Condolence Motion Allan Gyngell
House of Representatives, 11 May 2023
Allan Gyngell was one of Australia's greatest public servants. He was happy to be a member of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's famous class of 1969, alongside Sandy Holloway, Rick Smith and John Dauth.
I first met Allan 30 years after that, in 1999. I was the Labor Party's trade adviser, reaching out to experts on behalf of my boss, Senator Peter Cook. As a 27-year-old staffer I was just the conduit for the shadow trade minister, but Allan took an interest in me and helped mentor me in my career. I'm not sure I ever knew anyone so influential yet so modest.
Allan Gyngell had served as foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating. He represented Australia in Myanmar, Singapore and Washington DC. He was curious and insightful about the world. As we walked to the Washington DC metro on a summer day in 2000, I remarked on how green Washington DC is. Allan offered the observation that the story of white settlement in the United States was one of settlers moving west, finding more verdant lands, expanding populations, and pushing further west. By contrast, Allan said, the story of white settlement in Australia is one of expeditions like Burke and Wills, tragic stories of failed explorations in the desert. And that, Allan said, is why America has more than 10 times the population of Australia.
When I studied in the United States I fell in love with a young American lass and wanted to impress her when I brought her back to Australia. Allan offered to lend us his Kings Cross apartment. It was the perfect base to explore the city. The only risk I was worried about was that I was secretly planning to propose marriage to Gweneth, and I was worried she might tip to my plans if she learned that I'd borrowed the apartment from a bloke who'd just finished helping Paul Keating on a book titled Engagement.
Allan served as the inaugural executive director of the Lowy Institute, shaping the country's pre-eminent foreign policy think tank over his six years at the helm. In 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd phoned Allan to ask him to head the Office of National Assessments, Australia's top intelligence body. As Kevin recalled:
Allan was holidaying on the Amalfi Coast at the time. It was a mark of the man that two decades after leaving the public service, he was prepared to not just cut his holiday short, but to serve his country once again.
As Director-General of the ONA, Allan had access to Australia's most tightly held secrets, yet he was still curious about how his agency could engage with outside thinkers, inviting in university professors to discuss how ONA could improve its work. Allan was close to the world of power but constantly engaged with the world of ideas.
In 2003 he and Michael Wesley wrote Making Australian Foreign Policy, a key foreign policy text. In 2017 he wrote Fear of Abandonment: Australia in the World Since 1942. More recently, he and Darren Lim produced the podcast Australia in the World, whose 112th episode came out on 4 April. As Darren noted:
He'd tell me, for example, that every Australian government "discovers" India at least once in its time in office, or that there are certain things all Australian leaders must say when giving speeches about the US alliance, although those differ by political party.
Darren went on to say:
Allan was relentlessly curious to hear my theorist's take on events, and he was utterly respectful of my views. Allan was someone who could be persuaded. He would always engage, giving me the space to make my point and, when necessary, he had the patience to teach me when my theorising took me far past the bounds of reality.
Allan was a prolific producer of ideas. On the Lowy Institute's Interpreter blog, Vafa Ghazavi listed five of Allan's big ideas, as follows:
First, incorporate an Indigenous element in the ceremonial welcome of foreign heads of state and government to Australia. … Second, craft problem-solving coalitions in response to emerging global challenges. … Third, resource the foreign service properly. … Fourth, use foreign policy speeches on hard challenges. … Fifth, don't securitise everything.
Allan was a great mentor to young people. As executive director of the Lowy Institute he not only hired staff but worked to shape them into better thinkers and communicators. He encouraged people to read deeply and travel widely. When he came to our home in recent years he was always keen to hear what our three young boys were doing and what they thought. He probably knew more than anyone in the room, yet he wanted to listen more than to talk.
Allan had a mighty impact on public policy. At the National Press Club recently the foreign minister singled Allan out for special mention, noting:
Allan has been an official and unofficial adviser to governments for decades, always in singular service of Australia's national interest.
He is the definitive historian of Australian foreign policy. He is the finest writer about Australian foreign policy. He is, frankly, the finest mind in Australian foreign policy. And possibly also the smallest ego in Australian foreign policy.
I emailed Allan to say how chuffed I was to see his intellect and modesty acknowledged. He replied:
Thanks Andrew. My analytical instincts tell me there was a bit to be tested in the judgements, but it was very nice to hear, particularly as one of my children was in the audience.
It was vintage Allan Gyngell. My condolences to his widow, Catherine, and to their sons.