DFAT and touching the void: A case for establishing an Australia Council.

Ben Moles

This opinion piece has previously been published by On Line Opinion, and for her contribution to that piece I wish to thank Alex Oliver for her time and comments. An updated version of the original piece appears below, which includes a number of suggestions from my colleague, Guy Roberts of the University of Melbourne- to whom I also wish to extend my gratitude.

In a piece I’d previously written, which questioned the utility of Australia claiming the ‘Indo-Pacific’ as our own, I acknowledged that Australia simply isn’t doing enough in a regional and global diplomatic/cultural context. This is yet more proof that DFAT is simply over stretched and under resourced (The Lowy Institute’s Alex Oliver has consistently warned that underfunding may invite unexpected peril). Even as the latest Defence white paper looks to plant itself in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ Asian Century, there is no sign that DFAT will have sufficient funding to meet this objective. With every developed nation scrambling to engage the Global ‘South’, there is a real danger that Australia might get left behind. One short-term, cost-effective way to triage the situation is through cultural soft-power. In this sense, building an Australia Council (modified and modelled on the British Council) might well provide an effective platform to project Australian economic and diplomatic interests – even if it is no substitute for an adequately funded DFAT.

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Beyond the official Australian diplomatic missions stationed abroad, Austrade currently facilitates trade and investment initiatives, promotes the Australian Education sector, and, in some cases, provides limited consular services. Less well known is DFAT’s International Cultural Council that focuses purely on the promotion of Australian arts and cultural exchanges.

So why an Australia Council? Simply put, Australia needs to increase the breadth and depth of its global footprint; to spread across all nations and seep beyond the capital cities and consulate addresses. DFAT doesn’t have the resources to do this, leaving a void – and an opportunity – in our current foreign policy thinking. An Australia Council (modelled on the British Council) might offer a low cost temporary solution, and provide a foundation for more substantial future investments in soft-power diplomacy; an Australia Council could touch and fill that existing void.

Created in 1934, the British Council’s ongoing activities creates international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and builds trust between them worldwide.” Essentially it is tasked with promoting British culture, language and business around the world. In diplomatic speak it is a ‘quango’, an independent not-for-profit (albeit 1/3 government funded) charity with a 2011/2012 turnover of £739 million.  Unlike some parts of the British Establishment, the Council has effectively embraced the information age, with wide ranging social media engagement and proactive use of IT and youth culture. Joseph Nye would consider the Council a fine example of ‘soft-power’ projection: a means of positively and effectively promoting ‘Brand UK’ around the around.

Of course, the British Council has not been without its critics; creating an Australian Council should indeed consider these issues, as well as acknowledging Australia’s own unique needs. Essentially, examining the British Council gives Australia the opportunity to learn, adapt and create something far more effective and competitive.

For example, the results driven organisational culture that emerged (and largely stymied) Britain’s public sector departments in the mid 2000’s, wherein short-term results and public accountability became paramount, form the core contemporary criticism of the British Council. The problem vis-à-vis the British Council was the expectation that measurable ‘analogue results’ (think of the eye-rolling ‘Key Performance Indicators’) be extracted from a ‘digital age’ cultural agent.  Essentially, the operating environment and soft-power goals of the British Council are unique; the metrics of its success are not, and should not, be immediately measured in binary terms, but by appreciating the Council’s longer-term, and broader-focused impact across multiple areas of cultural, diplomatic and social engagement over time.

Accusations have also been levelled against the British Council that it directly and aggressively competes with the UK’s language training sector; in some areas holding a monopoly that excludes the very industries it claims to represent.  In reply, the Council attempts to justify such behaviour as a result of Government funding cuts and a subsequent need to shore up its finances in order to sustain and promote its broader objectives. While these funding cuts might imply a decline in its overall significance and standing in Whitehall, they have been in line with other austerity measures and should  no means indicate the irrelevance or impotence of the British Council. Transcending the bureaucratic contextualisation of KPIs and inputs/outputs, some commentators recognise the work of the British Council represents “One of the great bargains on the Treasury’s list”.

On the global stage, the British Council is certainly not alone in the soft-power/public diplomacy work. A plethora of nations have recognised the benefits of cultural ‘sexiness’.  Examples include the Goethe-Institut, Alliance-Francaise, and even the comparatively recent Confucius-Institute. In this context, Australia’s Walkabout Pubs don’t quite cut it for global cultural recognition – nor do other examples of Australia’s relaxed contribution to global cultural activities. Jokes aside, the soft-power efforts of other countries is highlighting Australia’s public diplomacy deficiency, further strengthening the case for establishing an Australia Council. Essentially, if others can and are doing it, why aren’t we?

What would the Australia Council do? Similarly to its British counterpart, it would promote Australia across the region, and strengthen host state links and ties with Australia across culture, education and business. Where there is a need, and where Australia is currently absent, the Council could touch and temporarily fill the void. The Australia Council could also act as a facilitator (a node between Australian Embassies/Consulates and the public) and be established as a first point of contact for those locally who have an interest in Australia and visiting Australians with local inquiries, potentially relieving some of the burden from Australia’s already under-strain Embassies and Consulates.

Who would it do it? From a pragmatic, cost-benefit analysis, the cheapest and most enthusiastic ambassadors of the council would be Australian tertiary students and graduates. Generally, they are capable, enthused, and culturally-proactive while possessing relevant skills, keenness to work and a hunger for Resume relevant work experience. Many Australian students already take a gap year before, during or after their study, thus creating a fertile, pre-seeded environment for quick, decentralised, oak-tree-style Australian Council creation. Furthermore, International students/graduates returning home from Australian universities could also provide a potentially rich resource for engagement, as they possess valuable local knowledge and networks and all-important language skills. What better ambassadors for the lucky country, than youthful, open-minded and idealistic young people?

Australia Councils could be run on minimal full-time staff, predominantly consisting of recent graduates to keep costs low, creating and utilising an internship program to satisfy its other specific work requirements and needs. Having been an intern myself, I know many students/graduates would jump at the chance to take part in such a program – perhaps receiving a minimal per diem to cover basic living costs (which factoring many of Australia’s potential target countries, wouldn’t be much) or would even be happy to cover their own costs to get there (DFAT already offers some such internship opportunities under similar conditions) and the charitable status of such an enterprise would mean interns would be volunteering – negating work visa requirements. Perhaps a logical progression would be, over time, the nomination a full time Australia Council employee, at each Australia Council, and create Honorary Consuls of them, enabling them to take on more consular service duties. The key point to remember is independence – although the Australia Councils could be an extension of Australian foreign policy in terms of cultural, diplomatic and economic engagement, it should not be an organ of the state (few things would so effectively kill the entrepreneurial, idealistic volunteerism upon which the scheme would be fuelled than the dead hand of official bureaucracy!).

How would such an enterprise be funded? Similarly to the British Council. The British Council receives less than one third of its funding from British Government grants. The Australian Government would have to do likewise. A mix of revenue from commercial activities and sponsors/benefactors should be the primary focus.

Creating a network of Australia Councils could be a potential win-win situation: As an auxiliary to official engagement, an Australia Council would support and enhance the pursuit of national goals – serving at a second, third or fourth tier of international engagement. The Australian Government would see Brand Australia, and Australia’s diplomatic soft-power ‘reach’ expanded ‘on the cheap’. Council sponsors would get to positively promote themselves through sponsorship association; the host state would have a new outlet for establishing closer links to Australia at no incurred cost to itself; and students/graduates would have an opportunity to gain valuable ‘real life’ beneficial work experience. Doing so would achieve, in the short term, many of the benefits of an actual diplomatic mission to a country, at a fraction of the cost, and in places where (funding considered) Missions would not be likely to exist.

There are, of course, a plethora of such soft-power activities in place, including the Australian American Leadership Dialogue, the social entrepreneurial Language Connection and even the venerable Colombo Plan itself. The Australian Government, having recognised the benefit of such activities in and of themselves, should embrace the opportunities that a broader, global, proactive engagement driven Australia Council could create. The Australia Council would support, not supplant DFAT; it would be a little something directed in the right place, and would certainly be better than the non-engagement that exists in so many critical places of the world. At the very least, the case for establishing an Australia Council exists and warrants further investigation.

Ben Moles holds a Masters in International Security Studies from the University of Sydney and has interned for the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute, Sydney. He can be contacted at bwmoles@gmail.com or bmol4353@uni.sydney.edu.au or Follow on Twitter @bwmoles

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