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If Brazil’s ambassador could seed a few ideas with the Prime Minister 

Harvesting cotton in Luis Eduardo Magalhaes, Brazil (Adriano Machado/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Harvesting cotton in Luis Eduardo Magalhaes, Brazil (Adriano Machado/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Published 5 Sep 2022 14:00    0 Comments

It’s a number that has almost doubled in the last five years alone. Today, more than 50,000 people born in Brazil call Australia home, according to the census results released this year. To get a better sense of the growing scale, in the mid-1990s the total number of Brazilians living in Australia barely nudged 3500. 

“So, this is huge, this is a trend,” says Mauricio Carvalho Lyrio, Brazil’s ambassador in Australia. “Australia exerts well a wonderful fascination among Brazilians.” 

And Lyrio would love to bring this flourishing migrant story to the attention of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, seeing a chance to build ties between two countries that haven’t historically been especially close. 

“Of course, 30 minutes with the Prime Minister would be a very special privilege that we all as ambassadors where we represent our countries would love to have,” he says. 

In the year before Covid, Brazil had risen to become Australia’s largest source of international students outside Asia – ranking fourth overall.

Lyrio is speaking with me as part of a series of interviews in The Interpreter to highlight which issues foreign envoys would raise if given the chance for a brief meeting with the Prime Minister.

Albanese is a man very much in demand, having only a few months ago won an election. Brazil, meantime, is deep in its own election campaign, a contest between two towering personalities, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and incumbent Jair Bolsonaro. 

That leaves Lyrio with the pressing job of ensuring those eligible Brazilians in Australia have a place to cast a ballot ahead of voting in October. 

“This is a symbol that the presence of the Brazilian community here is very important,” he says. “We are going to have electoral stations in five cities in Australia – in Canberra, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.” 

Brazil vs Australia football

In the year before Covid, Brazil had risen to become Australia’s largest source of international students outside Asia – ranking fourth overall. It marks a further example of “people-to-people” links so often cited as the ballast for stronger bilateral relations.

“You know, we are the two largest countries in the southern hemisphere, we have continental dimensions, the two of us, even the size of the territory for Brazil and Australia is very similar,” Lyrio says. “We produce lots of things in common in the fact that we are major powerhouses in agriculture, energy and mining.” 

But those similarities in production do present something of an obstacle to forging closer economic bonds. While two-way investment between Australia and Brazil is considered roughly compatible with the size of the respective economies, trade has languished. “We do not need to import what the other country is good at exporting.” 

“I think cooperation should be less occasional, less spontaneous, and more structured.”

“The simplistic view would indicate that Brazil and Australia are competitors, but I don’t see it that way,” Lyrio says. Instead, he proposes that the two countries share the lessons learned in their common experience, perhaps with a regular ministerial dialogue, focused on agriculture and mining. As he explains, I wonder if this could be formalised in a “2+2” type arrangement – an annual meeting not of foreign and defence ministers, as has become common for Australia with countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and most recently India, but instead via the agriculture and resources portfolios? 

Lyrio is pragmatic. If not ministerial dialogue, he says, at least the undertaking should be at a high level. “I think cooperation should be less occasional, less spontaneous, and more structured.” While a free trade agreement isn’t on the agenda (“this is not something confidential, it’s normal that countries have their priorities”), his personal priority would be to negotiate an agreement with Australia to prevent companies from paying double taxes. 

The two countries are members of the Cairns Group of 19 agricultural exporting countries pushing for trade liberalisation. But Lyrio would like to see Brazil and Australia working together on sustainability issues, especially as concern for the environment comes ever more into focus.

30 minutes with PM series Brazil


“Deforestation is the main challenge of Brazil,” he says. “It’s not easy to control. Almost half of our territory is rainforest, the Amazon … You can imagine that it’s more or less half the territory of Australia, and with a country like ours, with 220 million people, and a high percentage of poor people trying to make their living close to the forest.”

But he says it would be a mistake to allow agriculture to be demonised as a burden for the environment. Rather, he’d like the chance for Australia and Brazil to work together to promote sustainable farming practices globally. He tells of a visit to Western Australia earlier this year, seeing the adoption of a no-till practice of sowing crops, learning from a method commonly used in Brazil that limits the amount of digging and keeps carbon dioxide in the soil. 

“We have such productive agriculture per hectare, without subsidies, most of [the farms] very sustainable in terms of production. That’s the benefit that Australia and Brazil are providing, in terms of feeding the world population, making the price of food affordable.” 

Brazil's ambassador to Australia Mauricio Lyrio

Lyrio, pictured, points to Brazil’s energy mix and the development of renewable sources of power as a further opportunity for sharing expertise with Australia. Whereas Brazil is blessed by the amount and volume of rivers in the country, with hydropower providing three-quarters of electricity supply, Australia predominately depends on fossil fuels. Ambitions are also growing for hydrogen investments. 

The two countries are also G20 members but have intriguingly different diplomatic alignments within that forum. While Brazil has the BRICS – joined with Russia, India, China and South Africa – Australia sits with MIKTA – Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey – and sometimes the traditional G7 nations. 

Again, Lyrio doesn’t see an obstacle. 

“In big global and political issues, despite the fact that we pertained to different groups at times, we are in many groups together.” He again points to common interests in trade, as well as the drive for nuclear disarmament. “I would dare to say that Brazil and Australia share much more values in terms of the multilateral agenda than our countries share with big powers.” 

This extends to Russia following the invasion of Ukraine.  

“Some countries adopted economic sanctions against Russia and some others didn’t. Since Brazil is against unilateral sanctions without endorsement by international organisations, Brazil did not adopt sanctions against Russia, but at the same time, Brazil and Australia are very respectful [and] supportive of the UN Charter and against any violation of it. That is why Brazil voted against Russia in the United Nations both in the General Assembly and in the Security Council.” 

“As middle power countries, if we can use this bit of an antiquated term, we have the interest of strengthening the rule of law in international relations, making international organisations stronger.”


Penny Wong on “30 minutes with the PM” and Australia’s global interest

Time in demand: Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (David Gray/Getty Images)
Time in demand: Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (David Gray/Getty Images)
Published 25 Aug 2022 12:00    0 Comments

Foreign Minister Penny Wong was asked last week about the new Interpreter series “30 minutes with the PM”, which has invited some of the less well-known ambassadors and high commissioners around Canberra to explain what they would ask Anthony Albanese about dealing with Australia.

Wong’s answer offered a useful early guide to how the new government is divvying up the perennial challenge of balancing urgent demands with the need to keep an eye on important longer-term priorities.

Wong was being interviewed to mark the 100th episode of the Australia in the World podcast. Co-host Allan Gyngell raised comments made by Botswana’s High Commissioner Dorcas Makgato in her hypothetical meeting with the PM. Makgato had made the point that if demography is destiny, Africa was going to be central to the world’s future, including in ties to Australia. But Makgato also said that despite being invested with all the powers to represent her country, a lack of access to the Australian government, even at an assistant secretary level, had posed an obstacle to closer relations.

Gyngell asked Wong if she was surprised by these comments – and furthermore, how Wong thinks about balancing regional with global interests, both in her own work and that of the department?

“We have to work to balance both,” Wong said.

Nothing beats facetime with the boss, especially in dealing with issues of the day.

“On one of your podcasts, one of you made the comment that we’re not a global power, but we have global interests. And that’s true.”

“So I’ve made the resource decision, or the prioritisation decision, that my focus will be primarily regions – so Southeast Asia and the Pacific.”

That much has been clear by Wong’s travel schedule in the first months of the Albanese government, with early trips to the Pacific as well as emphasising personal connections to Southeast Asia.

“Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t believe that we have to engage with other parts of the world,” Wong went on to explain. “And I would make the point that multilateralism is just so important for a country of Australia’s size.”

Perhaps in recognition that this amounts to a huge agenda, Wong pointed to the expanded structure of the portfolio in the ministry, comprised of the traditional Foreign and Trade Minister (Don Farrell) along with a Minister for International Development and the Pacific (Pat Conroy), as well as an Assistant Minister for Trade (Tim Ayres) and an additional Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs (Tim Watts).

“We needed people in lots of places,” Wong said, “and we need to be able to pursue our global interests – climate, multilateralism, rules-based trade, pandemic preparedness – in our region, but also beyond our region.”

Getting out and about is clearly the aim. Watts, for example, gave a speech last month hosted by the Botswana High Commission titled “Reinvigorating Australia-Africa ties” and flagged travel to the continent. Ayres represented Australia at the “RevCon” review conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in New York this month, while Conroy made an extended trip to Solomon Islands for the anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

Of course, nothing beats facetime with the boss, especially in dealing with issues of the day, whether related to the war in Ukraine, a disaster event, or the latest flare-up with China.

So Wong, and even more so, Albanese, will be in high demand. And for more of what other countries would ask the Prime Minister if given the chance of a 30-minute meeting, we’ll be featuring further interviews soon.


Prime Minister, Uruguay’s ambassador is here for your meeting

Uruguay shares similar international rankings to Australia on democracy, transparency, low levels of corruption and ease of doing business (Pablo Porciuncula/AFP via Getty Images)
Uruguay shares similar international rankings to Australia on democracy, transparency, low levels of corruption and ease of doing business (Pablo Porciuncula/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 24 Aug 2022 15:00    0 Comments

Given the chance, Dianela Pi knows exactly the questions she would pose to Anthony Albanese. “Do you know, Your Excellency, which is the country that is side-by-side with Australia in all multilateral fights?,” she would ask.

Pi is Ambassador for Uruguay, speaking from her office in Canberra for a series of interviews with The Interpreter to highlight bilateral dealings with Australia for nations that otherwise receive little local media attention. The premise: what would a foreign envoy put on the agenda if they secured a 30-minute meeting with the new Prime Minister?

“Do you know which country from outside your neighbourhood has more or less the same international rankings on democracy, transparency, low levels of corruption, ease of doing business?”, Pi would also ask. Which country, aside perhaps from New Zealand, most supports Australia “all the way” in opening markets to meat and agricultural products? The country that was alongside in the fight Australia had against big tobacco to introduce plain packaging and graphic health warnings on cigarette packets? And also backed the adoption of a “responsibility to protect”, or R2P – “a very Australian concept at the multilateral level”?

“This is a huge country, a very diverse one … you really need to move through the country to understand people, to understand things that are happening.”

So, this hypothetical meeting with the PM amounts to the slightly awkward introduction of a country that has been a long-time friend to Australia.

“We have been sharing the same fights, looking for the same objectives,” Pi tells me.

My confession is that I know next to nothing about Uruguay. That a country of 3.5 million produces enough food to feed more than 30 million. That Uruguayan military and civilian observers served during the international mission in 1999 leading to independence in East Timor, with a group grateful to be evacuated to Darwin on an overcrowded RAAF transport at the height of the violence. That naming rights for the final “GATT round”, which led to the eventual establishment of the World Trade Organisation, was a signal of the country’s abiding support for free trade. Or that Uruguay ranks 13 on the latest Economist Democracy Index, just four places behind Australia. (Okay, yes, I did know about the soccer.)

“We don’t take it for granted that we’re always going to be visible all around the world,” Pi says. “We’re a very small country, between two big countries. We have more animals than people in Uruguay. So, it’s on us also to give visibility to our country and to make sure that we are known.”

Uruguay stats

 

Like any good ambassador, Pi sees promoting her country as a top priority. But that job was made so much harder by Covid. She arrived in Canberra in late 2020, only to soon be stuck in a lockdown with domestic border controls. Despite 18 months in the job, she feels it took until this year to properly get started. “This is a huge country, a very diverse one … you really need to move through the country to understand people, to understand things that are happening.”

But the Covid experience did provide Pi with a special thank you from the Governor-General on arrival. Early in the pandemic, thousands of Australians had been stranded on cruise ships, many off the coast of Latin America. “All the ports of Latin America were rejecting the Australian cruisers. Uruguay opened the doors,” Pi says. The most famous case involved the Greg Mortimer, an Australian-owned vessel that had sailed to Antarctica in March 2020, only for more than half the 217 passengers and crew on board to test positive. Uruguay opened “a sanitised corridor” to disembark the passengers and fly 97 Australians home.

Dianela Pi, Ambassador of Uruguay to Australia

“Uruguay, it was a kind of fortress [at the time]. We had a couple of cases of Covid, but it was very well managed,” says Pi, pictured. “So, for us to allow people from abroad to enter our country, it was a risk because we could have been bringing Covid in a bigger way. And it was a success not only because Covid was not extended in our country, we extended the solidarity hand to our Australian friends.”

Uruguay’s economic profile certainly has a familiar look, with GDP returning to pre-pandemic levels in late 2021 and expected to grow with strong agricultural exports. Pi makes the point that the cooperation she hopes to foster with Australia is not that of a developing country asking for financial assistance or capacity building. “I have all that … I can learn, and I can receive something from Australia, but I also can give Australia something,” Pi says. She cites energy transition as an example. “Uruguay already did that – 97 or 98 per cent of our sources of energy are renewable sources.” That experience produced valuable lessons about water management and emerging technology with green hydrogen. “We already know that we can produce much more than we will need.”

Speaking of sharing, Pi also has a particular request for the PM – and she promises the result will be delicious. Australia presently bans commercial imports of dulce de leche, a gooey Uruguayan caramel that contains milk, out of precaution to guard against the danger of introducing foot and mouth disease for cattle.

Dulce de leche

“It’s something that we are trying to work on because Uruguay has no foot and mouth disease. But we do vaccinate our cows.” Porous borders with neighbouring Argentina and Brazil, where foot and mouth disease has been present, adds to the challenge of escaping the ban.

“The way you produce dulce de leche takes the milk to very high temperatures and very low temperatures, so you kill everything that is there … So, technically there’s no risk for human consumption at all, we have been eating dulce de leche since our beginnings. Nothing has happened there. And really, it’s not a product that is going to compete with any Australian one.”

“We have opened many embassies and consulates abroad with this idea that Uruguay had to gain visibility, and you gain visibility being present.”

To convince the PM, Pi would need an audience. But access to government hasn’t been easy. “Here, it is almost impossible to have a meeting with a minister – almost impossible. Perhaps it is easier at the state level. At the federal level it is almost impossible.”

But the onus is also upon Uruguay, Pi says, to raise the country’s profile. That’s why Uruguay maintains an embassy in Australia and next year will mark 75 years since a note verbale requesting the establishment of diplomatic ties. “We are a country that has been looking always to engage with the international community,” Pi says. “We have opened many embassies and consulates abroad with this idea that Uruguay had to gain visibility, and you gain visibility being present.”

“And I think that we should have a better relationship with Australia in terms of cooperation – to see that despite our differences in terms of size, in terms of demographics, that we can see each other as friends and cooperative partners, and not as competitors.”
 

Read more of the “30 minutes with the PM” series.


Norway’s 30 minutes with the PM

Australia and Norway proper are separated by more than 14,000 kilometres. But Oslo’s ambassador in Canberra insists there is a growing intimacy (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Australia and Norway proper are separated by more than 14,000 kilometres. But Oslo’s ambassador in Canberra insists there is a growing intimacy (Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 15 Aug 2022 12:00    0 Comments

Did you know Norway and Australia share a land border? Well, technically it’s not a recognised border, of the formally demarcated variety. Nor is the ground all that solid. Frozen, yes, but under threat of melting in this era of global warming.

Still, the chance to discuss side-by-side territorial claims to the polar continent of Antarctica would make a useful … ahem … “ice-breaker” for any Norwegian official who had to sit down for an impromptu conversation with Australia’s prime minister.

Which is precisely what I’ve asked Norway’s ambassador in Canberra, Paul Gulleik Larsen, to imagine he’s doing – a hypothetical 30-minute meeting with a newly-elected Anthony Albanese, as part of a series for The Interpreter to highlight relationships less prominent in local media coverage.

“We are neighbours,” Larsen says, with a friendly flourish and a smile, “and there’s no daylight between us in policies either. Norway and Australia are in total agreement on how we deal with the sustainable fisheries in the southern seas and the Antarctic region, maintaining Antarctica as a zone of peace and research, allowing other countries to do scientific activities but not harming the environment.”

Of course, Australia and Norway proper are separated by more than 14,000 kilometres. But Larsen insists there is a growing intimacy.

“Suddenly Australia has become much more interesting. I mean, it was always interesting, but less strategic, I think, a few years ago than today, where we are much closer in so many ways.”

Larsen’s point is that “strategic” drivers can pull even across the opposite side of the globe, and this is very much the story of recent years.

Norway had a brief and unwanted starring role in one of Australia’s great political controversies some 20 years ago when the Norwegian-owned cargo ship MV Tampa plucked a group of distressed asylum seekers out of the ocean off the coast of Christmas Island. And almost a century before that, the famed Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen washed into Hobart in Tasmania in 1912, dishevelled and exhausted having become the first man to reach the South Pole, only to be ushered shivering into the basement of a local hotel because no-one believed him.

But Larsen’s point is that “strategic” drivers can pull even across the opposite side of the globe, and this is very much the story of recent years.

“Security and defence cooperation has just been lifted to a totally new level,” Larsen says. “With NATO, of course, focusing more on the Indo-Pacific now, and Australia also now partnering with us supporting Ukraine. But also with our defence company, Kongsberg, becoming a bigger partner in your defence build-up.”

That military cooperation extends beyond the long-standing F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program to last year Kongsberg taking further steps in the joint production of surface-to-air missiles in Adelaide, as well as signing a contract in April to supply missiles for Australia’s ANZAC-class frigates and Hobart-class destroyers.

Brief facts on Australia Norway relations


But beyond things that go bang, Norway has also been drawn to engage with the Pacific. Larsen is accredited from Canberra to 11 countries across the Pacific – “the world record,” he jokes, and barring Kiribati, for reasons of Covid lockdowns, he’s managed to travel to each over the past few years, several more than once.

“Norway has never really had any relations to speak of with the South Pacific before this past three or four years,” he says. One of Larsen’s early jobs after arriving in September 2018 was to escort the first ever Norwegian cabinet minister to the Pacific Islands Forum summit, in Nauru. The next year he went to the Tuvalu meeting with Norway’s foreign minister, highlighting Norway’s ambitions to join the United Nations Security Council, a campaign it would ultimately win. “I think that visit really clinched it for us. My impression is that we got support from all the South Pacific states and Australia and New Zealand for our Security Council bid.”

While Larsen, pictured, acknowledges that, like Australia, Norway benefits economically from trading fossil fuels, he ranks combating climate change and joint efforts to promote ocean health as key priorities, including for relations with Australia and the region.

Paul Gulleik Larsen, Norway's ambassador to Australia“I would really encourage and commend the prime minister for the recent legislation which is being passed in the parliament now on ambitious climate policies and the reductions in emissions, and as well as our cooperation on oceans, which has been really a new area of foreign policy priority for us and for Australia.”

Alongside Palau, Norway has driven a 12-member “High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy”, which Australia also joined with Indonesia, Fiji, Japan and others. “All of us have huge economic zones and a big commitment to combat pollution and illegal fishing and defend the Law of the Sea Convention of the United Nations,” says Larsen. “So, these are two very important areas, on top of our traditional strong joint support for the rules-based system.”

Any mention of support for the established global rules can’t help but raise the question of China. Like Australia in recent times, Norway earlier found itself in China’s economic dog house, punished by Beijing after the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, effectively stopping Norwegian salmon imports. It wasn’t until 2016 that tensions eased. I ask if the experience holds lessons for Australia that he might share with the PM?

“I think it’s very hard for us to offer advice on this,” Larsen says. “There were some exports during the time of the diplomatic freeze but not as much as we would have liked and much less than other trading partners. So, it was important for us to reopen and normalise with China without, of course, renouncing our principles and values. But Australia has your own and different situation with China, even though there are some similarities, and I think your government is doing its best to deal with that challenging situation, obviously, as we all are.”

For Larsen personally, this is hello and goodbye, at least as far as Albanese is concerned. Larsen has his bags packed and ticket home. He had arrived in Australia just as Scott Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister and I’m speaking to him during his last week in the job. Two elections, a pandemic and great global tumult have marked his time. What he sees, however, is common connection.

“We are hardworking nations with a lot of rough similarities as well, in terms of our nature and the oceans. Of course, the size of the Australian continent is amazing. That’s really a big difference between us. You have a huge continent, where we have a long narrow strip of rocks.”


Read more of the “30 minutes with the PM” series.


If you had 30 minutes with the PM, what would you ask?

If some of Canberra’s less prominent representatives could snaffle half-an-hour to speak with Anthony Albanese, what key issues would they raise about relations with Australia? (@AlboMP/Twitter)
If some of Canberra’s less prominent representatives could snaffle half-an-hour to speak with Anthony Albanese, what key issues would they raise about relations with Australia? (@AlboMP/Twitter)
Published 29 Jul 2022 03:00    0 Comments

“Right. So I’m going to pretend that you are the recently voted upon Prime Minister?”

Exactly, I reply, smiling across the screen to Dorcas Makgato, High Commissioner for Botswana to Australia. Her Excellency – titles are boring, she laughs – has kindly agreed to an online interview for a new series of articles that I’m putting together for The Interpreter.

The premise is simple. A new PM has moved into The Lodge in Canberra, launching himself into the foreign affairs realm with gusto. The Quad, Indonesia, NATO, Ukraine, Russia, China, and the Pacific. It’s an already crowded agenda.

But what of elsewhere in the world? What if some of Canberra’s … let’s put this tactfully … less prominent plenipotentiaries, at least in the sense of media coverage about their home countries, could snaffle half-an-hour to speak with Anthony Albanese? What key issues would they raise about relations with Australia?

“I’ll start like a typical diplomat,” Makgato says, emphasising longstanding connections between Botswana and Australia. But that’s not to suggest she is going to waffle or dodge the point. Throughout our conversation, Makgato’s comments are straightforward and revealing.

Her overall message? Australia needs to do better on Africa overall. “Neglected” is a word she uses.

A partner of potential is what Makgato wants Australians to see. Flip the conversation and recognise that Africa has something to give.

“We understand and we appreciate the fact that currently there’s a preoccupation – I don’t know if that’s a palatable word – a preoccupation or immediate focus on the Asia Pacific region, for pretty obvious reasons,” Makgato says. But she offers an example. If the PM was to stand up and deliver a 15- or 20-minute speech about the state of the world, the many challenges faced and the complex solutions required, she believes it would be essential to incorporate the huge continent of Africa into perspective.

“If you didn’t have the word Africa in that speech, I would worry for him. That’s as basic as it is.”

Dorcas Makgato via WikimediaA partner of potential is what Makgato, pictured, wants Australians to see. Flip the conversation and recognise that Africa with more than 50 countries has something to give for trade and investment. That also means escaping some lingering assumptions. Aid-dependency is one – the World Bank ranks Botswana “upper middle income”. But more immediately and practically, the lack of reciprocal access to visas to Australia presents an obstacle – as does access to the machinery of government in Australia, too.

“We don’t even have access to I think assistant secretary level … I’m representing my head of state with all the powers that you need. At bare minimum, I should be able to meet the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Bare minimum. That’s what we do at home, that’s the reciprocity that we’re talking about. If I want to go and see the Minister of Education, it shouldn’t be too hard. So access to [the PM’s] executive is important for us.”

But let’s get back to speaking like a diplomat for a moment. Shared membership of the Commonwealth organisation offers a point of connection. Botswana, independent from Britain since 1966, ranks well on good governance measures internationally and is widely regarded as southern Africa’s most stable democracy. Makgato lists off the usual buzz words – shared values and norms, transparency, the rules-based world order – “we believe very much in equal opportunities, all those things.” (Makgato really does have a delightful candour.)

And she wants people to understand her country’s enduring commitment to building ties with Australia. “The first demonstration was to actually own our embassy.” Botswana’s government has purpose-built its chancellery building in Canberra’s well-to-do suburb of Deakin, a bright cultural mural decorating the curved brick façade. “We’re very well invested because we are here to stay.”

Featured facts and statistics about Botswana and Australia


When Makgato arrived in February 2020, having herself served as a cabinet minister in government, she was enthusiastic about the prospects for stronger relations. The Senate had just handed down an inquiry report, Australia’s trade and investment relationships with the countries of Africa, which saw opportunity in the ambition to establish a continental free trade area. Her message was Botswana should be a “stepping stone” – a landlocked country about two-thirds the size of New South Wales, but stable and dependable as it transitions from a mining and resources to a vision for a knowledge-based economy.

Then Covid hit.

As the world gradually resolves to living with the virus after more than two years mixing closed borders and lockdowns, Makgato echoes the call of many countries in this region for Australia to relax its visa process – particularly for Botswana, where English is one of two official languages.

“Remember, we were a protectorate under the British. And so when you go to Botswana, trust me, as you’re walking in the street, you speak English, somebody will understand what you’re talking about. And we come to Australia, and we are asked to pay to be tested for English proficiency.” She offers a personal story to underscore the point.

“I’m here with my 17-year-old who’s been at Canberra Grammar. And as soon as he goes to university, despite the fact that he’s been here for years with me, in Australia, in Canberra Grammar, he can’t get into an Australian university without an English proficiency test. How’s that?”

It signals a lack of trust, she says, later putting it even more bluntly. “It leaves kind of a bad taste in your mouth.”

“Think beyond just recognising us when we have to deal with the voting system in the UN or … positions in the multilateral system. Recognise us beyond that. Let’s engage.”

Universities are one connection that Botswana has sought to build with Australia. The country pays for students to be educated abroad. Hundreds used to go to the United Kingdom, only for the rising value of the pound to make Australia the destination of choice for the past decade or so. “We have sent in excess of 600 students, probably, into Australian universities. And we were paying for that. And this was when we as Botswana were still developing our own institutions capacity.”

When Batswana visit the UK, it’s visa free. Not so Australia.

And if I was to tuck my Australian passport in my pocket and fly to Botswana tomorrow as a tourist?

“You arrive, you drive, my brother.”

A performance marking Botswana’s National Culture Day in Mochudi, Kgatleng District, Botswana, on 21 May 2022, celebrating the theme “Culture Is My Business” (Tshekiso Tebalo/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Time is running out. Our 30 minutes has nearly disappeared and the hypothetical queue outside the door of the PM’s office is growing. We’ve covered the importance of Africa as an economic opportunity, better access to government (she says working at the state level in Australia is typically easier and more productive, with a range of cooperation and technical agreements), moderating visa requirements and Australia’s obstinate (my word, not hers) approach to English-language proficiency tests.

I take the chance to raise one last talking point.

Australia has announced a bid again for a seat on the UN Security Council, I ask, and had tremendous support from Africa last time around when it won in 2011.

“Yes, but what did we have in return?” Makgato says.

Maybe a ministerial or a presidential visit would help, I wonder, a face-to-face meeting to put the issues about Africa on the PM’s radar?

“I just think beyond just recognising us when we have to deal with the voting system in the UN or voting system for positions in the multilateral system. Recognise us beyond that. Let’s engage.”


Read more of the “30 minutes with the PM” series.