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International Relations and the Public Affairs Process

News, speeches and media


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



Ladies and Gentlemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Australia's current foreign and trade policy agenda

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

Three particular challenges have acquired high profile on the foreign policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The media and foreign and trade policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From my own professional perspective this is all very welcome.

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

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

It's very much part of our job.

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

The coverage of the Iraq war is a good example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DFAT and the media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course we are not just proficient briefers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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