A significant shift in Australia’s foreign affairs strategy is one of the more curious policies undertaken by Tony Abbott, a foreign affairs neophyte strikingly similar in this regard to Julia Gillard.

Under Abbott’s new policy, constructed by his Foreign Affairs and Trade dynamic duo Julie Bishop and Andrew Robb — two of the government’s best performing ministers — good old-fashioned diplomacy would go out the door, replaced by something known as economic diplomacy.

Yet beyond Robb’s impressive but almost manic devotion to finalising free trade agreements, there has been little evidence of much change. The government is sending out mixed messages: a lot of talk and not very much action on economic diplomacy.

Last month Australia’s freshly minted ambassador to Myanmar, Nicholas Coppel, made the  sudden and dramatic announcement that “head office” had decided to close of the Australian  Embassy Club to anyone but embassy staff members after June 30.

The Embassy Club is situated on rolling green lawns replete with a large swimming pool in a permanently hot city that has few such facilities, as well as a large, covered barbecue area for the city’s long — and very wet — wet season.

“I am writing to advise you the Australian Embassy Staff Club Yangon (AESCY) will be closing to all Associate and Reciprocal club members at the end of the financial year (30 June 2015)”, the ambassador wrote informing the local Australian community of the upcoming lock-out on March 16, according to a letter obtained by Crikey.

“I have been asked by head office to bring membership rules for the AESYC into line with other Australian diplomatic posts that have similar facilities. In essence,  this means membership of the AESCY will be restricted to staff members and their families.”

This ends years of associate and reciprocal membership, signalling the end of a popular community organisation as the embassy appears to retreat into itself.

The big blow to the Australian business community is the loss of the very popular Friday night barbecue, which will disappear from Yangon’s social calendar on June 30.

The barbecue brings together Australians working in a diverse range of businesses, where they keep up to date with what’s happening in Myanmar and where they bring prospective clients — in a sense showcasing Australia’s involvement in development and business in Myanmar.

According to rumours, embassy staff simply don’t want to help supervise on Friday night.

It was all the more galling, a source in Yangon said, that Coppel made the announcement “only weeks after he had presented his credentials. Before he has even had a chance to get to know Australia’s thriving business community in Yangon, Canberra has painted a large target on him — hardly a winning strategy for economic diplomacy”.

The decision is even stranger when one considers that previous ambassador Bronte Moules, who left in February and is regarded as one of the very best ambassadors from any country, was a strong supporter of associate membership for the wider Australian community.

Local Australians and embassy officials alike believed the club delivered huge benefits when it came to getting business done, but clearly the desk-bound bureaucrats in Canberra know better.

Australia has been slightly behind the eight ball in Myanmar with no officially registered chamber of commerce — while rivals from the UK and America are very active. Over the past year the British Club and the American Club have opened their doors ever wider, just as Australia’s begin to close.

Julie Bishop has said that economic diplomacy needs an “overarching structure”, but clearly she has yet to find one.

As one Australian put it “the ambassador’s decision is a kick in the guts to the Australian expat community” some of whom are organising a “Save the BBQ campaign”.

Fingers crossed someone in Canberra is listening.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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