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ANDREW SHEARER: Ladies and gentlemen, and distinguished members of the diplomatic corps.
For those of you who don't know me, and I see lots of very familiar faces in the audience, I'm Andrew Shearer and I'm the director of studies at the Lowy Institute. And it's great to see such lively interest today.
Today's event is very much part of a Lowy Institute effort to broaden our engagement with audiences beyond Sydney. And, of course, for a public policy institute there's no more important audience than Canberra. So, we hope you enjoy this series and I hope that we'll be able to build on that series with further events in the future.
We have two core missions at the Lowy Institute. The first one is to influence policy, and the second one is to stimulate debate and discussion in Australia about Australia's place in the world and our interests and our engagement with the wider world. And we're very much hoping that today's event will contribute to both of those objectives.
In our recent report on Australia's overseas diplomatic service, my co-author Alex Oliver and I made the point that, unlike Defence which has lots of industry backing, and AusAID which of course has a lot of backing from the NGO community, DFAT really lacks a strong vocal constituency whether inside the Cabinet room when budget decisions are taken or in the broader community. And that's despite the astonishing fact that something like seven million Australians travel every year.
This may be the main reason underlying the story that we try to tell in our report, which is one of more than two decades of funding neglect by Labor and Coalition governments, which has left DFAT badly short of posts overseas and diplomats overseas and, increasingly, overstretched as well by growing demands, in particular a ballooning consular caseload. DFAT provides consular assistance to something like 200,000 Australians in distress overseas every year, and that number just keeps rising.
We think we make a strong case in our report that Australia, as one of the world's most globalised countries, cannot afford to allow this situation to continue. And I say that especially because current global economic volatility and very rapid power shifts in Asia mean that Australia is entering, I think, a more uncertain period internationally than we've faced in recent decades.
Despite the information revolution and advances in technology, and also the increasing international engagement of agencies other than DFAT, there is no substitute for having bright, properly skilled people on the ground in places that matter – people who can interpret what's happening out there, identify risks to Australian interests and opportunities to pursue and to shape outcomes in ways that serve our interests.
Australia will need effective defence capabilities and well targeted aid as we face this more uncertain world. But ultimately, we argue in the report, DFAT is one of the most cost effective instruments at government's disposal.
But of course it's easy for us to say all this from outside government. We're honoured to have with us today the man actually charged with leading our diplomats and confronting these challenges, Dennis Richardson.
Dennis is one of Australia's most distinguished public servants. He has occupied senior positions across several portfolios. He was Chief of Staff to former prime minister Bob Hawke, head of ASIO, and ambassador in Washington DC. And it was really in that capacity that I got to know Dennis. I came to know a lot about Dennis as an exacting professional, about his very keen analytical mind, his high levels of energy, his intense focus on Australia's interests, and his take no prisoners form of diplomacy.
I am delighted that he's addressing us today on the subject of DFAT. Thank you.
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Thanks Andrew. Thanks for that.
I'll say a few words and then happy to take questions on either anything I cover or don't cover. In fact, I haven't got a lot to say in what I have prepared on policy matters but I'm very happy to answer policy questions.
Looking around I see a lot of people from DFAT, which probably says something about my internal communications.
But anyway, no problems.
What I wanted to do is really give a feel for the substance and colour embedded in the answer to the question posed in the title of this address: DFAT: who are we and what do we do?
I'll touch on some big foreign policy challenges but I won't go into detail on them, but I'm very happy to take questions.
And except for two matters, relatively minor, arising from methodology, and one policy question, I don't intend to comment on the substance of the Lowy report, Diplomatic Disrepair. I simply thank Lowy for taking such an active and critical interest in Australia's international policy infrastructure. And, as one of the few organisations in Australia writing in such a supportive way about DFAT, I won't say anything bad about the Lowy Institute either.
Now, I won't bore you with a lot of figures, but just to contextualise it, as of the end of June of this year the DFAT family consisted of 4,124 people. That's both full-time and part-time. Of these, 2,480 were what we call Australia-based; that is, recruited here in Australia and work both in Australia and overseas. And 1,644 were engaged locally overseas.
Our staff are spread in over 100 locations around the world and within Australia. And that takes me to just one small issue. The Lowy report mentions that about 23 per cent of A-based staff are serving overseas and suggested that is too low. I think that is too low. But, equally, I think it's important, while that data is based upon figures that we supplied to Lowy, I think it's important to break it down still further.
There are about — there are around 1,000 policy staff in the department in Canberra and overseas. And of those policy staff, about 59 per cent are in Canberra and 41 per cent are overseas. So — because when you simply talk about A-based staff, you're talking about the 20 per cent of staff also at work on passports, and of course their focus is work here in Australia not overseas.
Of the A-based staff, 53 per cent are women, up from 42 per cent in the early '90s. And of the senior executive service, 27 per cent are women, up from 2.5 per cent 20 years ago.
One point eight per cent of staff — or 1.8 per cent of A-based staff, or 46 officers, are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. And we aim to increase this figure significantly over the next four years through initiatives with the University of Canberra and our own Indigenous Cadet Program.
The DFAT family encompasses professionals from psychologists to IT programmers, to administrators. We are as diverse as the community itself; we're your next door neighbours sharing the same interests, whether it be sport, theatre or community activity. Our families are just like everyone else; they're single, they're married, they're same sex couples.
The 55 graduates, 46 policy and nine corporate, who joined DFAT this year tell a story in their own right. Of the 55, five are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, nine were born overseas in Korea, India, the Sudan, Serbia, Sri Lanka, China, Afghanistan and New Zealand. Nine speak French, five speak Arabic, three speak Mandarin, two speak Indonesian, and one each speaks Farsi, Korean, Ma'di, Tok Pisin, Dari, German and Japanese. And just by way of explanation, it is not — we don't have a requirement that you speak a foreign language before joining DFAT, and the fact that more people speak French amongst the graduates than any other foreign language is a reflection of our education program rather than a bias on our part.
Again, if you break down language training in the department, just over 400 of our… around our 1,000 policy staff speak a foreign language up to, or they have had a foreign language up to minimum standard of S3/R3, which is really quite high.
So just what, in practical terms, do we do?
The first point to make is that DFAT is both a policy department and a functional department. We just don't think great thoughts, we actually do things, and we do a lot of things.
We issue passports; over 1.8 million last year. We manage consular cases; on average over 25,000 cases we manage a year, and that involves everything from lending people money to visiting people in prison, to identifying bodies in morgues, and also sometimes entering radioactive areas or no-go zones as during the tsunami and nuclear accident in Japan earlier this year.
We promote Australia's image abroad through expos such as Shanghai, film festivals, cultural and sporting activities.
We manage the Australian Government's owned property overseas worth more than $1.5 billion. So we're a big manager of property.
We open fetes and we open aid projects. We negotiate counter-terrorism MOUs. We lead combined civilian/law enforcement/military teams in places such as Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands.
We live in grand residences and we live in container boxes. We see the best and we see the worst.
We negotiate in the UN and bilaterally, covering all aspects of foreign and trade policy. We manage sanction regimes. We lead efforts to win election in international bodies such as the UN Security Council for 2013-14. We provide and maintain the government's global classified communication network. We organise visits and events for prime ministers and ministers. We speak foreign tongues and act as interpreters, cultural and linguistic. We are seconded to ministerial offices and to other government departments and agencies. At present 60 DFAT policy officers work either in Parliament House or elsewhere around government; in ONA, in PM&C, in the Department of Climate Change, and elsewhere. And we provide common services to officials from other government departments and agencies operating overseas.
So, if you look at what you might term our administrative tail, it is bigger than what you would expect for an organisation of our size, and that is because we are providing the administrative common support for all government officials overseas, not just DFAT.
In short, we are the proverbial jack of all trades. We are a department that defies a simple descriptor.
Look at the diary of any of our head of missions and you get a rich insight into what we do across government.
Greg Moriarty in Jakarta engaged in Ramadan festivities with a group of orphans on national television.
Brett Hackett in Brasilia discussing a science and technology agreement at ministerial level.
Margaret Twomey in Moscow discussing the lifting of the ban on the import of kangaroo meat.
Matt Anderson in the Solomon Islands participating in a forum to combat illegal fishing.
Peter Varghese in Delhi engaged in the inaugural meeting of the Australia-India Education Council which involved around 15 vice-chancellors from Australian universities, the Minister for Tertiary Education Senator Evans, and the Premier of South Australia Mike Rann.
Sam Gerovich in Seoul with representatives from Australian citrus and table grape industries discussing market access with Korean officials.
Miles Armitage in East Timor and the Australian Electoral Commissioner discussing preparations for next year's elections and the assistance we will provide for that.
Heads of mission in Beijing, Dili, Ottawa, Washington and elsewhere making representations in support of the Australian and New Zealand bid to host the Square Kilometre Array. And if any of you don't know anything about the Square Kilometre Array, I'd be happy to talk about it afterwards in answer to questions, because it is something that is very, very important to Australia. And if you're interested in science, I mean, then this is something you should be interested in.
Peter Woolcott in Geneva working to secure a strong outcome on Syria in the Human Rights Council.
Grant Dooley, our Consul-General in Guangzhou, attending the trial of Australian businessman, Matthew Ng, and arguing for greater public access to the court room.
Kim Beazley and his team in Washington meeting officials from across the administration, the World Bank and think tanks to discuss policy responses to developments in North Africa and the Middle East.
Our heads of mission from Africa attending, in fact, today, the annual Africa Downunder Conference in Perth, which this year involves 13 ministers and other government representatives from over 20 different African countries. The conference, which focuses on resource issues, attracts over 1500 delegates from Australia and elsewhere. And I would challenge anyone who questions Australia's interests in Africa to go to that Africa Downunder conference and come away with any other view than that our interests in Africa are significant and growing.
All of this activity, and especially our policy work, is being progressed within a global and regional environment being reshaped by changing economic and strategic relativities. And nowhere is that more important than in respect of the key trans-Pacific relationships of the United States, Japan, China and India.
It is the interplay between these relationships which will fundamentally shape the politico-strategic environment in which we, as a country, live.
The dynamics will play out over time. Indeed, the graduates now joining DFAT will have retired before those dynamics have ultimately played out.
They are the dynamics which will dominate the first half of the twenty-first century, like the Cold War dominated the second half of the twentieth century.
In addition, the institutions of global and regional governance are in flux, with the UN, the G20 and the EAS being central to Australia's international engagement, and that is the one policy issue on which I would challenge some perceptions.
I do believe we have an interest in seeking a seat on the UN Security Council. If the UN Security Council is important enough for us to consider that its sanctions against Iran must be enforced, if it is important enough to provide the mandate for fifteen to sixteen hundred Australian troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan, then that is an important institution.
And as the fourteenth largest economy in the world, it is pathetic that we should have a debate about whether we should or should not run for the UN Security Council once in a while. We were last on the UN Security Council in 1986. It is surely not asking too much that once every 20, 25 years we might not run for the UN Security Council. Indeed, relative to our place in the world, one might argue we should run more often.
But anyway, happy to take any questions on that. As you can see, I only have gentle views on the issue.
And, of course, there remains our enduring national interest in South-East Asia and the Pacific, and very happy to take any questions on that too.
Given the changing world and what DFAT is called upon to do, the question is whether we have enough to meet the demands and do the job. The short answer is, no, we don't. For a country with global interests and regional priorities, we're well shy of where we should be. But we have come out of the trough of five or six years ago. Our trough in resourcing was in the years 2003 to 2005. And that is on the public record for anyone to see and Lowy, in fact, went to it in their report. Since then, there has been modest and steady growth in the department.
Also, I don't believe we have done too badly in the current tight fiscal environment. Governments do have to make tough choices and I think, given the tough choices, governments over the last few years have had to make, we have not done badly. We could have done better, but we have not done badly.
Our challenge as a department is to make the case compelling, so that we can, down the track, get what we need to do the job. And consistent with what I believe to be are our national interests.
That's all I wanted to say by way of intro. I'm very happy to take questions in relation to any corporate, or policy or any other issue about which I know nothing.
ANDREW SHEARER: Thanks Dennis.
QUESTION: Caitlyn Byrne from Bond University.
Dennis, one of the challenges that came out of the Lowy report was the fact that 19, I think, other Commonwealth agencies also have international policy and responsibilities. But another comment from you on how deep that manages those inter-agency relationships, do you the challenges going ahead with issues like, let's say, live stock trade or anything else that might compromise your [indistinct].
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Right, okay. First of all, the fact that 19 other government departments and agencies have international divisions or areas is a good thing not a bad thing. I joined government in 1969, and when I was going on my first posting in December of 1969, I was going off as a third secretary to Nairobi, and I was going to do a mix of all things.
I had to go to the Department of Education because of some education programs the department was running in East Africa through the Commonwealth. I had to go to the Department of Immigration because of the migration program out of East Africa, and I had to go to a number of other government departments.
So, the fact that other government departments, shock horror, take an interest and involvement in international affairs is a good thing, not a bad thing, and it's longstanding. It's not as recent a development as what some would have.
Our challenge is to, I think, seek to ensure that what we do in respect of any one relationship or with any group of relationships is consistent and it relates to what our overall objectives are. Live cattle exports are not a great example of that, so I won't go into that.
However, it does highlight the fact that when we think about our engagement with any one country, or group of countries, we do need to think about it holistically and that's, in part, DFAT's job. And I've got to say, overseas, that works very well.
My experience overseas is that people come together. I mean, the great thing about Canberra is that it unites everyone against it.
You know, so just as people in regional Australia have a thing about Canberra, people overseas have a thing about Canberra. And whether you're with the AFP or whether you work with DFAT or Defence, or the Department of Education, or Immigration, wherever you are around the world, you feel closer to each other than what you do to your own department back in Canberra.
So that means the inter-relationships and the cooperation and coordination we have overseas, by and large, works pretty well. The challenge arises here in Canberra where you have bigger institutions and bigger institutions invariably become a little bit more protective of what they do and that involves a bit more work.
QUESTION: Well, it's not a question, it's a request. You can tell us about the square mile of interest [sic] for Australia and New Zealand.
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Right, okay. The Square Kilometre Array is…
No, thank you. The Square Kilometre Array is one of these interesting little things which most Australians have not heard of, but which — if we are successful in getting, it will be transformational in terms of Australian science, particularly in terms of astrophysics and astronomy, and the like.
It is an international venture which is designed to put in place multiple deep space antennae, and by being spaced over a wide area, combined, give the capacity to reach back into time and into space unlike anything the world has yet seen.
South Africa is making a bid and Australia and New Zealand are making a combined bid. The decision will be made by a group of countries later in the year. And it is something which we've been working on with other government departments for a number of years now, and it is one of these little things which we and others are doing which doesn't receive much of a public profile, but which is awfully important to the country's interest.
REPORTER: Brendan Nicholson from The Australian.
You mentioned the UN there, the Security Council seat, what's your feeling — the United Nations is a much-criticised organisation, it's fairly cumbersome. What's your feeling about reform of the UN? Is it needed and what you — what would you suggest could be done to make it more effective?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Well, I think there is broad agreement that reform is needed. There is not agreement, however, as to what precisely needs to be done. There are lots of different views, as you know, about the expansion of the UN Security Council.
We, as a government, successive Australian governments, have supported an expansion of the UN Security Council, but not an expansion of the veto. We believe the veto should remain with the existing five, but we believe the permanent membership of the UN Security Council should be expanded to better reflect changes in the world since 1945.
Some of the individual agencies within the UN system, in fact, work extraordinarily well. UNICEF and the UNHCR, they both have very good reputations in what they do. Some of the food agencies do. But you see around the world now, when particular crises emerge, you now very often see an ad hoc group of countries get together to address that issue.
So, when the global financial crisis struck, the debate in Washington was, should it be the G20 or should it be a smaller group of countries. They went with the G20 as an existing entity.
With Libya — it's interesting to note that with Libya an international contact group was formed of countries with a particular interest in Libya.
So, you're starting to see ad hoc groups form to address specific issues. But even with those ad hoc groups, the UN remains centrally important.
For instance, the military action taken by NATO in respect of Libya, the UN Security Council sanctioned. And that was essential in terms of the legitimacy of that action within the eyes of the international community broadly, and also domestically within those individual countries.
So while there are certain things that ad hoc groups of countries can do, they cannot bestow legitimacy on military action in the way the UN can.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Dennis Richardson.
If I may ask three interrelated questions. The first one is, are they any sort of prerequisites for your middle power policy or vehicles that will become like middle power, but are — you have unfortunate strategy for that to become a middle power [indistinct].
The second is, is this another sort of strategy how to tender the application of Australian to the UN Security Council?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Sorry, the second.
QUESTION: If you have any unusual strategy how to organise the international community for your own application for the Security Council [indistinct].
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Yeah, all right.
QUESTION: [Indistinct]. And the third is, do you have any position about opening the proceedings into the application in the United Nations in September with your own [indistinct] this policy because there is there now Australia [indistinct] on this issue or not [indistinct]. (Question on possible UN vote on Palestinian statehood)
DENNIS RICHARDSON: All right. Taking the last question first, the answer is no. We — there is no decision taken by the Australian Government as of yet.
In answer to the first question, middle power, I think we're all — we are a middle power. I mean, the minister talks about creative middle power diplomacy. I think — what he means by that is that, one, we are of middle power and we should — and our diplomatic effort should reflect that.
We — it's quite — this is a pet subject of mine, but we do as a country think of ourselves as being small, and it's fascinating the number of times you hear Australians overseas apologise for their own size. Oh, you know, we're only a small country, we're only this, we're only that. And, of course, traditionally, Australian governments have talked about punching above our weight, which is a very lazy cop out, because if you punch above your weight, you're essentially saying you're doing far more than what you even need do and don't ask us to do any more.
Now — whereas, if you flip it around, and you say to yourself, right, of the 193 countries that make up the United Nations, where does Australia stand in terms of geographic size, population, economic size and military expenditure, it's quite interesting.
You know we have a bigger geographic area than 188, I think, or 187 — we are the sixth largest country in the world. Now, interesting, in terms of population. Last year I got the trainees together and I asked them a few questions about Australia. I said, all right, you've all signed up to represent Australia, what do you know about your own country. And when you tell them that there's 193 countries in the United Nations and you ask them where Australia ranks in population, a lot of people put us at around the 100 mark, and a lot of people just haven't cottoned on to the fact that of the 193 members of the United Nations, about 143 of them have a smaller population than Australia.
Most countries in the UN have significantly smaller populations than our own. We're very small compared to India, China, the US and Indonesia, the world goes beyond there.
Our economy is the fourteenth largest and we spend — our defence budget is about the twelfth or thirteenth largest in the world in absolute dollar terms.
Now, if you do that matrix, you can then ask yourself, do we punch up to our weight? You know, so perhaps — the challenge for us should be to always ask the question, are we contributing consistent with our weight and, if not, why not. I think that's more the pertinent question.
In terms of the UN Security Council, we're actively engaged in that. We're running a big campaign. But I don't believe it reflects — Andrew and I have a respectful disagreement on this. I don't believe that it reflects a distortion of our foreign policy. I think it is a worthwhile goal for the reasons that I articulated earlier, and there are some adjustments you might make in the pursuit of that goal. But you don't change yourself as a country and you don't, quote, distort, unquote, your priorities. A few adjustments here and there, but it's the energy you put behind it which will determine it, rather than distortions you impose on policy.
QUESTION: Dan Oakes at the The Age.
Do you think the opposition to a Security Council bid reflects any growing isolationism in Australian society?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Personally, I don't. I mean, I respect the fact that there are different views in respect of our bid for the UN Security Council. I simply do not have a problem at either a personal level or a policy level with the bid.
I'm a bit puzzled as to why one would oppose it. But I don't think it reflects isolationism on the part of the Opposition. The Opposition is — has suggested that we should be spending our efforts elsewhere, and the like, and I understand that. And — but I can't really comment on their views.
QUESTION: Paul Madden, British High Commissioner.
Australia is certainly punching its weight and very glad it is so. But the main way that diplomatic services interplays with their public, as you so know, is not through their dexterity and [indistinct] but through their consular engagement. And it seems that we face ever-rising demands as more and more of our citizens go overseas and travel to more and more exotic locations. And so, the demand for our consular support, whether it involves terrorism incidents or natural disasters seems to grow exponentially.
As a foreign ministry, if you do badly, you get criticised. But if you handle a crisis well, it simply raises — ups the ante by raising expectations next time.
How do you — I think Australia does a very good job of handling its consular support. But as a service going forward, how do you manage [indistinct] Australia's expectations of what you're funded to do?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: You're right in what you say. Certainly, the community's expectations of what government will do for them overseas, I think, is growing. I don't think that is simply an Australian trend; it is an international trend. And interestingly, it is a trend which you see beyond the liberal democracies.
Now, for instance, when Libya started to implode, the Chinese Government found itself under some domestic criticism for not doing more for the Chinese nationals caught up in India, and they had to arrange for the evacuation of about 40,000 of their own citizens from Libya.
It was quite interesting. I was in Beijing not long after that, and talking to their officials was a bit like talking to officials from the UK or another like-minded country.
So, this thing has spread globally. And in a crisis, people and the media understandably look at what different countries are doing. So, you almost get yourself into a competitive space where, if country A is doing more than you, then you have to ask yourself whether you shouldn't be doing the same thing.
I think we should be prepared to draw the line in certain areas. I think it's important for us to get across the message that, as individuals, we do have a responsibility for our own actions and our own decisions.
Clearly, the government has a responsibility to help individuals where they are caught up in circumstances beyond their control. And that can give rise to some amusing incidences.
For instance, with people being evacuated from Cairo, the Australian Government put on two chartered aircraft, two Qantas-chartered jets from Cairo to Frankfurt. And on one of them, we had a couple who asked, in all seriousness, whether the charter flight, which was costing them zip, would count for Frequent Flyer points.
So, you know, once you start to get questions of that kind, you do sort of shake your head a bit and say, mmm, where is this going.
QUESTION: Dennis, Catherine McGrath from Australia Network.
You've spoken about [indistinct] and the Security Council, but the key question is, can Australia win it? I mean, there's a lot of evidence that it, perhaps, can't. And secondly, what are the lessons learned out of the live export trade?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: In terms of the UN Security Council, I would challenge the premise that there's a lot of evidence that we can't. I've genuinely not seen that evidence. We're in a tough contest.
Luxembourg, which has not previously been on the UN Security Council and Finland, which has served on the UN Security Council since we were last on it. But both Finland and Luxembourg have a starting point, which we don't have. We don't belong to a grouping, the majority of which will pretty much swing their support in behind us.
In the UN — where we sit in the UN tells you everything. We belong, as you know, to the West European and Other grouping. You know, we're the — amongst the others.
And when the G20 was being put together in 1997-98 in response to the Asian financial crisis, the G20 was put together very carefully to represent different regions around the world. And they got to 15 and then there was another group of countries which they couldn't put a label over, so we're in that group, you know, along with a very respectable group of countries I should say. We're there with Turkey, we're there with Korea, I think — no, wait a minute. No, we aren't. We're there with Turkey, with South Africa and — anyway, one or two — Korea might be one of the others. But anyway.
Now, live cattle, what did we learn? Well, I think — it's simply about different arms of government policy being properly coordinated, that's all. I'd say no more than that.
And from time to time, governments run into that. I mean, I remember when I was working in the ASEAN section in 1978-79, we, the Department of Civil Aviation and Qantas took a decision to — I think it was to allow the purchasing of duty free goods on arrival in Australia. I think it was something like that. And we took that decision. And you might say, well, what's it got to do with Singapore. Well, at the time, you know, a lot of Australians were buying their duty free goods in Singapore before coming back to Australia. So, this was going to cost Singapore a fair bit.
Anyway, Singapore went to town with ASEAN and, again, that was a lesson for us. I remember, I spent about six months working on that issue. Long since forgotten. But certain lessons you have to keep learning.
QUESTION: [Indistinct] with the German charge d'affaires. My ques…
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Sorry?
QUESTION: I am the German charge d'affaires.
My question goes back to DFAT itself and its resources, and I hope — not having seen the Lowy Institute report that it's not redundant.
Australia and its resources and their deployment for foreign relations. What is the share DFAT's annual budget in Australia's Federal Budget?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Oh right. In fact, Lowy did put that in their report. I think it's declined, for memory, from about 0.45 to about 0.3. Something like that. But the precise figures are in the report.
QUESTION: Dave Ellery(*) from The Canberra Times.
I have two questions. The first is, simply, what do you see as the major roadblocks facing a push to get the United Nations Security Council seat? And the second one, in the wake of the terrible attack on the UN facility in Africa, I think, only what, 10 days ago, and the fact that you say DFAT manages $1.3 billion worth of property, where Australians live working away. And in view of the ongoing destabilisation in parts of the world, what is being done to review the security arrangements of those facilities to protect our staff and the people who visit those facilities?
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Okay, right. The — in answer to the first question, a big hurdle there is the fact that we were late getting into the contest. And Finland and Luxembourg have been very active. They've got a very good case, each of them. But primarily, the fact that we were late getting into the contest.
In answer to the second question, successive governments have spent a lot on the security for Australian diplomatic missions abroad since the attack in Bali in 2002.
Not a lot of money was put into it — into diplomatic security after 9/11. The big decisions were taken after Bali. And since then, I haven't got the precise figures, but some hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on that. And I've got to say, both sides of politics have been very supportive in respect of that.
We have not faced resistance on that score. Quite clearly, governments want to know that the money is rightly needed. They want to know that we're getting value for money, but they've been very supportive of us.
QUESTION: Dennis, John Kerin from the Financial Review.
I'm just wondering if I can ask you about contestability of advice, given DFAT gave some fairly strong advice on the Malaysia refugee swap.
DENNIS RICHARDSON: What do you mean, contestability of advice? What…
QUESTION: Well, obviously, in this case, DFAT gave some fairly strong advice about Malaysia's rights record.
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Oh, we didn't recommend against the arrangement with Malaysia. In fact, we were involved in the negotiations all along.
What you saw there under FOI was simply advice of a factual kind, which we provided so that any decision taken by the government would be taken against the background of — as accurate information as they could get. But I went up to Malaysia with the Secretary of the Department of Immigration and with the National Security Adviser in February when we started those negotiations in earnest. And our Ambassador for People Smuggling, James Larsen has been heavily involved in those negotiations ever since, and also Miles Kupa, our High Commissioner in KL heavily involved. So, no, no, we didn't have a problem with it.
We were simply providing factual information that we believed government should be aware of.
QUESTION: Is — a WikiLeaks cable emerged today with — in terms of advice which suggests there was some consternation in DFAT because — over the Israeli passport issue that DFAT felt strongly that the government should support Israel, I think, in the vote in the UN rather than staying more — backing the UN resolution.
DENNIS RICHARDSON: In — how does that relate to the passport issue?
QUESTION: It was after the Australian passports were used in the killing in Dubai.
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Yeah. Which we — I got a lot of questions on that at Senate estimates. I mean, we had a fairly robust view in respect of the fraud committed against our passports. We didn't take kindly to that.
QUESTION: Right. Oh, there's a suggestion in the — in this WikiLeak documents that emerged today that DFAT and the government had a different positions on it. The government wanted to vote one way and DFAT wanted…
DENNIS RICHARDSON: Well look, I'm sorry Brendan, I'm genuinely not aware of the Wiki… the beauty of so many WikiLeaks is that you're not always up with them.
QUESTION: Yeah, sure, thanks.
ANDREW SHEARER: I think on that quintessentially diplomatic note…
it's time to bring proceedings to a close. But I just want to thank everyone for coming today. I think you'll all agree that no-one leaves off hearing Dennis speak in any sort of doubt as to what he thinks on some of the key issues facing the country.
And as I said at the start, I think it is really important that DFAT tells its story and it's great that Dennis could come here today and do that.
So, I'd like you to thank me — to join me please in thanking him.