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The case for a new white paper and annual statements on Australian foreign policy and diplomacy

By Ordan Andreevski - posted Wednesday, 22 April 2015


There is growing concern in Australia about the quality and fitness for purpose of the existing model for shaping and implementing foreign and trade policies in a complex, interdependent and fast changing world. Australia's major and minor political parties have been reluctant to scrutinise, debate or innovate our nation's instruments of foreign policy and diplomacy.

The last time Australia produced a White Paper on Foreign and Trade policy was in 2003. White papers are tools of participatory democracy which can be legitimised and validated through policy input by inviting opinion and facts from key stakeholders. Annual statements on foreign policy can also be effective mechanisms for outlining and refining diplomatic priorities and strategies for achieving positive and significant impact.

Before presenting the case for a new white paper and annual statements on Australian Foreign Policy and Diplomacy in greater detail, it is useful to examine what doesn't work in the current approaches to formulating and implementing Australian foreign policy and diplomacy and why that matters.

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Australian foreign policy formulation and implementation has traditionally been conducted in a 'closed circle' of lawmakers, diplomats and vested interest groups without any regular or substantial national, parliamentary or foreign policy debates. This might have been acceptable in the 20th century when foreign policy was seen by the elite as a highly complex process which is best managed by experts and when buy-in from stakeholders was not a high priority but not now.

In the 21st century, key stakeholders in modern and multicultural Australia have the legitimate right, the capacity, the obligation and expectation to contribute fresh ideas and analysis on continuous improvement of foreign policies and diplomatic outcomes. They use research, advocacy, strategic communication and social media as platforms for engagement, knowledge transfer and value adding.

The electorate and some former federal ministers are worried about the dumbing down of democracy and the reluctance by the major political parties to analyse, explain and continuously improve the quality and impact of foreign policy and diplomacy.

The elite media is partly to blame for the lack of meaningful coverage and debate on Australian foreign policy and diplomacy. Media organisations from the private and the public sector have constantly reduced the number of specialist journalists with deep and contemporary knowledge of international affairs, foreign correspondents and diplomatic editors. They have outsourced this important function to external international providers without much scrutiny about the bias, quality and accuracy of 'news' stories.

Civil and academic society is not happy with the status quo for a number of reasons. First, our leading foreign policy think tanks such as the Lowy Institute of International Policy and Australian Institute of International Affairs and other civil society groups have expressed concern about the constant underinvestment in the instruments of international policy making and diplomacy. The integration of AusAid into DFAT and the significant cuts to Australia's international development assistance budgets will have a detrimental impact on Australia's image and reputation as a respectable and influential G20 nation.

Second, too much emphasis is again placed on fighting new wars on terror, surveillance and military intervention. Too little emphasis is focused on new and improved ways of co-operation, power sharing, resource sharing agreements and strategic partnerships with key stakeholders for mutual benefit.

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Third, there is concern about the lack of novel approaches for measuring the productivity and effectiveness of Australian foreign policy and diplomacy in a transparent, comprehensive, rigorous and regular way. DFAT has established the Office of Aid Effectiveness but not an Office of Foreign Policy and Diplomacy Effectiveness.

Fourth, Australia needs to constantly improve, sophisticate and broaden its relations with the region and the world given the inter-dependencies that exist for solving wicked transnational problems like global and regional security, climate change and economic development in line with G20 commitments. Australia must therefore work on sharpening its grand strategy and institutional capacity for international engagement, diplomacy and foreign policy impact.

Fifth, the latest Inter-Generational report warns us that in the next 30 years Australia will have far fewer tax payers and less revenue (if it does not change the tax system to generate growth and to tax those that are paying close to zero tax now). There will be less resources to invest in foreign policies and diplomatic programs. This means we have to master the art of statecraft to better advance our national interest with less input. Operating in a budget constrained environment is hampering the efforts of dedicated and highly respected foreign ministers like the Hon Julie Bishop MP from achieving her full potential on the world stage. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has stated that Australia's image overseas is positive and the country is seen as a creative middle power but she is undermined by budget cuts to her portfolio.

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About the Author

Ordan Andreevski is Director of Australian Outreach, United Macedonian Diaspora.

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All articles by Ordan Andreevski

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

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