This story in The Age alleges that the Prime Minister has vetoed the recommended appointee, Hugh Borrowman, to the position of Australian Ambassador to Germany.

One of the assertions made in the piece is that Mr Rudd “is known to prefer Australia’s representatives abroad speak the local language”, an attribute which Mr Borrowman apparently doesn’t possess. (UPDATE: (27/5)  According to this piece, Mr Borrowman actually does speak German, which suggests the Prime Minister stopped his appointment for other reasons, and even more concerning, publicly fibbed about it).

Leaving aside whether or not Mr Rudd should be directly intervening in ambassadorial appointments, speaking the local language seems like a reasonable thing to aim for in an ambassador, although it should only be one of a number of factors to take into account – it would be crazy to make it a compulsory prerequisite.

But I was very taken aback by the statement in the article that “severe budget cuts over successive years have left only about a quarter of diplomats speaking a foreign language.

I work a lot in the fields of migration and multiculturalism.  I have the limitation of being monolingual, and I am continually reminded of the benefits of speaking multiple languages. I often wonder why Australia doesn’t seem to be able to make better use of the many talents of migrants and refugees – one of which is the multilingual abilities and understandings of other cultures which so many of them possess.

Not everybody is suited to be an ambassador, but if the statistic that only a quarter of our diplomats speak a language other than English is true, it is hard to see how our diplomatic service is being as effective as it could be.  Given that Australia is one of the most multicultural nations on Earth, it is an advantage we should be making much better use of.

UPDATE: As noted above, an article the following day states that Mr Borrowman does speak German.  This makes the allegations that Mr Rudd vetoed the appointment due to personal animosity towards Mr Borrowman more plausible.

It also appears the Prime Minister has rather blatantly lied about the issue. The article says:

Mr Rudd, asked yesterday why he stopped the appointment, said his preference was “to have people in positions who spoke the language well”.

“I am just saying it is general philosophy and I think you know me well that when it comes to foreign diplomatic appointments I do place priority on languages, as does the minister and last time I looked at Germany they speak German.”

My main aim originally in noting this issue was to make the point that we should be doing more to value and encourage multi-lingualism, rather than to buy into a diplomatic spat around Prime Ministerial micro-management.  But if this is another case of flagrant fibbing when caught out, the circumstances surrounding this matter does merit closer attention.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off