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“Jim Plim”: Ambassador Extraordinary book launch

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Speaker: Remarks by Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Mr Peter Varghese AO

Level 1 Atrium, RG Casey Building, Canberra

I would like to extend a very warm welcome to all of you. This is in many ways a family reunion. We are here to mark the life of a distinguished family member, a life carefully chronicled by another member of the family. If it was not so high minded it would be incestuous.

I would like to acknowledge a number of colleagues, past and present. Dennis Richardson, the Secretary of Defence and recruited to Foreign Affairs in that famous class of 69 when Plim was Secretary and took a keen interest in graduate recruitment. Ray Griggs, our Vice Chief of the Defence Force who was Plim's aide-de-camp when Sir James was Governor of Tasmania. Nick Warner, the DG of ASIS. Jeremy's book does not record whether Plim had a view on ASIS but I am sure he would have approved of Nick.

May I also acknowledge a number of former secretaries. Peter Henderson who was Secretary of the department during Plim's last four years overseas. Stuart Harris, formerly Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and then of the combined Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Jim Scully, formerly Secretary of the Department of Trade. Ric Smith, former secretary of Defence and another sixty niner. Barrie Dexter, former Secretary of Aboriginal affairs and a senior diplomat.

Welcome also to Penny Wensley, former Governor of Queensland and a successor to Plim in New York and New Delhi. And to Peter Gration, former CDF.

At a gathering such as this you clearly see what a talent pool this department has been over many years. Four former heads of ONA: Bob Furlonger, Dick Smith, Geoff Miller and Kim Jones. Three former heads of ASIO: David Sadleir, Paul O'Sullivan and Dennis Richardson. Roger Holdich, a former Inspector General of Intelligence and Security. James Ingram, a former head of ADAB and the World Food Program. Welcome to all of you.

I would like also to acknowledge Libby Gilchrist and Jill Parsons whose husbands worked closely with Plim. And a very special welcome to members of Plim's family, especially his nieces Kathleen and Susie whom I had the great pleasure of meeting when I delivered the Sir James Plimsoll lecture in Hobart in 2013.

I never met James Plimsoll. But every Australian diplomat of the last sixty years should know of him. He was in a league well beyond mine but I can claim one thing in common. Both of us were appointed Secretary from the position of High Commissioner to India. Each morning as I walked up the stairs of the Australian High Commission to my office, I would pass his black and white photograph: a face which conveyed quiet confidence, a touch of mischief and a wide openness.

Many in this room knew Plim personally and all here know of his accomplishments. Alexander Downer says he was Australia's greatest diplomat. That is a big but understandable call. We can certainly all agree he was a great Australian diplomat.

One of the many virtues of this book is that it invites you to think about what makes a great diplomat. What was it about Plim which made him so effective in the field?

Well, first and foremost in my view, he understood Australia's interests. He came to diplomacy with training in economics. He understood our hard interests, strategic and economic, and he understood them in a broad context. Whether it was the US alliance, the need to position ourselves cleverly on PNG at a time when the wave of decolonisation was breaking, the value to Australia of the concept of global public goods and the promotion of international norms of behaviour, or the returns that a high reputation internationally can deliver to the pursuit of our national interests.

Second, Plim understood the intersection of politics and the bureaucracy. He worked under governments of both persuasions and with every prime minister from Chifley to Fraser. He had a feel for the compulsions of both politics and the bureaucracy although he struggled at times to reconcile them. Some of the most fascinating parts of this book is the way in which various prime ministers exercised their prerogatives in foreign affairs, including a penchant for secrecy, at times excluding ambassadors and even foreign ministers from exercises in personal diplomacy, many of which proved to be ill judged.

Plim also discovered at first hand the other way in which politics and diplomacy come together: he had, more than once, to leave a post prematurely to accommodate the dictates of a political appointment.

Third, Plim had policy courage. He believed that his duty was to provide frank advice. He knew how to couch it, how to make it more palatable, how to frame it in a way which had the greatest chance of being accepted. But he was not someone who told prime ministers and ministers what they wanted to hear. And if he disagreed with a course of action, as he did during his time in Brussels when the Fraser government reframed the EU relationship around the central axis of market access, he made his contrary views clear even when he knew they would not be accepted.

Fourth, he had endless curiosity about the counties to which he was posted. He tried to understand their history and culture. He walked their streets. He sought to meet as many locals as he could. For him diplomacy was conducted outside the office. And he had the added advantage of actually enjoying meeting people.

Fifth, he was not afraid about expressing an opinion and offering advice to the host government. Plim did not wait for instructions. He was a brilliant advocate of the official line. But he was also prepared to freelance, to analyse issues from first principles and to offer a view on the way forward. People sought out his views, including President Nixon during the India-Pakistan conflict which saw the creation of Bangladesh.

This book has been 17 years in the making and I want to congratulate Jeremy Hearder for a labour of love. His research has been painstaking. Jeremy has sought, throughout, to locate Plim's work in the context of the times.

His access to personal papers and interviews has given us some marvellous anecdotes: a pyjama clad Plim pursuing Syngman Rhee to the airport and persuading him not to leave Korea at a crucial time. A courageous Plim grabbing PM Billy McMahon by the coat and literally forcing him back into the dining room at the residence in Washington when McMahon had decided that he would leave a high powered dinner in his honour because he was feeling tired.

Plim of course lived and worked in a different era. Management was never his strong suit and he would find the size and complexity of today's department unrecognisable. In this he was the opposite of Tange who much preferred the policy and management challenges of Canberra to life in the field.

Plim was also a man of his times when it came to the employment of women, the monarchy, and the preference for relationships over systems.

But what also emerges from this book are the timeless qualities of the man: his courtesy, his capacity to mix with people at all levels, a fine mind, an unrelenting work ethic, a cultured world view, a belief that personal relationships in diplomacy may not trump interests but they can make a difference to how successfully we can pursue our interests. In all of this, Plim is a contemporary role model for this generation of Australian diplomats.

Indeed, of the many accolades Plim received as a diplomat, the words of Paul Hasluck are probably the most apt when he said of Plimsoll: "I like to think that, because they knew Plimsoll, there are quite a number of highly placed foreigners who think of Australians as persons of intelligence, understanding, courtesy, consideration and a good intention".

Plim was one of that group of post war diplomats who achieved high positions at a young age. John Burton and Arthur Tange were among them. Plim's work in Korea, arguably his most brilliant personal contribution to Australian diplomacy, was done in his early thirties. It may not have been quite as precocious a performance as the teenaged Alexander the Great, but it does suggest there may be something to be said for throwing people in early at the deep end.

If, at the end of this fine book, we feel we know Plim the diplomat but are still left wondering about Plim the man, I do not think we can blame Jeremy. The work was the man. He found his identity in his profession. It was a completely self contained universe. Whether this was sublimation or professionalism taken to a new level we probably will never know. But it was a fusion of life and work which left Australian diplomacy all the richer.

I have great pleasure in launching "Jim Plim: Ambassador Extraordinary" by Jeremy Hearder, and inviting Jeremy to say a few words.

Last Updated: 14 April 2015
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