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Richard Arthur (Dick) Woolcott (1927–2023)

by Alan Howe and Tom Switzer

Richard Woolcott was perhaps the nearest thing to a legend that Australia’s foreign service has produced, the best-known Australian diplomat of his time. From the 1950s to the 1980s, he represented Australian interests on every continent (including Antarctica) and held ambassador-level responsibilities in Malaysia, Singapore, The Philippines, Indonesia and at the United Nations. From 1988 to 1992, he served as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs. And as a prolific writer, commentator and special envoy in retirement, he also had a crucial influence on Australian foreign policy.

He attended both Geelong Grammar and Sydney’s Cranbrook School before graduating with an arts degree from Melbourne University and joining the diplomatic service. He said of those years: “I learned so much there which helped with what I have done later in life.”

His first diplomatic posting, as third secretary to the Australian embassy in Moscow, came in 1952 as the Cold War was still taking shape with only the second leader of the Soviet Union, an ailing ­Joseph Stalin, at the helm. The ­appointment came in the wake of the 1951 double dissolution federal election, in which the Robert ­Menzies-led Coalition government lost five seats but had begun what would be a nine-election, 23-year record run in power.

Of course, Woolcott’s services would be in demand no matter which side of politics was in power and he would go on to advise seven prime ministers from Menzies through to John Howard, and a dozen ministers for foreign affairs from Richard Casey (later Baron Casey, Australia’s 16th Governor-General) to Alexander Downer.

He accompanied prime ministers Menzies, Harold Holt, William McMahon, Gough Whitlam and Bob Hawke as an adviser on ­foreign trips to China, the Soviet Union, the US, Japan, Europe and Central America.

Dennis Richardson, a former director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and Australia’s ambassador to the US for five years from 2005 before serving as secretary of the Department of Foreign ­Affairs and Trade, knew Woolcott well and admired his unchallenged professionalism.

“He worked for Australian governments actively as late as 2008, when he was sent on a mission by prime minister (Kevin) Rudd to promote Rudd’s Pacific Community initiative,” says Richardson, adding that the key to Woolcott’s success was the values from which he never swayed.

Woolcott played squash with prime minister McMahon, and ­accompanied McMahon on overseas visits, but soon became a key adviser to McMahon’s successor, Whitlam.

“He was consistent in his views, he was totally nonpartisan in his approach to foreign policy matters,” Richardson says. “He had a consistent view about Australia and the world, particularly Australia and the region. That was central to the trust he earned from both sides of ­politics.”

Woolcott called his 2003 memoir The Hot Seat, and that was where he sat, in complete trust, for as long as Australia dealt with a changing world, including the ambitious recognition of mainland China, the fallout from the end of the Vietnam War, the controversial invasion and annexation of East Timor by Indonesia in 1975 and the collapse of the Iron Curtain 14 years later.

When Hawke combined the Department of Foreign Affairs with the Department of Trade, Woolcott was made secretary and arguably his most influential years followed as Hawke’s plan for the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation group took shape and blossomed. There are now 21 member countries, representing almost 3 billion people and accounting for more than 60 per cent of global GDP.

Former prime minister Rudd, who next month becomes Australia’s 23rd ambassador to the US, says Woolcott was a passionate believer in Australia’s future.

“He was also a diplomat’s diplomat. He relished hard policy challenges,” Rudd says. Woolcott saw the “big picture” of reconciling Australia’s place in Asia while being anchored in its alliance with the US. “Dick understood the craft of diplomacy and how to move the ball forward internationally, rather than simply delivering pleasant speeches intended to please a domestic audience,” Rudd says.

“Dick was also kind to me as a young diplomat, despite my having zero political connections, fresh off the farm, as I tried to learn the ropes in the Australian foreign service. He sought to nurture and encourage talent whenever he saw it.”

Rudd adds that Australia has “rarely produced a professional diplomat of such calibre”.

Of all the issues Woolcott faced over a long diplomatic career, none proved more intractable than Timor. As ambassador to ­Indonesia, he had advised the Whitlam government in the months leading up to the invasion that events were sliding quickly ­towards the forceful incorporation of the former Portuguese colony. Using force to stop the invasion, he warned in leaked cables, was “an impossible option that would have destroyed our relationship with Indonesia for decades”. Australia should instead disengage itself as far as possible and Canberra should minimise the public outrage. As he put it in August 1975: “There is no doubt in my mind that relations with Indonesia in the long term are more important to us than the future of Portuguese Timor.”

After Indonesia’s invasion in December, he advised the government it was faced with a choice between “Wilsonian principles” and “Kissingerian pragmatism”, and that, in order to improve long-term relations with Jakarta, Canberra should choose the latter.

Woolcott always strongly ­defended his position, which outraged many human rights groups and the families of the Balibo Five journalists killed by Indonesian soldiers in October 1975. At a 2007 inquest into their deaths, the then 90-year-old Whitlam said he had warned one of the Five not to go: “I warned him the Australian government had no way of protecting him or his colleagues.”

Canberra, Woolcott argued, lacked the leverage and influence to force Indonesian President ­Suharto’s hand to conduct an act of self-determination or accept the possibility of an independent East Timor. Even when Australian-­Indonesian relations soured during the next few decades, including the Howard government’s efforts to secure East Timor’s independence in 1999, he consistently called for closer ties. Australia, he believed, had to live beside Indonesia – home to almost 13 per cent of the world’s Muslims – and needed to balance complex and competing interests.

He returned to the East Timor debate in his book, the full title of which was The Hot Seat: Reflections on Diplomacy from Stalin’s Death to the Bali Bombings, recalling that an Indonesian minister had said to him in 2002: “We are neighbours; we have to work together. But we don’t trust you and we don’t much like you now.”

In the lead-up to the US-led Iraq invasion 20 years ago, Woolcott questioned the wisdom of the Howard government’s support, warning of the dangers of a US-led pre-emptive strike on Baghdad and arguing that Australia’s involvement was not in the national interest.

Yesterday, Howard said that “few people have exerted greater influence on the formation of Australian foreign policy during the past 30 to 40 years than Richard Woolcott”. “He personified the ‘don’t upset Jakarta’ school of thought. As such, he disagreed with the East Timor policy of my government and the view that good relations with Indonesia were sine qua non of Australian foreign policy dominated his advice,” the former PM said.

Howard said he frequently disagreed with Woolcott, “but I always respected the depth of his understanding of our near Asian neighbours, even though we sharply diverged”.

As for Woolcott’s opposition to Australia taking part in the 2003, 48-nation Coalition of the Willing to disarm Saddam Hussein’s regime – he described it as “a disaster (that) has substantially increased the terrorist threat Mr Howard said it would reduce” – Howard said he would have assumed Woolcott would disagree with the then government. “But he had no formal foreign policy role at that time … I wouldn’t have asked his view.”

Henry Kissinger, the Richard Nixon-era US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser, rated his friend highly: “No Australian diplomat I have known combines a greater range of experience and breadth of contacts, especially in – but not limited to – Southeast Asia, as does Richard Woolcott.”

Woolcott’s portrait, by The Australian’s longtime political cartoonist the late Bill Leak, is in the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. Woolcott worked on both Melbourne’s bid for the 1996 Olympic Games and Sydney’s successful campaign to win the 2000 Games. His intellectual vigour was underpinned by a deep patriotism. He came from what he called “a quintessentially WASP background”, but he became one of Australia’s leading proponents of Asian engagement long before it became the policy ­orthodoxy in Canberra. He long supported the idea that Australia should become “the odd man in” rather than “the odd man out in Asia”.

In a bold speech for a public servant in 1971, Woolcott told the Public Relations Institute of Australia: “Australia is on the threshold of a bright future if it makes the right choices. We can stand still and allow ourselves to become ­regarded as a bucolic, inwards-looking, materialist, racist, self-satisfied, apathetic, pleasure-seeking member of the world community, slumbering at the southern end of the globe, a sort of Anglo-American stepchild which never really grew up; a second-hand transplanted society which lost its momentum before it decided in which direction it wanted to move. Or we can work to become an accepted, distinctive, tolerant and well-regarded nation in the Asia-Pacific region.”

More than a half-century ago, these views were radical and marginalised, but Woolcott was ahead of his time in predicting Australia’s growing engagement with its region.

* Alan Howe is The Australian’s history and obituaries editor. Tom Switzer is executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies and a presenter on ABC’s Radio National.

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Alan Howe and Tom Switzer, 'Woolcott, Richard Arthur (Dick) (1927–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 July 2024.

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