When the British took up the rotating presidency of the Security Council in June, they drove a double-decker bus into the forecourt of UN headquarters as part of their diplomatic launch party. The Australians have made a less showy entrance, merely offering fellow Security Council members Lamingtons, egg-and-bacon pies and sausage sandwiches at a breakfast on Wednesday morning, and coming up with the hashtag #Ozprez for followers on social media. Visitors allowed into the soulless office allotted to the president of the UN Security Council will also notice the appearance of a toy kangaroo.
Perhaps the simple fact that Australia is presiding over the Council for the first time since November 1985 is eventful enough. Or maybe the Australian mission would have tried to make a bigger splash had the presidency not coincided with Australia's election campaign.
The word from their headquarters on 42nd St is that the caretaker provisions have not complicated planning. No worries, is the public line. 'A little bit of unpredictability makes things interesting', says Ambassador Gary Quinlan. 'It has complicated things a little, but no problem.'
Kevin Rudd's decision to bring the election forward by a week has helped. It means the new government's foreign policy team will be in place a few weeks before 'leaders' week', when government heads travel to New York to address the General Assembly.
Not that you will hear any Australian diplomat say so, but it helps, too, that the polls point to a clear-cut result. A re-run of the uncertainty that followed the 2010 election, which saw weeks of negotiations over the formation of a minority government, would have been disastrous. During leaders' week, Australia would not have had a prime minister with a clear electoral mandate. That said, nobody yet knows whether the prime minister or foreign minister will represent Australia, although invitations have been sent to the leaders of other Security Council members, in the hope of a top-level gathering.
The fact that Australia's presidency of the Security Council coincides with the General Assembly, that annual diplomatic trade show, is overall a positive.
On the downside, September is the only month when the 193-member General Assembly can get more coverage than the 15-member Security Council. On the upside, it means that the main Security Council session planned for that week, at which Australia, as president, chooses the issue for discussion, will command more attention from world leaders in New York.
Earlier in the year, it was thought Australia would champion the issue of women in post-conflict situations. Instead, it will shine a light on the problem of small arms. The aim is ambitious: to get a resolution passed at the Security Council strengthening the framework for tackling small arms, the first in UN history. It is an attractive issue for Australia because it cuts across so many areas of the UN's work, from preventing violence against women and children to protecting blue-helmeted peacekeepers, from disarmament and demobilisation in post-conflict situations to the management of weapons stockpiles. Additionally, it is an issue with resonance in the South Pacific.
Australian diplomats face a hard sell, not least because Russia and China are two of the world's biggest small arms exporters. Veto-wielding members of the Permanent Five, they are referred to these days as 'the blocking minority'. Though Australian diplomats say they are not spooked by the challenge, it will be hard to get 'product', the lingo in Turtle Bay for a resolution.
As well as small arms, Australia has called a meeting during leaders' week on Yemen. But the country that will likely dominate talk at the UN over the coming weeks, Syria, is not even on the formal agenda at the moment. In the provisional program of work for the Security Council agreed in New York on Wednesday morning, it is included only as a 'footnote'. At present, Gary Quinlan says there is no point in having a Security Council discussion because, with the P5 deadlocked, it leads nowhere.
For sure, the 'presidency' sounds grander than it is; more of a company secretary sort of role than a galvanising chief executive. The work of the Security Council is also heavily diarised, depending on which mandates are up for renewal or which countries, like DR Congo or Haiti, require on-going situation reports, which means the presidency follows more so than shapes an agenda. Also scheduled every month is an open debate on the Middle East, although the word 'debate' is somewhat misleading since member states simply read out prepared statements rather than engaging in a freewheeling discussion.
What's more, the real power on the Security Council obviously lies with its Permanent Five members, the US, UK, France, Russia and China. For the crucial closed-door meetings in the aftermath of the suspected chemical weapons attack, when the UK was trying for a brief time to introduce a resolution authorising force, the non-permanent members of the Security Council were not even invited.
Still, Australia has already built a reputation as one of the UNSC's activist members. When whispers start going through the UN press gallery, what has been noticeable in recent weeks is how often they mention Australia. Britain, France and Australia called for an emergency session of the UNSC over the crisis in Egypt. Again, the same trio demanded an emergency session in response to the Ghouta massacre. Australia is the pen-holder on negotiating the fresh ISAF mandate in Afghanistan for when the present one expires in October. It chairs the Iran sanctions committee. No other non-permanent member cuts such a high profile.
As an aside, I was also struck last week, as the debate swirled about the legality of military action without a UN mandate, how much attention Gareth Evans' ideas about 'responsibility to protect' received in the international media.
With the possibility of US military action over the coming weeks in Syria, and with the P5 just as deadlocked as ever, it is an especially challenging moment to take up the presidency. But the team from 42nd St do not seem to be the sort of bunch to suffer stage-fright.
Photo by Flickr user Joffley.