We sit down to tea in Istanbul with James Larsen, Australia’s ambassador to Turkey.
Head south on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula and the doner shops that line the highway take an Antipodean turn. It starts at Sydney Cafe and then you end up at the Boomerang Bar in Eceabat, a sleepy port close to what was once Australia’s bloodiest battlefield.
“It’s a core part of Australia’s national story,” says James Larsen, Australia’s ambassador to Turkey, in his Ankara residence. “But being here you appreciate how much Gallipoli is a core part of the Turkish nation’s story too.” The ill-fated First World War campaign saw about 9,000 Australian volunteers killed on this coast but cemented a sense of nationhood for then newly independent Australia. For Turks, Gallipoli made a military hero of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who would later lead the country out of its Ottoman past and into a republic. “The first thing President Erdogan will talk to you about is Gallipoli,” says Larsen.
About 20,000 to 30,000 Aussies head to the peninsula each year, Larsen says, and Australia’s diplomatic mission oversees a special consulate near Gallipoli to serve them. Last year’s Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) centenary dawn service brought the two nations closer than ever; two-way trade is modest, says Larsen, and though there’s an increasing demand for mining expertise, defence is where this old military tie comes to the fore.
The embassy works with the Turkish government to stem the passage of Australians en route to Syria to join Isis. Two Australian police officers are now stationed in Turkey alongside a defence attaché. “For a country that’s a long way away, Australia certainly has more people in Syria than we would like to see,” says Larsen. On the wall of his residence is a painting by Australian artist Ian Chandler showing a Moroccan tagine emitting a plume of chaotic hues: “The tagine encapsulates the maelstrom of the Middle East,” he adds.
The residence looks across the Anatolian steppe from the 11th floor of an apartment block that is also home to ambassadors from Senegal, South Africa, Finland and Saudi Arabia. “It’s almost unique,” says Larsen, who once proposed they share a minibus to diplomatic functions. “But if you ask me, the key job of the diplomat is not to hang around the diplomatic core: it’s to get out in the country and meet the locals.”
- The embassy
Australia opened an embassy in Turkey in the late 1960s to manage the flow of migrants recruited from Anatolia. Currently the embassy is based on a “pretty ordinary floor” in an office building.
- The staff
Sixteen Australian diplomats, including consulates in Canakkale and Istanbul as well as 42 local staff.
“We will watch how Turkey evolves over the next 10 years,” says Larsen. “I think it has an amazing opportunity: a president for the medium to long term and an economic development plan.”
Meg Taylor left the World Bank in 2014 to become the first woman to lead the 16-nation group of Pacific islands, which includes Australia and New Zealand. Previously Papua New Guinea’s ambassador to the US, Canada and Mexico, she was made a dame of the British empire in 2002.
How did Washington prepare you for heading up the Pacific Islands Forum?
There is a perception that people here spend a lot of time fishing and sitting under coconut trees but there are a lot of political challenges in this region, which I have found highly complex and quite challenging. What Washington really prepared me for was to come into an institution and make some major operational changes to make it fit for purpose.
How significant is your appointment as the first female secretary-general?
It is more difficult for women in the political realm than I understood before I joined. Do I feel the pressure? Yes. I need to show everyone in the Pacific that women can take senior positions at regional organisations. Outsiders simply don’t understand the protocols in the Pacific, which are based on customs and traditions that are very much intact. But I must say all the leaders have been most gracious towards me.
What does it mean for the PIF that Fiji has set up a rival organisation after alleging that Australia and New Zealand have undue influence?
The PIF has a strong position in the region so I just get on with my mandate. There are issues that the island nations disagree with Australia on but in discussions about PIF membership, the consensus among leaders is that Australia should stay.