Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:45 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 23:45 | SYDNEY

DFAT budget: Better than nothing, just


Andrew Shearer

13 May 2009 10:32

After a quick look at the 2009-10 foreign affairs and trade budget my initial reaction was relief that the Government has at least spared DFAT further cuts. As the Institute’s Blue Ribbon Panel Report Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit made clear, that would have been just about the final straw for Australia’s emaciated foreign service.

There is even some modest good news:

  • A $26 million per year funding top-up.
  • An additional $26 million a year to bolster Australia’s presence in India, Pakistan, Africa and Latin America – all regions highlighted in the Blue Ribbon Panel report where we need to lift our diplomatic game.
  • Money for a feasibility study for a permanent embassy in Kabul and increased aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan, all of which is important and way overdue.
  • Funding to support some of the Government’s more quixotic foreign policy initiatives, including its campaigns for a UN Security Council seat and to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
  • It looks like consular services will now be accounted for separately from the passports function, as recommended by the Blue Ribbon Panel.

This is better than nothing. But it falls short of the substantial funding injection needed if our diplomacy is to meet the Prime Minister’s goal of being the best in the world. Rebuilding a serious diplomatic capacity would have required something like $1 billion over the budget period – serious enough money during an economic downturn, but chickenfeed compared with Defence, which received a massive $3 billion boost next year alone.

The cracks have only been papered over:

  • The funding increase is nowhere near enough to pay for the number of new missions and overseas positions needed.
  • It’s important to note that the real cost of the Security Council bid will go well beyond the $11.2 million over two years projected in the Budget; for example, aid to coax African votes will increase (and that’s leaving aside the intangible costs incurred in buttering up unsavoury governments).
  • The increase in official development assistance from 0.33 to 0.34 per cent of Gross National Income– particularly at a time when the Australian economy is shrinking – hardly justifies the Government’s aid hype.
  • There’s no sign that the Government is serious about providing the resources needed to keep pace with the ballooning consular workload.
  • I don’t see any serious effort to address human resources deficiencies – eg. training in priority languages – or to invest in new media tools.

Bottom line: better than nothing, but not by much.