Alex Oliver deserves congratulations for her continuing focus on the problems that confront DFAT, both as a result of the excessive demands made for consular assistance and the continuing reduction of its financing.
As she is very much aware, consular demands are a long-standing issue and I readily remember the Jehovah's Witness who roundly abused me in Phnom Penh over fifty years ago when, as a junior foreign service officer, I told him the Australian embassy could not intervene to prevent the Cambodian authorities expelling him for proselytising while in the country on a tourist visa.
More generally, and as raised by Hugh White in March, it is important to ask what it is we expect from DFAT. In relation to both Alex's and Hugh's contributions, I wonder if we are not dealing, at least in part, with a systemic problem of DFAT's place within the Australian Public Service. In making the following comments I recognise that my own public service experience, initially with DFAT and later with ONA, ended a long time ago.
At the risk of offending a great many people, I wonder if it is not in fact the case that DFAT is a relatively poor player in the Canberra milieu and regarded as such by the real movers and shakers within the public service — the heavyweight departments such as PM&C, Treasury, Defence and other assorted domestic departments.
To some extent DFAT brings this down upon itself, both avoidably and unavoidably: avoidably since it seems to me that too many of its ministers and secretaries have not wanted to engage in the infighting that other departments see as their meat and drink. Unavoidably since both DFAT's ministers and its personnel spend so much of their time abroad, which automatically sets them apart from their fellow ministers and from the rest of the public service. There are exceptions to this generalisation, but to start justifying my comments in detail would probably be actionable.
Too often ministers have either had no heart for pushing the Department's barrow or have become so consumed with particular projects that fighting the Department's corner was something they neglected to do. When I joined what was then External Affairs in the pre-Cambrian age (1958), RG Casey was the minister and there were so few of us trainees (five) that we all spent a week in the minister's office in the first year of our training. It was during my week that Casey said to me (and my memory is clear on this quote) after complaining about the budget that 'I'm not going to argue with (Treasurer) Fadden; the man's not a gentleman.'
Of course there have been exceptions, but there has always been a tendency on the part of DFAT officers to feel that they are different — as indeed they are, in many ways. But particularly at lower levels, this sometimes exacerbates dislike and disdain among other public servants.
Photo by Flickr user R/DV/RS.