March 7

Too high a price to pay?


The Security Council can never fulfil its role in maintain international peace and security unless there is agreement among the permanent members, China, France, Russia, the UK and US.  Consequently it rarely comes to any decision of any significance.

The British, the French, the Chinese and the Russians of course knew this at the time it was founded; perhaps President Roosevelt did not.


In addition to the five there are ten members elected by the General assembly for two years. Although nine votes are needed, the crucial thing is to obtain great power consensus.

The reason governments want to be elected to the Council has more to do with the vanity of politicians and diplomats than any real advantage to the country concerned.  

In 1996 the Howard government inherited the last attempt by Australia to be elected as one of the two members from the “West Europe and others” group to which we belong.  Persuaded by our then UN Ambassador Richard Butler that the seat was in the bag, the government  threw itself behind the campaign.  

As you will recall, the ambassadors who apparently solemnly promised Mr. Butler their votes did not deliver.

What we have to understand is that many votes in the General Assembly are put out to auction. Of course not every foreign government votes for a consideration. But when you have the massive aid budget of the EU, extracted mainly from the unfortunate Germans and British consumers, as well as the national aid budgets of the larger countries, whatever Australia can offer pales in comparison. 

Our two competitors in the next election in 2013 are the EU's Finland and Luxembourg, and they started campaigning several years ago around 2001.


So when I heard that Her Excellency the Governor-General Ms Quentin Bryce was to go on a seven nation African tour, I concluded that this had something to do with the government’s bid for a seat in 2013 -2014 as a result of the elections in 2012.   Whenever Her Excellency travels officially as Head of State, she does so on the advice of the ministers. If there is any criticism of the tour, it is criticism  of the government and not of the Governor-General.

One of the nation’s leading commentators, Greg Sheridan says we have already paid too high a price for the seat. In “ A price too high to pay “ ( The Weekend Australian 7-8 March 2000) he says our foreign policy is in danger of being seriously distorted by the bid. He writes of our foreign policy actually being changed to accommodate the bid.

He points out the Governor-General has already made state visits to France, Singapore, Malta, East Timor, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, but these are all countries of some significance to Australia. The African state visits are to Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zambia, Tanzania and also Kenya, the only one in which we have resident diplomats, and indication of the importance of the countries hitherto in our foreign policy.He says this state visit is a “spectacular misallocation” of resources.

More importantly he says the decision to send  Her Excellency  represents a misunderstanding, “at the top”, of the Governor-General's role.

He says Governors-General should only travel overseas to funerals, to ceremonial occasions and sometimes to comfort afflicted Australians. That has been the policy so far. Mr. Sheridan believes the Governor-General  should only undertake what we could call  “foreign policy” tours when no senior minister is available. He says this is not a frivolous point but a deadly serious one in the environment of grotesquely strained diplomatic resources that Australia confronts.

“To put it at its baldest,” he says “ a Governor-General's visit is as much trouble, expense and use of diplomatic capital as a prime minister's, but has no pay-off for Australia.

“In any country the Governor-General visits, protocol will demand appointments with the host head of state and often head of government. This is precious face time that is always hard to come by. But the Governor-General has no policy role so her meetings are useless. The foreign head of government cannot ring her if there's a problem with Australia or if he wants to co-operate with Canberra in some initiative. It's high-level tourism.”

He says that if Australia had munificent diplomatic resources this might not matter. But, he says, the Rudd Government is starving the Department of Foreign Affairs  of funds for core business. This is likely to get worse because of the financial crisis. In the meantime he says they are “lavishing funds on gimmicks and fripperies.” 

His conclusion in three words is: “Silly, silly, silly.”

The Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith  agreed on the ABC Insiders programme on 8 March that the tour was to seek votes in the General Assembly.

Kerri-Anne Walsh from the Sydney Sun Herald said this changed the role of the Governor-General and was “aggressively political”.

Andrew Bolt from the Melbourne Herald Sun said the issue of the Security Council election was now highly political, and the Governor-General was becoming a partisan figure. He referred to her launching the Garnaut Report on Climate Change. He said that if the Governor-General wished to play politics she should stand for election.  The Governor-General has also expressed strong views on maternity pay, and that the reserve powers should be codified.

There is a line between what is political and what is not. I think the best test for viceroys is to ask themselves what would The Queen do in similar circumstances. That usually provides the correct answer.

…the role of The Queen and the Royal Family…

Earlier, Mr. Sheridan made an interesting comparison between a visit by the Governor-General and one by The Queen. “Unlike the Queen, who can at least gain publicity for Britain, no one knows who the Australian Governor-General is or what she does. So there's no pay-off even at that level.”

I do not know what are Mr. Sheridan's views on republican change. But one of the desperate arguments of Australian republicans is that The Queen only represents the United Kingdom overseas. It is unfortunate that repubican views, even erroneous ones, are repeated over and over.

But as is too often the case, on this Australian republicans are uninformed. Why do they so often speak before they have checked their facts? in 1999, even the Attorney -General seemed unaware of the forty year old established convention which applies in the Commonwealth when a Realm becomes a republic.

When The Queen attends the place where Commonwealth Heads of Government meet, Her Majesty goes as Head of the Commonwealth, not as Queen of the United Kingdom. ( She does not actually attend the meetings)

She has made state visits as Queen of Canada to the United States and to France.  Other members of the Royal Family may also be asked to undertake such roles as a Realm may wish.

That said , I hope we never ask a member of the Royal Family  to go on a state visit with the only apparent benefit being two years of  photo opportunities for Australian politicians in New York.  


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