FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Warren ReidNews Weekly
Plum postings for Australia's new aristocracy
, August 16, 2008
Appointing former politicians to plum diplomatic postings can damage Australia's overseas interests, warns Warren Reed.A trading nation like Australia has more than one set of eyes and ears guarding its interests on the international stage. The intelligence agencies play a major role in this regard, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) playing another vital part of the machinery of government.
Diplomats aren't sent overseas to hold glasses at cocktail parties. They're part of an ongoing and sophisticated network of contacts built up over years and maintained through trust, discretion and alacrity. The waters in which they trawl for information in foreign capitals and other major cities contain a wide range of decision-makers handling issues that are important to Australia.Tension
This is one of the main reasons that a country's overseas spy agency depends heavily on diplomatic cover. It's within that same group that intelligence operatives aspire to recruit people with access to the secrets we want. Both crafts dovetail in interesting ways, but each has its own distinctive techniques and proficiencies. Sometimes this leads to tension along the seismic fault-line where they join.
Diplomacy is best left to professionals, not because of their urbanity and polish but because a diplomat's network of contacts expands and deepens with promotion and experience. Even for a comparatively small country like Australia, it's not unusual for a senior officer or ambassador to already be well known to his or her main counterparts at a key overseas post. That is an asset.
An Australian embassy is rarely, if ever, helped by having a former politician helicoptered in at the top, even if the person concerned does have a network of his or her own. It will usually be one built up through years of wheeling and dealing, rather than through any understanding of the nuances of other cultures, languages and different ways of thinking.
Kevin Rudd should appreciate this better than most. Alexander Downer should have too. Though both are former diplomats, their awareness of what it takes to maintain a healthy diplomatic service dissipates as soon as they're caught up in the cut and thrust of the political world.
Dispensing favours starts early on in a new government's term, and the Rudd Labor Government is no exception.
The urge to cast a diplomatic dukedom in some party hack's direction, or even an earldom to a retiring Opposition member, is hard to resist, especially when it forms part of a broader game plan. What we end up with, by any measure, is an aristocracy comprised of discarded beauties from the previous regime supplemented by a gaggle of new appointments.
People such as Tim Fischer, widely regarded as a decent and plain-speaking man, often find themselves caught up in this process. Other former politicians, especially those whose only achievement is to run a state into the ground, expect a high-level posting as their due entitlement. Such arrogance is breathtaking, as is the assumption that the taxpayer should pay for the indulgence.
Meanwhile, most diplomats (certainly not all) know how to grow into ambassadorial status and use it to further Australia's national interest. The average politician on a plum posting, however, endowed with splendid digs, a chauffeur and the title of Excellency, is usually a burden that no embassy should have to bear.
Politicians, of course, are rarely known to push for hardship posts where the electricity is off more than it's on, where sewage overflows into the street and where you have to watch out for rabid dogs. That job can be left to somebody else.
What they ignore is the way in which they trample over the career structure of which professional diplomats are part, and of which an ambassadorship stands at the pinnacle. That's often where diplomats get to make their most useful contribution to their nation's well-being.
But all of this is just half of the story.
The other is the insidious drift in Australia away from our traditional Westminster system to something resembling a Washington style of government.
One manifestation of this is the centralisation of power around the prime minister, seen decades ago in the rapid expansion of the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet. That establishment is now a top-heavy replica of almost every other part of the federal bureaucracy, sucking oxygen out of important departments like DFAT.
At the apex of the system is the Office of the Prime Minister, in which virtually everything of any consequence is nowadays decided, including on the foreign policy front.
It is reported that Kevin Rudd favours the US custom of the president appointing most senior ambassadors, and a number of lesser ones too, from the ranks of his own friends and supporters. It is common for a top party fundraiser in the US to be rewarded in this way. Let's hope that's not the direction we're heading in here, with the cronyism that goes with it.
DFAT has been hollowed out and is now a sad shell of what it should be. From around 2,500 staff in the mid-1990s, it dropped to around 2,000 a decade later. Today, its effective diplomatic staff numbers are below that level. It has also recently taken a $57 million cut and lost nearly 50 positions overseas and at home.
This is farcical at a time when China's footprint on the global stage steadily increases, when Russia is resurgent, when countries like India and Brazil are carving out a major role for themselves and a Great Game Mark II is upon us.
All of these developments impact significantly on Australia, for which reason we need all the professional eyes and ears we can get, and hold for lengthy periods of time.
The challenge to this country couldn't be greater.
It is odd that Kevin Rudd, with his apparent expertise on Asia, thinks he can afford to play the old political game of white-anting Australia's diplomatic service.
What's at stake here is the national interest, and hence it's not unreasonable for us to expect our politicians, including him, to put that ahead of profligacy and privilege.- Warren Reed was an intelligence officer for 10 years with the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), which included work under diplomatic cover.