Monday, 9 March 2009

Out of Africa, but into the centre of the Commonwealth

In recent days the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, has been highly criticised for her visit to nine African nations, which is scheduled for this month. It seems, the African tour of the Governor-General is not a welcome event. The unanimous scepticism by the media makes me wonder if they were tipped off by politicians. I do not want to examine, why this could be the case.

However, I was wondering, why all critics failed to look for an alternative solution that could support the Australian government's bid to get elected to the UN Security Council in a more diplomatic way and certainly at a cheaper price. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2009, which will be held on 27th to 29th November in the Trinidad and Tobago capital, Port of Spain, should be the prime target for diplomatic efforts or an Australian charm offensive.

After all, Australia is a member of the Commonwealth, which has 53 independent states, the equivalent of more than a quarter of the UN members. It comprises countries from all major continents of the world, rich and poor, small and large. 26th April 2009 marked the 60th anniversary of the London Declaration, when the modern Commonwealth was born. But the Australian diplomacy obviously has no use for the Commonwealth of Nations. Or why is it, that the lobbying for a UN Security Council seat seems to include visits of the Australian Governor-General to Africa (and may be soon to other countries as well) and “massive aid”, which makes it “hugely expensive”, but nowhere did I find a hint, that Australia was using its Commonwealth membership?

Editorial of The Age: "But the tour has a disturbing political undercurrent because Mr Smith has also spoken of economic, political and strategic advantages that may be derived from closer links with Africa, implicitly raising the question of the Governor-General becoming involved in areas that are outside her job description. And one reason for her African tour — to lobby for Australia's bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council — suggests that is so."

Greg Sheridan in The Australian: "In a rather convoluted performance on the ABC's Insiders program yesterday, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith admitted that part of the purpose of sending Quentin Bryce on a nine-nation tour of Africa was to lobby for votes for Australia's bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2013-14.

"This bid is the subject of partisan political debate within Australia. The Opposition believes the Government is going about the bid in the wrong way and charges that, on a series of issues, it has compromised foreign policy in its pursuit of the UN seat.

Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian: "African votes are critical so Bryce is apparently on the job to schmooze leaders in Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Mozambique and Ethiopia, trying to convince them to vote for Australia’s bid. When did it become the role of a G-G to do the political bidding of a Prime Minister?

"This task in particular is highly partisan. Winning a seat on the Security Council will not only be hugely expensive, but it will necessitate some massaging of our foreign policy. For example, our traditional support for Israel won’t win many votes at the UN and will no doubt need to be modified to win a Security Council seat.

David Flint, ACM at least knows of the Commonwealth of Nations and the role of The Queen as Head of the Commonwealth, but even he does not refer to this organisation as a support base for the Australian diplomatic efforts: "So when I heard that Her Excellency the Governor-General Ms Quentin Bryce was to go on a seven nation African tour, I concluded that this had something to do with the government’s bid for a seat in 2013 -2014 as a result of the elections in 2012. Whenever Her Excellency travels officially as Head of State, she does so on the advice of the ministers. If there is any criticism of the tour, it is criticism of the government and not of the Governor-General.

"Earlier, Mr.
Sheridan made an interesting comparison between a visit by the Governor-General and one by The Queen.'Unlike the Queen, who can at least gain publicity for Britain, no one knows who the Australian Governor-General is or what she does. So there's no pay-off even at that level.'

"When The Queen attends the place where Commonwealth Heads of Government meet, Her Majesty goes as Head of the Commonwealth, not as Queen of the United Kingdom. ( She does not actually attend the meetings)."

Michelle Grattan in The Age: "Bryce's African trip is tailored to the Government's foreign policy. In effect, she's an envoy at the highest level. The Africa excursion fits well the activist way in which Bryce is defining her job. Even at this early stage it's clear she chooses to be where the action is — and, to the extent possible, where the issues are. … She was in France for Armistice Day (fitting the traditional G-G mould), and with the Australian troops in Afghanistan in January, where she took the unusual course of staying overnight in the barracks."

I am not surprised that the journalists did not think of the Commonwealth, however, I get the impression, that not even this year’s Commonwealth Day reminded Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith or high ranking diplomats of the chances the Commonwealth of Nations bears for Australia. Whether these chances can be considered minor or splendid is secondary, the Commonwealth diplomacy is certainly more promising than a Governor-General’s visit to Africa.

In Australia the Commonwealth of Nations seems to be reduced to the Commonwealth Games. After hosting the Games in Melbourne in 2006, the Commonwealth drifted away from the minds of the Australian politicians. "The Commonwealth is underused" explained William Hague in general terms in The Times. One can't help feeling that is true when it comes to the Australian diplomacy.

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