TONY Abbott and Julie Bishop intend to reverse the anti-Israel direction in Australia's voting pattern in UN resolutions that Kevin Rudd oversaw as prime minister and foreign minister, and which Bob Carr continued. This is an immensely important sign of the Coalition government's values and direction.
Canberra will revert to the voting pattern established by John Howard and Alexander Downer: less ambiguous, less apologetic, more straightforward in support of the only democracy in the Middle East.
Bishop has not issued any general voting instructions but she has made it clear she intends to restore the Howard voting pattern and to reverse the votes Rudd changed. She has also made it clear she expects to see every significant Middle East resolution. Nothing will be done by autopilot. Her view is that Australia's vote on each resolution will be decided on its merits but that she will not support any unbalanced, one-sided or unfair resolutions on Israel. As almost all UN resolutions on Israel fall into this category, this is an important statement of principle.
Bishop has had a brilliant start as Foreign Minister, making big calls, and the right calls, on Australia's aid program. She has had a stellar week at the UN, meeting in a few days the contacts she needs - which would have taken months or years to in the normal course of things.
This is the only benefit that will accrue to Australia as a result of its brief stint on the UN Security Council. The UN just now is fully taken up with Syria. But let's be quite clear. Nothing of consequence will happen at the UN on Syria. The real deals are being worked out between Moscow, Washington and the main actors in the Middle East. The UN is not a bit player. It is no player at all. Bishop is too smart to get carried away by its heady atmosphere.
The government's disposition to oppose the UN's traditional Israel-bashing is causing some angst in the bureaucracy, specifically in parts of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. When Howard and Downer decided to change to a more explicit position in 2003, they caused similar angst. Downer was rung 10 minutes before a vote, with the relevant ambassador pleading for permission to vote with the consensus. Downer insisted the government's policy be followed.
Similarly, in the early days, Downer would receive submissions from DFAT with three boxes: approve, not approve, discuss. A couple of times he circled "discuss" so he could explain to his bureaucrats why he was rejecting their advice. Departmental advice amounted to arguing that such an Australian vote would get some of the Arabs off side. Downer's response was that it didn't help the Arabs to encourage them in bad policy. The question was whether the resolution was right or wrong in principle. Mostly he just circled "not approve". DFAT got the idea.
It's important to understand the underlying dynamics. The UN, in its bureaucracy and voting patterns, is grotesquely biased against Israel. Every year 20 or more completely one-sided resolutions are passed against Israel, while typically nothing is said about North Korea or Iran or Saudi Arabia or any of the other paragons of human rights and democracy among UN members. Many European countries abstain on such resolutions, thinking it's more trouble than it's worth to oppose them outright. Typically, the US, Canada, Israel and a few Pacific countries oppose such resolutions. Under Howard, Australia did too. This was right in principle and also in our interests. It draws us closer to our best friends and makes some contribution, however small, to moving the UN in the direction of the real world.
The alleged damage to our standing by taking a principled position never really amounted to anything. In the years after Canberra became more explicit in its support of Israel we did not lose a single election at the UN, our trade with the Arab Middle East boomed and more Arab countries opened embassies here.
Nonetheless the bureaucratic dynamic within DFAT tends to be to go along with the international consensus: not to pick an argument unless it directly, and in a sense narrowly, concerns our immediate interests.
Given that we abandoned Israel on some key votes in order to curry favour for our UN Security Council bid, it is likely we will now breach undertakings made to Arab countries. Bad luck. The government has changed. The Coalition was clear in opposition that it would take a more sympathetic line to Israel at the UN. If it did not do this it would be abandoning its core values.
Some of the resolutions where Labor changed Australia's traditional vote have innocuous sounding names but are intensely unfair to Israel and unhelpful to a settlement. Resolution 67/23 on the peaceful settlement of the question of Palestine unfairly blames Israel for everything while not mentioning any fault by any Palestinian group or authority. Notably it does not call for an end to terrorism, incitement, hatred and so on. In 2006, under Howard, Australia voted against this resolution; last year it abstained.
Resolution 67/24 on Jersualem condemns any Israeli presence in the Old City of Jerusalem at all, a grotesque position. In 2006, Australia abstained; last year, Australia voted in favour. Various resolutions call for the Geneva Convention to apply to Palestinian territories. These resolutions fail to acknowledge that Israel already voluntarily observes its humanitarian provisions, but also imply Israeli war crimes. In 2006, Australia abstained; last year it voted in favour of these resolutions.
Resolution 67/158 seems harmlessly to call for the right of Palestinians to self-determination, but it recognises no similar right for Israelis and is unbalanced on the question of settlements. In 2006 Australia abstained; last year Australia voted in favour.
There are a slew of other resolutions where Australia voted against under Howard and abstained under Labor, or abstained under Howard and voted in favour under Labor. We can expect that if these resolutions come back in their regular form this year, the Abbott government will reverse Labor's voting record.
Australia shouldn't grandstand on the Middle East, where we often have marginal influence. But we should be absolutely clear about our values, and our friends.