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A brief history


The new Commonwealth of Australia established seven departments, including the Department of External Affairs (DEA), which was given responsibility for imperial relations and migration; and the Department of Trade and Customs, which administered customs duties and federal tariffs.


Australia established a high commission in London, its first post overseas. Former Prime Minister George Reid was appointed head of mission and remained there until 1916.


Prime Minister William Hughes abolished the DEA and divided its functions between the Prime Minister’s Department and the Department of Home Affairs.


The DEA was re-established, mainly due to Australia’s membership of the League of Nations, but was still attached to the Prime Minister’s Department.


The first Australian trade commissioners were appointed to Canada, New Zealand, Japan, China and the Netherlands East Indies (later Indonesia), under the Trade Commissioners Act 1933 (Cth).


The DEA was released from its subordinate role in the Prime Minister’s Department and transformed into a fully separate foreign office.


Following the outbreak of World War II, Prime Minister Robert Menzies announced that Australia would establish diplomatic posts in the major Pacific powers, beginning with the United States and Japan in 1940 and China in 1941.


The functions of the Department of Trade and Customs were separated—the first in a number of changes over the next thirty years, before the formation of the Department of Trade (1983–87).


The DEA was renamed the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).


Responsibility for the high commission in London was transferred from the Prime Minister’s Department to the DFA.


Prime Minister Gough Whitlam restructured the DFA by creating a second Asia division, one for North and West Asia and the other for Southeast Asia.


The Whitlam Government created the Australian Development Assistance Agency (ADAA) to manage Australia’s aid program, withdrawing this responsibility from the DFA.


Under the Fraser Government, the ADAA was renamed the Australian Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB) and placed under the direction of the DFA. Over the next two decades, the agency underwent several name changes, before becoming the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) in 1995.


The Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of Trade were merged to achieve better coordination in pursuit of Australia’s national interests.


DFAT released the first white paper on foreign and trade policy, ‘In the National Interest’, which emphasised the need for ‘a realistic perspective of how to advance Australia’s security and economic interests’.


On 18 September Julie Bishop was appointed Australia’s first female Minister for Foreign Affairs.


DFAT and AusAID were integrated to ensure close alignment of the diplomatic and aid objectives of Australia’s foreign policy.


On 20 July Frances Adamson was appointed Secretary of DFAT, becoming the department’s first female Secretary.


DFAT released the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper ‘Opportunity, Security, Strength’, delivering a comprehensive trade, aid and foreign policy framework to ensure Australia’s prosperity and security over the next decade and beyond.