A senior official of the Bush Administration once said to me: "The thing about you Aussies is that you are impossible to offend. With other nations I have to watch my 'ps and qs', be on guard about offending sensibilities. Not with you guys. You like straight talk and even when we try an odd insult Australians just laugh. And you are so irreverent!" I took this as a compliment. Our larrikin spirit is alive and well. Aussies don't stand on ceremony and like to puncture pomposity with humour.
Irreverent, yes. Irrelevant, no. Few nations have sailed, flown or marched further in a good cause. There is nothing more reverential to Australians than the enduring symbol of an Australian soldier's (we call them diggers) 'slouch hat'. It is part of our story, critical to our sense of identity and self esteem. But in far flung corners of our troubled planet the Australian digger so often wears the blue beret of the UN.
Australians have never been isolationists. We did not turn away from genocide in Cambodia, tsunamis in Asia, earthquakes in Japan, famine in Africa, partition in Cyprus, conflict in East Timor. We are known for standing by our mates but Australians also make the supreme sacrifice for suffering strangers who have never heard of our country. We are not neutral in the face of crisis, calamity, terrorism or oppression. Neutrality is not part of the Australian psyche.
Like our kith and kin in New Zealand we are good citizens of the UN. As former Kiwi Prime Minister, Mike Moore and now Ambassador to the US, said of both Australia and New Zealand in a speech in Washington recently: "We pay our dues and more and deploy our people in peacekeeping and peacemaking...This is the rent we pay for our way of life. It is the cost of civilization... a world without walls cannot be a world without rules, standards and values".
Back in 1947 Australia was the first nation to contribute UN peacekeepers, to oversee the ceasefire between the emerging Indonesian Republic and the Dutch colonial occupiers. According to new Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr 65,000 Australians have served in more than 50 UN and other multilateral peace operations since 1947. Carr revealed that Australia is now the twelfth largest contributor to the UN's peacekeeping budget.
In October the 193 members of the UN will vote in a secret ballot to fill two seats on the Security Council for a two year term. Australia is one of three candidates in the "Western Europe and Others" group. The other contenders are Finland and Luxembourg.
The last time Australia sat at this table the Cold War had not ended. For forty years after the Second World War the Security Council was too often paralysed by the veto powers of the Big Five. That has changed. Today the Security Council has never been more relevant or active. That's why Australia now wants to play its part. Since Australia last served 90 other countries have had their turn, many of them a number of times. Japan and Brazil have served five times during this period. But it is not about forming a queue. Australia, a founding member of the UN, has much to contribute.
Last year our Prime Minister Julia Gillard visited the UN in New York to discuss our bid with Ban Ki-moon and addressed 50 representatives of African nations. She explained how helpful Australia could be to small and medium sized countries, pointing out that Australia was one of the top ten contributors to key UN programs such as the World Health Organisation, its children's fund UNICEF and the High Commissioner for Refugees. Since then lobbying has been intense and last month during a visit to Singapore by Julia Gillard, Prime Minister Lee said his country and Australia shared a commitment to strong global institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation and the International Monetary Fund and was happy to support Australia's bid.
As former Foreign Minister (and former PM) Kevin Rudd has argued, Australia brings formidable assets to the table and a different perspective to our European colleagues. We are a stable democracy, a medium sized power on a vast island continent, with the world's third largest maritime zone strategically located in the Asia Pacific. Our economy is in the top dozen in the world and the fourth largest in Asia. Our military spend is the fifth biggest in Asia.
Twenty two of Australia's twenty four closest neighbours are developing countries. Many are emerging democracies, like Timor Leste where in 1999 an Australian led intervention, sanctioned by the Security Council, helped bring peace, stability, independence and democracy to its ravaged people. This year we are pleased to celebrate with our East Timorese friends the tenth anniversary of their independence. In Bougainville, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands Australians have worked hard to restore peace.
If elected Australia would join the Security Council during a time when big issues will be on its plate...transition in Afghanistan, the ongoing UNSC engagement with North Korea, Iran, the Middle East, the continued fight against terrorism and closer to home the preparations for a referendum on the future of Bougainville.
In recent years Australia has been stepping up to the plate internationally through APEC, the G2O and other forums just as we did under Bob Hawke's leadership to work through the Commonwealth to bring an end to Apartheid in South Africa and through the UN to help sort out the mess that was Cambodia.
Nearly 70 years ago Australia helped draft the UN Charter. Australia is a shareholder which has made a big, long term investment in the UN. It's now time to join the board. A seat at the table will be good for Australia. It will be even better for the UN, our region and the world.
This Blog was published on the Center for National Policy website.
Mike Rann is Fellow for Democracy and Development with the Center for National Policy, Washington, D.C.