Kathryn Cooper: There are booming cultural, technology and innovation industries here

Interview by Molly O'Brien

The journey Kathryn Cooper has taken to end up living and working in Washington DC is one she describes as “circuitous” – undoubtedly a route many Australian expats worldwide can relate to.

Originally moving to New York in 2010 for a role with the International Red Cross in their delegation to the United Nations, it wasn’t until a number of years later that she began working for the Australian Ambassador to the United States. Kathryn’s professional experience striving to achieve policy and advocacy goals led her to her current role, a position she considers nothing short of a “privilege”.

Some common traits amongst Australians, Kathryn suggests, include unwavering hard work, professional agility and an uncanny knack to take the work seriously, but not themselves – all proven expertly by her own career.

Growing up and studying in Australia, her background is moored in law, public policy and international affairs, with a focus on the Middle East. Beginning at a large international law firm, then a tenure at the UN and now in Government, her career has maintained a strong involvement with foreign affairs and politics, despite being engaged at vastly different organisations. Kathryn has made a career out of being adaptable; successfully transferring critical skills to a variety of professional environments.

The passion Kathryn has for her job is palpable; it’s clear she is in a role that serves a far deeper purpose than to merely pay the bills. After speaking with Kathryn, it’s easy to get the sense that the future of Australia is in very good hands when there are individuals like herself working as part of “Team Australia”.

Can you break down what your current role, Senior Advisor to the Ambassador, involves? 

We have a very large Embassy in Washington, which reflects the very important footprint and broad agenda that Australia has in the United States. My role involves working within the national interest specifically by advancing our objectives within the US; finessing the Ambassador’s strategic engagement with influential individuals and organisations and in policy areas relevant to our mission.

It’s a role I have heard described as akin to an “air traffic controller” – in the sense that I have a view of what’s going on across thematic areas in order to provide advice and execute action to achieve our goals. While there are many highly talented specialists based in the Embassy, my role is more about joining the dots across the spectrum and making sure all those areas form a cohesive agenda for the Ambassador and our national interest in the United States.

Is Washington’s reputation of being a heavily political town a myth?

What I like about Washington is that it's moved beyond being a one-industry town that attracts a lot of young and talented people from across the US, and the world. While people often think the Bay area is all about tech, New York is dominated by finance and LA is all about the the creative arts; once you actually live in the US you understand the nuance and see the complexity and diversity in each city up close. Its an incredibly exciting place to live and work.

While Washington will forever be the nation’s capital and as such regarded as a “Government” town, I do think that’s an increasingly outdated idea. There are booming cultural, technology and innovation industries here. There are also a lot of exciting work in defence and aerospace; not just people who are members of the armed services, but those who work at the cutting edge building the hardware and software to support the whole defence industry.  

What role does Australia play within the US nation-wide?

The vital importance of the Australian diaspora and networks is certainly recognised worldwide, but I don't think that applies anywhere more so than the US. So critical for us is the footprint that we have here. The outside influence that the US continues to have in economic, defence, creative arts and finance is unparalleled. One of the best parts of my current role is learning about the unbelievable success that Australians have had all over the US and in a very broad array of industries and pursuits.  I've been so proud and inspired by each and every one of these successes. Australians are just continuing to do so well in the US.

Coming from a country that is small population-wise, Australians naturally have transferable and adaptable skills. We’ve traditionally had to engage with the rest of the world from a trade perspective as a matter of survival, and I think as a result from that, Australians are willing to take on any challenges that are thrown their way and explore the great beyond. As a kid from regional Australia, I never really thought I would end up in New York or Washington but here I am. I credit a large part of my journey to my upbringing in Australia – that fearless optimism and the confidence to just give things a go and be open to other parts of the world and the experiences, both positive and challenging, that they bring.

Why do you think it is important for Australians to succeed in America?

The US is a hyper-competitive country, that’s no secret. Australians who come here are well aware of that and are willing to put in the hard yards, to be the best that they can be, and do whatever they need to do to try to make it here. I think that a lot of Americans, particularly from a cultural perspective, appreciate that Australians take their work very seriously, but they don't take themselves too seriously. That definitely seems to cut through with Americans across the spectrum.

What can be done to continue Australian success in the US?

I think organisations such as Advance play a critical role in terms of getting the word out about all the amazing things Australians are doing across the globe. In future, we need to continue to focus on ways to better understand – and celebrate – the sheer breadth of the fields that Australians continue to achieve. Everybody knows we've done very well in Hollywood, on Wall Street and have had a strong influence on food and café culture, but I think understanding the influence that we've had in other industries, such as space technology, medical research and higher education, for example, is critically important. The Australian Government is very focused on making sure we identify those people and leverage and celebrate their success.

How can we get there?

I think part of that will just come with time and being focused systematically on identifying, and linking up with, these great achievers. Particularly with the accessibility of the E3 visa where Australians have the unique opportunity to relocate to the US and pursue opportunities.

Every Aussie expat around the world is, in essence, representing Australia. Do you feel double the pressure to do this in your role?

I wouldn’t characterise it as pressure as such. I think all Australian expats are ambassadors for Australia in what we do, what we say, how we conduct ourselves and the success that we achieve. I do feel incredibly privileged that I have this role at this moment in history and am able to advocate for Australia's interests, policies and priorities, in a country that continues to be so important to us on a range of different fronts.

You’ve experienced the recent changing of administration in Washington first-hand. What has that been like, being in the thick of one of the most interesting political experiences the world has ever seen?

It’s never dull, that’s for sure. The most interesting part was transitioning from the final year of a two-term administration that was – to the very end of its term – active and focused on getting things done and wrapping things up, to the first couple of years of a new administration that is trying to find its feet, as it must be said all US administrations need to do in their first years.

I think watching the city itself recalibrate around such a different administration is also fascinating; seeing people work out how to navigate and be effective in a very different policy landscape and in ways that are very different to the usual conventions of politics here.

How reciprocal is the Australian and US relationship?

Very reciprocal. It’s been incredibly helpful that the new Administration knows first-hand the breadth and depth of the bilateral relationship because so many of the senior members of the Administration have been drawn from the defence and business worlds – areas where Australia and the US have a long history so we work very closely.  Those linkages really matter and have been immensely helpful on a number of fronts. It’s enabled us to build close relationships; have frank discussions and offer up advice on a range of issues, and I think that’s the sign of a healthy and dynamic relationship – not one that is stuck in the past or based on platitudes. So, I see reciprocity – on many levels - at the very core of the relationship.

What types of things is DFAT working on at the moment? Is there anything exciting in the pipeline?

A key focus of the Ambassador’s term is our signature campaign entitled the First One Hundred Years of Mateship.

Not many Australians or Americans know that July 4, 2018 marks one hundred years since Australians and Americans first fought side by side together in the First World War, commanded by Australian Sir General John Monash. We've had almost a year of events marking this important centenary; with the official launch on the USS Intrepid in New York in May last year with Prime Minister Turnbull and President Trump.

This campaign is important on a number of fronts, especially at the current time and in a country like the US where you need a narrative to cut through the noise of competing messages.  Like all relationships, the relationship between Australia and the US needs to maintain its currency and relevance for it to prosper. Platitudes are not enough. People need to be reminded why this relationship is important, and the Mateship initiative captures this on a number of fronts.  Not just our close defence and intelligence relationships. While the origins of our “mateship” may have been based on our work as defence allies, our relationship has really grown into something much broader, much deeper and far more enduring than those diggers could ever have known on July 4, 1918. 

The current crop of Australians working all over the US and achieving amazing things each and every day reflects this breadth and depth, and the excitement that comes when thinking about how the bilateral relationship will grow and evolve over the next 100 years.