Australia has had formal diplomatic representation in New York City since 1918. Phil Scanlan AM, the current Consul General, took up the position in 2009. An established businessman and founder of the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, Phil and his wife Julie sat down with Billabout’s Pete Maiden to discuss his role in promoting Australia in the U.S., his expatriate life and the unique Aussie spirit.
So Phil, how do I get your job?
I don’t know! It’s an honest answer. The last thing we ever expected was to have this amazing privilege. You can never have an ambition for something like this.
But you have vital business and leadership experience.
I’ve spent a lot of time in New York on business and so forth, so I understand that side of it. The Australian American Leadership Dialogue began with a conversation with President George H.W. Bush on Sydney Harbor on New Years Day and now it’s in its 21st year. It’s the only non-US domiciled, non-government organization to ever have been invited into the White House for private briefings since 1792. It’s bipartisan in both countries and it’s about leadership.
Can you tell us more about your background?
I was born and raised in the western suburbs of Sydney and I came from a very tight-knit family. I was fortunate to have wonderful parents who gave me a fine education. I’ve had a life that demonstrates that you can do anything out of Australia. The opportunities are absolutely splendid and it’s just one of those very rare countries where anybody can do anything if they put their mind to it. Every Australian, I think, is capable of doing what she or he puts their mind to.
What do you think defines the Aussie spirit?
As Australians we live on the only island continent and we appreciate that we have to add value to the rest of the planet. So when we want to engage the rest of the planet, we’ve got to get off the island; we’re natural engagers of other people. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but are extremely competent. Our track record is of sustained, understated confidence. We’re into our 22nd year of economic growth, we’re the 12th largest economy in the globe with the 55th largest population. We’re low maintenance and high return and we’ve got a great work ethic. I also think nowadays there’s a much more entrepreneurial culture coming out of Australia.
Is it our upbringing that’s created that character?
Listen mate, my father taught me nobody’s better than you and you’re no better than anybody else. I think Australians speak to the egalitarian as well as the freedom to pursue your own dreams.
Do you think tall poppy syndrome still exists?
Yes, it probably still exists back home, but I think that Australians celebrate success and I think that they like to do it in a more understated fashion.
Why is Australia’s relationship with America so strong?
Many Australians don’t recognize that the standard of living that we’re so proud of has been underwritten for 50 odd years by the defense alliance with the United States. Put simply, there has been a wealth transfer from US taxpayers to Australian taxpayers for over half a century. That’s not a matter of small moment and it’s a matter to be grateful for, but not to be obsequious about. In saying that, we should also not allow the United States or anyone else for that matter to take us for granted; that’s very important.
How has the E3 Visa changed things?
During the free trade agreement negotiations, we wanted to create people-flow. John Howard, the Prime Minister’s government, supported by the opposition in a total bipartisan approach, was a wonderful exercise in Team Australia at work; that’s how the E3 visas came about. I’ll be hoping to see us get a much broader scope of opportunities, whereby people can just come and go.
How can Australians become involved in the national agenda here, yet still be respectful to our host nation? For example, on the gun control debate?
You’re quite right that we’re in a host country and particularly, in an official capacity, one is very observant of the protocols. At the same time, we’ve been quite active in making information available about what’s happening in our own country and what happened after the Port Arthur Massacre. You might have noticed John Howard’s article in The New York Times. He wasn’t being prescriptive or telling America what they should do, but what he was conveying an approach. I think it’s absolutely appropriate to engage without getting particularly involved in the local debate.
Do you think Australian expats should take their experiences back home to Australia?
I was very fortunate to be able to study at Sydney University, in the UK and the US [Phil studied economics in Sydney, history at Oxford and public administration at Harvard]. At the end of my time at university, I was presented with the opportunity to come to New York, but I decided to go home. It’s not a big deal, but I just thought, “Somebody’s gotta go home!” I don’t regret that for a moment. I don’t think it’s appropriate to judge fellow Australians wherever they decide to live and work. I think what’s appropriate is that they follow their dreams, wherever they may geographically lead them. I also think all Australians maintain their connections with home; I still call Australia home. Julie [Phil’s wife] is originally from New York and in her opinion Australia is the best country to bring up children and have a family.
Julie, having spent so much time in Australia do you identify with being a little bit Australian?
I feel a lot Australian! I’ve gotten to that point where I’ve lived almost as much time in Australia as America and I have citizenships in both countries, so when people say “Oh, you’re American!” I say, “No, I’m both.” You have your citizenship, but to add another sense of identity is a very emotional experience.
Phil, tell me a little bit about your day-to-day role.
No two days are the same. Number one job is the welfare and care of Australian citizens. That can be passports and visas to creating new space for Team Australia, whether it’s in economic space, investment or the creative space.
We are the only country with a Consulate General in New York that provides a platform for other countries to talk about themselves. We’ve had Chinese, Japanese, Indian, South Korean and Indonesia representatives. As Australia is on the G20 we’re expected to conduct ourselves in a manner that adds value around the table. I explain it by saying, “Look, if we’re expected to present our views, we’d like to hear what you think first.” You’ve got one mouth and two ears for a good reason.
What is the New York Young Leaders Program?
We launched it on Australia Day in 2010 and it’s designed to create a platform for young Australian women and men who are leaders. To give them access the global network of their peers that they otherwise wouldn’t have.
Can you tell us about some of the cultural programs the consulate supports?
There’s the Australian Film Seminar and the Last New Wave Film Festival where a whole range of Australian films were shown by great Australian directors – Fred Schepisi, Phil Noyce and Bruce Beresford.
Australians are becoming an integral part of the New York landscape. Take Chris Beale and Francesca Macartney-Beale; they’re both established lawyers out of Sydney University and there’s the Francesca Macartney-Beale Theater at the Lincoln Center – that’s great!
How do you get around the city – car, subway or cab?
All of the above, plus lot’s of walking! This is a walking city.
Aussie or American beer?
Ah, Aussie beer!
Thanks for your time, Phil.
Before we go, let me just say I think what you’re doing is fantastic and I wish you and your team here at Billabout the best.
Interview by Pete Maiden.