University of Melbourne Magazine

Her Excellency

  • As a senior diplomat, Margaret Twomey has learnt to expect the unexpected. That means everything from coups to cyclones, writes Val McFarlane.

    Margaret Twomey

    Margaret Twomey in the High Commission grounds in Suva. Image: Konrad Thorpe

    She’s across the Russian classics, knows the right protocol for every occasion, and is attuned to the smart chat heard in diplomatic circles across the world. She’s a model of calm and tact.

    Even so, Margaret Twomey’s temperament is sometimes tested.

    Such as in February this year, when Cyclone Winston smashed into Fiji with devastating results. Entire villages were wiped out. More than 40 people were killed.

    As Australia’s High Commissioner in Suva, our most senior diplomat in Fiji, Twomey (BA(Hons) 1984, St Mary’s College) has vivid memories of the day Winston struck.

    All communications were lost. “We didn’t know what had happened to people on different islands, it was just silence. It was quite disturbing and eerie,” she recalls.

    While traumatic for all involved, the disaster was an opportunity for Twomey to do what she does best: get things done.

    The career public servant’s no-nonsense approach – coupled with a sense of humour – has propelled her rise through the diplomatic ranks, with postings in Belgrade, London, East Timor and Russia, as well as two stints in Fiji.

    It’s not always been a smooth ride, and not just because of the forces of nature.

    During her first posting, in Yugoslavia, civil war broke out. In 2000, just six weeks into her first posting to Fiji as Deputy High Commissioner and the day after her boss went on leave, there was a civilian coup.

    A few years later, while serving as Ambassador to East Timor, severe civil unrest required Twomey to negotiate the return of Australian peacekeepers in a bid to restore calm.

    Her return to Fiji, which she said was a ‘surprise’, came after a difficult period in Australia-Fiji relations.

    Twomey was nominated to the post in 2012, but it was not until 2014 that she was able to take it up, after the Australian Government dropped the last of the sanctions it imposed on Fiji after its 2006 military coup.

    “Good things come to those who wait,” she says. “They had elections in September 2014 and I arrived in November 2014, so it was a good time for a fresh start between Australia and Fiji. We just got on with doing things.”

    For the modern diplomat, those “things” can be almost anything.

    Twomey is as likely to be found in cargo pants as in a cocktail dress, and she thrives on the variety.

    “Never been bored in my life,” she smiles. As the Commonwealth equivalent of an ambassador, she manages the Australian diplomatic mission in Suva, and acts as Australia’s representative on the ground, talking to the Fijian Government on issues of mutual interest.

    The clichés about the glamorous life of an envoy are not entirely untrue.

    She does attend events where she mingles with the great and the good – but it’s not for fun. “The point of those gatherings is to network, because the whole point of diplomacy is knowing who’s doing and thinking what, where the influencers are,” she says.

    “It’s about knowing who to call when something happens and you need to engage quickly. It’s about having the right person on speed dial and being able to have that conversation.”

    Public speaking is another important part of the role. “It’s all about letting people know who you are and what your government is about. It’s all part of the mix. Diplomacy is about widely varying demands in widely varying places. I wouldn’t say all of us find all the dimensions either easy or enjoyable, but, if you’re not prepared to do it all, you’re not going to be a successful diplomat.”

    Margaret Twomey

    Margaret Twomey outside St Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

    Twomey says the role she enjoys most is explaining “the vibe” in her host country to the Australian Government.

    “That term has been somewhat discredited by The Castle, but there is truth in there!” she says.

    “We all look at the world and its issues through different prisms and constructs. We can all sit in Canberra and say this approach to this problem is the logical, sensible way and if it’s innately logical then we shouldn’t have any trouble convincing other countries that this is the way it should be approached.”

    By explaining “the vibe”, that is, the way an issue is perceived on the ground, diplomats can add real value to the formulation of foreign policy.

    Wherever she works, Twomey, who describes herself as a “respectable soprano”, likes to join a local choir to integrate as much as possible into the community.

    However, the degree of integration this achieves varies.

    She tells of performing with local singers in East Timor: “We had to have uniforms made – long-sleeved, down-tothe-ground dresses, polyester, light blue with yellow rick-rack. Not my colours! The idea was for us all to look the same, but when the conductor said ‘All rise’, I rise one foot above everyone else in my row.”

    “The whole point of diplomacy is knowing who’s doing and thinking what, where the influencers are.”

    Twomey wanted to be a diplomat from the age of 12, when her mother suggested the career might be a good match for her interest in languages, history and travel.

    However, growing up in Shepparton, in country Victoria, she doubted it would ever happen.

    “I always knew it was going to be very competitive, so I didn’t actually think I had a realistic chance. I don’t think that country kids are as confident about their prospects as city kids are,” she says.

    She was accepted to Melbourne, studying Russian (“to test myself”), as well as French, Politics and German, and thrived in the supportive, tolerant environment of St Mary’s College.

    She joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) in 1988, determined to seize whatever opportunities arose.

    “You can spend time in Canberra waiting and waiting for your dream posting and still not be guaranteed of getting it. I don’t think that sort of fixation is the best way to approach a career with DFAT. You have to be open to the many opportunities it presents – opportunities to do things you’d never even thought of.”

    Her first posting, in 1990, was to Belgrade in what is now Serbia, as Third Secretary, a junior-level diplomat.

    “It was just exhilarating. From the day I got there I realised this is what I want to do,” she says.

    Next stop was London, then Fiji and East Timor, interspersed with spells in Canberra.

    In 2008, she finally landed her dream posting – Ambassador to Russia.

    She was in Moscow for more than four years, and loved finally being able to use the language skills she had learnt at university.

    While she had always been more interested in Russian language and linguistics than literature, she found her knowledge of both invaluable.

    “I now realise that you cannot work effectively in Russia without knowing the difference between your Dostoyevsky and your Tolstoy,” she says. “I knew about that. It really enhanced the level of respect I got from our Russian interlocutors.”

    She is now halfway through her three-year posting to Fiji and has no idea what she’ll do after that.

    “I don’t take any of it for granted,” she says. “In Moscow, I used to have to go past St Basil’s Cathedral and Red Square twice a day. I never once failed to stop and appreciate it, because it was always so stunning. It never got less stunning.

    “And in Fiji, I wake up in the morning and I look out my bedroom window and I see lush green grass, banana trees, palm trees, beautiful flowers, and I see a bit of the sea … and it is just spectacular. You can’t help but feel lucky.”