Just like the city of Canberra, Brendan Smyth is going places.
The former Liberal politician-turned-ACT-diplomat has the challenging responsibility of global business development for the Canberra region, which he has wholeheartedly embraced.
“I’ve got this great opportunity to help the city go forward,” Mr Smyth, who was appointed the ACT’ first Commissioner for International Engagement in 2016, told The RiotACT in a rare, one-on-one interview.
“This is a truly great city because of the people in it, and the way they go about their business.”
As a seasoned and passionate politician, the 59-year-old has enjoyed a long and decorated political career in the ACT spanning more than 20 years.
His first – and maybe little known – foray into politics was in 1995 when he won a by-election for the seat of Canberra in a swing to the Liberal Party.
“I was the [Federal] Member for Canberra – it was a really good introduction into politics. I was lucky enough to be there for a year,” said Mr Smyth, who after losing the normally safe Labor seat, went to work as an adviser for former SA Liberal Senator Amanda Vanstone and former Liberal MP Peter Reith.
After working in Federal politics, Mr Smyth then decided to run for the ACT Legislative Assembly and was elected as a Liberal MLA in 1998 for the seat of Brindabella.
He held the seat – and became the Canberra Liberals’ Leader and Deputy Leader – until July 2016 when he surprisingly stepped down from the Assembly to take up his role as Commissioner for the Barr Government.
“I was lucky enough to be given this opportunity and in so many ways it was too good to pass up,” said Mr Smyth, who highlighted the similarities of working in politics in that it is all about “people”.
He said his new job was “about looking after people” and “in this case all the people of Canberra supporting their future.”
“It’s about getting that message overseas that Canberra is now an international city.”
However, after a lengthy discussion with Mr Smyth about the importance of Canberra’s International Engagement Strategy – which outlines a clear vision for the city’s future until 2050 – the question was raised: so does he miss the cut and thrust of politics?
“No, not at all,” he laughs. “Most politicians don’t know when to leave [politics].”
Of course, Mr Smyth has held many roles throughout his career which have helped to mould him into an adept political and diplomatic leader.
In his early years, he joined the Australian Army and worked part-time in his family’s suburban newsagencies located at Cooleman Court in Weston, Lyons and Fisher.
“We all served behind the cash register at times,” said Mr Smyth, reflecting on his moments working in retail with his family.
Later, he joined the Commonwealth Public Service and worked in the Patents Office at the Department of Health. He was also the shop manager at Questacon and became the sales manager for the National Library of Australia, where he ran the bookshop in the foyer before entering politics.
“I like serving people: whether it’s at a cash register, whether it’s as a politician or whether it’s as Commissioner,” said Mr Smyth, who has dedicated his energy to deliver global results for Canberrans both at home and abroad.
His focus has been across seven key capability areas including education, tourism, government and ICT, defence and cyber, renewable energy, space industries, health and life sciences.
“My office is certainly out there,” said Mr Smyth, pointing out of the office window to demonstrate the importance of visiting people and travelling beyond Australia.
“I’m very lucky in this city as a Commissioner because we have a diplomatic community here – I get to meet all the key diplomats whenever I want at the local embassies and at functions.
“A lot of work can be done here in Canberra – but, that said, you still need to travel and still have to have a presence in key countries.”
These countries include New Zealand, Singapore, China, India, the United States and Japan as Canberra’s priority markets as well as several Asian destinations including Indonesia, Thailand, Korea and Malaysia.
When discussing his important international engagement position and the high cost of travel, Mr Smith said: “The travel is very targeted, and we always have a full program, which means working on weekends.
“If you’re travelling overseas and the public purse is paying, you have to get value for money for the taxpayer’s dollar.
“Luckily, I’m a good traveller so visiting different time zones aren’t too bad.”
Mr Smyth played an integral part in a recent trade delegation to Singapore in July this year which received a positive reception from Singaporean business leaders and officials.
“Singapore is a good place for us and we have lots to offer. It’s very much like us [Canberra] as it’s an island State, surrounded by South East Asia while Canberra is surrounded by NSW. We don’t have a lot of natural resources besides our people.”
He also joined senior ACT Government officials including the Chief Minister to visit South Korea and Hong Kong in a bid to secure more direct international flights to Canberra.
Mr Smyth said the ACT would really “like a direct flight to China” given about one-fifth of the ACT’s international tourists come from China.
The three cities being targeted for flights include Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai.
While it’s still early days in negotiations and a “slowly, slowly approach” is being adopted, Mr Smyth said: “I don’t think you would shut the door on those [cities] if they come our way.”
“Around the world, there are between 1000 and 1500 cities with direct flights – so it’s a pretty good club to be a member of, especially as it makes us a truly international city.”
In his spare time, Mr Smyth enjoys studying languages to help understand local dialects.
“I can say hello and goodbye and please and thank in a number of languages now!”
Mr Smyth said: “I’m also a big fan of history, as it’s more about understanding the history and culture of countries to carry one’s self properly and be respectful.”