By Sean Douglas, www.newsday.co.tt
A globe sits atop his desk... inverted so Antarctica is at the top of the world. If Aussies like to consider themselves eccentrics, this globe is the only sign of quirkiness of the new High Commissioner of Australia to Trinidad and Tobago, John Michell. Otherwise Michell is totally straightlaced. With a construction crew busily trying to ready the mission's new "Chancery" building out front at 18 Herbert St, St Clair for a July deadline, Michell dispatches with the frills, and says he wants to get right down to business. He is here to "give ballast" to the economic relationship between the two countries, to make people aware of Australia, and to provide consular services to the 50 or 60 Australians living here.
He steers the interview away from saying too much about himself, and even declines to let his wife, Suzanne, join him for a photo-shoot. Michell says he wants to use the interview to simply announce that Australia is now present in Trinidad and Tobago. But he does offer a brief outline of his resume as a career diplomat — printed out by Suzanne acting as his secretary — including his work in several hotspots. He served as Deputy Head of Mission in East Timor; political adviser to the Solomon Islands Ceasefire/Peace Monitoring Cou-ncil; Chief Negotiator for the Australian-led Peace Monitoring Group on Bouganville (Papua New Guinea); and Deputy High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands. Alluding to the recent huge oil/gas discoveries by BHP Billiton here, he explained the mission had moved from Barbados to Trinidad, simply so that Australian businesses could avail themselves of the opportunities here.
Suggesting benefits for both Australia and Trinidad and Tobago, he remarked: "BHP Billiton is reflective of Australian expertise, which doesn't stop at the mining of oil and gas." Noting there was more to Australia than cricket and the Outback, he said it was a developed country, which could offer not just wines and dairy produce, but also technical expertise. "I'd like to tell as many people as possible about what Australia has to offer. I'd like to broaden the relationship between Australia, and Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean." Not even waiting for the obvious question about how far away Australia was from here, Michell proffered a seemingly well-hashed patter: "The world is a smaller place. Air-travel is relatively cheap. The tyranny of distance is no more."
Saying he was accredited to some 24 Caribbean countries, he revealed this was his first time visiting the region. Asked how he liked Trinidad, he replied, "It's fantastic," but he didn't make the usual diplomatic small-talk about wanting to play mas or play pan. Asked about his sojourn in East Timor in 2001-2003, he said he prefers to look to the future, but offered a small peek, loosening up a little and saying: "I don't mind people seeing where I'm from, and maybe they'll cut me a little slack!" So, what got him through East Timor? "Good judgement and discretion," he replied. Refering to the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he said: "My department puts a lot of emphasis on judgement and discretion-type attributes. You tend to hone them." Asked if he thought Trinidad and Tobago was politically stable for investors, he replied: "Yes, it's a parliamentary democracy."
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