Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 07:29 | SYDNEY
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Global Diplomacy Index – Australia’s diplomatic network

The Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index visualises the diplomatic networks of all G20 and OECD nations, allowing users to view and compare some of the most significant diplomatic networks in the world. The Index covers 42 nations — the 19 nations that are members of the G20 and the 34 OECD member nations (11 nations are members of both organisations).

In all, the Index identifies almost 6000 diplomatic posts in around 660 cities. Posts are classified by type: embassy or high commission, consulate-general, consulate, permanent mission or delegation to multilateral organisations, or other representation type, including delegations to countries where there is no formal diplomatic relationship.

The size of a country’s diplomatic network is of course only one indicator of the effectiveness of its diplomacy. Resources are an issue, both in terms of staff size and funding. The international financial crisis of 2008 has led to funding pressures and austerity budgets for governments both in the developed and developing world. As a consequence, many ministries of foreign affairs have been forced to implement significant changes to their workforces and the arrangement of their diplomatic networks. According to our research over the past six years, around half of the developed nations in the OECD have reduced their diplomatic footprint over the past decade.

Lowy Institute studies in 2009 and 2011 compared the diplomatic networks of OECD nations with Australia’s overseas diplomatic network. Both studies identified that Australia had one of the smallest networks in the OECD, and in the 2011 study Diplomatic Disrepair, additional data showed that Australia’s diplomatic footprint was the smallest of all G20 nations. In 2011, Australia had 95 overseas posts, far short of the (then) OECD average network size of 133. Both reports called for a substantial reinvestment in Australia’s diplomatic network.

Expansion of Australia’s diplomatic network since 2011

Since 2011, and following a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s overseas network, the Australian government has closed one diplomatic post (Budapest) but has opened several new ones: Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) in 2011, Chengdu (China) in 2013, and Kyiv (Ukraine) in 2014. The Kyiv post is an ‘interim’ post, co-located with Canada’s, and Australia’s presence will be reviewed in September 2016. 

Australia also upgraded a post in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, from a consulate managed by Austrade to a full embassy in December 2015. This was the first step in implementing the expansion of Australia’s diplomatic network announced in the 2015-16 Federal Budget, and described then as the ‘single largest expansion of Australia’s diplomatic network in forty years.’

Posts to be opened as part of this commitment include an embassy in Doha (Qatar), and consulates in Makassar (Indonesia), and Phuket (Thailand). A post had also been planned for Buka in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, but appears to have been shelved. In early March 2016, the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, announced a new consulate-general would be opened in Lae, Papua New Guinea (upgrading the current consulate in Lae headed by an honorary consul).

When these posts are opened, Australia’s network will expand to 114 posts:  78 embassies or high commissions, 31 consulates-general or consulates, 3 permanent missions and 2 other representations. This count includes consulates managed by Austrade.

Despite this expansion, Australia’s current network of 110 posts, growing to 114 posts following the opening of the four new posts slated for opening in 2016, remains well below the OECD average.  In the 2016 Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index, the average number of posts for the 34 OECD nations has slipped by only one since 2011, to 132 posts.  The G20 average number of posts is 190, and the overall average for the 42 G20 and OECD nations is 141.


Since 2009, the Lowy Institute has consistently argued that Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has been under-resourced over a period of several decades. As a result, its overseas network has thinned out significantly.

Australia’s overseas network – those staff at the front line of Australia’s diplomacy – shrank by over 30 per cent between 1987 and 2013, just before the integration of AusAID into DFAT. Although the government sector as a whole flourished, growing nearly 60 per cent between 1997 and 2013, DFAT staffing remained virtually unchanged. As a proportion of government expenditure, DFAT’s departmental allocation was reduced by more than a third between 1995 and 2013. The integration of AusAID created further upheaval, requiring the removal of 500 positions by June 2015 on top of 100-150 positions lost in the 2012-13 financial year. Overall, this represents a reduction of more than 13% of DFAT’s 3,758 Australia-based staff in 2015.

The following chart shows the trends in DFAT staffing levels, including the aid function, since the 1987-8 financial year:

The chart illustrates the decline in numbers of staff posted overseas following the 1987 merger of the trade and foreign affairs functions. During the 2000s, the numbers of Australia-based (A-based) staff posted overseas from both DFAT and AusAID reached a low point in the 2004-5 financial year, when only 556 staff in total were posted abroad, 494 of whom were DFAT officers.

Between 2005 and 2013 (the year AusAID was absorbed into DFAT), the number of A-based DFAT staff posted abroad grew by 22%, from 494 to 603, perhaps in recognition of an imbalance that had developed between staff headquartered in Australia compared with those working at diplomatic missions. Most of that growth occurred between 2009 and 2013.

However, even including the aid function (which the chart above shows grew dramatically in the late 2000s following the Rudd Government commitment to increase Australia’s aid to 0.5% GNI by 2015/16), the total number of foreign affairs and aid staff posted abroad still remains lower than it was 26 years ago.

Proportion of staff posted abroad

Reducing the number of home-based staff posted abroad is one of the ways in which ministries of foreign affairs can achieve savings. These postings are costly in comparison with basing staff at ministry headquarters in the capital. For 30 years, DFAT has been subject to a Commonwealth Budget requirement for ‘efficiency dividends’ – mandatory annual budget reductions - as well as dealing with general budget unpredictability. One of the ways in which DFAT has achieved those mandated savings has been to reduce the cadre of its foreign-posted diplomats.

Despite DFAT’s efforts at rebuilding its workforce overseas since 2009, the balance between foreign-posted staff and those headquartered in Australia is still very low in comparison with other G20 and OECD nations. The following chart shows how the proportion of staff posted abroad varies from ministry to ministry.* Caution should be taken in assessing these comparisons, as the composition of ministries also varies; development, trade, immigration and passports functions are not always incorporated within every ministry. However, the data indicates that Australia has the smallest proportion of its officers posted overseas of all but one (Iceland) of the reference countries in our sample:

Australia’s DFAT includes the passport function - the Australian Passport Office -which had 411 staff as at June 2015. If those staff were excluded from the total for the purposes of the calculation above, the proportion of A-based staff posted abroad would rise marginally to 25% place, equalling the proportion for Belgium.

Locally-engaged staff as a proportion of total staff

Another method for achieving savings is to increase the use of staff engaged locally (LES) in the country of the post, replacing the more expensive home-based staff positions at diplomatic posts abroad. The following chart shows how the numbers of locally-engaged staff as a proportion of total staff (including LES) varies from ministry to ministry; again, caution should be taken with comparisons due to the different structures of the various ministries.* On this measure Australia does well in comparison with the other countries in the sample. It has the ninth smallest proportion of locally-engaged staff among the 23 reference countries:


Note on methodology: The Lowy Institute Global Diplomacy Index comprises information gathered from ministries of foreign affairs, their websites, annual reports and other material. Data collection commenced in February 2015 and continued throughout the year. The data presented in the Index is the latest available information presented by those sources. A more complete description of the methodology for the study is available here.

* The dataset for these measures is a subset of the 42 OECD and G20 nations. Data was not available for, or from, all nations. Data presented here is a mix of headcount and full-time-equivalent staff numbers, as it was not possible to identify counting method in every case.