Senate debates

Wednesday, 10 May 2023

Statements by Senators

Gyngell, Mr Allan, AO

12:19 pm

Photo of Penny WongPenny Wong (SA, Australian Labor Party, Minister for Foreign Affairs) Share this | Hansard source

I rise today to pay tribute to Allan Gyngell AO, a friend, colleague and trusted adviser. Allan passed away on 3 May 2023 at the age of 75, and he is missed by many Australians, particularly in the foreign policy community. I want to personally convey my condolences to his family and friends, to his wife, Catherine, and to those in the chamber today: his sons Joe and Christopher; daughters-in-law Chell and Katherine; grandchildren Annie, Maxwell, Heidi and Pippin; and friends Dennis Richardson, Ric Smith and Darren Lim.

So many people in this building, in this city and across the country are mourning the loss of Allan Gyngell. He spent his life dedicated to public service. He made enduring contributions to the public and government debate on foreign and security policy for more than half a century. He was an official and unofficial adviser to governments and oppositions for decades, always in the singular service Australia's national interest. In every venture, as a diplomat, adviser, intelligence analyst, think tank director, historian, professor and podcaster, he left a lasting impact on our country and on all who had the privilege of knowing him.

Allan had a long and distinguished career in Australian international affairs, beginning in what was then called the Department of External Affairs in 1969 and going on to serve as a diplomat in Rangoon, Singapore and Washington. He led the International Division at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and was the senior international adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating. He was the founding executive director at the Lowy Institute and from 2000 until 2013 was head of the Office of National Assessments. In 2017 he became the national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, a role he performed until March this year. He was also an honorary professor at the Australian National University. He was awarded an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2009 for his services to international relations.

Allan Gyngell's contributions to the foreign policy of this nation span decades and many achievements. I want to pause, however, to talk about his earliest years. He joined the foreign service at a time when our country was beginning its long geopolitical realignment towards Asia, and he was motivated to centre Australia's outlook firmly in our region. The way he put it himself was to say:

We were the generation who went to university with the Vietnam War hanging over us and it caused you to pay close attention to the region.

…   …   …

It never occurred to me that I wanted to go anywhere other than Asia. If you wanted to shape the country's future, Asia was where it was going to matter most.

This conviction continued over the years and with his postings in the region, and some of his achievements, such as negotiating the 1995 security agreement with Indonesia and advocating for the innovation of APEC to a leaders-level meeting, spoke to this firm belief.

More recently, Allan became the definitive historian of Australian foreign policy through his 2017 book Fear of Abandonment, updated and reissued in 2021. He understood the importance of chronicling Australia's history as a foreign policy actor to witness the past choices we have faced as a nation and to understand the context for decisions that were taken, and those that were not taken. He relied on history not as a guide for our future but as a tool to understand how we got here. He described the book as 'prologue, not prediction'. To some, 'fear of abandonment', as a title, might have suggested a gloomy outlook for the country. But, on the contrary, Allan Gyngell viewed this national anxiety as:

… the driver of one of the most consistent and commendable aspects of Australia's worldview—its rejection of isolationism; its conviction that Australia needs to be active in the world in order to shape it, and that gathering combinations of allies, friends and ad hoc partners is the best way of doing this.

Allan Gyngell was always optimistic for Australia and ambitious for Australia. He always believed in what our statecraft could achieve, but he was never naive. He was also unfailingly humble; he was clear in his values and beliefs. He listened carefully and was open to a persuasive argument and to evidence. He did not believe that foreign policy thinking was limited to the remit of Canberra or politicians around a cabinet table. He cared deeply about engaging the Australian public on foreign policy issues.

He started the Lowy Institute poll during his years leading that institution, with the belief that understanding public attitudes over time was essential to crafting foreign policy for the nation. He understood that, for foreign policy to maintain the consent of the Australian people, it must be an accurate reflection of our interests and values, of who we are and of what we want. His last project, the Australia in the World podcast, co-hosted with ANU academic, Darren Lim, sought to grapple honestly with the growing complexity of the world Australia faces. His focus was dialogue, centred around ideas and inquiry, rather than pushing an agenda. He knew that responding to our changing circumstances required all of us—the public and policymakers alike—to understand the world around us.

When I spoke at the National Press Club last month, I invited Allan as my guest. I wanted to put on record in his presence my deep appreciation not just for the substance of his contribution but for the manner in which it was made. That day I said he was the finest mind in Australian foreign policy. I also said he had the smallest ego in Australian foreign policy. People laughed, but it was true. I didn't know it would be the last time I saw him.

As foreign minister, and when in opposition, you take forward your big ideas through speeches. As I think back on the past six years, I sought his counsel on so many of my speeches. Allan Gyngell wrote as I wished I could. He had the ability to take abstract and dense concepts and explain them with a clarity that was compelling and essential to foreign policy analysis. He truly understood the meaning of speaking truth to power. He had the intellectual and personal courage to call things as he saw them, and I always listened to him, even when we didn't agree. What I particularly valued about Alan was his ability to question, debate, agree and disagree with such respect for opposing views, and for the enormity of Australia's challenges. So, as we confront these challenges, we will miss him. We will miss his commitment to both contestability and respect, and his passing should remind us of how much better we are, and better off we are, if we take his approach.

It has been so moving to see the outpouring of tributes in the days since he passed—tributes that all speak to his wisdom, to his intellect and to his thoughtfulness. But one characteristic really does stand out. Each and every recollection remembers his generosity with his time, and this is also my experience. Allan Gyngell always made time: to hear an idea, to review a draft speech—even when it was sent to him late at night, with short time frames—to chair a committee and to have a cup of tea. He made time for everyone, whether you were an intern or a foreign minister. We only wish we had had more time.

Allan Gyngell often spoke about a high school teacher fostering his curiosity, sending him off as a teenager to the Australian Institute of International Affairs to listen and to learn, 60 years before he would become the AIIA's national president. He, in turn, encouraged generations of Australians to be curious about our place in the world. He mentored so many of our diplomats, intelligence analysts, academics and writers. Allan Gyngell's legacy lives on in all those whose lives and careers were touched by his leadership and quiet wisdom. I will remember him for his intelligence, his kindness, his wit and his warmth, and also for always finding the time.

I close by again offering my deepest condolences to his family and friends, and particularly to his wife, Catherine, who cannot join us today.


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