DFAT was established in its present form in 1987 with the merger of the then departments of Foreign Affairs and of Trade, but its antecedents, the departments of External Affairs and of Trade and Customs, date back to 1901.
DFAT is responsible for advancing the interests of Australia and Australians internationally.
Its broad outcomes are set out in its Portfolio Budget Statement 2011–12 as:
- the advancement of Australia's international strategic, security and economic interests, including through bilateral, regional and multilateral engagement on Australian Government foreign and trade policy priorities
- the protection and welfare of Australians abroad and access to secure international travel documentation through timely and responsive travel advice and consular and passport services in Australia and overseas
- a secure Australian Government presence overseas through the provision of security services and information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure, and the management of the Government's overseas owned estate.
DFAT serves two ministers—the minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Trade and Competitiveness—as well the Parliamentary Secretaries for Pacific Island Affairs and for Trade. It also supports the Prime Minister and other ministers in their international activities, including
when they are travelling.
The department's strong policy and advocacy role advances Australia's international objectives. Providing policy analysis and advice as well as reporting on international developments are among its central activities.
DFAT also provides a range of services to the Australian public. These include issuing 1.8 million passports each year, and delivering consular services, with more than 1500 cases active at any one time. It also provides services to other government agencies, including the management of the government's
overseas estate, the government's global classified communications system, and common services for departments and agencies represented at Australian missions abroad.
The environment in which DFAT works is notably different from that of most other Australian Public Service (APS) agencies. Its staff, Australia-based and local, are employed across the globe, and international factors influence the department's outcomes more directly than they do other agencies.
In addition to its Canberra presence and offices in the states and territories, DFAT manages a network of 95 overseas posts in 77 countries. Heads of Mission, appointed by the Executive Council, are responsible for all aspects of Australia's relationship with their countries or organisations of accreditation,
and for leading and managing the whole-of-government agenda across all agencies at posts.
In December 2012, DFAT had 4147 staff, of whom 2454 were Australian-based and 1693 locally-engaged staff employed overseas. Of the Australian-based staff, 639 were deployed overseas, 1512 in Canberra, and 303 in state or territory offices. Locally-engaged staff, including Australians recruited overseas,
provide the department with in-country knowledge, expertise and continuity.
The department's activities are overseen by its Executive—the Secretary and four Deputy Secretaries. Responsibilities have recently been reallocated to bring all corporate and ICT functions under the oversight of one Deputy Secretary as a means of increasing coordination across those areas.
In Canberra, there are 14 divisions: six geographic divisions (North Asia; South-East Asia; Americas and Africa; Europe; Pacific; and South and West Asia and Middle East); three trade divisions (Office of Trade Negotiations; Free Trade Agreements; and Trade and Economic Policy); two multilateral divisions
(International Security; and International Organisations and Legal); one Consular and Public Affairs division; and two corporate divisions (Corporate Management; and Information Management and Technology). Three stand-alone branches report directly to the Secretary or a Deputy Secretary (Executive, Planning
and Evaluation; Policy Planning; and Protocol) as do the Australian Passports Office, Overseas Property Office and Services, and the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office.
The department's budget for 2012–13 is $1.29 billion, comprising operating funding of $890 million, capital funding of $63.3 million, administered funding of $275.1 million, and an equity injection of $62.1 million.
High levels of employee satisfaction and engagement are evident in DFAT's staff surveys. Areas for attention identified in the most recent survey included training and development, ICT services, career progression and agency culture.