A place at the table of power for Australia

Something was not quite right about the Finns marching down New York's First Avenue - willowy blondes and even a guy in a black suit, with his fair locks in a stylish topknot. Converging on the United Nations headquarters, each carried dozens of gift bags in white and blue - Finland's national colours. They contained Finnish blueberries, no doubt as sweet as the victory they believed would be Helsinki's when the nations of the world were done with their morning's business - electing five new members to the UN Security Council.

Surely they were being too cocky? In endless speculation on a voting system akin to voodoo, the Finns had been hailed as ''amazingly inoffensive'' - which says a lot in UN circles; they were envied for their ''very good UN pedigree'' and they were tipped to top the ballot. Up against them was Luxembourg, written off by some as a nonsense nation in Europe that had become too big for its dainty little boots.

And of course, there was the candidate from down under.

If all the purported shortcomings of the Australian campaign were laid end-to-end, they might have formed a bridge across the Pacific - and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, could have walked on water to come to the US for the vote. Canberra had left its run too late - how would it seduce those who had committed to Finland and Luxembourg literally years earlier? Canada was still licking its wounds after failing to break the European lock on the Security Council two years back - why risk the same humiliation?

Tony Abbott's mewling was proof Australians were divided on the bid. Australia's more nuanced UN votes on Palestine worked against the bid on two fronts - either it was selling out on Israel and Washington, or it was cynically courting Arab and Muslim support. Moscow and Beijing were against the bid - and that was bad.

So after waiting almost twice as long as the 40 minutes they were told it would take to count the ballots, the intake of breath by hundreds of diplomats was audible as Vuk Jeremic, a Serb who presides over the General Assembly, declared that Australia had cut a Crocodile Dundee-like swathe through the field, scoring a tally that dispensed with the need for it to engage in any unseemly run-off vote with either of the other two candidates.

Incredibly, Australia had bagged 140 votes, 11 more than the two-thirds majority required to excuse it from a run-off.

The blueberries were souring. Finland came last after Luxembourg - 128-108.

One more vote for Luxembourg would have placed it up there with Australia - its name being engraved on a chair at the Security Council table immediately, because it too would have scored a two-thirds majority.

Finally, Finland's humiliation was complete when Luxembourg whooped it in the run-off - 131 votes to 62.

Thus Australia and Luxembourg joined Argentina, South Korea and Rwanda as the new non-permanent members of the Security Council. They take the places of South Africa, Colombia, Germany, India and Portugal whose two-year terms expire at the end of this year.

Having won the spot, Australia's delicate diplomatic dance begins. The council deals with the most controversial problems confronting the globe, the war in Syria chief among them, where the UN response has been stymied by the truculence of veto-wielding China and Russia.

But the council agenda goes beyond the conflict of the day. Other big challenges, climate change, sanctions against Iran or rogue nuclear programs - all are questions able to open the faultlines of international relations.

''One of the advantages of not being on the council is you don't have to show your cards,'' explains Nick Bisley, a foreign affairs specialist at La Trobe University.

''Now Australia has to show its cards. That is a good thing because it brings influence, but there are downsides in having to manage relationships.''

Carr has made plain for months that Australia wants to see the council take stronger measures against the Syrian regime. Now his mettle will be tested, and on past form, the Chinese and Russians are bound to resist.

China is believed to have voted against Australia in the race for a seat, although by convention, the five permanent members who wield a veto power over the council's resolutions never disclose who they support.

But insiders on the campaign were thankful Beijing did not stir too much trouble for Australia with other countries, instead using its sphere of influence to try and get Cambodia up over South Korea for an Asian seat - and failing.

Still, diplomatic pragmatists know another venue has been opened where the often prickly ties with our largest trading partner will be tested.

One way to manage the risk is for Canberra to see its role as representing the Asian neighbourhood, says Bisley, despite the historical anomaly that groups Australia in the UN with ''Western Europe and Other'' countries.

This gives Australia a chance to further dispel lingering doubts about its regional commitment in what is now branded the Asian century.

And there is that other giant too. Gillard was quick to brand as ''infantile'' any suggestions Australia will be forced to make a choice between China and the US should the two fall out on the council.

''I know it is fashionable in some parts of the media … Let's not create a world of silly analysis or false choices,'' she said.

But even if this does not fall to a choice, emerging from America's shadow is another challenge. Fairly or not, Australia is often derided as a US stooge and its performance on the council will be closely judged.

Concern over Australia's close ties with Washington was clearly not pervasive enough to cost support. Iran was one of the nations that backed Australia's bid, making for strange bedfellows with Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The chance to push the perennial case for UN reform is one area where Australia and the US will likely split - to make the council more representative of the modern world.

Emerging powers need a greater say - countries such as India, which Australia has backed for a permanent seat, or Turkey and Brazil, which should take a place, rather than the time warp that leaves the major powers from 1945 with the biggest sway.

Australia's presence also brings an opportunity to broaden the council's agenda, according to Robert Hill, the former Howard government minister who was the ambassador in New York when the campaign was launched. One of the areas Hill nominates is dealing with competition for water resources as the global population grows.

''I'd like to see Australia be identified for working on the foundations of a peaceful world,'' says Hill, who revealed that he always believed Australia would win a seat against a weak field.

The full story of the Australian campaign has yet to be revealed. Shuttle diplomacy across the globe by political leaders and special envoys helped win the day. But all the hand-wringing about how the vote might go was not allowed to get in the way of near-military precision, in a campaign that left nothing to chance. When it seemed that El Salvador's vote might be in the balance as late as Tuesday of this week, parliamentary secretary Richard Marles was hurled onto a 2am flight out of New York to get to San Salvador to fix it.

At a euphoric press conference in the UN rose gardens, on the banks of New York's East River, Carr and the silver-haired Gary Quinlan, Canberra's UN ambassador and the man who most often will sit in Australia's Security Council seat, went through the numbers.

Quinlan seemed to put a question mark on the sincerity of Canberra's anguish about the support it had anticipated, when he told a press conference in the UN lobby: ''People voted the way they told us they would vote.''

Asked to explain the seeming contradiction between that comment and a widely-held view that virtually all UN diplomats are liars who will pledge their vote face-to-face, only to deliver it elsewhere on polling day, he revealed that Australia had reckoned on a 20 to 25 per cent discount of promised votes that would evaporate.

As it was, Australia had been promised more than 150 votes and in winning 140, the liars' discount rate had been held to about 10 per cent, he said. A full discount of 20 or 25 per cent would have made the contest very tight.

Here, Carr made Quinlan's point by referring back to 1996, when Australia ''thought it was comfortable'' as a candidate for the Security Council but was eviscerated by Portugal in a run-off, 124-57.

Carr said he was grateful for support from Africa and the island nations of the Caribbean and the Pacific. But, he said: ''You don't get a result like this without support from the rest of the world.''

Africa was decisive and Australia swept the continent, much to the Finns' surprise.

Australia does not take its seat until January 1. But Carr said he was already in talks with UN officials on protocols by which medical help and supplies could be delivered, without being attacked, to victims of the fighting in Syria.

He will push its call for a ban on small arms, which, despite big-power resistance, was popular in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean. On other issues, he hedged on how Australia would respond to a Palestinian bid to elevate their standing at the UN and he urged greater world acknowledgement of the reform process in Burma, as a means of ensuring that it continues.

Unaware of a tweet by Rupert Murdoch - ''Big deal! Australia gets temporary non-veto seat on Security Council. Cost big fortune in foreign aid all over the place. No Aussies care'' - Carr dismissed ''whingers'' who, he predicted, would diminish the value of the win for Australia.

''We got this result without compromising our policy principles,'' Carr said.

''We are seen as a good global citizen, as a middle-power a long way from the corridors of world power, and to succeed on the international stage, we have to be super good.

''Our values are respected and the world is telling us it likes Australia as an activist middle-power.''

Actually, the Finnish blueberries were a nice touch - they threw in a recipe, too. But the ostentatious manner of their delivery to the individual national desks in the hall of the General Assembly was a bit over the top.

The Carr gang had their own, more humble offering for each delegation - a brochure outlining the Australian contribution to the UN, which served as the wrapping for a selection of kangaroo- and koala-shaped chocolates and a kangaroo lapel-pin … to which was affixed a note in the language of the recipient.

And seemingly these Aussie packages just arrived on delegates' desks - as did their votes for Australia in the six polished timber vote-boxes as they were carried through the aisles of the assembly.

Paul McGeough is chief correspondent. Daniel Flitton is senior correspondent.

The story A place at the table of power for Australia first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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