Stephen Smith named UK high commissioner as government flags fewer political appointments

by Daniel Hurst
Penny Wong defends appointing former Labor minister as a sign of the ‘eminence of Australia’s relationship with the UK’

The former Labor minister Stephen Smith has been named as Australia’s next high commissioner to the UK – but the Albanese government has yet to reveal who it will send to Washington.

The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, defended the political appointment, noting that the London post had long been held by senior former ministers as a sign of the “eminence of Australia’s relationship with the United Kingdom”.

But Wong also flagged plans to end political appointments to Singapore, New Delhi and the UN in New York – positions currently held by former Liberal figures – saying it was time for a “rebalance”.

Smith, who was a minister for foreign affairs and for defence in the Rudd and Gillard governments, is set to take up the position in London early next year, once he completes a defence strategic review for the Albanese government.

Smith’s appointment to lead that review alongside the former defence chief Angus Houston was criticised by the Coalition, which pointed to his record as minister when defence spending was cut.

Wong said on Friday that the government was keeping with “tradition” by appointing Smith to represent Australia in the UK. The former Liberal attorney general George Brandis was Australia’s top diplomat in London until earlier this year.

“In certain circumstances there is a clear advantage for Australia to be represented by people who have had distinguished careers beyond the public service, such as businesspeople and former parliamentarians,” Wong said.

The foreign affairs minister signalled that the position of Australian ambassador to the US was also likely to remain a political appointment.

She said a replacement for the former Liberal minister Arthur Sinodinos would be announced before the completion of his posting in February 2023.

The Australian newspaper reported before the election that the former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd might be appointed to the US role. At the time, however, Rudd branded that claim as “total garbage” and his spokesperson said the former prime minister “won’t be leaving” his current role at the helm of the Asia Society.

Wong said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade would carry out a recruitment process to appoint “experienced public servants as heads of mission in Singapore, New Delhi, Tokyo and at the United Nations in New York” – a list from which ambassador to the US was noticeably absent.

All of these positions – except for Tokyo – are currently held by former Liberal politicians.

The former Tasmanian premier Will Hodgman is expected to finish up as high commissioner to Singapore in February – the same month the former NSW premier Barry O’Farrell leaves India.

The former senator and communications minister Mitch Fifield is also scheduled to conclude as ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations in June.

Wong said the Albanese government was “reversing the previous government’s approach and rebalancing appointments towards qualified senior officials, consistent with position requirements and community expectations”.

She also named six career diplomats to lead Australian posts in Argentina, Egypt, Kuwait, Portugal, Türkiye and Vietnam.

The Coalition’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, Simon Birmingham, said it was “disappointing to see the curtailing of effective and respected appointments occur under the guise of reducing political appointments at the same time as a Labor political appointment is made”.

Birmingham congratulated Smith on the UK role and described the former Labor minister as “well qualified”, but said it was “of concern to see the London post left vacant for so long during sensitive Aukus deliberations”.

“Mr Smith will need to manage his work on the defence strategic review carefully to avoid any conflict on Aukus matters, given his new appointment and the crucial decisions yet to be made about the class of nuclear-powered submarines that Australia will secure,” Birmingham said.

Before the election, Wong criticised the Coalition’s overreliance on political appointments, saying the trend was “a problem”.

But she did not rule out any political appointments, saying some politicians “can be very good heads of mission” and relationships with senior figures may be useful.