RAMESH THAKUR. The rant in The Australian on the Department of Foreign and Trade

On 17 February, The Australian published an article by former Australian ambassador to the EU and former adviser to Tony Abbott Mark Higgie that was sharply critical of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Unfortunately, the initial takeaway from reading it was that it is more of a rant than a critical analysis of all that ails DFAT.

Consider three examples. Julie Bishop is credited with banning first class travel in DFAT. As far as I know, this happened some 30 years ago (not to mention the recent story about Bishop’s own travels and those of her boyfriend-who-is-not-a-partner). Second, Higgie complains that DFAT is being infected by an outbreak of – I am not making this up – ‘vegetarianism’. Really! What next – complaints about too many quiche-eating gays? Third, Higgie is disgruntled because DFAT did not ‘persuade Kevin Rudd or Gillard to pursue a free-trade agreement with the EU’.

Pardon? It is not the job of bureaucrats to persuade any government to adopt policies, but to tender informed advice on options and then faithfully implement the policies determined by the minister, PM and cabinet. Else we could dispense with elections and Parliament. Or perhaps Higgie is saying that Labor governments should be persuaded by DFAT to pursue foreign policies favoured by the Coalition, while Coalition governments should have their policies unquestioningly implemented by DFAT?

The second big takeaway was: Come again, this is DFAT in Canberra he is describing? Higgie’s chief complaint, captured in the title (which the sub-editors decide, admittedly, but in this case accurately), is that a politically biased, ‘leftist DFAT holds our foreign policy hostage’. Too much effort ‘goes into DFAT’s favourite activity, campaigning for more influence in the UN’ as the department is overrun with left-leaning and UN-hugging multilateralists. I wish! In his reply, former Deputy Secretary John McCarthy noted that to his knowledge, of the four officials who left DFAT to join politics, two went to Labor and Liberal each.

In my day-job preoccupation with nuclear policy, readers of P&I will know that I have been critical of Australia’s refusal to participate in the negotiations that led to the adoption of the UN Nuclear Ban Treaty on 7 July last year. Of course, this is Government policy. I would not be surprised if some DFAT officials were sympathetic to the Ban Treaty. I would be surprised if the majority were. And while I disagree with the majority viewpoint, I have always been convinced that this is an independent Australian assessment of where our interests lie at present, in the calculation of which our alliance with the US is an important factor – as it always ought to be.

To substantiate his charge, Higgie resorts to tricky language: ‘Most of our diplomats dream of an Australia less aligned with the US and have an often unqualified enthusiasm for the UN’. The first part is misleading: many Australians want to be less aligned and more independent but most, including in DFAT, would strongly resist any attempt to break the alliance. The second part is just plain wrong: several DFAT officials have a qualified enthusiasm for the UN but most, in fact, are traditional bilateralists.

As far as is publicly known, DFAT had been opposed to Kevin Rudd’s decision to campaign for the UN Security Council seat by jumping the queue because it could damage bilateral relations, but faithfully – and successfully – implemented his decision to do so. True, the likes of China and Saudi Arabia are fellow-members of the UN Human Rights Council that Australia joined on 1 January. But so too are Chile, Germany, India, Netherlands, South Korea, Switzerland, UK and USA.

That said, this too is a false dichotomy. Membership of the Security Council is fiercely contested because it is highly transactional and success can be instrumentalised to pursue traditional national interests but in an international setting and forum. Our standing with and utility to key bilateral partners grew when we were on the Security Council. Conversely, the longer the gap between our elections to this key body, the more adverse will be the conclusions drawn by our partners about our weight in world affairs.

Few countries have a bigger stake in a rules-based global order for security and prosperity alike. The UN system is the core of the rules-based multilateral order. Australia most likely would not have gone into East Timor in 1999 without UN authorisation but if we had, the human, financial and political costs would have been hugely bigger. Iran’s nuclear threat was defused and contained only with UN help. The North Korean and Syrian crises have not been successfully resolved by the UN but trying to solve them by unilateral force would repeat and amplify the Iraq War disaster. The UN is central to writing, interpreting and enforcing the global rules, from health and nuclear weapons to, yes, refugees and climate change. Trouble is, people like Higgie want a UN that serves only our interests in enforcing global rules against rivals and competitors, but never against us.

Take another example. Higgie joins the beat-up in The Australian and social media circles against DFAT’s promotion of Australian-made ‘modest fashionwear’. DFAT was, in fact, implementing its mandate to promote goods made in Australia. If Higgie wishes to market revealing Australian dresses in conservative Islamic societies, good luck to him. If he wishes to force Muslim women into wearing clothing that they consider immodest, let’s have his authoritarian instincts clarified. If he wants DFAT to boycott Australian merchandise that offends his clothing taste, he should justify his anti-capitalist and anti-libertarian position accordingly. Perhaps, while at it, he would also like to force our High Commission and consulates in India to double and treble our beef sales or be marked down for incompetence?

Like any bureaucracy or organisation, DFAT is open to criticism. I cede ground to no one in the right to criticise aspects of Australian foreign policy. But overall, in my extensive international experience, our diplomats do us proud. They are dedicated civil servants who take a thoroughly professional approach to their efforts to define core Australian objectives, assess national capabilities to advance these, and attempt to do so against real-world domestic and international constraints. They are generally admired for their professional training and skillsets, even by countries and diplomats ranged against them in international forums. And yes, they do engage in network diplomacy rather than the hidebound traditional world of club diplomacy. The DFAT caricatured in Higgie’s article is not the department with – or in some cases against – which I have worked for almost three decades.

Professor Ramesh Thakur of the Australian National University is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and co-editor of ‘The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy’.

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2 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. The rant in The Australian on the Department of Foreign and Trade

  1. Dennis Argall says:

    Just to pick up on the first piece of sustained nonsense, about first class travel. In the beginning of the 1980s I was head of the North Asia Branch in Foreign Affairs, an SES position, and at the same time President of the staff association (not a registered industrial organisation but of influence in the department.

    Until that time every public servant travelled in first class, seating less than today’s Qantas domestic business class.

    Business class on international flights was introduced around this time. The public service board decreed that SES officers should travel first class, everyone else forthwith back in economy. On behalf of all staff, with a small number of SES colleagues less than happy and telling me so, but with otherwise general support, I argued for everyone to travel business class. This was agreed: the SES came down and the rest went up. So it was [a] the public service board and [b] the lobbying of the Foreign Affairs Association that ended first class travel (the rules of course for all departments). Business class then perhaps comparable to today’s premium economy. Comfortable for most egos.

  2. Phil Henry says:

    My wife and I were amongst the first to travel economy class. It was in January 1977. Through 1976 there had been a vigorous campaign to retain first class travel and those of us who were so keen to get to our first postings (even Algiers, in our case!), were subjected to some pressure to hold out.

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