T&T, Australia in mutual, deepening friendship


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Category: International 23 Oct 11


As you read this, my interviewee in this series Philip Kentwell, as Australian High Commissioner to T&T, would have already met Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar and her party who arrived yesterday in Perth for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM-October 28-30) amidst tight security alongside dignitaries from 54 member states, royalty, and entourages. As this interview reveals Mr Kentwells’ 35 years in the Australian Foreign Service has been nothing short of an odyssey of discovery of the beauty and suffering of humanity in equal measure.

Q:  What can Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar expect in Perth?

A: The Prime Minister and her party, including Foreign Affairs and Communications Minister Dr Suruj Rambachan, Trade Minister Stephen Cadiz , Energy Minister Kevin Ramnarine, and Minister of Culture Winston Peters would have arrived yesterday in Perth amidst tight security, in a thronging airport as some 3,000 delegates and 1,000 media representatives arrive for CHOGM 2011. Western Australia is known for wild flowers. The PM will see bursts of spring colour everywhere. Perth is a modern energy city with a strong skyline, with among the tallest buildings in the world, overlooking the Swan River.

Prime Minister Kamla Persad- Bissessar as Commonwealth Chairperson-in-Office will be making Commonwealth history at CHOGM this year as the Chair will be passed from one woman to another (Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard) in the presence of a third key woman (Head of the Commonwealth Queen Elizabeth II). Apart from her opening address at CHOGM, the PM will speak at the Commonwealth Business Forum, and the Royal Commonwealth Society. Mrs Persad-Bissessar will also have a bilateral meeting with our PM, Julia Gillard and both will attend a “Women in Leadership” meeting at our Prime Minister’s invitation. T&T’s PM will also meet with the Australian Governor General, Ms Quentin Bryce and will meet members of the Caribbean Diaspora. We are thrilled at this meeting of our two nations at such a high level and our mutual, deepening friendship. 

Tell me about yourself.

My parents lived in Japan when I was a child. Growing up in a foreign country, with a father for a teacher and a mother with a lively and curious intellect had a deep-rooted impact on me, and whet my appetite for diverse cultures, religions and landscapes which led me to my career in the foreign office. When I was 25, I was given my first overseas post and took my new bride Dorothy to Bagdad, Iraq. I was nowhere psychologically prepared for neither its glorious countryside, ancient priceless architecture, palaces and mosques, remnants of the Islamic golden age nor for the suffering of ordinary citizens worn down by conflict of bigger political dimensions over which they had no control.

Living with the people of the Middle East I understood more about the challenges faced by people who have a legitimate right to their own nation. Extremist points of views are often a reaction to a set of circumstances, and it is vital that we understand this and tackle the problem at its root. From Bagdad we were posted to Tokyo where I spent 18 months as vice council. Working with Australian citizens in a foreign country, dealing with the fears and challenges of people who were detained, arrested, struggling with child custody, divorce, or death of a family member in a foreign country showed me the human face of diplomacy.

I left the Foreign Service briefly and joined the immigration department in Thailand doing refugee selection work after, which left an indelible mark. Interpreters and refugees had to line up in the hot sun in South East Asia to be interviewed by someone who could change their lives forever. It was a huge responsibility to do justice to refugees wanting to come to Australia. I can never forget the aunt and niece who arrived in Thailand by boat. They had been attacked by pirates, and raped, watched their husbands, children and fathers being slaughtered. There were times during the interviews when we all broke down crying. At the end of the day I was emotionally exhausted but it was the most rewarding work I’d done. This showed me how vulnerable we can all be to the environment we live in.

The Solomon Islands was my first exposure to Small Island Developing States, where my wife Dorothy and I learned to appreciate the hardships faced by people who live in very remote islands disconnected from the developed world, and basic technology, living hand to mouth. Dorothy had the remarkable experience of a women’s conference to which women had travelled for days by canoe to attend. Like any job there are constraints. One has to be professional and judicious. Still, we have unique and unusual experiences as diplomats which break down stereotypes. You don’t see the colours in the desert of Jordan, for instance, unless you are in it, with its changing light, gold and crimson dust, exquisite rare black irises, or the vivid colours of the mountain people of Iraq the Kurds, or of the hill dwellers of Thailand, or the resilience of human beings as we saw in Cambodia after the slaughter of millions under Pol Pot.

What was your first impression of T&T?

I remember my father saying to me: “Philip, if you want to understand a country you need to listen to their music.” I had the curious experience of strolling near the opera house one evening in Sydney and hearing this amazing sound which I followed. It was a steel pan player busking with a Trini flag behind him. He was my first experience of T&T. The music here is so vibrant, from soca, steel pan, calypso, to parang, drums and sitar. That sense of warmth and vibrancy of your people has stayed with me.

You’ve had an influx of illegal immigrants—the boat people from Afghanistan,

Iraq, Sri Lanka. How is Australia handling this?

Australia has and will continue to welcome people of the world from all 192 countries of the UN, (and more) legal immigrants and genuine refugees who have made wonderful citizens, added needed value to our expanding economy, helped our small population of 22 million grow and made us culturally diverse. We grow Asian specialty green vegetables and export them back to Asia. Our capital in Canberra (we have eight capital cities) looks like a UN city, with architecture out of Fiji, India, New Guinea, Japan, India, Thailand, America, the UK and others.

It would be a challenge for any Aussie to define anything generic about us other than our love for sport, (especially cricket) and the outdoors since we are such a blended country, which is what we love about ourselves. The Australian Government wants greater control over people who are not genuine refugees, who are being exploited by people traffickers getting rich off exposing Afghanis, Iraqis and people from Sri Lanka in particular to the dangers of the sea. Australia has a huge coastline so it’s easy to land by boat, so we have to negotiate with other countries on how we can manage this situation.

Like us, you are a natural resource-based economy based on coal, iron ore etc.

Do you expect the Australian economy to continue doing well?

Like all economies we are prone to external forces such as the global financial crisis which began in ’08. We are watching Europe’s crisis with concern and relieved that the US economy is starting to recover. We are lucky in that we are commodities-based, and linked to the growth economies of China, India and Japan. However, our government is very conscious that our previous two budgets have operated in deficit. We are under pressure and working towards a budget surplus by building on export revenues and other measures.

Australia is a big player on climate change. Elections were won and lost on climate change. However, your per capita CO2 greenhouse gasses are ridiculously high because you produce coal. Our Prime Minister Julia Gillard has pushed through vital carbon tax legislation, a debate begun by Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd during his term as PM. Effective next July, the Government will impose a carbon tax which will have a direct impact on every Australian as almost everything has a carbon connection. 

What would Australia like to get out of CHOGM 2011 in Perth?

Australia will address the challenges of food security, sustainable development, recovery from the global financial crisis and climate change. A key point of discussion at the Commonwealth and Small countries meeting will be youth disengagement. One major Australian objective is to also lobby G20 members to accept the responsibility to represent the interests of small developing vulnerable states.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur