Neil 'Bluey' Baker
Neil ‘Bluey’ Baker, born 1947, was a telephone technician in the provisional Parliament House from 1973 to 1988 and thereafter in the new Parliament House for many years.
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 1
B YORK: This is an interview with Neil Baker, also known as Bluey Baker, who worked as a telephone technician in the Provisional Parliament House from 1973 to 1988. Then he worked at the new Parliament House. Neil Baker will be speaking with me, Barry York, for the Oral History Program of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Neil, on behalf of the director at the Museum, I really want to thank you for your cooperation here. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure is subject to any restrictions you impose through that rights agreement?
N BAKER: Yes.
B YORK: Can we have permission to make a transcript or a summary if we are able to make one?
N BAKER: Yes.
B YORK: Thanks again. The interview is taking place today, 16th of October, 2013, at the Museum. Can we begin at the beginning? When and where were you born?
N BAKER: 10th of June, 1947 at Cootamundra.
B YORK: Did you grow up at Cootamundra?
N BAKER: No, I think within the next year I was in Broken Hill.
B YORK: So your parents moved there when you were a baby?
N BAKER: That’s right.
B YORK: Right, no memory of it but it must have happened. [Laughs]
N BAKER: My first memory, I reckon, of Broken Hill was mum racing around one day, closing all the windows and curtains. It was so hot. I must have been about four years old.
B YORK: Yes.
N BAKER: I couldn’t understand why she was closing the place up when it was so hot. Looking out to the west, there was a mighty dust storm coming. So she’s closed everything up but it still got in. The dust still got in.
B YORK: What did your parents do for a living?
N BAKER: Mum didn’t work. Dad was a cordial maker. He managed and was a cordial maker for Adam’s factory, cordial factory, in Broken Hill.
B YORK: Where was that? Do you remember where it was located?
N BAKER: Argent Lane, behind the Masonic temple. Yes, I remember it well.
B YORK: What were your parents’ names?
N BAKER: Dad is Clarence Peter Baker. Mum was — we didn’t find out until she died — it was Isabel Myrtle. She was always referred to as that, Myrtle. That was her name.
B YORK: Can you tell me other childhood memories that you’ve got from that time?
N BAKER: Heaps. I remember local cops zooming around the corner. He caught a few of us pinching fruit over the fences from people down the street sort of thing. We got a good boot in the backside from him and I got taken home. Called dad down and said ‘he’s been pinching fruit down the road, got to stop him’ you know. ‘Just to let you know,’ you know, ‘he’s been a bad kid.’ We were terrified of dad. A boot in the backside hurt enough but dad used to get the belt out. He took me out the backyard of our place and he said ‘what’s that there?’ I said ‘an orange tree.’ He said ‘what’s that there?’ I said ‘a peach tree.’ ‘And what are these?’ ‘Grapes and nectarines from a nectarine tree,’ he said. The neighbours’ fig tree hung over, over grown in one part. He said ‘you got all this fruit here,’ he said ‘what do you want to go pinch it for?’ [Laughs] I said something silly ‘oh, it tastes better’ or something. So it got me a clip over the back.
B YORK: Did you have brothers and sisters?
N BAKER: I’ve got two older brothers… Two older sisters and an older brother. I was the baby of the family. My second older sister reckons I was spoilt because I was the baby. She used to get me on the swings and Julie would say… She would sing. You’d be on the swing and we’d get the swing as high as we could go. Then they’d sing ‘go home to your mother, you red headed bugger! You don’t belong to me!’ [Laughs]
B YORK: Yes, you were a red headed?
N BAKER: Yes. That was my nickname, Red.
B YORK: Okay.
N BAKER: In Broken Hill, when we left and went to Wollongong for a short while and then to Sydney. In Wollongong it became ‘Blue Baker’. I couldn’t understand why and one of my uncles said ‘well, it’s just like they call a bald man curly, the opposite.’
B YORK: Yes.
N BAKER: So blue must be the opposite of red.
B YORK: How long were you in Broken Hill?
N BAKER: Sixty one. I think it was sixty one. Mum actually left dad. He was a bit of a boozer and abuser. We ended up at one of mum’s sisters at Wollongong. I was… Yes, I was fourteen because I was in my last year. No, I was probably… Yes, fourteen. I was in my last year. I only went to intermediate, third year I think it was. But in Broken Hill, we had nowhere we lived. Across the road was the greyhound track, a smashed showground and all their circus’ there. There were two football ovals and two dams. In big storms the water used to run down to the corner, diagonally across, and go out to these dams. I think they were pumped out. The water was pumped out to Steven’s creek.
B YORK: Okay.
N BAKER: We probably went there every weekend, every Sunday, because the pubs… You had to be a bona fide traveller to get a beer. Half of Broken Hill would go out to Steven’s Creek. It was dry as a bone too. But you would walk over across… I think it was not a sand hill. It was just a dirt hill. Here was where all the water ended up from down the corner of our place at Steven’s Creek, a fairly large lake.
B YORK: Did you live in the one house all the time in Broken Hill?
N BAKER: Yes.
B YORK: Where was that?
N BAKER: Yes. Sorry?
B YORK: Where was it?
N BAKER: 107 Iodide Street. There was just a tar sealed road, one car wide, I suppose. No guttering. As kids, we used to, the neighbour’s kids… Our gang was ‘The Dam Warriors’. We were called ‘The Dam Warriors’ and the dams were off limits to anybody except us. If we caught anybody there we’d take them up to the bull ants nest and we’d force them to stand on the bull ant’s nest for five minutes. It was sort of part of our initiation too, you had to bloody stand on the bull ant’s nest for five minutes to become a Dam Warrior.
B YORK: Pretty bad initiation to go through. What about your schooling? Which school did you go to and when did you start school
N BAKER: I went to the Catholic school. Now, I’m sure it was the Marist Brothers because… My first day at school, they rang up mum and told her ‘to come and get you’ because I must have played up. I was up a tree and the nun was hitting me with a cane. So I broke a bit of the tree off and started hitting her back. So I rang mum and she came and got me the first day. After dad dealt with me that night, the next day was back to normal. I went to school and went from there. I was two… Must have been third class at the nuns and then up past the church to the… It was a two levelled, grounds, and fifth class was… I don’t know. You went up after so many years. Primary, I recall it, and High School was up the next level.
B YORK: In the same building?
N BAKER: Two separate, like there’s a ramp. It was quite high.
B YORK: Right.
N BAKER: We used to get the milk, flavoured milk, delivered and sit out in the sun from when they got there until we had a drink. We were allowed to have a drink and it was usually warm.
B YORK: Okay.
N BAKER: But it was creamy on top.
B YORK: Did you enjoy school? N BAKER: Not particularly, I didn’t. My education was… I passed everything that I had to but I didn’t excel because I didn’t really like school.
B YORK: What about sporting activities, were you into any of the sports?
N BAKER: Aussie rules. Directly across the road from our house was just an empty paddock. We used to play a lot of baseball there and cricket. The two sports ovals that had concrete cricket pitches on them. And riding around Broken Hill, I suppose. Used to go up the slag heap and set fire to the sulphur. By the time you got off the slag heap and you’re walking down… Well, you come into Iodide Street up the top and the slag heaps behind the main street. You would see just the smoke because once you start sulphur, it melts and runs and lights another bit. A chain reaction sort of thing. We used to do things like set fire… When the dams were empty, long grass would grow and it was pretty well contained. The fireman would come down and we’d help him put it out. They always appreciated that. ‘Thanks for your help, boys!’ Little did they know, we started it.
B YORK: Yes. When you were a young fellow at school, how did you think of your future? Were there things you wanted to be when you grew up?
N BAKER: I don’t think I really had any ambition. There was just… Live in the moment, sort of thing. I don’t think I knew what I wanted to be or was going to turn out to be.
B YORK: Did you think you might not be in Broken Hill?
N BAKER: No, I loved the place. I was heartbroken when we left. It was just such a terrific place. Everyone was friendly. Being young, it was… Mum and dad were having their problems, I didn’t really realise it. My second older sister was the only one at home with me when mum left dad. Kay was in teacher’s college in Sydney and Daryl was in Melbourne. He was training to be a telephone technician and because he was accepted in Victoria, he had to be posted somewhere… He couldn’t be posted to Broken Hill because it was in New South Wales. So they posted him to Wentworth which is the closest they could get. I think about the time that he moved in there, moved to Wentworth, mum packed up Julie and me and we moved to Wollongong.
B YORK: So you went with your mother to Wollongong?
N BAKER: Yes, mum took us when she left dad.
B YORK: Did Daryl influence you in the telephone technician line?
N BAKER: I think he must have but I don’t know why because I didn’t sort of… Daryl was a telephone technician in training when I left school in Sydney. I was a bit fascinated with telephones and mechanics, mechanical cars. Yes. So when I left school pretty much the only job going was the telegram boy. By that time, mum and dad got together again in Sydney and I think I was already finished school.
B YORK: Did you have a telephone at home in Broken Hill?
N BAKER: Yes, a black wall phone, Bakelite, a black Bakelite wall phone. I didn’t know it but it was actually an extension of the factory and each night when they went home they’d night switch the line to the phone at home. If mum used it during the day, they’d answer it at the factory at the switch board and put her through or give her a line and she’d phone them.
B YORK: When you say a black Bakelite one, was that one that came in a black wooden box on the wall? Or was it all Bakelite?
N BAKER: No, it was a Bakelite, all black Bakelite. The only metal was the insides and the back plate was metal. The wooden frames were probably obsolete or obsolescent by then. Later we had the old… You’d recover them and replace them with a Bake’ one because they were obsolete, obsolescent.
B YORK: Yes, we must talk about that later.
N BAKER: If you come across one, you’d replace it with a new one, a Bakelite one. Sometimes there was a bit of a tug-of-war. Everyone, ‘don’t take my old phone!’
B YORK: Yes, yes. But with the one at home, like at Broken Hill, did many people have phones then?
N BAKER: No, they were pretty dear actually, a phone in the fifties, I think. We used to have visitors to come and use ours. No, because they couldn’t afford them. I think the closest public telephone was in Oxide Street which was a block away, just up the… One car away. Mum’s neighbours and things like that, they just got used to it I suppose. Mum would say ‘come and use our phone’.
B YORK: Did you use the phone as a young kid?
N BAKER: No, no. I don’t… Well, kids didn’t make phone calls.
B YORK: Yes. Back then, that’s right.
N BAKER: If you wanted to talk to somebody, you’d go and hop on the bike and go around there or walk there or run there. Walk around in your shorts in the sun. The first bike I had was a fixed wheel, 26”. I couldn’t mount it properly so the way to get on was a bit of a run up and as the pedal come past, step on the pedal, come around and throw your leg over. The breaks were a foot on the front wheel, sometimes in the spokes. I had a few of them.
B YORK: At home did you have any mod cons? You know, did you have television?
N BAKER: No, no. Remember when, in 1956, some rich people up the road, a few miles from us really… Evans their name was. I’m sure because one of the Evans’ was in our gang, if you like. They got a TV. I didn’t see TV until I was in Sydney. We used to go stand outside Grace Brothers on Broadway looking at their massive TV. They had speakers out under the awnings.
B YORK: What about radio? Did you have radio at home?
N BAKER: Yes, radio. Every Sunday night, listen to the play. My brother and I would be six inches from the speaker lying on the floor in the lounge room.
B YORK: So you end up in Wollongong with your mum?
N BAKER: Yes, we stayed with one of mum’s sisters. It must have only been for a short time because we ended up… I went to school. I had to get the train in. The only choice was at Unanderra. I had to get the train into Wollongong to the Christian Brother school there. I was failing at school. My scores were failing. But then we went to Sydney so we… I didn’t particularly like the school… What was it, the school…? I’ll always remember the teachers. In Broken Hill the teachers used the cane to punish. Six of the best, you know. If you had one particular Brother, you had to hold your hand out and if you moved or something and he missed, he’d say ‘put your hand out again’ and he come up and get you on the knuckles. De La Salle College in Marrickville. They had straps and they used to line you up, facing you, and give you a swipe with the strap. Quite wide, two or three inches wide, at least. But they’d dole out the punishment in the morning at assembly. There was probably about two or even four hundred kids in the whole school. Whoever was up for punishment would walk up the stairs in front of the whole school. They’d give them their punishment. One of the Brothers must have went a bit too far one day. Instead of on the hand, it hit him past his wrist. The kid’s standing there with his hand out, his arm out, and blood starts… Zit, zit, zit. The whole school went ‘ahhhh!’ [Laughs] After that, I don’t think anybody got strapped again after that. The parents obviously… But they were… I didn’t like that school. End of third year, I was to pick up my intermediate certificate. We had finished school but we come back on another day to pick up your certificate. I never picked up my intermediate certificate. Every time I went for exams or something in PNG or even when I went to get a job, they’d say ‘what qualifications have you got?’ ‘Third year intermediate certificate.’ ‘Well, you have to produce that’ and I’d say ‘I’m still at the school, I have to go back to get it.’ They can have it.
B YORK: What did you not like about the school? What was it that was so bad that it had that effect on you?
N BAKER: The Brothers. They were not sadistic but they were… they had power over you, a lot of power. I suppose they come back to be the Brother. I can remember my brother and I, we were in the marching band. He was on the trombone and I was on the bugle. At the end of the year the Brother that managed the band, he got us on a bus and took us to Menindee for the day. All down the middle of the aisle of the bus was cordial from Adam’s. Dad supplied it. The three Brothers that were with us, they had longneck beers in the bags with the ice in it. We happened to come across one. We’re in Menindee out the back and we swig a beer. [Laughs] Got caught but they were angry that we’d drunk the beer, not that we’d… [Laughs] They really didn’t are.
B YORK: Yes. Hey, did you have any hobbies back then?
N BAKER: Only kids things like marbles and… No, I don’t… I used to build things. I can remember building a crane to get through the fence. It was a vacant block that later was built on. Near the shed there was a magnet on the crane, picking up nails and pieces of metal through the fence. I had a tendency to pull everything apart. I got to see how it worked.
B YORK: That’s interesting. Am I right to think that may explain your later interest in telephones, being a telephone technician?
N BAKER: Yes. First year of tech training, it was full on. Like, we were at a training school. We had theory and practical and I just loved it. I could understand it as soon as they opened the book. They said ‘this is the voice as a soundwave’ and I don’t know. I was fascinated.
B YORK: Will you excuse me for a moment Bluey?
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 2
B YORK: So when you left the high school or the Christian Brothers, your family then… Your parents were reunited in Sydney? Is that what happened?
N BAKER: Yes, yes.
B YORK: So your father had given up on the cordial business?
N BAKER: Well, he went to… He was a very good… He had all his own recipes when he left Adams’. Eastman’s was another cordial factory in Broken Hill. They found out that he’d left her. What happened was Adams, the man Adams who actually owned the place, sold it to a guy – Fred Williams, I think his name was – and dad lost… He didn’t lose. He took over… The new owner took over the managing side of it which dad always… Because Adams was not a well man and the new owner was…
His father had bought it for him. You know: rich, new, didn’t know anything guy sort of thing, as far as dad was concerned. Dad didn’t get on well with him. I don’t know what happened. Maybe something happened with a phone. It surely would have. Maybe the phone was disconnected and Dad had to use one of the old chucks which was taken off him and he resigned. Eastman’s heard about it and employed him the same day. I don’t know what happened there, I think it might have been the drink with dad, but he parted with Eastman’s and opened his own cordial factory, small cordial factory. Baker’s Better Beverages or something like that, it was called.
We used to go around there with me and some of my mates. Dad would pay us to label the bottles. It was like a tray of glue in front of you. You wiped the label on the glue and stuck it on the bottle. Instead at Adams’ factory, it was all automatic. It was all machine-driven. That’s what I should say, when dad was at Adams’ he had a vat. A private vat of his own that every three months he used to come in on the weekend and fire up the machines in the factory and bottle his home brew.
B YORK: [Laughs]
N BAKER: Daryl, my brother and I, we used to go down and help him. The crown sealer, you’d adjust everything. Do all the adjustments and fire the factory up. The whole factory was going just for only three dozen… I forget. A fair bit of beer.
But one particular time, we were there. The crown sealer, like a big heavy… Deliver the bottle and the crown sealer would sort of swoop down on it, put the bottle cap on and go up. Daryl would always ring and say it wasn’t him and dad would always ring and say it wasn’t him. They’d adjusted it to as if there were small bottles on it. So when everything fired up and got moving, the first bottle would come around and the can swooped on it. As far as it was concerned, it was supposed to be crown sealing a small bottle. Just the pressure on the bottle… The bottles were exploding, pretty well, every second or so. Dad’s up in the sugar room and we’re down below and of course, we bolted. Dad came down, shutting things down. He blamed Daryl for doing the wrong adjustment. They all blamed him.
B YORK: When you moved to Sydney, were you happy about that? Were you happy to have your mum and dad together?
N BAKER: I think it was my fault that mum got back with dad because he hadn’t changed. I was a telegram boy at that time and I played snooker down at the Manhattan in Pitt Street. Crystal Palace in George Street, near the theatres there, and I used to get paid on Thursdays. I was on a night shift from 12 to 8. I went down at 10 o’clock and picked up my pay which was about 10 quid for the fortnight.
On the Saturday night, I was playing a game of snooker. We were betting money. My father tapped me on the shoulder and he said ‘we haven’t heard from you since Thursday morning. What do you think you’re doing?’ I happened to be winning through those three days. I won a fair bit of money. It was 126 down, I had, when he took it off me and gave it to mum. But he tapped me on the shoulder and he said ‘what are you doing?’ The guy who I was playing against, he’d know what was going on. He said ‘come on, we’re going home.’ I said ‘oh dad, I’ve bet money on this game and if I lose, I’ll lose it, but I’m going to win this game. I’m going to win it. So can you let me play the game out? Then we’ll go.’ So he did. Finished, I won. In those days you used to roll a note up, the bet, and put it under the cushion near the black spot. So I went home and I picked up twenty pound. This was the bet. Dad said ‘what’s that?’ and I said ‘that’s what I won.’ Ten pound in my wallet and ten pound here. He just shook his head and couldn’t believe it. It was the first time I’d ever won.
I used to lose my pay. That’s why I think mum couldn’t handle. She needed, you know… I used to pay her four quid a fortnight. That four quid must have gone a long way to helping her. She got a job at Pye in Tempe, Pye Television. Somehow mum or dad never said why they got back together. He hadn’t changed. I think after I had left, some years later, a few years later, mum and dad ended up in Parkes. Mum left him again and went down to Mildura. No, Ballarat. Moved in with my brother, at that time. He’d bought a house and said ‘you and dad can live in the house.’ Dad said ‘I’m not going’ and mum said ‘well, I’m going’. She packed up and went.
B YORK: So in Sydney, was that where you started your technicians training?
N BAKER: Yes. I was a telegram boy and after a year or so of that, I ended on the fourth floor of the GPO where the telexes all come in and were sent out. I’d do a… I don’t know, teletype course, and every year they’d come around with vocational guidance test. You’d fill out. You know, it was like ‘one, two, three, four, what’s the next number?’ You know, ‘triangle, square, diamond, triangle, square, what’s next?’ Pretty basic stuff. They’d say, because I already told them that I wanted to be a telephone technician and the entrance exams were in November, they’d say ‘your vocational guidance scores say you should be in the clerical. You’re very good with figures and you should be in the clerical.’ I’d say ‘nah, I want to be a telephone technician.’ ‘Alright.’ So I went to the entrance exams three times. Next year, vocational guidance said I should be a clerk. ‘Nah, I don’t want to be a clerk.’ It wasn’t that I was scoring badly it was just that so many went into these entrance exams. They only accept seven hundred and there would be a couple of thousand lined up. You had to get 99.9%. In the third year — they must have felt sorry for me — they said ‘well this guy obviously wants to be a telephone technician so I got the nod.
B YORK: Over those years, what were you doing? Were you still a telegram…
N BAKER: I was on the fourth floor with… In ’63, November ’63, the… What are they called? Picturegrams for the newspaper… Used to come in to the fourth floor on their big machines, they’d be spinning and the photo would come out. In December when JFK was assassinated, they’d get the picture-gram, all the picture-grams for the day that were going into the paper or the afternoon’s paper. We used to deliver them to the newspaper.
I can always remember I got the photo, the picture-gram, of JFK being shot to take it down to The Sydney Morning Herald. The telegraph that day… I was still a telegraph boy in ’63 because I had the telegraph for the morning Telegraph was four pages, if you like. It was like one page folded over to become four pages. It just had photos of… And I went into the Wentworth Hotel with some telegrams and a lot of the people at the hotel were very… They were all crowding me, wanting this paper.
So I was still a telegram boy in ’63 and it wasn’t until ’65… Well, ’64 I must have passed because I was on the intake of ’65, the 1965 intake.
B YORK: When did you realise you wanted to be a telephone technician?
N BAKER: Probably after I’d become a… When I went upstairs at the GPO. It was the old teletypes, the mechanics of that. The typewriter, not that. The telex machine. It was basically a typewriter. I think it was… No, don’t really know. I knew I didn’t want to be a clark. It must have been… It might have been my brother because he was saying you used to have to go to Melbourne once a month for training, after first year for the next three years. You went back on a monthly basic to do theory. It was just travel, I suppose.
B YORK: So your brothers’ experiences… he would have told you what it was like working?
N BAKER: Yes, yes.
B YORK: Makes sense. Where were you living in Sydney?
N BAKER: Annandale, Rockdale, Kogarah, Bexley North. We moved around a bit. I don’t know if it was because dad was missing out on rent or paying rent or something like that. But he got a job at Fanta. Fanta had opened up a factory in Sydney. He went in and he came home. The first day he came home, he’s talking to mum and he says he’s not going to stay there. He said ‘there’s no art in it anymore, all you do is empty the plastic bags of powder into vats and mix them up. That’s what all the cordials are.’ Now all it is — is recipes.
I think the reason he got out of Broken Hill was, when he started his factory up, the unions… He was going to the hotels selling his orange lemonade, the mixers for the spirits. Because they were so good, the hotels started buying them. The industrial unions decided that they didn’t want that. I think they warned him. Somehow I was discussing it with my brother a few years ago and Daryl seemed to think that they tricked him into missing out on a mortgage payment for a month. The woman that owned the factory, Linstrim [?], sued him or bridged the contract or something like that and he had to get out. When he chucked the job in at Fanta in Sydney, he became a photocopier mechanic. Walking the streets of Sydney, just fixing up photo copiers or servicing them. He used to have a pretty heavy tool bag, tool box. He was always upset that the cars would wait for the lights to turn green. The cars would be in the pedestrian crossing lane. He would walk along with his bag and accidentally bang his tool box into the side… Break a light or something like that. Then they moved to Parks.
B YORK: Did you go with them to Parks?
N BAKER: No, you see, I did the first year of training in ’65 at Alexandria Training School near St Peters Station in Sydney. That was a full on year of just theory and practice. Then you selected a place in New South Wales where you want to do your ongoing training and because I had an uncle at Leeton… Usually on our holidays in Broken Hill we used to go to Uncle Jack’s farm because there you could drive the tractor, drive the truck, drive the ute, kill a sheep… Castrate a sheep! [Laughs] Sheering, I never got into sheering because it was too hard. I put in my request for Leeton, Narrandera or Griffith. Depending on your scores, you got what you wanted or you sent to a second workshop. I had good scores.
Although it was funny, during the year I went to the head instructor and I said… Because by then I was an adult trainee, I was over eighteen. In the clerical section, people that had left during the year got clerical work and talking to them they were getting something like three pound a week — a fortnight — more than I was getting. So I decided that I would leave the technicians training and go and do clerical because they were getting three quid a fortnight more. The head instructor called me into his office saying ‘why do you want to leave?’ and I was saying ‘this and that’, a few stories I told him. He sort of picked up his paperwork and said ‘no, I don’t think you’re going to go. You’re going to be a good telephone technician’ he said. ‘I know it’s three quid a fortnight but you’ll get over it.’ So I stayed on.
I actually said to him years later, because I was trying to cotton on to his daughter, and he was a rescue… I don’t know what they called it in those days but basically he asked me to do one time which I volunteered for. They set up like a car crash outside Hurstville Railway Station and there were two cars that had had a head on collision. They put all scars and different things on you. I was the driver with… His daughter and me were the people in the car that were not wearing their seatbelt. The other car was the people that were wearing their seatbelt. So we had to sit there in the driver’s seat with my head against the steering wheel and blood dripping off my wounds and things like that. We stopped for morning tea and he gave me this big round pill. He said ‘when you get back in the car, the ambulance will be coming and when you hear the ambulance coming, pop that pill in your mouth.’ It was huge actually, you couldn’t swallow it. Anyway, what it did was it foamed up. I could feel it foaming up and it was red blood colour. People were walking past going ‘uhhh! Look, it’s real!’ Fortunately when they got me on the stretcher the ambulance came and put me on a stretcher, they checked my vitals and put the sheet over me. I was dead. That’s what happens when you don’t wear your seatbelts.
B YORK: So this was separate to your training as a technician and that?
N BAKER: It was just to impress the head instructor so I could see more of his daughter.
B YORK: What was the basic training that you did back then?
N BAKER: At Leeton you did everything: maintenance of telephones, maintenance of the… Every morning you had to check all the battery levels, the emergency battery levels in case we lost power. You had to do all the readings. You went out and, you know, finding and new installations, new phone installations. Leeton was what you’d call a CB which was a common battery exchange and they had switchboards at Leeton. Satellite… Rural automatic exchanges they were called or rural exchanges. They had two magneto exchanges at Whitman and Yanco which had switchboard operators there. The rest of them around the place were automatic exchanges.
A good, old lady — she was about ninety, I suppose — I went in at Leeton and put a new service on for her. The phones in the CB exchange had a dummy dial. I finished installing it and I went and saw her. I said ‘alright, that’s ready to go now.’ She walked out, looked at the phone and said ‘where’s the dial?’ I said ‘to make a call…’ She said ‘how do I make a call?’ I said ‘you just lift the receiver and the operator will answer you at the exchange and you tell her the number that you want and she’ll connect you.’ She said ‘how does the PMG become so much easier?’ She said ‘where I come from I have to dial my own numbers!’ I thought ‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.’ She thought it was an improvement, going back to manual exchanges.
I can remember — a farmer — all the wires would get tangled up and normally you’d just said… The aerial wires… Normally you’d say ‘well, we’ve got to get a ninety out to fix up, restring the wires and that.’ I just drove in underneath it and got on the roof of the vehicle and separated it, put a bakelite handset to keep them apart, strapped the two wires and then got bogged. Farmer comes along and I said ‘you want to pull me out of the bog and he said ‘have you fixed my phone?’ I said ‘yes’ and he said ‘okay, I’ll pull you out.’ Otherwise I was going to stay there until… The vehicle was going to stay there until I fixed his phone.
B YORK: Just wondering what was the most common work that you would do back then in Leeton?
N BAKER: The beauty of it was you did everything. You got so much experience with different types of equipment, different phones. It helped when you went to theory because… A guy who was in the same year as me that was put in Sydenham workshop, they’d just get to pull the phone apart and put the new insides in or clean it up, put a new dial in and it’s sent out. But out in the countryside, you’ve got… They, country people, were friendly as well. I drove into a farm one day, just into the driveway round the back of the farmhouse. They’re bolting everywhere, they’ve got forty-four gallon drums cooking up their grappa which was illegal. They’d say ‘oh, it’s only you Bluey! The dog’s barking!’
B YORK: Would you upgrade existing telephones? I’d imagine that in the country there would be a lot of very old telephones that people had.
N BAKER: Yes. The wooden ones, in the early days, much to my… I mean it happened all over Australia, every technician you talked to. What you had to do, if you had an obsolete telephone and replaced it. You had to take it back to the exchange. Box it up. Fill out an S7 form which was a lot of writing. You know, it was a pain. So you’d just go and chuck it in the Murrumbidgee River or burn the wooden ones. The metal ones went into the… I reckon we used to get a ute load full. We’d go out to Euroley Bridge and throw them in the Murrumbidgee River, hundreds of them. The old boss from here, he used to work at Nambour in Queensland. He said he emptied some out…
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 3
N BAKER: …came out into a dam on a property. A few years later after a drought, he’s driving along and he looked over at this dam and here’s all these phones sticking out of the mud. He said ‘I had to go and recover them and hide them somewhere else.’
B YORK: Why were they obsolete? Say if there were phones from the 1920’s, why would they no longer work? Why couldn’t the people just have kept those phones and kept using them?
N BAKER: Like wear and tear is the main thing and the maintenance cost to PMG. They’re better off replacing them with a new, more reliable phone than trying to maintain. It’s like a new product. A new phone is released. That’s their policy, to replace all the obsolete phones.
B YORK: Did you ever come across really beautiful old phones that you appreciated for their… You’re now a collector…
N BAKER: Yes, yes.
B YORK: But back then did you ever think, as part of your job, ‘rather than get rid of this obsolete phone, I’d like to keep it’?
N BAKER: Well that’s when I got my first candle stick. You know, the pedestal. It’s a medal. They called it the candle stick. Who’s that actor? The Hardy boys… It’s got a separate receiver on the recorder and you speak into the microphone receiver like that. I got that outside at Leeton in ’66. I thought it was ’66 but it might have been ’68. Here was tug-of-war type thing. Here was I giving her a brand new, ivory, plastic telephone but I have to take this and the hand generator and the bell box and the candle stick phone. In Italian I think it was. She couldn’t speak English, arguing ‘no, no! You don’t take!’ I’m saying ‘yes, I’ve got to. I’ve got to send it to Sydney to be refurbished.’ Her young daughter came home, must have been 9 or 10. She translated ‘my mother would like to know if she can keep the phone because she’s had it since 1928.’ I said ‘well, I’m sorry. It’s got to go back to Sydney to Sydenham workshop to be refurbished.’ So they settled. That was it. That was when I first started keeping the old phones, if you like. You didn’t usually have any arguments.
In my fourth, before I was a technician, we had got another trainee come in and we went out to Yanco Cultural College. They said ‘can you fix up that intercom?’ They use them for intercom: two big, old, ornate wall phones. He said ‘can you fix these up?’ I said ‘I’ll do better that. I’ll give you a brand new, black wall phone, the latest telephone.’ He said ‘oh, great!’ So Alvin and I got a wall phone each. Alvin was killed in a road accident in 1970 and I used to go through Orange to see his mother. Years later, when I came back from New Zealand, I took my wife up to see her. Here was this wire wall phone still sitting on the wall. She said it was his pride and joy.
B YORK: Neil, I might ask you now, if you don’t mind, can you just take me through what happened from this point in time that we’re talking about… You’re at Leeton… Through to 1973 when you actually started working here? We won’t talk about your work here at this session but those few years leading up to that, what happened from Leeton?
N BAKER: Leeton in 1971, a mate of mine, one of my mates in Leeton, we decided we were going to go to Canada because a technician that used to work at Leeton had gone to Canada and made a fortune working as a telephone technician. Rodger was a fitter and turner. We decided, probably at the pub — it would have been at the pub — that we would go to Canada. So I resigned, we resigned, our jobs in ’71. Before that Max, this guy that went to Canada, said that ‘it’s really hard to get into Canada from Australia but if you go to New Zealand, it’s easier.’ So we got a boat to New Zealand and soon discovered that it was twice as hard to get from New Zealand to Canada than from Australia to Canada. So we were sort of stuck in New Zealand. We didn’t mind.
I got a job at [inaudible] electric power board as a trouble man, doing basic faults, identifying faults and telling the customer to go and get an electrician because I didn’t have an electricians licence. But I virtually had been. Our training with telecom, with PMG… I was an electrician. I could do electrical work, in theory but because I didn’t have a slip of paper, I couldn’t do it in practice. I met Jill, my future wife, at that stage.
In 1972, my brother rang me from Sydney. He’d been moved to Sydney to do a cutover of Haymarket Exchange. He got on the phone and rung me. He said ‘what are you doing?’ I said ‘well, at the moment, I’m working for Post and Telegraphs’ which was PMG, the equivalent of PMG in Australia. He said ‘how much are you getting?’ I said ‘$91 a fortnight.’ He started laughing. He said he’s on technicians pay over there, here, on $168 a fortnight. The next day I wrote a letter to PMG and I asked them if there were any jobs available and they said ‘yes, present yourself to here in Sydney and we’ll work it out.’ I went and spoke to Jill and said ‘I’m going back to Australia, do you want to come with me?’ She said ‘we better see my father.’ So we went and saw Barney and Barney said ‘I don’t want you to take my daughter over to Australia and dump her’ and I said ‘Barney, I’ll be back. We’ll come back to New Zealand to get married.’ So he gave the okay.
We came over and went for the interview. The guy said ‘what do you want to do?’ I said ‘subs install’ because I don’t like exchanges. I can’t work in the exchange, it’s too confining. He said ‘yes, that’s alright. Where do you want to go?’ He said ‘the north coast is out’ because everybody wants to go to the north coast. He put a list in front of me of about forty places and got to Broken Hill. I thought ‘I don’t believe it, Broken Hill.’ I looked at Jill and I thought ‘I don’t think Jill would appreciate Broken Hill’ and then Canberra. I said ‘oh Canberra, that’s a good spot.’ He said ‘okay,’ he said, ‘when do you want to start?’ I thought ‘what’s the catch here?’ They’re giving me everything. I said ‘well, I want to see my sisters in Parks and Bathurst and my brother in Mildura so a couple of weeks.’ He said ‘three weeks. You can start in three weeks.’ I said ‘now all I have to do is hope I get the loan for a car I’m buying. He said ‘give us the details’ and he wrote a letter. ‘This introduces Neil Kenneth Baker. He will be working as a telephone technician in Canberra with a salary of such and such a year.’ It’s just what I needed to get the loan, exactly what I needed. So they really took good care of me.
We bought a Valiant Pacer, four door. Went to Parks, Orange… After we left Orange we came through Canberra and I went to introduce myself to my new boss, just a matter of courtesy, and that I would be back in a week to start work at Dickson, here. He said ‘alright.’ We were driving around and it was the October long weekend. After the October long weekend… When we were at Bathurst, we went to the Hardie-Ferodo 500.
B YORK: What is that?
N BAKER: The race, the mountain. It was the ‘Hardie-Ferodo’ back in those days… five hundred miles. We were sitting at the light at London Circuit. It is 104 degrees. It came on the radio that it is 104 degrees. Jill said ‘oh, how am I going to live in this sort of heat?’ because she had never seen heat like that in New Zealand.
B YORK: Where was she from in New Zealand?
N BAKER: North of New Zealand on the west coast of North Island.
B YORK: North Island?
N BAKER: North Island, yes. It’s actually 4 degrees off the longitude of Canberra.
B YORK: Okay, pretty cold.
N BAKER: Obviously you can look out there and wave to your relo’s. I said ‘oh don’t worry about the heat’ and I thought ‘I wonder if I should tell her about winter’ because that was coming. [Laughs] So we went out to Mildura, stayed there a couple of days and came back to Canberra. I started in Canberra, just maintenance and installation. No, it wasn’t maintenance, just installation of new services in Canberra. We went in 1973, December, to New Zealand and got married, came back. That was the end of 1973. Early in ’73, four of us were approached. Eddie Jones was senior technician and three other technicians were approached to put a new telephone system in PM’s wing that was being built.
B YORK: The Prime Minister’s wing?
N BAKER: The Prime Minister’s wing was being built, yes. I said ‘yes, that would be alright’ because they said they were a new type of telephone, non-switching units. I said ‘how long will it take?’ They said ‘three or four months.’ I said ‘yes, I’ll be in that.’ I left in 1988 when they closed the doors.
B YORK: Let’s talk about that period next time. Can I just go back and ask a couple of quick questions to finish off? What did Barney do for a living, your father-in-law?
N BAKER: He was a cheesemaker but he bought a farm, a dairy farm. So he became a dairy farmer. Doris, his wife, she died… She had never been to the doctor. I think Barney said she had been to the doctor twenty-eight years before. She was fifty-six when she died. She had a massive brain haemorrhage. Yes, she was fifty-six years old.
B YORK: Did she work outside the home?
N BAKER: She did the milking when Barney was down the pub and he didn’t get home to do the milking. They used to do the milking twice a day. I made it clear that the first time I went up there… He said ‘you bloody Aussies…’ He always used to call me ‘an Australian bastard!’ [Laughs] He said ‘we’ll get up at four in the morning to milk the cows’ and I said ‘Barney, I’m a telephone technician and I’m not a milker.’ The only time I ever went to the milking shed was to watch.
B YORK: Fair enough. Look, the final question for today… You mentioned that you didn’t like exchange work but you liked sub-installs. Was that what you said?
N BAKER: Subscribe and installs.
B YORK: What is that? What does it mean? That’s a technical term that I don’t know.
N BAKER: Installing telephones and new services in houses and businesses, putting switchboards in businesses — installation.
B YORK: Yes, yes.
N BAKER: Subscriber’s installation.
B YORK: Am I right to think that would have been booming at that time? There would have been lots of people, new houses being built and a big demand for that service?
N BAKER: Yes, yes. I didn’t get much of the private subscriber’s installation because by those days… It used to be the linesman would go out and put the line out into the house and the technician would come out and connect the telephone. By that time, when the boom was on, the linesman would do the complete service. Before then there was an exchange technician who connected the line to the cable pair out of the building, out of the exchange. The linesman provided the connection underground or overhead to the outside of the house. The install technician installed from where the line is left off in the thing.
B YORK: To the house?
N BAKER: But then the linesman could go into the exchange, run the jumper, connect the pair to the outgoing cable pair, go out to the street, do all the connections to the house and to the telephone, finish it all. Do the whole lot. So I was in all the businesses, all the departments, government departments and things like that.
B YORK: Do you have secure employment? Like with the PMG were you a permanent employee at this stage?
N BAKER: Yes, very secure. It was good but I enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it. You know, doing the… Sorry, my alarm is going off.
B YORK: Look, thanks so much for today and I look forward to doing it again and we’ll talk about the time here in this building. I hope that you enjoyed it and it wasn’t too onerous for you today.
N BAKER: It’s good.
B YORK: Okay. We’ll send you a CD of today’s sessions. Thanks.
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 4
B YORK: Today is the 30th of October, 2013. I am continuing the interview with Neil Baker. Neil, I’m wondering, when you first came here to Old Parliament House — or the Provisional Parliament House, as it was — what was your actual job title? Like your classification?
N BAKER: I was a telecommunications technician on site, I suppose. Just on site techs.
B YORK: Did you remain in that position for the whole time you were here until 1988 in this building?
N BAKER: When Eddie, who was the boss here, left — he retired — I was promoted to technical officer grade one. I virtually took over from him about 1984 that was.
B YORK: What was his name?
N BAKER: Eddie Jones. He was a real driving force, I’ll tell you. He said to Ronny what he thought but sometimes… Our disadvantage, sort of thing. I remember Hayden, when he was Opposition Leader we were doing some work in his office around here and Eddie… I’m sure he knew it was Hayden himself, he was talking to him and he said ‘well, you’re all bloody crooks. They’re all bloody crooks anyway, aren’t they?’ Hayden didn’t like that much at all. Every time we saw Hayden in the hallway, he’d steer clear of him because he knew as technicians, who we were. He remembered it. He remembered it even up to the New House.
B YORK: How many of you were there?
N BAKER: Initially there was probably about eight. That was to do the cabling, to do the labour work. It dropped down to four. There were virtually four of us for the duration or three with a fourth. There were three. There was Eddie and myself and Bill Rickaby were virtually permanent here. We also did the Parliamentary Triangle, like the Treasury building and Admin building, TGO building. It started off as the TGO building, it became the… I don’t know what they changed it to. The one across the road down here, just over King’s Avenue, a big building with six towers — round towers…
B YORK: Anyway, did you do cabling over there mainly?
N BAKER: Yes, yes. Treasury building, we got a lot of work at Treasury building. By the time we finished the wing here, we started off in the old PABX down the Senate side near where you read the newspapers, opposite the telephonists in there. They moved us up somewhere near the side backdoor of the Senate and then to where The Democrats, what was his name…
B YORK: Chipp? Don Chipp?
N BAKER: Chipp had two offices, two rooms about this size. They moved him out and moved us in or it might have been visa versa. Then they knocked a doorway in the old caretakers unit. They put a door in next to the Senate door there. Later on again, they built a permanent office for us near the post office.
B YORK: Is that still there, that permanent one?
N BAKER: Yes, it’s the cleaner’s office now I think. I remember walking past one day… It was definitely a cleaner’s room. It still had the maps. We had the maps of the building, hinged sort of. The lower floor, then you open it out and you had the main floor and the upper floor where our cables went. It was pretty faded, the lower ground, because it was… I don’t know why it was so faded.
When we got things like a change of Government or the Prime Minister at the time had a reshuffle sort of thing, we’d get people in. Sometimes there would be ten of us working because we had to upgrade. It was a big job. A change of Government wasn’t too bad but a Cabinet reshuffle was a nightmare because they would all want the top of the… Those senior people, they all wanted to be close to the PM’s room. I can remember they moved him into the far corner here, into the Minister’s office and he put up such a hullaballoo sort of thing that they moved him to just out here. The pecking order, the closer you were to the Prime Minister, the more senior you were.
B YORK: You mentioned before, you were working in a particular wing? Did I get that right? Or was it the whole building?
N BAKER: We started off in, when we originally started, the new Prime Minister’s wing just here. Then it was everything, not the Press Gallery though. We were getting paid on sight. PMG was doing the Parliament for the work we were doing and the Press Gallery was private lines and things like that. It was just the normal maintenance technicians that came in to fix them. Eventually, we took over that. They said ‘you’re here, you may as well do the work’, all the Press blokes. Paul…
B YORK: Lyneham?
N BAKER: Yes, he died of cancer, I think, some years ago. And Harvey…
B YORK: Yes, he died recently. Peter Harvey?
N BAKER: Peter Harvey. I was here one afternoon. I don’t know what year it was, Christmas Eve. At about four thirty in the afternoon the phone rang. I had sent everyone off, ‘Merry Christmas!’ All the techs were home. I was just cleaning up, walking out the door and the phone rang. It was Peter Harvey. He said ‘I’ve got a problem up here.’ I thought ‘bugger you, buddy. Four thirty on Christmas Eve!’ So I got my little tool bag, went upstairs and walked into the office. He’s sitting at his office and I said ‘what’s the problem Peter?’ He said ‘there are two slabs of beer here and,’ he said ‘I’ve got enough to carry. You’ll have to take them.’ It was just his way of saying ‘thanks very much for all the help during the year.’ He was like that.
B YORK: Good guy. Was there a typical day? Can you describe? What time you would start?
N BAKER: In the later stages, after Eddie left, I used to be here at 5 o’clock in the morning. I got in trouble with telecom over it. I needed an explanation why my vehicle was on the road out of hours, sort of thing. They were trying to pin misuse of my vehicle. I said ‘I used to but because at 8 o’clock in the morning, the phone would start ringing and it was virtually nonstop for the rest of the day or for the morning. I said ‘that’s the reason I start early. I’m not putting it down as overtime or anything, it’s just that I can get more work done in those three hours before 8 am than I could for the whole day. I can get everything set up. They said they were considering, they said ‘get back to work.’ I came back the next day and arrived at 8 am. I gave up. I had to stop doing that, starting early. One of the cops out the front, he said ‘how are you going, Bluey?’ Just came up the front door, going to the room around there. He said ‘you’re late!’ I said ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘well, you’re usually here at five.’ I said ‘yeah, yeah.’ I walked in the office and I walked back to see him. I said ‘you knew I was coming here at five in the morning?’ I said ‘have you got it on record?’ He said ‘no but the guys on the corner will.’ There’s always a Commonwealth car where you drive into the front driveway, parking area there. He said ‘they’ll have a record of it on the Incidents Sheet.
I went to see them and they said ‘oh yeah, we’ve got it, 5 am, PMG vehicle parked.’ I got a copy of it, they gave me a copy of it, and I gave it to my boss over at Woden. They said they dropped the misuse of vehicle business and they said ‘you can’t carry on starting at 5 o’clock in the morning, you’re not covered by the accidents and things like that, you know. So I had to give that away.
B YORK: How long would you work to? When would you knock off? Was there a regular?
N BAKER: Quarter to five.
B YORK: That was pretty regular, was it?
N BAKER: Yes. Yes, at quarter to five I would sign the book and go home.
B YORK: Were there any other regular type routine features to the day? Like, you would get in at 8 and then, what, the phone would be ringing, you were saying?
N BAKER: The phone would start ringing and the switch girls would be paging you. There was always something happening sort of thing, faults and that sort of thing. If you had a fault in the PM’s system, when Fraser was in power, you were not allowed to work on it, if he was present. Even if it didn’t affect his phone, out in the office, if there was something wrong in the office, you couldn’t work on the phones while he was in his office. It didn’t come up a lot of times but… It was frustrating because there would be a minor fault that you knew you could fix but you couldn’t plug in your test to check it in case you came across a conversation or you came across a line that was in use. It may be that it was Fraser himself. You’d be in deep trouble. They had a…
I arrived in the office one day and they had a senior office technician and two guys that I had never seen before in my life. They introduced themselves and the two people were from Telecom Investigations. There had been a complaint from a Minister who said he heard a conversation over his line when he was using his line. He reckoned the line was being tapped. So this senior technician and the two investigation people had been out here in the hall where I just showed you. There were three frames, fairly big frames. We went around to have a look. I said ‘no, nobody has unlocked it.’ They had locks on it, padlocks on it. The senior maintenance technician in his report wrote that he believed that there was an interception of a call to the particular Minister. In his opinion, it happened by someone who knew what he was doing which I…
When I wrote my letter to the boss in Canberra, I said ‘this is a covert operation that they performed in the building and without the knowledge of the Parliament House.’ The Serjeant at Arms and the Usher of the Black Rod, they were over everything as far as security was concerned. If I had done my own investigation, I would have checked the fault records in the operators… the Telephonist’s room. There were several faults across lines. The maintenance tech that was down the PABX, I was talking to the maintenance tech, he just said ‘I’ll just fix the fault’ and he said ‘which would, in the PABX, cause… One of the main causes would be cross talk.’ I wrote in my letter ‘if they had done a reasonable job of checking out the fault reports, they would come to the same conclusion — that it was the PABX. The fault was caused in the PABX.’
Harry — Harry his name was, the boss of Canberra — he called me in his office and he said, basically, who did I think I was? I said ‘the senior technician that investigated it initially virtually said that it was either me or Milton or Red or Peter, the four techs that were on sight. I said ‘none of us… We’re all past the secret by ASIO and we know the implications of doing something like that, listening in on conversations.’ That was the worst thing you could hear if you were testing a line and you were plugged into the frame and you heard a conversation. You immediately disconnect.
B YORK: Did you need a security clearance here?
N BAKER: Yes. Every two years we had to go through who your mother’s father’s brother-in-law’s sister was. We used to say, ‘you got all this two years ago, nothing has changed. It’s only two years further on.’ Where your father was born; where your mother was born; which buildings you access. We used to do the Lodge, jobs at the Lodge. The Governor General’s occasionally, very occasionally, but a fair bit of work at the Lodge. I recall one day from the electrician, he said ‘you’ve got half an hour to spare? Come over to the Lodge, I want to show you something.’ We went over and we walked into the Brown floor, they had lifted the entire floor. They must have been re-doing the floor in there. Underneath there was just dirt and pillars to hold the building up, I suppose. He said ‘have a look at this.’ On one of the main beams there, it’s got, written in pencil ‘Bluey Baker was here’. It had a date and I think it was ’76 or ’78. I said ‘yeah, I was probably putting a cable in underneath and I’m underneath waiting for the cable to come in, with a torch, and while I’m waiting, I just put ‘Bluey Baker was here.’ He said ‘okay, that’s all I wanted to say.’ I said ‘well, hang on a second!’ and I got down and said ‘Bluey Baker was here, 1986’.
B YORK: [Laughs] You’ve updated it.
N BAKER: It’s all over this building, in hard to get to spots. While you’re waiting for another tech, crawling down a tunnel or something, putting cables in, just ‘Bluey Baker was here.’ [Laughs]
B YORK: Part heritage now of the building, Bluey. With the ASIO, did an ASIO person interview you? How did that work?
N BAKER: We just had to… I don’t know initially when I got raided or whatever. The first time, we were actually interviewed by ASIO people but every two years after that it was just filling forms out. They would say to you, like my father was Clarence Peter Baker. If I spelt it differently or anything like that, they would have a record, ‘why did you tell us that this was this…’ You know, you were expected to remember silly things, I suppose. If you didn’t on the form two years later, they would want to know why.
B YORK: Did they ask about politics at all?
N BAKER: No, no. I don’t think they were interested in that.
B YORK: Do you know of any cases of people knocked back because they failed to get a clearance?
N BAKER: No, not really. I think it went from… There were different levels of… We were secret but there were other grades. It might be access to… What you could have access to.
B YORK: Yes, I’m with you.
N BAKER: What areas you could have access to.
B YORK: Did you have, and the other technicians, did you have pretty much free movement in the building? Like could you go anywhere?
N BAKER: Yes, yes. They all knew us. When the ID passes came in, I remember Eddie said to me one day that he’d left his pass at home. He said ‘give us a lend of your pass,’ he said ‘I’ve just got to go down to such and such’ and off he went. It was just like… Then, I got a call. I had to go. So I went without a pass. I’m walking around the building and it would have been the same with Eddie. It was just ‘how are you going, Eddie? How are you going, Bluey?’ I could have worn a bit of cardboard on my pocket because they recognise you. Every time a fault came in, we would have to come and fix it, but they would page Eddie. It was ‘paging Mr James, paging Mr Eddie James.’ It got a mention, Senator Reid got up in the Senate one day, she wasn’t complaining about the PA system but she said ‘and who is this Eddie James?’ In the end, we all went around to meet her so she knew who Eddie James was and who the techs were that were fixing the faults, fixing the phones.
B YORK: Did you have access to the facilities here, like the tennis courts and the gardens?
N BAKER: Yes. We used to play bowls. Actually, I should offer that to Alex. I’ve got two trophies. It was a Commonwealth Parliament Staff Association — CPSA —19… something. Snedden was… No, not Snedden. I went on holidays in New Zealand. I had won the CPSA Snooker comp. There were tables down along here.
B YORK: In the south-east wing?
N BAKER: Yes.
B YORK: Okay. On this floor or…? We’re on the second floor. No, we’re on the first floor actually. There’s the ground floor.
N BAKER: Yes, this is the main floor. It must have been the upper floor. I would have to go down there to have a look. There were two tables, I think. The CPSA, myself and Peter Hall — another tech — won the darts comp. But yes, tennis… It was on the Senate side, though. I don’t think the tennis courts were here. It might have been. Definitely, we played tennis on the Senate side and bowls, just down here.
B YORK: What about things like morning tea and afternoon tea, lunchtime?
N BAKER: That was here in the café or after you’d wrapped everything up, got the techs doing their jobs. You’d end up in the non-members bar at about 4 o’clock and have a few beers.
B YORK: What was that like, the non-members bar?
N BAKER: It was a good place. You got a lot of news down there. People, like Mungo MacCallum, used to drink down there all the time — XXXX, he drank. They must have a photo. They’ve probably got a copy of the photo here. When he left, I went to see the kitchen people. They made a cake for him – a slab or XXXX covered with icing and a farewell message on it. When I got the badges made… He wasn’t here, he had left. He was up the Central Coast somewhere. I posted him badge number forty. It said ‘I hope you get the gist of why it’s forty. Forty in roman numerals is XXXX.’ He said ‘yes, he did.’ He wrote a letter back one time, probably when I sent the new one up. Might have only been the new one.
B YORK: Maybe tell us what the badges were. You’ve told me off tape but…
N BAKER: It was started… Actually, it was an accident in the end or necessity. When things were winding up in ’88, I thought they should have… Occasionally they bring out special Port bottles of something.
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 5
N BAKER: Apparently there was one for Bob Hawke. It had Bob Hawke on the front, a limited edition sort of thing. I thought ‘I might try and organise to get a couple of hundred port bottles made up to commemorate the closing of the Old Parliament House non-members bar. I don’t know whether it was Old Parliament House or the non-members bar. That got too difficult to do port I was discussing with a few people whether a couple of hundred bottles of wine with a label to commemorate the closing of the non-members bar. One of the Commonwealth drivers, John Corkill, said he’d make enquires. I said ‘how do I get the labels made?’ It’s easy to get the bottles and get some wine, didn’t have to be anything special and put them out. Low and behold about two weeks later a Senator — Senator Colston… There were flyers going around the House: ‘in conjunction with the farmers, they’re producing a commemorate bottle of wine for the closing of the Old Parliament House.’ I was pretty angry actually. They stole my thunder, sort of thing.
I was going home one afternoon and I thought ‘I’ll make some badges. I’ll enquire about some badges.’ So I drew out what I wanted the badge to look like and sent it to Perfection Badges in Sydney. They came back and I initially was going to order a hundred, then I was selling them for $10 each. It cost about $6 each to make with Perfection. They went. That hundred just went in a matter of minutes so I went to two hundred. I thought two hundred would be better because it’s the two hundredth year. ’88 is two hundred years since Federation?
B YORK: Since the settlement of, the founding of New South Wales.
N BAKER: But then I got more people enquiring about it and I said ‘look, I can just put you on a list and if any of the others fail to pay me it will be available to whoever is at the top of the list.’ I had about thirty or forty on the list. So I ordered another fifty, making it two hundred and fifty. I went around here to the PM’s and saw Libby — one of the secretaries there — I told her about the badge. I said ‘do you think Bob Hawke would be interested in having one?’ She said ‘yeah, as long as it’s number one.’ I said ‘no, it’s not going to be number one, Libby. I’m number one.’ On the back it had the number and ‘life member’. ‘I’m number one,’ I said ‘and I’m thinking of giving him eighty eight.’ She said ‘no, if it’s not number one, don’t worry about it.’ So I said ‘okay’ and walked away. Before I got back to my office I thought ‘I know what I can do. I rung Perfection Badges and I said ‘can I add one more badge to that: 1988.’ Actually, I rand Libby up and I said ‘what about 1988?’ She said ‘yeah, that would do nicely.’ So I rung Perfection Badges and got a one off ‘1988’ made.
B YORK: What was on the design of the badge?
N BAKER: Basically the Old Parliament House, just the front on view. I can remember saying for some reason I wanted the outline in black because it’s immediately recognised as the Old Parliament House. I think on the badge the front was ‘non-members bar’ — that was it — and the building, a little squat building. They made it a bit fat, a bit bigger than how I wanted it but everyone was wrapped in it. On the night of the closing of the non-members bar, because I charged everyone $10, I put about $600 over the bar that night for the non-members bar badge holders.
B YORK: Can I ask about, when you came here — you came here in 1973 and left when it closed in 1988 — how many change overs of telephone were there in that time? Roughly, like the actual telephones themselves.
N BAKER: I see, yes. When I first got here, I can remember, they had the PABX and they were using multi-phones. We didn’t have much to do with anything initially. It was just to cable up the new wing and get that working. I can remember going to a fault because it was a PM’s… Not his phone but in his system. Whitlam was main floor of the Senate, down that corner. I can always remember I was on the floor trying to work out checking the wiring of this phone and he walked into his office. When you’re on the floor, he’s a tall man. [Laughs] That really impressed me. When you’re lying on the floor and he walks in on you and he’s standing very close, he’s a very tall man.
B YORK: Was that part of your role, to change the telephones over?
N BAKER: Yes. We changed everything. Once we changed the PM over to non-switching units, the rest followed on. Before then, they’d have switchboards and single lined telephones over the PABX. When they saw the multi-line phones with direct lines to their secretary, Heads of Departments and things like that — they wanted them. So that was the start. We replaced everything, virtually everything. We changed all them to NSU’s. They operated on NSU’s until ’81, I think.
B YORK: What’s an NSU?
N BAKER: A non-switching unit. It’s a multi-line communication system. In 1981, I thought it was ’80 but I’ve seen some paperwork that it was ’81, a maintenance technician from here, Eddie and myself were sent to Brisbane to do a training course on the install and maintenance of a Commander N system, the NEC phone. I can remember the instructor, the first morning and we walked in and he introduced himself, we went through that sort of business. He said ‘right,’ he unpacked and he said ‘this phone is called the Commander N 2260’ which was 22 lines and 60 stations off it. He said ‘this is the N 2260. This phone is obsolete.’ We sort of looked at him and he said ‘the technology is changing so quickly, when they start building a phone to hold the technology, someone comes up with an improvement. So they decided that this was the cut-off. The Commander N was going to be built and released.’ We did the training on it and we came back. I believe that Telecom…
The first one to be installed, maybe in Australia but certainly in Canberra, was the Minister for Communication’s Sinclair. I think Telecom gave it to him. They were pretty pricey. They were $28,000 for the system. All the equipment arrived and the phones arrived. It was down near the Post Office, his office was. He said ‘right, bring all the phones out.’ We had the distribution box all fitted out, ready to go. We had carpenters build it for us. He said ‘bring all the phones.’ I said ‘we won’t need the phones yet, we’ve just got to mount the main equipment and terminate the cables and things like that.’ He said ‘no, bring the phones out.’ He unpacked — there were only about ten of them — he unpacked them and put them in the hall, up against the wall. Everybody that walked in, like staff and members of Parliament and even some Ministers asked, you know, ‘what’s going on? What are these phones?’ Eddie would spout how good they were, ‘they’re going to take over the NSU’s’ and things like that.
Of course, within weeks, all the Ministers were ordering and the Departments approached Telecom and said ‘we want…’ We had the clerical people, salespeople from Telecom, in this building every day, constantly, signing up a new system to be installed. They’d ring us and ask us ‘can we do this?’ I would say ‘yes, you can do that. You can do that.’ He would say to me ‘are you sure we can do that?’ I said ‘I don’t know but once we get it in it won’t matter.’ The big attraction of them was the lights were LED and they were guaranteed a minimum million on offs before they fail. The NSU’s had the old incandescent lamps in them which you were forever replacing lamps around this place because there were a few hundred of them in here.
B YORK: Was that the last big change in this building with the phone system?
N BAKER: The only other thing we had was we put all the Members and Senators, because they were single line telephones. Only single lined telephones were… Phones went from dial to push-button to touch phones. We replace them as the new ones come out. Initially, the non-switching units had the rotary dials in them and we went around to everyone and put a new dial plate, if you like, and a new push-button dial in them. That was a nightmare. They wouldn’t fit. When you screwed the base down, if you put too much pressure on something, it would fail. When they built the new temporary wing, annexe — they’d put the annexe up over there. We would put what was called the T Series Commander in there. They were just a two-line because they had a secretary, two offices. Most of them had the same as this room. Two people in there, they only needed the parallel service or two separate phones.
B YORK: What would you say generally about the working conditions?
N BAKER: Not real good. There was a lot of in the ceilings, in the floors. Down near the Post Office, I got a scare one day. There was either a big rat or a cat. It was just a skeleton, fully assembled. It hadn’t collapsed or anything. You had to crawl past them and plenty of rats. Quite a few cats but the cats would stay away from you, the rats were inquisitive. They were not scared of you. Cats would bolt as soon as you shone a touch on them. We had the floor up in the hallway and Red was under the floor. I had the safety barriers around it. I sort of yelled out ‘you there, Red?’ and he said ‘yeah! There’s a cat down here. No, I think it’s a Senator! No, it’s a rat.’ There happened to be lots of people walking past. I don’t know. I’m trying to shush him up.
B YORK: How long would you be in an enclosed area like the floor or the ceiling? What periods of time would you spend in those places?
N BAKER: Occasionally an hour, sometimes… A lot of the times… Because you’d be pulling in big cables, the number of times we had to upgrade the power leads from the PABX — which was in the basement on the Senate corner —to the Prime Minister’s — which was on the lower ground floor near the attendance box there. We had to pull inch-thick, two red and black for positive and negative from the PABX. It virtually went out onto the footpath down to the door… To the tunnel, pull it right through the tunnel. One length, no joins. So we had about six of us at the right corners and that was in there… I reckon it would be about three hours in there, pulling that through. Just pulling it along and handing it to the next point.
B YORK: Did you have protective clothing?
N BAKER: Only overalls, steel cap boots. We didn’t have helmets, I don’t think, stack hats or glasses. They had an asbestos scare in the PABX. They were sealing off all the beams, the steel beams in the PABX so of course it was closed. It was a restricted area. Every time you had to go to the PABX — which was maybe three or four times a day. That’s while the restrictions were in, normally it would be about a dozen times a day you would go to the PABX. So they had shower, you had to put this plastic clothing on, you’d go in and do whatever the job was. It would only take a couple of minutes, run a jumper or something. It would only take five minutes. Go out through the shower, shower off, get dressed and come back. Someone else… There would be a fault and you’d have to go down to the PABX. We ended up sneaking out the back, there’s a little lawn area there with a ladder down to the back door to the PABX. We used to sneak down there. That’s when the asbestos bugs weren’t there because if they caught us down there without going through their rigmarole. It turned out it wasn’t asbestos anyway. They did seal it off.
B YORK: Were you in a union, a trade union?
N BAKER: Yes, I’ve just joined the Retired Technician’s Union. It’s the union… I forget what they called us…
B YORK: Was it a…
N BAKER: ETCU… Electrical Trades…
B YORK: The ETU, was it? The Electrical Trades Union?
N BAKER: No, it must have had ‘communications’ in there somewhere because it was a communications union. I didn’t ever go on strike.
B YORK: I was going to ask if there were any industrial actions.
N BAKER: There was industrial action once, first time and last time ever while I was there. They were working to rules and because the bosses of Telecom in Canberra, because people were working to rules, they wouldn’t touch anything they hadn’t been trained on even if they knew the operations of it. The bosses were wandering around, going to the exchange, and saying to the tech ‘we want you to work on ARM’ which was a type of equipment, switching equipment. The tech would refuse so they would stand him down. They finished with all the exchanges and they needed techs in the exchanges.
So they started going around the depots, subs and install depots. They would find the tech, say ‘we want you to come to Dickson-Barton exchange to do some work. The install tech would just say ‘I’m not trained in it so I’m not going to do it.’ ‘Alright, you’re stood down.’ We would get a phone call. They knew where our office was in Parliament House here. We got a call from Woden saying ‘they’re headed down to Parliament House. Get all your techs together.’
We said ‘we’ll get them together, alright.’ We got together and he said ‘let’s go.’ We went over to the Treasury building which needed a swipe-pass to get in. We just sat in PABX in the Treasury building. Kevin and Jack, the two supervisors… Because there were no mobiles in those days, they saw us the next day when it was all over and said ‘we couldn’t find you yesterday.’ Eddie said ‘we were hiding out, that’s why.’ He said ‘why?’ He said ‘well, if you had caught up to us, we would’ve had to refuse to do what you wanted and stood down.’ He said ‘you would have too.’ B YORK: Who was the Union rep here? Was there like a shop steward?
N BAKER: The shop steward or the rep would have been out in… We didn’t have a rep here, as such.
B YORK: Were you a believer in the Trade Unions? Were you committed to Trade Unionism?
N BAKER: I don’t really know. I used to look at them as… They never did much for us. They didn’t seem to do much for us. That’s why apparently this stop-work meeting was held. They worked to rules or whatever it was. I know it cost whatever a year to join so that was a waste of money. They seemed to… I suppose I did support them because when they threatened strike action the Government seemed to fold because it was a pretty powerful union. You know, in control of the communications of Australia. If we went on strike it would be a catastrophe, I reckon.
B YORK: Were the wages okay?
N BAKER: Yes, they were because we did a hell of a lot of overtime because of the situation we were in here. Every election, after the election, it was turmoil — especially a change of Government. If it was a change of Government, all hell broke loose. The pay was okay, I would say. Just a normal pay.
B YORK: Neil, I wanted to ask about the tools of your trade. Over that time you were here, what were your basic tools? What were the essential tools you needed to do the job?
N BAKER: I always walked around with a screwdriver, pliers and cutters. Later on terminating tools and a [inaudible] test handset. They basically… That’s all you needed, really. Solder and iron but you didn’t carry it with you. I just had a tool bag with maybe fusers, lamps for NSU’s because we usually had a solder and iron sitting at each main IDF distribution frame. You have a bit of solder and screws and a spare socket, very little. Here, if you went into the Treasury building or other buildings, you’d take the tool box with all your gear. If we had to drill a hole anywhere, it was down in the office so it was on sight. When the hammer drill came out, you had to go and sign it off at the Woden depot and bring it back as soon as you could because they only had two for the whole south side.
B YORK: How would you use the hammer drill? What would that do?
N BAKER: Drilling holes through concrete floors. One time here… This is the main floor, isn’t it? Just down here, we were drilling a hole between this section of the building into the… It was up a ladder. It’s going hell-for-leather, you know the noise hammer drills make. A woman came out from the Leader of the Oppositions and said ‘can you drill a bit quieter?’ We said ‘well, hardly.’ ‘It’s just that the Opposition Leader is having a party room conference.’
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 6
N BAKER: The Opposition Leader, they’re having a Party room conference. We said ‘we’ll stop drilling until they’re finished.’ So there are three of us, standing around just out here and Eddie arrived. He said ‘what’s happening?’ and we said ‘Snedden is having an Opposition Party room conference’. He said ‘we’ll see about that’ and he walked around the corner, straight into the meeting and said ‘you blokes, you’ve got that many committee rooms in this place that you could have your meetings in. I suggest you go to one of them because I’ve got work to do.’ He came out, got up the ladder and started the drill up again. Next thing, Snedden and all the MPs filed out of the office and went over to the Senate side somewhere. We’re saying ‘you can’t say that to the Leader of the Opposition!’ He’s saying ‘we’ve got bloody work to do.’ It’s probably why he got into trouble with Hayden. ‘They’re all bloody crooks. We shouldn’t be paying them so much.’
B YORK: Did you get to know any of them? Were there any who were friendly and would ask about you? Like family and that kind of thing?
N BAKER: I knew John Gaylor. He was a Queensland MP. We used to call him the member for the non-members bar because he spent more time in the non-members bar than he did representing. Yeah, him. Not really stand around and talk to but they would recognise you and say hello to you if they came across you in the hall. I got…Over at the High Court, there was a new Justice… Barwick had retired. Barwick, is it?
B YORK: Yes. Sir Garfield Barwick it was.
N BAKER: Barwick, yes. He retired. The night before… Because when he retired, somebody else would go into his chair, into his office and they had a little, mini move. The hierarchy… They would say ‘I want this office, now that it’s empty’ or ‘I want…’ They had multi-phones over there and the deal was that I was going to make the merge. But because the cables went up into the people’s desk, went in the desk to keep it concealed, they had to be cut off, they’d take that table away and wire it up, cable it up for the phone. The deal was that I started at 11pm. I finished about 3 o’clock in the morning the day the new Chief Justice was being signed in, I think. At 3 o’clock in the morning, I just left my foot ladder and my tool box. I left it there.
At 9 o’clock the next morning, everyone is there bringing in the new Chief Justice and somebody to replace… They had another one, I would say. I just went up to where I left my tools and that, hit the button for the lift and the lift door opens. I put my gear in. I hear ‘hold it!’ Somebody around the corner and here comes walking around Barwick and Gough Whitlam and they walked in the lift with me. It’s a bit silent and Barwick said, just made a remark to me, he said ‘you been working?’ I said ‘no, I moved somebody around last night during the evening and I’m just picking up my tools.’ He said ‘you won’t have to move me anymore.’ Whitlam said ‘this is one of the young fellas that used to help me fix my phones in the other place.’ So, I don’t know what year it was, but obviously it was after he was sacked and that.
B YORK: Were there any injuries to yourself or to your work mates during your time here?
N BAKER: Not of any consequence. Peter Horn had his finger cut off when he was rolling a big drum of cable out. We were parked in the street and he was rolling it onto the runners and he jammed his hand in between the drum and the side of the truck. That was… No, nothing of significance.
B YORK: I wanted to ask about something you donated to us, Neil, a box with Letraset in it and also the buttons.
N BAKER: Yes, yes.
B YORK: Why did they decide to do that and not send it out to be done?
N BAKER: They used to send it out but the little clear window on the front, they would engrave the name in and that would sometimes take two weeks. We had a bit of sticky paper on the button, waiting for the one with the correct name on it. One day, Eddie and I disassembled one of the buttons and said… We must have been doing something else with Letraset because he said… There was clear plastic and a couple of filters and different coloured window, sort of things. We were just experimenting with it. It was so easy to do instead of waiting for the engravers to send it. They would put in a phone request and they would send it over. They’d do it and mail it to us. It was just easier to do that. Somebody would say ‘we’ve got a new person down here in place of so-and-so. So how many phones have got tie lines to them? You’d say ‘six’ or ‘ten’ or whatever, line up these filters and sticky them to a desk or to a book or a bit of board we had and just Letraset the name on. We were quite good at it too.
B YORK: I wondered about that when I saw them in the collection here. While I was doing a bit of research or preparation for this interview, I also came across a report about SP bookies. Can you tell me that one?
N BAKER: I knew him. There was a report in the paper, in The Truth of all things. You can really depend on The Truth.
B YORK: Yes, I remember The Truth.
N BAKER: It came out that the bookie was operating from the non-members bar making thousands of dollars worth of phone calls to other book makers and things like that with the help of the in-house technicians. Kevin McDermit, who was my supervisor… Well, first of all it went to the President of the Senate and the Serjeant at Arms to look at it. They had things like ‘it’s not a secret that there’s an SP bookie in the place. I told them that the phone was barred access to outside calls anyway so he couldn’t make… You could virtually only make in-house, in the building calls or receive calls which… Brian didn’t receive many calls.
B YORK: Brian being the bookie?
N BAKER: Yes, yes. I’m still mates with him. But my supervising tech, he went in here one day and he said ‘we have to look into this.’ We went over to the bar and I said ‘years and years ago they had a wall phone at the end of the bar, an old, black Bakelite phone. At their request, I moved from there to just inside the front door so people could, if they got a phone call, they could go outside to hear. He just looked at the thing and said ‘yes, that’s okay.’ As far as the barring access was concerned, I said to him ‘I wouldn’t know how to do it anyway.’ You do something at the PABX, you put a sleeve over a contact or something like that so that when it switches… Because the sleeve is there, it won’t allow you to operate an outside call. You dial 0 to get an outside call and it would give you the busy tone or something like that. But I had no technical knowledge of how to do it anyway. The advice that, I think, the President wrote was basically to… We leave it, no action to be taken. Brian used to take up a lot of time. Race days, the phone had begun ringing off the wall, people ringing in bets and things like that.
B YORK: What was his job here?
N BAKER: Attendant. He showed people… He did the spiel on the Senate, the chambers and the Senate and the Rep’s chambers.
B YORK: Like a guide, was he?
N BAKER: Guide. Yes, not an attendant. Yes. He went up to the… I saw him a couple of weeks ago. We remain good friends.
B YORK: How do you feel about this building, like when you come back?
N BAKER: Great. Yes, a lot of memories, a hell of a lot of memories. I think, talking about Brian, there was a security attendant and Brian and myself were sitting down by that tree, having a beer one afternoon. I’ll remember his name shortly… The security attendant is a Russian or something like that. He wanted to put a… He said to Brian ‘I want to put a bet on.’ It was Friday night… Friday night, what was it? He wanted to put a bet on something that was on Friday night. Oh, a trotter, trotter on Friday night. All up South Sydney on Saturday. No. All up Mario Fenech on Saturday. All up South Sydney on Monday. They had Monday night football. [Inaudible] said ‘I can’t put a bet on. I’m not going to cover that debt. I could put it off to another bookie but I can’t. They’ll think I’m crazy’. I went by the by and the next week they were talking, I was talking to Brian and he said ‘Jesus, so and so is upset with me.’ He said ‘that bet, if I had of been able to put that bet off… Pass it on to another SP bookie, he would have made fourteen hundred dollars.’
B YORK: Wow. Were you here in the building on November 11, 1975?
N BAKER: It’s so funny. We were over in the admin building. I think it was Ken Fry, we had to put in a switchboard and some phones for what reason I don’t know. In the afternoon, I’d been working there — like we had cabled everything up — and I was just connecting all the lines and the extensions. I was in like a little cupboard with a trannie going here and Eddie stuck his head in. He said ‘how are you going?’ and I snapped off this wire off the termination lug. I said ‘that’s the last jumper. It should be all working.’ Then news broke in that Whitlam had been sacked. I looked at Eddie and I said ‘did you hear that right? Did I hear that right?’ He said ‘let’s go!’ So we came over and of course, we couldn’t get in the front here. We couldn’t get in the Senate or the Reps doors here. Of course, Eddie had the master key. So we went in the side door here below the PM’s, up the stairs, through the PM’s office because shredders were going crazy. People were going crazy. I wasn’t in the building but I was very close. We didn’t know what was going on. We just got in the room and probably came down here to the non-members bar to see what was going on.
B YORK: When you say people were going crazy, what do you mean? What were people doing?
N BAKER: Just running around and they’d obviously been told ‘get rid of this’ or ‘get rid of that report’.
B YORK: Were you interested in politics at all, yourself?
N BAKER: No and I always said ‘if any of my kids grew up to be and had any political leanings at all, I’d go in debt up to here to get them into politics.’
B YORK: To get them into politics? You’d like them to get in?
N BAKER: I suppose, I don’t know if you’d call it cynical or not, but out of all the politicians I met and knew, there’s not a lot of them… Most of them are working for the next election, in my opinion. They’re not interested improving Australia’s lot. They just want to get elected again.
B YORK: I’m looking at the time and thinking this is a good opportunity to wind up the interview but is there anything important that you wanted to tell me about that we haven’t talked about?
N BAKER: Nah, just funny things that happened. We had… If you ever wanted anything done the in-house electricians and carpenters and painters fix you up for the material and things like that. It was funny, Eddie was going on holidays one time and he went up to Eddie Hunter, the head of the Hansard recorders, Hansard techs. He said ‘I’m driving up to Brisbane’ — him and his wife — ‘can you do a dozen cassettes with some music on it so I can have something to drive with.’ ‘Yeah! Sure, Eddie!’ Eddie came back from his holidays and the second thing he said… You know, ‘how’d you go?’ ‘Alright.’ ‘Where’s that bloody Eddie Hunter? I’m going to kill him.’ He gave him a dozen tapes of Senate debate.
B YORK: Oh no! [Laughs]
N BAKER: He said every one of them was Senate debates.
B YORK: A long drive up to Brisbane too. Did you have much to do with other workers in the building? Like Hansard staff?
N BAKER: Yes, yes. They would build the cupboards for us to put our equipment, our wires and cabling and things like that and paint them, wire them up. They built the office for us, downstairs.
B YORK: The Hansard people?
N BAKER: No, the electricians. Like the in-house working people. Sarge was the head of Hansard. He played a trick on Eddie Hunter. Paul Savage, I think his name was. He was a Hansard tech. They went down to set up for a meeting that had to be recorded for Hansard or something. Sarge— he was the boss of Hansard— he wrote on an official where they were. They were carrying a ladder around and they hit a chandelier and a little piece broke off. It was a big theatre and no one around so they didn’t say anything. Sarge got a bit of official paper and wrote a ladder saying that the Hansard techs had damaged a crystal chandelier. It was so much money. Eddie found out and he held it over him for a couple of weeks and then told him the good news that it was only plastic. Nobody reported it and you don’t have to worry. But he came around to my office and he’s say ‘have you got any official Telecom headed paper?’ I’d say ‘yes.’ He was telling me about the trick that he… I said ‘why don’t you…’ Because Sarge had bloody said to me some months before, he’s got a socket in his bedroom but he doesn’t have a phone. I just gave him a phone, you know. I said ‘why don’t you write on an official Telecom headed paper that after testing his line, he found that he had an illegal connection. He’s got to show due reason why he’s not paying extra rental on the extra phone and things like that and sent it off. Sarge arrives in my office and says ‘what am I going to do about this? They’re going to bloody… The head of Hansard with an illegal telephone! It’ll get out! It’ll get out!’ I said ‘I’ll tell you what, go and see Eddie Hunter and he might be able to help you.’ Of course, he went up to Eddie’s and Eddie got his run back on him.
B YORK: Very good. It’s been great. Thank you for sharing your stories and recollections with us Neil. We appreciated it very much.
N BAKER: Yes. I’m not very good at it but…
B YORK: Anyway, we’ll send it… No, you’ve done a good job and we’ll send you a CD copy as usual and we’ll keep in touch.
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 7
B YORK: Today is the 6th of November, 2013. I am continuing the interview with Neil Baker. Neil, a few things I wanted to ask from last time, a few anecdotes that you told me about, one regarding Whitlam when you were testing the new tie line. Can you tell me that story, please?
N BAKER: It wasn’t new tie lines, it was… The weekend before each sitting, we would test all the Cabinet tie lines to the Prime Minister. He had a direct line. Push a button and it would light up and buzz at the appropriate, whoever he was after. On the Saturday before sitting, we were in our room and we sorted it out. We had one technician he sits at the PM’s desk and the other one walks around the twenty-seven Minister’s phones. We would test the direct line. Push the PM’s button and it lights up on the PM’s desk and an alarm, the tech answers it and you say ‘yeah, right.’ When he lifts up, at the Minister’s end you hang up so the button restores and the light lights up and it buzzes. It signals both ways and you can talk on it.
Milton set off for the PM’s, he was sitting at the PM’s desk and I started over as far away as possible, the first one. I just went into his office. That should come up too, later, when we get to how we got the master keys. I went to the first one, pushed the button for the PM and Milton answered. I said ‘hang on’ and I just hung up, got the signal back so that tested the back. Hit the button again, ‘yeah, next’ and I’d just hang up and walk off. The second one I got to, he answered and I said ‘yeah, Milt’ and hung up, got the buzzer back, the indication back. ‘Yeah’, he said ‘who is this?’ I hung up and was out. The third one, as soon as he answered he said ‘who is this?’ I said ‘it’s me, Milt, Bluey.’ He said ‘this is Gough Whitlam.’
I said ‘oh, I’m sorry Prime Minister. We’re testing the lines to your Cabinet Ministers. We didn’t realise you were in your office. We’ll do it another time.’ He said ‘well, what do you want me to do?’ I said ‘basically what you’re doing now, just when I buzz the line you answer.’ I told him what we went through. He said ‘okay.’ So I just kept on going to Minister’s offices and testing it with him. About three or four more into it, Milton comes bounding down the hallway the Senate side. He says ‘Neil, Neil! Stop! The Prime Minister is in his room.’ I said ‘yes, I know. He’s testing with me.’ So we went through the whole Ministry and when it finished I said ‘that’s it, Prime Minister. Thanks for your help.’ And he said ‘that’s not a problem’ and hung up.
B YORK: How long would that have taken of his time and your time?
N BAKER: Three-quarters of an hour or so because I was walking, virtually walking around the building. Only takes a couple of seconds to test the line.
B YORK: Yes, but you’ve got to do all those phones, don’t you?
N BAKER: You’ve got to go to the Minister’s desk. The PM’s tie line only appeared on the Minister’s phone at the time, except for [Jim] Cairns. She had a duplicate of… Junie Morosi had a duplicate unit of Cairns, all the tie lines that he had, she had. She used to vet. Nothing went through to him unless it passed through her. I don’t know if she ever answered or used the PM’s tie line. I wouldn’t be surprised.
B YORK: That is interesting. That would be unusual, wouldn’t it, for that to happen?
N BAKER: She was a power unto herself, I think.
B YORK: Did other Ministers have that situation with their secretaries or their Chief of Staff?
N BAKER: No, it only appeared one button on each Minister’s desk, however big their phone was.
B YORK: How would that have been put in? Would Cairns have made a special request for that to happen?
N BAKER: Probably Juni told him that she wanted everything duplicated so she could vet his calls.
B YORK: Did you do that job yourself, Neil, or your team?
N BAKER: We connected all the tie lines, yes. It was just a pair of wires, dedicated pair of wires from the PM’s unit to each person.
B YORK: Talking of Jim Cairns, you did tell me a bit of a story about his so-called “luxury unit” last time. Do you want to give me that one on tape?
N BAKER: I don’t know for what reason we were installing scramblers on all the Ministers lines and the PM’s lines and PM’s press. We went to several premises in Canberra to hook up these scramblers for secrecy, I suppose. One of them was at Barton. It was a single room, probably like this, with a kitchenette and a shower and toilet, just a single or double bed in the corner. It was far from luxury. You could smell the rising damp in it. It appeared in the newspaper, people got a hold of it, that he was living in a luxury apartment in Barton when the scandal hit, at the taxpayer’s expense. I think it must have been about a hundred bucks a week at the most.
B YORK: So with the scramblers you were putting in, you would go to their private apartments?
N BAKER: In the house, yeah, they had a private line that only appeared… Similar to the PM’s line, it only appeared once. There was no other connection. Nobody else had access to it except the Minister.
B YORK: So why were you doing that in their apartments? Like outside the building?
N BAKER: I don’t know. I suppose, the Minister might have been asked if they wanted a scrambler on their home phone or wherever. It wasn’t like there was a problem with secrecy. Just for some reason… They might have been testing out a new type of communication and testing out how the scramblers worked.
B YORK: What are the scramblers meant to do?
N BAKER: I think… I don’t know the electronics of it, but it used to scatter the voice when you talk into it. If you were listening across it you would just get rubbish. But it would start out, whoever was talking on the line go through the scrambler out into the network. There was a button for secrecy. I think they would nominate ‘secrets’ or ‘scramble’. Might have been ‘secrecy’, I think it was. They knew which button it was. I suppose if they wanted stop anybody… If anybody had intercepted the call, they wouldn’t have gotten any information on it.
B YORK: Yes, that could be media, couldn’t it — journalists or ASIO, perhaps?
N BAKER: Yes, that’s right.
B YORK: Thanks for that. There was also a good one you told me about Barry Jones, fixing a fault in his office.
N BAKER: When I finally got in there… With the Ministers or the Members of Parliament, they were completely available but you had to get through their secretary or their private sec. Eventually we got in and it was me. He had a fault on his phone. Eventually, I got into his office and I said ‘I’m here to fix… Your phone is faulty.’ He said ‘yes, its’ here somewhere.’ He had papers and newspapers everywhere over his desk. It completely covered a huge desk. I said ‘where is it?’ and he said ‘it’s here somewhere. I’ll get somebody to ring it and we’ll find it that way’ which I would have suggested anyway. We got somebody to buzz him on a timeline and it just kept buzzing away until we found it amongst his heap of paper. He was a… He kind of struck me as an absent minded professor. He had a photographic memory.
B YORK: I remember watching him on that Pick-a-Box show.
N BAKER: Yes. He actually changed the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
B YORK: Yes, that’s right. He corrected it.
N BAKER: They had a question on Pick-a-Box and he said something. It was something to do with the Vice Royal in India, I think.
B YORK: That’s right, yes.
N BAKER: Then he gave an answer and it was wrong. He argued the point, they put it off and then next week they said he was actually right and the Encyclopaedia Britannica was wrong.
B YORK: Did you have anything else to do with Barry Jones while you were here?
N BAKER: No. He always remembered you after that. He knew you were the telephone technician. He knew your name. If you told him anything that was the end of it, he could never forget it.
B YORK: Also Kim Beazley, there was something you told me about him?
N BAKER: Mick Young got stood down as the Leader of the House over the Paddington Bear affair business. It so happened that on that weekend, we were changing all his phones over to the new commander system. I started on the Friday evening to set it all up, the main equipment. You know, mount the equipment on the wall and the box downstairs. They were having a bit of a party in Mick Young’s office. Five o’clock comes and I wanted to… Because they had to disconnect all the non-switching units and I wanted to do that. They said ‘can you come back later? We’re having a meeting and I’m expecting a phone call from Canada’ I think he said. I said ‘righto’ and about every half hour until nearly seven o’clock, I would check in.
They were just having a party. I said in the end, this big guy was standing at the frame, thinking… Because I had to cut all their phones off. He walked out, walked past, and he said ‘oh, we won’t be long.’ I thought he was staff. I said ‘you bloody useless buggers, I’ve got to do this couple hours work and I want to go home. It’s Friday night.’ I said ‘what do you want?’ He said ‘I’m expecting this important phone call.’ I said ‘well, what number is it on?’ and he gave me the number. I said ‘how about I run a bit of jumper wire from the phone on the ground floor right back down the hall to his office and put a phone there. How about I do that?’ He said ‘yes, that will be alright.’ He walked down the hall to his other office. I said ‘God, you just bloody…’ I was just generally having a whinge about you know… You could have your meeting… He had a better office down the end under the PM’s anyway. He said ‘sorry about that’ and he sort of apologised. I rung the phone, gave it a ring. They all moved out, took their champagne, went down to the other office and I did my work.
Cut it over on a Saturday, on the Monday morning we were walking down with the Serjeant at Arms. Eddie, my boss and myself were walking down the hall. He came from his office headed towards his temporary office, if you like. As he got close to us, he said ‘how’d you go Neil? You got everything working?’ I said ‘yeah.’ He said ‘thanks very much and sorry about that little delay.’ Serjeant at Arms, I’ve forgotten his name now, said ‘what was that about?’ I said ‘those bloody useless bastards, bloody held me up until after seven o’clock on Friday night having a party down there. I told him off and put a bit of wire down the hall and they went to the other office.’ He said ‘you know who that is, don’t you?’ I said ‘haven’t got a clue.’ He said ‘that’s Kim Beazley. That’s the Minister.’ ‘Oh.’ I thought back to Friday night too. I was trying to remember what I said, what I called him but he took it. It didn’t worry him.
B YORK: You mentioned the master keys before. Do you want to talk about that now?
N BAKER: Yes, that was not long… Probably a year or within eighteen months of us being here permanently. When we started work afterhours or anything, we would have to go and get the in-house keeper — Bill Gellatly. This weekend in particular, it was a Ministerial move and it was quite a big job. We had to move about a dozen offices, if you like, around the place. They would go through the pecking order. Somebody would complain that he wanted to be closer to the PM. He wanted an office as close as possible to the PM. Of course, it would start an avalanche. We would move him to there and that one back, not just a straight swap because the others would get in the pecking order. It was a very big job to move about a dozen of them.
Eddie said ‘how about we start at 4:30 in the morning when it’s nice and cool and quiet and nobody will bother us on a Saturday.’ So we lobbed around at the housekeepers door and Eddie just bangs on the door. Bill Gellatly just comes out in his pyjamas and he says ‘what do you want?’ He says ‘I want this office open. I want this office open.’ He would just unlock everything for us and when we finish, we would go back and tell him and he would lock everything back up. So he said ‘hang on a second’ and he walked away and he came back. He appeared at the doorway and threw these keys at Eddie and he said ‘open everything you want. You can open everything you want with them.’ He said ‘and don’t pull this stunt again at this time of the morning.’
It turned out it was a Senate master key and a Reps side master key. Eddie never gave them back. We had them until the end of the run. I don’t know how we came across it. We had another key that was marked ‘GGM’ and he asked somebody one day what the ‘GGM’ was. He said ‘where did you get that?’ and Eddie said ‘I don’t know where we got it from.’ He said ‘that’s the Great Grand Master. That will open every room in this building.’ I still had it when we finished. I donated it back to them.
B YORK: So we’ve got it in the collection now?
N BAKER: That was a bit funny too. We were talking about what phones I was going to collect and I said ‘I suppose, you’ll want these really.’ They said ‘what are these?’ and I said ‘those are the master keys for Parliament House. He said ‘oh, we’d definitely like them.’
B YORK: Can we talk now about the move to the new building? Or is there anything else that you want to tell me about this building?
N BAKER: A thing about Flo Bjelke-Petersen, did I… I don’t know if I… When she was elected, she was just in a small office, Senator’s office up there. I got a fault report. Something was loose in a handpiece. So I headed up there to check it out and I thought on the way… I went down to the kitchen and got a pumpkin seed. I went up to her office. She wasn’t there. What had happened was a screw had come loose inside the handpiece. My thought was, if she was there, I was going to be like ‘oh, look! It was a pumpkin seed.’ [Laughs] Just to lighten the situation a bit. Anyway, she wasn’t there. I was telling… It was a male secretary of hers. I think it was her secretary. I told him about it and he said ‘thank God you didn’t do that. She doesn’t take too kindly to practical jokes.’ So I got out of that one a bit.
B YORK: Anything else about this old Parliament House? I know there is a lot you could say but anything particularly want to?
N BAKER: Yes, I was going through your questions that I missed out on last time. Yes, we covered that pretty well. Yes, I’ll probably remember when we finish. I’ll be on my way home and I’ll remember.
B YORK: [Laughs] We can’t do it all, obviously.
N BAKER: There was a thing, something bad had happened. We had an end of year down at the non-members bar. The painters were there and the electricians and us, the technicians, and a few other in-house people. Not sure who was the boss of the carpenters… We all had a Christmas drink together and he went over to the bar and got half a dozen cans of Fosters or something. Wished him well, you know, and he said ‘I’m off. See you next year.’ Probably, the next year, about a couple of months into the year, somebody said ‘whatever happened to… Haven’t seen him around.’ This was a head carpenter. They said ‘that Christmas Eve that he went home’ — he was having marriage problems apparently — ‘he gassed himself, killed himself.’ That was a couple of months after that I found that out, just asking where was he, what happened to him. They said ‘but he was quite jovial. He was just a normal guy down at the non-members bar down here. Took a six pack with him and the six pack was sitting on the seat beside him in the car, in the garage.’ So I never knew… It must have been his marriage problems that he was having, I suppose.
B YORK: And you had no idea, no clue?
N BAKER: No. It was a bit unnerving actually. He was a good bloke. He was a popular bloke.
B YORK: With the move to the new building, were you well prepared for it? Did the organisation here prepare you for the change?
N BAKER: Yes. They had about twenty people running in all the block cabling for the place, terminated everything. We didn’t have to do anything, any work over there. When they first started digging the hole, we used to go up there and put the contractors’ phones in. The building itself, I don’t think we installed anything in the building at all. We were always busy down here anyway, doing the work in the [Parliamentary] Triangle. They rung Eddie up one day and they said they invited us up to have a look at how things were going. We went up there and went down into the basement. The guy that was showing us around said ‘this is the main frame’ and it was a huge main frame, double sided island main frame with the new chrome termination gear on it. Very impressive, you know. He said ‘this is the office, the tech’s office’ which was just like a bomb hit it, the plans and everything that they were working on, connecting the new phones.
Opened this door and walked into this huge room. He said ‘this is the PABX. This is where the PABX will be.’ That’s Private Automatic Exchange. Apparently the PABX that was in here took up probably forty metres by fifteen metres, all the equipment that was in there, to run two thousand lines off it. Up there it was probably starting off at five thousand lines. They translated the measurements downstairs of the old crossbar PABX which was switching to the size and the number of extensions it would be to the size and number of the PABX. They said ‘this is the PABX, what do you think about it?’ Eddie said ‘this is great. We’ll put the cricket pitch over there and we can fit the tennis court up there’ and he said ‘we might even be able to get a swimming pool in here, if we can.’ The guy said ‘what about the PABX?’ He said ‘oh, that’s only the size of about eight fridges. We can stick it in the corner, out of the way.’ We couldn’t believe it. It was such a big room. They started cutting it up once they found out that a PABX was like eight cabinets, the size of a wardrobe sort of thing. Took up very little room and it was electronic and didn’t need all the switching relay sets that they had down here. But they showed us around. Eddie left in ’84, I think. I’ll have to tell you that story too about why he left. He was quite impressed. We were quite impressed. It was a big job. They sort of indicated, back in those days, that this is where you’ll… Well, that was before ’84. It must have been ’83 or early ’84.
B YORK: So this was still in this building, in the Old Parliament House in 1984?
N BAKER: Yes, when they took us up there and that was the first indication that they did intend to move us out of here and up there which they finally did in ’88. I was a boss down here at that time but when we did go up to… It was just me… They initially took me. I can remember, they gathered all the techs together because the building was finished as far as their work was concerned. It was just tidying things up which left about one supervisor and one technician which was going to be me. When Steve Angelo made the announcement… Ian Burn made the announcement, he said ‘this is what’s going to happen. We’ll all be finishing up.’ It was going to be a month of something like that. ‘The project is completed and it will be Neil and four other techs initially that would be the on-site technicians at the new house. In the meantime… It must have been…
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 8
N BAKER: It must have been ’83 or ’84, we got… I came and walked down… I got a phone call. I got a pager to come back to the office. I walk in and Eddie said ‘we’re in trouble.’ I said ‘what do you mean, we, paleface?’ Sort of joking. ‘No,’ he said ‘the police are going to… Unless we go over to the police station, they’ll come and arrest us.’ It was over what we… A department… Primary Industry, I think it was, moving into the Trade Group offices — the Edmond Barton Building. There was a lot of non-switching units involved. The guy from Primary Industry, Bruce somebody… They had all their non-switching units that over the years they had used and replaced and things like that that needed my qualifications.
So Eddie had made up a plan to… We would do the modifications and bill him because we can’t do it in normal hours. We’ve got to do what we’re doing. We can’t stop working on normal work. So they got all the modifications they wanted done and Eddie… I said ‘how are we going to…?’ You know, he said we’d get a few thousand dollars each out of this, doing these modifications. I said ‘how are you going to do that?’ He said ‘oh, I’ve invented a company. I’ve got it in my son’s name.’ I said ‘look, I’ve got a…’ What do you call it, a licence? A business… I said ‘I’ve got a business name.’ For years I thought, if I ever leave Telecom I’ll go into private business, maintenance and removal of telecommunication equipment. I had a business name set up, a legitimate business name. I said ‘well, why don’t you just put all the paper work’ – because he had to bill Primary Industry and the business… He said ‘no, no. This will be alright. We’ll just use this name.’
Anyway, turns out that Bruce in the Primary Industry Department was doing some other fiddles or something like that. While they were investigating him, they came across this dodgy business name and tracked it down to Eddie. I don’t know how I… Eddie must have said… Oh, that’s right. He had given me a cheque from this dodgy business and I had put it in my bank account. So they traced it all out. They had me and Eddie at the police station for an interview. Eddie had got on to Somes who was a lawyer then. I don’t think he became Chief Magistrate but he was definitely a Magistrate. He ended up as a Magistrate in the Canberra courts here.
He was present at both our interviews. Before, he said ‘before we go in,’ he said ‘anything they ask you apart from your name and your date of birth,’ he said ‘just say I’m sorry I can’t answer because it may incriminate me.’ I said ‘why?’ He said ‘because if they ask you a question, it means they don’t know the answer and you’re not going to tell them any information that they can nail you with.’ I said ‘what’s going on?’ He said ‘well, you’re going to be charged with fraud and knowingly concerned.’ It ended up I was three things of fraud and two knowingly concerned. I didn’t understand what was going on really. In the interview, he said ‘when they ask you a question, look at me. If I nod, you answer. If I don’t nod, just say I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that or it may incriminate me.’
I can remember the interview. They were asking all these questions and I’m thinking. I finally got the gist of it. What they were saying was we defrauded the Government by claiming we did some work. We didn’t do it and we got paid so it was fraud. Every time they asked us a question, I’d look at Somes and he’d just shake his head or nod. All the time I was thinking ‘I can settle this. All I did was modify telephones at home in my own hours and they paid us for it. What’s the problem?’ Anyway, it went to court. On our second or third appearance, the Crown Solicitor was saying they had photos of the non-switching units. They didn’t know anything about the telephones. It was beyond them. You had to explain how you pulled the wiring apart and put another button in, another key in, soldered it all up and how you did it.
Sometime during one of the hearings, the Magistrate… Cahill, he became Chief Justice or Chief Magistrate at some stage after. But all of a sudden, Cahill said, someone from the Crown, a witness from the Crown was speaking, he said ‘stop this. I’m stopping this.’ He said ‘there are three scenarios here. These men defrauded the government. They didn’t do any work and got paid for it. Or they performed the work during working hours and got paid for it by the Government and also got paid for it by Telecom for their normal hours of work. Or they were moon lighting. They did the work and got paid for it. They did the work out of hours and got paid for it.’ In those days, you couldn’t have two jobs. You worked for Telecom and that was it. You didn’t do any off site work. He said ‘if Telecom wants to pursue that matter, that’s for them to worry about.’ He said ‘I’m dismissing the case and all the charges as can’t be proven.’ It was an article in the Canberra Times that basically said that. But they said ‘very suspicious.’
My wife and Eddie’s wife were called to give evidence because, I don’t know why. Jill said ‘I know what I’ll tell them. All the telephones you had on the dining table until three o’clock in the morning sometimes, working on them for a couple of months.’ That’s what was going to be part of her testimony. She wasn’t called in the end. Cahill all of a sudden said… The Crown Solicitor, he said ‘every accusation that they made, they proved themselves wrong.’ So he just dismissed the case. Straightaway Somes and Bruce… Because Somes was acting for me and Eddie and Bruce had another solicitor acting for him. They both jumped up and said ‘court costs, your honour?’ He awarded us court costs. Out on the steps of the court, I said to him ‘what is ‘charges dismissed’?’ He said ‘you don’t have to answer to anything.’ I said ‘yeah, but it’s not ‘not guilty’. It’s ‘charges dismissed’. So can they pursue this at another time?’ He said ‘no, it’s as good as not guilty.’ He said ‘if he hadn’t awarded the Crown court costs, that would have been translated as ‘you’re guilty but we can’t prove it.’’ He said ‘the fact that they award you court costs,’ in his opinion ‘you were moon lighting.’ And that’s exactly what we were doing.
B YORK: Did Telecom take any action against you for moon lighting?
N BAKER: Eddie was moved into the MIC building in town. He was taken away from here. So I suppose that was his punishment for whatever they thought we were up to — maybe working two jobs. Months later, after, I think I mentioned it before… The Telecom security arrived here and it was about a Minister that reckoned his phones were being tapped. Me and a PABX maintenance tech had a look at the evidence and went through the fault reports and things like that and proved that it was probably a fault that the maintenance tech had fixed that was causing cross talk.
I got called into the office in Dickson one day and the boss of Telecom said… He got stuck into me about… Because I wrote a report saying ‘this is a covert operation,’ you know, ‘they shouldn’t have been in the building.’ They virtually said that it was one of the in-house technicians including myself that was tapping the phone. He said, mainly about the letter that I wrote, the complaint that I wrote, he said ‘alright, you can go now.’ And he said ‘oh, and by the way. He went through a big stack of papers and in there was a report that was two or three months after the court case was dismissed.’ He said ‘by the way,’ he said ‘this is for you.’ And it said that Telecom would not pursue the matter. I said ‘how long have you had this?’ He said ‘the date was up in the air.’ He had it for about six weeks. He didn’t tell me. I was still sweating that I was going to lose my job with Telstra or the courts were going to have another go or something like that but it all just blew over. All that trouble for the moon lighting.
B YORK: Tell me, when this building was closing down as the Parliament towards the end of 1988, did you have to do any work? Like was there work done to disable the telephone lines or whatever the word would be? So they weren’t live when the phones weren’t going to be used.
N BAKER: In effect, what they did was… I mean, it still carried on after 1988 after the move up there. Milton and another tech stayed down here while we were working up there. It came the day that they would tell the departments when they were moving up to the new House. Most of the… The carpenters, in effect, closed down. The painters closed down. The electricians closed down. They’d leave a skeleton staff for faults and little nick-knack things to do. The Press were told… The Press moved up. All their offices were finished. They had their own line so we… They would have to go through Telecom to have those disconnected. I don’t know when the PABX was closed down.
We’d wake up, every weekend we would come down and we would just recover all the telephones and put them in the basement under the PM’s wing over here. We just recovered all of the phones. It was a pretty orderly move as far as Parliament was… I suppose the Serjeant at Arms and the Black Rod would go to some person’s office and say ‘we’re moving you up either before May 9 or after May 9.’ It was all worked out. It was a pretty easy move.
The Press people, all it was, was pack up their computers and walk out, as with a lot of the other people. A lot of the Press people left their phones there because they were pretty old. Old dial phones with control keys on them.
B YORK: When you were up at the new building, was it part of your work that you were still part of the Parliamentary Triangle and so you might have to come down here anyway? Or once you were moved up there were you just working…
N BAKER: I would come down here fairly often, at least once a week. I was still in charge of the two guys that were down here. We had to recover all of the equipment and box it up and take it into Dickson. Can’t remember… I can just remember, there wasn’t a lot of happy technicians when Ian Burn made the statement that in a week or so time, out of the twenty, — maybe thirty — technicians were being moved out, a lot of unhappy people, technicians. There was some fighting going on. When Ian Burn asked me, he said ‘you’ll be moving up here and you’ll have three technicians. Who do you want?’ I said ‘Milton is the only one that I can contribute to. I’ll leave it to Steve Angelo who was the technical officer in charge up there until I took over. I need people who know what they’re doing and are good workers and technically adequate.’ So I said ‘I’ll leave that up to Steve.’
There was me and five techs to start. We would do the odd bit of installation that had been missed out. Senator Gietzelt, they kept bringing his phone down, saying ‘there’s something wrong with Senator Gietzelt’s phone.’ It was before I moved up there actually. ‘Oh, bloody Gietzelt is complaining again. He can’t hear anything.’ I said ‘well, you know he’s deaf, don’t you?’ They said ‘what?’ I said ‘he’s deaf.’ I said ‘I had to modify an N-Commander system and put a deaf aid circuit… You could fit in the base of the phone. The engineer that was up there came to me and said ‘design a… somehow to get this into the new phone, the digital phone that was there’ which was a bit of mucking around, me and another tech worked on it. It was just putting a volume control in and a deaf aid circuit. They said ‘we’ve replaced his phone about four times!’ I said ‘he’s almost deaf.’
B YORK: You mentioned that they were digital phones. When did that change come in? Did that change happen with the move to…
N BAKER: Yes, it was a completely new PABX. The phones — the D-Terms [?] they called them — Access-500’s or D-Terms [?]. They were electronic, not digital, phones. They were just the new PABX telephones. There was multi-lines, same as the NSU’s, but they were… I suppose you would call them digital. They weren’t mechanical. Non-switching units were… a lot of mechanics in it and not much telecommunications, really.
B YORK: So it changed with the move?
N BAKER: Completely. The Minister and his office would move up there and they would just walk away. The computers, everything, were set up and operations before they moved in. There were still a few people like a Member of Parliament would say ‘what about my Secretary who is sitting in this office? There’s no phone in there.’ So you would connect an extension of the PABX for her. Or the Usher of the Black Rod or the Serjeant at Arms would come in and say, you know ‘you’ve missed out this outlet, there’s no phone there. We asked for a phone there.’ You would just connect it. It was just a walk away from here.
B YORK: How was your work different up there compared to here? Or was it basically the same?
N BAKER: Unfortunately, it was a bit formal for me. It was funny, I went up there and the Project Officer. I’ve forgotten his name now —Telstra or Telecom, he worked for. He said ‘I’ll show you around the building.’ We went up the Senate side and a Senator would walk past and say ‘g’day Bluey’ or ‘g’day Neil’. We would walk into the Usher of the Black Rod and Bill was the staff there that we worked with him to do all the moves and changes down here. We walked into his office and he said ‘Neil, thank God they finally bloody got you up here.’ Because everything had to be done, there are no shortcuts. Not that I was doing shortcuts but I knew what I was doing. If you did something in minimum time, they would look at you and say ‘how did you do that?’ I’d say ‘it was just basic brains. Use your nut.’ But things like… If somebody said ‘my phones no good, I want my phone over there.’ I would go and do it because it would only take ten minutes but the right thing to do would be to get a request from the Serjeant or the Usher. You get a request and it’s put into priority, things like that. I would do the work. I would sometimes walk into the office and say ‘I’ve just moved so-and-so into someone’s office. They’d say ‘oh, you can’t do that. Everything’s got to be on paper. Everything’s got to be recorded.’ I say ‘well, I’m telling you now. Record it now. I’m telling you, I moved a phone.’ ‘Just tell them they have to wait.’ I say ‘you do not tell a Minister of the Government he has to wait. You don’t tell a Member of the Government. You don’t tell an MP. You don’t tell a Senator ‘oh, I’ll put in a request’, you say ‘yes, sir’ and do it.’ They were upset that I was the tech in charge right up until the day I left. Everywhere I went, I carried my little tool bag because you would come across somebody and they would say ‘Bluey, something is wrong with my telephone’ or ‘can you move this phone from this office into this office’ and I would do it. It wasn’t the right way to do it. I would argue that it is the right way to do it. You keep the customer happy and then you worry about the paperwork.
B YORK: Did you ever agree to work that way where you would do the paperwork first? Did they get you doing that in the end?
N BAKER: No, they never broke me. I would say… because the place was finished, virtually, after three or four months that I was there. There was just the odd fault and it was pretty easy going. They didn’t like the idea that the PABX that was there, I could… Because a lot of the changes, somebody would say ‘can you move that phone from there to there and that phone from there to there and put another phone in there.’ All you did was plug a new phone in there, get it a number and go on the computer and give it access to… You know, program the phone up on the computer on the PABX. I knew how to use the computer and how to program phones up which they didn’t like because that was the job of the PABX technician. But if the PABX technician wasn’t there and a Minister or a Member or a Senator or anybody said they wanted this done, you would do it and sort out the paperwork later.
B YORK: With the technological change, did that mean there was less labour involved? Did they need fewer technicians?
N BAKER: Like I said, they said I would have four techs, they gave me five techs and after about a month or so I was down to four techs and then eventually I was down to three techs. It might have been, I think it was just me and Greg and… It was just me and three other techs because Milton was still there but they… Milton was, I don’t know how old he was but he was a bit past it, you know. His age was showing. When they asked me ‘you’re going to have four techs, who do you want?’ I said ‘Milton is the only one.’ I could see them taking him back off-site. He would become a technician’s assistant, in effect. He was a qualified technician but he was a bit like I am now, memory loss and things like that. There were three techs and me and we could handle the whole building with ease, really. I spent more time in the non-members bar up there than I did working I think. That probably brought my downfall in the end.
B YORK: You retired in 2006, is that right?
N BAKER: Yes. I got in the new House when… I moved in the new House in 1990. They called it a rotation of staff but I said ‘yes, I’m really rotated. You’ve really rotated me, haven’t you?’
Interview with Neil 'Bluey' Baker, part 9
N BAKER: But I said ‘yeah, I’m really rotated. You really rotated me.’ It was funny. The guy that told me that I would be going back into the office to take over Larry’s job and Larry was coming up here. It was a case of ‘they were best buddies’ sort of thing. He must have wanted the job more than I did.
They said ‘we’re moving you out’ and I was a bit upset at the time. He said to me ‘I don’t want you going around this building telling people you’ve been kicked out’ because in my opinion that’s what was happening. I said ‘well, I’ve got to tell them that I’m leaving. Sixteen years of knowing these people, I’ve got to tell them that I’m leaving.’ He said… I don’t know what brought it on but I said — Brian, his name was —I said ‘Look, Brian. I could go upstairs right now and get a letter that stops this in its tracks’ because the PM’s was above us, directly above us. He said ‘well, I hope you don’t do that.’ I said ‘no, I wouldn’t do that. I work for Telecom. They pay me, they’re my boss. You’re telling me I’m moving out, I’m moving out.’ He said ‘I don’t want you to go with a struggle. I want you to go without a struggle.’ I really thought that it was funny I walked around the Usher of the Black Rod, Bill, and I said to Bill ‘I’ll be leaving in a couple of weeks. They’ve shafted me.’ I thought Bill would say something like ‘oh, we’ll get it stopped. They’re not taking you out of here.’ Instead, he stuck out his hand and said ‘well, thanks Bluey. Thanks for all the work you did for us.’
B YORK: Now, what year are we talking about here?
N BAKER: 1990, end of 1990.
B YORK: So this is a rotation thing, is it? Because didn’t you go back to the New Parliament House?
N BAKER: No.
B YORK: You didn’t?
N BAKER: No. I was stuck in the office. I said to them one day, because the air-conditioning… All the windows were sealed. You couldn’t open windows. I said ‘it’s just as well they’ve got these windows sealed.’ Ian said ‘why?’ and I said ‘I think I would have jumped a week ago.’ I hated the office, absolutely hated it. They didn’t like that I knew what I was doing in the office as well. There was a new test desk, a computerized test desk. I learned how to operate it. They sort of resented the fact that I was coping with the job but I wasn’t coping. There was a guy who used to sell lollies up there, chocolate frogs. Every time somebody bought a chocolate frog, I would say ‘can I have the wrapper?’ I would cut the frog out and stick it on a skewer and put it in the pot plants around the floor. They knew it was me doing it. It was driving me up the wall.
Then they announced that Telecom – as it was in those days ¬– Telecom had signed a contract with the ACT Government. It was a new system called ‘Spectrum’ and it was like they turned Canberra, ACT Government, into a giant PABX, if you like. They used all the exchanges, linked all the exchanges, and it was a private network. The job to cut it over to the private network meant disconnecting all the small PABX’s that were around the place, all the Commander stations had to be replaced with a single-line telephone. I almost begged my bosses in there. I said ‘this is right up my alley,’ I said ‘a mass movement like this.’ They said they would try me out. After the initial cut… We would cut over the Assembly — 600 phones. We would go in on Friday night. On Monday morning the phones would be working on the new system. We would cover all the phones that were there, any dial, rotary-dial telephones had to be push button telephones. The ACT Government ended up with a contract for the phones. Would you believe, I don’t remember the name — old timer’s disease.
B YORK: That’s okay.
N BAKER: So we got a box with thousands of them. There were about 15,000 services in the end that were operating off Spectrum. We changed them over, like the Assembly, the TAFE College. Bruce campus was about 600 lines, I think. On Friday night at 5 o’clock, everyone would go home and we would move in. It meant re-cabling the building from the exchange because where they had, say, 200 pair lead-ins, with the PABX they had another four or five hundred phones. But for four or five hundred phones you need four or five hundred pairs of wires into the building back to the exchange because they had their own dedicated number. Whereas when you called in to a PABX, you called an extension of the PABX so they didn’t need as many incoming lines.
We got a lot of… For the big jobs… I had four techs under me but for the big jobs there would be a dozen people walking around. Because they had to recover what was there and if it was a PABX extension, it had to be cabled right back down to the room. Sorry, you had to re-jumper it and take it off the PABX, put on the… The techs would walk in and say… They had a list. I was usually the cut-over, doing the jumpering. They would walk around testing lines — see if it was right, if it was wrong, if it was not working. We would have to fix that up. If it was a wrong number, they would have to be fixed up. I can remember working here until the bosses walked in on Reid campus at about midnight to see how we were going because it was the first big cut-over. I said ‘everything is under control. I’ve got my six-pack on ice there for when we finish.’
One guy in the office was complaining that we worked… We didn’t have a ten hour break. So I would go home, go back to work on a Sunday and you were… Like Saturday and Sunday we would cut-over and then come back on Monday to do clean up. Peter would complain that I was on, because I didn’t have the ten hour break, that I was on over-time rates for the rest of the day.
B YORK: Right. Were you still in the union?
N BAKER: Yes. I got that too: ‘CPU’ or ‘Communications, Electrical and Plumbing’.
B YORK: So you were only at the New Parliament House until 1990. Is that right? During that later time, when you were in the office and then you had that major job that you’ve been talking about, did you come back to this building at all to do any work?
N BAKER: The only thing was private contractors would be connecting phones around the place and they wouldn’t know the location of a frame or ‘where does this phone go? I’m in room 128’ or something like that, ‘where does that go?’ I would either know or I would say ‘look, I’ll have to come down and see you.’ I would walk around and out the back, around the kitchen area, they couldn’t find the little distribution frames. I would show them. I would say ‘look, it’s all on the plan’ and showed them where the plans were. They would still ring you up and say ‘I can’t get this phone connected.’
B YORK: That would have been, I guess, in the late 1990’s that that was happening? When they were trying to get this building as a heritage building?
N BAKER: Yes, right up until… I used to get calls when I was working with ACT Government. I worked there from, I think, ’91 until I think 2006.
B YORK: And then you retired in 2006. Was that because you had worked long enough?
N BAKER: No. In 2005, my eldest daughter died in Sydney. She was twenty-nine years old. I struggled for the next year or so. Telecom had lost the contract to… What’s the TV…
B YORK: WIN?
N BAKER: No, ACT Government owned.
B YORK: The ABC?
N BAKER: I can’t think. I can’t remember. Anyway, they lost the contract because they were going completely digital. They were using their computers for their communications. We were staying on there because the schools didn’t cut over. There was me and two other techs working there. They moved one of the techs out to Tuggeranong and there was just me and Stavros working the… We weren’t supposed to be doing it but you would fix up the new digital phones. You would move them for them and things like that. We shouldn’t have because we were out of contract. We were only to work on the spectrum of the Telecom lines side of it which all the schools wouldn’t cut over to it. I think they were having trouble with their network. They’re still having trouble with their network, I think, their computer network — the ACT Government. It was sort of getting to the stage where one tech could do the work for what was left. There were still a couple of thousand lines but they were very reliable so you didn’t have many faults. It was just moves and changes.
In 2006, I said to my immediate boss, I said ‘look, I’m no good anymore. I’m buggered. I’m not interested in the work anymore.’ I was just grieving, I suppose, for my daughter. I said ‘I want out.’ He told Telstra and they offered me redundancy and I took it. They did the right thing by me. They said ‘you’re worth this much.’ I think I ended up with 104… They paid my Super, my Super Fund, long service leave and something else… I think they invented it. It was $104,000 that they gave me.
B YORK: Very good.
N BAKER: People would say to me, over the years, ‘Still working for Telecom? Still Working for PMG? Still working for Telstra? Why don’t you get a job with…’ I would say ‘I know what I’m doing. I like my job.’ They couldn’t understand why I had stayed so long with Telecom.
B YORK: After your retirement, did you get more involved with the telephone collecting and cataloguing telephones?
N BAKER: Yes, cataloguing. Unfortunately, in 2004, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. It’s very slow moving. I could keep it under control. But any time I tried to do something intricate like soldering wires in an old telephone that I was fixing up, I would get the shakes. I had to give that away which sort of pointed me in a direction where I’ve got a telephone collection, all on XL Database. I’ve got old badges and coins and cards, sports cards and things like that. It got me into a new… Sitting at the desk, I had to learn how to be left-handed — change from right-handed to left-handed — because if I was using my right hand, occasionally I would get an involuntary twitch and I would wipe out some of the info that took me a day or so to put in.
B YORK: Are you a left-hander?
N BAKER: No.
B YORK: Yeah, you’re a right-hander.
N BAKER: I did start trying to, because my signature is just a scribble now… I can be completely calm, not shaking, and if I sign my name it’s just a scrawl. It takes over like that. I had an experiment. I decided I was going to learn to write left-handed but it’s too… I don’t know. I just can’t.
B YORK: Have I got it right that you were collecting phones right through your career?
N BAKER: Yes.
B YORK: Can you count how many there were?
N BAKER: My XL file, I think, has got five or six hundred items but they’re not all telephones. I would probably have in excess of three hundred telephones.
B YORK: They look great. I saw them at the Canberra museum. I saw that display of some of them.
N BAKER: They still haven’t answered my question of how they came across me. But it’s funny, looking in my briefcase, eighteen years ago… No, it must have been… No, eighteen years ago… When did I leave? 2006… Yeah, eighteen years ago I had the application paperwork to put in an exhibition of the phones in the gallery because they had a separate little area. I can remember, I asked the girl there and we were cutting over the phones onto the new system. I said ‘how do you get the…’ I was looking at the exhibition that was there at the time and it was a private exhibition. I said ‘how do you get to get your private exhibition in there?’ She said ‘give me all the paperwork’ and she said ‘it’s all booked out for at least eighteen months’ and I forgot about it. When it came up that they wanted me, they asked me. I found the old briefcase under the snooker table at home, opened it up and here was the application. It was the same. The application paper that they sent me was the same as what I had got eighteen years before.
B YORK: It’s a great exhibition.
N BAKER: Or eight years, maybe it was.
B YORK: And that’s at the Canberra Museum and Gallery? You’ve also been very generous in what you’ve donated to us too, for which I thank you on behalf of the Museum. As you know…
N BAKER: I’ve got some more that I’ve got to see Alex about. You were asking about the Staff Association that was in here, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Staff Association. I’ve got a Snooker Champion and Darts Double Champion trophies at home. I’ve got to ask Alex if he wants that sort of thing.
B YORK: Yes, I think we would want that. It’s all part of the history of the building, you know. I think we’ve pretty much come to the conclusion of the interview unless there is anything you want to say, to wind up.
N BAKER: No. I was a bit apprehensive when you asked me, when you first got in touch with me, what sort of things would come out. But reading that interview you gave me, I read that. I thought ‘oh yeah, I’ll give a person…’ I kept thinking of things that my grandchildren’s children’s children and things like that will see, up there, Whitlam’s or Hawke’s phone and the little plaque beside it: ‘Donated by Neil Baker.’ Or in the internet on the website, it’s got ‘Neil Baker who was a technician in Parliament House for this many years donated this.’
B YORK: Yes and they’ll have access to this recording because this is digital. It will be here a hundred years at least. So the great-great-grandchildren will be able to hear your voice and your story.
N BAKER: It’s funny when you about when this place was built, they interviewed the great-grandchildren. They were on TV for some reason or not and you think ‘it would be nice to be remembered like that.’
B YORK: Alright. Thanks again Neil.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
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