Woolcott Burns his Bridges


While it’s true that diplomats are sent abroad to lie for their countries, they are also sent abroad to build networks and gather information that might help foster trade or defuse tension.

Richard Woolcott is an accomplished diplomat. He has served seven prime ministers, managing to balance strong personalities and different policies with skill and aplomb. So what went wrong with the eighth Prime Minister, John Howard? Did Woolcott lose his ability to negotiate political minefields?

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Woolcott has written a book, his second, on matters relating to diplomacy and foreign policy. The first, an autobiography entitled The Hot Seat: Reflections on Diplomacy from Stalin’s Death to the Bali Bombings, was a serious study of the art of diplomacy and the formulation and implementation of Australian foreign policy. The second, Undiplomatic Activities, is a rather lighter look at the same topic.

At least it looks that way to begin with, but all the early froth and bubble leads into a sting in the tail.

Woolcott’s criticisms are unusually tough, all the more so because it is not a voice we normally associate with him. Howard and Downer appear to have so upset him that he has done something hitherto unheard of in his career burnt his bridges.

Here are some observations from the book:

Prime Minister John Howard and Foreign Minister Downer have both had a tendency to make bombastic statements for domestic political advantage and to pursue policies with excessive zeal In fact zealots and political ideologues make bad ministers and diplomats, and poor negotiators.


As this century unfolds, I find I am living in a changed Australia. It is not the country I represented for four decades our civil liberties certainly have been eroded in the name of the so called War on Terror. We seem to be sleepwalking into a surveillance society Now like King Canute, Bush and his courtiers Dick Cheney, Former Prime Minister Tony Blair, John Howard, Alexander Downer and more recently Brendan Nelson wait for the rising tide of political reality to submerge them.

Reading these observations, I was intrigued. What had goaded the urbane and diplomatic Dick Woolcott into a most uncharacteristic and undiplomatic critique of the Howard Government? I went to Canberra to find out.

As you would expect, after 40 years in the foreign service, Richard Woolcott and his wife Birgit live comfortably in the middle of the diplomatic area of Canberra. We started our conversation at home and moved to a charming inner Canberra restaurant for lunch.

NewMatilda.com: What was your point of departure with the Howard Government?

Richard Woolcott

Richard Woolcott: I worked with Downer before and after the March 1996 election. Howard sacked the Secretary of the Department, Mike Costello. I was not happy with that. Nonetheless, Howard asked me to be a special envoy to Malaysia to try to get the relationship with Mahathir [bin Mohamad, Malaysia’s then Prime Minister]onto a more even keel. The intention was to conduct quiet diplomacy with the aim of arranging a meeting between Mahathir and Howard in Canberra. Mahathir agreed but even while I was still in Kuala Lumpur, Downer announced the meeting on Radio Australia, much to Mahathir’s annoyance.

Eventually they met in Brisbane, but due to Downer’s pre-emptive announcement the meeting was not what it might have been.

I was asked to help with the preparation of a White Paper on Foreign Affairs in the period 1996/97. A panel was formed of which Malcolm Fraser was a member how things have changed. Anyhow the document was to look 15 years ahead. It looked at the ANZUS Treaty. Fraser and I tried to inject some balance by examining the likely influence and attitudes of China.

But it was the issue of the Republic that began the parting of the ways. I argued that the paper must embrace the notion of Australia becoming a Republic sooner rather than later. There are sound foreign policy reasons for Australia to become a Republic, not least of which are national prestige and pride. Downer would have none of it. I wrote to Howard setting out the case, drawing attention to the humiliation of sharing a Head of State with another independent country. Howard backed Downer’s position and by the time the document was released in 1997 I was moving away from the Government.

Although Howard made no announcement, it was apparent to me after visiting the US in 2002 that Bush was planning to invade Iraq. On returning home I argued in a series of newspaper articles that it was not in Australia’s interests to go into this war with the US, particularly while Afghanistan remained unfinished business.

I was part of a group of 43 former senior public servants who signed a letter to the media in August 2003 saying that we opposed the war in Iraq. Howard and Downer were very angry and Downer wrote me a letter which quite frankly was below the belt. That was the final parting of the ways.

Some see the public service as having being politicised. What’s your take on this?

The Howard Government is not comfortable with dissent. Putting Heads of Departments on contracts has helped foster a culture of compliance. The Minister is now responsible for assessing his permanent Head, so it is hard for them to give free and fair advice. A lot of pressure has been and is being applied on many good and honest public servants.

Putting a senior public servant on a contract creates a power imbalance in favour of the Government.

What are your views on the shape and structure of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade into the future?

We need embassies staffed with good people. They need to have language training. Now more than ever before it is very important that we have a culturally sensitive foreign service.

A competent Ambassador, utilising to the full the range of modern communications now available has never had so many reporting opportunities available. Australia should beef up its diplomatic resources in China, Japan, US, the UN and Indonesia, these are the posts of most importance to Australia. But we should not overlook the Pacific, particularly Papua New Guinea.

I believe at the moment that there is an excessive emphasis on terrorism. This has had a negative effect on the Department. I would like to see a swing back to a greater emphasis on human rights.

You have been on the outer with Howard and Downer, do you see a change if a Labor Government is elected?

Well, I am always available. In fact, I would be more than happy to contribute to helping establish a more balanced foreign policy in relation to East Asia and the United Nations.

I would expect changes under Rudd to be more substantial than anything a Howard or Costello Government might undertake.

How do you see the damage of the Howard years and how might it be repaired?

There has been quite widespread damage to our international standing. Australian foreign policy is seen as an echo of US foreign policy. Th
e people I keep in contact with say Australia is not the independent voice it once was. Issues such as climate change, Iraq and the Howard/Bush doctrine of pre-emptive strikes are examples of where Australia has failed to live up to expectations forged in earlier years.

Downer and Howard failed to realise that international relationships are forged between countries not leaders.

There has been considerable damage to Australia’s standing as a country that championed human and legal rights. Downer talks about how well the international community regards Australia, but there is more to the international community than Britain and the US there are all the members of the UN, an institution that he has all but ignored.

Downer has not attempted to stand for the Security Council because he knows Australia would have no chance of being elected. It is a very sad situation we have not been a member for 20 years. Australia was last elected in 1984 and our standing at that time was such that we were elected with a record majority.

What have been the highs and lows of your career?

A significant low, the major low was the way the East Timor issue unfolded and the death of the five journalists. My inability to prevent these deaths coupled with the frustration that the Embassy in Jakarta had no knowledge of their presence in East Timor.

Another low was when my posting to Thailand was changed to Ghana. That posting was the lowest point in my influence within the Department and with the Government.

The high points were my close involvement with the foundation of APEC, the defence of the Antarctic Treaty and keeping the important relationship with Indonesia on an even keel which included my time as Ambassador to Indonesia.

As Ambassador to the UN, I was instrumental in getting Australia elected to the Security Council in 1984 for a two-year term. Australia was President of the Security Council in November 1985, a position which I enjoyed filling particularly in light of the work the Security Council did on South Africa and with the Iran/Iraq war.

Australia was also elected to the Commission on Human Rights in 1984. I enjoyed my time as Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 1988/92 for the creative opportunities it offered. I also count my time as Chairman of the Australia/Indonesia Institute 1992/98 as a high point.

Woolcott said he had no regrets. He claimed a good life but qualified that by saying that a career in the foreign service was tough on families. His ninth grandchild has just been born.

Indonesia has played a big part in Woolcott’s career. He said neither Howard nor Downer had ever discussed East Timor with him. However he thought Howard’s letter to the short-lived Indonesian President BJ Habibe, encouraging a referendum on independence, was a mistake and he said so publicly at the time.

Woolcott thought the Indonesian Military was a stabilising force in terms of holding the archipelago together but a potentially destabilising force on the new and fragile Indonesian democracy, which was functioning better than expected.

General Peter Cosgrove, then Commander of the international intervention force in East Timor, had said to him that the period following East Timor’s independence ballot might have become very difficult had not senior officers from both Australia and Indonesia been to the Australian Defence College and known each other. This was a case, he said, for maintaining such linkages.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.