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Australia makes another tilt at the UN Security Council

Australia makes another tilt at the UN Security Council

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has just announced that Australia will bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2029-30.

That's 15 years from the end of our last Security Council seat (2013-14). But it compares against the 27 years between our fourth and fifth outings at the Security Council. In total, Australia has held a non-permanent seat on the Security Council in 1946-7, 1956-7, 1973-4, 1985-6 and 2013-14.

The bid for the 2013-14 seat was riven with controversy from the start, and regarded by some as a Kevin Rudd vanity project. The bid was announced in 2008 while the two other candidates for the seat, Luxembourg and Finland, commenced their pitches in 2001 and 2002. The late start was heavily criticised, as were the reputed costs of the bid. Notionally these were around $25 million, but there were some arguments that Australia's aid to African countries had been ramped up to win support for the bid. If it were valid to account for this somehow, the overall costs would be considerably higher.

The Coalition opposition, under Tony Abbott, proposed to scrap the bid if it won the 2010 election.

It didn't. Australia won the seat. Nonetheless, scepticism persisted through the early days of the tenure, and in the lead-up to his election, Tony Abbott promised a 'more Jakarta, less Geneva'  foreign policy. But MH17 changed all that. The Foreign Minister's intense diplomacy secured a relatively strongly-worded resolution from the Security Council (2166) setting up an investigation and calling for those responsible to be held to account. It won plaudits here and abroad

The Coalition Government now appears to be a Security Council convert. [fold]

Any criticism of this bid would need to come up with something new. Shadow Foreign Minister Tanya Plibersek, while broadly supporting the bid, labelled it 'unambitious'. Looking at the numbers on the periods between our occupancy of a seat (9 years, 16 years, 11 years, 27 years: average = 15.75 years), the 15-year gap sounds pretty good to me, and is a dramatic improvement from the 27-year gap last time.

Ms Bishop has set out her government's reasons for the timing: there is only one applicant for the slot to date (Finland), so the seat is more likely to be uncontested; the length of time means that the costs of the bid can be apportioned across the span and absorbed in the normal operations of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

In an article supporting our last Security Council bid, Michael Fullilove argued that 'the principal reason that Australia is right to run is that the Security Council is the world's pre-eminent crisis management forum.' It is the only international body that can make a decision to authorise the use of force. Australia's 2013-14 experience would appear to have borne out that argument.

Much will no doubt be made of this first major announcement from the Turnbull Government on foreign policy. It may well be that, together with the renewed push for a 2018-20 seat on the UN Human Rights Council, multilateralism is 'back'. This will become clearer over the course of the government under its new leader. In the meantime, what is clear is Australia's renewed enthusiasm for participation in the Security Council as the world's most important multilateral organisation.

Photo courtesy of Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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