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Diplomats need to practice street cred

By Bruce Haigh - posted Friday, 27 March 2009


The Lowy Institute study Australia's Diplomatic Deficit, Reinvesting in Our Instruments of International Policy shines a light into some of the darker recesses of the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is long overdue and the Government would do well to take its recommendations seriously.

It was a study undertaken by the Lowy Institute and chaired by Allan Gyngell, a former diplomat and now executive director of the Lowy Institute. The report is long-winded but does make some valid points. Australia does need to enhance its consular service, and giving it a separate director is a good idea. In my opinion consular staff require particular and continual training. They need specific language training for the country they are to serve in, and they (and their spouse) need access to counselling on a regular, as needed, basis. All consular duties are difficult but they receive recognition only at a time of crisis.

The role of consular officers needs enhanced recognition and perhaps a pay loading in particularly difficult posts, over and above hardship post allowances. Public diplomacy is a waste of time and money. It is impossible to spin away nasty facts such as children in detention, the Northern Territory intervention, Aboriginal health, the Government's failure to act on climate change and the Haneef affair. For better or worse, and it has been for worse, foreign ministries are stuck with the stupidities of the government of the day.

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Save money, put it into language training. The report makes a strong point about the inadequacy of language training for diplomatic officers. All DFAT officers should speak at least one foreign language. It is a disgrace when an agency such as the Australian Federal Police has more money for language training than DFAT.

Australia has too many posts in Europe and not enough in our areas of primary interest and responsibility. The report identifies these glaring weaknesses and, in view of the deteriorating international environment, they should be urgently rectified.

The professionalism outlined in the report as the basis of activities that ought to govern the undertakings of DFAT is undermined by the appointment of former politicians to senior diplomatic postings. What is the point of developing complex skills when government, through ill-advised appointments, indicates little respect for the need of those skills? What possessed Kevin Rudd to appoint Tim Fischer to the Vatican, thereby delivering not one but two lame-duck ambassadors to Rome?

The report makes a lot about the importance of globalisation and it is important, but globalisation has delivered the international recession-cum-depression. A more independent DFAT might have identified the need earlier.

Clearly, substantial checks and balances are required in the banking and financial sectors. Dealing with and resolving these issues will require a substantial degree of skilled diplomacy.

Getting more people on the ground in our region, as well as in Africa and the Americas is important. Equally important is getting people out of embassies, and in places like Islamabad out of the compounds.

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As anyone who knew me as a diplomat will tell you, I was a get-out-of-the- office diplomat. Within days of arrival at a post I had to get out and get a feel for the place. People, bazaars, sniff the wind, get a sense of the ebb and flow. For an energetic and younger diplomat (under 50, or is it 55?), being a diplomat overseas in a so-called hardship post - all of my postings were hardship - entails being part diplomat and part foreign correspondent. It is all about finding out what is going on, above and below the surface. Obtain information that others do not have and trade it for more information.

When I was in South Africa (1976-79) it was difficult for white people to go into black townships such as Soweto, but I used to go. I had established contact with a number of black activists. In Johannesburg there was an American journalist who worked for a powerful magazine but was reluctant to go into black townships. Consequently he had little contact with the black activists who mattered, but he did have contact with senior politicians, contacts denied to me. He also had an expense account far superior to mine, so it was natural we should swap information over long and convivial luncheons and dinners.

When I was posted to Pakistan I was the first Western diplomat to make contact with Benazir Bhutto following her return from exile. We became very good friends until my departure from the post at the end of 1988, shortly after she had become prime minister. Trading information with a friendly embassy about the agenda, possibilities and machinations surrounding Benazir allowed me to obtain for the Australian government as much information as was then available on Pakistan's nuclear program.

Those are two examples from my own experiences of what young Australian diplomats should be trained and encouraged to do. We do not have the resources of other countries and therefore must be able to get a lot more than most others for the dollar we spend overseas. Anyway, getting out and about into the townships and bazaars is a lot of fun. It really is what diplomacy should be about for the young diplomat.

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First published in the Canberra Times on March 20, 2009.



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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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