Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Memoir - Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career


 The Memoir - a work in progress

Background see Working on a Memoir
Leaves 2-6 Ireland, Launceston, Cape Town, Whyalla, Cambodia
Leaves 7-9 Hooning, Teaching & Presenting
Leaves 10-11 Bookseller, Vexatious FOI applicants and shaky start to an academic career
Leaves 12-14 Car crash, Launceston early 1960s, A Road Not Taken

Leaf 10 “Saturday interludes as a book merchant” Winter 1987 Hobart

Esther had just returned to work full time in the Tax Office and I had taken six months leave to look after Lance, our 7 month old son. At the time it was rare for woman to return to work that soon (especially whilst still expressing milk) and very rare for a young father to be in daily control of a young baby. I encountered numerous hurdles: there were no baby changing facilities in men’s toilets in the city (so in an emergency had to change Lance on the floor of toilets): very few gentlemen rush to help you with prams on the steps of the GPO: baby gear bags came in few macho styles or colours: and mothers’ groups were strangely uninviting. At the time, the decision was partly motivated by Esther’s career appearing to be on a more upward track whilst mine had hit a couple of bumps. After a few temporary escapes from the Tax Office acting at higher levels in other Departments (and making the final recruitment selection rounds into the Australian diplomatic service), I found myself back in Tax at a fairly low level with little prospect of  advancement.
For the previous 12 months, we had operated a casual book and record stall at Salamanca Market. We started the stall simply to make space for a nursery by selling off excess books and records. However, we also started to buy books for resale. As a casual stallholder, I had to drive down to Salamanca on the Hobart waterfront around 3 am on a Saturday morning to claim my site for the day. Some casual stallholders got there before midnight, to ensure that they would have a ‘good’ site. And, from time to time there were early morning fist fights in the car park as ‘regulars’ tried to impose the ‘normal rules to get a casual site’ with newbies who not only parked in the wrong areas, but often jumped the invisible queue for casual sites. 
The Hobart City Council announced it would allocate a large number of sites on a permanent basis on a first come-first served basis on the following Monday morning. Driving by City Hall on Sunday afternoon we noticed a long queue of people with chairs, thermoses and sleeping bags and we decided, given the length of the line, it was not worth the effort to camp overnight. On Monday morning Esther called from work and suggested that it might be worthwhile to see if any stalls were left. I arrived at City Hall after Lance had woken from his morning nap and we found ourselves on the end of a short queue. I received the second last stall, and from that point on we have had a permanent presence at a Salamanca Market for the last 28 years.
Lance, and later his sister Elise, grew up around this stall.  In my mind, there are pictures of a heavily pregnant Esther helping to unload bookcases, both Lance and Elise as young babies in bassinets under the trestles, Lance as a toddler with a label saying “Please return to Stall 145,” a small lad of five drinking a milkshake behind a card table where he is selling his old toys, a young boy playing cricket on the lawns of parliament with other young stall off-spring we called munchkins, and a young man lounging around catching up on his reading or sleep.  In the last few years, Lance has been replaced by Elise - when she is not travelling, horse riding or recovering from Friday nights. She too tends to lounge around (in the winter months, covered head to toe with a blanket), catching up on reading and sleep.

Leaf 11 “Vexatious FOI applicants and flimsy career  foundations” 2000 Hobart

I received a phone call from the University lawyers. A notorious and vexatious FOI applicant, a n interstate lawyer, had asked the University for all the information in my personnel file. I had annoyed the applicant by appearing, the previous year, before a Queensland Parliamentary Committee on FOI, where I claimed some people had called me a serial FOI applicant. For some unknown reason, this had annoyed him and he was now keen to find evidence that challenged my credentials or undermined my creditability and reputation. The University was keen to resist the challenge but I was much more relaxed and suggested we could give him everything he wanted. However, as a compromise, I asked to see my file before making a final decision. The file was very thick so the University FOI officer allowed me to read it all.

In many ways, it was an unusual level of complete access granted to me but also it was an eye opener. First, I discovered that one of my often used referees, a well known academic and later judge, was often lukewarm in his support of my applications – a much different attitude then conveyed in my other encounters with him. Second, my initial appointment as a law tutor in 1990 was far more problematic then I had realised. The appointment had often been sold in public by the Law School as a bold and novel experiment by the Law School to deliberately add a different dimension to the teaching of public law by incorporating a political science perspective.  In many ways, this official ‘endorsement’ of seeking an innovative approach to public law teaching guided my efforts over the next few years. However, I discovered the reality was much different and far from an endorsement. I had actually been the last candidate out of four applicants standing. Like the Olympic ice skater Steve Bradbury, I had emerged as the last contestant still in the race. Unlike Steve who knew his medal had been the result of fate, I spent several years operating with a false understanding. In retrospect, these two discoveries, the less than supportive referee and the real reason I had been given a job as a law tutor, explained in part, some of the difficulties I experienced in gaining a tenured appointment at the Law School. My academic career had begun on a far more tenuous thread than I ever imagined.

I consistently justified and defended my attempts at creating a different type of teaching and learning environment on the basis that the Law School had deliberately hired someone who was ‘different’ than the typical or traditional law academic. Indeed, I was different:  I had a less than stellar undergraduate record as a law student; my primary focus was political science; and my employment experience had not been as a lawyer but as a public servant. The truth is, I might have stumbled at the first hurdle, or simply given up, if I had realised that I had only been given my opportunity to teach because the Law School was desperate and because I ‘waited’ for several weeks after the interview, to ask how my application was progressing.

Despite these rocky beginnings, I ended up with a great career and the Law School and University continue to reap, in terms of international reputation and positive impact on student learning, an unexpected windfall that has lasted a couple of decades rather than the intended temporary desperate stop gap measure.