Interview: Australia’s Ambassador Explains The Country’s Growing Bilateral Relationship With Colombia
Australian Ambassador Bernard Unkles explains to Finance Colombia’s Loren Moss why Australians are taking such an interest in Colombia…and vice versa.
Even though the two countries are physically distant, Australia and Colombia enjoy a friendly, growing relationship. Australia already hosts a significant Colombian community, and Colombia has become the number one source for English-language students studying abroad in Australia, even surpassing geographically closer Asia-Pacific countries. Australian businesses are making their mark in Colombia, and just a few years ago, Australia expanded from just having a trade office to opening a full diplomatic mission in the Andean country. To further understand this, Finance Colombia’s Loren Moss sat down for a conversation with The Honorable Bernard Unkles, who recently moved to Colombia from México to lead Australia’s diplomacy in the country.
Finance Colombia: We are here with Ambassador Bernard Unkles, the newly appointed ambassador to Colombia from Australia. How long have you been here in Colombia now?
Ambassador Unkles: I’ve been here two months. I arrived just at the end of end of November. I need to clarify that I’m the acting ambassador. I’m here for a year. I’ve come directly from Mexico City, where I was previously deputy ambassador, and I’m here for a year until such time as the permanent ambassador is able to commit.
Finance Colombia: The Australian embassy to Colombia, if I’m not mistaken, is relatively new. It’s just a few years old. Am I correct?
Ambassador Unkles: That is correct. We started in about, I think it was July 2017, was when we opened, we’ve had diplomatic relations with Colombia for nearly 50 years. But the fact that we opened an actual embassy in July 2017 demonstrates just how our bilateral relationship is growing at a whole heap of different levels. People to people, investment, and in particular in education. That’s testament to the fact that where we see Colombia as a really important partner in what we are doing, we have had a responsibility here for a little while, AusTrade, which is kind of like the equivalent of ProColombia, has been here for a number of years longer. I think from memory, they started in about 2013 or 2011, something like that. But yeah, the fact that we upgraded it and turned it into an actual diplomatic mission, it is relatively recent. And of course, with the Pandemic, two years where we were still here, still operating, still completely functional, but not as difficult, not as easy to be able to engage, wouldn’t have been meeting. Of course, Australian borders were closed most of that time for two years, which means deeply for students, Colombian students, it was a challenging time, but we’ve bounced back and we’re kind of bigger and better than ever.
Finance Colombia: That’s great to see. It’s interesting because there are quite a few Australian companies operating in Colombia. A lot of times people may not even be aware that they’re Australian companies, I think because in many cases they’re global companies. If you look at the success and the importance that Australia has had in the mining sector, for example, a lot of companies, we know them as global operations, and people in the sector know that they’re Australian. But maybe just like the retail or the public hears about a company like “yeah, I know that’s a mining company. I didn’t realize they were headquartered in Australia.” I’ve been at events when, for example, financial firms, companies like private equity and specialty and mining sector firms from Australia have been here. What are some of the example Australian companies that have established themselves here in Colombia.
Ambassador Unkles: Look, we’ve got a lot of Australian companies here. There’s around about 90 Australian companies that are present in Colombia in a range of sectors. Of course, we have a very strong and proud history of being involved in the mining sector. So, we’ve got a number of Australian companies involved in mining, but we’re also involved in a range of other sectors such as infrastructure. The official figures from Colombia don’t tell the true story of just how large our investment is; just with infrastructure alone. There are two companies, Aleatica and Macquarie, both of whom are 100% Australian. They’re involved in building large infrastructure projects, roads that will connect parts of Colombia. We’re talking the investment that is being made here about over two US billion dollars. The issue is that that money, even though it is Australian money, it comes from the US or from Spain or from the UK as the last point of entry into Colombia. And so, Colombia central bank and treasury recognizes that as coming from those countries and not actually being Australian fund, Australian investment. But I can guarantee you that it is a 100% Australian fund. Macquarie and Aleatica are kind of the second and the fourth, I think, largest infrastructure funds in the world.
And US $2 billion is an extraordinary amount of money, Australian investment that is coming here. As I mentioned, you know, also involved in mining, you know, companies like BHP, South32, Orica. Mining is not just extraction and exploration, it’s also Mets. So, Orica is involved in Mets. Ground Probe is another fascinating Australian company that origins grew in mining. It undertakes really impressive using Australian technology, really impressive ability to detect movement in the earth in order to be able to prevent kind of landslides and things like that. And so of course incredibly important in the mining sector, but also has applications outside of that in the civil sector and they’re increasingly using it in roads and infrastructure in order to be able to prevent landslides from occurring. And so not only does technology like that kind of save money by being preventative, but also it saves lives. So I’m proud to say that there are Australian companies involved in that as well.
There are also companies that are increasingly involved in other sectors such as fintech, which a company like Nextpay is very big here and growing considerably. Nextpay uses Australian technology in the fintech sector to be able to transfer money from basically anywhere around the world, but in particular from Colombia to Australia, and in particular Colombian students using this technology and this service, to be able to quickly, cheaply, economically and securely transfer money to be able to pay for their education in Australia.
So Australian companies are involved in a whole heap of different parts of the Colombian economy of which we’re incredibly proud to be here. And another reason why we’ve opened an embassy back in 2017.
Finance Colombia: That’s great and you touched on something that a lot of people don’t realize, and I didn’t understand until a few years ago, and that is to say that there’s a growing, thriving, successful population of Colombians in Australia, and that the relationship between the two countries is especially strong when it comes to education. Australia has some innovative, both policies and programs when it comes to education, and Colombians are taking advantage of that. Maybe you can speak a little bit about the opportunity and maybe kind of how Australia has become such a destination for Colombian students. And then also, maybe more broadly, I know that they’re thriving Colombian community in Australia. That surprises a lot of people.
Ambassador Unkles: And to be honest, it surprised me as well. I wasn’t, prior to coming here, aware of quite just how large the Colombian population in Australia was. I was aware that a lot of Colombians were electing to go to Australia to study, and I can increasingly see why. Now that I’m here, I can see the kind of—there’s a lot of similarities between Australia and Colombia and Australians and Colombians, as we were discussing before, and as I mentioned in my Australia Day speech recently, Australians are probably about as Latino as you can get in the anglosphere!
And there’s this kind of warmth and perspective that we have—but also our weather—is there’s a lot of comparison between our climate and our geography and our weather. And I think that kind of makes us very accessible and familiar as well as a destination. I mean, the numbers really do speak for themselves. Colombia is now #1 in terms of our source country for international students that are choosing Australia to learn English and overall, across all of the sectors. So English vocational education and training, university, undergraduate, university, postgraduate and high school. Columbia is now #3 in the world in terms of our outsourced country. But to be #1 in in English let people wanting to go to Australia to learn English rather than to the US or Canada or the UK other English…
“Australians are probably about as Latino as you can get in the anglosphere!”-Ambassador unkles
You know, that they’ve overtaken, Colombians have overtaken countries like China, countries like Indonesia, countries like Vietnam. And that really is testament to, you know, both the quality of the education that they’re learning, but also the experience that they get when they come to Australia. They feel welcomed. They feel safe and secure. They feel like there are opportunities available for them, something that they’ll be able to take with them when they come back to Colombia, or you know a lot of them are increasingly staying on and moving into other sectors.
We hope the IT and you know, vocational, educational, training or even heading into to the university sector as well. So…and that then translates and transfers through into you know recent census figures. Colombians now are our largest Latin American community in Australia. Well and having recently in the last census overtaken Chile and that is a you know it’s really you know a testament to the fact that young Colombians have discovered that Australia has a phenomenal education system and a great lifestyle and great opportunities. And word of mouth is spreading, as I say, you know they are the best ambassadors for Australian education. This might be my…technically my professional job, but I can’t promote Australia better than they can, their own very personal experiences and they’re doing a phenomenal job kind of getting the word out about Australia is a destination.
Finance Colombia: That’s really impressive. So there’s a thriving kind of community. What do you know about the Australian expat community here in Colombia?
Ambassador Unkles: That’s a really good question. So, it’s nowhere near as large as Colombian expat community in Australia, but a lot of the Australians that I’ve met here have come here because they’ve fallen in love with a Colombian in Australia, they’ve come to meet the family in Colombia and then in turn have fallen in love with Colombia and moved here, relocated here on a permanent basis.
Just in Medellin alone, I’ve earlier this week on Monday I met with Simon Kutchner, who works for the World Mosquito program. The World Mosquito program originated from Australian research. At Monash University. They were successful in one of Bill Gates’s, you know, challenges. Yeah, they have, you know, received funding and they’ve more than 10 years ago, a long time ago.
That they discovered this crazy little thing where through the Wolbachia [bacteria}, if you breed mosquitoes that kind of have the Wolbachia within them, when they breed, they don’t have the ability to be able to transmit dengue. They don’t have the ability to transmit Zika, they don’t have the ability to transmit—I can never pronounce it…
Finance Colombia: Chikungunya?
Ambassador Unkles: That’s the one. Alright, so basically, you know, it’s better than taking the vaccine. It’s better than taking you know, anything and it’s so much cheaper and it does it in a way that has no impact on the local environment, and mosquito population which is required and essential for maintaining ecosystems. But we’re able to kind of change that ecosystem so that they do not have the ability to translate dengue to humans. And so, the World Mosquito Program has set up a quite a large office here in Medellin and so you’ve got an Aussie that’s heading that up.
Another Aussie that I’ve met here, Jess Schroder’s classic story, she fell in love with a Colombian, came, met, the family fell in love with Colombia and has moved, relocated here and she’s created her own business called The Ideas Factory, and she’s essentially working kind of like marketing and is able to, you know works with a lot of businesses and a lot of communities and on those kind of things. She’s a member of the Australia Colombia Business Council, the business chamber as well. But others that I’ve met in Bogota, very similar story, fell in love with the Colombian and then fell in love with Colombia relocated here, a number of them are working.
You know the NGO sector, some are working in mining, some are working in education. You know the most popular Hostel in Bogota, I think it’s called the Cranky Croc, was established by an Aussie, you know, a number of years ago. I think he’s been here for nearly 20 years. Then there’s another guy, Travis who’s relocated to Medellin. He’s based here now, but he started in Bogota. He created a local business which is all surrounded, surrounded around, centered around language exchange. OK, it’s called Gringo Tuesdays. It doesn’t sound very Australian, right? Yeah, but it’s got your name, catchy name, and it works. You know, I went recently in Bogota. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it [in Medellín] last night.
There is a chapter in Medellin. It’s also in Cali. It’s also in Cartagena, I think from memory, and that’s it’s all centered around language exchange, Walk up from 4 until 8:00 PM you can elect to sit at whatever table you want. They operate in six different languages, English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and German. Whatever you want to practice or help someone practice, you sit at a table with that you know a flag representative of that language and it’s a great way to be able to kind of in a very casual, very informal setting. Be able to you know, to practice and a you know a second language and also to be able to make friends. And then after, from 8:00 PM onwards, it’s kind of extreme party. So, yeah. So there’s just a handful of some of the interesting Australians that have moved here because they love Colombia as much as Colombians love Australia.
Finance Colombia: We had a we did a small advertising campaign for an Australian company wealth management company called Visis and you know, we were glad to do it but I was curious and I asked the partner, “you know this is great but I’m just curious why” because he was coming to—there was some kind of investment event taking place here in Colombia and I said: “I’m just curious as to what the linkage is? you know we’re glad to have you, but why?” And so he said, “oh, my wife is Colombian.” Yep. And so like you mentioned, that’s kind of a classic, classic story. You know, you see a lot of them.
Ambassador Unkles: Yep, fall in love. Fall in love with a Colombian, fall in love with the country.
Finance Colombia: So where are the areas of growth? I mean we look at you know there we’ve talked about some of the traditional areas, infrastructure, mining that Australia is well known for.
If you think about the commercial mission, what are the areas for a potential for bilateral trade between—whether that’s Colombia exporting to Australia or Australia exporting to Colombia, where are the opportunities?
Ambassador Unkles: So I mean. We both have new governments: the Petro administration and the Anthony Albanese government as well. They both have a very strong focus on the environment and on ensuring sustainable development. And these are areas where Australia has great success and companies like Fortescue are looking to invest significantly in Latin America including in Colombia. Fortescue is heavily involved amongst other things, in green hydrogen, which is a really clean, safe and green way of being able to provide energy.
So I see that as being an area of mutual interest and mutual benefit, but also of course a lot of the technologies that are required in order to be able to create green sustainable new industries. They do require mining, they require mining of critical minerals and of course Australian companies are you know are here already doing that and some are even telling me that they’re looking to invest even to reestablish or to start up their presence again in in Colombia such as Rio Tinto.
You know we might speak a different language, but you know I really do believe that you know “somos parceros, somos bacanos.”
So another area where I think we’ve got a real opportunity for collaboration, to be able to learn from each other is in areas relating to indigenous issues. We both have our own indigenous populations.They’ve both had their difficulties and their challenges and we’ve got governments that recognize that and are working actively to try and address it with some of the inequities that exist. And I think that’s an area where there’s a real opportunity for us to be able to learn from each other in terms of what policies have worked, and how can we work collaboratively to be able to invest back in in that.
I mean I think we could potentially learn from Colombia in terms of language, you know Australian indigenous languages is something that we’re working very hard now to try and make sure that these are languages that are important for, culture and the maintenance of cultural heritage, ways in which we can establish that, formalize that as a part of our education system. And there are ways in which we can work together on that.
But also, one of the things that the Australian government is doing well I think, and I think my understanding from before I got here, there’s been an opportunity to work with is the promotion of indigenous businesses, the promotion of indigenous tourism and the promotion of indigenous foods. And that’s an area where there was an event last year held in Colombia where a business delegation from Australia came. It was a it was a global event, a world forum, and we were able to share and an exchange information and ideas on ways in which we can showcase to the world our respective indigenous cultures and the knowledge that they have and the skills that they have and the you know and the enterprises that they’re that they’re growing. So, I think that’s another really interesting and exciting area for potential collaboration as well.
Finance Colombia: Absolutely. You know, the cultural exchange isn’t necessarily the first thing that comes to mind, but maybe it should be. I mean, if you think about it, Australia has…the indigenous population has a certain degree of global fame. Everybody knows what a didgeridoo is, but even beyond that, just the whole ancient culture going back dozens of thousands of years.
Ambassador Unkles: Agree entirely, you know the Australian indigenous culture is the longest, the oldest living indigenous culture in the world, of over 60,000 years, you know, they know how to use the land, to be able to what…you know, fruits, what spices, what herbs…
Finance Colombia: What a challenging land, too!
Ambassador Unkles: It is a challenging landscape, but you know, produce what flavors, what ingredients and how they can be incorporated into innovative Australian cuisine. And I’m seeing very similar things occurring here in Colombia as well. I mean when you’ve got biodiversity, a rainforest and down in the Amazon jungle, you like what exists here and really long-standing indigenous knowledge of what fruits and what flavors you know work well and looking to be able to incorporate that into to cuisine. I think that’s a wonderful way with which we can exchange and learn from each other as well as in terms of tourism and tourism promotion as well.
Centered around how indigenous communities can own it and can reap the benefits in terms of investment back into their own community through the money that they’re able to make from people from all around the world coming to understand and see both in Australia and in Colombia and then being able to educate the world and reinvest that back into their local communities. I think that’s something we’re there’s lots of opportunities and we’re both on a journey to kind of make that happen.
Finance Colombia: Last question, you’ve been generous with your time. You know, you’re relatively new here in Colombia. I think you’ve been here just a few months. What’s your impression of Colombia, and what’s your experience been like so far?
Ambassador Unkles: I’d say it’s a similar kind of observation to Mexico. I mean Mexico, I was there for three years and it’s got 32 states. We visited 24 of them and I used to say that Mexico isn’t one country, it’s 32 different countries! And, you know? Colombia has 32 departments. I haven’t visited anywhere near as many departments yet as I have in Mexico, but my observations are as far as that, it looks like at face value, Colombia is also 32 different countries. It’s—the weather plays a part of that, and the surroundings the geography as well, but that then impacts language, that impacts lifestyle.
And so, yeah, from my time in Bogota to my current time in Medellin, I’ve been to Cartagena, I’ve traveled around the outskirts of Bogota as well. You know, it really does…You do feel like you don’t have to travel very far by plane or by car to have a totally different experience and a totally different environment. But the one thing that I would say is you know, consistent throughout is that wherever you go, Colombians are always incredibly welcoming. They are incredibly friendly, they’re incredibly generous with their time. They’re always curious. They’re fascinated to know “why.” What’s an Australian doing here?
But we share this kind of you know we’re both kind of you know pretty laid back, we both love a good joke especially at our own expense.And so, I really do feel very much at home. It does not feel in terms of culture shock, really there isn’t it really doesn’t feel like there is any. You know we might speak a different language, but you know I really do believe that you know somos parceros, somos bacanos.
Really, there’s far more similarities, I feel than there are differences. And they’re just…you know, Colombia and Colombians have welcomed me with open arms and I couldn’t be more thankful.