The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s decision to cut 60 jobs would compromise Australia’s national interests, according to foreign affairs shadow minister Penny Wong.
On Wednesday it was revealed the department would slash the positions from Canberra and international postings for financial reasons, with the department directed to “run like a business”.
The Labor senator has called out the decision, arguing that the prime minister has consistently shown questionable judgement on foreign affairs.
“Scott Morrison’s decision to cut a further 60 staff from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade raises serious questions about his government’s ability to deliver for Australia’s national interests in an increasingly complex world,” Wong said.
While Wong agreed that the government’s recent move to boost defence capability was “critical”, it would not be enough to fulfil Australia’s security and economic recovery goals.
“If we are truly going to keep Australians secure and promote our national interest, we need to be more self-reliant and ambitious in our foreign policy. Australia’s diplomats are critical to this,” she said.
Wong argued the cuts were also an “indictment” of foreign affairs minister Marise Payne, who has been “utterly incapable of defending her department during the biggest global crisis since World War II”.
“Her weakness in Cabinet was the subject of an unsubtle attack by a Morrison government backbencher in an opinion piece two days ago,” she said, referring to an article written by Liberal MP and former diplomat Dave Sharma, published in Lowy Institutes’s The Interpreter.
Sharma wrote that Australia must “strengthen the arm of Australian diplomacy”. He said that while Australia’s intelligence agencies and the Defence and Home Affairs departments have have seen large budget increases over the past two decades, the diplomatic budget has remained static — which he blamed on DFAT.
“In significant part, this has been down to a failure of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the Canberra bureaucratic struggle for budget and resources. It has failed to sell its value to the political class, to cultivate champions within the cabinet, or position itself with solutions to the government’s challenges,” he argued.
Of the 10 jobs cuts to overseas postings, two will come from Papua New Guinea.
Dr Tess Newton Cain, project leader for the Griffith Asia Institute’s Pacific Hub, on Thursday told Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade that the decision was “a mistake” and “the timing is extremely poor”.
“In terms of the optics of this and of the timing … I think it’s very disappointing to see that DFAT is going to be undermined in Papua New Guinea,” she said.
“When it comes to literacy and knowing what’s going on, it’s really important that more Australian diplomats spend time in Pacific island countries including Papua New Guinea, not fewer.”
Wong noted the government has so far shaved more than $600 million from the department, has overseen a 9% cut in DFAT staffing levels, and has reduced development assistance by $11.8 billion, “creating strategic openings for other countries to fill”.
Labor’s public service shadow minister Katy Gallagher, along with MPs Andrew Leigh, David Smith and Alicia Payne, have also voiced concerns over the job cuts, calling them “a sign of things to come”.
“After news in recent weeks that 30 jobs will be cut from the National Gallery of Australia and 40 at the CSIRO, public servants cannot be used as a means to make easy budget savings at a time when they are performing a crucial and important role in the response to COVID-19,” they said.
“The APS has been at the frontline of the Australian response to COVID-19 including the brave efforts of DFAT staff who went into Wuhan back in December last year before much was known about COVID-19, to bring Australians home.”
Gallagher and the MPs pointed to a report published by this week by the Financial Review, which revealed the big four consulting firms won more than $600 million in federal government contracts last financial year.
KPMG alone took more than $200 million of that share, with its biggest contracts coming from the Department of Defence ($152 million), the Department of Health ($8.7 million), and the Department of Home Affairs ($8.6 million).
Labor argued the government Australia would “need frank and fearless advice to government more than ever” from its public servants.