Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Employers and volunteers: instructive models

My last post described a few interactions from my student life. This post sketches some people in the next step – working life.

Contacts I made as a student in part-time work lead to what became my regular employment as an administrator/manager at La Trobe University. The role lasted for over three and a half decades – too long in one place perhaps.

An early fixed term job included a stint on the counter in the Graduate Studies Office. The unit was managed by Simon Boeyen, a calm and respected administrator who commenced employment soon after the University was established. 

My supervisor, Joy Jowett, was a strong personality and consistent with the times was always referred to as 'Mrs Jowett'. The first task she gave me was to read the University Act, then the Statutes, Regulations and Administrative Handbook. The task became more interesting as I proceeded and provided an excellent grounding for the future.

I tried to understand Mrs Jowett by watching how she interacted and guessed she may not be as fearsome as her first impression seemed.

A few days into the job the morning paper had a story about abortion, a very controversial issue in Melbourne at the time. She showed me the paper and asked me earnestly, ’You’re an intelligent young man. What do you think about abortion?’

Eager not to offend my boss or appear lame my mind went to work. ‘Mrs Jowett’, I said solemnly, ‘I think the whole idea is based on a misconception’. After a slow deep breath, her expression relaxed and she roared with laughter. I never found out what her opinion was though.

The following year I gained permanent employment and worked near Mrs Jowett. In the intervening period, her unit had merged with student administration. I maintained my habit of calling her ‘Mrs Jowett’ but she soon took me aside and said ‘In this area, everyone calls me Joy. As it seems to be the custom I suggest you do the same’. So, I did. She provided an excellent example of dedication, adaptability and good humour.

One of my most satisfying activities was as ‘scholarships officer’ supporting PhD candidates, many of whom were part of the increase of such students from overseas in the 1980s. There was a host of interesting candidates many with stories of hardship overcome to successfully complete studies which improved the sum of, mostly useful, human knowledge.

Later work in the University Secretariat brought me into contact with a number of interesting people many of whom had become successful in their chosen profession and were doing something ‘extra’ by volunteering to be on the University's governing board or its committees. Two of the notables were first chancellor Sir Archibald Glenn and John Norgard both ‘founding fathers’ of the University who maintained an interest in it for most of their lives.I’ve mentioned Nancy Millis previously.

Millis was preceded as Chancellor by Richard McGarvie. McGarvie’s day job at the time was as a judge of the Supreme Court of Victoria, but he was energetic in the volunteer role of Chancellor eager to contribute to improving the university in general and good governance process in particular.

He was meticulous in personally answering all correspondence addressed to him or to send ‘thank you’ notes for many who assisted him in various ways. A particular legacy was his support the establishment of a law school. In a different era, his name would probably have subsequently graced the relevant building.

He was often asked for an off the cuff legal opinion but always declined to give such advice verbally – except where he was happy to pronounce with a smile that a matter was ‘of ambiguous legality’. The problem would have been that if he did give an opinion and the university disagreed with it there would be no easy way out of a difficult situation. But he was not against given written advice and would do so from time to time on matters of policy. 

Before I understood how this all worked I had been concerned about a matter which may have been sensitive. I thought the best thing to do was ask him what course of action he may prefer. His first response was ‘I’m sorry I don’t understand what you are asking.’ This surprised me as I felt my description was clear enough and his comprehension of the situation would have easily made up for any descriptive inadequacies.  So, I tried again, being a little more direct. He replied again in the same distant tone, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you are asking.’ My mouth opened for a third attempt but my brain told me ‘you have your answer now change the subject’. That proved the right course.

He was also famous for the ‘McGarvie Model’ which proposed a change to the Australian Constitution to remove references to the monarchy and establish a republic. He submitted it to the Republic Advisory Committee in 1993 and doubtless drew on his direct experience of Australian politics. 

At the Constitutional Convention of 1998, it was the second most popular model of the four voted upon. Its strength was that it required the least change and recognised that the move would be ceremonial. It was straightforward, easily implemented, practical and principled – all hallmarks of McGarvie. Most importantly it would have kept the separation of powers intact. Opposition to it claimed that it didn’t allow for the popular election of the head of state, but that would be a substantial change to the nature of Australian Government – not the 'problem' which becoming a republic was aiming to fix.