What is a Sherpa?

Hilary Blackman

Melbourne School of Government
The University of Melbourne

Australia's Sherpa Dr Helen Smith, with Tim Costello (Chair, C20 Steering Committee) and Josh Frydenberg (Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister)


A Sherpa is the personal representative of a head of state or government at an international summit. All of the G20 participating states have representative Sherpas.


The Sherpa is generally quite influential, although they generally lack the authority to independently make final decisions about any given agreement.


The name is derived from the Sherpa people, a Nepalese ethnic group, who serve as guides and porters in the Himalayas, a reference to the fact that the Sherpa clears the way for a head of state at a major summit.

What happens at a meeting of Sherpas?

During the preparatory process which takes place in advance of a G20 Leaders’ Summit, there are multiple Sherpa conferences where the agenda topics and other matters are developed and possible agreements are laid out. This reduces the amount of time and resources required at the negotiations of the heads of state at the final summit.


The host nation’s Sherpa often produces communiqués following Sherpa meetings, which show the current state of negotiations.

Australia's G20 Sherpa: Dr Heather Smith

Dr Heather Smith was appointed Deputy Secretary, G20 Sherpa in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in September 2013. Prior to this, Dr Smith had responsibility in the department for economic, industry, infrastructure, environment and strategic policy matters in her role as Deputy Secretary, Economic and Strategy when she joined in May 2013.

In August 2010, Dr Smith was appointed Deputy Secretary in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for the Americas and Africa, North Asia, international security issues, G20 and the international economy, and information technology issues.

Before joining the public service, Dr Smith was an academic working on North Asia at the Australian National University, holding various positions from 1994-2000. She also worked at the Reserve Bank of Australia from 1988-1990.

Dr Smith holds a Bachelor of Economics (First Class Honours) from the University of Queensland and a Masters and PhD in Economics from the Australian National University.