After three decades more or less confined to the peanut gallery of the United Nations, the indications now are that Prime Minister Julia Gillard will support a bid by Australia to become an elected member of the United Nations Security Council (for which former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is widely acknowledged as having had considerable enthusiasm).
Although an original member of the UN, and providing the inaugural President of the Security Council during its first term in 1946-1947, to date Australia has served a total of only four terms (each of two years) in almost 70 years of UN operation.
Last a member in 1985-1986, Australia has something of an ambivalent role in the UN’s more recent history even though political legend H.V. “Doc” Evatt led the negotiating charge at the UN’s foundation in San Francisco in 1945. For example, Australia stayed under the radar by not advocating for the UN to take action on Timor after Indonesia invaded in 1975, for example, and, around the same time, took a lonely road to become one of only a couple of nations to recognise the USSR’s war time annexation of three Baltic states while allied to Nazi Germany (although that recognition was recanted some months later after a change of federal government).
If an Australian bid were successful, it would open up a fascinating question about what to do with the decision making power that Australia could have as an elected member of the Security Council.
With five permanent members and ten elected members, the affirmative votes of at least nine are required for any decision. While the media tends to focus (rightly, in one sense) on the so-called veto power of the permanent members (USA, UK, PRC, Russia and France), it seems to me that the more potent force is the calls made by the other ten – since no decision can proceed without at least some of them. The veto doesn’t operate until step 1 is successful – that is, getting nine members to support the proposal. Without support from some of the elected members, the veto is irrelevant.
A quick look at the Security Council web site shows, though, that the elected members seem to have a habit of falling in behind, rather than breaking ranks to stand on principle. In hundreds of Security Council resolutions in the last two decades, there is a long, long string of unanimous decisions, broken by the occasional veto and just one or two lonely proposals that failed to get the basic nine votes.
Such a level of consensus is attractive in one sense, but to the more jaundiced decision making eye, just not plausible (and possibly speaks more to back room horse trading than anything else, but let’s not go there). Precisely the same basic problem can be seen on many commercial and nonprofit enterprise boards – nobody really wants to find themselves out of step with their colleagues, so they are often reluctant to oppose proposals even when they fundamentally disagree.
Sadly, we’ve seen what we think is an unhealthy tendency to view dissent – even well-informed, well-expressed and thoughtful dissent – as the disloyal, or at least inappropriate, behaviour of someone who is (shock, horror!) ‘not a team player’. Thankfully, we have also seen many excellent board chairs steer a balanced debate to better conclusions, backed up by mature thinking board members who are not afraid to form an independent opinion.
Thought for the road (and more coffee): if a decision maker fails to voice their true view, at least by registering an opposing vote or abstaining, what responsibility should they bear when it all goes to custard later?
Whether it is the appointment of a CEO that they do not support, or the invasion of a country that they do not oppose, saying later that they didn’t agree with the majority view doesn’t really cut it, so I’ll be thinking about this a lot more.