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How to Spend $25 Million and Not Gain Much

Early tomorrow morning foreign policy wonks will be sitting in front of their televisions, the radio or madly refreshing the pages of news websites as they wait to see whether or not Australia has secured a temporary two-year spot on the United Nations Security Council. Two of our senior politicians, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister have ventured to the UN in New York in recent weeks, scrambling to attract the vote of countries not already locked in behind either Luxembourg or Finland, our competitors for the two available places.

Domestically, there is not bipartisan support for the UN Security Council campaign. Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd launched the bid and that has been carried through by his replacement, Julia Gillard. The Labor Party have plunged about $25 million into this electoral gamble, with relatively good odds. The Opposition on the other hand are against the bid labelling it wasteful and pointless, preferring a regional focus to foreign policy.

With the vote taking place in less than a day, what exactly would be gained by a victory in the vote at the United Nations tomorrow? What will change?

The obvious and most simple and straightforward answer is a seat on the Security Council, the most significant body within the UN structure. We would be able to say things, nice things and bad things about different peace and security issues at the table rather than from the periphery. Would that not be wonderful for us, to be able to chest-beat at the most significant international forum for a couple of years? How wonderful for us.

Then there’s the not insignificant factor of being able to engage with other nations at the UN Security Council. Well, that’s just brilliant. For two years we can have greater engagement with the world, a closer proximity that we couldn’t possibly have had without the UN. How our region would love it if we were to focus a little less on it for two years in favour of pretending we have the ability to save the world.

Australia would not just be able to praise or prod other nations with our words, or enjoy a temporary closeness with more of the world, oh no, we would even be able to vote despite the fact that we would only be there and able to vote for two years.

That vote would actually mean something too, sometimes. Sometimes our vote might align with the US, the UK, China, France and Russia. Well, most of the time we are probably going to be saying the same thing as the United States of America and United Kingdom, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, you know, allies and all that diplomatic and defence type stuff.

In other cases our votes might not align with the five permanent members of the Security Council and is that not the best eventuality ever? If just one of those 5 countries decides they do not like a resolution, they are more than welcome to tell a numeric majority of members where to go. That wonderful veto power has the ability to stifle action in some of the most grave matters the Security Council deals with. By doing so, it would render our voice useless.

So there you go. Basically we get to gamble away $25 million, win or lose. That’s great odds as far as gambling goes, for little actual gain if we win. For that price we have the chance to be great pretenders for two years. Twenty-five million dollars will buy us the right to have our middle-power thoughts disregarded from time to time over two years. But that’s okay given that we can share a short closeness with nations we could not possibly have engaged with outside of the Security Council. Then, after two years, everything will go back to the way it was. What then? Money well spent hey?

Swan No Longer an Academic, Still Favours Lecturing

Wayne Swan has opened his mouth again. It seems that just about every time the federal Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister opens his mouth it’s more often than not to attack particular groups in the community and in politics. More often than not, this year it has been to attack the federal Coalition, but also state Liberal Governments around the country. There’s also been the small matter of a concerted campaign of verbal barbs from Mr Swan, aimed at the mining billionaires, not all billionaires, just those that dig stuff out of the ground. The latest words attacking people coming out of the Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer’s mouth were aimed at certain members of the Republican Party of the United States.

These words, directed at certain Republican  representatives were a very weird, obscure and politically dumb foray into American domestic politics from a senior politician that should know better.

This isn’t the first time that a political representative from Australia has lectured a foreign power or its’ parliamentarians. Indeed, this isn’t the first time a Labor Minister has tried to tell the Republican Party how to do politics, Bob Carr has also done this recently. If you’re looking for an example of someone from the other side of politics something bad about foreign political parties and their figures, look no further than Prime Minister John Howard prior to the election of Barack Obama as US President.

Essentially, at the heart of the comments is economics and the US budget which is in terrible shape with debt about 15 times the size of the Australian economy.

In a speech to the Financial Services Council, Mr Swan said, “let’s be blunt, the biggest threat to the world’s biggest economy are the cranks and crazies that have taken over parts of the Republican Party.”

Basically, this was aimed at the Tea Party section of the Republican Party which exploded onto the scene with high political prospects, but failed to live up to electoral expectations. They also had little success in wresting a large number of Republican congressional and Senate seats which was expected of them. Their idea of small government even sees the majority of the Republican Party as champions of big government.

The state of the budget in the United States is in complete peril. Under both Republican and Democrat administrations, the debt has exploded, particularly since the presidency of Bill Clinton. This has been both through long, expensive wars and the subsequent costly foreign policy as well as in more recent times, increased social spending and a loss of revenue thanks to that large event, the GFC which still sees a large number of countries struggling financially.

The point is that both sides of the political fence in America will at present not be able to solve the huge problems that the US needs to deal with on the fiscal policy front. Neither side really has a solution to the debt and deficit problem and yes, it really is a problem there.

Yes, there are “cranks and crazies” in the Republican Party, that is undisputed, but there is a big difference between political extremists and working, in whatever way, toward eturning the fiscal position of the United States of America to a more sustainable position.

Wayne Swan if he was really being genuine and had to go off on a verbal rampage again, though still not wise for an outside power with a mutual political interest, he would have been best served in acknowledging that the American future isn’t particularly rosy whether there is a Republican or a Democrat in the White House. Any solution, though that term is used rather loosely, would involve severe political and economic pain, it’s a matter of when the political leaders and the people decide is best to go through that pain, because really, it cannot be avoided.

Ideally, if Wayne Swan decided it was necessary to embark upon this not so diplomatic pathway, and he shouldn’t have in the first place in the way he did, it would have been best raised behind closed doors rather than for attention-grabbing headlines. Public lectures of foreign powers, no matter how strong our economic position, just look odd and arrogant, especially when it’s partisan attacks.

Engaging Again With Fiji Not a Case of Too Much Too Soon, Might Help Democratic Transition

Fiji is not a very stable country politically. The Pacific islands nation has endured no less than four coups over the past 20+. The ethnic divide in the country is stark with Fijian’s of Indian descent, Chinese descent and native-born Fijians living together in a nation in not so much harmony. But it is not just about the ethnic divide. Indeed the latest coup in particular, in 2006, when Commodore Frank Bainimarama wrested power stemmed out of a conflict festering between the then civilian government and the military which was not just about ethnicity.

This latest coup d’etat had its origins in the previous uprising, with Prime Minister at the time, Laisenia Qarase wishing to introduce legislation which would have pardoned the coup leaders involved. Frank Bainimarama was almost killed during that period of political instability.

Overnight Australia, New Zealand and Fiji agreed to somewhat of a restoration of ties between the three nations. The agreement will restore full diplomatic relations between the nations with the reciprocal reinstatement of each countries respective high-level diplomatic missions in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

Travel restrictions for members of the Fijian Government will also be eased and restrictions were lifted to allow a representative of the Fijian administration to travel to the meeting at which the change in policy was agreed to.

In 2009 our High Commissioner in Fiji was expelled by the Fijian Prime Minister Bainimarama in a move that was closely followed by the Australian Government expelling the top Fijian diplomat.

It is an interesting move given that the previous deadline for free and fair elections, in 2009, was not met. Indeed since then, a further crackdown on the press and other authoritarian moves have pointed to a far from certain transition to democracy, due to occur in 2014. Indeed, such a positive step at this point seems almost fanciful.

Speaking on ABC News 24, the director of the Australian National University’s Centre for the Contemporary Pacific, Brij Lal said that “It’s important to measure words against deeds.” And this is a correct reflection of how to judge the political situation in Fiji at present.

The words coming out of the mouth of the Fijian Prime Minister’s mouth speak for great hope of a return to democracy and less internal conflict in the trouble-prone Pacific nation.

But Bainimarama’s deeds tell a different story. Freedom and democracy have been going the other way in Fiji since the 2006 coup when the Commodore took power from the civilian government of Mr Qarase. His deeds tell a story of grand but broken promises as well as a crackdown on those opposed to him from within and outside of the country he rules over.

But is the reinstatement of diplomatic relations a case of jumping the gun too early? Is Australia at risk of finding it “very difficult for it (Australia) to disengage and take a more objective stance”? Would it have “been prudent on the part of Australia to see some of the fruits of those initiatives (toward elections and democracy) before going as far as it has done”?

The answer on all counts is likely no. No material progress has been made toward democracy since diplomatic relations broke down badly in 2009. Australia and New Zealand while disengaged from Fiji diplomatically have been unable to, with objectivity, influence the transition toward an at least somewhat stable and democratic government. And if the two nations had waited before entering into political relations with Fiji again until they had seen some of the benefits of promises made by the Fijian Government, well, they would likely have been waiting a mighty long time. Chances are they still might, but frank yet friendly engagement is much better.

Helping the Fijian Government restore their economy which is heavily dependent on tourism and exporting sugar will be an important diplomatic step which could result in the knock-on effect of being able to persuade Fiji to return to some form of democracy.

While the economy is stalled it is the Fijian people, already under authoritarian rule that begin to suffer further from the political isolation of the Fijian regime. Combine that with the recent devastating floods and the level of hurt because of a weak economy is high.

Australia and New Zealand, in restarting diplomatic relations could place incentives for economic development assistance based on real outcomes in the transition toward democracy with more assistance provided as progress is made to free and fair elections and more democratic government.

It’s certainly not to early to again engage with Fiji and the re-engagement with the island nation may well help rather than hinder some form of transition toward democracy. But only if the relationship is managed with Australia and New Zealand offering help for change. The restarting of diplomatic relations does not automatically equate to too much too soon

Marines in Australia Not Just Good For Our Australia-US Relations

Last night the first 200 of what will eventually totally 2500 US Marines arrived in Australia amid mass media attention in the dead of night, backpacks on, firearms strapped to their bodies ready to undertake ongoing joint exercises with their Darwin based Australian counterparts at Robertson Barracks. The first Marine deployment was welcomed at the airport by the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, the Minister for Defence Science and  Personnel Warren Snowdon, the US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich and Australian Defence Force brass and other personnel.

Australia and the United States have enjoyed a particularly good relationship since the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951, of which our southern ocean neighbour, New Zealand is also a part. That agreement was struck in the decade after World War Two where the US fought closely with Australians, including in the northern part of our territory.

This latest announcement and the now commenced deployment will only further that defence and broader bilateral relationship between our two nations as we head toward that much talked about “Asian Century” where greater US involvement in the security and economic activity of the nation is a necessity both for America herself and for the region.

The early days after the announcement brought some public disquiet from China, a nation firmly on the economic and military build-up march toward a modern economic superpower, uncertain just what it may mean for the peaceful bolstering of the military in China that any nation expanding rapidly would see as a necessity and a reality.

Our good friends of late in our region, Indonesia also took to looking at the deal with some scepticism and worry with what a greater US focus in the region may mean for it and those other nations around it.

Yet so far both those nations have been quiet in their commentary on the move as it has begun to proceed to the actual deployment stage of troops which has now begun, with crickets now for some time, even now the talk of the plan has proceeded to action.

This seems to indicate that initial fears have now been quelled by some quiet diplomacy between all the parties, recognising that the move should not be seen as a threat the the economic advancement of any nation.

Back home though, the now commenced US troop deployment will bring Australia another benefit outside of the security and bilateral relationship that such a project fosters and helps build further. This deployment of eventually 2500 US Marines will mean great economic benefits for the Northern Territory, in particular, Darwin.

On one count it will be great for the local small  and large businesses around the base where the troops will spend their deployment, with a steady additional income stream of significant numbers now available from a captive audience of troops who will frequent local businesses when recreation time permits.

Not only that, but tourism businesses around the Northern Territory and even those in broader Australia will benefit from the substantial tourist dollars that two and a half thousand troops will bring. US troops, will surely want to visit crocodile farms, wildlife parks and even enjoy the substantial fishing opportunities that exist in the Northern Territory.

The deployment has begun and the complaints seem to have died down markedly to basically non-existent. Now all that is left is for the Australian and United States governments to enjoy the greater cooperation between our two nations and the economic and security benefits that brings. Far and above that, the immense economic benefits should not be ignored and should be celebrated along with the other equally important benefits.

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