Australian Ambassador to France, Algeria, Mauritania, and Monaco, Brendan Berne describes his childhood growing up in the western suburbs of Sydney as «a fantastic, typical Aussie experience.» His family lived in a neighbourhood similar to the one immortalized by the 80s TV soap Neighbours, with kids running between big backyards with lemon trees and swimming pools, and playing cricket together in the street.
Though he hardly traveled as a child, he was fascinated by one of the first books he was ever given, an atlas, and by the postcards he received from an uncle working overseas: «I had these images of the Sistine Chapel and Mount Fuji…For a young fertile mind it was hugely inspiring. I always thought I’d want to do something on an international level, I didn’t exactly know what, but that was always an inspiration for me.»
He was far from thinking he would one day represent his country as Ambassador, but as he says, «My story really captures that Australian story, that if you work hard and study hard, it doesn’t matter what your background is, you can go far. This is why Australia is called the lucky country. This is why we, like the French, value ‘égalité’, what we call ‘a fair go’. Anyone who does try their best can go places.»
We can all see the appeal of Australia, but what do you think attracts Australians to France?
I think the history, the civilization that France constitutes, its global presence, the romance. People have been coming to France from Australia forever – our artists, our writers. But the awakening in the French mind about Australia has seen a renewal, I would say. Of course, going right back 400 years, French philosophers and explorers dreamt of a great southern land. The great Austral continent was something that occupied French imagination. There were French explorers from the beginning of European contact with Australia – La Pérouse and other great French explorers’ names are found up and down the Australian coastline- but this is a renaissance, if you like, of the French dreaming about Australia. The idea of dreaming, in Australian culture, is very important to us, because it’s an Aboriginal concept. The Dreamtime is a shared appreciation of origins and also of our future, so we’re delighted that the French dream of Australia more and more.
Our conversation is interrupted by a phone call from the US Ambassador, prompting the question of just how much different foreign ambassadors work together.
Well, this morning I’ve already spoken to my New Zealand colleague and now our American colleague, so we certainly do talk, but my focus is our French friends. I speak to people across the French system all the time, because it’s a moment in the French-Australian relationship that we’ve never seen before. It’s the first time ever in the relationship that we’ve had a French president go on a stand-alone visit to Australia – unheard of!
The French regard Australia more and more as a go-to partner, and we think of the French in the same way, because the world is under challenge. The system of international institutions and rules is under challenge, and France and Australia share the same perspective, the same position. We need to work together as G20 countries to make sure that the system we’ve built together, whether it’s for trade or for security, stays the course and that we can continue to benefit from that. It’s a great time in the relationship, so there’s lots of engagement.
Do you think that the public in both countries is aware of this?
Absolutely. My Australian friends coming through say that they can feel an uplift in the relationship. France is suddenly everywhere in Australia, and the French are everywhere in Australia. We’ve had 220 000 young French people receive a working holiday visa, which means that they can go to Australia for up to 2 years, to work and travel.
What were the biggest challenges you found personally when adapting to French culture?
Well, Australia’s an immigrant society, so doorways are often open; you have to have a society where people can come and join in very readily. But in the 16th arrondissement, there are old families, old connections… I quickly learnt that your French had to be pretty good to be able to access some of those networks. At the same time there’s the Latin warmth that French culture has, and the welcome I’ve had since returning to France has been extraordinary.
That probably has a lot to do with your personality and the modern approach you’ve taken to your role, being very media-friendly and accessible.
Well, the world is changing. It’s becoming more difficult. Diplomacy is back. I can’t remember a time when diplomats were more called upon to help protect, defend and advance peace and prosperity. But I ask myself is diplomacy ready for that challenge? Is diplomacy up to being able to meet those challenges in a world where everything is digitalized, where social media is driving agendas? You can’t simply afford to be doing your work ‘dans les coulisses’, ‘entre soi’, in elite circles. You have to be projecting.
Look at President Macron. He’s brought that freshness and that accessibility to an ancient institution. He’s reinventing that role, and I think it’s incumbent on ambassadors, because our role is about influence. I never confuse profile with influence. You don’t want to have profile for its own sake. If you have profile, you want to use it to influence: how Australia is seen, how Australia is considered, how decision-makers regard Australia… I’m happy to say that we’ve seen some breakthroughs in the relationship, such as on the launch of the free trade agreement negotiations, which was a long-standing priority for Australia, decades long, and the French supported us with that. We’re very, very happy for that.
That must be one of the highlights of your ambassadorship so far. What are the others?
Accompanying the president to Sydney, my home town. You can’t beat that! It was a moment of great joy to be able to welcome him. It was a wonderful moment when he gave the Légion d’Honneur to three Australian veterans from World War II. He then gave a great speech standing on a naval vessel in Sydney harbour, in English; a wonderful speech about what Australia and France mean to each other and the new chapter in their relationship: a new access between France and Australia to defend what we call the ‘rules-based order’, to advance what President Macron calls ‘contemporary multilateralism’. I mean, as a diplomat, as an ambassador, I thought it doesn’t get any better than this!
Can you tell us more about the submarine contract between France and Australia?
If there’s one thing that drew attention in France to make people rethink the importance of Australia it was this deal. A 32 billion euro deal. To my knowledge, the largest international military procurement deal in the world. It’s not just a contract. As President Macron said to me when I presented him my letters of credential, this is a strategic partnership. We are actually tying together our two economies and our two security policies really, because these vessels will be built in Australia, in partnership with France. This is a game-changer in the level of trust and intimacy, I would say, on the economic and the security fronts for our two countries. I think a lot of French elites and thinkers were pleasantly surprised by this contract. They didn’t appreciate Australia’s importance as a strategic player in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific where we’re the 4th largest economy, but they were also very gratified to see that we’d chosen the French offer, over other offers, based on its technical superiority. So, it was an endorsement from the other side of the world, by a new and emerging partner for France.
Australian families have been moving into Cherbourg.
Yes, we’ve got a veritable Australian colony! In Cherbourg they’ve got 30 families there, doing the design contracts, and there are already French families colonising Australia of course, in Adelaide. It’s a wonderful time in the relationship.
These are on-going projects. What are the other goals that you have for your time in office here?
During President Macron’s visit to Australia, our leaders agreed a vision statement, and part of that was something called ‘AFinity’: an Australia-France initiative, which comprises a number of concrete ideas and projects for Australia and France to partner together, across a whole range of issues where the world is facing some difficulties. Whether it’s in counter-terrorism, cyber security, climate change, maritime security, innovation… areas where we want to work together. It’s exactly what I, as Ambassador, was wanting to see; that this lift in the relationship is now generating concrete cooperation between our two countries to promote prosperity and security. France has always been in our region. France’s longest maritime border is with Australia, through New Caledonia. So a lot of our collaboration will be around maritime security, reef health and other aspects related to that huge joint responsibility we have.
Those are big projects. Will you be involved in most of them?
At some level; driving and keeping the progress going. Foreign Minister Le Drian is expected to visit Australia later in the year to meet with my Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, to look at the progress in how those projects are going. We’re serious about this new partnership. At a time of global challenges, France and Australia see eye to eye. We’ve found each other at the right time and it’s a partnership that’s really for the good of the world, I think. I’m very proud to be a part of that.
I imagine you don’t really have a typical day, but could you give us an idea of what an average day may entail for you?
Sure. On an average day I might start with a breakfast meeting with somebody at the residence. It might be a senior French business person. Then I might meet with my team. I meet with my team once a week, across the embassy – the diplomatic staff and the local experts. We work ‘en équipe’ and we talk about our priorities and how we’re tracking towards them. I probably go to the Elysée once or twice a fortnight, to discuss priorities between us on the work I’ve mentioned. I also do a lot of media. I do an interview probably once a week, to get these new, fresh perspectives out into the French imagination: that Australia and France have entered a new era, that Australia is a great partner for France, that our society is a highly cultivated, highly sophisticated society where there are huge opportunities for French people to partner. Then I’ll have a lunch; sometimes with a mix of visiting senior level Australians, with our French partners, and often it’s in French and English, which can be an interesting situation! Then I’ll often have something in the public diplomacy space. We do a lot of cultural diplomacy here. In 2021 France will be a focus for our cultural diplomacy, so we’re looking at developing co-productions. I might have a meeting with a head of the Musée de Quai Branly or the Louvre to look at joint exhibitions, maybe with film or opera companies to see what co-productions we could do. Then, given that it is 2018, 100 years after Australia’s contribution to the peace of France and Europe in World War I, I often find myself attending a commemoration. I’ll go up to the Somme and I’ll visit a small town like Bullecourt where the entire town is there to greet me, an incredibly moving experience… All that to say that getting out to the regions, getting around to know France is also an important part of my work. Then there will be a dinner, maybe we’ll have a minister in town. We have a lot of ministerial exchanges between our two countries. I have ministers here next week and I’ll be hosting dinners for them and their counterparts and other partners from France. At the end of the day I have a chance to catch up on my email, just as Canberra’s opening. It’s a very busy but productive time, which reflects just what a great place the relationship is in.
That’s a very full day!
It’s a full day, and the personal is the political. Your life as you live it always touches the relationship in some way. Another highlight for me was when my partner and I posted the video about my proposal to him, after Australia had approved same-sex marriage.
Yes, what feedback did you have from making your proposal so public?
It was 99% positive, from both Australia and France. It was the right timing, I think. It was the right message. People loved that Australia was saying ‘We’ve finally made the breakthrough’. I mean there were people dancing in the streets in Australia. There was euphoria. It was a long-overdue change. It was also important for me to say Australia’s a great place. We built this civilization on the other side of the world in a very diverse region. We’ve managed to build an open, democratic society, making our way in Asia, (China is a big Australia partner), whilst keeping our Western values, the best of that Western heritage: tolerance, respect, equality. I think that observation, what Australia has achieved, was really signaled through the same-sex marriage breakthrough.
My proposal was an example of where the personal is political, the personal is diplomatic. Everything you do speaks about modern Australia, where Australia is at, because you, as the French would say ‘incarnate’ your country as Ambassador, so what you do today sends a message about what’s important to Australia. It’s a very interesting role; you don’t really ever step out of it.