The high and lows of fast-forward diplomacy
One of the great joys of being High Commissioner to Australia is the sheer variety of what I do. I’ve learned to expect the unexpected, to travel widely and frequently, and to deal with a diverse range of issues. It’s why I love the job. The last three weeks have been a slightly extreme example of that – diplomacy, stuck on fast-forward.
There have been some real highs.
Last week, I was in the UK for AUKMIN (the annual Australia-UK Ministerial Dialogue), with the UK’s and Australia’s Foreign and Defence Ministers. You can get a feel for what that was all about in the video below. Suffice is to say, I felt privileged to be part of it, energised by the discussions, and appreciative of the London backdrop – the old (the beautiful and inspiring Royal Hospital, Chelsea) and the new (the iconic Shard, where we watched the sun set over our capital city).
Serious discussions about security challenges in the UK and our neighbourhood, and in Australia’s part of the world, were interspersed with warm conversations between Ministers and Chelsea Pensioners. Deep thinking about global issues – such as countering terrorism and extremism, migration and the fight against Da’esh – was underpinned by a strong sense of shared history, values and interests.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop chat to Chelsea Pensioners at last week’s AUKMIN talks.
But there have also been some unexpected lows.
I was in Sydney on 24 August, getting ready to talk Brexit with the British Business Network, when I saw a message on my phone which started: CONSULAR FLASH. This was the first I knew of the terrible events at Home Hill in Queensland, which led to the death of two British back-packers, the injury of the another, and questions about motives and intent of the perpetrator.
The case attracted massive publicity in the UK and Australia, a reminder that social media has dismantled distance and the boundaries between what’s public and private. This helped to shape, but not determine, our response, which was based on the best possible help we could give to the victims and their families. As always, I was impressed beyond words by our fantastic consular team, who travelled with me to Townsville and dealt with the families of the victims, and other young people affected by what had happened, with oodles of professionalism, warmth and tact.
Balloons launched by friends and relatives of Mia Ayliffe-Chung at her memorial on Australia’s Gold Coast
Consular work is close to my heart, and in many ways I think it’s the most important thing we do – a direct service for Brits-in-distress. It’s thus the main source of our legitimacy in the eyes of the UK taxpayer, whose only contact with the FCO will often be through our consular teams. I have little sympathy (relatively) with British nationals who leave it too late to apply for a passport; or commit crimes in countries like Australia where we know they will be treated fairly and well. But I feel strongly that when terrible things happen to the vulnerable, we should be there for them, as we were in the aftermath of the Home Hill attack.
After all that, I’m now back in Canberra – slightly jet-lagged and pretty exhausted. I recognise that I need to slow down a bit to preserve resilience, and give some time to my family. This search for balance also goes with my job; and it’s something I’m still working on. So a birthday weekend (mine!) in Sydney with family and close friends beckons; and this time I’m hoping for the expected. Fingers crossed.
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