Australia needs to invest in its diplomatic corps in the face of rising tensions and strategic challenges in its regional neighbourhood, the Foreign Affairs Department chief says.
Speaking alongside Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, in an Institute of Public Administration Australia event, DFAT secretary Frances Adamson discussed the role of diplomacy in Australia's national security.
The international environment of the past 30 years has been a benign one for Australia, Ms Adamson said, this is no longer the case.
The Indo-Pacific region is becoming increasingly contested and polarised, accelerated by COVID-19, and Australia's strategic position is now defined by greater uncertainty, she said.
In response, DFAT has been stepping up its efforts more than ever to shape the region and protect Australia's interests.
"Diplomacy and defence are two sides of the same coin in terms of comprehensive national power, defending and promoting Australia's interests," Ms Adamson said.
"Diplomacy is, in fact, our first line of defence against forces that threaten our way of life.
"Diplomats keep the peace, keep trade flowing, keep terrorism away from our shores, and keep Australians safe, secure, and prosperous.
"We need to continue to invest in our diplomatic capabilities and strengthen our capacity to effectively prosecute Australian priorities and interests overseas."
If diplomats are successful, she said, General Campbell's "expensive military tools can stay in the shed".
General Campbell agreed that outcomes for Australia were vastly better when Defence and the diplomatic corps worked closely together and that any attempts to operate individually would only be wasteful of resources and expertise.
He likened the large and impressive machine that is the defence force to a tool which could only be operated with input from DFAT.
"The beauty of the interplay, in particular between Defence and foreign policy officers, diplomats out in the field ... is to be able to move the scale of Defence and make sure it's constantly pointing in the right direction," General Campbell said.
"Left to our own devices, we [Defence] can quickly and unintentionally become a blunt instrument. But the world doesn't need blunt instruments, it needs really finely polished responses to complex challenges."
In a recent interview with The Canberra Times, diplomat turned Liberal Party backbencher Dave Sharma said DFAT needed "fight for its place at the table" and be proactive in seeking greater funding and staff to complete its valuable diplomatic work.
Ms Adamson used her speech to highlight the work DFAT has done on the front line of Australia's COVID-19 pandemic response, which she said caused her to rethink the work of the department.
DFAT has been responsible for sourcing 40 per cent of the ventilators currently in Australian hospitals and has imported invaluable protective equipment for health staff and the general public, including 30 million gloves.
She pointed to the strong connections DFAT has made globally through free trade agreements and business partnerships that has kept Australia in good stead as it faces the pandemic.
DFAT's largest consular operation has also seen the department assist 26,600 of the more than 300,000 Australians that have returned home since March, she said.
It was announced on Wednesday that there are about 23,000 Australians stranded overseas and wanting to return home.
This number has risen by more than 4000 in the past two weeks. Almost 3500 of those stranded are classified as vulnerable and DFAT has issued more than 400 emergency loans.
Ms Adamson's speech ultimately highlighted the importance of DFAT not only at negotiating tables across the globe but to every single Australian.
"DFAT's traditional role out there as the Government's eyes and ears on the world outside is critical," she said.
"But we're more than that. DFAT is the Government's primary tool for shaping the world to reflect our interests.
"DFAT brings Australia's influence and perspective to bear around the world, and we bring our insights on the world around us back home, to help Australians understand the challenges we face."