Outgoing Australian High Commissioner Patricia Forsythe speaks to Newsroom about the tragedy of Whakaari/White Island, why Australia won’t back down on its controversial deportation policy, and a potential role for New Zealand in the Aukus alliance

Given the Covid-19 pandemic has defined much of Patricia Forsythe’s time in New Zealand, it is almost fitting that it is having a large impact on her departure.

The Australian High Commissioner heads back across the ditch in less than a fortnight, having served in Wellington since March 2019, but the virus has acted as a dampener for her final goodbyes.

With people “dropping like flies” in the capital, a number of her farewell calls have either been moved from the real world to Zoom or cancelled outright (this interview falls in such a category, the diplomat inquiring about my wellbeing on several occasions).

That is not a new challenge, however: “I look at my diary in say 2019 and 2021, and there’s a very big difference between what we would have done then [and now].”

Most obviously, there is the slump in trans-Tasman travel: just over 160,000 people visited from Australia last year, barely a tenth of the 1.5 million people who made the same trip in 2019.

“It’s more than just the political and the agency heads and things, it goes to the sporting teams and the artists … and the major events that flow in for which we would engage in public diplomacy.

“That support you do, that showcasing of our country all comes through with those things, so we have missed that.”

But Forsythe believes discussions between ministers and agencies may have in fact increased compared to pre-pandemic times, due to the realisation that chance encounters can’t be taken for granted.

Another event beyond human control – the eruption of Whakaari/White Island in December 2019 – also had a significant effect on Forsythe and her wider diplomatic team.

Fourteen Australians were among the 22 people killed as a result of the eruption, with a further 10 (out of 25) injured.

“From time to time you have to engage with people in the most dire of circumstances, and I saw it there. You see the best of humanity and sometimes you see the rawness of what it means in others, but that period of time will stick with me at a very personal level.”
– Patricia Forsythe, on Whakaari/White Island

Forsythe visited almost all the hospitals containing Australian victims in the aftermath of the events, and offers “nothing but praise for the medical support, for the first responders in the most extraordinary of circumstances”.

“I had my arms around six young Australians about noon on the day after the events at one of the hospitals at Tauranga, and as one of their mates was going into surgery with not a good prognosis.

“The shock that was on their faces, it overwhelmingly registered with me, this was not where I’d been 24 hours before…

“From time to time you have to engage with people in the most dire of circumstances, and I saw it there. You see the best of humanity and sometimes you see the rawness of what it means in others, but that period of time will stick with me at a very personal level.”

It was similarly affecting for her wider team, who “lived on nervous energy” for weeks and saw off the remains of the final Australian fatality just two days before Christmas, but in turn received a better understanding of how important their consular roles could be to those in need.

That sensation was a new one for Forsythe, whose appointment to the Wellington job attracted controversy in Canberra due to her lack of any diplomatic experience and reported friendship with Foreign Minister Marise Payne.

“You have around you people who indeed are career diplomats and [in] other agencies, and the Team Australia looms large in what we think and what we do,” she says now.

“There is something very special about being able to stand up as an Australian representative on Anzac Day, when I placed a wreath on the Cenotaph, standing beside the Governor General and the deputy prime minister … that reflection on behalf of Australia in another country is something that will always sit with me.”

There was also the matter of shaking off a tendency to “lead with my chin”, forged during her time in Australian politics and business but a less sound fit for the cautious world of diplomacy.

“You step back a little bit … it’s never about you and there’s an entire country sitting behind you, it’s your place within that framework.”

Patricia Forsythe, pictured with Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: Supplied.

That conservatism is on display when Forsythe is asked about the most divisive issue in the relationship: the deportation of “New Zealanders” who haven’t lived in Aotearoa for decades as part of an Australian crackdown on crime.

Jacinda Ardern has repeatedly described Australia’s approach as “corrosive” to the relationship, yet the government there has been unyielding.

Just last month came news of a (failed) bid to deport a New Zealand citizen who had lived in the country for 40 years over a fraud charge, despite being assessed as a “very low” risk of reoffending.

“We have heard the Prime Minister a number of times, but for the point of view of – and I won’t go into the specifics of a person and how long they’ve been but we take a broad position and it’s not country specific,” Forsythe says.

“We don’t make it specific about, ‘You’ve been here for five years, 10 years or 40 years’, because if you start to do that, then you run into the sort of issues where ministers have got to make personal decisions.”

Unlike other countries who have had to take in deportees, she says, Australia has made it easier for New Zealanders living there to acquire citizenship in recognition of the large number who call the country home.

“The broad perspective about Australia welcoming people who live by the law is at the heart of, I think, the Australian psyche. We’ve been a country with the welcome mat to migrants from across the world for a very long period of time, and all we’ve asked is that they observe Australia’s rules.”

There have also been some clashes over the countries’ (perceived and actual) differences in approach to China, but again Forsythe is keen to play down any suggestion of a rift.

“We accept points of difference, but we stand on the values that we stand for the things that matter in both our countries.”
– Patricia Forsythe

She highlights the countries’ joint work in the Indo-Pacific to safeguard the region’s peace and stability, contrasting that with the Asian superpower’s differing values and approach to the rule of law.

“We certainly want to make sure that if there are choices to be made, that countries in the Pacific see the value and importance of the work that Australia and New Zealand does and has done for a very long period of time.”

What about the claim that New Zealand has not been as forceful as it could have in condemning China’s retaliatory trade actions against Australia? “Not a position that I would take.”

While the new Aukus security alliance with the United States and United Kingdom has been described by some as symptomatic of the growing divide between Australia and New Zealand, Forsythe says it is “still early days” and there could yet be a role for our Government in the non-nuclear aspects.

“Cyber is one of those things … I could see absolutely the reasons why we want New Zealand to be engaged with that and AI…

“It’s still within a year and the ink has barely dried on the sign-off in the countries, but we do acknowledge the interest of not only New Zealand, but some of our other like-minded countries, in aspects that sit with that.”

It is that joint foreign policy work which Forsythe says should define the relationship in the coming years.

“Of course, we will have some differences and you can point to a couple of those policy areas, but when it comes to the big picture, it’s one of, we are close, and I see it every day when I talk to senior officials, when I talk to ministers.

“We accept points of difference, but we stand on the values that we stand for the things that matter in both our countries.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment