Tasting the new DFAT omelette
16 Mar 2015|

Labor has made no promise to 'unscramble' the DFAT omelette

Some costs and benefits of Australia’s Foreign Affairs revolution are clear.

The revolution was DFAT swallowing AusAID (Pre-FAT eats WasAID, in Casey Building argot), crunching together diplomatic pinstripes and aidies.

A benefit for the Abbott government is that the noise of the integration was a scrap of cover for the final slaying of the golden aid consensus. So ended an unusual era when large injections of dollars pumped up Oz aid and AusAID. Reversing the gold flow to aid contributed $11 billion to budget forward estimates, giving Oz a world ranking for aid trashing. Polls show that taking 20% of the savings out of the one percent of the budget going to aid didn’t disturb voters.

Those benefits—budget boost and little public cost—go to the government, not DFAT, as an institution. But what of the costs?

Australia’s capacity to work in the development field has been greatly reduced. The development world is a complex one, full of specialised knowledge, experience, agencies and skills. Global development is an industry with its own language, literature and institutions. With AusAID, Australia had an identifiable government agency able to play in that world. This capacity has not been lost, but its bureaucratic standing has been reduced and value downgraded.

The disappearance of AusAID—and to a degree, the disappearance of Australia’s aid program inside DFAT—will not rate as an issue for countries in the developing world.  Papua New Guinea and the Islands can still expect Australia to perform normal service as the largest donor in the South Pacific. Capitals such as Jakarta and Hanoi will view the change as Australia’s business.

As Tony Abbott has just discovered with Indonesia, extracting direct influence or explicit diplomatic return from aid is problematic. Indeed, the government’s integration of AusAID to enable the ‘aid and diplomatic arms of Australia’s international policy agenda to be more closely aligned’ is an expression of how difficult it is to identify explicit relationship benefits flowing from aid generosity. Jakarta has just endorsed Abbott’s integration/alignment argument by showing that a billion dollars of post-tsunami help doesn’t generate much leverage or linkage on other issues.

Has the change damaged Australia?  Has Australia’s capacity to engage effectively with developing countries in our region been reduced?  The truth of the matter (whisper it) is that Australian aid has always been designed to advance Australia’s interests.  Humanitarianism hasn’t been absent from the Australian aid program, but it’s never been the dominant part.

Australia’s ability to use ‘aid diplomacy’ has been damaged.  Good aid makes a difference and does help development. Emphasise the word ‘good’; it has to be well-designed and delivered to get respect from other governments and bureaucracies. To design, deliver and maintain a program is hard. Very hard. It was AusAID’s number one priority. It’s not DFAT’s. Still, aid will continue to be a significant element in the country-to-country game known as ‘the relationship’, the diplomatic construct monitoring the bilateral business in all its temperatures—from famously to friendly to febrile to flaming.

Governments are elected to choose and the Abbott government has certainly delivered a decision. AusAID had grown too quickly, which happens during gold rushes. Aid strategy was not particularly well-managed during the Rudd-Gillard period, although the ‘dysfunction’ cry was common across much of the bureaucracy. Putting down an institution certainly ranks as a decisive response to whatever problems there were.

The ultimate Canberra judgement on integration will arrive with the next change of government. If Labor does not unscramble the omelette, the new structure will be the new norm. In the same way, Labor’s marriage of Trade and Foreign in 1987 was not entrenched as the Canberra consensus until a Liberal-National Coalition government regained office. In 1996, the National Party leader, Tim Fischer, took the Trade portfolio, as tradition demanded, but did not seek a bureaucratic divorce to break-up DFAT, marking a distinct shift in the wombat tribe’s McEwenist Trade heritage. In 2013, Tony Abbott completed this process by giving Trade to a Liberal, not a wombat, breaking seven decades of Coalition law/lore.

In Opposition, Labor has been feeling the aid industry’s pain but making no promise about AusAID’s resurrection. Labor laments ‘the destruction of the bipartisan approach to aid’ and claims the Abbott government ‘has made Australian aid less efficient and less effective’. Yet Labor says when it returns to office ‘it will not be a simple matter of pressing the restart button’.

The no ‘restart’ line means that the big aid speech by Labor’s deputy leader and Foreign Affairs shadow, Tanya Plibersek, contained no promise to unscramble the DFAT omelette.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Christian Kadluba.