FOR months Australian diplomats lobbied African leaders to give Julia Gillard a starring role at a top level regional summit and to spruik Australia’s security council campaign – only for the Prime Minister to knock back the invitation when it came.
Malawi President Joyce Banda, who was to host 54 leaders of the African Union next week, had written to Ms Gillard asking her to be the only non-African leader to attend the summit.
That honour had in the past been reserved for key African partners, including China’s Wen Jiabao, and officials had sought similar access for Australia.
It was seen as a real chance to push Australia’s bid for a prized security council seat at the United Nations with a critical voting bloc.
But when the invitation came – co-signed by the Benin President Thomas Boni Yayi and veteran Gabon political leader and African Union chairman, Jean Ping – Ms Gillard decided to knock it back.
She spoke to Dr Ping and Dr Boni Yayi on the phone last month to smooth over any embarrassment. A spokeswoman for Ms Gillard said last night President Banda was travelling at the time and a call was not possible.
The spokeswoman said that the Prime Minister underlined her need to be in Australia’s during the early stages of the carbon tax and while the summit was a chance to promote Australia’s security council bid it was not the sole reason for going.
Parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs Richard Marles will now go in her place.
Australia has been reaching out to African nations in recent years in a drive to improve ties. A new embassy is set to open in Senegal, following an earlier decision to open a post in Ethiopia.
Support of African nations is also seen as crucial to Australia’s chances in a vote this October of securing the 128 votes needed from the 193 UN members to beat European rivals Finland and Luxembourg for a two-year stint on the security council.
As it turns out, Mrs Banda is unlikely to have any lingering resentment about Australia’s snub.
Soon after the knock back, Malawi took the decision not to host the African Union summit after other regional leaders insisted Sudanese president and indicted war criminal, Omar al-Bashir, also attend.
The summit will now be held at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa – a towering building, funded by China.
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