She said instead of being “small in our thinking, timid in purpose and risk averse”, Australia should make difficult decisions and prioritise its sovereignty and long-term interests.
An independent inquiry was established by a motion passed at the World Health Assembly last month with a record 145 co-sponsors after Australia played a key role with the European Union in pushing for the review.
Senator Payne said while there were times to pursue quiet diplomacy behind the scenes, “there are also times to voice our concerns and persuade others of the need for a course of action”.
“There were those who said that, by speaking out on the need for a review, we made ourselves a target and brought upon ourselves an unnecessary cost for a cause that would have been championed anyway by others whose size and stature made them more suitable standard-bearers,” she said in the speech at the Australian National University on Tuesday night.
“To those who have said, ‘Well, this would have all happened anyway’, let me say that nothing just happens anyway.”
Noting there had been “intense scrutiny” of the WHO’s performance during the global pandemic, Senator Payne said Australia would “continue to support reform efforts in the United Nations and its agencies to improve transparency, accountability and effectiveness”.
“In the wake of this devastating health crisis, Australia wants to see a stronger WHO that is more independent and transparent,” she said.
“We cannot let the vital and practical work that the WHO does on the ground be overshadowed by questions about the approach of its headquarters in Geneva. Frankly, there is no other institution that can marshal collective efforts to improve health security across the globe.”
Senator Payne noted the European Commission last week issued a report finding foreign actors and countries, led by Russia and China, had carried out targeted disinformation campaigns aimed at undermining democratic debate and stoking confusion about the pandemic. A day later, Twitter suspended more than 32,000 accounts it said were linked to state-run propaganda operations in China, Russia and Turkey.
She said it was “troubling that some countries are using the pandemic to undermine liberal democracy and promote their own, more authoritarian models”.
She said multilateral organisations such as the WHO must serve as “unimpeachable repositories of information that governments can rely upon to take decisions to protect their citizens”.
“And they must serve as bulwarks against disinformation. Let’s be clear: disinformation during a pandemic will cost lives,” she said.
“Concerningly, we have seen disinformation pushed and promoted around the coronavirus pandemic and around some of the social pressures that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Senator Payne also criticised China’s warnings that its tourists and students should reconsider travelling to Australia.
“Australia has also been very clear in rejecting as disinformation the Chinese government’s warnings that tourists and students should reconsider coming here because of the risk of racism,” she said.
“I can say emphatically that Australia will welcome students and visitors from all over the world, regardless of race, gender or nationality.”
China has been steadily growing its influence over United Nations bodies for over a decade, with four of the 15 specialised agencies headed by Chinese nationals.
Senator Payne said global bodies were experiencing “unprecedented strain from a new era of strategic competition, shifts in global power, technological disruption and complex security, health and economic challenges”.
“We have seen how global public health action – or inaction – can affect Australians at home and abroad. So there is a strong incentive for Australia to show leadership on making the WHO as effective as possible,” she said.
Senator Payne confirmed an audit undertaken by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade into Australia’s commitment to multilateral organisations had found they were under significant pressure and their performance had struggled to deliver on their agreed mandates.
But Senator Payne said the audit – commissioned by the Prime Minister last year when he hit out at “negative globalism” – also found the global bodies created “rules that are vital to Australia’s security, interests, values and prosperity”.
Herve Lemahieu, the director of the Lowy Institute’s Asian power and diplomacy program, said Australia’s push for the independent inquiry was an important achievement as it showed it could influence China’s behaviour “when we have strength in numbers”.
“It was really just a warm-up to what has to follow now – the next thing that needs to happen is we need to push for a strengthened and enhanced set of international health obligations,” he said.
“We need to strengthen not only the independence of the WHO secretariat but its ability to flag, and possibly even sanction, non-compliance with international health obligations.”
Opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said Senator Payne had “finally cleaned up” Mr Morrison’s “negative globalism” speech from eight months ago.
“It was never more than a political slogan. International cooperation through effective multilateral bodies has always been a key Australian interest,” Senator Wong tweeted on Tuesday night.
Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.