Promoting a stable and prosperous regional and global environment by cultivating and deepening our engagement with bilateral and regional partners and multilateral institutions

Rating: Partially Met

A quarter century since Australia’s last recession, the country is enjoying one of the longest continuous runs of economic growth of any country in recent history. For decades, prosperity has been underpinned by a close relationship with the United States, and the stability and growing prosperity of the Indo–Pacific region.

The international environment is now more dynamic, complex and unpredictable. The world faces more simultaneous conflicts, with a greater impact on a larger number of people, than at any point since World War II. More than 60 million people are displaced by war and persecution and there has never been greater demand for humanitarian assistance across the globe. The pressure on states and multilateral institutions to address today’s challenges is immense, exacerbated by persistent weak global economic growth. Relative economic power has shifted to the Indo–Pacific and, as economic weight has grown, some of Australia’s neighbours have become more strategically competitive.

The department operates in an environment that is always subject to external developments. We need to react to events beyond our borders and often outside our control. Shaping developments and exerting influence in the international environment is even more challenging. Results are often hard-fought and nearly always achieved in partnership with others, sometimes following years of concerted effort. Progress is rarely linear. In the year ahead, the department will develop a comprehensive strategy to guide Australia’s international engagement.

Despite these challenges, in 2015–16, the department performed well to build partnerships with other countries, and regional and multilateral institutions, to encourage change and growth that promotes security and prosperity.

The department led Australia’s efforts to support the United States’ strategic rebalance towards Asia, which plays a vital role in ensuring regional security. Together with the Department of Defence, we supported implementation of the US Force Posture Initiatives in Australia. With the United States a major trading partner, we continued to ensure the 2005 Australia – United States Free Trade Agreement (FTA) delivers economic benefits today.

We marked the 40th anniversary of the Australia–Japan Basic Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with an agreement to enhance cooperation in the Pacific. We helped ministers map out future bilateral security cooperation. We worked closely with Japan to ensure smooth implementation of the Japan–Australia Economic Partnership Agreement and welcomed rising export sales to Japan since its entry into force.

The department deepened Australia’s dialogue with China. We supported engagement on key international issues through our Foreign and Strategic Dialogue. With Treasury, we supported efforts to expand the bilateral economic agenda through the Strategic Economic Dialogue. Leveraging visits by the Prime Minister and ministers, we worked with Austrade to encourage early take up of opportunities under the China–Australia FTA, which entered into force in December.

The department pursued substantially stepped-up strategic and closer economic links with India. We progressed negotiations for a comprehensive economic partnership agreement and supported implementation of the bilateral civil nuclear agreement. We rolled out inaugural cyber, counter-terrorism and transnational crime, policy planning and maritime dialogues, supported the first Australia–India Leadership Dialogue and facilitated ministerial contact across multiple portfolios. With the Department of Defence, we facilitated the first substantive bilateral naval exercises—a milestone in our burgeoning security cooperation.

The department strengthened Australia’s strategic and economic partnership with the Republic of Korea. With the Department of Defence, we developed a Defence and Security Blueprint, signed by ministers in September 2015. We worked with our Korean counterparts to ensure the full and effective implementation of the Korea–Australia FTA.

The department led efforts to rebuild momentum in Australia’s relationship with Indonesia. We revitalised our bilateral security architecture and resumed negotiations on a comprehensive economic partnership agreement. Recognising the value of Indonesian leadership in the region, we worked cooperatively with Indonesia in institutions like ASEAN and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). We opened our largest chancery in Jakarta and a new mission in Makassar, reflecting the importance of Indonesia and its regions.

The department supported deeper Australian engagement with Papua New Guinea through ministerial exchanges and new border and maritime security, defence, health, science and visa measures. The launch of the Pacific Leadership and Governance Precinct in Port Moresby was a key milestone for what is Australia’s largest bilateral aid program.

We worked with other governments in the Pacific to build security, stability and prosperity, including through support for expanded trade and investment and assisting Fiji’s response to Tropical Cyclone Winston. However, the political, economic and strategic environment remains complex and challenging, requiring a continued strong focus on working flexibly and innovatively with Pacific countries to achieve our objectives.

The department made a significant contribution to whole-of-government efforts to counter the growing global threat from terrorism and bolster the capability of key regional partners to respond to that threat. We played a leading role in Australia’s contribution to international efforts to restore security and ameliorate humanitarian crises in Iraq and Syria through our support for Australian military operations as part of the counter-Daesh coalition and our significant humanitarian and stabilisation assistance packages for both countries. Daesh remains a potent threat and the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to worsen.

Through the East Asia Summit, we worked to find common ground in addressing terrorism, maritime security and dispute management in the South China Sea. At the same time, we worked to bolster the significance and focus of IORA, an increasingly important regional body.

The department is committed to addressing global issues through the United Nations. We worked hard on the post-2020 global climate agreement, critical for global action in the 21st Century. We also collaborated with new and innovative groupings like MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, Republic of Korea, Turkey and Australia) and the Global Innovation Fund.

Improving market access for Australian goods and services, attracting foreign investment to Australia and supporting Australian business abroad


If Australia is to be more prosperous in future, the country must win access to international markets on the best possible terms, attract foreign investment and support Australian business abroad. With global economic uncertainty rising and growth in the emerging Indo–Pacific markets slowing, success overseas is by no means a given. That is why the department worked throughout 2015–16 to advance global trade liberalisation and reform and develop new export, investment and economic opportunities for Australian businesses internationally.

On the back of our major wins with the Japan and Republic of Korea FTAs, the department secured the entry into force of the China–Australia FTA. ChAFTA opens significant new access for Australian business into China, one of the world’s critical economic engines and sources of growth.

Despite the challenge of negotiating with 11 other economies of varying size and development on a range of complex issues, the department concluded the comprehensive Trans-Pacific Partnership. When in force, the TPP will deliver a significant improvement in conditions for trade and investment across much of our region.

Following the decision by the World Trade Organization membership that effectively ended the Doha Round, the department worked to rejuvenate the WTO negotiating function. We helped deliver the historic agreement to eliminate agricultural export subsidies as well as to enhance disciplines on the use of agricultural export credits and food aid. We also reached agreement to expand the product coverage of the Information Technology Agreement.

The department advanced trade negotiations with Indonesia and India and led Australia’s involvement in region-wide negotiations for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. We made significant progress on PACER Plus negotiations. With a sub-set of WTO member countries, we pursued an agreement to eliminate tariffs on a range of environmental goods and improve conditions for global trade in services. We made progress in our efforts to join the WTO Government Procurement Agreement and supported the entry into force of the WTO Agreement on Trade Facilitation.

The department continued engagement in regional and multilateral economic forums to deliver outcomes in Australia’s interests, including pursuing pro-growth reforms at the G20. In APEC, we particularly focused on trade liberalising measures in the services sector.

Communication to the public and stakeholders of trade outcomes and issues was a major priority. We held FTA workshops in many communities and released publications and materials on trade and investment issues. Our offices in the states and territories contributed to these efforts. We created an interactive FTA Portal website to enable companies engaged in trade to identify tariffs and rules of origin and make full use of the FTAs.

As Australia transitions from the largest mining boom in the country’s history, the department advocated domestic policies that improve the competitiveness of the economy and expand trade and investment performance. We provided input to the Government’s foreign investment review regime and supported efforts to strengthen Australia’s reputation as a destination for foreign investment. Our work in trade finance negotiations yielded new opportunities, and included the successful resolution of sovereign debt arrears with Cuba.

Delivering an innovative aid program, centred on the Indo–Pacific region, which contributes to sustainable economic growth, poverty reduction and regional stability


The department delivered an estimated $3.723 billion of Official Development Assistance (ODA) in 2015–16 through country and regional programs, multilateral contributions and NGO and humanitarian assistance (other government departments delivered an estimated $329 million, bringing total Australian ODA to an estimated $4.052 billion). We consolidated the aid program in line with performance targets and the 20 per cent reduction in the aid budget.

The programs helped contribute to sustainable economic growth, poverty reduction and regional stability, in line with the Government’s aid policy, Australian aid: promoting prosperity, reducing poverty, enhancing stability. We delivered strong results in all six of the aid program’s investment priority areas:

  • infrastructure, trade facilitation and international competitiveness – our support for regulatory reform and reducing infrastructure bottlenecks contributed to favourable conditions for sustainable economic growth
  • agriculture, fisheries and water – our support improved livelihoods, food security, nutrition and water management
  • effective governance: policies, institutions and functioning economies – we implemented measures to strengthen effectiveness, transparency and accountability in public sectors such as taxation and law and justice
  • education and health – our support helped improve the quality, access and equity of health and education systems
  • building resilience: humanitarian assistance, disaster risk reduction and social protection – our support helped save lives, reduce risks from disasters and build community resilience
  • gender equality and empowering women and girls – we supported a wide range of initiatives to improve women’s economic empowerment, safety and political participation, particularly in the Pacific.

We implemented a number of innovative new approaches to development challenges, such as the Better Data for Health Partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, which is helping collect and use health data more efficiently in nine countries in Asia and the Indo–Pacific.

Detailed performance information for 2015–16 will be published in early 2017 in the Performance of Australian Aid report, an integral part of the Government’s performance framework, Making Performance Count: enhancing the accountability and effectiveness of Australian aid. The 2014–15 report, published in February 2016, concluded that the department’s country and regional programs had performed well but that differences in performance remained between and within regions, and that gender equality and disability-inclusive development were areas for further improvement.

In 2015–16 we took active steps to address these findings. To strengthen the effectiveness of aid programs in the Pacific, we finalised aid investment plans for countries and the region that specify performance benchmarks. In East Asia, strengthening monitoring and evaluation frameworks was a high priority. The department issued the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy that sets priorities for gender equality across the breadth of our work. We launched specific initiatives such as the Gender Equality Fund to drive innovation and support gender equality investments and the Disability-Inclusive Development Fund to strengthen our disability-inclusive development programs.

Providing a secure, efficient and responsive passport service, and prompt, effective and courteous consular services to Australian citizens travelling or living abroad


The numbers of Australians travelling, living, working and studying overseas grew in 2015–16. The department issued our largest ever number of travel documents—1,961,666—an increase of nearly 7 per cent from the previous year. Regular surveys indicated strong client satisfaction. We met the priority service processing standard of two days in 99.09 per cent of cases. The department’s passport service was characterised by a high production tempo, with most ordinary passports delivered to applicants within three weeks. We used systems improvements and new technologies to enhance processing while at the same time implementing updated legislation and new policies.

Improved human performance of facial recognition, based on the findings of collaborative research with the University of New South Wales, boosted our capacity to identify inconsistencies and improve integrity.

As passport fraud is an enabler of other serious crime, the department’s role in identity protection is critical to the Government’s broad efforts in this area. We made greater use of biometric tools and data analytics and worked closely with intelligence and law enforcement partners to detect passport fraud and pursue offenders.

We cooperated with like-minded governments and the International Civil Aviation Organization to maintain world-class passport standards and practices. We were instrumental in testing and implementing plans for ICAO’s new Public Key Directory, the global platform for distributing the certificates that border authorities use to validate travel documents.

Working with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection on the concept of a digital passport, we developed a test model for a virtual travel identity.

The department provided consular assistance to 15,740 Australians in difficulty overseas in 2015–16. The 2014–16 Consular Strategy provided a framework to continue our high-quality consular services for Australians overseas, working with finite resources. We sharpened policies and training to support staff to assist particularly vulnerable Australians, including clients with mental health concerns.

We promoted safe international travel and launched a new phase of advertising under the Smartraveller campaign, emphasising the need for Australians to be informed and be prepared for their travel overseas. We refreshed the Smartraveller website and launched improvements to our traveller registration and subscription service, to make it easier for Australians to access authoritative information.

Building personal networks and institutional links to enhance Australia’s influence, reputation and relationships internationally and promote Australia’s economic, cultural, educational, scientific and other national assets


In an increasingly information-rich global environment, the power to influence opinion and shape perceptions has become an essential component of Australia’s foreign policy. Building influence and reach are long-term activities. The department has made good progress in building institutional and personal linkages but there is scope to improve our performance, including through stronger collaboration with the Australian public, private stakeholders and community organisations.

In 2015–16, the department continued to facilitate people-to-people and institutional links to promote a contemporary and positive image of Australia and build understanding, trust and reach.

The New Colombo Plan is an essential element of our effort to strengthen personal networks and institutional links in our region. Its success continued in 2015–16. Working with the Department of Education and Training, we supported over 5,500 students to undertake study and work experiences in the Indo–Pacific region. This took the total number of students supported under the program in its first three years to around 10,000. More than 200 private sector organisations assisted the NCP by offering internships, mentorships and sponsoring mobility programs for Australian undergraduates. High demand for scholarships and mobility grants demonstrated the impact of the NCP in raising interest in the Indo–Pacific region as a destination for study and work-based experience.

Our Australia Awards program promoted the quality of Australia’s tertiary education to the world and helped build a network of leaders and advocates for Australia. In 2015–16 we supported over 7,000 scholars, fellows and short-course participants to study in Australia. In response to a reduction in the aid budget, we deferred the intake of the Australia Awards fellowships program to July 2016 and reduced the number of new scholarships to 2,031.

An annual survey of Australia Awards recipients found 97 per cent were satisfied with their scholarship and an online survey of Australia Awards fellows found 90 per cent rated their experience of the program as ‘excellent’ and having exceeded their expectations.

The department’s Australian Volunteers for International Development program provided opportunities for 1,345 skilled Australians to undertake volunteer assignments in 29 countries in 2015–16. Numbers were down from previous years due to budget restrictions. Volunteers improved the capacity of host organisations and promoted positive links between individuals, organisations and communities, primarily in our region, that advanced Australia’s reputation.

To strengthen ongoing links with alumni we launched the Australia Global Alumni Engagement Strategy. Tertiary institutions welcomed the strategy and the increased involvement of the Australian Government in alumni activities. Since the launch, over 3,000 alumni have created accounts on the Australia Global Alumni website. In the year ahead, the department’s focus will be on implementation of the strategy and engaging alumni more effectively to enhance Australia’s international reputation.

Our cultural activities promoted collaboration and exchange between Australian artists, arts organisations and their international partners. The Australia now program in Brazil attracted strong attendance and positive feedback from stakeholders. The program of events delivered through our Brasilia post is expected to result in future collaborations between Australian and Brazilian artists.

The department’s foundations, councils and institutes delivered 244 projects led by Australians and Australian institutions working closely with their partners in key bilateral and regional countries. These joint activities strengthened Australia’s solid foundation of people-to-people links and institutional networks and actively enhanced Australia’s reputation.

To support personal networks between Australia and the international community, the department worked closely with partners across federal and state governments to facilitate the presence of 106 diplomatic missions, 364 consular posts and over 7,000 foreign officials and their families in Australia.

Leading the Government’s response to international crises including humanitarian emergencies in the Indo–Pacific region


The impact of Tropical Cyclone Winston on Fiji and Tonga posed significant and urgent humanitarian and consular challenges. The department led a whole-of-government response—one of Australia’s largest humanitarian mobilisations— and closely coordinated with the governments of affected countries. We provided comprehensive and clear advice on developments, as well as swift and effective responses to the situation on the ground. The department led a process whereby more than 1,000 Australian defence and civilian personnel were deployed to the region, helping over 200,000 people.

The department continued to deliver a strong humanitarian response to the crises in Syria and Iraq and utilised a range of specialist capabilities to respond to over 20 other humanitarian crises. We deployed Australian personnel to provide humanitarian expertise and deliver lifesaving humanitarian relief supplies, in partnership with local and international humanitarian organisations. We worked with partners to build disaster resilience through investment in activities including hazard and risk mapping, flood protection mechanisms, resilient building and construction practices, considered land use management, early warning systems, evacuation plans and drills, livelihood diversification and access to insurance. We remain committed to supporting preparation and resilience—evidence shows that $1 invested in disaster risk reduction activities can save up to $15 on response and recovery in the aftermath of a disaster.

We activated crisis response mechanisms to lead whole-of-government action following terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. The department will draw on the diplomatic, consular and humanitarian lessons learned from these incidents to refine our planning for operational responses to international events. We will consolidate this work further as we establish the Australian Government’s Global Watch Office in the coming year.

Strengthening international frameworks and norms that promote human rights, gender equality, democratic principles and the rule of law, international security, and open and transparent global markets


As the multilateral system and rules-based order grows more contested and complex, strengthening and defending international frameworks, norms and the rule of law remain essential to the national interest.

Australia joined the international community in adopting historic agreements that will shape climate action and inclusive sustainable development for decades to come—the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Paris Agreement. The department’s active role in these negotiations helped secure Australian objectives, including comprehensive stand-alone Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality and peace and governance. The department is shaping the forward agenda of the Green Climate Fund by co-chairing the fund in 2016 at deputy secretary level.

Following the effective end of the Doha Round in December 2015, Australia led calls to rejuvenate the WTO’s negotiating agenda. We will continue this work in 2016–17 to ensure the WTO continues to lower trade barriers and promote open markets.

Following Australia’s UN Security Council term, the department reprioritised Australia’s engagement with the United Nations to focus on human rights, peace and security, and gender equality. The Foreign Minister officially launched Australia’s candidacy to serve on the Human Rights Council for the 2018–2020 term. The department supported the Special Envoy for Human Rights, the Hon. Philip Ruddock, as he lobbied for Australia’s candidacy in Africa and the Caribbean. The department released our first Indigenous Peoples Strategy, embedding indigenous issues as a priority in all our work.

The department upheld and strengthened international norms against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including promoting the de facto global moratorium on nuclear testing generated by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, which only North Korea has breached. We joined international condemnation of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, ballistic missile launches and proliferation activities.

We supported the UN Group of Governmental Experts in developing norms for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. We gained increased acceptance of the Australia Group control lists of chemical weapons precursors, pathogens and related equipment and goods as international best practice.

The department adopted the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Strategy. It recognises that integration of gender equality across all our operations is critical to achieving sustained and inclusive peace, security and prosperity. We also worked with multilateral organisations to strengthen their gender equality credentials.

The rules-based international order and international law continues to be tested. Maintaining our strong drive for accountability at international law, we co-led international efforts to secure justice for the victims of the downing of MH17.

We worked at both bilateral and multilateral levels to promote peaceful, rule of law-based resolution of disputes in the South China Sea and we supported the Timor Sea Treaty framework.

We worked with local communities to strengthen democratic principles and the rule of law in the Indo–Pacific region. Our investment in the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor Trust Fund for East Asia and the Pacific strengthened links between formal and informal justice systems in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Broadening knowledge and understanding within the Australian community and globally of the Government’s international policies and programs and the department’s role


In a crowded global media marketplace, the department’s public diplomacy and communication activities helped cultivate positive attitudes towards Australia. The department performed well on this measure in 2015–16 but promoting understanding at home and overseas of the Government’s international policies and the department’s role will be an area of ongoing work.

Our active engagement with Australian and international media, and strategic communications advice, contributed to informed coverage of Australia’s policies and programs. This included the Government’s handling of major consular cases and regional and global crises, as well as the promotion of Australia’s aid program, trade policies and approach to significant foreign policy developments, particularly in the Indo–Pacific region. Media staff assisted ministers promote Australian policy objectives during high-level overseas visits including the G20 Summit, the APEC Leaders’ Meeting and the UN Climate Change Conference.

We delivered high-quality information to the public, including to promote greater transparency of our aid program, through our websites and digital media channels. Together, the department’s global network of nearly 100 websites reached nearly 10 million users (up from 9.1 million in 2014–15) and had over 35 million page views.

We used social media to engage stakeholders, communicate government policies and provide accurate and timely travel advice. We increased our social media presence by approximately 25 per cent over the past year.

We enhanced our efforts to reach and engage Australian audiences by increasing the number and type of platforms the department operates, including seven new state and territory office Twitter accounts. We also set up social media accounts highlighting our humanitarian and nuclear safeguards work, as well as our important scholarships programs under the Australia Awards and New Colombo Plan.

We improved the quality of our original content to make it more accessible and engaging, including through the creative use of infographics and other multimedia. We conducted an audit of our domestic social media presence to shape and inform our digital communications. From this analysis we developed a Digital Media Strategy to further our engagement and influence and foster a culture whereby the department routinely incorporates digital tools and media into all aspects of its work. In the year ahead, the department will implement the strategy and launch additional social media channels to help engage the public more effectively in line with modern communication practices.

Globally, our overseas posts delivered public diplomacy activities that contributed to our economic diplomacy, innovation and development agendas. We continued to implement our three-year Public Diplomacy Strategy for the period 2014–16 to provide a clear framework for public diplomacy activities and better strategic alignment between public diplomacy programs and policy outcomes. This remains a work in progress and we will take into account the lessons learned from the current strategy in developing and implementing our next three-year strategy.

Keeping government communications secure, Australia’s global property assets in good order and ensuring the security and health of our staff


In an environment of increased security challenges, including new and emerging terrorist and cyber threats, combined with an expanding overseas diplomatic network, the department continued its strong focus on keeping Australia’s communications secure, our global property assets in good order and our staff safe. Given the unpredictability of the global environment, the challenging locations in which our staff work and the constantly evolving nature of security threats, improving our performance in this area is an important focus for the department.

The department undertook a demanding program of construction and property maintenance works. This included managing a multi-million dollar capital works program to ensure the department’s operational, security and representational requirements were met, and delivering the expanded diplomatic footprint in a timely manner across multiple and diverse locations. While there was slippage in the timing of some projects, the department successfully secured and fitted out leased properties for new posts in Phuket, Makassar and Ulaanbaatar and completed the new Jakarta embassy. We ensured physical and operational security requirements were incorporated in overseas and domestic properties, providing protection for people, information and assets.

We strengthened governance arrangements for diplomatic security with the establishment of a departmental security committee headed by a deputy secretary, and a new position of chief security officer. We continued to build our threat analysis and risk assessment capability in managing our threat exposure and security mitigations, work that will continue in coming years. We made improvements at 17 posts following security inspections and threat and risk assessments. In response to an internal training review, we improved security courses to better reflect the changing international environment, particularly for posts in high-threat locations, and this will further improve security awareness and capabilities in future. We deployed three additional staff to supplement our overseas regional security advisor network. We completed a new memorandum of understanding with 13 attached Commonwealth agencies for the provision of security services and cost recovery at DFAT-managed posts.

We progressed work to keep government communications secure by implementing effective controls and improving governance arrangements. These mechanisms were independently audited and verified, and found to be consistent with whole-of-government requirements. We increased procedural security measures and network performance within Australia and overseas to enhance the protection of the global network against cyber threats. We upgraded the SATIN network to handle material at the PROTECTED level to facilitate secure communication between the department and other agencies. Client satisfaction has improved to a moderate level, but there is room for further gains. We are continuing to invest in this area to make our systems more accessible.

The department prioritised the health, safety and wellbeing of its people, many of whom work in unique and sometimes high-risk overseas environments. We achieved significant reductions in notifiable incidents reported to Comcare through our use of the established work health and safety management system applied in Australia and overseas.

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