The Public Servant

Public servants are those workers Tory governments love to sack.

In fact, the Tories have spent many decades putting the perception out in the community that public servants are lazy, good-for-nothing parasites living off the public purse by taking from, rather than contributing to, the nation’s economy.

Having got themselves elected into power, Tory governments immediately jump on their razing machines and drive them through every department on a sacking spree, and all to the sounds of applause from brainwashed, ignorant voters.

Well, I have the privilege of knowing, meeting and working with hundreds of these maligned souls. I was a public servant at one point in my life and I even married one in another. My time as a public servant was in the days when the vast interior of this nation was being opened up. So a brief trip down memory lane reminds me of how it used to be in the wilds of Central Australia, The Top End and Western Queensland.

The people who lived and worked in remote areas were, and still are, resourceful and innovative souls who survived, and even shrugged off, the angry fits of mother nature as well as the harsh, unforgiving demands of the bush, the mind boggling isolation and loneliness and crippling fears that the lack of medical help in emergency situations brought. These people, the pioneers of the outback, were tough and resilient and really, a unique brand of the human species.

The small towns/settlements survived and even grew because of the public service which offered employment and expertise across the board. An itinerant population, public servants came and moved on after 2 – 5 years. They brought with them new ideas, expertise, friendship and just plain old elbow grease which they gave unstintingly as they settled into the communities like gloves. Some became so entwined that they couldn’t leave and if they did leave, many of them returned to take up where they left off to become permanent residents.

The small township of Alice Springs benefited greatly from the public service sector which was the hub for distributing services for that half of the Northern Territory. With the public servants came a wide range of skills and the local people, long used to wasting nothing in their battle for survival in the harsh environment, were quick to recognise and put those skills to good use. There were local talent scouts who made it their business to greet new arrivals and put them through a friendly interrogation so as to learn in which slot they could be filed for future needs.


Geoff Moss’ hometown was Broome, WA. He’d been an enterprising young man who had been places and learnt much from his experiences. He had spent time working in Java as a young man and was a public servant based in Darwin when the Jap bombs rained down. Geoff retired from the public service in Alice Springs where he was a well known and loved Senior Clerk and 2IC in the Department of Works. He left behind a wealth of respect and admiration from all who’d had the pleasure of working with him over his long years of service, and his name was well known throughout the Service from Darwin to Melbourne.

Mossy was a chain smoker and the only person I’ve ever come across who used the language that would make a sailor blush in a manner that even a “lady” didn’t notice or take offense. Funnily enough, when angry or frustrated, his language was no worse than calling someone a “puddin’headed bastard”. He was a gentle man with a deep sense of compassion – the type of man who distressed or worried people turned to for advice or comfort. He possessed a delightful aura of patience and tranquillity.

When Head Office sent Department heads up to the Territory to check on operations, or as some said, to put the skids under the bushies, it was Mossy who was delegated to look after them, show them around and do his best to explain the whys and wherefores of processes and management of projects and personnel that might differ from those in other environments.

The wise ‘inspectors’ asked the questions and listened to the answers. These sessions were often carried out in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a camp stool by the fire with a glass of red, after supping on a thick rump steak cooked on the blade of a shovel resting on red hot coals. These people went back to Head Office with a good understanding of the workings of the bush, its people and the way the government departments went about delivering the services to the best advantage of all.

There were always the pedants and know-alls among the visiting Heads of Departments. These came with closed minds and went away without having learnt anything. A few weeks after a visit from such person/s a letter would turn up on Mossy’s desk setting out a list of perceived inappropriate practices and orders for fixing same. Mossy read these missives dutifully and passed them onto the Admin Officer with an appropriate notation for action.

One of the most memorable of these letters from Head Office was in an election year when all Departments were inundated with HO visitors looking for ways to save money. Along with a few other money saving orders was the one about the ablution blocks. The “cost cutter” noted that the night cart was emptying half-filled pans on a daily basis. Therefore, he calculated that X amount of dollars could be saved annually if only full cans were emptied. Mossy’s eyebrows raised and he shook his head in astonishment as he muttered “puddin-headed bastard” and wrote his usual notation for action on the bottom of the letter – it read… Ted, for daily calibration, please.

Mossy’s “action notations” on the bottom of Department HO letters were to cause much amusement and interest through the Department of Works as they were shown around and anecdotes passed on verbally at social events.

The Department of Works had crews working in isolated places all over the Territory. These crews built roads, bridges and maintained the windmills on the stock routes. In town the workshop mechanics maintained the vehicles and machinery and solved all sorts of problems. In the bush everyone helped everyone else and the public service was no exception – if someone out in whoop-whoop needed something and there was a departmental vehicle passing by, then that vehicle did a small detour to deliver it. The Department had a system where property owners could ‘borrow’ items such as bore casing they needed desperately and which would be ‘returned’ as soon as supplies in town were replenished.

The Department employed a man called Sam Irvine, supplied him with a grader and small caravan, and he spent his time grading all the bush ‘highways’. On weekends, he often graded the road into a property for a price negotiated between the property owner and himself. I remember there was a little furore once when someone complained about the misuse of public money, but the practice continued, albeit less openly.

Sam was a big congenial man. He kept a supply of boiled lollies in his van and his grader which he dolled out to any kids tagging along with the parent/s who stopped by to pass the time of day when he happened in their neck of the woods. Everyone and his dog knew Sam and admired him for his work – they all said he could make a grader talk.

The Department’s working crews were equipped with a radio to keep them in touch with the office. Talk sessions were scheduled for a specific time each morning, when problems were reported and orders placed for equipment, spare parts and the like. These blokes spent weeks out in their work camps and relied on a fortnightly supply truck to bring their mail and other supplies, and also they relied on deliveries made by the passing traffic of pastoralists. Radio communication was restricted to non-personal orders but the camp dwellers had no other means to order their personal requirements. Therefore a code system was devised where the base operator took strange and frequent orders for certain goods – there was a code for placing their bets on the horses, for ordering a case of beer, rum or whisky. These orders were dutifully placed with the supplier who delivered said orders to the Department of Works in time to be loaded on the next supply truck delivering to the various camps. An inspector looking over some of the orders was known to remark that the blokes in the camps had a certain fondness for lemon squash or cola soft drinks. Of course, the men out in the camps all held accounts with their bookies and supply stores and their accounts were settled in full when they returned to base, so there was no defrauding of the commonwealth.

Election years brought an influx of politicians throughout the Territory. Menzies was known for sacking the Indians in the Public Service in the first year after an election and employing another lot in the third year. There was always a flurry of activity in an election year and up in the Top End there was endless frustration that road building projects etc were given the green light in the wet season. One year a frustrated engineer put in a request for boats and outboard motors, plus some wet suits and snorkels. Menzies had promised an all weather road from Katherine to Timber Creek and wanted to tell voters that it was underway ‘as we speak’.

Darwin Construction Office was plagued by urgent requests by engineers and project supervisors for working crews and equipment. One such request was for axe handles which, the Darwin Stores manager advised were available by the dozen in their Katherine Store. The Project Manager replied Katherine Store had no bloody axe handles. It turned out after a lot of expletives pouring in to the Darwin Stores Office, that the young storeman in Katherine had what the Project Manager described as a bloody mountain of axe handles that he called brush hook handles, which he refused to book out as axe handles. Problem solved as soon as the order was changed to Brush hook handles.

Without the much maligned Public Service and the resourcefulness, humour and abilities of its personnel, the remote areas of this country might well be still languishing back in the dark ages. The Department of Works and Construction with its small army of engineers and architects who designed and supervised the construction of the infrastructure that enabled the townships to flourish were the salt of the earth, and all public servants contributed much to the communities in which they lived and worked.

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8 Responses to The Public Servant

  1. Truth Seeker says:

    Janice, good article 😀

    For someone who declared at The Pub a while back that you didn’t have the talent to write, you certainly proved yourself wrong 😯 😀

    Keep up the good work

    Cheers 😀 :cppl:

  2. Truth Seeker says:

    Janice, I learnt a long time ago, as a young musician, that we all should play to our strengths. 😀

    And you have plenty to “Play” with and to, as your articles and writing generally, show a clear thinking and passionate approach, peppered with good humour and excellent language skills.

    Poetry is a mind exercise, based on rhythm, timing and syllables, and I am sure that you could, with a bit of practice, turn your language skills in that direction 😀

    Keep up the good work 😀

    I am currently helping our writers group to set up a blog, and although it is still in it’s early stages,
    it will, I think, be a good resource eventually.

    Cheers 😀

    • I like the idea of the writers group blog. Went and checked out. Both pieces were an interesting read but I admit I was itching to do a bit of editing 🙂

      I find poetry very difficult – takes me forever to come up with the right words to convey what I want to say, and as I like rhyme, I dig myself into a hole very quickly. On the other hand, writing stories/articles it is really just a matter of sticking to 1. the beginning 2. the middle 3. the end !

  3. Truth Seeker says:

    Janice, stories, poetry and songs (good songs 😀 ) all need those same three elements.

    The trick with poetry is very much the same as writing a song, you have to be very concise and economical, whilst being able to rearrange the words to come back to the original meaning but end up with a word that you can rhyme to the next line, or the one after depending on the rhythm that you are working with (if that makes sense).

    As I said, I treat it as an exercise for the mind, 😀

    Cheers 😀

  4. patriciawa says:

    Keep reminiscing, Janice! Those people come alive again when you write about them. Mossy seems to have been a great character. Hope his chain smoking didn’t bring him down in the end.

    • Patricia,

      Thank you for your nice comment. No twasn’t the cancer sticks that brought Mossy undone – it was a combination of old age, and the flaring up of an old back injury that reduced his mobility, gave him more pain than he could bear and caused him to give up the fight for life.

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