Gillian Bird is currently the ambassador and permanent representative of Australia to the United Nations. Prior to her current role, she was the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In 2012, she was awarded the Public Service Medal for outstanding public service in International Relations.
In our interview, we spoke about the rewards and challenges of representing Australia to the UN and Australia’s role in current international affairs.
1. What did you study at university and were you involved in any extracurricular activities? What fostered your interest in international affairs?
I studied Arts/Law at Sydney University and joined the then Department of Foreign Affairs when I completed my Arts (Honours) degree. I had always loved languages – which was one of the reasons I was interested in a career in foreign affairs – and my Arts degree involved majors in French and German, both of which I had studied at High School. I also worked at the Redfern legal centre when I was studying law.
2. What was your first job when you graduated and what has shaped or motivated your career decisions?
I applied for the Department of Foreign Affairs graduate program when I was completing my Arts (Honours) year. Somewhat to my surprise, I was successful, so found that my first job – at the age of 22 – was as a Foreign Affairs cadet. It has been a terrific career, with a lot of variety. One of the best aspects of working in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been the ability to work on many different issues – from human rights to regional architecture to disarmament to UN issues to consular cases – and to work overseas. I have had a couple of postings to the UN in New York (and now have the privilege to be Australia’s Ambassador to the UN) and postings in Paris and Harare, Zimbabwe. As Ambassador to ASEAN (before my New York appointment), I travelled widely in South-East Asia. I have also worked in a Minister’s Office and in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Among my career highlights have been participating in the first ever bilateral human rights dialogue with China, leading a team to conclude the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, negotiating the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement with India, negotiating Australia’s accession to ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (which paved the way for Australia’s entry to the East Asia Summit), playing a formative role in shaping the East Asia Summit, being Australia’s first Ambassador to ASEAN and now Australia’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the UN.
3. You are someone who not only has an important role in securing Australia’s foreign policy interests internationally but who is also working to see the United Nations work as effectively as possible. What have you found to be the rewards and challenges of representing Australia to the United Nations?
The UN is a very rewarding place to work. One of the challenges is that the UN deals with so many issues and to find consensus requires persuading 192 other countries to accept the same position. The UN is also beginning to show its age, having been in existence for more than 70 years. Fortunately the new UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, is committed to a major reform program that covers the UN’s peace and security work, its development activities, and the management of the organisation. He has put conflict prevention at the core of this agenda. The aim is to ensure that the UN does a better job at preventing conflict and ensuring that countries emerging from conflict do not relapse.
4. What is your advice for young Australians looking to start their careers in foreign policy? What motivated your decision to study abroad in France and how do you think this decision has shaped your career?
There is no one career path to enter DFAT. The graduate program every year, which is how I joined the department, is one good avenue. The Department is looking for graduates with a wide range of skills. Knowledge of foreign languages, especially Asian, is useful but not essential. I would strongly recommend taking part in the New Colombo Plan, which provides a terrific opportunity for university students to study and work in the region. Every Australian university has access to the program, so if you have not heard about it, follow up with your university. The New Colombo Plan did not exist in my day. I was, however, lucky enough to get a scholarship to study in France at the French Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), which provided terrific exposure to another country’s public service and really sharpened my French language skills.
5. Lastly, as someone who is a significant contributor to both Australian foreign policy and international relations discourse on the world stage, is there anything you would like to say about current international affairs and Australia’s role in them?
The international environment is very challenging at the moment. Australia has an important stake in ensuring that the international rules based order is maintained. While we have global interests, our key area of focus is our Indo-Pacific neighbourhood. Our diplomatic network reflects this. We have put a lot of effort in recent years in seeking to develop regional architecture that includes all the key regional players and helps foster cooperative rules-based regionalism. A major achievement was the formation of the East Asia Summit, which is the first regional body that includes all key regional powers and has a wide-ranging political, security and economic mandate. A key priority for Australian foreign policy over the coming years will be to ensure that the East Asia Summit lives up to its potential.