Wednesday, 26 February 2020
Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2019-2020, Appropriation Bill (No. 4) 2019-2020; Second Reading
Before question time I was drawing the House's attention to the precarious state of the world and the fragility of the postwar rules that were made, these institutions that were created, after a period of total war—the Second World War. Really what we find now is that the United Nations is at its weakest since the Suez Crisis. I think, in witnessing this closely when we were at the General Assembly—the member for Bonner and myself—the first thing that struck us was the precariousness of the institution itself.
Before we left I got the Parliamentary Library to give us a bit of an overview on the United Nations budget. Its finances, as of 30 April 2019, had unpaid assessments totalling $1.7 billion, which is an increase of $146 million on the previous years. In recent years the UN's regular budget has been facing financial crisis, and 2018 was considered to be the worst year in the past 10 years. I can tell you that we saw that up-front at the General Assembly, because on 4 October the secretary-general wrote to member states and drew their attention not just to a budget crisis but also to a continuing liquidity crisis at the United Nations due to unpaid assessed contributions. He followed it up on 10 October with a memorandum regarding the financial situation of the organisation and went through, chapter and verse with member states, the budget cuts and the efficiencies that were being made because there was a liquidity crisis—that is, there was this great threat that the UN would actually have to cease operations for periods.
You saw the effect of this in the institution—the withdrawal of interpretation services for many of the meetings and other budget measures around the place. I guess one question is whether an institution can run if it's constantly underfunded. We now know that we need the United Nations more than ever. We face continuing international crises, so this precarious state of finances is a particular concern, and I think it has serious consequences for us.
We tend to think that this institution will always be there, but really what we see is crumbling infrastructure on the part of the rules based system. We constantly see national leaders now say that they're in favour of a rules based order but then go on to give very nationalist speeches. You saw that in the case of the US, you saw that in the case of Brazil, you saw that in the case of Iran and you saw that in the case of Turkey. Many other nations at Leaders Weeks were almost using the UN as a forum to communicate domestic messages. That is a particular concern that I observed at the General Assembly.
The second thing that I think the House should be aware of is peacekeeping, which was amongst the most important things that we have done in our time with the UN. We are still great contributors. Australia is still a great financial contributor to peacekeeping efforts. When we think of the budget, some of these peacekeeping operations are basically budgeting month to month, so you can imagine how precarious some of these missions are.
Being the eighth-highest contributor out of 102 states is an important thing, but we have allowed the operational involvement to wane over the last decade or so, and we've got less than 40 personnel on peacekeeping missions around the world. Perhaps that's understandable given the pace of the ADF's contribution to other coalition efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and the Solomon Islands, and certainly I understand that it's been a very busy time for the ADF. The void is now being filled by other countries—by Pacific countries, which I think we would all think is a good thing, but we also see increased involvement from China. We need to accept that this is the consequence of Western nations retreating from peacekeeping.
We see China gaining both operational experience, which we know the People's Liberation Army is short on, and forming relationships with other nations and other regions. When part of a multilateral, rules based order, we might welcome this and think it's a good thing. But in an age of unilateralism it could be problematic, particularly if the Western world is retreating from the tough, difficult and dangerous work of peacekeeping. Australia has important capabilities in training, logistics, transport and encountering improvised explosive devices. We could put that to great use on these peacekeeping missions. I think it's not just a duty. Peacekeeping makes the world much safer and it keeps the uncivilised forces of chaos further from our shores.
We tend to take the multilateral, rules based order for granted. I think it has been common for democratic leaders—and we saw the Prime Minister do this—give almost nationalistic speeches and presenting fairly unilateral ideas, even as they profess to a rules based order. That is a very dangerous thing, because we're fooling ourselves that if we say 'Australia first' or 'America first' or any other nation first, the other country is not going to adopt the exact same posture, the exact same behaviour. What it creates is a culture where the leaders, over time, keep pushing the limits. Of course, that is a very dangerous thing.
I think we are facing a world where we're seeing the old rules existing in name only and unilateralism being the order of the day. Blocks of countries are acting in coalitions or there are fragile kaleidoscopes of nations. I think this is a consequence of George Bush's invasion of Iraq, but it was probably inevitable in any event in a multipolar world and in a world where we see the foreign policies of countries like Russia and China not just try to escape the rules when it suits them or to reshape the rules when it suits them but also try to colonise the architecture of the United Nations and other international agencies.
As I said before, if we were in a time of peace and harmony and multilateralism and international cooperation, this might be a desirable thing. But we are not in that era. If people think this is something that's just going to occur with countries that we don't have much in common with, I'd urge them to read the Royal United Services Institute's Whitehall report Taking control. They are an influential body in the United Kingdom. The report's executive summary encourages the UK to, in effect, abandon the rules based order and to 'focus on the homeland' and to 'secure the neighbourhood'. So we see even nations that have a long history of involving themselves in the affairs of the world—the United Kingdom had a long history of that—now retreating from that world. We see the foreign policy voices saying that that would be a desirable thing.
I don't think it's a desirable thing. I think the only approach that Australia can take to a time when international relations are more dangerous, more predictable, more short-term and more unilateral than ever before is that we should have a greater investment in our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We should have a bigger network of diplomatic posts around the world, we should put more emphasis on protecting the rules based order and we should be careful to set an example ourselves as a parliament—as should the government. I went and watched the Prime Minister's speech, because we play for Team Australia when we go on these delegations. But we do need to be more savvy about the sort of situation we now face; it is a very, very dangerous one. People say it's the most dangerous since the 1930s, but it's probably actually the most dangerous ever because, of course, we have nuclear weapons. We have a whole range of international challenges that demand cooperation.
With those remarks, I'd just like to say that it was a pleasure and a great honour to represent the parliament at the United Nations General Assembly, the 74th session, and I hope that I can use that experience in some way while I'm deputy chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade by bringing some of what I saw to our deliberations—and to the deliberations of the parliament.