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Monday, 22 August 2011
Page: 8709


Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (10:20): On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the committee's report entitled Review of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Annual Report 2009-10. On behalf of the committee, I table the report.

In accordance with standing order 39(f), the report was made a parliamentary paper.

Mr DANBY: The review is the first conducted by the committee since 2001-02 and is very timely given the transformations taking place across the world and our region, particularly the rise of China and India as economic powers and to some extent military powers in our region, the economic turmoil in the United States and Europe and the uprisings in the Middle East which just this morning have led to the demise of the odious Gaddafi regime in Libya with the fleeing of the said gentleman. These are challenges that confront our political and national security and strategic policy interests. The review is structured around the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's three suggested outcomes but contains an additional chapter on other issues raised during the inquiry. I must say it is probably a good idea, in my view, that the committee look at the department's report on a more regular basis. The first outcome suggested by the department focuses on the advancement of Australia's international strategic, security and economic interests. This includes matters such as Australia's representation overseas, the department of foreign affairs' human rights activities and dialogues and the department's public diplomacy activity. While Australia maintains an extensive network of diplomatic posts, the committee found that there is a substantial question in relation to the adequacy of the services it provides overseas on behalf of Australia. The committee is of the view that a substantial inquiry needs to be undertaken on Australia's representation overseas so that comprehensive advice can be provided to the government on how Australia's interests might be better served by Australia's diplomats. Currently the number of Australian embassies and missions overseas totals 89. This is far below comparable countries in the OECD, which average 150. Of the 30 developed nations in the OECD, Australia has fewer missions than all but four.

In regard to the department of foreign affairs' human rights dialogues, the committee notes the role played in facilitating bilateral human rights dialogues with China, Vietnam and Iran—the one with Iran is now defunct—and looks forward to developing these dialogues, particularly with the ongoing involvement of Australian parliamentarians and oversight by this House. It is worth noting that the committee has recently received a reference from the minister to conduct an inquiry into Australia's human rights dialogues with Vietnam and China.

In the area of public diplomacy the committee considers that the department of foreign affairs needs to make stronger efforts to capitalise on the potential offered by modern communications technology in the dissemination and collection of information. Greater effort is needed by DFAT to understand current and future e-diplomacy opportunities.

The second outcome recommended by the department involves protection of Australians abroad and the provision of passport services. The committee found that the department of foreign affairs provides valuable advice to Australians travelling overseas; however, our efforts need to be directed towards increasing the proportion of Australians using Smartraveller. Furthermore, while travel advisories have always been contentious, liability issues associated with understanding the level of risk means it is wise to take a cautious approach in issuing travel advisories.

The third outcome details the department's efforts towards providing for a secure Australian government presence overseas via the provision of security services and the management of Australia's overseas owned estate. The committee is satisfied with the department's efforts in this area but cautions that the department of foreign affairs needs to maintain security of its e-network in particular.

Two other issues arose during the review: gender equality within the department and staffing implications of DFAT's funding. The committee noted the considerable gender disparity at the senior executive level, but the department made the point that very high proportions of graduate intakes are female. The committee is satisfied with the response to date.

There has been a long-term relative decline in the funding of the department. This has resulted in staff cutbacks experienced by the department under successive governments. Consequently, Australia has fewer diplomatic posts, as I said earlier, compared to comparable OECD countries. The committee is pleased to note, however, the recent increase in DFAT's funding. This trend should be continued and the number of overseas posts increased. I note the Lowy report was in the newspapers today. It makes a number of other suggestions.

I thank the committee secretariat—Dr Carter, James Bunce, Rhys Merrett, Jessica Butler and Sonya Gaspar—for all their great work. (Time expired)