental health community team stayed away, and so did I and my team. When I got back to the office, the receptionist was unrepentant. ‘I never thought you’d just charge in there on your own. Why didn’t you get the police to go with you?’ I had no good answer for that, so I shut up, and went into the lunch-room, to admit to a few colleagues that I should have asked them why they were refusing to visit John. Going to the home of a man with a history of violence, on my own, with no back-up. As a community worker, I was still green behind the ears. It had been a very silly risk.

The nail technician

From 2009 until my retirement in 2016, I worked for the Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia, a job that involved constant travel, to every part of Australia. The most frequent destination was Canberra, because my core task was to influence the federal bureaucrats and politicians there who dictated policy and funding for my member organisations and the people they served.
I really enjoyed being a Canberra lobbyist, but for me the best part of my work was meeting individuals and families faced with severe mental illness. I was continually blown away by their bravery, creativity and sheer doggedness. Because of my job, and, I hope at least in part, my ability to listen, people felt free to tell me amazing stories of grief, loneliness, hope and, sometimes, triumph over the odds. I want to share just a few examples.

The nail technician

We were all getting grumpy. The plane had been sitting on the tarmac at Townsville for about 15 minutes, since the captain had announced we were still waiting for one passenger to board. Then there was a very glamorous woman in the aisle, apologising loudly, flashing a huge smile and much else as she sashayed towards me. Two big shopping bags, loads of bling and dramatically high heels; no-one could resist staring as she checked the seat numbers. Then she was standing right there, asking if I would mind letting her get into the window seat, and would I help her put her heavy bags in the luggage lockers above us.

For ten minutes or so, as we taxied and took off, I continued with the games in the Qantas magazine. Sudoku conquered, I glanced over to see that she had the most preposterously elaborate fingernail decorations, green and three dimensional, like tiny cream-cakes on each nail, topped with glitter. I asked her how she kept them from being damaged, and she said they would be unlikely to survive more than a few hours, which was partly why she wanted my help stowing the bags. So why? She had been the lead judge at the nail technician of the year finals for North Queensland, and had volunteered to be the model for one of the contestants. This over-the-top adornment was in fact the winning entry.

Ok I confess. I hadn’t expected a riveting conversation, but I was wrong. She had a very successful business on the Gold Coast, and worked as a visiting expert in other salons, hiring herself out at $180 an hour. Her business knowledge sounded very impressive, she lectured and demonstrated her craft across Australia and she was the reigning President of the relevant professional body in Queensland. She owned her own home, and had a bought a house for her mother. And she hadn’t even finished high school.

Then she asked me about my job. I told her about doing my bit round the country to improve services and build community understanding and acceptance that mental illness is everybody’s business. She listened very quietly. After a while she asked me to move so she could go to the toilet. When she returned, she sat looking out the window for a few minutes, until the staff brought us a snack and drink. I turned to find her looking at me intently, and I noticed beads of sweat above her lips. She was clearly very tense about something. As soon as the cabin staff had left she said, ‘My mother has schizophrenia. I’ve been looking after her since I was eight years old.’ A few words for a world of hurt. A few words to remind me yet again not to make assumptions.

At eight, her father disappeared. Her mum had been admitted to the local mental hospital several times after suicide attempts by then, and now this girl in year three primary school had to take over. With a much younger brother to look after, as well as a mum who could barely get out of bed most days, she often got to school late, but her mum made her promise not to say why, ‘Or else the welfare will put you and your brother in a home, and lock me up.’ All through her school years she was afraid every day; that her mum would kill herself; that her little brother wasn’t safe, that she would fall so far behind in school that she would never be able to get a job; and worst, that someone would find out about her mum.

When she was about 15, someone did report the family to the welfare department. Luckily, a recently established community mental health program on the Gold Coast decided to help her keep the family together. In her last year of high school, at last she could go to school knowing that a support worker would visit her mum, and a family day care family would look after her brother until she picked him up after school. With that support, she got to the school leaving age, then decided to go to work.

Now at 34, she was at the top of her profession, and financially secure. As community programs came and went, she had found herself having to re-negotiate home care and accommodation for her mother time and again, until she decided she would pay for it all herself. She bought a small house near her own home, gave it to her mother, and paid for a care worker to visit every weekday. Her mother’s mental health was not improving, and her physical health was deteriorating rapidly, but ‘I’m going to be there for mum for as long as she needs me.’

The plane landed, and I helped her get her bags down. She said ‘Thanks for that.’, and commenced an exit just as dramatic as her entrance. I looked around and saw every male, and many female eyes following her. I wanted to tell them all, ‘She’s so much more than you’re thinking.’

The most dangerous woman

Janet is a well-known activist in mental health circles in Australia, and has been for close to forty years. Although she is hugely respected, she can scare the daylights out of people she disagrees with; famous for some blunt, public put-downs of fellow-activists, senior bureaucrats and government ministers alike. So I take it a sort of badge of honour that she appears to consider me an honourable and sensible person, most of the time at least.

While living in a convent as a nun, in her early 20s Janet had her first psychotic episode. For the next 15 years, she spent more time in secure mental hospital wards than anywhere else. Her schizophrenia was almost unremittingly severe, and she became known as the most dangerous female patient in the New South Wales system. In the notorious Gladesville Hospital, for most of the 1970s she endured;

‘Horrendous abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse—years later when I contacted as many people as I could that I knew had been there and I only ever met one who hadn’t been sexually abused.’ (‘All in the mind’ interview, ABC Radio December 10, 2017)

Janet described to me the moment she began to believe there might be a way out of this. A nurse gave her a remarkable chance, by taking her to his family home at Christmas time, without telling his superiors. She was allowed to hold his newborn baby throughout the evening. One person treating her as an equal, and risking his job to do it, was her turning point.

In 2015, after some debate, Janet agreed to come with me to Parliament House in Canberra, to be the guest speaker at an event I had organised. We sat together as social chatter over breakfast went on between politicians from all parties and their chiefs of staff, some senior bureaucrats, drug company representatives and a few of my national advocacy colleagues. She was very tense, and whispered to me that she was going to say things she had never said in public before. Was I sure it was the right thing to do? I told her it was essential information for these people to hear first-hand, if she was up to it. I did the usual introduction, mentioning her AM award in the Australian Honours system, and her appointment as a Commissioner in the recently established National Mental Health Commission. She stood at the microphone, not speaking for a few seconds, looking into the middle distance, and now it was my turn to be tense. She breathed in, and started talking.

For the next 20 minutes there was no sound except her voice. A quiet, clear voice saying horrifying, scary, sad and also very funny things. All clatter of plates and cutlery stopped. Food halfway to mouths stayed there going cold. I watched faces, and saw tears, hands at mouths, deep breaths being taken, heads shaking and everywhere, utter absorption, even among the serving staff. When she finished, there was an eruption of emotional applause. In my job, this was the sort of impact on funders and policy makers that really changes the conversation. A woman who could have been your sister or mother, who had come back from hell to let us know we had to do better in future.

The first question was ‘Do you still hear voices?’ She looked at me, and after a few moments hesitation said “All the time—it’s happening now. A voice just told me not to be so fucking stupid talking to you lot about this. Of course, we people who hear voices rarely say this, because you all get so anxious about it. We usually lie even to our psychiatrists about it, because they just want to increase or change your medication. And most of us know better than they do what medication and in what dose works best for us. I’ve had 50 years of practice with that one. I don’t like being this fat, but for me, olanzapine, with its well-known weight gain side effects, is an old and trusted friend, so I’m prepared to put up with not having a girlish figure.’

As the breakfast broke up, staff and politicians all going to their frantic rounds of sittings and meetings, people queued up to shake Janet’s hand. Emotions were still high. It is people like Janet that really change minds and open hearts. Afterwards she asked me if she had made any sense. I just hugged her.

The taxi driver

There are so many taxi driver stories I could tell. Probably more than any other situation, these times showed me that mental illness is virtually every family’s business. And even now, retired, it keeps happening. Last week in Melbourne, a long slow trip from the airport started with a typical discussion of the impact of Uber on the taxi industry. This guy, a recent migrant from Lebanon (with remarkably good English, and fluent in French and Arabic) explained without complaint how his income had reduced in three years from a net of $70,000 a year to about $45,000.’Uber will win in the end, and who am I to say that is not better for everybody?’ He has a wife and three children, and I asked how the family got by.

It was getting very difficult, since his wife had been forced to give up work a few months before, ‘because of a family problem’. Then he asked me about my life and work. I was on my way to a board meeting about mental illness policy, and briefly summarised my previous job. As soon as I stopped talking, he said ‘The problem is our eldest son has schizophrenia. He responds best to my wife, so even though her job had been paying better than the taxi income, we agreed she should stay home to look after him.’

We had reached our destination. We sat and talked for a few minutes, him hoping his wife could find some supports for their son so that she could work part-time, me offering a few suggestions about services I knew of in their part of Melbourne. We shook hands warmly, with strong feelings in the air, and he drove away for another long night-shift.

An expert

I mentioned above the meetings I organised in Parliament House in Canberra. One speaker was a middle-aged mother, whose son had paranoid schizophrenia. I think it was ‘Carers Week’ which was a good opportunity to get the attention of politicians, particularly to sensitise them to the load that families carry when one or more members are coping with mental illness.

She talked about her son, how he had been top of his class in school, great at sports, and an outgoing, personable young man. In first-year university, it all went pear shaped when, apparently without warning, he became psychotic, an episode that lasted for many months while he was in hospital care. I say ‘apparently,’ because many people begin to remember that things had begun to change a bit earlier, sometimes years earlier, but put that down to the usual turbulence of adolescence. And it’s true–most boys who shut themselves in their room and play loud music with dark lyrics do not have mental illness.

Anyway, her boy did, and when he came home from hospital, quiet, getting fat, disinterested in any daily activities and ‘talking a bit weird’, she had to think long and hard about how to do this. A single mother, with a reasonable income, she decided that her dearest love, her only child, would never be thrown out of his home, no matter what. That commitment was to be severely, and repeatedly, tested.

Her son began to get into trouble with local people, first by talking loudly to himself in shops, then by abusing a neighbour he believed was spying on him. The police were called to the house several times, and his voices began to tell him that his mother was plotting to have him locked up for ever. Luckily, she had access to a carer support and education program, and had learned a bit about psychosis, what is happening, what to expect, and how to communicate with a person hearing voices.

Matters came to a head when he came into the kitchen one afternoon, got a large knife from a drawer, and told her that she had to stop scheming against him, or he might have to kill her. He told her this while cornering her by the refrigerator, with the knife pointing at her stomach. She said roughly this:

‘You and I both know that the voices are not you. I know some of them are very important to you, but they are not the core of you. You and I are always going to be together because we love each other. So maybe the voices have got a bit mixed up on this one. You know in your heart I will never hurt you, and you could never hurt me.

Now, I know how hard it is for you to concentrate with the voices all talking at once, but I’ve seen you do it. I’m going to go for a walk around the block, and I’ll be back in about 10 minutes. In that time, just try to calm down and think about the lovely tea we are going to have together, before we watch the news and then maybe try a crossword. Can you do that?’

He backed away, and she walked slowly out of the room, her back feeling like the easiest of targets, Outside, shaking, she briefly considered calling the police, then decided this was her life to manage, whatever the risks. Ten minutes later, breathing a bit more easily, she came back to find him sitting quietly in the loungeroom. She walked over, kissed him on the head and said ‘I love you.’ He said ‘I love you too mum, can we have tea now?’ She excused herself to have a shower, where she sobbed for a while, then they had tea together.

I was sitting next to a cabinet minister in the conservative government, a curious blend of a man who was both a right-wing hard enforcer, and someone who had recently revealed he had been fighting depression for several years. He turned to me and said, ‘You’ve brought along some interesting speakers to these meetings David, some of them so-called’ experts’. But none of them can hold a candle to the expert we’ve just listened to.’


In my piece “A very slow degree” (posted on November 12), I committed a serious anachronism.

I said that at Teachers College we were all rocking to “Another brick in the wall” by Pink Floyd in 1968. It was not released until 1979. Perhaps a better choice would have been ‘San Francisco’ by Scott McKenzie. My urge to get in on line is often stronger than my patience with proof reading.

Beating the odds

After several unsuccessful attempts to break into the senior executive ranks of the public service, in 1981 I applied to be a Regional Director in the Department for Community Welfare. This one really mattered to me; mainly for a reason that seems pretty silly in retrospect. It wasn’t because I could do more to shape policies to help people in need. It wasn’t because I would get a pay rise. It was because I was 35, and many years before I had promised myself that I would be an executive by that age. I’ve written before about how I was still feeling the pain of my lost years at university, a delay that had put me a few years behind the people I privately chose to compete with. Several of them had made it, but not me. With only a few months left before my self-imposed deadline, I felt a bit desperate when I was told the position would be going to someone else.

I put in an appeal against the selection decision. I knew the odds for an appeal were very long—about 8% were successful. I wasn’t hopeful, and so I applied for two other jobs; one as a senior lecturer in a social work faculty, and one as CEO of Adelaide’s biggest non-government welfare organisation, the Adelaide Central Mission. The selection processes could not have been more different. The College of Advanced Education (soon to upgrade to be a university) interview was conducted by a panel of 14 people It was some sort of higher appointments committee that met infrequently, and appeared to have no structure or process. The questions seemed vague and rambling. One man slept through most of the interview. I was told they would get back to me.

The Mission interview was a complete contrast. The previous CEO had been kicked upstairs to be Superintendent of the newly formed Uniting Church in Adelaide, and he chaired the panel. Inevitably we got around to my views on religion. There had never been anyone in their senior ranks who was not a leading member of the congregation, usually a priest. So their attention was laser-like as I answered that one. I said that if God is love, then love is God, that is, the supreme guiding principle that underpins the good and successful life of any individual or community. I also said that I had enormous respect for the radical socialist principles that Jesus taught, which gave us a very clear mission to leave no-one behind in our society.

I hadn’t said I was a Christian, and I’m not, and I hadn’t said I went to church, which I don’t, but they seemed to like my answers. Two down, one more to go. I switched my full attention back to the Appeals Tribunal, which was meeting in the same week. This was a very tense affair. Another man at my level had also appealed the decision, so he, I and the guy who had been selected were all in the tribunal, with several people from our Department, who were now effectively a legal team out to squash these two appeals.

I loved this sort of situation, and I had marshaled enough of a case to show that I was ‘manifestly the superior applicant’ for the role. That of course involved demonstrating that neither of the other two could match my credentials. I did a reasonable job of keeping it all non-personal, but I had to prove, especially with the guy selected, that his achievements were just not adequate to take on the job of Regional Director. There was some very pointed repartee all round, with the Tribunal members grilling us, especially on claims we made about our past employment.

That weekend, I felt a great sense of peace. I had put myself in the frame for three top jobs, any one of which I would enjoy doing, and I had come away from all three selection processes feeling I couldn’t have done better. Although a win would be nice, whatever happened next was going to be much easier to accept with that knowledge.

The following Monday was extraordinary. I was notified by all three organisations that the job was mine. They all gave me 24 hours to think over their offer. For me it was easy. Of course, being a CEO sounded very glamorous, and would pay the most, and working towards a doctorate while teaching social work could be a whole new way of having an exciting life. But I was very committed to public welfare services, and I wanted to play my part in making them as effective and accessible as possible. Plus the people who I privately used as benchmarks of success were all in government executive roles. So I accepted the job of Regional Director.

The Professor I spoke to at the school of social welfare wasn’t surprised. He knew me well, and he was pleased that I would be in that department at the top level. But the Superintendent of the Mission was furious. He said he and his colleagues had gone way out on a limb to convince the governing body of the church that this young agnostic could do a great job for them. We parted on frosty terms. And the next meeting I had was even more difficult. The Director General, my boss and now fellow member of the Executive, Ian Cox, called me in to his office and closed the door. I thought he might congratulate me; let me into secrets reserved for the few; but I had mis-read him completely. In an angry, rambling outburst he told me I had ‘destroyed a good man’ who he was sure ‘would have been a fine Regional Director’. It was going to be ‘very difficult’ for him to work closely with me after this ‘nasty business’.

I’d never seen him like this; bitter and unforgiving; and I still don’t get it completely. It was around that time he began having policy arguments with his ministerial boss in the government, which in less than two years’ time would end his career. Maybe my successful appeal looked like treachery from someone he thought of as a loyal acolyte. He’s long dead so I’ll never know. But a week later, we were working together, apparently happily as usual on some major issues, and it was almost as if I had dreamed those awful moments. I like to think of it as a temporary brain-fade. There was so much to admire about Ian Cox that I prefer to remember.

There I was, three weeks short of my 36th birthday, in the executive ranks at last. I had been so hungry for this, ever since my days as a primary teacher, driven by the need to put my woeful early university failures behind me; ‘to join the A-team’ as one colleague put it. It wasn’t the end of that hunger. Wanting more doesn’t just stop when you tell it to. I wouldn’t feel the profound relief of finally getting that monkey off my back for another 15 years or more. But for now, I was having some of the happiest days of my working life. Winning all the glittering prizes in one week, against the odds, is hard to beat.

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.

A very slow degree

Academically, my first few years at University were a disaster. My non-existent study habits finally caught up with me. Without the external pressures of high-school teachers watching me and talking to my parents when I tried even less than usual, I went through each university subject with a cycle of just-adequate marks for assignments and failure at exams. I can see now that I was also out of my depth socially; from the country, with no friends at first, and feeling the ostracism of a public school boy, in a University where old money and family connections meant many of my peers arrived there with a whole cohort of friends from their private schools. The small group I became part of were none of those things, drawn together by our efforts to cope with a sense of being outsiders.

Off-campus, I was enjoying many adventures, earning quite a bit of money at various jobs, and becoming close to the woman who became my wife a few years later. But after three years I had only passed three subjects—at this rate it would take me nine years to get an undergraduate degree. I was running out of options with the University.

My father cut off my allowance after two years, but I still earned enough with various jobs to keep a roof over my head, eat and drink well, smoke expensive cigarettes, play billiards, act in amateur theatre, take my girlfriend out and go surfing whenever I wanted to. I even had a car; an ancient Chevrolet that just kept going and going with virtually no maintenance. Outside the lecture rooms I was living the good life; inside my confidence was rock-bottom and I was getting gloomy about my future. It still puzzles me why I was doing so well at every other job I took on; praised for my work ethic even; but as a student I was so lacking in confidence and bereft of any plan to get better marks. Was this the legacy of my father’s constant belittling of me? I guess I’ll never know, and in any case, I’ve always had a fierce aversion to blaming others for my troubles.

At the end of 1966, I was ready to consider anything. Eventually I made a decision not to follow a friend of mine into the merchant marine as a trainee officer, and to go to teachers’ college instead. At that time there was a small allowance for these students, your university fees were paid, and there was a structure not unlike high school for the education subjects. I accepted I needed that structure to have a chance to turn this all around.

At first it was a one bitter pill after another. At 20 I was two or three years older than most of the other students, and much more radical; we didn’t have much in common. I was put on probation after only a few weeks, for being seen smoking in public, hitch-hiking to the college and for wearing rubber thongs instead of proper shoes. At my disciplinary interview I was told that it would be better if I shaved off my beard. The College principal said ‘Most of the men I’ve known who had beards were troublemakers with a chip on their shoulder, and some were outright communists’.

This was 1967, and his days were numbered. By the end of that year, many of the lecturers were smoking, bearded, wearing thongs, swearing and openly debating the value of school education. Scott McKenzies’ ode to hippies, ‘San Francisco’ was like an anthem for a growing minority of staff and students. And the first wave of baby-boomer feminism was coming on like a tsunami, throwing into question all our comfortable assumptions.

Such as the ‘private talk’ the college principal had with us male students. “You have all chosen the best possible career path. Two thirds of the students here are female. Within five years or so, most of them will be off having babies. The demographics mean that there will be a shortage of teachers for the next ten to twenty years. Play your cards right, and you will be the principal of your own school before you’re 30.’ He retired shortly afterwards; just in time to avoid the furious backlash from the women at the college that he so richly deserved.

Ironically though, I had been right to choose teachers’ college. The rigid structure worked wonders for me, and I began to pass every subject. In the middle of the year, I got engaged to be married; that also settled me down and helped me develop some regular study habits. In fact, I don’t think I ever got less than a credit grade in any subject after my engagement, something for which I will be forever grateful to my ex-wife. Acting had been a passion of mine until that time. I loved the stage, and being somebody else for a change. But as the end of year exams drew close, I turned down the offer of the lead role in a Beckett play because I knew I just couldn’t do both things well. The lazy boy from high school was starting to grow up a bit.

I had some scars from those first wasted years at University that didn’t fade easily. Friends from high school had degrees and the well-paid jobs that went with them, while I was still in teachers’ college, boosting my small allowance with odd jobs. At one stage I had lectures from 10 AM until 3 PM. I managed to fit two jobs around that—a very early start sweeping factory floors, and a late shift three days a week driving a taxi. Sometimes I didn’t have time to shower before the morning lecture, so I would have a quick wash in the toilets then sit down and try to stay awake. I still got good marks, by working hard on the weekends and the evenings I wasn’t in the cab. Looking back, it was quite an achievement, but at the time I saw myself as a failure who had to keep running to have some chance of catching up.

After three years at teachers’ college and university I had a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma of Teaching and the Teachers Certificate that would allow me to practise. It had taken me six years to get a three-year degree, but it was done at last. Typically, my dad got drunk the day of my graduation and didn’t even turn up. Mum was stoic about it, but I could see how hurt she was. He doubled down the next day by telling me that just because I had a degree, I shouldn’t ever imagine that I was as smart as he was. It hurt a bit, but his grip on my self-esteem was weakening. I knew I didn’t have his drinking problem, I knew I was turning into a reasonably dependable worker, and that I had good potential to succeed at higher study. I was coming around to seeing him as an unhappy man who said things that I didn’t need to accept. I had enough on my plate with my own self-criticisms without letting myself be upset by him anymore.

That year, 1969, ended very well for me. Marriage was a great adventure, we had a funky apartment in an old mansion and a great circle of friends. The University was encouraging me to take up a master’s program, and I was offered a job as a part-time tutor in the Politics Department. About to begin my first teaching appointment at a primary school in the Northern suburbs, it was all coming together. The deep dents in my confidence were beginning to ease a little, although they remained a major issue for at least another ten years. I kept defining myself by those school friends who were three years ahead of me because of my slow start, convinced they had some elusive strengths that I couldn’t understand. Objectively, my work career in those years was a great success, enjoyable, fulfilling and well paid, and I did start to believe in myself a bit more. But even in my mid-30s, a besotted parent, and a young Regional Director, the nagging feeling that it could all come crashing down never quite left me. Looking back, it was nearly all wasted worry, wasted time, wasted self-absorption. But there you go—you do the best with the psyche you’ve got.

All that jazz

(This is a re-working of an earlier piece with the this name, to include more about my work with the Helpmann Academy)

Recently we went to the Helpmann Academy jazz student awards night. I’ve been to quite a few over the years. Actually, I helped establish the awards more than 20 years ago, when I was the first Director of the Academy. How it has grown. The prizes now total more than $15,000, compared to my first cup-rattling efforts, which raised less than $2,000. And the event has developed from when students, their families and friends and a few jazz buffs came to a hall for a performance, into a social event that the glitterati can’t afford to miss. A four-course meal and wines at the Hilton, entertained by a superb 8-piece graduate student ensemble lead by an outstanding musical couple from New York, the Hot Sardines. A couple of hundred people paying $150 a head—for Adelaide, this is hitting the big time.

The skill of the graduating students lit me up as always. I love watching live music in many forms, and especially jazz. The star 21 and 22 year-olds can bring me to tears with their sincerity and sheer joy of playing well. I was particularly struck by the young woman on the bass, who was nailing it with flair and passion, claiming the rightful place of an instrument that so often gets lost in a band. These musicians are on the cusp of professional standards in their chosen instrument (or voice), but we all know that very few of them will break through to earning a good living from jazz. For that you need really out-of-the-ordinary skills, ridiculous amounts of luck and a single-minded drive to put music before all else. So my joy at their performances is tempered with the sadness of knowing that because we can’t find a way in our societies to value our best artists equally with our lawyers, scientists and business entrepreneurs, nearly all of these talented youngsters will never be professional musicians. But thank heavens they keep coming and keep striving; they will have some great adventures along the way, and our lives are enriched.

Establishing and running the Helpmann Academy for a few years was my one and only job in the arts world. When I took it on, I was advised to show no preferences, or any above-average acquaintance with any art form. Trying to bring together teachers from all the visual and performing arts meant meetings of people who had little regard for each other and suspected the worst intentions in any co-locations or joint subjects. I had to turn off my office radio, usually playing classical music, and show equal amounts of admiration for jewellery, jazz and dancing; for classical music, acting and ceramics; for painting, textiles and photography. This turned out to be no hardship, because I found joy in all of them.

The concept of the Helpmann Academy had started with a grand plan to spend large amounts of money on a new central location, named in honour of one of South Australia’s most famous exports, the dancer and actor Robert Helpmann. The Academy would bring together the visual and performing arts schools of the three universities in Adelaide, and the Vocational Education (called TAFE in South Australia) institutes. In 1989, before a recession and the State Bank disaster that created a $3 billion hole in the public budget, all this had seemed feasible. With real money promised, all the players were seriously interested. We were going to take on the VCA in Melbourne, and WAAPA in Perth, and show them that the Festival City was the future of elite arts education.

Early in 1994, with a new Liberal (meaning conservative in Australia) Government, the Academy, which had been in the bottom of the ‘pending’ basket for a year or more, got a new lease of life because the Premier had heard that the Helpmann family’s sole survivor, Robert Helpmann’s sister Sheila, might be interested in a large bequest to honour Robert. But the Universities and TAFE were not enthusiastic without guaranteed money on the table.

I was ‘in the waiting room’, the phrase used for Executives who were persona non grata with the Liberals just then, who had been removed from their posts (Director of Schools in my case) and told to sit in their office until something was found, to be offered on a take it or leave the public service basis. I’d just been to see my old boss in the Health Department, because he wanted me to revolutionise a large institution for disabled people. I was keen but I suggested he had better check with the Premier’s office before we went ahead. The answer, which I could see shocked my colleague, was ‘No significant jobs for Meldrum, we’ve got a little project that’s going nowhere that he can have a go at.’ All this was payback for a run-in I’d had with the then Leader of the Opposition over the closing of a mental hospital. I’d been warned, and now it had happened.

I was told to report to the Director General of TAFE for further instructions. He passed me on to his deputy, who told me my only job offer was to have a go at breathing life into the Helpmann Academy. With a young family to support, I didn’t hesitate. Surprisingly, it sounded just like my sort of thing; an office, one assistant, two computers, no money and an ambitious vision nobody seemed to think would become real. An odd characteristic of my ‘imposter syndrome’ is that I always preferred jobs where I couldn’t make things any worse. What others sometimes saw as career-suicide bravery was really me playing it safe.

Once I’d been confirmed as taking on the project, with the lowly title of Coordinator because the Universities had made it clear nobody would be telling them what to do, I was asked to meet the Premier. This was a little tense, given our history, but he got straight into explaining that my key job was to ‘get the Helpmann millions for South Australia’. I hadn’t realised that Robert Helpmann had come from a seriously rich family in Mount Gambier, where they ran 250,000 sheep at one time. The Premier was guessing they were worth more than $100 million, and wrapped up by saying ‘That money came from South Australia, and it belongs back here.’

I had nothing to lose, so I just went for it. I got appointments with the three Vice-Chancellors and the Director General of TAFE in the next couple of weeks. I found them cautiously interested, but all wary of each other. It was astonishing for me to hear these people bagging each other to someone they’d just met. I started trying to imagine how I could ease their minds, and/or leverage off that competitive energy to give the project some drive. The best idea came from one of the VCs. ‘You need a Board David, with a chairperson who has nothing to do with any of us, but is impeccably connected and powerful. That way, none of us can try to get the upper hand.’ Judith Roberts popped into my head immediately.

Judith had recently achieved what was thought impossible, the closure of the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital, to be amalgamated into an enlarged Women and Childrens Hospital. She was a doyenne of old Adelaide society, known and to some extent feared as a maker and breaker of reputations. I knew she liked me, and she accepted the gig with alacrity. We met as a board not long after, with her in the Chair, the three VCs and the DG of TAFE, together with the head of a big legal firm, ——————

On the plus side, everybody liked the idea of me chasing the Helpmann money, and in return they gave me the OK to talk with their academics about collaborative projects across institutions between complementary courses. The DG of TAFE also announced a grant of $150,000 from the government to be used to give students extra opportunities. But when the head of the legal firm asked if the four teaching organisations were seriously interested in benchmarking their standards against top schools interstate and overseas, so we could work towards a claim for excellence, he got a flat no. A stony-faced, we won’t be going there, flat out no. Collaboration yes, but transparent competitive standards, no way. The original concept of a world-beating centre of arts education died right there.

The collaborative projects came thick and fast. I learnt a light touch, giving new opportunities rather than pushing for change, such as the combined music schools’ performance of the Berlioz ‘Requiem’ at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre, which attracted 4,500 people. The Governor was there, heads of government departments; most of the A-list of Adelaide society came. Judith and I went to see her old family friend, the CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, who gave us $40,000 on the spot to make it happen. She had real door-opening muscle. The government minister now responsible for Helpmann had a Chief of Staff who was a Berlioz nut, and he was totally loyal to me after that night.

The two schools of acting, long contemptuous of each other, came to me to propose a merger. This gob-smacked everybody, me included. I couldn’t understand the process of these warring tribes getting to this point; too many harsh words had been traded for several years. It lasted a few weeks, not even making it to the first joint performance. They divorced on the grounds of irreconcilable differences and exist separately to this day. Several other projects were moving along slowly, with reasonable cooperation between like courses, but serious talk about mergers faded for a few years. Except for music, there have been none since.

I concentrated on the Helpmann money. I visited Sheila Helpmann in her amazing Elizabeth Bay apartment, one of the best bits of real estate on Sydney harbour. We hit it off immediately. I loved her endless stories of Hollywood and London, and the gossip about the rich and famous. At 78, she had seen all the golden years of Hollywood, and she knew them all. One day Katherine Hepburn called her on the phone, and I had to wait for nearly half an hour. She liked what I had to say about the potential of the Helpmann Academy, and decided to come to Adelaide to talk to the Premier and her old friend the Governor, Dame Roma Mitchell. Old friends. Old family friends. So this is how it worked.

It was a huge success. The Premier was almost embarrassingly polite and deferential to Sheila, and she and Dame Roma spent many happy hours together. They went to the ballet one night, as the honoured guests of course. After another trip by me to Sydney, to talk more about the future, she called me. ‘David, I have decided to endow the Helpmann Academy. I had been planning to place the bulk of the money with NIDA, the Sydney Conservatorium and the Australian Ballet, but I am re-thinking all that. Robert would have wanted me to do this. When can you come over again—I’d like to take you out to a celebratory dinner.’

It was also her birthday that week. I sent a huge bunch of flowers which she rang to thank me for. Then, that same day, she had a massive stroke. She never regained consciousness, and died two days later. Her ‘constant companion’, also called Robert, called just before she died, and said he had never seen her happier than in the days before it happened. She’d loved the times she had spent with me. He added that he thought the excitement may have been too much for her, which made me feel a bit queasy. At the funeral, several people came over to congratulate me quietly, telling me they were so happy she lived long enough to endow the Helpmann Academy. But I was starting to find out that they were wrong. In Australia at that time, the fact that she had a very clear will, and had not changed it, or even given her lawyers notice that she intended to, meant we had no prospect of a bequest.

The Premier was furious. I was amazed I had come that close to such a huge coup, and looking for some sign of shared sadness at the loss of a lovely lady, but he was having none of it. The Crown Solicitor was called in, to give the same advice I had. After a few days of getting other legal opinions, it was over. Those Sydney institutions, already the richest in the country, got the lot. And the Helpmann Academy’s time on the short list of projects that might have cast a rosy glow on the new government were over.

After that, my fund-raising efforts were continual, but always at the usual Adelaide arts philanthropy level of a couple of thousand here, lots of smaller amounts there, and very occasional gifts of as much as $10,000. We once raised more than $20,000 at a glittering dinner/performance in the Hilton, and several Helpmann initiatives we dreamed up then remain as good as anything else in Australia, and better than most. So many young people got new opportunities from Helpmann; grants, mentorships, prizes, access to famous visiting artists, and even residencies overseas. It wasn’t the grand affair envisaged in the late 1980’s, and it wasn’t rattling competitor institutions anywhere else in the art education world, but it was pretty good. And one of my perennial favourites has been the jazz awards I was describing above.

Jazz has been in my life from my first memories, because of my Dad. He was a good pianist, mainly in jazz forms but also trying his hand at the classics. A family legend was that Mum and Dad had to sell his Bechstein grand piano when she was expecting me, because they needed the space in their small house in Scotland. As a teenager he had dreamed of playing in a jazz big band, and he managed to get one gig when the piano player in a Glasgow outfit got sick. To his horror, he realised almost instantly they began rehearsing that he was nowhere near good enough to fit in smoothly, and he didn’t even ask if he could play with them again.

The connections he had made had one great result however. In August 1938 Fats Waller came to Glasgow, for one night only. Dad got the job of being Fat’s minder for a whole day of rehearsals. Most of the songs we were listening to on records 20 years later, he heard live that day: ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’, ‘Honeysuckle Rose’(Dad’s favourite), “The Joint Is Jumping’, ‘Your Feets Too Big’ and my favourite, ‘Two Sleepy People’. He had to stand near the piano while Fats played, and keep his gin glass topped up. A whole bottle of Gordons was consumed, but Dad didn’t find out till much later what the frequent trips to the toilet were about. Fats snorted many lines, was full of gin, and yet kept on playing and singing, in my Dad’s words, ‘like an angel’. Again, Dad’s self-esteem as a pianist took a big hit. For the rest of his life he wrestled with the deceptive intricacies of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, but drunk or sober, he just knew he never came close to the casual artistry of Fats Waller. I thought Dad sounded great, but there was no way into his damaged psyche on this topic.

With music so central to my happiness, one of my chief delights about being in the Helpmann Academy was that my office was adjacent to the rehearsal spaces for the jazz students. Listening to some of the first-years was a bit tedious, but when they were final-year and Masters students, it was like being in a night-club all day long.

In 1994, my Dad was in a nursing home, dementia having long finished off whatever comfort he had enjoyed from playing a piano. One day that year I sat still in the office for an hour or more, as a gifted student—I never saw who—worked hard to get ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ right on the piano in the room next door. I was trying to write a report, but I had to give up and just drown in the beauty of the piece and the images of my father. That young musician would never have known of the middle-aged man in the room next door, sitting very still, misty-eyed and lost in memories.

With the 25th anniversary of the Academy pending, I’ve been reflecting on those days, filled with hope, adventures among the rich and famous, some despairing moments, but many more of pure pleasure. For a variety of reasons, I moved on to another job in 1997. It was partly due to some major own-goals in my personal life, and partly a sense that this wasn’t my true vocation. Of course, I had loved helping a prodigiously talented young pianist get to the Prague Competition, a violinist win a scholarship to Julliard in New York, or a group of visual arts students to work with their counterparts in Yogyakarta. I read last week that since that time, more than 5000 students have won those grants, awards, residencies, exchanges and other extra chances to shorten the long odds against success in the art of their choice. It’s not a bad record, even if it’s not the game-changer I was hoping for.

But it was time to move on. Young offenders, abused children, marginalised homeless people, men and women struggling with mental illness; these and others have always been my natural element. A real job for me was helping the punters battling stigma, rejection and ham-fisted efforts to deliver health and welfare services when and where they needed them. In the next few years I was privileged to get several great opportunities doing just that.

February 16th 1983

February 16th 1983—The Age newspaper

‘Emergency services were stretched beyond their limits as more than a dozen major fires around Adelaide and in the mid-north and south-east of the State took their toll in the State’s worst fire in memory.’

That day was always going to be very dangerous. 45 degrees or more in many places, and fierce gusting winds made for a freakishly high fire danger. And it turned to catastrophe, in the lushest parts of the state, the Adelaide Hills, Mid-North and the South East, where the grass, bush and trees were enough fuel to make infernos.

I’d driven from Adelaide to Murray Bridge, along the South Eastern Freeway, and I was scanning the horizon for smoke. None so far. But the car was being buffeted by the cross-winds, and I was very pleased to have air-conditioning. Two hours later, 7 people were to die near here, fleeing in their cars, just too late to make it out of the Adelaide Hills.

I got out in Murray Bridge to find I had to lean against the wind, and I was shocked by the heat that made it hard to breathe. In the office, still not knowing if there were any fires, I decided to take a look at the State Disaster Plan. I had a vague feeling I had an official role in it. And there it was—as Regional Director I was the Functional Services Liaison Officer (FSLO) for the whole South East of the State if required. I had no idea what that meant, so I was poring over a bulky pack of materials when my deputy, Malcolm, came in to tell me there were big fires in the Adelaide Hills and the South East.

I rang the State Operations Centre, and asked what they wanted me to do. ‘Get to the South East ASAP, and start coordinating relief efforts.’ Malcolm and I jumped in a car, and set off on what would usually be the four-hour trip, which we managed in three. About an hour from Mount Gambier, the biggest town in that region, we entered the fire zone. At first it was just smouldering bush and grass lands, but we were soon in big tree territory, and there the damage was total. Fences, sheds, vehicles and houses near the road were all smouldering ruins. Most distressingly, we saw cattle and sheep that had survived, but were badly burnt, standing on the black land, surrounded by those already dead. For the next day or two, it was the job of farmers and police to shoot the survivors and organise great pits for mass graves.

In Mount Gambier, I quickly found out I wasn’t needed yet. Many fires were still out of control, and while all those who died were already gone, the danger was still very real. The whole focus that afternoon and evening was on rescuing people and fighting fires. It wasn’t till the next morning that I was able to tour the assembly points, where hundreds of people had slept, while rumours swirled of whole towns being consumed. I could see immediately the locals were doing very well without a State Disaster Plan, much as country people have always done. Food and clothing was being found, and volunteers were looking after old people and taking the children to school while their parents started to re-build their lives. Then I got distracted by the politics of disaster. It turned out that the top brass in Adelaide had told all visiting dignitaries to contact the FSLO—me.

So, the Premier of South Australia, his Minister of Agriculture and some very senior public servants were coming. But the Governor, who has a largely ceremonial role, was also on his way, and to top that off, the Prime Minister of Australia was about to land at the airport. He was in the midst of a political crisis and it looked like the end of his career might be weeks away, so being seen on the front lines of disaster was too good to pass up. Accompanying this over-supply of VIPs would be a large number of reporters and cameramen. The minders of all these people were contacting me about where to start their tour. I wanted to get them all in the same place, the main assembly point, so lots of public pack-patting and offers of condolence together with photographs could happen at the one time, but the Prime Minister’s man said he wanted the PM and his wife to visit a place where there would be no-one else hogging the attention.

So off we went to Tarpeena, a tiny town to the North, where half the houses were gone, and a couple of people had died. The PM, Malcolm Fraser, was a huge man, nearly two metres tall, and his wife towered over me. I arrived in time to see a phalanx of reporters lead by these two giraffe-like figures into the hall where volunteers and survivors had gathered. Mr Fraser hurried around the room, shaking a few hands, then demanded to know if the fires near here were still burning. So, while his wife Tammy stayed and sat with the locals, doing a great job and winning my admiration, I and all the reporters had to follow the large white government vehicle containing the PM to find the fire-front.

On a small dirt track we were stopped by a fire-truck, with blackened, weary men staring at all these cars and people, obviously unimpressed, as the chief explained that we could go no farther. Just then a radio call alerted them that the fire was turning back and coming our way. People started to get back in their cars, and reverse out, but the PM insisted on photographs, and strode over to lean on a fence, staring imperially towards the building smoke-clouds. A few reporters got their snaps and got out as quickly as they could, but I was the FSLO, a job reserved for hardy types, so I couldn’t desert my leader. Mine was the last car out, and I should confess here that it turned out to be a false alarm in any case.

Mercifully the PM had to return to Canberra to try to save his political skin (to no avail), so it was back to Mount Gambier, where the other dignitaries were gathering at the assembly point. Again, there was no real need for me, except to spend time with all the social workers and others who worked for my department. I was going to be a glorified tour guide. The Governor approached me, and asked me to join him in his car, as it had been decided we would go to Millicent, 40 kilometres to the West, to show support for victims and volunteers there. I set the Millicent end up with a couple of phone calls. When it came time to go, protocol demanded that the vice-regal car be in front of the Premier’s, with all others to follow. I counted fourteen cars behind us as I got into the front seat of a brand-new Rolls Royce. The Governor was new in his job, a recently retired general, and as he shook hands and introduced his wife to me, he said ‘Isn’t she a beauty?’ meaning, I quickly realised, the Rolls. ‘Brand new this week. I can’t tell you how fast we were going coming here, I’d get into trouble, but she goes like a rocket.’

In a Rolls, it really is so quiet you can hear the clock ticking, which is why the chauffeur had to lean in close to whisper ‘How do I get to Millicent from here?’ Now, I knew the main road, but we were in the back blocks of Mount Gambier, and I had been following other cars all day, not thinking about the route. I took a punt, and got it wrong. We did find the main road eventually, but not until a long procession of cars lead by the Rolls had weaved slowly through the streets of East Mount Gambier for about fifteen minutes. Puzzled locals gazed at us, wondering, I’m sure, about our motives in inspecting these suburbs on such a day.

From Millicent, the Governor left to go back to the Adelaide Hills fire sites, so I caught a ride with some bureaucrats. We took a side trip to visit a few properties that had been destroyed. We pulled up near one, where we could see a man, a woman I think was his wife, and a police officer talking, sitting on a verandah beside the smouldering remains of a house. The Premier, John Bannon, asked us all to stay with the cars, forbad photos, and walked alone across the black paddock to the group. For the next fifteen minutes or so we waited while he spoke quietly with them, arms around the man’s shoulder. I never felt prouder of a politician.

As he was returning, we heard a loud noise, a sort of thunderous groaning, and we all turned to watch as a huge gum tree, most likely hundreds of years old, began to lean, then to fall. It had been burning inside for more than 24 hours, and had no strength left. The ground shook as the main trunk hit, accompanied by many sharp explosions as the major branches snapped. We were all a bit stunned and so sad; it was like watching an elephant die, finally felled by a fire that would never have been so ferocious before the nearby commercial pine forests were planted. The fire-storm created was so hot that people saw flock of birds explode into flames in the air. These ancient gum trees, so majestic, were lost in large numbers that day, something nature on her own would never have allowed to happen.

Once I saw off all these visitors, I started talking with the various groups that were at work with mopping up and welfare tasks. I could see that some people were getting fragile, and frustrated by lack of coordination, so I assumed my FSLO rank and called a meeting of the heads of all agencies for that evening. It was very productive, but harrowing. I watched a young police inspector with old mans eyes describe the forensic work his team had to complete so that identifications could be certain. I felt the undercurrent of panic when the meteorologist told us the weather was hotting up again. And I heard about the apparent impossibility of getting the immediate assistance payments that the Government had announced. I decided to make that my job.

The good side of this was the hugging, the offers of cooperation across agencies and the accurate information about areas of most urgent need. There was a strong feeling of pulling together that gave new energy to very tired people. I felt I’d actually done something really useful.

Next morning, I found the problem with the assistance money was that the Commonwealth Government, which was covering half the cost, was insisting that every person asking for the money had to fill in a specific form together with presenting ID, forms that no-one could find. I rang the Operations Centre, to try to get this squashed, but no dice. ‘We have to minimise the chances of fraud’ I was told. The money was there, in Post Offices just waiting, but no-one could get it. I established that the form did exist, but that because it was so rarely used, it was most likely the only stocks were in the main Adelaide Post Office. Five hours drive away.

Then an officer came on the phone, also a David, who I knew from a previous job. He asked me if I could authorise him to get the air force to fly the forms to Mount Gambier in an F111 fighter jet. It would only take 40 minutes flying time. I airily agreed to this military deployment, and David rang me back excitedly a few minutes later to say it was all go, and he would be a passenger carrying thousand of the forms. I’m sure he was wetting himself, and it was pitiful to hear his voice when I rang back a few minutes later to tell him that a stock had just been found in Mount Gambier after all. No F111’s required. ‘Are you absolutely sure?’ ‘Yes, great idea on your part, and thanks for all your efforts. The main thing is we can start helping people now’. But I’m guessing he thought it was the worst ending ever to a boys’ toy saga.

The next couple of days were full-on. I made a quick trip to Kalangadoo, a small town terribly damaged by the fires. With dead cows and sheep still lying everywhere on blackened ground, it was like some dystopian nightmare. My main purpose was to check that the financial assistance scheme was working, but I also sat down with some locals who only two days ago had been huddled together on the school oval as the fire raged around them. This included about 30 school children. I could see there were quite a few who would need to talk this out in the coming days.

Then I flew back to Adelaide in a small plane to put my case for a longer-term relief effort. There were several hundred people in deep trouble. Most of the local helpers, whether volunteering or paid, were doing wonderful work, but they were needed back in their day jobs soon. Together with a few of my local staff, led by Liz Moriarty, we had cooked up a scheme to recruit up to 40 locals with the right skills and networks to work as ‘bushfire relief workers’ for two or three months. Several people wanted to know how we would find that many social workers, psychologists and other health professionals who would agree to work around Mount Gambier. Liz and I agreed that was not who we were after. Watching the police, the fire-fighters, the teachers, the shop-keepers, insurance agents, stock and station merchants and farmers who had stepped up in the first couple of days was inspiring. These people had the skill-sets we wanted, and we wanted to pay them their normal salary to be seconded to roles that many of them were already playing. My Departmental boss, Ian Cox, and the Premier backed the concept immediately, and I went back the next day armed with a more or less open budget.

It wasn’t an easy week. My staff were tiring out, and I was a bit frazzled myself. One thing on my mind was how difficult I found it to persuade my four-year-old son that I wasn’t going to be burnt in the terrible fires he saw on the news every night. While I was in Adelaide we talked for a while, sitting in his sandpit, and I wasn’t sure he believed me when I said there was no risk to me. A little boy you love staring straight into your eyes, wanting that assurance, stays with you, and I did get upset in private.

I think there were seven funerals in about three days, several for friends of my staff. But we were all delighted with the enthusiasm for our scheme, and we soon had more applicants than we could handle. As we predicted, many of the people who had been in the field in the first couple of days wanted to continue helping their friends and neighbours. Our endorsement of their rightness made us many friends in the South East.

There was so much need out there, and we had most of our new workers on the road within a week. Insurance claims, new clothes, loan cars, credit cards replaced, electricity re-connected, council rates and bank repayments deferred, fencing contractors found—the list was endless. But they were splendid. I was so impressed with these people, just getting on with it, leaning in or giving space depending on need, finding practical solutions, busting red tape in ways that never seem possible except in a disaster. It reinforced an ongoing aspect of my way of working in health and welfare settings. I didn’t believe, and I still don’t, that qualifications, quality standards, discipline guidelines or any of the other planks of ‘professionalism’ bring any guarantee that the right help in the right place will actually happen. There is often a smug certainty in that world of professionalism, and certainty has never been my companion. In that sense, even though I have social work qualifications, I wasn’t really a member of any of the professional tribes.

These relief workers were helping their neighbours, so they started without detachment, but with love. They knew how to listen, and once it was clear what people wanted, they knew better than most how to make it happen. A few of them had lost their houses in bush-fires past, and it was time for them to give back what their community had done for them. None of this is in the professional training hand-books for any discipline. In the years since I have been lucky enough to work with hundreds of ‘para-professionals’ who have come from all walks of life, especially to work in mental health services, and I remain convinced that the basic attributes of effective caring may be enhanced by more education, but are never born there. It’s a view that has put me right in it more than a few times with health professionals, but c’est la vie.

As the weeks went by, I got to visit most of the townships affected by the fire, and to hear many stories, some awful, some hilarious I’ll relate just one of those.

Two men shared a house in the pine forest near Nangwarry. They were blasting contractors, so had a good supply of TNT at their place. When it was clear the fire was getting close (it was from them that I heard of flocks of parrots exploding in the sky) they decided it was too dangerous to drive with the TNT in the back of the utility. They stored it in the fridge, and got out of there. The next day they returned, not knowing what damage the fire had done. About 400 metres from the house, on the far side of a small hill, one of them said ‘We are in deep shit.’ ‘Why’ says his mate. ‘Because we just passed the fridge door on the side of the road.’

There was no single piece of their house left, that one person couldn’t easily pick up. Because the fire itself was so incredibly noisy, no-one had heard what must have been a mighty explosion. I heard that the insurance company paid up. That must have been a wonderful story they concocted.

Within a couple of weeks most of my job was done. Liz Moriarty managed the bushfire relief workers in addition to her usual role as District Officer, and spoke with me often about new bits of red tape she thought I could help with. Six weeks later, two months after the fire, we all agreed the relief workers could go back to their usual jobs. Of course, a few victims needed ongoing help, especially those who had survive great trauma and loss. That was arranged though the normal channels. But the relief workers weren’t looking for a pat on the back for their bit. They didn’t even want a wind-up party. They just melted back into the local woodwork, went back to their usual jobs, having achieved everything from preventing suicides to getting the phone re-connected. It was my privilege to be involved, to see how building on a community’s strengths, rather that blowing into town with an ‘expert’ team, made so much more sense.

I went to a meeting called by the Premier, to review how government services were responding to the aftermath of the fires. In the Adelaide Hills and the Mid-North, the largely health-professional workforce was not yet fully in place, was costing nearly twice as much per worker to put in the field and administer, and the managers were already reporting ‘professional burn-out’ as a significant problem. I hope I didn’t sound smug when I reported from the South East that we had completed our work, a month ahead of time, and well below the expected cost. All of us, my staff, the relief workers, the other agencies that bent over backwards to help us, and even I, the FSLO, had done a job to be proud of.