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DFAT budget: On the mend?

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COMMENTS

10 May 2012 09:21

For a modestly-funded department with an operating budget of around $900 million, budget time has been pretty scary for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade these last few years.

The 2008 budget (Rudd's first) slashed $120 million and 43 positions from a department already starved of resources from cuts by successive governments, even while the rest of the public sector was enjoying the boom. The 2009 budget looked promising, but that was before the mid-year economic outlook shaved off $100 million. There were modest increases in 2010, but more savings measures of $30 million in 2011. Add to that the euphemistically-labeled annual 'efficiency dividends' of 1.25%, climbing to 1.5% in 2011 and then 2.5 % on the top of that, announced late last year.

So Tuesday night's DFAT budget was, if not a pleasant surprise, not a complete disaster either.

Naturally, new Foreign Minister Bob Carr was delighted to announce funding for a new embassy in Dakar, Senegal, Australia's first in Francophone Africa. This comes after a parliamentary inquiry into Australia's relations with Africa and an ongoing one into Australia's overseas diplomatic network. Bob is having a field day. He also got to announce another new post in Chengdu, western China, back in March (a Rudd legacy).

Seems someone might have been listening when we warned repeatedly that Australia's interests were in peril if we continued to run down our diplomatic network. Back in 2009, we called for 20 new posts for DFAT to begin to rebuild the overseas network which represents Australia's interests globally. We reiterated that call last year.

Credit must go to DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson, who has been blunt about DFAT's condition in successive Estimates hearings since he took over the Department in 2010. He's rebalanced an essentially static budget and begun to rebuild Australia's depleted overseas network, with over 50 new positions created abroad, four posts opened since 2010 (Addis Ababa, Lima, Mumbai and Chennai), and now two more posts announced (Chengdu and Dakar).

New measures in this year's budget are:

  • Enhancing Australia's diplomacy (the new posts, as well as strengthening existing missions) — $52 million over five years.
  • Sustaining diplomatic and civilian aspects of Australia's engagement in Afghanistan — $95.7 million over two years.
  • Civilian security arrangements for the Baghdad Embassy — $72.2 million over two years.

While this looks like a lot, it works out at around $54 million (6.6%) extra this year once the efficiency dividends, foreign exchange movements and other offsets are factored in. This for a department which has suffered a 34% contraction in its overseas workforce since the late '80s.

Where the budget appears to have gone awry is in the consular area, always a thorny topic for governments and foreign ministries globally. The very robust increase in passport funding of 22.6% in this budget reflects the growing number passports held by a globe-trotting Australian public.

Yet this is not matched by boosting the consular budget to provide much-needed support to an overstretched consular service which assists an increasingly demanding traveling public. As a senior DFAT officer pointed out last year, there has been a 60% surge in the number of active consular cases in the past five years. Successive governments go to great lengths to prove Australia's credentials in providing unparalleled consular assistance to its citizens, yet continually fail to stump up the cash.

Then there's public diplomacy. Have we abandoned this completely? What we used to have was a fairly feeble attempt at a public diplomacy function, with some funding for cultural events and expos (which limp along) complemented by plans for some marginally more rigorous programs which were disbanded before they really started (like the ill-fated 'Australia on the world stage' program).  What we have now has dwindled to almost nothing, apart from the staple $5 million grant program, a 'Bali Peace Park' mooted for this year and a small expo in Yeosu. The rest is the Australia Network, its existence apparently now in question just months after the Government decided to award the contract to the ABC indefinitely.

The aid and defence budgets are another matter, of course, and I shall leave them to the experts. I am sorely tempted, though, to revisit this piece of frippery inspired by the 2009 White Paper.

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