Politics

Australia loses ‘unprecedented’ number of overseas diplomats during pandemic, document reveals | Australian foreign policy

An “unprecedented” number of people have withdrawn from Australia’s overseas diplomatic postings during the pandemic, an internal government document has revealed.

At the same time, a drop in the number of Australians travelling abroad “has not led to a reduction in consular cases around the world”, according to the detailed briefing provided to the new head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which was released under freedom of information laws with some pages redacted.

Officials also said the department wanted to “tell a more compelling story about its value in delivering government priorities” – a phrase that is likely to be code for ensuring it can win budget battles for extra funding and to avoid budget cuts. Australia already has a smaller diplomatic network than similar countries, the document shows.

The 51-page incoming operational brief was prepared for the new secretary, Kathryn Campbell, who took up the post in July.

It shows the number of positions at Australian embassies and high commissions has declined in recent years, with Dfat employees on overseas postings dropping from 897 in June 2017 to 833 in June 2020.

Dfat reduced the number of positions for locally hired staff at Australia’s 113 overseas missions from 2,419 to 2,106 over the same period.

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In an implicit warning against cuts, the document said: “Our global network is smaller than those of comparable economies and, on current number of posts, we are second last in the G20 (Saudi Arabia ranks last) and 20th in the OECD (behind countries such as Belgium, Hungary, Greece and Chile).”

The document said Australia was focused on the Pacific, with the opening of new posts in the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia and Niue over the past two years.

“In the midst of heightened strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific and an international order under intense stress, a strong diplomatic network is essential for protecting and advancing Australia’s national interest.”

The document gives an insight into how the pandemic has “reshaped the department’s operations, both in Australia and across the overseas network”.

“The overseas network is under pressure following an unprecedented number of posting withdrawals and declining interest in postings in the Covid-19 environment,” the department told Campbell, the former head of the Department of Social Services.

“As at 8 July 2021, 148 staff had terminated their posting early, or withdrawn before deployment, due to Covid-19 related concerns.”

As of the same date, there were 40 active Covid cases and 554 recovered cases across all Australian government staff posted abroad, accompanying dependants, locally engaged staff and contractors in the overseas network – a significantly higher number of known cases than the ABC reported in April.

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“Extended lockdowns, sustained workload pressures, and limited or no opportunities for respite or travel to Australia, are a feature of many Covid-era postings,” the document said.

Workload pressures and a lack of travel options had reduced the use of annual leave, “adding to fatigue and risk of burnout”.

The document did not go into detail about the department’s handling of tens of thousands of Australians stranded abroad during the pandemic, although it noted the Australian National Audit Office was investigating the issue, including “our capacity to learn from our response”.

It cited the $120m promise in the May 2021 budget to increase Australia’s consular capacity and provide support to vulnerable citizens affected by travel restrictions.

Dedicated staffing for consular and crisis response services had increased to 210 staff.

“Individual consular cases remain at the pre-pandemic level of about 1,200 cases active (or open) on any given day: comprising approximately 350 welfare cases, 170 deaths, 240 arrests and 240 prisoners. The most sensitive of these cases require careful, daily management.”

The consular emergency centre responded to about 7,000 calls, 4,000 emails and hundreds of text messages each month, it said.

The department manages 280 active social media accounts globally, with a total of about 4.6 million followers, according to the document. During the pandemic the department scaled up “the provision of regular high-quality social media content” for use by Australian embassies.

“The Dfat you are inheriting is very different to that which your predecessor took up in 2016,” the department told Campbell, who took over from career diplomat Frances Adamson, now the South Australian governor.

The document said Dfat was a leader across the Australian public service on gender equality, but analysis of five years of data showed increases in the number of staff who identified as LGBTI or as Indigenous were “starting to flatline”.

The number of staff who identified as having a disability had “stagnated” around 3.5%, and the number of employees from non-English-speaking backgrounds had fallen.

“As the department responsible for representing Australia to the world, we should reflect the community we represent and the global environment in which we operate,” the document said.

Large portions of the section on integrity and fraud control were redacted, but the document said the department faced “changing and increasing risks”, and more than 90% of fraud cases were reported from the development program.

A section of the document about freedom of information was also partly redacted, as disclosure would “have a substantial adverse effect on the proper and efficient conduct of the operations of an agency”.

The uncensored part noted the department had processed 18% more FOI requests in 2020-21 than the year before, but it was “defending a further 42 decisions before the Information Commissioner, and two complex matters before the court”.

Campbell was also given a detailed policy brief, but this was blocked from release on the basis it would damage Australia’s international relations.

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