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Setting the record straight on Australia's UN bid

By Thom Woodroofe - posted Friday, 19 October 2012


First of all, the suggestion that the government was advised against the bid is plain wrong. The original idea to throw our hat in the ring in fact came from the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade in the form of the 'Red Book' handed to the Labor Government on assuming office.

Furthermore, a Freedom of Information request has confirmed that while the Department also canvassed campaigning for a 2019-20 seat, this was determined to be a "significantly easier but too distant prospect". Instead, the chosen 2013-14 period represented "the earliest opportunity to run with any chance of success" which was a view supported by former Liberal minister and then UN ambassador, Robert Hill.

Secondly, on the day Australia announced its candidacy in 2008, then Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson in fact leant his support to the campaign calling it "a good idea".

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However, the elevation of Tony Abbott to the Liberal leadership and Julie Bishop's assumption of the foreign affairs portfolio reversed this position linking the campaign neatly to a broader mantra around the government's fiscal largesse and Kevin Rudd's ego, who they suggested was impossibly positioning for a tilt as UN Secretary General.

Some, such as former foreign minister Alexander Downer have labelled the Coalition's strategy "wrong" and out of step with history with Australia's five previous UN tilts all receiving bipartisan support. Former Queensland Senator Russell Trood also used much of his retirement speech last year to champion a change in position and has since been appointed a Special Envoy of the campaign. Many current members of the parliamentary party including Malcolm Turnbull and Christopher Pyne are understood to support the campaign.

And on this issue the Opposition are out of step with public opinion.

A 2009 poll by The Lowy Institute found 71 percent of people "partly" or "strongly" support the campaign. A similar poll last year found 32 percent identified it as "a very important foreign policy goal". This newspaper has also editorialised in support of the campaign.

But perhaps the most common criticism of the campaign has related to the cost.

Despite wild accusations to the contrary, Australia's campaign has only costed $23.6 million, far less than the original $35 million projected by DFAT, which was based on a similar proposal drawn up for the Howard Government.

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In total, this is the fifth of the cost of a fighter jet and well short of the $45 million allocated to win the host rights of the World Cup or the $100 million allocated by one of our competitors in Luxembourg.

But at one point The Daily Telegraph blindly suggested the true campaign cost was $2 billion and despite originally suggesting a cost of $100 million, the Opposition have now settled on a figure of approximately $40 million.

Another common criticism of the campaign has been that it has compromised our values when in fact the whole purpose has been to promote our values. Indeed, the most effective campaign tool appears to have been funding visits to Australia by UN ambassadors designed to challenge their stereotypes and promote our way of life.

A key example often cited is the bloating of Australia's aid budget and its increased focus outside of our own backyard. But what these critics forget is that Australia's decision to double our aid budget pre-dates the campaign and an inevitable spread in recipients is inevitable as the size of this assistance increases.

Some naysayers have also suggested a seat on the Security Council will compromise important bilateral relations with the United States, China and Indonesia.

But in reality, Australia will find itself sitting next to and working with both Washington and Beijing for the next two years. Many observers highlight for instance, that Oval Office access also becomes much easier as a temporary member of the Security Council. The Singaporean Prime Minister also said last week that Australia's election would be good for the region, and you would expect to see Australia consulting with powers such as Indonesia if it gets the opportunity to serve.

Ultimately, Australia's campaign for the Security Council has been wholly in line with our national interests. If elected, it will twenty-six years since we were last on the highest body for international peace and security in the world. Our troops serve under UN mandates in East Timor and Afghanistan, we are obligated to uphold its sanctions regimes on countries like Burma and Iran, and it deals with important regional security issues such as on North Korea. As the 10th largest financial donor to the UN, Australia should also have a role in how that money is spent.

And you can expect Australia to be big contributors if given the chance.

As a middle power globally and an important regional player, we will also bring a lot to the table in our own right, including as the 13th largest economy in the world, the 6th largest by landmass, the 3rd largest maritime zone, and as a proud contributor of more than 65,000 peacekeepers to different UN operations.

To win, Australia will require two-thirds of the General Assembly to support its bid in a secret and often unpredictable ballot, or 129 countries to be precise.

But the truth is we can and should win the second seat after Finland.

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This article was first published in The Australian.



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About the Author

Thom Woodroofe, 21, is a foreign affairs analyst combining journalism, research, teaching and community work to advance an understanding of Australia's place in the world.

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