Australian Outlook

In this section

How Politicians View DFAT: Competence, Relevance, and Ideology

25 May 2021
By Graeme Dobell FAIIA
Australian Aid relief supplies. Source: Tony Bransby/DFAT

Pondering DFAT’s competence and relevance is not a new Canberra phenomenon. It’s the friends and foes and political masters in Canberra that truly control how great it can be.

Kevin Rudd left his career as a diplomat in 1988 and went on to serve as both prime minister and foreign minister. As a young diplomat, Rudd’s judgement back then was that DFAT was “largely irrelevant” in Canberra – “perhaps this was the lot of foreign ministeries all around the world” – because globalisation rendered “much, but not all, of classical diplomacy redundant.”

Labor and Liberal politicians are to be found at every point of the spectrum in the discussion on DFAT’s competence. When the ideology lens is added, however, the politics becomes sharper. An important body of Liberal opinion reckons DFAT leans to Labor.

Politics always matters, and there’s an important Liberal Party dimension to what ails DFAT. The trek to halving diplomacy’s proportional share of the budget begins in 1996, the year John Howard came to power. Since then, the Liberals have been in power 75 percent of the time.

The Liberal choice has been clear: national security spending, not diplomacy. The liberal internationalist wing of the party has some affection for DFAT. But the party’s centre and right view the department as leftish, with a world view rather than an Australian view. Such scorn flavoured Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s 2019 speech decrying “negative globalism” and “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy.”

Even when the Labor Party was in power—the six years under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard—the new money went to international development, not diplomacy. If the Liberal–Labor “golden consensus on aid” had survived over the last decade, Australia would today be an aid superpower, spending nearly $10 billion on aid, not $4 billion.

The golden aid consensus cracked on both sides of politics. Gillard preferred budget repair to the march to the Millennium Development Goals. And Rudd records a moment of private candour in 2010 from the Liberal leader, Tony Abbott: “Kevin, you’ve got to agree this level of aid is just bullshit.”

Abbott acted on that sentiment when he won power in 2013, killing off AusAID as an independent executive agency reporting to the foreign minister and slashing aid. Merging AusAID into DFAT was the biggest organisational change for the department since the marriage with Trade in 1987. The Trade merger had high policy ambitions mixed in with the politics. The AusAID merger was an expression of political disdain, dismissing aid as “burdensome boutique business” rather than a foreign policy priority.

The Liberal Party’s doubts about DFAT come under two headings: claims of political bias and doubts about its competence. On the diplomats’ lefty bias, here’s former ambassador Mark Higgie, who had five diplomatic postings and served as an adviser to Tony Abbott:

To any Canberra insider, espec­ially those in Coalition circles, the fact most of our diplomats are leftish is a given. But the foreign service’s political bias matters and is a real issue for Liberal-National governments — obviously not so much for Labor … The spirit of Gough Whitlam continues to hover over DFAT’s R.G. Casey Building in Canberra. Most of our diplomats dream of an Australia less aligned with the US and have an often unqualified enthusiasm for the UN.

This description of the hang-ups and prejudices of the Liberal Party received a comprehensive rebuttal from one of the best diplomats of his generation, John McCarthy:

Most officers just want sensible workable policies and to get on with the job. They accept politics as a fact of life, not as the force driving them. That force is the national interest. A few are lefties. Some are conservative. Most are in the middle somewhere. Five I know in the past couple of decades became secretaries of defence. Many at the top of the intelligence community—not the soft side of politics—spent their early careers in DFAT.

Two world collide: McCarthy offers a balanced view of Foreign reality, while Higgie describes political belief. That diplomats prefer diplomacy is hardly news, but a world view that prizes mediation, negotiation, and discretion can grate against the instincts of political warriors.

The more significant issue is DFAT’s competence and how it performs in the Canberra system. DFAT’s leadership must carry much of the blame “for not successfully advocating for the mission or funding of their department,” according to ASPI’s Michael Shoebridge. Dave Sharma, a former ambassador now a Liberal MP, says his old department needs more resources, but to win them it must become more focused. The reason Australia has one of the smallest diplomatic services, with the one of the smallest diplomatic footprints, in the G20? The fault, Sharma writes, lies with the department itself:

In significant part, this has been down to a failure of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Canberra bureaucratic struggle for budget and resources. It has failed to sell its value to the political class, to cultivate champions within the cabinet, or position itself with solutions to the government’s challenges.

Sharma says Defence, Home Affairs, and intelligence agencies have been better at presenting solutions to government and their budgets have grown accordingly.

A decline in policy capacity afflicts much of Canberra. The problem for DFAT is that it should be strong on policy as core business, where other areas treat service delivery as the central role. A DFAT not making much foreign policy turns to international advocacy and relationship management, and all the demanding business of a conglomerate department.

A more dangerous and divided world will demand active and creative Australian diplomacy. The skills Australian diplomats deploy in other capitals need to be employed with more effect in Canberra, to get a great department the resources it needs to deliver what Australia needs.

DFAT has an admirable—often outstanding—record in navigating the rapids of international diplomacy. Anemia has had cumulative effects, on ambition as well as performance.

Graeme Dobell is a fellow of the AIIA and a journalist fellow with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

This is an extract from Graeme Dobell’s article in the Australian Journal of International Affairs titled, “Fifty years of Australia’s department of foreign affairs: from External to Foreign.” It is published with permission.