Wednesday 05 Aug 2020 | 03:31 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 05 Aug 2020 | 03:31 | SYDNEY

How will we pay for our grand foreign policy ambitions?

11 April 2008 11:53

Guest blogger: Andrew Shearer is the Lowy Institute's new Director of Studies. He was previously foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Howard.

This morning’s Australian reports that DFAT faces a cut of $109 million in the forthcoming Budget. On coming to office, the Government moved quickly to slash DFAT by $57 million. This included the removal of 19 diplomatic positions overseas – one of them the position in Brussels responsible for liaising with NATO headquarters on Afghanistan – and reducing funding for the Australia-China FTA negotiations by $6 million. At the same time, the Government has been quick to claim that Australia’s voice was not being heard around the world. The Foreign Minister says ‘Australia can and should do more in the world’. The Defence Minister has been outspoken in his criticism of Australia’s access to NATO planning processes. And yesterday the Prime Minister complained that the FTA talks with China had bogged down.

You have to wonder how these decisions to reduce further the effectiveness of Australia’s already cash-strapped foreign service square with the Government’s rhetoric about a more ‘active, creative middle-power diplomacy’, its pursuit of a seat on the UN Security Council (to cost $40 million or possibly more) and its new-found support for expedited trade talks with China.

It is hard to disagree with the Foreign Minister that foreign policy is ‘an indispensable arm of strengthening national security and strategic interests.’ But why then isn’t the Minister doing more to protect his department from arbitrary and short-sighted budget cuts?

Lofty foreign policy goals sound leader-like and get a good run in the media. But Australia’s international interests are too important to be trifled with. The Government inherited an excellent foreign policy foundation to build on. Our key relationships – with the US, Japan, China, Indonesia and India – have never been stronger.

Now it needs to ensure its stated foreign policy ambitions are properly resourced, starting by reversing the cuts to DFAT and giving our diplomats the tools they need to achieve the Government’s goals. A diplomat grounded for want of travel funds is like a carpenter who cannot afford a hammer. Failing that, it should wind back the speeches, reconsider whether the benefits to Australia of a seat on the Security Council really outweigh the costs, and get on with doing the hard diplomatic yards.