Risking All in Wodonga

Michael Newman
[The following is an anecdote and the author makes no promises about accuracy. On the contrary, as with most anecdotes, it will be full of minor fabrications. But the author does make the following promise: the essence of the anecdote is true.]

I came home to Australia in 1982 and from 1983 to 1989 I worked as a national trainer for the Australian Trade Union Training Authority. TUTA was set up in 1975 by the federal Labor government to provide education and training for trade unionists. I lived in Sydney but did most of my work at the Clyde Cameron College, a residential college in a town called Wodonga, in the north of the state of Victoria. I would fly into Wodonga on a Sunday afternoon and conduct courses that lasted one, two or three weeks. The group would meet for a preliminary session at 7.30 on Sunday evening, and the course proper would start at 9.00 the next morning.

       The courses were full-on. There were two 90-minute sessions in the morning, two in the afternoon and one in the evening. The college could accommodate three courses of up to 25 participants each, and the place, particularly in the bar after the evening sessions, could really hum.

       In early 1985 I ran a two-week course for senior workplace reps in the oil industry. There were 16 participants, and the session on Sunday evening was short, consisting of a briefing about the course and a quick round of introductions. The majority came off oil-rigs—a couple of them were divers—and the rest were from refineries. Almost all of them were big, lanky blokes, amiable enough, but not people with whom I would want to have a serious disagreement. We went to the bar at about 8.30 and dispersed to our rooms reasonably quickly after that. In the bar I felt the participants were ready to give me the benefit of the doubt, but only for the time being.

       The first morning session involved some input from me about the current industrial relations scene, a period of small-group discussion in which people could put their own views, and then a round-up in the full group again. Some 15 minutes into the session I could sense the participants’ attention was wandering and one of them, called Jamie, spoke up:

   “Listen, Mike. We work outdoors …”

“And under water,” one of the divers said.

“… and we’re not used to sitting still for so long.”

“We stop here.” I said. “Get up, go out of the room, and talk among yourselves. I’m here if there is any college info you want. Come back in ten minutes, and we’ll decide what to do.”

       It is standard practice in adult training to hand problems back to the participants, and reduce one’s own role to that of a resource, but there’s always a risk. What if some silly bugger proposes conducting the rest of the course in a Wodonga pub? It was with this possibility in mind that I sent them out of the training room into the corridor. This meant that I continued to occupy the training room, and the authority implicit in that.

       They were out for ten minutes and not a second more. Punctuality is important on an oil-rig. They trooped back in and proposed two ten-minute breaks per session, and the odd five-minute break, when the opportunity arose.

“What about the time lost?” I asked.

Jamie replied. “We can get some of that back by going on for an extra 15 minutes into the lunch and dinner breaks.”

       We spent the last 20 minutes of this first session preparing questions to put to an official from the Australian Council of Trade Unions, who was scheduled to address them in the second session. I tracked the official down during the morning break and explained our group’s decision to have ten-minute pauses.

“Bugger that,” the official said. “I’ve flown up from Melbourne this morning to talk to these blokes and they are just going to have to wear it. I’ve got a lot to cover.”

       The second session was not a success. Some of the bigger blokes began shifting uneasily and waving their arms and legs about, a bit like kids in a kindergarten. Others entered a kind of catatonic state. The divers looked serene, and one of them was rocking gently from side to side. Impervious to this, the ACTU official droned on.

       On our way to the cafeteria for lunch Jamie said to me:

“Why didn’t you tell that silly bastard about our ten minute breaks?”

“I did.”

“Why didn’t you insist?”

“Why didn’t you?” I said, and we looked at each other.

       This brief conversation was illuminating. If I wanted to stop everything becoming my fault, then I would have to do something to save the situation, and do it quickly. I peeled off before we got to the cafeteria, got the keys for the college car, and drove into Wodonga. There I found a shop that sold sweets, and I bought a packet of boiled lollies – pieces of hard candy that are wrapped in cellophane and closed with a twist at both ends. I got back to the college, grabbed and ate a banana, put the lollies loose in my pockets, and headed for the training room and the first of the two afternoon sessions.

       The session was about solving problems and I had a perfect example from the morning. I kicked the session off by getting the group to discuss how they had arrived at the decision to have ten-minute breaks.

       “There’s a process in all this,” I said, and ran a short trigger film showing a problem developing in a workplace. The film ends with a number of options but no resolution. When the film came to an end I said: “I’m going to ask you a series of questions, and there’s a prize for whoever gives me the right answer first.” The group looked at me.

       I asked my first question, one of the participants answered, and I took a lolly out of my pocket and threw it to him. Now this was one of those moments. Once the lolly was airborne there was no turning back. As it flew through the air in a beautiful arc, I thought to myself: “There goes my career.”

       The participants were seated around heavy wooden desks arranged in the shape of a U. My throw was not all that accurate, and the person who answered had to jump up and lean over the desk to catch the lolly. This meant that he was standing, and he remained standing as he unwrapped the lolly slowly, and popped it into his mouth. He sat down and looked round the room with a smirk on his face.

       I asked another question, and several people shouted out an answer. I threw another lolly, and the mood had changed. I tried to be even-handed in the way I threw the lollies, and most people got one, but one participant kept missing out. When he finally got a lolly, there was cheering and laughter. We had one of their breaks, and the rest of the course went well.

       As the course progressed, the participants got caught up in the exercises and scenarios, and abandoned their ten-minute breaks but still worked into their lunch and dinner breaks. On the second Wednesday, when I said for the second time that they should stop for lunch and no one took any notice of me, I looked across at Jamie, and he shrugged.

TUTA Memorabilia
Image courtesy of Des Hanlon