The Liberal Party’s struggles with multilateralism and the UN
1 Feb 2021|

‘We should avoid any reflex towards a negative globalism that coercively seeks to impose a mandate from an often ill-defined borderless global community. And worse still, an unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy. Globalism must facilitate, align and engage, rather than direct and centralise.’

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, October 2019

‘Covid-19 is a shared crisis—a reminder that many problems are best solved or, indeed, can only be solved through cooperation. At the heart of successful international cooperation is the concept that each country shares, rather than yields, a portion of its sovereign decision-making. And in return, each gets something from it that is greater than their contribution.’

Foreign Minister Marise Payne, June 2020

The prime minister and foreign minister offer opposed, puzzling facets of Australia’s Liberal Party.

The puzzle—reaching towards paradox—is the way the Libs can mock multilateralism and scorn the United Nations. Twice in the past 20 years, Liberal governments have ordered broad cost–benefit reviews of what the UN system means for Australia.

The party has a proud ability to walk and talk liberal internationalism. The Liberals know deeply why Australia wants and needs a rules-based international system. Yet when it comes to the instruments of that system, the case for the negative is strong.

The Liberal posture for 30 years has been as a party that thinks, feels and acts on a vision of national-interest bilateralism: Australia will only bother with the UN when clear national interests are served.

The two strands of Australian political opinion on the UN throughout the Cold War were Evatt Enthusiasm and Menzies Scepticism. This wasn’t a party-line division: many Libs were UN enthusiasts; plenty of Laborites were realist, balance-of-power sceptics.

Under Prime Minister John Howard, a third strand emerged: rejectionism that doesn’t see the UN as a core Australian interest. In office, Howard’s pragmatism meant he easily adopted multilateral solutions, but his policy instincts and language reflected his mental tic about the UN. The tic became a Liberal habit of mind, and Howard’s version of himself in retirement.

In Howard’s autobiography, there’s no sign of the leader willing to sign the landmine ban treaty over the objections of Australia’s Defence Department; his chapter ‘The liberation of East Timor’ gives only a grudging nod to the UN’s central role in one of his proudest achievements.

Instead, Howard’s memoir warns against ‘the dictates of multilateral bodies’, ridiculing those ‘with an almost childlike faith in the processes of the United Nations’. ‘When it comes to the crunch on really big issues’, he argues, ‘multilateralism usually falls short’.

The call is for ‘a selective approach to the multilateral agenda’ while focusing on bilateral relationships as ‘the basic building block’, which was the framework of the Howard government’s 1997 foreign policy white paper:

Australia must be realistic about what multilateral institutions such as the United Nations system can deliver. International organisations can only accomplish what their member states enable them to accomplish. If the reach of the UN system is not to exceed its grasp, it must focus on practical outcomes which match its aspirations with its capability.

Where Menzies Scepticism makes the Libs scratchy and itchy, Howard Rejectionism causes the party to gnaw and gnash.

The 2000 cabinet records released on 1 January by the National Archives of Australia show the gnaw-gnash habit being formed.

Howard’s cabinet pondered whether a seat on the UN Security Council was worth the effort. Maddened at UN committees’ treatment of Oz, cabinet in March 2000 ordered a report on how to push back and change the UN system.

The 120-page review of the UN committee system as it affects Australia went to cabinet in August 2000. While committed to the UN’s human rights and refugee frameworks, ‘Australia has had long-standing concerns about their focus and manner of operation’, the submission said. UN committees were guilty of relying on the views of non-government organisations rather than government reports.

The review trigger was an ‘unsatisfactory’ report on Australia by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. And Canberra was facing other UN committees on ‘domestically contentious indigenous, asylum seeker and other issues’.

Cabinet decided the UN human rights treaty committee system needed a ‘complete overhaul’. The government would adopt ‘a more robust and strategic approach’. Robustness generated plenty of headlines in 2000: UN committees would only be allowed to visit Oz if there was a ‘compelling’ need; Australia wouldn’t sign the protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women because of its new complaints procedure (acceptance of the protocol happened in 2009).

The Labor opposition ran the line that the Liberals were doing a UN ‘dummy spit’. Rather than spitting, though, cabinet was gnashing. See that in a submission in September 2000 on a possible bid for a seat on the UN Security Council in 2007–08, considered when Howard returned from a UN visit.

Cabinet agreed Australia would express interest but decide on whether to ‘proceed with a firm candidacy’ in 2002. Taking office in 1986, Howard inherited the previous, ultimately unsuccessful bid for a seat in 1997–98, and that defeat rankled. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade argued for another quest:

Membership of the elite club at the apex of international multilateral affairs brings particular benefits. Most especially, Security Council membership maximises national leverage both before and beyond the actual term served. This enhanced projection of Australia’s international role may be brought to bear on the full range of national interests.

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet opposed the bid, emphasising the political costs of another unsuccessful candidacy. Factors weighing against an Oz bid were ‘our poor level of representation and support in Africa’, the potential for Australia’s natural policy positions to ‘put us at odds with influential countries or groupings’, the ‘chronic unreliability of voting commitments’, and the benefits of the seat not being worth the costs and resources of the campaign.

PM&C knew the mind of its master. Rejectionism prevailed. Australia ultimately scrapped that Security Council bid.

When Morrison gave his ‘negative globalism’ speech in 2019—‘international engagement will be squarely driven by Australia’s national interests’—he again ordered DFAT to do ‘a comprehensive audit of global institutions and rule-making processes where we have the greatest stake’.

Payne’s speech in praise of international cooperation and multilateralism reflected the audit’s conclusions: ‘Australia’s interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us.’ Her calm meditation was aimed at persuading her own party.

The scratching and gnashing will go on.