Menna Rawlings CMG

Menna Rawlings

British High Commissioner to Australia

Part of UK in Australia

15th December 2017 Canberra, Australia

Annual Review – UK in Australia 2017

The GREAT clipper yacht in Sydney Harbour

In the days before social media, 24/7 news and Freedom of Information requests, British Heads of Mission around the world used to pen an “Annual Review” at the tail end of each year. This was an opportunity for reflection on host countries and bilateral relations; and – inevitably – for competitive Ambassadors and High Commissioners to get their achievements up in lights.

Annual Reviews went out of fashion about 10 years ago. I think it was a gradual demise rather than a diktat from the FCO in King Charles Street what done them in, as they became lost in a deluge of information and email traffic. Yet there is something to be said about a glance at the rear mirror at the end of a year, before we turn the corner into the next one. What did we achieve? What did we learn? And what does that mean for the future?

Looking back at 2017 from my vantage point as British High Commissioner to Australia, I can see an undulating road full of twists and turns; a fair few speed bumps; and some real highs and lows.

Let’s start with the lows – four horrific terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, followed too soon by the Grenfell Tower Fire. Watching these events from thousands of miles away didn’t make them any easier to process; and I discovered that you carry the weight of them when you are the lead representative of your country overseas.

The outpouring of support and love for the UK was immense and I will never forget it – thank you Australia. From the speeches in Parliament, to the high-level attendance at our Memorial for Manchester in Canberra, to the lighting of the Story Bridge in Brisbane in the colours of the Union Jack; it was a reminder of just how deep and emotional those UK-Australia ties really are. And when Australia tragically lost two of its own young people in the London Bridge attack, it showed there is nothing local or remote about terrorism; and that its evil tentacles spread far and wide around the world.

Manchester Memorial held at the British High Commission, Canberra

But from all this we gained fresh determination to keep working together with our closest and most like-minded allies, like Australia, to deal with the scourge of terrorism and other threats to our security and prosperity. And it was a privilege to be in London for PM Turnbull’s visit to discuss this and other issues with PM Theresa May, and to join them on their walk-through Borough Market, where they paid tribute to those we had lost, and to our outstanding emergency services.

Then there were the twists and turns. The UK election was unexpected. (I was on holiday in Noosa over Easter with my family, when my daughter checked her newsfeed during a game of Top Trumps and announced: “Mum! Theresa May’s called an election!”)  And the result also defied prediction, showing that politics in both our countries are pretty challenging right now. Australian politics also had its fair share of bumps – especially the citizenship issue, which confirmed in surprising ways that many Australians, including politicians, retain close links with the UK. (As one Twitter joker put it: “Hello, this is the Home Office. If you’re an Australian MP, please dial 1…..”)

So, let’s move onto higher ground. Here’s my Big Five highlights of 2017.

1. Visits. For all the doubters out there, who think Britain will turn in on itself through the Brexit negotiations and beyond, I bring evidence of much greater ministerial attention to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. We’ve hosted three Cabinet Ministers (the Foreign, Defence and International Trade Secretaries) and four Ministers in 2017 – one of whom visited Fiji too, the first UK government minister to do so in 27 years. With this has come an up-tick in co-operation across the full breadth of the UK/Australia relationship, with more to come.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop engaging in digital diplomacy during AUKMIN2017

2. Travel. I do a lot of this, in a huge country like Australia, where economic, political and cultural power is so dispersed. You can’t understand this vast land by sitting in the Canberra bubble. So this year, I’ve made 41 trips to different cities, given 21 speeches, hosted nearly 50 events and met LOTS of people. Visits to Adelaide, Perth and Far North Queensland stand out in my mind. In all places, it’s been great to connect with different groups of people; and to correct some of the gloom and doom about the UK and Brexit with a ‘stump speech’: Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3 (with a nod to Ian Dury and the Blockheads).

3. Sport. Once upon a time, they posted High Commissioners to Australia who weren’t into sport and didn’t like cricket. Bonkers. Being here during The Ashes has been a privilege and a joy – well, at least until England lost the first two tests and are hovering on the edge of defeat. (To quote my husband: “I was a teenager last time England beat Australia in Perth.” Oh good.) So the answer is obviously to leave it to the girls, with England Women drawing their Ashes series and leaving with heads held high and a No 1 place on the world rankings. Of course there is more of this ahead, with our “Sport is GREAT” campaign heating up ahead of the Commonwealth and Invictus Games in 2018, as we look to maximise commercial wins for UK trade and investment from a feast of sporting activity.

High Commissioner Menna Rawlings with the England Women’s cricket team in Sydney ahead of the Ashes series

4. Marriage equality. I am proud that, since the UK legislated for Same Sex Marriage in 2014, we have conducted more than 460 marriages for British nationals across our Australia posts, including nearly 40 in Canberra. And I have enjoyed personally conducting a number of such ceremonies at our Residence in Canberra, opening our doors to happy couples and hundreds of their family and friends. We trod a fine line on this at times – celebrating our consular services and our values, without ever seeking to lecture Australia on how to approach this issue. But I think we pulled it off, creating beautiful events that showed, in their own way, that love really is just love. I will need some tissues to hand when I conduct our last ever marriage ceremony in Canberra next week – sad that we will no longer have the opportunity to do this; happy we won’t have to.

Joel & Tal’s marriage at Westminster House, officiated by High Commissioner Menna Rawlings.
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5. The UK in Australia Team. They’re bloody brilliant they are. We have 100 staff dispersed across five cities (Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth), around 80% of whom are recruited locally rather than posted out from the UK. This is a small team to carry such a broad and deep bilateral relationship, and at times it feels as if we’re an ant holding an elephant. But we carry it with style – partly through sheer talent, capability and hard work, but also through collaborating effectively with some fantastic partners, in particular the Australian-British Chambers of Commerce (ABCC). So: we’ve helped hundreds of distressed Brits, smashed export targets, supported investors, influenced policy, hosted amazing events (such as the “GREAT for Partnership” dinner on the shores of Sydney harbour last month) and led the way on social media. And: responded to all the ups and downs that 2017 threw at us.

Some of the Sydney and Canberra team with Dr Liam Fox ahead of the GREAT for Partnership event in Sydney

So that was the year that was. And at the risk of falling into the ‘puff’ trap of those old Annual Reviews, I think we did alright – and that we end the year with UK/Australia relations in fine fettle. Which after all is what it’s all about.

Thanks to everyone who has supported us this year – we’ll see you again in 2018.

3 comments on “Annual Review – UK in Australia 2017

  1. A great read & fantastic achievements!
    An honour & pleasure to have met you and the wonderful team in Canberra this year.
    You guys nailed it on so many fronts!

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About Menna Rawlings

Her Excellency Menna Rawlings CMG is the British High Commissioner to Australia. Menna joined the FCO in 1989 and has served in a wide range of Diplomatic Service roles. She…

Her Excellency Menna Rawlings CMG is the British High Commissioner to Australia. Menna joined the FCO in 1989 and has served in a wide range of Diplomatic Service roles. She was most recently a member of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Management Board as HR Director. This followed postings to Washington DC, Ghana, Israel, Kenya and Brussels. In London, she has served as Private Secretary to the Permanent Under Secretary as well as in Press Office and the Africa and EU Directorates.