The problem with our foreign affairs bureaucracy isn’t just the consistent political correctness and suspicion of the Coalition. Much time and effort are devoted to activity often at best marginal to the advancement of Australia’s international interests. Huge effort goes into fretting about how to achieve increased staffing diversity in DFAT, including through ‘diversity networks’ and ‘champions’ – even though the days when the bureaucracy was dominated by Anglo heterosexual males are long gone. No-one wants discrimination against minorities, but most taxpayers would see DFAT’s inaugural participation in the Sydney Mardi Gras as an activity remote from the promotion of our international interests.
Agonised introspection chews up much effort. DFAT generates dense thickets of deadly managerialese: with its ‘Capability Improvement Program’ – not to be confused with its ‘Capability Action Plan’ – it’s on a ‘capability development journey’, ever on the lookout for ‘capability champions’ (to supplement the ‘diversity champions’). The massive focus on this gibberish, now including ‘unconscious bias’ training for managers, requires much expensive staff time and senior managerial focus. The appalling lapse by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in losing hundreds of Cabinet documents raises the question of whether such fashionable corporate obsessions divert focus from much more important priorities. Of course much more time and resources go into DFAT’s favourite activity, campaigning for more influence in the UN. If this didn’t require such effort, money and distortion to our foreign policy it might not matter. But, as with Labor’s campaign for the Security Council, that’s rarely the case. Hundreds of millions of dollars of extra aid money were pumped into Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa in pursuit of votes.
To avoid a repeat performance, Tony Abbott resisted DFAT pressure to launch a campaign for a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council. That partly reflected its particularly dubious nature – its members include Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China.
After Abbott lost the leadership, DFAT quickly got the green light to run the campaign. As the Australian’s Greg Sheridan observed, this signalled that the new Turnbull administration was going to be more cuddly and progressive internationally. Predictably it chewed up huge amounts of time and money as we went through the farcical process of hawking our credentials to some of the world’s worst human rights violators.
With its managerial and UN preoccupations, DFAT has long neglected some of the basics of what we should expect of a foreign service.
Skill in foreign languages, one of the keys to understanding other countries, isn’t taken all that seriously by DFAT. Unlike most other foreign services, foreign language ability isn’t compulsory for recruits. Several officers in Brussels after years in the city hadn’t bothered to learn enough French to order a cup of coffee.
The writing and analytic skills of the new recruits are generally poor. Many staff struggle to string together a coherent paragraph, let alone reports that might have some hope of finding their way towards the top of a minister’s in-tray.
An especially insidious manifestation of DFAT’s right-on tendencies is the widespread instinct to shun political forces its officials disapprove of, be it members of Trump’s team during the election campaign or Brexiteers ahead of the UK’s referendum on EU membership. On social and networking skills, many DFAT staff are painfully shy, passive and clueless about developing contact networks. Corporative training that would be more useful than ‘unconscious bias’ courses would include how to write influentially and conversation skills. A related curiosity is that as the skills previously considered core for our diplomats have declined, insistence on accommodating dietary preferences, now considered inalienable rights, has seen explosive growth. Where once it was unheard of for a diplomat not to eat whatever was thrown at them, colleagues at Meat and Livestock Australia have encountered vegetarianism so often among DFAT staff they would occasionally ask in semi-jest if it was part of the selection criteria. One of our young diplomats once, when told that fish was to be served at an embassy function, even demanded evidence that it had been sustainably-sourced.
Our foreign affairs bureaucracy can also be sloppy when it comes to what should be basics such as how we define our key area of strategic interest – an area where precision is important. The recent foreign policy white paper confirmed this as the ‘Indo-Pacific’, defined as the territory ranging from the eastern Indian Ocean to the Pacific. But at another point, the authors treat the whole of South Asia as part of the Indo-Pacific.
Another basic is that taxpayers would reasonably expect DFAT to be prudent with taxpayers’ money. In 2012 it famously paid $388,000 to send twenty-three officials to a climate change summit in Rio de Janeiro; four years later it paid $192,000 to send a similar number to Paris to find ways to save costs.
There was further extravagance last March when our 113 Heads of Mission were recalled home for discussions at a cost of $1.17 million. As reported by the Australian, Alexander Downer when foreign minister rejected proposals for such meetings as a waste of money and time. Nothing about the March meeting suggested this assessment needed revision.
The 2015 review of DFAT led by Brendan Nelson recommended extending postings to four years, which would have saved millions of dollars. But after union objections, DFAT dropped the idea. Julie Bishop to her credit banned first class travel, prompting probably the most bitter objections from DFAT leadership to any decision of the current government.
But DFAT’s most egregious failing is its lack of alertness to opportunities to advance our national interest. Why didn’t it persuade the Rudd or Gillard government to pursue a free trade agreement with the EU? The EU is the largest economy in the world but its protectionism heavily restricts Australian exports in key areas like beef and lamb. During Labor’s last term in office, the US, Canada and Japan launched talks on securing free trade agreements (FTAs) with the EU. The Canadians in 2012 estimated that an FTA with the EU would result in a C$12-billion increase in Canada’s GDP, 80,000 new jobs and an increase to household annual income of C$1,000. Such analysis should have prompted Australia also to bang on doors in Brussels to start FTA talks. Why did that have to await the Abbott government?
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