Vale Richard Woolcott: one of the last great Australian diplomats

Feb 9, 2023
Chairman of the Australian Citizenship Test Review committee Richard Woolcott during a press conference in Canberra, Monday, April 28, 2008. A snapshot report of the citizenship test shows a 95 per cent passing rate. Image: AAP /Alan Porritt

Richard Woolcott leaves a legacy that all modern diplomats could emulate.

Richard Woolcott, generally known as Dick, died on 2 February in Canberra aged 95. He is survived by two sons, Peter and Robert.

Woolcott was one of the last great Australian diplomats, in the wake of those like Sir Arthur Tange and Sir James Plimsoll, who helped forge our international identity in the decades following the Second World War.

This was the period when we developed policies independent of those of the United Kingdom, entered a treaty relationship with the United States, helped build a post war international order and embraced the newly emancipated nations of Asia and the Pacific.

Diplomats need an array of talents. The best diplomats also know how to play their strongest suits. Some rely on a superlative power of intellect. Others are masters of bureaucratic manoeuvre to achieve desired policy outcomes in their own systems.

Woolcott’s strong suits were an outstanding capacity to engage with everybody-from the most elevated to the rest of us; and an ability to communicate -not so much as an orator but with the soft-spoken idiom of perceptions and confidences exchanged.

His charm also belied a persistence of purpose. He could bewitch a group with his ease of manner and then disappear into the night to work.

And he had the stoicism of his era. He was predeceased by his wife, Birgit, and by his daughter, Anna, causing him great sadness. But he was not one to burden others with his sorrow.

Yes, Dick Woolcott was a class act.

By the time Woolcott became Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1988, he had plenty of experience under his belt.

He cut his teeth in Moscow at a torrid time; Stalin’s death in 1953 followed by the hidden turmoil of the Soviet succession. After the Petrov Affair, Woolcott and his colleagues were expelled. He did a second tour in Moscow when Nikita Khrushchev ran the Soviet Union.

He also had postings in South Africa under apartheid and later as High Commissioner to Ghana.

But key to Woolcott’s growing sense of the overwhelming importance of Asia to Australia, were tours in the early sixties in (then) Malaya and Singapore as they emerged from colonialism, and as they dealt with the remnants of what has been a serious communist threat. His time in Singapore coincided with the early stages of Indonesia’s “Konfrontasi” (confrontation) with Malaysia.

The centrality of our immediate region to Woolcott’s world view could only become more pronounced with appointments as Ambassador to Indonesia and then to the Philippines. In both countries, he adhered to his philosophy that you deal with countries as they are, not as you wish them to be.

Indonesia was Woolcott’s toughest challenge. Faced with how Australia should respond to Indonesia’s incorporation of the Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1975, he in effect argued for acceptance of the fait accompli.

Woolcott also had to deal with unjustified media commentary that the embassy had prior knowledge of the likely fate of five Australian journalists killed by Indonesian troops in the East Timorese town of Balibo.

Woolcott always stuck to the view that relations with Indonesia were more important than the single issue of East Timor. Indeed, he opposed the Howard Government’s 1998 policy of advocating a referendum by which the Timorese would choose between autonomy and independence.

Woolcott’s six year tenure in the eighties as Permanent Representative to the United Nations enlarged his already extensive international experience and network. Whilst there, he won – and filled – for Australia, a two-year seat on the Security Council.

One issue in New York showed that however good a diplomat is, he or she can be caught out overnight. When the Americans invaded the small Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983, with ambiguous instructions, Woolcott voted along with 8 NATO countries in favour of a resolution criticising the action. The following day he was asked by Canberra to change his vote. With the whole world there, not a comfortable thing to do.

In his time in Canberra, the roles for which Woolcott will be most remembered were his posts as Foreign Affairs Spokesman in the sixties and as Secretary from 1988-92. In these jobs – as overseas – he demonstrated approaches that all modern Australian diplomats should seek to emulate.

The first was that he never nailed his colours to a particular political mast. He was respected by Menzies and McMahon and by Whitlam, Hawke and Keating. Not for Woolcott the furtive promises of allegiance to the next political cab waiting in the rank.

Second, he was one of those officials who saw the importance to Australia of putting more heft into our regional relationships. He demonstrated this perspective in his regional postings and his work with Hawke and Evans on the creation of APEC. His efforts also helped further Kevin Rudd’s Asia-Pacific Community concept – which ultimately led to the United States and China sitting at the same summit table together with the Southeast Asians, India, Australia and New Zealand. He gave currency to the phrase that Australia should be the “odd man in” the region – not the “odd man out”.

Woolcott’s eminence in furthering our policies in Asia was recognised by Asialink when it awarded him the Weary Dunlop medal in 2008.

Third, he understood that Australian diplomats must engage profoundly with the Australian community, including the media. Regrettably the preference, manifested by the political class over the past decade or so, that diplomats should be seen but not heard, has reduced the understanding in the media and hence the population at large about what diplomats actually do.

Finally, Dick Woolcott was a fine mentor to his juniors and was fun to work with. He was, above all, nice to people.

You will be missed, Dick.


First published in Asialink, February 27, 2023

Editor’s note: 

Richard Woolcott was a regular writer for P&I. A full collection of articles is available on his author page, here

For more on this topic, P&I recommends

RICHARD WOOLCOTT. If the US treats China like an enemy, then it will become one.


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