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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These developments are certainly not something that DFAT resists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To give you some examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of successes that the Task Force has coordinated include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014
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