Lowy Institute

Having just read the joint CSIS-ANU 'audit' of the US alliance, published this week, a few of us here wondered whether the Australian public would support the sort of intensified alliance proposed by the report's authors.

It has been said that the finer points of foreign policy don't decide elections here in Australia. So, does it even matter what the great unwashed thinks about the alliance? As one commentator has pointed out, 'the last mainstream Australian politician to openly criticise United States policy' was Mark Latham, and look what happened to him at the ballot box. The unpopularity of Australia's participation with its alliance partner in the Iraq war must have contributed to some degree to the Howard government loss in 2007.

So, perhaps one shouldn't blithely dismiss the relevance of public opinion on foreign policy generally, and the US alliance in particular.

The report, The ANZUS Alliance in an Ascending Asia, has three main policy recommendations for the alliance:

  1. It should refocus on the Asia Pacific
  2. It should serve as a 'central hub for Asian regional order and architecture'.
  3. It should play a leading role in enhancing maritime security in the region.

The sorts of practical measures proposed include working more closely together with partners such as India and Indonesia in 'minilateral' security processes, along the lines of the increased cooperation between Australia, Japan and the US in the past few years (this week, Japan is for the first time participating in the Talisman Sabre exercise with Australian and US military forces). In the maritime arena, the report recommends Australia and New Zealand provide 'badly needed strategic operating locations' to compensate for the limited US presence in the South Pacific. Other recommendations include sharing Australia's technological expertise and capability (radars, remote sensing), and more combined maritime operations to ensure open sea lines of communication.

None of this should pose much of a problem from the perspective of Australian public opinion.

The report's authors note the strong support for the alliance recorded in Lowy Institute Polls (now with 11 years of data on support for the alliance — check it out on our upgraded interactive tool) and from other polls, including those by ANU.

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Even more persuasive evidence (not picked up in the report) is Australian support for basing US forces here in Australia, regardless of China's condemnation of the 2011 announcement that US Marines would have a permanent presence in Darwin. In 2011, before the Darwin announcement, a majority (55%) of Australians were in favour of 'Australia allowing the United States to base US military forces here in Australia'. Asked again in 2013, support was even stronger, with 61% of us in favour.

It is the first recommendation in the report – the 'refocus' on the Asia Pacific – which may cause problems for the punters, inoffensive as it sounds.

Australians are confident that the US will continue to guarantee Australia's security well into the future, with two-thirds (66%) of the adult population in our 2013 Poll saying it's likely 'Australia will still be able to rely on the alliance in 20 years' time'. However, they are far less enthusiastic about the reciprocal support Australia might be pressed to provide, particularly in inconvenient places like Asia.

In our 2013 Poll, we asked whether Australia 'should act in accordance with our security alliance with the US even if it means supporting US military action' (a) 'in the Middle East, for example, against Iran', or (b) 'in Asia, for example, in a conflict between China and Japan'. Less than half (48%) thought we should support US action in the Middle East. Even fewer (38%) would support US military action in Asia. Three-quarters (76%) thought Australia should only support US military action if it is authorised by the UN. 

In short, most Australians want the US to support us in times of need, but aren't necessarily prepared to return the favour, as Rory Medcalf pointed out at the time.

It's not just public opinion which tends in this direction. As Michael Green et al point out in their report, the Australian Government is free-riding on the alliance as well, with Australia's defence budget in 2012 at its lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1938. Recognising this, the Abbott Government has begun to redress the imbalance with a significant boost to the Defence budget in 2014 and a more modest one in 2015.

The Asia 'refocus' recommendation is controversial because, reading more closely, it involves some tough prioritising for Australia. The argument made in the report is that Australia's military involvement in the Middle East (which is more palatable to the Australian public) has distracted us and diverted funds from the 'needed geopolitical focus on challenges in the Asia-Pacific' (less palatable to the Australian public). The corollary is that while Australia needs to refocus, the US needs to reconsider its demands on us, because Australia cannot afford significant military commitments in both the Middle East and Asia Pacific. It has to choose.

This all makes perfect sense from a strategic point of view. The soon-to-be released Defence White Paper may well recommend similar policy shifts. But if these are up for serious consideration by Government, it needs to be with the full realisation that they will require persuasive selling to win over a nervous Australian public.

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The 2015 Lowy Institute Poll was released this morning. It's the eleventh annual Lowy Institute Poll.

It goes without saying that every year there are some fascinating results which shine a light on how Australians feel about critical foreign policy issues. With our established tracking questions, such as those about support for the US alliance or attitudes to global warming, the Poll also points out the longer-term trends in Australians' thinking on some of the complex challenges we face as a nation and a globe.

What is harder each year is to draw out some overarching 'theme', to try to articulate and summarise what the Poll says about the  direction or mood of the nation, at least insofar as it relates to the rest of the world. It's possible, of course, that there is no such theme: that Australians' responses to 30-odd questions about Australia's international relations do not encapsulate the national mood. On the other hand, maybe those responses do in fact give some valuable clues about our worldview. Either way, one of the questions asked around here between March and June is: what does it all mean?

The answer, in 2015, is that the world seems to be a bleak place to many Australians. Fewer Australians feel safe now that any any time during our 11-year polling history. Only 24% of Australian adults say they feel 'very safe' this year, 18 points down from the 42% who felt very safe when we last asked them in 2010.

Apart from feeling more insecure, Australians' optimism about their economy is at its lowest point since our first poll in 2005. Only 63% of Australians are either 'optimistic' or 'very optimistic' about Australia's 'economic performance in the world over the next five years'. This is 23 points lower than the peaks of 86% recorded in 2009-10 at the height of the financial crisis, and the single largest fall in optimism the Poll has recorded.

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One doesn't need to look too far in our other results this year for the probable cause of this bleak outlook. It appears the threat of terrorism is being keenly felt here, after the Martin Place siege late last year and the gruesome scenes and confronting news coming out of Iraq and Syria. Terrorism-related risks rank first, second and third out of eight potential risks to Australia's security in the next ten years, with 69% of Australians rating 'the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria' as a high risk to our security (the highest-ranked risk), and majorities seeing 'terrorist attacks on Australians overseas' and 'home-grown terrorism in Australia' as high risk. By comparison, risks of conflict in our region rank far lower in Australians' threat perceptions, with 'maritime disputes between China and its neighbours in Asian territorial seas' seen as  high risk by only 26% of Australians.

As speculation grows about Australia making further commitments to the US-led military effort in Iraq, it appears Australians may well back such commitments. Most of them (69%) support Australia's participation in military action against Islamic State in Iraq (air strikes and training and support to Iraqi forces), even though a majority believe that such participation increases the risk of terrorism to Australia now, and only 20% say it makes us safer from terrorism in the future.

Despite the bleak picture painted by Australians in this year's Poll, there is one group among them who have a slightly brighter outlook, and that's the group sometimes known as 'millennials' or generation Y (18-29 year-olds in our polling).

With 70% of Australians aged 18-29 feeling optimistic about Australia's economic performance overall (compared with only 54% of those aged 30 and over), it's clear these younger Australians have a brighter economic outlook. More of them feel a bit safer as well (85%, vs 78% of those older). As a group, their views are quite different from those of their elders in many other ways. In the lead-up to the Paris climate conference later this year, they are more likely to say the Government should make significant commitments on emissions reductions in those negotiations, so that other countries will be encouraged to do the same (70% vs 61% 30+ years). They are less opposed to Chinese investment in residential real estate (55% saying there is too much investment from China, vs 74% of 30+ years). They are less likely to support the recent cuts to the aid budget (33% in support, compared with 58% of 30+ years). They are more likely to say the Australian Government should play an active role in pushing for the abolition of the death penalty internationally (62% vs 50% of 30+ years). Surprisingly, they are more likely to see the US playing a more important and powerful role as a world leader in the future (15% vs 8% of 30+ years).

Their views about world leaders are also revealing. Among our list of ten world leaders, US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is admired by fewer 18-29 year-olds (59% admire her) than their 30+ years  counterparts (81% of whom admire her). Millennials are much less likely to admire the Pope (56% vs 78% 30+ years). They appear to be less well-informed about international leaders than their elders: 63% of 18-29s 'don't know' Xi Jinping (compared with 50% of 30+ years); 53% don't know Joko Widodo (vs 39% 30+) and 19% don't know Vladimir Putin (vs 5% 30+) when asked whether they admire these leaders.

This is also the age group which has become somewhat notorious in the context of the Lowy Institute Poll for their attitudes to democracy, with less than half of them (49% this year) saying 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government'.

There is a statement often attributed to Churchill (probably incorrectly) along the lines of 'if you are not a liberal at 20, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at 30, you have no head'. It's possible these differing attitudes of younger Australians derive from youthful idealism or rebelliousness. It's possible their lack of knowledge, such as their relative ignorance of world leaders' names, derives simply from their youth rather than from any more sinister self-absorption or insularity.

Either way, the more positive and optimistic outlook of these young Australians brings a modicum of relief from the more gloomy worldview of the rest of the Australian population. 

Photo by Flickr user Crawford Learmonth.

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The 2015-16 budget for the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio evokes A Tale of Two Cities.

For aid, it's a case of the 'worst of times': the Government has cut $1 billion from overseas development assistance this financial year (as announced in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook), $1.35 billion in the next, and $1.38 billion in 2017-18. This delivers a total saving of $3.7 billion since the last budget and a hefty $10 billion over the forward estimates since this Government took the reins in late 2013. 

After the last budget, everyone was busy calculating the impact of the Coalition's abandonment of the former government's goal of reaching 0.5% GNI by 2017-18, instead freezing the aid spend at $5 billion and indexing future growth to CPI. In this budget, Australia's foreign aid budget suffers its most significant contraction since its nadir in 2003-4 (dramatically depicted in Devpolicyblog's charts and spreadsheets in December last year). The 2014-15 aid budget was $5.0 billion (roughly the same as the 2013-14 spend, which itself was around $100 million less than the previous year's). In 2015-16, the budget is $4.052 billion. This is a 20% cut overall, with assistance to Indonesia and Africa the most affected. Australia slips to 13th in the OECD rankings of aid donors in the developed world, and 16th in the ratio of ODA to GNI.

Now on to the other tale. It might be an overstatement to call this year's budget the 'best of times' for Australia's overseas representation, but it's up there.

In what appears to be a sweetener for the Foreign Minister in an otherwise unpalatable serving, Australia's diplomatic network (yes, something we at the Lowy Institute may have raised once or twice) gets nearly $100 million to add five new posts to its diplomatic footprint, bringing the total to a nice round 100. The last time Australia got a new diplomatic mission was the Gillard Government's Chengdu post, opened in 2013. The Gillard Government announced another new post in West Africa (Senegal), but that one got scratched in last year's budget.

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The five new posts announced last night are Buka (PNG), Doha (Qatar), Makassar (Indonesia), Phuket (Thailand) and Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia). Interestingly, only two of those were in former DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson's wishlist, which he put in a submission to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Joint Standing Committee's 2012 inquiry into Australia's overseas representation. That list was weighted to Africa and Central Europe. 

The mission in Phuket, presumably a consulate-general, was probably the first priority on anyone's list. Phuket is Australians' fourth most popular travel destination, and one of the most demanding places for DFAT to provide consular services, accounting for the largest number of Australian deaths overseas.

The Makassar post, in eastern Indonesia, was also on the Lowy Institute's list, in order to serve Australia's considerable interests there (although the cuts to Indonesia aid trim those interests somewhat). Of the others, the post in Bougainville anticipates the independence referendum sometime in the next five years, the Ulaanbaatar post was in Mr Richardson's top five, and the Doha post is more of a surprise – presumably it's to serve increasing bilateral trade and investment interests.

While the expansion of the diplomatic footprint helps realise one of the Foreign Minister's long-held ambitions, the excitement of this budget measure is somewhat dulled by the more sobering picture the budget paints for the Department overall. 

After its merger with AUSAID, DFAT has had to cope with a reduction of 500 staff since the last budget – nearly 10% of its overall staff. By comparison, the overall public service (the general government sector) has shrunk by only 5% since the 2012/13 financial year (the year this government was elected) and 0.03% since last year, despite much fanfare about 'a smaller more agile public service' in this year's Budget.  

DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese is not given to hyperbole, but his comments in February's Estimates hearings about staff morale following this intense period of post-merger restructuring are telling:

As you would expect, if you go through a merger this big and this complicated you are going to have an unsettled period. Unsettled periods in my experience usually mean a certain cost in morale.

It's hard to deduce from the post-integration budget papers exactly what the impact of the merger has been on the Department's overall budget situation. Excluding equity injections and administered appropriations (aid), and special accounts, DFAT's finances of around $1.4 billion look to be slightly (1.6% or $22 million) improved. But a considerable amount of its budget over the next four years will be consumed by new funding ($106 million) for keeping open the Baghdad embassy to serve Australia's commitments in Iraq, as well as continued funding ($138 million) for the embassy in Kabul.1 The injection of $98 million to open the five new posts includes $37 million in capital funding. As we know from the some of the Government's other budget announcements over the past week, the $389 million in new budget measures for DFAT from last night's Budget won't come out of thin air.They will cause the Department considerable pain.

Clarification: 1. The funding for the Baghdad and Kabul embassies in the forward estimates is for two years only, to 2016-2017, with further funding for consideration at that point. 2. The expense measures for Foreign Affairs and Trade in this Budget (including for the Baghdad and Kabul embassies) are new funding allocated by Government, and do not detract from the Department's overall funding base. The 'pain' to which I refer is that which emanates from the cuts to the aid budget and their impact on the Department. 3. Australia opened an interim embassy in Kyiv, colocated with Canada's, in February.

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New Lowy Institute polling released today shows that the Australian Government's data retention ('metadata') laws, which passed the parliament last night, have the support of a clear majority of Australians.

When asked whether 'legislation which will require Australian telecommunications companies to retain data about communications such as phone calls, emails and internet usage, but not their content' is justified, 63% of the adult population say it is 'justified as part of the effort to combat terrorism and protect national security'. Only one-third (33%) say it 'goes too far in violating citizens' privacy and is therefore not justified.'

Younger Australians (18-29) are more likely to say the legislation is not justified (47%), but this age group is divided about the policy, with 50% saying it is justified. 

'Australians appear to accept some infringements on their privacy in the interests of fighting terrorism and protecting national security,' said Lowy Institute Executive Director Dr Michael Fullilove today. 'This result is consistent with 2013 Lowy Institute polling which found that most Australians believed the government had struck about the right balance between protecting the rights of citizens and fighting terrorism.'  

This result is drawn from the forthcoming 2015 Lowy Institute Poll, the full version of which will be released in June 2015. The Lowy Institute Poll is based on a nationally representative telephone survey of 1200 Australian adults between 20 February and 8 March 2015. The Poll's error margin is approximately +/- 2.8%.  For more information see Lowy Institute press release. 

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In a new poll conducted by the Lowy Institute on the weekend, 62% of the Australian adult population say that the executions of the two Australian citizens, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, in Indonesia should not proceed.

Fewer than one in three (31%) Australians say the executions should proceed.

Most Australians also oppose the death penalty for drug trafficking. A substantial majority (69%) of the Australian population believes that in general, the death penalty should not be used as a punishment for drug trafficking. By comparison, only 26% say that the death penalty should apply to drug trafficking.

As Michael Fullilove has remarked today in a press release on this poll, with the date for the executions of the two Australians appearing to draw closer, 'Australian public and political opposition is crystallising. This Lowy Institute poll is a strong expression of Australian public opinion against the execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, as well as public opposition to the death penalty for drug trafficking in general.' 

This special Lowy Institute poll reports the results of a nationally representative survey by telephone of 1211 randomly-selected respondents aged 18 years and over, conducted by Newspoll on 13-15 February 2015. The approximate error margin for the poll is +/- 2.8%.

The questions asked in the poll were as follows:

  1. In Indonesia, there is a death penalty for drug trafficking. Two Australian citizens, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, are currently facing execution in Indonesia following convictions for drug trafficking. Do you personally think that the executions of these two Australian citizens should or should not proceed?
  2. Around the world, some countries do have a death penalty for drug trafficking, while other countries do not. In general, do you think the death penalty should or should not be used as a penalty for drug trafficking?

Reuters/Nyoman Budhlana and Antara Foto

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The Foreign Minister's new consular strategy, which she wrote about here this morning, signals a harder new direction in the Government's approach to providing consular assistance to Australians in distress overseas.

The new strategy is the culmination of a year's work by the Minister and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, after the Minister invited submissions in December last year, (here's ours). The basic challenge for Australia's consular services, as the Minister outlined in her speech yesterday at the launch, is that the number of traveling Australians continues to increase almost exponentially – at 9 million trips last year, they've doubled over a decade and are five times the number 25 years ago.

With an increasingly anaemic budget, DFAT cannot continue to provide a gold-plated consular service at this rate of travel growth. And this is what the Minister was referring to when she said: 

I have decided to introduce the scope to limit consular assistance in some circumstances...[where] individuals have acted illegally or have deliberately or repeatedly acted recklessly and negligently and put themselves and others at risk despite warnings [or where there has been] a pattern of behaviour that has required multiple instances of consular assistance in the past.

This is a clear signal of a new and sterner approach. The Minister emphasised that consular assistance is a privilege, not a right, and that priority will be given to the most vulnerable and those in the most difficult circumstances. Assistance will be reduced to 'the absolute minimum level' if Australians 'deliberately or wilfully abuse the system'. Travelers are urged to take more responsibility for their actions, take out appropriate travel insurance, and not flout the laws of other countries.

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Importantly, the Minister left as a 'live option' the idea of introducing a cost-recovery system for consular services. The way she phrased it, an up-front consular levy (which I have proposed in the past) is off the table, but the fall-back option of recovering the cost of services – which could range from hourly charges for advice and assistance to charging for emergency evacuation from crisis zones after traveling against government travel advisories – is a distinct possibility.

Of particular relevance to DFAT's consular work is Australia's overseas diplomatic footprint. Its embassies and consulates are the front line of the consular work and bear the majority of the burden on staff and resources. In the Q&A yesterday, I asked the Minister about the status of the Government's review of its overseas network. This network is  small and overstretched, with limited or no representation in the majority of countries in the world. We have no consulate in Phuket, for instance, one of the most popular overseas destinations for Australian travelers, and in a country where the highest number of Australians die overseas every year. In response to my question, the Minister said the review had been finalised and was being considered by the Government. While the Minister has advocated for increased funding for her department and an expanded diplomatic footprint, this looks increasingly unlikely after the ominous hints in the press yesterday.

Just as well, then, that the Government has introduced a consular strategy that attempts to conserve some of the Department's scarce resources. It will need them.

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The $254 million in cuts to the ABC budget, outlined today by ABC Chief Executive Mark Scott after Malcolm Turnbull's statement on Wednesday, have been coming for a long time – at least since the Lewis review which proposed efficiencies to reduce the ABC's annual budget requirement.

Since then, there have been numerous rumours of the steps the ABC will take to implement the cuts, including axing or trimming Stateline and Lateline, and closing its international bureaux in New Delhi and Tokyo (with the result that no Australian media outlet would have a correspondent in Tokyo).

The Minister's statements last week yet again emphasised his view that the cuts would not require programming changes, and could be implemented by driving back room and administrative efficiencies. Mark Scott's announcement today to the ABC staff is in stark conflict with the Minister's view. As rumoured, Stateline is gone, Lateline moves to ABC24, and several regional bureaux are cut.

As for the international bureaux, they will undergo a euphemistic 'shape readjustment'. The Auckland bureau will be entirely closed and others thinned down, with 'multi-platform hubs' installed in their place. London, Washington, Beijing and Jakarta reportedly remain, with no mention yet of the fate of the Tokyo bureau. 

This is 'highly contentious', as Crikey points out today, 'as some believe it exposes journalists to greater risks in hostile environments, but is increasingly becoming the global standard as media companies cut costs'.

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According to some in the ABC, budget surgery on the scale required by the Government could not possibly have been achieved only in administrative efficiencies, so programming changes were inevitable. While the Lewis review set out five broad areas in which, in its view, those administrative efficiencies could be achieved, it did not quantify or itemise those efficiencies. Given the heavy blows inflicted on the broadcaster today by its management and board, it's hard to believe that the cuts could have been made solely by reference to the Lewis recommendations.

One available conclusion, then, is that the Minister has relied on something of a fiction to lay the responsibility and the blame squarely on the shoulders of ABC management, rather than accepting some responsibility on behalf of the Government which is mandating the cuts.

Regardless of where responsibility lies though, the reality of $50 million plus cuts per annum for the ABC — coming on top of the axing of the Australia Network and the massive restructuring of ABC International which resulted in swingeing cuts to Radio Australia and a decimation of its programming to the region – is a severe curtailing of the ABC's ability to cover international news. 

Thinner representation of journalists across international bureaux, with leaner resources, will mean more sparse news coverage, more perfunctory reporting and less analysis. This is to Australia's detriment in a century where everything is global, and where we need to be vigilant that our geographic remoteness doesn't render us geopolitically isolated.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Sarah_Ackerman.

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The latest news from the ABC bunker is that while Lateline may survive the latest round of cuts, the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi may be shut down.

The ABC Board met yesterday, reportedly to decide on measures to achieve efficiencies of up to $100m following the Budget and the Lewis Review, and in the wake of the Australia Network axing

Many have been shocked by ABC management's post-Budget decisions. The slashing of Asia Pacific News Centre and Radio Australia services, as Jenny Hayward-Jones outlined back in July, has resulted in the decimation of news coverage in and from the region and the exit of veteran international correspondents and journalists such as Sean Dorney, Catherine McGrath and Jim Middleton.

The Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, insists that the requisite efficiencies can be met through administrative and back-office cuts. Others are less confident and hugely concerned at ABC management tactics.  

The Minister has a deep and abiding respect for international journalism and an understanding of its importance for Australia. Below are some extracts from his speech here at the Lowy Institute in August, at the Institute's annual media awards for foreign policy journalism (you can read or listen to the full speech here):

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Only the ABC now has a substantial international presence with twenty Australian and 35 locally engaged staff overseas; a good example of what a public broadcaster should do in my view. It is, of course, much cheaper to fly in teams to cover specific stories on an on-needs basis. A study by the Media Standards Trust in the U.K. found this has become much more attractive for news organisations to cover locations when there is a specific event or crisis - such as, say, Ukraine. But this comes at the expense of a deep knowledge of the country and the contacts needed to develop stories in depth.

...

Media companies on digital platforms tend to chase two things to get clicks: cover immediate, breaking news on the one hand; and go for opinion and commentary, the more intemperate the better, on the other, to reap social media shares, likes and retweets. As I have said before, it often feels like the ‘news cycle’ has been replaced by the ‘outrage cycle’.

But there is a genre of news story that lies in the middle on these two extremes -- they are those stories which take a few days to put together, involve the skilful working of contacts and sources, and require a deep and nuanced knowledge of the subject matter. Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger describes the new media world as enshrining the ‘dumbbell model’ of journalism -- all the weight has now shifted to the two ends of journalism, leaving not much in the middle.

And while management in media corporations might chase audiences through this 'dumbbell model', there is evidence that the audience itself values genuine foreign affairs coverage:

As one very senior journalist in Canberra’s press gallery told me: ‘There has been a huge amount of complacency, a growing lack of media interest in policy, [and] a function of that is a most conspicuous lack of interest in what other countries are doing in a policy sense, and this is reinforced by the problems of the business models of newspapers’. But interestingly, while there may be more of a focus on less weighty issues, consumers nominate foreign affairs as the most important reason for following the news.

The ABC, according to the Minister, has been the 'standout' in coverage of foreign affairs in Australia:

In recent years, The Australian has closed bureaux in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, London, Bangkok and New Zealand but still has correspondents in Jakarta, Beijing, Tokyo, Southeast Asia, Jerusalem and of course a very extensive network of correspondents to draw upon from the wider News Corp stable.

Fairfax has correspondents in Washington, London, Beijing, Delhi, the Middle East and has reinstated Lindsay Murdoch in Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok. Over the years it has pulled out from Wellington, Tokyo and New York.

The Australian Financial Review no longer has anyone in Tokyo, our second largest trading partner. The ABC is the standout in this area. It has bureaux in Washington, London, New Zealand, Jakarta, Beijing, Bangkok, Jerusalem, New Delhi, Tokyo and stringers in many other locations.

Perhaps no more. If the bureaux in Tokyo and Delhi are closed, there go two of the last remaining sources of first-hand news from two of Australia's most important partners and neighbours in the region: Japan, Australia's second largest trading partner and 'best friend' in Asia, and India, a rising power and Australia's 5th largest export destination, not to mention the soon-to-be recipient of Australian uranium following the recent agreement struck by the Government.

Last year Michael Fullilove touched on this issue in arguing the case for Australian eyes on the world, saying:

The rise of Asia means Australia finds itself a lot closer to the centre of geopolitical and economic action than in the past. It is vital to the national interest, therefore, that Australians understand what is happening beyond our shores...But we cannot simply rely on the homogenised worldview of international wire services...

The big international wire services might bring us news from around the world, but they won't necessarily cover the news that's of significance to Australia, because – gasp – Australia often doesn't figure in global news. When an important source of news and information is lost, so is an important input into the foreign policy debate in Australia. And we are the losers. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Brian Smith.

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Later today, the 69th session of the UN General Assembly commences. One of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop's first official duties last year was to address the opening of the 68th session of the General Assembly, nine days after being sworn in as minister.

Bishop had a tough start as minister. First came the Indonesian spying scandal, with angry reactions in Indonesia and pointed criticism from Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. A few days later came a dressing down from China after Bishop denounced Beijing's move to unilaterally establish an air defence identification zone in late November. Ms Bishop then had to deal with breaches of Indonesian territorial waters by stray Operation Sovereign Borders vessels. There has also been the painful process of the Peter Greste case.

Then of course, the MH17 catastrophe. Ms Bishop earned the respect of her international and national peers in brokering a Security Council response to MH17.

Our Foreign Minister has been busy.

Yet amid all this noisy foreign policy action, the Minister has been quietly going about her other business. The New Colombo plan is on track. Relations with Indonesia have stabilised, with agreement reached on a code of conduct in late August. Australia is back in China's good books.

And then there is the MIKTA initiative.

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MIKTA, you ask? As I wrote at the end of last year, this is a fledgling grouping which had its modest beginnings on the sidelines of the September 2013 UN General Assembly session. The acronym represents the five nations – Mexico, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey and Australia – who are 'members' of this informal group. They seek to 'strengthen the links between their nations, exchange views, consult and promote coordination on issues of common interest.' Early indications are that these are likely to include global governance reform, G20 work and finding solutions to global challenges such as the post-2015 development agenda. They have met twice this year, and in April spent a full day together in Mexico at the first MIKTA dialogue, resulting in a co-authored opinion piece in Huffpo in which the foreign ministers emphasised their similarities: they are all democracies, members of the G20, with open and dynamic economies, strategically located and each playing strong roles in their regions.

The first indications of how these nations will work together surfaced in the early days of the MH17 response, when the ministers of the five nations issued a joint statement condemning the downing and urging the peaceful resolution of the Ukraine crisis.

In August, Mexico hosted the first MIKTA academic seminar (which I attended) to identify some of the ways in which this diverse group ('a bunch of misfits' was the expression Michael Wesley used in his remarks) might cooperate constructively. While none of these academics spoke for their governments, there was a bundle of ideas, from working collaboratively against protectionist measures to freeing up visa restrictions, creating exchanges of students and journalists, and according each other 'most favoured nation' status.

It's early days, but each of the MIKTA foreign ministers appears enthusiastic about the possibilities of the new grouping. None of the five are part of a natural regional or security bloc, so their thinking is presumably that the grouping can achieve more together than each can achieve alone – the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. And while the parts are significant, the whole is potentially formidable. MIKTA nations are the world's 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th largest economies. Combined at US$5.8 trillion in GDP, they amount to the third-largest economy in the world after the US and China. Taken together, their populations rank the group as the third-largest in the world after China and India. If they can harness their collective strengths, this could be a useful grouping.

At the opening of the 69th session of the General Assembly, Ms Bishop will again meet with her MIKTA counterparts to progress their agenda. Watch this space. 

Photo courtesy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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Almost a year since the Coalition took the reins of government and introduced its policy of 'economic diplomacy', a term which was probably foreign to many Australians at the time, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Trade and Investment Minister Andrew Robb launched the Government's Economic Diplomacy policy today at the Lowy Institute. Since the election, it's a term the Foreign Minister has used frequently, along with the 'open for business' mantra and its emphasis on promoting the economic interests of Australia and Australian businesses internationally.

The ministers must have received a considerable amount of feedback about the policy, including questions about what 'economic diplomacy' actually means, because both today went to considerable lengths to explain it. The complexity of the task is illustrated by the length of the ministers' speeches: almost an hour, taken together, and followed by a short Q&A session.

In the Foreign Minister's parlance, 'economic diplomacy' means:

harnessing broader aspects of our international diplomatic work to promote trade, encourage economic growth, attract investment and support business.

To do this, Australia's global network of 95 ambassadors, high commissioners and consuls general, together with 72 trade commissioners, will make economic diplomacy their guiding principle: 'promoting our national reputation as an open export-oriented free market economy (and as a country which is) a great place to invest and with which to do business.' Several times in her speech, Ms Bishop underscored the role of the private sector, particularly small and medium enterprises; she also included players in the broader Australian community: NGOs, think tanks, the arts and sporting people and organisations.

In the increasingly globalised international environment Australia now faces, this economic diplomacy agenda will be a complex one to prosecute: it implies a far greater role for non-government entities, particularly the private sector, and means a much greater involvement for the Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in formulating and facilitating the Australian Government's approach to international trade and foreign investment.

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Because economic diplomacy requires domestic policy settings which reduce barriers to trade, economic growth and investment, DFAT, along with its two ministers, will need to lead a whole-of-government, whole-of-society effort to achieve positive economic outcomes through diplomacy. As Ms Bishop described, the strength and uniqueness of this policy is that it aligns all Australia's international efforts – foreign policy, trade, tourism, investment and development – so that they are 'pulling in the same direction.'

As pointed out by one of the participants in the workshop which followed the Ministers' speeches, this means Australian diplomacy is no longer an 'elite sport' played only by diplomats and government officials. Because it will involve Australians and all kinds of Australian business, economic diplomacy will bring the business of Australia's international engagement much closer to home.

But it also makes Australia's diplomacy much more complex, at a time when DFAT, our principal agency for international engagement, has been resource-strapped for decades. And there are risks in making Australian business and industry the spearheads of our international engagement; the AWB scandal and Indian students' crisis are two examples of aggressive economic 'diplomacy' gone awry. These risks will require careful management by skilled diplomats abroad, and appropriate domestic policy-making and regulation by government at home.   

Australia is no outpost in prioritising economic diplomacy: Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands are examples of significant and like-minded nations pursuing similar goals to those outlined today by Bishop and Robb.  The key to success will be making sure that the policy doesn't become, in Bishop's words, 'the pursuit of Australia's naked self-interest to the potential detriment of others', but balances Australia's economic ambitions with broader and less self-centred aspirations for prosperity and peace in the region.

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Since Fergus Hanson first polled Australians on the value of democracy in the 2012 Lowy Institute Poll, our findings about how Australians, particularly young Australians, view democracy have variously provoked astonishment, bewilderment, disbelief, worry and frustration. Our 2014 Poll, released early in June, sought to understand better the thoughts of young Australians by adding 150 more 18-29 year olds to our usual polling sample, making a total of 364 of that age group in our overall sample of 1150 Australians of voting age this year. The larger sample makes the error margin even smaller than in our previous polls (down to 2.9% on the overall sample and 5.1% on the sample of 18-29 year olds).

The larger sample confirmed what we found in our earlier polls: the majority of young Australians either don't think democracy matters or think some other system might in some circumstances work better.

Less than  half (42% actually) of 18-29 year olds say that 'democracy is preferable to any other kind of government'. Thirty-three percent say 'in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable', and nearly one in five (19%) say that 'for someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have'. 7% say they don't know when presented with these three options about their views on democracy.

On learning about our polling on democracy and young people, the Speaker of the Queensland Parliament, the Hon Fiona Simpson, convened some groups of young Australians to talk about 'Why democracy matters' at Queensland Parliament earlier this year. These two short videos (one above and one below; each about 3 minutes long) offer a pretty compelling insight into how these articulate and thoughtful young people think about democracy. One young woman put it this way:

I think we take democracy for granted. I don't think that we actually know what a world without democracy would look like.

If you're interested in why we continue to get these low results from young people about the value they place on democracy, then watch these clips. They're beautifully produced pieces featuring young Australian leaders eloquently expressing their ideas about democracy, our political system, and what matters to them.  The Speaker summed it up like this:

There's a difference between having a voice and actually making a difference, and that's why I think we need to learn from those who already at a young age have discovered the difference and who also hold the keys for how we can make democratic processes more open to people.

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So here I am at the budget lockup, deep in the bowels of Treasury, with the idea of getting a much-anticipated preview of the Foreign Affairs and Trade budget for this, the Coalition Government's first federal budget. Only, there is no Portfolio Budget Statement for the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio. It hasn't arrived (it's on its way; according to the budget official on duty, there was a last-minute hitch. These things happen, she says).

So to give you an overview of the foreign affairs and trade budget, there are just the overall budget papers themselves, which give a high-level summary.  Here are the highlights:

  • The aid budget has been dramatically shaved. We knew this was coming, and there will be more on this later in the week from development experts, but the top line is that Government will save $7.6 billion over five years 'by maintaining official development assistance (ODA) at its nominal 2013-14 level of $5.0 billion in each of 2014-15 and 2015-16'. From then, it will be pegged to CPI, as foreshadowed by the Minister early this year. This will cut particularly deeply in 2017-18, where the savings will amount to more than $3.5 billion. These are deeper cuts than previously  thought.
  • As expected, the Australia Network, Australia's international broadcasting service to the region, has been axed, saving $196.8 million (or around $22-23 million a year for the remainder of the contract made by the previous government). There goes a significant contributor to Australia's voice to the region, leaving Radio Australia to struggle on manfully, shouldering the burden of providing a broadcasting service and source of independent news in a region severely starved of it (and that means the Pacific, including some of the world's most impoverished nations, and not just the Chinese cash-box to our north). It is not, according to the Government, a 'cost effective vehicle for advancing Australia's broad and enduring interests in the Indo-Pacific region'. It remains to be seen what the Government thinks will replace it as a vehicle for Australia's soft power, for engaging with the diverse populations in our region and building enduring relationships.
  • The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be subjected to even further efficiency demands. Having endured over 20 years the euphemistically-named efficiency 'dividends', there will be further savings of $397 million over four years, flowing from the absorption of AusAID into DFAT and finding more efficiencies, including in the administration of Australian aid. 
  • The Australian embassy in Baghdad will be co-located with the British Embassy (presumably delivering considerable savings, though the overall commitment to Iraq is $35.6 million in this budget).
  • There are some sundry small measures for tourism and Australia Week in China, amounting to around $12 million.
  • On the plus side, there is a $748 million replenishment of the World Bank's International Development Association (IDA), which provides interest-free credit and grants for programs that boost economic growth and alleviate poverty. Some of it is a loan component (and so has no impact on the fiscal balance). 

Because of the AusAID integration into DFAT and the addition of tourism and climate change functions and responsibilities, it's hard to divine the exact impact of this budget on departmental fortunes. In terms of the cost of running the department (taking out the big-ticket administered expenses such as aid and the Australia Network), before the merger the combined appropriations from government for both organisations was around $1.34 billion.  

This year, the amount is around the same. What the budget papers don't state, though, are the measures already introduced in December's mid-year economic forecasts, which saw commitments to the Foreign Minister's signature 'New Colombo Plan' ($100 million over five years) and the scrapping of the proposed new post in Senegal. What is stated in the budget papers is the overall staff reduction for DFAT, which amounts to a substantial 550 positions, presumably across both the foreign affairs and aid functions. It is hard to imagine the impact of a 10% staff reduction on a department so recently disrupted by a major merger and which has made only tentative steps towards rebuilding itself after decades of under-resourcing and bipartisan inattention

Now to defence. Once again, this is one for the experts later this week, but here's a brief preview:

  • The Treasurer has consolidated the commitment foreshadowed by the Defence Minister last year to lift defence spending to the 'magic' 2% of GDP 'within a decade.' Last year it was 1.6%. This year's appropriation of $26.8 billion is a 5% increase on 2013-14, around the same proportion (1.64%) of GDP and 6.5% of general government expenditure. Over the forward estimates, this will lift to $32.6 billion and around 6.8% of government expenditure. The Minister's press release commits the government to 'lay down a credible path to achieving our target following completion of the 2015 (Defence) White Paper.'
  • $191.8 million has been committed over four years to 're-establish the Australian Defence Force Gap Year Programme', delivering on a Government election commitment.
  • Defence Materiel has not been re-integrated into Defence (contrary to the Audit Commission recommendation).
  • There is $1.4 billion over four years to improve the indexation of payments under the Defence Forces Retirement Benefits Fund and super schemes. Again, delivering on the election promise. There will also be better CPI and tax treatment of benefits. New members of the defence forces will join a different super scheme, reducing the Government's super liability by $126 billion by 2050.
  • Finally, the Audit Commission's call for efficiency gains and defence bureaucracy reductions have been partially heeded for Defence: $1.2 billion over four years in efficiency gains, to be reinvested in Defence capability and so with no impact on overall funding. There will be cuts of 1200 public service positions and some changes to living allowances and benefits. This is nothing like the return to Canberra staffing levels of 1998 sought by the Audit Commission, but cuts nonetheless.

The Treasurer's budget speech outlines many of the budget and agency cuts which have been discussed in the last few weeks. Seventy government bodies are to be axed and the public service will be cut by 16,500 positions, as already announced. However, while the Audit Commission recommended abolishing Austrade and EFIC, this is not in the budget. Austrade lives another day, having absorbed responsibility for tourism in October 2013. EFIC will be given $200 million in capital for export assistance to small and medium-sized businesses.

For DFAT, this is a difficult and probably disappointing budget. The argument that Australia's diplomatic service has been chronically under-resourced for several decades has now reached a level of received wisdom. It has been cited by the previous prime minister, the Asian Century White Paper, the former DFAT secretary Dennis Richardson, the current foreign minister, and has been integrated into her party's formal foreign policy, which noted concerns about 'Australia's relatively low diplomatic presence around the world' and promised to review diplomatic resources and put 'in place a long-term policy to ensure Australia's global diplomatic network is consistent with our interests.'

It might have been too much to expect of the new foreign minister to deliver this year on her 'plan to expand our diplomatic footprint overseas' in this austere, deficit-reducing, bottom-line repairing budget. 

However, Australia urgently needs a diplomatic service and an overseas network to meet the demands of an international environment which is undergoing rapid and profound transformations. Our international engagement increasingly fuels our prosperity: exports account for around one fifth of our GDP, one in five jobs is trade-related, Australian investment abroad has reached around $1.3 trillion, foreign investment has doubled over the five years to 2012 to more than $US231 billion, and the Australian dollar was the world's 5th most traded currency last year.

This is a government which has committed (as the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministers reiterate in their budget release today) to 'strengthen our relationships with key partners and refocus foreign policy on the advancement of Australia's core strategic and economic interests'. It came to government with a promise to refocus Australia's diplomacy on economic diplomacy.   

To do this, Australia's foreign affairs capability and its overseas network need to grow so it can deliver on the Government's ambitious promises, and follow up on its important initiatives in deepening engagement with our neighbours and trading partners. But with just 95 embassies and consulates in 77 nations to service Australia's needs spanning 200-plus nations of the world — far short of the OECD average of around 130 posts — DFAT, as currently resourced, will struggle with the task. It has only one post in booming inland China. It has no post in eastern Indonesia, the location of Indonesia's second largest city. It is under-represented in Africa and Central Asia despite our significant investment interests there and abundant mining opportunities. Add to that the massive consular drain on the Department from the ever-increasing numbers of Australians travelling overseas every year, and the urgency for rebuilding the overseas network becomes even clearer.

Politicians on both sides of Parliament have acknowledged this 'diplomatic deficit' since we first coined the term in 2009.  After five years of talk, it's time to start addressing it.

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My previous post analysed the Commission of Audit's recommendations on defence, foreign affairs and aid. Below, some of the less prominent recommendations made by the Commission in the realm of international policy, which range from sensible to questionable.

First, the sensible recommendations:

Other recommendations seem to either tinker at the edges, are unsupported by much evidence or would make nary a dent in the Government's bid for a surplus. Here are some questionable ones:

  • The outsourcing of passport production: this is a function which the Commission notes provides $374 million in revenue at the cost of around $223 million. It turns a profit. For consolidated revenue, not DFAT, mind you.
  • Apply interest to traveler loans: not a big ticket item, at around $200,000 per year (most of which is recovered). More of an 'entitlement' issue and a bit small-fry.
  • Scrap the Australia Network, because it is, so the Commission says, 'an expensive option for meeting diplomatic objectives given its limited outreach to a small audience'. But expensive compared with what? No comparative data from the Commission, no analysis of efficiency. At $23 million per year, reaching 36 million homes and 46 countries, this is one of the few public diplomacy functions DFAT still funds, reaching out to publics in our region to inform them of our nation, values, culture and economy. Historically, international broadcasting is one of the most cost-effective ways of reaching audiences in their millions on a regular basis. With two recent distribution deals announced by ABC International, the recommendation to abandon it after nearly a decade of consistent investment seems premature and short sighted, and not about funding or efficiency. In any event, it is a matter more appropriate for party policy than a Commission of Audit.
  • A number of other small-ticket recommendations such as reviewing the criteria for the International Relations Grants Program ($5 million per annum).
  • As for the recommendations to halve funding for Tourism Australia, abolish the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation, cease funding for Export Market Development Grants and reduce the activities of an (already reduced) Austrade, these would seem to counter the Government's own emphasis on economic diplomacy.

Photo by Flickr user Wojtek Gurak.

 

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Plenty has been said about the Government's National Commission of Audit's recommendations on domestic policy. But what are the potential ramifications for the agencies responsible for Australia's international functions of defence, diplomacy and aid? (Though following the subsuming of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade late last year, aid is these days a 'program' rather than an 'agency', and we await the renaming of DFAT. Will it be DFAAT? DFATA?)

The incoming Coalition Government made promising noises about defence funding and Australia's global diplomatic representation both in its pre-election policy statements and in its first months in government. It also telegraphed a scaling-back of the rate of increase in Australia's official aid funding, pegging it to the consumer price index (CPI) rather than the ambitious target set by the former Labor government of reaching 0.5% of GNI by 2017-18.

On aid, there are no surprises (and nothing original) from the Audit Commission. CPI it is. Then again, after the massive disruption to the aid function (and foreign affairs infrastructure) caused by AusAID's 'integration'  into DFAT ('enabling the aid and diplomatic arms of Australia's international policy agenda to be more closely aligned'), the Australian aid program must be becoming habituated to shock.

But the recommendations on defence funding and DFAT create a sense of foreboding as the Coalition prepares to hand down its first budget next week.

In opposition, now Defence Minister David Johnston attacked the Labor Government's cuts to Defence (over 10% in 2012) here at the Lowy Institute, going on to say: 'Our aspiration is that as soon as we have come to terms and corrected the current fiscal situation we will return to the aspiration of 2% of GDP and 3% real growth in the Defence Budget. My mantra is to under promise and over deliver!'

The sense of déjà vu, and concern that bland promises of increased funding avoid the tough decisions on the strategic direction and capability of Australia's defence forces, were expressed by James Brown when the Coalition released its pre-election defence policy. On cue, the Minister's commitment to 'under promise and over deliver' looked increasingly like a commitment to 'under promise, and under deliver as well' by the time he spoke at ASPI in December. The Audit Commission's report gives the Defence Minister every excuse he needs to do just that:

  • It draws on former Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Dibb's argument about a bloated Defence bureaucracy, recommending the reintegration of Defence Materiel into the Department.
  • It questions the magic '2% of GDP' commitment, calling for the Government to 'assess the balance of strategic and fiscal priorities and how this compares with the commitment to increase Defence expenditure to 2 per cent of GDP within a decade'.
  • It calls for a reduction of Canberra Defence staffing to 1998 levels. 1998! Before 9/11, Bali, and in the very year that China has announced a significant increase to its already formidable defence budget.

Now to foreign affairs and what the Coalition has called Australia's 'global diplomatic network'.

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Shortly after the election, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop echoed the argument we've made at the Lowy Institute that Australia's diplomatic capabilities have eroded from decades of resource starvation and political inattention. She said in October that 'the pendulum has swung too far', and 'it's time for DFAT to reassert its position as the primary source of advice on foreign policy.' Over time, she said, she intended to pursue a plan to 'expand our diplomatic footprint overseas'.

The mid-year economic forecast added $100 million over five years for Ms Bishop's signature New Colombo Plan. But that looks about as far as the pendulum is set to swing, for the short term at least. The Government has scrapped the establishment of the new post in Senegal announced by then Foreign Minister Bob Carr in 2012, saving about $20 million. This post was intended to provide a diplomatic service in Francophone Africa after a parliamentary inquiry found Australia was unrepresented in an area where Australian resource companies were making serious investments.

The Audit Commission's coverage of DFAT is disappointingly low on detail and makes some unsupported claims about what we've argued is the chronic under-resourcing of Australia's diplomacy since our first report into this issue, Australia's Diplomatic Deficit, in 2009. The Commission concludes: 'the Commission does not consider that the case for a significant increase in resources is compelling'. It does not contest, and indeed confirms, our argument that DFAT funding 'has been largely constant in real terms since 1995-1996, while peer comparison agencies have been growing rapidly' (indeed the entire public service grew by over 60% between 1997 and 2013). It notes that DFAT staffing levels are lower than in 1996, and particularly in the number of Australia-based staff posted overseas. It acknowledges that DFAT (actually, Australia) has a smaller diplomatic footprint than any similar-sized G20 or OECD country (while querying whether the comparative G20 data presented in DFAT's chart inflated the size of other G20/OECD diplomatic network by including honorary consuls. The Commission could have asked us: it doesn't).

The Commission goes on to assert that DFAT 'delivers essentially the same function as it did twenty years ago (and it is therefore unsurprising it) should have essentially the same funding in real terms'.

This sweeping assertion ignores the massive transformations in Australia's international environment in the last twenty years, which includes the end of the Cold War, the shifting of global economic power to Asia, 9/11, the global financial crisis, the increasingly complex threats of international terrorism (including close to home in Bali), climate change, cyber threats, the Arab Spring, the Syrian crisis, a doubling in the numbers of Australians traveling overseas in the last decade, natural disasters with global consequences...the list goes on.

And with the new Government's emphasis on economic diplomacy and the Australian economy's reliance on exports, the Abbott Government's energetic efforts to achieve free trade agreements with our major Asian trading partners and its early initiatives in sending major business delegations to deepen trade ties in the region, surely Australia's international environment is becoming more, not less, demanding.

Putting this into a bit of fiscal context, DFAT's annual operating budget of around $1 billion (excluding the now-merged aid function) is about 0.35% of total government expenditure. So when the Commission says that 'DFAT resourcing is an important issue for the Commission as additional funding for diplomacy makes the task of achieving a longer-term surplus more difficult', it all sounds a bit silly.

Of course, the audit commission issued recommendations, and the Government is not bound by them. However, by hitting so many small targets, they will no doubt supply whatever hooks the Government requires to make its budget cuts next Tuesday. As I have argued before, 'money for diplomats' is never a big winner at budget time. For the future of Australia's international engagement, I wish it were not so.

Photo by Flickr user Cyril Bosselut.

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And now the news: the Australia Network (described in The Australian's story as the 'Asian broadcasting service') is ‘likely to be scrapped in the May budget’.

No surprise, coming on the heels of the Prime Minister's comments that the ABC lacks 'basic affection for the home team', following the Indonesian phone-tapping furore.

It has been difficult for successive governments to embrace international broadcasting as a useful (and for Australia, almost its only) public diplomacy tool. International broadcasters such as the Australia Network can help win over foreign publics in ways that support the national interest.  As a tool of public diplomacy, international broadcasters can inform the public in other countries about a nation's values, political systems, people, lifestyles and businesses. For Australia, public diplomacy helps ease the way for Australia to conduct its foreign affairs, and promotes Australia as a place to visit and invest in.

Australia's public diplomacy budgets have been whittled dramatically over the last decade, to the point where the Australia Network is about the only serious exercise in public diplomacy that remains.

Annmaree O’Keeffe and I are on the record supporting the existence of a government-funded international broadcasting service for Australia run by the national broadcaster.* Annmaree succinctly summarises our argument here. While we were critical of the tender process under which the ABC was ultimately rescued from its reputedly unsuccessful tender by the Gillard Government, the fundamental argument in favour of an international broadcaster remains.

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And lest one fall for the usual '$223 million service' (ie. suggesting it's some sort of gold-mine or bottomless pit, depending on your viewpoint), it's rarely explained that this amount is for a contract to be spent over ten years. That is, it's more like $20 million a year, a pittance compared with spending by international broadcasters like the BBC, China's gargantuan CCTV network ($6 billion), European broadcasters which have expanded into Asia, as well as the Asian stalwarts in Korea and Japan.

Now for the serious part. To be effective, international broadcasters need to be independent. They shouldn't just 'play for the team'. As Nicholas Cull concluded in 2010, the BBC, 'through its telling of bad news – as well as good – throughout the Second World War effectively reversed the reputation for creativity with the truth that Britain had earned in the First World War'. Likewise, it was their ability to criticise the US which gained Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty standing in the eyes of Soviet bloc listeners.

It is a government's ability to allow criticism of itself which gives it credibility in the world. The converse is also true. Government control of the media nullifies its credibility. There are plenty of examples of this from nations which few admire for their freedoms.

This is not intended as an assessment of the Australia Network's programming, something which may well be due for a comprehensive and independent review. But as for its existence, there is ample evidence for keeping it

*Disclosure:  the study was commissioned by the ABC in 2010.

Photo by Flickr user misterbisson.

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