Diplomat from down under looks towards life after Hong Kong
Australian Consul General Paul Tighe reflects on five years of diplomacy, delegation and dim sum before returning to his home country
Australian Consul General Paul Tighe left Hong Kong this week after his five-year tenure. The 60-year-old diplomat, who was accompanied by his wife Diane during the posting, enjoyed golf, hiking and sailing around Po Toi island when he was not overseeing the development of his home country’s ties with Hong Kong. He spoke to the Post about the challenges he faced during his time in Hong Kong before heading back to Canberra for a sabbatical. The Australian government is yet to announce his replacement.
If you had an Australian friend visiting Hong Kong, what would you recommend to them?
I’d tell them to get out of the central part of the city and see some of the rest of Hong Kong. Most Australians’ image of Hong Kong is the skyline of Central and Admiralty, which is fantastic and there is a lot of life and dynamism to it, but they don’t realise you can go down to the south side of the island where all the nice beaches are, and the hiking you can do in areas such as Sai Kung. We were very fortunate to live in Deep Water Bay, so our visitors had a little taste of that other side. We always encouraged people to do something a little bit further away like on Po Toi island – one of our favourite destinations – to do a bit of sailing and eat fresh seafood. It’s a world away from the hubbub of the city. Po Toi is an island I’ll miss. I used to go there often on a Sunday for lunch. It was an escape for my wife and I. If you want to wind down, that’s a place I’ll remember for that.
What will you miss most about Hong Kong?
I think the general civility of the place. Not to say it’s not a very busy and crowded place, especially by Australian standards. The people are just flawlessly polite and courteous. I haven’t encountered rudeness in Hong Kong. People are purposeful, which is good, and it makes it efficient. I never thought of that as a gruffness or anything impolite. It was just people being direct and honest. It’s really just the general dynamism and vibe of the place. As Australians we tend to be pretty transparent so I think we relate to the Hongkongers very easily. I think I’ll miss the vibrancy of the food scene here. You have every type of restaurant from Michelin starred places to noodle stalls.
The number of Australians living in Hong Kong has decreased in recent months. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be?
If there is a reduction, I don’t think it’s very significant. I would suspect it’s mainly related to economic developments here. A lot of the Australians here are involved in doing business with China. As the Chinese economy has slowed, a lot of the opportunities have waned a bit. Also there are a lot of Australians involved in the retail sector here, selling high end Australian products to Chinese tourists, and they are coping with that and trying to carry on. If the economic opportunity is there, people quite enjoy living here.
When you look back on the last five years, how do you feel about your time in Hong Kong?
My role here is to promote Australia and Australian interests in Hong Kong. Over that time, those have expanded. We have been particularly successful in exporting some of our premium products into the Hong Kong market, especially things like top end seafood, beef and wine. They are high quality, hygienic products with a good reputation. We have also attracted more Hong Kong investment into Australia and I feel satisfied that has been worthwhile and worked well. In terms of my own gains – I’ve gained 15kg! That has been the most obvious impact. It’s been a really rewarding experience. For an Australian diplomat, to be posted in this part of the world is like being in the centre of the universe as China is our major trading partner and there’s lots of economic growth here. China, even though it’s slowing down, is still providing a third of the global economic growth. So to be in a place like Hong Kong has been an incredibly exciting thing.
What do you think the Hong Kong government could learn from Australia and vice versa?
They are remarkably similar in some ways – in the way the institutions are structured and operate. I guess that reflects both our British heritage. They are both common law jurisdictions. I think Hong Kong is a very open economy, slightly, but not much more open than Australia. So I think Australia could learn a bit from Hong Kong on how to give business an environment that is less obstructive. On the flip side, I think Australia has a more developed social security system in terms of healthcare for less privileged people, age care, that sort of thing. Hong Kong is a place that cares very much about its people, so maybe there is scope for us to swap experiences on healthcare, age care and social security.
What have been your main challenges here?
The challenge has been largely Australian companies saying to me that our Hong Kong or Chinese business partners don’t really understand what our business policy is. So the challenge has been trying to explain Australian policies. We have done a lot of business, conducting road shows. It has been a constant effort to get the message out.
What Hong Kong hobbies or habits have you picked up?
I’ve got into hiking, which I didn’t do back in Australia. I wish I’d done more of it – that way maybe I wouldn’t have put on 15kg. Golf is very popular here and I would’ve liked to have found more time to do that. Also dim sum is a bad habit, which has contributed to the 15kg weight gain. Sadly, after five years, my Cantonese is zero. I will confess to putting no effort into learning the language. I am useless at learning even easy languages, so it would have been a poor investment on my part. People here speak very good English, often better than I do, so it would’ve been fruitless. It’s a shame because it is an important part of the culture here, but at this stage in my career, it would’ve been a bit of a wasted effort I think. I’ll leave that to the younger people in my office.
There has been a lot of attention lately on crystal meth (methamphetamine) being shipped through Hong Kong to Australia. Do problems like that end up on your radar?
We do have two officers of the Australian Federal Police posted to Hong Kong who operate as liaison officers with the Hong Kong police. Unfortunately, Australia has become a significant market for the methamphetamine trade and the Australian government wants to try to change that – to stop the flow of methamphetamine to Australia. So we have a really good co-operative relationship with the Hong Kong police in trying to stop that. The drugs are not produced in Hong Kong, as far as we know. We think they’re produced in the southern part of China, but we can use it as a detection point for finding drugs. We hope to eventually stop that trade.
What’s next? And what are you most looking forward to when you move back to Australia?
I’m going back to the headquarters of my department in Canberra. I’m going to take a sabbatical and start to think about what I might do next. I could go back to a central role in the department. Hong Kong is a great place, but it’s also incredibly busy, and there’s a very large Australian community here.
I’m looking forward to the better air quality. Canberra is not my home town, I’m from Sydney, but it’s inland and there’s basically no pollution and not much traffic. It will be nice to change down a couple of gears and relax a little. It’s gentler there. And I want to catch up with family and friends. Even though we’ve had visitors, you still get a bit disconnected. That is one of the hardest things about being here, along with the gruelling pace of it all.
How would you characterise the development of the relationship between Hong Kong and Australia since you’ve been here?
I think the relationship has become stronger. It’s a close relationship. In diplomacy we have an expression ‘people-to-people’, so it’s not just about flows of money and goods. We are very fortunate to have a relationship with Hong Kong that’s been there for many decades. There are a significant number of Hong Kong people who have studied in Australia and come back here and there has been a bit of migration to Australia. Those kinds of changes, which are mostly facilitated by immigration, education and tourism, means that we understand each other. We are quite similar in some respects, which makes it easier for us to expand our links into areas such as professional services, government and the arts.
I’ve really enjoyed being here. I have so much respect for Hongkongers and the Australian community here, and I want to see that relationship develop. I think Australia, Hong Kong and China have been great beneficiaries of the ‘one country-two systems’ framework that the city has operated under, and I think it’s in all of our interests for that framework to continue in much the same way that it has up until now. I’m sure it’s one of the reasons why there’s such a strong Australian business community here, because they have a great deal of confidence operating under that system. It’s a really important asset that Hong Kong has, and an important facility that allows people to do business with China. It’s something we’d like to see continue.