Over the last few years, various people at the Lowy Institute have argued strongly that Australia is under-represented diplomatically in the world. Australia lags behind most of the developed world, with 95 posts across 77 of the 193 UN member states.

The running down of the Department is not new — it is the result of bipartisan neglect over more than two decades. Twenty-five years ago, Australia's overseas diplomatic corps was a third larger than it is now. Other government departments now outnumber Australia's diplomats at our overseas missions, yet it is those diplomats who are at the frontline of Australia's international presence.

In what looks like the beginnings of a modest turnaround, in the last two months, DFAT has announced two new posts in areas of high strategic importance: in Tuesday's budget came news of a new post for Dakar in Senegal, Australia's first in Francophone Africa. In late March, Bob Carr's third announcement after assuming his role as Foreign Minister was that Australia would establish a new consulate-general in Chengdu, in western China.

These announcements come fairly swiftly on the heels of two joint parliamentary inquiries; one on Australia's relationship with Africa and an ongoing one on Australia's overseas diplomatic representation. In announcing hearings in the current inquiry, Subcommittee chair Nick Champion MP cited our calls over the last few years for 20 new missions in high priority areas such as western China and eastern Indonesia.

Appearing on parliament's website only two days ago are the latest submissions to the inquiry. The last, from DFAT, is a goldmine, particularly the response to this question from Michael Danby as Chair of the Joint Committee, to DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson:

Mr Danby: If I were to wave a magic wand and give you three figures - $25 million, $50 million and $75 million, could you, with that amount of money, work out a list of posts that you would open, given the priorities that you have outlined in the supplementary answers?

Mr Richardson: Yes.

You betcha. DFAT has now provided the Committee with a snappy and comprehensive list of priority missions to open:

  • The first round ($25 million a year added to the DFAT budget, or a 2.8% increase): Astana (Kazakhstan), Ulaanbatar (Mongolia), Dakar (Senegal), Phuket (Thailand) and Funafuti (Tuvalu).
  • The second round ($50 million a year added to the budget or a 5.7% increase): all of the above plus Algiers (Algeria), Luanda (Angola), Chongqing (inland China), Bogota (Colombia), and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).
  • The third round ($75 million a year or an 8.5% increase): all of the above plus Rabat (Morocco), Oslo (Norway) and Bern (Switzerland).

These line up with most of the recommendations in our submissions to the inquiry. In our final submission, I argued that Australia's international standing had deteriorated as a result of our inadequate diplomatic network, and that the increased whole-of-government presence at our overseas posts is as much (if not more) of a burden on Australia's diplomats as it is an advantage.

The Foreign Minister's announcements of two new posts are very welcome. We await the next 18.

Photo by Flickr user FredoAlvarez, used under a Creative Commons license.