Lowy report | Connect Asia

Lowy report

Lowy report

Posted 23 August 2011, 14:35 AEST

Australian politicians often speak about engaging more closely with Asia and the need to adapt to shifting global power balances.

But a new report has found successive Australian governments haven't been putting their money where their mouth is in terms of overseas diplomacy.

The report says Australia needs more overseas missions in Asia, more staff who are proficient in Asian languages and that Australia should cut its aid budget to pay for it.

Presenter: Cathy Harper

Speaker: Andrew Shearer, co-author Lowy Institute report; Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development; Jenny McGregor, group CEO of Asialink

HARPER: Australians often like to think of themselves as punching above their weight in terms of their engagement with the world.

But the report by the Lowy Institute has found that successive Australian governments have been underfunding diplomatic services.

Andrew Shearer is one of the report's authors.

SHEARER: Australia continues to punch well below it's weight diplomatically, so for example we have the 13th largest economy in the world but we come in at a pretty ordinary 25 out of 34 oeCD countries in terms of the number of number of posts abroad.

HARPER: Where do you think Australia needs to expand its diplomatic missions and why?

SHEARER: Australia has quite good diplomatic representation around the seaboard in China but we don't have any diplomatic representation in these big inland cities in China, cities like Chengdu. The other places that we should be looking at are Central Asia, for example, which is going to become much more important in terms of resources insecurity and competition between some of these great powers in Asia, and also Latin America and parts of Africa.

HARPER: The report recommends cutting Australia's international aid program to fund diplomatic expansion.

SHEARER: At very little cost in terms of aid outcomes you could make quite a modest reduction in the aid budget - perhaps five percent, six percent - and that that money could very effectively be applied in making a start on fixing these problems in DFAT. Our argument would be that the defence and aid budgets need to be supported by first class diplomacy and a lot of that money could be wasted if we don't have a diplomatic presence on the ground.

HARPER: That's not a message that well-received by Marc Purcell, the executive director of the Australian Council for International Development.

PURCELL: I don't think it's a good idea to go around to developing countries chopping programs for maternal child health for example, or for vaccinations for malaria or hepatitis treatment to pay for another diplomat at the post or another cocktail party.

HARPER: The Lowy Institute report also found that there aren't enough staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs and just 10 percent of them have a working-level proficiency in an Asian language.

Jenny McGregor is group CEO of Asialink - a group linked to the University of Melbourne which promotes public understanding of the countries of Asia and of Australia's role in the region.

McGREGOR: There's no substitute for more than a working level capacity in the language and we're making the point that in schools and in our tertiary institutions we need to be making a much greater commitment as a country to understanding the language of our neighbours and the globe.

HARPER: Australia's Acting Foreign Minister Craig Emerson declined a request for an interview.

In a statement he said since 2007-2008 the number of Department of Foreign Affairs overseas positions has increased by 36 and staff numbers have increased overall by 10 per cent.

He also says over the past few years Australia has opened diplomatic posts in Mumbai, Chennai, Holy See, Lima and Addis Ababa.

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