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Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade
23/02/2012
Australia's overseas representation

LANGMORE, Prof. John Vance, Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne

[14:31]

ACTING CHAIR ( Senator Stephens ): On behalf of the committee, I welcome you. You have before you a document which provides some procedural advice to witnesses. Before we proceed to questions, would you like to make a short statement which summarises your submission or provides any additional information that you would like to give us?

Prof. Langmore : You have my submission so I will not go through it again but there are things I would add to it. I first became seriously aware of staffing problems of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade when I was working at the UN. I could see there that the mission was seriously understaffed. On a recent visit they had four interns, all of whom were doing the job of professional diplomats. One of them happens to be one of my best students and is very good but he is neither a professional diplomat nor is he paid like a professional diplomat. He is there being paid next to nothing. That means they are severely understaffed. People doing internships are sometimes representing Australia at UN committees. We have a system, as I am sure you know, of cooperating with New Zealand and Canada but ,a number of times, when I went to a particular committee I was interested in the person at the Australian desk was an intern not a diplomat and were not in a position to debate with the Canadian or the New Zealand representative.

ACTING CHAIR: Were the Canadian and New Zealand representatives diplomats?

Prof. Langmore : Yes, they were. I am sure they did their best and I am sure they did it maturely but, again, without the knowledge that being a full-time Australian based employee would have allowed them to have. I was told of a particular example: I was interested in a debate about trade in conventional weapons that was going on and the mission said they could not do any work on trade in conventional weapons even though it matters enormously in developing countries—far more people are killed with conventional weapons than weapons of mass destruction—because they did not have enough staff either in New York or in Canberra to do background work. It is a neglected issue and it is a very serious issue.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON: I am just asking for examples, which the chair referred to earlier, of countries that did comparative work on that front?

Prof. Langmore : I cannot give you a really authoritative response to that but certainly a number of European countries—Britain, I am quite sure of—and also the United States. In fact, there was a vigorous debate in the US about it between the gun lobby and those who were concerned about the trade. In other words, it was taken very seriously by other countries and we were simply neglecting it, and that is simply not good enough.

Another area that I know more about is economic and social development. Australia should have been notable for the last 15 years for our relative neglect of that area. It does not mean that we are completely passive; we are not. I remember attending the first meeting of the year of the economic and social council—this was in the late nineties; it would have been 1999 or something—and every country member was represented except two: Chad and Australia. That meeting was planning the program for the year. That was just negligent, really. You could say, 'Oh, well, the mission could have done it if they had not done something else,' and they probably could have. Maybe they did not give it a high enough priority. But there ought to be enough people to do all of those priorities and there have not been.

Mr RUDDOCK: Are you suggesting that New Zealand has enough people to do all of those priorities and that Canada has enough people to do all of those priorities? If I asked for the full staffing of the Australian, New Zealand and Canadian missions, which are the examples you gave, you are suggesting New Zealand would have more staff than Australia?

Prof. Langmore : No, I am not suggesting that at all. I am saying that we normally cooperate with Canada and New Zealand, and clearly New Zealand would normally have fewer staff than we would have. It is a much smaller country. And clearly Canada would usually have a substantially larger staff. I am not an expert on the Canadian diplomatic service but they were more actively engaged in the areas in which I was working as a member of the secretariat than was the Australian mission. That could have been the government's choice or the diplomat's choice but I would have thought that it would have been better if they had been fully engaged in that as well as everything else, which is very hard to do at the UN. It has very busy and very diverse sets of issues and programs.

One country I know a bit about—and this is the other thing I wanted to say—is Norway, because I went there to study its foreign policy a year or so ago. When I was in New York I was very impressed by the effectiveness with which Norwegian diplomats were unobtrusively but actively engaged in conflicts, in trying to find ways of breaking logjams, in proposing initiatives, in initiating things, in fact, or in taking leadership of committees. They were clearly doing that much more substantially than was Australia. Maybe that is a government choice. It is certainly the Norwegian choice. They are very committed to multilateral action. But it is much more difficult if you have fewer staff to do that. I think that the understaffing and the underfunding of the Australian diplomatic service means that we are underrepresented at the UN and underrepresented in many countries where we should have missions.

Dr STONE: Thank you very much for that, Mr Langmore. Perhaps our chair might like to ask the first question.

CHAIR: I might wait.

Dr STONE: You gave us those examples of where we were missing with high-powered action at the UN table. Are there countries where we are now represented where you think, if the budget stayed pretty much the same, we could withdraw some of our effort and relocate to places where we are much more likely to need to be engaged into the future?

Prof. Langmore : I do not know of any. There may be one or two—and I am not an expert on every posting—but every one I know of I would have thought we needed to have there.

Dr STONE: It is not a case of shifting the deck chairs.

Prof. Langmore : No, it is not; it is a case of building up. The department, in a very modest, careful and uncontroversial way, has made that point very clearly, I think.

Dr STONE: You clearly have much UN experience but, if we had, say, another 10 posts to be established, are you aware of what would be the priority areas where those posts should be placed?

Prof. Langmore : I have not given that a lot of thought. It is a fair question. I was surprised, by the way, that we did not have a post in Norway. I would not have said it was a top priority by any means, but Norway has a post in Canberra. I think we have quite a lot to learn from Norway: not least, we are similar in our reliance on mineral exports. That is one obvious post, but I would have thought the priorities were probably in developing countries. We are severely under-represented in Africa, clearly, but also in Latin America. That is probably enough of a response.

CHAIR: Professor Langmore, you talked a bit about the white paper in defence in your submission. One of the problems that we have had in this committee is that people make their pitch, as it were, for a particular place for a particular set of reasons. Do you think there should be a broader look at our diplomatic network and what the national interest priorities might be for establishing a post? We have had posts that have been established and then closed shortly after. Do you have any ideas or thoughts about that?

Prof. Langmore : Yes, I do. That is the central point of my overall submission, really. I think that Defence and Foreign Affairs should be considered together, that Defence should not be in a silo, that our external relations should be reviewed holistically and that we should recognise that it is in our interests to try and find ways of achieving peaceful conflict resolution wherever possible. We do not want to have to leap into military engagement. There may be a case for that in certain circumstances, but it is the commitment of all member states of the UN to attempt to achieve peaceful conflict resolution wherever they can and to act in ways that will contribute to that. Massively increasing our defence expenditure and starving our diplomats of funds is not a contribution of that kind. I think the priorities are poor. I go to the example in the submission of the budget in 2010-11, when the Defence vote went up by $1.57 billion, which is 50 per cent more than the total allocation for DFAT. That is really an absurd misjudgment. I know that in the budget last year there was a tiny cut in Defence, but I think there was also a tiny cut in DFAT, so that did not really do anything to balance that.

It is not only defence and diplomacy that should be considered together but also defence, diplomacy, intelligence and aid. Those four major areas would justifiably be considered together. They all have separate tasks, but the overall strategy about our external relations does not seem to have been habitually considered in a unified way at any point. There was a note in the budget a couple of years ago saying that that was intended to happen, but there was no real evidence that it had happened. If that strategic overview were seriously attempted, I think there would be a very strong case for increasing diplomacy, even if that involved some marginal changes to defence and intelligence.

Mr RUDDOCK: Thank you. Some of the funding for both Defence and security agencies is in fact used in our missions.

Prof. Langmore : That is true.

Mr RUDDOCK: So if you were looking at the total expenditure on a mission, say, in Washington then it would be much larger than just the Foreign Affairs component.

Prof. Langmore : I am not sure how much larger it would be. In New York there were one or two military people—I think only one—but in Washington there would no doubt be more.

Mr RUDDOCK: But that does have implications for the sorts of percentage comparisons that you were making.

Prof. Langmore : Very slightly.

Mr RUDDOCK: The magnitude of it, maybe.

Prof. Langmore : Very slight ones.

Mr RUDDOCK: But I think it is appropriate to draw attention to it. You are fairly lonely in arguing that we ought to be increasing our Scandinavian footprint. I have been particularly interested in objective evidence that we might examine as to, if we were providing additional resources, where our collective best interests might lie. The competing priorities have included Africa, Latin America—

Dr STONE: China.

Mr RUDDOCK: China and particularly rural China—

Prof. Langmore : In China we ought to have more than—

Mr RUDDOCK: Central Asia, India, Surabaya, eastern Java—there is a fairly extensive list. Have you given any thought to how you might prioritise where we might get the best outcome economically and so on from expansion, if that is to occur?

Prof. Langmore : Not very rigorously, I must say, but it surely would take account of a range of factors, like where our economic interests were strong, where our strategic interests were strong, where it was very important that there be a growth in understanding of Australia, where it is very important that we understand what is happening in the country on the ground and so on. I think it would be unwise for me to be too strong an advocate for any particular places because I am sure that the professionals in DFAT would give you a very well thought out list if you asked them.

Mr RUDDOCK: We are asking them.

Prof. Langmore : Good.

Mr RUDDOCK: But nobody has included the UN. You have made the comments about New York. Have you looked at the other UN posts?

Prof. Langmore : A little. In Geneva, I had a certain amount to do with the Geneva mission. The thing about the Geneva mission is that there are quite a number of very large and important agencies there—WHO, ILO, the World Meteorological Organisation, Human Rights and so on. The committee on disarmament meets there, not that it is doing anything at present. So a diversity of expertise ought to be represented in the mission there. That does happen to some extent but I do not think comprehensively. Of course, it is to some extent up to the departments—the health department for WHO, et cetera—to provide that expertise, and it may not be from DFAT that it ought to come, but Geneva is politically important as well as technically important.

Mr RUDDOCK: I have not been apprised of any other submissions that have gone to our level of representation at UN posts, so this is the first time it has been put to us as a substantial issue and potentially a priority need. While you have made some statements about Canada, Australia and New Zealand perhaps sharing workloads and so on, I just wonder, in terms of comparative staffing by missions that have the same sort of footprint that Australia has, about the extent to which your description would be substantiated by evidence.

Prof. Langmore : I cannot give it to you on the spur of the moment. I am sure you could find it just by asking the Canadian or the New Zealand mission, if you wanted it.

Mr RUDDOCK: Does the UN publish data on the size of posts and the number of representatives?

Prof. Langmore : It does. It publishes a directory with all the professional staff in each mission listed, so it would simply be a matter of going through that and adding it up.

Dr STONE: Weren't we given that as evidence? We have had that as evidence.

Prof. Langmore : I am quite sure that the Canadian mission is far better staffed than ours, because I have seen the lists—not yesterday but certainly in the past.

Mr JENKINS: But they just drive down the road from Ottawa.

Prof. Langmore : Exactly: it is not far away, so it is much easier for them in a way.

Mr JENKINS: Can I in a very positive manner congratulate Professor Langmore for his continuing policy purity and make a confession that I may have wavered along the way. Having made those comments, can I just add to Mr Ruddock's question. What has pleased me is progressively the whole-of-government nature of our missions; it becomes absolutely apparent. I am interested in your concern that that is not really, you believe, the overarching way we are doing our work in the missions. Take Jakarta, which is No. 1, 2 or 3 in size. It has representation right across government: people that work together with their DFAT colleagues very well. I think that we are well served by that. But your submission has conjured up in my mind the question of whether it has worked on the basis that individual missions do it well. I am just wondering whether you would make a comment on that.

Prof. Langmore : Whether some missions do it well?

Mr JENKINS: Yes, in the whole-of-government sense, where we have professionals out of different policy backgrounds, when they get to the missions, working together in the sort of coordinated way that I thought you were suggesting needs to be done.

Prof. Langmore : I am suggesting it not only in relation to missions but in relation to the whole of policy development. There needs to be, I think, much greater interdepartmental cooperation between Defence and Foreign Affairs and the intelligence agencies and AusAID at some very high level—perhaps under the Prime Minister's security adviser or some interdepartmental committee. That was principally what I was trying to get at, but it needs to be done at the mission level as well. I am not sure that my experience is really adequate to answer your question. I have visited Australian missions when I have been travelling from time to time, which I did quite a lot when I was at the UN, and I would have thought people were trying to do it without necessarily having the resources to do it as well as they should.

Mr JENKINS: The other concern that I have is that we seem to have a traditional model of overseas missions and a lot of the response is to that. But, if you really think about it, what you are championing is a concentration on our multilateral work. Given the fact that we run a mission in New York and we have two heads of mission running out of Geneva, the question is whether at some stage we should be stepping back and seeing these as one entity. I know that in part it is the tyranny of distance and things like that, but there have to be different ways of doing it. If you raise Norway in the context of Scandinavia, why doesn't a nation like Australia look at Scandinavia as a whole and come up with a different model that does not rely on us having a brass plaque with somebody to welcome you when you open the door, which seems to be the basis, whereas we could have that regional interaction through doing business in a different way? I am just not sure that we come up with that.

Prof. Langmore : I am not sure how to answer your question or your comment.

Mr JENKINS: I suppose what I am saying to you is that it is not just about the UN mission in New York; it is about how we represent ourselves to a plethora of multilaterals—

Prof. Langmore : Absolutely.

Mr JENKINS: and whether we can do that better by aggregating all our efforts and then building them up, but actually doing business differently.

Prof. Langmore : Firstly, I was not in any sense trying to argue only the case for the multilateral representation. I was trying to argue the case for a comprehensive expansion of our diplomatic activity, because I think that the representative function is being underperformed and the knowledge that we would gain from improved representation is not as great as it might be. I am not sure where to go after that comment.

Mr JENKINS: What about when we take Brussels, Belgium, European institutions, NATO and lump them all together and we send an ambassador there who has all the titles and his support staff and stuff like that? Do we do that more often or less often?

Prof. Langmore : One thing that has struck me about the Australian diplomatic style is that I do not think we take as much initiative as numbers of other countries do. There is considerable professionalism but that professionalism is sometimes more constrained than I think would be ideal.

Dr STONE: Can you name any countries that do it better?

Prof. Langmore : I was in Papua New Guinea about a year ago, and the ambassador was away but I was quite impressed with the two senior staff whom I met—the extent of their knowledge, the extent to which they were clearly involved in what was happening and in the depth of their real concern. It is an extraordinarily difficult place to be a diplomat. There was no condescension. I think they were genuinely profoundly concerned in trying to find ways to do what they could. But they were thinking, it seemed to me, with some imagination. I have felt in some other missions that there has been, I regret to say, a sort of superiority amongst some Australian diplomats and a condescension in their style of work.

Mr RUDDOCK: But they are superior!

Prof. Langmore : Good as they are! It is very important for us to recognise that we have great problems of our own, which should make us very sympathetic to other countries that have problems too. I do not need to say that very strongly today.

Mr RUDDOCK: I have been a bit mischievous at times—

Prof. Langmore : Oh, Phillip!

Mr RUDDOCK: and I used to rate diplomats. You have heard this before.

Mr JENKINS: Yes, I have heard this before.

Mr RUDDOCK: I think Canberra is a good example of how you can get on a cocktail party circuit and not really develop wider networks at all. You would have to ask what value other countries, which are better resourced than we are, actually obtain from it. I see some diplomats who are able to break out of that and be far more communicative and engaged and who represent their country far better. I do not know whether you are focusing on that in the comment that you have made.

Prof. Langmore : I have not so far but I agree with you. When you talk about Canberra, I think of two absolutely outstanding diplomats for other countries whom I got to know. One of them was the Indian high commissioner. He is now the Vice President of India.

Mr RUDDOCK: We are thinking of the same one—Ansari.

Prof. Langmore : Yes, that is right.

Mr RUDDOCK: He was outstanding. He is my first example.

Prof. Langmore : When I went to New York, he was the Indian ambassador to the UN.

Mr RUDDOCK: And Afghanistan.

Prof. Langmore : Exactly. In a quiet even reticent but highly intelligent and very thoughtful way, he was a superb diplomat. I think also of one of the British high commissioners, who was actively engaged in pursuing his interests in Australia in all kinds of intelligent, imaginative and thoughtful ways. Some of our own diplomats are like that too, and some of them are much more passive in the way that you have also described.

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON: You have advocated the mediation support unit, you spoke about your study in Norway, and obviously our activities in Sri Lanka are internationally acknowledged. But can you give some kind of description of their broad activity—this parallel Norwegian—

Prof. Langmore : Thank you; I wanted to get onto that. They are most famous for the Oslo accord, which was negotiated with them as mediators between the Palestinians and Israel in 1992-93. It was done entirely in secret. It came about because Palestinians got in touch with the union movement in Norway, Israeli officials got in touch with the government, and the government pulled those two threads together and—beginning at quite a low level—they began discussions, and the level became higher. The man who was the head of the ministry of foreign affairs at the time, Jan Egeland, was by the end of key mediator for the Norwegians, and, through a really quite complex process of negotiation all done entirely in secret, they reached an accord. That was shared with the Americans, the agreement was symbolised on the lawn of the White House and the principal actors got Nobel prizes for it. It was a major achievement. It broke down because extremists on both sides undermined it, but to have got an agreement at all was a great achievement.

The way they did it illustrates quite a lot about the way they operate. There is a very close cooperation in Norway between government and NGOs: the government is generous to NGOs in the support it gives, and they work cooperatively with NGOs. That has been found to be very helpful in being able to work at a number of levels. They often link their mediation work with development work. The peace and reconciliation unit in the ministry of foreign affairs has a budget of about $100 million a year for development programs. In countries such as Burundi, for example, they have been significant in constraining what could have become another Rwanda. They did not succeed in Sri Lanka; they were active there for about four years. There are various versions of why it failed. One mistake the Norwegians themselves made, probably, was concentrating on leaders and not doing enough at the grassroots; but it was clear that the Sri Lankan government did not really want them to be successful in a negotiated agreement in the end—and, if the will to peace is not there, then no mediator can help achieve it.

What I was suggesting here and what a couple of others proposed to the former minister is the establishment of a small unit like that in AusAID or foreign affairs. It is quite clear to most development experts now that one of the necessary preconditions to effective development strategy is peaceful conflict resolution, because so commonly development efforts are undermined by civil war, and, whilst of course one could not ever claim that such attempts will always be successful—they cannot possibly be—they can sometimes contribute to reducing the intensity of conflict or resolving conflict, and the Norwegians have shown that. Several other countries are taking up this idea, amongst them Ireland, Switzerland and Qatar. Qatar is quite active in this area now in the Middle East. The UN established a mediation support unit five or six years ago. That is up and running, and the Norwegians are cooperating with it.

I would have thought that there would be enough use for such a unit in Australia to attempt to appoint three or four people with those kinds of skills to work in Bougainville, the Solomons, West Papua or numbers of other places—Fiji, particularly clearly. I am not saying that it has never been done in Australia. It has been done a little. In relation to Bougainville there are a couple of Australian academics who are very actively involved. However, I would have thought that there would be justification, if Foreign Affairs had the resources, for them to have that expertise available to them together with all the other expertise that they have.

Mr RUDDOCK: Can you quantify that?

Prof. Langmore : No, I cannot. Quantify it in what way? The number of people required?

Mr RUDDOCK: You would look at the number of potential posts where that sort of additional staffing might be necessary.

Prof. Langmore : No, I would not post them overseas until they were involved in an issue. You would have a little—

Mr RUDDOCK: So we could be looking at two or three issues a year? I just do not know; I am trying to get an idea. If you were including in a report some suggestion that they need to have a bureau that looks at this that is going to then deploy—I am just trying to get a clear picture in my mind about how you think something like that would work and what the scale of it should be.

Prof. Langmore : I think it should start modestly and see what sort of use there is for the staff—three or four—not only working themselves but working with other countries involved in the same kind of process, with the UN group, with NGOs. There are now several very high quality international NGOs working on mediation and peaceful conflict resolution, based in Geneva or London. The International Crisis Group is of that kind. For example, in the case of Kenya after the presidential election in 2007, when there was a fierce conflict starting between the Kikuyu and the Luo about the outcome of the election, what happened was that a whole series of countries and organisations were involved in various ways in trying to support mediation. The Norwegians provided quite a lot of the money. There was strong political and diplomatic pressure from other African countries, from America and from Britain. The African Union particularly was strongly involved. Once that was wound up, negotiations were taken away to a secret place. They took about two weeks but they came to a compromise which, so far, has prevented that slaughter continuing. That does not mean it is resolved but it means that it is being contained by the compromise that was reached, and that is a pretty significant achievement, surely. I am not saying that Australia would do these things by itself. We might well have a greater role in some places and a lesser role in others. But I do not see why we should not also be involved in that kind of constructive activity.

CHAIR: With our Australian aid budget, which has had a significant boost in recent times, although some would say we are still not quite on a par with other nations in proportions donated, do you see the aid effort adequately facilitated by the number of people we have on the ground in our missions—the AusAID staff?

Prof. Langmore : No, I do not at all. Although I know AusAID has adopted a policy of posting more people in missions—and I think that is very sensible—they are often not there for very many years and whilst I am well aware of the reasons for three- or four-year appointments, I think quite often it takes longer than that to really get sufficiently involved in a place to know in a nuanced way what is really required and what is the best way of being helpful.

So, there is the length of posting, but also the numbers posted. I would have thought that in every country in which we have a significant aid program we ought to have AusAID staff. Again—it is always an interesting example—the administration of the Norwegian aid budget has been handed over to the ministry of foreign affairs for exactly this reason—they felt that the diplomats were in a better position on the ground to know what is required than was Norad. Norad has really been cut back to a policy role and the diplomats' work has been expanded. Whether that is the right thing to do, I am not really advocating that. I am just quoting it as an example.

CHAIR: Thank you for your evidence. If there are any matters that need additional information, the secretary may write to you about that. The secretary will send you a copy of the transcript of your evidence, to which you can make any necessary corrections.

Proceedings suspended from 15 : 12 to 15 : 32