Australia’s deepening diplomatic deficit pt 2

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In its first budget, however, the government imposed ‘savings measures’ of more than $A120 million over four years, well over ten per cent of DFAT’s base operational resourcing. This prompted DFAT to remove 25 Australia-based positions overseas, cut a major cultural relations program, and down tools on Australia-China free trade negotiations. The 2009-10 budget looked more positive, sparing DFAT further cuts and allocating over $A200 million across four years for both base funding and to bolster Australia’s presence in the key regions recommended by the Lowy Institute Panel (India, Pakistan, Africa and Latin America). While this was a welcome turn, in part it served only to reverse the previous year’s cuts, and went nowhere near addressing the accumulated deficit of the previous two decades.

2010 witnessed more vacillation in the government’s approach to DFAT resourcing.  Mid-year revised budgets swept away the modest gains of the 2009 budget. $A34 million for enhancing engagement with India (following the Indian students crisis) came at a cost of over $A100 million in efficiencies for DFAT and Austrade. Then the 2010-11 budget bestowed an additional $A200 million. But by then, only 33 of 110 planned new positions were to be overseas postings – where the bulk of the consular workload falls and where the vital frontline diplomacy takes place. Probing at Senate Estimates hearings this year, Senator Russell Trood extracted the admission that the ‘engine room’ of DFAT (the locus of its policy-making) would receive no part of any additional funding, and at the time, Mr Richardson told the ABC his department was in a ‘steady state’.

As it turns out, even the 33 extra posts overseas look like vanishing, and the steady state looks shaky. In its 2010 election bid, the Labor party offered $A45 million in savings by cutting diplomatic positions overseas.

This leaves DFAT almost back at square one, where it was before Kevin Rudd, now Australia’s first diplomat, took office toting his ambitious foreign policy agenda.

This inglorious history leads to the inevitable question of why DFAT seems to be the whipping boy of successive governments seeking budget efficiencies. The degradation of its capacity over two decades has come at times of fiscal pressure, but also during prolonged periods of prosperity.

One answer probably lies in foreign policy’s lack of any domestic constituency. The stereotypical diplomat – an elite global denizen in a world of limousines and cocktail parties – is unlikely to attract popular support at election time. The reality is of course quite different. The diplomatic and consular corps are staffed with industrious and skilled professionals. But as Daryl Copeland, author of Guerilla Diplomacy, argued in 2009, diplomatic practices, practitioners and institutions are struggling to keep pace with the changing demands of the 21st century international relations landscape. The Lowy Institute Panel perceived a similar problem: “many of the challenges DFAT faces call for more flexibility and an openness to new ideas and approaches, rather than traditional organisational responses that tend to be centralised and hierarchical. DFAT also has to be able to engage new audiences, both overseas and in Australia”

A second, and more complex, answer may lie in what Michael Wesley (in a forthcoming publication for the Australian Institute of International Affairs) sees as the progressively security-oriented focus of the Australian government – a focus which derives from the security shocks of 9/11 and which has come at the expense of traditional diplomacy. While governments of other developed nations (particularly the US, under Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) are emphasising the importance of balancing a nation’s prosecution of its hard (military) power with “a dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security – diplomacy, strategic communications, foreign assistance, civic action, and economic reconstruction and development” (Gates, 2007), the imbalance of Australia’s military, aid and foreign affairs planned expenditure over the next four years is illustrated in the chart below: