NOT ALWAYS DIPLOMATIC – AN AUSTRALIAN WOMAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS

By Sue Boyd

UWA Publishing 2020

ISBN: 978-1-76080-149-6

RRP: $29.99 (PB)

Reviewed By Anne Henderson

Sue Boyd’s memoir begins with a meeting she had with Prime Minister Gough Whitlam after returning from her first overseas posting as an Australian diplomat in Portugal where the Carnation Revolution had just taken place. “’Well Susan’, he boomed. ‘What’s going on in Portugal? What does it mean for Australia? And what can we do about it?’” She never forgot those three questions in all her future work for the Australian department of Foreign Affairs.

Well before Sue Boyd applied for and gained entry in 1970 to Australia’s External Affairs Department (as Foreign Affairs was then known), she was an international citizen of sorts. Born in India in March 1945, she thereafter adjusted to moving and resettling in her growing up years, in thirteen schools across five countries, with her British Army father. This was followed by a gap year of volunteer teaching in Northern Rhodesia. With that start in life, settling into the University of Western Australia as the daughter of “ten pound Poms” in 1966 was something Sue took in her stride. In her third year of university, she was elected the first female President of the Graduate Guild, beating Kim Beazley who came second.

Not Always Diplomatic, former Australian ambassador Sue Boyd’s memoir of her life and distinguished career as an Australian diplomat, is no page turner but it certainly has merits as a frank and honest account of the successful management of a career against the odds – a bright and personable woman pioneering a way forward for other women in a man’s world while making her mark as an Australian in international affairs.

With a background of forebears in the British military and looking back on her gap year in 1965, Boyd assesses her time in Northern Rhodesia teaching literacy as assuming herself to be of a superior background, a British born to rule thinking, which she writes was the mind of “a little, racist, white supremacist”. This is her view some six decades later. Nothing, however, in her account of her time as a diplomat or even as a student suggests she ever acted in a racist manner. In fact, Sue Boyd seems to have been at all times a person who met others respectfully and was prepared to learn from experience.

The 1960s is so often seen as an era of liberation. Protest yes – but not reform. Boyd was entering the foreign service in the 1970s. Women were still waiting for their promised equal pay and still seen as a net drain on the system. Women graduates in the service were expected to marry, thereafter ceasing paid work to have children. No allowance was made for maternity leave. She quotes the case of the “splendid” Tonia Shand who had to “resign twice – on marriage and on maternity – and restart at the bottom each time, while her male colleagues passed her and shot up the promotion ladder”.

As today’s protest around the Me-too movement and workplace abuse of women escalates, it is timely to reflect on how much has changed since Sue Boyd threw her cap into the male dominated workplace she encountered. The workplace culture not only tolerated diminishing women’s roles but also operated with a view that women, as the weaker sex, had to be protected. On a training session to Broken Hill, Boyd discovered that “mining superstition dictated that no women were allowed underground”. The women trainees were taken shopping while their male colleagues did the mine visits and briefings.

Boyd devotes a chapter to experiences and advice from her time as a woman – and some of her learning along the way on how to overtake the workplace culture for women. In 1983, Cisca Spencer was appointed DFAT’s first equal employment opportunity director and conducted research that led to a new formal promotions process that saw women being judged in a transparent manner, with women included on the interview panels. The practice of excluding women from “hardship” posts of just two years, meant women had lagged behind their male colleagues in posting experience. As Boyd puts it: “In a ten-year period, the men had a record of experience in five posts, whereas women with the “easy” posts under their belt could boast of only three.”

For all that, Boyd’s account is just as frank about her personal learning curve that saw her overcome weaknesses to better her record. She admits and enlarges on her flaw of telling ribald jokes and passes on much of what she learnt on the misuse of humour in public and in professional life. She writes of how sometimes going backwards could help to later make a leap forwards. She compares the promotion pathways for women in the department as more of a play gym than a ladder. What’s more, being single could be more of a hindrance than help in many of her postings.

For women like Boyd, obstacles needed to be cleared and strategies engaged in to face the hurdles. At one point in her career, Boyd was helped by former DFAT colleagues Justine Letts and Jack Heath, both of whom had moved to the commercial world of work. They mentored her in ways to improve her CV and approach interviews with a manner that said “this is what I can offer in the future” rather than “this is what I have done so far”. A tip Boyd now passes on to younger women she advises is: “Don’t come to work in ‘F-ck me’ clothes. Wear ‘F-ck you’ clothes.”

Not Always Diplomatic is written in a dispassionate, crisp prose reminiscent of much of the writing done for briefings and reports. There is a tendency to record an anecdote of pathos or tragedy in summary and not dwell on details. A paragraph on the plight of Muslim women in Bangladesh ends with a sentence on the murder of a young female lawyer advocating change. “This was shocking,” writes Boyd only to immediately move to a paragraph on Australia’s involvement in the World Food Program. A career of reporting back to Canberra does not allow for too much empathy.

For good reason, Boyd is proud of her record in DFAT. She spent 34 years in Australia’s foreign service with seven postings, four of which were head of mission in the Asia-Pacific region. As head of mission in Bangladesh 1986-89, Boyd became the first female Australian ambassador appointed to a Muslim majority country. Her appointment as ambassador in Hanoi in 1994-98 she credits as the result of her improved confidence and approach following her mentoring with Letts and Heath. Boyd looks back on what she achieved there as her best posting.

In Fiji 1999-2003, Boyd took control just prior to the George Speight coup and conducted Australian relations with Fiji amid the turmoil that followed which outlasted her years there. By the end of her posting, Boyd had extended Australia’s influence in the region and had made valuable contacts across the Pacific. She had overcome incoming foreign minister Alexander Downer’s poor view of her as a Labor leaning leftie in a communist country (Vietnam) and, in the Pacific, enjoyed accompanying Downer on important visits.

The life of a career diplomat gives plenty of material for both informative record and light hearted experience. Boyd’s book is full of both. There are cute moments playing golf in Bhutan with separate and regulated tees for men and women and where a “green” can be made of oiled sand. In Bangladesh, managing personal needs on the road in places like Bangladesh were tricky with conveniences not always to hand. Asked by a 60 Minutes reporter off camera if there was anything a male ambassador could do that a woman could not, Boyd answered, “Yes: pee standing up.” And for people in Australia suffering natural disasters, Boyd’s account of Bangladesh floods where makeshift hospital wards are made from boats tied to trees complete with drips hung from branches reminds us of what we take for granted.

Boyd makes it clear that while she never belonged to a political party, her preference has been with Australian Labor from her days at university. This seems to have had an effect on Boyd’s accounts of her time in the two communist countries she was posted to – the German Democratic Republic (East Berlin) and Vietnam (Hanoi). Her accounts of her postings there come across as somewhat superficial. Whether this is a result of Boyd’s left of centre perspective or a DFAT style to be diplomatic about foreign countries’ political systems is not clear.

In East Berlin, as part of Australia’s mission to the GDR, Boyd records her experience of life in a country with what has been described as one of the most effective and repressive intelligence and secret police agencies ever to have existed. Accounts of East Germany under the Ministry for State Security – the Stasi – are now ubiquitous but even in the 1980s its reach and terror was known. Family members reported on other family members, workers on their colleagues, even spouses on their spouses. It was a system to control the population not to protect citizens from attack.  Simon Wiesenthal called the Stasi even more oppressive than the Gestapo. There is no doubt at the Australian embassy staff were under surveillance by agents for the Stasi – and this would have been known by Australian diplomats.

Boyd spends much of her account of her time in East Berlin on the Stasi as she experienced it – but the effect is not quite what might be expected. Having obtained her Stasi file after the East German communist government fell and Germany was united under a democratic system, Boyd spends some pages reflecting on what she found. Apart from noting how complimentary much of the reports on her were, and musing over odd bits of trivia, she finds there are missing pieces of information such as the names of some she befriended. On the basis of these errors, Boyd concludes:

As I read my own file, I was once more convinced about the need for extreme care before authorising any state-sponsored surveillance of citizens, how easy it is to reach wrong conclusions and make false assumptions based on incomplete information and context, and how many lives were blighted by pure malice.

Apart from the naivety of making comparisons between a totalitarian system of state terror and security agencies for democratic countries like Australia, in translation this is a small swipe at Australia’s ASIO, a pet hate of the Whitlam Labor government. It seems the international terrorist actions and suicide bombings of some decades have not altered Boyd’s views.

Then there is Vietnam in the 1990s – seen from Hanoi. Boyd rightly records that things had opened up commercially and there were opportunities for Australians in business. She also records with some emotion, the coming together of Australians like Tim Fischer and Vietnamese who had fought them. A move on from war to peace and rightly to be praised.

Throughout Boyd’s account, however, there is little mention of Vietnam’s continuing poor record on human rights. Incarceration of political activists increased from 1990 and many who had been released were again arrested. Boyd records that when Bill Hayden visited Hanoi in April 1995, he raised matters of Vietnamese human rights abuses at the end of his meeting with the president.

Instead of showing support for Hayden’s attempt to caution the Vietnamese about their human rights abuses, Boyd records this incident as a serious breach of Australian diplomacy as if Hayden had acted badly. This contrasts sharply with a quite lengthy discussion later in the book of John Howard’s “Pacific Solution” which Boyd describes as “the demonisation of human beings seeking refuge from unbearable conditions in their home countries”. There is no context given either, in this assessment of the Pacific solution, that later the Rudd/Gillard Labor government would adopt the very same Pacific solution as they dealt with thousands of unlawful boat arrivals.

Sue Boyd has done us all a favour in enlightening Australians and others of the important work foreign affairs people do, the contribution DFAT makes to Australia’s place in the world and the leaps and bounds Australian international relations have made over some four decades. She certainly carried out Gough Whitlam’s brief for her as a diplomat in answer to his three questions: “What’s going on? What does it mean for Australia? And what should we do about it?

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.