Sue Hamilton

Arts at Work: Sue Hamilton

  • Role: Committee of Management, Treasurer
  • Organisation: Humanities 21

When I left university I knew the traditional Oxford classics degree (Latin, Greek, philosophy, history) was regarded as the ideal training for public service.  Allegedly, the broad thinking required for a philosophy stream including everything from the ancient to the most contemporary, and a history course that was an overview of the Greek and Roman worlds would combine with the attention to detail developed by grappling with ancient texts to produce the perfect all round civil servant.  At 24 I thought it was a plausible idea, but life in the public service didn’t appeal. Eighteen months later, arriving in Canberra with my Australian husband, we rented a house in one of the more remote suburbs.  Next day, walking to the shops, I was followed by five dogs delighted to see anything moving on foot in the local landscape.  The day after that – being in Canberra already – I joined the public service.

The next thirty-five years brought me an extraordinary array of jobs – I wrote speeches for ministers; I devised multi-million-dollar information campaigns; I wrestled with designing government forms so that people could actually understand them; I reviewed issues affecting the lives of defence force families and wrote a report that, unusually, got things done; I sat in on Cabinet meetings and wrote up decisions; I ran a workers compensation scheme; I worked in policy areas including childcare, women’s issues and disability services; I learned about industrial relations the hard way in the electricity industry; and for one terrifying year I was responsible for managing the federal health budget.  Finally, at the end of my public service career, in the best job of all, I managed the State Library of Victoria.

So how did classics help me with all that? First, I learned to write from some of the best writers who ever lived.  And the public service is a very paper-based world – ministers need bits of paper that they can read and understand in a car, in a lift, in the parliament. But classics also taught me to take risks – to be bold about trying new things and tackling problems – because I discovered from the ancient world that all the problems that can possibly exist have existed already in one form or another, and that people have found a way of solving them.  Classics taught me that understanding people and their motivations is fundamental to achieving results in any sphere of endeavour.  Perhaps I never became the perfect all round civil servant of legend, but I had enormous fun at work and I think I achieved a few good things.  Thanks classics!

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