Some decades ago in Canberra, your column writer toiled in what was then termed the Ministerial Correspondence Unit, a team of three people (OK, two and a half, since our third member was so busy reading the Public Service Gazette and responding to vacancies she was hardly ever present).
The MCU was the Department’s answer to the mail bags of letters (email was then in its infancy) received by the minister’s office: all correspondence that was not to do with policy matters – letters dealing with electorate matters were flicked back to the minister – were dealt with in the unit, usually with polite, non-committal and succinct responses that hopefully soothed the complainant’s ire.
And they were usually all complaints, since when things were going well, few Australians bother putting pen to paper or fingers to typewriter to their democratically elected representative. And that year, all the complaints were Aussie shearers, letters usually seemingly dictated by a union representative since they were pretty uniform in subject and wording, all angry and fuming about Kiwi shearers in Australian shearing sheds.
And not just Kiwi shearers, women Kiwi shearers, for God’s sake, women Kiwi shearers using wide tooth combs! What was the Minister going do to about this invasion from across the Tasman? These Kiwi shearers were taking jobs from honest Aussie shearers and their union, that previously only had to contend with woolgrowers’ sons trying to take their jobs.
And now the R.M. Williams is on the other foot. There’s a distinct lack of shearers and where can we find them to fill the gaps. Sheep need to be shorn or they end up like Chris, the massive merino who became a Canberra legend as he suffered his hugely-overgrown fleece for years until he was safely caught (the fleece is now in the National Museum, and is considered a world record.)
Isn’t this something of a pattern in employment history in this country? The unions try to keep out people who can do the jobs on offer – shearing, fruit picking, aged care – and then when the needs become great, an emergency, we’re forced to hit the emergency buttons and recruit from where ever we can, usually in haste, and increased cost.
This time, we’re, well, not actually home and hosed, but on safer ground.
Call the Kiwis – they’ve got millions of sheep and years of experience shearing. And enough with the sheep jokes. We need these guys. Or there’ll be many more Chris the Sheep around.
Illustration: Tom Roberts/National Gallery of Victoria.
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