Frances Adamson confident DFAT can navigate a fractious multipolar world

By Stephen Easton

Thursday July 27, 2017

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade turned 30 on July 14 and its job is getting harder, but secretary Frances Adamson is confident that its past record is cause for optimism about its future.

“In the years ahead, as we continue to forge a culture and a workforce representing all of the various functions of Australia’s international engagement, we will face real challenges,” she told staff in a recent speech.

“We as a department will also be involved in helping government to respond to the significant challenges that now threaten the rules-based international order that has underpinned Australia’s security and prosperity since the end of World War II.

“As a department, we need to ensure we have the skills and capabilities to thrive and advance Australia’s national interest in the challenging world of the 21st Century.”

She said the current foreign policy white paper process involved “taking a hard-headed look” at DFAT’s capability needs for the future, but this would also be bolstered by a more detailed look at its past that was endorsed by the previous secretary.

“As we reflect on the history of DFAT over the last thirty years, the department’s historians are collaborating with academic colleagues on a history of DFAT and its antecedents since 1901. My predecessor, Peter Varghese AO, supported the idea and I’m pleased to report that the project is progressing well.

“It is my hope that a deeper knowledge of our past as an institution will help us face the challenges of the future.”

The anniversary has involved all heads of missions being back in Australia at the same time for the celebrations in Canberra, and also to go out to towns and cities around the nation doing consultation work with the white paper taskforce.

Even though Adamson says there is every reason to think DFAT will rise to whatever challenges come up, she sees those challenges getting harder as power shifts from west to east and the unipolar world order that has prevailed since the collapse of the Soviet Union fades into a more uncertain multipolar future.

“The fact is, whether we like it or not, DFAT’s operating environment — the world — isn’t getting any easier to navigate,” she said.

“International engagement is becoming more important, with formidable global challenges — protectionism, climate change, terrorism, to name just a few — needing to be addressed.”

Can Australia resist protectionism?

The Productivity Commission has been clearly concerned about rising protectionism for some time, even before Donald Trump moved into the White House and threatened to overturn decades of trade liberalisation. It has just published the results of its self-initiated research project in the form of scenarios resulting from Trump’s change in direction.

The PC strongly warns that “Australia must resist the urge to follow suit” and “continue to work towards freer markets, with like-minded nations” instead. In DFAT, there are plenty of people who agree.

“In the event of a serious global reversal of the long term decline in protectionist measures, the commission estimates that the average household would be worse off by nearly $1500 a year,” the PC said in a statement.

“Close to 100,000 jobs could be lost. Up to 5 % of Australia’s capital stock could be mothballed, equivalent to nearly half of the investment in the mining sector over the past 10 years.”

Fending off the revolution

Adamson also has other issues on her plate, however.

“At the same time, many of the multilateral institutions and structures set up in the post war years are struggling for legitimacy and effectiveness, inhibiting our collective capacity to tackle those challenges,” she told the assembly of DFAT staff.

“There are now many more players to contend with, more parties to convince — in a multipolar world, progress is hard.

“In trade policy, the challenge is made more complex by the decline in public support for globalisation in a number of countries. Even in Australia where, according to this year’s Lowy Institute Poll, 78% of Australians believe globalisation is ‘mostly good’ for Australia, only 55% believe free trade is good for ‘creating jobs in Australia’.

“In these times, Australia needs an integrated policy approach and corresponding structures and processes that enable us to leverage our national assets to secure outcomes that will underpin our future prosperity and security.”

Creating DFAT back in 1987 was a “far-sighted recognition” of the need to bring trade policy together with the” deep strategic understanding of the Indo-Pacific” and negotiating skills of the diplomatic corps.

There are “no artificial distinctions between security, economic and development interests” in the world and there never were, she said, and the merger in 1987 was carried out in recognition of this reality.

“The consultations process for the Foreign Policy White Paper has reinforced the point — both the magnitude of the challenges and how we should deal with them,” Adamson added.

Pain of AusAid merger replaced with shared vision

Going over some highlights of the past thirty years, the secretary also touched on the cultural changes that have happened over that time, as well as the 2013 merger of the once-independent AusAid back into DFAT, which had previously housed the foreign aid function.

“Today, DFAT remains a highly competitive department with a clear identity and sense of shared vision. But it is also a department where merit is the defining feature of our promotion and recruitment processes. DFAT is a centre of excellence in the public sector and is focussed on innovation in both policy and working methods to achieve government objectives.

“These qualities have been fundamental to DFAT’s charter today which embraces an extraordinary range of functions — consular, passports, foreign policy, development policy, trade policy, arms control, and policy planning.”

She said the same qualities had also been central to managing the recent machinery of government change, which led to a major cultural clash, according to some fairly odd local news reporting at the time.

“In some ways, the integration of 2013 was less radical than the amalgamation of 1987 — although the numbers of staff and budgets involved with the AusAID merger are much larger,” the secretary commented.

“In 2013, Australia’s aid bureaucracy returned to the DFAT fold, AusAID having emerged from DFAT in the first place, rather than two totally separate departments coming together as they did in 1987.”

“Indeed, DFAT had an important development role in the 90s — particularly in Cambodia and Indonesia — and, much further back, was the agency responsible for Australia’s involvement in the original Colombo Plan.”

“The DFAT now enlarged and strengthened faces challenges, some similar and others different from those that faced the department in 1987.”

The full speech has been published on the DFAT website.

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