The first woman to lead Australia’s foreign affairs department, Frances Adamson has been in charge of Australia’s occasionally difficult relations with the world since August last year. The 56-year-old South Australian has spent her career swimming in deep international waters and keeping her head above party politics – even though she has worked closely with politicians, both Labor and Liberal.
As chief of staff for Stephen Smith, foreign affairs minister in the Rudd-Gillard government, Adamson (left, with Foreign Affairs minister Julie Bishop) was known to prefer dealing with the machinations of the world’s largest nations to coping with party political negotiations. More recently, she advised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on international relations and global strategy.
Smith, now a law professor at the University of Western Australia, admires her professionalism. “I was highly impressed from the first moment I met Frances”, he told The Deal. “She was clearly a first class diplomat and DFAT (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) officer, destined to one day lead the Department. Her most important attribute is that she is really smart, but with a great capacity to see things through other people’s perspectives, and how that will play out in public policy and diplomatic terms.
“She is a very good manager of people, and loyal to the staff and the institution she represents, whether that is an overseas mission like Beijing or DFAT itself. Her most recent high profile intervention – Chinese students in Australia- was like most things she does, perfect weight on policy and diplomacy.”
In the time since Adamson began her career in international relations, the high-flying public servant has worked in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China, on a Sinophile track that culminated in her appointment as Australia’s ambassador to China from 2011 to 2015.
Speaking fluent Mandarin, she is widely regarded as a calm and unflustered diplomat who managed to maintain Australia’s largely friendly nations with China, despite the occasional turbulence of the dispute over islands in the South China Sea and the Australian public’s increasing concern about undue Chinese financial and political influence in Australia.
Treading a potentially politically difficult line, recently Adamson has begun to push Australian universities to resist interference from China, telling international students that it was an “affront” to Australian values to try and silence people with different ideas.
In a carefully-calibrated speech to the Chinese government-funded Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide in early October, she encouraged international students to respectfully engage with new ideas. At the same time, she pushed Australian universities, who appear to have been shying away form anything that might impede the lucrative stream of international students from China, to stay true to their values and stand up to external influence.
“We have seen attempts at untoward influence and interference”, Adamson said in the speech. “When confronted with awkward choices it is up to us to choose our response — whether to make an uncomfortable compromise or decide instead to remain true to our values, immune from intolerance or external influence, as Adelaide University’s founders envisaged”.
Adamson presaged this slap on the hand with praise of China’s Confucius Institutes, and how she would have liked to study Mandarin as a university student at one of the institutes. She even quoted Confucius to support her contentions, “As the great man said – “Learning without thought is labour lost;
Thought without learning is perilous”.
The daughter of a former South Australian state Liberal politician, Jennifer Cashmore, Adamson met and married Rod Bunten when she was working in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, and they have four children.
Interested in international affairs from an early age, the budding economics graduate joined Australia’s foreign affairs department in 1985. She was one of a cohort which, for the first time in Australia’s foreign affairs history, had more women than men: 14 to 12. She told the Lowy Institute recently that this historic change was expected to begin the end of gender inequality throughout the department, and there would soon be as many women as men in the diplomatic service.
“To be perfectly frank, I never, and have never in my time in the public service, had a sense of experiencing any kind of discrimination, but there just weren’t many women around”, she said.
But the dramatic change expected in 1985 simply didn’t happen. “Thirty-two years on now”, she added, “there’s still a fair job of work to be done around ensuring that as a nation, as a public service, as a department, as a foreign service, that we’re able to draw to the full extent that we need to, i.e. the full extent, on the diversity of the workforce we have and the broader diversity of Australians”.
Professor, Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University and Senior Fellow, New Technology Group, Intel
Working happily in that rarely-visited no-man’s land between cultural practices and humanity’s sometimes reluctant adoption of technological advances, Professor Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist and a futurist. She ponders the cultural ramifications of various high-tech developments, and considers how these advances might affect society and how ordinary people can navigate the massive technological changes just over the horizon. Poached by the Australian National University after decades living in Silicon Valley, Bell now works for both the ANU and the US technological giant Intel. Chosen to deliver the prestigious ABC Boyer lectures this year, Bell discussed, with laidback humour, that sometimes-alarming interface between people and technology.
Director, Museum of Australian Democracy
Showered with accolades in this year’s ACT Telstra Business Women’s awards, Daryl Karp is the director of the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House in Canberra. The Telstra prize judges said that since Karp took over at the museum in 2013, both visitor numbers and the number of exhibitions and events staged by the institution had doubled. A dynamic businesswoman, Karp has worked as an executive and consultant in Australia’s creative industries for more than 20 years, with strong links to the ABC, SBS, the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, and the Canberra Writers Festival. As CEO of Film Australia from 2004 to 2008, Karp worked to reposition the company, increasing production and energetically pushing for bigger audiences.
Chief winemaker, Vasse Felix
One of the most highly-regarded women winemakers in Australia, Virginia Willcock has been in charge of refining and perfecting the Margaret River region’s luscious Vasse Felix vintages since 2006. Born into a wine-loving family, she considers it a privilege work with the critically-acclaimed Vasse Felix wines, made from grapes grown on vines in possibly the world’s most remote wine-growing region – the arid coastal plains south of Perth. A recognised authority on Margaret River winemaking, the award-winning Willcock has narrowed the Vasse Felix focus to concentrate on the famed Margaret River cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner
From the remote town of Fitzroy Crossing in Western Australia’s wild Kimberley region, June Oscar is seen as one of the up-and-coming stars in the nation’s firmament of Indigenous leaders. A bold and lyrical speaker, and passionate in her battle to further Indigenous aspirations, Oscar has fought to control alcohol abuse in Aboriginal communities, successfully campaigning to reduce full-strength alcohol sales in the Fitzroy Valley region in 2007. She has campaigned, too, against Fetal Alcohol Spectrum disorder, which damages a frightening proportion of babies in the Kimberley. Awarded an Order of Australia in 2013 after many years of tireless advocacy, Oscar was appointed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner earlier this year.
Chief Executive Officer, Austrade
With three decades of relevant experience in academia and the workforce both in Australia and abroad, Dr Stephanie Fahey was well-positioned to become the first female chief executive of Austrade – the body in charge of Australia’s important international trade promotion and marketing. In the months since her appointment earlier this year, Fahey seems to have shaken up the venerable institution. Intent on navigating the turbulent waters of the new world order, the former deputy vice-chancellor at Monash University wants to push Austrade into the front row of world trade organisations. As Fahey has said, this era of geo-political and technological change demands new thinking.