Paul Stephens has been the Australian ambassador to Sweden for almost three years in a nearly two-decade long career in the Foreign Service which has included past stints in Brazil and New York.
An “athlete ambassador” with a penchant for marathons and a part-time gig coaching football, Stephens found the time to chat with The Local about his work at the embassy, life in Stockholm, and gender equality in Australia after the celebrated “misogyny speech” by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
The Local: What did you know about Sweden before coming here?
Paul Stephens: I’d never been to Sweden before, but I’d heard about the successful economic transition and equitable society and I wanted to see the Swedish model in action with my own eyes.
However, I wasn’t as aware as I am now about importance of things like the weather and sports. Swedish children grow up attached to a pair of skis, and that’s something we don’t have in our culture. And I soon found out that weather’s not just a conversation starter, but a conversation topic of its own.
TL: The weather certainly separates Australia and Sweden, but how about the connections?
PS: People-to-people connections are strong despite the distance. Some 30,000 Swedish tourists visit Australia each year and there are 1,200 to 1,500 Swedish students coming to Australia to study at tertiary institutions. This has built up awareness and given an overwhelmingly positive impression of Australia, which has been a great asset.
TL: What’s the latest on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange? How has his situation affected Swedes’ perception of Australia?
PS: We are waiting for the situation to be considered further between the UK and Ecuador and we will just see what happens from there. In terms of Swedish people’s reaction, I haven’t seen any change in Swedish perception of Australians. That perception has surprised me with how almost universally positive it has been.
TL: What is this perception?
PS: Well, the perception of Australia has become a little outdated, relying on iconic images, such as the flora and fauna and the beach scenes – in some ways it’s a good thing to be seen as a laid back country where everyone can fit in, but there’s another element to it.
Australians are hard-working, technologically savvy, we’re almost exclusively living in cities.
The outback scene is iconic and atmospheric but very few Australians live there. A bit of work needs to be done to realign this image and make it more modern.
It’s a misconception to think the country is full of dangerous animals, it’s an unrealistic portrayal. There’s a lot more to Australia than just spiders, snakes and sharks.
TL: Another Australian that’s made headlines lately is Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her “misogyny speech” went viral and was even on the front cover of Swedish dailies.
PS: I don’t have any comments on the Prime Minister’s speech. On the subject generally, I will say that Sweden is well recognized in Australia for its gender equality and the social and economic benefits this brings.
TL: What does the Australian Ambassador do on a day to day basis.
PS: It’s a very diverse job. The embassy is relatively small and we cover Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but primarily Sweden. My job is to build the relationship, which can include collaboration with Sweden in big international issues, whether Syria, Afghanistan, or the Arab Spring.
Trade and investment work is important as well, and it’s quite substantial – about A$3 billion ($3.1 billion) a year both ways, and investment is considerably higher.
There are 150 Swedish companies with a presence in Australia. There are fewer Australian companies here but the presence is growing.
We’re working on building up links in areas such as energy efficiency, urban renewal and sustainable living where Sweden has been such a strong leader and Australia is increasingly looking to make similar moves.
We’re looking at a marrying up of Swedish expertise with Australian needs, which has a lot of potential.
TL: What else is on your plate?
An important part of work here and in the entire global network is Australia’s bid to join the UN Security Council, with the vote happening on October 18th. Not only to win support for our bid, but to demonstrate Australia’s credentials within the UN system and to show what an effective player we would be on the UN Security Council if we’re lucky enough to get voted in.
TL: How about the home front. Do you enjoy living in Stockholm?
PS: Stockholm is a beautiful city, especially how the water and nature are so well integrated. The other great thing about Stockholm is the architecture. We don’t have buildings that are 800 years old in our city centres back home. Walking through Gamla Stan is a pretty mind-blowing experience. It’s also a fantastic city to run in, especially in Gärdet and Djurgården.
TL: Besides running, you’re into more organized sports too. Tell me about the football team?”
PS: My sons joined a local Australian rules football league when they were here on a gap year and I played a couple games with them. Now, I’m the match day coach for the Södermalm Football Club.
While it’s not exactly the same as Australian rules football with only 9 a side and only 5 Aussies allowed per team on the field, it’s been an enjoyable experience. And there’s a lot of support, including players’ parents, wives, girlfriends and dogs.
While a lot of Swedes may not have originally known much about the game, it’s been a great way to meet people and connect with the Australians here.