Richard Broinowski writes:

Even in his short tenure as a junior officer in pre-Cambrian Canberra, Milton Osborne learnt a hoary tale. External Affairs, later Foreign Affairs, and later again Foreign Affairs and Trade, didn't have the influence of domestically-grounded Commonwealth departments like PM&C, Minerals and Energy, Primary Industry or Treasury.

But Foreign Affairs was not unique. Foggy Bottom, the Foreign Office, the Gaimusho, and the Quai d'Orsay all lacked, and lack, domestic political grunt, and for two obvious reasons. First, votes are not won at home on foreign policy issues (except notably, in contemporary Australia, on consular issues and boat people). Second, if you send half your establishment abroad for half their professional lives, they lack not so much the stomach, as Milton suggests, but the continuity at home, to engage in heavy bureaucratic battles.

A third reason, not unique to Australia, is funding, or rather the lack of it.

In round figures, DFAT's 2013/4 budget is $1.6 billion compared to AusAID's budget of $5.5 billion and Defence's $25 billion and counting. Given that diplomacy is a country's first line of defence (talk is more effective than war), we could buy more national security by diverting the cost of even a pair of Lockheed Martin F-35 semi-stealth fighters towards more professional representation abroad. But do the Canberra bean-counters see this? Certainly not, it seems in Treasury or on Russell Hill.

But how lacking in influence really is DFAT? Last week, senior officers came to Sydney and had a day of consultations at the Intercontinental Hotel with what they termed 'civil society'. On the agenda were some of Australia's key overseas concerns: Afghanistan, DPRK, the Middle East, Africa, and then workshops on key partners, including Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia and China. All sessions were well attended by members of the business community in Sydney and NGOs. Energy levels were high, a bit like Lowy luncheons but more so.

Then, also last week in Canberra, DFAT had another all-day session at Casey House with civil society, this time on what we should be aiming to achieve during the next two years as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. More high energy discussion with another crowd of NGOs (not so many business people). Very good and productive vibes everywhere. At a reception at Parliament House, Bob Carr later told us that all these meetings were an initiative of the Department, not his. The meetings are being replicated around Australia, presumably at the initiative of the Department's new Secretary, Peter Varghese.

At a separate session a couple of us had with the Deputy Secretary for Strategy at Defence at Russell Hill, he repeatedly deferred to DFAT as the people to talk to about Australia's nuclear policies.

Despite its chronic budget problems, none of this supports the contention that DFAT is out of the policy loop, or behind the policy eight ball.