Richard Smith was born in Perth, Western Australia, educated at the University of Western Australia, and taught in Western Australian High Schools before joining the then Department of External Affairs in 1969. He served in the Australian High Commission, New Delhi (1970-1973), at the Australian Embassy in Tel Aviv (1975-77) and at the Australian Embassy in Manila (1980-84). From 1987 to 1989, he was Consul-General in Honolulu, working closely with the U.S. Pacific Commands and accredited at the same time to the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands.
From 1989 to 1992, Mr Smith was Head of the Pacific, Africa and Middle East Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In 1992 he was appointed a Deputy Secretary. In this position, he had responsibility for Australia’s relations with Asia, and in particular worked closely with ASEAN countries, participating in the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference and contributing to the development of the ASEAN Regional Forum. He acted as Secretary to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for some of the period from December 1992 to May 1993.
From March 1994 to the end of 1995, Mr Smith served on secondment to the Department of Defence as Deputy Secretary Strategy and Intelligence.
Mr Smith took up duty as Australian Ambassador to the People's Republic of China in February 1996 and served in that position until February 2000. He was also accredited as non-resident Ambassador to Mongolia.
From January 2001 to 31 October 2002, Mr Smith served as Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Indonesia. He was recalled to Canberra to take up duty as Secretary of the Department of Defence in November 2002. He served in this position until his retirement from the Australian Public Service on 1 December 2006.
In 2008 he led a review for the Rudd Government of Australia's 'Homeland and Border Security' and in April 2009 was appointed as Australia's 'Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan'.
From August to December 2008 he was a Distinguished Fellow at the Rajaratnam School for International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and from March to June 2009 was the Australian Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington DC.
Mr Smith was named as an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in the 1998 Australia Day Honours List and was awarded the Public Service Medal (PSM) ON 17 October 2003. In September 2004, he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Western Australia.