Max Gaylard: Memories of a Diplomatic Life

February 10, 2013 at 11:48 am 3 comments

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Max Gaylard shares memories of his old photos damaged in last year’s Mitchell flood.

When I caught up with Max Gaylard on Saturday he was in the back of the Hotel Richards sorting through books, passports and photos that got wet in the Mitchell flood.  When he was last back in Mitchell he put all his memorabilia in boxes and left them in his niece Alison’s house. Like 70% of the town, Alison’s home was flooded and much of Max’s memorabilia was destroyed.

That’s a big shame and not just for Max’s memories.  Maxwell Gaylard is one of Australia’s finest diplomats and remains a problem solver for the UN in difficult places like Somalia, Sudan, Kurdistan and Gaza.  He is a special coordinator for the Middle East peace process and will return to his offices in Jerusalem and Ramallah next week.

Born in the Sunshine Coast and living most of life overseas, Mitchell is an odd place to find him though he has good reasons.  Along with his brother Rob Struthers and his brother’s wife Irene, Max owns the Hotel Richards on the sleepy main street. Rob and Irene are the normal custodians, with daughter Alison, but whenever Max gets back to the country, he heads out west and gives the other two a break.

“I try to get out here once a year but it was two years ago I was last here at Alison’s place packing away all my stuff,” he said.  “I joked that the only thing that could get them was a flood.”

Max regrets tempting fate but clearly enjoys the change of pace in Western Queensland. But why Mitchell, I asked. “We were looking to buy a pub in 2002 or 2003, and Mitchell was the closest place to Brisbane we could afford,” he said.

As we talked, Max continued rifling through salvageable photos of his student days and he picked out several of prominent people.  There was former defence force chief Peter Cosgrove in fatigues. There was another of a university rugby league team with Stuart McCosker , husband of Queensland Governor Penelope Wensley whom he also knew well. “Penelope started as a diplomatic cadet in same batch as me,” he said.

There was another with former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett in Officer Training. I looked at him closely and couldn’t help myself, “Now you mention it, you and Jeff look very alike,” I said. He laughed and told me the story about  giving a serious talk on international matters when some heckler shouted out from the back “that’s all very well but why do you look so much like Jeff Kennett?”

Gaylard was full of little breakaway anecdotes as I teased out his life adventures.

He grew up in Nambour and left in the summer of 1964 bound for the University of Queensland. He studied history and politics and he was also a fine footballer who played first grade for Wests in Brisbane. He remembers an early game against Redcliffe. “This huge fellow from Roma crashed into me and flattened me for two weeks,” he said. That bone-crunching opponent was Artie Beetson and he was one of many to leave a mark on the impressionable young Max.

He had his heart set on a career in the Diplomatic Service but his name came up in the army ballot.  At college Gaylard had protested against the wars Australia was involved in, now he was called up to serve in one. He deferred the call-up until he finished his studies. He rolled up at the Foreign Affairs Department hoping in vain to get some sort of diplomatic immunity. On the day he started in Canberra, Max was called into the forbidding office of the head of the Department’s office and was told congratulations, he was the first diplomatic cadet to be selected in the army.

The year was 1968 and while many Australians ended up in Vietnam, Max did Officer Training Unit and then went to Singapore and Malaysia with the First Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment as part of the Five Power Arrangement. Two years passed by there, before he returned to Canberra. Billy McMahon was then foreign minister, having failed in his first bid to become Prime Minister. Max said it was a wild and entertaining time before he got his first overseas posting in Mexico.

There his highlight was to spend $2400 on a painting. A Mexican man approached him and asked him if he wanted to buy Eugene Von Guerard’s  painting North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko. “I had no idea what it was worth but looked up its bibliography and the new Whitlam Government said yes they wanted it for the new National Gallery”.

At the end of the 1970s he was posted to Burma. The ice was melting in the relationship with China and Gaylard remembers being invited to the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon for afternoon tea and table tennis. “They beat the crap out of us at pingpong,” he said.

After Burma, he was appointed deputy High Commissioner in Singapore, a place he knew well from his army days. He was finally appointed High Commissioner to Solomon Islands in 1985. The pinnacle of his career in Australian diplomacy, his three year stint in the Solomons was dogged by controversy. “The Solomons was threatening to be a failed state then, we could see the signs.”

The cause of his problem was an irascible Dutch-Australian called John Meint Smith.  Smith had a chequered career in Australia as a resort manager and in a similar role in the Solomons he get the natives restless. He exhorted a group of warriors to force the management team of a resort off the island at spear-point. Gaylard played a prominent role in the police response, by-passing the Solomons Foreign Ministry and causing a major diplomatic incident.

The Solomons PM demanded Gaylard’s withdrawal but he was opposed by his deputy causing a serious rift in government. Meanwhile Smith threatened to kill him. Smith further muddied the waters with allegations of corruption against Australians in the country.  The ABC sent Chris Masters to investigate and in a bizarre interview Masters asked Gaylard if Smith had him by the short and curlies. “I assure you,” Gaylard bristled in response, “no one has me by the short and curlies.” But his tenure was fatally undermined and as the situation deteriorated, Gaylard’s three year assignment came to its natural end.

It was time for a change and Gaylard signed up on secondment with the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. There he became director of Political/International Affairs. Gaylard was thrown into the problems facing many Commonwealth countries transitioning from one-party-state to democracy.  Though it is now ignored because of Robert Mugabe, the 1991 Harare Declaration gave the Commonwealth a fresh sense of purpose in reforming the political system of its members based on the rule of law.

A succession of dictators came to Gaylard saying they thought a one party state was the best form of government but they were willing to change. He solved issues in the Seychelles, Kenya, Guyana, Bangladesh and many other countries. In South Africa, he was involved in the transition from de Klerk to Mandela but his proudest achievement was helping the king of Lesotho return from exile to become head of a constitutional monarchy.

Eight years passed by and it was too late to consider another Australian ambassadorial position. He quit in 1997 and joined the UN.  He received a letter from Kofi Annan, then head of peacekeeping asking him to stand by to go to Bosnia. “Thankfully he never sent me that message,” he said.

Instead he went to northern Iraq to oversee Kurdistan’s emerging semi-democracy in the wake of the First Gulf War. “Saddam didn’t want to deal with the Kurds, but of course he had to,” he said.  Gaylard’s job was to ensure the UN’s $260m budget was spent wisely across its many agencies. “It took us a couple of years but eventually things settled down.”

The Kurds were a resourceful lot and they quickly learned to gain the most out of the oil passing through their borders from Mosul to Turkey.  “What do you need”, the truckers asked the Kurds. “Potatoes”, they replied and Kurdistan’s potato shortage disappeared.  Though the UN were not involved in the money end of the oil for food program, Gaylard could see it was getting corrupted at both ends of the supply chain.  He was not surprised to see the Australian Wheat Board implicated in the eventual scandal. “I kept asking where the wheat for the food basket was coming from. The answer was always Australia. Why not Canada, I wondered.”

Gaylard was then transferred to Sudan where he dealt with dictator Omar Bashir and Southern Sudan’s strongman John Garang.  Southern Sudan was moving towards war with the North and eventual independence but Gaylard sees it as a tragedy they could not work together in Federation. “When we met the leaders of Sudan and Southern Sudan, they all knew each other well and had gone to school together,” he said.

But among the frustrations there were triumphs too with Operation Lifeline Sudan providing humanitarian assistance throughout war-torn and drought-afflicted regions. Gaylard left Sudan in 2002 when the civil war ended but returned for the 2004 Power Sharing celebrations in Nairobi. He remains despondent about the two nations’ future. “There is still a lot of low level conflict – particularly over the oil fields along the border.”

If Sudan was difficult, the next assignment was even more dangerous – Somalia. Yet Gaylard’s face lit up from the first mention of the anarchic Horn of Africa country and it is clear it is his favourite mission. “All through the war, there were two pieces of infrastructure no one would harm,” he said.

“The first was the mobile phone towers and the second was the khat supply route.”

Somalia has had no government in 20 years but their telecommunications is first-class though even Gaylard was not quite sure how they managed it. “The Somalis have a great sense of entrepreneurship, they think they can do anything,” he said.“They would go off to the Gulf and somehow buy bandwidth.”

Gaylard’s proudest achievement was to bring law and order to the semi-autonomous regions of Somaliland (formerly British Somaliland) and Puntland. “It was based on sound policing and a British-style justice system,” he said. “It helped the British protectorate didn’t dismantle the clan system and there was only clan to deal with, not four or five like in Mogadishu.”

Just as in the Solomons, there were threats on his life. One clan leader told his office that if “Mr Max” came to Baidoa next week, he was going to kill him. When Mr Max finally met the leader, he asked him was he still intending to kill him. “No, of course I’m not,” came the reply. Among his achievements in Somalia was helping wipe out polio with a vaccination scheme. Somalia has been polio free since 2007.

Gaylard was in Somalia when 9/11 happened. His wife rang him from London and told him to turn on the television. He watched live as the plane slammed into the second tower. He agreed it changed everything in international politics yet Somalia stayed mostly immune. “There was so much else that was going on there.” Gaylard say Somalia was the best job he ever had.  “No one from head office ever bothered me.”

In 2007 however, another even more difficult conflict came calling. New UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon appointed him as  Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. “Journalists said I had the longest job title ever,” he joked. But he was deadly serious in his opinions about the problems in Palestine. He puts it down to three man-made issues or “SOS” as he calls them: settlement, occupation and siege.

“Gazans are natural traders but they cannot trade at the moment,” he said. “The city is a big open-air prison, with walls on the Israeli and Egyptian borders and the Israeli Navy three miles out to sea. There has got to be a better way of dealing with this than a siege.”

In 2012 he released a UN report showing forced displacements were on the rise as were  illegal settlements. “The Israelis know this is madness but they cannot seem to get out of it,” he said. “Maybe like the South African apartheid system it will all collapse of its own accord. Or maybe it won’t.”

Complex international challenges have never fazed Max Gaylard but as we walked to the front bar and he poured me a beer, it was clear he enjoyed escaping to the simple serenity of Mitchell.

“This place has been my lifesaver, I don’t get out here often enough,” he said.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ken Struthers  |  June 9, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    Great write up … I find Max (uncle Max) has the most remarkable stories I’ve ever heard. Great to read them being shared

    Reply
  • 2. Geoff Drew  |  August 30, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    I remember Max in 1964. His goal then was “High Commissioner by age 30″. Or maybe it was 40. Have followed his career from afar, and almost crossed his path a few times in my working travels.

    Reply
  • 3. Donelly Johnson  |  March 25, 2014 at 8:59 am

    Great story Max , Who would know you once cleaned up cow shit
    in the family dairy I hope to catch up with you in the near future
    Regards cousin Don

    Reply

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