Control room to court room
AS THE space shuttle Columbia lifted off from the John F. Kennedy Space Centre on April 12, 1981, millions of people across the world were glued to television screens to watch its launch.
Young Geoff Skelton was intent on a screen of another kind – a computer screen that tracked the movements of the shuttle.
These days you’ll find him in the courtroom defending people charged with criminal offences but law is career number three for this solicitor.
He was dealing with evidence in Commonwealth legal matters since 1999 but Geoff qualified as a lawyer in 2007 and moved to Hervey Bay a year later.
The 58-year-old slipped into the world of law with apparent ease but there’s more to him than meets the eye.
Behind the quiet, unassuming facade is a man with a brilliant mind and some fascinating stories of rocket science, national defence strategies, history and politics.
Geoff graduated from the University of Newcastle in 1974 with a degree in electrical engineering.
Four years later he was working for NASA as a data handling engineer, sending commands to spacecraft and tracking and correcting their orbits.
“I was around for the first shuttle mission and that was pretty good stuff,” he said.
“I worked in Canberra but spent three months in the US in 1979 for training and planning for missions.
“In the control centres in the US there was a big screen used to plot where the satellites were, plus smaller screens on individual consoles.
“NASA had control centres all over the US as well as other parts of the world, including Canberra, Western Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
“The control rooms were quite big and were where all the data from the different satellites and spacecraft would coalesce.”
He worked for NASA until 1983, seeing through Columbia’s first five missions.
His next career was in the Department of Defence doing a combination of “engineering and political-military type stuff”.
“I did political-military briefings, science and technical briefings on satellites and launch vehicles, IT security and the provision of evidence in some espionage trials the department was pursuing.
“I would describe the threats in the area and the type of threats the country might meet, so the department could plan adequately.”
His 20 years working for the defence department gave him insight into the nature of conflict and the power plays between nations.
“The world is in constant conflict at different levels.
“Australia, the US, the UK and Canada have fairly common interests geo-politically and in a strategic sense.
“Howard and Bush had significant trust in each other which resulted in an even greater co-operative effort than what would normally be achieved.
“Trans-national crime grew in the ’80s, which has had significant security implications ... the drug culture, the influence of the internet and terrorism.
“Australia’s security interests have broadened.
“Australia’s focus now has to be maintaining a good relationship with Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim nation.”
Geoff believes terrorism is no empty threat.
“Australia has legitimate security interests in being in Afghanistan.
“We’ve had a number of Federal Police operations where terrorists have been grabbed and dealt with and I would suspect they were involved with links to Al Qaeda.
“There’s very little that’s reported. The successes are hidden but the failures are all reported.”
But he is not in Hervey Bay to deal with the conflicts of the world – just the conflicts playing out in the region’s courtrooms.
He describes his Juris Doctor as the best course he ever did and his results reflected his enthusiasm for the course – he was awarded Most Outstanding Student of his class.
“The law is fascinating. It’s quite an inexact science in many respects.
“It tries to define many things, in statutes, but in doing so it freezes in time a set of circumstances and often things move, the environment in which the legislation is made moves.
“The role of the defence and the prosecution is very interesting.
“The role of the prosecutor is to bring an action based on evidence: the role of the defence is to challenge that.
“Whether I think a person is guilty or not is not the issue. My job is to act in the defendant’s interest.
“The decision is the magistrate’s, not mine.”
Geoff is the perfect dinner guest: well-informed, well-educated and well-read.
He can discuss in-depth aspects of world and Australian history, the social and political plight of Australia’s Aborigines, the issue of Australian independence, the processing of radioactive waste and the pros and cons of each Master Chef contestant.
In his “spare time” he has been researching the Knights Templar and considering whether the group had a charter which could prove it was the earliest corporation in history.
And he has a commercial pilot’s licence.
Geoff admits he is “rather an oddity in a place like Hervey Bay”.
A fascinating oddity.