Australia will soon open an embassy in Ethiopia in what is widely seen as an attempt to bolster the campaign to win a prized seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Senior foreign affairs officer Lisa Filipetto is expected to take on the job as ambassador to Ethiopia in the coming months.
The new diplomatic post will be located in the capital, Addis Ababa, and is a crucial location to lobby countries from across Africa.
Addis Ababa is also the headquarters for the African Union, the 53-nation organisation that represents the continent.
Winning support from this African bloc is critical to Australia’s hopes of winning a Security Council seat in a 2012 vote at the UN and Ms Filipetto will also be designated ambassador to the African Union.
But opening a new embassy poses an awkward challenge for the government amid criticism that the campaign is too costly.
It also follows a series of cuts to the Foreign Affairs Department – including Labor’s pledge this election to scrap 20 diplomat positions overseas.
The Coalition has promised to abandon the Security Council bid should it take office, after complaining Australia has been forced to sacrifice policy positions and buy votes with extra foreign aid.
In 2008, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said ”when it comes to costs, for example, we’re not going to be opening a post here or there just to buy a vote”. He continues to reject the accusations.
But close observers say having a presence in Addis Ababa is essential to winning the backing of African nations.
La Trobe University foreign affairs specialist Nick Bisley said yesterday there was no other reason for Australia to open an embassy so far from its region while at the same time cutting back the foreign service.
But he doubted Australia would ultimately succeed in its Security Council bid.
Australia did briefly open an embassy in Addis Ababa in 1984 – around the time of its last successful tilt for a Security Council seat – but closed the post again in 1987.
Ethiopia does not have an embassy in Australia and is represented by its ambassador to Beijing.
Mr Smith flagged the plan to open an embassy in Ethiopia in May, saying it ”will be a potent symbol of Australia’s renewed commitment to Africa”.
He also said Australia would base a new defence attache at the new Addis Ababa embassy to build security and defence co-operation with the African Union and African countries.
Rejecting the commitment to Africa was short term, Mr Smith said more than 150 Australian companies had projects spread across 40 African countries.
Labor has opened two other embassies since 2007, at the Vatican and in Peru.
Australia must secure the backing of 128 countries to beat either Luxembourg or Finland for one of two temporary seats on the council.
An international survey by The Age last year showed Australia had so far won support for its bid from a number of countries including the Netherlands, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
A spokeswoman for Mr Smith last night said any announcement on the new ambassador was a matter for the incoming government.
Ms Filipetto was high commissioner to Kenya until this year. She also was ambassador in Cambodia and speaks Italian, Indonesian and French.
Daniel Flitton, The Age