DigitalFriend Blog

January 2020

The Late Premier 'Honest John' Cain, Electricity and Computing at the SECV - 1984

Tue, 28 Jan 2020 17:29:21 +1000

By: gosh'at' (Steve Goschnick)

Today I stumbled across the web page for The Victorian Premier's Literary Awards - touted as 'The nation's best writing & Australia's richest literary prize' - on the website:

It caught my eye that these awards were inaugurated by The Honourable John Cain, Premier of Victoria in 1985, some 35 years ago. In doing so, that reminded me that in the recent hasty days in late December 2019, when everybody was trying to tidy-up from office parties, the office, and do some shopping before the Xmas break, that the very same John Cain had passed away. It was with less fanfare than he deserved or would have got at a different time of year**. It was just before Christmas on the 23rd of December 2019. The 3-term winning Premier - a record for the Labor Party - reached 88 years of age and had left a significant mark on the State of Victoria, Australia, way beyond just those literary awards.

Personally, I had always preferred to call him by his nick-name during his time in power, which was: Honest John. Honesty, being an unusual trait for a politician, anytime and anywhere, was a large factor in why he had won 3 elections straight. I was a young technocrat at the time of his first election, an Analyst/Programmer. John Cain had caused a lot of meticulous computer work to come my way throughout most of 1984 at the SECV - the then State Electricity Commission of Victoria, a large State-owned monopoly. He had won his first election in 1982 and by 1984 the SECV was undergoing something of a revolution, at his direction. Such state-owned enterprises were thereafter deemed to pay a dividend from their profits into the State's coffers, which was 10% of $100 million by 1984 from the SECV alone, very good money at the time. They had set up a new Department called 'Forecasting & Tariffs' and I was one of the new hires at the start of 1984, adding 'Senior' to Analyst Programmer, and raising my salary by about 33% over my prior role as an Analyst/Programmer at the ARRB (Australian Road Research Board).

Not only was the department new but the very concept of 'forecasting' was new at the SECV. Previously, the SECV had divined the 'forecast' energy needs for the State of Victoria, directly from the national GDP forecast coming out of the Federal government's Treasury forecast for the expected growth for Australian GDP (Gross Domestic Product). They simply multiplied Australian GDP by a 'magic number' to determine what electricity they would need to generate in the coming years! There had been no allowance for new technologies, nor the forthcoming more efficient electrical appliances in the pipeline, nor for advances in power transmission technology, nor variance in the growth of Victoria versus the whole country, nor the changing mix of population and industry within Victoria, and so on.

As bad as that was it wasn't the worst of it. Prior to this change at the SECV, they had actually started preliminary work (secretly) on siting a nuclear power station somewhere in East Gippsland (the place that just got burned down by massive bushfires on New Years Day 2020), to cover that future expected demand - all based on the 'back-of-a-matchbox' linear extrapolation from the Federal GDP forecast! So, John Cain's new government changed all that, and thereafter the SECV did some proper energy forecasting. And with that same clean sweep of the broom the new managers also wanted to rationalise the many different electricity tariffs to a more equitable and simplified set of tariffs. E.g. there were about two dozen different tariffs and some customers where paying way way less than others, for the electricity they used. E.g. there was the flat-rate 'F' tariff which was a 'Commercial Cooking' tariff known colloquially as the Fish'n'Chip tariff, who paid as little as 1/20th what an average general domestic (GD tariff) customer was paying for a kilowatt-hour. Another one I remember clearly was the 'hot-water heating' time-of-use (TOU) tariff, which was very low, that kicked in at 2am when most of industry was not in need of electricity. It was soon discovered that the meters at the domestic dwellings, which were mechanical clock-based, were all set at different times instead of just the designated 2am. However, when new management decreed that the meter department go out and synchronise them, as per the published tariff, the long-time engineers pointed out that such an action would cause a spike in demand at 2am which would be much greater than the peak demand in the middle of a working day caused by industry! I.e. the 'old hands' on the ground had deliberately unsynchronised the meters across the State, to avoid such a calamity (and in doing so possibly saved Victoria/Australia from going down the nuclear power station path).

Figure 1. Loy Yang Power Station A. (Courtesy: Marcus Wong Wongm [CC BY-SA] )

Figure 1: Loy Yang Power Station A.

(Image courtesy: Marcus Wong Wongm [CC BY-SA] )

The new enlightened management wanted to merge this mishmash of inequitable historical tariffs, towards just a handful of much more equitable tariffs. However, this is where 'Honest John' intervened. He had promised the voters, that during a transition to a more equitable system, "No electricity customer will receive a rise in their electricity bills greater than the CPI (Consumer Price Index - the measure of inflation) in a given year."

This led to me being tasked with guaranteeing that Honest John would indeed be keeping his promise with-respect-to electricity prices, even as the SECV was streamlining the score of ancient tariffs toward a handful of 'modern' equitable tariffs, also decreed by John Cain. Clearly, given the large levels of entrenched inequity such as with the aforementioned Fish'and'Chips tariff, the transitions would have to happen over a number of years (a 5-year plan), via a series of little-step changes, each and all of which, would not invalidate the Premier's public pledge regarding electricity prices and the CPI, for any single customer bill!

I got access to the previous 12 months of billing records, which amounted to over 9 million bills - domestic customers were billed quarterly while industry customers were billed monthly - which lived on magnetic tape, as only the previous bill and the forthcoming bills were keep on fast access hard-disk, itself a valuable storage commodity in 1984. I set about taking random samples of about 10,000 bills to keep on disk, to run prospective tariffs against, which involved the new forecasting models too, then, when one seemed like a winner from all angles (i.e. from numerous managers, policy creators, and forecasters), I would run it against the full 9 million records held on tape, to verify that Honest John wasn't lying, not for any single customer on any single bill issued over the previous year. This wasn't a directive that my manager had devised, no, it had come through him straight from on high, from Honest John himself. His nickname was far from tongue-in-cheek. He was the genuine article. He meant what he said, and did what he said he would do, as far as humanly possible.

While the 10,000 record samples were nicely handled within SAS (a Statistical Analysis Package with its own built in language - think the 'R' language), I needed better tools to deal with the 9 million records on tape, a sequential and relatively slow medium. I had some trouble getting started on that as I needed to use the PL/1 programming language (an IBM language specific to IBM mainframes and compatibles at the time, optimised for speed on them), and the Computer Services Department would not give me the PL/1 manuals I needed. They required that I do their in-house 5-week 'PL/1 Course' - regardless of my prior programming experience. I certainly didn't have 5 weeks to spare with the State Budget looming, which included that 10% of the (yet-to-be-finalised) forecast profit at the SECV for the following year.

From my terminal I could access all the tools on the SECV mainframe - all the IBM system software simply came with the hardware in those days, so it was all there for free, manual or no manual - so I simply phoned IBM directly outlining my dilemma, and they posted me a set of PL/1 manuals the very next day, and off we went.

As it happens, I ran hundreds of such tariff models before we (the Tariff & Forecasting Department) settled upon those published in the State budget papers in 1984, which was a long and tedious process, and I was the bunny doing the hard yards on that processing. My manager, had keep me highly motivated by promising me that I could design and build a new tariff research modelling tool, based on the knowledge I'd picked up over those long hours and late evenings. About six months in, with budget models all tucked into bed, my time had come for some innovative design and development work, promised to me from early on. I had already researched all the tariff models in all the other Australian states, and several internationally, the most sophisticated of which, were from the US state of California. Even back in 1984 California had small private electricity producers, who were putting energy into the system as well as taking it out - the forerunners of todays solar, wind and other alternative energy generators. They also had very sophisticated time-of-use tariffs and meters to go with them, well beyond the simple mechanic clocks the SECV had set for 2am, pre-1984.

Via such a broad-ranging study I had devised a universal tariff model and designed the new research tool which I tentatively called GENSEL (General Selection). However, my manager wouldn't look at it seriously***, as he now revealed that he had "some great software" back at his former employer (the SEQEB - in Queensland) from years before, that the SECV "could simply purchase off the shelf at a reasonable price". I did an evaluation trip to the SEQEB but their software was highly conventional and little better than the SAS + PL/1 data wrangling tools I'd cobbled together in the previous 6 months, under duress. In short, my manager had proved considerably less honest about tariff modelling tools than Honest John had proven himself time and time again all-round, and so my journey with the SECV didn't extend into 1985.

Postscript: What happened?

The SECV: When I worked at SECV headquarter in William St Melbourne in 1984, there were about 7,000 employees in the building, and about 11,000 employees State-wide (it had already been whittled down from about 19,000 at peak employment). In its drive for efficiency and profits the SECV continued to make a significant contribution to the State governments annual budget, and eventually downsized its total workforce to about 7,000 in total. It had become an extremely valuable asset, and the Kennet Liberal Party government that came after John Cain's Labor government, divided up the SECV's State-wide assets and sold them off to a multitude of private companies. Many of the middle-level managers and admin staff had been made redundant, some with considerable golden handshakes, eventually got jobs back in the newly privatised enterprises that took over the SECV's long built-up infrastructure, coal mines, power stations and business. A controversial example was the Hazelwood Power Station: a brown-coal fired power station said to be the most polluting in the OECD at the time. The SECV were looking to decommission it in 2005, but the Kennet Liberal government sold it to several multinationals for over $2 billion dollars in 1996 "with a projected 40-year operating lifetime". It was eventually decommissioned in 2017. Unbeknown to most people, the Gippsland area within Victoria still has well over 400 years worth of brown coal deposits at the current rate of consumption.

My ICT journey for the rest of the 1980s: I never got to implement my universal tariff modelling tool, as my aforementioned Manager never allowed it. Pissed-off with the fact that the software from SEQEB wasn't fit for our service, he then insisted we stick with the SAS+PL/1 processing I'd thrown together on-the-fly during the lead-up to the 1984 State mid-year budget. So, to keep my brain alive I bought a tiny Commodore64 game console/computer for some fun at home with sprites and other colour graphics, something that the mainframes at work didn't do - they were all text-based terminals. Having been a mainframe-only programmer up until that point in time (6 years), I was genuinely amazed at what you could do on a so-called 'toy' Commodore64 computer, with a local IDE called G-Pascal. At the beginning of 1985 I resigned from the SECV and I took to the road spending 10 months travelling throughout Europe, rarely stopping for more than 2 days in each place, followed by 1 month in the US on the way home. On landing back in Melbourne I got offered a Manager role at the Australian Road Research Board, who'd been my original employer straight out of uni (where I'd become an Analyst Programmer, prior to working for the SECV). The new position was in the Computer Centre of what was a highly computationally intensive, research-oriented organisation, which I took up in early 1986 (staying with them until late in 1989 - as the Manager for PCs and Networks). I also picked up a new Commodore Amiga 1000 en route, which was something like a Mac with 'colour', when the Apple Machintosh was simply Black and White (B&W). I'd wanted IBM PC compatibility too, and I got that via what was called the 'Amiga Sidecar', which plugged into the large, long 'Zorro Slot' along the side of the Amiga, giving me an MS/DOS machine - literally as an add-on. My Sidecar also came with a (then) 'massive' 20 Mbyte hard-drive in it, which I partition between MS/DOS and AmigaDOS. I then started writing and publishing shrink-wrapped (i.e. inexpensive) software packages. As good as the Amiga and AmigaDOS was, the marketplace for software publishing startups was on the MS/DOS based IBM-compatible PCs, and so thats where I ended up writing and publishing my first two commercial software applications, one in Borland's Turbo Pascal, the other in the C language. I registered my software publishing business name - Solid Software - in 1986.

I have some other tech stories from my year at the SECV in the 1984 (the year of Big Brother vs the Macintosh), which I should relate some time - a Preview:

Steve Goschnick (gosh'at'

** Note: There is a recently announced State Funeral for the former Premier John Cain coming up on the 3rd of Feb 2020.

*** This is a common problem that the Information Modeller and Systems Business Analyst ofter still face today: Using information modelling techniques from first principles in Information Theory, it is often possible to come up with a better information model than that of the domain experts who have been on the ground in that domain for 20 or 30 years - whether its Tariff models or Astronomy they are often reluctant to even look at the newly devised data models. And that had been my SECV Manager's reaction back than: "I've been doing Tariffs structures for 20 years, how could you possibly come up with a universal tariff model after 6 months!"



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