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Published in CRIKEY.COM.AU 19 October 2011

Diplomatically the stars have aligned for Australia, due to the efforts of the Gillard Government over the past twelve months.

Australia gained a non-permanent seat on the Security Council this morning. The other new non-permanent members are Argentina, Luxembourg, the Republic of Korea and Rwanda. Australia enjoys good relations with all of these countries. They will assume their seats on 1 January 2013. The permanent members of the Council are, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Gaining a seat on the Security Council brings with it a requirement to take a position on issues Australia has hitherto fudged, avoided or hidden behind positions taken by the United States; to name a few; Syria, Palestine, Tibet and disputes over maritime boundaries and territory in the South and East China Seas.

Sovereignty of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea are disputed by China, Vietnam and the Philippines. In a strongly worded statement in August China told the United States not to interfere in the dispute over the Paracel Islands. The Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea are disputed by China and Japan. China and the US are both permanent members of the Security Council. Australia has good relations with all the parties to these disputes.

The possibility might arise for Australia to use her position on the Security Council in conjunction with her strong relations with the disputants to broker negotiations. Australia now has the opportunity to emerge from the United States umbrella and once again become a creative and responsible member of the international community.

With this boost to Australian prestige, will come new responsibilities and as a result a considerably increased workload for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs. They must be given the resources to do the job properly and to manage the new tasks and challenges that will arise around the world. Presumably this is why Australia pursued a seat on the Council.

If Australia chooses to sit on its hands or follow the lead of the United States it will be an opportunity lost, not only to shape world events for the better but also position Australia to positively engage with the major players in our region.

In his new book, “The China Choice”, Professor Hugh White argues a case for a negotiated power sharing arrangement in the Pacific between China and the United States. He says the assumption has persisted that America knows what it’s doing with China, and will do what’s best. It goes, he says, hand in hand with the assumption that Australia has no choice but to support American primacy in Asia against the threat of Chinese hegemony. Some of our time on and around the Security Council might be used to challenge this notion and to help in the search for a middle path.

In this regard the outstanding success of the Prime Minister’s visit to India, should help point the way to the path of Australian regional diplomacy in the future. India is an important regional power, it is an important world power, for far too long overlooked by Australia. India is now important and powerful enough to have a permanent seat on the Security Council. It has to be questioned whether Britain still warrants a place.

The changed fortunes of Australia’s relations with India are due in large part to the Australian High Commissioner, Peter Varghese, shortly to take up the position of Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the man he will replace, Dennis Richardson, who has long seen the importance of South Asia and our region to Australia’s future.

Indonesia needs to be accorded equal weight and respect without compromising on some basic human rights concerns such as West Papua. The issue cannot be swept under the table as the price of good relations otherwise it becomes a hostage to fortune in the same way that East Timor did. It can be addressed firmly, but quietly. Boats and Terrorists should not be allowed to define the relationship.

Syria will most likely occupy a lot of our time and effort on the Security Council; the plight of refugees being amongst the issues. The Kofi Annan proposals never really looked practical or feasible under the circumstances. The coming year will be a testing time for all members of the Security Council, the biggest test will be to move Russia from its current position.

Australia is lucky in having a professional diplomat of long standing, Gary Quinlan, as Ambassador to the United Nations. As capable as he is his time will be cut out. The structure and staffing levels of the Mission will now have to be carefully looked at, with a view to placing extra staff at the Mission to handle the increased work load.

If the Opposition should win power at the next election, Australia will still be on the Security Council. Talk of towing refugee boats back to Indonesia would not play well, nor will the type of diplomacy that Abbott, Bishop and Morrison undertook in Indonesia last week.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired Diplomat.

Published in The cANBERRA tIMES 6 October 2011

The trouble with the discussion or debate on raising or lowering trade barriers in Australia is that it is conducted without any notion of what constitutes the national good. Policy development, though calling it that is to over-blow the process, is done within an ideological vacuum.

Policy development with respect to manufacturing or agriculture is undertaken with short-term and most often self interest as the driving force rather than long-term vision and planning.

Where does Australia want to be in 10, 20, 50 years? What sort of infrastructure is required to sustain a population of 35 – 50 million people? How should we manage water, education, health, and food production?

What percentage of mining profits should be returned to the state to ensure projections of future requirements can be met in terms of fulfilling state responsibilities toward a growing population?

What should be the role of the state in Australia toward managing and providing the services listed above?

What sort of framework should the state create and maintain for the pursuits, activities, jobs and welfare to take place within? What should be the extent and strength of this framework? How self-reliant should the state be in providing for these needs?

These are the questions that should guide our planning processes.

The private enterprise model adopted in Australia to provide many of the services and infrastructure previously employed by the state has failed. It was enthusiastically embraced, following the love affair with Thatcher by conservatives in the West. Greiner, Keating, Howard, Costello, Rudd, Swan and Gillard have been and are songbirds for the private sector assuming state responsibility. Governments in Australia and the West more generally have leapt at government shedding responsibility.

They felt that less responsibility would lead to lessened possibilities of criticism. For example, when power failed or trains ran late. The notion was seductive – power without responsibility for the functioning of the state, offered all the perks of office, without the electoral difficulty of accountability.

But this model has not worked. The private sector has refused to take responsibility for failure of the public services they own and manage, tollways being a case in point.

Howard and Costello pushed the Keating model, resulting in emaciated public schools and a bloated private school sector. Universities and the CSIRO have been forced to lower or compromise standards. Apprenticeships are no longer provided by the state. Dental services for pensioners and the poor barely exist.

The basic infrastructure for commercial undertakings, other than the mining industry, is run down, inadequate for future growth and causing current productivity decline.

The normal economy, that is all activity other than that associated with mining, is in decline.

The management of scarce water resources, in conjunction with the sale of water licenses, means that the state cannot manage water equitably and fairly on behalf of all of its citizens.

Major corporations are in the business of buying these licenses including offshore interests, for perceived future profit when water becomes even more scarce than it is at the moment. They will sell water to the highest bidder, which will not include impoverished country towns or local food producers. They will sell to multi-nationals and major nationals growing cotton and crops for direct export to captive home markets or to previously secured global markets.

In Pakistan local landlords bought the rights to water generations ago, turning small farmers into tenants, and themselves into major landholders, when the price of land fell following denied access to water.

The Howard government failed to support the solar industry, a significant part of which went off shore. Many, if not a majority, of solar panels are now imported. It is an industry in which Australia should have been a world leader but vested interests and lack of will and vision saw an opportunity squandered.

What has all this to do with trade barriers, managing trade and implementing industry policy?

Consideration of this question turns on sustainability. To what extent can we rely on others to sustain an equitable standard of living and the environment for all in Australia?

Do we wish to destroy the local dairy industry and vegetable producers by allowing the major super markets to source from overseas? Cheap prices might have an initial appeal, but what if problems occur in the supply chain at some future point and local consumers are left in the lurch perhaps for some considerable period of time?

What control does a local consumer of imported food stuffs have over the use of pesticides offshore?

Where is the long-term benefit of offshore interests owning the rights to water? Surely access to sufficient potable water, at reasonable cost, is akin to the right of access to pollution free air. It should be an inalienable right. It should be a right managed by government, particularly with the population growth predicted.

Australia purchases most of its big-ticket defence items offshore. What is the threat that these items are purchased to meet? To what extent are items purchased to secure a place within the US defence framework? The costs of the F35 have blown out further than equivalent blowouts on the F III; do we need the F35? Did we need the Abrams tank?

To what extent do we want to be dependent on overseas manufacturers of our defence equipment? During the Vietnam War, Sweden refused to supply contracted Entac missiles because of our involvement in that war, is this sort of dependency healthy? It certainly does not enhance sustainability.

Many third world countries rely entirely on selling raw materials for their GDP and then use these earnings to purchase defence equipment, cars and other manufactured items and luxury goods. Are we starting to assume the profile of a third world country?

With a small and declining manufacturing base unable to meet ambitious defence requirements, Australian mining wealth is used to purchase expensive items of equipment that the government, more often than not, is unable to justify. Luxury and necessary items are imported from north Asia, but our dependency is underlined when inventories of Toyota vehicles and parts are still disrupted due to the Tsunami.

Submarines and large passenger aircraft are probably things that Australia should not be manufacturing; however farm implements, pumps, solar panels and farm vehicles probably are.

Trade barriers in the national interest are necessary but they need to be selective. The US protects industry and agriculture through a variety of measures, some more transparent than others, including the unequal and unbalanced US/Australia Free Trade Agreement. The EU has in place protective measures, as does Japan and China.

Australia needs to work out what it wants for the future and put in place measures to achieve those outcomes. The tyranny of distance both within the country and from most other countries ought to dictate a greater self-reliance in terms of doing and making things for ourselves.

It also dictates a greater role for government in providing a more secure framework for self-reliance and for the production of goods, which otherwise would not be manufactured here.

The forthcoming economic crises might in fact push us toward greater self-reliance, as revenue streams and offshore purchasing options contract.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat.