Launch of Caroline Ambrus’ book Caught in the Act – a story that had to be told about ordinary folk interacting with ACT bureaucracy

Welcome Caroline, members of your family and friends, your colleagues, ladies and gentlemen and invited guests. Nothing gives me more excitement than lunching Caroline’s scholarly work, Caught in the Act. The title, a cheeky or mischievous play-on-words aptly describes what the book is all about. It is a page-turner. It is insightful, provocative, exceptionally researched and a must read for public sector practitioners, students of public administration, future politicians, academics and the media.

I am also happy that more notable and higher profile members of our community turned down or avoided Caroline’s invitation to launch Caught in the Act. I wonder why! Nevertheless, I am glad they did, as they all missed an opportunity to steal a pearl of wisdom staring at them from under their noses – a chance to put on the table a plan for change. That pleasure is now mine and in launching Caught in the Act I am doing so not as a representative of the many community groups I am associated with or convene but as a strident supporter of freedom of speech, transparent government policies, processes, practices and procedures – what I call the 4Ps – and as a campaigner for open and accountability at all levels of government, including the law making arm (the Legislative Assembly), implementer of the 4Ps, the agencies and the keeper of the law and justice, the judiciary. Nor am I am a member of a political party.

Before I talk about Caught in the Act and part with some of my observations, I like to say something about its author, somebody I have only know for a short time yet it seems I have known Caroline for a lot longer. I suppose it’s one of those rare and special moments where there is an instant connection and a professional and positive relationship then forged.

I should also point out that not too many people in this room would know Caroline’s life journey to this point, her working experience and in-depth knowledge, the challenges and hurdles and her many and varied interests and hobbies. Well I am going to tell you. And in any case most people are nosy by nature and like a bit of goss. But the information I am parting with about aspects of Caroline’s life are very much reflected in Caught in the Act – her passion, sense of social justice, fairness and equity and importantly optimism, not is all lost.

You see, Caroline Ambrus is far from an elderly retiring Calwall resident. A proud mum and grandmother, an accomplished and widely exhibited local artist and having the energy to establish artists’ studios, art galleries and lithography workshops in Canberra, Queanbeyan and Sydney. In the literary world, Caroline is no stranger. She has written four books on women artists being: ‘The Ladies Picture Show’, ‘Australian Women Artists, First Fleet to 1945’, ‘History, Hearsay and HerSay’ and ‘The Unseen Art Scene’.  Caroline established her publishing and printing business irrePRESSible Press in Calwall and has written and illustrated several children’s books. Does Calwall have talent or what may I ask. It certainly does, abundantly fresh, cutting edge and entrepreneurial.

Now you know that Caroline is an upbeat character and has seen life through another lens, faced hardship and like most of us some heartache along the way. Her humour is dry or some would be right to say wicked. Yet Caroline is a very positive social crusader and I have no doubt she will have the energy to continue her community contributions till her last breath.

I admire Caroline for writing an account of some deep and alarming sensitive issues.  In this respect she is very courageous. She is not afraid of using strong language to convey her assessments, layout unashamedly her beliefs and value system and identify where the bottlenecks exist and ask the question why! This is what makes Caught in the Act refreshing. It is about real people living life-changing situations under immense personal stress, stain and an uncertain future or outcome.

I would also be right in saying that not too many in this room would know that Caught in the Act took nearly a decade to write. Why would anyone persevere? Most would live out the classic mid-70s Skyhooks song ‘whatever happened to the revolution’, they all got tied and drifted away. No, the answer is simple. It is a story that had to be told. And having done so, we have time to absorb the adverse consequences, findings, failings or what some could rightfully say, the injustices that have been exposed in meticulous detail.

We also have a golden opportunity to put in place better, unambiguous checks and balances and importantly revisit the 4Ps by putting the interests, needs and expectations of the individual, the voter and the rate payers FIRST rather than the administrating powers and their stakeholders. We also have the opportunity to consider new policy models to remedy injustice when proven at the executive, agency or judicial level and embark on reforming our institutions to be fairer.

Ladies and gentleman, Caught in the Act is a determined journey to expose the raw hurt of individuals and nod how hard it really is for individuals to get a fair go weighted against an often-faceless and harassing bureaucracy tied to unclear, complicated, goal post changing or policy on-the-run maneuvers and sometimes un-comprehendible gobble-gook of interpreting and legally applying the 4Ps. It also catalogues the fall-out when the system fails and the ripple effect goes beyond the aggrieved individual. This aspect is gut wrenchingly brought home on page 86; and I quote: “my two youngest children walked and said, “Dad, is this a bomb or anthrax”. It wasn’t; it was simply a promotional magazine. But it got to a point where that was the effect on people, on our life.”

The book is insightful suggesting that most people would give up or capitulate even though they may be right on legal or moral grounds even when the 4Ps’ goal posts are changed. The executive, agency and judiciary have time, human resources and are well financed when it comes to defending itself. The aggrieved party or individual do not have these and are limited in where to go next.

Elected public office holders, like Ministers of the Crown are not expected to know the 4Ps lock stock and barrel but they are entitled to succinct advice from their agency or portfolio what they involve and are expected to act unbiasedly. What Ministers do with the advice they receive is their choice. However, the buck stops with them, a phrase popularised by US President Harry Truman nearly 70 years ago. And if their ministerial actions and those of their advisors or agency prove to be wrong and or injure a third party financially or otherwise then they too should be personally liable, just like directors of a company.

What makes Caught in the Act unique is Caroline’s clever word-smithing and use of detailed footnotes and other supporting material to show how our democratic system of administrative and planning regimes that underpin the fundamental 4Ps can be stretched, twisted, reconfigured, words and or standard phrases re-defined and where significant evidence is not recorded, goes missing or erased seems to suggest the aggrieved person or the situation never existed. With this playing out, I would not be surprised that Caroline may have rolled around Shakespeare’s famous Hamlet line; “there is something rotten in the state of Denmark” when writing Caught in the Act.

In conclusion, Caught in the Act is a forensic examination of a number of situations or case studies to show something is not right, rife with errors from top to bottom, leading to suspicion of motive. Caroline then moves on to infer that an injustice cannot be just swept under the carpet. Somebody or bodies have been wronged and somebody or bodies have a responsibility to make amends or take steps so that it never happens again.

Caught in the Act is all about the authors unconditional love for her community and the welfare and dignity of, and respect for, her fellow residents who have suffered in certain situations in their dealings with various public administrative structures – at the executive, agency and judiciary levels. These structures, whose fundamental role and function are, in the main, exist to protect them, yet sadly, it sometimes fails them. In a modern society this should not happen.

This evening’s launch is also a fitting occasion to reflect on our own journey of self-government in the ACT.   On this coming Monday the 11 May was the first sitting day of the first ACT Legislative Assembly. Now entering our 27th year, Caught in the Act is a timely reminder that much still needs to be done and is a benchmark of sorts on how we are fairing as being a reforming and trailblazer cutting edge innovator of governance practices. I’ll leave that for other wiser commentators to mull over.

Thank you for being a good, patient and attentive audience tonight. I hope that Caught in the Act is picked up and used positively and constructively by public sector practitioners. And I fully endorse Professor Brian Martin’s prologue of this book, “this book deserves to be read.” With ever evolving democracy and governance practices; protection of private citizens and their rights under existing legislation really does matter and should be respected.

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