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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Business, Law and Governance

Publish Date

29 March 2023

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Studying Economics at JCU in the 1970s

In 1977, when JCU Economics Alumni Madonna Tomes (nee McLachlan) arrived in Townsville with dreams of becoming a teacher, she never would have thought that she would have an impact on the Australian airline industry or make a difference in the APY Lands in South Australia.

Madonna travelled from Rockhampton to Townsville on the train to study at JCU in the week she turned seventeen. “We have a lot of teachers in my family, and I've always had an interest in education and training,” she says. “I started off enrolling in education, with economics and geography as my subject areas, but I changed in my third year to graduate in Economics in 1979.”

In the mid-1970s, JCU was a small university, and Townsville was a much smaller town in sparsely populated North Queensland – the perfect place for Madonna, who enjoys living in regional Australia. “I think the University had reached their two thousandth enrolment in the year I commenced. It was still a very small student body and campus at that time, which was fantastic for me,” Madonna says. “People got to know each other, and we had a great relationship with the lecturers and tutors.”

Madonna says she loved doing research in JCU’s library, which had air-condition and was a good place to study. “I spent many, many hours in the library,” she says. “I found the references I needed for my assignments by using the library card index system, and then spent hours handwriting my research notes.”

Even though JCU’s Townsville campus was small, it was still at the cutting edge when it came to technology. “They had the big PDP-10 mainframe computer recently installed at the university,” Madonna says. JCU’s mainframe computer had neither screens nor touchpads, and it was tedious to work with. “It was all done through the punch card system, and you would use a machine that looked like a typewriter to punch the holes into the cards and then you’d have to queue up to run your cards through the computer,” she says.

Madonna Tomes JCU Graduation 1980.
Madonna Tomes Australian Training Awards 2022.
Left: Madonna Tomes graduated in Townsville in 1980. Right: Madonna Tomes at the Australian Training Awards in 2022 (images: supplied).

Freeing the Australian skies, one punch card at a time

In 1981, Madonna moved south to another small town in Australia: Canberra, where she had been offered a job as a research officer for the Bureau of Transport Economics. A few years later, in the mid-1980s, she became a member of the government taskforce that planned the deregulation of the Australian airline industry, which until December 1990, consisted of only two airlines: Ansett and Trans Australia Airlines (TAA), which was eventually merged with Qantas.

Madonna’s work was very secretive, as the airline data was highly sensitive. “I had to go incognito over to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) supercomputer in Canberra, walking with my stack of computer cards in my briefcase.” she says. “The computer would process the data, and I would come out with masses of needle-printed, fan-fold computer paper.”

“Then I had to go back to my desk, work through the data and come up with trends for the future of the airline industry,” Madonna says. Desk top computers did not exist then, and reports were handwritten and given to dedicated word processing staff to type up.

Madonna’s work in the taskforce was finished in 1987, when the airline deregulation was announced. From 1990, flying in Australia became cheaper, the service better, and new airlines would come into the market, such as Compass in late 1990 and Virgin in 2000.

Helping to ‘close the gap’

After the airline deregulation project was finished, Madonna spent some time in regional NSW working in employment services and local government. Still a teacher at heart, albeit one with an economics degree under her belt, Madonna helped develop workforce and Indigenous training programs for the local government workers in the Eurobodalla Shire. This work was recognised at the NSW and Australian Training Awards in 2005 as winner of the Large Employer Category.

In 2007, Madonna moved back to Canberra for a while to work for the Australian government in Indigenous employment policy, including helping to develop the original Closing the Gap targets. Her work took her out to Uluru to support the Indigenous Land (and Sea) Corporation purchase of the Ayers Rock Resort and establish the National Indigenous Training Academy. “I lived and worked out at the Ayers Rock Resort for over 18 months. It was absolutely stunning there,” Madonna says.

Alice Springs at sunset

Bringing jobs and training to remote Australia

Madonna fell in love with Australia’s Red Centre and moved to Alice Springs in late 2012 to take up a role with Regional Anangu Services Aboriginal Corporation (RASAC). “My office is in Alice Springs. But the communities that we service are in the far northwest corner of South Australia. It’s just south of Uluru (Ayers Rock), a region that is called the APY Lands, or Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands.”

RASAC is a not-for-profit corporation owned and governed by the Anangu people of the APY Lands, and it is also the largest employer of local workers. “My role is the workforce and programs development manager. I support the employment and training of our new workers,” Madonna says. “I am also involved in developing those programs, so they're culturally appropriate. I make sure that the programs are successful in meeting the goals that our board sets for us around the benefits for Anangu people on the lands.”

Providing culturally appropriate training in language

RASAC is very sensitive to the needs of their employees, which includes training that is as accessible as possible. “All our workers practice their Anangu culture and speak their local languages, predominantly Pitjantjatjara, and English is a second, third or fourth language,” Madonna says. “We translate and then record their training in language. The supervisors use these training resources to train our workers.”

RASAC also collaborates with TAFE SA. “Our TAFE training is translated in the Pitjantjatjara language, and some of our Anangu coordinators, who have already completed the program, help deliver this training and provide additional interpreter support in the classroom. It's a genuine workforce development model where Anangu workers are being upskilled and developed into work and leadership roles.”

The training programs facilitated by RASAC have been so successful that Madonna repeated her previous success in the Australian Training Awards from 2005: RASAC won the Small Employer category at the South Australia Awards as well as the Australian Training Awards in 2022. “We certainly seem to have a winning formula for workforce training and development,” she says.

Living in the red heart of Australia

Madonna has been very happy working with the RASAC team for just over ten years now, and she has no plans to leave Alice Springs anytime soon. “Many people who come here say, ‘the desert gets into your blood’. It's a pretty special place to live,” Madonna says.

Reflecting on the value of her years at JCU, Madonna acknowledges that the understanding of economics and labour markets that she acquired through her studies at JCU has shaped her approach to her work in her varied roles in government policy and workforce development. “The value of a good university education is not so much about the facts you learn,” she says, “but the thinking and analysis skills you develop. These are the tools you can apply throughout your career."

Finally, even though Madonna never officially became a teacher, the training programs that she has helped to develop over the last two decades have had a major impact on the lives of many people in the most remote regions of Australia.

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