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Rebuilding Australia's diplomatic network...when circumstances allow

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This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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30 October 2012 08:58


This post is part of the Reactions to 'Australia in the Asian Century' White Paper debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

Two significant reports have been released in the past two days which, if their recommendations are followed, should have a considerable impact on the health of Australia's diplomatic network: Sunday's White Paper on Australia in the Asian Century and the report released yesterday by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Australia's Overseas Representation – Punching Below Our Weight? The content of the latter makes the question mark redundant.

 

First, the White Paper. It recognises that, while Australia faces growing competition in the region, our level of diplomatic representation is less than that of comparable countries and has been falling over the past decade.

To address this deficit, the White Paper makes the categorical claim that 'Australia's diplomatic network will have a larger footprint across Asia'. But it is far less categorical about the specifics, stating that 'when circumstances allow, (Australia will) open a full embassy in Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) and consulates in Shenyang (China), Phuket (Thailand) and in eastern Indonesia'.

Referring to the considerable body of work the Institute has produced over the past four years, including frequently on this blog, on the health of Australia's diplomatic network, Michael Fullilove asked the Prime Minister here at the Institute on Sunday: 'How big a national priority is it for us to bulk up our network of embassies and posts around the world, especially in our region?' The Prime Minister's answer:

This is an important national priority, there's only so much money and we are in a time of fiscal consolidation...you do have to take your place around the expenditure review committee table and engage in a bit of cut and thrust, but this, for us, over time, I think is a very important priority; we do ask our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through our posts around the world to do some amazing work for us, and that is going to grow and we need it to grow.

So, a big priority, but small evidence of a sense of urgency or budget imperative to make the dream a reality.

The second major report is that of Joint Standing Committee (Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee) on Australia's overseas representation, the culmination of 13 months' work by the sub-committee and launched yesterday, just one day after the Asian Century White Paper.

In language far less equivocal than the PM's, Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Nick Champion MP summed up the inquiry's findings: 'Australia's diplomatic network is seriously deficient and does not reflect Australia's true international standing.' 

Quoting our submissions to the inquiry and adopting our recommendations in Diplomatic Disrepair, Mr Champion called for an increase of at least 20 diplomatic posts to the network's existing 95, to build an overseas network far closer to the OECD average of 133 missions distributed across the 193 nations of the UN. To achieve this, the report cleverly recommends indexing DFAT's budget to a fixed proportion of GDP (a proportion which has been falling over the past quarter of a century), to bring Australia's diplomatic network to a level commensurate with its standing in the G20 and OECD.

Apart from this bold, and for us, long-awaited, call for increased support for Australia's principal agency for the nation's international engagement, the report makes some constructive recommendations to address the well-known problems confronting the indefatigable Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

  • Examine and articulate Government's long-term goals for its whole of government representation overseas in a white paper which outlines the value and benefits of the overseas network, sets out the criteria for establishing new posts and national priorities for expanding the network, and raises the public profile of the work and value of Australia's diplomatic network.
  • Introduce practical measures (like fees or levies) to help fund the burgeoning consular load.    
  • Broaden and deepen the contacts and relationships between DFAT and Austrade and Australian business to foster better understanding and provide better assistance.
  • Address the issue of effective global distribution of trade representation (by Austrade and the various State and territory trade offices around the world) by placing within COAG's remit the task of reviewing the most effective location and coordination of State and Commonwealth trade representations to best serve the national interest.
  • Open a new post in East Java (as per the Asian Century White Paper recommendation). The Committee report also welcomes the newly-announced post in Senegal and reviews in detail the myriad proposals for new posts, but refrains from recommending other post openings without a rigorous assessment by DFAT and the proposed diplomacy white paper.
  • Finally, in a comprehensive set of recommendations which are probably solely attributable to the formidable body of work by former Lowy Institute Research Fellow Fergus Hanson, the report recommends an Office of Ediplomacy to bring DFAT's use of new media platforms into the 21st century and the immediate refurbishment of the often clunky Australian embassy websites.

So, the White Paper is, as my colleague Rory Medcalf succinctly observed yesterday, bold on vision but short on funding, while the Joint Standing Committee Inquiry report is just plain bold.

Let's hope that, together, the two reports will finally draw attention to Australia's neglected, overstretched and underfunded diplomatic service, and elicit a long-overdue and concrete commitment to rebuilding Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade so it can serve Australia's interests properly.

Photo by Flickr user timtom.ch.

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