Ambassador Marion Derckx

With 23 cousins in Australia, it didn’t take long before Marion Derckx felt at home when she became the Dutch ambassador in 2019. ‘It was a special moment when, at a family reunion, I was able to tell everyone I’d be staying here as ambassador. Ambassadors always play a bridging role between two countries, and having family here has made that feel even more personal.’

Marion Derckx garden

How did you come to have so many cousins in Australia?

‘In the 1950s, three of my uncles emigrated to Australia. Just like tens of thousands of other Dutch people, they built a life here and started families. Thanks to them I now have 23 cousins in this country. Besides making me feel at home, I feel it gives me an insider’s view of authentic Australian life. Which is also valuable in my work as an ambassador.’

Are Dutch immigrants recognisable as a group?

‘No, not really. There are still Dutch clubs of course, and the descendants of migrants are proud of their Dutch heritage, but this group identifies first and foremost as Australian, and over the decades they’ve become fully integrated into Australian society. Which isn’t to say that the Dutch haven’t left their mark. Three per cent of Australians claim Dutch descent. The people I meet often tell me that they have a mother-in-law, aunt or cousin in the Netherlands. Previously, many of the Dutch who settled here worked in farming or manufacturing. The new group of immigrants – there are around 60,000 Dutch nationals all told – are mainly young professionals working in business, academia or IT.’

Australia is almost 200 times the size of the Netherlands. How do you raise the profile of the embassy and Dutch foreign policy?

‘Luckily the embassy in Canberra doesn’t have to do all the work in Australia by itself. We’ve got a consulate-general in Sydney to take care of economic and consular affairs. On top of that, we also have an honorary consul in every state. Together we work as “one team”. Before coronavirus turned the world upside down, I used to go on two or three working visits a month. This is important not only because of the country’s vast size, but also because – just like the US – Australia is a federation of highly autonomous states. So if there’s a Dutch objective you want to achieve in a particular area, you have to make connections at both federal and state level. That’s why our honorary consuls are worth their weight in gold. They are our eyes and ears at state level. It’s partly thanks to them that we have such a large, active network here.’

Do the Dutch and Australians work together well?

‘Yes, remarkably well, actually. We’re very like-minded. The only real big difference is that the Dutch plan for the future much more than Australians. Especially when it comes to climate issues and the food supply. If we didn’t build dikes, half our country would be flooded. And because it’s so tiny we need to use every square inch we can to grow food. Issues like these are less pressing here, in a vast country with an unpredictable climate. That makes planning difficult, and in some cases redundant.’

Did the forest fires affect the Australian approach to land use and climate issues?

‘Absolutely. Government, businesses and the general public are increasingly keen to tackle climate issues. Some great joint initiatives are getting off the ground, particularly as regards the circular economy and developments around hydrogen. The Netherlands is now a preferred partner when it comes to the circular economy – our export product being our expertise on circular enterprise. It’s led to partnerships like the one between the Dutch metal engineering firm Brink Industrial and the Australian firm Integra Systems, which makes use of Brink’s expertise to build circular metal waste systems.’

What developments have there been with regard to hydrogen?

‘Australia is well on its way to becoming the world’s biggest green hydrogen battery. The Netherlands wants the port of Rotterdam to be the European hub for imports of this hydrogen. So places like the German industrial regions, Belgium and northern France could soon be supplied with Australian hydrogen via the Netherlands.’

Do Dutch companies also collaborate with the Australian authorities when it comes to sustainability?

‘Yes. The firm of KPMG got together with Rijkswaterstaat to set up training courses for Australian civil servants to help them achieve a more sustainable procurement process. In addition to the trade in goods and services between the two countries, you could certainly also categorise “mindset” and “behaviour” as Dutch export products.’

Is the bilateral relationship equally good?

‘When it comes to human rights, justice and security, Australia is one of our most valued and reliable partners. In recent years, our bilateral ties have only grown stronger. We form a united front in our efforts to uncover the truth about the downing of flight MH17. We also stand shoulder to shoulder with the Australians when it comes to sharing knowledge about geopolitical tensions, foreign interference, cyberattacks and other threats to security and democracy. And in a broader context, organisations like our customs services, tax authorities and police work closely together. In fact the Netherlands has stationed a police and defence attaché here so as to cover every aspect of the security agenda.’

As ambassador, what are your plans for the year ahead?

‘Besides being ambassador to Australia, I’m also the Dutch ambassador to Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Nauru. Because of the pandemic, I haven’t been able to visit these countries yet. I hope I’ll finally get to do so this year.’