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Former Minister discusses his UNESCO candidacy.

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FRAN KELLY: Another politician with plans to quit the parliament soon is Labor backbencher, Gareth Evans. The former foreign minister has big plans. He wants to be the Director-General of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and amazingly, Peter, the Howard government wants him to be that as well, even though they haven’t had a good word to say about him publicly or privately for as long as I can remember, anyway.


Suddenly, yesterday, it was all good words, which of course immediately makes one suspicious. And there is a theory, Peter, though not a strong one, the Wilderness Society suspects the government of backing Gareth Evans for the post in order to pressure Japan’s candidate for the job, who also happens to head up the current World Heritage committee, the same committee poised to make a decision next month on how uranium mining affects the World Heritage standing of Kakadu.


For that theory to work, of course - it’s pretty complex - Australia would then have to drop Gareth Evans’ candidacy once Japan’s vote for Kakadu is secured in exchange for supporting Japan’s candidate for the job. It all seems pretty unlikely, but Gareth Evans is with us now, in our Canberra studio.  Good morning.


GARETH EVANS: Good morning, Fran.


FRAN KELLY: Are you worried, even slightly, that the Howard government might run dead on your candidacy if they can scare the Japanese contender for the job into voting with them on Kakadu?


GARETH EVANS: Can I just say at the outset, Fran, it really does say something about the state of Australian politics that a support that would be regarded as absolutely routine in the United States or for that matter the UK, is here greeted, because of our tradition of warfare and slanging across the party lines, with the kind of suspicion in some quarters that you’ve .retailed.


Look, there’s absolutely no substance in this particular theory. The truth of the matter is the Kakadu issue will be resolved next month. The director-general thing is not for months away, until October. If the Australian government wanted to influence Matsuura, the last thing they’d be doing is putting a candidate in the field against him. The last thing I would be doing would be being party to any withdrawal of my candidacy if the Japanese gentleman did the right thing in the government’s mind in that decision next month. It’s my candidacy to withdraw, it’s the government’s to support. But the government wouldn’t be looking too flash, I think, if it withdrew its support next month as a result of getting what they thought was a good decision on this.


It just doesn’t stack up. It’s classic sort of silly conspiracy theory, and this is something that should be just taken at face value.


FRAN KELLY: I hate to ask this question because I probably don’t need to remind you that the government was merciless towards you during the last election campaign. They did everything they could to make you a laughing stock, to discredit you. Are you surprised at their support now?


GARETH EVANS: Well, I was a bit surprised, particularly from the Prime Minister, because he hasn’t had a track record of being very generous at all to his political opponents. But, then again, something that did weigh heavily on the government’s mind, I think, was the way in which we had been in government - pretty generous to a number of coalition people, the best example, I suppose, being Malcolm Fraser. And I certainly wore out a hell of a lot of shoe leather campaigning for him as Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, notwithstanding the passionate feeling we had about Fraser for what he did to us in 1975. It was because he was universally seen as very well qualified for that particular job and we felt that  it would add some stature to Australia’s reputation if he got it. And I think that kind of consideration has been behind the government’s decision, reaction. And if that does signal a slightly greater maturity in the conduct of Australian politics we ought to be welcoming it.


FRAN KELLY: Let’s go to this job then. Why do you want it?


GARETH EVANS: Well, it is a fascinating one. When you look at the UNESCO constitution right back in the ‘40s, it’s built on the theory of UNESCO as being the kind of think-tank or ethnical standard setter, if you like, for the whole international community. The idea is that just as wars begin in the minds of man, so too must be peace be founded in the minds of men and women through education, through science being harnessed in the interest of development, through cultural diversity being recognised and advanced.


Now, they’re pretty highfalutin objectives, and it’s a good question as to whether UNESCO has always been successful in advancing them, but it’s a real challenge given the kind of world we’re looking out at today to try and make something of those objectives.


I think getting back to basics is pretty crucial for UNESCO - the cultural heritage role, the education role, the science, communications roles are all terribly important and I think I can contribute something to helping them along.


FRAN KELLY: You’ve got not long now to spread the word of your candidacy and try and lobby support. What’s Australia’s position like? What’s Australia’s standing within UN ranks at the moment? I’ve heard over recent years that it has diminished with some of the decisions under the Howard government. Now I’m not saying that that’s true. Is that a factor in this?


GARETH EVANS: In a particular UNESCO context, Australia’s standing is very high because people like Professor Ken Wiltshire in the youth and education area, people like Michael Kirby who has led this bioethics project on genomes and so on have had a terrific profile within the organisation and given it real credibility and momentum. And Australia’s just been a very strong supporter of the organisation.


Overall, it is true that Australia has lost a bit of ground in terms of its reputation in multilateral organisations and internationally, and we haven’t been putting in under this government anything like the same effort into the UN and international affairs generally. But hopefully, again, the government’s support for this candidature is a sign that the worm is turning in that respect and if that’s so I for one am very pleased about it, not just in my interests but in the country’s.


FRAN KELLY: Just finally and briefly, I understand there is a lot of fierce lobbying going on, a bit of chequebook persuasion going on out there. Can Australia engage in anything to match that, or how will you win your case?


GARETH EVANS: No, I don’t think the chequebooks will be out from the Australian government in terms of aid projects or other forms of support. That’s not going to be the case for other governments. I think we’ve got to expect a fair amount of that; it always seems to happen in lobbying for these kinds of international jobs. My best hope, I think, is that I will be perceived, for better or worse, as the strongest candidate in the field, the one that can do most to reprioritise, refocus the organisation. And since it is an organisation that takes itself very seriously and its role very seriously and its boss very seriously, hopefully that might be enough to carry the day. But it’s going to be very tough, no doubt about that.


FRAN KELLY: Gareth Evans, thank you and good luck.


GARETH EVANS: Thanks, Fran.