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Australia’s Security Council bid: Much Ado About Nothing

A cool $55 million: Australia’s bid for a UN Security Council seat. un.org/Evan Schneider

At least one legacy of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministerial career has survived: his campaign to obtain a temporary seat for Australia on the UN Security Council (UNSC).

Elections for the two-year position take place in October this year, when the UN General Assembly (UNGA) will elect five new non-permanent members to the 15-seat Security Council. Five seats, of course, are permanent. The ‘P5’, or ‘Permanent 5’. Those belong to the US, China, Russia, Britain and France. Or, as some have put it unkindly, a Council of former great powers.

How does it work? Well, the UNGA votes in blocs. In this instance, we’re talking about regions. Currently, we have five of the ten non-permanent seats occupied by Morocco (Africa and Arab regions representative)Togo (Africa); Guatemala (representing Latin America and the Caribbean); Pakistan (Asia) and Azerbaijan(Eastern Europe).

You’ll be astonished to know that Australia falls into the ‘Western European and Others’ Group, better known as WEOG.

Yes, you read that correctly: not ‘We Are The World’, but ‘We Are The WEOGs’.

We’re a bunch of WEOGs, actually, along with Turkey, New Zealand and Canada. Come to think of it, that’s virtually a re-enactment of the Gallipoli campaign. Let’s hope we win this time.

Which segues nicely into my next point: Why The Hell Are We Running For A UN Security Council Seat?

Frivolity aside, there is actually a serious side to all of this: the Mandarins in Canberra (bad pun intended) are spending $55 million (a far cry from the original $15 million estimate) of the over-burdened Australian taxpayers' money on this vainglorious project.

Not that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) wanted to make this Olympian bid for Security Council gold in the first place. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer noted on the ABC recently, DFAT has better things to spend its parlous finances on.

Double-0 Downer: back from another deadly Cyprus mission. blogspot.com

This week, DFAT will shed 100-150 jobs in order to implement $25-30 million in budget cuts.

Meanwhile, in their conversation on the ABC this week, former foreign ministers Gareth Evans and Alexander Downer found common ground on at least one issue: Australia needs more foreign missions. Their argument is that Australia is a laggard amongst developed countries, possessing a mere 100 missions worldwide.

In 2011, for instance, Australia shut down the Harare mission, which used to boast Australia’s best-paid ambassador in the 1990s. It’s probably just as well, as, in return, the Zimbabwean mission in Canberra has apparently been up to all sorts of shenanigans.

A seat at the round table

Evans argued recently that it was in the ‘national interest’ to pursue a temporary UNSC seat. To be fair, we’ll quote him at length:

“There is not just sentiment involved here, but hard-headed calculation. Being, and being seen to be, an active player in pursuing co-operative global solutions to issues such as mass atrocity crimes, terrorism, trafficking in drugs, arms and people, and cross-border aggression both confers a general reputational benefit (gold in the currency of international affairs, as the Scandinavians have long understood) and significantly increases the chances of direct reciprocal support on issues of immediate concern to us, such as refugee flows.”

Fine words, to be sure. What is this ‘reputational benefit’ of which Evans writes? Good international citizenship? Hardly. As my colleague Michael Connors of La Trobe University writes aptly, “Australia, for the most part, is invisible in international politics.”

No power. No influence

Irrespective of whether Australia has a temporary UNSC seat or not makes no difference to Canberra’s ability to pursue these issues assiduously within the fora Australia occupies currently.

Let me be straight with you, dear reader: Australia can waste as much money as it likes on foreign missions. They do nothing for business and trade (AUSTRADE comprises an overpaid, cocktail circuit); DFAT and AUSTRADE are not the first port of call for Australian enterprises wanting to do business in Asia, Europe or the US.

There are plenty of fora where Australia is already a member and has no influence: it is an Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund; it is a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum; and it is a foundation member of APEC.

Australia is also a NATO Global Partner. At a conference back in 2008, I was surprised to learn, from some eminent American political science professors, that they had no idea Australia had troops in Afghanistan.

I duly informed them that Australia had over 1,400 troops in combat areas in Afghanistan. Australia was, in fact, breathless patriotism coming to the fore, the largest non-NATO contributor to Afghanistan.

“Really?” they chorused disbelievingly, reaching for another Veuve Cliquot. Well – we were in Paris, after all. Which is where you find Americans.

Australia’s embassies: God’s waiting room

Australian overseas missions, aside from being glorified passport stamping booths, are merely repositories for the corpses of failed politicians, careerist bureaucrats and irritating former cabinet ministers.

You want proof? Firmly ensconced in Washington is former defence minister and opposition leader Kim Beazley, whose claim to the position rests solely on his being an American Civil War buff. Beazley’s other legacies are three Federal election losses (one in 1996 as Deputy Prime Minister) and that white elephant, the Collins-class submarine, a device so obsolete it makes the German U-20 that sank the Lusitania look cutting edge.

To be fair, some of his predecessors have not been particularly illustrious either. Paul Keating appointed Don Russell, his closest advisor, to Washington in 1993 as a reward. Russell, a finance analyst, had no previous experience in diplomacy or trade.

Malcolm Fraser made Andrew Peacock his foreign minister, mostly to prevent him from challenging his leadership. Later, Peacock’s reward for retiring from the Howard-Peacock wars was being sent to D.C. as ambassador. Very little of substance took place throughout his tenure there.

In 2007, John Howard, against the wishes of Downer, appointed Amanda Vanstone as Australian ambassador to Italy.

“Terrorists don’t strike between 9 and 5 from Monday to Friday,” Vanstone said, to the Adelaide Advertiser in 2009, in defence of her appointment, citing the 24/7 nature of ambassadorial work.

More to the point, we can’t recall terrorists striking at all in Italy. Not since Amanda was in town, anyway.

La dolce vita: Amanda Vanstone on a Roman holiday.

Yet another political appointee, Richard Alston, was made Australian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom in 2005 (I could tell you some stories…but apparently we’re not supposed to defame people here at The Conversation. So I won’t).

So, you will have gathered I am not in favour of this particular fishing expedition where Australia attempts to bribe – yes, bribe a bunch of other countries to vote for its candidacy for a UNSC seat (yes, I know the link is to the Herald Sun but that doesn’t alter the basis of the story, the facts of which were obtained only after a Freedom of Information application to see how much DFAT were spending of our hard-earned on this glory trip).

One should not be surprised when former ministers Downer and Evans support Rudd and Gillard’s bid to obtain a UNSC seat either. Relevance Deprivation Syndrome is tough medicine for a former foreign minister to swallow, particularly when they are accustomed to being feted by acolytes and sycophants while overseas for much of their tenure.

Gareth Evans: unrequited love for the United Nations unimelb.edu.au

Moreover, a successful Australian bid would open up all sorts of job opportunities: like becoming Australia’s ambassador to the UN, with the Security Council as a stage, instead of an irrelevant seat in the General Assembly. And Gareth, for whom I have a quite a soft spot, bless him, always wanted to be a UN Secretary-General.

But alas, like an ageing Laurence Olivier, Gareth “will never again play the Dane.”

Egads! Foiled again

One more thing: I will bet quite a few orange notes with a 20 on them that Australia fails to get the UN seat.

Why? Because Finland and Luxembourg, our WEOG rivals, will be backed by the European Union. And the EU also spends quite a lot of its time bribing African countries, and they bid a lot higher than we do. The EU is also the world’s largest aid donor, one of the biggest arms suppliers to Africa…well, you get the idea.

How can we compete with this? Luxembourg’s and Australia’s Parliament Houses aph.gov/gouvernement.lu

Like a superannuated, cashed-up baby-boomer versus a first-home buyer, Australia is not going to win this particular Dutch auction.

Last time we tried, in 1995, the French were doing nuclear tests in the Pacific, leading to much – pardon my français, mon vieux fruity vernacular on the floor of Parliament House in Canberra.

Former Deputy PM Tim Fischer (does anyone remember him?) even managed to call the French president “Black Jacques Chirac” (in rather broken English, as I recall).

Frère Jacques was not amused. That caused enough of a merde storm in Paris for France to block Australia’s bid for a UN Security Council seat by rallying votes against Canberra from the EU and France’s (many and varied) African, Pacific and Caribbean satellites.

How? Money. Arms. Aid. Euros may not buy much anymore, but they still buy more votes than orange plastic with 20s on them.