Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 20:43 | SYDNEY
Monday 20 Aug 2018 | 20:43 | SYDNEY

Our diplomatic network in disrepair


Andrew Shearer

22 August 2011 11:40

In our report released today, Alex Oliver and I argue that, despite some positive developments since the Institute's Diplomatic Deficit report in 2009, Australia's diplomatic network remains severely overstretched, jammed between rising demands and two decades of cuts. Australia benefits greatly from being one of the most globalised countries on the planet, but it also exposes us to risks. These risks are growing because of global economic instability and uncertainty created by power shifts in Asia.  

In a more complex, multi-polar world, Australia needs to be able to anticipate, interpret and influence the course of events. Diplomacy is the most cost-effective policy instrument to promote and secure our interests in a fast-changing world. Our overseas network has been neglected and run down over decades. Time is running out for government to reverse the disrepair and take meaningful, sustained action to rebuild Australia's diplomatic infrastructure.

The Government likes to talk up Australia's status an active middle power and is throwing everything at the bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013–14. Views differ on the merits of seeking a seat on the Security Council. But there should be no arguing that it needs to be properly funded and should not come at the cost of our key foreign policy priorities. Frankly, the bid looks like something of a luxury considering that Australia has one of the smallest diplomatic networks of any of the OECD nations, and the smallest of all G20 nations — despite having the world's 13th largest economy.

Among our conclusions:

  • Australia's network of 95 overseas missions is far smaller than the OECD average of 133. Australia, with its population of nearly 23 million, has fewer missions than Norway (population 4.8 million), Finland (population 5.3 million), Sweden (population 9.3 million) and Belgium (population 10.8 million). These are all far smaller countries located in a much more stable part of the world. (See graph above.)
  • Funding and staffing for the Department of Foreign Affairs has stagnated at a time when our economic and security environment is becoming more, not less, challenging.
  • While the Australian public service grew more than 60% since 1997-8, Defence grew 40% and AusAID almost doubled in size, DFAT staffing almost flat-lined. Of even more concern, the size of our overseas diplomatic corps has shrunk by more than a third since the late 1980s.
  • At 24%, Australia has the lowest proportion of its diplomats serving overseas (compared with those at Canberra headquarters) of any of the 13 foreign services we reviewed in our study — the average is around 40-50%.
  • Many of our diplomatic missions are too small to effectively carry out core diplomatic tasks other than basic administrative and consular functions.
  • While DFAT has increased its investment in foreign language training over the last two years, only 10% of DFAT staff have a working-level proficiency in an Asian language.
  • With the explosion in international travel, Australians are now taking more than seven million trips abroad every year, and passport applications have surged 16% just in the last two years. More Australians are being caught up in political uprisings, natural disasters and terrorist attacks, yet DFAT actually shed staff in the consular section between 2008 and 2010. 

Our recommendation in Diplomatic Deficit that Australia should open 20 new missions over the next decade remains equally cogent today. We also need to get more of our existing diplomats overseas and review the way consular services are delivered and funded, to prevent further erosion of DFAT's policy and diplomatic capacity. Our poorly-resourced and uncoordinated public diplomacy needs a major overhaul to enable Australia to reach and influence important new international audiences, with a focus on e-diplomacy and taking a far less risk-averse approach to media and public communications.

Despite the constrained fiscal environment, DFAT requires a major, ongoing boost to its funding base. The Government should consider creative solutions such as delaying the scale-up of development assistance spending and redirecting the resulting resources to DFAT. Shaving just 6% over the next four years off the projected increase in aid expenditure would free around $200 million — not enough to rebuild the overseas network, but a good start.