The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is done and dusted

May 25, 2021

There was a time in the sixties through to the 1980s when the Department of Foreign Affairs, (Trade was subsumed into it in 1987) was a powerful department within the Federal bureaucracy. It had Branches that mirrored every major department in Canberra and when it felt necessary it would intervene in policies being developed by other departments; some acquiesced, others contested and often enough DFAT prevailed.

However, it rarely prevailed against Treasury, Defence and Immigration and in terms of foreign policy, its losses were significant. It lost the policy arguments over Viet Nam, East Timor and was slow to come on board over independence for PNG, recognising China and opposition to Apartheid. It was strong on limiting arms sales, preserving Antarctica, the law of the sea and banning nuclear weapons.

In more recent times it failed to comment and condemn the genocide of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, of the Palestinians by Israel and the West Papuans by Indonesia. It lost the debate over Iraq and was an also ran in Afghanistan.

These days its powers have diminished, shrunk and withered within the Canberra bubble. It has little bureaucratic authority. It has only itself to blame. Tasked with reporting on events within Sri Lanka, the Australian High Commission in Colombo, buckled to political pressure not to report on ongoing human rights abuses of Tamils in the north of the country.

Like Bill Hayden and later Gareth Evans, with respect to East Timor, the Howard government did not want to know about Sinhalese massacres of Tamils and ongoing human rights abuses; they wanted the boats bringing Tamil asylum seekers to Australia stopped, for that, they were willing to bribe Sri Lankan government officials and politicians. DFAT stood back and allowed this to happen. They still do.

DFAT is an elite organisation. Being a diplomat is regarded by many as a prestigious and desirable occupation; it affects some practitioners, badly.

DFAT recruits the best and brightest and they like to think, balanced, although balance is in the eye of the beholder and with the politicisation of the public service, balance has shifted to the right. Nonetheless, even with the balance on the right, good things can still be done, for instance, diplomats in Colombo could still report on human rights abuses and seek Australian government intervention. After all the government is doing it with respect to Uyghurs in Xingjian province.

Why don’t they? What is the constraint?

Lack of moral courage.

When DFAT recruits the best and brightest it does not look for moral courage. It is a difficult attribute to ascertain even were it to be valued; and if DFAT and government don’t feel the need for moral courage in their employees, why would they go looking for it? The treatment of whistleblowers attests to this.

The best and brightest who contest and challenge policy anomalies or who seek to put forward sustainable and creative policy in the face of domestic political imperatives, such as with China, are sidelined and rendered voiceless and powerless or they are passed over for promotion and preferment and leave.

The federal public service is thoroughly politicised. Apparently, Morrison recently told senior public servants to implement rather than formulate policy.

Political persuasion has played a part in senior appointments since Menzies. It continued under Whitlam and Hawke but inbuilt checks and balances, such as the Public Service Board and the appeals system kept excesses under control, plus a notion of the public good. Senior bureaucrats looked to the national interest, rather than how decisions might play for the electoral prospects of the ruling party.

All that changed with Howard. He gradually removed the checks and balances and removed those, like myself, who would not comply with the government’s political agenda, in my case not agreeing to the demonisation and mistreatment of refugees.

Into this growing moral and intellectual vacuum stepped ASPI, keen to promote the interests of its backers which soon enough became the interests of government. Insidiously and without formal arrangement ASPI took over foreign policy and strategic advice to government with the willing connivance of a government distrustful of the public service. The intelligence services were soon enough co-opted, by the merry-go-round of ASPI and its US counterparts keen to dominate the flow of so-called intelligence into Australia.

ASPI sold itself as independent, which of course it wasn’t, but the notion of independent advice, a variant of privatised advice appealed to a naïve and chronically under-read government. ASPI sold a Trump narrative about China which appealed, particularly when picked up by the Murdoch media, some academics and then more widely by other sections of the media and then the general public. When the latter occurred, the government saw the electoral possibilities and China-bashing began in earnest with ASPI an enthusiastic cheerleader and by now a respected and trusted government confidant.

DFAT had lost a battle it had not really attempted to fight and was put in the humiliating position of supporting and following ASPI advice to the point of being rude to senior Chinese Embassy officials. In South Africa, it was referred to as selling out. DFAT has sold out. It has been a long time coming but the point has been reached where Australian diplomats are merely ceremonial cyphers. Clones of their Eighteenth and Nineteenth counterparts – the price of lack of leadership and courage.

DFAT and their Minister, Marise Payne, mouth the words agreed between ASPI and PM&C. And both are getting it wrong. How does it feel to be a member of an emasculated DFAT? Particularly when you are bright and you know the government is getting it wrong, perhaps fatally wrong.

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