Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 02:24 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 02:24 | SYDNEY

New panel to review Australian foreign policy


Fergus Hanson


18 August 2008 15:43

The Lowy Institute has convened a Blue Ribbon Panel to review how Australia goes about pursuing its overseas interests. These days, you don’t need Greg Sheridan’s rolodex to have a DFAT contact ready to tell you how well they’d run the place if only given the chance. Well — for all those DFATers, Defence attaches, AFP liaison officers and others who have been saving up those good ideas — now’s your chance. Send through your (anonymous, if you wish) contribution to the Panel email:

The Blue Ribbon Panel’s remit will go right back to basics: why does Australia need to have foreign and trade policies? Do we still need DFAT and an overseas foreign service in an age of instant global communications? If so, why? What is the role of Australia’s other instruments of international policy — including all the other government agencies with overseas staff and interests (there’s a lot of them)?

Parts of the Australian media enjoy taking cheap pot shots at cocktail-sipping, diplomats but our emissaries in places like Baghdad, Kabul, Dili and Honiara aren’t exactly kicking back and enjoying themselves. Even a cursory glance at a map would tell them we aren’t smack bang in the middle of Europe, able to free ride off the foreign policy hard work of our neighbours or some supranational regional organisation. And a few simple stats tell the story of our real international interests: Australia is the 15th largest economy (in GDP terms) and has the 12th highest level of military expenditure. With those statistics come world-wide interests and responsibilities.

That’s not to say there aren’t some disturbing inefficiencies in DFAT. One example I like is the practice of forcing Ambassadors (who must cost the tax payer millions a year in associated costs) personally to sign off on every single trip made in their official car. This sort of mindless red tape is one obvious area to look at, but there must be a myriad other ways to make the operations of DFAT and other international agencies more effective and more efficient.

What about our diplomatic coverage in new emerging centres, for example? In a nice concise speech on transformational diplomacy, Condoleezza Rice pointed out that ‘there are nearly 200 cities worldwide with over one million people in which the United States has no formal diplomatic presence’. Her suggestion was to establish ‘American Presence Posts’ that establish representation in key emerging centres but without the expensive apparatus of a formal mission. Is that something Australia should look at?
DFAT budgets don’t tend to feature prominently in elections, and with no natural constituency it’s an easy target for budget cuts. As the coalition did when they first entered office, the Labor government has lain in too. But now we’ve reached the point where the only missions DFAT will be able to afford to set up will be in Tuggeranong and that’s not going to help anyone win a UN Security Council seat, build an Asia-Pacific Community or abolish nuclear weapons.

If you are going to fund a foreign service, you may as well give it enough money to send a decent chunk of its staff to work overseas. But before doing that make sure you have a clear plan for what they should be doing. All suggestions from readers are welcome.