Secretary's Speech: The Role of DFAT at the Turn of the Century


Speaker: Dr Ashton Calvert, Secretary, DFAT to the Canberra Branch of the Australian Institute Of International Affairs


4 February 1999

I am delighted to have this opportunity to speak today to the Canberra Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

I appreciate greatly the close interest the Institute takes in the conduct of Australia's international relations and the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I welcome warmly the major contribution that the Institute makes around Australia in heightening public awareness and understanding of Australia's international circumstances and of the policies that are required to protect and advance our country's interests and values.

I thought it might be of interest today if I spoke about the role of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade at the turn of the century.

Mathematically it was equally open to me to talk about DFAT's role at the turn of the millennium, but that seemed rather pretentious.

We can establish a convincing record of a distinctive Australian foreign policy for close to a hundred years, but anything longer than that is a bit of a struggle.

Before describing in specific terms the range of work that DFAT now sees as its mainstream responsibilities, I should like to explain by way of background some of the circumstances and conditions which determine DFAT's role and agenda.

My comments are directed at three levels - Australia's place in the international system, the rapid changes we are now witnessing in the nature of interaction between countries and their economies and citizens, and the changes now occurring in the wider Australian public-service environment.

Considering Australia's place in the international system, one of the most striking things that one observes is that Australia does not belong to any natural grouping.

Within the United Nations system we, along with Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Western Europe and Others Group.

For Australia, this classification is becoming increasingly anachronistic as it no longer matches our foreign and trade policy focus.

Our interests would be better served if we could belong to a newly created Asia-Pacific Group, but achieving the necessary overhaul of the United Nations groupings is no easy matter.

Australia has abiding strategic, political and economic interests which link us closely to the East Asian region to our north.

We are accepted as a natural player in the region with our own strong relationships with almost all East Asian countries.

But this should not lead us to claim we are an Asian country or part of Asia.

Such a characterisation contradicts standard geographic definitions and is accepted neither by the Australian people nor by our Asian partners.

Rather than lament our not belonging to a natural grouping, the better thing for us to do is simply to assert Australia's distinctive identity as a positive and confident starting point for our foreign policy.

And that, of course, is what the Australian Government is doing.

However, because Australia does not belong to a natural grouping we are not in a position to rely on the efforts of others in protecting and advancing our interests in international affairs.

If, for example, we were a country of comparable population and economic weight located somewhere in Western Europe, we might be tempted to rely on the efforts of bigger powers around us to look after our stake in the international system.

But, given where we are located, Australia does not have that luxury.

We have to rely more directly on our own efforts to protect and advance the considerable security and economic interests that we have engaged in the international system.

These circumstances require an innovative and activist foreign and trade policy which is well focused on our own country's core interests, but is also alive as to how we can join with other players to shape emerging agendas.

More than some Australians perhaps appreciate, I believe that Australian foreign and trade policy has risen convincingly to this challenge over the years.

As remarked in the 1997 White Paper on Australia's Foreign and Trade Policy, we benefit from the close alliances and relationships that we have developed with many of the world's most influential countries.

Our Government enjoys good access in the capitals of the major powers in North America, Asia and Europe.

By dint of diplomatic and intellectual effort, Australia has earned a reputation as one of the most effective members of the World Trade Organisation.

We are a key participant in the development of regional institutions such as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

And we have a strong record of achievement and influence in multilateral diplomacy, particularly in the areas of disarmament and arms control.

An interesting feature of Australia's operating style in multilateral diplomacy is our capacity to weld different coalitions of like-minded countries to address various international issues.

Thus, we have the Cairns Group of agriculture free-traders in the World Trade Organisation, the Umbrella Group which is a counterweight to the European Union in climate change negotiations, the Australia Group which regulates international trade in chemical and biological weapon precursors, and many other like-minded groupings.

The second big factor shaping DFAT's work is economic globalisation and the revolution in international communications.

It is often asserted that this phenomenon is circumscribing and reducing the role of national governments in international affairs.

While I can accept in principle the thesis that globalisation reduces the effective room for manoeuvre of national governments in some policy areas, it is important not to assume the impact is a linear trend.

Law-making is still the prerogative of national governments, and I think it will be many years before the nation-state is replaced as the primary force in international relations.

Increased economic interdependence between nations is offset by resurgent nationalism, ethnic rivalries and popular reaction against the economic disciplines that governments seek to apply in both developed and developing countries.

What I can say with confidence is that economic globalisation and advances in information technology are transforming the way that DFAT does its work.

The Australian economy is now more open, internationally oriented and competitive than ever before.

As a consequence, more and more Australian companies of various sizes are increasingly engaged in international trade in an increasing number of foreign markets in an ever-widening range of products and services.

This means, of course, a bigger, not a smaller, role for DFAT in helping these companies by negotiating improved market access for Australian products and services either through the WTO or bilaterally, and by working with other governments to streamline procedures, harmonise standards and better manage quarantine arrangements.

In parallel with the globalisation of the international economy, technological change has produced a totally new dynamic in the international dissemination of policy-relevant information and proposals.

For some years, we have all been used to more detailed and more rapid media coverage of international issues.

But as a relatively new phenomenon, individual companies and citizens, consumer groups, industry associations, labour unions, environmentalist groups and other NGOs all now communicate with each other freely by the Internet in a way that is transforming the environment for international policy formulation and decision-making by governments.

The result is that many processes of bilateral and multilateral negotiations that were hitherto handled quietly by governments behind closed doors are now subject to virtually immediate scrutiny by informed groups in relevant countries.

These developments are certainly not something that DFAT resists.

Indeed, to make sure that we ourselves move with the times, DFAT puts considerable effort into maintaining its own website, which, we hope, is attractive and useful to the general public.

Disciplines of transparency, accountability and policy contestability are very healthy for an organisation like DFAT.

But it also needs to be acknowledged that, in many policy areas, international negotiations have become more complicated as a result of these trends.

The OECD's Multilateral Agreement on Investment is a case in point.

Last year the agreement was effectively killed off when the draft text, which was of course still under negotiation, appeared on the Internet and was attacked by various groups representing a range of disparate interests and sometimes using quite far-fetched arguments.

The third major influence on DFAT that I want to describe is the series of reforms the Government is currently applying to the Australian Public Service.

DFAT, like all public-sector agencies, has embraced very significant change over the past few years in response to the imperative for smaller, more cost-effective government.

The adjustments we have made to cope in these circumstances have involved a much sharper focus on the Department's core foreign and trade policy responsibilities, and on the practical services we provide to the Australian public.

The Department's official overseas network and the policy advising and related parts of DFAT's Australia-based operation are key assets for the Government.

But our overseas costs are substantial and much of our management reform work has been concentrated on finding savings, for example, through judicious thinning of our overseas positions, including through replacement by locally employed staff .

At home, we have targeted our internal administrative practices, delivering important savings through streamlining and some outsourcing.

We have been able to use to real advantage the new flexibility available to departments under the Government's public-service reforms.

We now have the ability to set our own conditions, for example in relation to overseas terms and conditions for our staff.

Another area of opportunity has been the freedom that agencies now have in agreement-making to set the pay and other employment conditions for all staff.

The Certified Agreement that DFAT negotiated in early 1998 has been recognised as one of the most innovative in the public service, particularly in reinforcing what was already a strong performance culture with a new performance-appraisal scheme linked to pay and other key personnel processes.

The Agreement also paved the way for some important cost-saving administrative reforms, and for a stronger emphasis on an ethical framework for the Department.

Bringing all these influences together, how does the contemporary DFAT compare with its predecessor departments of, say, 15 years ago?

The first thing to say is that the highest priority remains on the core responsibility of providing analysis and policy advice to our two Ministers - the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade - and on implementing the Government's policies and decisions.

In this regard we need to maintain, and I believe we do maintain, the highest standards of professionalism.

Where DFAT is clearly different from the former Department of Foreign Affairs before its amalgamation with the Department of Trade in 1987 is the new emphasis that is now given to delivering practical services to a range of Australian clients beyond the Government itself.

We maintain 80 overseas missions at many of which other Departments and agencies such as Austrade, AusAID, the Department of Defence, the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources are also represented.

Compared with the past, DFAT's headquarters in Canberra, our offices in State capitals throughout Australia and our overseas missions are now much more geared to do all we reasonably can to help Australians travelling abroad and to assist Australian companies engaged in foreign business.

It could be an ordinary Australian citizen who requires consular assistance while travelling abroad, an industry council that seeks help from an Australian Embassy in lobbying a foreign government to relax some trade restriction, or a State Government which requires help in arranging an overseas visit by its Premier.

The point to make here is that the provision of services to various client groups - both within and outside the Commonwealth Government - has become a distinguishing feature of DFAT's work.

To give you some examples:

  • Last financial year we issued more than one million passports and other travel documents
  • In the same period our consular officials provided welfare guidance and assistance to more than 19,000 Australians, and performed almost 35,000 overseas notarial acts
  • At our overseas posts we provided management, financial, communications and administrative services to other Australian public-service agencies
  • We have developed a coordinated media strategy to ensure better public knowledge of Australia's trade and foreign policy initiatives, including through more than 50 briefings a year by our senior spokesperson to Australian journalists and over 150 functions for foreign correspondents organised by our International Media Centre in Sydney
  • We have mounted numerous promotions to enhance Australia's image overseas, including several activities to tie in with the forthcoming Sydney Olympics

Of course, it is in the trade area that the Department's results-oriented, "sleeves-rolled-up" attitude to business is most readily apparent.

We have pursued Australia's interests in forums like APEC and the WTO - in the latter dealing with the detail of accession negotiations with prospective members such as China or Russia, and defending complaints mounted against Australian trade in items like salmon and automotive leather.

Bilaterally, our efforts have centred on the Market Development Task Force, which has coordinated the Government's efforts on specific trade issues.

As Secretary, I serve as Chair of the Market Development Task Force, and Mr Fischer takes a close interest in its work.

It involves close collaboration between DFAT, Austrade, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the Department of Industry, Science and Resources.

In 1998, the Task Force worked on 123 priority objectives across 26 overseas markets, with positive outcomes on 58, some progress on a further 43, and little or no progress on only 22.

Examples of successes that the Task Force has coordinated include:

  • Approval for the export of Fuji apples to Japan
  • Sugar exports of more than 60,000 tonnes to the Philippines (traditionally a net exporter of sugar)
  • The awarding to Colonial Mutual of an insurance licence by the Chinese Government
  • An almost five-fold increase in meat exports to Russia, to $100 million in 1997-98; and
  • The signing of a Mutual Recognition Agreement with the EC to ensure compliance by Australian products with EC regulatory requirements, estimated to generate savings for our manufacturers in the order of $10 million.

We have also established five Market Access Facilitation Teams within the Department, to boost exports in the areas of information industries, the automotive industry, processed food and beverages, agriculture, textiles, clothing and footwear.

These teams coordinate efforts between government agencies and industry groups to develop comprehensive work plans for export market access in all five areas.

Before concluding my talk today, I should like to indicate some of the major areas of foreign and trade policy that will be priorities for DFAT's work in the period ahead.

A continuing preoccupation for us is coming to terms with the impact of the East Asian financial crisis on the political, economic and social circumstances of our partners in the region.

We have to be realistic and acknowledge that the road to recovery will be long and difficult for the economies worst affected.

But, as Foreign Minister Downer underlined in a speech in London earlier this week, we continue to believe in the underlying strength of the region.

Despite the recent downturn caused by the economic crisis, half of Australia's merchandise exports are still sold to East Asia.

Because of the core interests we have engaged there, East Asia will remain a primary focus of our external policy.

We shall continue to give practical assistance where we can, and continue to encourage the East Asian economies to stay committed to open and market-oriented international capital and trading systems.

Australia wants to demonstrate through its actions that we are firmly committed to close and long-term relationships with our East Asian partners.

As part of this, we want to continue efforts to promote a sense of political community in the Asia-Pacific region through institutions such as APEC and the ASEAN Regional Forum.

While the economic crisis has not had any major impact on the security and stability of the East Asian region, the overall strategic environment remains fluid and uncertain.

Australia shares the concern of our North Asian partners about the destabilising actions of North Korea, and we support efforts to head off its challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

In the security sphere, Australia attaches importance to the long-term strategic engagement of the United States in the Western Pacific.

We believe it makes a fundamental contribution to the stability of the region.

In the area of trade policy, our major objective in the period ahead is to work with other members of the WTO to launch a comprehensive round of multilateral trade negotiations at the end of this year.

We see this move as crucial in order to restore the momentum of trade liberalisation at the multilateral level, and to head off the protectionist pressures that are now coming to the surface in various parts of the world.

As I am sure you will all agree, an enlightened foreign policy for a country like Australia should not only be concerned with protecting and advancing the country's interests, as important as they are.

It should also reflect our community's values and, therefore, concern itself with the protection of human rights and the nurturing of appropriate institutional arrangements to help in this regard.

Our community's values are also reflected in Australia's substantial international aid program which has a particular focus on the South Pacific and South-East Asia.

I believe that DFAT's work should embrace all these dimensions, and, in an attractive way, project a sense of confidence and pride in Australia itself.

The turn of the century will, indeed, be an exciting time here in Australia.

Next year we shall host the Summer Olympics in Sydney. In 2001, we shall celebrate the Centenary of Federation as well as host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

The responsibility for these events extends, of course, well beyond the jurisdiction of DFAT, but they mark a particularly interesting time to be working on Australia's international relations.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014