Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:19 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:19 | SYDNEY

DFAT speaks up


Alex Oliver


19 March 2012 15:24

Tonight's final hearing in the Joint Parliamentary inquiry into Australia's overseas representation will be an interesting one. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will make its second appearance in the inquiry, answering further questions from the bipartisan Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade about Australia's diplomatic footprint, DFAT staffing numbers, language skills, attitudes to communications and its embryonic ediplomacy (such as its websites and use of new media platforms).

It seems from the number of submissions (from business, industry, the diplomatic corps, academe and bureaucracy) and from the depth of questions from both sides of parliament that there has been quite an intense interest in the contraction of Australia's overseas network, and, more importantly, in how (or whether) to remedy that.

For us at the Lowy Institute, the inquiry is a long-awaited investigation into the erosion of Australia's diplomatic capacity over the last few decades, something we've pointed to in reports such as Australia's Diplomatic Deficit, A Digital DFAT, Diplomatic Disrepair, and with almost monotonous regularity on this blog.

DFAT, or at least its Secretary, Dennis Richardson, has cagily agreed with our arguments. Evidence he has given in various Estimates and inquiry hearings is peppered with comments like:

  • '...our effort has been more thinly spread...' (May 2011 Estimates).
  • '...the situation still remains very, very tight...' (June 20 2011 Estimates).
  • '...we have now fallen off the pack (in China), and I believe we are underdone...' (October 2011 Estimates).

In our own submission to the inquiry, made late last month, Fergus Hanson, Andrew Shearer and I reiterated our long-held view that Australia's diplomatic infrastructure is out-dated and inadequate, and DFAT's ediplomacy rooted in the last century. Performing on an increasingly complex and challenging global stage, Australia's international network is deficient.

During our testimony, questions from the Committee focused on issues like:

  • Where should Australia open new posts (China, Africa, Indonesia and Central Asia were of particular interest), and on what criteria should DFAT base its decisions to optimise the location of its posts?
  • Are our embassies over-stretched by covering too much territory?
  • Is there too much bureaucratic red tape hampering the effectiveness of Australia's diplomacy?

In questioning, Philip Ruddock MP disputed Mr Richardson's claim (in his 2010 Incoming Government Brief) that DFAT had 'exhausted opportunities for reprioritisation and efficiency gains', saying 'I would have written exactly the same brief to an incoming government...regardless of what the situation was'.

This misses the point. Both we and Dennis Richardson have argued over the last few years that, while the public service as a whole has grown by over 60% since the late '90s (Defence, for example, expanding by nearly 40%), DFAT's workforce has virtually flat-lined. Its overseas staff — the diplomatic network — has shrunk by more than one-third to its current 578, while AusAID's 212 staff overseas is double what it had a mere three years ago*. 

So while parliamentarians can continue to claim that everyone needs to share the pain in these financially dark days, they should recall that Australia's diplomatic network completely missed out on the gains that the majority of the government sector enjoyed in the financial boom of the last decade.

For those who are interested in listening to Mr Richardson's testimony this evening, you can hear it live at 5.40pm this evening on Watch Parliament.


*This is a correction of the original post of 19 March 2012, which used in error a figure of 740 AusAID staff. This number included locally engaged staff and was an incorrect comparison with DFAT’s A-based staff numbers.

Photo by Flickr user Imroy.