The many hurdles of new DFAT boss Frances Adamson

By Michael Sainsbury

Friday July 22, 2016

Can a woman reach the top ranks of the public service without her gender being used against her? Frances Adamson’s key strength is unparalleled in DFAT, writes China correspondent Michael Sainsbury.

It’s apposite and timely that Malcolm Turnbull’s first major appointment to the bureaucracy after the Coalition’s win in the July 2 election is a new head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Frances Adamson, Australia’s former ambassador to China, is Australia’s new top diplomat.

The confirmation that Adamson had topped a short list of six and main contemporary rivals, including Attorney General department head Chris Moraitis and fellow DFAT deputy secretary came as the importance of diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific was ratcheted up by China.

It’s been a fast track to the top for the ambitious — albeit cautious — Adamson, who insiders say has had her sights firmly on the job on she has just been handed: secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Adamson steps up to the top spot at DFAT as the department faces a multiplicity of diplomatic, trade and bureaucratic challenges.

In recent years DFAT has been rent by budget cuts: Australia spends less than any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operations and Development, the integration of Australia’s multi-billion foreign aid program is ongoing and still flabby and Australia’s model of trade engagement through Austrade is widely seen as lacking compared with its peers.

At the fulcrum of Antipodean diplomatic and trade challenges is China. The world’s most populated nation is Australia’s largest trading partner – the country soaks up about A$160 billion a year of this nation’s two-way trade, yet its aggressive push in the South China Sea where it claims a whopping 3.5 million square kilometres of territory that overlaps seven different countries’ exclusive economic (maritime) zones, was last week deemed to be, to it mildly, rubbish by an international court in The Hague.

A belligerent China is clearly prepared not to play by the rules of global multi-lateral relations when it suits, yet we crave China’s investment and custom — it’s an imbalance Australia has almost viscerally refused to address.

In many ways, Adamson should be well placed. Her experience in China is unparalleled in DFAT. Prior to her term as China Ambassador for a little over four years from August 2009, she was the first woman to serve as Australia’s top representative in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, China’s two problem children, if you like. And things are moving quickly.

Through the increasingly politicised diplomatic role, the usual complainants, led by Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, have launched a fresh attack on Turnbull — the conservative leader who has promoted more women to top Cabinet posts than any of his predecessors — for not promoting enough women, in his unexpectedly broad ministerial reshuffle.

Yet with Adamson’s appointment, Turnbull has immediately deflected the ALP’s criticism: it is the latest in a veritable apartment building of glass ceilings the Adelaide-born mother of four has broken through during her rise.

It echoes, in a way, the response of Britain’s new leader Theresa May to the reflexive question “what have the Tories done for women? “answering, indisputably: “they keep making them Prime Minister.”

Adamson joins Heather Smith, recently elevated to head the Department of Communications, as part of a growing group of women who have reached top public service jobs.

Certainly the cards have fallen Adamson’s way. First as Turnbull’s chief foreign policy advisor. For the past nine months, since being replaced in Beijing by Jan Adams, she has been in poll position. As well as her China experience, she served as No 2 in London, a post invariably handed to political appointees — under former Howard government Cabinet minister Richard Alston.

Adamson has the relatively unique benefit of having served as a senior advisor to Labor Foreign Minister, then Defence Minister, Stephen Smith: so any partisan attacks have been neutered. It’s worth noting that her mother was a Liberal state MP in South Australia, so she knows how to play the political game.

Adamson’s appointment had been moved to the urgent column, coming more than 6 months after Peter Varghese cut short the standard 5-year appointment last year after only 3 years in the job, the last card that Adamson needed to fall her way to capture her prize earlier, one suspects, than she could possibly have expected.

Unlike Varghese, who she officially replaces today, Adamson does not necessarily make it look easy. She is studied and wears something of the (not unlikeable) air of the captain of the hockey team. Her greatest strength, as a manager, are her people skills. People who worked with her in Beijing give her top marks as a tough, firm but attentive and responsive boss.

More than a few have suggested in the run up to the appointment that she may miss the gig due to perceived “female friction” with her Minister Julie Bishop. That is unfair and a typically sad indictment of Australia’s dated but very real bloke power elite. In fact, the two women have similar strengths in their abilities to master a brief without rocking any boats, as well as Bishop’s remarkable political longevity and Adamson’s unerring knack for being Johnettee on the spot.

Neither, in the view of diplomats who spoke to The Mandarin, are people who think too far out of the box. But while her move is a loss for PMO, Adamson will be keen to stamp her authority on the department.

Southeast Asia experience is now at a premium in Australia’s top foreign advisory team and must be addressed.

A significant overhaul of Austrade is overdue: it’s bloated, out of date and a weight on the taxpayer, but it’s unlikely Adamson, with little experience in the area, will waste any capital on prodding those vested interests.

As any coach will tell you focus on your strengths, Adamson’s is China and it’s likely she will be judged on that.

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5 years ago

With Adamson’s strengths and past experience, she definitely is the right choice for Australia. Although there were some good contenders well equipped for the position, Chris Moraitis, Greg Moriarty, Nick Warner and Gary Quinlan, but yes Adamson is the right choice as of now.

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