The previous column on Australia's bid for a UN Security Council seat was all about the dark side of losing to Luxembourg. Now for the sunny uplands of what a win might mean.

It has been quite a while since multilateralism got a chance to strut its stuff at the front of the Australian public stage. The rancorous debate on climate change and the carbon tax certainly hasn't produced too much soaring rhetoric about Oz as a good international citizen doing its bit for the future of the planet. A win in next month's Security Council vote would be a reminder to Australia of a time before John Howard when the UN was usually counted as a good thing with the occasional potential for greatness.

For the strongest argument in a long time about the value of multilateralism to Australia, see Bob Carr's Lowy Institute appearance. This was Australia's pitch for a UNSC seat delivered by an experienced politician at the top of his game, notable for Carr's wonderful definition of the Australian identity:

Well, I'd say we are a funny, friendly, benign country where the rule of law applies. We're a country that threatens no one because we come to a halt for a horse race and our most successful comedian is a mad-cap female impersonator.

On that comedian note, we just have time to ask Barry Humphries to launch Dame Edna on a frantic bout of international shuttle diplomacy to round up UN votes (Sir Les Patterson should stay at home).
 
Carr even managed to get in one dig at the Liberals, quoting from the assault that Alexander Downer mounted on the UN in a Press Club speech: 'Increasingly multilateralism is a synonym for an ineffective and unfocused policy involving internationalism of the lowest common denominator.' That emphatic Downer thumbs-down for the UN was uttered in June 2003, just after the US had completed a triumphant invasion of Iraq and George W's unilateral moment was at its peak. 

If Australia wins in next month's vote, the political benefit, beyond a win, will be in feeding the narrative line that Labor is better at 'doing' multilateral that the Libs. The UN rejectionism that John Howard has made explicit since leaving office provides plenty of ammunition for such an assault.

Downer, even while operating as a UN envoy on Cyprus, has not warmed much towards the world body, last year arguing the bleak realist position this way

These days there is no ideological difference between the members of the Security Council. Their differences are based entirely on national interest. Which tells multilateralists something about the reality of multilateral diplomacy; it’s just a bunch of countries pushing their own barrows, but in the one room.

Sending out Dame Edna as our last-minute special envoy would differentiate us from Downer's cynical bunch of countries pushing barrows. Instead, our housewife superstar would be waving a bunch of gladioli. How could any foreign minister resist being tickled under the chin and called 'possum' by Edna?

As always with campaigns on the multilateral stage, it is useful to look at how a country describes and ranks itself. The opening page of the brochure Australia created to put its case headlines the nation's ability to make a difference for small and medium countries of the world, and numbers eight key arguments: 

  1. Commitment to the UN over 65 years.
  2. A record of achievement in international peace and security (Cambodia settlement, East Timor, CTBT, Commissions on non-proliferation).
  3. Strong endorsement of and action on the Millennium Development Goals, marked by a big lift in the aid budget.
  4. Strong record of global action on climate change.
  5. Strong commitment to an effective UN, including 'early reform of the Security Council and its working methods to better reflect the modern world'.
  6. Strong commitment to making a difference for small and medium countries.
  7. Special commitment to the Indigenous peoples of the world.
  8. Commitment to interfaith and inter-religious dialogue from one of the multicultural nations in the world.

The state of Australian politics seems to have prompted one notable omission from this list. Australia's financial support for UN High Commission for Refugees gets a mention, along with contributions to other UN agencies. But Australia's long and proud history of accepting and resettling refugees under UN programs doesn't get on the front page. You have to flick nearly to the end of the 20 pages before discovering that Australia ranks among the top three refugee resettlement countries in the world. This is a wonderful record.

It is a sad day when our approach to  asylum seekers is not, automatically, a big plus for our diplomatic standing.

Photo by Flickr user Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer.