The confusing and wasteful role of the States in our foreign relations

Aug 30, 2020

The role of the States in relations with foreign countries has been raised by Scott Morrison. It has an unfortunate anti-China ring about it but he is correct to assert the primacy of the Commonwealth in foreign relations. In Japan, in the late 1970’s  I found state commissioners a pest. They confused Japanese ministers and officials.

At the conclusion of my posting in Tokyo in the late 1970’s I reported to Foreign Minister Peacock as follows.

“I have been concerned that over the last eighteen months the number of Commonwealth Ministers visiting Japan has been so few. In the same time there have been a large number of state 203 premiers and ministers. State government aspirations in Japan are a wasteful fact of life but we should not let the Commonwealth’s ministerial role go by default.

The only two state premiers the Japanese took seriously were Sir Charles Court and Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen. They had resources for sale, were development-minded and well-disposed to business.

When Mick Shann had been Ambassador before me, Sir Charles Court, on his calls around Tokyo, roundly criticised the Commonwealth Government and Rex Connor. Mick Shann chose not to accompany him and cramp his style. When he came when I was Ambassador, and at the request of Doug Anthony, I insisted that I went with him to try to protect the Commonwealth’s interest. I hope that my presence restrained him somewhat. I found him good company. He always presented well and was highly regarded.

Joh Bjelke-Petersen was an embarrassment. He came to Japan bellowing like a bull about how he was going to tell the Japanese that they had to take more beef and coal from Queensland. Bureaucrats would politely hear him out. He was never particularly coherent.

Having failed to present his case effectively, he would issue press statements saying how he had been telling the Japanese what they had to do. His statements bore little resemblance to what he had said in the meetings I attended with him.

New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia had offices in Tokyo. At the Embassy we held monthly discussions with their commissioners to share information and to try to promote the national interest. I told them what I was doing, the issues that were before us and who was likely to visit. I would then invite them to report what they were doing.

After the first two meetings, it was very clear I wasn’t getting anything from them. My initial reaction was to feel that they were holding out, playing the political game that I had seen so much of in Canberra. But I came to the view that they were not doing anything significant. They had little to report except the improvement in their golf handicaps.

The Secretary of one State Premier’s Department told me that most of the reports he received from their Commissioner in Tokyo were extracts from the Japan Times; not occasional extracts but long articles to which he attached his name.

The Treasury official at the Embassy prepared a monthly report on the Japanese economy which I gave to the state commissioners. That report was invariably floated down to Australia as a report, with suitable topping and tailing, from the state office.

The states were an awful waste of money and confusing to the Japanese, but they were something I had to learn to live with.

It is not surprising that New Zealand, with no states and with only one Tourist Commission, has a much clearer focus and identity in Japan than Australia.”


I don’t think much has changed about the waste and confusion that the states cause in pretending they have a serious role in foreign relations in Japan, China , US, UK or elsewhere.

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