Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 22:48 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 08 Apr 2020 | 22:48 | SYDNEY

Rebuilding Australia overseas network


Andrew Shearer

3 April 2009 10:59

Two weeks ago the Lowy Institute launched a report, 'Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit: Reinvesting in our instruments of international policy', by a Blue Ribbon Panel of eminent Australians.

When we established the Panel in July 2008 to review the nation’s overseas diplomatic network and the other international policy instruments available to government, we had two main goals: to stimulate public debate about whether Australia has the tools it needs to prosecute its interests in an increasingly complex and challenging world; and to start building a domestic constituency for Australian diplomacy.

To judge by the reaction to the report, we have had some success in kicking off a long overdue public discussion. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, called it a 'very good report' and said the Rudd government would consider it seriously.

Senior government officials from a number of Commonwealth departments have privately welcomed it. Business groups have been strongly supportive.

You can’t please everyone (we assume Richard Farmer will be happy to sign a waiver releasing the Commonwealth from its consular obligations next time he jets off overseas), but most media commentators  and editorials have welcomed it. And we understand the report has generated lively interest around the R G Casey building in Canberra and our diplomatic missions.

The real test though is whether the report helps to build an enduring constituency in Australia for a level of investment in international policy to match our growing interests and challenges overseas.

We think the report makes a pretty compelling argument for more resources for diplomats and missions overseas and for an overhaul of the way DFAT does consular support, public diplomacy, human resources management and outreach to non-government groups and the wider Australian community. That won’t come cheap, but the stakes are large and the cost — in the tens of millions of dollars over the next decade compared with the tens of billions we will spend on defence — is, frankly, modest.

Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith say they are serious about rebuilding our diplomacy. Irrespective of the merits of building an Asia-Pacific Community, seeking a rotating seat on the UN Security Council or aspiring to rid the world of nuclear weapons, none of these can be done on the cheap.

As the Panel made clear, reinvesting in our international policy tools is even more urgent if we are to navigate the fallout of the global financial crisis safely. We’ll get the first indication in the forthcoming budget about how serious the government really is about providing the resources to back up its ambitious foreign policy.