What happens when an ambassador is recalled?

By David Donaldson

Friday May 1, 2015

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has announced he will recall Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia in protest against the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. But what will ambassador Paul Grigson actually do once he returns to Australia?

It seems likely Grigson will work at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade head office in Canberra, if the recent past provides any indication.

High commissioner to Fiji James Batley was expelled from the island nation following a deterioration in relations after the 2006 coup that brought Frank Bainimarama to power.

The new high commissioner, Margaret Twomey, was appointed in 2012 and spent her time awaiting Fiji’s agreement to resume relations working as the head of the department’s Policy Planning Branch. The High Commission in Suva reopened on Thursday.

The government is being cagey about how long Grigson will be withdrawn for and what he’ll be doing instead. A spokesperson for DFAT told The Mandarin: 

“While in Canberra, Ambassador Grigson will meet the Foreign Minister, senior DFAT officials and other agencies as appropriate to discuss the way forward in the relationship with Indonesia.”

Earlier this week former foreign minister Gareth Evans suggested Grigson should spend around three months back in Australia and that the government should be clear from the outset how long he will be gone.

Grigson was previously deputy secretary and head of the Americas, International Security, South and West Asia, Middle East and Africa, Pacific, Europe and Protocol Divisions — “one of only five deputy secretaries, so very senior and working directly under the secretary, Peter Varghese”, Lowy Institute research fellow Alex Oliver told The Mandarin.

“He’s a newly appointed ambassador to Indonesia, so presumably he’ll return to a senior acting position, perhaps in relation to southeast Asia, to keep his hand in so to speak.

“It appears from the conduct of the Indonesian government that the general (and basic) diplomatic courtesies between the two countries had broken down in relation to this issue, given the Indonesians’ failure to provide formal notification of the deaths of the two Australian citizens.

“It will be interesting to see how long this lasts,” she says.

While the government has been keen to emphasise the “unprecedented” nature of its decision to withdraw Grigson, relations have hardly been perfect before this latest rough patch. In response to revelations Australia attempted to listen in on phone calls by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia was recalled in late 2013 and was absent for six months.

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