COVID-19 has changed our world. We do not yet know its full impact, but already it is the most disruptive and multi-faceted crisis we have ever experienced. Our focus on the national interest has never been clearer. Our sense of purpose is strong. I am tremendously proud of our contribution to Australia’s COVID-19 response and recovery.
The department pivoted hard to drive Australia’s international engagement. We navigated strategic uncertainty to deliver complex agendas in fastmoving and unprecedented circumstances. We worked hard to keep Australians safe and help them return to Australia, secure vital medical and protective equipment and keep our businesses trading and our economy open. The extraordinary conditions we confronted affected our ability to deliver against our performance measures. When we rate the department’s performance as ‘on track’ in this report it can reflect incremental progress, or holding the line against sliding backwards. In some cases—including because of COVID-19—progress has been more difficult and we have rated our performance as ‘partially on track’.
Staff across our network—in Australia and in challenging conditions around the world undertook the largest and most complex consular operation in Australia’s history. Every post stayed open. Some operated with vastly reduced staff. Many of our staff sent their families home but stayed to keep delivering vital services. We pivoted staff in Canberra to support a global 24/7 operation, helping those most in need and working around the clock to deliver comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date information to Australians. Over 350,000 Australians returned—we supported over 26,600 to return from 90 countries on 315 flights. We helped governments from around the world support their nationals to leave Australia. Over 300 of our people redeployed across the public service, stepping up to new roles to help provide cross-government services to Australians.
While our consular and crisis response was in full swing, our strategic focus did not waver. Nor did our trade and economic advocacy. Our immediate actions helped Australian businesses navigate international supply chain disruptions, including through the International Freight Assistance Mechanism. We secured critical medical supplies and personal protective equipment for Australia’s frontline health workers. As one example, our global network helped secure over 40 per cent of ventilators in intensive care units across Australia.
Our strategic context is more uncertain than at any other time in living memory as the pandemic accelerates the trends identified in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. Nations have turned inwards and divisions have sharpened. The competition for power and influence in our region has intensified.
I am proud of the work we do each and every day to defend, protect and prosecute Australia’s interests. We use every lever of influence at our disposal to achieve this objective—we negotiate rules and treaties that reflect Australian interests and values, we build coalitions to help support Australia’s goals on the global stage and cultivate relationships with key decision-makers. Our strongest relationships are in our region, the Indo-Pacific. Increasing tensions between the United States and China were exacerbated by COVID-19. This sharper strategic competition influenced developments in and beyond our region, affecting relationships and regional and multilateral institutions. The department played a vital role at the centre of government in assessing and responding to these challenges.
In the Indo-Pacific, we upgraded the architecture of Australia’s most important relationships, establishing contemporary mechanisms for dialogue and to deliver new and deeper cooperation with partners including the United States, Japan, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and ASEAN. Our shared experience of a rapidly changing region has expanded the scope for collaboration, from the immediate COVID-19 crisis to the longer-term challenges of economic recovery, cyber and maritime security and infrastructure development. These stronger connections with our Indo-Pacific partners, grounded in converging interests and outlooks, reinforce Australia’s efforts to secure an open, inclusive and prosperous region.
As the pandemic spread, protectionist instincts sharpened around the world. One in every five jobs in Australia is trade-related. The global rules-based trading system is fundamental to Australian jobs and industry. We worked to develop new agreements and modernise trade rules on multiple fronts—through multilateral, regional and bilateral negotiations—to benefit Australian businesses and consumers and to build further pathways to economic recovery.
Our expanding network of free trade agreements is at the heart of this. Following several years of hard work, we ratified FTAs with Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Peru and concluded negotiations on the text of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). We progressed negotiations on an FTA with the European Union and launched negotiations with the United Kingdom. In the World Trade Organization we played an important role in establishing an arrangement to help settle trade disputes. A functioning WTO dispute settlement mechanism has real consequences for Australia, as we saw in our historic win defending Australia’s tobacco plain packaging laws and our efforts to remove Canada’s long-standing discriminatory measures against Australian wine.
Through our Pacific Step-up, we strengthened the longstanding people-to-people, cultural, economic and security links between Australia and our Pacific family. We established new missions in Palau and the Cook Islands and signed a new partnership with Fiji based on family (vuvale in Fijian) principles of trust, respect and mutual support. We worked quickly to support our Pacific neighbours to prepare and respond to the pandemic. We established a humanitarian corridor to move essential supplies and personnel through the region, and reprioritised development assistance to address urgent health, economic and social needs in both the Pacific and Timor-Leste as part of our broader COVID-19 immediate response package.
Our reorientation of the development program in response to COVID-19 was fast and targeted. Our Partnerships for Recovery strategy delivered a rapid reprioritisation of our development and humanitarian program with a focus on health security, stability and economic recovery. We worked alongside our neighbours to enhance resilience and responses to health security issues. Our emphasis on gender equality and disability inclusion throughout our development programs remained strong.
Bilateral and regional relationships are at the centre of our international engagement, but we also draw strength from multilateral engagement. Our comprehensive audit of multilateral institutions considered Australia’s involvement in bodies in every area of global interaction. It is clear the multilateral system is under severe strain. But the audit affirmed the importance of these institutions to set standards and help solve problems that nations cannot address alone. This includes new threats. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of an open, free and secure cyberspace to Australians’ everyday lives and to our national prosperity. It has also highlighted the increasing use by some nations of ‘grey-zone’ tools of influence to achieve their strategic goals, such as disinformation campaigns, foreign interference, and trade and economic coercion. We will continue to work to build support for stronger international norms against these malign activities.
The disruptions wrought first by the bushfires and then by COVID-19 have challenged the department. Like all Australians, DFAT staff have faced uncertainty and anxiety. But the crisis has revealed a strong, resilient department staffed by dedicated professionals. More than ever, I value the strength that comes from the diversity of our people. A confident, inclusive workplace culture empowers us to represent all of the Australian community we serve. And our culture has been further strengthened by an ambitious program of organisational reform across people management, IT, security, service delivery and overseas operations. This helped us pivot when we needed, to focus on immediate priorities without losing sight of longer term strategic objectives.
The year ahead
The next twelve months will be at least as demanding as those just past. Our focus will be on economic recovery and the security of Australia and Australians. We will harness our global network to deliver outcomes that matter for Australian citizens and businesses alike. We will continue to work collaboratively, creatively and flexibly with like-minded nations to ensure our interests and universal values are protected and advanced in international rules and institutions. We are clear eyed about the challenges ahead. Australia will need to use its influence as a pivotal power in the Indo-Pacific region to advance our national interests. We will collaborate with partners bilaterally, regionally and in multilateral organisations on systems, rules and norms that protect our values and our people. And we will deliver a development program that supports economic, social and health security across our region, in the knowledge that Australia is safer, stronger and more prosperous when our neighbours are resilient and stable.
To keep delivering outcomes for government and world-class services for Australians, we will build on the lessons learnt from COVID-19, embracing the positive and learning from setbacks. We will make greater use of virtual tools and technology to work smarter and manage the challenges of COVID-19. In a tight resource environment, we will keep building on the gains from organisational reform and engage actively with risk in our management and in our strategic pursuit of Australia’s national interest.
COVID-19 and virtual diplomacy
Our investment in recent years in advanced audiovisual technology supported the department to move quickly to new ways of working. We embraced virtual diplomacy and took full advantage of technology to ensure that we were able to keep pursuing Australia’s interests, despite global travel restrictions. This included international engagement on the response to the pandemic.
We supported ministers in high-level engagement with their counterparts across the globe, bilaterally and in regional and multilateral forums, including the first Australia–India Virtual Summit in June at which Prime Ministers Morrison and Modi announced a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
Officials across our network used virtual tools to connect, advocate and cooperate. We engaged virtually with domestic stakeholders, including partnering with Austrade to deliver webinars to raise Australian businesses’ awareness and use of our free trade agreements. We also advanced work on trade agreements, including by holding the first round of negotiations with the United Kingdom virtually in June.