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Joe Biden’s deep connection with PNG

The mysteriously blank face of DFAT


TUMBY BAY - It has always been a commonly held belief that politicians don’t run the country. That prerogative is exclusively the domain of the public service.

Anyone who has ever studied human relations theory will also know that managers always appoint people in their own image. This is particularly so among senior bureaucrats.

This results in a continuity of tenure and policy direction that politicians can never hope to emulate.

At best they can only attempt to politicise the public service in their favour through the appointment of sympathetic and compliant individuals to senior posts.

Nowadays, when a new government comes into power there is an inevitable purge of departmental heads while the bulk of the organisation remains unchanged underneath.

It is axiomatic, after all, that behind every brilliant or stupid policy idea espoused by a politician there is often a largely invisible public servant.

It therefore helps if we know something about this mysterious hidden mass that impinges so much on our daily lives.

That’s not a simple proposition however. Take Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) for instance.

As readers of PNG Attitude know, the way that DFAT does business in Papua New Guinea largely runs contrary to what those in the know would consider to be common sense.

An attempt to counter this anomaly a few years ago was contained in a PNG Attitude submission to an enquiry run by the department.

Download 'The-delivery-and-effectiveness-of-Australian-aid-to-Papua-New-Guinea'

The submission, compiled from informed reader’s thoughts, failed to gain any traction whatsoever for reasons that are unclear.

That DFAT wouldn’t listen to knowledgeable people who contributed time and effort to the submission was always predictable. The mystery is why DFAT bothered to ask in the first place.

Out of curiosity and during an idle moment recently I thought I’d have a look at how DFAT operates to see if an answer might lie there.

MessI located the organisational chart of the department and waded through the Byzantine jargon and weasel words until I found the branch that most likely dealt with the submission.

It was sitting at the bottom of a division called the ‘Office of the Pacific’ in column five of a section labelled ‘Pacific Bilateral’ sitting along with the ‘New Zealand, Polynesia and Micronesia Branch’ and the ‘Melanesia Branch’.

It was predictably called the ‘Papua New Guinea Branch’. Why it was separate to the ‘Melanesia Branch’ wasn’t explained but I presume it was because of that “special relationship” platitude we hear trotted out whenever a politician mentions our nearest neighbour.

Finding out the functions of the branch was decidedly tricky. After following a digital maze littered with photo opportunities and little else for an hour or so I couldn’t find out anything about it.

I couldn’t even find what sort of role it played in relation to Papua New Guinea in general, nor how it was related to the Australian High Commission in Port Moresby.

So I thought the simplest thing to do was ask them. Strangely enough, given the dearth of other information, the email address of the Assistant Secretary in charge of the branch was easy to find.

So I sent him an email.

In the email I asked whether he could send me some information about the branch that I could pass on to the readers of PNG Attitude in an article.  It was a simple and uncontroversial request.

I figured it would take about two weeks.

Years ago when I was 10 or 12 years old I used to write to the foreign affairs departments the world over asking for information on their country.

After a couple of weeks I would receive bulky envelopes stuffed with brochures and information sheets. Egypt in particular was exceedingly generous in its response.

No stuffed envelopes from DFAT however. Not even an acknowledgement of my email. Presumably they are still waiting for ASIO to check me out.

Needless to say my interest has begun to wane; which is probably what was supposed to happen.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that DFAT has a reputation for inefficiency, slowness, impenetrability and a caution that smothers all imagination.

Little wonder Australia is in deep trouble with its relationship with China.


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Bernard Corden

The Airways Business Centre and Dakota Boardrooms are currently closed until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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