Senior officials within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade were the first to realise the potential of turning the EU motion into something which could more closely resemble Morrison and Payne’s idea of an independent inquiry. With the motion to be presented at a meeting of the WHO’s governing body in three weeks’ time, they saw this as their best option.
Led by Australia’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Sally Mansfield, Australian diplomats in Switzerland began working with the Europeans on strengthening the motion, which was first put forward by the EU on April 15. When the EU’s ambassador to Australia, Michael Pulch, first learnt that the Australians were serious about working with them, he fed the information back to Europe.
“The head of our delegation in Geneva came back to me and said he was working very closely and very efficiently with the Australian counterpart, so I think at an early stage we were already forming a team that was working together,” Pulch tells the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“My impression was that Australia made a strategic decision that it was the best way forward for Australia to actually back the European motion, and then try to toughen it up in one or two areas, and that was probably a winning formula.”
From then on, Pulch says, the EU and Australia worked together on a “good cop, bad cop” routine in a bid to get more countries on board. This week, the resolution passed the assembly with a record 145 co-sponsors, including China.
There are now a few burning questions. Firstly, how did the EU and Australia marshal the support for an independent inquiry, effectively sidelining the world’s two major powers? And stuck between a rising authoritarian power and an erratic US President who appears increasingly disengaged from the world, does this week mark a new way forward? Can middle powers save multilateral organisations like the WHO from themselves and prevent countries from looking inward and reverting to nationalist power politics?
The Morrison government has faced criticism from Labor and some foreign policy experts for calling for the review before consulting other nations. They say it unnecessarily infuriated the Chinese government, and Australia didn’t need to play a lead role.
The Chinese Embassy in Canberra this week said Beijing was always willing to agree to a “scientific investigation” and any suggestion that the resolution was a vindication of Australia’s position is “nothing but a joke”.
Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas and federal Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon blamed the federal government for triggering Chinese tariffs on up to $1 billion of Australian exports, saying Australia has insulted Beijing with its calls for the review. Some in Labor say we were always going to end up with an independent review, so Australia shouldn’t have led from the front.
Senior sources within the Morrison government insist there was always method in announcing its position before getting other countries on board. Days before Payne went on Insiders, a key leadership meeting was held where it was decided Australia would publicly call for an independent review. Senior figures within the government were already concerned about the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration, including calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”.
There was a belief forming within the Australian government that, having handled the virus better than most of the world, Australia was best placed to play a key role in calling for an inquiry. Pulch says Australia’s move to get ahead of everyone else “created momentum” which “was quite helpful”.
With the help of the Department of Health’s expert team, including its main adviser in Geneva Madeleine Heyward, DFAT negotiators went about trying to improve the wording.
They convinced other countries to make it an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the handling of COVID-19. Australian negotiators were also instrumental in putting in a separate proposal calling for an investigation into the zoonotic source of the virus, including how it made its way to humans.
Meanwhile, Payne spoke on the phone to about 40 of her counterparts around the world canvassing Australia’s push for a review, while Morrison raised the issue in a number of his conversations and wrote to all G20 leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping. Australia’s representative on the WHO’s executive board, Dr Lisa Studdert, was also lobbying her counterparts for the review.
One concern the EU and other countries, including some from Africa, raised with Australia early on was how fast Canberra appeared to want to move. Australian negotiators quickly moved to reassure these countries they were happy to remain patient. They settled on stipulating that the inquiry would begin at “the earliest appropriate moment”, rather than immediately.
But the EU and Australia faced many obstacles. The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age can reveal that while Australia was strengthening the language, some countries, including China and Russia, were trying to water it down. This included attempts to make the review look at the “achievements” of certain countries, according to senior sources from multiple countries familiar with the negotiations. Throughout the two weeks of talks, they say there were multiple serious attempts to weaken the motion.
In choosing to combine with the EU, Australia made many concessions. Morrison and Payne initially wanted the WHO to have nothing to do with the inquiry, with the Foreign Minister telling Insiders that struck her as “somewhat poacher and gamekeeper”. The footnotes to the motion reveal the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee, which was set up in the wake of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, will be the body which will conduct the inquiry. Senior sources within the Australian government say there is enough separation from the WHO committee – which consists of seven members drawn from national governments, non-governmental organisations, and the UN system – to conduct an independent investigation.
As Australia and the EU worked on convincing countries to sign up to the motion, the United States was being unhelpful. From the start of this month, the Trump administration was claiming it had “enormous evidence” the coronavirus outbreak originated in a Wuhan laboratory – without providing any facts to back it up. While suggesting it supported the inquiry, the US said it opposed other sections of the motion, including a call for the world to maintain support for reproductive health. The US never co-sponsored the motion. Pulch says there was a “leadership vacuum” and Australia and the EU “were able to fill it”.
Pulch says this week was not the first significant example of Australia and the EU – a political and economic union made up of mostly middle powers – working together on the world stage. Earlier this year, Australia bypassed the US and teamed up with Europe, China and other countries to back a new global trade dispute umpire, after the Trump administration effectively suspended the World Trade Organisation’s appellate body by refusing to appoint new judges.
But this shouldn’t hide the fact that Australia has had a complicated relationship with multilateral groups in recent years. At times, politicians have talked down the potential role we can play on the international stage.
The most glaring example was when, as opposition leader, Tony Abbott campaigned against the then Labor government’s push for a seat on the UN Security Council. Once there, Australia was instrumental in setting up the independent investigation into the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. Senior figures in the Abbott government were left embarrassed they argued against the move when in opposition.
Last October, Morrison used a major speech at the Lowy Institute to warn against “negative globalism” that could restrict his government from acting on its election promises.
While rejecting isolationism, Morrison said his government could not accept decisions by an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy” and ordered DFAT to review Australia’s commitments to global institutions.
After Australia’s efforts on the global stage in recent weeks, the boffins at DFAT are now looking at this audit in a more positive light. Throughout the senior ranks in Canberra, there seems to be more of an emphasis on how we can improve multilateral organisations and less focus on whether we should disengage from them.
Alexander Downer, foreign minister in the Howard government, says the Morrison government doesn’t have any ideological commitment to multilateral institutions, which is something “you find more on the left of politics”.
“It has a pragmatic view of multilateral institutions – if they serve our national interests we should be supporting them, if they don’t then why would we support them?” Downer says.
He says this week’s events marked a “prestigious moment for Australia”, with the nation showing itself to be a leader in “creative and constructive diplomacy”, and it could now leverage this soft power to continue to influence multilateral organisations.
“The EU was very important in terms of putting forward the original resolution. It is about the overwhelming body of countries wanting this investigation and the Australian government captured not just the mood in this country, but captured a mood globally – it’s how all governments felt,” Downer says.
Payne says the motion was about “collaborating to equip the international community to better prevent or counter the next pandemic and keep our citizens safe”.
“Australia has been clear and transparent in our actions and we have sought transparency and openness in the wake of the greatest global crisis since World War II,” Payne says. “This approach has helped us to gain significant international support, building on Australia’s strong track record in containing COVID-19 at home.”
One of the big concerns about the WHO’s performance during the global pandemic was its lack of resources and powers. Morrison has suggested the UN body should have the powers of weapons inspectors to forcibly enter countries to investigate outbreaks.
Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove says the reason that the WHO’s powers are limited is because its member states have never wanted to be subject to more powers. “And so the reason it’s hard to get a weapons inspector model up is that most nation states don’t want to give an international organisation that power to come into their own territory and examine their entrails,” Fullilove says.
“And so, when a crisis happens, we all say ‘these institutions are weak’. But before the crisis, we wanted them to be weak or we allowed them to be weak. We didn’t fund them properly.”
Fullilove says the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been too deferential to China, overlooking its mistakes and not pushing it hard enough for answers early on in the outbreak.
“One lesson for Australia, I think, is that we’ve rarely been interested in playing the politics of actively and aggressively promoting candidates for international positions,” he says. “But it’s important that we do that, because the difference between a good UN secretary-general and a bad one is profound. And the difference between a good WHO director-general and a bad one is significant.”
“It’s a good time for Australia to reflect on how international institutions matter to us. We go through periods when we write off international institutions, but the truth is that for a country of our size, which regards itself as having global interests but doesn’t have global capacities, having functioning international institutions that we can influence is obviously in our interest.”
The general view within the senior ranks of the Australian government is there have been problems with the executive and leadership of the WHO, and the buck stops with Tedros. How Australia now goes about improving the leadership of the UN body is an open question.
If the world is entering a new phase of a major power contest between the US and China, then it is worth considering how multilateral organisations fared during the last Cold War. While bodies like the Security Council were effectively frozen as the US and the Soviet Union engaged in veto wars, specialist agencies like the WHO prospered in some areas.
At the height of tensions, Viktor Zhdanov, deputy health minister of the USSR, called for the WHO to launch a global campaign to eradicate smallpox. A little over 20 years later, with tensions still high between the superpowers, the WHO declared the eradication of smallpox in 1980.
Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, says the success at the height of the Cold War was the result of “pure scientific collaboration”. Ryan was recently in meetings with colleagues from Russia and the US talking about how to celebrate 40 years of smallpox eradication.
“We were talking about those heroes who are left; most are people in their 80s and their 90s now, a generation who worked together at the height of the Cold War across ideological, geographic boundaries and rid this world of a huge scourge,” he says.
“They didn’t see politics or ideology as a barrier and that’s an incredible thing.”
It is now up to a new generation of heroes to eradicate COVID-19 and ensure the world is better prepared for the next pandemic.
In the new world order, it may be up to middle powers – not great ones – to make this possible.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.