Thursday, May 30, 2013

Memoir - Leaves 15-20, Jimmy Carter, Ghanian princesses, Kiwi PMs and failed science projects

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 15 “Hey Ma look it’s Jimmy Carter” Accra Ghana March 2010
In early March 2010, I stood at a conference lectern in Accra, Ghana, in front of representatives from over 20 African countries. I was there at the invitation of the Carter Centre.  Seated smiling in the front row was former US President Jimmy Carter showing, in the deep lines of his face, every one of his many years. Jimmy Carter, after his single term presidency, had set up the Carter Centre, an organisation devoted to work on development projects.  He had just given a spirited talk that in some areas was strongly contrary to the points I intended to make.

 My topic was “The difficulties facing African countries in trying to implement freedom of information legislation”. Unlike most of the participants: activists, journalists, parliamentarians, professional staff of non-government organisations and Jimmy Carter, my task was not to focus on, and advocate for, the positives of transparency and FOI legislation. Instead, my mission was to draw attention to many of the problems African countries would face in trying to achieve effective access to information schemes. Until recently, 95% or more of the law reform effort and resources has gone into encouraging countries to adopt FOI legislation. With over 90 countries adopting some form of legislation, this has been a very successful uptake of a law reform initiative. 

Yet the really difficult task of implementation, especially for post-conflict countries or those faced with crippling combinations of high level corruption, overwhelmed public services and non-existent records management capacity – most African countries - received little or no attention and resources.
This was the second time I had been in close proximity to President Carter. The previous year I had visited Atlanta, Georgia for a Carter Centre conference. In the Atlanta group photo I was in the back row of the 125 delegates: the only academic in the line up of Presidents, activists, parliamentarians and representatives of institutions like the World Bank. 

This time, there was no one between President Carter and me.

As I talked he appeared to listen intently. While at times he nodded at my words, at others, he looked a little discomforted as I took a line that strongly contradicted some of the points he had made. His talk had been a more traditional set piece selling the democratic, good governance and development virtues of FOI.  A thousand different thoughts bumped into each other in my mind as I spoke. While trying to focus on my talk and the whole audience I found it difficult not to try and catch, and gauge, the reaction of the “Former Leader of the Free World,” a refreshing and liberal antidote to the dark years of Richard Nixon and the insipidness of Gerald Ford.  I remembered my university days of studying political science and watching the Carter Presidency attempt to steer the US towards a foreign policy agenda that focused on partnerships, human rights and global development. And there was a little bit of me marvelling that a four-eyed, stuttering geek in a small primary school classroom, on the western edge of a small island, who spent his time looking out on the bare hills of Queenstown would one day find himself delivering a speech in a major African country before a former President of the United States.

Next morning, I shared breakfast with the then Ugandan Minister for Information, Princess Kabakumba Labwoni Masiko, and an investigative journalist from Uganda. A spirited conversation ensued between the two Ugandans that was both intriguing and fascinating for an Aussie academic. I thought of the recent and history of Uganda, where simply to be a journalist was a death sentence, let alone pressing the Information Minister on press freedom issues and allegations of corruption by those in her government over shared jam and toast in the presence of a foreigner. 
Ironically, in December 2011 Princess Kabakumba Labwoni Masiko resigned from her position in the Ugandan Cabinet following allegations of abuse of office, theft by taking, causing monetary loss to the government and conspiracy to defraud government.  Radio broadcasting equipment was alleged to have been stolen from the Ministry of Information when she was Minister and subsequently used in a regional radio station she had a 75% interest in. 

During the first six months of 2010 in the midst of my busiest teaching schedule (two classes with a total of 500+ students) I travelled to Botswana, South Africa, Ghana, Malaysia, US, Canada, Fiji, New Zealand, three times to the UK and a brief stopover in the transit area of Cario’s international airport. A Saturday morning might find me up early to set up my stall at Salamanca Market and the next Saturday I was on the savannah of Botswana petting semi-tamed cheetahs. A Monday morning would find me lecturing to 300 eager young first year law students on judges and juries and later that week I would find myself being picked up by Her Majesty’s Foreign Office to be whisked off to Wilton Park, an isolated conference facility in the English countryside designed for ‘quiet and discrete dialogues’. In June I was criss-crossing Canada while trying to cobble together an application for promotion to Associate Professor.

All of these trips and encounters, no matter how fleeting, with power and position and the sharp contrasts with life outside the conference walls and restricted venues, shape my teaching. I find it impossible to even think about returning to the classroom to confront my students with a pile of inert and dead material for them to regurgitate back in an exam. I want them to have journeys like mine or, at the very least, intellectual journeys. I want them to be able to engage with former Presidents or current Ministers, or wild and passionate Filipinas who want to make a difference if the opportunity presents. I don’t want to burden them with law presented as a series of burdensome, archaic and rigid formula that just leads to a yes/no answer that no one appears interested in.

Leaf 16 “The boys are in Hobart Town – where the f**k is Lenah Valley?”  Hobart November 1974

Dickie and I came out of that classic car chase movie Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry super-hyped. We were at the cinema located near The Mercury Building in Hobart: an ultimate thrill for a pair of Queenstown boys who had recently finished Grade 10. We lived near each other for several years sharing wild adventures in the hills surrounding Queenstown and playing against each other in several sports. He was the better football player and I was a superior cricketer and we were roughly even on the badminton court though he had a slight edge. Dickie was in Hobart because he was pursuing a possible football career. On the field he was a fast, nimble and talented red-haired rover with a terrier like attitude. His father had driven us from Queenstown, in between his work shifts at the mine, but he couldn’t stay, leaving us to catch a bus home. His reasoning was that two, sixteen year old Queenstown boys alone in Hobart were a safer bet than one.

I had tagged along to investigate going to college.  We had the wild idea of sharing a house. In those days, we had no idea how unlikely that scenario was or how unviable. We walked back from the movie to our accommodation in Lenah Valley, the home of distant relatives of Dickie, I think. During the next two hours the initial buzz from the movie drifted away with each uncertain step towards Lenah Valley. Hobart with a population of 150,000 people was certainly no Queenstown, with just over several thousand souls. Queenstown was a small town located in a narrow and long valley that we could run from one end to the other in less than 20 minutes. In contrast, Hobart, in the dark, simply seemed endless to us mountain boys. We were walking past endless rows of, what to us seemed like, mansions. Back home there were only a very small handful of substantial brick houses in the whole town. Here in Hobart every house seemed bigger and more exotic than anything we had encountered previously.

Dickie’s football career didn’t materialise and I lost track of him after I moved south the following February. I was offered a place in Hollydene Hostel – a place brought to Dad’s attention by the owners of Dilger’s Garage in Queenstown, whose sons had gone to Hollydene. As a former guesthouse next door to a hotel, it appealed to a Queenie boy and helped offset the social disgrace of staying at school when everyone else was raking in the money as apprentices in the mine. It was a huge leap into the unknown because no one in the family had any experience of moving away from home for education. It was my first warning of how big and transforming that final departure from the valley would be. 

After my final year high school, only five students out of more than a hundred, from three West Coast towns went onto college: two boys and three girls.  Originally it was meant to be six of us heading south. At the last moment Sooty, the son of the Mt Lyell General Store manager, decided to take up an apprenticeship.  The problem of getting to Hobart almost derailed the whole adventure for me before it started. Dad couldn’t get off work.  The only option was the bus and then finding my own way, with all my gear, between two unknown destinations  - the bus station and Hollydene Hostel. My plans rapidly started to shift towards applying for an apprenticeship. Options for nearly all the girls in my class were far more limited.  A few would become typists at the Mine Offices, a smaller number shop assistants and for nearly all, an early marriage before they were 18.

Fortunately, a slightly older relative by marriage, working in Hobart was heading south and she offered me a lift. This trip was one of the highlights of my young life. She had long flowing hair, a bubbly personality and was driving a mini-moke: a young boy’s dream girl in the mid 1970s. It was like a delayed arrival of Woodstock. I still recall the wind roaring through the canvas flaps of the Mini Moke and the two of us shouting to be heard over the noise as we cruised the 150 miles through the wilderness and later farm lands (relatively new sights to this mountain boy). She dropped me off at the front door of the hostel on Campbell Street. The other new students mingling at the front, checking on arrivals, were a little dumbstruck. Who was this West Coast boy pulling up in a mini-moke with a beautiful young woman? I often think back, if the lift hadn’t materialised would I have made the journey or simply opted to stay like Sooty, who still lives in Queenstown and runs a large engineering works.

Within two years it was only Leigh (another son of a local shop owner) and me left to go onto university from the West Coast group. The total West Coast contingent in the whole University were Leigh, the two Dilger boys, plus a couple of the children of mine managers who had been sent away from Queenstown for their high school education: not a great retention rate.

Two factors played a big part in this abysmal retention rate: fear of the unknown; and difficulty dealing with home sickness, or more accurately, losing connection to our sense of place. For most West Coast parents, arranging for their child’s further education, was beyond their experience in terms not only of the mechanics but also in terms of emotional guidance and advice. Despite forming friends at Hollydene Hostel, the Queenstown kids often didn’t go home (a six hour bus ride) for weekends, while the kids from the Huon and East Coast rarely stayed weekends. At weekends, we West Coasters faced the normal hostel curfew and had little money to go out. I spent many a Friday and Saturday night chatting on the phone to one of the West Coast girls who stayed at the girl’s hostel up the road (our only chance to talk as the boys and girls at the hostels went to different colleges). We chatted about what we had been reading, movies seen, records played and hopes (often overly ambitious and rarely realised) for the rest of the weekend.

When we did go home it was to a very different lifestyle, one that was increasingly difficult to adjust to and one that refused to accommodate who we were becoming. The easiest thing to do when stepping off the bus was to shut down the ‘Hobart’ persona and act out a paler version of the ‘Queenstowner’ who we had been. Most of our school friends had jobs as apprentices or office staff at the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Co. They had it all: access to cars, booze and girls.  No time for long chats in a phone booth or to read novels by authors with strange names. When I was in high school it was difficult to get a girl friend because from about Year 8 onwards you were competing with the 1st and 2nd year apprentices who had access to cars, parties, money and their own houses. 

At first the infrequent trips home from College (outside of school holidays) were an intoxicating whirlwind of parties, drinking and hi-jinks. Yet with each trip we returned home a bit more different and the distance between old friends and attitudes started to be unsettling. We came back more book wise and brain refined but penniless and missing 95% of the experiences our friends had shared in the intervening weeks. Visits home were certainly not an opportunity to discuss why I was so taken with Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Zima Junction and how it resonated with my own homecomings. The best I could hope for was that my gift of the latest Skyhooks, or an early AC/DC album or condoms (the Queenstown Chemist refused to stock these items) kept me in the “not completely weird” category. In addition, if I kept drinking the beers my mates would buy for the ‘poor student bum,’ I was okay.  During those years my reputation was not associated with academic achievement but my return to the cricket pitch for the summer and more importantly my capacity to win bets in drinking competitions for my old school mates. Back at the Hostel it was like returning to a low key prison (controlled hours, study periods, little money, no regular supply of grog and regular surveillance).

Leaf 17 “Prime Ministers, academics and future judges” Wellington, New Zealand, April 1996

In a small elegant café in Wellington in 1996, I sat across the table from my friend, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand. A working friendship had formed after I read his article on teaching administrative law and designed my first course using many of his ideas. We started a warm, but infrequent postal, correspondence in the early 1990s. During a visit to Wellington in 2002, we caught up again when Sir Geoffrey was a very active member of a very small audience for a talk I gave comparing FOI in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. At a later conference in Wellington in November 2008 he lavished praise on my research and analysis of FOI in front of Ombudsmen, FOI Commissioners, government officials, leading NGO activists and academics from around the world. It was praise rarely given from a man more often willing to be a stern and unrestrained critic.

 In 1996 I was in Wellington as the inaugural visiting fellow of the newly launched New Zealand Institute of Public Law. I had contacted the Institute, as I was starting on a project looking at the beginnings of the New Zealand Official Information Act, just as they were trying to find their first visiting fellow. From this serendipitous linking came one of the great friendships of my life. Paul Walker QC, an up and coming administrative and insurance lawyer from Brickfields Chambers, in London had taken leave from his chambers to be the first Director of the Centre for two years. His wife Jo Andrews, a well known ITN political journalist, came with him. She continued to file reports back to the UK.  To my mind, Paul is the archetypal ‘ideal’ lawyer – thoughtful, prepared, diplomatic, considered, engaging with a depth of humanity that I could only envy. During his two years setting up the Centre Paul attended Maori language classes and would begin each of his administrative law classes with a new Maori phrase.  He would go on to be the lead counsel in the Mad Cow Tribunal and later would be appointed as a judge in the UK. Paul started his studies at Adelaide Law School but despite academic success in his first year felt the need for a break. The teaching style of the Law School had failed to grab his imagination. He went to Paris and took up bartending for a few months before moving onto Oxford, met Jo and stayed in the UK. Our families have since become close friends sharing holidays and their home in London and their cottage ‘Longknowe’, in northern Northumberland, has become part of our lives.

On my first trip to the UK, in 1999, I stopped over in London and made my way to Paul and Jo’s house in Camden Town for a beautiful informal meal. They later moved to Tufnell Park and their spare bedroom became a familiar and comfortable base for all of our family when visiting London.  Paul had become senior counsel on the Mad Cow Tribunal and incredibly busy. Jo’s career as a political journalist was also intense. Many nights during my London stopovers I would get back to Tufnell Park early in the evening, catch up with my work, welcome Paul home around 8 or 9 pm, then watch Jo on the ITN Late News at 10pm, share a whiskey and peaceful conversation with Paul, followed by a few words with Jo as she returned from Whitehall or the ITN studios towards 11pm.  Jo would then fill us in with the inside stories of what we had watched on the news.  Jo is well educated, bright, intolerant of fuzzy thinking and capable of dining with the Queen or having breakfast over a billy in the wilds of Northumberland. Her dad went to Oxford and her mother to Cambridge, creating an intense but friendly family rivalry.

In 2001 I learned Paul had testicular cancer and was undergoing intense treatment. I decided to cancel my next stay with Paul and Jo and started to look for alternative accommodation. Jo wrote back saying Paul’s spirits would be lifted by my staying with them. It was a tough few days as Paul was incredibly weak and easily tired but our friendship deepened during that visit.
In 2002 the Snell family descended on Tufnell Park, London. Elise and Lance hit it off with Florence, Paul and Jo’s daughter. Lance, tall and good looking, boosted Florence’s stocks around her friends, Elise and Florence were both horse mad. Esther and Jo had mutual respect for each other’s talents. After a week crammed together at Tufnell Park, we all headed in two taxis to a packed King’s Cross Station on the Queen’s Birthday weekend (not a good time to travel) for a journey to Northumberland and an idyllic stay at Longknowe. Longknowe is a converted pair of shepherd’s cottages located in a remote valley. The farmhouse is rented out during the year but Jo and Paul reserve several weeks to stay there with family and friends.

Leaf 18 “Four Eyes, Four squared and learning to hide lights under bushels” Queenstown late 1960s

Sometime in late primary school I started to fail class tests. Up to that point, test questions had been oral and I aced the tests. Now the tests were written on the blackboard and my desk was at the back of the room and I couldn’t see. I avoided this problem for a while – continuing to fail tests, but I think I was picked up in a visiting eye test and an appointment was made with the local GP. For my troubles I acquired a set of thick heavy framed prescription glasses that burdened me with the problem of being called squared or four eyes. The offset was an improvement in my cricket batting. However, I stopped playing football, almost a sin on the West Coast, to partly avoid breaking my glasses, but also because playing in the rain, a common occurrence, was almost impossible. I kept hoping someone would invent wipers for glasses.

Throughout most of my teenage years I was socially plagued and weighed down by my glasses and in most photos they are absent. Later I overcame the problem of my glasses being sent flying in contact sports by tying a piece of string, or elastic, to the arms of the frames. By the end of Grade 6 I had climbed back up the academic ladder and was one of the top five students and possibly, one of the rare achievers who was not a child of the local elite. Yet the grief directed at me, from the ‘locals’, for this touch of academic achievement taught me to run with the rest of the pack rather than towards the front. So for the remainder of my education, including university, I was content to cruise and just slap together enough to get by. The only motivator I had was that my exam performance was always so abysmal that I put big efforts into written assignments to give myself a chance of passing each course.

Leaf 19 “Canada calling…..” March 2001

On a Thursday morning, about 9.30 am, my office phone rang.  At the other end of the phone was a female with a thick and almost exaggerated French accent. My initial response was is this a prank call when “The Voice” asked, “Is that Monsieur Reeck Snellll …. please hold I have President Madame Delagraveee on the line for you.” On the line was another female: “Monsieur Snelll you do not knowww me but I know of uuuu….” Warning bells were ringing. Was this a Crazy Call from the Kym and Dave radio program? Was it Stefan Petrow or Lynden Griggs, two academic colleagues, with devilish inclinations, trying to hoodwink me? 

I decided to go along with the caller but very wearily. It seemed they were with some Canadian taskforce looking into FOI. I recalled a friend from Canberra mentioning a group of Canadians had visited Canberra a few weeks previously for that purpose. So if this was a hoax, the caller was very well informed. The caller stated she had stayed back at work in Ottawa to make this call,  another bit of attention to detail. The Taskforce researchers had overlooked New Zealand (whose Act is called the Official Information Act rather than the FOI Act – a basic research mistake but feasible) and whilse in Canberra they had been constantly told they should talk with me (their research had missed me, the FoI Review a journal I edited and New Zealand). Someone had given them a copy of my article, “Kiwi Paradox.” that rammed home to them their error both in terms of New Zealand and my thoughts on FOI design.

The taskforce was originally conceived as an internal government review but ironically, had been outed by a series of FOI requests and had now become a fully public review. By the time of the phone call, the Taskforce’s activities were under a great deal of scrutiny and they were now in a bind. How could they make up for their research gap? There was a quick discussion about the possibility of flying me to New Zealand at Easter while a member of the Taskforce slipped out of Canada and visited the Kiwis and me in New Zealand. This option was quickly canned. Ms Delagrave, said they were unable to pay for my travel to Canada (which would alert the press to their oversight) but if I was in Canada the taskforce would be happy to pay my internal transportation costs, put me up in a hotel for a couple of weeks and cover my other costs. At the end of the call I asked the caller to email to confirm the arrangement (still slightly suspicious it might be a hoax). A few minutes later I got my confirmation email from the Task Force and then found their web site. A few weeks later I was in Canada.

I stayed at the Capital Hill Hotel. It had plainly seen better days but was still seen as a prime place to stay because of its location in the heart of Ottawa. The Task Force was allocated a temporary suite of offices across the street from my hotel.  When I stay anywhere for a few days I like to find a café I can establish as a base because of the food, service and location. I found a cellar café around the corner that served this purpose for me. My days were spent working with a group of very bright, ambitious and multi-lingual public servants. Often, work place conversations or even sentences would begin in English and finish in French. The circumstances surrounding the Task Force’s creation meant it had a multi-million dollar budget even if it was monitored zealously by the media. At that tim,e the Task Force was responsible for the largest ever set of commissioned research projects into FOI exceeding any previous governmental or academic efforts anywhere in the world.
My role was to be an in-house expert and idea generator and to feed into the process insights I had gained from my comparative work about FOI in Australia and New Zealand. Another part of the task was to provide seminars to a steering group of Deputy Secretaries (like agency heads in Australia). 

The interchange of ideas, insights between my academic, comparative and applicant perspective and the insights fed in from the commissioned research and the bureaucratic experience of the Task Force team led to a number of major conceptual insights about FOI reform and processes. A number of these appeared in the final report of the Task Force and a number of others continued to be refined further in my research, teaching, and work in places like Cambodia, then fed back into the Australian law reform process that led to the emergence of FOI 2.0. Probably the three major conceptual developments were that: first, FOI should be approached as a system (requiring attention to legislation, public service and user culture and areas such as capacity, training etc); second, the emphasis should be on the front end of the process (making information proactively available or determining its confidentiality on the merits of the information removed from considerations of who is asking for it and why); and finally, FOI should be viewed as a system of a number of interrelated parts and relationships (records management, public service capacity, technology capacity, training, demand and supply).

At times - when I find myself having my brain picked by the UK Foreign Office, senior public servants and government ministers in Tonga and Cambodia, academics around the globe often flown at great expense by my hosts – I am struck by the lack of invitations from within my own country and state.

Leaf 20 “If only the Big Bang Theory had been 25 years earlier” Queenstown 1973
Year 9 in high school was a bleak time in terms of my academic growth and development. Earlier, in Year 8, Mrs Shepherd a young science teacher had flamed my interest in science with her enthusiasm.  This association with a teacher’s passion and enthusiasm and an obvious interest in their subject matter continued to be reinforced for me by a very small number of teachers from that point on. More importantly, she had sown the seed that would eventually grow into my decision to leave the West Coast for further education. She talked about how you could pursue science at university, a place I had never heard of.  She mentioned you could even get a PhD (for many years I never knew what this was but the 3 letters had a power all of their own and when people asked what I was doing my answer was ‘I might eventually get a PhD – still to be achieved). 

Mrs Shepherd was the first of a very small handful of high school, college and university teachers who kept my interest in learning alive and inspired me to continue a difficult journey. Yet my interest and skill in maths and science disappeared within a year. Our new maths teacher in Year 9 made maths unclear and boring. A replacement science teacher, just out of teaching school, mumbled and stumbled his way through classes and I lost all interest. About this time my dreams to build a home-made rocket of tin foil and balsa wood and glue literally collapsed and despite devouring every science book, I was never quite able to crack the trick behind storing, compressing and releasing home made oxygen and hydrogen (the making of these gases was simple). The Apollo space program didn’t seem to have these basic problems. My aspirations to win a Noble Prize for Science never left the foothills of Mt Owen.

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