On behalf of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, I present the report of the committee, Australia's overseas representation--Punching below our weight?
I seek leave to move a motion in relation to the report.
That the Senate take note of the report.
In doing so, I will be making a statement very similar, I believe, to that which was made by my comrade in the lower house. This report identifies a chronic underfunding of DFAT over the last three decades, which has resulted in a diplomatic network which is seriously deficient and does not reflect Australia's position within the G20 and OECD economies. Australia has the smallest diplomatic network of the G20 countries and sits at 25th in comparison with the 34 nations of the OECD, hence our title: Australia is clearly punching below its weight.
Our committee has recommended in this report that the budget priority for overseas representation should be significantly raised because of the real benefits that accrue from diplomacy. In the medium term, Australia should substantially increase the number of its diplomatic posts by at least 20 posts to bring it to a level commensurate with its position within the G20 and OECD.
In the longer term, funding to DFAT should be increased to a set percentage of gross domestic product sufficient to reflect Australia's standing as a middle power. There appears to be no overall strategy for Australia's diplomatic engagement with the world or any criteria for establishing, continuing or closing diplomatic posts. To address this deficiency the committee has recommended that the government produce a white paper to set the agenda for Australia's whole-of-government overseas representation.
Our committee has received DFAT's priorities for increasing Australia's diplomatic footprint should it receive increased funding and a number of suggestions from interested parties for opening new diplomatic posts in particular countries. The committee however has restricted itself to recommending that there should be additional posts in Asia, and in particular in China and Indonesia, and of course having the white paper and the review would lead to further discussion and perhaps decision.
The committee absolutely recognises the valuable activities undertaken abroad by Australia's representatives in promoting Australia's interests, promoting trade opportunities, and through providing consular assistance to Australians abroad. Many in this place have had the fortune to visit with diplomatic posts overseas and we always acknowledge the superb service and professionalism of those posts.
Our committee notes, however, that issues relating to the effect of recent funding cuts on overall effectiveness, resource allocation of any additional funding, and the number and performance of locally engaged staff would benefit from further examination. The committee has therefore recommended that there be an external review of DFAT to prepare it for the future and, hopefully, for the implementation of other recommendations in our report.
The committee has made a number of recommendations including: funding the ever-increasing demand for consular services from Australians who travel abroad in part from revenue sources such as increased passport fees and a small tiered levy structured to take into account those Australians who have taken out travel insurance or who are unable to obtain travel insurance; placing on the COAG agenda discussion of the location, coordination and effective use of state and Commonwealth trade representatives; the creation within AusAID of a mediation unit to reduce the potential need for aid and rebuilding assistance by preventing conflict; and establishing an office of e-diplomacy within DFAT to harness the potential and deal with the challenges of e-diplomacy particularly in light of the constantly evolving nature of this technology.
The operations of a diplomatic network are being challenged by a lack of funding, the growth and development of Australia's economy, the shift of global power towards Asia, the impact of technology and the rising importance of public diplomacy. This report along with recent reports by the Lowy Institute and the Asian century white paper highlight the urgent need to rebuild Australia's diplomatic network and enhance our independent international standing. We believe that our diplomatic network must be resourced to grow if Australia is again to punch above its weight in the world.
In conclusion, I would like to thank all those who provided submissions to the review and provided evidence at the public hearings. There is real interest, knowledge and concern in this country about this issue. Finally, I thank my colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee, and the secretariat in particular John Carter, Peter Kakogiannis, Jessica Butler and Sonya Gaspar. I commend this report to the Senate.