In an opinion piece for the Lowy Institute, Mr Sharma said DFAT had “failed to sell its value to the political class, to cultivate champions within the cabinet or position itself with solutions to the government’s challenges”.
Mr Sharma, a former ambassador to Israel, said Defence, Home Affairs and intelligence agencies had been better at presenting solutions to the challenges of government and their budgets had grown accordingly.
“Other than its own portfolio ministers, DFAT does not have many champions around the cabinet table – and this is because, aside from a few high-profile ambassadors, it fails to do the retail politicking necessary to sell its worth in Canberra,” Mr Sharma said in an interview.
Allan Gyngell, national president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, agreed successive governments had underspent on diplomacy compared with defence but said DFAT should not wear the blame.
“I’m personally uncomfortable with the idea that government departments should be responsible for advocating for their own resources,” Mr Gyngell said. “It is the role of the government itself to understand and marshal the instruments of statecraft.”
Mr Gyngell, a former head of Australia’s top spy agency, the Office of National Assessments, said the fall in Australia’s diplomatic footprint had left the nation “less well-placed than we should be to advance our interests and defend our values”.
Melissa Conley Tyler, research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, agreed with Mr Sharma that DFAT had to position itself better by offering solutions to government challenges.
Cuts over the past five years had gone well beyond trimming fat, she said.
She said the latest Defence Strategic Update continued the trend of viewing international issues through a security lens, which wasn’t playing to Australia’s strengths.
“Whatever Australia spends, it is not going to have the largest military in the region,” she said. “But it is realistic to have the most effective diplomats promoting our interests and we can be the most trusted development partner, if not the largest spender, showing off positive Australian traits like pragmatism and problem solving.”
‘Other than its own portfolio ministers, DFAT does not have many champions around the cabinet table.’
Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove said the government should be commended for investing more in defence but it was now time to address the “diplomatic deficit which has developed over the past 30 years”.
“The Australian government should increase the funding provided to DFAT because practising vigorous and effective diplomacy requires a first-rate, properly-resourced foreign service,” he said.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong accused Mr Sharma of “auditioning” for Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s job.
“Everybody knows it’s up to Marise Payne as minister to get the resources DFAT needs,” Senator Wong said. “But hopefully Mr Sharma will help Scott Morrison understand that while enhanced defence capability is essential, if we are truly going to keep Australians secure and promote our national interest, we need to be ready and willing to build the region and world we want – that not only respects sovereignty, but is also stable and prosperous.”
The government’s new defence strategy comes amid increasing concern about China’s growing militarisation in the South China Sea, escalating foreign interference in Australia and Beijing’s crackdown on democratic rights in Hong Kong.
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Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.