The advent of the Howard Government in March 1996 was very significant in foreign policy terms because foreign policy was seen as one of the issues that led to the defeat of the Keating Labor Government. Howard, with Alexander Downer as his Foreign Minister, brought significant changes to the priorities and conduct of Australian policy.
Philip Flood was appointed as secretary by the Howard Government at the beginning of its term of office. He had already had a distinguished career serving governments of both political persuasions in high-level positions, including as director-general of the Office of National Assessments (ONA) (1995–96), director-general of the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) (1993–95) and chief executive officer for Special Trade Representations (1977–80). He was also Ambassador to Indonesia (1989–93).
During Flood’s secretaryship, the first challenge was to respond to the Howard Government’s determination to differentiate itself from the foreign policy of its Australian Labor Party predecessors. In Flood’s term he was involved in preparation of Australia’s first ever White Paper on Foreign and Trade Policy, which was notable for confirming the government’s strong preference for bilateralism over regionalism and multilateralism. A further early challenge was dealing with the 1997 Asian financial crisis that transformed the region in favour of China and eventually terminated the Soeharto regime in Indonesia.
Australia’s alliance with the United States would reach new levels of intimacy and policy convergence. While this reflected Howard’s strong conviction that the United States would be more, not less, important to Australia, it also occurred partly through coincidence of events as much as planning. In time, the Howard Government would also attach high priority to engagement with Australia’s broader Asia Pacific region; his government would prove highly pro-active in its nearer region of the South Pacific and East Timor and would bring Australia into a closer relationship with China.
One of the more serious managerial tasks for DFAT at this time was dealing with the reductions in the departmental budget and, therefore, staff numbers, directed by the new government. Despite this challenge, Flood secured strong staff support for far-reaching changes to employment conditions, bringing much greater flexibility to the management of the Department. A significant event was the Department’s move into new premises designed to meet the special needs of a foreign ministry, the first time this had been done.
After his term as secretary, Philip Flood was appointed High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Subsequently, he conducted several public inquiries for the Australian Government, including a sensitive inquiry into Australia’s Intelligence Agencies in 2004.