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Moodie, Colin Troup (1913–2000)

by John Farquharson

Colin Troup Moodie, who has died in Adelaide aged 86, was one of Australian diplomacy’s quiet achievers and among the most prominent and effective of our postwar envoys.

One of the old Department of External Affairs pioneers of the 1930s, he represented Australia at ambassadorial level in Asia, Europe, Africa and New Zealand in a career spanning some 40 years. He also served in Washington and London and had a brief stint at the United Nations in New York. Early in his career a proficiency in administration became evident. In that sphere he made a significant contribution, serving for just on eight years, from 1958 to 1966 essentially as an administrator in External Affairs’ central office. His last posting was as High Commissioner to New Zealand (1975-77) after which he retired to Adelaide.

While recognising the need for people to be suitably qualified, he believed that high academic achievement was not the only requirement of the professional diplomat. He believed diplomatic officers should have some experience of the world, with the ability to relate to people, be able to exercise proper control over government property and deal with accounts and inventories as necessary. And his own career reflected that sort of competency. For before coming to diplomacy he was trained and practised in the law, while later his service with the military forces undoubtedly benefited his career in External Affairs.

Colin Moodie was born on 5 April 1913, in the Sydney north shore suburb of Wollstonecraft where he spent the first seven years of his life. In 1920 he went with his family to Adelaide when his father, a bank manager, was transferred to open a new branch of the Australian Bank of Commerce there. The family later moved to Ballarat when his father was transferred there in 1932, following a merger between his bank and the Bank of NSW (now Westpac).

However, Moodie’s background was essentially Adelaide where he had a brilliant school and university career. He was dux of St Peter’s College from where he went on a scholarship to St Mark’s College, University of Adelaide. He graduated with a law degree in 1934 and was admitted to the South Australian Bar.

He could probably have had a successful career in the law had he remained in the profession. One of the principals of the firm where he did his articles once told a friend, ‘Moodie was one of the best prospects we had, but we lost him’.

He followed the law for some years in Adelaide and Ballarat before taking up an invitation to become Associate to Justice Reed and later to Justice Angus Parsons, of the South Australian Supreme Court. However, as the Depression gripped, the prospects for a young lawyer seeking to set up in practice seemed bleak. So he applied for and was offered an appointment as a base-grade clerk with External Affairs in Canberra. Arriving at External Affairs’ West Block offices in April 1937, he found to his surprise that the department’s total strength was 11, including the Secretary, Lieut-Colonel Roy Hodgson and Peter (later Sir Peter) Heydon, private secretary to the then Minister, Sir George Pearce.

These were the formative years of the department when Australia’s foreign service could only be described as ‘patchwork’. It was a time when the small band of officers, of which Moodie became one, had to face complex challenges at isolated and often difficult posts or attend major international meetings at which, with little experience, they had to feel their way. Apart from Hodgson, the departmental head, Moodie worked with men who were to become household names in Australian diplomacy - the veteran John Hood, Alan Watt, Paul Hasluck, Laurence (Jim) McIntyre, Anstey Wynes and later John Burton, Arthur Tange, Jim Plimsoll, Mick Shann et al.

About 18 months after joining External Affairs, Moodie was seconded for a six-month stint as private secretary to R. G. Casey, then Treasurer. This introduced him to the exacting, frenetic life of politics, an experience which he told his family cured him of any political ambitions he might have had. But he was present for some stirring times in Parliament when, in April 1939, Earle Page attacked Menzies, who had just succeeded Lyons as Leader of the United Australia Party, accusing him of disloyalty and cowardice. Another interruption to Moodie’s diplomatic career came in 1941 when he was called up by the Army. He served as an NCO in the ordnance and intelligence branches until recalled to External Affairs in 1943, after unsuccessfully trying to enlist in the AIF.

He was not long back in the department before he got his first overseas posting as Official Secretary to Australia’s about to be established High Commission in India. There he served under Major-General Sir Iven Mackay, former commander of the AIF’s 6th Division in the Middle East, as Australia’s first High Commissioner. It was a ground-breaking operation, setting up the mission and having to work out of  temporary accommodation. Much of the work fell to Moodie, but he found it stimulating and rewarding. Back in Canberra he found himself as Counsellor in an administrative role in the General Division before being sent as Counsellor to the Australian Embassy in Washington to serve under Norman Makin until Percy Spender replaced him after the 1951 Federal election. Moodie responded to Spender who galvanised Australia’s diplomatic effort in Washington after Makin’s rather moribund term, bringing the embassy into the mainstream of American-Australian relations.

Another key posting followed for Moodie - three months as External Affairs officer at the High Commission in London under Sir Thomas White. The pace was a good deal slower than Washington, but it was there that he met his South Australian wife-to-be, Hilaire Davenport. Moodie proposed on taking up his next appointment, Head of Mission (Minister) at the Australian Legation in Burma. They married in Bombay in October 1954. They received some unsought publicity over a domestic problem they encountered in Burma. Moodie’s new wife counted 27 snakes in and around the legation. After a visit from Dr Emery Barcs, of the old Sydney Daily Telegraph, he aired the snake story in Australia. The result was the story followed the Moodies and back in Canberra he was some times asked, ‘How are the snakes?’ Moodie stayed in Burma until 1957, leaving with the rank of Ambassador, after the legation was upgraded to embassy status. Back in Canberra it was administration again from 1958 through to 1966, including a year as chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee.

After going to the Hague as Ambassador until 1970, he returned to the department to head the Pacific and Western Division as First Assistant Secretary in 1971-72. A three-year term as Ambassador to South Africa followed before his final posting as High Commissioner to New Zealand.

Moodie rated his postings to India and South Africa as the highlights of his long career, in which he earned a name for himself as one of Australia’s most competent ambassadors. He was shrewd and discerning in his judgment of people and situations, calm and cool-headed when crises arose, though occasionally was said to have something of a temper. Sir David Hay, a former departmental head of Foreign Affairs and a colleague of Moodie from 1939 onwards, had this evaluation, ‘He was a companionable, warm-hearted and, above all, an interesting person. He made no claims to orthodoxy either on the tennis court, where he enjoyed the competition with friends until very late in life, or in the wider field of diplomacy. But he was obviously very competent in both areas. He didn’t go on about having ideals and serving his country and so on, and would occasionally deflate, with a touch as gentle as required, those of us who tended to take ourselves too seriously. But he was in there from the beginning, taking the difficult posts with no less enthusiasm than the more attractive assignments, and smiling at the end’.

A story is told of Moodie in his university days when a gathering of young academics was asked to sign a visitors’ book. His companions came up with learned classical quotations, while Moodie’s down-to-earth contribution was, ‘One’s problems always seem less after a good meal’.

By the time he opted for retirement at 64, Moodie had had enough. He found the modern international scene complicated, with its threat of nuclear war, hijackings and kidnappings. He told a journalist of the day, ‘When I started in the old Department of External Affairs you had a clearer idea of where you were going. There was more discipline in the service and less drastic effect on a man’s family life. We used to expect an occasional riot in some overseas countries, but it is rougher today. I wouldn’t like to start it again’.

He is survived by his wife, Hilaire, two daughters, Viveca (Canberra), Prudence (Sydney) and a son, David (Adelaide).

Colin Troup Moodie, born Wollstonecraft, NSW, 5 April 1913; died Adelaide, 6 February 2000.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 18 February 2000
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 February 2000
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 February 2000

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Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Moodie, Colin Troup (1913–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/moodie-colin-troup-739/text740, accessed 14 December 2018.

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