2023 Street Stories

“Stimulating, exciting, dangerous”: former diplomat recounts defining moments in the field

Former Diplomat James Batley in front of Pacific Island Flags.
James Batley, Distinguished Policy Fellow at the ANU Department of Pacific Affairs

“I had no idea at the beginning,” former diplomat James Batley reminisces with a serious yet nostalgic look on his face. Batley recounts the remarkable moments in his career, opening a new chapter in international relations when he led the establishment of an Australian Embassy in East Timor after intense political unrest. His words encapsulate the complexities, unveiling the determination, adaptability, and the unforeseen nuances that defined his role in this historic event. His recollections offer a captivating glimpse into the intricacies of fostering diplomatic ties in Southeast Asia.

Key points
  • Batley had a distinguished career with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, including overseas postings since joining in 1984.
  • His first posting to Vanuatu in 1985.
  • Batley established an Australian Diplomatic office in East Timor during political turmoil.

A career in the fast-paced world of foreign affairs and diplomacy, for some, can only be a dream. However, for James Batley, the seeds of his remarkable journey were sown during his high school years. “My high school teachers used to say that this would be a good career for me,” Batley reflects. The idea sparked and led him down this pathway, but little did he know that this innocuous piece of advice would ignite his passion.

Batley joined the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1984, and his career took off, being defined by a series of overseas postings. It began in 1985 with his first assignment in Vanuatu. Reflecting on this period, he described it as a sentimental favourite.

“That’s when the full excitement of working overseas for the Australian government is experienced,” he reflects.

His role was as dynamic and complex as the destinations themselves. He prioritised understanding the politics and society of the host nation, identifying influential figures, drafting comprehensive reports to the government, and orchestrating programs. His portfolio also involved attending ceremonies, including when he was made a chief by a small village in Vanuatu.

“I was knelt down and the chiefs of the village would come one by one and place their hand on my head and say something in their language,” he said.

Batley encountered his fair share of thrilling moments, including experiences during crises such as responding to a cyclone in Vanuatu and navigating a secessionist struggle in Papua New Guinea. He was also a witness to the East Timor referendum. These experiences have left him with a wealth of knowledge, experience, and an unwavering commitment to the principles of diplomacy.

“I was contacted and told, ‘You’re the man, you’re going to go and open and be the head of our diplomatic office in East Timor’.”

One of the most memorable chapters of his career he noted was the role in establishing an Australian Diplomatic office in East Timor in preparation for the 1999 independence referendum. This period was characterised by “really intense interest from our government, from the Prime Minister, and also from journalists” explained Batley.

Tirelessly working seven days a week, finding an office, liaising with international authorities, and closely monitoring the welfare of Australian citizens, Batley and his ambassadorial team established an Australian diplomatic presence in present-day Timor-Leste.

With his wealth of experience, Batley offered valuable advice to aspiring diplomats. He emphasised that a keen interest in global affairs, sound judgment, strong writing skills, and worldly experience are paramount.

“It’s been multifaceted, stimulating, exciting, dangerous at times, but really wonderful.”

His journey has been one of unpredictability, adventure, and rich cultural, political, and historical experiences that have shaped Australia’s diplomatic landscape.

As James Batley continues his dedication and knowledge, now as a Distinguished Policy Fellow for the Department of Pacific Affairs at the ANU in Canberra, his experiences serve as an inspiration, highlighting the importance of determination and curiosity. His story underscores that diplomacy is not just a job but a lifelong journey filled with remarkable moments.