While many a diplomat has traversed the threshold of our Canberra DAS home, David Ritchie and Margaret Twomey agreed it was time to dispel some of the myths and mystique of the profession, offering a peek behind the velvet veneer to Dante members on 9 May.

Both David and Margaret have served as Australian diplomats accredited to Italy. David began his diplomatic career as Third Secretary with a posting in Rome from 1976-79. Margaret concluded her own career as Ambassador to Italy from 2020-23. In between times Margaret served under David’s leadership in DFAT’s Americas and Europe Division and at Australia’s High Commission in London.

Both declare themselves now to be staunch Italophiles, frequenting the ACT Dante Alighieri Society to keep up their love of the Italian language and engaging as enthusiastic Dante Musica Viva choristers.

In a joint presentation contrasting “then” and “now”, David and Margaret highlighted the many changes over the years in the conduct of our diplomatic relations – as well as those elements which endure.

Core among the enduring features are relations between our political leaders – always conducted by visits and diplomatic dispatches but now also by text and video messaging. Bilateral visits remain a consuming part: David’s time saw visits to Italy by PM Malcolm Fraser and Governor-General Sir John Kerr, while Margaret saw visits by PM Morrison, Trade Minister Tehan and Agriculture Minister Watt.

But frequently, these days, our diplomats must also prepare for meetings outside nation capitals at international gatherings. PM Albanese’s first meeting with Italian PM Georgia Meloni was at the G20 summit in Indonesia. PM Morrison’s first meeting with PM Draghi was at the G7 Summit in Cornwall. Catalysed by COVID19, our leaders now often meet virtually (again demanding much behind-the-scenes preparation by our diplomats).

Of course, our diplomats also represent our leaders. As David and Margaret explained, a core part of the job is to get out from behind one’s desk and build networks with government figures, politicians, business, think tankers, journalists and members of the arts community, to name a few. And to learn about the Italy which lies outside of Rome (hard, as Margaret pointed out, during a pandemic).

Diplomats have the dual role of implementing policy developed in Canberra and by informing our policy makers – especially our ministers – of the perspectives of the host country. David and Margaret agreed this was easily the most exhilarating part of the job.

David spoke about serving in Rome during the “Anni di Piombo” and of Australia’s interest in understanding the influence of the Italian Communist Party. Margaret’s experience, by contrast, related to Australian interest in Italy’s external influence on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the politics of the EU, NATO, and the G7 – in all of which Italy plays a significant part.

Our people-to-people ties are another enduring element. These burgeoned during the years of Italian post-war migration to Australia (visas issued by our embassy in Rome) and continue to be enlivened by the work of bodies such as the Dante-Alighieri Society. Visas, however, are now electronic. And eight week ship voyages are no more. Margaret worked with Qantas for the launch in 2022 of the first non-stop flight from Australia to Italy: 15 hours from Perth to Rome.

Our high level of people-to-people exchanges also mean the embassy in Rome and consulate in Milan have a busy role in assisting Australians who need help – be it through lost passports, accidents or death, providing ballot boxes for Australian elections, or notarial services. Consular work is a core element of any Australian diplomatic post.

Faster flights and easier communication do not just reunite family and friends but help increasing business ties – especially in the fields of infrastructure, energy and space sciences. This is done not just by Australia’s Rome embassy but with our Trade Commissioner, who leads our Consulate in Milan. Services – especially tourism and education – are a big part of our modern trade relationship.

But good old-fashioned commodities such as wool also remain a staple. As Margaret was proud to point out, the blue and white striped tops worn by Venice’s gondoliers are made with Australian merino wool!

While trade promotion is important, David and Margaret explained that work on trade policy demands a more direct role by the embassy. This involves collaborating with our embassy in Brussels due to Italy’s membership of the EU. For Margaret this meant a lot of liaison with the Italian government and stakeholders on the Australia-EU Free Trade Agreement negotiations – which are yet to be completed.

Reflecting on the way things have changed, Margaret spoke about the 24/7 nature of modern diplomacy and the speed at which transactions occurred – catalysed, of course, by the 24/7 news cycle. She also spoke of the increasing importance of public diplomacy. The game is no longer just one of elites but of bringing the public on-side. One has to be adept at working social media and explaining complex issues succinctly (280 characters for a Tweet!). Social media is now a key channel of Australia’s cultural diplomacy, including for our important work in telling our indigenous story.

The passion both David and Margaret feel for their profession made for a longer than usual presentation. But most listeners lasted the distance and a good Q&A session was held at the end. Particularly appreciated was the attendance of Valentina Biguzzi, who directs the Italian Embassy’s Education and Culture Office.

David and Margaret concluded by explaining that, while the vita diplomatica was not always dolce, it was certainly rewarding – and incredibly stimulating. It will never require the toss of a coin in the Trevi to ensure their repeated returns.

Margaret Twomey and David Ritchie presenting at the Italian Cultural Centre on 9 May 2024.
Third secretary David Ritchie (pictured left) interpreting, with a few questions of his own, as the Ambassador meets a regional dignitary.
Margaret Twomey talking to the Italian President Mattarella after presenting her credentials in 2020 at the Quirinal Palace in Rome.