Richard Woolcott, AC

Secretary, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 1988-92

Table of Contents

Woolcott Presentation: June 8, 2006
Question: Were cables sent back by Missions overseas given sufficient weight?
Question: Do you consider that three years is an optimum period to be secretary? It would be considered an incredibly short period for the chief executive of a large bank.
Question: There is a general impression that in the last 10 years the Australian Public Service has become not a service of the public, but a ministerial service. Do you think there has been this change in Foreign Affairs?
Question: There has always been tension between the departments because of the different focus and interests. Could you tell us what was the issue that caused you most trouble in that regard and did you think the inter-ministerial mechanisms that were in place in your day were sufficient to cope with this.
Question: What were the highlights of your career, both as secretary and before you were secretary?


Richard Woolcott's tenure as secretary coincided with one of the most active periods of Australian foreign policy under Gareth Evans, who began what would become an eight-year term as Foreign Minister the day after Woolcott was appointed.

Several Australian policy initiatives were active simultaneously. They included Prime Minister Hawke's efforts to bring APEC into being, Evans’s determination to contribute to the Cambodian peace process, the development of a security dialogue in the Asia Pacific region (which was to become the ASEAN Regional Forum), attempts to inject more substance into Australia’s relations with Indonesia, and Trade Minister Michael Duffy’s push to bring to a successful conclusion the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations. Australia also pursued a more active role in the United Nations, the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

Clearly, the most significant external event during the period was the end of the Cold War. This required new policy approaches and enhanced cohesion between defence and security policies generally. For Australia, it meant paying attention to its alliance with the United States while enhancing self-reliance. The other major event was the first Gulf War in 1991 (involving the Australian Defence Force).

The department coped well with these demanding challenges during the period. It was also managing technological change in its overseas network, which underwent substantial upgrading during this period. Bedding down the amalgamated department's new organisation and culture continued to be a high priority. The absorption of the trade and information functions into the department came to be regarded as one of the main successes of the 1987 moves towards ‘mega-departments’. In time, and after some questioning, it was judged a success by both major political parties and the National Party.

Woolcott's appointment as secretary came later in his career than may have been expected (he had declined to be considered for the position in 1973). He had already served in high profile Head of Mission positions, including a lengthy period as Australia's Ambassador to the United Nations in New York (1982–88), during which he represented Australia on the Security Council for two years. So Woolcott was already comparatively well known in Australia, the United States and in the Asia Pacific region and was well placed to play a prominent role in the initiatives launched by Hawke and Evans. His relaxed style of leadership was suited to the demanding tasks facing the department and he was a popular secretary.

Richard Woolcott has published The Hot Seat: Reflections on Diplomacy from Stalin’s Death to the Bali Bombings (Harper Collins 2003). He continues to be a regular commentator on foreign policy.