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From Tasmania to the world

From opposite ends of the globe, via Zoom: Professor Nicholas Farrelly, Head of School of Social Sciences, a multi-disciplinary scholar of politics and society, in conversation with Julie Heckscher, Australia’s Deputy High Commissioner in London, who is a strong believer in the cross-fertilisation of ideas.

It’s morning here in Sandy Bay, and I’m delighted to have the chance to talk about some of your experiences, Julie. Could you start by telling us a bit about your Tasmanian story? I understand that you went to Rosetta Primary School and then to St Michael’s Collegiate. What do you remember about Hobart in those days?  

I was a good student and I loved school, but my family wasn’t one with a lot of money. So, it was many small experiences, of going to Regatta Day and ANZAC Day, of going into town at Christmas, and camping – it was always camping for us during the summer holidays. For me, it was always a very warm city. Even though I haven’t lived in Tasmania for a very long time, Hobart and Tasmania are always close to my heart.

So, back then, did you ever consider a career in diplomacy? Was that something that was on your radar?

It wasn’t. Compared to my daughter, who was born in Hobart but was in Russia by the time she was four months old. I didn’t travel because we just didn’t have any money to do it.

So, with that background, what was it that pushed you towards doing Arts/Law at UTAS?

I started with an Arts degree because humanities was where my interests lay, and I switched to Arts/ Law, largely because I was mixing with other people and I wanted to maximise the options and the opportunities for me.

One of the things about the University of Tasmania that was good was that we made friends across faculties. The University built a sense of community, and there was a lot of cross-faculty engagement and mixing.

That was a really significant part for me of the experience of UTAS, and I don’t think you get that at the big universities where the faculties are more inward-focused. Right through my career, I’ve seen the importance of that cross-fertilisation of ideas. You end up with better ideas if there is a process of contestation.

So, now, of course, you’re a senior career officer in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and currently serving as Australia’s Deputy High Commissioner in London. I’m really curious, does your Tasmanian background ever come in handy in your work?

I’m always keen to tell people I’m from Tasmania, and they’re always interested. Tasmania is good copy, and it’s important diplomatic cred these days. For me, Tasmania is part of my history and it’s in my heart, but it’s also part of the story I can bring that I use to build trust and credibility.

It’s really quite incredible to think that having started out at Rosetta Primary, you’ve now got the opportunity to show off some of the very best that Tasmania offers to visitors from around the world. And you’ve represented Australia all around the world. One area where you and I have overlapped, in the past decade, is Southeast Asia. It’s a region that has great beauty, great interest, great history, a great future, and a lot of complexity.

For me, it’s been a long-term love affair. A key focus has been to find creative, interesting, nimble ways of building our relationship with all of the important countries of this region.

When it comes to Southeast Asia, I have always enjoyed our interactions, but it can be hard to know what value researchers bring to the table. In broad terms, what do you think is the role of our academic researchers in supporting Australia’s international relations?

Academics are talking to different people. We are talking to these people too, but in a different way. You’re hearing different things, you’re seeing different things. I’ve always been a believer in taking advantage of your expertise and hopefully giving some value as well.

It goes back to that comment I made earlier, that really, the best ideas we have are ones that are contested and creative, and the importance of introducing ideas from many different sources.

In Singapore, I had the great privilege of being able to engage with so many different academics and think-tanks – not just on Singapore but on the region – and it really got me into the habit of sitting down and testing ideas and theories, and that intersection of policy and research and thinking and academia is immensely valuable.

Finally, if you were advising a young UTAS graduate who is set on a career in DFAT, what are your top tips for success?

If you’re interested in a career in foreign affairs, have a worldview, not a small view. You’ll get asked questions and there’s no right or wrong answer. What people are looking for when you apply, it’s thoughtful answers; answers that show that you’re thinking.

One of the great things I do on my 45-minute walk into work is listening to fabulous podcasts, one of the best developments of the last few years. It is a really challenging, contested world at the moment, there are a lot of complex issues in the US-China relationship, the shape of our own region, the shape of democracy, the recovery of the region from the pandemic and the way that that’s changing relationships, development assistance and the like, all of those things are live issues that are currently being debated a lot, and you can hear all of them on podcasts. I’m a great listener of podcasts.

That’s a great note on which to end, Julie, and thank you for being so generous with your insights from your wide-ranging career. We started with Tasmania, and I think one of the reflections that I might finish with is that this year, perhaps more than any year in our recent experience, is one where that cross-fertilisation, that context building is more crucial than ever and where we need to be able to draw ideas from so many different sources. The fact that your University of Tasmania education appears to have been one part of that story for you and to have set you up for such success is wonderful for everybody back here in your original home to be able to understand.

Picture caption: University of Tasmania alumna Julie Heckscher, Australia’s Deputy High Commissioner in London.

This article featured in the 2020 edition of the University of Tasmania Alumni magazine.

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Published on: 24 May 2021 1:47pm