The lost graduates

Felix Donovan speaks to two Sydney graduates about the AusAID dream they lost.

Just 48 hours before Australians would make him their Treasurer, Joe Hockey went on national television to announce a $4.5bn cut to the foreign aid budget.

It was necessary short-term pain, he said. Reducing aid spending would allow the government to limit the ballooning national debt. “The stronger the Australian economy, the more generous we can be in the future.”

Prime Minister-in-waiting Tony Abbott was not as stony-faced about the cuts. “We will build the roads of the 21st century rather than shovel money abroad,” he said.

The announcement sent AusAID, the organisation that administers Australia’s aid budget, reeling. It called into question the future of aid programs all over the world. And, although none of them realised it at the time, the cuts also made uncertain the futures of 35 recent graduates who had received employment offers from AusAID just two months prior.

* * *

Christine D’Rozario still remembers where she was when she got the call telling her she’d been accepted into AusAID’s graduate program. Her phone had not left her sight for weeks. “I took it with me into the shower,” she said. “I’d spend meetings at work thinking of excuses to leave the room if I got a call.”

Finally Christine missed a call from an unknown number. In the voicemail message, they said they were from AusAID, could Christine get back to them soon? She remembers sweating as she called back, her hand shaking so much as she put the phone to her ear that she had to use two. The woman asked her where she was. At work. “So Christine, how would you feel about changing jobs?”

Christine first applied to AusAID in her final year of university, a Bachelor of International and Global Studies at the University of Sydney. Her expectations were low. It’s an incredibly competitive program, with close to 2000 graduates applying for just 35 positions every year.

Christine didn’t get an interview the year she finished her degree. “If you’re passionate about working for an organisation, you keep trying,” she told herself. Over the next two years she took internships, volunteered for the Red Cross and moved to Geneva for a month to work for the United Nations Human Rights Council. Christine chalked up enough unpaid experience to get hired as a community organiser by the Justice and Peace Office of the Catholic Archdiocese.

After a year there, Christine reapplied to AusAID. This time, she was offered an interview in Canberra. She flew down and stayed with her brother. Immediately after the interview they nervously debriefed, dissecting the body language of the panel, talking through her answers. Then she waited, phone always in sight. When the call finally came she had to hold back tears.

Darian Naidoo was in his ninth year of university when he first applied for a place in the AusAID graduate program. He was close to finishing a PhD in Agricultural Economics, focussing on the education and employment choices of young South Africans.

His expertise in international economic development persuaded the application panel to give him an offer. He decided to wait a year, finish his PhD, and then reapply. That was at the end of 2012.

“Lots of people said I shouldn’t turn down this offer, I may not get it twice,” he said. But he applied again last year, and again AusAID sent him an employment contract. He signed it this time around.

Darian had been working at the World Bank as a consultant on development issues in Papua New Guinea. Darian told them he wouldn’t be working for them next year after he got the call from AusAID. It was the only place he applied to in the final year of his PhD, and he’d got the job.

Darian did not start organising the specifics of moving to Canberra straight away. He had vague ideas, but nothing concrete, no signatures on paper just yet. “I’m a bit lazy, I was putting all of that off until January.”

Christine was not. She wrote handover documents and started interviewing replacements at work. She bought a car so she could drive back to Sydney on weekends and see her family. Her relatives were checking Canberra real estate websites daily.

Both Christine and Darian were making these relocation plans and completing security clearances and other civil service paperwork when Hockey announced the foreign aid cuts on 5 September.

Christine had bought the car by the time a sentence smuggled into the end of a press release from the Prime Minister’s office revealed the abolition of AusAID as an independent agency. The first the graduates heard of all of this, if they weren’t combing the newspapers, was in early October in a strange email from AusAID Human Resources.

“On 18 September 2013 an announcement was made to merge AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT),” the email read.

“We understand you will be wondering what this means for you and the 2014 AusAID Graduate Development Program.

”Whilst we cannot confirm details at this stage we would like to reassure you that we will keep you informed of any further announcements and decisions in relation to your employment.”

Despite having read about the foreign aid cuts and AusAID being merged into DFAT, Darian hadn’t been concerned about his job. Now he was. He got friends and colleagues to give him their interpretations of these HR ambiguities. They wondered if the name or structure of the graduate program would change. Or was DFAT going to include the graduates signed by AusAID into their own graduate program?

Nobody floated the possibility of the program being abolished altogether.

Eric Abetz, the Minister for Employment, broke the uncertainty on October 31 in a televised press conference. The Coalition government was promising to downsize the public service by 12,000 jobs in a deficit reduction effort. They would do so, Abetz made clear at the press conference, “through natural attrition”. No one was to be forced out of their job.

He also reassured public employees that the Government “will continue to support targeted recruitment programmes for Graduate and Indigenous employees”.

Reading the Minister’s remarks later that day, Darian felt secure again. He couldn’t know or even suspect it then, but exactly a week later Abetz’s statement would become a lie.

* * *

Christine had decided in her first year of university that one day she would work for AusAID. In the summer holidays she went to Bangladesh, where her parents grew up. She visited villages and was appalled by the conditions that people lived in. “It’s a bit clichéd, really, but poverty really pulled at my heart-strings,” she said.

Feeling a sense of duty – that she was lucky enough to be born in Australia, that she owed something to those who the birth lottery had not smiled upon – Christine read about AusAID.

The organisation has an impressive CV. Across its forty-year history AusAID has immunised millions of children and educated millions more. People have been pulled from floods and fires by planes whose pilots received a cheque from AusAID; deaths in childbirth have been prevented by the army of midwives trained and employed by AusAID; villages and towns across South East Asia now drink clean water because AusAID paid construction workers and water companies to provide it.

Critics of AusAID say that it needs to be more cost-effective, and that it needs to focus more Australia’s immediate region, and that it needs to be more blind to Australia’s national interest – but even they have to admit that the more money it has, the more lives it is capable of improving. Whatever it’s efficiency score, that much is true.

Which is why Christine was so surprised to hear about the cuts that will cripple many of AusAID’s programs. “I understood that the government was committed to deficit reduction. That’s fair enough. But AusAID’s budget is small and it saves lives.”

“I never thought the cuts would land there.”

In early November, while researching for his PhD at the Agricultural Faculty’s building in Redfern, Darian got a call from AusAID.

Because of the cuts to its budget and the merger with DFAT you are going to have your employment with AusAID terminated, he was told. You will get an email with more details tomorrow. I am so sorry.

The email came from HR at DFAT the next day. The closest it came to an apology was ”regrettably”. There was no offer of compensation for the application process or the other opportunities that the graduates denied when they signed with AusAID. There was no mention of another option that the graduates could pursue. All that was provided in the way of explanation was this:

“Given the changed circumstances, the Department has made the preliminary decision to terminate your employment pursuant to Section 29 (3) (a) of the Public Service Act 1999 on the grounds that you are now excess to requirements.”

* * *

After she bought her car, Christine took her parents to Canberra. She wanted to show them where she’d be working. Her mum took a photo of her hugging the AusAID sign that sits outside the front entrance.

“It’s embarrassing how much I love that organisation,” Christine said. “I imagine the way I feel about AusAID is how a One Direction fan feels at one of their concerts.”

Like Darian, Christine was at work – at the job that she had planned to leave to go to Canberra – when she got the call from a woman in HR at AusAID telling her she no longer had a job there.

“She was really nice. I knew it must have been awful for her to have to call everyone, so I said I was sorry,” she said. Christine’s first reaction was to apologise to the woman who was firing her.

“I know it’s strange, but I felt guilty for the other grads. It’s really not as bad for me. I’m young. I don’t have a partner or kids. I hadn’t bought a home in Canberra.”

Finally, she considered herself. Overwhelmed, she left work and went to sit in Hyde Park, where she called her dad and mum and brother to tell them what had happened.

She had been made “excess to requirements”.

* * *

The graduates had been told that their employment with AusAID would be officially terminated in December. They got in contact with one another and speedily cobbled together a collective response.

Darian was heavily involved in it from the start. He joined the Community and Public Sector Union and began drafting a letter to DFAT. Fifteen graduates signed their names to it. It was legalistic in parts, appealing to certain conditions of the Public Service Act of 1999 that the graduates believed AusAID and DFAT had breached. It was moral in others, describing the relocations and missed opportunities of some and the stress and anxiety of all.

Darian wrote his own letter to accompany the collective response. “There were a few additional things I wanted to say.”

In it he wrote, “I honestly had no idea that I could be given an offer and then be made ‘excess to requirements’. I do hope that I am the only foolish graduate that put all his eggs in the AusAID basket.”

One question lingered for him, which he asked at the end of his personal letter. “Why were we not told about the possibility of losing our jobs when the merger with DFAT was announced?”

“To this day, that question has not been answered,” Darian said. “It may seem like a small thing, but that is what I am most unhappy about.”

Had that ominously vague email of October contained more detail, or had it indicated that there was a possibility of job losses, he and his fellow graduates could have applied for jobs elsewhere. It took a Fair Work Australia hearing to force DFAT to even send the resumes of the graduates it was firing to other public service agencies.

After the FWA hearing, DFAT also sent letters of recommendation to all the graduates. Each letter was two pages long. The first page was so general that there would exist 35 identical ones if not for the fact that the graduates have different names. The only information it contained was that they were employed by AusAID, and then terminated by no fault of their own.

The second page, essentially written in code, was an internal review of the graduate’s performance in the application and interview that was evidently only ever supposed to be read or understood by AusAID HR.

The assessment of Darian states that he “made strong claims to SC5 and 7”, and was “suitable against SC1, 5 and 6”. It was filled with references to untranslated criteria that are specific to program that no longer exists. The letter of recommendation was about as clear and useful to Darian and his potential future employers as it is to you reading this.

Nevertheless, job offers came to some of the graduates in late December and early January. Public sector agencies, desperate to fill vacated positions, could only take on people already employed by the government due to the hiring freeze – and while the graduates were nearing termination date, they were still listed as Australian Public Sector employees.

The National Mental Health Commission, a tiny 12-person organisation, said it would create a graduate program just for Darian. He got offers from 11 agencies in total and decided to take a position with the Australian Bureau of Statistics. There is a hope that he can work on the statistical side of various aid projects in South East Asia. But, he said, “I have only ever applied to one government agency”, and the ABS is not it.

Darian is still in touch with the other graduates, some of who have also received job offers from public service agencies.

“But I’m not sure how many of them have taken those offers. Or whether they got offers at all. We were told there would be no guarantee.”

* * *

Christine was on her way to Christmas lunch with her family when the Department of Human Services got in contact with her to offer her a position there. She had spent a month in the dark, not knowing what to do with the next year – years – of her life.

She read about DHS and its work with rural areas, refugees, people with disabilities. It was doing good, and seemed a natural follow-on from her community work with the Peace and Justice Office. She accepted the offer, and began working there in mid-January. Still, Christine sees it as a stepping-stone, another entry path into AusAID.

Christine grew up Catholic, and considers that to have driven her towards organisations like AusAID and DHS. “It’s about helping people who are less fortunate than I am. I feel as though I have a responsibility as a Christian and as a person to do good work.”

“I’d like to think everything happens for a reason. And with this, I can say I was one of those grads. I still have the photos of me in front me of the AusAID building, hugging that sign. It’s nice to know that I did achieve my dream, however fleetingly.”

“Even if it was only for a month, I’m happy about that.”