A few days ago a suggestion was made on Crikey that DFAT, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, should be scrapped. I was tempted to ignore it, because as far as I can tell, the author, Jason Murphy, based his call largely on the fact that he just doesn't like free trade agreements. 

He's not alone about the TPP, of course. But the rest of the article was a bit puzzling.

The Australian Embassy, Washington, with its permanent sackcloth. (Photo by the author.)

Murphy thinks because we have agencies like Austrade and Treasury and lots of companies operating overseas, and because we are living in a 'hyper-connected' world, people and businesses can make their own way internationally perfectly well. He argues Australia only does FTAs now because DFAT is 'sniffing the winds of budget stringency' and looking for reasons to justify its existence.

Yes, we've done a few FTAs in the last couple of years, but it's likely the impetus behind the rapid sealing of the Japan, Korea and China agreements was the arrival of the Coalition Government and its new priorities in 2013, rather than DFAT defensively shifting its emphasis to trade. Murphy bolstered his argument with the World Trade Organisation's claims that the influx of FTAs is causing 'incoherence, confusion, exponential increase of costs for business, unpredictability' etc. This from an organisation which its own chief  admits has descended into 'paralysis'. It is precisely the failure of processes such as the Doha trade rounds, those multilateral processes which Murphy extols as part of his preferred model of diplomacy, which have pushed nations towards more bilateral and regional or 'minilateral' agreements. 

In a tone laden with sarcasm, Murphy would consider sparing DFAT's consular role from the axe, saying 'If you are 18 and lose your passport while drinking in Mexico City, the Australian Embassy at Ruben Dario 55 is there for you'.

This belittles the gut-wrenching work DFAT does to assist the victims of disasters, crises, serious crime and misfortune abroad. Last year alone, it provided assistance and advocacy for journalist Peter Greste imprisoned in Egypt, and support for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran executed in Indonesia, as well as their families. If you are the family of one of 38 Australians killed on MH17 last year you would have benefited from the dedication of DFAT staff, as would those caught up in Cyclone Pam, or the earthquakes in Nepal.   

Obviously, some of Murphy's criticisms hit their mark.

As with many bureaucracies, there are grey (male) heads at the top and lots of admin. DFAT is not known for innovation, although it is even getting better at that, a recent internal 'ideas challenge' generating 392 ideas, the winning two now being developed by the department.

As with many bureaucracies, DFAT is aware of its own failings. In fact, last year's Capability Review conveniently summarised most of them, noting  the staff's 'clear desire to help build on their agency's capability'.

But we wouldn't scrap other government departments because they were a tad bureaucratic, to replace them with a bunch of individual advocates and lobbyists or representatives of other agencies acting on their own account in a free-for-all. Chaos would ensue and I can't imagine much would be achieved that would actually be in the national interest. We already have a taste of how this might work with a proliferation of Australian state offices around the globe competing for attention with each other as well as with Austrade's offices, pitching against each other for slices of foreign trade and investment. This is in nobody's interest.

Before I move on to more positive stuff, I want to dispatch one or two other matters. 

DFAT has a $1.5 billion budget – less than half a percent of annual government spending. This represents the combined budgets of DFAT and the former AusAID. That 'integration' generated efficiencies, of course, with between 600-650 staff cut from the combined department over the last couple of years (from a total of around 4000 Australia-based staff). The 'winds of budget stringency' are nothing new for DFAT; it's had decades of it. In fact, as a percentage of government spending, DFAT's share dropped from 0.43% at the turn of this century to 0.28% just prior to the AusAID integration. What's left is a small amount to spend on the global engagement of one of the most globalised nations on earth.

A figure of $200,000 'per lanyard' is thrown around in the article. I gather that means staff. A cursory look at DFAT's 2015 financial statements shows that its 6102 staff (including 2344 locally-engaged staff at DFAT's embassies and consulates abroad) cost around $740 million overall, including super, leave, redundancies and so on, or on average around $118,000 per head. They'd be better off in the private sector.   

Thirdly, check out the above photo of Australia's most important embassy, in Washington DC. This is the building that is to be renovated for $230 million, a cost Murphy decries. That sackcloth covering the entire facade? It's a  permanent fixture. It's been there for years. Bits of the building keep dropping off, with a risk of hitting pedestrians on the head. Things have gotten so bad there's been talk of hosting meetings at the New Zealand embassy down the road instead.

The Australian embassy houses not just DFAT's staff but many from other Australian government departments with personnel in Washington DC (including Defence, Industry, Agriculture, AFP, Immigration and Border Protection, and so on). When the building is renovated, it will not only be safe but fit to represent Australia in a city where more nations have a presence than any other in the world. Washington DC is the place where nations congregate and negotiate, and where there is a wealth of knowledge and information of which we can take advantage if we're sufficiently well-equipped. Australia has the world's 12th largest GDP, 14th largest defence budget and is a member of the G20. We should stop underselling ourselves and start being confident enough to keep company with the other significant nations of the world.

Arguments like Murphy's come along from time to time. Sam Roggeveen dealt with a similar one here, pointing to the error of playing into 'lazy stereotypes about effete, globe-trotting diplomats'. The Interpreter has engaged in that debate when it arises, particularly when it comes to the increasingly burdensome layers of security at some of our (and others') embassies in dangerous cities. These can curtail the movement of diplomats in the host country, bogging them down with so much security when they do get outside the fortress that they can't form effective relationships and develop the understanding and knowledge of their host country that is crucial for their job.

But they are the exception. In Port Moresby, for instance, reputed to be one of the most dangerous places for diplomats to be posted, there was no evidence that excessive security prevented Australian diplomats from getting out of their compound to find out what was going on during PNG's constitutional crisis in late 2011. They got caught up in the conflict and were threatened and shoved, with automatic weapons pointed at them by disgruntled police who supported Michael Somare and sought his reinstatement as prime minister. 'It got a bit hairy but we're generally OK', an Australian official told reporters later. 

It's the knowledge that can only be gained on the ground and the relationship building that takes time to establish that makes trained diplomats essential. The very people Murphy reckons can do this stuff on their own – the business people – are frequently the ones who most appreciate the work diplomats do on their behalf. As the Australian Industry Group's Innes Willox argued in a 2012 Parliamentary Inquiry into Australia's overseas representation: 

You build relationships and you build influence through relationships. I am not sure you could build them over a telephone line or a videoconference in the long run. You need people on the ground. It can enhance it and quicken the pace.

Or the representative from the Australia Gulf Council:

Doing business in the Gulf States is linked to government connections and networks, similarly with China, and it is often the case that you need to get in the door of government first before anything can happen in terms of business and then the doors really open up.

Or the mining company Coffey International about doing business in Africa:

We certainly value having interaction with a high commission or an embassy in a country because it helps us get a voice at the table on big issues that can impede our business or strengthen our business. I refer to things like labour laws, visas, trade delegations or even getting involved in some policy dialogue with the host nation's government, which does come up a bit with foreign aid work. The Australian missions are a very good source of introduction and public intelligence. We value those resources highly.

I'll leave DFAT Secretary, Peter, Varghese, with the last word:

A subscription to The Economist is no substitute for Australian eyes on the ground. The telephone and text messages cannot substitute for the relationships that embassies build with the power brokers in other countries. A professional diplomatic service matters because we need eyes that can judge events through the prism of Australia’s national interests; which can recognise threats and opportunities; which can make a case for Australian interests that is sensitive to the nuances of culture and history; which can cultivate the networks and relationships without which we simply could not pursue our core interests.

'Eyes that can judge events through the prism of Australia's national interest'. Exactly.