Wages of fear – contracting out the danger
Barets, barter & buai on the Sepik

DFAT – elite became a feather duster

Bruce Haigh
Bruce Haigh - 'The best and brightest who challenge policy or who seek to put forward policy in the face of domestic political imperatives are sidelined and rendered voiceless and powerless'

| John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations

MELBOURNE - There was a time in the sixties through to the 1980s when DFAT, the Department of Foreign Affairs (Trade was subsumed in 1987), was a powerful department within the Australian federal bureaucracy.

Its branches mirrored every major department in Canberra and when it felt necessary it would intervene in policies being developed by other departments, and often enough DFAT prevailed.

However, it rarely prevailed against Treasury, Defence and Immigration and in terms of foreign policy, its losses were significant.

It lost the policy arguments over Vietnam and East Timor, and it was slow to come on board over independence for Papua New Guinea, recognising China and opposition to Apartheid.

It was strong on limiting arms sales, preserving Antarctica, the law of the sea and banning nuclear weapons.

In more recent times it failed to comment and condemn the genocide of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, of the Palestinians by Israel and the West Papuans by Indonesia. It lost the debate over Iraq and was an also ran in Afghanistan.

These days its powers have diminished, shrunk and withered within the Canberra bubble. It has little bureaucratic authority.

It has only itself to blame. Tasked with reporting on events within Sri Lanka, the Australian High Commission in Colombo buckled to political pressure not to report on ongoing human rights abuses of Tamils in the north of the country.

Like Bill Hayden and later Gareth Evans with respect to East Timor, the Howard government did not want to know about Sinhalese massacres of Tamils and ongoing human rights abuses.

They wanted the boats bringing Tamil asylum seekers to Australia stopped, and for that they were willing to bribe Sri Lankan government officials and politicians. DFAT stood back and allowed this to happen. They still do.

DFAT is an elite organisation. Being a diplomat is regarded by many as a prestigious and desirable occupation; it affects some practitioners, badly.

DFAT recruits the best and brightest and, they like to think, balanced, although balance is in the eye of the beholder and with the politicisation of the public service, balance has shifted to the right.

Nonetheless, even with the balance on the right, good things can still be done. For instance, diplomats in Colombo could still report on human rights abuses and seek Australian government intervention. After all the government is doing it with respect to Uyghurs in Xingjian province.

Why don’t they? What is the constraint?

Lack of moral courage.

When DFAT recruits the best and brightest it does not look for moral courage.

It is a difficult attribute to ascertain even were it to be valued; and if DFAT and government don’t feel the need for moral courage in their employees, why would they go looking for it? The treatment of whistleblowers attests to this.

The best and brightest who contest and challenge policy anomalies or who seek to put forward sustainable and creative policy in the face of domestic political imperatives, such as with China, are sidelined and rendered voiceless and powerless, or they are passed over for promotion and preferment and they leave.

The federal public service is thoroughly politicised. Apparently, Morrison recently told senior public servants to implement rather than formulate policy.

Political persuasion has played a part in senior appointments since Menzies.

It continued under Whitlam and Hawke but inbuilt checks and balances, such as the Public Service Board and the appeals system kept excesses under control, plus a notion of the public good.

Senior bureaucrats looked to the national interest, rather than how decisions might play for the electoral prospects of the ruling party.

All that changed with Howard. He gradually removed the checks and balances and removed people, like myself, who would not comply with the government’s political agenda; in my case not agreeing to the demonisation and mistreatment of refugees.

Into this growing moral and intellectual vacuum stepped ASPI, the Australian Security Policy Institute, keen to promote the interests of its backers which soon enough became the interests of government.

Insidiously and without formal arrangement, ASPI took over foreign policy and strategic advice to government with the willing connivance of a government distrustful of the public service.

Oz foreign policyThe intelligence services were soon enough co-opted by the merry-go-round of ASPI and its United States counterparts keen to dominate the flow of so-called intelligence into Australia.

ASPI sold itself as independent, which of course it wasn’t, but the notion of independent advice, a variant of privatised advice, appealed to a naïve and chronically under-read government.

ASPI sold a Trump narrative about China which appealed, particularly when picked up by the Murdoch media, some academics and then more widely by other sections of the media and then the general public.

When the latter occurred, the government saw the electoral possibilities and China-bashing. This began in earnest with ASPI an enthusiastic cheerleader and a respected and trusted government confidant.

DFAT had lost a battle it had not really attempted to fight and was put in the humiliating position of supporting and following ASPI advice to the point of being rude to senior Chinese Embassy officials.

DFAT has sold out.

It has been a long time coming but the point has been reached where Australian diplomats are merely ceremonial cyphers– the price of lack of leadership and courage.

DFAT and their minister, Marise Payne, mouth the words agreed between ASPI and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. And both are getting it wrong.

How does it feel to be a member of an emasculated DFAT? Particularly when you are bright and you know the government is getting it wrong, perhaps fatally wrong.

Bruce Haigh is an Australian political commentator and former diplomat


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Jim Moore

I happened to be looking through the Classifieds in the Adelaide Advertiser on Monday (not something I usually do, I was looking for a death notice).

I happened to see an advertisement, Request for Tender, from the Commonwealth Department of Finance seeking tenders for Corporate Management Advisory Services for the Australian Government in the categories of Organisational Planning, Human Resources, Corporate Governance and Internal Audit.

Note, this was not for any specific department, one has to assume it is for a public service-wide process.

The Australian Public Service is now so rundown, so deskilled and so demoralised that it cannot even handle the most fundamental aspects of internal management for itself.

The answer according to the charlatans running our government is to outsource internal management even more to their mates in private enterprise who will be paid a fortune for advice that the government has already told them, "This is what we went to hear, don't tell us anything different."

The idea that maybe the Public Service could be built up again to the point where it could be the repository of skills, wisdom and knowledge is not one this government would ever consider thinking about. The immature but ambitious kids who now provide 'advice' would never consider that a good idea - it would do them out of a job.

By there way, don't bother tendering if you're not PWC or EY or their ilk - the decisions have already been made about who will win the tender.

Malcolm Fraser might not be well-remembered by many these days, but in his time, he did recognise the value of an accountable, skilled and knowledgeable public service. He introduced the FOI Act, the AAT Act and the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act, all of which had a major impact on public service.

Proof of the fact these measures worked may be found in the fact Commonwealth governments ever since have taken every possible opportunity to wind them back.

Chris Overland

The dumbing down of the public sector has been a major project of the conservative side of politics for at least 2 decades.

It has been a spectacular success, as witnessed by the ineptitude now commonly displayed, at least by the Federal government.

Basically, having stripped out knowledge and experience in the senior ranks of the public service, the government now relies upon a combination of the often very inexperienced political "apprentices" appointed as Ministerial officers and advisers, combined with their mates in the private sector, to devise and deliver public services. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, apart from the odd rape or an hilarious decision to masturbate on an MP's desk and then post footage of the event on YouTube, the apprentice politicians often manage to consistently misread or misinterpret the situation confronting them and so apply the wrong policy solutions.

The private sector advisers, with an eagle eye for the main change, always manage to advise the government to do something that will involve and advantage the private sector.

After all, for conservatives, the private sector is always better at doing things than the public sector. Just look at how well they run nursing homes for example.

Or how about their marvellous impact on public transport services?

Or how about subsidising rent in lieu of the government actually constructing public housing on the utterly mad assumption that the private sector would build affordable housing stock for the masses?

What about abandoning the funding of proper funding of public dental services, thus ensuring that a generation of Australians have no access to affordable dental care?

Or their most magnificent triumph to date, being the unholy mess made of the vaccine roll out. Even the late involvement of seriously capable military logistics experts has failed to rescue this project from the spectacular ineptitude of the government and its political advisers.

At a state level at least, the dumbing down process has been less severe because state public servants actually have to deliver services directly to the punters. This means that the public immediately notices if public services are reduced or made harder to access, thus setting up a "virtuous" feedback loop to the state politicians.

No such luck at a Federal level, because the Federal public mostly funds things rather than delivers services. Consequently, the Feds can always blame shift onto the states when the impact of their poor policy decisions becomes apparent.

Example: the Federal government was quick to blame the Victorian state labour government for the huge number of deaths in Victorian private nursing homes due to Covid 19, whilst neatly sidestepping obvious questions about the adequacy of the aged care services of which they are the primary funders and regulators.

The sad thing is that strategy seems to work as a far too credulous public continues to buy the spin, bullshit and lies directed at them by the Prime Minister and his Ministers.

There is a suggestion in some quarters that even some of the most hitherto rabid proponents of replacing public servants with private sector service providers might have begun to understand that this may not always be a good idea.

I hope this is true because repairing the damage done over the last couple of decades will take a very long time indeed and require the abandonment of neo-liberal ideology in favour of a much more nuanced and forensic view about what is properly the province of the public service and what can sensibly and cost effectively be delivered by the private sector.

We can only live in hope that this will occur.

Bernard Corden

“A healthy loyalty is not passive and complacent, but active and critical.” ~ Harold Laski

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