Australia's new foreign policy white paper: How to have your say

Stacks of documents. Photo by: Christian Schnettelker / CC BY

It has been 14 years since Australia produced a white paper on foreign aid. In that time, Australia has had five different prime ministers, economies have shifted, concerns have changed and global politics are very different. Which is why Australia is now developing a new white paper for the modern era.

Until Feb. 28, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will be receiving submissions from organizations and individuals with ideas on the focus and direction of Australia’s foreign policy — including the aid program — over the next decade and beyond. Australian and international contributions are welcome.

“The public submissions process is primarily aimed at engaging the Australian community on the white paper, but we welcome the views of all interested parties,” a spokesperson from DFAT explained to Devex. “The Australian government will consult a range of international partners as we develop the white paper.”

What is the focus of the white paper?

While DFAT is seeking submissions on ideas for Australia’s foreign aid program broadly, there are six key themes they are particularly considering: Australia’s national interests; countries and global trends of priority; regional and global organizations of importance; international trade and investment opportunities; ways of responding and minimizing regional security risks; and tools and partnerships to improve the delivery of foreign policy.

“Submissions are welcomed on these and any other issues contributors consider relevant to inform the development of Australia’s international engagement agenda over the next 10 years,” a spokesperson from DFAT said.  

Specifically related to the aid program, DFAT is asking for feedback on use of official development aid in security to foster greater stability within the Indo-Pacific region. DFAT wants to hear ideas for ways to better work with nongovernmental sectors, including NGOs and businesses. Submissions from NGOs are especially welcome.

“Development cooperation is vital to building a stable and prosperous region. Development and the aid program will be considered, along with all other important aspects of the Australian government’s international agenda,” a spokesperson from DFAT said. “The Australian government wants to hear from the NGO community on a range of issues, including, but not limited to, how Australia can promote prosperity and stability through our aid program with a focus on the Indo-Pacific.”

How will submissions be used?

Requests for submissions are the first part of a wider consultation phase taking place to develop the new foreign policy white paper, due for release later this year. Submissions will be reviewed by a taskforce within DFAT and overseen by a whole-of-government board that will be producing the white paper. “As we develop the white paper, the Australian government will consider all views expressed by those who participate in the public consultations process,” a DFAT spokesperson said.

The impact of submissions will go beyond the development of a white paper. Andrew Campbell, CEO of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, told Devex the white paper will influence their roadmap for delivering agriculture and food security programs to developing countries.

“From our perspective, the white paper is very well timed — we have a 10-year strategy at the same time the white papers is being developed so we’ll make sure these two documents complement each other nicely and we’ll encourage relevant partners to contribute where we think they have particular insights or experience that will inform the white paper,” he said.

Campbell explained that the white paper will be “high level,” with no specific programs or budgets listed. “But it will set out how Australia sees its role in the region over the next decade or so, and that is really important from our perspective.”

Policy proposals can, however, come out of the white paper, which a DFAT spokesperson said would be first subject to the usual budget process.

Following the release of the white paper, submissions will be publicly available. “Our intention is to publish all submissions on the Foreign Policy White Paper website, unless authors request they be kept in confidence or if we judge that the submission is not suitable for publication,” a DFAT spokesperson explained.

Response from Australia’s development sector

Australia’s development sector has embraced the opportunity to contribute submissions for the white paper.

“This is the chance to set out our values, shape our international engagement accordingly and show that Australia’s aid and development is a crucial asset in embodying those values and realizing our interests,” Marc Purcell, chief executive officer of the Australian Council for International Development, told Devex.

Tony Milne, campaign director for the Campaign for Australian Aid, agreed. “We see this as a huge moment for our supporters and Australians to share their vision on making the world a better place and Australia playing a greater role to address global challenges,” he told Devex. “At a time of rising isolationism and nationalism, this is a big opportunity.”

Influencing the aid program

The previous 2003 white paper included a strategy for a strong aid program to support developing countries and build a stronger Asia-Pacific region, politically and economically. Consultations at that time showed strong support for a generous aid program.

In 2017, Australian NGOs are hoping for similar commitments and ACFID will be encouraging supporters to make a submission. “Our focus is putting forward a civil society perspective on the challenges of the next decade and the opportunities for Australia to contribute to, and benefit from, collective action to tackle common challenges,” Purcell said. “Climate change, extreme poverty and inequality, promoting human rights and democratic norms and resolving and preventing conflict are all key issues which can be tackled through Australian aid.”

International organizations have similarly expressed interest in the possibility of influencing Australia’s foreign policy. “We are thinking about a submission, potentially looking at introducing ideas and conversation in collaboration with another organization,” Ruben Echeverria, director general of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, explained to Devex. “Australia needs to open up ideas to be more impactful.”

The Campaign for Australian Aid is meanwhile working to develop wide and consistent support for a stronger Australian aid program. From Feb. 1, they will be launching an online tool to make it easier for the public to submit statements supporting a stronger aid program, hoping to mitigate concerns about what Milne sees as a short timeframe for submissions.

“Not only is the public consultation timeline very brief, but starting the consultation over Christmas and the New Year while people are enjoying their holiday seriously limits the ability for this process to engage the wider public,” Milne said. “We’re doing everything we can to make it as easy as possible for every Australian who would like to take the lead in shaping Australia’s place in the world to have their say.”

He urged the development sector and its supporters to make a submission, large or small, to vocalize their support and to counterbalance growing anti-aid sentiment among the public.

“Bottom line: If we don’t have our say, we allow politicians to falsely claim that the public doesn’t care about issues such as ending global poverty, reducing inequality and tackling climate change and achieving the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030,” Milne warned.

Information on submissions can be found on the foreign policy white paper website.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Devex Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.