Sunday, November 4, 2012

Time to Close Australia's Diplomatic Deficit

The recently tabled report on Australia's Overseas Representation – Punching below our weight? by the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee of the Australian Parliament confirmed what many concerned stakeholders such as the Lowy Institute, peak business groups, DFAT chiefs and operatives, aid organisations and diasporas have been saying for a long time. That is, the value of robust diplomacy, innovation and good foreign policy has been poorly understood and neglected by successive Australian Foreign Ministers, by Treasury and the Australian Parliament over the last three decades.

This current diplomatic deficit is a serious problem which is preventing Australia from achieving better trade, investment, strategic, cultural, environmental and public diplomacy outcomes on the regional and on the world stage. It is a pressing issue that must be addressed this financial year by the Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr, with the support of the Prime Minister, Treasury, the Coalition and other key stakeholders such as diasporas.

There are a number of possible explanations as to why an advanced economy and 'creative middle power' such as Australia has allowed itself to fall behind the G20 and the OECD economies in terms of its diplomatic representation and impact. Unlike the USA, Australia does not have a tradition of placing great importance on foreign policy and on extensive and robust diplomatic engagement with the world. Whereas in the USA, foreign policy is regularly debated as part of the presidential election cycle, this has never been the case in contemporary Australian elections and politics. The absence of foreign policy debates during Australian elections or in the Australian Parliament and the relatively poor coverage of international issues in the mainstream media has created a culture of ignorance and underinvestment in new diplomatic strategies, networks, human resources, programs, projects.

The secretive modus operandi of foreign policy making committees and advisers in the Australian Parliament and DFAT has kept this part of public policy without any real scrutiny, debate or innovation. The Inquiry into Australia's Overseas Representation has demonstrated that the current diplomatic strategies and practices are more often than not, disconnected from the real needs of key internal and external stakeholders in business, industry and communities that are impacted by the quality of Australia's diplomatic representation. Important decisions about where to open and sustain diplomatic missions and what value they should be adding to Australia are still made by so called foreign policy 'experts' and a small group of elected representatives without too much accountability, transparency or consultation. Such an approach is no longer acceptable or sustainable as it is fails to deliver the diplomatic and development results which Australia needs to achieve on the world stage.

The diplomatic deficit in Australia comes at a time when the majority of G20 countries have been strengthening their capacity to deliver innovative and highly effective diplomatic impact and engagement practices. In our Indo-Pacific neighbourhood, almost all of the countries in ASEAN have been strengthening their diplomatic reach, influence, communication and research capabilities. Our biggest trading partners in the region such as China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and India have been moving forward economically and strategically using their overseas diplomatic networks to nurture relationships with key stakeholders and to open new opportunities for greater and more seamless trade, investment and knowledge transfer. This is in sharp contrast with the declining diplomatic significance of the European Union, where rich and poor governments have been introducing austerity measures including cut backs on diplomacy in the hope to turn around the pressing economic and financial problems in the Eurozone.

The Australia in the Asian Century white paper launched by Prime Minister Julia Gillard provides further pressure to close Australia's diplomatic deficit. This is based on ambitious targets for transforming Australia's capabilities to address the challenges and opportunities of a prosperous and influential Asia. Australian diplomacy can play a major role in helping Australia to be well placed to benefit from the growth and development of the Asian region.

There will be some people in the Australian Government, the Australian Parliament and in the media who think that Australia is not punching below its weight. They will cite the recent success of Australia's win of a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council as evidence that we can achieve significant results with a shoe-string budget. These people are in the minority and short sighted.

The Macedonian community in Australia has been working in partnership with the Australian Government and the Australian Parliament to enhance Australia's image and reputation on the world stage and to improve the nation's diplomatic effectiveness and efficiency. The United Macedonian Diaspora made a formal submission to the Inquiry into Australia's Overseas Representation and participated in the public hearings in Melbourne. As part of the Roadmap for Advancing Australia Macedonian Relations, the United Macedonian Diaspora called on Macedonia to support Australia's bid for a non-permanent seat at the UNSC which Macedonian did with pleasure last month at the UN.

It is pleasing to note that the Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee took up many of the recommendations made by the United Macedonian Diaspora for improving Australia's diplomatic network and its communication and stakeholder engagement practices. The Macedonian community wants Australia to open and Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia similar to what is in place in Zagreb, Croatia. Such a diplomatic post will meet the needs of Australians who visit country and help Australia to engage with the economic, political, social and cultural leaders and institutions in the region. The community also expects Australia to end the de-legitimisation of Macedonia which has been in place since 1993 for no good foreign policy, economic or strategic benefit to Australia. This can be achieved by recognising the Republic of Macedonia under its legitimate constitutional name. By Ordan Andreevski
On Line Opinion (Australia)

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