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A talk with Richard Woolcott

Richard WoolcottRichard Woolcott

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Matt Smith:

Hello and welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I'm your host, Matt Smith. And joining me on the phone right now is Richard Woolcott. Thank you for joining me, Richard.

Richard Woolcott:

It's a pleasure, Matt.

Matt Smith:

Just to give you a brief introduction, for those people who don't know. You're - is it safe to say - a lifelong ambassador of Australia?

Richard Woolcott:

Not really, because everyone retires, ultimately. But, yes, I've served Australia's Embassy on a number of countries and, also, at the United Nations. But I have retired from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade but I am still the Prime Minister's special envoy on the Asia-Pacific community proposal. And also, co-founding Director of the Asia's Society of Australasia Centre.

Matt Smith:

Yes, retirement doesn't seem to be suiting you well.

Richard Woolcott:

As one gets older, it's important to keep active as long as you can, I think.

Matt Smith:

You're specializing in the Asian region. Have you always been interested in that area?

Richard Woolcott:

I've always been interested but as far as specializing in Serbian affairs because my first posting was Moscow and my third posting was Moscow, partly, because I spoke Russian. But my real interest has always been in Asia. I've also, two African posts. I find Africa very interesting, too.

Matt Smith:

And how did you get started in Diplomacy?

Richard Woolcott:

Well, I don't really know. I started life as a journalist, actually, like you. I had a travelling scholarship. When the money run out, I was in London. I got a job with, what was then the Melbourne Herald; London office. Melbourne Herald, of course, is now combined with Herald Sun. And I spent some time working as a journalist in London.

One of the things I did was to interview the Senior External Affairs Representative in London. After a while, he asked me, would I be interested in applying to join the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. And I said, I'll think about it. And I did. I was selected.

Matt Smith:

And it's gone from there, has it?

Richard Woolcott:

Yeah, I guess so. I had to come back to Canberra and do, what was then, the foreign affairs training course and then I went to Moscow - my first post. But it was a long, long time ago, before you were born. All that took place in 1952; I went to Moscow.

Matt Smith:

And what is it about the Asian region, that you decided that well - or did you even decide that you wanted to concentrate on that area?

Richard Woolcott:

Yes, I did. The reasons were, at an early age, I realized, if you just looked at the map, Australia's - our future was going to be determined by a successful adjustment to the countries of the same region; essentially, Southeast Asian and the Southwest Pacific.

So, this was the area, I really was interested in. And the first posting I had was to, what was then Malaya before it became Malaysia. And then Singapore while before it went in to Malaysia and while it became part of Malaysia and before it left Malaysia and then the Philippines and Indonesia.

It's essentially, our area. It's the part of the world where we belong and where we will live for the rest of time. And so I've always been very interested in it.

Indonesia, in particular, of course, is a special country. It's a country of 220 million people. It's the largest Islamic country in the world, by population. I think, it's very important to Australia; not just because it's close but because it's a moderate form of Islam. By and large, the relationship is good. And it's very important, I think, to demonstrate that we can collaborate closely with a country like Indonesia-- as we do with Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines and all of the Southeast Asian and Southwest Pacific countries. It's out part of the world, that's why I was, particularly, interested in it.

Matt Smith:

Back in, what I think is fair to call, the frontier days of Australian diplomacy then, how was Australia's diplomatic relations with the Asian countries?

Richard Woolcott:

I joined the foreign service while a lot of countries where still not fully independent. I thought it was an exciting period because the old British empire and the French colonial positions and even, the Philippines which have been first Spanish then American colony; they were all asserting their independence. In a sense, it was an exciting period to be in the region.

I first went to that part of the world, I suppose, in 1957. There was always some danger in certain international situations. I visited Sarawak and then Sabah or North Borneo, on the Island of Borneo, during the period, what he Indonesians called, confrontation against the formation of Malaysia.

There was military action going on there. We flew over Sarawak in a helicopter. I remember the shock; a bullet blasted the helicopter. Nobody was hurt but, it reminds you that it can be dangerous. You know, it's the sort of job which does take you, occasionally, into conflict situations.

Matt Smith:

Well, it's fair to say that your career has been quite integral to the direction of Australia's foreign policy affairs. What direction have you tried to guide the country in?

Richard Woolcott:

Well, I'm a major trading ambassador of good cause; plenty of course. I think one of the successful aspects is the development of APEC-- the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum. I think in other ways one has to work within Australia itself, and try to influence Australian attitude. So, that we'd be better understood in those countries.

I think to some extent, because of the old White Australia policy. Australia's on a good behaviour bond in the region. And so, it's very important that perceptions of racism and religious intolerance don't build up.

Most Australians are great believers in a fair go and equality of opportunity. And it will be a pity if these perceptions of Australia were entirely spare with a small minorities.

Matt Smith:

Do you see Australia as being a member of the Asian community?

Richard Woolcott:

There's no doubt that, geographically, we are part of Southeast Asian and the Southwest Pacific. Some of our historical background is mostly linked with the United Kingdom. And I guess, our major security alliance is with the United States. But, essentially, we are in this part of the world.

Matt Smith:

What about the for the Australian mentality? Do we still retain closer ties to the western countries?

Richard Woolcott:

I don't think so. I was rather disappointed during the election campaign to hear, how easily the opposition leader referred to Australia as part of the Anglosphere world. I assume, what he meant is that we have a lot of Australians that are descendants of the Anglo-celts of the British Isles.

But, increasingly, more and more Australians are either born overseas and outside of the British Isles or they have immigrated from Asia and parts of Europe. So, our population is changing. I think that Anglosphere goes, really, back a hundred years.

Matt Smith:

What did you think of the current election campaign? Was foreign affairs given enough attention?

Richard Woolcott:

I thought it was very disappointing, in that foreign affairs was not given attention by either side. I would have thought that major issues like the conflict in Afghanistan, the whole idea of our place in the world, also, the handling of issues like our refugees and boat people; I think, the way that was handled can send a wrong message because, in a sense, both sides of politics were seeking to exploit fears of such nonsense - to say, that were threatened by a matter of boats invading us from the North.

And I would like to have seen some serious discussion of major foreign policy issues, which says where does Australia belong in the world? What our relationship should be with Indonesia? It's much, much more important than just dealing with people smuggling and boat people. How should our relations with China be shaped; and Japan?

That's why I thought that the initiative of former Prime Minister Rudd was particularly a far sighted and forward looking initiative; when he suggested that we should initiate discussions on the possibility of progress towards the Asia-Pacific community, as this entry enthrals. But no, that wasn't discussed during the election campaign.

Matt Smith:

As it is now, we're going to have a minority government. Do you think that that will affect the way we approach the Asian -Pacific region?

Richard Woolcott:

Unfortunately, I think it will. I think a minority government is going to be a, sort of, a risk. This government is not going to want to look at major; sort of, big projects. and that's unfortunate. But I would hope that whoever becomes Prime Minister, now that the election is behind them will have a slightly more constructive involvement with the countries of our region.

And I'm sure, inevitably, they will be because there's a South Pacific forum meeting coming up which the head of government should go to and there will be an East Asian summit meeting, an APEC summit meeting in Tokyo, in Japan. So whoever is the Prime Minister will find themselves involved in these major meetings fairly soon. That is, of course, unless, there is an early new election.

Matt Smith:

Is Australia being looked to as a, sort of, a leadership role in the South Pacific?

Richard Woolcott:

In the South Pacific, of course, we are the largest country and the richest country. So, we are expected to play a major role in the countries of the South Pacific forum. But here, I think, we can learn a lot from New Zealand who handles their relations with the South Pacific countries very well.

We, sometimes, intend to be seen as lecturing them and playing a, sort of, 'big brother' role. Again, this is something which the new government, when it comes to office, will need to address. Where our Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade between '88 and 1992; every January we used to do an analysis of various foreign policy issues and policies we have adopted. And those we found not working, we would seek to modify or change.

Now, I think it's time again to do that sort of thing. If a policy is not working, the sensible thing to do is to analysis it by why it's not working, why it's not achieving it's objectives and if necessary, change the policy.

Matt Smith:

Travelling extensively, as you have, have you ever experienced the difficulty with language?

Richard Woolcott:

Well, I'm not a linguist. I did speak Russian, of course, and Bahasa Indonesia. It is always useful to speak the language of the country in which you're representing Australia. That doesn't mean that you have to be able to do it. But I found it of great value in Indonesia and Malaysia and also in Russia. But I don't speak Chinese or Japanese. You can't speak all languages. The more obvious ones was when I was in Tokyo with the Prime Minister Bob Hawke. He addressed the Japanese Diet--the Japanese Parliament. Most of the members spoke no English and Hawke addressed them in English.

And he was asked at the end of his address which was really focused on the accord between the unions and how Australia was a reliable source of supplies to Japan, particularly, for mineral resources but rather exports too. And the first question was: is Australia a reliable supplier or are your imports from Australia likely to be interrupted by union activity? And Hawke got - well you know, not angry but a little bit irritated because this is exactly what he'd been talking about. He felt, this particular member of Parliament either hadn't listened or hasn't understood.

So, he said, "Look, I've been talking about that. We are a reliable supplier for Japan. And you've got no worries in discussing this and I'm not playing funny buggers with you. It's serious."

Well, the Japanese interpreters had no idea of how to translate the phrase 'funny buggers'. And they sort of talked amongst themselves. Then they came out with a translation and made it. And I asked the Japanese interpreter next to me, what he'd interpreted because he seemed to-- people looked sort of confused and some giggled and some didn't. And he said, well, we didn't really know what that meant but as he translated it back into English, he said, "We're not playing laughing homosexuals with you."

[Laughter]

Matt Smith:

That would be a strange thing for an Australian Prime Minister to say.

[Laughter]

Richard Woolcott:

Absolutely. Well, saying 'funny buggers' means in Australia, "We're not mucking around with you." It's not something which can really be translated but quite a lot of these cases.

Matt Smith:

You just talked about Bob Hawke. You've worked with many Prime Ministers in your career. Who's been the most memorable for you?

Richard Woolcott:

Oh, that's hard to say. I mean, in their own ways they had different strengths. I started out as a very young officer accompanying Robert Menzies on his last trip. I suppose, probably, the most memorable in many ways was Gough Whitlam because there's so much foreign policy activity in his time.

Matt Smith:

Where do you hope, that Australia is going to take it's diplomatic direction from now?

Richard Woolcott:

I think it's continued along the broadly established lines. That is, that our principal relationships are with countries like the United States, China, Japan, Indonesia, and India. And we should focus on those, in particular, countries which have maximum importance to us.

But, also, we need to play a major multilateral role in the United Nations. The main thrust should be the adjustment of the Australian community to the part of the world in which we live; which is, essentially, Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific. And that's going to require our constant attention. To that fact, our neighbours are not United Kingdom or even the United States, for that matter, or Yugoslavia; they're the countries to our immediate north.

Matt Smith:

Well, Richard Woolcott, thank you for your time today.

Richard Woolcott:

OK, my pleasure.

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