Not much in the budget to get excited about for the beleaguered Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Australia's economy continues its seemingly inexorable growth trajectory, and our aid spending flourishes with an 11% increase in official development assistance  — around half a billion dollars — since last financial year, with a re-stated commitment to increase this to 0.5% of gross national income by 2015-16. Yet DFAT's revenue from government will fall another 6% this year (around $53 million), its overall agency resourcing shrinking by over $113 million.

Sorry to keep harping on about this, but it's disheartening to tell the same old story every second Tuesday in May. In the Budget Statements, the bean counters attribute some of the shrinkage to foreign exchange movements and amortisation arrangements, but the real killer is the 'savings measures agreed in the 2010-11 Mid year Economic and Fiscal Outlook'. These required the department to find $45.5 million in savings from its less-than $1 billion and already over-stretched operating budget.

The Portfolio Budget Statements shed little light on where the savings are supposed to be coming from.

DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson indicated in Senate Estimates hearings in February that the 'global network' — Australia's diplomatic missions overseas — would be preserved. 'Average staffing levels' indicated in the Statements suggest staff will be cut in the Department's major programs, but that this will be offset by staffing increases in passports, consular and security operations.

The Department continues to struggle to resource any meaningful sort of public diplomacy program, its budget falling again by 22% to just over $24 million. The Australia Network, our international television broadcasting service, receives $20 million of this (but that also suffers from eroding budget syndrome, its budget 19% leaner in real terms than in 2001-02).

Of course, there's some new funding. Border security, the Bali process and measures against people smuggling get $9 million over two years. The UN Security Council bid continues ($10 million). The only newsworthy fragment is $4 million for consular services (another thing we've been harping about), following the recent spate of international crises in the Middle East and natural disasters in Japan and Christchurch. 

But before we get too excited about these little morsels, the forward estimates show that the Department's revenue from government will be $100 million less each year between now and 2015 than it was in 2010-11.

What is interesting, though, is the Strategic Direction Statement in the DFAT budget papers. At first glance, it differs little from last year's — a tweak here, a cut and paste there. But here are some examples of slight shifts in strategic direction for the Department under the new Foreign Minister:

  • It will 'intensify' engagement with China.
  • It will 'uphold Australia's strong record of global action on climate change' (missing from last year's strategic statement).
  • It will 'promote and actively support international pressure on Fiji's military regime' (just like last year, despite pressure from several corners including the Institute's Myer Melanesia Program Director Jenny Hayward-Jones and the CEO of ANZ Pacific).
  • 'Core work' for the Department will be 'support for strengthened regional architecture that promotes enhanced political, security and economic dialogue among regional states' (again, missing from last year's statement).

Working with an ever-diminishing budget, a small diplomatic footprint and a resourcing 'hangover' from its contraction in the '90s and 2000s, just where the Department will find the resources to invest in this work is unclear.

Photo by Flickr user scottobear.