More active role for rebuilt DFAT under Labor, says Wong

Ian Bushnell 30 November 2021
Senator Penny Wong

Speaking at the ANU, Senator Penny Wong said DFAT needs clearer political leadership and a sharper understanding of its role, responsibilities, and its potential in these times. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU.

Australia’s foreign service public servants and diplomats can expect greater resourcing, clearer direction and a more central role for foreign policy under a Labor Government if the ALP wins the coming federal election.

In a speech to the ANU National Security College on Tuesday, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Senator Penny Wong delivered a stinging critique of the Morrison Government’s foreign policy performance and offered what Labor would do to repair the ‘damage’, including two key appointments.

In a speech strong on making political points about Australia’s waning global and regional influence and Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s ‘dangerous’ belligerence towards China, Senator Wong said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s capability had suffered under the present government, hurting Australia’s ability to make its presence felt in a changing region.

“Our foreign service has many talented, skilled people, but they have been hampered by a lack of leadership, degraded resources, and a lack of clarity of how they are expected to deliver for Australia in these changing times,” Senator Wong said.

“DFAT needs clearer political leadership and a sharper understanding of its role, responsibilities, and its potential in these times.”

Senator Wong said DFAT needed the tools to deliver greater Australian influence such as a rebuilding of the development assistance program.

She said there had been too much unnecessary collateral damage to Australia’s national interests as a result of short-term political agendas.

She called on DFAT and the national security community more widely to review their advice to government – in general, but particularly the handling and implementation of the nuclear submarine announcement.

“We would ensure a more central role for foreign policy in the content and implementation of strategy,” she said.

“And we would be focused on the key task of maximising our influence in the reshaping of the region.”

Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Labor envisages a more active role. Photo: DFAT.

Senator Wong said this involved a more activist role for diplomacy in promoting issues and principles of common benefit to all nations and all peoples such as eliminating slavery, supporting women and girls, stopping human rights abuses and nuclear non-proliferation.

“This requires not only effective multilateral capability in DFAT, but a clear mandate based on our domestic priorities to prosecute these interests abroad,” she said.

Senator Wong said nuclear disarmament should be an urgent priority and a Labor Government would appoint a stand-alone Ambassador for Arms Control and Counter-Proliferation.


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A Labor government would also appoint an ASEAN Special Envoy – a roving high-level representative, respected in the region, to complement Australia’s diplomatic network and forge close relationships with regional capitals.

Senator Wong said the AUKUS agreement should not come at the expense of relations with countries in Australia’s back yard.

“Labor understands this and we believe Australia can and should do more to demonstrate our ability to build trust and alignment with ASEAN leaders,” Senator Wong said.

“As we made clear in our support for the AUKUS partnership, such engagement with our traditional partners must be in addition to more regional engagement.”

Senator Wong said Australia should also step up its presence in the Pacific.


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