25/01/2021 - 11:00

WA’s woman in DFAT

25/01/2021 - 11:00

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Economic tensions and COVID-19 loom large as Sarah Hooper champions WA and international trade atop the state’s branch of Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

WA’s woman in DFAT
Sarah Hooper emphasises the importance of WA and its industries in determining Australia’s foreign policy. Photo: Matt Jelonek

On any given day Sarah Hooper handles jobs as varied as hosting diplomats, holding discussions on trade or liaising with Australians stranded abroad amid the pandemic.

On the day she sits down to talk with Business News about the department’s role in Western Australia, she mentions having just come from a roundtable forum that brought together figures from the state’s grain industry and Australia’s head of mission to Iraq.

All part of her efforts to promote the state’s position in international trade.

It’s a stark development for a career diplomat whose initial foray into the foreign service came more than two-and-a-half decades ago, when communiques still arrived via cables and diplomatic jobs were largely reserved for academics and political elites.

Since foreign affairs and trade were merged into the same department in 1987, diplomacy has increasingly been viewed as connected to international trade.

Accordingly, Ms Hooper prides herself on having helped author trade agreements and ensure the sanctity of a cooperative, rules-based world order throughout her career.

While those lofty ideals may seem abstract and out of touch, Ms Hooper’s day-to-day job carries real consequences for Australian businesses.

“I’m spending my time with WA’s business and community leaders, hearing about their projects and international engagements, and working with them to take that forward,” the state director of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Business News.

“It’s a great job.”

Removed from the recesses of Canberra’s bureaucracy, Ms Hooper is anything but a spook.

Tasked with drawing on feedback from WA’s business, government and community to inform the direction of the country’s foreign and trade policy, the department’s job in WA includes translating the minutia of trade agreements as they apply to business opportunities in the international economy.

In doing so, Ms Hooper tells Business News her job largely focuses on emphasising the importance of WA and its industries in determining Australia’s foreign policy.

“Governments don’t trade, industry trades,” she said.

“We provide the environment that enables that, and we assist to overcome the inhibitors to trade.”

Few people are better equipped to prosecute this argument than Ms Hooper.

A 28-year veteran of Australia’s foreign service, she held a variety of diplomatic postings prior to her appointment as state director in June last year, including having worked with the department in India, Indonesia and Brunei.

While her dedication to public service may appear a natural outcome of that experience, Ms Hooper admits her interest in diplomacy was something of a happy accident.

After having held an assortment of odd jobs in pubs, shoe shops and banks after high school, she obtained a degree in Asian Studies from the Australian National University in the late 1980s in hopes of becoming a museum curator with a specialisation in Indonesian textiles.

After a few years toiling as an assistant curator, she realised her interest in the art itself was rather minimal.

“It was the social significance in the objects; what they told you about the history, the ethnography, the rules and the relationships, the interconnectedness and patterns of people,” she said.

Ms Hooper soon abandoned that job and instead pursued a career in the foreign service in the early 1990s.

While she has spent the bulk of her time in the public sector since, her resume also includes stints with the Chamber of Minerals and Energy in WA, as well as with US-based think tank The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Owing to her time outside of government, Ms Hooper’s understanding of the job is far more practicable than some might expect.

“We’re not brought straight from school and trained in the secret arts,” she said.

“It’s much more about that broader experience and recognising that, if you want to represent Australia, you need to understand the full range of Australian interests and concerns.”

While her private sector experience has influenced her own approach, so too have the machinations of global affairs since the 1990s.

That includes the events of September 11 2001, which she cites as having had a notable impact in reshaping the purpose and methods of foreign affairs.

Regionally, though, Ms Hooper sees just as much significance in the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, in which South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand underwent deep economic upheaval, as well as the Bali bombings just five years later, in which 88 of the 202 killed were Australian civilians.

Having occurred against a backdrop of economic liberalisation for Australia throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Ms Hooper situates these regional shifts among a broader change in the function of diplomacy.

“There’s been a lot of change and a lot of things have stayed the same,” she said.

“It used to be that foreign affairs were the only Australian government representatives abroad.

“The only way as a young Australian, if you wanted to work and live overseas and work for the government, was to join (DFAT).

“Now our embassies have representatives from a broad range of Australian agencies because they recognise how much more our domestic policy and our foreign policy are interrelated.”

Of course, as the events of the past 20 years weigh on Australia’s geopolitical posture, so too do the events of the past 12 months, with the pandemic an overwhelming challenge for the department.

As the global caseload multiplies rapidly and contagion continues to stymie how WA businesses interact with the international economy, Ms Hooper’s job is likely to get harder in the coming months.

Vaccine rollouts have started throughout Australia’s major trading partners, including the US, UK, India and China, while Australians themselves are likely to get jabs as early as next month.

Until then, though, international travel will remain all but impossible, with emergent and increasingly virulent strains of the virus having reduced WA’s intake of returned travellers to just 512 per week.

While the department has helped a staggering 38,500 travellers return to Australia over the past year, yet another 44,000 are still registered as either seeking to return or in need of consular assistance.

Adding further to the struggles is the risk of infected foreign nationals arriving in WA via freight carriers, in which the department has previously acted as an intermediary between federal government agencies, and the risk of infection for the department’s servicemen in 121 missions globally, who for the most part remain locked down in their host countries.

Where economic prosperity is concerned, Ms Hooper refers to the department’s active role in helping share information on the disease, including infection management and treatment, as well as progress on vaccine development.

As for the health of the region, the federal government has already pledged to spend $80 million to support vaccine access in 94 lower-income countries.

With rollout of AstraZeneca’s vaccine now imminent, conversations are likely to shift to how Australia can throw its weight behind economic recovery in the region.

“Initially it was around the virus itself, the PPE, vaccines, collaborations and scientific work, but (now we are) very much pivoting into economic recovery,” Ms Hooper said.

“How do we work to avoid millions of people slipping back into poverty, and the terrible toll on human development that comes from school closures, industry shutdowns and unemployment around the world?”

Hard as that question may be to address, answering it is further complicated by Australia’s fraying ties with China.

For its part, China’s has already telegraphed its intention to play hardball with Australia in 2021, following a series of punitive tariffs applied to the country’s beef, barely and wine exports throughout last year.

Some reporting indicates the country will diversify its stream of iron ore imports away from Australia and Brazil by the middle of the decade, focusing greater attention on untapped deposits throughout the African continent.

WA’s reliance on Chinese buyers is well-known by this point, with DFAT estimating the country buys about one in four of Australia’s exports.

With iron ore figuring prominently as a segment of that, some ministers in the state government have repeatedly chided the federal government’s willingness to criticise China at the expense of WA’s economy.

Treasurer Ben Wyatt suggested in his final speech to state parliament last year it was foolish to associate foreign investment with political influence.

While these conversations have taken on an increasingly political inflection in the past year, Ms Hooper is firm in the belief there is a positive story to tell when it comes to trade in the region.

For one, she notes that approximately one in five Australian jobs are dependent on international trade, and so it is important for the country – and, by extension, WA – to actively engage on such matters.

As an example, she cites a recent decision from China to relax quotas on importing Australian wool, a boon for WA producers given they export about 88 per cent of their product to the country.

“This is a good news story for Western Australian industry,” Ms Hooper said.

“It’s good for us to know because it paints the story better about what’s going on in our trade relationship.

“It’s not all bad.”

China’s prosperity and growth has generally been viewed as influential to Australia’s economic growth, particularly in the aftermath of the GFC.

With that in mind, Ms Hooper is eager to see that trade relationship fostered and upheld.

COVID-19 will continue to be a risk, she concedes, as global cooperation is confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime practical impediment.

Still, as she considers the scope of challenges facing Australia over the coming year, Ms Hooper’s belief in the importance of global cooperation has only been strengthened by the challenges she’s faced.

“We continue to believe that our prosperity and security is ensured through an open, inclusive, rules-based global environment,” she said.

“How do we further that?

“What are the sorts of partnerships, and what are the areas of concern, where we can build coalitions to shape outcomes for that environment which is in concert with our national interest?”

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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