Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture


DFAT Blues

Whilst the Canberra Times got the scoop, it is yet to post it online: So will have to do:

FOREIGN Minister Stephen Smith has accidentally tabled a secret list of Australia’s bilateral treaty negotiations to parliament.
The comprehensive schedule of current negotiations with foreign governments was tabled with Mr Smith’s authority in both houses of federal parliament yesterday.

The document reveals confidential discussions for a new defence cooperation agreement between Australia and Indonesia and sensitive proposals to significantly boost Australia’s uranium exports to China.

Mr Smith’s office admitted that the schedule had been tabled “in error”.

“The Minister accepts responsibility for the error,” his spokesman told The Canberra Times.

A note on the document’s cover page explicitly states it should not be tabled in parliament or in any way placed on the public record.

Mr Smith’s office said that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade was “in the process of advising each of the relevant countries that the document was released in error”.

Apparently the error came from Smiths office providing a CD-Rom with treaties to be printed and tabled, and included the secret documents on the disk. Included in those were discussions with Indonesia for an extension of the Lombok Treaty with Indonesia. No word yet on Indonesia’s response to these secret discussions being made public.

I’ve done a brief search on the Parliamentary website, but as tabled documents usually arn’t added to the Hansard (no surprise there are thousands of them), Smith’s error may not go too public (though front page of the Canberra Times is hard to miss!). If any readers know of online copies of the documents, please email me via the address at the top right of the page, or leave a comment. I’d be keen to have a peak at just what we’ve been up to.

However these may prove a boon for scholars of Australian Foreign Policy, given the trend under the Howard Government (and it seems continued by Rudd) to seek bilateral, private negotiations with our regional partners, rather than taking the public, multilateral discussion route favored by Keating & his Foreign Minister Gareth Evans. This marked a significant change in the form with which Australia engaged and sought to influence the region, yet lead (perhaps unfairly) to calls that Howard was ignoring the region, when instead he was keeping such discussion private. This may have been a better cultural reading of the region’s sensibilities, or as Michael Wesley suggests in his excellent book ‘The Howard Paradox’ (2007) was a strategy to try and take the political heat out of discussions on terrorism or people smuggling. Instead of public discussions by the politicians which could easily become slanging matches, Howard & Downer dispatched their diplomats and bureaucrats to undertake largely private discussions focused on managing such issues in non-political ways. This technocratic focus allowed for Australia and Indonesia to work together successfully on issues such as combating terrorism that may have been otherwise much more contentious and difficult to sustain had they been conducted in the open and Indonesia be seen to acquiesce to Australian demands. (That said, it also suited Howard’s distrust of multilateralism, desire for ‘deliverables’ from all negotiations, and keep those concerned about pesky issues such as Human Rights from interfering). This error is unlikely to torpedo any of the discussions (at least the Canberra Times found nothing incriminating on their run through) but time will tell.

Speaking of DFAT it’s also worth noting the Rudd Governments cognitive disconnect between professing a major role for the department in its National Security Strategy of 4 December 2008:

“National security policy must be also be advanced through the agency of creative middle power diplomacy – an active foreign policy capable of identifying opportunities to promote our security and to otherwise prevent, reduce or delay the emergence of national security challenges”
regional engagement is crucial. This includes strengthening our bilateral relationships and effective engagement in regional institutions. It also means seeking to positively influence the shape of the future regional architecture in a manner that develops a culture of security policy cooperation rather than defaults to any assumption that conflict is somehow inevitable.
At the global level, we are committed to multilateral institutions, and in particular the United Nations, to promote a rules-based international order that enhances our security and economy. We believe those that share the benefits of these systems must also share the responsibilities of supporting and enhancing them.”

DFAT Headquaters The R.G.Casey Building in Canberra

DFAT Headquaters The R.G.Casey Building in Canberra

As against the funding with which it is actually willing to give to DFAT to carry out this ambitious task. In 1996, Australia spent $10b on Defence and $2.3b on DFAT. On Tuesday, the Treasurer dolled out $30b for Defence and $1.9b for DFAT. And this is actually an (small) increase on past years! It includes: (Via The Interpreter Blog)

* A $26 million per year funding top-up.
* An additional $26 million a year to bolster Australia’s presence in India, Pakistan, Africa and Latin America – all regions highlighted in the Blue Ribbon Panel report where we need to lift our diplomatic game.
* Money for a feasibility study for a permanent embassy in Kabul and increased aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan, all of which is important and way overdue.
* Funding to support some of the Government’s more quixotic foreign policy initiatives, including its campaigns for a UN Security Council seat and to rid the world of nuclear weapons.
* It looks like consular services will now be accounted for separately from the passports function, as recommended by the Blue Ribbon Panel.

It’s a start, but far from the requirements set out in the Low Institute’s Blue Ribbon Panel Report : Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit, which demonstrates the need to spend up to $1b to truly make DFAT the engine of Australian security and international engagement which it needs to be. Sure, times are tough, but when pensioners are getting $14b, and Defence $3b, you’d think more than a few crumbs could be passed over to DFAT. Especially with a former diplomat now sitting in the Lodge. Rudd has promised much in terms of Foreign Affairs, it’s time for him to start delivering on those promises.