There's a big, a big hard sun

Beating on the big people

In a big hard world

– Eddie Vedder, 'Hard Sun'

Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove is to be commended for calling for a 'larger Australia'. However, the old adage of 'quality not quantity' also applies. It is not clear to me that our Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT), the would-be tip of the 'larger Australia' spear, has the skills or imagination to make its own approach to diplomacy larger, such that Australia's official presence in international relations could be enlarged.

I was an economist with DFAT for five years, working in the Economic Analytical Unit and on Japan Trade & Economic matters.

Japan is a good case of where bilateral cooperation and coordination between two governments work well. Despite the perennial irritants of whaling and Southern bluefin tuna, our relationship with Japan across an impressively wide range of portfolios is well established and open. We should aspire to reproduce the strength of our relationship with Japan with other countries across the Asia Pacific, albeit that Japan is a special case in having the institutional strength by which to work with Australia in many different areas.

The core business of managing strategic relationships, trade negotiations and consular affairs are what every foreign ministry deals in, but there is also, without doubt, a need to broaden the conception of what modern diplomacy must address. There is, in DFAT, a paucity of long-term planning and analysis of economic and environmental trends of critical importance to Australia's national interests, issues that are domestic and international in their manifestation.

Understanding the breadth of climate change or the borderless worlds of energy policy and financial crises (to take three 21st century 'big issues') requires the application of knowledge and skills DFAT does not have. Nor does the department attempt with any real conviction to recruit people who do have the technical expertise to augment critical policy areas.

For instance, in my experience, much of the substantive work in the Japan-Australia FTA was handled by the respective agriculture ministries; DFAT added an overall framework for the formal negotiations. DFAT insists it is the lead agency for most international negotiations, yet without adding to the content of many sector- or issue-specific negotiations.

Listening to Dr Fullilove's address to the National Press Club, I was not sure if he was making the case for a larger Australia or merely a bigger Canberra. There seemed to me to be an emphasis on the quantity of Australia's diplomacy, as if by adding more overseas posts, it naturally becomes larger. I do not think that by adding posts around the world, or getting that next big seat at the big table of international affairs, will make for a larger Australia. What we have to say when we get there matters as much as being there.

Diplomacy and embassies are not ends in themselves. They are the means by which outcomes are achieved. The problem with DFAT, and part of why I left, was that I felt its own conception of its work was out of date and the department did not have the analytical base from which to widen its appeal or even to see its own limitations as a problem. We don't need a foreign service made up of technocrats but, if we do want to see an Australia with a larger presence in international affairs, we need a foreign service with more specialist knowledge and a stronger skill set than it currently deploys.

Photo by Flickr user Dion Hinchcliffe.