Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 10:54 | SYDNEY
Saturday 02 Jul 2022 | 10:54 | SYDNEY

The new normal for a hungry DFAT


Graeme Dobell

15 May 2012 15:31

For the first time in a while, an Australian foreign minister has a 'normal' relationship both with his department and his prime minister. Bob Carr will get few points for this, but he is delivering a period of business-as-usual for DFAT.

To see why Carr offers a chance for an unusual 'normal' period, glance at the last decade and the stewardships of Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith and Alexander Downer.

Rudd was a driven foreign minister with impressive intellectual qualities, but his contribution to DFAT was overshadowed by his larger role of prime minister in exile. No normal there. Smith was safe and competent but ever-constrained by having to work to a prime minister who also acted as the über foreign minister and having to persist with the budget settings bequeathed by Alexander Downer.

By the end of Downer's record dozen years as foreign minister he had more experience on any specific issue than the DFAT officers briefing him. No normal there. During the second half of that long reign, Foreign seldom managed to challenge Downer and he didn't often surprise the Department.

The true growth and evolution in Downer's term was in his relations with Howard rather than with DFAT. Fair enough; dealing with the prime minister is always a foreign minister's most important diplomatic mission, and one of many reasons why The Kevin was such an unusual foreign minister.

Part of the Downer legacy in Foreign Affairs is the fiscal diet he imposed for a decade – not quite starvation but very slimming. He also drove something of a reconceptualisation of DFAT's role, which saw much of Foreign Affairs working as a service department, dealing with ever-expanding consular responsibilities imposed by the great Oz foreign wanderlust (isolationism is never going to be much of an option around here because so many Australians are eager to engage with everybody else).

One of the unfortunate continuities from the Howard-Downer period to the Rudd era was that the budget settings for Foreign Affairs stayed the same. It is strange that Downer and Rudd — two ex-diplomats different in character, experience and philosophy – shared the view that starving their old department was good policy.

When the Labor caucus shunted Rudd off to exile at DFAT he came to a belated recognition that he should have taken Foreign Affairs off the diet. The new fiscal feeding regime is starting slowly but it will take a long time to build muscle.
The budget was thus not quite the same-old-same-old for DFAT, as Alex Oliver deftly explained, with the line that Foreign Affairs' budget was, 'if not a pleasant surprise, not a complete disaster either.' DFAT has suffered many unpleasant budgets over the last decade, so one that doesn't actually draw blood seems like a relative blessing. As Alex observes, Foreign Affairs is starting the rebuild, post by post.

Putting resources into Asia would seem an obvious answer to a lot of pressing questions; the wonder is that Australian foreign ministers have managed to ignore it for so long. We are doing no more than picking up on the diplomatic zeitgeist. For instance, see this piece on the British Foreign Secretary's recent visit-cum-sales-tour of South East Asia, which remarks in passing that the British Foreign Office is placing a renewed emphasis on language-learning and is deploying 140 extra staff to Asia, some 60 of them in China. It isn't just the Americans in pivot mode.

Bob Carr doesn't have to do any pivot piece; Australia knows where the Asia action is. Carr's task is to help deliver a new normal that understands the importance of muscling-up DFAT, not fining it down.

Photo by Flickr user James Stringer.