In our latest Career Spotlight, we have the pleasure of talking to Dr Merriden Varrall about her career working across government, think-tanks, international organisations and the corporate sector.
Biography: Dr Merriden Varrall is Director of Geopolitics and Tax at KPMG and a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute. From 2014- 2018, Merriden was the Director of the Lowy Institute’s East Asia Program. Before joining the Institute, Merriden was the Assistant Country Director and Senior Policy Advisor at United Nations Development Programme, China, where she worked on China’s role in the world, focusing on its international development cooperation policy.
Prior to that, she worked for the Australian Government Treasury and the Department of Family and Community Services. Merriden spent almost eight years living and working in China, including lecturing in foreign policy at the China Foreign Affairs University and conducting fieldwork for her doctoral research. Merriden has a PhD examining Chinese foreign policy from Macquarie University, Sydney, and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. She has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from the Australian National University and completed her undergraduate studies in international studies at the University of Technology Sydney.
Going back to the beginning of your career, you studied international studies at university. What did you want to do after you finished? Did you have a set plan for your career trajectory after graduation?
These kinds of questions are very embarrassing for me – basically the answer is 'no idea' and 'no'. When I look back, my career looks linear and coherent. But the truth is much less tidy. Many, many times what I desperately wanted to do didn't pan out, I didn't get certain scholarships or jobs I'd applied for which I were sure were just right for me, and then after a while something else interesting popped up so I did that instead. When I finished my degree, all I knew was that I still didn't know what I wanted to do, so I went to London to work as a financial assistant and a nanny. Then when reality loomed again, I re-enrolled at uni to do honours. I think that's where things finally clicked for me. I had a great lecturer who critiqued and questioned everything, all the things that we were supposed to think were true and right. And I realised I just wanted to keep doing that, somehow or other.
You’ve had a fascinating career working across government, the United Nations, think-tanks and now in the private sector. What have been some of your career highlights so far?
When I was working in government, I got to work on some amazing subject matter and learnt a lot. I was working on early childhood protection for a while and I remember watching a presentation about how children's brains develop, and how incredibly vigorously synapses grow in the first year of life. The presenter showed a video image of those synapses as little electrical impulses exploding like fireworks. When I thought about that, it changed my whole perspective on social policy. There is incredible opportunity to shape the future of people's lives in those early years, for better or for worse. I also remember convincing the Department Secretary and Dep Secs to dress up as Cinderella's step-mother and step-sisters for a fundraiser pantomime, that was pretty good.
At UNDP in China there were lots of great moments, I had a brilliant team and we all really believed in what we were doing, and loved our work. But the absolute gold-nerd highlight moment was when, after literally years of trying to build a good relationship, our colleagues from the Chinese government called to ask if I would read through a draft policy white paper they had written and discuss it with them. I danced a happy dance in the office I was so excited. The Chinese government wanted to know what I thought about a policy paper. That was a big deal for me.
At Lowy, again, lots of amazing times. I had to sometimes pinch myself to check if I was really, truly, sitting in a meeting with Super VIP Dignitary X or Y, telling them what I thought about China, and they appeared to be interested. When I was two months pregnant and a morning-sickness wreck, but I hadn't told anyone why I was so miserable, some Lowy colleagues and I met with the CIA in the US. It went really well! Then I went outside and threw up. That was fun.
The private sector is a whole new world. After unlearning academia and UN-ness for Lowy, which wasn't easy, I am now having to unlearn Think Tank. Also a challenge. Or as it's said in the corporate world, an opportunity. So far I've really enjoyed being able to stretch my mind in new and different directions. Thinking about geopolitics from a global perspective allows me to see the world with a bird's-eye view, kind of like looking at the earth from space and watching currents ebb and flow, and dynamics shift and change. While that sounds poetic, it's actually quite alarming and I often get overwhelmed with what seems to be happening, and the lack of interest in doing anything positive and constructive about it at ground level. That probably doesn't count as a highlight.
You recently transitioned from working at the Lowy Institute to a new role with KPMG as Director of Geopolitics and Tax. Would you be able to tell us a bit about what your role entails?
A lot of people wonder how geopolitics and tax fit together, and what the private sector is doing in that space. Basically, the KPMG international tax steering group came to the conclusion that in the immediate future, and for the foreseeable future, geopolitics will play an increasingly critical role in how tax – in the broadest sense of revenue being collected by government – works. So my job is to try and help build understanding of what is going on in geopolitics, at global and regional and national levels, and explain how that impacts tax policies and regimes.
Most people tend to only consider careers in government, academia, think-tanks or international organisations. What’s struck you most about working on geopolitics in the corporate sector so far?
One great thing is the breadth of what I get to cover – anything from elections in Slovakia to changing consumer trends around plastic use is fair game. That's a fantastic opportunity. One less positive thing is realising (again) how little the sectors speak to each other, and how what is seen as self-evident and obvious in one area is ignored or marginal in another. And how hard it is to get people to see things from another perspective. I should emphasise that's not just true of where I'm working now.
Finally, what advice would you give to students and young Australians looking to pursue a career in international affairs?
That's another really hard one. We all know it's competitive, and also there's definitely no recipe for 'success'. What worked for me might not be any good for anyone else. But, in an effort to not completely squib this question, I'd say: be guided by what you enjoy and what you're good at, rather than fixating on a goal, eg, being DFAT Secretary by 45. Be in international affairs because it fascinates you. That way, you can take advantage of a wider range of opportunities that come up, and the destination will take care of itself. I'd also suggest not waiting for the perfect thing to come up, but shaping your own opportunities. Find the places you want to work and the people you want to work with and be proactive, show them what you can bring and how it will be useful to them. Imagine you're them, what would you want to be presented with? And also, excuse this uninspiring advice, work hard and be nice to people. People like working with nice people who do their best, and the opposite also holds true.