Mr Batt calling…

| July 16, 2009

Pomp and ceremony may be on the decline but are manners headed south with them?

When I was Deputy Premier of Tasmania and ALP National President I thought I was important, indeed so important that I could not phone anyone directly or answer the phone myself. I had a secretary who initiated all my calls saying as she did so "  Mr Batt (or the Deputy Premier wishes) wishes to speak to xxx "

The ritual went that the person called would then answer the phone, my secretary would then say ‘Mr Batt on the phone" and I would begin the conversation. It was not that I was particularly pompous, it was simply that this was the way things were done, and so I adapted to the standard practice.

In my defence against the charge of unnecessary pomposity I would point out that my phone number was listed in the public telephone book and that anybody could and did ring me at home. In the middle of the night I would occasionally get an abusive and drunken telephone call from someone who wanted to describe the deficiencies of my character and personality. As I habitually said to my then wife, it was their perfect democratic right to ring me and my right if I found out who they were to punch them on the nose.

I had one persistent caller. A former acquaintance who was rather heavily and consistently into drink. As the drink made him more perspective and more confident he would presume upon our former contact to phone me and give me his advice on matters of state. I did not want to deny him his democratic right but he was a nuisance and a little persistent for comfort. I cured him by ringing him back at four in the morning to continue the conversation he had begun. Presumably he by that time had lost his initial enthusiasm and the late night telephone calls stopped.

I know of two prominent public figures who adopted my own practice of being readily available. I raised a matter of public importance with Simon Crean when I saw him at the Opera one night. He told me to ring him at home the next day. When I asked the number he told me it was in the phone book. I looked up the number the next morning, rang him at home and had a satisfactory outcome.

The other was Charles Court when Premier of Western Australia. His son Geoffrey who worked with us at Ansett Airlines told me that the Premier’s number was in the public telephone book and that his father’s practice was to receive telephone calls and eat his breakfast while he answered the phone. I do not know whether it affected his digestion but apparently he was better informed by the time he got to the office than any of his public servants.

Lance Barnard, when Deputy Prime Minister was another who made himself readily available. He had an intimate relationship with all those who lived in his marginal electorate of Bass. I recall his successor Kevin Newman bemoaning the fact that Lance had established such a high benchmark of availability. One Sunday morning I returned from a campaigning trip to the Tasmanian NW Coast with Lance. It was about ten thirty in the morning and already a queue of six or seven people had formed outside Lance’s front door. Without a question or complaint he set about dealing with their concerns.

Under that influence I also made myself readily available when I became a Minister. My rule was that I would see anyone who came to my office, even if they had no appointment providing they were prepared to wait. And I did. I after all belonged to the public and it was their right to see me.

I had another virtue if you will allow me to boast. I did not keep people waiting and mostly I would myself go to the waiting room and show them to my office. Politicians and doctors share the temptation to think of themselves as so important that they can keep people waiting. It is either a failure to manage time or a failure to appreciate that everyone’s time is equally important.

When I joined the real world and was employed by transport king Peter Abeles as Resident Director of TNT in both Western Australia and later Victoria, I learnt better telephone manners. The book of instructions for executives forbade the practice of the monitoring of calls by secretaries or the practice of getting secretaries to make calls. If anyone wanted to talk to me, whether a dock hand or a fellow executive they simply rang me up. My number was widely advertised and widely utilised. When I went to Western Australia I was offered two choices for my office, one was a spacious and luxurious office in a central Perth tower, the other was a makeshift office in the freight yard. I sensibly chose the freight yard. I wanted to know what was going on and I wanted to run the business. Like answering your own telephone it is wise to be close to the action.

Peter Abeles followed his own injunction. His private telephone was listed in the company telephone book. I tested it once from Western Australia forgetting the time difference and rang him at his home at five in the morning, his time. He answered and dealt with my issue promptly and politely with not a mention of the early hour.

It can be argued that things have changed for the current crop of business executives and politicians but is this really the case or is it just that customs have changed. Have we developed a society which is less polite and less sensitive to the rights of and the obligations to the ordinary people?

The Hon. Neil Batt AO had a substantial career in politics, having been variously Tasmanian Minister for Transport, Education, Economic Development and Forestry and concluding his political career as Tasmanian Deputy Premier and Treasurer. In addition, he was the National President of the Australian Labor Party. He is currently the Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Health Research, a Consultant to Australian Unity and Chairman of Residential Aged Services.



  1. sally.rose

    July 16, 2009 at 4:54 am

    Phone, email, tweet – same rules apply


    Your blog made me laugh – thank you.

    It highlights one of the great ironies of modern communication. With so many ways to stay in touch it is increasingly difficult to access people "at the top".

    You can’t even find the direct phone number for most senior public servants let alone Deputy Premiers on government websites these days. I wouldn’t even think of trying the phonebook for anything beyond a main switch contact.

    What is the point of public figures having Facebook pages, LinkedIn profiles, or Twitter pages all in the name of open communication if when a member of the public wishes to contact them on the phone or even by a direct email address they can’t?

    Blogging often illustrates this. When leaders of government or business write blogs and then don’t respond to any of the comments, it is in many ways the 2009 equivalent of refusing to take phone calls.

    I don’t care who dials the number – as long as there’s a human on the end of the line prepared to take my call I’ll be happy.

    • catherine

      July 16, 2009 at 5:28 pm

      call any time

      Hi Neil, if every phone call from you guarantees as much humour and wit as your contribution to Open Forum this week then I am happy to accept your calls any time (it is 3am at the moment in Sydney).

      To further support your comments, I have always held to the idea that if someone is bothering to call you, the least you can do is afford them the courtesy of listening to their comments.

      looking forward to chatting soon.

    • alison gordon

      August 10, 2009 at 6:13 am

      same goes for call centres

      To further support all the comments about the importance of human communication and interaction, I would say an equal frustration to not being able to access anyone and everyone would be having to speak to a machine for longer than necessary when ringing call or service centres.

      It’s amazing how many people appreciate speaking to a "real person". Most don’t mind going through the odd "press 1" process, but by and large, people want to speak to people, not recordings.

      In this age where we have so many great technologies at our fingertips, sometimes getting back to basics goes a long way.