Allan Gyngell, immediate past president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, will be remembered as one of Australia’s greatest thinkers on foreign policy. But his impressive and unparalleled contribution to the practice and debate on Australia’s place in the world never overshadowed his humility and kindness.
Because he was never one to rest on his significant laurels, Allan’s death this morning, while surrounded by family and friends, will leave a gaping hole in the foreign policy community in Canberra. In her recent speech to the National Press Club, Foreign Minister Penny Wong lauded Allan’s role as “an official and unofficial adviser to governments for decades, always in singular service of Australia’s national interest.” Allan was, according to Wong, the “finest mind in Australian foreign policy.”
Over the next few days, the tributes for Allan will pour in. Dr Heather Smith, who replaced Allan as AIIA National President barely one month ago, has echoed Wong’s sentiments, noting that “Allan brought clarity, wisdom, insight, foresight and great humility to our national discussions. He had no hesitation in speaking truth to power. Our nation is poorer for his passing.”
Despite the ease with which he moved among Canberra’s foreign policy elite, Allan was not imbued with a sense of his own importance. His wit could be incisive, but it was seldom, if ever, malign. He treated everybody as an equal and was always modest.
Indeed, my fondest memories of him were of his interaction with the interns and staff of the institute. At the AIIA, Allan invested time in making people feel important, asking them about their work and their background, and thanking them for their service to the institute.
He was active in nurturing younger talent, paying particular attention to the editors, often students, who worked on Australia in the World, the popular podcast he produced regularly with Australian National University academic Darren Lim. Australian Outlook columnist Isabella Keith has mentioned to me how she, along with the podcast editors, cherished invitations to Allan’s home for dinner.
Allan’s attention to the institute’s younger members may have sprung from his own early interactions with the AIIA. One of his favourite anecdotes was of his high school teacher recognising his interest in international affairs and sending him with a note to the Victoria branch of the institute to let him sit in on its meetings. Allan, in relating this story, explained better than anyone else why the AIIA does what it does. He himself noted that it was these interactions that led him on the path to his career.
And what a career it was. After diplomatic postings in Southeast Asia and the United States, Allan returned to Canberra to work in the Office of Prime Minister and Cabinet. From 1993 to 1996 he was a foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Australia’s former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans notes that after Allan was appointed as executive director of the Office of National Assessments (ONA), his penchant for bringing rigorous analysis in a “sharp-edged, relevant, and insightful way” to both secret and open-source intelligence “expanded a tradition of contestability in the Australian intelligence community.” Evans believes current Australian intelligence officials have much to learn from Allan’s example.
Allan’s former colleague John McCarthy, another past president of the AIIA, holds that Allan’s “most important legacy was his untiring work in government, particularly as the head of the ONA, and in the leadership of organisations such as the AIIA and the Lowy Institute. This leadership, above all, raised Australian public awareness of the challenges and opportunities in our own region.”
Indeed, AIIA National Vice President Zara Kimpton has stressed Allan’s enthusiasm to make knowledge, understanding, and engagement in international affairs accessible to all Australians, noting that it was under his tenure as president that the institute opened new branches in South Australia and the Northern Territory and is now present in every state and territory capital city in Australia.
Allan will also be remembered for his own scholarship. He was a director of the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum and an adjunct professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. His Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World since 1942, first published in 2017, is widely regarded as the essential current single-author history of Australian foreign policy. Allan was also a frequent contributor to the nation’s broadsheets, and his writing featured in the first issue of the popular quarterly Australian Foreign Affairs.
Allan was appointed as an Officer in the Order of Australia in 2009 for services to international relations. In 2010, the AIIA made him one of its Fellows to recognise his extraordinary contribution to thought and practice on Australian foreign policy. His term as president of the institute started in 2017 and lasted until the end of March this year.
One of the tragedies of his demise is that he had so much more to give. Allan was an active contributor to multiple foreign policy forums and events, and he mentioned how he looked forward to participating in the events of our institute in a more informal capacity once he had stepped down as national president. He had planned to keep up with his beloved podcast, which found an enthusiastic audience in government and beyond.
Messages coming into the institute today from our board and close associates speak of sadness and shock, but also of the great privilege of having known Allan. Smith notes that “the AIIA has been enriched by his leadership and I humbly seek to honour and build on his enormous legacy. Personally I have lost my great mentor and a very dear friend.”
In this, she is in good, if devastated, company.
Our thoughts at this difficult time are with Catherine, Allan’s wife, and their family.
Dr Bryce Wakefield is the National Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.