‘Unknowns’ confronting Australia: Harder than anything I remember

twomey_margaret_sml  By Margaret Twomey, Australia’s High Commissioner to Fiji

Those of us serving in the tropics have a few immediate reactions when we hit Canberra again.  The first is the shock of the dry Canberra air.  It makes my nasal membranes pucker. My eyes dry up. When I used to wear contacts – as I did in Dili – they would start to shrivel and ultimately fall out once I hit head office.  And nowadays the sudden absence of humidity – very annoyingly – causes my wrinkles to rapidly augment.

On the positive side of the ledger, one’s hotel room handwashing dries overnight.  That would never happen in perpetually moist Suva… And my hair de-frizzes – slightly.

Truth be told, the dryness also feels like a metaphor for the return from post to HQ.  The licence that comes with ambassadorship and leadership out in the field evaporates.   Back to being just one in a large and crowded room.

But I get over all of that pretty quickly.  Forget the crowd: it’s the people.  Some with whom I have worked during extraordinarily challenging times.  Moments of crisis, moments of exhilaration… Some with whom I went through my first couple of years of professional self-doubt and anxiety as a DFAT graduate trainee. Others whose dispatches I have read admiringly over the years. People with whom I swap ideas by email – or lob a rapid wry quip.  People who have helped me learn things.

One of those people is Frances – an old friend and colleague from a ’90’s London posting and now our new Secretary.  One of a cohort of pretty impressive female leaders made or in-the-making back then.  A natural born diplomat who delivered with a clarity of perspective and judgment.  And yes, being clever helps.  But what I learnt most from her was discipline.  A central girder to smashing those glass ceilings, I think.   The leadership by example that I have learnt from is now leading us all.  It is great to be back and watch her in action.

Oh yes, and she speaks Chinese. How does that saying – or curse – go?  “May you live in interesting times…”. Well we’ve had that wish answered. And so we are forging ahead with a “White Paper” while geopolitics  – along with a whole lot of other things  – is tipping the world on its axis.  Is it our job to be soothsayers?  I would argue not.  But we do right now have an extraordinarily challenging role in mapping out the ‘known’ and ‘unknown unknowns’ confronting Australia’s national and international interests.  Harder than anything else I can remember in my time in the job.  The “White Paper” exercise is certainly making us think forensically. But it is equally demanding some serious wide-lens application; collective discussions are pushing minds beyond our familiar territories.

Group think can be a major hazard in the business of foreign policy and analysis. Anyone who’s worked in a small diplomatic mission or small diplomatic community (as many of us do) knows all about that. But this group brings a pretty diverse span of expertise and focus. The prism through which our Ambassador to China sees things is quite different to mine in the Pacific – or the one I looked through most recently in Russia. And yet they do intersect in a range of areas that matter to Australia. That includes the contest over regional architecture and influence in the Pacific (an increasingly crowded stage), questions over how and in what form we provide development assistance to our immediate region, and even quite elemental questions of security and alliances.  I’m keen to hear views.

The pre-reading for this exercise has been daunting – in both quality and scope.  So again, no risk of this collection of supposed diplomatic ‘elites’ lapsing into group-think.  We have the benefit of several months of comprehensive consultation by the White Paper team with a wide array of bodies, ranging from civil society to business to academia.  New and challenging perspectives.  Confirmation – if we didn’t have it already – that the days of diplomacy as the exclusive realm of the elite are long gone.  Our diplomatic soft power – the kind of power we prefer to wield – is as strong as the Australian and the foreign public we bring along with it.  But how well are we doing at that?  A big question.

I’ll get to test out the latter when I head off from Canberra to do my ‘DFAT outreach’ in Shepparton.  You can take the girl out of Shepparton, but you can’t take Shepparton out the girl… Well, that’s what I think.  But I reckon that Shepparton community radio, McGuire College, the Ethnic Council, Shepparton Rotary and the local politicians are ready to lob some googlies at me.  As they should.  I’ve got a lot of explaining to do about all those years I’ve been away…

Postscript: I got a question from Rotary on the South China Sea.  Excellent.  Shepparton: a town neither to be under-estimated, under-valued nor stereotyped. I love you!

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Margaret Twomey is a senior career officer with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Ms Twomey has previously served as Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Ambassador to East Timor; Deputy Head of Mission at the Australian High Commission, Suva and in previous postings to London and Belgrade.

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