Australia’s diplomatic service (2)

Last November, I wrote a blog on Australia’s diplomatic service which argued, among other things, that more resources should not be spent on Australia’s diplomatic service until there had been significant reform of the underlying structure, especially of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Recently I have discovered further information about postings which adds weight to my proposition. It seems that the officers in DFAT have good reason to be obsessed about a posting; it brings wealth. For officers on a dual posting, to a hardship location, the rewards can be staggering. Is it any wonder that policy officers want a stint in DFAT’s human resources department to guarantee themselves a plum posting?

I am reliably informed that many DFAT couples plan their families around postings: it is cost-effective to have children at a posting. If the statistics were available, it would be interesting to compare the birth rate for a given age cohort on posting to that in Canberra. In one egregious example, a female head of mission became pregnant and took off one year of her posting on maternity leave. That’s 1/3 of the duration of an extremely expensive posting.

Then we have all of the parents who are posted and who send their children to the best private schools (or elite government schools) for tens of thousands of dollars each and for which the Australian taxpayer picks up 100% of the cost. They don’t even need to make co-contributions when their children go on excursions. It would also be interesting to compare the behaviour of those same parents when back in Canberra – do they send their children to state schools or (say) Boys/Girls Grammar? It seems that when a posted officer returns to Canberra, the taxpayer picks up the tab for school fees at Canberra’s most expensive school until the end of the school year. Do they then put them back in state schools?

Then our erstwhile overseas public servants (which is what they all are, Ambassadors included) enjoy access to the most expensive hospitals and health care while on posting, and need only contribute a maximum of $250 or so each year. Some of the maternity costs must be staggering. How many Canberra couples have children in our public hospitals in Canberra, but then insist on using the most expensive private hospitals to give birth when on a posting?

Then look at Ambassadors. They all have cooks, butlers and drivers. Why? In some cases where labour costs are low, or security considerations justify a driver, perhaps it is reasonable. But surely not in some of the best capital cities of the world where there is ample public transport and lots of taxis.

An Ambassador who travels on a holiday is entitled to be taken to and from the airport by his / her driver even if overtime is required (say it is on a Sunday). Ambassadors can send their car and driver to the airport to pick up their friends – so Ambassadors with good networks among their DFAT colleagues can enjoy a VIP reception wherever they travel on holiday.

Their cooks are principally used for their private business – it would be cheaper to hire cooks for the relatively few representation functions that most Ambassadors host. Really it is absurd – cooks and drivers should only be used for official business, but instead they are happily used to look after the Ambassador’s family and friends.

Here are some other allowances that I’ve discovered – some of which are reasonable, but many of which are extravagant.

  • a transfer allowance on departure to post (and return from post) which varies by the size of the household but ranges from around $4000 to $7000
  • an interest-free loan (outlay advance) of $15,000
  • for heads of mission, clothing allowance of around $5000
  • generous removal entitlements to post and storage of goods in Australia
  • free accommodation at post, including free electricity and other services – the accommodation being of an exceptionally high standard in fantastic and expensive locations. For Ambassadors, effectively living in a Palace
  • Australian-rate postage to and from post through the diplomatic bag
  • a cost of posting allowance, a fortnightly addition to salary, based on a percentage of salary and which varies depending on whether the officer is accompanied or unaccompanied
  • a cost of living adjustment, a fortnightly addition to salary, to compensate for the additional cost of purchasing goods and services at the post. Curiously the COLA is always positive, even when the post is significantly less costly than Canberra
  • hardship allowance – an additional fortnightly amount for those in designated hardship posts
  • household maintenance assistance to pay for a cleaner and other household help
  • for Heads of Mission: a car with driver, a chef, butler and full-time cleaners and for some posts gardeners and security
  • depending on the posting, often tax-free purchases (particularly of alcohol, petrol and tobacco) and tax-free purchase of motor vehicles and effective immunity from getting traffic violations

It seems that DFAT officers tend to retire significantly older than other public servants. Is it any wonder? When one is looking for the next Ambassadorial posting and being treated like a prince? To be able to enjoy the life of an old money multi-millionaire while being employed as a mid-level public servant?

Then we have all of those locally engaged staff who watch the A-based (Australian-based posted public servants) come and go and who must observe some pretty appalling behaviour. They probably store up some pretty outrageous examples which can be raised whenever there is talk of cutting staff numbers / improving efficiency etc. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of hollow logs in many of our overseas posts. While I’m confident that most of our overseas public servants are acting ethically and perform reasonable service, there are substantial temptations that long-term staff would find increasingly difficult to resist. Are we getting value for money? I doubt it.

Are we using all of our overseas-owned and leased property and capital fully and getting good returns? I also doubt that. Even our very junior overseas officers enjoy large plush private offices in expensive capital cities when they would be in open plan back in Canberra.

I maintain that significant savings could be extracted from DFAT while further improving the quality and effectiveness of our diplomatic presence. Certainly there is no case to increase DFAT appropriations until there has been a root and branch review of that organisation and its overseas posts and the recommendations of such an independent review have been implemented.

There are some immediate measures that could be implemented though:

  • remove all drivers from countries which have sufficient public and private transport options
  • provide that cooks should only be employed when cost-effective and are only permitted to be used for official business
  • publish transparently all representation functions so that taxpayers can judge whether they are getting value for money – it would be interesting to see whether the same old faces are going to these numerous cocktail functions and dinners
  • downsize significantly office space requirements to the same as in Canberra. That is, a first secretary should have the same office space allocation as an EL1 in Canberra.
  • charge a reasonable co-contribution (say 50%) from officers for education expenses to capture the private benefits that they are receiving. For medical, perhaps remove the DFAT system and require officers to take out private health insurance.
  • set a cost-of-living allowance based upon real cost differences between Canberra and the relevant post. Don’t assume that the family will consume the same diet as in Australia (that’s one of the reasons COLA is so high in Tokyo – as if the officers would buy steaks every day!). If calculated properly, COLA would often be negative.
  • charge rent for living in Australian-leased premises, even if subsidised

I can’t imagine that the current diplomatic structures in the world will long survive. With high quality communications, there is no need for an Ambassador to have the formal independence of action that he generally had in the past. As communications continues to improve, and transport gets faster, Embassies may be redundant sooner than we think. They are a relic of the Ancient world and should be reformed. Of course there are a lot of vested interests in slowing reform – especially those who see the next posting awaiting.

Nowadays, most of our posted officers are glorified travel agents, ensuring that ministers, parliamentarians and senior public servants have comfortable and well organised tours of major capitals, and to organise the meetings which themselves are justification for the trips. In effect we have a mutual dependency between those public servants and politicians wanting a nice overseas jaunt, and the missions which help organise those jaunts and which itself justify their presence. Maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration but it does hold an element of truth.

Don’t forget who pays for those politicians and public servants who travel overseas and for those public servants employed overseas: you, the taxpayer. Are you confident that your money is being wisely spent? One only needs read stories of Peter Slipper’s $300,000 of travel expenses over the past six months to know that much of that expenditure is unnecessary. That $300,000 does not count the at-post costs involving the time and efforts of our posted officers. Surely their opportunity cost is more than zero?

So the taxpayer can save money in two ways: by cutting the number of overseas trips taken by politicians and public servants which then allows a reduction in the number of people employed at each post. I’ve heard many posted officers complain about how time they spend organising trips – this would save a lot of time!

To be fair, I do acknowledge that many officers on posting work quite hard and are subject to stresses not apparent in Australia. Their families can be uprooted – this can be positive and negative; some spouses put their careers on hold and I’m not sure that DFAT (and Defence for that matter) productively use the talents and skills of the spouses of posted officers. These issues should also be considered in any review. But just because someone is working hard is not evidence that the work is valuable to the taxpayer.

UPDATE

I forgot to mention any indulgence. I’m told that every Ambassador / High Commissioner acts one level higher. So if a post is rated as say an EL2 Ambassador, the Ambassador gets paid as an SES Band 1, and so forth.

What type of joke on the taxpayer is that?

And then we find SES B3 officers being Ambassador of notionally SES B1 or SES B2 posts but not taking a pay cut. It is a one-way street, and the taxpayer loses out.

So, for example, if a post is rated as an SES B1-level Ambassadorial appointment and an SES B2 officer takes the job, he or she will be paid as an SES B3.

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35 Responses to Australia’s diplomatic service (2)

  1. The authors of the novel The Ugly American had a great deal to say about foreign-affairs staff who were enticed by the incredible array of benefits the foreign service offered. This was in the US context, and one chapter (plus the authors’ afterword) was almost entirely a soapbox polemic about how the US diplomatic service overseas was recruiting the wrong sorts of people for all the wrong sorts of reasons. The novel is set in the late 1950s or early 1960s, but many of the issues it raises about foreign diplomatic staff are germane to your discussion.

    Oddly enough, in the actual novel, the Ugly American himself was only physically ugly – his devotion to his task and to the welfare of the people of the fictitious SE Asian nation to which he was posted were exemplary. The character is a civil engineer with assets which today would make him a multi-millionaire, and the interviewers who recruit him wonder at first why the hell he’s bothering (he’s taking the equivalent of a HUGE pay cut) and then the penny sort of drops that maybe the other people they’ve just recruited are in it purely for themselves and what they can get out of it, rather than actually serving their country first and foremost.

  2. Keith

    The abbreviation tells all – DFAT.

    Yes, plenty of fat there. These people could afford to leave their Canberra homes vacant while on posting. I bet they don’t. Rented out for top dollar instead.

  3. Jim Rose

    why do we need embassies? their origins predate 747s, cheap international phone calls and the Internet.

  4. kae

    Compare this to what a member of our military (OR) gets when posted interstate (allowances, etc), and/or overseas.

    Can someone look this up?

  5. Des Deskperson

    It’s interesting to note that DFAT has both the largest number of Senior Excutive Service Employees (SES) of any Commonwealh portfolio department and by far the highest ratio of SES to overall employee numbers.

    It has 237 SES out of 3253 employees, a ratio of around 7%. By contrast, the largest department – Human Services – has 190 SES out of around 35,000 staff, a ratio of 0.3%

    This blow-out is because every overseas mission, important or unimportant, now has to be headed by an SES employee. While I haven’t been able to cite the official reason for this policy, the general unofficial consensus is that it’s because visiting Ministers, politicians and other, err, dignatories don’t want to be duchessed around by a mere EL2. And of course, even internally, the cost of paying and supporting an SES employee is exponentially greater than for an EL2, and I imagine its even greater at an overseas post.

  6. entropy

    ON the big bases – which are more like self-contained towns – the saying goes that “your worst day in Afghanistan is better then your best day in Canberra”.

    This is an exaggeration, careless of the memories of the dead and the feelings of the wounded.
    But it reflects some diggers’ perception there are more people “in theatre” than there needs to be.

    A few cynics in uniform grumble that service medals and tax-free pay are similar for those driving desks in the Dubai support base or “behind the wire” in Tarin Kot, Kabul and Kandahar as for “gunslingers” who have faced bombs and bullets out in hostile territory.
    They also hint that the mission is top-heavy with officers because everyone wants a slice of the “action” – promotion, money and medals – before the withdrawal next year.

  7. gnome

    The rot set in long ago, but as long as dickheads like Downer and Rudd are allowed to be ministers for foreign affairs, and ministers for foreign affairs outrank ministers for overseas trade, the rot will continue.

    The Australian people, if asked, would tell you our overwhelming overseas interest is trade, followed by consular representation, followed a long way behind by politics. Guess which order DFAT sees it as being.

    The first step in reform would be renaming it the department of trade and foreign affairs, and letting the staff know that’s how it is.

  8. Des Deskperson

    Gnome, that would be a start, but you would also need to build an entire new agency, I’d be surprised if there was anyone left in DFAT with the skills, experiencor attitude to be a trade negotiator.

    Back in the days when they were in separate departments, the diplomats – Foreign Af-faries, as they were known to bystanders – hated the trade reps. The latter were there to cut deals while the former juat wanted to be genial.

  9. entropy

    A few of the states still have their trade reps. Queensland House in London for example is apparently quite a plum post. And they tend to be rather hands on, as in it is all about enabling business deals.

    But even in this instance it is often used to
    a) reward party warriors for a job well done (or at least having the right connections; and
    b) helping young, future party warriors cut their teeth and accelerate their resume development (knowledge and experience not necessary).

  10. kate

    I live in China.
    Please don’t campaign to downgrade Australia’s diplomatic service further. If you have never been a diplomat, please do not stand enviously on the side and dictate how our diplomats should live.
    It would be much better to campaign for higher educational standards and professionalism from our diplomats who already, quite frankly, often look shabby and appear uneducated in many countries where they represent Australia.
    A rational approach to government cost-cutting would involve a proper accounting system which quantified overhead for each policy administered to see if the policy costs far exceed the benefits. In addition to bringing in proper accounting for cost analysis, a review of programs would show overlap and duplication. Finally, cutting environmental programs alone would bring mega-savings as these reach into all areas of government.
    If you would like an example of the poor intellectual level of our foreign policy gurus, I ask you to read the recent White Paper on the Asian Century – a cobbled-together cut-and-paste job which would not pass as a decent first-year University assignment.

    [I have moved this comment from the Open thread – I think it belongs here. Sinc]

  11. Borisgodunov

    We need Less embassies,my suggestionsfor embassies and trade missions,
    1.New York,for N. and S America,
    2. London for Europe including Russia,
    3.New Dehli for Africa ,India Pkistan and Middle East.
    4.Singapore for SEAsia,
    5.Beijing for N Asia,
    6.Port Moresby for the Pacific.
    That should save Heaps limit of 10staff for each!

  12. As kate says, there is plenty of room for reform, an obvious project for the Productivity Commission.

    There could be a ceremonial function (fly in one of the ‘Home and Away’ starlets via 747) and a separate Trade function. The latter could be outsourced to a fully industry funded trade association.

    ASIO should continue to keep an eye on violent socialists.

    The H&A starlet should have a ‘keep their pants on’ line in their contract as the circumstances require. Shame Mal didn’t have one…

  13. boy on a bike

    Here’s a wonderful little gem that I’ve been told about.

    You’re posted to some foreign sh*thole (of which there are plenty), and there isn’t much to do. So are the ambassadors of 150-odd other nations. They’re all bored and frankly have f*ck-all to do except play tennis and usher the odd dignitary around.

    Luckily, every embassy has to hold a party on their national day. If you have enough embassies in town, it means a swish party every 2-3 days or so. And they are very swish parties – no country wants to look like it’s skimping on the trimmings.

    Free food, free booze, lots of interesting locals and ex-pats to mingle with.

    It’s a wonder DFAT doesn’t offer free liver transplants as well.

  14. thefrollickingmole

    Ok a story from the head of the middle east for Australia some years ago…

    Apparently its vital to give gifts if you expect help from beauracrats in the ME. Yes it is almost corruption, but its so institutionalised it would have the effect of seriously undermining his effectiveness if he didnt do it.

    Long story short the bloke asked the government of the day (Howard) for a set of expensive pens ($1000 ones).
    He held the meet and greet and handed out cheap $50.00 pens which was all the government would pony up for.
    He spent the next 6 months buying replacement ones and apologising that “the wrong set was given”..

    Silly penny pinching in one area, stupid overspending in another.

    That was the main discussion I had with him, stuck in my mind.

  15. old bloke

    Thanks Samuel,

    The underlying blame for the problems in DFAT which you have outlined ultimately points back to the rigid structures adhered to in the public sector.

    I’ve spent 10 years in Canberra (or 10 winters as the locals measure their servitude in the Public Circus) and have come across ridiculous examples of cost blowouts due to PS policies.

    In one example, a department wanted to recruit two mid-level technical people. They applied to the PS hierachy to create two additions positions for the additional staff. A decision was made that the two new postitions would be created, but the department could not take just two people.

    They were told, that because of existing structural policies, the two new mid level technical people would also need four additional junior technical staff, an additional senior technical person as a supervisor, and an additional manager to manage the extra staff. Because of this ridiculous policy, the department had to recruit eight new staff just because they required two extras.

  16. entropy

    You can go too far with this:
    The current Shergold review of the Qld public service could end up with a stupid rule like that: a SO should have say, at least 20 staff, a 2000 head department should only have five SES etc. You know, along military lines, where a captain has a company (or whatever the mix is – go back far enough and you have a centurion and a hundred soldiers).

    What should be the key consideration is the type of work that is undertaken, and the level of technical knowledge required. Just because the public service award classifies jobs as administrative, policy or professional, does not mean that what the officer actually does falls neatly into those lines.

  17. Des Deskperson

    “In one example, a department wanted to recruit two mid-level technical people. They applied to the PS hierachy…”

    I don’t understand this. Since at least 1987, agencies have had the power to engage and deploy staff in pretty much any organisational structure they choose, so long as it is within budget. In most agencies, ongoing decisions about staffing strutures, at least at junior and middle levels, are devolved to Division or even Branch level.

    There hasn’t been an outside ‘PS hierarchy’ since the abolition of the Public Service Board.

    Perhaps I have misunderstood or perhaps there are pockets of fhe APS that still impose this sort of rigidity on themselves, but I would have thought that the sort of situation described by old bloke above could only have happened several decades ago.

  18. Sirocco

    I spent 30 years in DFAT, mostly in the Consular service. Survived riots but got amoebic dysentery in Bombay, attacked in Calcutta, shot up in Vientiane, bored in Brussels, starved (and froze) in Warsaw watching the rise of Solidarity, experienced Islamic law in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese law in Beijing and the wonderful Mr Marcos in Manila. I pulled doped up Australians out of jail in Goa, took people across the border into Thailand when the communists took control of Laos, prepared dead bodies for return to Australia, officially witnessed ceremonial burning of dead bodies on funeral pyres in Malaysia, got stuck in godforsaken airports for I don’t know how many hours (once calculated at about two years of my life) avoided being robbed and shot in Lagos (although my successor was not so lucky) finally finished up in London where I got to dance in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace. I never did have a 9 – 5 job, don’t even mention overtime or penalty rates and weekends are definitely not your own. Cocktail parties are grossly overrated and avoided as much as possible or attended for as short a time as possible. National days are jaw droppingly vapid.
    My children were born in Brussels and I paid the equivalent A$ costs as my contribution. I declined postings to stay home and educate my children in Australia. Too many of those who took postings and dropped their kids in Grammar for three years paid for it later with family problems.
    At each post there were prime ministerial and foreign ministerial visits plus the usual gaggle of parliamentarians on a swannie which even now is best not talked about.
    You want to know about accommodation and the big fancy houses? I lived in a flat in Bombay the stairwell of which the locals used as an urinal, a nice house in Vientiane that the locals liked to rob, a small flat in Brussels (the most boring place in the world) a clapped out house in Warsaw – there weren’t any other kind – a run down house in Kuala Lumpur across the road from a village klong – and a small flat in London. If you wanted something bigger you had to commute from the Home Counties. All of which elicited a financial contribution out of your pay.
    Allowances were a small part of the attraction. I calculated I moved house over 80 times during that period. I sure as hell didn’t get rich, but I have a life time of experiences and memories of a world long disappeared and a job satisfaction level your local Canberra based public servant could never even contemplate.
    I spent 30 years in DFAT, mostly in the Consular service. Survived riots but got amoebic dysentery in Bombay, attacked in Calcutta, shot up in Vientiane, bored in Brussels, starved (and froze) in Warsaw watching the rise of Solidarity, experienced Islamic law in Kuala Lumpur, Chinese law in Beijing and the wonderful Mr Marcos in Manila. I pulled doped up Australians out of jail in Goa, took people across the border into Thailand when the communists took control of Laos, prepared dead bodies for return to Australia, officially witnessed ceremonial burning of dead bodies on funeral pyres in Malaysia, got stuck in godforsaken airports for I don’t know how many hours (once calculated at about two years of my life) avoided being robbed and shot in Lagos (although my successor was not so lucky) finally finished up in London where I got to dance in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace. I never did have a 9 – 5 job, don’t even mention overtime or penalty rates and weekends are definitely not your own. Cocktail parties are grossly overrated and avoided as much as possible or attended for as short a time as possible. National days are jaw droppingly vapid.
    My children were born in Brussels and I paid the equivalent A$ costs as my contribution. I declined postings to stay home and educate my children in Australia. Too many of those who took postings and dropped their kids in Grammar for three years paid for it later with family problems.
    At each post there were prime ministerial and foreign ministerial visits plus the usual gaggle of parliamentarians on a swannie which even now is best not talked about.
    You want to know about accommodation and the big fancy houses? I lived in a flat in Bombay the stairwell of which the locals used as an urinal, a nice house in Vientiane that the locals liked to rob, a small flat in Brussels (the most boring place in the world) a clapped out house in Warsaw – there weren’t any other kind – a run down house in Kuala Lumpur across the road from a village klong – and a small flat in London. If you wanted something bigger you had to commute from the Home Counties. All of which elicited a financial contribution out of your pay.
    Allowances were a small part of the attraction. I calculated I moved house over 80 times during that period. I sure as hell didn’t get rich, but I have a life time of experiences and memories of a world long disappeared and a job satisfaction level your local Canberra based public servant could never even contemplate.

  19. Abu Chowdah

    Were you in DFAT at one time, Samuel?

  20. south

    Thanks Sirocco, that was a worthwhile read. As a foreign-resident Aussie citizen with no connection to DFAT or any of their benefits, it’s easy to regard those I meet in Asia as a bunch of pampered nancies who can talk about nothing but the size of their apartments and travel allowances (to the point where they need to be slapped hard and told to get a grip).

    I don’t doubt you’ve put in the hard yards for your country and I’ve always appreciated help from the consular staff with things like passports and document witnessing, etc. Still think there’s a lot of bureaufat that could be trimmed though.

  21. jupes

    The Australian people, if asked, would tell you our overwhelming overseas interest is trade, followed by consular representation, followed a long way behind by politics.

    No, I reckon that most Australians would tell you their overwhelming interest is themselves.

    Therefore consular representation would be a long way ahead of everything else.

  22. Samuel J

    Abu – yes I was employed by DFAT once and previously enjoyed some of the benefits.

  23. ExDippoBludger

    Thanks Scirocco, very good summary, and brings out the point that consular staff had much tougher jobs than the true foreign fairies in the diplomatic service (these are no longer supposed to be separate careers but most of the dippos still couldn’t run an outback dunny).

    Re the main post, most of the allowances are correct, but overall I think it is barking up the wrong tree as far as improving value for money is concerned.

    One of the things that is wrong is to say overseas accommodation is free, it’s not, there is a contribution based on salary that is supposed to mimic Canberra rents.

    The wrong tree bit is that you can hardly save much by getting stuck into allowances. This has been tried before – I remember huge cuts brought in in 1986. There were instantly problems filling posts, as married officers could not afford to lose the second income. That would be even more so the case today.

    The real potential savings are in posts. There has been a fantastic blowout in numbers of posts and numbers of people at them in the last decade, particularly the last five years.

    The blowout is even greater in AusAID than in DFAT. Twenty years ago there were roughly 30 foreign aid officers overseas, practically all of them in the 16 countries of our region that matter to our security. Now there are literally hundreds of AusAID officers posted overseas in roughly 40 locations. From having only a couple of EL2s overseas we now have scores of them, with SES Band 1 bosses and even a couple of SES Band 2. There are dozens of AusAID staff in PNG and dozens more in Jakarta. You could count an average of at least half a million dollars per person per year for all these overseas jobs.

    And don’t forget what they are there for – to spend more money. The true cost of Australia’s campaign for that Security Council seat was not $20-40 million as claimed but well over a billion dollars as new posts and new aid programs proliferated though Africa and Latin America. How on earth could we expect to deliver a cost-effective foreign aid programme in Trinidad, Ethiopia, Ghana, or the West Bank? Just one return business class airfare to these places is pushing $10,000.

    By contrast, there is only very limited scope for savings by cutting ambassadorial and other entitlements. Getting rid of drivers and cooks sounds nice but it would save absolute peanuts in most places – either the replacement taxis and catering cost a fortune anyway, as in Europe or America, or the cost of employed manual labour is low as in Asia or Africa. Fiddling with medical costs, school fee regimes and so on is extremely marginal, and some officers would claim that the present regime is not generous enough, since they still pay for all university education, and for living costs of children left in Australia, and for continuing private school fees if the kids have gone into boarding school when the officer went overseas, and want to stay at the same school when they come back.

    One minor reform worth making might be to charge a percentage of electricity bills. This might curb the fantastic costs run up in Asia and Africa by blasting the air conditioning all day with the downstairs doors and windows open. I remember the Residence in Ghana, under one of my former bosses, being known as The Ice Palace, and with the cost of power in Accra that must have been setting taxpayers back a thousand a month or more even in those far-off days.

    The real savings are elsewhere though. Cut wasteful spending programmes and post costs will take care of themselves.

  24. John Williams

    First hand knowledge ..ambassador demanded exclusive use of 1st class for flight from SE Asian country to Beijing .
    Purpose for the trip was stated to be ” of the utmost importance”.
    Advised that only Business Class was available the trip was cancelled by the ambassador.
    As a parting gesture the ambassador made a personal approach to management demanding the Captain be sacked and threatened to
    “never “use that airline again.
    As that airline was the only one on that particular route at that time gives some indication of the ambassadors level of intelligence.

  25. Samuel J

    John – this is my key point. Ambassadors start thinking that they are important and behave like prima donnas. Their position might be important, but they themselves are unimportant. The world’s cemeteries are full of indispensable people and many ambassadors. This is an example of hubris, and it tends to afflict people in certain positions, and the chance that they get afflicted increases with duration in the job. Whether the person is an ambassador, or CEO, or senior public servant, or politician, or inventor, or scientist, once they cross that line and behave with hubris, then they are no longer working in the interest of their employer (whether the employer is the taxpayer or the shareholder). Lots of pomp and circumstance tends to encourage the early affliction of hubris.

  26. ben

    I find it interesting that Samuel neglects to let people know that if you go on a posting with a spouse the chances of that person gaining employment is slim to none.

    If you take three years off work I wonder how long it will take that person to find employment in Australia again. So if your spouse is earning 70 000 a year in Canberra after a three year posting you’re already out by 210000.

    Some of the places you travel are not nice and you are in genuine fear of your life. You never work a 9-5 workday some weeks you work a 90 hour week. So maybe some of the lavish bonuses are just compensating wage differentials

  27. Des Deskperson

    ‘Ambassadors start thinking that they are important and behave like prima donnas’

    From time to time DFAT undertakes reviews of Ambassadorial entitlements and seeks input from ambassadors as part of this process. For some reason, some of the cabled ambassadorial responses to one such review in the late 1980s came across my desk at the time.

    I remember in particular the response from one ambassador who, apart from being something of a cheerleader for the unpleasant dictator of the country to which he was accredited, was noted for his hypertrophied sense of entitlement.

    At the end of a long list of other complaints and claims, this guy pointed out that because he was overseas, his opportunities for playing the Austalian stockmarket (I don’t suppose he used the term ‘playing’) were limited and that his income was therefore diminished. He demanded a special allowance that would compensate he and his colleagues for this particular hardship/sacrifice.

    I don’t think he got it – but the fact that he even asked for it shows his sense of self importance – and I suppose these days ambasadors can speculate on line.

  28. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    Mixed a bit, occasionally, with the DFAT crowd both here and o/s during my first marriage. There are lots of perks, but I’d have to agree with Kate from China that the quality of some of the staff is fairly low (I was bored rigid by some desperately pedestrian people at a few DFAT-type home gatherings). Reports from those who are dull and unenquiring are said by those with access to their efforts to be correspondingly useless. OTOH – I know that there are some very smart and hard-working people in DFAT who don’t care too much for the perks but do seriously want to do a good job for Australia and carve out a decent career.

    I think it has also changed quite a bit in the past ten years or so. I’ve lost touch with most of those people now. Probably room for some culling still.

    Often, in foreign postings there is also an expectation from the host country about the sort of life an Ambassador or Counsellor etc should lead. Sheer extravagance is no longer necessary, although perhaps it was once.

    These sorts of lurks and perks used to exist within University Chancelleries – less so there now I’ve heard as travel restrictions kick in and queries are made about salaries and perks. But academics and the Judiciary don’t do too badly either, given conferences and tax deductabiity for travel.

    Captains of Industry may also be found feeding at the expenses trough, although not a publically-funded one. And politicians – well, I was in the UK during the expenses fiasco there. Sails were trimmed and prison loomed for a few.

    Rewards of office are one thing. Blatant rorting is something else, which more effective expenditure controls could stop. Otherwise, people beyond the sphere of enjoyment have every right to be outraged.

  29. Samuel J

    Ben, I did mention that point:

    To be fair, I do acknowledge that many officers on posting work quite hard and are subject to stresses not apparent in Australia. Their families can be uprooted – this can be positive and negative; some spouses put their careers on hold and I’m not sure that DFAT (and Defence for that matter) productively use the talents and skills of the spouses of posted officers. These issues should also be considered in any review.

  30. kae

    My thought on the comment about losing $70k per annum from the spouse’s job, this happens a lot in other fields employment, including the military.

    The decision must be made by the couple on who has the primary employment and will the advancements be compensation enough for the posting inconvenience.

    I have an uncle who taught a trade at a Sydney tech college. He was posted to a country town a few hours out of Sydney and this posting would advance his career. His wife wansn’t at all happy at the inconvenience. After a lecture from her mother about her husband’s career and advancements he would get from this posting she relented. It was only for a few years. This position put him in good stead in the profession.

  31. Jim Rose

    Thanks Sirocco for you personal story.

    I am told that picking up bodies from rural areas and escorting them back next to you on the bus and prison visits on Xmas day were the two worst consular jobs.

  32. Abu Chowdah

    Lizzie, while there are a few plonkers, the intellectual grunt on the political side tend to be higher than in most departments and in the private sector. On the trade side, not so much. Trade have more capable high functioning alcoholics, however.

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