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The Liberal Party's conflicted relationship with the UN

The Liberal Party's conflicted relationship with the UN
Published 26 Mar 2015 

In a speech to the National Press Club yesterday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she is 'scoping the opportunities for our next term on the United Nations Security Council.' 

Australia performed well during its 2013-2014 term on the Security Council, and the time has come for a decision to be made about the next term. It would be a welcome change if a bid were to be launched under a Liberal government.

It is a commonly held perception that the Labor Party is friendlier to the UN than the Liberal Party. Australians themselves are largely supportive of the UN: 63% hold a favourable view of the organisation. Labor stalwart Dr HV Evatt was the great agitator on behalf of medium and small nations at the founding conference in San Francisco, 1945. He later served as the fourth president of the General Assembly.

The Liberal Party, on the other hand, is seen as being more conflicted over the UN. The Howard Government worked ably with the UN on Timor, while it later rode roughshod over the rules-based order when it joined with allies the UK and the US to invade Iraq.

In 2000, Alexander Downer famously derided the UN, saying that, 'if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.' He was later appointed UN Special Envoy to Cyprus. [fold]

But there is a healthy pro-UN camp within the Liberal Party. Dr Russell Trood founded the UN Parliamentary Group while serving as a Liberal senator. The group is now co-chaired by Melissa Parke MP (Labor) and Senator Chris Buck (Liberal). Trood is now chairman of the UN Association of Australia, succeeding the former Liberal senator Robert Hill (former defence minister and former Australian permanent representative to the UN).

Other voices in the party tap into the anti-UN sentiment, which runs deep on the hard right (ie. the 28% of Australians that hold an unfavourable view of the UN). But this sentiment is born mostly of ignorance of the UN system and its limitations. But it is not as suspicious a minority as that in the US, where the positively unhinged 'black helicopter' conspiracy theorists continue to irrationally oppose the Arms Trade Treaty and Agenda 21 (a non-binding pact on sustainable development) for fear that the UN will one day take over the world. [fold]

A couple of weeks ago, Prime Minister Abbott suggested that Australians were 'sick of being lectured by the UN.' In opposition, the Liberals also opposed the bid for a seat on the Security Council, citing issues of cost and timing.

In keeping with the Liberal Party's contradictory approach to the UN, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop actually took advantage of the seat, and performed admirably on numerous occasions (on MH17 and during the presidencies of 2013 and 2014). During her speech yesterday, Bishop espoused the virtues of Australia's term on the Council: 'I believe we exceeded expectations of the impact that we could have as a non-permanent member.' By all accounts, the P-3 (France, US, UK) enjoyed Australia's company on the Council, while the Russians found us a worthy adversary.

Bishop also took the opportunity to focus more broadly on the question of how Australia would look to build a post-Council legacy. She signaled Australia's intention to support 'efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of both United Nations peacekeeping and peacebuilding.' This support is timely. Jose Ramos-Horta's High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations delivers its report in the middle of the year and Obama hosts his summit on peacekeeping at UN HQ in September.

Bishop also made mention of the need to 'ensure women are more deeply engaged' in the UN's efforts towards peace. This flags ongoing Australian support for the women, peace and security agenda enshrined in resolution 1325.

This year is a big year for the UN, which is celebrating its 70th Anniversary, and the options for meaningful engagement are plentiful.

On the immediate horizon will be the Palestinian Question (as it is known at the UN). Although Bishop made no mention of it in her speech, the recent Israeli election result could prompt a showdown at the UN some time this year. With the Obama White House signalling a potential change its stance at the UN, it remains to be seen whether Australia too will alter its policy. The UK and France are also likely to push for the recommencement of final status negotiations.

The Millennium Development Goals are up for renewal. The new post-2015 development agenda promises to be more inclusive and far reaching.

The UN's humanitarian architecture is also under immense strain brought on by a record number of IDPs and refugees (57.5 million), a result of the numerous crises afflicting the Middle East, North and Central Africa. US$ 16.4 billion will be required this year alone.

Despite the UN's growing needs, Australia's brand of niche diplomacy is likely to get more of a workout than its cheque book (or the boots of ADF personnel).

Photo courtesy of the Foreign Minister.

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