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Former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Secretary Peter Varghese once publicly lamented ‘the disturbing trend for incoming governments to sack some Secretaries’ which is ‘highly corrosive of the culture of impartial service which is essential to an effective public service’.
By this logic John Howard would have left in place as the DFAT Secretary Mike Costello, widely seen as highly partisan to Labor, to implement his international policies. That would have been absurd.
After Tony Abbott’s landslide win in September 2013, just as in the Costello case, ‘a culture of impartial service’ aren’t the words many in the Coalition would have used to describe our foreign affairs bureaucracy. On the contrary, the experience since has underlined beyond any doubt that the Left’s long march through the institutions has included the capture of DFAT. Our diplomats deny anti-conservative prejudice but it is deeply entrenched. In hindsight it’s a pity that Abbott on becoming prime minister didn’t make more radical changes in relation to the upper echelons of our foreign affairs bureaucracy than did Howard.
After the 2013 election, there were profound misgivings in Liberal-National ranks about whether the bureaucracy could be trusted to implement Abbott’s ‘more Jakarta less Geneva’ approach to foreign policy – i.e. less United Nations-focussed activity and more building of important bilateral relationships – and more broadly to respect the Coalition’s foreign policy positions as distinct from Labor’s.
The signs in opposition hadn’t been promising. For example after Tony Abbott made it clear that, for reasons of cost and distortion to Australian foreign policy, if he won office he’d ditch Labor’s campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-14, then DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson said publicly that to debate the case for the bid was ‘pathetic’. In the circumstances this was an extraordinarily partisan thing for a nominally apolitical official to say. Moreover the CVs of most of DFAT’s senior staff didn’t suggest much enthusiasm for Coalition governments. In September 2013, despite John Howard’s fairly recent period in office, all four of DFAT’s Canberra-based Deputy Secretaries had previously been staffers for Labor ministers and none had worked in a Coalition foreign minister’s office.
Still, despite the caricature of Tony Abbott as a take-no-prisoners right-wing warrior, in this case a policy of crossed fingers was adopted as he deferred to public service conventions and gave existing DFAT and Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) management a chance to demonstrate loyalty to his government.
The bureaucracy responded quite well to implementing the headline Abbott/Bishop international policy commitments such as the new Colombo Plan, finalising free trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea and refocusing the aid programme.
To any Canberra insider, especially ones in Coalition circles, the fact that most of our diplomats are leftish is a given. But the foreign service’s political bias matters and is a real issue for Liberal-National governments – obviously not so much for Labor. If the bias isn’t corrected by close government management, DFAT’s bureaucracy and operations (cost: $5.1 billion this financial year including for overseas aid) will go their own way and capture ministers and even prime ministers along the way. Some of the following generalisations are inevitably impressionistic, but I believe they hold up.
The spirit of Gough Whitlam continues to hover over DFAT’s R.G. Casey Building. Most of our diplomats dream of an Australia less aligned with the US and have an often unqualified enthusiasm for the United Nations. They prefer Greens/Labor approaches to climate change to those of the Coalition. They’re deeply uncomfortable with recent Coalition governments’ border protection policies and like the 1970s version of multiculturalism which ‘celebrates diversity’ without much concern for common values and integration. They want us unshackled, as they see it, from our symbolic linkages with the UK.
Those with views on Europe tend to an uncritical enthusiasm for the EU integrationist project and contempt for Brexit – even though most Australians would never accept the radical compromises of sovereignty and the lax control of borders required by EU membership.
After September 2013, despite progress towards the implementation by DFAT and PM&C of the new headline foreign and trade policies, Coalition worries about the foreign affairs bureaucracy persisted. That was because, aside from the need to implement a few new policies, it continued to behave as if there’d been no change of government. On many issues the underlying message was that there hadn’t been any problems with Australia’s international relationships under Labor and what was needed was policy continuity.
New ministers and their staff couldn’t believe, for example, that the bureaucracy had to be told that they had more interest in updates on stopping the people smugglers’ boats than on UN Security Council activities. Or that it mulishly refused to accept that any repairing of relations with the US after the Rudd-Gillard years was necessary – even though Washington had made no secret of its concern that defence spending under Labor had dropped to the lowest level as a proportion of GDP since the 1930s. There was widespread astonishment in the Coalition that the bureaucracy seemed dismissive of Prime Minister Abbott’s commitment to restore defence spending to at least 2 per cent of GDP, one of his signature policies.
There was much more to be astonished by. Notoriously, one senior DFAT official was so politically tin-eared as to lament openly Canada’s more sceptical approach to the UN under conservative prime minister Steve Harper – an approach closely aligned with the instincts of the Abbott government. The same official went on to be placed in charge of DFAT’s graduate recruitment.
Journalists and lobbyists were also amazed by bureaucratic resistance to the new government’s assessment, backed up by the openly-expressed views of the South Korean embassy in Canberra, that relations with Seoul had been damaged because of Labor’s cancellation of Samsung’s major artillery project for the Australian Defence Force and needed repair.
A few other recent examples of DFAT’s thriving leftist bias and the tendency by many of its staff to make judgments out of step with mainstream Australian attitudes:
It’s ultimately the job of the prime minister and DFAT’s ministers, assisted by vigilant staffers, to keep our foreign affairs bureaucracy under control. But the job is huge and, to prevent the bureaucracy going its own way, Liberal-National governments need to place trusted loyalists – who would not include former Chiefs of Staff to Labor ministers – in charge as Secretaries of DFAT and PM&C.
Tony Abbott’s appointment of John Howard’s international advisor Michael Thawley as Secretary of PM&C in 2014 was an excellent decision. (Michael Thawley is the sponsor of The Spectator Australia annual Thawley Essay Prize). It was a pity Thawley departed after the leadership change. Ideally Coalition governments would take a leaf from the US book and, in line with the usual White House approach to controlling the State Department, also place loyalists in charge of other senior positions, especially the now five Canberra-based Deputy Secretaries and the senior international policy position in PM&C. Having plenty of political appointees as diplomatic heads of mission, with direct lines to the prime minister and/or the key ministers, is also important.
My assessment isn’t that our foreign affairs bureaucracy is run by leftist ideologues. There are those but in the main the dominant culture is a lazy soft leftish groupthink and an instinctive suspicion of the Coalition. But whether soft or hard left, the world view and attitudes of our diplomats, which heavily influence their approach to foreign policy issues and management, are out of kilter with those of the broader Australian population.