Richard Woolcott AC

The diplomat who influenced the Australian way of thinking about international politics.

Richard Woolcott

Location: Various 

Richard Woolcott’s international influence extends far beyond one country. His esteemed career as one of Australia’s finest diplomats took him to Malaysia, Russia, the Philippines, Ghana, Singapore, New York and Indonesia, and he can rattle off a list of prime ministers he’s advised, from Menzies through to Rudd. ‘I covered a lot of the world in there with those ministers,’ he says.

In these advisory roles, Richard (TC 1946, Senior Fellow), now 92, was strong is his belief that Australia needed to work on building strong relationships with its closest neighbours. His goal was to shift attention from the United States to Asia, and it was under Richard’s guidance that Harold Holt famously proclaimed that Australia is geographically part of Asia. 

‘Most countries look north,’ says Richard. ‘And when Australia looks north, what does it see? It sees China, and of course, India too. So I’ve always argued that we need to focus more on the countries in our own region, particularly China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and to a lesser extent, Laos and Cambodia.’ 

Richard’s career highlight is his part in establishing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), which has grown from 12 to 21 member countries since its inception in 1989, while he considers his posting to Indonesia as Ambassador (1975-77) to be one of his most important roles. Hence, he holds Indonesia particularly close to his heart.

Richard’s other prominent roles included Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Ambassador to the Philippines, High Commissioner to Ghana, Ambassador to the United Nations, and former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s Special Envoy. He also fit in a stint as Trinity’s President of the Union of the Fleur-de-Lys in 1993.

This string of accolades came about in a somewhat peculiar way. Richard attended a school that unconventionally offered Russian language classes and he went on to become a Russian-English interpreter. He would then join the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and take a two-year posting to Russia (to be the first of two). The rest is history, which Richard has captured in two books – The Hot Seat and Undiplomatic Activities – and will be expanded on in a new four-part book series that will drill into his experiences working in the countries he spent the most time in. When asked whether he received any poignant advice throughout his 50-year diplomatic career, Richard responds with a laugh: ‘I was always the one giving the advice.’ He does, however, credit life at the forefront of Australian and international politics as being both demanding and interesting. ‘I never expected my career would be so full,’ he says.