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20 February 2013


With a Federal election this September, Australia risks missing the goalpost during global grand final season, writes SUSAN HARRIS-RIMMER.

An Australian federal election never offers much joy to an international relations analyst.  In the American presidential election, foreign affairs got a whole debate to itself. Australia’s relationship with the wider world is unlikely to merit much of a mention in the campaign here. But, the timing of our election on 14 September is itself problematic. The media focused on the fact that it would be football finals season, but no one noticed that September 2013 may be the most important month for Australian foreign policy in decades.

Australia recently set up two global leadership roles on the world stage through years of painstaking diplomacy; becoming President of the United Nations Security Council and host the G20 for 2014.

The month of September 2013 will mark our first term as President of the United Nations Security Council. We will only get one other opportunity as President before our two-year stint is over in December 2014. We have waited a mere 27 years for this opportunity, and our intensive election campaign represented a significant investment.  We did this, quite rightly, because issues of peace and security directly affect us as a contributor to peacekeeping missions and a major humanitarian donor. The world is full of intensely difficult conflicts, most of which have some impact on Australia and our region.   

It is not clear how our Presidency will now play out during caretaker period and the election.  Traditionally, our Presidency would have enabled us to set the agenda, manage crises and drive Presidential statements and notes.  The role also often involves hosting a leaders meeting and a variety of side events during the month. We are President during the month that world leaders head to New York for leaders’ week at the UN General Assembly, and so may have had the even rarer opportunity to schedule a summit level meeting involving heads of state.  Can we do that if our own head of state is not there?

It is likely that our Ambassador to the United Nations, His Excellency Mr Gary Quinlan will be able to deal with caretaker conventions (which relate more to international treaty negotiations), and chair the sessions and side events with his usual aplomb.  But, this Presidency may be a twice in a lifetime opportunity. We still require a measure of political focus on how we will demonstrate leadership during our overall term, and especially those two crucial months as President. 

We are also centre-stage as the host of the G20 in November 2014 in Brisbane. The G20 is an unusual institution in that it has no secretariat.  Instead, the country who was the previous host of the Leader’s Meeting, the current host and the future host form an organising group called the ‘troika’, to ensure a measure of continuity.  Russia is hosting the G20 Leaders Meeting from 5-6 September 2013 in St Petersburg, just one week before our election. Our Prime Minister traditionally attends. We will then assume the mantle of host, release our priorities and conduct a wide range of meetings including the Finance Ministers Meeting in Cairns, leading up to the Leaders Meeting in November 2014. Australia then assists Turkey to prepare for 2015.

A G20 Leaders Meeting is always important.  G20 members represent almost 90 per cent of global GDP, 80 per cent of international global-trade, two-thirds of the world's population and 84 per cent of all fossil fuel emissions are produced by G20 countries.  It is crucial to Australia’s place in the world that the G20 works and takes decisions that benefit us and the Asia Pacific region.

As a member of the troika, the Russia meeting is even more important to us as Brisbane will have to build on its achievements. How will we cope with the 5-6 September meeting in Russia? Is the Prime Minister really likely to attend in the week before an election? (As of 5 February, it was reported by AAP that Gillard would make a decision at a later date). Treasurer Wayne Swan will be campaigning.  Will Australia’s special representative Dr Gordon de Brouwer (known as the G20 “Sherpa”) be allowed to represent us instead? (This seems unlikely at a Leader’s Meeting).  It might be acceptable to send Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr—as a Senator, he will not be campaigning this time, and it may be proper to take a Coalition Senator as well.  There is no precedent due to the unique and recent nature of hosting the G20, although former Prime Minister John Howard did attend APEC in 2001 during a campaign.

Whoever wins the election will quickly have to make a speech that will be pored over around the world as to what Australia’s priorities will be for the Brisbane summit. There is no time to lose if we want to run a meeting that stands a chance of gaining agreements and keeps the G20 strong and relevant as an institution.     

However we handle this situation, this should not be a political point-scoring exercise.  The national interest means it is imperative that Australia play a leadership role at the Security Council, and host a constructive meeting in Brisbane, and time is of the essence. All parties should cooperate to that end, and all parties benefit from this approach whichever side of the Parliament they sit on.

To return to the football finals season as a metaphor, Australia is not a reserve warming the bench this September on the world stage.  We are a handy midfielder with an outside chance at the medal for best and fairest.  In order to play well, our political leaders will have to display a high degree of bipartisanship in a highly-charged and deeply negative election year.  The government should offer regular briefings with key public servants to Coalition Shadow Ministers, and negotiate caretaker conventions in good faith to allow for these unique leadership moments. The Coalition should start preparing now not to fumble the pass, but take the ball and run with it if they do win. The government should consider flexible arrangements for joint representation from the Senate at the meetings, to show strong political commitment from our government, no matter who wins.

This is no time for pettiness. Agree now to send in the Senators. It is absolutely time to display statesmanship in the national interest at these key meetings.  To do less is to fluff the kick for goal only metres out, directly in front. 

Dr Susan Harris Rimmer is the Director of Studies at the Asia Pacific College of Diplomacy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, and a member of the Security Council Analysis Network (SCAN) – a research group focused on the work of the UN Security Council during the period of Australia's membership 2013-2014.



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