'Can we speak to the Australian president?' enquired a journalist in the media centre at the UN, evidently unaware that the country is still a long way from having a mate as its head of state.
Likewise, requests to meet the new Australian prime minister would also have ended in disappointment, even if a couple of old ones were on hand. Kevin Rudd was in New York, cutting a rather lonely figure, for meetings of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organisation. So too was Julia Gillard, to take part in the Clinton Global Initiative, where she spoke about her government’s carbon tax, a policy that may grant her something of a prime ministerial afterlife on the former-world-leader circuit.
But Tony Abbott left it to Julie Bishop, his foreign minister, to represent Australia.
I ran into Ms Bishop on the sidewalk on the first full morning of the UN General Assembly session, and she spoke briefly of her 'baptism of fire.' During her time in New York, she met with the foreign ministers of all the Permanent Five members of the Security Council, including US Secretary of State John Kerry, and conducted bilaterals with regional foreign ministers.
Of these, the most eye-catching was obviously her encounter with Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa, where tensions emerged on the vexed boat people issue, which inadvertently leaked to the press. Addressing the General Assembly, Ms Bishop explained how the Abbott Government would put 'economic diplomacy at the centre of our foreign policy.'
Like most of the speeches delivered here, however, it received little attention. The truth is that only about four speeches during the entire General Assembly session got the full concentration of the press corps: those from America, Iran, Syria and Israel. That is why the media centre resembles a television shop, with banks of plasma screens but most of them rendered mute.
In any other week, the UN press gallery would have paid more attention to the meeting of the Security Council that Bishop chaired, which passed a resolution combating the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons. It is the first comprehensive Security Council resolution on this issue, and it passed with almost unanimous support (Russia abstained). Australia’s UN ambassador Gary Quinlan called it a 'good result, a good product.'
Intended as the centrepiece of Australia’s presidency of the Security Council, it was overshadowed completely, however, by a meeting next door of the P5-1 (or E3-3, as it is also confusingly known), which brought together John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Zarif, along with the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China.
Throughout the week, the rollout of a Bishop on the international stage obviously paled in significance alongside that of a cleric. The hype surrounding new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani was even likened to the launch of a new iPhone. Sure enough, the big headlines of the week came from a handshake that didn’t happen between Rouhani and Barack Obama, and a fifteen minute phone call that did.
When the Security Council met on Friday night to pass the resolution enshrining the chemical weapons handover deal, the voice of Gary Quinlan announcing an historic 15-0 vote was broadcast around the world. While it was her prerogative to chair the Security Council, Ms Bishop had to catch a flight back to Australia so that she could prepare for the trip to Indonesia. With all fifteen members of the Security Council co-sponsoring the resolution, it became a 'president’s text', something of a rarity on a body where the P5 are often at loggerheads.
Australia’s role was largely procedural. The detailed negotiations on the draft resolution involved the P5 powers, while the final agreement on the text involved another face-to-face meeting between Kerry and Lavrov. But Gary Quinlan and his team are now trying to harness the diplomatic momentum from this unexpected moment of unity by pushing for a presidential statement allowing for greater humanitarian access in Syria.
In aid delivery, the disunity of the Security Council has undercut UN agencies operating on the ground. Because a resolution would take more time, Australia has joined with Luxembourg in pushing for the statement. Gary Quinlan believes it is important, on the back of Friday’s resolution, to send a 'strong unified message quickly.' He hopes it will be agreed upon by Wednesday or Thursday.
The Iranian overtures, combined with the resolution on Syria, made this one of the more eventful General Assembly gatherings in memory. The response to the chemical weapons attack on 21 August has also made September an unusually eventful month. Ambassador Quinlan has kept a steady and confident grip on the gavel.
Photo courtesy of the Department of the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs.