Friend of Hawke was ambassador to the US, Indonesia and Israel

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Scholar, diplomat and sportsman, Rawdon Dalrymple was, above all, a thinker who contributed greatly to Australia’s search for identity in the Asia-Pacific.

Rawdon’s ancestry was a mix of Scottish, English and Polynesian. His great-grandfather on his mother’s side sailed from South America to Pitcairn Island. He subsequently took many of the Bounty mutineers and families to settle on Norfolk Island.

Rawdon Dalrymple at Parliament House in Canberra in 2003.Credit: Fairfax

Rawdon’s parents both of whom served in WWI – his mother as a nurse and his father as a sapper – were of modest means. Through a mix of scholarships and his mother’s determination, Rawson attended Shore after Warrawee Public School.

Indeed, Rawdon’s academic brilliance constantly ensured the opening of opportunities which otherwise would have been out of financial reach.

Studying philosophy at Sydney University in 1948-51, Rawdon spent his final year at Wesley College off the back of a scholarship from the Ku-ring-gai Branch of the RSL, in recognition of his parents’ service in the First World War.

Importantly, Wesley College introduced him to rowing, at which he excelled, and which was central to him being awarded the NSW Rhodes Scholarship for 1952. At University College, Oxford, Rawdon became captain of the college boat club and rowed in the Isis Eight, Oxford’s second crew. He graduated with first class honours in philosophy, economics and politics.

Dalrymple, then Australia’s ambassador in Washington, reading the Australian Financial Review in a Canberra park in 1986.Credit: Fairfax

Attending University College at the same time was a Rhodes Scholar from Western Australia, future prime minister Bob Hawke. Rawdon and Bob became firm friends, their lives intersecting regularly thereafter, both personally and professionally.

Indeed, it was Bob, as Prime Minister, who appointed Rawdon ambassador to the United States in 1985 and ambassador to Japan in 1989. Hazel Hawke typed Rawdon’s thesis at Oxford and it was at the Dalrymple’s home many years later that Bob first met his second wife, Blanche.

Returning to Australia in 1955, Rawdon took up an appointment as lecturer in moral and political philosophy at Sydney University which, oddly enough, he did not especially enjoy. But what he did enjoy at this time was meeting the person to whom he would be married for 66 years, Ross Williams.

Always interested in the world at large, and with the Oxford experience, Rawdon joined the Department of External Affairs in 1957. His sharp intellect and sheer professionalism saw quick promotion.

The 1950s and 60s saw a rapid expansion of Australia’s global diplomatic footprint. With Treasury colleagues, Rawdon worked on the establishment of the Asian Development Bank, becoming the Australian alternate director, based in Manila, in 1967.

The experience in the ADB and in Manila fuelled a lifelong interest in the Asia-Pacific, which continued long after his retirement from government in 1994, when he became a member of the Foreign Minister’s Advisory Board, Deputy Chair of the Australia Japan Council and a member of the Board of the Indonesia Council.

In government, Rawdon was never far from the centre of action. As ambassador to Israel from 1972-1975, he managed the intense policy and consular demands of the Yom Kippur war.

Dalrymple (left) presents his credentials to Israel’s then president Zalman Shazar (right) to become Australia’s ambassador in 1972. Credit: AP

As Ambassador to Indonesia from 1981-1985, Rawdon was instrumental in helping manage the Labor government’s policy transition on East Timor after the 1983 general elections. Again, his personal relationship with prime minister Hawke was in evidence.

Believing passionately in the centrality of Australia’s relations with Indonesia, and in Indonesia’s role in South-East Asia’s role more broadly, Rawdon visited every province of the country. He threw himself into the language, having weekly lessons right up to his departure in early 1985.

Australia’s identity and engagement in East Asia were constants in Rawdon’s life, both during and after his time in government. His 2003 book, Continental Drift: Australia’s Search for Regional Identity, expresses this most clearly.

Concerned that the then Howard government was diluting the emphasis on East Asia pursued by the Hawke and Keating governments, Rawdon lamented that Australia “still seems to be reacting against the earlier attempts to engage more closely with East Asia, and be drifting rather aimlessly with only a firm commitment to the United States alliance and leadership as the main determinant of policy”.

Bob Hawke and wife Blanche D’Apulget at the launch of Dalrymple’s book Continental Drift: Australia’s Search for a Regional Identity in 2003.Credit: Fairfax

Rawdon subsequently welcomed the Howard government’s bold response to the 2004 tsunami and to its initiative in obtaining membership to the East Asia Summit in 2005. He very much welcomed the renewed emphasis on South-East Asia by Foreign Minister Penny Wong after the 2022 federal election.

Committed to the alliance himself, one of Rawdon’s main tasks in Washington was the management of the fallout from New Zealand’s decision to ban visits by US nuclear armed or nuclear-powered ships. This, he did, with his usual intellectual rigour.

As a leader, Rawdon was demanding, with a tendency towards perfection. An attention to detail was both a point of respect and of frustration, for those working with him.

Dalrymple as Australian ambassador to Indonesia in 1984.Credit: Fairfax

Always working together as a team, Rawdon and Ross led embassies and staff with good grace, compassion and style – Ross adding the latter!

Rawdon enjoyed the social side of diplomatic life, but it did not always go to plan. In Israel, before attending a major function at which he was guest of honour, Rawdon went for swim in the surf, had an accident and lost some front teeth. Undeterred, he went to the function anyway minus his teeth.

Rawdon retained a close involvement with the University of Sydney throughout his life. After he left government, he served a term as chair of the Australia Centre for American Studies and was appointed a visiting professor in the department of government and international relations.

Rawdon received an Order of Australia in 1985. He was awarded an honorary doctorate of science (economics) from Sydney University in 2007.

Rawdon is survived by Ross, two children Laura and David, and grandchildren.

Dennis Richardson served as Secretary of the Department of Defence from 2012 to 2017 and Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs from 2010 to 2012.

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