Frances Adamson: public trust, listening and charting Australia’s way


The new head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade ditched her prepared speaking notes to consider the implications of Donald Trump’s election as United States president, when she addressed a conference in Canberra yesterday.

Frances Adamson told the public sector audience there were times in life when it behoves one to look at the bigger picture, and yesterday was one.

She had been thinking deeply about the implications of Trump’s presidency for Australia overnight, and joked it probably occupied her mind even while asleep. But Adamson also quickly assured delegates at the Institute for Public Administration Australia ACT Division conference that her staff were, of course, all over it.

“DFAT, I’d like to think, has been equally well prepared for both outcomes and certainly our embassy in Washington has had contact over a long period of time with people likely to be part of the Trump transition team,” she said.

For Adamson, one obvious early issue raised by a Trump presidency is a likely shift away from support for trade liberalisation, which Australia has enthusiastically supported, being a keen exporter of goods and services. Then there’s the matter of regional stability.

“The big things we’re going to be thinking about are, how we are going to continue to develop, create, an environment in our region where we are secure and where economies can continue to grow and prosper, as relative power shifts from West to East,” she said.

“And there’s a question today, I suppose: has what’s happened overnight in the United States hastened that process [of power shifting to the East]?

“It’s way, way, way too early to tell but the process does ebb and flow, and all the while … the tide in the Asia-Pacific, in the Indo-Pacific … continues to rise.”

“We’re also … seeking to address how we respond to the forces of protectionism. And they are uppermost in my mind this morning, I think, as we reflect on the US election result.”

Reinvesting in public engagement

The secretary wasn’t alone among the conference speakers in adjusting her comments to take account of Trump’s win, which she said wasn’t all that surprising to her, in the context of the international political volatility that has grown since the global financial crisis and is also a major topic on the minds of senior public servants.

For most of the bureaucrats and pundits who took the stage, Trump’s surprising electoral success and the massive decline in support for both major US parties that accompanied it — both received fewer votes than either in the 2012 election — were generally seen as another symptom of a wider global trend of declining public trust in major political parties and the institutions of government.

It is clear that in government circles, there is growing concern about this ominous global social trend, which speakers also linked to the Brexit referendum, and a steady decline in support for both of Australia’s major parties in recent elections.

There is a sense that politics has become too much like tribal warfare, resulting in weak policy based on simple ideological principles, and governments that burn up too much time and money dismantling their predecessors’ programs. This lack of policy continuity and substantial reform only feeds into the growing public disenchantment.

Speaking about the public engagement work that falls to public servants, Adamson made several comments indicating she values an awareness of what Australians are thinking outside the Canberra “beltway” — a term she noted has only recently been imported from the US.

“I think we’re sometimes slow to realise the changes that are taking place,” she said in a panel discussion, adding that public servants “have a tendency to think that what we’re doing is right” and think that “systematically convincing people it is for their own good” or the best solution possible is part of implementing public policy.

“There are various ways to listen,” she added. “You can listen with a view to having a conversation, and then applying advocacy skills. Sometimes you just have to listen, and change your tack … or listen and go back to the drawing board. That’s one of the hardest things, I think, for us as a group.”

Reach beyond the think tanks

For Adamson, the new foreign policy white paper that DFAT is working on currently will provide an opportunity to consider issues like a possible revival of protectionist trade policies, and for the department to do its part in trying to shore up public trust.

Part of the process will be a national consultation effort to find out what Australians think about their place in the world. It will follow DFAT’s 30th anniversary celebration planned for next year, which will bring all heads of mission back from overseas at once for the first time.

“Once they’ve done the Canberra bit we’re going to send them out across Australia — out into rural and regional Australia as well as the capital cities — to have those discussions, which we’ll then use to feed into our white paper,” the secretary explained.

She said the department had to be mindful of the level of public support for things like trade liberalisation — which Trump’s supporters are thought to generally oppose — and foreign aid.

She emphasised the importance of getting out to regional communities all over the country, not just capital cities, and avoiding relying too much on discussions with think tanks and “those sorts of Sydney and Canberra groups” that jostle for influence in the world of public policy.

Foreign aid, she noted, is a key area where public support can easily evaporate in favour of funding domestic areas like health and education, or the current government’s stated goal of “budget repair”.

Another reason DFAT sends staff out for community engagement is to “explain and advocate for” free trade deals and they need to listen not only to what the benefits are but also “the very significant adjustments and the disbenefits that flow from a relatively liberal trading regime” to some individuals and communities.

Supporting the global trade liberalisation agenda would of course remain a key part of DFAT’s advocacy around the world, with Adamson confirmed “there’ll be a number of conversations that we’ll want to have in Washington” about that issue.

‘Deepen the linkages between departments and agencies domestically’

The white paper process will also involve a lot of collaboration with other parts of the public service. Adamson commented that the near-monopoly that DFAT had over the policy domain when she started there in 1985 had now disappeared.

“[The white paper] needs to be very credible; it needs to be done on a whole-of-government basis,” she said.

“One of the things I’ve come to this position with very clear in my mind is that DFAT needs to continue to build on and deepen the linkages that we have with departments and agencies domestically.

“The public service, across the board … needs to be even more deeply embedded in what’s going on out there, A: so we know what’s going on out there and B: so that we can shape it, and C, so that we can respond domestically to the challenges and opportunities that we see.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the DFAT would be holding town hall meetings as part of national consultation to assist the development of the White Paper. DFAT advises that town hall meetings were run for other recent consultation, but are not planned for the White Paper consultation.

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