By Amanda Gorely, Australia’s Ambassador to the Philippines
As Australia’s Ambassadors converge on Canberra for the very first Global Heads of Mission Meeting or GHOMM, we are poised to make a meaningful contribution to Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper. This will inevitably require us to assess Australia’s national interests and the foreign, trade and development policies that will best enable us to safeguard these. We will have to grapple with the mutable truths or changing realities that characterise our world.
This is the first time all Australian Ambassadors have gathered in this way. In this era of 24/7 instant news where everyone is an expert, the role and utility of diplomats has been questioned. Yet I remain firmly convinced that one can never truly understand a country unless one has lived there for a number of years. Even then it can be a struggle to decode a culture and history that seems so different from our own. The longer I spend in the Philippines, the more I realise I still have to learn this complex country. Even my last posting to New Zealand revealed so much to me about our closest, most culturally similar neighbour.
So, as Ambassadors we are in a unique position to collectively provide insights that will shape the White Paper. It is, after all, our job to know deeply the country and region to which we are posted. We must know the leaders, the opinion makers, the opponents, the advocates and dissenters, immerse ourselves in the culture and connect with the people. We are living through incredibly dynamic times that we must interpret and decipher for the Australian Government. When I started my assignment 15 months ago, the Philippines barely rated a mention in the Australian media. A new President with very different policy settings has changed that with potentially far reaching strategic implications.
It is also a critical part of an Ambassador’s repertoire to know Australia well – a challenging proposition with a country so large and diverse. It is imperative that we get out of the Canberra bubble and engage with the wide ranging interests of this country. An essential element of the Global Heads of Mission Meeting (GHOMM), therefore, is for Ambassadors to travel to regional Australia.
As part of this, I will visit Castlemaine and Bendigo, both of which have forged strong and lasting connections with the Philippines. I will attend the Castlemaine Festival, which will feature the Philippines, including many wonderful artists, writers and performers. I will also visit the Latrobe University Visual Arts Institute to see an exhibition, Mutable Truths, of Filipino artists who have benefited from artistic residencies in Australia during LaTrobe’s decade long collaboration with University de Ateneo in Manila.
It can sometimes seem trite to highlight the importance of people-to-people links to our international relationships. But often it is these relationships that touch individual hearts and minds. Governments can put in place the skeleton for these links through initiatives such as the New Colombo Plan and our highly valued international scholarships programs, but it is the people who engage in them that provide the beating heart, creating connections that can last a lifetime. With knowledge comes better understanding and channels of communication. Two members of the current Philippines Cabinet studied and lived in Australia.
Leveraging these relationships for even greater Australian influence will certainly be something my colleagues and I will focus on at the GHOMM as we consider the mutable truths of Australian foreign, trade and development policy in the 21st century.
Amanda Gorely is a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Most recently she was Corporate Counsel and head of the Corporate Legal Branch, a position she held since 2012. She has previously served overseas as Deputy High Commissioner at the Australian High Commission in Wellington and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, with earlier postings in Stockholm and Copenhagen.