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Thursday, 13 October 1983
Page: 1792

Consideration resumed.

Mr BILNEY —As I was saying, the honourable member for Corangamite (Mr Street), a former Foreign Minister, gave me every consideration. I turn to the situation within the Department which I believe has arisen over the last half a dozen years during the time of the previous Government. I think there is a perception on the part of a number of officers that the Department has declined in importance and relevance. While one may agree or disagree with that, in a sense the Department had a rather unlucky run, to begin at the political level, by virtue of the fact that we had an extremely assertive and aggressive Prime Minister who saw to it that his will was imposed on the foreign policy of this country without paying much attention to whoever happened to be Foreign Minister . The present Leader of the Opposition (Mr Peacock) was in my opinion a very able Foreign Minister. But because he was a rival for the leadership of the Liberal Party, he was not given much of a run. The second Foreign Minister, Mr Street, was perhaps too close to the Prime Minister. This resulted in a situation in which the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and other agencies that were set up, such as the Office of National Assessments, seemed to me to detract from the real role that the Department was best able to perform. Perhaps the permanent heads of that period were also inhibited by the situation and were not able to be as assertive as they otherwise might have been.

Another aspect was one that is often referred to, the so-called closed shop mentality in foreign affairs which resulted perhaps in some slow promotions. I believe that that situation has been greatly corrected over the last couple of years. It resulted in the loss of a number of able people from the Department. I am thinking of people from the area in which I used to work who have now gone to work for Mr Cain, the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke), the Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Senator Ryan) or, in case it should be thought that it was all one way, to Mr Fraser in the case of Mr Alexander Downer, who subsequently went to work for the Leader of the Opposition and the Australian Chamber of Commerce. The net result was that the Department over those years became constrained in getting its teeth into the real issues of foreign Policy.

I single out, for example, the treatment of international monetary institutions . We still continue, unlike most other countries in a comparable position, to treat the International Monetary Fund as though it were solely and wholly the monetary body set up at the time of the Bretton Woods Conference, rather than the highly politcal institution it has now become. I believe it is fortunate that now we have, as the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards) pointed out, a very strong and capable Minister who is well able to stand on his own feet, who is concerned to explain our policy to Australians and to involve them in the formulation of it. The remarks of the honourable member for Cook (Mr Dobie) were ill-chosen in that regard. An expenditure on public relations is precisely what should be done in a democratic society to involve the people of the country in the formulation of foreign policy.

The honourable member for Stirling also dealt with the Association of South East Asian Nations. I fully support his remarks. I believe for too long we have allowed ourselves to be, as it were, bluffed by the ASEAN countries. It is of course no part of the present Minister's concern to upset the arrangements we have with the ASEAN countries. But I believe they will be fostered by healthy independence and a healthy regard for Australian interests, rather than the reverse. One other initiative of the present Minister that I commend is the much greater priority given to disarmament issues, particularly with regard to the setting up of an ambassador for disarmament, the so-called prince of peace. I believe that is an initiative that will command, and has already commanded, wide support.

I turn to two or three particular items of the estimates before us. One that I have singled out, on which I believe more could have been done, is the question of travel included in divisions 315.2.04 and 316.2.01. It is often thought that overseas travel is just a junket and is undertaken purely for purposes of pleasure. In particular, travel in the conference vote has been slashed this year. I believe that will result in insufficient representation by Australia at meetings of importance to us. I do not refer only to officers of the Department of Foreign Affairs. I have had the experience of having to satisfy people that they were getting a fair go in relation to attending meetings which they regarded as important. That is something that could be looked at in the future.

I believe the Government has done exceptionally well this year in the foreign aid area. I referred to this matter in my remarks in the Budget debate. But it is worth noting that we have made substantial progress for the first time in some years towards increasing the ratio of official development assistance to gross national product. It has risen from 0.47 per cent to 0.48 per cent or, depending on how it is measured, to 0.49 per cent. There has been a much greater emphasis this year on aid to the poorest countries. If one looks at table 8 of Budget Paper No. 9, one notes that there has been a considerable increase in our subventions to the International Development Association, the soft loan affiliate of the World Bank, and that is to be entirely commended. Similarly to be commended is the great expansion in DIF-the development import finance facility-which enables foreign countries to buy from Australian suppliers on terms which are favourable to them. We are doing ourselves and other countries a favour. I thoroughly commend it.

In the short time available to me I mention also our policy towards South Africa, which the honourable member for McPherson (Mr White) referred to in a way which makes one wonder which party he is representing. It seems to me that the great emphasis of our policy towards South Africa is on continuity of the policy which was first laid down when Mr Whitlam became Foreign Minister in 1972 and which has been continued with variations ever since. I speak of this with some feeling because I happened to be present at the United Nations that year. While Australia had taken a certain stance during the committee stage, by 4 December we were taking a stance which has been supported by governments ever since. I do not have time to go into details, but I believe that the present Government's policy towards South Africa is very much a matter of continuing the existing policy that was laid down in those days, which expresses in its various forms-

Mr White-The policy is up for review, is it not?

Mr BILNEY —Indeed, but it expresses in its various forms the abhorrence of apartheid which is felt on both sides of the House.