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obert Owen-Jones, Assistant Secretary, Australian Competitiveness Branch, DFATPaul Martin, Policy Officer, Resources and Energy Section  

By Robert Owen-Jones, Assistant Secretary, Australian Competitiveness Branch; and Paul Martin, Policy Officer, Resources and Energy Section  

As DFAT marked thirty years since the integration of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Trade on 24 July, it is timely to reflect on how much the role of DFAT officers has changed since this time. With the end of the Cold War, opportunities for global trade considerably expanded and were sealed with the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995.

The rise of the internet and information technology at the turn of the millennium ushered in a new wave of global productivity and growth. Australia, with its rich array of natural resources and strong relations in Asia, was able to benefit from China’s economic boom. Trade negotiators finalised free trade agreements (FTAs) with Australia’s major trading partners including the US, Singapore, China, Japan and Korea.  Work continues on agreements with other key partners like India and Indonesia.

Australia’s economy has never been more globally interconnected and the beneficiary of an open, rules-based trading system. This experience has created a pool of deep trade expertise, both legal and commercial, and a focus on the WTO, FTAs and on remaining tariff barriers.

The Government launched Australia’s Economic Diplomacy Agenda in 2014 to focus on other areas of the economic agenda. This complemented other policy changes, particularly the Minister for Trade for the first time taking on the additional role as Minister for Investment. Foreign capital has played a large role in developing Australia. This needs to continue as our modern, diversified economy seeks to take advantage of the next wave of global growth, driven in part by the emergence of a new Asian middle class.

It is within this context that DFAT has launched a series of internal seminars entitled Business Envoy.  The objective is to nurture a deeper understanding of the goals and pressures faced by Australia’s private sector. Business literacy is a core skill every DFAT officer should have and is a priority regularly emphasised by each of our ministers. It is also necessary for DFAT to be able to effectively engage in domestic policy development, which increasingly carries consequences internationally.

Led by Miles Prosser (Australian Aluminium Council) and Michelle O’Neill (Alcoa), the inaugural talk focused on aluminium, Australia’s third largest metal export after iron ore and gold, and an industry subject to considerable competitive pressures. Australia is the world’s largest bauxite producer, its second largest alumina producer and fifth largest aluminium producer. But overcapacity issues in China, evolving US trade policy and complex domestic energy debates mean the future of the industry is far from clear. The seminar was followed by a Q&A session allowing attendees to make enquiries directly relevant to their day-to-day work in Canberra.

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From L-R, Robert Owen-Jones, Assistant Secretary, Australian Competitiveness Branch, DFAT; Michelle O’Neill, Global Vice President of Government Affairs and Trade Policy, Alcoa; Miles Prosser, Executive Director, Australian Aluminium Council; Simon Newnham, First Assistant Secretary, Investment and Economic Division, DFAT. Photo: Alyce Morgan

Robert Owen-Jones is Assistant Secretary of the Australian Competitiveness Branch. He joined the Department of Foreign Affairs just before its integration with the Department of Trade and has spent much of his career working on trade, investment and other economic issues including in 2014 during Australia’s Presidency of the G20. Paul Martin is a Policy Officer in the Australian Competitiveness Branch and recently returned from Moscow, where he had custody of G20 issues from 2013-2016.

Businesses interested in presenting at Business Envoy should contact business@dfat.gov.au.

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