Minister Conroy wants AusAID to regain prominence within DFAT

Pat Conroy MP, Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific at AAC2022

Australia’s International Development Minister Pat Conroy says he wants development specialists to “take over” the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), in another sign he’s intent on elevating foreign aid as a key government priority.

In 2013, the former Coalition government merged Australia’s aid agency AusAID with DFAT, arguing it would help the government better harness the development programme to achieve its key strategic and diplomatic goals.

But development specialists have argued the move has degraded Australia’s foreign aid expertise, and has sidelined people with deep experience in the sector.

The Albanese government has announced a wideranging review of Australia’s development policies.

Conroy told the Good Will Hunters podcast that he wanted the review to look at whether the department had retained the “skills and capacity” needed for success.

“I say [this] cheekily, because sometimes I get some noses out of joint — we’ve gone past the age of unscrambling the egg and pulling AusAID out of DFAT,” he said.

“I want the opposite, I want AusAID to take over DFAT.

Conroy also indicated he wanted to ensure that no officials were promoted to the upper echelons of the department unless they had some development expertise.

“I want not just new [graduates] in DFAT having rotations through development, I want it to be a critical requirement for promotion into the [senior executive service], and at a deputy secretary level,” he told the podcast.

The government has moved to boost Australia’s foreign aid budget to more than $4.5 (US$3.1 billion) year, although that is still well short of the ALP party commitment to boost development spending to 0.5 per cent of gross national income.

Conroy said the government would continue to have disagreements with the aid sector over the size of the development budget, but there had been a big shift on foreign aid under Labor.

“Aid is not a dirty word over in this government. It’s a word we’re proud of. We’re out and proud about it and we’re going to sing it from the rooftops,” he said.

The merger between DFAT and AusAID initially stoked angst within the department, with only a third of former AusAID staff — who are often informally called “WasAIDers” internally — saying they felt like they were part of the team in 2014.

Almost a decade on from the merger, insiders say the divisions between former AusAID staff and other officials in DFAT are now much less stark.

But Conroy’s comments are likely to stir controversy within DFAT, where the upper echelons still tend to be dominated by officials with deep experience in strategic policy and trade, rather than development.

The CEO of the Australian Council for International Development, Marc Purcell, said he was heartened by the comments.

“For the minister to put development assistance on the same level as diplomacy underscores its importance in being able to help our neighbours and to pitch in on major challenges, such as climate change and humanitarian disasters,” he said. “The Albanese government has vowed to increase the aid programme at every budget, which is very welcome, and we look forward to seeing them take action on this commitment in the May budget, he said.