Australia’s deepening diplomatic deficit pt 3

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Aligned with this development is the increasing devolution of international policy functions to arms of government other than DFAT – 18 of the 19 government departments now have international divisions – and the focusing of resources on intelligence and national security organisations such as the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Office of National Assessments and the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation. Between 2000 and 2010, these agencies experienced budget growth of 437 per cent, 471 per cent and 562 per cent respectively, while DFAT’s resourcing stagnated.

Compounding this shift, the coordination of international relations expertise and influence has progressively been concentrated within the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, particularly with the creation of the office of National Security Adviser in 2008, making the Prime Minister “a direct, responsive, front-line player in foreign policy and national security” (Wesley, 2010). The risk of this approach, Wesley argues, is that it consigns much of the country’s international policy authority to “one very busy individual”.

The coordination of international relations expertise and influence has progressively been concentrated within the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet … The risk of this approach is that it consigns much of the country’s international policy authority to “one very busy individual”.

Kevin Rudd’s first press conference as Foreign Minister in September suggested that he will continue to be a very busy individual: he referred to the “many, many, many things that I’ll be doing as Foreign Minister of Australia”. In the absence of any particular interest or experience in foreign affairs for either the Prime Minister or the leader of the opposition, Mr Rudd’s agenda is brimming. Millennium Development Goals, the continuing climate change challenge (through a UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability), counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, regional processing of asylum seekers (working “very closely” with the Immigration Minister), and a continued push for a UN Security Council seat are among his priorities.

A well resourced and revitalised Department of Foreign Affairs would be better equipped to understand international developments, inform the executive arm of government, and formulate appropriate policies in the face of an increasingly complex and challenging international environment. If the Labor government’s track record on DFAT is an indication, the department’s ailing health may degenerate into an irreversible inability to perform even its most basic functions.