Breaking news for the Abbott government: Geneva matters
4 Aug 2014|

Where's the love for Geneva?

To watch a new government is to see a party’s shibboleths, suspicions, suppositions and superstitions mugged by reality.

Time in opposition is supposed to be when new thinking gets done. Yet often that period of powerlessness is when ideology hardens and ideologues go rigid. Eventually, the chosen ones emerge from the desert as the voters come to their senses. Policies are unleashed. Promises rise up. The unforgiving parliamentary clock starts ticking.

Then, drat and damn, the newly magnificent ones discover the policies and prejudices don’t run around the field as promised on the box. Some won’t start. Some veer wildly off course. Some blow up.

A messy example was the Rudd government’s slaying of offshore-processing of asylum seekers. (The policy trauma that followed meant the resurrected Rudd made resurrecting the offshore system a priority of his brief second coming.)

As muggings of new governments go, that one was nasty and prolonged, leaving scars that linger. Some muggings, however, deliver surprises that pleasantly confound the shibboleths. The Abbott government has just received such a shock.

The government that proudly boasted its foreign policy would be ‘more Jakarta than Geneva’ suddenly finds that Geneva matters; the much derided multilateral system can deliver. Having dismissed Labor’s campaign for a Security Council seat as a waste of time and money, Julie Bishop was at the Council table to eyeball the Russian ambassador as resolution 2166 on the ‘downing’ of MH17 was adopted. The Coalition of the Grieving face a huge task in making it happen on the ground in Ukraine, but the UN resolution Australia helped create was the central, essential legal instrument.

The context for those points is that the Liberal Party, under John Howard and now Tony Abbott, has veered from scepticism about the UN to a rejectionism that becomes a simple Animal Farm chant: ‘Alliance great, bilateral good, multilateral bad.’

The two traditional strands of Australian political opinion on the UN were Evatt Enthusiasm and Menzies Scepticism. Now there’s a third strand—Howard Rejectionism.

During Abbott’s first election campaign as leader in 2010, the policy statement indicated the UN was not a core Australian interest. The most ludicrous Rejectionist moment during that 2010 campaign came during the foreign policy debate at the National Press Club.

Then Shadow Foreign Minister Julie Bishop had to protest that the Liberals weren’t actually arguing Australia should withdraw from the UN! This was a jibe at journos that implied exasperation at the UN-phobia of her own side.

Simple slogans matter, so consider the layers in the Abbott promise of a foreign policy that’s more Geneva than Jakarta. It pledges more Asia than Europe and more bilateral than multilateral; it implies praise for Asian regionalism and a downgrading of the UN system.

Damning Geneva is a shorthand caricature of eternal cocktail conferencing, pinstriped diplomatic do-goodery and international interference in Australian affairs (see that other slogan: stop the boats). Abbott is being most unkind about the League of Nations.

Rather than kicking Geneva, a sharper slogan would be a foreign policy ‘more New Delhi than New York’. ‘More New Delhi than New York’ fails not just because it’d play badly in Jakarta and Beijing— it’d sound odd to the Oz electorate.

The UN HQ happens to be in US, so Oz Rejectionists cannot use New York as shorthand for the multilateral system. To be nasty about New York might sound like rejecting the US, not the UN—a horrible mixing of message.

For Rejectionists, the US alliance sits atop the security mountain while the UN system meanders in the valleys. Introducing diplomatic dimensions complicates that picture: the alliance can’t be elevated above key Asian bilaterals, and even Asian regionalism crowds close to the peak. Please don’t introduce trade or economic dimensions because that really challenges beloved suppositions and shibboleths.

Labor doesn’t share the Liberal hang-ups about the UN, finding it easier to stress its Evatt Enthusiasm. During a time long ago when a Mr Mark Latham was Labor leader, his shadow Foreign Minister, a Mr K. Rudd, proposed the three pillars of Labor international policy in this order:

  1. US alliance
  2. Comprehensive engagement with Asia
  3. Engagement with key global and regional institutions, including the UN, the G20 and the East Asia Summit

Latham kept changing the order to push the US to the bottom position. Eventually, Rudd succeeded. The US is back in that top spot in the ALP platform although Rudd’s ‘pillar’-talk has gone.

The Lib and Labor mental maps aren’t that far apart. The difference is that the love Labor lavishes on the UN means its foreign minister would never have to disavow a secret Rejectionist intent to withdraw from the UN.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Thomas Hawk.