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Political Heads of Mission and personality politics: from London to Washington

As an Australian in the UK it has become increasingly commonplace to hear, ‘it’s funny that the madness of our politics has finally overtaken yours.’

Avoiding discussion on Brexit is impossible. It has been an issue of unparalleled political disruption. There are over 160 diplomatic missions in London, all competing for the same space, information and influence. For the last three years, diplomats in these missions have been preoccupied by a relentless contest, all jockeying for position on post-Brexit relations, particularly on trade.

Australia’s bicameral parliament is often referred to as embodying a ‘Washminster’ system because of its unique combination of the customs of Washington and Westminster. Who better to navigate the political landscapes of Westminster and Washington than an ex-politician who has operated in similar government machinery.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has many highly skilled diplomats. Political affiliation is a permanent marking, something to be avoided by archetypal diplomats. However, in the political climate of today it offers an ability to transcend cultural differences through a shared political familiarity. This is the advantage that exists for George Brandis in London and Joe Hockey in Washington.

In Washington, Joe Hockey recently recounted ‘you are competing with hundreds of other countries for access – it is a diplomatic and cultural arms race’. His observations are representative of London as well. The right political heads of mission benefit from a distinct diplomatic comparative advantage.

Supported by a highly skilled diplomatic mission, George Brandis, the current High Commissioner in the UK, is proving to be a shrewd appointment, operating effectively in both business and political circles.

Especially in the long shadow of Brexit, access to key contacts in political circles is a metric of success for diplomats. Brandis has established strong relationships with key political figures from all political divides. Most importantly, personal friendships have allowed for direct channels of communication with the British Cabinet.

Politico’s London Playbook, a renowned daily political synopsis, frequently underscores the High Commission’s smooth diplomatic workings. Playbook recently praised a gala cricket reception as ‘the best political bash in a very long time’ and on numerous occasions has listed cabinet ministers and many big London business names as being attendees of Australian events.

The diplomatic circuit attracts what some refer to as the ‘weird and the wonderful’ and this is part and parcel of the job. Today a dark blue plaque adorning the entrance of the Kensington Wine Rooms pays homage to one such event in May 2016. The occasion was a now infamous drink with former Trump aide George Papadopoulos. The subsequent diplomatic due diligence by former High Commissioner Alexander Downer ended up becoming global news and reportedly triggered the Mueller investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Downer, Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister, was a well-recognised and regarded figure in the corridors of the Foreign Commonwealth Office. Downer was known for his ability to rub shoulders with prominent business people and evidently, meet with central political figures. This was his job, and he was brilliant at it.

A truism of diplomacy is that access is currency. This is equally important in the host country as it is back at home. Brandis, Hockey, Downer and former Ambassador to the United States Kim Beazley, all have had direct channels of communication back to Canberra. For Brandis and Hockey, many are close friends.

In the case of Brandis, a former Senate Leader, it is serendipitous that the key international focused portfolios, foreign affairs, trade and defence are held by Senators who were part of the Brandis team in Canberra.

Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull once remarked that ‘in diplomacy and politics you use lots of networks and all I can say is we have great networks, great contacts’. This was in response to his congratulatory phone call with US President Donald Trump. His personal number was acquired by Joe Hockey through golfing icon Greg Norman. Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s ability to pick up a phone and call leaders and key figures around the world also opened many doors.

London and Washington are cities saturated with diplomats. In London, the unique attributes of a political head of mission has allowed Brandis and the High Commission to be well positioned to maximise opportunities available in a post-Brexit United Kingdom. Once the UK exits the EU and is able to start formal negotiations, Australia is well-poised to sign an ambitious free trade agreement. Recently appointed Trade Minister, Elizabeth Truss, has been extremely enthusiastic over the opportunity to sign an FTA with Australia.

Those failing to recognise the value of a strategically picked political head of mission do not understand the reality of the diplomacy in cities such as Washington or London. On closer reflection, it is evident that the value-add of a former politician or even a prominent businessperson as a top diplomat, can be the difference you in need in an age increasingly defined by personality politics.

Philip Citowicki was an Adviser to Australia’s former Foreign Minister the Hon Julie Bishop. He has just concluded a position as an Aide to Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.


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