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Landmark Women: Ruth Pearce

Ruth Pearce, former Australian diplomat, 15 November 2013

[This transcript has been edited by Ruth Pearce]

SANDY FORBES: For those of you who are new and coming to see their friend Ruth and who may not have been to any of our earlier functions, my name is Sandy Forbes and I am the vice-president of the Friends of the Museum. It is my very great pleasure today to introduce to you Ruth Pearce, who is our final speaker for 2013. She will see us out with a big bang, I think. Ruth has an amazing career, the details of which she might share with us.

She had a diverse and challenging international life as an Australian diplomat. She has served as - wait for it - Australian ambassador in Honiara, Moscow - with accreditation to 12 former Soviet republics - Manila and Warsaw. That’s a pretty good list of ambassadorships, I am sure you will agree. When I was googling her, as we always do, I remembered some of the great adventures she has had, including being kidnapped when she was in Manila. I think you were roughed up in Honiara too, so adventures abroad in our cause.

Ruth has also had senior positions in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and in the now almost defunct AusAID - regrettably - in Canberra, including head of the Americas and Europe divisions, international organisations and the legal division, and the corporate management division at DFAT, and head of corporate governance and review at AusAID. Over to you, Ruth. We are looking forward to hearing what you have to tell us. [applause]

RUTH PEARCE: Thank you very much, Sandy, and thank you all for the honour of presenting a little bit of my life to you. I do very much appreciate your interest. I have been retired since February of this year. I had nearly 40 years of diplomatic life from 1974 until 2013 so I am going to give you a general sense of the big changes that shaped my diplomatic life and then context them with some personal anecdotes.

First, the ’ nationalism versus globalism’ framework: in 1974 globalisation didn’t exist really and that dynamic has changed the whole concept of power and influence in the world. It is still an ongoing transition, and Australia has special skills and advantages in this ‘globalised world’ we live in.

Second, communications: when I was first posted to Bangladesh in 1974 we had a machine operator who had his own office tucked away in the heart of the High Commission office. All communications, back and forth came from Brian’s office! We had to write our reports back to Canberra and they were sent in a diplomatic bag. I always remember when Barry came racing out of his office in 1975 saying, ‘There’s a revolution in Canberra,’ as his friends were on the phone to him telling him what was happening over at Parliament House! Radical political times in both Dacca and Canberra! Then by the mid-1980s when I was in Geneva we got computers on our desks, and now we have revolutionary communication assets. So that has changed how and what diplomacy focuses on. What do you tell Canberra? Where is the value added of diplomatic reporting in this age of instant information and international communications?

Third is the shift of power and influence away from official government, and I am talking about people-to-people diplomacy. ‘Smart power’, as Hillary Clinton called it - get out into the real world. Government-to-government relationships are not as central in international relations as they were before. Now business, academia, science and research links, media are examples of ‘people to people power’. So a diplomat’s life is very challenging - getting out and working out where the real power lies. That was always the case but it was generally in a government to government structure - now no longer. I was very lucky in that my first Head of Mission in Bangladesh, Philip Flood, told me on my first day, ‘Ruth, I don’t want to see you in the office.’ That was exceptional to be told to get out and develop contacts across the country in our priority areas of interest. I travelled all over Bangladesh in my first posting and got a really strong sense of what was happening with a whole range of contacts and colleagues. But that’s the way things have to be more and more - out in the real world, as Hilary Clinton said.

‘Public diplomacy’ has changed DFAT’s profile in diplomatic missions. We were the big kings and queens - kings mainly - in diplomatic posts. But now often Foreign Affairs are a minority in big posts. AusAID in many posts is the biggest - or was and I hope will still continue to be - and Trade, Immigration, et cetera. The profile of a government is quite different from when I started out in 1974.

The fourth big change is the socioeconomic revolution, I shall call it. When I joined Foreign Affairs in 1974 it was essentially a male, waspy culture, male white Anglo-Saxon - Protestant perhaps. I am exaggerating a bit, but that was essentially the culture. Now we have a much more representative diplomatic presence with more women - not enough yet, but more. I was one of six women in a group of 44 diplomatic graduates in 1974. It was the year of the first intake of the Whitlam government. I think the new Government was making a big effort to make diplomacy more representative, and we got six women as result - probably the biggest group of women for some time. And several of my 1974 Dip grad colleagues were from a broader ethnic background.

There we are; they are the macro developments that I wanted to profile. I should say, too, at the outset that I was lucky to represent Australia - mostly. Australia has a wonderful brand overseas. I always remember the American ambassador in Moscow invited me to lunch on my first week to introduce himself. I went in to his salon and he was sitting there. He got up and came over and he didn’t say, ‘Welcome, Ruth,’ he said, ‘You lucky lady. I would kill for your brand - Australia.’ It’s true, particularly in places like Russia and other remote places, Australia has this amazing image of friendliness, of beaches and of sun. And a reputation for being both ‘Lucky and Clever’. I think we are friendly people and we deal with other cultures, usually, very openly and warmly. Such a profile is a great diplomatic asset.

I always remember in Russia that the big international companies were starting to come to Moscow to open up, the Price Waterhouse Coopers etc and they had so many Australian staff. I remember asking one of the big bosses one day at a function, ‘Why so many Australians?’ He said, ‘We’d kill for more. Australians are not only hard working and qualified but most importantly you’re friendly and open. You don’t come to a different culture thinking you know everything. Often too many of us have that attitude.’

There were exceptions , particularly in Asia where ‘White Australia’ still has a legacy. When I was in the Philippines, I met people who had been to Australia on the Colombo Plan and they loved Australia.. They were well placed, very influential people so were a special network for promoting our interests. But too often they would quietly tell me of their racist encounters. It didn’t obviously cloud deeply their experience of Australia but it stayed in their minds. When Pauline Hanson appeared again - I was often asked about Pauline Hanson. I fear, too, with the asylum seekers that it will be seen as racist in many parts of the world. But , as I have said, Australia is a special country to represent.

Some anecdotes about my personal life. I think I was five years old when I decided to be a diplomat! I used to sit on my grandfather’s knee when I was a tiny little girl. He was in the First World War, and the way he coped with what he experienced was to create wonderful romantic stories about the War. Here I was as a little girl sitting there waiting for Gramps to tell me more stories. One of them that I believed until I was about 13 or 14 was about his secret French girlfriend - and he would wait for Grandma to disappear - and we eventually got him to tell us her name - Mademoiselle from Armentières!! I was a little girl who grew up in the Mallee town of Wycheproof in Victoria. I don’t know if any of you have ever heard of it. It’s a famous town - it has the smallest mountain in the world. Anyway, my grandfather’s experience in the First World War really did charge me up for my diplomatic life..

Then I had a wonderful teacher in Wyche, Miss Barrett. We had two classrooms at the Wycheproof primary school: grades one, two and three, a row for each; and then four, five and six, a row for each. I was in grade four when Miss Barrett came. She was a wonderful, inspiring teacher. If we were good and clever she just moved us up into the next row. So when I was 15 I matriculated because of Miss Barrett, and they wouldn’t let me go to Uni so young. So I went as an American Field Service exchange student to America for a year. That also made me decide that I wanted to have an international career but I wanted it to be Australian based. In America they said, ‘Australia, wow!’

Quickly back to 1974 when I was one of six women grads. One of my first tasks as a diplomatic graduate was to look after our first ever career woman ambassador, Ruth Dobson. She was appointed as ambassador to Copenhagen, and I had to organise her official program, organising all the appointments and administrative tasks in preparation for Copenhagen.. So I took up diplomacy in an historic year!

Then half way through our graduate training year we were asked to express interest in a number of postings. I did joint law and arts degrees at the University of Melbourne, and as part of that I studied subcontinental politics. On the list was India and Bangladesh, and I ticked them both. Anyway, a couple of weeks later we were in the middle of a lecture and I get this tap on my shoulder. It was the head of our postings area, Mr Throsby-Zouch, and he said, ‘Ruth, I want to see you.’ So I went out and he said, ‘Ruth, are you serious?’ I said, ‘What about, Mr Zouch?’ He said, ‘Bangladesh,’ and I said, ‘Oh yes.’ He said, ‘Pack your bags, you’re off.’

We Dip Grads were all living in Brassey House at the time . I went racing back to Brassey where all my friends were sitting around having a drink after a hard day’s work and I ran into the room and shouted, ‘I have been posted.’ They all stood up and said, ‘You bitch, where?’ because I was the first one to be told. When I said Bangladesh, they just rolled on the floor. But they made a mistake because I had the most wonderful first posting experience. I was one of the first of my year to be promoted, and that was because I went to Bangladesh and I didn’t wait in a queue for New York, Paris and London. I had wonderful colleagues in the Mission and we all got out into the very new Bangladesh with many national and regional challenges. I was there when Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was assassinated. Bangladesh was just a three-year-old country when I arrived and the power game was really quite amazing.

I should tell you about my first week in Bangladesh. There was a terrible famine up in the north. We were giving wheat and food aid. Then there was a debate in our parliament back here about reports that the food aid wasn’t getting to where it should be. So we were told to go down and watch the food being put on the trains and taken up to the north. We sat on the train - this was my first week - all the way up to the north and for a couple of days we just watched what was happening on the ground.

Most of the queues were women and children. I had sunglasses on. There was this older woman who had four kids around her - I thought they were her grandchildren. She kept on walking around me and looking at me curiously. Then suddenly she snatched my sunglasses off, put them on and walked around like a queen with her children. We got into a conversation via an interpreter, a conversation that really just put another big paradigm around my newly diplomatic career. I asked how old were her grandchildren. They were her children. She was not 55 or 60, as I thought she looked, she was in her early 30s. She had lost about seven children, because she had been married when she was 14 or 15. I was, as you can imagine just to hear that personally, shattered. Anyway she then asked ‘And what about you?’ ‘And how old are you?’ I said, ‘24’. She said, ‘And how many children do you have?’ I said, ‘None. I am just starting my career. I am not married.’ The look on her face - she was in more shock than I was about her. It really made me appreciate that there is so much you take for granted and you have to be always sensitive and aware of different cultures.

Bangladesh is a Moslem country, as you would know, that was formerly part of Pakistan. I saw in my nearly three years there only one woman wearing the burqa. She was obviously a privileged woman because she was being carried on a special covered carriage by four men. She stopped where I was waiting for several hours for a ferry to come - that is what you did in Bangladesh often, there were lots of huge rivers to cross - she got out and was completely covered. I remember the shock of it. Isn’t it interesting that she was the only one I ever saw covered completely from head to toe? I have not unfortunately been back to Bangladesh - I hope to go back. I would be very interested to know if there has been, as we have seen in some parts of Asia where most Moslems live, more - what shall I call it? - extremism. I don’t like to use that word but a different kind of Islam. I didn’t walk around in shorts. I always covered my arms and legs but never did I feel at risk.

My next diplomatic life was in Israel and was there for nearly four years. I had six months of learning basic Hebrew in a Jewish school in Tel Aviv. I was there at the time of President Sadat’s historic visit and opening up of the relationship with Egypt. There were many Australian Jews who were going to Israel, but not as many as the government wanted. Also President Begin was the first right-wing leader and he was opening up settlements in the occupied territories. I remember when writing my last report about Israel, I said that peace and stability would be almost an impossible challenge. And look at it now: it is still almost an impossible challenge. I was responsible for reporting on the political and economic developments in the occupied territories and I could quite freely move around. I got to know lots of Palestinians. Both ordinary Israelis and ordinary Palestinians wanted peace, and it just has never happened. Not long after I left Israel - 1982 - the first Intifada started and you couldn’t go anywhere near the occupied territories for quite a long time. So I was there at a hopeful time but I left in quiet despair. I still remain that way about Israel and the Middle East generally.

Then my third mission was to the United Nations in Geneva. I was an Australian delegate to the United Nations in Geneva at a wonderful time. It was the golden age of multilateralism, and Australia was one of the best members. We were influential and admired because we were really committed, active multilateralists. I think we assumed that as a middle power the UN was at the heart of our ambitions for the world. Human rights and refugees were my area of focus. For three months of every year, I would go to the UN General Assembly. I was in what was commonly called ‘the girls’ committee, the Third committee, which was responsible for the ‘softy’ issues like human rights. Although the golden age of multilateralism was well on its way, with social and human rights being progressed. I also had friends in the mission in Geneva who were dealing with the GATT that then became the WHO and that attracted my interest. I think I was the first of my level in DFAT to go across to the Multilateral Trade Division when Foreign Affairs and Trade joined in 1987.

Then I had my first Head of Mission post in the Solomon Islands, as Sandy said. My official title in Solomon Islands pidgin was ‘Big fella meri’ – meri means girl – ‘boss belong Australia’. That was a creative title because they had never had a big fella that was a meri. I thought it was a wonderful title but, when Prince Charles came, I was very envious of his title in pidgin. He was ‘Number one piccaninny belong Mrs Queen’. (laughter) I think in some ways Solomon Islands was my most challenging post, more challenging and more engaged than Moscow, Philippines or Poland because we are like the ‘super power’ there. That is a crude term in a way, but most businesses were Australian owned, managed, with Australian banks, et cetera. We were the biggest diplomatic presence, with a big aid program. Development assistance was the heart of Solomon Islands future. I engaged Canberra to develop a strategic, long term aid program, with priorities including education and the environment. And with special focus on the ‘meris’, who quietly looked to the future, their children’s future.

I should tell you that I had a very challenging first year there because the Prime Minister refused to officially recognise me. He believed it was a deliberate insult on the part of my government that they would send a meri, a girl, to Solomon Islands. I got to know all the cabinet members, and they would constantly say, ‘Ruth, don’t get upset, he will come around eventually.’ They used to tell me that at cabinet meetings he would ask, ‘How is my girlfriend?’ They would answer ‘Your girlfriend, Mr Prime Minister?’ He would say, ‘Yes, the one up the road, the one that looks after Australia.’ That’s how he treated me but eventually he just showed up at one event I had at the residence, and that was it. But it was sensitive.

I remember another experience: we were giving development assistance to a special agricultural project on a very remote island, one of the thousands of Solomon Islands’ islands. We flew out to this very remote island and then we were waiting for a canoe that was coming to take me to the island. We waited and waited. We noticed that a big, long ceremonial canoe kept on going up and down the island, and eventually one of my colleagues went across and said, ‘Who are you looking for?’ They said, ‘Big fella boss belong Australia’ and they said, ‘There she is.’ They went berserk - ‘she, meri’!!. They charged off and apparently had to have a special ceremony to declare me an honorary male before I was allowed to go to the village. (laughter) That was one of many amazing experiences that you encounter and that you have to manage. Interesting times! It was during the Bougainville war. Our relationship with Papua New Guinea and Solomons was sensitive. We had quite a large defence profile. So it was a challenging, complex and comprehensive relationship with the Solomon Islands.

The South Pacific Forum had its Heads of Government Summit in Honiara, attended by Prime Minister Keating. I asked him when he was flying up to Papua New Guinea after the South Pacific Forum to look out for the amazing Marova lagoon that we were hoping Canberra would support for World Heritage listing. I received a phone call from Mr Keating the next day from Port Moresby and he said, ‘Ruth, we’re going to get that lagoon up into the heritage status’ - and we did.

Then from Solomon Islands to Russia, a gigantic shift! I presented my credentials to President Yeltsin when they could get him to stand up. We had to queue up for months to present our credentials in the Kremlin’s Golden Palace. I was lucky to arrive just in time so that I didn’t have to wait months to present my credentials.

I was one of six ambassadors who presented credentials to Mr Yeltsin at the Kremlin Palace. We were spread right across this huge dome, and of course I was the only woman. I had a white suit on and I stood out, because all my male colleagues had dark formal suits. Mr Yeltsin was standing up on the platform and he kept on leaning over to see what was in that white suit. They had to keep on pulling him back because they were frightened he would fall over. Eventually they actually had to stop his opening remarks, because it was during the Kosovo war and he started to get really fired up about it and he wouldn’t stop. Then we went up individually and presented our credentials, and he was really thrilled to see me in the white suit. Afterwards they brought a big plate of champagne down to toast us. He came straight to me and said, ‘I have always wanted to go to Australia.’

Then soon after we had Mr Putin, unknown to the wider Moscow circles as he was based in St Petersburg. That was the change in Russia that I had to focus on and identify the risks and opportunities of his new Government. He was very keen to get the economy up and running and there was lots of interest in our minerals and energy sector. I always remember Mr Putin’s first address to the Russian parliament, the Duma, where he highlighted, for the first time openly, that Russia’s number one challenge to avoid being basically a Third World country, was to resist the temptation of becoming a raw minerals provider to Europe. And unfortunately I often feel like writing a letter to him to remind him of what he warned against.

One early decision President Putin made was to resurrect the Academy of Science, which was the Soviet think-tank that Yeltsin and Gorbachev had sort of tossed out the window. He recharged it. He gave it a lot of money and appointed a new director to come back to him, he declared publicly, ‘In six months time come and tell me what the number one challenge facing Russia in the next 20 years will be’. I waited a couple of months and called on the new Head of the academy to ask what the number one challenge is. He said, ‘Madam Ambassador, I will tell you in a minute but sit down, I want to tell you a story. When I was a graduate at the Academy in the early 1960s, our group was told to go away for six months and do a report using the pure Marxist- Leninist principles - equality et cetera – on which country in the world had come closest to delivering them. And which country do you think it was, Madam Ambassador’? It was Australia in the 1960s when we were fair go, egalitarian. He observed that we were way out there in front of even the Scandinavians. And Russia’s number one challenge now he then told me was ‘Braindrain’.

Being a woman Ambassador in Russia in 1999, I was one of six of nearly 170 Ambassadors! We organised a formal group and would meet once a month, we girls, and we’d invite an influential Russian guest. We became famous. We got phone calls from ministers saying, ‘When am I going to be invited?’ Our male colleagues were really frustrated. I guess as a woman ambassador knowing that culture, where there were very few Russian women in any position of power, you didn’t feel intimidated but you had to be absolutely thoroughly prepared for whatever engagement you had. It presented exceptional opportunities and challenges.

I always remember an experience in the first week of his diplomatic career of my brand new Third Secretary. I had a meeting with a government Minister. We were sitting outside his office waiting for the appointment. This is Gareth’s first official function. He was there to take notes and write a report on it for me. Anyway, we waited for a few minutes and then the door bursts open and out comes the Minister. He goes straight across to Gareth and says, ‘Welcome, Ambassador.’

I travelled around the region as I was ambassador to 12 of the former Soviet Republics, visiting exotic countries such as, Moldova, Kazakhstan and Armenia - amazing. We didn’t have a lot of substance to most of the relationships but investment opportunities in the minerals sector were beginning to emerge.

Another special anecdote: When the presentation of my credentials to the President of Moldova was being organised, I was told to come a day earlier because there was a very traditional medieval ceremony for presenting credentials. They would send a carriage to your hotel that was horse drawn and they would come and bring you to the palace. Then the welcoming party would step out and they would shout a welcome to you, and you had to learn to shout back in Moldovan. I spent a day at the protocol office of the Foreign ministry learning what to shout. We get there and they had these amazing golden steps up to where the President was waiting and a medieval guard of honour was standing up the stairs to lead me to the President. The head of the guard of honour stepped out and declared ‘Welcome Ambassador of Austria.’ Unfortunately he realised what he had said and he just fell apart. His colleagues were waiting for the next order so that they could guide me up the steps. In the end they had to step out and get him so that I could get up to the waiting President. That was a very special introduction to Moldova. When I came down the steps after meeting with the President, an excellent meeting, I looked up and saw the flags there - the Moldovan flag and the Aussie flag with red stars. When I got back to Moscow, I called my Austrian and New Zealand colleagues and told them ‘You don’t need to present credentials in Moldova.’

We had an office in Vladivostok. We were very interested in Russia’s approach to its Asian neighbours and investment opportunities. The only personal encounter I had with President Putin was at a speech he gave where he declared Russia was the only Eurasian country in the world. I went up to him afterwards and introduced myself as ‘the representative of the other Eurasian country in the world’. We were interested in how Russia was planning to engage with Asia. At that stage they were still very focused on Europe, but I think a more balanced approach between its western and eastern neighbours is now underway.

Now to the Philippines, a regional partner in South East Asia. We had a lot of Australians doing business in the Philippines. We have had a very strong aid program in the Philippines for many years. It is a wonderful example of how well Australia does its aid generally out in the field in the communities and exceptional education projects investing in the future. After the Bali bombings, we reinvigorated our development activities in Mindanao, with its majority Muslim population.

Through our development programs, I got to know a woman who was a Muslim member of the National parliament, the Congress of the Philippines. I worked with her closely with my AusAID colleagues. We went down to open this particular school for young muslim girls, and she invited me to her residence to meet her mother before we went to the ceremony. We sat down in a room full of pictures and photographs of all her family and friends and she said, ‘Ruth, what do you notice about my family, and my mother and me of course?’ Not one of them ever wore a veil - never. Then after the lunch I went to the school and little girls came out to greet me - veiled - not burqa but veiled.

Security was a big challenge during my Philippines posting. Detailed reports of a plan to blow up our Embassy in Manila led to its closure. We operated from my residence until emergency construction plans were underway and a new Embassy was organised. Australia’s official profile changed quite dramatically. From then on I had 24-hour bodyguards. Wherever I went until a bomb-proof BMW arrived, I had a security car in front and behind blaring and flashing their lights.

And then the kidnapping. Extensive renovations were going on at the residence and I was put into a hotel in the heart of Manila. The hotel was taken hostage by a group of the Philippine military who threatened to blow it up if the Government did not resign by the end of the day. It was never made clear whether they knew that the Australian Ambassador was staying at the hotel, which they had encircled with sophisticated explosive materials. But it was also thought that having an Ambassador as one of the hostages would put the Government under more pressure to resign. But the President threatened to attack them at the hotel if they did not surrender by the end of the day. So a pretty dramatic situation!

Modern communications, this time the mobile operated during the drama. Prime Minister Howard, who had made an official visit to the Philippines several weeks before the coup attempt, phoned me during my kidnapping hours to assure me that all efforts were underway to ensure a safe outcome. My friend and colleague, the US Ambassador called to tell me that his President was directly engaging his Philippines counterpart to prevent a violent outcome.And all my Embassy colleagues kept calling to update me!

Then a call from the Hotel manager: ‘Mrs Ambassador, we are coming up to get you’. So up they came, and I went out with my visiting goddaughter and we were walking down the open area on the ground level where all the now detained soldiers were and they all stood up and saluted me. Then when I walked out the door, all the media - thousands of them - were across the street and they started running towards us and there were screams and shouts because the whole of the front area of the hotel had been laid with explosives. They had to push them back. I was surrounded by bodyguards, and they actually picked me up and threw me into a bush. (laughter)

SANDY FORBES: George W.

RUTH PEARCE: No, not George W!! The Philippines was a very challenging post but Philippinos are warm and resilient people. And then Poland. Can I tell you that I have chosen every single one of my posts, and that is exceptional. But apart from Geneva most of them were not conventional favourites. I was told - I don’t mean to be offensive, Sandy – to express interest in Ottawa as my last post.

SANDY FORBES: I am glad you didn’t.

RUTH PEARCE: It’s a special relationship but I thought that I wanted something different for my last post. I would have loved to have gone back to Bangladesh to complete my diplomatic circle, but it wasn’t available. India was the only post I didn’t have that I would have really loved.

So I chose Poland, again for many reasons. In Soviet times Poland was the least Sovietised of all the Soviet spheres of influence. They were defiant in many ways. It was a combination of their own history - terrible history being in the heart of Europe and raped and pillaged north, south, east, west. They kept their tenacity and their defiance quietly. I think the Catholic Church also empowered them, particularly when Pope John Paul spread the word. That was very strong.

It was interesting to compare Poland and its history with Australia. I would always start my speeches with, ‘Australia’s biggest challenge has been the tyranny of distance and Australia has always had to reach out.’ In my generation you didn’t do anything until you had reached out and went by bus - until after Afghanistan shut down - all the way to Europe and you lived and worked there for a year or two. That is why I think we are good global citizens. With Poland, its biggest challenge was being too close to everything, the heart of Europe. The contrast was striking. Poland had also just become a member of the EU. We branded it the biggest new EU member and we got a lot of interest. Macquarie and other Australian businesses were attracted to Poland’s now big advantage, being the ‘Heart’ of new and old Europe. Another historical moment.

I also had a strong interest since I was a young girl when I read a book about the Holocaust. Poland was really the heart of the Jewish European civilisation and, as you would know, Hitler set up most of the concentration camps in occupied Poland. Poland’s amazing history is a key dynamic for its ‘new European’ opportunities. Polish people are wonderful people - friendly, open I think because of their history, not introverted - and it was a special posting. I was responsible also for the Czech Republic so I went to Prague every six weeks. I don’t know if any of you have been to Prague but it’s a beautiful city. We have a trade and consular office in Prague but not an embassy. We shut down our embassy many years before.

I haven’t touched on my life here in Canberra. The most important part of diplomacy in many ways is back here in Canberra. This is where the power is - this is where the big decisions are made. It was interesting when I was the Head of the Corporate Management division Prime Minister Howard started revolutionising the Public Service, essentially by devolving power to individual departments. I thought I should get out and see what other departments were doing in the Commonwealth, and often many of my contacts said that it was the first time they had engaged directly with a Foreign Affairs person. That is always the challenge of Foreign Affairs. You spend half your life overseas and the essence of our responsibilities are externally focussed.

For families, that is especially challenging. In the Corporate Management division we had staff counselling support for family situations at Posts. I want to show you this book called Wife and baggage to follow. This has just been launched by Rachel Miller, the wife of an ambassadorial colleague, and this is what real life was about then. When I started, it hadn’t been too long before your assessment as a diplomat depended on, too, the role of your wife. If she wasn’t a good girl, you didn’t get the best assessment. That was back in the times when, as I said, the great majority of diplomats were men. It has always been a big challenge to keep a dynamic culture alive and well in Foreign Affairs and Trade. Thank you very much for your attention. [applause]

SANDY FORBES: On your behalf, may I thank Ruth for a fantastically interesting talk today - a world tour and definitely a landmark woman. It’s been absolutely fascinating, thank you. I will say as somebody who had to live in Ottawa for 26 years that you were very lucky to avoid it. I always considered myself a meteorological refugee. I had a granny who was Polish so I was very interested in that too.

Anyway, will you join us downstairs for coffee. This is my last in this position. I have been looking after these things for many years. But as you know the administration of the Friends has been taken over by the Museum so it’s up to the Museum to continue with Landmark Women, which they will next year. Carisse will be in touch with you by email and other means to tell you who are the speakers that are coming up. thank you for attending. [applause]

SANDY FORBES: I forgot to ask for questions. Come on back.

QUESTION: That was a wonderful talk, thank you so much. Given the importance of the spouse role you mention mostly for your male colleagues, was that alack for you that you didn’t automatically have an offsider or how did you handle that?

RUTH PEARCE: That’s an interesting question. As Head of mission I think it’s an extra challenge not to have an enlightened husband or a wife there to support you, although less and less official entertainment is now done at home. In Moscow I had a huge residence and I had four staff. Frankly I wished I had had a husband or wife there organising and making sure that everything went smoothly - it was a challenge definitely. But now many foreign services are shedding formal entertainment responsibilities.

QUESTION: My question is on AusAID. Is it going to change dramatically, do you think?

RUTH PEARCE: It’s very interesting. I spent almost a year in AusAID when it started going bigger and I was sent across to help them look at their structures and the way they conducted the relationship with their own people overseas, et cetera. And the assumption was that they would get bigger and bigger, which they did for several years.

I think it’s tragic, frankly, the downsizing of the Development Assistance Budget. It was only to get us up to 0.5 per cent of GDP and the international benchmark is 0.7. I can’t understand it. Particularly from a diplomatic perspective, the dynamic of having a strong aid program gives Australia influence and leverage in a very positive way. I am not hopeful.

I prepared a report after my year in AusAID and Senator McMullan, who was the minister responsible for AusAID, asked to discuss it with me. One of the issues I raised, and I think it’s especially relevant now, is the different cultures between DFAT and AusAID and the need to have much more dynamic interaction.

QUESTION: So you think that’s a positive?

RUTH PEARCE: It could be, but there needs to be much more interaction in a more sensitive way. The cultures have got to be taught to do that.

QUESTION: Can I ask you where were you in the world - were you in Australia or were you overseas - when we had that dreadful incident called the Tampa affair or the so-called children overboard affair? I personally was in the United Kingdom and the flak that I received as an Australian from people who were so pro Australian before that. I mean, the media overseas just hammered Australia.

RUTH PEARCE: I was in Moscow then and, no, it didn’t get much coverage there.

QUESTION: That’s interesting. Maybe it was the UK making a huge thing of it.

RUTH PEARCE: Oh no, I think it attracted coverage elsewhere. As I mentioned earlier,I think it’s the perceived racist aspect of asylum-seekers that gets a lot of coverage in most of the informed world.

QUESTION: What diplomatic options might be going on in Jakarta at the moment? I am not after solutions but there are procedures and relationships that you have with governments, and somehow or other you would be calling on these in some way. I don’t know what they might be and I was just interested.

RUTH PEARCE: Quite frankly, I am right out of that. I went to Jakarta from AusAID looking at the big aid program and how it fitted both in the embassy culture and in the local culture. But, as you can imagine, Jakarta is one of our most important posts. It would be up there definitely in the top five. It is only just - not only just – it is becoming more and more comprehensive. All those links are becoming more compelling and vital. I can imagine it is just going to be a hugely complex, tense challenge for both sides.

SANDY FORBES: A diplomatic answer.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, Ruth. That was a wonderfully interesting and inspirational talk. At the moment women in leadership and women in power is an issue, particularly in the Australian landscape with having had Australia’s first female Prime Minister. I am interested in your insights, given the ground-breaking work that you have done as female ambassador, into females in leadership roles and the lessons that young women need to look at and consider.

RUTH PEARCE: I remember back about 20 years ago when there was a much more conscious effort to get more women into positions of influence in Foreign Affairs. We established a mentoring system. It didn’t last very long. So I think mentoring and linking and having role models are essential. We don’t have enough female role models in DFAT. The culture isn’t getting out and being a mentor - not just for women. It’s very important to have models that you can feel comfortable about and to have a head of department that very directly profiles this as a priority.

When I went to the launch of Wives and baggage to follow, the Secretary Peter Varghese made a point of profiling the issue of women - 25 per cent of Heads of mission are now women. But we need more. So in 1974 I looked after the first one, and nearly 40 years later we are still only up to 25 per cent. It is not good enough but it’s complex and complicated. I remember when I was in the Corporate Management division that there was a study just released of small businesses - this is back about 20 years ago – which found that no small-medium business operated/owned by a woman had gone bankrupt. The turnover for those owned/managed by men was huge. But they also reported that no small-medium operated/owned by a woman got bigger. They concluded that for two reasons: first, women weren’t bold, daring and strategic enough - I think that is part of our culture too, and we need more role models for that – but, second, women chose not to. They preferred to have a balanced life. That’s an issue particularly for Foreign Affairs, as I said, with your overseas lives and the family impact. It’s a mix, but we do need more women up the top, definitely.

SANDY FORBES: We will now go to tea and coffee downstairs. Thank you very much. [applause].

Date published: 5 December 2013