The recent Lowy Institute PNG New Voices Conference was a much-needed shock to the complacency I have become attuned to as a member of Australia's international policy community.
It was the best Lowy Institute conference I have ever attended. In fact it was the best conference I have ever attended full stop. This is because again and again the speakers demonstrated qualities that are rare in Australian-based public discussion: passion, frankness, courage, creativity and a talent for generating new ideas. The determination to get their views across shown by those who participated was infectious.
PNG Government representatives (from Foreign Affairs, Treasury and Sports), business owners, senior NGO managers, economists, journalists, artists, students and future political candidates gave honest and considered views of where they see their country going and why PNG's politicians are not doing enough to deliver for the people they serve. Now, over email and social media, these same people are forming new networks, debating policy ideas and coordinating future meet-ups, interviews and events.
PNG public servants that spoke at PNG New Voices were careful to explain that 'the views in my speech don't necessarily represent the views of the government of PNG', before presenting fresh and frank perspectives, strong opinions and creative policy ideas. I can't image an Australian public servant able or willing to do the same.
Australia's international policy expertise within the public service is increasingly locked away from public view and public discussion. Trapped in rigid hierarchies and spread across about a dozen internationally-focused government departments, most will only reappear when they jump ship into a non-government or private sector role. Read More
Too many of these specialists spend more time briefing, coordinating and thinking about their department's place in Canberra (and their branch's place in their department, and so on) than using their knowledge to inform international policy formulation. The burden and cyclical nature of the vast demand for briefings – for politicians, senior government employees and even for mid-level public servants – is inhibiting the strategic capabilities of the public service.
Australian Government departments, intentionally or unintentionally, hinder public debate by putting up barriers that limit and discourage the participation of policymakers and public servants. The requirements to get clearance to engage in public discussion can be so demanding that a policymaker needs to assess whether it's worth their time and effort.
It's rare to see an Australian public servant ask a question in a public forum, let alone offer their opinion or idea on a topic. The barriers to participate in public discourse that have helped contribute to the over-cautious nature of Australia's internationally-focused policymakers need to be abolished. This inactive approach to participating in public discussion and debate is self-harming and short-sighted for Australia, a country which sees itself as a creative middle power.
Australia's international policy community is facing a serious predicament. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister have, at their disposal, an over-cautious, under-utilised and under-resourced (in the case of Foreign Affairs) crop of international policymakers. Worst of all, new ideas are few and far between. Even when a policy idea does survive the gauntlet of an inflexible, hierarchical clearance processes, it will not always be well communicated and may not even come to the attention to other international policy segments of the Australian public.
By putting a padlock on our public servants the Australian Government is essentially under-employing one of its most important resources. This knowledge and expertise would help inform, not hinder, Australia's international policy debate.
The over 100 Papua New Guineans who participated in PNG New Voices taught me how much Australia could learn from Papua New Guinea if only we would pay attention and listen. New ideas were being thrown up by speakers and participants. Those of us typing up notes and tweeting via #PNGNewVoices struggled to keep up. I heard more good policy ideas on 22 October in Port Moresby than I have heard over the last year in Australia's foreign policy discussions (both publicly discussed and behind closed doors).
Are Papua New Guineans better at thinking outside the box? Does the Australian public service even value new ideas and creative policy thinking? Are government policymakers, so caught up with internal administration and briefing, less informed about international developments? Is Australia always destined to host an international policy debate where policymakers rarely take part?
Sadly, Australian government agencies are not known for their ability to generate new and creative policy thinking. But this could change. Change needs to trickle down from confident leadership, both at the political and departmental level, that trusts the capabilities of the public servants they employ.
No one at PNG New Voices defended or made excuses for poor policy. No one toed the line. Refreshingly, no one spoke from a dry and unimaginative set of talking points. No one took the opportunity to lecture another group or a country. And no one criticised those who disagreed with them, instead welcoming different views and seeing this as an opportunity to take part in an informed debate. After all, a strong public discussion means that policy has been challenged and debated, and a more informed policy is good for any country. Papua New Guineans at the conference understood and encouraged this. The same attitude to international policy debate needs to develop in Australia.
Australia's international policy community is performing at partial strength. Instead of foreign policy debates flourishing as Australia faces an increasing set of complex international challenges – hosting the G20 in 2014; wedged between our core ally and key trading partner; taking on a term in the UNSC; facing the possibility of conflict in Asia – the debate is flat. And worse off because of the lack of Australian policymaker participation.
It took listening to the depth of talent that exists within Papua New Guinea's crop of emerging leaders to appreciate just how lethargic and tepid Australia's international policy community has become. Where is the passion for informed and new ideas for Australia's future place in the world? And importantly, where are Australia's emerging crop of international policy leaders? I certainly can't hear them.
Photo by Flickr user auraneurotica photo.