Essay

Diplomatic compliance

IN SEPTEMBER 2000, the cadaver of Australia's great foreign policy tragedy of the past quarter century was laid out in the Mural Hall, at the centre of the Australian Parliament. The 724-page book of diplomatic cables told the story of a strong prime minister imposing his will and a foreign affairs department that both agonised and argued in the fateful months before Indonesia invaded East Timor.

The chronological collection of government documents covering 1974-76 reads as the Greek chorus to tragedy. In passionate prose, Australia's ambassador in Jakarta, Richard Woolcott, wrote that Canberra had to decide between 'Wilsonian idealism and Kissingerian realism'. The ambassador in Portugal, Frank Cooper, agonised over the damage to moral principles posed by East Timor: 'The question many people will ask is not whether we can live with it but whether we can live with ourselves.'

The strength of the arguments contained in the old cables was the topic picked over by Australian diplomats, past and present, who gathered around the orange juice and coffee after the Mural Hall ceremony. One of the current generation reflected on how things had changed in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). It would be impossible today, he said, to produce such a book based on the cable traffic to the department. These days, embassies seldom debated policy. Even the most senior ambassadors had to work hard to be involved in the decision-making process. 'The posts now are treated a bit like postmen – delivering the messages and sending back the replies. The decisions are all made and unmade in Canberra.'

Welcome to 21st-century Australian diplomacy, where self-censorship has become an ambassadorial art form; well-understood protocols ensure ministers are not told what they don't want to hear and professional discipline is reinforced by a 'culture of compliance'.

DFAT sits in a new building on State Circle, the road that surrounds Capital Hill and Parliament House. The terracotta tiles of the pitched roof mirror the tiles atop the parliament building, which in turn echo the suburban roofs of Australia. Disobeying the logic of the suburbs, DFAT sits with its back to State Circle and Parliament House looming on the hill. The symbolism is strange; certainly at odds with other major buildings such as the High Court, which is sited with its back to Lake Burley Griffin to better perform its constitutional watch on the Parliament. Perhaps the DFAT building is not just a victim of Canberra's planning regulations; its back to Parliament means Foreign Affairs is actually facing the Prime Minister's Department.

The visitor enters DFAT from John McEwan Crescent (named after the former Country Party leader and long-time trade minister). The building bears the name of R.G. Casey, the Liberal who was Australia's longest-serving foreign minister (1951-60). The foundation plaque at the front reveals that work on the building was started under Labor by then foreign affairs minister Gareth Evans and trade minister Peter Cook. Evans and Cook were so busy wrestling over the protocols of their joint role in laying the foundation stone they neglected to take the chance to name the building after Labor's H.V. Evatt. So naming rights fell to Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer as DFAT moved into the building in 1996 and the honour went to Casey.

The new foreign affairs minister dubbed the main conference room after Doug Anthony (National Party leader and trade minister, 1975-83) and consigned Evatt to the library, in memory of his service as minister for external affairs from 1941-49. Having been on the receiving end of quite a few parliamentary harangues from his predecessor, Downer took some pleasure in naming the lecture theatre after Evans (foreign affairs minister from 1988-1996). Evans sighed at 'a little bit of Tory triumphalism'.

 

ACROSS A BROAD foyer, well suited for diplomatic levees, lies a reception deask and a board displaying the geographic divisions that are the building blocks of Foreign Affairs. The top floor of one side of the building houses the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS), the overseas spy service. The electronic cloaking around the ASIS eyrie is enough to put a digital buzz on a tape recorder. On most floors, though, the sounds are more the hum of the computers and the swish of the ID passes across the scanner to allow entry to secure areas. Here is the diplomacy of a modern public service pursuing the world view of the Howard Government.

Look back to the period of the East Timor tragedy to see the trajectory of change over the last quarter of the 20th century. In 1974, Foreign Affairs told the Royal Commission on Government Administration that an exclusive foreign service should be created, a distinct breed separate from the rest of the Commonwealth Public Service. The Foreign Affairs head, Alan Renouf, embraced the elitist tag: "Of course it is elitist; it seeks the best. Australia is the only country in the world to find this objectionable."

The aspirations to be an 'elite' service were killed off long before John Howard swept into power and ordered cuts that eliminated a quarter of Foreign Affairs' staff. Technology and the choices imposed by political leaders have remade the culture of Foreign Affairs. Governments, both Labor and Liberal, distrusted the word 'elite' – it suggested a degree of independence. One uniform trend of the past few decades has been the efforts of all governments to bend the public service to their will.

The Hawke government's amalgamation of the Trade Department with Foreign Affairs in 1987 has been a success on almost any measure. The merging of the diplomatic pinstripes with the hard-swearing 'trades' merely marks a convenient end point for an elite model that had expired long before.

DFAT has become a 'normal' department, responding to the same pressures and demands as the rest of the federal bureaucracy. One mark of the change is that Australia's top diplomats now spend much more of their time in Canberra. A couple of good overseas posts are obviously part of the career mix. But to get to the heady heights of one of the four deputy secretary jobs, the aspiring diplomat needs to stick close to headquarters. A stint in the Prime Minister's Department or as an adviser in the Foreign Minister's office is worth more than a succession of embassy jobs.

The ethos of DFAT has inevitably responded to the series of revolutions imposed on the public service by the Hawke-Keating and Howard governments. Twenty years of 'reform' means much has changed. There is no such thing as a 'permanent' secretary. The heads of department are appointed and dismissed as whim takes their ministers.

A defining moment in this change was in March 1996 when the new prime minister issued a statement announcing his ministry. The first pages of the Howard statement took the usual form – listing the new ministers and the seniority line-up. The shock was the final page, which listed all the secretaries of the federal departments. Six of the existing secretaries (including the head of DFAT, Michael Costello) experienced the bureaucratic equivalent of the firing squad.

The right of ministers to be almost capricious in dealing with the public service was cemented by the Federal Court in reviewing the 1999 sacking of the Defence Department secretary Paul Barratt. The court upheld the dismissal and ruled that the Prime Minister does not 'require cause' to fire a secretary.

The message to the bureaucrats was enshrined in the 1999 Public Service Act, which replaced the complex structure that had grown on the previous 1922 public service law. The new act proclaimed the need to 'transform management culture'. The Howard Government's 'bottom line', as explained to Parliament, was that every clause of the law 'maintains or enhances the Government's current position as an employer and a manager'.

Public service agency heads were given much clearer powers to hire and fire staff and to deal with inefficiency and underperformance. They were to use this power over their staff to focus on the needs of the government-of-the-day, not some amorphous entity called the Commonwealth. The object of the act lays down the order of importance – to serve 'the Government, the Parliament and the Australian public'. And to remind departmental secretaries of the Canberra realities, formal control over their lives at the top of the bureaucratic pile was reassigned. Previously, departmental secretaries had been appointed by the Governor-General and their pay packets controlled by the Remuneration Tribunal. Now, the Prime Minister appoints secretaries for up to five years and the Prime Minister decides on their salaries and conditions. The secretaries, in turn, have direct control over the contracts and conditions of their senior managers.

HARRY TRUMAN'S SECRETARY of State, Dean Acheson, wrote that all the presidents he'd known entered office harbouring uneasy doubts about diplomats, viewing them as 'cynical, unimaginative and negative'. As Howard took power, his view of Foreign Affairs was influenced by a suspicion that the department contained bureaucratic warriors carrying on Paul Keating's vision of engagement with Asia. Add to that ideological suspicion the political worries about Alexander Downer, the man Howard deposed to again grasp the leadership of the Liberal Party in 1995. It took several years in government to bed down the relationship between Howard and Downer. During the early period, much of the movement had to be achieved by the other minister in the portfolio, Tim Fischer, wearing his twin Akubras as both the trade minister and National Party leader. The signals to DFAT about what might get prime ministerial approval often emerged after Fischer had had a private cup of tea with Howard.

A former head of DFAT (1984-88), Stuart Harris, now a professor at the Australian National University, judges that Fischer and Downer were able to provide a counterbalance to Howard's foreign policy views in the early years of the Government: 'Fischer and Downer were two voices in Cabinet. It was Tim Fischer who often had the voice, even on foreign policy issues, especially the approach to Asia. Once Fischer left, Downer was on his own for quite a while and had very little weight in Cabinet; that's my understanding. Now I think Downer has picked up quite a bit. He made a few mistakes early on which didn't help. But he's now picked up to the point where he can consider himself a candidate for deputy leader. But also I think he's moved closer to the Prime Minister. You started to notice that the little differences ceased to be quite as clear-cut. He was much more walking behind the Prime Minister and echoing what the Prime Minister had said.'

Some outside the department see the hand of Howard reaching deep into the diplomatic bureaucracy. Woolcott, DFAT secretary from 1988-92, says senior public servants and ambassadors can no longer push arguments to government as they could in the past: 'Your Whitlams, Frasers, Hawkes and Keatings didn't object to senior public servants doing this. I feel now a culture of compliance has developed in the public service. It is unfortunate. Prime ministers and ministers say they welcome frank and fearless advice, but they don't always do that if it doesn't accord with what they want to do. I think the bureaucracy now is much more managed out of the Prime Minister's office than it ever used to be. People are a bit more worried about challenging what they perceive to be the established views of the Prime Minister or other ministers on an issue. Someone like Whitlam used to welcome that. Evans used to welcome it. Made them think, made them have another look at some of the policies. I think less of that goes on now.'

The foreign affairs writer for The Australian Financial Review, Geoffrey Barker, reflects the Woolcott view about a culture of compliance: 'The Howard Government does not relish dissident or even discomforting expert advice; it clearly prefers a diplomatic service that does its political bidding without question or comment.'

 

TO SEE THE way the culture operates in DFAT, it's necessary to understand the unique role of the 'cables'. The cables flowing back and forth between Canberra and overseas posts constitute the bureaucratic blood nourishing the heart and brain of foreign policy. The cables go beyond foreign affairs to defence and intelligence and to ministers and the Prime Minister. The cables are the fodder of foreign policy; they act as an official record, inform policy-making and they carry instructions based on government decisions. But the actual production of cables from overseas posts has been undermined by self-censorship to serve domestic political sensitivities in Australia.

Several diplomats, both serving and retired, explained how the cable-writing process has been subverted by the imperative not to report overseas criticism of the Howard Government. Sensitive cables are produced only after informal discussions between the posts and the desk officers in Canberra, conducted by phone or email. One former ambassador said: 'It's quite common for the desk to say, "Oh, don't put that in the cable".'

Much of the real work and debate is done through personal emails and phone calls, which are not part of the official record. The phone calls and emails produce no record that goes beyond the department to ministers. The formal cables that emerge from this informal process are shaped and prescribed by what Canberra tells the overseas post will be acceptable.

In the posts, the perception of self-censorship has become widespread. A diplomat with senior experience in Asia explains the system: 'If you get sensitive stuff you send an email, not a cable. You write cables knowing they have a much wider audience. You don't get praised for making hot cables. If you put ‘political' stuff in a cable you would get the word back from the desk not to put that in the cables. It's a very common practice, self-censorship. Because there's such sensitivity, people don't want to rock the boat. They know they'll be landed on with a ton of bricks and you probably tend to self-censor more than necessary. The way it works – let's say a minister from a foreign government said to you, ‘I think your minister badly mishandled that issue; it's a disgrace'. That would never see the light of day in a cable. You would be getting into ‘political comment'. But, of course, you'd want your desk [in Canberra] to know. So you'd quietly send an email to tell them. More and more that happens. It's a shame.'

The trouble with self-censorship is nobody knows where the 'don't tell' boundaries actually are. The natural tendency is to be cautious so that eventually even ministers and their staffs aren't sure what areas are being treated as off limits. The 'children overboard' affair in the Defence Department shows how the 'don't tell' culture can be useful to ministers and the Prime Minister. Sensitive or 'political' information is not conveyed in any form that can be traced to political leaders. The system produces deniability. Ministers can honestly claim that they have no knowledge of some unfortunate fact, confident that no written report can be leaked to contradict them.

Harris says Howard wants dominance over the public service similar to that which the Prime Minister exerts over his parliamentary party. Guidelines for embassies have been tightened to inhibit reporting of foreign judgements critical of the Howard Government. The first effort happened after the 1996 leak of cables and letters reporting the anger of Asian governments at cuts to Australian aid given through concessional funds known as 'soft loans'. Posts were instructed not to fill their cables with details of local media reporting or to give much attention to criticism by local officials or aid groups. If it was felt necessary to report on adverse comments about the Howard Government of a 'political nature', posts should use only category B cables, which have higher security and a restricted distribution in Canberra. In the department, only the top management, the Senior Executive Service, sees the category B cables.

The controls on diplomatic reporting were tightened further after Australia's 1999 intervention in East Timor and Howard's controversial interview with Fred Brenchley in The Bulletin on 28 September 1999. (The magazine's interpretation was that Howard saw Australia's taking up a regional role as the US 'deputy sheriff'.) The tightening coincided with a push to 'work smarter', under which embassies and high commissions were told that cables should become more concise – they should be no more than three pages. Australia's diplomats were also getting the message from ministerial offices that they should offer no reporting of 'political commentary' about Howard Government policies. The Government wanted its diplomats to provide the facts – the 'political' context would be supplied in Canberra.

Harris says the warning to the diplomats was that the Government did not want to hear inconvenient views from foreign posts: 'They've said they don't want political commentary from people in the field. Now that seems to me a very backward step. My understanding is that there's a direction gone out "the Government doesn't want commentary; they just want the facts". A number of people have said the ambassadors are not expected to provide their own commentary on what's going on if it has any political connotations in Australia. For a post to say, "What Australia has done in the Middle East is going to affect the Indonesian elections next year", or something like that; this kind of thing is discouraged. I have to say I'm puzzled by it. It must be very difficult if you're an ambassador. There's no doubt there's a message gone out to cut back on "political comment", whatever "political" means. The message from ministers or the Prime Minister was that they didn't want to hear this stuff. They could make their own judgements.'

The man at the centre of DFAT, the secretary, Ashton Calvert, argues there was never a public service golden age: 'The implication seems to be that there was some previous period when public servants were free to decide things themselves, which is not what I recall. I don't think it would be healthy or democratic if that were the case.' He agrees there has been cultural change but sees it more as a response to staff cuts, technological change and the complexity of issues modern government confronts. Foreign Affairs must be more of a team player in a whole-of-government process: 'We most certainly are much better integrated and better embedded in the broader public service than before.'

For Calvert, it would be a waste of time for public servants to wander off into areas beyond the broad guidelines set by government ministers. On specific issues, however, he says ministers are always looking for fresh thinking. He points to the Solomon Islands as 'an issue we have been troubled by for about three years in quite a serious way and there's no easy answer. But the Government is not telling us in advance what to do. The Government is asking us to stay on the case, stay on the problem and judge as best we can from the local situation what really is the best response at each point of time for Australia. That's something where we are urged to do the best we can with it; as long as the approaches we set out – or there could be two or three options we set out – are well thought through and sensible and convincing.'

Others maintain that technology and 'need to know' categories have combined to restrict the flow of information inside DFAT. The cables from embassies are no longer read as pages, which can be handed around or copied. To see a document in the department today means logging on to a computer and reading off a screen. Such access is carefully controlled. If any information is leaked, the department can instantly summon a list of everyone who logged on to read the document; the time and date and which computer was used. The culture of monitoring is reinforced by regular warnings about unauthorised disclosure of information along with injunctions not to talk to the media or the Opposition.

Middle– and lower-level staff now see much less of the information that flows through the department. One diplomat says the control culture means many people have to do their work 'with blinkers on'. He recalls working in a policy area in the mid-1990s as a junior officer (a level 6 administrative service officer, equivalent to a second secretary in an embassy). In this position he had access to a river of paper, reading reports which covered much of Europe, including category B-restricted cables. 'In doing that job I had a good knowledge of the issues running in the department. That's not the case any more. A colleague I worked with back then is doing exactly same job today. He estimates that he sees about 15 per cent of the information I did.'

The judgement call is when a 'need to know' system has become so restrictive that 'nobody knows'. Enough information circulates for normal administrative purposes but little fresh thinking is generated. Harris says: 'Once you get to a situation where everybody only gets the material that deals directly with what they're doing on the day-to-day stuff, then you're bound to have somebody at the top level who sets broader policy lines. That has some advantages but it also has immense disadvantages if you want other than a simple status quo policy or an unthinking policy.'

But Calvert says cutting the traditional long cables, that were seldom read and never acted on, is an example of pruning wasteful activity: 'If you can't organise yourself to write what you need to write cleanly and clearly within three pages, it's not worth having.'

ASHTON CALVERT'S APPEARANCE is almost a caricature of the mathematics professor he could have become – the domed head, glinting glasses and pursed lips of one about to produce the correct answer to a difficult equation. Born in Hobart in 1945, Calvert was Tasmania's 1966 Rhodes scholar and gained a PhD in mathematics at Oxford University.

After gaining his doctorate, he turned away from mathematics, deciding it would be 'limiting as a career', and joined the then department of external affairs in 1970. His approach to diplomacy has more to do with mathematical precision than chaos theory. 'The big thing about the branches of mathematics that I studied is that it puts a great emphasis on clear thinking and logic,' Calvert says. 'You get the same benefits from studying parts of philosophy as well. That helps greatly, I think, to be able to think clearly, see that there could be several reasons for doing something or several reasons for not doing it, but the weight you give to each reason can be quite different. You've got to understand – just advance one argument for something and one argument against – not just to cite the whole story. Those issues of logic and organised thinking are quite important.'

Calvert says there is 'more room for error' in diplomacy, where the correct answer can change over time: 'There are many variables moving all at once and a lot of it ultimately is about judgement. There is no one clear-cut answer and one policy approach at a certain point of time might be quite valid but five years later far less so.'

The defining international experience for Calvert was four postings in Japan, the first studying Japanese in Yokohama during 1971-73. His last stint was as ambassador in Tokyo from December 1993 to March 1998, when he returned to Canberra to head the department. Calvert's wife is Japanese. His citation, when appointed to the Order of Australia this year, credits service to the development of foreign policy, distinguished contributions to Australia's overall economic and security interests at critical times and, specifically, the advancement of relations with Japan.

Calvert rejects the idea that he has brought a Japanese flavour to his management of DFAT. Certainly, the top diplomats in Tokyo and Canberra take very different views of their elected leaders. A senior Japanese diplomat commented that when Australian diplomats are given a bad policy by their government they go ahead and implement that policy. By contrast, if Japanese diplomats disagree with policy 'we subvert it'. Calvert responded: 'There are many aspects of their work style I do not want to emulate. It is a totally subjective statement by an Australian but I think our work processes are more efficient and more embedded in the democratic system. I still wonder at the liberties Japanese bureaucrats take ... I think Japan would be a stronger country if their political leaders had a stronger impact on policy outcomes.'

According to some who work for him, Calvert keeps a strict hand on the movement of issues through the department. 'Ashton sees everything,' one middle-level DFAT official says. 'If he goes on holiday, everything stops. His in-tray just piles up chest high. You are constantly trying to get his views on things to get approval. Usually, under previous secretaries, you'd get your first assistant secretary in charge of an area to sign off on things. But all that has been soaked up by Ashton.' The Calvert wit is dry but his taste in bureaucracy puts the emphasis on structure not spontaneity. Some on the inside say DFAT tends to be 'a no-fun zone'. Woolcott describes Calvert as a friend, 'but I think he does want to manage the department very tightly and closely'.

Calvert says the measure of success is that what the department recommends to its ministers is usually successful: 'I feel comfortable that a high proportion of our advice is accepted first time round and the fact that a small minority of our recommendations aren't doesn't trouble my conscience at all. It is one indication to me that we are thinking freshly and trying to test the limits of policy.'

A high acceptance rate could, indeed, indicate high-quality thinking. Equally, it could indicate the department has developed the ability to stay safely within the limits defined by its political masters.

While acknowledging the foreign posts always have different vantage points, Calvert sees a closer engagement between Canberra and its people overseas: 'I put a lot of emphasis on a totally collegiate approach between our posts and headquarters; in some periods in the past I think there's been too much rivalry in the sense of separateness between them, between posts and headquarters. I think that's managerially quite unsound and counterproductive.'

The desired atmosphere may be collegiate (with shorter essays required) but the overseas posts know who the dean is. A senior diplomat in an important embassy in Asia says Canberra sometimes decides issues of direct relevance to the post without bothering to ask for an on-the-spot opinion: 'You'll discover that a submission has gone to the minister and the post hasn't even been consulted. That's almost routine. It's very frustrating.'

The Calvert managerial vision decrees that diplomats are to be judged by the quality of their advocacy of Australian policy and the outcomes delivered. The call is for focusing effort and marshalling resources: 'We are not running university seminars. We are professional public servants doing particular work for Australia, for the democratically elected Australian Government. And we should focus on the work at hand and get on with it. We are not here to sort of daydream or to endlessly debate things.'

Could that demand for focus extend to telling posts not to waste their time reporting political aspects of the Australian decision-making process? 'No, I don't recall that. We want people to keep on the job. Whatever we define as "on the job" obviously is a big issue and that needs judgement and their [ministers'] permission at any particular time or on any particular agenda that we are looking at. But we have deliberately sought from our posts summaries of reactions to events in Australia. A controversial issue in Australia is the Pauline Hanson case, for example, and we sought out, from our posts, summaries of local reactions and how this was being interpreted and how it was being handled. During the period that had topicality, that was a deliberate part of our work.'

Calvert has a unique personal experience of the workings of the Keating and Howard governments. He was the top foreign policy adviser in the Prime Minister's Department for Keating's first two years in office, when the passion for Asia and the push to create an Asia Pacific leaders' summit succeeded. In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart – A Portrait of Paul Keating, Don Watson says Calvert saw the need to give Keating 'intensive coaching' in his early period as leader. Watson describes Calvert as 'an astute, punctilious professional of undisguised ambition and a streak of zeal' who was appalled by the chaos of the Keating office.

Calvert sidesteps questions about the Keating-Howard experiences by saying 'they were two different stages in my professional career ... there was a fair degree of continuity in the type of work I was doing'. But it is in the area of possible discontinuity – the approach to Asia – that the arguments run deep.

 

THE GUIDING STAR for Howard in dealing with foreign affairs  has been to dismatle the Keating legacy and impose his own vision of Australia's national interests. One way of reading Howard's foreign policy comments, particularly during the Prime Minister's first years of office, was as a continuing debate with the ghost of the departed Keating. The defining statements of the Howard vision have a rejectionist tinge, couched in double negatives to dispute Keating's Asian vision. The mantra used by Howard is that 'Australia does not have to choose between its history and its geography' and that his foreign policy is 'Asia first, not Asia only'.

Woolcott says Asia sees a resurgence of racist and jingoistic attitudes in Australia under Howard's leadership. He says Australia is perceived as an Anglo-American outpost, uncomfortable with the region. The Howard Government, he argues, has seriously damaged four decades of diplomacy aimed at engagement with Asia. Woolcott says links with China and Singapore have been maintained but relations with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have deteriorated: 'I travel quite a lot in the region and I think there is a perception growing up that in some way we have stepped back from the very close and constructive engagement that we built up with most of the east Asian countries through the '80s and the early '90s. I think there are several reasons for that; one is the perception that we've re-balanced our foreign policy and become much more closely aligned with United States policies than we have been in the past, manifested in the decision to send forces to Iraq.'

Woolcott says Australia could once claim to have moved from being the 'odd man out' in Asia to become 'the odd man in'. Now, he says, Australia has 'overcorrected' in turning back to the US and is again on the outer in Asia.

Calvert rejects the 'odd man' analogy used by Woolcott as giving too much weight to the opinions of the 10 countries of ASEAN: 'The whole model that posits is something I think is limiting. Australia is Australia. This is where I disagree with Dick Woolcott – you cannot measure the success of Australian foreign policy by whether or not a small number of countries in South-East Asia give us a big tick or not. Australia's foreign policy, its success, its validity, has to be decided by the Australian people themselves in their view of the Australian interest. We sell ourselves short and we limit ourselves if we let other countries make that decision for us.  That is why I always thought that particular construct was an unfortunate one and a limiting one.  Australia should and will make the very most of the strong links we have with all key countries in Asia. But we, at the same time, need to work just as hard at other relationships and just see where we go. We want to make the most of all these relationships. And the other thing to remark, too, is that a lot of the current international agenda is not defined by geography or regions at all. A lot of it is just universal issues like the WTO issues or international environment or terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.'

Harris sees some division within DFAT between those with an Asia focus and those who agree that Australia's international interests are not defined by geography or region: 'I think those in the department who are really knowledgeable about Asia would be very concerned about our future. But there are others who would say, "Perhaps Howard is right".'

When DFAT was drafting its foreign policy white paper last year the Government was ready to declare Australia's relationship with the US as the single most important one. This would merely have brought formal policy in line with the often-stated views of the Prime Minister. Howard has repeatedly said that the US holds the top spot in his eyes. The attempt to negotiate a free-trade agreement with America aims to give the economic links the same treaty status as the 50-year-old defence alliance. The Bali bombings in October 2002 derailed the effort to align Howard belief and formal policy. The Government decided it would have caused a needless diplomatic flurry in Asia to have anointed the US as Australia's most important partner as a statement of policy. Such an announcement would also have played up the tensions with that other Howard standard, 'Asia first, not Asia only'.

Calvert points to the formula eventually used by the February 2003 White Paper, 'Asia is an abiding priority'. The secretary says 39 per cent of Australia's overseas staff today is in Asia; under the Keating government the figure was 38 per cent. But Calvert is happy to agree that the nuance and hierarchy of Australian foreign policy has evolved and Asia may well have noticed a shift: 'Successive Australian governments make their policy choices and put different nuances, or different emphasis here and there; and so they should. We should be proud of the democracy we all belong to. The objective situation they are dealing with changes and evolves.

'Look at some of the issues that we have been dealing with in the recent period in Australia's relations with Asia – the east Asian financial crisis was an important watershed in a lot of ways, including how they define themselves and their relations with the rest of the world; how they define themselves towards a country like Australia and what we thought of our relations with them. It [the Asian financial crisis] caused them to lose confidence to some extent in varying degrees in certain countries; they became a bit more inward looking. The impulse towards things like the ASEAN Plus 3 framework [the 10 ASEAN countries plus China, Japan and South Korea] or other attempts to develop an east Asian cohesion all became stronger, in quite a natural way.

'To some extent, some differences between them and Australia, not hitherto apparent, became more noticed. Now, none of this should lead to friction or a sourness, but just there is a different context you are working with there and some difference in priorities.'

THE BIG QUESTION that hangs over the Asia debate is whether the regional relationship has merely hit a pause point or a major change of course. Does Australia confront a paradigm shift or just an interregnum in Asia? It helps to pose the question within the frame of Howard's experience since taking office in 1996. Howard's line from the '80s – 'the times will suit me' – actually came true at the end of the '90s. Howard became the first prime minister since Menzies who did not have to confront a resurgent, ascending Asia. After the 1997-98 financial crisis, Howard could define for himself the strength and range of his Asian focus.

For the first time in a generation, Australia did not have to grapple with the reality that its economic strength was on a slow path of decline relative to a rampaging Asia. East Timor in 1999 added a military dimension to the emerging thought that Australia's decline relative to Asia was not an economic inevitability.

The Howard Government looks back on a decade where Australia's economic growth averaged 4 per cent and the country stepped unscathed through a regional economic meltdown. Australia boasts a productivity performance that has outstripped the US; it is almost taken as a given when the IMF and the OECD predict that Australia's growth will continue to outstrip most developed economies.

So is Australia entering a new era where the magnetic pull of geography will decline? Or will Asia – led by China this time rather than Japan – again remake our 'abiding' regional interests. Calvert, for one, inclines to the view that we are in paradigm-shift country, not merely an interregnum in Asia's rise. If he's right, then the changing hierarchy and nuance of foreign policy under Howard is a glimpse of the future, not a detour.

In Calvert's summation, Australia has become more matter-of-fact about engaging with the world and making the most of all its relationships, in Asia or elsewhere: 'Asians, above all, are very pragmatic people. They are very realistic. They are conscious, often, of various situations of hierarchy, too. But I think they respect Australia and take us more seriously if we have got a hard head and a realistic view of our interests and where our links are strong and what assets we have at play internationally.' 

References:

Wendy Way (editor), Damien Browne & Vivianne Johnson (Assistant Editors), Australia and the Indonesian 
Incorporation of Portugese Timor, 1974-1976
, Documents on Australian Foreign Policy, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Melbourne University Press, Victoria, 2000, 724 pages. RRP $43.95 (paper) ISBN: 0 522 84907 5 The Bulletin, "The Howard Defence Doctrine", September 28, 1999.

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