Political appointments, high representation of women in leadership of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, according to the Lowy Institute

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Political appointments, high representation of women in leadership of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, according to the Lowy Institute

New research finds that the Morrison government has appointed a record number of former politicians to senior diplomatic positions, while the number of women leading Australian missions abroad has risen dramatically.

Lowe Institute He has compiled a comprehensive list of key diplomatic appointments since 1974, tracking the 880 diplomats selected to head Australian missions overseas over nearly five decades.

The diplomatic database shows that in 1974, only two out of 82 Australian jobs were led by politicians.

For more than 40 years after that, the number of political appointees has remained steady at about two to five.

But under Scott Morrison, the federal government has doubled the number of political appointments, from five in 2018 to 10 in 2021.

The former politicians currently lead Australian diplomatic missions in Washington, D.C., New York, the United Nations, New Delhi, Singapore, London, Dublin, Chicago, Wellington and Auckland.

Arthur Synodinos and George Brandis are high-ranking political appointments.(

Supplier: Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade


This represents just over 8 per cent of Australia’s 121 overseas positions.

Notable political candidates include former Alliance Minister Arthur Synodinos, an ambassador to the United States, and former Attorney General George Brandes, a High Commissioner in London.

These two positions have been regularly filled by political appointees, but some former politicians now also hold key positions previously held only by professional diplomats – including New Delhi (former New South Wales Prime Minister Barry O’Farrell) and Singapore (Will Hodgman, former Prime Minister of Tasmania).

In 2017, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also appointed former Western Australian Prime Minister Richard Court as Australia’s ambassador to Tokyo – the first time this role has been handed over to a politically appointed person.

Labor has attacked some of these decisions, with Shadow Secretary of State Penny Wong accusing Scott Morrison of “turning the Foreign Service into a Liberal Party retirement home” after the government announced Mr Hodgman’s appointment.

There has been an “amazing rise” in political appointments under the Morrison government, said Alex Oliver, director of research at the Lowy Institute.

She agreed that there was a risk that the proliferation of political appointees would spark public ridicule or marginalize career diplomats in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), and emphasized that the government should only send seasoned and capable politicians to key foreign positions.

An outside view of the Australian Embassy in Cambodia
Former politicians lead Australian diplomatic missions from Singapore to London.(

Australian story: Belinda Hawkins


But Ms. Oliver said some political appointees – citing Barry O’Farrell as a strong example – had done an excellent job.

She argued that the government might be working to expand the range of political appointments outside London and Washington because it wanted to make sure it had high-level, policy-connected envoys who could amplify Australia’s voice in Asian capitals as well.

“There is likely to be an argument for New Delhi and Tokyo to be political positions given the growing importance of those countries … and a re-imagining of our strategic conditions around the Indo-Pacific,” she said.

The representation of women is rising rapidly

The database also reveals that the number of women in senior diplomatic positions has actually doubled in the past few years.

In 2016, less than 20 per cent of all Australian missions abroad were led by women.

In 2021, that number rose to 47 out of 121 missions, or just under 39 percent.

Frances Adamson, the former secretary of the US State Department – who was Australia’s ambassador to China from 2011 to 2015 and who led the department from 2016 until last month – has made it a priority to increase the diversity of the diplomatic corps.

Alex Oliver said the “remarkable” increase showed a coordinated push from senior officials and the Morrison government to get more women into senior positions, and said Adamson should take “a lot of credit” for the outcome.

She also noted that women now hold several key positions in Australia including Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, France, Canada and Vietnam.

“This is real progress in seeing women in these crucial positions,” Ms. Oliver said.

“(But) this pipeline is getting more prepared because the department’s complexion has changed.”

“In some ways, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is likely to be ahead when you compare it to similar organizations of a similar size in most sectors of Australian society.”


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