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Our diplomats: From aliens to artisans

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21 May 2010 10:09

The political class once viewed the diplomatic class as alien. Now the diplomats tend to be treated as artisans, little different to other bits of the bureaucracy.

The shift from alien aristocrat to average artisan is a feature of the evolution of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The whole-of-government mantra is chanted anew by the new head of DFAT, Dennis Richardson.

The aristocrat-to-artisan shift is one Canberra shares with other developed states. The politician's view of the diplomats as alien is expressed in a story George Shultz told about his time as US Secretary of State. Shultz did farewell interviews in Washington with US ambassadors before they departed for new posts. At the end of these conversations, the Secretary asked the ambassador to use a large globe to indicate their country.

After the ambassador had pointed to their destination, Shultz would announce that the diplomat was mistaken. Then the Secretary would spin the globe, put his finger on the US and announce, 'This is your country.'

Margaret Thatcher took the alien perspective to extremes. She viewed the Foreign Office as the enemy – not 'one of us' but actually 'one of them', on everything from Europe to the US alliance. The Thatcher perspective on her diplomats is beautifully captured by one of Ulster's finest journalistic exports, John Cole, in his memoirs:

Margaret Thatcher's suspicions about the Foreign Office are legendary, though they have not always resulted in any very effective control of its policies. At times she seemed to regard it as a free-standing institution, independent of government. South Africa provided one example given to me. She had been persuaded, reluctantly, that British military attaches ought to be withdrawn. Some time later, a Foreign Office minister, accompanying her at a meeting with an African statesman who complained about Britain's record in opposing apartheid, was astonished by the reply. First she ticked off what had been done: the Gleneagles agreement, no arms sales, and so on. Then turning to the FO man, she added: 'And they've withdrawn military attaches, whatever good that may do’.

In Canberra, a high point for the superior, pinstripe model was when the secretary of Foreign Affairs from 1973-6, Alan Renouf, argued to the Royal Commission on Government Administration that Australia should legislate for a separate foreign service, distinct from the rest of the public service. Embracing the 'elitist' label for his department, Renouf later wrote, 'Of course it is elitist; it seeks the best. Australia is the only country in the world to find this objectionable.'

Renouf wanted to remove the diplomats from a Canberra culture he described as stodgy, unimaginative and time-serving: 'A public servant is like a headless nail – once in it is impossible to get out. The result is that the Commonwealth Public Service is like a constipated elephant – it is a big, ponderous and sluggish animal labouring to produce small offerings from a great height.'

The heads of the Canberra's elephantine departments still abuse each other with gusto, but not often with as much style. And whole-of-government means the diplomats are definitely in the same hole with the rest of the public service.

Like Margaret Thatcher, John Howard was suspicious of the foreign service he inherited. Howard saw DFAT as tainted by its association with Paul Keating's into-Asia crusade. Others in the early Howard Cabinets were even more sceptical about the pin stripe aliens. The head of DFAT from 1996 to 1999, Philip Flood, said some ministers doubted they even needed the foreign service:

More than one minister in the first Howard Government – but not Downer, Fischer or the Prime Minister – would cheerfully have outsourced diplomatic missions to the private sector.

The Yellow Pages version of diplomacy didn't get dialled up, although the zealots did manage to sell off DFAT's headquarters, the Casey Building – a great monopoly rent deal for the Motor Trades Association.

Howard came to value highly some of the individual diplomats who served him as foreign policy advisers. They were later dispatched to run myriad departments: Defence, Immigration, ASIO, ASIS, ONA. Highly skilled artisans, indeed. But just one part of the machine. And the problem for DFAT is that it's not the bit of the mechanism getting much of the fiscal oil.

Photo by Flickr user Misserion, used under a Creative Commons license.

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