Alex Oliver's new Policy Brief on the Consular Conundrum tells some great stories to highlight a key problem, and comes up with some very good ideas about how to fix it (I wish I'd come up with the idea of a consular levy on passports or air fares when I looked at this issue a few years ago).

But Alex also wisely places the consular issue in the broader context of DFAT's workload and the question of the priority that ministers, and ultimately voters, place on the different functions we expect our diplomats to perform. If we assume that they are rational actors, the fact that ministers and voters have been willing to see resources swing so sharply from what one might call 'real' foreign policy to consular work shows that they value the later more than the former. 

If we in the foreign policy community think this is wrong (and I certainly do), then it is incumbent on us to explain why it is wrong. Part of that is to look at it from the consular side, as Alex does. But it is perhaps equally important to come at it from the foreign policy side, and explain why exactly we need to put more resources back into traditional diplomatic tasks.

This is something we don't do very well. Arguments for increased funding for diplomacy (including Lowy's excellent Blue Ribbon panel of a few years ago) tend to assume that diplomacy has an intrinsic value: diplomacy is good and more diplomacy is better.

I'm familiar with this style of argument from long decades in and around defence policy, where arguments for bigger defence budgets typically take the same form. But such arguments seldom work, and nor should they. Ministers should only agree to spend more on diplomacy, whether by shifting money back from consular work or by increasing the DFAT budget, if they can be persuaded that there are high-priority policy objectives that could be achieved with the extra money, and which would justify the cost.

Those of us who think DFAT needs more money therefore need to explain as precisely as we can what we think needs to be done that is not being done now, why it matters to Australians that it should be done, and how spending more on diplomacy would do it. Above all, that is what DFAT itself needs to do, and has not done (so far as I can see) for a very long time.  

This is in fact what a real Foreign Policy White Paper would be all about. It would be interesting to try and draft one.

Photo by Flickr user ~David.