It has been a hectic eight weeks since I took up my post as High Commissioner in Canberra. I was delighted to be coming to a great country which I had visited quite a few times and where I had family connections (two of my Mum’s sisters had emigrated here as “ten pound poms”).
On my first day in the country I was at the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch England win the Ashes for the first time in 24 years on Australian soil. A shared passion for certain sports is a common bond that symbolises just how close our two countries are. I had another chance to see the easy rapport with which Brits and Australians engage when, a couple of weeks later, theAustralia UK Ministerial Meeting (AUKMIN) took place in Sydney. Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Liam Fox led a team of senior officials and military officers for a wide-ranging series of discussions with their counterparts on foreign and security policy, where we share so many common interests and work so closely together.
I accompanied William Hague to visit Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s constituency in Brisbane, to see the aftermath of the terrible Queensland floods. It was very moving to chat with a number of flood victims and volunteers. Since I arrived in Australia we have had major floods, a violent cyclone that caused a lot of damage but fortunately just missed major population centres, and bush fires in Western Australia. Most Australians rightly feel they live in the “lucky country”, but as one newspaper headline put it, the occasional natural disaster is “the price we pay for being Australian”. You can’t help being impressed by the skill and professionalism of the emergency services here, and by the way ordinary citizens muck in and help each other out.
I was briefly back in London and had the opportunity to go to the Australia Day celebrations at Australia House, which The Prince of Wales attended as a sign of solidarity with the Queensland flood victims. He spoke eloquently of his affection for Australia going back to his student days. I also called on the head of Westfield, the Australian company which owns Europe’s largest shopping mall in West London, attracting nearly 30 million shoppers a year. Britain is the second largest destination for Australian foreign direct investment.
Since getting back to Australia I’ve been visiting our Consulates in Sydney and Melbourne, and in Canberra making the usual round of courtesy calls on the Governor General, the Prime Minister and other ministers and officials. They all speak very warmly of the UK and I assure them that the feeling is mutual. I made a speech to the Australian Institute for International Affairs setting out some thoughts on the broad range of the UK/Australia relationship.
At the beginning of March I went down to Melbourne to attend Avalon a major Aerospace and Defence trade show, where a significant number of British companies were exhibiting or visiting. British companies like BAeSystems and Rolls Royce are big players here, and my trade and defence teams work hard to support them. Trade and investment is a very important part of our work and Australia is a priority market. With its huge resource endowment and its proximity to Asian markets it has come very strongly out of the Global Financial Crisis and offers lots of potential for UK business.
One significant first impression of Australia is that of distance from the UK. It takes 22 hours to fly from London to Canberra, via Singapore and Sydney. And there is an 11 hour time difference, so not only is there not much overlap in the working day, there’s not even much overlap in the waking day. I can see a lot of my conversations with London are going to be very late at night.