Lowy Institute

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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Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called for public submissions on the development of Australia's consular strategy for 2014-16.

This is a welcome move.

The UK has had a formal, publicly available consular strategy since at least 2007, and earlier this year published its 2013-16 strategy. A well-informed and executed consular strategy can set some ground rules for consular engagement in a transparent and publicly accessible way.

My policy brief earlier this year outlined the problems confronting Australia's consular service caused by record levels of Australians traveling and living overseas. Most of these problems were referenced in the Foreign Minister's issues paper.

These problems are compounded by the impact of decades of political neglect and under-resourcing of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), a point we've made repeatedly. The Government has indicated elsewhere that it will review Australia's diplomatic footprint  'to ensure that Australia's global diplomatic network is consistent with our interests.'

However, the Minister's latest media release presses home the point that 'consular resources are finite', and her call for submissions argues that 'consular assistance should not be the first resort' for Australians caught up in disasters or political turmoil abroad. This suggests that one of the Government's primary consular strategies will be to educate the traveling public about the level of service it can reasonably expect. 

Great if it were that simple.

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There is a vicious circle operating here which was outlined in Consular Conundrum and to which the Minister referred in her issues paper: media attention on prominent cases tempts politicians to override departmental protocols and consular service charters and provide higher levels of attention and service, bidding up the level of service Australians expect when they encounter trouble overseas. The pressures of the 24/7 news cycle suggest that prickly consular cases will continue to attract attention which foreign ministers find hard to resist (although as shadow foreign minister, Julie Bishop showed signs of restraint).

The task of 'managing down' public expectations will be long and hard, and will require consistent efforts from this and future governments. This strategy is necessary, but not in itself sufficient.

My policy brief controversially called for the imposition of a small ($5) consular fee or levy on the cost of every airline ticket. The Foreign Minister has rejected this idea. But the issue of resourcing for consular services, and for the DFAT as a whole, will not go away. It is a crucial consideration in this examination of the consular service.

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A month or so ago, with little fanfare, Australia participated in the first meeting of MIKTA, an informal grouping of five nations — Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia — described in press releases by Turkey and South Korea as an informal and non-exclusive group of 'middle powers', cooperating to address some of the diverse challenges of an increasingly complex international environment.

The initiative has received little attention, with some notable exceptions. There has been some debate in Australia on the initiative, but it has focused less on the merits of the grouping than on the utility of the 'middle power' label to describe it. The delineation of a 'middle power' is not settled either in the academic literature nor by practitioners.

Some would define a middle power by virtue of its economic weight, its military might, its democratic values, its willingness to engage in multilateral institutions and endeavours, and to advocate responsible international citizenship. Australia's new foreign minister, Julie Bishop, appears to have no qualms about adopting the label.

But there are those who argue that rather than defining Australia as a middle power, the term 'pivotal' is more apt (it's heftier than 'middle', but still not 'great'). Dubbing Australia a ‘middle power’, according to this argument, is unhelpful and misleading. Calling Australia a ‘considerable’, ‘pivotal’ or ‘significant’ power would be more appropriate to its status and role in the international order.

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In the context of the MIKTA initiative, this debate is somewhat beside the point. The limited reporting available describes MIKTA as an informal, even spontaneous, grouping of nations conceived on the sidelines of the 2012 Los Cabos G20 leaders' summit.

Australia's Ambassador to Korea, Bill Paterson, described the aspirations of the group at a recent conference on middle powers hosted by the Korea Foundation in Seoul. While not locking in any formal program or organisational structure, the group has identified some issues on which it might work collaboratively to find common ground and pursue common interests: transnational crime, cyber security, energy security, food security, some aspects of climate change (such as mitigation and adaptation) and building the effectiveness and influence of the G20.

Australia is a member of a number of middle-power groupings. The Cairns Group of agricultural exporters and the Australia Group (advocating the control of chemical and biological weapons) are two. There is another one – the ‘constructive powers’ — meeting in Seoul this week.

Why should Australia shy away from informal groupings such as MIKTA on the basis that it somehow demeans us?

Mexico, Indonesia, Korea and Turkey are the world's 14th, 16th, 15th and 17th largest economies in GDP terms. Australia is 12th. No incongruity there. With the exception of Mexico, each spends around 2% of its GDP on defence (according to The Military Balance 2013). Each is committed to democracy and the rule of law, and each is influential in their regions.

Calling such a group 'middle powers' is beside the point. It's what they do, not what they're called, that counts. Tellingly, a Korean academic at the same Korea Foundation conference at which the Australian ambassador spoke, modestly decried the label 'middle power' for Korea, preferring the metaphor 'shrimp'. When pushed, he went as far as 'dolphin'. Definitely not 'whale'. Korea appears to be getting on with the job, rather than becoming bogged down in labels.

Judging by Bill Paterson's comments, it appears Australia will be similarly pragmatic, unfazed by debates about how to describe its constructive approach to diplomacy.

Photo courtesy of the Republic of Turkey.

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With the start of the Warsaw climate change talks today, combined with the election of the Abbott Government and its proposed repeal of the Gillard Government's carbon tax regime, climate change is back on the political agenda. There was considerable consternation at the linking of climate change with the recent bushfires in New South Wales, and Environment Minister Greg Hunt stirred the debate by using Wikipedia as a source of scientific evidence. 

So it's a good time to look at the trend of public opinion on climate change.The shift in opinion on climate change has been one of the most dramatic trends the Lowy Institute Poll* has recorded. We began asking Australian adults about climate change in 2006, asking survey participants to select the response which most closely mirrors their point of view: 

  • Global warming is a serious and pressing problem. We should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs.
  • The problem of global warming should be addressed, but its effects will be gradual, so we can deal with the problem gradually by taking steps that are low in cost.
  • Until we are sure that global warming is really a problem, we should not take any steps that would have economic costs.

The Poll interactive tool illustrates these dramatic results in graphic form. Concern about global warming peaked in 2006, during a period of deep drought and water restrictions in Australia. These results arguably contributed to then Prime Minister John Howard‘s shift to climate change 'realism', as he recounted in his recent speech in London:

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... late in 2006 my Government hit a “perfect storm” on the issue. Drought had lingered for several years in many parts of Eastern Australia, leading to severe restrictions on the daily use of water; not for the first or last time the bushfire season started early; the report by Sir Nicholas Stern hit the shelves, with the author himself visiting Australia, and lastly the former US Vice President Al Gore released his movie “An Inconvenient Truth”. To put it bluntly “doing something” about global warming gathered strong political momentum in Australia. 

In 2007, Prime Minister Howard announced that his government would introduce an emissions trading scheme in 2011. Kevin Rudd famously promised action on climate change in the 2007 election, and after a period of policy switches, the Labor Government eventually introduced a carbon tax in 2012. By then, however, and with the drought long broken, the number of Australians who said global warming was a ‘serious and pressing problem’ had dropped to 36%.

An examination of the Poll interactive shows that public sentiment on climate change has shifted direction this year for the first time since 2006. The number of Australians seeing global warming as a 'serious and pressing problem' has increased to 40%, four points up since 2012. While the level remains well below the 68% peak on this response, the shift is noticeable.

Bushfires and heatwaves may well exacerbate this trend. Research from Columbia University in 2011 found that perceptions are influenced by individuals' immediate experiences of weather changes. With the Bureau of Meteorology reporting Australia's warmest 12-month period on record in September, the shift in public opinion may accelerate.

*The Lowy Institute Poll reports the results of its annual nationally-representative telephone survey of approximately 1,000 Australian adults. The most recent Poll was conducted in March 2013. 

 

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The swearing in of the new Abbott Ministry yesterday portends something of a new era for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The inclusion of Investment in the Trade portfolio was no surprise, given the discussion and policy release in the election lead-up. It aligns with the Coalition’s ‘economic diplomacy’ strategy, outlined in Julie Bishop’s Interpreter piece and then emphasised in its policy document launched a day or so before the election.

In her Interpreter piece, the new Minister outlined a ‘clear focus on promoting the economic interests of the Australian people and Australian businesses in its international engagement’, together with building a stronger network of bilateral and regional FTAs, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region.

The enlarged trade and investment ministry takes on greater significance, however, when taken with other changes mooted for the Foreign Affairs and Trade portfolio overall. In the lead-up to the election, there were steady rumours in Canberra circles that the Coalition’s intention was to split the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade into two departments, allowing Andrew Robb to take charge of a super-ministry with its own department (and make way for Arthur Sinodinos to take the Finance portfolio, a corollary which hasn’t materialised this week).

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This would be a strange move. There were strong reasons for merging Foreign Affairs with Trade in 1975, and not only relating to efficiency. Stuart Harris, Secretary of the Department in the period straddling the 1987 merger from 1984-88, assessed its benefits in 2002, arguing that the Hawke Government’s goal of a more internationally competitive economy favouring increased exports and openness to foreign investment was one of the drivers of the merger, and that it ‘resulted in practice in a higher priority being given to economic relations.’

The Abbott Government appears to be serious about economic diplomacy and driving foreign investment, to the point that the new Trade and Investment minister will be making an annual statement to parliament on the quantum of new investment and new jobs in Australia. The success of the Department’s 1987 merger demonstrates that re-dividing it would be organisationally counterproductive and damaging to the new government’s own economic diplomacy goals.

The Abbott Government also appears to be serious about cutting 12,000 jobs from the public sector. If it is, then dividing Foreign Affairs and Trade — a move which resulted in an immediate staffing contraction of around 6% after the 1987 merger — hardly seems logical.

The idea appears to have been shelved for the moment. If so, this is good news for the effective conduct of Australia’s foreign and trade affairs. A focus on ‘economic diplomacy’ can be code for deep cuts and major restructuring for a ministry of foreign affairs, as our friends across the ditch well know.

Photo by Flickr user neonzu1.

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There has been much consternation both at home and abroad about the lack of women in Prime Minister Tony Abbott's ministry, announced this week.

The Washington Post, following the lead of the AP wires, billed the cabinet numbers story as a ‘rekindling’ of the Abbott sexism debate, a line that was also picked up in Canada and the UK.

It’s a fair reflection of the domestic reaction in Australia: Penny Wong, Finance Minister under the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments, alluded yesterday to Mr Abbott’s comments during his student days that 'it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons'. One of Abbott’s own, Liberal MP Sue Boyce, expressed embarrassment at the announcement of the ministry and said the ‘merit’ argument was a smokescreen for sexism.

However, before despairing of ever achieving gender balance in Australian politics or sheeting the imbalance home to a particular political leader, it’s worth reviewing some numbers and comparisons.

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The Abbott cabinet has one woman out of 19 members (5%), and there are five women in the Abbott ministry (17%). This is less than in Julia Gillard’s first cabinet, which had four women out of 19 in 2010. It’s also less than the last Howard ministry, which had six women of 32 ministers (19%), with four in cabinet (21%).

The composition of the Australian parliament, though, doesn’t look dissimilar to parliaments in places we’d regard as alike in culture and democratic systems. Take the US: only 98 of the 535 seats in Congress are held by women (18%), a record high for American politics. This compares with 25% women in Australia’s House of Representatives in the last (43rd) parliament and 37% women in the Senate, numbers which are almost identical to those in the 41st parliament in which John Howard was prime minister.

In the UK, 22% of parliamentarians are women and 19% of the ministry are women. 

Compared with business, things look more promising for female politicians. There are only 12 women CEOs of ASX 200 companies (6%), although 16% of non-executive board positions are filled by women. There are 21 in the Fortune 500 (4.2%), and a similar proportion (4.5%) in the Fortune 1000. 

Whether examining the Australian parliament or the Abbott ministry, Australian female politicians fare no worse and perhaps even slightly better than their counterparts in the US and the UK, and better than their corporate sisters, at least in executive roles.

Looking across the globe, though, Australia ranks quite poorly, coming in at equal 45th with Canada out of 142 nations in the Inter-parliamentary Union’s database on women in parliaments. Rwanda tops the list with 56% women in parliament, having recently overtaken Sweden with 45%. The IPU data shows that, where quotas are implemented by parties or parliaments to enforce female representation, the number of elected women almost doubles. So while quotas are a divisive issue, it might be on the agenda in Australia following the reaction to Mr Abbott’s controversial ministry decisions

Timor-Leste, one of the world’s newest nations, ranks 16th on the IPU ranking with 38% female representation in its parliament, a noteworthy achievement which Fergus Hanson and I observed in our 2010 study on leaders in Pacific nations, most likely stemming from the crucial role women played in the nation’s fight for independence at the end of the last century. That’s a result achieved (dare I say it?) in the context of the dominance of the Roman-Catholic faith and a leadership which drew heavily from those with Jesuit backgrounds.

The experience of Timor-Leste illustrates that a war of independence is one way to achieve healthier gender balance in national parliament. Quotas would be better.

Photo by Flickr user rudolfhelmis.

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Election Interpreter 2013

In case anyone needed reminding, 2013 is an election year and the 2013 Lowy Institute Poll included an election-related question, asking Australian adults which of the two major political parties they thought 'would do a better job of handling' each of eight significant foreign policy issues. If foreign policy were any indicator of electoral success, then the answers of 1002 Australians surveyed in March would point to a clear result. By a factor of more than two to one, Australians of voting age in 2013 say that the Coalition would do a better job of:

  • Managing the Australian economy over time.
  • Managing foreign investment in Australia.
  • Handling the arrival of asylum seekers by boat.
  • Ensuring Australia's national security is maintained.
  • Maintaining a strong alliance with the United States.

Last week the Lowy Institute launched a new interactive tool to encapsulate some of the vast array of data we've amassed in the nine years of our polling program. Below is a snapshot of the election-related results, but click on the link to get the full interactive experience:

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So, on some of the most important markers of a successful foreign policy for Australia – national security, the economy and looking after the US alliance – the Coalition is strongly preferred by the electorate in 2013.

Labor was preferred over the Coalition for 'managing Australia's relations with China', perhaps in recognition of the Gillard Government's efforts directed at stabilising and deepening the engagement with China* and 'managing Australia's response to climate change'. However, the snapshot above shows that Labor's edge on these issues was much narrower than the Coalition's lead on the others. Given the political grief the carbon tax has generated for Labor, the payout in terms of public opinion has been marginal, although the Poll also found that for the first time in seven years, there was a slight increase this year (4%) in the proportion (now 40%) of Australians seeing 'global warming (as) a serious and pressing problem (about which) we should begin taking steps now even if this involves significant costs'.

One result was too close to call: that of 'managing relations with Asia'. This is thought-provoking for a government which released a long-anticipated and well-publicised white paper on relations with Asia but did not manage to gain much domestic traction on Asia relations in the ensuing months.

In Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's address to the Lowy Institute last Tuesday, he announced the release of the remaining two of the five country strategies proposed in the Asian Century White Paper, for China and Japan. Strategies for Korea, Indonesia and India were launched earlier in the year. He also reminded us that Australia assumes the presidency of the Security Council this month (the first time for over 27 years), and will host and chair the G20 in Brisbane next year. His government, and that of Julia Gillard, have been energetic on the world stage.

Yet despite all that, perhaps Prime Minister Rudd put it best himself when he said:  

As much as our economic prosperity depends on what we do at home, it is absolutely dependent on our ability to engage fully with the world....It’s vital that we understand the inter-connected complexity of all the above. But still, when you boil down all of the complex activities that happen in federal politics, for the average Australian, there is but just one truth about national government: It’s fundamentally about the economy and jobs.

No matter now much we might wish it, nor how important it may be, the foreign policy credentials of either political party or leader are likely to matter little on 7 September.

* Fieldwork for the 2013 Poll was conducted in March, before then Prime Minister Julia Gillard's China visit. The Lowy Institute Poll 2013 reports the results of a nationally-representative opinion survey of 1002 Australian adults conducted in Australia by fixed and mobile telephone between 4 and 20 March 2013.

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Election Interpreter 2013

Today the Lowy Institute launches a new interactive tool to encapsulate some of the vast array of data we've amassed in the nine years of our polling program.

For some people, pictures work better than words, particularly when the body of data becomes extensive and unwieldy to scan. Every Lowy Institute Poll report since the first in 2005 has provided a full set of tables so that readers can inspect the data for themselves. Some of the regular Poll questions now have a long history, such as the 'thermometer' measuring the warmth of Australians' feelings towards a range of other countries: over the years, 37 nations and one island (Bali) have had their temperature taken on the thermometer, with China, the US, Indonesia, India, Japan and Iran included every year.  

So we decided this year to supplement the dry diet of Poll data tables with some interactive graphics that will allow users to navigate through some of the most important Poll results. Here's one example from the thermometer, but click on the link to get the full interactive experience:

 

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6 of 9 This post is part of a debate on Lowy Institute Poll 2013

For the second year in a row, the annual Lowy Institute Poll has found that less than half of 18-29-year old Australians (loosely termed Gen Y, roughly in line with Pew and other definitions) choose the statement 'Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government' when presented with three options about forms of government and asked to say which one comes 'closest to (their) own personal views about democracy'. The three options:

  • Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.
  • In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.
  • For someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have.

Sam Roggeveen, I know, is going to write about the wording of the question and its provenance.

In the meantime, the response to our publication of these results for the second year in a row indicates that this finding generates a range of reactionsdismay, mystification, and despondency among them.

I am setting out below the results, both from this year and last year's polls, and from Lowy Institute polling in India in 2012* and Indonesia and Fiji in 2011.**

Researching the issue in preparation for a speech on 'Democracy and Civility' to a CHASS forum last week, I found a good deal of material about civil discourse, political engagement and young people. It prompted me work up a list of hypothetical reasons why young Australians might value democracy less than their elders — if indeed that is what the data means. Here is my list:

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  • The tone of modern political discourse has caused younger generations to become disillusioned with government, and by extrapolation, with democracy.
  • Democracy is becoming more of a global norm, so that Australians, especially young Australians, take it for granted.
  • Young Australians are the beneficiaries of decades of prosperity and peace, making them complacent about the value of democracy.
  • Civics education in schools is lacking.
  • Capitalism and consumerism have bred a generation with a different range of priorities and preoccupations.
  • Prosperous non-democracies in our region are exemplars of non-democratic systems at work.

Also set out below from last year's Lowy Institute Poll are Fergus Hanson's finding that 'Australians have stronger views about human rights, particularly those directly affecting themselves'. 91% 'strongly agreed' that the 'right to vote in national elections' was 'important for you here in Australia'. Which leads to the question: do 18-29 year-olds equate democracy with the right to vote, or do they not?

Ideas, anyone?

* Conducted in collaboration with the Australia India Institute.

** The Lowy Institute Indonesia Poll 2012 was partially funded by the Australia-Indonesia Institute and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation; The Lowy Institute Fiji Poll 2011 was funded by the Myer Foundation Melanesia Program at the Lowy Institute and a private donation from Mark Johnson AO.

Photo by Flickr user Leo Reynolds.

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In what is becoming an annual ritual after the Australian budget for Foreign Affairs and Trade has been handed down, I take a look at how DFAT's New Zealand counterpart fared in its own budget-cut fest. The NZ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade 'Estimates of Appropriations' usually make Australia's DFAT look flush by comparison.

MFAT has had a turbulent few years, with the massive cuts threatened a couple of years ago wound back after something of a furore exploded in the (then) new minister's face. Cabinet papers dealing with the Government's reversal were leaked, allegedly by someone within MFAT, and the whole affair is now subject to investigation and judicial review.

2012 was to have been, on my interpretation, 'quite a good year' for MFAT. Turns out the 2012-13 budget might have involved a bit of fancy footwork by the NZ Treasury, because 2012 was in fact a horror year for MFAT. Expenditure was 11.5% down on the budgeted numbers, and the eventual estimated actual expenditure was 14% lower than the previous year's 2011-12 spend. By any measure, that's a big haircut.

That puts into context what looks like a relative budget hike this year – the NZ$505 million given to MFAT is NZ$122 million more than was spent last year, but only after two years of fairly savage cuts.

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As seems to be the rule for budget papers, the numbers hide the pain. Despite the partial reversal on job cuts, it appears around 140-150 positions were cut in 2012-13, or more than 10% of staff from an organisation of only around 1300 people. Word is that, on top of these savings, MFAT has made major organisational changes to achieve further efficiencies, scrapping the rotational system to make Wellington postings 'new' jobs rather than place-holders between overseas postings. In the words of opposition foreign affairs spokesperson Phil Goff:

We undermined our greatest asset in foreign relations, our skilled and committed workforce, all to save a miserable $12 million which after its backdown is all the Government got from its internal restructuring.

New Zealand is a tiny nation which has been extremely successful on the world stage. Its free trade agreement with China, signed in 2008, is the only FTA China has made in the developed world. As Goff points out, New Zealand's exports to China have more than doubled since the FTA commenced, and have insured New Zealand from the worst impacts of the GFC. Goff attributes this to the expertise of New Zealand’s diplomats:

Securing the free trade agreement wasn’t by good luck. It was the skill of our negotiators and the hard work in diplomacy we put in over a long period to develop a strong relationship of trust with China. 

MFAT is a small agency tasked with the large challenge of promoting New Zealand's interests in the world. There was little fat to be cut, and now there is even less. MFAT's 2013-14 budget looks to have arrested the swing of the hatchet. It remains to be seen whether the reprieve is temporary or permanent.

Photo by Flickr user juicyrai.

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The harsh sentencing of Australian businessman Matthew Joyce in Dubai yesterday brings into sharp relief the Government's messaging on consular matters and the problems it encounters regularly in dealing with what I've called Australia's consular conundrum.

The conundrum is multi-dimensional, but one key aspect is this: Australians are traveling and living overseas in greater numbers than ever, and they are becoming more demanding of government to assist them when they encounter difficulties overseas. At the same time, political leaders respond to public and media pressure to service high-profile cases, raising public expectations of what governments can do to assist the nation's citizens in distress overseas.

Mr Joyce's family must be devastated. Various accounts of the case suggest at the very least that he has been subject to lengthy delays in having his case heard, and there are reports of related legal decisions in Australia which have not been taken into account in the Dubai courts. Dubai is not part of the UAE federal judicial system, and it has its own court system. Its ability to manage financial crimes has been called into question in the past, and there have been reports of harsh penalties for what Australians might regard as trivial offences.  

No matter how much we wish otherwise, Australians traveling and working in places with different political and legal systems and religious frameworks are subject to those systems and, on occasion, their vagaries and injustices. In responding to cases like those of Matthew Joyce, our government, and particularly our foreign minister, should clearly spell out the limits of Australia's ability to intervene in the legal systems of other nations. Julie Bishop made that point this morning. Foreign Minister Bob Carr did not.

Senator Carr has made 'more than 40' representations to the UAE Government and Ms Bishop has made it clear that she would do the same if in government, saying 'we would do all we could to make representations' to the UAE Government in an attempt to secure the fair and speedy resolution of Mr Joyce's case.

There is no doubt that the Australian Government, and its diplomats, will do their best to assist Mr Joyce and his family. But there is a doubt that their efforts will be successful, and that is a message that must be made clear to Australian citizens overseas.

Photo by Flickr user The Comedian.

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DFAT's budget pain drags on. Last year's announcement of two new diplomatic missions – one in China (Chengdu) and one in Francophone Africa (Dakar, Senegal) – suggested a modest turnaround in DFAT's fortunes.

But of course it's not the fortune of DFAT that's at stake; it's the fortune of the nation.

In its Asian Century White Paper, this Government demonstrated a level of acceptance of the argument we've been making ad infinitum that Australia's overseas network needs rebuilding after decades of running-down. For Australia to prosper and profit from the opportunities generated as our region undergoes massive transformation, we should have a foreign affairs department at the peak of its capabilities and a foreign service representing Australia across the globe.

Far from rising to the challenges of the Asian Century, successive governments have almost halved DFAT's allocation over the last decade as a proportion of government expenditure, from 0.63% in 2002 to 0.35% in 2012. Looking at the last few years' inflation-adjusted data, there have been bad years (2008 was a shocker), better years (2009 was an attempt at redemption), and successive years of grinding efficiency cuts, peaking at 4% last year.

This year is no better or maybe even a little worse. The heralded Senegal mission is postponed, and we're closing Budapest. For Pete's sake, with a diplomatic network that's one of the smallest in the developed world and the smallest in the G20, we're closing posts?

Defending the closures, Foreign Minister Bob Carr insists there will be no staff cuts. The Budget papers released by his Government would appear to disagree:

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The Government will achieve savings of $88.4 million over six years...from a temporary reduction in Canberra-based positions in 2013-14...

This is on top of the 100 or more positions cut last year.*

Looking at the actual numbers (which always conceal a complex array of factors like foreign exchange movements, parameter adjustments for overseas inflation and so on), the overall departmental budget will increase by $32 million to $1.698 billion, less than $1 billion of which is provided by government appropriations, and over $300 million of which was left over from the previous year's appropriations. The increase – 1.9% — is less than CPI. By comparison, Australia's development assistance budget will hit $5.6 billion this year and we will spend $25 billion on defence. 

Foreign Minister Bob Carr gets irritable every time a commentator questions him on the 'parlous state' of DFAT's budget. 'The adjective parlous should be discarded, repudiated, torn up, stamped on', he told reporters in Canberra. Having duly done as instructed, I need another word for the state of DFAT's resourcing and the level of attention given to it by government. 'Perilous' might do.

* Clarification: although staff numbers will be temporarily reduced in Canberra in 2013-14, overall staffing levels (ASL) will rise by 57 positions during the same FY.

Photo by Flickr user Halans.

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Late last year I traveled to Port Moresby to interview some of PNG's newly elected MPs for the Lowy Institute's Leadership Mapping Project. Earlier interviews in this latest series were with Deputy Opposition leader Sam Basil, and one of the three female MPs, Governor Julie Soso.

One of the most interesting discussions I had during my week in Port Moresby was with the new Attorney-General, the Hon Kerenga Kua. He is new to both the portfolio and to parliament, although politics formed a definite part of his very clear career plan.

Kua has had a distinguished career in law, having been a founding partner in a successful commercial law practice in Port Moresby for 19 years after a 5-year stint in Sydney with the Australian firm Blake Dawson Waldron. His goal, he told me in October, was to establish a sound financial footing for himself and his family so he would not be vulnerable to the notorious corruption which infects PNG politics.

The Attorney-General has featured in the Australian press over the last week because the 'colourful' Opposition Leader, Belden Namah, is suing the government in the Supreme Court in an attempt to close down the Manus Island processing centre. While Namah says the court action is entirely motivated a desire to uphold PNG's constitution, his words suggest a slightly deeper agenda, telling ABC radio 'we can't go outside of our constitution, outside of our laws to try and please our friends.'

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My conversation with the Attorney-General in October, however, suggested that 'pleasing our friends' might indeed be one of the PNG Government's motives in hosting Australia's asylum-seekers. The Attorney-General has a great admiration for Australia as a country that 'gets things right', and told me:

The two countries are deeply bonded from the PNG perspective...knowing that we're stuck with each other...you can only understand it in times of crisis. There are very few things PNG can do for Australia...[with] Manus Island, I see that as one opportunity to help Australia — to thank it for everything it's done for us...to reciprocate for all the help we have been getting in the past.

Kua explained that opposition in PNG to the Manus Island processing centre was presented in myriad ways; as a criminal issue, as an issue of international legal obligations, and now, Namah has painted it as a breach of the nation's constitution. The Attorney-General is well-equipped to take on the Opposition in the Supreme Court, having been the lawyer for the Somare Government before the last election.

In our interview, the Attorney-General looks in some detail at the challenges for PNG's law and justice sector, the capacity and structure of the legal system, the make-up of the Supreme Court, the role of the Ombudsman and plans for an Independent Commission against Corruption.

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In October I spent a week in Port Moresby interviewing some of PNG's newly elected MPs for the Lowy Institute's Leadership Mapping Project. This work continues our earlier survey work in PNG which was interrupted by the constitutional crises in late 2011 and early this year. The elections in June 2012 confirmed Peter O'Neill as prime minister and seem to have stabilised PNG's notoriously volatile democracy.

The first interview in this latest series was with Deputy Opposition Leader The Hon Sam Basil MP, who has teamed with former Deputy PM Belden Namah to lead the somewhat diminutive 17-member opposition to the O'Neill Government.

In this interview I talk with Julie Soso, the newly elected Governor of the Eastern Highlands province. Julie Soso is a member of the Triumph Heritage Empowerment Party, which is part of the governing coalition led by Prime Minister O'Neill. Before becoming a governor and an MP, Soso was a radio broadcaster and a powerful advocate for the issues and inequities confronting women in PNG. In our interview, Soso maps her rise in PNG politics, discusses the challenges for women in PNG and candidly considers the influence of her father on her public life.

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Soso is one of only three women currently sitting in the 111-seat House. This extreme gender imbalance continues the historical male dominance in PNG's parliament; Soso is only the seventh woman elected to parliament since PNG became independent in 1975. The three female MPs (the others are Delilah Gore and new Minister for Community Services Loujaya Toni, who unseated her uncle, elder statesman Bart Philemon) represent an increase of 300% in the female representation from PNG's last parliament, in which Dame Carol Kidu was the sole female MP.

For PNG watchers: Tomorrow at the Lowy Institute, The Hon Peter O'Neill, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea, will give a public address titled 'Papua New Guinea in the Asian Century'. More information on what promises to be an important speech outlining the role in regional affairs this fast-growing economy will play, click here.

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At the end of October this year, I traveled to Papua New Guinea as part of the Lowy Institute's Leadership Mapping Project to interview Papua New Guinean leaders about their careers, motivations and aspirations for their country. I timed my visit to to coincide with the first real sitting of the new parliament following the elections in June, in which only 40 of the 109 sitting MPs were re-elected (37%) — a low number even by PNG's volatile standards.

Among the leaders interviewed was The Hon Sam Basil MP, Deputy Opposition Leader in this parliament, only the ninth since PNG's independence in 1975. This is Basil's second term in parliament, first elected in 2007 and briefly serving as Minister for Planning in the constitutionally-challenged O'Neill Government in 2011-12.

In this parliament, Basil has joined forces with Belden Namah, formerly O'Neill's deputy prime minister but not included in the new coalition government. Namah now leads the 17 MPs who form the Opposition in PNG's new 111-member parliament.

Above are some extracts from my interview with Basil, in which he talks about the problems confronting his nation, PNG's promise ('an island of gold, floating on oil') and the outlook for PNG's new generation of leaders ('they have their work cut out for them').

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