The news from the RG Casey building, home of DFAT in Canberra, has been improving of late under the stewardship of DFAT Secretary Dennis Richardson. The most recent is a promising revelation in Senate Estimates that the Department is increasing its investment in language training for diplomats:

This is welcome news, given the long-standing bipartisan neglect of Australia's foreign affairs infrastructure, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is at the forefront in managing Australia's international relations. We've drawn attention to this neglect over the past few years here at the Lowy Institute.

One of the key findings in our original 2009 report on Australia's diplomatic infrastructure was the degradation of crucial language skills in the Department. Investment in language training was erratic, at best. Our later report showed a promising uptick in expenditure from 2010. And in May Senate Estimates Mr Richardson confirmed a further increase in investment for the 2011-12 year, to $6.1 million (more than double what was being spent in 2009, as shown in the chart above).

According to the Secretary, DFAT reviewed its language needs in 2010 and discovered some gaps: Arabic, Farsi, Korean, Thai and Turkish.

In 2004, only 0.8% of the Department's A-based (employed from Australia by DFAT) staff spoke Arabic with working-level proficiency. By January 2012, that number had climbed to 1.3%. 3% spoke Mandarin in 2004, increasing to 3.3% in 2012. Only 2 staff spoke Farsi (Persian, spoken in Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan) in 2004; there are now 5. The proportions with fluent Korean and Thai remain largely unchanged, so there is work yet to be done.

With the 2011 Census data just released, there are interesting comparisons to be made between language proficiency levels within DFAT and those of an Australian population in the increasing embrace of Asia, as illustrated by Graeme Dobell and Danielle Rajendram recently.

According to the Census, Mandarin speakers comprise 1.6% of Australian households: DFAT's Mandarin-speaking staff is double that percentage, and when that number is re-calibrated for DFAT's policy staff (excluding corporate/administrative employees, who have limited need for language skills) the proportion doubles again. But while the number of Arabic speakers in DFAT has risen in the last few years, at 1.3% it only just matches the proportion of Arabic speakers in the general population, a surprising statistic that tempers DFAT's achievement somewhat.

Much has been said on The Interpreter about Australia's engagement with Indonesia, and Australia's neglect of Indonesian language and literacy is a common refrain. Happily for DFAT, 30% more of its employees speak Bahasa now than in 2004, but at 3.8% of total staff, the number is still very low. So it is for the general population: the Census shows that despite being our largest close neighbour, newly democratic and with a rapidly increasing GDP, Bahasa doesn't rate in Australia's top ten languages, with less than 0.5% of our population speaking it at home.

Lest this government be tempted to think that the DFAT Secretary can continue to achieve results on the meagre budget meted out each May, think again. Successive governments have done nothing for DFAT in a budget sense, and have ruthlessly squeezed efficiencies from a Department which was already completely emasculated while the rest of the public service bloomed in the last decade.

Mr Richardson has nonetheless managed to steer scarce resources into areas of the Department which have been critically run down. He has begun to address Australia's thinly-spread overseas representation — the subject of a current Joint Senate/House of Reps Standing Committee Inquiry — with new posts announced this year to serve Australia's interests and opportunities in inland China and western Africa.

Yet after two decades of 'efficiency dividends' (ie. relentless automatic budget cuts) from this relatively small department, there is little left to cut. Without significant support from government and championing of its cause by the Foreign Affairs Minister, DFAT's Secretary cannot continue to weave his magic out of nothing. DFAT's ability to meet the escalating demand for consular assistance, so vividly demonstrated in last year's deluge of crises (revolutions in the Middle East, earthquakes in Christchurch, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan) is shockingly compromised, yet a further downsizing of 100-150 staff (another 6%) is slated for this year.

Some might have expected international relations enthusiast Bob Carr to fill the role of foreign affairs champion as Hillary Clinton has so persuasively done for the State Department in the US, but they would be bitterly disappointed in this exchange at the May Estimates hearing (my emphasis):

Senator Carr:  My broad view is that the time will come when Australia will have to invest more in its foreign service if we are to grow in influence as a creative middle power. But the department cannot escape the obligation on all government agencies to deliver efficiencies in the interests of healthy budget outcomes.

Senator Fawcett: I accept that, but we have the impression that ministers fight for their departments...surely you cannot fight effectively for your department if you are not aware of how those budget cuts are going to affect the capability of your department.

Senator Carr's weasel words suggest he has bought the party line about efficiency dividends, ignoring the fact that the Department flatlined in numbers from 1997 to now while the rest of the public service grew by a monumental 61%. As we argued in Diplomatic Disrepair, the problem is that most Australian government entities have fared far better than DFAT in recent decades, and therefore have much more 'fat' to cut. DFAT has not shared equally in the gain (particularly post-9/11) but is expected now to share equally in the pain.

Australia's overseas diplomatic network remains 25th of 34 developed nations, and the smallest of all G20 nations. We cannot hope to prosecute our international interests effectively with such a cripplingly small diplomatic force. Mr Richardson has done great work in these first years of his tenure. But he needs some support, and DFAT needs a champion, to turn this around.