Many years ago, when I was young and skint, I found myself working for the South Australian electoral commission. It had just staged the 2002 state election, and needed a horde of unskilled monkeys to check votes and enter them into its database.
I'd just returned from abroad and was desperate for the peanuts on offer. I was new to Adelaide - a weirdly parochial city - and had struggled to find work. But I was lightning on a keypad, so I was hired.
I wasn't employed by the commission, however. It used a labour-hire firm to supply it with data-entry monkeys for a month or so. And this is what makes this old tale relevant to public servants today, in the age of staffing caps and outsourcing.
The work was a grind. We number-crunchers were split into two shifts: I did eight hours in the morning and the night shift began soon after I left. A fellow cruncher - let's call her Nicole - shared a computer with me, though we neither met nor saw each other.
The database crashed often, leaving us helpless. A couple of weeks into this ordeal, it went down for most of my shift. A supervisor from the commission gave his usual advice: "Read a book. Play solitaire. Whatever."
Yet there's only so much solitaire and minesweeper one can bear. Instead, I opened MS Paint. (If you haven't fiddled with a computer much, this is an unsophisticated program that creates terrible artwork.)
I drew some brightly coloured balloons and, in a big bold typeface, scrawled a message across them: "Hi Nicole, you data-entry wizard, you!" I then saved my masterpiece on the computer desktop. What a pleasant surprise for Nicole when she switches on her machine! I thought.
I was wrong. Later that evening, I received a call from the firm that hired me. One of its managers addressed me sternly: "You will not need to come to work tomorrow or any other time."
Me: "Oh. Is the database down again?"
Manager: "You know very well what you did and why you will no longer be working with us."
When it was clear I had no idea, she explained: "I've been told you violated the integrity of the electoral commission's computer system."
The nub is that Nicole was anything but pleasantly surprised. She apparently turned on her computer, saw the message, burst into tears and couldn't work her shift. (If you're reading, Nicole, I'm sorry for contributing to whatever you were going through.)
Maybe it was an Adelaide thing? Maybe they didn't realise that changing the wallpaper is not quite the same as cybercrime?
You may think I've omitted important details from this story. I haven't. I didn't and don't know who "Nicole" is. I used MS Paint, not actual spray paint. I entered vote data rapidly and unerringly. I was a well-behaved monkey.
I wasn't too upset to be liberated from bashing a keypad. But the notion that I'd "hacked" a government agency was so odd that I thought I'd let the electoral commissioner, Steve Tully, know. Maybe it was an Adelaide thing? Maybe they didn't realise that changing the wallpaper is not quite the same as cybercrime?
Alas, I have no copy of the letter I sent to him, but I made it clear I had no interest in seeking recompense, nor even a reply. I just thought he should know what was done in his name, because he might wish to suggest to his contractor that a primer in procedural fairness could be useful. What if the same thing happened to someone who really needed that job?
Two days later, I received a hand-delivered response from Tully, presumably dropped in my letterbox by his staff. It was pure art. Over several pages, he explained how changing the desktop image had undermined the security of the commission's computer network, how my dismissal was legal and just, and why he wasn't responsible for it anyway.
I showed his letter to friends. We laughed and I moved on.
Epilogue (the serious bit)
Over the last few years, I've been reminded several times of my stint as an Adelaide monkey. Under the Coalition's staffing cap, contracting to government via a third party is becoming the norm in Canberra. I've not met a single person - government employer or employee - who prefers this arrangement, though the overheads are obviously great for the handful of businesses that skim the cream.
In the bureaucracy's annual staff surveys, public servants consistently rate two aspects of their job well above others: security of tenure, and the opportunity to do something useful for the country. There is now a growing, arbitrary divide in the government workforce, wherein only some employees enjoy the former.
The last Federal Parliament began an inquiry into contracting but it was aborted when the election was called. The new crop of parliamentarians should reopen it and take a good look at section 67 of the constitution. There are genuine concerns about the legality of the government's current approach to staffing and whether it is in breach of the constitution.
Oh, and Tully's letter? I asked the South Australian electoral commission for a copy. A spokesman confirmed it had existed but "was destroyed several years ago in line with the records-disposal schedule under the state records act". A shame: it was a classic of the genre.