International Relations and the Public Affairs Process


Speaker: Secretary, Dr Ashton Calvert to the Fourth National Public Affairs Convention


24 October 2003


Ladies and Gentlemen

I should like to thank the hosts of this conference, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance and the Walkley Foundation, for this opportunity to speak to you today.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to a greater understanding of how we in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade see our work relating to the media, and how we go about conveying the Government's policy objectives to a very diverse audience.

In order to set the scene, I should like, firstly, to outline some of the key themes on the Government's current foreign and trade policy agenda, and note how domestic interest in this agenda has increased significantly in recent years.

The main focus of my talk today will be on the relationship between the media and Australia's foreign and trade policy.

In particular, I should like to discuss what I see as a significant improvement in the media's coverage of international issues.

And, against this background, I would like to detail some of the ways DFAT is seeking to engage both the media and broader audiences in support of the Government's foreign and trade policy objectives.

Australia's current foreign and trade policy agenda

In the recent period, Australia, like many other countries, has had to contend with a range of new challenges to international security.

Three particular challenges have acquired high profile on the foreign policy agenda

  • international terrorism
  • the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and
  • instability and threats caused by weak and failing states

You are aware, I think, of the ways in which Australia has sought to protect and advance our national interests by responding to these challenges.

We made a high-quality contribution to the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and we are working hard in South-East Asia to help our partners there defeat the scourge of terrorism.

We participated in the war in Iraq to remove the proliferation threat posed by the Saddam Hussein regime, and we are now helping with the ongoing effort to stabilise and rehabilitate Iraq after years of oppression and dislocation.

We are supporting the international effort to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, and we are a leading participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative which is designed to check the illicit trade in weapons of mass destruction technology and materials, and in the missiles that deliver them.

And in the South Pacific, we have responded to a request from the Solomon Islands Government to lead a major regional intervention which is designed to restore law and order and a better level of governance to that troubled country.

We are also making a major effort with Papua New Guinea to improve its law and order situation, governance and financial management.

In parallel with these activities in the international security field, Australia is also pursuing the most ambitious trade policy agenda in our history.

In this, we accord primacy to the WTO multilateral process because it has the capacity to deliver the biggest and widest gains for international market access over time.

We are still working hard to achieve a positive outcome in the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations, particularly on agriculture, despite the recent major setback at Cancun.

But we are also pursuing bilateral free trade agreements with selected partners where these offer the prospect of significant gains ahead of what will be achievable in the WTO process.

Thus, earlier this year, we signed an FTA with Singapore.

Last weekend in Bangkok, Prime Minister Howard and his Thai counterpart, Mr Thaksin, announced that the substance of an Australia-Thailand FTA had been agreed.

And yesterday in Canberra, the Prime Minister and President Bush reaffirmed their commitment to concluding the negotiation of the Australia-US FTA by the end of the year if at all possible.

The Government has also been active in looking for ways to further strengthen our already excellent trade and economic relations with North Asia.

Today, in the context of the visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao, the two governments will announce their intention of conducting a joint feasibility study on a free trade agreement between Australia and China.

Not surprisingly, a lot of these issues - particularly those affecting international security - have generated quite intense media coverage and commentary, and have attracted close interest from the wider public.

Whereas during periods in the past, foreign policy was often seen largely as the preserve of specialists, these days most people are more keenly aware of how international developments can impinge directly on Australia and affect their own well-being.

Australia's response to the crisis in East Timor in 1999 was a graphic example of how public attention became galvanised by a foreign policy issue which had a strong domestic resonance in Australia.

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 and in Bali on 12 October 2002 have done a great deal to spur greater public interest in international affairs.

Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq has reinforced this trend of heightened public interest and debate.

But in addition to these dramatic events, I believe other forces are at work.

The globalisation of communications is another driver of public interest in foreign policy and international trade and economic issues.

Indeed, today it is easier to find and absorb up-to-the-minute news on international developments than at any time in human history.

The media and foreign and trade policy

Obviously enough, domestic interest in foreign and trade policy issues is reflected in - and stimulated by - media interest in these issues.

And while it is surprisingly difficult to get an empirical measure of this, my own strong sense is that the amount of air time and column space devoted to foreign policy and trade issues has expanded considerably in recent years.

In parallel with this trend, foreign policy and international trade issues now occupy a bigger place on the national political agenda.

It is also noteworthy how many international stories in the press are reported by Australian correspondents, rather than simply being picked up off the wire services and reproduced in an undigested form.

And while technology and corporate efficiencies have seen the overall number of Australian foreign correspondents decline, their spread throughout the world remains impressive.

I very much hope Australia's media organisations will be able to maintain strong overseas representation.

It helps the national interest if our media organisations put themselves in the best possible position to report and interpret international developments from an Australian perspective.

For me, it is heartening that today an Australian diplomat might just as easily encounter an Australian journalist in Moscow or the Gaza Strip as meet one in Singapore.

And in Iraq this year we have seen the courageous efforts of Australian journalists to report on the war - one of whom, Paul Moran, sadly lost his life in the pursuit of his professional calling.

Of course, there have been great Australian foreign correspondents in the past.

Today's international journalists are following in the tradition of, for example, Denis Warner, who earned a tremendous reputation for his reporting in Asia in the 1970s.

Or indeed the legendary Neil Davis, who for three decades fearlessly provided world-class coverage of periods of conflict in South-East Asia.

But these days we are certainly seeing greater recognition of Australian journalists internationally.

A number of first-rate Australian journalists now work for news agencies abroad, including in the US and the UK.

It is no longer uncommon to strike an Australian accent on the BBC or CNN.

From my own professional perspective this is all very welcome.

Quality media reporting and analysis is an essential component of any well-informed debate on international issues.

In DFAT we are making a concerted effort to convey an appreciation of the many issues in Australian foreign and trade policy to the broader public.

It's very much part of our job.

And it certainly helps us if the same issues are taken up actively by the media.

The coverage of the Iraq war is a good example.

Despite occasional misgivings about lack of balance and perspective, it seems to me that the scope and detail of the Australian media's treatment of the whole Iraq issue, including the accompanying debate in Australia, has been professional and highly informative.

Newspapers, television and radio were all able to cover very effectively the main themes in the policy debate and what various groups felt was at stake.

In doing this, they were able to impart a great deal of basic information to their readers, viewers and listeners.

Australians suddenly became more familiar with the composition and decision-making processes of the UN Security Council, with the sometimes esoteric world of weapons of mass destruction, and the long history of Iraq's defiance of the UN Security Council and its obstruction of UN weapons inspections.

Another international subject which has received sustained media treatment is the proposed free trade agreement between Australia and the United States.

The details of international trade negotiations often seem to be a relatively arcane subject to most newspaper readers and television viewers.

But there are few areas of international policy more likely to impact on the daily lives of ordinary Australians.

In this regard, I think it is very valuable that the key issues involved in the Australia-US FTA negotiations have been reported, analysed and commented upon in such an informative and professional way.

A third area which again has attracted a great deal of well-informed and informative media coverage is the Australian-led regional intervention to help restore law and order and improve governance in the Solomon Islands.

Apart from two or three distinguished exceptions, the Australian media had tended to neglect the South Pacific until this year.

It has been especially welcome, therefore, that the media have shown a sophisticated understanding of why the Government has adopted a new policy course in both the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

In my view, the media's characterisation of the problems which exist in a number of South Pacific countries has been fairly thorough and close to the mark.

This coverage has also reflected a sound understanding of the risks and potential pitfalls of the new approach.

Australia's stake in the stability and economic viability of our South Pacific neighbours is self evident.

It is encouraging, therefore, that this priority is reflected in the attention that the South Pacific has received in recent media reporting, and I hope this interest can be sustained even after the Australian military presence in the Solomon Islands has been reduced.

Set against these positive remarks, I should also like to mention one area of media commentary on Australian foreign policy which in my personal view is rather uneven.

This relates to Australia's place in the international system and the degree of confidence we are entitled to feel about Australia's future international prospects.

While it is always risky to generalise, I think there is sometimes an inadequate recognition by media commentators of how well the Australian economy is performing in an era of globalisation of the world economy, and related to this, an inadequate recognition of how diversified our interests have become at the global level.

Some of our interests are defined by geography, and others are not.

While it is obviously important for Australia to make the very most of all our significant relationships in the Asian region, it is also important to recognise that Australia's interests and our international role and profile extend well beyond Asia.

The diversity and spread of Australia's international interests are shown by the fact that our top five two-way trading partners are the United States, Japan, China, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

The top three direct investors into Australia are the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan; while the top three overseas destinations for Australian direct investment are the US, the UK and New Zealand.

These rankings will no doubt change over time, and it is likely in particular that China's relative position will rise.

But these points serve to remind us that Australia is a significant country engaged globally with a wide spread of security and economic interests.

Ample demonstration of Australia's favourable international standing and the spread of our interests is given by the overlapping visits to Australia this week by the US and Chinese Presidents.

And our impressive economic performance relative to other advanced economies over the past decade is a good reason to be confident about our future international prospects.

DFAT and the media

By and large, I believe that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a very effective and mutually beneficial relationship with the media.

DFAT is committed to assisting the media, as far as it is practically possible, to obtain a full understanding of the Government's outlook and policy on international developments.

Our role in this respect is to support and, where appropriate, to supplement the work of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Trade, and their Parliamentary Secretaries.

Their statements, interviews and press releases are the primary mechanisms for conveying Government policy and views.

The Department also plays a role in assisting the media with basic factual or background information.

Media contacts ask us regularly about everything from trade statistics to the security situation in particular countries.

To support this effort we have a group of seven Canberra-based officers dedicated to liaising with the Australian media, with close involvement at the Assistant Secretary level.

The role of these people is not simply to provide factual responses to media enquiries - it is also to create opportunities for the whole range of senior policy experts across all of DFAT to brief the media on our activities and significant developments.

To give you an idea of the scale of the effort, and how we are addressing increased media interest let me run briefly through some figures:

  • In 2001-02 we provided information in response to 8,250 media enquiries.
    • in 2002-03 we responded to 15,250.
  • In 2001-02 we set up interviews for journalists with expert senior DFAT officers right across the organisation, including at posts overseas, on 815 occasions.
    • in 2002-03 we did this 1,330 times.
    • this is several interviews for every working day of the year.
  • In 2001-02 we conducted 13 briefings by senior DFAT foreign and trade policy practitioners for groups of journalists.
    • in 2002-03 we increased this to 35.

Of course we are not just proficient briefers.

Another of our functions is to support Ministers in explaining and disseminating Australia's foreign and trade policies to the broader Australian community.

Recently trade policy outreach has accounted for a large part of this effort, reflecting wider community interest in issues of tariff and regulatory reform, concern about the impact of globalisation and debate about trade policy - in particular the negotiation of the FTAs with Thailand and the United States.

DFAT publications, such as the recent White Paper, "Advancing the National Interest", and the work of our Economic Analytical and Historical Document Units play key roles in this broader advocacy.

We also have an active public-speaking program in which a large number of senior departmental officers participate.

Finally, it is important to note that the Australian media and public are not the only focus of our public affairs activity.

Part of our mandate is to explain and advocate Australian policy positions to a global audience - from foreign governments and their officials, to their populations and to the international media.

This is largely run by a branch in DFAT called the Images of Australia Branch.

In part the genesis of this branch lies in the concern that the Government had for the impact of Hansonism on our international image in the late 1990s.

But today it is concerned with a lot more than just managing negative or inaccurate perceptions of Australia.

We have taken the initiative to promote examples of Australian excellence and our strong economic, scientific, innovation and cultural credentials.

Examples of its work include developing quality public affairs material for specific international audiences, managing an International Media Visits program and managing the Government's contract with the ABC for the broadcast of ABC Asia Pacific.

All of this helps to build an understanding about Australia and its place in the world as a stable, successful, sophisticated, tolerant and culturally diverse nation, and generates support for Australia's foreign and trade policies.

It also contributes to our economic prosperity by promoting Australia as a source of innovative and high-quality goods and services; as an attractive place to visit; and as a country which offers international students first-rate educational opportunities.


One of DFAT's five corporate goals is: "To foster public understanding of Australia's foreign and trade policy and project a positive image of Australia internationally".

Taken together, the various strands of our public affairs program underline the considerable time and effort we take in pursuit of that goal, through trying to explain, promote and convince others of the merits of Australia's foreign and trade policies and to project Australia as a reliable, constructive and significant global player.

We aim to ensure that the media, the Australian public - and the wider world - receive an accurate account of those policies and perspectives.

Our role and that of an independent and active media are obviously different.

We each understand and respect the other's distinctive contribution to the effective working of a robust democracy in Australia.

Within that framework, and reflecting our responsibilities to the democratically elected Government of Australia, we are committed to being as open and helpful as possible to media inquiries and requests for briefings.

And it is a relationship we seek to build on in the future.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014