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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Vale Andrew Peacock - a personal reflection

Updated: Apr 24, 2021

Former Liberal Party leader, foreign minister and Ambassador to the United States The Hon. Andrew Peacock AC GCL passed away in Austin, Texas last night. Much is being said today - and will be said in the coming days - about his many contributions as a great Australian and a great advocate for Australia on the international stage. There's not much I could possibly add to what is being said on those matters given what is being said by far better qualified commentators than I. Therefore, I thought I might instead make some personal observations having had the honour and pleasure of working for and with him on three separate occasions during my career.

I first worked with Andrew as a political staffer at the Federal Coalition. I had already served as trade advisor to two previous Shadow Ministers for Trade, Charles Blunt and Alexander Downer. Andrew acquired the trade portfolio after a reshuffle of the Hewson Shadow Ministry in April 1994. He "acquired" me along with the portfolio and together we re-wrote the Coalition's trade policy to place a greater emphasis on bilateral trade deals over the multilateral trade approach that had stalled in what was then the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which later became the World Trade Organisation (WTO). (That emphasis on bilateral trade deals was carried into government later by John Howard and resulted in the bilateral Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that have served Australia well for the past 25 years.)

Our working relationship was superb. I truly enjoyed his very dry sense of humour. It was remarkable that we got along so well given that we came from different ends of the economic policy spectrum within the Coalition - he was what was then called a "wet" while I was very much a "dry" or economic rationalist - a matter on which he often pulled my leg. I particularly enjoyed working with him during the 1993 election campaign when he had to traverse the country on whistle stop visits as a high profile member of the Federal Liberal Party. I accompanied him, I am sure, more as bag carrier and general goffer than anything else. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot from him during that election campaign about working tirelessly and maintaining your humour - and composure - when the going gets tough.

My second incarnation with him came after he retired from politics in 1994. I had left Canberra around the same time and, after a short gig with a public affairs company, I had set up my own consulting firm with a particular focus on China. Andrew had commenced doing some consulting work through his various contacts and occasionally subcontracted me to do some backroom work, mainly research and writing. And, for one of his clients, I accompanied him to Guangdong Province in the south of China to look at factories and infrastructure to support an investment in that region. Again, it was an absolute pleasure to travel with him and I learnt much from the way he conducted himself during that visit to the south of China.

I recall with great fondness going out with him for a stroll to visit the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall and getting very lost in the streets of Guangzhou (we didn't have smart phones and Google maps in those days). We were getting very hungry but we were concerned about the street food in the neighbourhood we were in when I spotted a McDonald's restaurant and suggested we eat there. He bravely - perhaps stoically - ate the Big Mac and fries. And then said to me, "that's the first time I have ever eaten McDonald's. It wasn't bad, but I doubt I will ever do so again."

The third time I worked with him was after he had been appointed Ambassador to the United States in 1996. By then I was with the Australian Trade Commission (Austrade) and was appointed Trade Commissioner to Washington, DC. Again, it was a delight to work with him, to observe him up close and to learn about maintaining grace under pressure. In particular I recall two incidents where he had to call me to his office about minor security infringements (e.g., failing to lock a classified document in a safe and for sending some information to Canberra over an open network). While the security infringements were small in the total scheme of things they did require action and warnings by the Ambassador. I recall that he delivered the messages loudly and clearly so that I could not misunderstand the severity of my failures to abide by embassy protocols. I also recall him concluding the meetings with a joke and a "now don't do it again."

After he retired from the Embassy and I concluded my posting and moved to China I only saw him on a few occasions when I visited Australia and we'd catch up over a coffee. One thing that always impressed me at these meetings was that he always remembered the names of my wife and children when inquiring how they were. I don't recall any other politicians that I had worked for remembering all their names. It was quite impressive and quite touching.

Sadly, I had lost contact with Andrew after he retired to the US and my career developed in China.

While Andrew had done many great things for the nation, rising to the highest levels in politics and straddling the world stage, he was an old-style patrician with a common touch and genuine interest in others. He was a true gentleman with a great sense of humour.

I must get a Big Mac in his memory next time I am in Guangzhou.

Vale Andrew Peacock and sincere condolences to all your family and friends.

(Photo of Andrew Peacock with me and our translator at the Dong Fang Hotel in Guangzhou in November 1995.)

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