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Australia in the World: Episode 50

25 Jun 2020
By Allan Gyngell AO FAIIA and Dr Darren Lim
Frances Adamson visited Jakarta on 20-21 November 2017. On his visit, Secretary Adamson met with Deputy Foreign Minister AM Fachir and representatives of the House of Representatives Commission I, as well as visiting Bina Nusantara University, Mosque Jami 'Al-Makmur Cikini, and also saw first hand the WASH Sanitation Hibah program. Source: Australian Embassy Jakarta

Frances Adamson, DFAT Secretary, on our 50th episode.

On the occasion of the podcast’s 50th episode, Allan and Darren are thrilled to welcome Australia’s most senior diplomat and foreign policy official, Frances Adamson, the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the first woman to hold this appointment. The interview was conducted on Wednesday 17 June 2020.

Immediately prior to her appointment as Secretary in August 2016, Frances was International Adviser to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. From 2011 to 2015, she was Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, also the first woman appointed to this role.

Previously, Frances served in the Australian Consulate-General in Hong Kong in the late 1980s during the early years of China’s reform and opening. From 2001 to 2005, she was seconded as Representative to the Australian Commerce and Industry Office in Taipei. She was also posted twice in London, including as Deputy High Commissioner.

She was Chief of Staff to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and then the Minister for Defence from 2009 to 2010.

The conversation begins with Allan asking about how Frances, and the Department, have been dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, and Darren wonders whether the pandemic is upending the traditional practices of diplomacy. The discussion moves to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper – in the time since, has Frances been more surprised by the pace of change, or its direction?

Foreign policy elites have arguably been repudiated by recent political developments, such as Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Allan asks Frances for her views on the political forces behind these events, and what the foreign policy establishment in Australia can learn.

Zooming out, and noting that the international system is in a state of disequilibrium at the moment, Darren asks Frances to describe how she hopes the order will settle over the next few decades. Referring to Foreign Minister’s Marise Payne’s speech the previous evening, Allan asks Frances for more detail about the audit of Australia’s participation in multilateral organisations that was recently completed. Darren asks specifically about the role of “middle powers” – should they specialise given their resources are limited?

The conversation moves to China. With so much material out there, what’s a good entry point for Australians seeking to learn about China, and make sense of the daily barrage of media coverage? What does it mean for both sides to “work harder” to manage the relationship? And Darren asks about the state of debate inside China – are there still live debates about the big questions of international affairs within the Chinese system, and has China made up its mind about Australia?

In the final part of the podcast, Darren asks about the balance between generalists and specialists in Australia’s diplomatic corps, and about effective models of work/life balance that Frances has seen in her career.

As always, we invite our listeners to email us at this address: We welcome feedback, requests and suggestions. You can also contact Darren on twitter @limdarrenj

We thank AIIA intern Maddie Gordon for her help with research and audio editing and Rory Stenning for composing our theme music. On this milestone episode, we also extend our heartfelt thanks to all our past interns. Without their help we could never have come this far. Thank you to Stephanie Rowell, Mani Bovell, Charlie Henshall, James Hayne, Isabel Hancock and XC Chong.

Relevant links

Biography of Ms Frances Adamson:

IPAA Podcast, “Getting Australians Home – The unfolding story: Frances Adamson.

Marise Payne, “Australia and the world in the time of COVID-19”, Speech at the National Security College, ANU, 16 June 2020:

Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China:

Richard McGregor, The Party:

ANU Centre on China in the World, The China Story Yearbook:

China Matters: