In late December of last year, Scott Morrison’s government in Canberra announced that it had appointed the former president of the Australian Senate, Scott Ryan, as Australia’s next High Commissioner to Canada. While some critics have lambasted such political appointments, it is symbolic of the changing face of diplomacy and is built on the legacy of similar highly successful appointments.
Ryan’s appointment comes at a time when both Australia and Canada can benefit from greater synergy across a range of foreign policy issues, chiefly how two like-minded middle powers can work together in the face of the primary shared challenge of Beijing’s omnipresent belligerence.
Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine is a reminder of how quickly things can change globally and just why we should not take for granted the security and stability that has allowed our two countries to flourish.
As middle powers, both countries have become vulnerable in a global system where international institutions are increasingly contested and undermined. Both I and John Blaxland have argued before that the questions presented by great power competition, environmental catastrophe and more warrant closer collaboration between our broadly like-minded liberal democracies and free-market economies.
However, as readers are acutely aware, Australia has found itself particularly captured by the challenge of a rampant Beijing. From unilateral trade strikes to the arbitrary arrest of Australian citizens to ham-fisted attempts to sway Australian public opinion, the Canberra-Beijing relationship will not thaw anytime soon.
The re-elected Trudeau government has also borne a significant degree of scrutiny from Beijing, with global attention most notably captured by the plight of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
In such situations, where both diplomatic and economic coercive methods are thrust onto lesser-sized countries, collective resistance and a deepening of strategic co-operation is key. When isolated, countries like ours remain further susceptible to such brazen acts of bullying and intimidation. This is why U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to the support of Australia when he told the media in 2021 that “the U.S. will not leave Australia alone on the field in the face of economic coercion by China.”
Our newsletter about the public service.
Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.
It therefore should not be a surprise to anyone that Prime Minister Scott Morrison tapped one of Australia’s most recently retired and highly respected senators to lead Australia’s mission in Ottawa. Former politicians carry unique capabilities that can be valuable in a changing diplomatic landscape that places a growing emphasis on an ability to have immediate and high-level access at home and abroad.
A glimmer of their achievements at times shines through. In one such instance, it was Ambassador to the United States Arthur Sinodinos’s unique political nous that helped pivot the Biden administration away from their initial preference to support the candidacy of Cecilia Malmström to head the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – the result saw Australia’s former finance minister Mathias Cormann win an extremely narrow vote to lead one of the world’s most prestigious multilateral organizations.
Similarly, Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom George Brandis has built a plethora of highly valuable political bridges within the U.K. cabinet. It was his close relationship with U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid that was the inception to the rapid procurement of vaccines via a “jab-swap” deal last year.
You may laugh or cringe at the reports of Brandis and U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss “cutting shapes” in a Manchester nightclub at 2 a.m., but Brandis has said before that “politics always attracted the weird and wonderful,” and diplomacy and politics are overlapping worlds.
The direct channels to political and business circles are a paramount feature of a wise-political appointment and in this circumstance, Ryan arrives with both political legacy and a rolodex that is the envy of many.
At a time marked by geopolitical turbulence, upholding, advocating and prosecuting the case for the rules-based international order, which has delivered unparalleled benefits globally, is integral. Here, both Australia and Canada stand to benefit from strategic alignment in a range of international fora, including the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the OECD.
While Beijing’s rampant behaviour makes the case for greater co-operation, there is a mutual spectrum of challenges that will provide a firm basis for a deepening of bilateral relations, ensuring that Australia’s mission in Ottawa captures increasing amounts of attention back in Canberra – from matters relating to the global economy, the Five Eyes alliance, human rights and even on space co-operation.
It is time for the Australia-Canada relationship to be strengthened, and Ryan’s appointment will help accelerate just that.