Vicki Treadell responds to Penny Wong’s colonial past claims

The United Kingdom’s top diplomat in Australia has used a national address to claim while the two countries may be “best mates”, it was a friendship which could never be taken for granted.

British high commissioner to Australia Vicki Treadell, in an address to the National Press Club on Wednesday, also addressed that while the UK had worked to confront its colonial past, there was ongoing work needed.

Ms Treadell’s address, titled “Modern Britain: Our journey beyond colonialism”, was a somewhat-response to Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong’s speech in London last month.

In Senator Wong’s speech to Kings College, she urged the UK to come to terms with its own colonial past, in order for the two countries to modernise their relationship with Pacific nations and stabilise the region against a rising China.

She said that in spite of that, the two countries were “the best of mates”.

Making reference to Senator Wong’s speech, Ms Treadell said while the UK and Australia remained close allies, that relationship could not be taken for granted.

“There’s a phrase we like to use a lot about the Australia and UK relationship, ‘the best of mates’,” Ms Treadell said.

“The thing about mates is that you should never take them for granted.

“Friendship can be built on old ties, but true partnership requires renewal and growth.”

Camera IconBritish High Commissioner Vicki Treadell addressed the National Press Club in Canberra. NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

On the subject of acknowledging the power’s own colonial past, Senator Wong last month drew on her own Malaysian heritage to warn colonial powers like the UK would not find common ground with smaller nations if they remained “sheltered in narrower versions” of their histories.

Ms Treadell, also Malaysian-born, used her speech to highlight her own success as proof the UK had confronted its past, and said some of the “nuance” had been lost in the reaction to Senator Wong’s speech.

“I agree with Penny Wong. We must frame ourselves for who we are today. We must not let others constrain us in a past reality,” she said.

“To understand modern Britain is to understand that we must protect with pride our modern multicultural reality.”

Speaking of her own upbringing, Ms Treadell – who has no “British blood” – said while the face of modern Britain had indeed changed, there was still “more work to do”.

“In ethnic terms, I am Eurasian – the daughter of Chinese and Dutch Burgher parents who migrated to Britain with me in tow aged eight,” she said.

British High Commissioner Vicki Treadell
Camera IconMs Treadell drew on her own history to explain Britain’s ongoing work on colonialism. NCA NewsWire / Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

In her speech, she said when she first joined the Foreign Office in 1979, she was told “I don’t understand how you hope to be a member of Her Majesty’s diplomatic service”.

“I told him, ‘I am a legacy of Empire, and you reap what you sow,’” she said.

Ms Treadell was the Foreign Office‘s first female high commissioner of colour when she was posted to New Zealand.

She said Britain had more modern success with diversity than Australia did, making reference to new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – the son of Indian migrants and a practising Hindu.

She said that remained a dream in Australia.

“I recently met with a Year 11 student, a high-achieving young woman of Asian ancestry,” Ms Treadell said.

“I asked, as I often do of young people, where she hoped to be in 30 years. ‘Prime minister of Australia,’ she said.

“On this International Women’s Day, it’s heartening to recall her say this with a surety that belied not a dream, but a goal to be attained.

“It’s an attitude we’ve sought to foster in the UK.”

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