Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:03 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 00:03 | SYDNEY

Et tu, Bruce?: The buzz around AusAID


Graeme Dobell

21 May 2009 10:15

The Canberra buzz is that the long-serving head of AusAID, Bruce Davis, is about to ascend to some version of multilateral heaven. Davis has reigned at the top of the Australian Agency for International Development for more than a decade. His tenure is an ironic counterpoint to the complaint that AusAID churns through its lower ranks.

Davis was appointed by Alexander Downer, and as Alexander’s term stretched on, so did that of Bruce. After acting as head of AusAID from 1998, Davis was formally appointed to the job in October, 1999. In ’99, his budget was $1.5 billion. In this month’s budget, the total reached $3.8 billion. The length of service is an echo of the public service of earlier times. And the Davis’ manner has something of the same soft spoken (almost voiceless) stillness of the gentler type of mandarin.

Davis has epitomised the AusAID contradiction: it controls billions but deploys little bureaucratic weight. AusAID’s distance from power is expressed by its comfortable headquarters in Civic, on the other side of the lake from Parliament and DFAT.

Labor has asked some different questions of AusAID and it responded — the policy segue by the agency was seamless. In the South Pacific, AusAID has shifted from the ‘tough love’ edginess of Downer to the softer ‘partnership’ language without missing a beat. 

The personal dynamics have been harder to manage. Consider the personalities in the annual budget document. Under the Coalition, only one man signed off on the published AusAID budget – Alexander Downer. Under Labor, both the Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, and the Parliamentary Secretary for International Development Assistance, Bob McMullan, are signatories. And the Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Duncan Kerr, also gets a go deeper into the document.

Smith may have the ultimate power, but his two Parliamentary Secretaries (both former Ministers) do much of the pushing. The buzz in both DFAT and AusAID is that McMullan has a pretty accurate idea of the wording of the draft advertisement for a new director general of AusAID.

What to do with Bruce? Earlier this year, a job at the UN Development Program was supposed to be the next step in the Davis career. But the multilateral parachute failed to open. Another international option must be found.

The rumour-round is also working through the names of possible successors to Davis. Australia’s ambassador to China, Geoff Raby, was mentioned for a while, but he seems to have faded in favour of some females contenders, also from DFAT.

The attraction of appointing from DFAT or from within AusAID is the chance of getting a new director general who understands that money doesn’t always deliver power. AusAID belongs to DFAT. And while AusAID is more than twice the size of DFAT in cash terms, the power ratio is all the other way. The recent New Zealand move to strip the aid agency of its semi-autonomy and shove it back inside Foreign Affairs is a reminder that independence is not always a safe or cost-free quality.

Whoever inherits the AusAID mantle will be hard-pressed to match Davis’ ability at attentive stillness when dealing with the bigger beasts on the other side of the lake. Anyone aspiring to try might remember the cautionary tale of how Margaret Thatcher sank Australia’s effort to get Malcolm Fraser elected as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth.

Ahead of the CHOGM vote in 1989, Malcolm had been jetting around pledging that he’d put new force and energy into running the Commonwealth. Margaret Thatcher rang all the other leaders saying they should take the former Australian Prime Minister at his word. ‘Do you realise,’ she warned, ‘if Malcolm gets in, he’ll want to do things!’

Photo (of an Australian medical team assessing patients after the Yogyakarta earthquake) courtesy of AusAID.