A Career in the Foreign Service: Interviewing Matthew Anderson

Reading Time: 10 minutes

Director of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) since April 2020, Matthew Anderson, PSM had a distinguished career with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) before his appointment. 

Ready with an anecdote (half of which are delivered off the record), Anderson’s easy storytelling makes him an incredibly personable interviewee and before I know it an hour and a half has passed and we’ve not answered half the questions I’d planned. Once a field engineer, as combat engineers were previously called, Anderson adopts the Army vernacular with practiced ease even though he’s been out since 1994. 

Leaving the Australian Army at the rank of captain, Anderson says he wanted to live and work overseas, but felt he couldn’t get that experience through the Army. Many service personnel will relate to his frustrations about the ‘trip[s] that got away’. “When I graduated from the School of Military Engineering, my squadron [1 of 3 in a construction regiment] was preparing to deploy to Namibia. This was just at the end of the ‘long peace’ and the Army was starting to do more interesting work overseas again. However, in the end only 2 of 3 squadrons deployed and I was in the squadron which missed out.”

“Then I nominated to deploy to Pakistan with the Mine Clearance Training Team,” says Anderson. “I was selected for the 13th rotation to Pakistan, but it was cancelled after 12. So, I missed out again. Finally, I was asked to apply to be aide de camp (ADC) to Lieutenant General John Sanderson.” LTGEN Sanderson was appointed military commander of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia in 1992-93, overseeing the lead-up to the first free Cambodian elections. “I got the job on the grounds that I learned Khmer at the Australian Defence Force School of Languages at Point Cook, Melbourne. I passed Khmer and spent the next 2 years on 3 days notice to move, but each time Sanderson deployed to Cambodia he took his existing ADC, and the position never became available for me to post in.” 

Fed up with being ‘always the bridesmaid and never the bride’, while working in Tonga through the Defence Cooperation Program he took the advice of the High Commissioner who encouraged him to apply to join DFAT. Anderson says, “he told me I wouldn’t get selected the first time I applied, because every year approximately 6,000 people apply for the 20-30 graduate positions which are available. You need to have travelled, you need to speak another language and you need to understand Australia’s strategic place in the world.”

“I was a young ‘thruster’ getting pretty good Performance Appraisal Reports, so really I applied to call the Army’s bluff, so to speak, and see if they’d offer me any good postings or deployments to stop me leaving. I also thought I’d learn the process of applying for DFAT and try again the following year. During the process, I was travelling in London and my wife faxed my offer of an interview to Australia House where I later worked as the Deputy High Commissioner. And where flew my Collingwood scarf from the flagpole during the 2018 AFL Grand Final. I arrived back in Australia the day before my interview, and I was successful and got an offer. So did my wife [now a Director in DFAT’s Crisis Management Division],and we gave ourselves ‘2 postings or 10 years’ in DFAT. 25 years, 6 postings and 3 short term missions later here we are.” 

“Interestingly,” says Anderson, “I would run into the members of the selection committee who chose me for the graduate program, and they would say things to me like ‘how’s our test case going?’ They wondered how I would go in the Australian Public Service (APS) environment as they perceived the Army as limited to ‘giving and following orders’. That’s not the Army I was part of; our Army is about understanding our higher commander’s orders and persuading very clever soldiers to do things based on ‘the why’. It was about people, teams, leading and being led, and understanding Australia’s place in the world. The Army certainly isn’t full of automatons. I spent my entire time at the Royal Military College- Duntroon wearing incorrectly coloured socks. I figured if I let them tell me what kind of socks to wear then I was in a world of hurt. I set all sorts of records receiving punishments for doing this; I have hundreds of extra drill tally marks inside the brim of my peak cap.” 

Anderson says his reputation as ‘that Army guy’ followed him during his career in DFAT, and people’s perception of him as somehow more capable under pressure led to several opportunities. Initially, his writing was described as too ‘brutal and direct’. His recommendations were deemed “too categoric” and he was told “in DFAT Matt, we devil in the grey. You need to write in such a way where if someone took offence you could say ‘I see why you might think that, but what I actually meant was this’. There needs to be enough ambiguity in the language.” Anderson says, “that isn’t DFAT anymore, but that’s how it used to be.” 

After two years in the graduate program, his first posting was to South Africa during the Nelson Mandela era. While running the Cape Town office, Anderson also travelled regularly to Namibia, Swaziland and Botswana as Australia did not have embassies in those countries. The High Commissioner was based in Pretoria (1600 kilometres away) to be near the South African parliament. Anderson describes running this office as essentially ‘subunit command’ in military parlance. “I later learned that I was sent there because I was ‘this Army guy’ who had demonstrated that he was responsible and not a risk.” However, soon he was uprooted to Cambodia because he spoke Khmer. “In the aftermath of the 1998 elections, things had gone horribly wrong, and it had resulted in tanks on the streets. DFAT didn’t have any Khmer linguists, so I soon found myself translating for a Japanese election monitoring team. Once again, I was perceived as ‘the Army guy’ who didn’t need lead up training before Cambodia; I could be thrown in.” 

Later, as High Commissioner in Samoa, Anderson was in charge when an 8.3 earthquake and a tsunami causing 15m waves travelling at 400 kilometres per hour devastated the south coast of the island on 29 September 2009. “There was so much [natural] violence that the island I was on physically moved 30 centimetres. 5 Australians were killed and another 22 were medically evacuated. It was fraught and dangerous. I led our response, and I remember colleagues saying, ‘you know how to handle this because you’ve been in the Army’. Well, I don’t know many captains who’ve had experience handling a situation like that, but that’s the perception of the military.”

“Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister at the time and Duncan Lewis was the National Security Advisor. Lewis called me and asked, ‘what do you need?’ It was 6.56AM and I responded, ‘I need a squadron of Army engineers and a field hospital’. He was surprised by the specificity of this request, but I was a small post, and I couldn’t afford to have a lot of people in the room during the response because we didn’t have the bandwidth to manage that many people,” says Anderson.

“I remember the day vividly. That night there was an earthquake in Sumatra, and HMAS Tobruk- which was due to bring 188 tonnes of stores to me- was directed to Sumatra. Instead of a squadron of Army engineers and a field hospital, I got 118 doctors, surgeons, anaesthetists, paramedics, Australian Federal Police and Disaster Victim Identification people from all different jurisdictions, command structures and with varying needs of support and assistance. I had to make it work, but this was a huge increase in staff to manage given our starting point was a High Commissioner, 4 diplomats and some locally engaged staff.”

Anderson says, “I remember returning from the south coast, where I’d been working with the Samoan National Disaster Committee (which included the Samoan Prime Minister) and seen bodies being pulled out of trees. The first aftershock was 7.6 and my staff had shown extreme bravery being on the beach with their backs to the ocean looking for Australians in the rubble. I opened the door to a conference room where all the staff from this Emergency Management Team had been assembled, and they all looked at me expectantly. My first instinct was to joke; I said, ‘I hope the bloke behind me knows what to do’. However, in that moment I was ‘the Army guy’. I had just come from the ground, so I naturally spoke in SMEAC [Situation, Mission, Execution, Administration and Logistics, Command and Signals] and began by giving them the situation. It just works and everyone in the room got it. It was a very useful way to organise my mind during an actual disaster. Then I allocated ‘troops to task’. 

Anderson was awarded the Public Service Medal in the 2011 Australia Day Honours List for his role leading the Australian humanitarian and consular response. 

Photograph taken by David Whittaker

Another event of significance in Anderson’s career was heading DFAT’s MH17 Taskforce following the downing of the aircraft in Ukrainian airspace in 2014. “I was on leave in Perth when MH17 was shot down, so I jumped on a plane and flew back to Canberra to join the crisis team though I couldn’t have identified Ukraine on a map, let alone the Donetsk region. Then-Prime Minister Tony Abbot quickly called this ‘Operation Bring Them Home’ and that really resonated with me. I have this idea of ‘innocent passage’ which had been violated. I was angry and I brought my anger to bringing the bodies home,” says Anderson.

“Tony Abbott deployed Sir Angus Houston to be his special envoy, but in a purely bureaucratic sense it wasn’t clear what was the role, responsibility, and authority of a special envoy. I was tapped to lead the taskforce that was stood up, and suddenly I was writing a submission to the National Security Council every day. 298 innocents were killed, including 28 Australians, 10 permanent residents, and 3 others with a special connection with Australia. 41 bodies needed repatriation with discrete, commemorative ramp ceremonies. Very early on we knew who had committed this crime as radio traffic had been intercepted. We deployed a Crisis Response Team into a very contested area where there were rockets firing overhead. Unlike the Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police, foreign affairs doesn’t have any exemptions under the Workplace Health and Safety Act that allows a higher level of risk to be transferred to the workforce. But the higher commander’s intent was clear: we had to bring home the bodies, so we had to do what was required and try to mitigate the risk, including commandeering old tank factories to use as morgues,” says Anderson. 

Of all the nations where Anderson has represented Australia, he reflects that some are misunderstood by Australians. “They were all important; we wouldn’t have an embassy in a country if the relationship wasn’t important. I was also there in different times and with different responsibilities. It’s difficult to say that when I was third secretary in South Africa- where I met Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and witnessed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission– is the same as briefing Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in the car on the way to meet President Ashraf Ghani, or walking in the front door of Number 10, Downing Street to meet Prime Minister Theresa May.”

Anderson says, “Samoa is poorly understood. Australians forget they were the first democracy in the Pacific; they were stable, secure, democratic and with us in East Timor [INTERFET] and the Solomon Islands [RAMSI]. They were one of three countries in the Pacific which had a trade surplus with us. Since then, they’ve had some political shenanigans, but they now have a female prime minister for the first time which is fantastic.”

“Papua New Guinea also really matters to us. They are profoundly important strategically and historically and are very rich in minerals and resources. But only 1 person in government had graduated from university when it was granted independence in 1975. Was it ready? It was a remarkable posting for my family and I because Australians certainly don’t understand the richness of its culture. One third of the world’s languages are spoken in PNG! Different tribes may be able to see each other, but not be able to communicate.”

“Lastly,” says Anderson, “people do not understand Afghanistan is a country the size of New South Wales which most people couldn’t identify on a map. We’ve invested so much of the richness of our youth ensuring it never again became a haven for terrorists.” Anderson quotes an August opinion editorial by Condoleezza Rice in The Washington Post which says 20 years wasn’t long enough to take a country from the 7th century to the modern world. “When I was posted as Ambassador to Afghanistan for 18 months (2015-16), it was one of the most important things I’ve ever done. When you’re there, you feel like you’re at the centre of something and part of a cause bigger than yourself. My time there is best encapsulated by the quote from John F. Kennedy: ‘we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard’. The value of Australia’s contribution in Afghanistan to our allies was because we knew it was hard, but we were still there. We were the second largest non-NATO member to join the coalition. That matters.” Read more of Anderson’s reflections on Afghanistan here (pdf). 

Anderson reflects it wasn’t a linear path from Staff Cadet to Ambassador. “Before the Australian Defence Force Academy opened, I set off from school with great fanfare to HMAS Creswell on a scholarship in 1985 with a goal of flying. I wasn’t able to fly so I resigned my Commission. I returned to Melbourne and spent $116/hour learning to fly and pumping petrol for $3/hour because I was determined to become a pilot. I then started an aviation cadetship through a scholarship to the Royal Military College- Duntroon, only to be ‘scrubbed’ on pilot’s course. The DFAT graduate program didn’t meet my expectations, and I wanted to quit. Then I posted to South Africa and enjoyed it, but I didn’t get along with some senior Australian officials in South Africa, so I actually did quit upon my return. I was working at Monash University when I applied to be a civilian monitor of the Bougainville peace process but was actually selected as the Chief Negotiator of the Peace Monitoring group in Bougainville (2001-02). As a result of that I was chosen to work in Port Moresby [Papua New Guinea] and that experience qualified me to become the spokesperson for the department. In turn, this got me the High Commissioner role in Samoa, and [my career in DFAT] all continued from there,” says Anderson. 

“I never said I worked for DFAT, but instead that I worked for the ‘foreign service’ because to me it was a continuation of military service. During my career, we had more people living in shipping containers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Pacific islands than cardigan wearing, pipe smoking diplomats working in Geneva, London, or Paris. It was confronting that when I was in Samoa I had to exhume a girl, which doesn’t fit with the image of a ‘doddery daiquiri diplomat’”. 

Anderson says, “the overwhelming majority of diplomats are those who are prepared to ‘go the wrong way’. When the nuclear reactor in Fukushima broke down, there were Australian consular officials who strapped Geiger counters to their waist belts and went into harm’s way. The Americans, Brits and Canadians were asking Australia to look for their people because DFAT were the only ones doing so. There were DFAT officers at the Kabul airport when it fell to the Taliban recently.” 

“At DFAT you must make sure every meeting you have is in the national interest, and that you are getting something out of every meeting or person of interest. You are trying to convince another country to make a decision which is in Australia’s interest for them to take. If there’s a joint interest, it’s easy, but sometimes there’s not. 

The interview with Matthew Anderson continues in Part II

Find Matt’s biography here 

About the Author: Samuel J. Cox is the editor of Grounded Curiosity. Find him on Twitter.

Image Credit: AWM Flickr

Correction: An earlier version of this interview stated Matthew Anderson started as Director of the Australian War memorial in December 2019. His appointment was announced then, but he commenced the role in April 2020.