Features Australia

Notes of a diplomat

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

1 March 2014

9:00 AM

New York. One of the best overseas postings in Australia’s Foreign Affairs portfolio. So yet another politician is to enliven his retirement in stylish high-status accommodation at Beekman Place, a prime New York address. No wonder so few professional diplomats get this great gig. Nor should they: it’s much more a job for upfront, in-your-face, promotional-minded, financially literate politicians than your restrained polite diplomatic negotiators. Whether Nick Minchin, the former senior Howard government minister, enjoys this description or not, he’s the ideal appointee as our consul-general.

Inevitably the appointment of a politician to an overseas posting is welcomed by elements of the media as just another ‘job for the boys’, fitting their prejudiced view that, as all politicians are only in public life for what they can get out of it, there can be no merit in any such appointment (or indeed of any non-professional diplomat). This is not limited to Australians posted overseas but extends to foreigners coming here, such as when a US President’s close friend is appointed his ambassador to Australia. Instead of welcoming the fact that the ambassador can directly claim the ear of the President with a problem affecting Australia, unlike a professional diplomat who has to go through the ‘channels’, many of our commentators sneer at such a ‘downgrading’ of the relationship. Australia has been blessed by the outstanding ‘non-diplomatic’ ambassadors the US has sent here.

Minchin’s appointment brings back memories of almost 18 years ago when he had congratulated me when I was appointed to the Big Apple. As a close personal and political friend of John Howard’s, I was greeted with the inevitable media cynicism. After all, I had been his parliamentary secretary when he was Malcolm Fraser’s treasurer, then his senior adviser after I lost my House of Representatives seat of Macarthur in 1983 until being elected to the Senate in 1984. Having been a director of two public companies exporting to the US was not a part of my CV the media was interested in. But Howard’s tactic of sending a close friend to New York and a former Liberal leader (and rival), Andrew Peacock, to Washington was aimed at reinforcing his message that, unlike the perception of the Keating years, the Howard government’s involvements with Asia (especially China) were in addition to our close links with the US, not replacing them. So despite my having been a pro-Howard warrior during the Peacock leadership wars, we worked well together in the US, successfully burying the hatchet — and not in each other’s backs.

Hopefully, Minchin’s first day on the job will not be as crazy as mine in late 1996 when, on the way home from work, I met a very glum Australian ambassador to the UN, Richard Butler, and an equally glum former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, who told me of the (humiliating) defeat by Portugal of Australia’s ill-judged bid to join the Security Council. I asked them what were their plans for the evening (none) and said they had better come to our apartment to have a meal with us. I didn’t know that our cook had prepared a meal for two to be heated when needed and had gone home with the approval of my wife Toni. So ‘celebrating’ the loss by eating hurriedly purchased takeaway Thai was interrupted by a phone call from a hugely underwhelmed John Howard wanting to know where Butler was as he required an explanation of the failure of a campaign that he had reluctantly inherited from Gareth Evans with assurances of victory. Butler’s brief conversation with Howard resulted in his urgently to prepare a contrite detailed explanatory cable after only completing the soup course and leaving the Thai takeaway for the remaining celebrants; Butler was on the receiving end of a different kind of curry.

There’s plenty of evidence of the bipartisan acceptance of political appointments: witness Kim Beazley in Washington. But political appointments do not always carry such goodwill. The unjustifiable decision of the doomed Gillard government to appoint former Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks to New York for a term that would not begin until after its inevitable electoral defeat last September, meant that the Abbott government gratefully accepted the opportunity to sack him that Bracks himself provided by becoming involved in Labor’s election campaign. As if to underline a need for political purity, his replacement Minchin immediately resigned from the Liberal party even though he does not start in the job until April. On the other side of this coin, when Laurie Brereton was Labor’s foreign affairs spokesman in the late 1990s he described to my late friend Len Evans his version of a nanosecond as the amount of time it would take between his appointment as minister on winning the next election to his sacking me — ‘and the bastard could swim home’.

The CG’s residence in New York’s exclusive Beekman Place is a very effective locale for building good personal relations with the city’s top financial and corporate movers and shakers — and helped by having an excellent cook who serves first-class fare for dinner parties (along with access to good Australian wine). This meant, at least in my time there, that business elites, particularly heads of leading finance houses, were keen to attend small private off-the-record dinners with visitors such as Howard, with immeasurable long-term benefits for Australia. As Julie Bishop stressed in a speech in Washington in January, the US, not China, is Australia’s single most important economic partner when trade is combined with investments. And in asserting that ‘Australia and the US are becoming a single economic entity’, Beazley added that Australia’s direct and indirect investments in the US were 20 times its investment in China. Getting involved in this is not a retirement perk — it’s a major job.

The irony of a former finance minister soon to occupy this apartment is that the finance department for years pushed strongly to sell Australia’s two apartments in Beekman place (for ambassador to the UN and for the CG) because they had massively risen in value. But forcing Australia onto the high-risk NY rental market and finding anything as prestigious were absurd notions; in attending a cabinet meeting before leaving for New York in 1996, I extracted a promise from John Howard that the properties would not be sold during my tenure. Nick Minchin should try this out on Tony Abbott.

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