Bill Tweddell is the first JCU graduate to hold the top spot.
For James Cook University’s new Chancellor Bill Tweddell, the job is a homecoming. He grew up in Townsville and graduated from its schools and the university before beginning a diplomatic career representing Australia in eight countries, ending as Ambassador to the Philippines.
He is the first JCU graduate to hold the post and says his return to the university is no accident, with his north Queensland background leaving him deeply committed to JCU and its tropical focus.
“The tropics are vitally important to the future of the world. JCU recognises this with its comprehensive State of the Tropics project on quality of life and environmental conditions in the tropics. There’s unlimited potential in Northern Australia: concentrating our efforts on developing it is a no-brainer.”
Mr Tweddell focused his career on Asia. His diplomatic postings produced lasting knowledge of and access to senior officials across the region. But there are two incidents during his career that stand out.
From 2005 to 2008 he was Ambassador to Vietnam. Six Australian servicemen remained missing from a war that had ended more than three decades before. The push to find their bodies and get them home had been led by two-tour Vietnam veteran Jim Bourke.
“Through close cooperation involving Mr Bourke and his Operation Aussies Home group, the Australian Defence Force, and myself and the Australian Embassy team, we were able to put in place arrangements to retrieve and repatriate the remains of three of the fallen Australian servicemen during my term. We also set in train processes which led to the recovery and return to Australia of the other three after my term as Ambassador had ended. I’m very proud to have played a part in getting those fellows back home.”
He was Ambassador to the Philippines in 2013 when Typhoon Haiyan trampled across the middle of the country, its 315kmh winds leaving as many as 8 – 10,000 dead and 1.9 million homeless.
“My recommendation to our Government about Australia’s response was that we needed to ‘go big, go quick’ and back it up with military assets. And we did.”
Australians were among the first international personnel to arrive in the worst-affected areas, setting up a crucially important field hospital at the airport at Tacloban. To support Australia’s humanitarian response the ADF dispatched a C-17A and two C-130J aircraft to help ferry essential supplies in, and wounded and displaced people out, of affected areas.
In addition, the landing ship HMAS Tobruk was immediately dispatched to Townsville to pick up supplies and troops and transport them to the Philippines. Mr Tweddell says Australian service personnel did marvellous work rehabilitating schools and villages.
“As part of Australia’s response we funded the building of new houses for the many displaced Filipinos. My team mentioned plans to name the streets in the first of these new villages after Australian capital cities. Why not name one after Townsville, I half-joked. And that is exactly what happened, fitting acknowledgement, I thought, of the fact that it was from my home town that the Tobruk had sailed.”
Mr Tweddell’s term at JCU – essentially as Chairman of the Board of the JCU Council – will last at least five years and he is determined to see the institution build on its strengths.
“We are a very distinctive university which faces outwards to the tropics and our region. Even before the State of the Tropics report, that has always been part of our charter and of who we are.
But another part of our identity is as a university with many people who are the first in their family to attend university, many who are from regional and remote Australia, many of low socio-economic status and many from an Indigenous background. This is a feature of which I’m very proud and to which I have a strong personal commitment.”
In three years JCU will celebrate its 50th anniversary, an occasion in which the new Chancellor will participate in a very different capacity than in 1970 when the Queen signed the proclamation enacting James Cook University of North Queensland.
“Both my wife and I were at JCU when it became a full University on that day. In fact, Chris was chosen as one of the students to meet the Queen – while I was assigned the humbler role of showing people to their seats! I often think of this as a metaphor for our now-44-year marriage!
JCU is a world leader in education and research on the tropics. We have become a vibrant, multi-campus university – a long way from the institution at which I commenced studies in 1968.”
The University hopes it will be possible for a member of the Royal Family to participate in the 2020 celebrations.
“It would be a great honour to welcome a member of the Royal Family to celebrate with us especially, for Chris and me, after having been involved, albeit in a rather different role, 50 years ago.”