Australian diplomacy is about to get the result of a significant test. To cut straight to the race, Australia is about to find out whether it can beat Luxembourg.
Or to be a bit more stuffy, Australia is going to discover what it's worth to be a founding member of the UN and the twelfth largest contributor to the UN regular and peacekeeping budgets. Next month, the 193 members of the UN will vote to fill two seats allocated to the Western European and Others Group on the Security Council. Australia is one of three candidates.
Australia's UN perch as part of Western Europe never looked more anomalous than in this protracted race against one of Europe's smaller players and just about the smallest. In an op-ed he wrote while in New York in April, Foreign Minister Bob Carr said Australia was in a 'tough race' with Luxembourg and Finland: 'Australia has not had a seat at this table for more than 25 years, not since the end of the Cold War. That's surprising because it could be said we punch above our weight as a contributor to UN peace operations and UN forums.'
This has been a marathon. Australia started running in 2008, while Luxembourg declared in 2001 and Finland in 2002. See Michael Fullilove's paper setting out the case for Australia's UN bid and the terms of the race.
There's a lot to be said about what Australia might do if it wins two years on the UNSC; more on that in the next column. But the bad news always leads, so first consider the potential downside. What if Canberra loses? The politics of a loss will be lousy for the Gillard Government and a bureaucratic disaster for DFAT.
Channel your inner Tony Abbott for a moment: this is a government so incompetent it can't beat Luxembourg! Australians might not give too much thought to the UN or multilateralism. But as the Olympics have demonstrated again, the land of Oz always likes to know where it sits on the medal tally.
For DFAT, 25 years without a Security Council medal looks like a middle power that is actually punching at flyweight level. The defence that you don't get diplomatic wins if you don't spend money on diplomacy will not get much of a hearing in a Canberra that is preparing for another round of public service cuts – and that's under a Labor government.
At least this time, Australia has been exceedingly cautious about calling the race. Even Kevin Rudd played coy when he was foreign minister, and The Kevin is seldom coy. DFAT has been haunted by the previous bid in 1996. Our then UN ambassador, Richard Butler, had many qualities, but doing anything on the quiet was never a Butler trait. His sense of personal betrayal at the defeat was encapsulated by Butler's description of the 'rotten lying bastards' (other UN ambassadors) who did not deliver for Oz in the secret ballot.
The Howard Government inherited the UN campaign when it took office in 1996 so blame for the failure was more than equally shared with Labor. When Alexander Downer later proposed another bid for a UNSC seat, Howard killed the idea.
The Howard veto lingers. The Coalition has decried Labor's UN effort as a waste of time and money, turning the effort to get elected to the Security Council into a partisan issue.
As Thom Woodroofe noted, that political divide in Australia helped the case being waged by Luxembourg and Finland, 'drawing attention to the lack of bipartisan support, the perceived lack of interest from Gillard, our treatment of asylum seekers, and ineffectiveness on Indigenous affairs.' He lamented that Australia was not as willing to dish the dirt in return by pointing to Luxembourg's status as a tax haven or Finland's role in supplying arms to Israel.
Based on a lot of interviews and research, Woodroofe gave this rundown of the state of the race last October:
Australia's campaign is continuing to gain traction. According to a comprehensive analysis of Australia's foreign relations, public comments and positions by other countries, and ministerial travel we would appear to have 32 countries supporting our candidacy outright, a further 40 likely to do so, 35 that remain possible, 27 that would appear unlikely to provide support, and only 13 not supporting. This is a good position to be in, but still short of the magic number of 129 required for election; two-thirds of the General Assembly.
This means Australia's candidacy will almost certainly go to a second ballot, which means a further comodification of the vote-trading system. But given it is conducted in secret, ultimately it is hard to know who will be elected until the day comes.
One of the downsides from Julia Gillard's abrupt departure from the Pacific Islands Forum to rush home is that she did not have much chance to lock in Island votes. Luxembourg has been quite active in the South Pacific in recent years and seems to have one vote for sure in the region. And if Fiji does vote for Luxembourg this time, Luxembourg will vote for Fiji next time. This is where the dark scenario gets really nasty.
Building on the election the regime has scheduled for 2014, Fiji is setting itself to run for one of Asia's rotating seats on the Security Council in 2015-16. That would really add irony to ignominy: Fiji stands a chance to win in Asia while Australia might just lose in Europe. What if Australia loses a bid for a Security Council seat but Fiji manages to win?
Fiji had a major victory in September last year when the Asian caucus at the UN changed its title to become the 'Group of Asia and the Pacific Small Islands Developing States'. Now the South Pacific is part of Asia at the UN, while Australia still sits with Western Europe.
The next column will look on the bright side, and point to the obvious Oz superstar to conduct a last-minute diplomatic blitz in support of our UN hopes.
Photo by Flickr user Antonio CE.