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Australia to the UN Security Council?
Monday, 30 January 2012 07:17

Australia should do everything possible to secure a seat on the UN Security Council, argued former foreign minister Gareth Evans in an Australia Day address this year.

Most Australians wouldn't give a hoot.  It's a pity.  It is very much in Australia's interest to be at the centre of international affairs.

Evans reminds us that Australia didn't really have an independent Australian foreign policy until the Second World War. It was not until 1940 that our first diplomatic posts – apart from the High Commission in Britain – were established.  Until that time, Australia functioned very much as a member of the British Empire.

The following period from 1949 to 1972 of right wing ("Liberal") government was very disappointing with the maintenance until the late 1960s of the full vigour of the White Australia policy, strident support for the apartheid regime of South Africa, antagonism toward China, total dependence on the US, participation in the Vietnam war, and so on.

According to Evans, Australia was "largely isolated and irrelevant in its own region, deeply unsure of its identity, utterly pessimistic about its ability to be a force for change in its own right, and in any event wholly unclear about what kind of change it would want to pursue if it could".

The Labor Whitlam Government was elected in 1972 and revolutionised foreign policy by recognising China, bringing home the last troops from Vietnam, finally burying the White Australia policy, taking France to the World Court for its nuclear tests in the Pacific, and accelerating Papua New Guinea’s independence.

The Liberal Fraser Government which followed from 1975 to 1983 not only continued these Labor policies, but reinforced them.  A major initiative was embracing Vietnamese refugees, a large number of whom were welcomed as migrants.

The Hawke and Keating Labor Governments from 1983 to 1996 brought a renewed period of activism including: helping to create APEC, and finalise the Uruguay Round trade negotiations; working against chemical and nuclear weapons, and working to save the Antarctic environment from mining and oil drilling; being a key player in the financial sanctions strategy which finally brought down apartheid in South Africa; and helping to improve the effectiveness of the UN in the post Cold War environment.

According to Evans, under the subsequent Howard Liberal government, Australia moved backward on the international stage.  It focused on hard rather than soft power, followed US alliance wherever it took us, was unadventurous in seeking global or regional policy change, and profoundly uninterested in the UN and the whole idea of transnational problem-solving by creative multilateral cooperation.

Under Labor governments since 2007, Australia is now back to centre stage in the conduct of its international relations.  It now enjoys a much higher level of recognition and respect internationally in areas like climate change, the G20, the expanded East Asian Summit, nuclear disarmament, disaster and humanitarian response, global poverty alleviation, and asylum-seekers.  It has also launched a hugely creative and energetic effort to claw back a seat at the UN Security Council table in 2013 after an extraordinary 27 year absence.

The US Security Council matters to Australia.  For example, our troops operate in East Timor and Afghanistan under Security Council mandate, and it imposes sanctions we are obliged to implement, in North Korea, Iran and elsewhere.  Moreover, given the very fragile stability of Australia's neighbourhood, it is in our own interests to ensure that it works effectively.

But most Australian politicians, government and opposition, only care about domestic infighting.  They behave as if Australia is another also-ran country, not really caring much about the wider world we live in -- even though our prosperity depends on this world.

Although Australia's credentials are impeccable, it will take a lot of work to beat other candidates.  And this will only be possible if the most senior members of both the government and opposition appreciate that periodically taking a rotational seat at the apex of the global system for maintaining peace and security is absolutely in Australia’s national interests.

Evans is perfectly correct that Australia should make a major effort to secure a UN Security Council seat.  However, while Keven Rudd, Australia's foreign minister, is doing an excellent job in promoting Australia's interests internationally, he is having a poisonously destabilising effect on the government domestically.  Ultimately, this is undermining his very own efforts for a UN Security Council seat.


Australia’s Distinctive Presence in the World: And Why Winning a Security Council Seat Matters.  Australia Day 2012 Breakfast Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AO QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University and Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Parliament House, Melbourne, 26 January 2012.


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