Chief diplomat: nation needs bigger footprint

AUSTRALIA'S new chief diplomat would like to see more Australian diplomats across the world, supports reform of the United Nations Security Council and believes Australia can play a significant role as a ''constructive and engaged middle power'' at the head table of the world's premier peacekeeping body.

Peter Varghese, former director-general of the Office of National Assessments and high commissioner to Malaysia and to India, is taking up a new role as secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Before starting in Canberra, Mr Varghese told Fairfax Media from Delhi he was taking over the department at an ''interesting time'', battling budget pressures but also leading a renewed focus on Asia.

His predecessor, Dennis Richardson, who has moved to head Defence, said publicly Australia was ''underdone'' in its representation overseas after a series of swingeing DFAT budget cuts in the 1990s and 2000s.

Stressing that he was speaking in his capacity as the outgoing high commissioner to India, Mr Varghese said the department's budget would remain constrained for some time.

The Asian Century white paper, released last month by the Prime Minister, made the case for a greater Australian diplomatic presence across the world, recommending new missions in Ulan Bator, Phuket, Shenyang in China and eastern Indonesia.

And a parliamentary committee in October found Australia's diplomatic network was ''seriously deficient'', with fewer than 100 missions overseas, the least of any G20 country.

''Australia is a country that has interests across a wide area of the world,'' Mr Varghese said. ''And if you look at the spread of our interests, down the track we are going to be dealing more with countries in Africa, we are going to be dealing more with countries in Latin America, so an expanding diplomatic footprint would need to take that into account.''

Australia will take up a two-year temporary seat on the UN Security Council on January 1 and Mr Varghese said Australia would seek to play the role of an ''engaged middle power''.

''We will seek to play a constructive role, we will seek to strengthen, to the extent we can, the capacity of the UN system to deal with conflicts,'' he said.

The Security Council, charged with maintaining international peace and security, is dominated by its five permanent members - China, the US, Britain, Russia, and France - who carry a powerful veto right over all decisions.

Mr Varghese said the council needed reform and that Australia supported the bid of countries such as India and Brazil to become permanent members. But change would be slow, he said.

''Everyone accepts that what we have now is not reflective of contemporary reality, let alone the future, that it reflects [the] world of 1945 rather than 2012,'' he said. ''But getting a consensus, particularly getting a P5 consensus, on how you expand the Security Council is a diabolically difficult thing.''

A total of 7 million Australians travel overseas every year, generating more than 200,000 consular cases requiring diplomatic assistance, but Mr Varghese said DFAT robustly defended the interests of all Australians abroad.

He said that some Australians had an ''exaggerated expectation'' of what government officials could do in foreign countries.

''There is sometimes a view that Australians abroad are somehow exempt from local laws and local legal processes,'' he said.

Leaving India after 3½ years, Mr Varghese said relations between Australia and its largest Indian Ocean neighbour were dramatically improved from the trials of previous years.

He said India had enormous potential if it could educate its young population and find them new economy jobs, ''but to upskill 500 million Indians is no simple task''.

The story Chief diplomat: nation needs bigger footprint first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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