In this Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of speaking with Liz Mackie, Senior Trade Policy Officer at the British High Commission in Canberra, about her career across a wide range of British foreign policy.
Liz is a Senior Trade Policy Officer at the British High Commission, where she advises the UK Government on services, financial services, investment and intellectual property trade policy in relation to the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement, and leads bilateral engagement on sustainable finance. Prior to her current role, Liz worked in London developing the UK’s post-EU exit trade policy at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade. Liz has worked across a broad range of sectors and on a number of technical policy issues in relation to international trade.
Liz is currently studying a Master of International Law at the University of Sydney.
Going back to the beginning of your career, what did you study at university? How have you been able to apply your learnings at university to your career?
My studies have been heavily influenced by my interest in the international agenda. For my undergraduate degree I studied a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in Politics and International Relations. I discovered quite early on that I had a passion for learning about different countries, cultures and foreign affairs, so it made sense to me that I should pursue those interests through my studies.
I wouldn’t say I had a clear idea of what my dream career was throughout my undergraduate studies, which I really struggled with at the time as there’s pressure to know what direction you’re hoping to head in. But I think there’s a huge amount of value in exploring your interests – there’s no better time to do it and broaden your knowledge base. Through studying what interested me, I’ve managed to make the most of that knowledge through a range of opportunities that have come my way, and most importantly, enjoy the content of my work!
You’ve had a fascinating career working in international trade policy with the British Government. What have been some of the highlights and challenges of your time working in this area?
There are some very unique opportunities that come from working for a government going through a period of such drastic change, that being exiting the European Union.
Fortunately, I’ve been able to retain some continuity between my career in the UK and returning to Australia. A highlight of that has been seeing the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) through from beginning to Agreement in Principle (so far), from working as a Policy Advisor for International Trade at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, then as Trade Policy Advisor at the Department for International Trade and now as Senior Trade Policy Officer at the British High Commission. I’ve also savoured the opportunity to work for a climate-progressive government. Working as the UK in Australia network lead for Sustainable Finance has been incredibly rewarding and exposed me to some incredible work from both Australian and UK in this space.
The decision to leave the EU was highly politicised in the UK, which made working on trade policy challenging at times. Often the sheer amount of complex work that needed to be done could be overwhelming. But as challenging as those moments were, they helped to shape the unique experience and skills I am now able to draw upon. Working on a priority policy area through a historical time for the UK Government has been truly fascinating!
The highlights and challenges of my career continue to shape my skills, knowledge and professional competency in a positive way – I think it’s important to embrace it all as an opportunity.
Tell us about your current role at the British High Commission in Canberra. What does a day at the High Commission look like for you?
My current role primarily focuses on supporting the UK Government’s trade policy objectives with Australia. I am also the UK Government lead for Sustainable Finance. The nature of working in a diplomatic mission means that our work needs to be responsive to our immediate environment, as well as to direction from back in the UK. This also means my role has a great deal of variety and exposure, and I have the privilege of working on some really progressive agendas, such as Free Trade negotiations between the UK and Australia and promoting the UK’s Climate and Clean Growth agenda in the lead up to COP26 later this year in Glasgow.
There are rarely two days that are the same working in a diplomatic mission, particularly based in a country that is a priority international partner for the UK. My daily tasks range from participating in late night FTA negotiations, providing briefing for the High Commissioner and UK Ministers, meeting Australian Government officials or industry to discuss policy developments, lobbying business and government on UK priorities, providing reporting, research and analysis to colleagues in London on local developments, and in more normal times, planning inward visits from UK Ministers or senior officials to Australia. There are instances where, as a network, we go into different operating modes in response to events happening locally. This happened last year when the Australian Government closed international borders, requiring the entire UK in Australia network to enter ‘Crisis Mode’, focusing on supporting British nationals during the COVID situation.
What has been your greatest professional achievement so far? What do you attribute to your success?
I’ve been involved in some incredibly interesting and unique programs of work throughout my career, including transitioning EU trade agreements with third Parties into UK bilateral agreements, trade negotiations and dialogues with various countries, developing services trade policy from scratch and most recently, working to reach Agreement in Principle of the UK-Australia Free Trade Agreement.
I think success can take many different forms, and it’s important to remember that success to one person won’t necessarily mean the same thing to other people. However, I put my ability to continue progressing my career down to a few things:
Working hard - sometimes situations will call for you to go above and beyond, though it’s important to ensure it’s all compatible with your individual circumstances.
Building a strong network of colleagues and contacts.
Being open minded and creative when it comes to new opportunities, you never know where they will lead!
Finding a good mentor/s – people you can lean on for professional advice and a different perspective to your own.
Finally, what advice would you give to students and young professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs abroad?
Be open to all opportunities, including those that don’t take the traditional format. Having specific goals to work towards is great, but it’s important to recognise there is more than one way to achieve them and can open you up to some great experiences. These experiences help you to stand out from the crowd.
I would also encourage people who are able to, to do a stint of time working abroad. It’s valuable to get out of your immediate bubble and see and experience some of the challenges other jurisdictions are facing in relation to the international agenda.
Don’t be afraid of change, to take some risks and back yourself!