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Projecting Australia's soft power

By Ben Moles - posted Friday, 31 May 2013


In a piece I'd previously written questioning and cautioning the utility, from an Australian perspective, of adopting the 'Indo-Pacific' region as our own I stated that Australia, on the regional and global stage diplomatically, simply isn't doing enough. DFAT is simply over stretched and under resourced, a plight Lowy's Alex Oliver continues to diligently remind us the perils of. By no means a unique condition to Australia, globally, ministries of foreign affairs are going through a period of austerity and trimming overseas networks- creating a void and generating a need to think more creatively about how to maximise their Government's impacts. As Australia now broadens its horizons looking ahead to the 'Indo-Pacific' Asian century, establishing an Australia Council modified and modelled on the British Council might provide the solution.

Currently, beyond the official Australian diplomatic missions abroad Australia makes effective use of Austrade for: facilitating Australia-host state trade and investment initiatives, promoting the Australian Education sector, as well as in some cases providing limited consular services. Less well known is Australia's International Cultural Council (under the wing of DFAT) that focuses purely on the promotion of Australian arts and cultural exchanges.

So why then, an Australia Council?Australia needs to increase its diplomatic footprint, moving into countries where it isn't currently and diffusing away from the capital cities and main centres in countries where it currently is. DFAT doesn't have the resources to do this, leaving a void. A modified Australia Council modelled on the British Council might offer a low cost temporary solution and provide a foundation upon which something more substantial can later be built upon; temporarily touching and filling the void.

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The British Council was created in 1934. Its purpose: "The British Council creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide." Essentially it is tasked with promoting British culture, language and business around the world. In diplomatic speak it is a 'quango', an Independent, though partly Government funded (less than one-third), not-for-profit charity that during 2011-12 turned over £739 million. Joseph Nye would consider such an entity a facilitator for 'soft-power' projection, an effective means of positively promoting and beaming Brand UK/GB around the globe.

However, the British Council has certainly not been without its critics and through consideration of its criticisms and in addressing, understanding and making the necessary modifications specific to Australia's needs, Australia has the opportunity to learn, adapt and create something potentially far-better.

The results drivenorganisational culture that emerged and largely stymied public sector departments and the policy establishment under Labour in Britain from the mid 2000's, whereby results, immediate results and public accountability became paramount, lies at the heart of the British Councils main criticism. The problem vis-à-vis the British Council was the expectation of achieving measurable 'analogue results' from a 'digital age' beast. The British Council, its operating environment and soft-power goals are unique, the metrics of its success are not and cannot be immediately measured in binary zeros and ones (successes or failures) but on wider impact across multiple plains over time.

Accusations have also been levelled against the British council that it directly and aggressively competes with, in particular language teaching, organisations that it claims to be representative of- in some markets holding a monopoly, an accusation difficult to refute the validity of. However, the British Council attempts to justify this in relation to Government funding cuts and a need to shore up its finances in order to sustain itself and the broader work that it does during these financially difficult times, it is a means that justifies the end.

The recent funding cuts to the British Council has been a further criticism suggesting a decline in its overall significance and standing, however, the funding cuts made to the British Council have been in line with other Government spending cuts and austerity measures, by no means an indication signalling the death or end of the British Council. Far from it, on balance, factoring a simple cost-benefit analysis the British Council remains "One of the great bargains on the Treasury's list".

On the global stage, the British Council is certainly not alone in the public diplomacy work that it does. Beyond it exists and extends a plethora of other states' public diplomacy outfits including: the Goethe-Institut, Alliance-Francaise, and Confucius-Institute, to name only a few, holding a light to Australia's public diplomacy deficiency, further strengthening the case for establishing an Australia Council. If others can and are doing it, why aren't we?

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What would the Australia Council do?Similarly to its British counterpart, it would promote Australia and strengthen host state links and ties with Australia across: Culture, Education and Business in places where there is a need and where Australia is currently absent- they would touch, and temporarily fill, the void. The Australia Council could also act as a facilitator (a node between Australian Embassies/Consulates and the public) and be established as a first point of contact for those locally who have an interest in Australia and visiting Australians with local inquiries, potentially relieving some of the burden from Australia's already under-strain Embassies and Consulates.

How would it do it?Principally through students and graduates. Why? Generally, they are capable and have relevant skills, are keen to work and gain work experience and are free-to-cheap! Many Australian students already take a gap year before, during or after their study and visit places where an Australia Council could be established. Furthermore, International students/graduates returning home from Australian universities could also provide a potentially rich as yet untapped resource possessing valuable existing local knowledge and networks and, yet more valuable still, all-important language skills. What better ambassadors for Brand Australia?

Australia Councils could be run on minimal full-time staff, predominantly consisting of recent graduates to keep costs low, creating and utilising an internship program to satisfy its other specific work requirements and needs. Having been one myself, I know many students/graduates would jump at the chance to take part in such a program in exchange for a minimal per diem to cover basic living costs (which factoring many of Australia's potential target countries, wouldn't be much) and would even be happy to cover their own costs to get there (DFAT already offers some such internship opportunities under similar conditions) and the charitable status of such an enterprise would effectively mean interns would be volunteering- negating work visa requirements. A logical progression would be to, over time, nominate a full time Australia Council employee, at each Australia Council, and create Honorary Consuls of them, enabling them to take on more consular service duties.

How would such an enterprise be funded? Similarly to the British Council. The British Council receives less than one third of its funding from British Government grants. The Australian Government would have to do likewise. A mix of revenue producing commercial activities and sponsors/benefactors would have to be sought to cover the rest.

Creating a network of Australia Councils could be a potential win-win situation: The Australian Government gets to promote Brand Australia, at the same time increasing its diplomatic and 'soft-power' reach- on the cheap; Australia Council sponsors get to positively promote themselves through sponsorship association; the host state has a new outlet for establishing closer links to Australia at no incurred cost to itself; and students/graduates would have an opportunity to gain valuable 'real life' beneficial work experience and all this achieved at a fraction of the cost of setting up a diplomatic mission- which, as things stand, wouldn't exist otherwise anyway.

The Australia Council would support, not supplant DFAT; a little something directed in the right places would certainly be better than the extant nothing. At the very least, a case for establishing an Australia Council exists and warrants further investigation.

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About the Author

Ben Moles holds a Master of International Security Degree from Sydney University. He has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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