Sunday, 19 September 2010

21 day letters

In a galaxy far, far away and a career long, long ago I worked for about four years in the forerunner of what is now the Australian Passport Office. Back then the process was performed as a section in another government department. When I worked there Australian passports cost $4! nothing like the $208 currently. I worked in the 'front office' attending to the applicants. The job suited me perfectly with it's attention to detail over the spelling of names, the accuracy of dates and the checking of documents. Everything had to be treated with confidence, of course, but I loved the exposure to personal information of others even though none of it could be disclosed to anyone else.

All the processing and compilation of the passports themselves occurred behind the scenes; we on the front desk only had to check that the applications and supporting documentation were complete, accurate and met the requirements for passport issue. There was no backlog of work for us, no bulging in-trays of work unfinished from the previous day and no requirement to be involved in any of the follow up activity. It was one of my best jobs and I loved it.

I have plenty of fun memories of those days.

On one occasion there was an alert for the so-called 'Qantas bomber', a man who was wanted over threats against the airline and who was believed to be connected with a famous British football player of the day. One of my colleagues got excited that a client I was serving met the wanted descriptions and she summoned the Federal Police who took said suspect to a backroom where he was grilled for over an hour before being returned to me to complete the passport check once they were satisfied he was not the wanted one. The poor man was so bewildered he never twigged to the real reason for his grilling and on completion of the passport processing he muttered in a relieved tone that the passport checks certainly were 'thorough'.

Our supervisor was the 'front office manager'; the passports section having it's own manager behind the scenes to whom we only had to defer for any direction on passport policy or requirements. The passports manager was a WW2 veteran who smoked all day and never was without a cigarette hanging from his mouth with it's ashes spilling down his shirt. His hair was wild with dandruff and the poor man sweated profusely, his shirts always stained from armpit sweat. To complete his abject presentation, this manager's hygiene was questionable and his body odour was strong and unpleasant. This man gloried in his position as he was often the direct contact for what would now be regarded as celebrity applicants but otherwise he avoided actual work and more to the point actual decision making as much as possible. He was not a man to expose himself to the possibility of incorrect decision making being his responsibility any more than was absolutely necessary.

Those were the days when Australia was still involved in the Vietnam War and male passport applicants in a certain age range (which included my own) had to produce evidence they had been exempted from national service then in place. Some of these applicants would argue about the requirement but this was of little concern to us as the imposition was the responsibility of another agency.

Divorced men also faced an additional imposition of a type which might sound strange nowadays. They had to produce their divorce decrees and if they were under a financial obligation to their ex-wife and/or children they were required to have their ex-wife's consent to their passport application. In the absence of consent, we were required to get the men to complete statutory declarations and then notify the ex-wife of the application and she had 21 days (14 days, if living in the same state) to object to the passport being issued. Needless to say, many of these men complained bitterly about the requirements which were scrupulously observed. We became expert in predicting, simply from their appearance, which men were divorced before they handed over their applications and often whispered to each other 'this one looks like a divorcee'.

The passport handbook was our bible on any questions about policy and procedures. Some of Australia's off shore territories were linked to particular mainland states for the purposes of determining whether a 14 days letter or a 21 days letter was required for an applicant. One day I was interviewing an applicant whose former wife lived either on Lord Howe Island or Norfolk Island. I don't recall now which of the two it was but I remember that I was uncertain which period letter applied to him and when I checked the handbook I found the island was not listed. I had no option but to ask the Passports manager who I suspected would be reluctant to commit himself. I asked the question and the manager's immediate response was for me to check the handbook. When I told him the island wasn't listed, said manager's reaction was 'well, the island doesn't exist'! Useless man.

These reminiscences arise now because I am about to apply for a new passport. After quite a few years break since my last overseas travel I will be travelling, with Ae and Hn, to Europe next May and June. Nearly forty years after my first trip there, also as part of a threesome and as typical young backpackers back then, this time we will be travelling in style as senior citizens.


  1. Interesting history. So you backpacked in your youth. Not sure if I am impressed or not. S'pose I am.

  2. Where in Europe will you be traveling?

  3. Andrew - most of our era did the European backpack thing. Didn't you?

    wcs - 15 days doing the river cruising thing through Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany and Holland plus three days in Prague to start with and three days in Paris to finish.