Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 06:16 | SYDNEY

Public diplomacy adrift


Alex Oliver


26 August 2009 09:41

Though prepared seven months ago, the Federal Government’s response to the report of the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade on Australia’s public diplomacy is still worth a look. The original Senate Committee report in 2007 was a gruelling 244 pages. Despite its length, there were some gems – this from a DFAT insider: 'The reality is that Australian public diplomacy has been relegated to a level of importance equivalent to that of Embassy gardens. It's now almost exclusively managed around the world by locally engaged staff.'

The preface to the recommendations in the Report spells out some of the issues the Committee identified in Australia’s rusted-on public diplomacy 'program'. The committee was particularly concerned about:

  • the low level of interest in, or awareness of, Australia's public diplomacy by many Australians;
  • the lack of methodical and long-term research into attitudes toward Australia by countries that are of significance to Australia;
  • the effectiveness of Australia's whole-of-government approach to public diplomacy in producing a cooperative, coordinated and united effort by the many agencies and organisations that contribute to, or have the potential to contribute to, Australia's public diplomacy, including Australia's diaspora;
  • DFAT's ability to meet the growing challenges of conducting public diplomacy in a fiercely contested environment including matters such the resources devoted to public diplomacy, staff training and the role of locally engaged staff;
  • the need to ensure that those responsible for managing and delivering public diplomacy programs are taking full advantage of advances in technology to reach the global audience; and
  • the apparent absence of appropriate performance indicators suggesting that DFAT does not have mechanisms in place to monitor and assess adequately the effectiveness of its public diplomacy programs.

The Committee went to considerable lengths to articulate 20 key recommendations, ranging from a comprehensive restructuring of the interdepartmental committee (IDC) responsible for coordinating Australia’s public diplomacy efforts across the many government departments and agencies which perform public diplomacy functions, to investigating new technologies for delivering Australia’s public diplomacy messages.

In contrast with the Committee’s comprehensive effort, the Government’s response was 18 pages long. It answered each of the Committee’s 20 recommendations in turn. For Recommendation 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17 and 19, the Government 'noted' the recommendation, answering that it 'will continue to' do various things it is already doing. The comprehensive restructuring of the IDC – including more senior representation by participating departments, developing a whole-of-government long-term strategic plan, and involving non-state stakeholders such as influential NGOs — was simply 'noted', the response stating that the IDC 'will continue to take a strategic, coherent approach …'

The response 'accepted' four of the recommendations (one of which was to report back after two years) and rejected one.

The Lowy Institute’s Blue Ribbon Panel report on 'Australia’s diplomatic deficit' also highlighted some key weaknesses in Australia’s public diplomacy, including inadequate resourcing and lack of coordination. It recommended, among other things, major investments in new media – following the lead of some of the more innovative nations in public diplomacy practice, such as the UK. The US has also recognised it has work to do, acknowledging that America’s 'effective diplomatic power…is at risk of becoming dangerously diluted', and emphasising the key role public diplomacy will play in rebuilding that power.

The Senate Committee’s report, and our own panel report, warrant a more thoughtful, detailed and innovative response than the 18 pages and 15 'noteds' that the Government has provided. No doubt we will have to wait until the promised two-year review.