“When you look at the extraordinary efforts of diplomats during the COVID-19 crisis this announcement must be so dispiriting,” she said.
“It’s disappointing because the money spent on diplomacy and development is excellent value for money: every dollar has a huge effect. Whether it’s work on global health or counter-terrorism or promoting Australian businesses abroad, the investment in DFAT is money well spent.”
The department plans to use natural attrition and redeployment to cut 50 jobs out of Canberra and 10 from eight overseas postings and to complete the process with no redundancies. The cuts will be executive level one or two positions, in the lower tier of leadership and management.
In a message to staff, DFAT acting secretary Tony Sheehan said the department would be “downsizing” by 60 jobs and the budget “continues to be under significant pressure and this will only increase”.
He said the department had decided on savings to operational budgets “across all groups and the overseas network”, as well as reductions to the salary budget.
“The department has a significant policy agenda to deliver for the government in helping to forge a path to economic recovery and to respond to an increasingly challenging international environment,” he said.
In an emailed response to questions, Mr Sheehan said “DFAT is not cutting any staff and has not been advised by the government of any budget cuts”.
The department had a total workforce of just over 6000 as of June 30 last year. That included 2942 employees in Australia and 860 serving at overseas posts. There were another 2276 locally engaged staff at overseas posts.
Rory Medcalf, the head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, said DFAT was not “cutting fat, but rather cutting muscle and bone, which is not pretty”.
Professor Medcalf said the under-resourcing of DFAT can be traced back to the Howard government when then-foreign minister Alexander Downer chose not to push for more funding for the department after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
“The cuts would be bearable if they were from a much higher base that DFAT should have been at, had there been a budget increase in the early 2000s,” he said.
According to one departmental source, there weren’t enough strategically minded staff at DFAT and it had allowed the Home Affairs and Defence departments to “fill the strategic void”.
Australia now spends just 1.3 per cent of the federal budget on diplomacy and foreign aid, well below comparable countries. It outlays about $28 billion a year on defence compared with $1 billion on diplomacy.
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said Labor welcomed the government’s boost to defence spending, but Australia also needed to be “more self-reliant and ambitious in our foreign policy” and “diplomats are critical to this”.
Beth Vincent-Pietsch, deputy national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, said the move was “just not not in our economic or national interest”.
“This pandemic has shone a light on how important the work of DFAT is. Our members have been working hard to bring Australians home from across the globe and ensure their safety, as well as continue our important trade and diplomatic work,” she said.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma this week sounded the alarm about DFAT’s budget, calling for more money to be spent on diplomacy to match the nation’s step-up in defence, but also criticising the department for not selling its value to key decision makers.
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”.
The former ambassador to Israel said Defence, Home Affairs and the intelligence agencies had been better at presenting solutions to the challenges of government and their budgets had grown accordingly.
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Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.