‘Agent-general’ is a job title that may take some explaining as Geoffrey Conaghan hits the networking circuit in the UK, although the forebears of British contacts he meets would have been more familiar with it. Agents-general were once widely used to represent the governments of British colonies, or states within some of the larger colonies, in the UK during the time of the British empire, but the role eventually fell out of fashion after the empire was decolonised. Though the role has evolved over time, four of Australia's six states still send agent-generals to the UK.
Mr Conaghan is a new arrival. He took up the ambassadorial role – representing the state of Victoria – in July, having previously served as the commissioner to India. He was appointed by the premier of the state.
“Victoria has had an office here [in London] since the 1860s so it’s very old as a state representation. My role is to promote Victoria’s business interest in the UK and Europe. The bulk of our work over the next three-and-a-half years, which is my term, will be to shift that to investment attraction,” he explains.
“We are looking at institutional and private investment but we are also looking at entrepreneurial attraction… We don’t just want FDI, we also want people with great ideas. We want smart ideas and people who can deliver them. We are looking at a few different levels [for investment projects]: there are the big $200m projects, but we are interested in the $20m projects as well, because there are opportunities at each of those levels.”
Mr Conaghan’s appointment preceded a visit to Melbourne by London mayor Boris Johnson in August, and he believes despite the already strong cultural, historical and economic ties between the UK and Australia, there is still room for more business between the two countries, and that Victoria has a role to play. It is a different pitch than in his role in India, and not just because his role there was more trade-focused.
“The India-Australia relationship was nascent really and there we were in the job of introducing unknowns to each other: unknown business partners and unknown opportunities. With the UK and Australia it is a well-built path, and it’s a similar corporate governance regime, so we are not on the path of discovery, but probably what we are on is rediscovery and reminding people about the extremely sound financial foundations that exist and also listing the opportunities,” he says. “I don’t think we [in Victoria] are particularly good at boasting. In the past several weeks I’ve really had to talk Melbourne and Victoria up and remind people of some of the fundamentals, such as that this little state contributes 25% of national GDP.”
Indeed, despite only accounting for 3% of the land area of Australia and despite lacking the mining riches of some of its fellow states, Victoria nonetheless contributes a quarter of Australia’s GDP. Lacking iron ore reserves to fall back on, Victoria instead has focused on creating a diversified economy based on high-value manufacturing, services and agribusiness.
Like his new home of London, Victoria’s capital city Melbourne attributes much of its economic success to its ability to attract migrants from around the world. “One in four people in Melbourne are born overseas. All four of my grandparents were migrants, in fact two of them were refugees and none of them spoke English,” he says. He’ll now be speaking the language of business to UK-based entrepreneurs, executives and investors, in the hope that they will view Victoria as a land of opportunity, just as his grandparents did.