There's no joy in the budget for Australia's diplomacy. The deficit we reported last year and reiterated this year continues unabated.

There's been a modest increase, as Hamish McDonald termed it this morning. The Departmental appropriation is up to $1.328 million, $83 million more than last year (or a 6.7% increase). The Department's administered expenses (programs which it oversees but lacks ultimate control, such as the funding of the Australia Network and the running of the Shanghai Expo) fell by around $100 million.

But the real picture is much more complex. Australia still has the fifth lowest number of embassies overseas of all OECD nations (even Finland and Iceland have more). The number of our diplomats overseas was almost halved between 1989 and 2009. There are no signs of the 75 new staff overseas or 20 new missions over ten years which we recommended last year to raise Australia's diplomatic representation to a more competitive level.

The 2008-9 operating budget (excluding those administered expenses) was $1.1 billion, but this was stripped to $893 milion when programs and resources were pared back during the year. The 2009-10 budget was $1.2 billion, and that was about what was spent (but only after cuts of over $100 million over the next four years were announced back in November, taking back half of the boost heralded in the budget). On this sort of track record, this year's meagre injections look decidedly shaky.

Here's what's in the pipeline:

  • $68 million over two years for civilian engagement in Afghanistan
  • $52 million over two years to transition the Baghdad Embassy towards civilian security arrangements
  • $30 million over four years for a new passport system

That's about it, really.

Interestingly, there were 16 new items in the budget last year (such as funding the Security Council bid, the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, enhanced diplomacy and regional engagement and feasibility studies for new embassies). There are only four new items this year.

I guess there's not much scope for initiative when the budget keeps being squeezed. 

Photo by Flickr user ed ludwick, used under a Creative Commons licence.