Annual Report 2005-2006
 

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Secretary's Review

The international year in review

  The Secretary, Mr Michael L'Estrange
The Secretary, Mr Michael L'Estrange.
Photo: Michael Jensen
 

The department advanced key bilateral relationships and regional partnerships underpinning Australia's security and economic prosperity.

In the face of a challenging international environment, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continued to advance Australia's international interests in 2005–06. We worked effectively to strengthen Australia's place in the region and beyond, in a climate characterised by terrorist attacks affecting Australians overseas, the threat of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, civil unrest in our neighbourhood and doubts about the future of global trade talks.

The department advanced key bilateral relationships and regional partnerships underpinning Australia's security and economic prosperity. We made significant contributions to the Australia–United States Ministerial consultations in Adelaide and the first joint Ministerial meeting in Washington on implementation of the Australia–US Free Trade Agreement, both of which further strengthened this critical alliance relationship. We supported the first ministerial-level meeting of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue involving Australia, Japan and the United States. We strengthened the vital strategic and economic partnership with Japan. The department provided policy and logistical input to visits by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, to key regional countries including China, Indonesia and India, giving further impetus to those relationships. The structure of regular high-level visits and dialogue with Indonesia ensured that our relationship remained firm and differences were managed within a productive framework. We coordinated whole of government responses to civil unrest in East Timor and Solomon Islands and continued to lead international initiatives aimed at providing for their long-term stability as well as promoting good governance and sustainable development in the South Pacific. We contributed to Australia's deeper institutional engagement in the region through participation in the first East Asia Summit and intensive efforts to strengthen APEC which Australia will host in 2007. The department helped shape and intensify Australia's work with international partners against terrorism. We ensured Australia remained at the forefront of efforts to advance the WTO Doha Round negotiations and continued to negotiate free trade agreements with China, Malaysia and ASEAN.

Although these activities provide only a snapshot of the department's outcomes in 2005–06, they highlight the breadth and complexity of our agenda. In managing this agenda effectively, we continued to cooperate effectively with other agencies to ensure strong whole of government results.

Advancing Australia's international interests

The department manages an overseas network of 87 posts, as well as offices in all Australian states and territories. These assets are pivotal to our ability to achieve the goals that the Government sets us. Through the policy, advocacy, public diplomacy and consular work of our overseas posts, the department advanced Australia's international interests by strengthening bilateral relations with key partners, promoting regional and global cooperation, enhancing Australia's security, strengthening Australia's economic prosperity and projecting Australia and its values internationally.

In 2005–06 the department supported high-level visits to and/or from a number of key bilateral partners including the United States, Japan, China, Indonesia, India, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and East Timor. Supporting high-level visits is a vital part of the department's work in Australia and overseas, helping to strengthen cooperation on issues of interest and build support for Australia's regional and global objectives. They are also important opportunities for high-level consultations and the signing of bilateral agreements that build a framework for ongoing cooperation. Important bilateral agreements signed during the year included the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea with East Timor, two treaty-level documents with China on nuclear transfer and cooperation, and trade frameworks with Indonesia and with India.

In our region, Australia's engagement with the countries of East Asia and our ability to influence development of regional architecture were strengthened by the Prime Minister's attendance at the inaugural East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005. Working with other agencies, we also continued intensive preparations for Australia's hosting in 2007 of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. The department is using this opportunity to strengthen APEC's ability to contribute to the region's security and prosperity and reinforce APEC as the pre-eminent regional forum.

The department continued to play a pivotal part in whole of government efforts to improve good governance and sustainable development in the South Pacific. We coordinated Australia's response to the civil unrest in Solomon Islands and continued to coordinate the whole of government contribution to the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands. We led the Government's response to the breakdown of law and order in East Timor which included the dispatch of Australian Defence Force and police personnel as part of an international stabilisation force and the evacuation of Australian nationals. In Papua New Guinea, the department continued to coordinate the Enhanced Cooperation Program under which Australian officials are working in PNG agencies to improve economic management and governance. We played a key role in finalising the Pacific Plan for Strengthening Regional Cooperation and Integration which promotes the pooling of regional resources.

Enhancing Australia's security remained a key priority for the department. We again led the Government's development and implementation of international counter-terrorism (CT) strategies, including through our coordination of a major cross-portfolio package of CT initiatives in the region involving expenditure of an additional $92.6 million over the next four years. Reinforcing our focus on regional cooperation, we ensured successful follow-up to the 2004 Bali Regional Ministerial Meeting on Counter-Terrorism, worked with the Australian Federal Police and Indonesia to achieve additional international support for the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation, inaugurated multi-agency CT consultations with the Philippines, institutionalised multi-agency CT cooperation with the United States and Japan and signed a CT memorandum of understanding with Afghanistan.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, we supported whole of government contributions to international reconstruction efforts and Australian Defence Force deployments with the aim of providing a secure and sustainable future for those countries.

Nuclear issues remained a major focus for the department. As a member of International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors, we worked to maintain pressure on Iran to comply with its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. We also contributed to international efforts to curb North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs. To advance the Government's active arms control and counter-proliferation agenda, we undertook a practical targeted outreach program with regional countries to strengthen bilateral cooperation and build capacity to control illicit trade in weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.

In a major initiative, we successfully elevated to ministerial level the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue (TSD) involving Australia, Japan and the United States and organised the inaugural ministerial meeting of the TSD in Sydney in March 2006 which Mr Downer hosted. The meeting helped promote cooperative responses to common security challenges.

In working for Australia's economic prosperity, the department sought improved market access for Australian goods and services and the maintenance of the global rules-based trading system through our multi-faceted trade policy involving bilateral, regional and multilateral negotiations.

We were at the forefront of international efforts to achieve an ambitious, liberalising outcome in the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round negotiations. The department worked intensively to help bridge the gaps among key WTO members, including through our support for Mr Vaile's involvement in the major WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong in December 2005—which reached in-principle agreement to eliminate agricultural export subsidies by the end of 2013—and in meetings of the Group of Six (Australia, Brazil, the EU, India, Japan and the United States) involving key WTO members. The department used Australia's leadership of the Cairns Group of agricultural exporting countries to press the case for agricultural trade reform through the Doha Round. Regrettably, by the end of June 2006, the WTO's 149 members had not reached agreement and the negotiations were suspended in July. The department will continue intensive efforts to break the stalemate.

At the same time as working for an ambitious Doha outcome, we advanced Australia's other interests in the WTO. One example was the completion of bilateral WTO accession negotiations with Vietnam, Russia and Ukraine. This will improve market access for Australian companies when these countries join the WTO.

The department worked intensively on three free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations—with China, Malaysia and, together with New Zealand, with the countries of ASEAN. We are aiming for comprehensive and liberalising agreements, although the negotiations are complex and ongoing. However, the benefits are clear—our negotiating partners cover close to 19 per cent of Australia's total two-way trade in goods and services and FTAs with them will improve Australians' access to their markets. We also worked to implement Australia's existing FTAs with the United States, Singapore, New Zealand and Thailand, which cover 24 per cent of Australia's two-way trade, to ensure that Australians are able to take advantage of improved opportunities to sell and buy in these markets. The department secured Japan's agreement to the terms of reference and an accelerated timeline for the joint FTA feasibility study, with a view to finalising the study towards the end of 2006.

In advancing our global interests, the department played a lead role in establishing the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate. Mr Downer hosted the Partnership's inaugural ministerial meeting in January 2006, bringing together key governments and business partners to address clean development, energy security and climate change. On UN issues, we made a strong contribution to the establishment of the new UN Human Rights Council and worked to make it a more efficient and credible body than its predecessor.

The department made a significant contribution to the Government's preparations for a possible influenza pandemic in Australia, our region and beyond. In the region, we have helped build preparedness and response capabilities through practical initiatives, including by hosting an APEC preparedness and response meeting in Brisbane in October 2005. We developed detailed pandemic contingency plans for relevant overseas posts.

To project Australia and its values internationally, in 2005–06 the department coordinated a comprehensive public diplomacy program in Australia and overseas to support our broader foreign and trade policy goals. For example, under the Muslim Cultural Exchange Program with Thailand, we hosted a series of visits to Australia by delegations of Muslim community leaders to help build mutual understanding of our cultures and societies. We coordinated Australia's involvement in the second Regional Interfaith Dialogue in the Philippines. In commemorating the strength and diversity of relations with Japan, the department provided support to the 2006 Australia–Japan Year of Exchange, a joint prime ministerial initiative to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the signing of the bilateral Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. The department also managed Australia's participation in the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan, which concluded in September 2005 and attracted record numbers of visitors to the Australian Pavilion. In January 2006 we promoted Australia to a targeted audience in the United States through Australia Week (G'Day LA), highlighting Australia as a natural partner for the United States in investment, trade, tourism and people-to-people exchanges and promoting business opportunities through the Australia–US Free Trade Agreement.

Each year our overseas posts manage hundreds of cultural programs that promote a positive image of Australia internationally. One high-profile and successful example in 2005–06 involved our facilitation of a contribution of Australian Indigenous artwork to the Musée du Quai Branly which opened in Paris in June 2006. The Australian contribution received extensive praise.

Consular and passport services

With more Australians than ever travelling and living overseas, providing high-quality consular services continued to be a major priority for the department. In 2005–06, we provided significant consular assistance to 17 505 Australians. Through our network of overseas offices and the consular sharing arrangement with Canada, the Government can now provide direct consular services to Australians across an extensive global network.

We revised the format and presentation of consular travel advisories—which covered 152 destinations—making them clearer and simpler to use. During 2005–06 we issued 499 travel advisory updates, often to alert Australians to possible terrorist or other security threats. The reach and exposure of the department's smartraveller website continued to grow with a 48 per cent increase in use compared to the previous year.

The department's consular response mechanisms again stood the test in dealing with major overseas emergencies, including terrorist attacks, civil unrest and natural disasters. We activated crisis contingency plans in response to the London bombings in July 2005, the Bali bombings in October 2005, civil unrest in Solomon Islands in April 2006 and East Timor in May 2006 and other incidents. We sent specialist consular teams twelve times to assist with consular crises overseas. The department developed contingency strategies to cover events attracting large numbers of Australians such as Anzac Day in Turkey, the Winter Olympics in Italy and the FIFA World Cup Finals in Germany.

The department continued to provide Australians with high-quality passport services. We rolled out the microchip-enabled ePassport in October 2005, incorporating the use of leading-edge facial recognition technology and ensuring that the Australian passport continued to be among the world's most secure. Our implementation of new measures in the Australian Passports Act 2005, which came into effect on 1 July 2005, contributed to a 12.8 per cent reduction in the number of passports reported lost or stolen. The department reduced to 4.1 days the average time for passport issue, well within our advertised ten working days commitment.

Corporate governance—underpinning the department's objectives

Strong and flexible corporate management underpins the department's ability to carry out effectively the tasks that the Government sets us—such as delivering counter-terrorism capacity-building projects in the region, negotiating a bilateral FTA or providing consular assistance to Australians caught in overseas crises. The department's flexible work structures, supported by centralised staffing arrangements, continued to allow us to respond promptly to changing priorities in a demanding international environment. Our well-honed crisis management procedures, including the rapid establishment of 24-hour crisis and call centres in Canberra, ensured effective responses to overseas emergencies. We implemented a restructure of the department's divisions to align our resources more closely with government priorities and sharpen our focus on key policy, advocacy and service delivery functions.

The department improved its ability to maintain fast and transparent communications across our network of offices in Australia and overseas. The ability to transmit reliable and secure communications is critical to the department's capacity to meet its objectives. A review of our communications systems showed that our electronic messages were being transmitted faster and more consistently than ever before.

With the additional government funding allocated following the September 2004 bombing at the Australian embassy in Jakarta, the department monitored and improved security at Australia's overseas missions through a dedicated program to upgrade physical security and, in some cases, relocate to safer sites.

Outlook

In 2006–07 the department will continue to face a range of challenges in a complex global environment. We will work to ensure that our structures—for example, procedures for advising ministers, consular contingency planning, information technology platforms, relations with other agencies and the scope of our overseas representation—are appropriate to the task of advancing the international interests of Australia and Australians.

Identifying specific priority issues across an agenda as broad as the department's is a selective exercise—though some tasks do stand out. Our counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation activities will remain a vital priority. We will continue to strengthen our alliance with the United States, including through the Australia–United States Ministerial consultations, and inaugurate a similar arrangement with the United Kingdom, a key partner in counter-terrorism strategies. We will continue an intensive program to upgrade security at our overseas missions. Providing high-quality consular and passport services will remain a core priority. In 2006–07 we will construct a new consular crisis centre, strengthening our capacity to respond promptly and effectively to consular events. We will also enhance the quality and coverage of our consular network by creating new positions overseas. In our region, the department will intensify cooperative efforts to enhance good governance, economic growth and sustainable development in the South Pacific.

Preparing for the Government's hosting of APEC 2007 will continue to be a major priority, presenting logistical and policy challenges. We will contribute to the whole of government effort to support official and business visitors for APEC events and use our year as host to strengthen APEC's future agenda. We will continue to monitor and influence the emerging regional architecture including through participation in the East Asia Summit and close cooperation with regional partners.

Although prospects for the WTO Doha Round are uncertain, we will continue intensive efforts to break the stalemate and achieve a result that liberalises world trade. We will also work for the best outcomes for Australian business in our FTA negotiations and other initiatives to liberalise trade and investment flows.

Developing the potential of important regional relationships—including those with Japan, China, India, the Republic of Korea, Indonesia and other members of ASEAN—will be critical to the advancement of Australia's interests. We will continue to work in various regional and international forums to improve regional contingency planning including in relation to the possibility of an avian influenza pandemic.

I am confident that the dedication of the department's staff, the effective application of our resources and highly productive coordination with other agencies will ensure that the department continues to deliver a high-quality performance in 2006–07.

Michael L'Estrange
Secretary

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