Skilled diplomat made the world his home, November 9, 2013: Duncan Campbell (courtesy Sydney Morning Herald).
PETER CURTIS 1929-2013
Peter Curtis was Australia’s ambassador to a dozen countries in his career. He was among the most widely experienced, deeply admired and affectionately regarded of all Australia’s corps of career diplomats, and one of a core of founding fathers of independent Australian foreign policy.
His almost 40-year working life recommending, representing or reporting on our national interests, policies and diplomatic machinery spanned Australia’s bilateral dealings and its engagements in the multilateral world of the United Nations body of organisations.
The sense of humour, generosity of spirit and quick resourcefulness that define the Australian identity found brilliant personification in this dapper, deeply committed and tireless civil servant. Wherever he was, Curtis never forgot why he was there – to do good for Australia. He was a man who couldn’t be fooled and – just as important for a diplomat – couldn’t be offended. No one soaked up information more quickly, and then refined it into useful intelligence more effectively. He had an unerring knack for getting things right.
Peter Campbell John Curtis was born on September 8, 1929, the son of Billy Curtis and his wife, Alice (nee Moss). Alice died when he was seven and Billy when he was 10, so St Ignatius College, Riverview became his home. He went on to the University of Sydney, where he was president of the student council, for his BA and Oxford for his MA. At Oxford in 1954, Curtis married Chantal Courant, a French student whose father had been mayor of Le Havre during the German occupation and had afterwards been honoured by the Allies, then was the French minister of reconstruction and then minister of finance.
Curtis served first with the International Labour Organisation in Geneva from 1955 -57, and was then recruited into the Department of External Affairs.
His first placement was in the south and south-east Asia branch from 1958-59, which was followed by attachment to a sensitive UN visiting mission to the trust territories of Nauru and New Guinea. He then went to the Australian mission to the United Nations in New York for four years, until 1963. There he was mentored by the great Australian diplomat Sir James Plimsoll, a key influence.
For the next several years Curtis was posted to Singapore, then returned to Canberra and was given charge of the mainland south-east Asia branch until mid-1967 as well as being promoted to the rank of counsellor. There followed a two-year tour to Australia’s UN mission in Geneva.
Curtis’s first posting as an ambassador was to Laos in 1969. This was the first of two turbulent posts, the second being Beirut in late 1975. In the charged atmosphere of Vientiane, Curtis was remembered by a close colleague as having seemingly boyish appeal in spades, which endeared him to everyone.
He was a skilled cross-cultural non-ideological diplomat, at home as much with an American ambassador as an anti-war journalist, a soft-spoken Lao or any of the characters always found in that sort of town. He flew neither as hawk nor dove, was responsive to Australian policy needs and sensitive to the situation of the Lao people. It followed, as a colleague observed, that he quickly became one of the important diplomats for visitors.
When the Vietnam War ended, Curtis was one of Australia’s first official visitors to Hanoi before representation was established there and laid the foundation for Australia to resume full relations with the new Vietnamese government.
After Laos, now with six children, Curtis went back to Canberra to work in the personnel and administrative areas until, in mid-1975 and now a first assistant secretary in charge of public affairs and cultural relations, accompanying Gough Whitlam on missions to the US and South America. Then, after an abbreviated stint in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Jordan (where civil war cut short his tenure) Curtis was appointed high commissioner to India (and ambassador to Nepal and the first Australian ambassador to Bhutan), where he stayed until 1980. For many diplomats, India was a hardship post – its vastness, diversity and dusty tumult a condition to be endured rather than a life experience to be savoured. For the Curtis family, being in India was a privilege they never ceased to enjoy.
In India, his opinion was sought after and he was one of the few foreign diplomats to read the Indian political landscape correctly and call the defeat of Indira Gandhi in the 1979 election.
There was not much new left for Curtis back in the Department of External Affairs but between 1981 and 1982 he did have some valuable time in the defence and nuclear area, where he led Australia’s team in the negotiation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaties, before starting out for Paris where he was ambassador from mid-1982-87.
Curtis spoke near-perfect French, although with a strong Australian accent, and he and Chantal were in their element, to the advantage of Australian policy representations to the French authorities at a challenging time. There was ample scope for a lively and not entirely like-minded dialogue with France about the rate and direction of French decolonisation in the Pacific, French nuclear testing there, distortions in agricultural trade, the Rainbow Warrior incident and pricing caused by French farm subsidies all created a need for firm and precise diplomatic communication, which the Curtises provided.
The Curtises did not have far to move to their last European post, as from September 1987 to September 1991, Curtis was Australia’s ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, and the European Communities and NATO, defending Australia’s trade interests in an increasingly large European Union state.
On the way home again, for several years from late 1991 Curtis served once more in New York, this time as Australian consul-general, a post typically given to political appointments and a rare honour for a career diplomat. There he was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters from Pace University for strengthening relationships around the world.
Retired to Canberra (with regular visits to their country house in France’s Loire Valley) Curtis engaged enthusiastically with the programs of the Alliance Francaise and became Australian president. He was honoured and proud to be one of the few Australians awarded the distinction of Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur, the conclusion of his diplomatic career.
One afternoon, when he was well past 80, Curtis took a friend considerably younger than himself on one of his favourite walks in the Loire Valley. It was hard to keep up with him as he plunged through the high grass along the trail beside the canal. After a kilometre or so, Curtis stopped to pay his respects to one of the sheep dogs. ”Such a hard worker, and always in such good spirits,” he remarked. He greeted the sheep dog with the same sincerity and lack of affectation he had greeted countless ambassadors and more than a few kings.
Farther on there was a bridge. As his friend tried to keep up with him, Curtis explained the intricacies of the operation of that old bridge with the same delight, and expertise, he on other occasions had discussed the intricacies of Australian agricultural policy and the factional politics of Laos. The trail, the bridge, the old canal, this deepening summer afternoon were to him what the grand diplomatic salons and exotic locales earlier had been – a source of constant fascination, a reason to understand, and to rejoice in understanding.
Here, as everywhere else, he strode through life.
Curtis is survived by Chantal, children Christopher, Nicholas, Nathalie, Anthony, Timothy and Benedict, six grandchildren and two great-granddaughters.