Twenty months into his role as Australian Ambassador to Ireland, Bruce Davis has been touched by his meetings with Irish families and communities searching for their Australian roots. These have been “opportunities to see the relationship [between the two countries] in all of its manifestations.”
He explains: “In terms of the actual role as an Ambassador the most memorable events are the small, often community-based ones, where you’re coming across very long and deep connections between Australia and Ireland.”
Ireland has had an Australian Embassy since 1946. As well as centring on the emigration from Ireland to Australia since the first convicts were sent there in 1788, the relationship also focuses on sport, trade and the bilateral agreements e.g. on taxation, social security, medical treatment for travellers and working holidays for young people.
With a third of Australians claiming some Irish heritage “there is a very strong basis for connection,” Davis notes. He points to the two countries’ “similar standpoint on certain “issue and projects” and their “not dissimilar sense of humour.”
Davis sees the embassy’s role as one of policy engagement with government and advocacy around Australia’s interests (e.g. trade terms).
“There is a lot of engagement representing Australia’s interests but also a broader representational role of Australia in Ireland,” the Queensland native notes.
The increased emigration of young Irish on working visas and business sponsorships has “heightened the number of people and families that have firsthand experience of the linkage between the two countries.”
Figures from the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship show that on 30 June 2011 there were 20,493 Irish in the country on long-stay business, working holiday maker and occupational trainee visas. That compared to 15,251 on the same day in 2010.
There were 12,945 Irish on working holiday visas in June 2011, up from 10,175 a year previously.
“The numbers in each category are growing quite substantially,” Davis notes. “They represent a significant means for Australia to gain skilled people,” he added.
With the Irish economy at a low ebb and unemployment at 14.3 per cent, this is “a temporary opportunity for us to borrow some of those who are finding it difficult to find work [in Ireland],” Davis states. Therefore, “it’s a win-win.”
Meanwhile, Australia’s unemployment rate is at 5 per cent and its resource industries (minerals and petroleum) are seeking skilled workers.
The Australian economy has had two decades of growth, defying the economic recession gripping the global economy, Davis points out. It has benefited from low import prices, high export prices and an increasing Asian market. The country also boasts a ‘future fund’ containing $70 billion and $1.3 trillion in superannuation funds. “The fundamentals underpinning the economy are strong,” with the IMF predicting 3.3 per cent growth in GDP in 2012, Davis adds.
“We never formally went into recession during the difficult economy period. The outlook continues to be quite strong with the resources sector in particular continuing to perform strongly,” he reflects.
However, there are predictions that Australia will begin to feel some of the pain. A National Australia Bank survey showed business confidence falling from +5 in the second quarter of 2010 to -4 in the third quarter.
That survey showed that the mining sector remained strongest, followed by recreation and personal services and transport and utilities. Conditions were weakest in manufacturing, retail and construction.
Meanwhile, Department Secretary Martin Parkinson warned the Australian Senate on 13 October, of the impact to Australia if euro-zone talks fail.
On the future of the economy, Davis comments: “Obviously we, like everyone else, can be influenced by the way in which the global economy unfolds over the next period. That will have an impact on growth levels but the IMF’s projection means that we are well placed to weather any major difficulties within the global economy.”
Traditionally linked with Britain, that relationship weakened following the fall of Singapore to the Japanese during the Second World War. That February 1942 event prompted Prime Minister John Curtin’s controversial statement that “Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”
When asked to consider where Australia fits in the world picture, considering China’s growing economic, military and political power and the end of America as the dominant world power, Davis states: “Australia has got an extremely close relationship with the US but also has a very strong and sound relationship with China.”
He explains that China is Australia’s biggest trading partner, followed by Japan and Korea.
“In a trading sense, we have quite a powerful link into North Asia. That’s not to underestimate the relationship in all senses with the US. We’ve been very strong allies over a long period of time,” he tells eolas.
In order to secure Australia’s future economic prosperity, an immediate priority is to support its developing neighbours, which are often victims to political unrest.
He previously led the AusAID official aid strategy from 1999 to 2009. “We’ve had a very long engagement in how we can move to build the development of states, particularly in our own region,” he says.
Davis points out that “we are the only major donor country that has most of its boundary surrounded by developing countries.”
Australia’s foreign aid is forecast to increase from 0.33 per cent of gross national income (GNI) in 2010-2011 to 0.5 per cent by 2015.
By spending “a lot of time and effort working with those countries, be it Indonesia or Papua New Guinea, to help their efforts in both state-building and the needs of their populations through health and education programmes,” will ultimately lead to economic prosperity for the entire region, the Ambassador believes.
Profile: Bruce Davis
Born and educated in Queensland, Davis holds a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science from the University of Queensland.
From 1999 until July 2009, he was the Director General of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Prior to that he worked for the Pacific Islands Forum.
Since his arrival in Ireland he has enjoyed getting to know the island. “Part of this job means there are often events in different parts of the country, where I try to combine that with having a good explore around the neighbourhood.”
Date posted: Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 at 12:44 pm