Alumni honour a great surprise for former Cessnock High School student

RECOGNITION: Geoff Bentley has received the University of Newcastle Alumni Medal. Photo courtesy of the University of Newcastle.

RECOGNITION: Geoff Bentley has received the University of Newcastle Alumni Medal. Photo courtesy of the University of Newcastle.

A former Cessnock High School student who went on to work as Australia’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation has received the University of Newcastle’s Alumni Medal for professional excellence.

Geoff Bentley, who finished his Leaving Certificate at Cessnock High in 1957, was the first University of Newcastle graduate to make a career in the Australian Diplomatic Service.

One of six students from the class of ‘57 that went on to university, Mr. Bentley earned a teacher’s scholarship to study languages at the University of Newcastle and completed a Bachelor of Arts in 1960.

He took up a job with the BHP, but a chance meeting two years later led to his applying for and being accepted into the Australian Diplomatic Service in 1963, at age 21. Of the 10 recruits he was the only New South Welshman and the lone recruit from a public school.

His early career was devoted to promoting Australia’s Asia relationships – in Malaysia, India, Cambodia and Singapore.

In 1979 he was appointed Deputy High Commissioner to New Zealand and played a significant role in forging the ANZ Closer Economic Relations Agreement – one of the most comprehensive bilateral free trade agreements in existence.

He later held a range of senior Australian Government positions, including Head of Strategic Policy, where he was responsible for the political dimension of the Australia-US defence and security relationship.

Mr. Bentley was appointed Australian Consul General to Hong Kong in 1989 and was the inaugural Patron of University of Newcastle’s Hong Kong Alumni Chapter.

In 1993, he was appointed chief of staff to then Foreign Minister and Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Gareth Evans QC.

Mr. Bentley’s stellar international service career culminated in his appointment as Australia’s Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 1994 to 1998.

In his foreign service career, he worked with Foreign Ministers Hasluck, Willesee, Peacock, Street, Hayden and Evans, and also worked close at hand with Prime Minsters Holt, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating.

Mr. Bentley returned to Cessnock High School for its 75th anniversary celebrations in May last year, and was back just a couple of months later for the school’s annual speech night.

Here he attributed his time at the school as giving him the grounding that allowed him to carve out a successful career.

“Coming from this fine school you will be grounded and you will be imbued with that great virtue, the ability to relate to people at all levels,” he said.

“I am convinced that business and political leaders alike trusted my advice and confided in me because I had my feet on the ground and did not have tickets on myself.

“My education at Cessnock High School turned out in the long run to be to my advantage.”

Now long retired, Mr. Bentley said he was surprised to receive the call that he was in the running for an alumni award, and even more so when he was announced as a recipient.

The Alumni Medal recognises an outstanding record of professional excellence in leadership, knowledge and professional practice.

Alumni president Belinda Smith said the advisory committee was overwhelmed with the high calibre of nominations for this year’s awards and all categories were very difficult to judge.

“Our graduates are a testament to the truly international, world-class institution that the University of Newcastle has become,” she said.