New US ambassador John Berry touches down in Canberra

Governor-General Quentin Bryce, new US ambassador John Berry and his spouse Curtis Yee. Photo: Andrew TaylorAustralia’s new United States ambassador John Berry has presented his credentials in a private ceremony at Government House on Wednesday.
Nanjing Night Net

Accompanied by his partner of 17 years, Curtis Yee, a lawyer and native of Hawaii, Mr Berry is the first openly gay ambassador of a G20 country and is the 25th US ambassador to Australia.

Mr Berry and Mr Yee arrived in Canberra late last week. The couple were married just last month in Washington DC and have started the posting at the same time the ACT is passing legislation to become the first Australian jurisdiction to allow same-sex marriage.

Mr Berry, 54, joins the current US ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa, David Huebner, as an openly gay diplomat.

ACT Chief Minister Katy Gallagher said she was looking forward to meeting the ACT’s new high-profile residents, saying “Australia enjoys a strong positive relationship with the United States and Canberra has always welcomed the US diplomatic representatives with open arms to their home away from home here in the national capital.

“Ambassador Berry and his spouse are no exception and I look forward to meeting with the new US ambassador this week to personally welcome him to the ACT on behalf of the Canberra community.”

Mr Berry was nominated for the top spot in June by President Barack Obama after former ambassador Jeffrey Bleich stepped down from the position after five years.

Mr Bleich described Mr Berry as “a smart, energetic and extremely likable man who is enthusiastic about the US-Australian relationship”.

“He is a talented and dedicated public servant with a wealth of experience in senior level positions.”

According to a statement put out by the US Embassy on Wednesday, Mr Berry “seeks to strengthen the US-Australia alliance, which has served as an anchor of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the world for more than sixty years; to increase bilateral trade and investment; and to deepen cultural, scientific and environmental cooperation between the United States and Australia.”

In a video introduction to Australians posted on the embassy’s website earlier this month, a beaming Mr Berry admits to loving the outdoors and has asked Australians to suggest places he and Mr Yee should visit during their posting.

“My spouse Curtis Yee is a triathlete from Hawaii who loves anything involving salt water and waves,” Mr Berry says in the video.

“We both can’t wait to explore your beautiful country.”

In 2010, Mr Berry agreed to be part of the “It Gets Better” campaign to support gay and lesbian teenagers in the US and filmed a similar direct video in which he provided an emotional and revealing insight into his family’s reaction to his sexuality.

Mr Berry said he was lucky to have never been bullied, but that he “was afraid of who he was”.

He said his father had a hard time accepting his coming out.

“It wasn’t easy. My dad, a marine sergeant who went to mass every day, asked me when I came out to him not to bring my partner over to the house.”

“Ten years later, when my partner was dying from AIDS, my dad held him in his arms and told him, ‘I love you like my own son’. Things do get better.”

Mr Berry has had a distinguished public service career spanning more than thirty years. Prior to his nomination, he served as the Director of the US Office of Personnel Management – the federal government’s “chief people person” – from April 2009 to April 2013. Hiring of veterans and people with disabilities reached record highs under his leadership and this role made Mr Berry was the highest ranking openly gay government executive in US history.

From 2005 to 2009, Mr Berry served as Director of the National Zoo, after it was found to have shortcomings in management and maintenance. He created a strategic plan focused on its modernization – prioritising fire protection and renovations of animal houses. From 2000 to 2005, he worked to conserve wildlife habitats and protect endangered species through public-private partnerships as Director of the non-profit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Between 1997 and 2000, Mr Berry served as Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the Department of the Interior – overseeing 66,000 employees.

Between 1995 and 1997, he served as director of government relations and senior policy advisor at the Smithsonian Institution and from 1994 to 1995 he served as deputy assistant secretary and acting assistant secretary for law enforcement in the US Treasury Department, where he was responsible for 40 per cent of US federal law enforcement officers, including the Secret Service.

A native of Maryland, Mr Berry holds degrees from the University of Maryland and Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Administration.

Wednesday’s formal ceremony entailed Governor-General Quentin Bryce accepting Mr Berry’s credentials to be America’s formal representation in Australia. His diplomatic car drove through the gates without a flag, but following the ceremony, was adorned with America’s star-spangled banner.

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