Jeff Bleich: Australia has done some very innovative things that the US can learn from

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Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing and Communications Specialist, Advance.  

During one of America’s most challenging economic eras, Jeff Bleich served as a senior advisor to President Obama, helping him build a successful new administration, providing legal and policy guidance on all issues that might require presidential action. 

Showing an avid interest in all things Australian from a young age and throughout his career, Jeff was appointed by the President as the United States Ambassador to Australia, a position he held for four years. Throughout his tenure, Jeff’s work included overseeing record growth in trade and investment between the US and Australia, implementing the Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty, establishing new alliances for cybersecurity, and executing a new space cooperation agreement that supported the Mars Curiosity rover landing.

Still maintaining close ties to Australia, Jeff shared with Advance his insights on US and Australia relations, what the two countries can learn from each other, and what it was like to work with Barack Obama. 

What’s your earliest memory of being interested in Australia?

I've been fascinated with Australia ever since I was a kid.  Even before I visited, it had captured my imagination. When I began working as a lawyer, I was called to Australia by an Australian company that had a partnership with my client, Time Warner in LA. I remember spending my first ten days there doing nothing but depositions but still coming home loving the country. And if you can love a place after ten days of depositions, you know it's got to be a special place.

Was becoming the United States Ambassador to Australia something you were always striving towards?

No, it was a happy accident. I was working as President Obama’s Special Counsel in the White House at the time, and there were a few instances where I recommended we look to Australia for guidance. For example, when we had the H1N1 outbreak, I suggested that we reach out to Australia because they may have had some insights into flu vaccines and the impact of the virus. We also had wildfires that same summer, and again I suggested we reach out to our Australian friends, because of our alternating seasons. This happened with a few other issues until the President noticed a pattern. We had been talking about Australia as being a critical part of the rebalance to the Asia Pacific and so when the President was looking for someone who he knew cared about the Australia and US relationship and had an international relations background, he asked me to step in.

How many years were you in that role for?

Four years.

What are you most proud of achieving during your tenure during that role?

I take full credit for keeping us from going to war with one another (laughs)!

Seriously, there were many things I was proud of during my time as the United States Ambassador to Australia.  Most of all, I'm  proud that I helped build upon the trust between the two countries. If I had to point to one thing though, it would be the rebalance to the Asia Pacific region, because we worked together seamlessly to fundamentally improve the diplomatic architecture of U.S-Australia relationships. On the economic front, we made tremendous progress in terms of bilateral trade and investment.

What do you notice as some of the parallels between Australia and the US and what do you notice are some of the key differences?

I'd say there are tremendous similarities between our countries, particularly in terms of having been former colonies of the UK. I think there is a common language and legacy but also an independent “frontier mentality” that defines both of us. I think that, at our best, we take our work seriously but we don't take ourselves too seriously. And our commitment to a better world is a genuine one. Some of the things I used to find that were different still ring true, for example, Australians are very honest and upfront; they’re much less likely to pretend to like something that they don't. However, the one thing that I would change about Australia would be to get more decent Mexican food there!

How would you describe the current relationship between Australia and the US?

I'd say it is still extraordinarily strong and robust. The relationship is so deep across so many dimensions that changes in leadership, whether it's party or party leaders, only have a modest effect.

Do you still maintain ties with Australia?

Yes. In fact, I get back there fairly regularly and I work with many Australian-American groups. I expect to see a number of Australians out here in California this month because we have the Australian-American leadership dialogue and G’Day LA events.

Would you recommend young Americans to spend time in Australia? If so, why?

I strongly recommend it. I think Australia has done some very innovative things that the US can learn from. The Australian Superannuation system has made your retirement system far more secure than our current system. I think that some of the changes that were made in the banking system in the 90s helped inoculate Australia from some of the shocks we experienced with the global financial crisis. I think Australia’s approach to sensible gun laws and its universal voting are things America could learn from. There is value in seeing the ways in which Australia treats policy and democracy differently than the United States.  It’s important to know that people who are like-minded can accomplish things in different ways; it’s a very good thing for all of us. I also just think that travel broadens your mind.

You've worked with some extremely influential and successful people and politicians throughout your career.

I think I've just always just been fortunate. I tend to look for people who I admire and whose values I respect, and then do my best to keep them in my life. I never did that for any reason other than hoping to have a life full of interesting people who I admire. Barack Obama is a great example of that.

What was it like to work with Obama?

He's exactly as he appears on TV. He really does exhibit a sense of humor, grace, intellect, compassion, and goodwill, but he also has the wisdom and perspective that goes with it. All of those qualities are genuine. That's how he is when there is no one around, and it's also how he is when the world spotlight is on him.

What do you like about living in California?

I think California and Australians are a lot alike. We're drawn to the ocean, we're pioneers, we're innovators and we're a little bit eccentric. I think there are tremendous similarities between Californians in particular and Australians and that's what I like about both places. I like the fact that people are judged not by their appearance or what school they went to, but just what kind of people they are and what they bring to the table.