Misha Zelinsky

Ben Rhodes: After the Fall – Democracy, Authoritarianism and America

Ben Rhodes was the Deputy National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama.

A foreign policy expert, he is the host of ‘Pod Save The World’ and appears on MSNBC. His latest book ‘After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made’ is a study of the rising tide of global authoritarianism, exploring why democracy did not prevail as expected after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Ben for a chinwag about his new book, including why the failure to punish bankers in the GFC helped fuel the global rise of authoritarianism, why democracy needs to materially deliver for people to believe in it, how obsession with profits is undermining the fight against the Chinese Communist Party, how democracy itself is becoming a partisan issue in the US, why social media must be regulated, how Biden was right about Afghanistan all along, what Obama is like a person, and how fighting for democracy in America should give confidence to global democratic activists fighting for their own.

TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Ben Rhodes, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ben Rhodes:

Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, super excited to have you here and want to talk about your new book, but I thought just to start us off for people that aren’t massive political or national security nerds in particular, I just wondered if maybe you’d give a quick brief rundown on your time in the Obama White House, and particularly when you were Deputy National Security Advisor. So what is that role and how does it participate in the security apparatus?

Ben Rhodes:

So I had a unique role. I was a speech writer on the Obama campaign and a Foreign Policy Advisor. And when I came into the White House, I was the senior speech writer on national security and foreign policy. And so I really was just doing speech writing and a little communications. But then in September 2009, so just a few months in the administration, I got promoted to Deputy National Security Advisor with a set of responsibilities. So I was responsible for all speech writing, all communications around foreign policy, national security. And that’s, what is the president saying? What is the State Department saying every day, how we’re responding to events. And it’s also our oversees public diplomacy and engagement programs. How do we engage with foreign public’s… Fulbright would be a part of that for instance, but then also as a Deputy National Security Advisor, I was a part of the National Security Council policy making process.

Ben Rhodes:

And what that means in the US is there’s something called the Deputies Committee where the Deputy National Security Advisor and Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy of Secretary Defense… You need to basically formulate policy options that then go up to the Cabinet for the president for approval. So you’re basically a part of the process on any issue where we’re developing a policy or where we’re responding to events. And so I participated in that. I also met with the president every morning when he got his presidential daily briefing and was a Senior Advisor to him basically as he made decisions on national security. And for me in my role, I also, because I was close to Obama, I would plan his foreign travel. Where’s he going to go?

Ben Rhodes:

What is he going to give speeches on? What messages is he trying to send with his foreign policy? And then I could take up particular projects that he was interested in. I negotiated the opening between the United States and Cuba because Obama wanted that done and it had to be discreet channel. So I had this job with specific functions around communications, participating in the policy making process, and then just advising Obama personally.

Misha Zelinsky:

Already an extremely cool job, mate. And we’ll come back to your time in the White House, but I do want to talk about your book because your time’s important, you’re here to plug things and now that I’m in America, [crosstalk 00:02:46] that’s selling, right? So, but your latest book After the Fall, you sort of chronicle the way the world has changed. And you sort of map out these pivot points. You sort of start with the end of the Cold War and the sort of end of history, then we have 9/11, we have the global financial crisis and then we more or less have what Trump brings it type event-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… and that populist uprising. And then why do you map these out as the key pivot points in modern history from then?

Ben Rhodes:

So I’ll do it quick, as quick as I can here, which is essentially I was trying to investigate in this book, why has there’ve been this rise of nationalist authoritarianism everywhere? And I really looked at the period after the Cold War. The period of time during which we thought you were going to have the spread of globalization, open markets and democracy. And that was the end of history. And I picked those events because first of all, in many ways, beginning with the end of the Cold War, that’s the starting gun for the world that we live in. And I looked at the US, I looked at China and how they were able to weather Tiananmen to get to where they are. I looked at Russia, why they went the way of Putinism and then Hungary, this country that started with all the hope of liberal democracy and within a couple of decades had moved to autocracy.

Ben Rhodes:

And I think the other events… 9/11 for me, I came to see as a time when the United States made its national purpose and project in the world, fighting terrorism in ways that I think have been corrosive to democracy in the US itself. It bred this kind of xenophobia, an us-versus-them brand of politics that morphed over time into Trumpism. And in other countries like the CCP or Russia, that framework of anti-terrorism was used to crack down on dissent and legitimize authoritarianism. Then I think the Iraq War is another key event in that it began to undermine confidence in America as the steward of a world order. And then I think the ’08 financial crisis is hugely important to the story I was telling, because that was the time at which if you look at Hungary, they were already building dissatisfaction with globalization and the inequality created by spreading markets, the corruption of political elites.

Ben Rhodes:

And then when the whole bottom falls out of the system in 2008, it really opened the door for say Hungary or right wing politician, like Viktor Orbán to come along and say, “Hey, this whole project is failing, globalization and liberal democracy. What I can offer you is the traditional nationalism,” right, “We’re the real Hungarians. And we oppose immigrants. We oppose foreign forces.” And then Putin could take the financial crisis and say, “See, look, the West is just as corrupt as anything here.” In fact, Navalny, Alexei Navalny, told me that that was a huge gift to Putin to essentially make the case that that everybody’s corrupt. So again, you might as well have a strong man who reflects your views. And I think for China, it was a pivot point where they went from deferring to American leadership to saying, “Well, we can challenge these guys.”

Ben Rhodes:

And I think you see the Chinese become steadily more assertive after ’08. So I obviously then come up through Trump and Obama, but I think that those events, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, the financial crisis were a trail that leads to a lot of the geopolitics we’re dealing with today.

Misha Zelinsky:

So then why did the Cold War project fail, the post Cold War project fail? I mean, this sort of history doesn’t end. You sort of have just before the GFC, you have this sort of unipolar moment of American Western Exceptionalism. And you’ve got Bill Clinton talking about just a sort of end of history sort of thesis, right? And then you have, fast-forward to today, you’ve got Joe Biden, essentially saying, “The question for the world is can democracy deliver for people in a meaningful way?” And so it’s staggering to think that in about 20 years, we’ve gone from that sort of complete confidence-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… to complete lack of confidence. One of the reasons I believe is that democracies have to deliver at home, if they’re going to deliver, you’re going to sort of shop them abroad, so to speak.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, is there anything that… What are the key sort of planks that you see as the reason why that project, that 30 year project after the fall of the Berlin Wall sort of failed, really?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, yeah. I mean, and first of all, I think it is important to say before I get negative in answering the question, look, a lot of good was done in those 30 years, right? I mean, standards of living around the world are improved. Hundreds of millions of people have been moved out of poverty. There hasn’t been a war between the great powers. So there are elements of that period that were progressed or made progress. I, in my book, I really focus on three factors that contributed to the failures of the last 30 years in terms of where we are politically. First was in capitalism. And I think the failure to effectively regulate markets and deal with inequality led to a really undermining of confidence in elites and in establishments around the world. That whether you’re blaming bureaucrats in Brussels or special interests in Washington, a lot of people around the world felt they were getting screwed and while a bunch of people are getting really rich.

Ben Rhodes:

And so I think, one is that unbridled American version of capitalism led to the GFC. The second, I think is the policy choices made after 9/11 by the United States. Look, in addition to what I said about the increased polarization and toxicity in our own politics, I think the post-9/11 mindset undermined aspects of American democracy from within. And in addition to the template that I think it offered the Russias and Chinas of this world to justify repression, I think it also attached concepts like democracy itself to the war in Iraq, right. I mean, that was used to justify the war in Iraq. I think it undermined the promotion of democratic values to have it so attached with post-9/11 wars that were not going well for the United States.

Ben Rhodes:

And then the third piece, if you have essentially capitalism and national security, post-9/11, the third piece is technology and the manner in which social media platforms in particular, they were thought to be these ultimate tools in empowerment and connecting people become the ultimate tools of disinformation say emanating from Russia or surveillance and control from the CCP. And so in a weird way, I describe in the book being in China and getting woken up at night and warned by Chinese officials that Obama, who I was traveling with in late 2017 after he was president, that Obama shouldn’t meet with the Dalai Lama on an upcoming trip to India. And in addition to it being strange to be woken up to be warned that, we hadn’t announced that meeting. I’d just been put in email contact with the Dalai Lama’s representative. So they were unsubtly letting me know they were monitoring somebody’s engagements.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yes, not subtle at all.

Ben Rhodes:

Not subtle. And so I walk outside and I’m looking at the Bund, the Shanghai skyline, and it looks like the future, right? There’s lights everywhere, people taking selfies with selfie sticks. And I thought to myself, if you took the last 30 years of American hegemony, the hyper capitalism, the national security focus and the technological advancement, and you just stripped all the democracy out of it, you would get basically what I was experiencing in China. So I think we have to see the ways in which it’s not… it shouldn’t be a surprise that the world evolved to that place, given the events in the last 30 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so just going back to your first point about inequality, I want to ask a question about the response to the GFC because I agree that that was a big pivot point in the economic model. And then there was people that perhaps caused this problem with it being the financial sector of the economy. And then people, the middle-class lost its savings and its wealth, particularly in United States and other parts of the world. And then bankers were seen to have gotten away and gone back to business as usual. So and at that time as well, you sort of saw the rise of two concurrent movements, grassroots movements. One was perhaps more grassroots than the other, but you had the Tea Party coming through and you had the Occupy Movement. One being perhaps extreme left, the other being more of extreme right-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… proposition, which is both a backlash against elite, so to speak. In the end Occupy, it may have found some expression in Sanders, et cetera, but the Tea Party has been highly successful in taking over the Republican party at a national level. So I suppose the question for you is, I mean, should the Obama administration have done more to punish the bankers? Obama covers this in his memoirs. It’s sort of, it’s easy to say now. And at the time, he was trying to get the economy going, et cetera, but do you think there is a case for there to have been more severe punishment because justice not only has to be done, but has to be seen to be done as well, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. So first of all, I agree with the premise. I look in the book at how the Tea Party movement in the US mirrored the rise of Orbán’s party in Hungary. But essentially you had a lot of angry disaffected people from rural areas, people that reflect the traditional Christian base of the Right in each country who were so angry at what had happened in their own lives. And so filled with grievance toward political elites, and then in the US it had the racialized component of a black president that they were very ripe for a right-wing populism that says, “Hey, here’s the traditional identity, put on the Jersey, “We’re the real Americans,” or, “We’re the real Hungarians.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Blood and soil type message, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Blood and soil nationals. Right. And I think that Obama, when I look back on that, there were two decisions to scrutinize. One is that he basically, in order to save the economy, he preserved the inequality in the economy because the method of saving the economy was essentially to pump trillions of dollars. It’s like a patient that was dying and you just pump it full of oxygen to come back to life. But that means it comes back to life with all of the same baked in inequalities. And so there’s an argument that he should have let the financial system collapse more in order to build something back that was different.

Ben Rhodes:

Then, he’s spoken to this in his memoir, and I’ve talked to him about this a lot. I mean, he still would say, “Hey, look. If the whole thing had collapsed, it’s not like I would have gotten reelected anyway.” And frankly, the anger at that could have produced something even worse, and there was a backlash, which I think is a reasonable. I do think that in retrospect, I wish we’d done more on inequality in those first two years because we lost congressional majorities after two years and basically couldn’t do anything.

Ben Rhodes:

So I think a lot of things that we presumed we’d have chance to do, we lost that chance. And then the second point is accountability. And I think you’re right. I just think people didn’t see a consequence being imposed on people that had brought down the whole global economy. And again, I think Obama would argue that it’s some of what they did was legal. And that was part of the problem. That there were… In fact, I’ll tell you, let you in on a secret, not secret anymore, taking about it in a podcast. But when Obama read my book, he took issue with me alluding to the fact that there should have been people prosecuted because he’s like, “The real scandal is, it was totally legal to have these financial schemes.” That said, I think if there’s any way to make more of an example of some people through enforcement, it would have at least made people less open to appeals from a Trump and Putin that everything is rigged.

Ben Rhodes:

And the funny thing is, again, something that Obama has explained to me, it’s a guy like Putin, and I’d say, Trump, too, doesn’t need to convince you that they’re not corrupt. They’re just trying to convince you that everybody’s corrupt.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

So it doesn’t matter that I am, right? And so that’s where I still think as difficult as it might have been, just a little more reckoning with the financial crisis could have been politically helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I mean, cynicism is just toxic in a democracy, right.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, that’s exactly what they’re trying to breed. So, your book… you look at this sort of globally connected movement towards right wing authoritarianism or ethno-nationalism, or whatever you want to call it. But you do talk also about growing up in the Cold War and the sort of confidence that America would win. And this confidence that the West had in itself and you use Rocky IV as your base case, which is awesome, really. I’ve seen that movie, I don’t know, 250 times.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

You could have put in Top Gun as well, and you really would have had me, mate, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… so, I mean, I suppose the question is now, are you this confident now that the West can prevail against the CCP and Russian authoritarianism that they’re trying to export around the world? Do you think that it feels as natural that the West will prevail in that struggle?

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I think that first of all, the Rocky IV point is actually relevant here in the sense that part of what I was getting at is that there was this national identity that Americans had that was tied up in the Cold War-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… and standing up for certain values. And we lost that at the end of the Cold War. But part of that is also to be thinking… So if you think about how that interacts with popular culture, you get movies like Rocky IV, which obviously, simplifications, but they’re about democracy versus autocracy, right? I mean, that’s what the fight is. And today a Rocky IV type movie about the Chinese Communist party couldn’t get made by Hollywood.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right. I mean that’s really an interesting point.

Ben Rhodes:

And not only are there not movies being made or TV shows that they made that are critical of the Chinese Communist party directly, they’re not even really movies that are made that are about democracy being the good guys, right? There’s… and I’m not saying there should be state pop culture propaganda, but I actually think the popular culture is a reflection of where the culture is. And in Cold War, the culture wanted to give expression to democracy, and what we were fighting for. Today, the culture is in pursuit of profit.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

And so the Chinese market is more important than advocating for the values of democracy or telling stories about Hong Kong protesters. So I think it’s weirdly emblematic of the fact that we as societies and I count Australia too, don’t prioritize democracy in the same way that we used to, relative to things like profit or traditional identity. And I think that relates to a piece of what this competition is between autocracy and democracy, which is that in some ways, the CCP is counting on the United States and other free societies to care so much more about their profit motive in China, that they won’t even engage in an ideological…. Will basically self censor on things that the CCP cares about.

Ben Rhodes:

And, so it’s an interesting test case. The day that we stop pursuing profit vis-a-vis China, because we care more about democracy is the first day in which we might be on our way to winning that contest as a way of answering your question. Because right now, the incentive structures in society are weirdly more aligned with the CCPs interests than with the interests of democracy. So I’m with Joe Biden when he says democracies have to deliver, we have to do big things. We have to build infrastructure and solve problems. But more intangibly, we also just have to care enough about democracy, that that’s really our top priority, both at home and abroad.

Misha Zelinsky:

It is an interesting question though, right? Because the Cold War was much cleaner in the sense that there was a clear line, there was an Iron Curtain and the systems were separated on an information basis, on a political basis and an economic basis. Now you’ve got economic integration, information system integration to an extent. They’ve closed their system-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… but ours is open and the political contest exists in this mess. And so you’re right. It’s become much more difficult. In Australia, we’re obviously suffering at the moment with trade coercion from the CCP. But we’re not alone. China routinely… But yeah, the NBA’s a famous example where-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… someone spoke up about Chinese domestic affairs and next thing you know, the NBA has been threatened with being denied access to billions of dollars in Chinese viewership and market access, et cetera.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how we flip that on a set, I think is the challenge. And I think the Hollywood example is great, but the question then is, how did we win this contest? Because if it’s… At the moment, the openness, I suppose, of democracies is being exploited in an asymmetric way, right. But how do you win an open closed system contest without losing what makes you special, right? I mean, you already talk about all the freedoms that we lost as a result of 9/11 and we’re probably a less free societies than we were 20 years ago. How do we prevail while still being true to our values, not losing, I suppose, what makes democracy special?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, I think that you want to go back to first principles and setting the best example of what, in the US case obviously, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy can do. And that’s the delivering part. Beyond that though, I think there are things that we can do to protect the health of our democracies that I don’t think are akin to pulling up drawbridges and closing society, but are logical steps taken in response to events. And so, take social media as an example, right? The way we currently regulate or don’t regulate social media is both incredibly corrosive to our democracies because it allows for the mass spread of disinformation, the creation of alternative realities, the radicalization of certainly the right wing. But it also is just this open space for Russia or China to influence our politics and our debates by [crosstalk 00:22:04] turbocharging algorithms and spreading disinformation.

Ben Rhodes:

And so to me, any effort to improve the health of our democracy will have to address the regulation of social media. So that algorithms are not written in a way to prioritize the spread of sensational information. So that there is responsibility on platforms to remove hate speech and disinformation in a way that will both make it harder for foreign adversaries to interfere in our politics. And also, I think in the long run, make our democracies healthier because there’s just less scaling up of people feeding on hatred and disinformation conspiracy theory. So I actually think the steps that we have to take to reform our own democracies… I also, for instance, think in the US we have huge problems with money in politics and how that’s distorted our politics.

Ben Rhodes:

That’s also a vehicle for foreign interference in our politics, too. Dark money in particular. So I think in the United States, the things that we would have to do to clean up our democracy and to better regulate social media would make us much stronger at home and also put us in a position to be more competitive with China or Russia without again, resorting to our own Iron Curtain here.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so what about the health of democracy at home? I mean, in the United States, polarization has been around us for a long time, but I mean, it’s most incredibly and horrifically sort of demonstrated in the insurrection at the Capitol on sixth January this year. What is the rest of the world to make of this event, I suppose. And secondly, I often put it in these terms that Australia, we’re formally aligned with the United States. For democracy, United States is the star player, right? And so if the star player is not on the field or the star player’s lost his confidence, or if the star player is injured, you’re less likely to win. Team democracy can’t hope to prevail. So if with this denialism of the result and the insurrection, is democracy in the United States now a partisan question? I mean, is this no longer a bi-partisan question? And what does that mean for democracy?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. That’s a central argument of my book. And I start with this anecdote of… I met with this Hungarian activist in Germany, and this is the beginning of me just trying to figure out, “Why is this happening everywhere?” And I asked him, “How did Hungary go from being a single party,” or, “How did it go from being a liberal democracy in 2010 to basically a single party autocracy in a decade?” And he said, “Well, that’s simple. Victor Orbán gets elected on a right wing, populist backlash to the financial crisis. He redraws parliamentary districts to entrench his party in power. Changes voting laws to make it easier for his party to vote. Enriches some cronies through corruption who then both finance his politics, but also buy up the media and turn it into a right wing propaganda machinery. Packed the courts with right wing judges and wrap it all up in a nationalist us-versus-them message. Us, the real Hungarians, against them, the immigrants, the Muslims, George Soros.”

Ben Rhodes:

And I mean, he was basically describing the playbook that the American Republican party has pursued. And again, I think that’s part of how you explain January 6th to the rest of the world. They’re like, “Actually, this is a version of what’s happening in a lot of countries where you essentially have one political party that has abandoned democracy.” And I think we have to accept that the Republican party is no longer a small-d democratic political party, because they’ve been trying to entrench minority rule of majority in this country through the same means as Orbán the last decade. And now they’re passing laws at the state level to literally give Republican officials the capacity to overturn the results of elections to do what Trump wanted to do after he lost the last election. And so we’re… You have to think of it as not polarization per se, but as one party just leaving the democratic field and choosing to pursue power through alternative means.

Ben Rhodes:

I think the answer to that in the United States, the only answer to that is for the foreseeable future, putting the biggest possible tent over everybody who doesn’t want that to happen and that’s progressive Democrats, that’s more centrist Democrats, that’s disaffected Republicans. It took all of those constituencies mobilizing together in the last election just to beat Trump.

Misha Zelinsky:

It was close.

Ben Rhodes:

In Hungary, it’s interesting, the opposition… It was close. It’s a little too close for comfort. In Hungary, the opposition is doing the same thing. All five parties have decided to band together and nominate one person in this next election in Hungary. But I think the lesson everywhere is that we’re in an existential period for democracy itself. And therefore, we need to have the biggest tent opposition to that. We can’t suffer internal divisions.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so how confident are you that this genie can be put back in the bottle in the United States? I mean, there’s been periods in the past where the United States had populous movements and nationalist movements, and there’s been far right candidates for presidents, et cetera, in the past, but the system has held and the system did hold on this occasion, but are you confident that this… Can the fever break, to put it into President Obama’s terminology?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think the fever is going to break and because I think it’s tied to the information question, the social media question that you’ve got like 40% of this country, that’s just been living in a different reality than me. And not my views, but did Donald Trump win the election? Is climate change real? Do masks help slow the spread of COVID. And so that means that we’re going to have a radical strain in American politics for some time now. But I think the system can hold. It did in the last election. Right now though, you see more worrying trends than at any time in my life in America, because I think quite simply, a good chunk of this country would be willing to give up on democracy, basically the Republican base.

Ben Rhodes:

And so it’s just going to take a pretty determined and vigilant effort to preserve that democracy. I think though the positive, and maybe I’m groping for positive here, but in that is the United States in some ways, has become more recognizable to a lot of countries, right? We can have the corrupt autocrat with the son-in-law down the hall. We can have the mob storming parliament. And I think if, instead of just issuing lectures about democracy from on high, if we in the next five, 10, 15 years can fight our way through this, I think that’s actually a more relevant example for other countries and hopefully can give momentum to a pendulum swinging back because I mean, usually the pendulum does swing back and I, for one, still think most people would rather live without a boot on their throat.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I think the counterpoint to the sort of rising authoritarianism is that you see the struggles for democracy in China itself, in Hong Kong, obviously Taiwan, which is what democratic China would look like. What I’m sort of… I’d be curious, you’re talking in your book about quite a bit about Xi Jinping, the man. Now we know about his policies and how he’s, I suppose, the world’s most famous autocrat, I’m outwardly projecting, but what was your impressions of him as a person? And what did it tell you about his politics and policies?

Ben Rhodes:

So what was interesting about Xi Jinping is that Hu Jintao, his predecessor, if you met with them, met with Hu and the Chinese, he basically seemed a first among equals. He also had very little personality. He was going to read… Obama used to joke with me that we’d be in these bilateral meetings where Hu would read a set of talking points and then the translator had the same points printed out and just read them. Point being, is it like Obama said, “Maybe we could just exchange the talking points.” This guy would never go off the party prepared script. After Xi Jinping took power, Obama invited him to the summit in Sunnylands, California, where for a couple of days they spent time informally together. And right away, you started to notice that interpreter is scribbling things down. Xi Jinping is not on the talking points and he’s much more assertive.

Ben Rhodes:

And he changed… The Chinese always talked about Taiwan and Tibet as core interests. Things that they saw as fundamental to their sovereignty. Xi was talking about the entire South China Sea like that. He brought to meet Obama… he brought some Chinese alcohol, the moonshine drink they have, and he’s doing shots at dinner. So this was a guy that was his own man. He’s not just a Communist party functionary. He was very assertive. He was expanding the definition of what China’s core interests were. And he would engage in these intellectual debates about collectivism and Confucianism versus individualism. And so he was a sea change from Hu Jintao. And the whole Chinese system has reflected since then this much more assertive personality. It infuses everything that the party has done since then.

Misha Zelinsky:

And before we just switch to some… I’m keen to get your feedback on some critiques of your… not my critiques, but the critics.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve mentioned in your book, and I’ve just got to ask you, you talk about being hacked by the Chinese personally. And you’ve given an example there where they’d read your emails, but then you talk about you were going to China and you were advised not to take your phone, take a burner phone and leave your laptop at home. And then you just decided, “No, bugger it. I’ll just go anywhere.” As a national security expert, I’m fascinated that you took that view and that you just went in and thought, “Well, I’ve got no secrets from the Chinese anyway.”

Ben Rhodes:

Well, that’s actually, you put your finger on it in the sense of the period of time I’m describing, right? 2018, 2019. I’m a private citizen so I don’t have anything particularly secret. Well, nothing on my devices that is sensitive other than it’s my own stuff. And then weirdly, maybe fatalistically, I think just because I’ve been in the public eye and I know I’ve been a public target of espionage and surveillance. You just weirdly are like, “The Chinese, the Russians maybe the Israelis, they’re likely read my comms.” And you try to operate like that, right. So you’re more careful about what you put on communications because you know that there’s no foolproof way to prevent those kinds of attacks. So to me, yeah, you can take issue with it and you can rightly expect higher cyber hygiene from people like me. I guess what I’m just trying to honestly portrays is the fatalism-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… of well, of course, they’re in my email, they’ve been trying to get in for 15 years. [crosstalk 00:33:32].

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:33:32] it’s two kinds of people, yeah. There’s people that have been hacked by the Chinese Communist Party, and people that will be hacked by the Chinese Communist Party.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, and to be clear, this doesn’t… I mean, I don’t want to overstate this because I’m very vigilant to not click on links. I’m very… I can spot things and try to avoid it. I’m very careful obviously, with networks that I’m on. That’s what got them in trouble in the Clinton campaign, then you’re bringing them into a whole network and stuff. So, again, I advise myself and everybody to be as vigilant as possible. I guess I was portraying in my own imperfection, my own mistake, even in that case, an honest portrayal of the mindset that we all have sometimes of like, “It’s inevitable.”

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, very interested in getting your take. So your book’s been very, I think, very well received and it’s smashing it in the sales, but the other side of politics will say that… I mean, you basically present your book in a really interesting way to me, which was that you’re an American traveling in the world that the US created.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

So this is basically the world that since 1989, the United States has been shaping, setting the rules, enforcing the rules, et cetera. Free markets, consumerism. But others will say, “Well, there’s an American apologist type rhetoric in it.” That America shouldn’t be embarrassed of itself in this way. How do you respond to that critique?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, no, I get it all the time. And anything I do is never totally well received because you can count on one half of the debate to absolutely savage me, and it’s tied in this… So here’s my very simple answer to that. I think that it is an incredibly American thing, and is an expression of love for America to try to identify the ways in which America can get better. I mean, and this is why I settled in the book, this question of what does it mean to be an American? I think what it means to be an American is to recognize that America is always short of the aspiration we set, all people are created equal, everybody equal under the law.

Ben Rhodes:

And so the identification of where we’ve gone wrong is an expression of love for America because that’s what makes America great. It’s our capacity to get better, our capacity to improve. I always… It’s funny to me when I get cast as America hater, because as we’ve talked, I was a Rocky IV-

Misha Zelinsky:

It doesn’t get any more patriotic than that.

Ben Rhodes:

… patriot [crosstalk 00:36:11], right, and Obama was profoundly patriotic. I mean, we were talking about red states and blue states, and we’re talking about the capacity of America to change for the better. And so I think there’s a fundamental difference that I have with that aspect of the American Right on this question of American Exceptionalism. They seem to see American Exceptionalism as, “We can do whatever the hell we want because we’re American and it’s inherently the right thing to do because we’re doing it.”

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I know I’m simplifying, but when they say they don’t want any criticism or any apology, that’s the logic of that argument. I’m saying American Exceptionalism is America’s capacity to better itself. And that’s a difference in your view of the identity of the country, because the right wing definition is, “Make America great again. It’s a white Christian nation.” The progressive exceptionalism is one that says, “Hey, as we change demographically, that’s actually an expression of what’s great about America. Our multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy.” So underneath the sloganeering, it’s a pretty profound debate about national identity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I think you’re right to say that I think progressive’s like us, we’re too easy to just want to see anything around patriotism or that entire debate about national identity, we tend to shirk from it because we don’t like the way it manifests in the Right, in terms of jingoism, right? But my argument is always when we don’t contest it, jingoism is all that’s for sale, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so fundamentally, that is what tends to dominate. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on our side of things.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. And what Obama did, it was interesting is because the other piece of this is sometimes progressive critiques of society and progressive politics asks people to totally reject their past and their identity. It’s the criticism of who you are or the people that you grew up looking up to, you now have to reject as a means of going forward. And Obama would always frame progressive change, not as a rejection of the past, but as a validation of it because his point was, “Hey, look, America is so great that, we can evolve. We can evolve in a country that freed slaves and extends civil rights and extends workers’ rights. And when we… Each problem we identify, we solve.” And that’s almost like a validation of the American story. That capacity to improve. Whereas sometimes progressives can frame it as,” Hey, we have to junk everything,” or ,”All these people were bad.” And look, I just think even if you believe that, from a purely political perspective, it’s hard to when people support, when you’re asking them to reject core aspects of their identity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so what about the fact that a lot of the foreign policy analysis always tends to sit around, “Well, what has America done, and how has that played out? And what’s the response been?” And every… It sort of presupposes that all countries are responding to American action and have no agenda or agency of their own. So, I mean, how do you see that question or that, I suppose, concept in this because people say… Well, a little bit aligned to the American apologist piece, which is America’s not the only actor.

Ben Rhodes:

I would say, I mean, the big point I would make on this, having spent a bunch of time looking at the Cold War into this current period. I actually think America drew some wrong lessons from the end of the Cold War. And that we over interpreted it as a victory of our foreign policy. This defense spending and stronger rhetoric against the Soviets under Reagan tipped them over or something.

Misha Zelinsky:

Bankrupted them. Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, they think… When in fact, I think it ignores a more fundamental reality, which is that by the ’80s, it was pretty obvious if you lived in Russia or Hungary or Poland, that the other guys had a better system, that this is a better model. It wasn’t foreign policy. It was just we had a better system-

Misha Zelinsky:

I would say.

Ben Rhodes:

… and people were more prosperous and people were happier and they looked freer. And as it was increasingly impossible to shut that out when there’s television and there’s images that are traveling. It was just that was our trump card on the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, their own system was so sclerotic that that whole thing was a house of cards. It wasn’t defense spending that won it was just crappy Soviet economic policy and corruption for decades. So when the house of cards started to sway and everybody inside the Iron Curtain looks out and is like, “Well, those guys have it better,” then the whole thing just collapses. So the point for today is I think a lot of things, people, political elites, I believe make the mistake of, again, premise your question, thinking that it’s our foreign policy that is the barometer of our influence in the world.

Ben Rhodes:

I think it’s more, do we look like we have our act together. Right now, in recent years, China has looked like they had their act together and that this authoritarian capitalism is the shortcut to success. And so I think that foreign policy people need to have some humility about the correlation of events between whatever levers you’re pulling in Washington or in Canberra and what’s happening in the world.

Misha Zelinsky:

So speaking of looking like you’ve got your… putting it in Australian terms ‘shit in a pil’e, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is a policy area that you worked on quite a bit in your time in the Obama White House. And you talked quite a bit about [Forever Wars in your book, et cetera. And you’ve described them elsewhere, such as that. I suppose, there’s two parts to the question that I’m interested in is firstly, you describe yourself as a 9/11 generation and how profoundly that impacted on your world view. And so I suppose, how would the 9/11 generation feel about this withdrawal after 20 years of effort, 20 years of sacrifice. And then secondly, so much criticism, how hard is it to make these calls in government, right? Because you know, these calls are 51/49 calls and nothing ever goes perfectly. And so I was thinking if you give us some insight in those two questions?

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I think on the first point, it’s incredibly painful to watch what’s happening in Afghanistan. And yeah, I know a lot of people around my age who served in the military or served in the foreign service. It’s been a wrenching couple of weeks and we all tend to know Afghans who’ve been trying to get out and we’ve been frantically trying to get people on the planes. And yeah, it’s a tremendous amount of disappointment. And I’d say a degree of shame, right, at how this turned out. I mean, I think when you look at the post-9/11 period, there were two sides of the coin of the war on terror. One was to go and get the people who did this on 9/11 and to stop them from doing it again. And on that front, actually, we got the people who did it and there has not been another 9/11. But then what was supposed to be the affirmative part of that, clearly in the argument I make in my book, it just… We did, we tried to do things we weren’t capable of doing and should not have been doing.

Ben Rhodes:

We should not have been trying to nation build in Afghanistan. Obviously, should not have invaded and occupied Iraq, never mind the other excesses of the post-9/11 period. So I guess that leads to the second point on the Forever Wars, which is that I think that the people like me who came of age in the 9/11 period, I think we weren’t the decision makers at the outset of Afghanistan and Iraq. So we were less invested in those decisions. And so I think we’ve actually been more capable of stepping back and saying, “Hey, this isn’t working. America cannot do this, should not do this. Doesn’t have political support to have these open-ended nation building projects. It frankly… like the assumption that our military can do this in other countries overstates our control of events.” And so I think that all that mindset informed Biden’s decision to say, “This is not working. And at some point we just have to acknowledge that reality.”

Ben Rhodes:

I think it is fair to say that you could’ve managed the disengagement and withdrawal better. Doing evacuations before you’re out, for instance. But on this basic point, I think he decided that, “Look, if I do this, I’ll take some political heat.” It’s probably been worse than anticipated. “But in the long run, I want to be able to show in the four years I’m president.” And this may be why he did it at the beginning, right. “I want to show that we can begin to have a foreign policy that’s not dominated by the war on terrorism. And we can begin to focus on other issues and that we can absorb the defeat in order to move on from the war.” And I don’t know how else you end this.

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, unless we just stayed in Afghanistan in a larger presence than we even had indefinitely, which I don’t think had political support in the US and frankly, I don’t know it was helping Afghanistan. It was helping prevent this tragedy, but there was already deterioration there. And so it’s a hard decision, whenever you make a decision you know is going to bring about a lot of recrimination, a lot of opposition and is going to bring negative consequences.

Ben Rhodes:

It’s really tough to swallow. And that’s… The biggest thing is, I remember Obama having to make decisions where either decision is going to have definitely really negative consequences. That’s the kind of decision this was. And you just have to go with your absolute core instincts here. And I think Biden, he was a skeptic on Afghanistan from the moment I met him. So it doesn’t surprise me that he took that risk. But I think that whether it’s the right decision will almost be determined by what does he do with this? What does he do now? What are we going to be doing instead of Afghanistan? I mean, it was 15… When people say this is the end of Western civilization or something, it was 15 years after the Fall of Saigon, we won the Cold War.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Ben Rhodes:

These things can change.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, totally, totally. You touched on Biden being a skeptic. Robert Gates was Secretary at the time. He and Biden bumped up against one another. Biden was sort of the odd man out as I read the history. You were there, so you can maybe correct me, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… he was saying, “We shouldn’t do this. We should have a narrower mission, focused purely on counter-terrorism.” Robert Gates said, “Yeah, Biden’s been wrong about every decision in foreign policy for 30 or 40 years.” He’s now president. He just got to see, I suppose, 11 years on that nothing had really changed. He was probably getting the exact same briefings with the exact same strategy, 10 years on, telling him just one more year. Yeah, was Biden right in 2010?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think he was. I mean, because if you look at it, what the military was proposing in 2009, 2010 under Petraeus, McChrystal and Gates was essentially a counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan. A version of what they’d done in the surge in Iraq. They would essentially pacify Afghanistan and transition to the Afghan government. And what Biden was saying is, “Look, we can’t do that. It’s not going to work. There’s not going to be an open-ended blank check for this. Our interest is counter-terrorism, getting Al-Qaeda and preventing this from being a base for terrorists.” If you look at what’s been accomplished or what’s been happening in Afghanistan in the last decade, I think we’ve done the counter-terrorism mission. We… 09, 10, 11, where the three years in which we pretty much decimated Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, culminating in the Bin Laden operation.

Misha Zelinsky:

But the nation building in those 10 years is what we’ve seen collapse in recent weeks with the Afghan security forces and state being incapable of functioning, absent foreign support. And so, yeah, I think if you look back on that, either you have to determine that Gates was wrong and Biden was correct because the policy of counterinsurgency that Gates was sponsoring, did not… You can’t… I don’t know what you can point to as succeeding in the last decade in that regard.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, I mean, I think it’s ultimately history will be the judge and we sort of know how Afghanistan will completely play out. But I think as it stands, I think Biden, as messy as it’s been, and as you say, bad decisions on either side and staying in perpetuity is not an option. But the collapse within a week, I think is very telling after 20 years of effort, right?

Ben Rhodes:

It’s telling of effort. And again, I think the criticism to level is that there wasn’t enough… Precisely because I don’t know that you could have salvaged the Afghan government. That the thing that you had left to try to control was the humanitarian consequence of making that decision. And that would have involved, I think much more deliberate thought as to how to withdraw, timeline interacts with giving Afghans opportunity to leave and preventing the chaotic evacuation we saw. Because you would have been managing that humanitarian interest. But the strategic point about the Afghan government just can’t function without us, and we aren’t willing to stay forever. That tragically was on display.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I’ve got tons of listeners that are huge fans of president Obama. So I can’t… He’s been present in the conversation, but I can’t let you get away without asking some questions about him. Is he a man that’s clearly defined your professional life and a lot of your personal life. And reading his books, reading your books, it’s clear that you guys are very close. Maybe, but rather than reflecting on him as a president, what’s he like as a guy? Because I mean, in my reading of his book, but then as he appears in your book, he’s almost… He’s so incredibly analytical and insightful. He’s almost Buddha-like in his-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… in his assessment of the world. I mean, is that a fair assessment?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, one reason to buy the book, if you like Obama, he pops up as a character now and then [crosstalk 00:52:05]-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Yeah, it’s great.

Ben Rhodes:

… and I think they are reflective of… these were snippets of conversations he and I have had over the years since he was in office. And there are a couple that stand out in my mind as Buddha-like, but also regular guy. I mean, that’s what’s so intriguing about Obama’s, he’s both analyzing the world from this other level of stepping back and examining it. But he’s also an incredibly normal guy, too. And that’s the alchemy of his politics. And two examples from the book are, one, he’s talking to me about Trump and he’s just like anybody else, right? Like anybody talking to their buddy, trying to make sense of Trump.

Ben Rhodes:

And he said that… He is describing the racial component. And he’s like… And why Trump doesn’t necessarily show that all white people are racist, but why it taps into something in the white psyche. And he’s like, “Yeah, maybe Trump is just for white people what OJ was for black people. You know it’s wrong, but it makes you feel good.” And he said that, it was a joke. I laughed at it. And I thought about it and I was like, “Huh, that’s a pretty good insight, actually. There’s something to that.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

You know it’s wrong on some level, but it makes you feel good. And then the other was, we were talking about politics and we were talking about the democratic campaigns and the primary and how there’s Biden had a good unifying message, but the critique of society, Sanders had that better.

Ben Rhodes:

And everybody had a piece of what you wanted, Pete had generational change, but something wasn’t all fitting together. And he said, he goes on this tangent about how he’d been asking his friends recently when they felt the most sense of meaning in their life. When were they happy during the course of the day? And he said, he has a buddy who’s a plant manager type guy that he went to high school with. And this guy said, “At the end of the day when I’ve worked hard all day and my family is in the background and I’m lighting the grill to cook them dinner. That’s when I feel like a sense of worth.” And Obama’s like, “Politics is supposed to lead people to that feeling. The feeling of belonging and satisfaction and productivity, but our politics is leading people to just their anger and their grievance,” right. And so I give those two examples, he makes these off-hand comments that you would… But then they had this other level of meaning that does have this Buddha quality to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so not to speak for him and he’s written things about it, but the 2016 result, right, in many ways was a rejection or a backlash against Obama and Obamaism. I mean, how did that impact on him in your assessment?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, first of all because I thought a lot about this, because it was always so peculiar to me that he was quite popular at the end of his presidency. I mean, he had some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, he probably would have run… won another term had he’d been able run.

Ben Rhodes:

If he could have run against Trump, I’ve no doubt he would’ve won. He was a more popular politician than Hillary. But the intensity of the backlash to Obama is what made the Republican party go so far off the deep end into Trumpism.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

And I think the difficulty with this and I write about this in the book is that even when I start to look and diagnose, “We should have done this in the financial crisis. We should have done this on economic policy or foreign policy.” The reality is the thing that created the backlash was that he was black. It wasn’t a policy. I mean, it wasn’t like a lot of people got that upset about our Afghanistan policy or our whatever. And so it’s, I find it wrong to blame him for that backlash because there’s nothing he could have done about.

Ben Rhodes:

In fact, if anything, he was pretty cautious on issues of race and asserting his black identity. So that, I think, that’s the awkward subtexts to whenever these questions come up. In terms of him personally… so I think for him personally, was what was distressing about Trump was less the rebuke of him personally, because I think he understands that racism is not something that is individualized, it’s projected. And I think what was difficult for him was what it said about the country.

Ben Rhodes:

That Obama’s message had basically fundamentally been, not that we’re in some post racial paradise, but that we’re moving forward. And that people are becoming more accepting of diversity. And to see the degree of that backlash and to see it get over the hump was not a rebuke of Obama, it was a rebuke of what Obama represented which in some ways is actually more difficult, right, because you can’t control that. I mean, Obama could spend eight years trying to be twice as careful and no scandals and all the rest of it, and still they’re going to make him out to be the antichrist. So, yeah, I think it affected him because more because of what it said about where the country was than it did on more what the country thought about him personally.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And so when you were working for him and he’s a very cool cat, cool customer. But Eric Schultz was on the show. He told us about having to front the boss to tell him that he’d stuffed up the health.gov website. Do you have any moments like that where you were like, “Man, I really don’t want to tell the boss about this and I’m going to have to.”

Ben Rhodes:

Yes. And I’m going to give a more serious one than Eric, but this gets more at what those jobs are like. I mean, I remember, and I wrote about this in my first book, my memoir, but when we were flying to Martha’s Vineyard for his vacation in August of 2014. And it’s been a tough year and suddenly, he’s going to get a break. And he was in the front of Air Force One with his daughter, Malia, and they were hanging out because they were getting ready to go on vacation. And I got a call to Air Force One as a traveling national security staffer that the first beheading had taken place by ISIS of James Foley. And I had to hang up the phone and go walk into the next room and look at them in a way like Malia is going to have to leave the room now.

Ben Rhodes:

And this guy who thought he was heading on… have a little break, I have to explain to him that Jim Foley has been killed, how he was killed. The fact that what they talked about was Obama bombing ISIS and that, I mean, so and it’s a very serious answer, but yeah, in the course of working-

Misha Zelinsky:

Nobody can [crosstalk 00:59:29].

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, I know.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, it’s-

Ben Rhodes:

In the course of working for him and national security, I had to tell him bad news a lot.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I’ll bet.

Ben Rhodes:

But in the year since I would often be the one to offer the dark humor about things because we’ve been through so much crap. But so yeah, that’s that levity, but I think it’s important to-

Misha Zelinsky:

That the job never stops, right?

Ben Rhodes:

The job never stops. That’s the main point, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And just… Yeah, we’ve got to get to the lame barbecue question and we’re running out of time and you do need to get going. But are you able to share any memories or insights? Australia, we think about Americans a lot. Americans like Australians, and we were obviously formally aligned, but I don’t think America thinks about Australia as much as we think about you guys. But you have any memories or insights about Australia or our politics during Obama’s time in office?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, first of all, Obama used to say that he thought Australians were more like Americans than anybody else, because there was this certain type of almost frontier mentality, right-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… that informs a national identity. And then there’s similar demons obviously, with indigenous peoples and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

…. so that always stuck in my head. And part of what I saw in the course of the eight years that was interesting is there was a similar realignment to some extent in Australia. When we come in, you have Kevin Rudd and he’s just a very well-respected on the world stage guy, but not the most populist guy right. A little more technocratic. And, but he’s an early partner in this technocratic response to the financial crisis and does quite well at that job.

Ben Rhodes:

And then he’s replaced by Julia Gillard, who Obama loves and she was tough and she was funny and she was normal. And she also got the China play that we were running. And I remember coming to Australia with Obama in 2011, in this trip where we met Julia Gillard and then we went out to Darwin and we had some Marines coming. But in a weird way, that was the high water mark for certain progressivism across the Pacific, in the sense that you’ve got a black man and a woman prime minister-

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

… and they’re pretty progressive in their lives. And then we get Tony Abbott. And by the time Obama went to Australia for the G20, in 2014-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, right, the speech.

Ben Rhodes:

… he was deeply at odds with Tony Abbott and climate policy was the proxy, but it was also just Tony Abbott was like a Tea Party type Republican politician. And so Obama goes way off script in this speech to just start whacking away at the climate issue and Abbott. And I think the headline was, “Obama shirtfronts Abbott,” or something and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, because Abbott had talked about shirtfronting Putin over MH1 [crosstalk 01:02:43].

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So, but I guess the point is that there were some similar currents moving around Australian politics, you go from the financial crisis happens and then the Left is in charge. So they have to make all these crappy decisions in ’09. And that’s when Rudd’s there. There’s also on the Left, this pathbreaking thing happening, and then Julia Gillard and Obama represent that. But then there’s this swing back to the populous Right. And Tony Abbott represents that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

And that ends up being out of step with Obama. But Abbott is very much in step with Brexit, obviously, and Trump, Trumpism, I think. And Scott Morrison’s a mini version of that, right? So, I’ve seen the cross pollination and the trends in both countries.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, there’s certainly a lot of coordination between the right wing parties in the Anglosphere, undoubtedly. And they take… Australia politicians like to borrow. We’re always about five years behind whatever trend’s emerging in the United States. Hopefully, we don’t have an insurrection of our own, but so just to [crosstalk 01:03:42]-

Ben Rhodes:

Well, and Malcolm, just quick, and Malcolm Turnbull is kind of a Never Trump Republican or something like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

He’s a guy who’s a reasonable conservative guy who’s just like, “Why are these people going insane?” I’m not saying… you guys shouldn’t think I say that about all Australian conservatives, but in the American context, that’s who Malcolm Turnbull is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we had him on the show. He certainly didn’t hold back on that entire process.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

But so just to dig in, so Abbott and Obama didn’t get on?

Ben Rhodes:

No, they did not get on. I mean, and I’m thinking… and Obama would say like, he just… I mean, he said to me personally that, “If Abbott was in the US, he’d be a Tea Party guy.” That was the… I mean, that was definitely… I mean, they could work together-

Misha Zelinsky:

There couldn’t be a more severe comment from President Obama, I imagine, to call someone [crosstalk 01:04:30]-

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, but they can work together in the sense of Abbott… The thing about conservatives in Australia, they have usually a pretty pro US foreign policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right, it’s bi-partisan here.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, so they… it was fine from just the stuff we were doing together with Australia, but I think personal politics, right? He saw Abbott in that perspective, although obviously Stephen Harper in his own way was like that, too. I mean, there were… most of the major democracies were governed by center right when Obama was there.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Ben Rhodes:

So, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Now, could keep talking to you all night about Obama, mate, and I’m sure everyone’s enjoyed that part of the show quite a bit as they’re listening to it. But last bit, this lame question that we ask everyone here now. Before we started recording, you told me that you’re a fan of Australian politics. So mate, you need to get some hobbies or something, man. But the question I ask all foreign guests is there three Aussies at a barbecue. So three Aussies at a barbecue with Ben, who are they and why?

Ben Rhodes:

Oh, that’s an interesting question. So, number one would definitely be a Julia Gillard. I’ve gotten to know her a bit over the years and there’s very few politicians I’ve met who are totally normal human beings, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

Most are so strange, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You can just have a totally normal conversation with, but also be an incredibly interesting person in terms of [crosstalk 01:06:24] their worldview. So that’s number one. I guess, as… I don’t know, as a basketball fan, I want to know what’s up with Ben Simmons anyway, right. You know what I mean?

Misha Zelinsky:

You guys can have him.

Ben Rhodes:

Do you have any answers from Australia?

Misha Zelinsky:

You guys can have him, right. Patty Mills [crosstalk 01:06:43] but you can have Ben Simmons.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. And I was trying to go off the grain and I think that he… Such a mystifying performance.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

But then I guess, and I’m just going to be eccentric and play to type here because we had a Rocky IV conversation earlier. I mean, I was also a Crocodile Dundee kid, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, well. Fair enough.

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, so I think I just have to check that box, right, with Paul Hogan. Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Fair enough. You know, what? Despite me always joking about it. No one’s ever actually cited Paul Hogan in the entire duration of the show. So you’re our first cab off the rank.

Ben Rhodes:

Just, yeah… because to me, this is less than dinner conversation and more just this weird experience of a cross-section of [crosstalk 01:07:37].

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you got a basketballer, a [crosstalk 01:07:39]-

Ben Rhodes:

I guess, Luc Longley instead of… but yeah, there are different directions you could go.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, that’s fantastic. Look, Ben Rhodes, thanks so much for coming on the show, it’s been a great

Ben Rhodes:

And the last thing I will say just to answer your question differently is, weirdly, over the years I’ve kept in touch with Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. And I actually think that would be a pretty interesting dinner.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’ll be tough!

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, I know for a lot of reasons, layers of reasons, right? So maybe actually my answer would be to just try to be the person who gets-

Misha Zelinsky:

Gets the those together.

Ben Rhodes:

… those three people in the room together-

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm-

Ben Rhodes:

… and ask them to sort out what’s going on between them and then gets their perspective on the world. Because they also each have a pretty unique… I’ve done some stuff with Rudd on China and Myanmar. Malcolm Turnbull’s very smart about Asia and China. And Julia Gillard does remarkable stuff on promoting women’s and girls’ empowerment around the world. So they have this complimentary set of skills. So maybe… I guess I’d go with those three.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now Malcolm and Kevin, funnily enough, despite being fierce rivals in politics have become teamed up as some duo to take down the Murdoch-

Ben Rhodes:

Rupert Murdoch-

Misha Zelinsky:

… empire.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. I follow that closely. I love that. I love that.

Misha Zelinsky:

. I think you’re more likely to get Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Rupert Murdoch in the room than you are to get Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd in the room together.

Ben Rhodes:

I get it, man. I get it. That’s why it’s part of the reason why it’d be interesting.

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely, mate.

Ben Rhodes:

That’s even better than the other.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I said alive or dead. But we don’t know who… Someone might be dead after that meeting, anyway, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah we don’t know who walked out. Maybe the point is that they all walk in and see who the first two are who walk out.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, mate, it’s been a brilliant chat.

Ben Rhodes:

It’s funny because I like both of them. So that’s what’s so weird is to look at it from afar.

Misha Zelinsky:

They both got their strengths, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, mate, thanks so much for coming on the show, mate. It’s been a pleasure.

Ben Rhodes:

Great. Take care.

 

Nathan Law: Fighting for Freedom – Democracy, The CCP and Hong Kong

Nathan Law is a young Hong Kong democracy activist, currently in exile in London.

A key figure in the Umbrella Movement in 2014, Nathan and other student leaders founded the pro-democracy Demosistō party in 2016. Nathan then became the youngest Legislative Councillor in history, but his election was overturned on spurious grounds by the Chinese Communist Party. He was later jailed for his participation in the Umbrella Movement as part of a government crackdown. After the recent introduction of the ‘National Security Laws’ by the CCP, Nathan left Hong Kong due to fears for his safety. He continues to speak up for Hong Kong people at international events and forums and is a global leader of their movement. A nominee for the Nobel Peace Price, in 2020 Nathan was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Nathan for a chinwag about his path to activism, taking on the might of the CCP in elections and civil demonstrations, how the democracy movement has been crushed by the CCP under the cover of COVID-19, why democracy matters to everyone everywhere, what the democratic world must do to help Hong Kong, the battle for freedom in Taiwan and how he hopes to return home one day.

It’s a truly inspiring chat and we loved having Nathan on the show. Nathan is an absolute hero, an incredibly brave young man who is not yet 30 and yet has already achieved so much. Nathan is someone we should all look up to in the global struggle for democratic freedom.

Please rate and review us, to spread the word it really helps!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Nathan Law, welcome to Diplomates. How are you mate?

Nathan Law:

Yeah. Doing really good.

Misha Zelinsky:

And for the purposes of the recording, you are in the UK right now? In London, is that right?

Nathan Law:

Yes. I’m in London.

Misha Zelinsky:

Very good. It’s a great city, I spent a lot of time there when I was studying in the London School of Economics. And I’m of course in Wollongong in Australia. So, thanks for coming on. Now I’m really keen to talk about, I suppose your career to date and how it is that you’ve ended up in the situation you’re in and in London. But I thought we might start of with a little bit of a primer for people, just about Hong Kong right now. No doubt you’re chatting to people back there with COVID and the way things have changed politically. How are things in Hong Kong right this minute?

Nathan Law:

Well, the political situation in Hong Kong is quite dire. After the implementation of the national security law of last June, there have been a series of crackdowns on people’s individual rights, mass arrests on political activist campaigners and union leaders and also a lot of civil organizations are forced to disband because the government is just controlling the whole society and not allowing any force in civil society to grow that can possibly challenge them. So I think for now, we’ll be seeing a lot more people getting in jail, people are more worried about expressing political opinion and basically political opposition is really difficult to continue to be very vocal and continue to criticize the government publicly.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, so let’s just unpack that a little bit. So, when Hong Kong was sort of given back from the British to the control of the Chinese Communist Party in ’97, there was this promise of one country, two systems. You just talked about a national security law, maybe if you can just explain one country, two systems and then how the national security law has interacted with that basic principle?

Nathan Law:

Yeah. In 1997, Hong Kong was handed back from the British government, after more than 150 years of colonial ruling, to Chinese government. And back then, there were several promises made, because Hong Kong was already a cosmopolitan international financial hub by then. But China, it was ruled and still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party and it was just after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which was this huge crackdown on democratic protesting mainland China. So there was a trust issue and a crisis which Hong Kong people did not trust the Chinese Communist Party that they would maintain the way of life and that international financial hub status and the relevant values that are needed to build that to Hong Kong people. So by then, the Chinese government promised Hong Kong people that they would do one country, two system after 1997, which there are two separate system governing mainland China and Hong Kong. And for the Hong Kong people in this system, we will enjoy democracy, freedom and rule of law and these are cornerstones of our one country, two system.

Nathan Law:

But when we fast forward to 2020, when the government implemented the national security law, it’s easy to see that freedoms are all gone because in the law, it says that when the government can see that you have breached international security, which is really effectively defined and from all the cases that we have is a speech crime. You don’t really need to do anything, as long as you chanted a slogan, you display a leaflet, then it can lock you in jail. So we’ve got that kind of draconian law and also democracy are basically deprived. For now the government is doing a election reform, which makes our directly elected seat in the Parliament from half of them into just around quarter of them. And then most of the seats are being appointed by the government. So these, really cornerstones of our one country, two system, are basically being destroyed. And commentators and people just feel like we’re not in one country, two system, we’re in one country, 1.5 system or even to a degree that we’re in one country, one system. Because no one sees the role of Hong Kong government now as they are already a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. So you can really tell how dire the political situation in Hong Kong just by observing how people describe the system and how they feel the heat.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you mentioned people are being arrested, maybe just give a bit of a summary of the types of people being arrested. Because obviously Apple News which is one of the major free press there that was essentially broken up, Jimmy Lai was arrested a few months or a little while ago now, but what sort of arrests are we seeing and what sort of sentences are we seeing? Obviously as a trade unionist in Australia, we’re extremely concerned about arrests of trade union officials in Hong Kong as well. Maybe just unpack a little bit about the types of arrests and why those people are being targeted?

Nathan Law:

In the crackdowns in Hong Kong are all rounded. Not only democratic activists, not only ordinary protesters, but media tycoon and even union’s leader, they also suffer from political persecution. Under the national security law, there has already been more than a hundred arrests and one of the landmark case is the primary election case which the government arrested 47 democratic campaigners who was involved or organized a primary election for a legislative council election that was deemed to be held last years, but was postponed now. And the government says that, when you organize or participate in the primary election and the main purpose of the primary election is to win a majority and you are vowed to say that you could block government’s bill in order to express people’s opinion, so that by the fact that you are trying to get a majority and you will block government’s bill, you are committing a subversive action. So basically they’re just saying that if you are an opposition camp in the Parliament, you are constituting in subversive actions by exercising your constitutional rights, which is to reject proposals, reject government’s resolution, things like that.

Nathan Law:

So more than 40 democratic campaigners are already locked in jail without granted a bail and if you look at the list, a lot of unionist leaders like Carol Ng and many others and also Lee Cheuk-yan, from many other cases, that they are all in jail. And the reason is simple, when China Communist Party claimed themselves as socialists but actually they are not. There are no independent union, there are protection on labors rights, the government relies heavily on a extremely uneven capitalist system in order to maintain their absolute dominance. In Hong Kong, it’s easy to see that the union movement is one of the prime suppression targets of the government, that after the implementation of the national security law we have countless unions disbanded because they worry that they’re being hunted by the government and many union’s leaders are in jail because of that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and it’s shocking stuff what we’re seeing. But when you’ve sort of being following this issue and this crisis has been building for a number of years now in Hong Kong and sort of combinative with the national security law and it was being opposed and they’ll protest, but then of course we had COVID-19 hit. Would it be fair to say that the Chinese Communist Party has ramped up its activities perhaps while the world was distracted because there was enormous amount of attention on Hong Kong and the struggle there and of course now the world has been hugely distracted and upended by COVID. Do you think they’ve used that as a convenient way to crush the freedom movement in Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Well yes, definitely. The Hong Kong Chinese Government, they brought down their suppression while the COVID-19 was getting started and so it really distract the world because a lot of democratic countries, they have had a difficult time dealing with COVID-19. But also in Hong Kong, it’s a really convenient excuse for them to ban a crowd from gathering, to expand their power. I think these emergency states are golden times for the authoritarian regimes because they have a legitimate reason to expand their power. But after the crisis, they won’t relinquish it. They will still retain that extra power gained and to make their suppression more effective. For example, after the COVID-19, is actually a couple weeks before that, that they had already been no protest allowed in Hong Kong and all the proposals are submitted by civil organizations saying that, “Well, I’ll obey all sorts of social distance and all the public health concerns and mechanisms are in place to protect all the participants.” But the government already rejected them under the name of public health, but in reality we understand that these are really political decisions.

Nathan Law:

Massive gatherings like 4th of June candle vigil light and also 1st of July rallies, annual rallies, they’re all banned. And the government when they publicized the bans on crowd gathering, it’s easy for them to use it as a convenient tool to put pressure on protestors or people just standing on the street and try to protest. They were occasions where people, they were only standing there alone, but they were trying to chant certain slogan or express certain political messages, the police just fined them, just charged them with a gathering ban, which in fact they were not violating that. But the government says that you and other strangers that you didn’t know, they were gathering, so that you are being fined or you’re being charged with the bans on public gathering, things like that. So you could see the scope of power that they expanded. A lot of them can be used to suppress democratic campaigners and protestors.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, you can’t see this, obviously this is a podcast, but those who know, you’re an exceptionally young man still, but you’ve been doing this for a very, very long time, so I’m curious. How did you come to be involved in, I suppose a democracy movement in Hong Kong? It’s a big fight to pick, essentially fighting several million people in a small city state, taking on the might of the Chinese Communist Party, which is right next door and essentially has part of the control over that society. How did you end up in this struggle?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, I had not been growing up thinking myself as an activist, as a politician or as someone who have certain influence. I grew up in a blue-collar family. My father was a builder, my mother was a cleaner. I grew up in a situation that sometimes we had to rely on government subsidies and I had been living in public housing provided by the government for my whole life. So I would describe my family as having certain refugee mentality, which in they only care about stability, they only care about providing for their families even though they know that there are problems in politics. The Chinese Communist Party is very bad that’s why they left China to Hong Kong, they try to avoid the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, but they don’t agree that the children have to be part of a struggle, they have to get involved in political works because those will bring instability. So I didn’t grow up in a very political family, it was a apolitical family and I was not really paying attention to any official affairs or political struggles when I was in childhood or growing up period. And the very first time that I had any intention and curiosity to look into these things, were actually in my high school when Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese person got the Nobel Peace Prize. And the next day of that, our school principal because we were a every pro-Beijing school actually, so-

Misha Zelinsky:

So the school was funded by Beijing or?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, funded by an organizations that is controlled by Beijing. So yeah, when the school principal was holding a morning assembly and she publicly criticized Liu Xiaobo, saying that he was like a enemy of the country, there were a lot of problems of him, he was criticizing a lot of things, things like that. And back then I was puzzled because all I knew is, when you got the Nobel Prize, it’s an honor, it’s a recognition for your excellent work in that field, so how come such a Chinese person being criticized while he got the prize and it really triggered my curiosity and that was the moment that I started to look into the concepts of freedoms and human rights and the works Liu Xiaobo had been doing and it sort of opening up a gate for me to understand the world and the society and the relationship between me and the society in another perspective. So that was the start of it and then when I got into university, when I was involved in the student body, the student union, when I was elected as the head of it, I represented the student union to be involved in social movement and that was the time that I was put under the spotlight.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, so let’s talk about that. Politically you have an awakening as you going to high school. You come at university, you get elected to the peak of the student political movement there which is, a lot of people come into politics through university. That kind coincides with a bit of the Umbrella Movement and this movement that’s rising in Hong Kong. So tell us about that movement and then how you got involved in it?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, the Umbrella Movement is the very first mask on civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong’s history. It took place in 2014 where a round of political reform was ongoing and Hong Kong people were just fed up of basically appointing system of our chief executive, the top leader of our city and because it was already 17 years after the handover in 1997 and we should enjoy democracy by then. So people were very impatient, very angry and they were chanting demands on democracy and hoping that that rounds of political reform could grant Hong Kong people and to anyone a democratic election on both our Parliament and also our executive branch. So there were pressure developing, there were actions developing and at the end of the day in late September, Hong Kong people marched down to the major runway of the city center and they just sat down and they had been in 79 days long democratic protest and occupation in the heart of Hong Kong in order to put pressure to the government and to express their political pursuit. And that sit-in, the Umbrella Movement, was led by student organizations, was led by scholars and Hong Kong Federation of Students, which I was in the Hong Kong Federation of Students as a student leader and I participated the only one dialogue and negotiation between the government and the protesters.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so why was it called the Umbrella Movement because I think a lot of people probably don’t quite understand the background to that symbol?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, it was not named by organizers or by protesters. It was actually named by-

Misha Zelinsky:

Or it’s probably not the most catchy title.

Nathan Law:

Yeah. Yeah, it was actually named by the press because it was a completely peaceful civil disobedience movement and when the government was deploying riot police using batons and using pepper spray, Hong Kong people all used umbrellas to resist that. And when you look into the protest scene, you could see there were hundreds of umbrellas and they were patching up together and it created a very colorful scene and that is a very moving and powerful scene to symbolize the peaceful protesters. They were going against a very draconian regime and a police force that had much more violence than them. So that was actually from the press and people thought that wow, it really represented a movement and we adopted that and continue to call it Umbrella Movement.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right. So just to skip ahead a little bit, we’ll come back but, in the most recent sort of umbrella marches, they were close to two million people all carrying umbrellas, which is an incredible sort of visual side to that, right, and everyone marching peacefully. Did you imagine that you’d get to that point where that many people would all be carrying an umbrella in solidarity? I mean, that must have been a pretty incredible feeling at the time.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, the 2019 protest, it was five years after the 2014 Umbrella Movement. It was actually a blow. People didn’t expect that we could mobilize so many people coming into the streets and protest. So yeah, definitely it surprised many democratic campaigners and after the Umbrella Movement because we failed to achieve a political reform that can grant Hong Kong people democracy. So that had been appealed over in the activist groups and in the civil society and that bounce in 2019 was really surprising.

Misha Zelinsky:

So let’s go back. So you’re a student of activism, you’re involved in these protests in the occupation of Central, Hong Kong. I want to just step a little bit to just your family story. Because you talked about your background, your parents were not super political and that mindset, which my family are similar with two migrants into Australia, so I understand that don’t rock the boat mindset from my grandparents. So I’m curious, what were your parents saying about your involvement in this and how did they find out that you were involved?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, well my mother when she was in a wedding boutique in late September 2014 and when she looked up to a television because she was enjoying with her friends, she was happy because some of her friends were getting married and when she looked up to the television and she saw her son being arrested in front of a camera by a dozen of undercover police and she was shocked and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Not the best way to reveal, huh? Not the best way to reveal to everybody [crosstalk 00:22:22].

Nathan Law:

Yeah, yeah. It was rather dramatic. It’s rather dramatic, it’s like an opening of a movie. But yeah, she was shocked and that was the first time that she realized her youngest son was involved in political movement. It had always been a troubling signal for her. She had always been trying to convince me not to be involved, to stay away, to try to focus on your personal life, focus on building of the family and provide for your family. And to be honest, that had always been my thought. I wanted to become a person who can make more money and to treat my family a good life because they had been struggling for the rest of their life and they deserve to have a better life when their sons are grown up and they could provide back to them. But at the end of the day, I felt like it’s my duty, it’s my city and if we don’t come out, who will? And that was a driving momentum for me to defy the gravity from my mother and from my family and continue to devote myself into a larger struggle in the society.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I think it’s almost a bigger call defying your mum and defying the CCP, mate. So I understand that some of these things upset your mum.

Nathan Law:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

But you get arrested, but you got jailed as well, right? And so talk to us about, you’re a young guy, you at university, you go on part of these protests, you get arrested by undercover cops who are being directed by the Chinese Communist Party. What’s going through your head at this point, once you’re behind bars? Talk to us about that because that should have been an extraordinarily scary experience.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, I had been arrested for many times. There were several charges pressed on me. The time when I was in jail was in 2017 and it was quite a long story because in 2016 I found a youth-led political organization with Joshua Wong and many other student leaders. The organization is now disbanded and is Demosisto and we ran for election. So I won the election by a large margin and I became the youngest ever parliamentarian in Hong Kong at the age of 23. So by then, the government really doubled down all the pressure and political suppression on me and nine months after I served the people, I was unseated because the government issues our interpretation into our constitutions. And in the fact, it has changed to the requirement of our oath taking ceremony which each of the parliamentarians have to take it and change it and applied it retrospectively, so making parliamentarians who had made certain statement before and after the whole length of oath, considering these additions were illegal, so that we were deprived from our seats. So I was unseated because of these kinds of draconian-

Misha Zelinsky:

Technicalities.

Nathan Law:

Technicality.

Misha Zelinsky:

But you got unseated for quoting Gandhi, is that right? On the basis-

Nathan Law:

Yes, yes, yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, it was part of the plots that they designed, saying that you quoted Gandhi, it shows that you are not solemn, you are not sincere to the Chinese Communist Party, to the country and then because of that, you are basically elected illegally and well, more than 50,000 people voted for me and all their ballots are being tarnished, being tossed into a rubbish bin. And that took place nine months after I served the people and a month after, I was convicted inciting illegal assembly and was in jail, was sentenced to jail for eight months because of my peaceful participation in the Umbrella Movement. And luckily, I spent around two and a half months in jail before I filed an appeal and I appealed successfully at the Court of Final Appeal. Yeah, it was just quite a roller coaster ride when you are degraded from a honorable parliamentarian to an inmate in just a month and that was definitely quite a difficult time for me.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I want to talk about running for Parliament at 23 because that’s a extremely gutsy thing to do in any parliamentary system, but you’re doing it essentially to challenge the regime under which oversees your society. That would have been a big call to make, so what was going through your head when you decided, “Look, we’re going to create our own party, we’re going to run for election and we’re going to change the system from the inside”? At that point, I think is probably your thinking, right?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, well I was always feeling, in 2016, there was still room to work inside the system and also outside the system and we had to really collaborate these two forms of resistance so that we can maximize our impact. And by then there were no individuals that had the heritage of Umbrella Movement that can carry the flag of it, that can remind people that, that movement existed and the influence of it lingers and so that, along with other student leaders in the Umbrella Movement, we found our youth-led party. The party was so young. The average age was even younger than I, so you could really identify the youth managed to do that in an election. And we ran for just one seat which I was the candidate and at first, it was quite difficult.

Nathan Law:

I remember that one month before the election, I was at the bottom of the race. We were having a proportional election system, so there were 15 lists fighting for six seat in my constituency and that was the wealthiest, most educated and most aged constituency. So it has a natural rejection to young people like me and all the previous elected candidates were lawyers, were professionals, were ex-government officials, were proper intellectuals, so it didn’t fit my profile. So a month before the election, I was at the bottom of the race basically and people thought that wow, you were just a protesters, an activist, a university student, you knew nothing. The only thing that you knew was protesting and chanting anti-political slogans. That could possibly be a perception for people, but after several aired debates in public television, and the ability to talk about policies, to talk about politics, taught the understanding on real politic and also the ability for you to demonstrate that the lack of experience may be a benefit, may mean that you are getting rid of the constraints and the chains and the shackles, that all those experiences applied to another candidate, to the other candidates, that you are there to do something, that you can really rock the boat when the boat is so corrupted and when the boat is doing bad things to people.

Nathan Law:

And I think all these elements combined the perception to a young activist changed and people had certain confidence in him that he could talk about politics, he could talk about policy, he understand was is going on in the society and he had that new face, new energy that they had not been seeing and could possibly change the political landscape. So in having that expectation, the support really reversed and a lot more people are willing to vote to a young person like me, that they hoped for a change.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, obviously you’ve connected with the public in a great way because you’ve been elected, but clearly the regime has detected that as well, with the Chinese Communist Party has detected that as well and they’ve gone to great lengths to disqualify you are a Parliament, arrest you, et cetera, crush you. We’ve mapped that a bit as we’ve gone, not in a linear way, but we’ve sort of… Now we’re getting 2020 with the introduction of the national security law. At that point, you decided with your mates to disband your party, Demosisto and then you leave Hong Kong, so talk to me about that. So you’ve put this party together with hope, trying to do the right thing I suppose and go through the system and see if you can’t stand up for people in the way that we all would in any democracy and I certainly congratulate you for that, but at that point, what’s going through your mind when you’re like, “This national security law is now in. We’re disbanding the party. I have to leave Hong Kong”?

Nathan Law:

Well in 2019, the massive, the most impactful protest in Hong Kong had began. The anti-extradition protest started in June 2019 and we had been through a few million people rally, the largest one was two million people rally, which was more than a quarter of the city’s population. So you can imagine, if in any other major city in Australia or the whole Australia, if there were more than a quarter of the population coming out, politics will long changed and the government will definitely disband and the people will regain the power. But that’s not the case in Hong Kong. Even though we had been through so many massive peaceful demonstrations, other governments still refused to listen to us and there had been an escalation of force from the government and also an escalation of force from the protesters as a response to that. It really lasted a couple of months, with really intense protestings and conflicts and when the COVID started in 2019, in early 2019, the protest slowed down because of that.

Nathan Law:

And the government was trying to impose much more restrictions on people and I remember in May 2020, there was suddenly a news about the Chinese government trying to impose a law in Hong Kong, impose national security law and we were puzzled because in Hong Kong we’ve got our legislation system. We need to go through the Parliament in Hong Kong so that we can enact the law, but the national security law was intended to bypass all the local legislation and consultation process and it was intended to complete that in two months. So such a very controversial law and law that obviously violates human rights, that the government intended to pass it in two months and we didn’t know much before the full draft of it, after it was passed, was released. So at that point, we didn’t know how draconian it was, how close it would close down the civil society and what impact it will give to the society as a whole because we did not see the full tax of it when it was made. But after a couple of weeks, after there were more news released by the media and around two to three weeks before it was officially passed and implemented, we were getting a sense it would be a extremely draconian version of it and it were definitely targeting “at our national enemies” like me, like Joshua, like Jimmy Lai.

Nathan Law:

So we were caught in a very difficult choice. Either we stay and try to find rooms to resist, but we also need someone who can speak up for Hong Kong because it’s obvious that under the law, we cannot speak freely because any appeal for sanctionings of officials on China or having a tough stance on China, holding them accountable, will be seen as subversive speech and you will be locked in jail for years because of that. So by then I decided that we need a person with an international profile and with ability to speak for Hong Kong people on the international stage. So then I fled. I left Hong Kong a couple days before the implementation of the national Security law and arrived in London in order to preserve a voice, free from the threat of the national security law.

Misha Zelinsky:

So what was it like to leave home?

Nathan Law:

Well, it was difficult. I spent past seven years defending Hong Kong’s freedom. Well basically before then, all of my life into the city’s fight. And I love the culture, I love the people, I love the connection, I love the city landscape, cultural-scape, everything. So it was definitely a difficult decision to make, but I realized that it was more than myself, it was more than my personal preference because I carry a responsibility, a duty for collective wits which is making sure that Hong Kong is seen and is being listened to. And so, even though I did say a lot of goodbyes, but for now I feel like I made a right decision to do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you in the UK now. Obviously it’s a free democratic country, but the Chinese Communist Party makes it very clear that it considers two things, that Chinese diaspora that live abroad are part of the Chinese Communist Party’s interest. So they’ve taken a big interest in Chinese people living abroad and then secondly, they also aren’t afraid to be active in that space, to try to intimidate people, et cetera. Do you feel safe in the UK? Or do you still feel that there’s that reach, they can reach into even our societies that are democracies and free and open?

Nathan Law:

Well, we all understand how extensive China’s reach could be. That extraterritorial, extralegal persecution on democratic activist, freedom activist. Well, you can see it in a lot of places including in Australia, in the UK, so I can never say that I feel entirely secure or safe, even though for now I’m being very cautious and very vigilant so that I haven’t encounter any physical attacks. But that is for me, I can never lose my guard down. I just have to be very careful and to be aware of any following, any spies, any people approaching me, things like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, how is the movement surviving through this moment? I mean, I understand people are very afraid to speak up and there’s being dissembling of the party and a breaking apart of media apparatus like Jimmy Lai, who you said stayed behind and was arrested obviously and so many other people that are still being smashed up in a way that you would expect if you were trying to crush a movement. How is it surviving? And second, you think Xi Jinping will break the will of the people in Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Well, I think it is obvious that a lot of possibilities for protesters, for opposition are basically gone. So people, they have to invent new mechanisms to try to express their opinion more and in a more simple way. Take an example in 4th of June this year, when the 4th of June vigil nights was canceled second time in a row, people were just so angry because in Hong Kong it had been the only place on Chinese soil that could publicly commemorate the 4th of June massacre the democratic movement in 1989 and it had always been seen as one of the important events in Hong Kong and it really shows the consciousness and the pursuit for freedoms of Hong Kong people. So people were really furious and especially that was the first 4th of June after the implementation of the national security law. So when people can not gather in Victoria Park, which is where the vigil is normally held, they were wandering around the park, holding up cell phones with a flashlight, making it seemingly as a candle when there were thousands of police outside the park and arbitrarily detaining people who were holding a candle and saying that it was an illegal action to hold a candle in the city center.

Nathan Law:

So they had to use the flashlight of their cellphone to substitute that, but they was still trying something to tell the world, to tell Hong Kong people, to tell the press, to tell foreign media that they were people trying to express certain signal and they were trying to protest. So the day become a day that many people, thousands of them, wandering in the city center outside the Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and they were in black. They were holding flashlights and sometimes the police told them to shut the flashlights, but they were still wandering. They just appeared and that had become a way for them to protest. So after the national security law, a lot of things which has had some incredible adjustment for that but still, I do believe that there is still a strong pursuit of Hong Kong people. They just can’t express that and when they find the right way to do so, they would definitely do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, what can the world do, right? I think the democratic world has watched this whole situation unfold, certainly since ’97, but particularly really since the middle of the last decade with horror and aghast and total solidarity to the people of Hong Kong, offering asylum to people such as yourself and others who want to leave. But what more can we do and what can it do? What should it do? What would you like to see?

Nathan Law:

I feel like there have been a complacency in democratic countries, in the global community for the past two decades. And they were growing that kind of authoritarianism from China and from Russia and from around the world. For now, we’ve been seeing the democratic recessions for almost two decades and I think the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong is just falling into the big picture, one piece of the puzzles. And I think if we are indeed going to try to help the people in Hong Kong, we just have to stand much more firmer in terms of defending our democracy globally and seeing it as a crisis. Authoritarian regimes are too easy to excuse themselves from taking responsibility by claiming all the things are internal problems, are sovereignty problems and denying all the human rights claims. And in the democratic countries seems difficult to form a more collaborated and sophisticated reaction towards these human rights violations and all those economic coercion and blackmailings to countries like Australia and others and I think that should be changed. We should form a much more coordinated alliance and with an aim of promoting global democracy and addressing global human rights violation and to try to promote that values and use all of our policies to work with it.

Nathan Law:

It’s just a crisis too big to be neglected, but we have not been seeing it really properly. We see climate change, we see poverty as global crisis, but not the decline of democracy and I think if we need some changes on the international level, if we need more accountability for regimes like the Chinese Communist Party, we need to start with a change of perception. We need to see the rise of authoritarianism and the decline of democracy as a global crisis, so that we could formulate global goals, global agenda and actions around it. So I do hope that we can have that in the short-term future, so that we can really change the fight, we can really fight democracy back before it’s too late.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, that’s perfectly put. I mean, just on that right, so curious of your take on this. I mean, I think I know your answer, but I think it’s worth talking about which is, some commentators in the West and just generally foreign policies say, “Well, Southeast Asia, there’s not been a great history of democracy and the democratic institution, so maybe they don’t want it or their societies aren’t overly compatible.” I mean, what’s your take on that? I mean, I obviously disagree with that when you look at places like Japan, Indonesia, et cetera, but I’m curious about your take about, do you see democratic being universal or do you see it being a cultural practice?

Nathan Law:

Well, this is definitely not a cultural practice. Is definitely universal. Hong Kong people have always been ready for getting in democratic system. The core essence of democracy system is to make sure that the government is held accountable. No matter is being held accountable by the people on its policies or by the international community to comply with the certain standards that could protect the livelihood and the happiness of people. So democratic accountability is one certain thing that should be implemented over the world because that could avoid people falling into the hands of tyrannies and falling into the hands dictators, who take no responsibility but only for holding wealth for themselves. So I think democratic accountability delivered by a democratic system, is definitely universal and is the goal that we should pursue even though we could say that there is a variation in between different democratic systems, but we just have to make sure that people have the capacity to pick a government, to pick a governing body and the ruling incumbent party has to be responsible to them.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, exactly and I completely agree. So I’m kind of curious, I mean we talked about Hong Kong specifically, but the Chinese Communist Party is not just targeting Hong Kong within its territories. It’s also extremely hostile to Taiwan. Now we don’t have time to talk about all the issues related to Taiwan, but I’m quite curious about how you see a sense of solidarity with Taiwan and do you think that Taiwan is important in their struggle because a lot of people say, democracy in China looks a lot at Taiwan, right, and so it’s a massive threat to the Chinese Communist Party by existing, but do you see solidarity and parallels in that struggle?

Nathan Law:

A lot of Taiwanese activists are my friends who have been in very close connection. I’ve been engaging in Taiwanese civil society for many years. They are definitely good allies. Taiwan is one of the most powerful democratic entity in Asia and it really demonstrate the capacity, the ability of a democratic system. China has always been, especially under the Xi Jinping’s leadership, trying to do the “reunification” and some say that it’s the annexation on Taiwan and that’s definitely for us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to them and to say that Chinese government has to stop that military intimidation and the democratic country in the world, the community has to step in and to deter China from doing all sorts of terrible things on Taiwan.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I suppose the last thing I want to ask you before I get to the critical barbecue question that I know you just hanging to answer, where you sit right now, you’ve had to leave home, you’ve had to give up you a political party, but you’ve gone to fly the flag and to keep the flame alive for democracy. Do you hold out hope that Hong Kong can stay as it is and that we can prevail in their struggle, for all the things you talked about in terms of global democracy and democracy for people of Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Definitely there is hope. As an activist, I’m not entitled to lose hope. We have to believe the innate pursuit of freedom from every individuals and we just have to believe that there is a possibility for change. And the things that I’m doing, the international advocacy work, meeting with policymakers, attending in conferences and many others, are paving my way home. I really do wish that the work of raising awareness and raising attention and support to Hong Kong can build up a larger international pressure and the determination to hold China accountable and to make Hong Kong democratic and free.

Misha Zelinsky:

And would you like to go home one day to a free democratic Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Well, definitely. I guess, that is the biggest wish that I can ever have. So yeah, definitely. I would love to step foot in Hong Kong again. It could take decades, but I believe that will come.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well mate, we truly hope so and congratulations for everything you’ve done so far. But I can’t let you go and obviously I’d love to keep talking to you about this for a long time but you’ve got a life to lead and I’ve got to let you go, but I can’t let you go without the famous, lame question of Diplomates which is, you are a foreign guest on my show and so foreign guests have to have Aussies and Aussies have to have foreigners, so three Aussies at a barbecue at Nathan’s, who are they and why?

Nathan Law:

Well, it’s a pity that personally I don’t know many Aussies.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s probably a good thing.

Nathan Law:

And secondly I don’t know how to barbecue, so I would love to invite you Misha and you bring two of your best mates who are the best in cooking BBQ and we can start from there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, I don’t know if you want my mates there, but you’re going to have plenty of beer. That’s the only thing that I request, but we’ll do the cooking if you supply the drinks.

Nathan Law:

Yeah well, beers!

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh Nathan mate, congratulations on everything you’re doing. Complete solidarity with you and your movement, mate, and we hope to talk to you in the future.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, thank you so much.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks mate.

 

Rob Wilcox: Guns in America – Violence, Rights and Politics

Rob Wilcox is the Federal Legal Director at ‘Everytown for Gun Safety’, the leading gun safety movement in the United States (https://www.everytown.org).

A qualified commercial lawyer, Rob’s life changed forever when his family was tragically touched by gun violence. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Rob for a Chinwag about the US gun violence epidemic, the political polarisation underpinning this issue, what sensible reform looks like, how to build a movement for change from the ground up, the role of the Second Amendment in gun ownership, misinformation online and whether meaningful change is actually possible.

It’s a really insightful conversation on an issue that touches many people. A big thank you to Rob for coming on the Diplomates Pod to share his personal story; he’s a great guy and he’s tackling an issue that needs to be addressed. 

 

Show Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky:

Rob, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us, mate.

Rob Wilcox:

Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure.

Misha Zelinsky:

And you’re joining us from the United States. So, much appreciated given the time zone differences. Now, we’re going to dig right into the issue of gun violence and gun control and gun safety. It’s an issue that I’m very interested in. I know a lot of Australians are very interested in particularly sort of scratching their heads at the size of this problem. So before we get into the problem itself and the solution, I’m going to start with some of the stats around guns and the stats around the gun violence problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, just looking before we were getting ready for our chat, there’s more than one gun, for example, in the United States than people, so more than one gun per person. When you think about the fact that there’s kids, obviously, there’s elderly, there’s people that are in hospital, there’s people that are in prison, and so there’s more guns floating around. So there’s people with multiple and multiple firearms. Maybe you can start with some of the stats about how bad the problem is and maybe whether or not it’s getting better or worse.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. Look, I think there’s two points there. One is gun ownership in America and one is gun violence. And I think the best estimates are that about a third of American households have firearms. So even though you’re right that there’s one per person, that doesn’t mean that there’s one in every home. And this country does have a long and rich tradition of gun ownership. And in fact, my family owns guns. So it’s not something that I haven’t been around that I don’t know about. But that’s very different than guns that end up in the wrong hands and the tragedies that are just far too frequent.

Rob Wilcox:

So the second point about gun violence, the issue we have here is that 100 Americans are dying every single day from gun violence, over 200 are injured. And it’s about 40,000 a year. And that’s every single year and it’s all types of gun violence. It’s the mass tragedies that maybe breakthrough in the national, international news, but it’s also everyday gun violence in our communities, and it’s firearm suicide that happens in the privacy of our homes, and intimate partner domestic violence. So, the firearm in the wrong hands has ripple effects throughout our communities in all sorts of different ways.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, you’ve been activist in this space, would you say the problem is getting better or worse? Because I mean, from an outsider’s point of view, it feels like it’s getting worse. I know we’re not that supported empirically in the data.

Rob Wilcox:

Look, what we’ve seen during this COVID-19 pandemic, that’s been a global health pandemic, is an epidemic within that in this country. And that’s the fact that gun violence has gotten worse. We saw more gun violence in 2020 than in the decades preceding it. So, even if some of those mass shootings that might not make the headlines haven’t occurred with the same frequency, we’ve seen the same terror happening day in and day out to families and communities. So, from my perspective, it’s getting worse and it demands immediate action.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I suppose you’d be looking at the problem in America, but no doubt you benchmark yourself against other nations like Australia, comparable nations like Canada and European nations. Do you think that America is somehow more violent society or do you see this as a problem about guns themselves?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, America is exceptional in terms of its gun violence. If you look at 25 peer nations, our rates of gun violence are multiple times higher. And that’s because we have easy access to guns. For people who shouldn’t have them, we have loopholes. Do we have more mental health issues? No. Do we have more violent video games? No. Do we have more violent movies? No. But what we do have is access to guns for those who are a threat to themselves or others. And that to me is what is fueling our uniquely American problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we’ll get back to, I suppose, this macro problem. If you don’t mind, you might share a little bit with us about your personal story and what prompted you to perhaps become an activist for change in this space. Your family was touched by gun violence very deeply, very tragically. I was wondering if you might share that story with us, please.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. No, I appreciate you asking, because I think it’s important for us to share our stories so that we can see the humanity and hopefully inspire change. But like I said, I mean, I grew up with guns and I grew up learning how to shoot for my father. And so, I see the family tradition that comes with gun ownership, but I’ve also seen the other side of it in my life. And I saw it before I even graduated college.

Rob Wilcox:

I grew up in Brooklyn and so I saw gun violence in my community both being aware of it, seeing it on the everyday local news. But it wasn’t until my senior year in college back in 2001, when I was abroad actually in Australia visiting, touring, being with friends that I got a call that I never expected to get, which was my 19-year-old cousin who was at home for winter break from her college in Northern California, kind of a safe, sleepy place, was killed. And she was killed by someone who shouldn’t have had a gun.

Rob Wilcox:

She was home from winter break from Haverford College and she was volunteering at her local mental health hospital, just checking people in, being of service in their community, that’s who she was. She was this bright, brilliant light. And the day that she was killed, she wasn’t even, I suppose, to work. But somebody called out sick, she stepped up. And what we learned is one of the former patients walked in with firearms, walked up and killed her, killed others.

Rob Wilcox:

When the police responded, he then made his way to a restaurant and killed others. It was a deadly day for that community. It didn’t make national news but it inspired me and inspired my aunt and uncle and inspired other advocates to get involved. And that’s kind of fueled me and allowed me to learn about this issue from a very personal perspective and meet thousands of survivors along the way and take a number of steps to make myself educated about our gun laws and about the solutions that would be effective at preventing the tragedy that I’ve seen.

Misha Zelinsky:

And just you’ve touched on them in these incidents, and I’m so sorry, obviously, for your loss, man. It’s an awful story. It’s all too common, unfortunately, in the US. This occurred at a mental health hospital. I mean, what’s the role of mental illness in gun violence do you see? I mean, are these things correlated to the wrong people having access to firearms? Do you see those things closely linked?

Rob Wilcox:

It’s definitely not correlated or not their causation. Folks with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators of violence. So I don’t tell that story to cast aspersions on those who have mental illness, especially those seeking treatment. But for individuals who are in crisis or a threat to themselves or others, well, then we need to do something to make sure they don’t have access to guns. And this individual, his family was concerned, his brother was in law enforcement, knew he shouldn’t have had guns but there was no steps that could be taken.

Rob Wilcox:

They actually tried to go through a mental health process to get him involuntary committed, that didn’t work. And so what they really needed was the law that we call an extreme risk protection order, which is a court process to temporarily remove firearms from someone who’s a threat to themselves or others. And frankly, that’s a law that my aunt and uncle worked to get passed in California. And it’s a law that we see in 19 states now, red, blue, and purple. And we’re working on at the federal level as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, that’s a good time to raise this organization where for Everytown, for listeners that are familiar with it, maybe you can explain who that organization is, what its purpose is, and why you see that as the place to, I suppose, affect the change you’re trying to make.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah, Everytown for Gun Safety is an incredible organization. It brings together data-driven research, evidence-based solutions, as well as a grassroots component. It brings together this notion that we need to be fighting for evidence-based policies that respect the Second Amendment, not just with our words and on paper, but with the power of people. And so we brought together survivors of gun violence activists around the country, mayors, students, law enforcement, gun owners, all to join in this effort. And right now we have six million supporters that we work with around the country at that local state and federal level and in boardrooms all looking to make the change that will make the difference.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, just want to turn to US gun culture. You talked about at the beginning a little bit about the culture of gun ownership and how it embedded in, I suppose, US cultural identity. I mean, how do you see that as being critical to this debate? Because I mean, many times this gets raised, the Second Amendment gets raised and people go right back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence and the war of independence against the British and that don’t take away my guns because it’s going to stop us from being able to overthrow tyranny, et cetera. That is a very powerful cultural touchstone. It’s obviously important legal theme. This cultural link to gun ownership, why do you think it exists and how does it influence, I suppose, to the work you’re trying to do?

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. I think if we look back and really take a long view, what I would say from the beginning of this country, guns were tools, guns were around, they were tools for freedom, as you mentioned. They were tools for survival, for hunting and defense. They were also at times tools for oppression. It’d be that violence against others or in kind of keeping alive the slave system that we had in this country.

Rob Wilcox:

So I think all of those were parts of our founding or all those are pieces that we have to reckon with. And yes, we have a Second Amendment on the books, and that’s been interpreted. And what we fight for the policies that respect the rights of law abiding responsible Americans to own firearms but seek to make it more difficult for those who shouldn’t have access to them. And if you both look historically and at the public opinion, it all fits. For as long as we’ve had the Second Amendment, we’ve had laws about gun ownership in this country about who can and can’t have guns, about the regulations about how you store them and how you use them.

Rob Wilcox:

So, these gun laws aren’t new and that’s why they’re consistent with the Second Amendment. And the truth is, even though we have a small minority of vocal advocates who think that we shouldn’t have a single gun law on the books, the fact is 90% of Americans think we should have background checks. And that includes vast majorities of Democrats, Republicans, independents, gun owners, even NRA members. So, if you think about the policies we’re fighting for, they’re both constitutional and they’re popular. And that’s our work. That’s the work of a rather new organization, which is to bring that power to fight for the change that we want.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m keen to dig into that political change piece. And I want to have a long conversation about that. Just staying with the gun culture piece, the other bit that you’ve talked about sort of this the right to bear arms and the importance of law abiding citizens having that right, which I think people wouldn’t argue with, the other bit that I want to touch on is from an Australian point of view, I’d call it the John Wayne fantasy, if I can call it that. It’s this notion that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and therefore having armed citizens is the best way to stop someone doing something horrendous in the community opening fire on innocent people, et cetera. Is this a real kind of construct or is a bit of a fantasy that never actually plays out in that fashion?

Rob Wilcox:

The best way to stop a tragedy is to make sure that the person who’s arrested themselves or others doesn’t have a gun in the first place. Are there situations when someone with a firearm can stop a tragedy from happening? Yes, those have occurred. They occur with law enforcement on the scene. They’ve occurred with law abiding citizens who have used a firearm in self-defense. Those things happen. But the truth is, if you really want to address gun violence and what we see in our country, then we need to focus on the interventions that work. And that’s about intervening before someone takes that step to commit the act and to prevent them from getting guns in the first place. You think about school shootings in America, I mean, it’s something that’s horrific, it’s uniquely American and it’s prevalent.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yes.

Rob Wilcox:

But if you look at the data, you actually look at the data of all of these incidents over the past 20, 30 years, things become very clear very quickly. One is that those shootings are almost always committed by students. Two is that those students almost always show warning signs that concern people around them. And three is that 80% of the time that guns coming from the home. So, what that means is we got to think about our students and those who are in crisis. We got to take steps to intervene to put them on the right path and sure, they’re not on the wrong path. And as parents, we need to make sure that our kids don’t have access to guns in our home.

Rob Wilcox:

That’s how you can actually get at that issue with school shootings. And it has nothing to do with do we need teachers who are armed? Do we need high school seniors carrying guns? Do we need to turn schools into prisons? Do we need to have a zero tolerance policy? None of those things will actually work or get at this root cause, which is kids who are in crisis and taking the steps to make sure that they both are getting services but also don’t have access to guns.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we’ve touched on the Second Amendment, as we’ve been going along with, it’s the sort of the elephant in the room when it comes to this debate and any sort of policy changes. For those that aren’t super wonks in this space, maybe you can just explain a little bit how it impacts on it. But also, I suppose, the way that the Supreme Court plays a role within this process, because its interpretations of the Second Amendment the way it’s been perhaps advances and setbacks in that process, how do you see it as essentially a sort of immovable roadblock in terms of actually making changes that you’re talking about?

Rob Wilcox:

It’s definitely not an immovable roadblock. That’s the first thing I would say. But if we actually were to look at the text of this amendment, it says a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. And so, there’s a lot in that one sentence including multiple commas in a pack. And our Supreme Court has looked at it and ruled that it protects the individual right to have a firearm of common use in your home, but that there is room for reasonable regulation.

Rob Wilcox:

Even the justice who wrote the opinion that defined the Second Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia, he talked about the type of regulations that are permissible and in terms of felons in possession of guns, keeping guns out of schools, and other kind of common sense regulations we can put in place that will keep guns out of the wrong hands. So no, I think that while we’ve had the Second Amendment for as long as this country has been around, we’ve also had gun laws that get at this very core point of how do we keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I think that’s right. Interesting point raised, because I think the well-regulated militia piece, I think, is what point that a lot of people tend to ignore as opposed when you’re talking about the people’s right to bear arms should not be infringed. I mean, it doesn’t strike me as inalienable because we say you can’t have a nuclear bomb, right? So there is some sort of a tank, so there is a limit already there easily. And I think anyone that’s not completely crazy would agree with that. So that is where you are drawing the line. But I guess the question I have for you is the way it’s being interpreted, given the way that the court is currently composed now with more conservative justices, are you confident that if gun laws… Let’s imagine a world where Congress were to pass gun amendment type laws, are you confident that the court would uphold those types of changes?

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. Every single law that I’ve been working on at the federal level, every action that’s being proposed by President Biden is constitutional. And multiple courts have upheld them. The Supreme Court will be taking up a Second Amendment case this year. And so we’re going to potentially get another decision from them about the scope of the Second Amendment and what it protects. But the truth is, I mean, as you said, different types of weapons are regulated in this country in a host of different ways. You have on the one hand bombs and tanks, but even when you look at firearms, you have fully automatic weapons, machine guns that have been regulated since the 1930s.

Rob Wilcox:

You’ve had regulations and prohibitions on semi-automatic rifles that are military style, so they take detachable magazines and have the features of a military style weapon. And you’ve had background checks on gun sale on just your handgun and hunting rifle. So we’ve had a host of different types of regulations based on that type of weapon. And they’ve all been upheld as constitutional. So, I think the things that we’re working on that will make a real difference would all be upheld by this court.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, what is sensible reform? And then you touched on, I suppose, is probably what you consider to be perhaps ideal and maybe that’s not achievable. So, what do you firstly see is achievable and what would be an ideal outcome? And I suppose the other thing I’m curious is now Australia went through this process itself a long time ago. Now, when I was young, we had the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania where 30 people were shot. That’s our largest mass shooting and it startled the country at the time. We had a conservative prime minister, John Howard, who amended the gun laws. And thankfully they remain in place today, though there are attempts to weaken them. Is Australia a bit of a model in this space or is it a kind of, again, we have compulsory voting and other sorts of things that are just impossible in the United States?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, I focus on this issue of gun violence in America through the lens of the constitution, laws, tradition and history of the United States. And so, while I’m aware of what’s happened, internationally and other countries, what I focus on is what we have to deal with here. And I think when I look at that history and I look at our culture and I look at our constitution and I look at the laws we have on the books, and frankly the loopholes, I see a lot of opportunity to make significant progress.

Rob Wilcox:

I’ll give you one example. Right now in this country, since 1993, we say that if a gun is sold at a licensed gun dealer, there has to be a background check. That’s effectively stopped over four million folks who are prohibited from buying guns from those dealers. And most people go to a dealer to buy a gun. But there is a secondary market and that’s not insignificant, where people can go and buy a gun without a background check. And I’ve taken a look at this. And on just one website I found 1.2 million ads over a year where you could buy a gun without a background check.

Misha Zelinsky:

So can I just ask a question? In Australia, I wouldn’t even know how to start to get a gun. I’ll be honest with you. I mean, if I looked I’m sure I could get one and my grandfather owned guns and he was part of a gun club. But I would not even know where to buy and what permits I need, et cetera. How easy is it if I just decided and woke up and I’m a citizen of the US, I’m living in the US and so I want to buy a gun? Maybe you could just step out how easy that would be.

Rob Wilcox:

Each state has different laws. So, I think just for simplicity, I’ll focus on the federal laws. And under the federal law, if I want to buy firearm, I have to go to a licensed gun store. And there’s thousands of those in this country and they’re not easy to find because they’re all publicly listed, they’re businesses. If you want to buy a Nintendo, you go to Best Buy. If you want to buy a firearm, you go to the gun store. And when you go, you pick out the firearm you want, then you fill out a form, a Form 4473. You put your information down, you have to show your ID to prove who you are, and then that gun dealer will submit that information to the FBI or the state agency to run a background check.

Rob Wilcox:

And they’re going to check to see if you’re prohibited under a number of categories federally or under your state law. And if it comes back green, then you can buy the gun. If it comes back red, then you can’t. And then you’ve been denied that purchase. And one of the things we think is that information needs to get out to law enforcement basically so they can investigate those cases. So if you’re law abiding, you’re responsible citizen, that’s the process. As you go to the gun store, you pick out the firearm and you pass your background check.

Misha Zelinsky:

How long does that take?

Rob Wilcox:

So for 90% of these cases, it happens within minutes, because it’s a database that is searched by the FBI and it can occur with alacrity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, if I knew that I’d likely be knocked back, you sort of talked about these loopholes, how could I get a gun going around that system?

Rob Wilcox:

So that is the loophole. You can go on to this website and you can search for exactly the gun you want and you can say where you want to buy it. And a bunch of ads will pop up and say like, in this city, these guns are available. So you click Contact Seller and you get connected to this individual, this perfect stranger. And maybe what started as an email becomes a phone call and you say, “I’d like to buy that handgun. I have $400 in cash. Where can we meet?” And we’ve done some investigation and I’ve seen how these transactions go. And the person will say, “Meet me in this parking lot.” And so you go to the parking lot, a guy shows you the gun. I’ve seen this videotape footage. You hand over the cash and the transaction is done in two to three minutes.

Misha Zelinsky:

And is that gun registered anywhere, I’m just trying to understand, or is it disappears into the community?

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah, there’s no record that comes with that firearm or that transaction. Each firearm that’s commercially made in this country has a serial number. So if it’s ever recovered in crime, you can trace it back to who first made it, what company, who that company distributed to, and who that dealer first sold it to. But after that first sale, that trail can go cold pretty quickly. Because if they sold you a gun from the dealer and then you sold it to me, and then I sold it to someone else and that person sold to a third person, even if that gun is traced, maybe they find you and they say, “Okay, who’d you sell that gun to?” And you say, “It was this guy I had on my podcast. We met for about an hour, never in person.”

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t buy gun from, mate. I think I made it pretty clear, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Rob Wilcox:

But you might not even remember my name or where I live. And so, law enforcement can’t do anything with that. The trail goes cold. And that’s one reason we need background checks on every gun sale, so that even if you and I meet, however we meet, online or at a gun show or at a neighborhood, there’s going to be a background check. And then that record of that sale would be stored at a gun store.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I probably derailed the conversation there slightly. But just getting back to the keynote, what are the three things maybe? Because I know there’s so many, but if there were three things you can say these are three things on Rob’s wish list to fix the problem of gun violence tomorrow, what would be the three things that you want to get done?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, I think the first thing is we need a background check on every single gun that’s sold. There’s absolutely no reason that a stranger should sell a gun to another stranger with no background check and no knowledge if that person is prohibited or not. The second thing that I think is really important are these extreme risk laws, which are tools that family members and law enforcement can use to temporarily remove firearms from someone who a court finds as a risk to themselves or others.

Rob Wilcox:

And the third thing that I think is critically important is regulations on what’s called ghost guns, these firearms that have escaped regulation exist without any serial number and any information about them that should be regulated just like firearms. And I think those three things would be really critically important and can make an impact in all types of gun violence, from gun trafficking into mass shootings, to firearm suicide. And I think that could make a real impact.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you have an issue around the types of guns? Not all guns are the same, right? You talked about automatics and stuff. I mean, there’s a lot of talk about AR-15s, which have been used in some of these mass shootings, which is essentially a paramilitary type weapon. It’s very sophisticated, very dangerous weapon, right down to a shotgun, AR-22 or whatever. Do you draw lines around that?

Rob Wilcox:

I mean, look, what I can tell you is any gun in the wrong hands can be deadly. And from a handgun to a hunting rifle to a shotgun to an automatic weapon, they can all cause harm to whoever’s hit with that bullet. But you’re right, there are particular guns that have capabilities that allow for you to kill, frankly, more people easier, faster, quicker than another type of firearm. So yeah, a rifle that can take a detachable magazine that can accept 100 rounds of ammunition that has a rifle barrel that has a velocity, that means that when the bullet hits the body it’s going to cause tremendous damage, and that has the type of features that allow for kind of assault style activities, yeah, those are particularly dangerous. Those should be regulated. Because we see what happens when those weapons are in the wrong hands and that’s when you see these mass murders, like we saw in Las Vegas or we saw in Dayton where high capacity magazines attached to a rifle can just cause massive amounts of harm.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I just want to turn now, I suppose, to how this gets done. I think we’ve talked a lot about the problem and some of the solutions, of course. Regrettably, this is where we bump up against politics and getting things changed by politicians in legislations. And you think you’ve sort of touched a little bit around the complexity of this issue around the Bill of Rights but also federal state laws, different jurisdictions, et cetera. We’ll stay with the federal space.

Misha Zelinsky:

But Everytown is, I suppose, the advocates for change in this space and dealing with this crisis of gun violence. The other side of that coin is, of course, every organization will have some kind of opponent as the NRA. So, without giving your view of them, I can imagine I’d have a reasonably assessment of it. But I mean, maybe you could just give how powerful is the NRA in this debate and how much of a roadblock are they in terms of making any meaningful change in this space?

Rob Wilcox:

There’s kind of three things I want to say about the NRA. One is that they brought me back into this movement space. After my cousin was shot and killed, I went right to a gun safety organization and volunteered my time first as an intern and started working more in communications and with volunteers. And then I went off to law school and was practicing in that New York law firm. And when the shooting at Sandy Hook happened, I remember seeing President Obama give his remarks. And they were so powerful and so clear and I thought to myself, wow, gun violence survivors are finally being seen. We’re going to see change.

Rob Wilcox:

And then the NRA’s executive vice president spoke a few days later and said there’ll be no change, no way, no, how. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And I remember just thinking to myself, that can’t be right. The only thing that I can offer is my time. And so I’m going to re-devote myself to this mission of gun safety. And once I came back, what I saw was that the NRA has really morphed itself into a whole new organization. When it was formed 150 years ago, it was about marksmanship and gun safety and hunting.

Rob Wilcox:

And then in the late ’70s, it was taken over by radicals, and it became an extremist political organization that said, we’re not going to stand for any regulation of any type. And when they put their thumb on the scale, it made for a really tough political fight. But more recently, what they’ve become is they’ve morphed into a whole new organization, which is a personal piggy bank for their executives where they have now been alleged to have engaged in shady mismanagement, self-dealing, and they were just in court for a week and a half having to air all their dirty laundry, trying to escape responsibility by filing for bankruptcy. That case was-

Misha Zelinsky:

And constituting themselves in Texas or something, as I recall. Yeah.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah, they want to escape the regulation that every organization and company should face when it comes to how their executives are spending their money. So, I think they went from a hunting organization to an extreme organization to a corrupt organization. And so, what do I see now? I see a national rifle association that’s weaker than it’s ever been. And I see my movement stronger than it’s ever been. And so, yes, will there be a fight? Yes. Will they object? Do I think we can win? Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’re making a strong case there for change. Now, anyone that’s followed this issue would sort of identify the last time there was meaningful reform in this space was in ’94 under the Clinton presidency in terms of the crime bill then. But it was a 10-year law that was extinguished and not renewed when George Bush was president. Do you think there’s ever going to be something like this ever again? Because one of the things, I scratch my head on this a little bit, you touched on Sandy Hook and you kind of thought this is the moment now that America is going to say, we’re having our infant children being shot, is this the moment, and yet nothing changed.

Misha Zelinsky:

And then you talked a little bit before about 90% of Americans support sensible gun reforms, and yet the politicians did not act. And that was probably a moment for me where I thought to myself, well, if you can’t trust politicians to do the right thing, you can only trust them to do the popular thing. And so, I thought, I said, man, the sectional interests in this space, the NRA, is so powerful that they can bully politicians into not following voters, 90% of voters, who feel strongly on this issue. So, I suppose, what confidence do you have that there will be change from politicians given this disconnect between popularity or support for an issue and inaction and perhaps the way people vote?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, I think there’s two lessons I’ve learned. One is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s going to be no single moment, no single incident that just flips the switch. It’s going to take day in and day out organizing. And that gets to my second thing that I’ve learned is that this is a ladder. I mean, at the top rung is congressional action, but we had to start climbing that ladder from the bottom. We had to start with local change. We had to start with state change. We had to start with change in the boardrooms, changes in school districts. We had to build this momentum from the local level on up. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

Rob Wilcox:

So yeah, the bill failed after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Frankly, there was no Everytown at that point. No Moms Demand Action, no six-million strong organization, so we took the fight to the states. And what we saw was we were able to pass background check laws in states. We were able to pass extreme risk laws in states. We were able to pass laws keeping guns away from domestic abusers in states. And so right now, 21 states require background checks on all gun sales. Nineteen states have those extreme risk laws I mentioned. About 30 states have laws on domestic abusers and guns.

Rob Wilcox:

And so yeah, that progress is slow and the lives that are lost every single day are absolutely tragic. But do I see progress? I do. And I see that when I look at the Congress we have now. I can tell you that when Donald Trump won the presidency, the NRA thought that they were going to be replaying 2005. I bring up 2005, because after George W. Bush was reelected, they thought and they did run the show. They were quoted as saying we’re going to work out of the west wing. And they passed a number of laws, including one that gave very significant legal protections to bad actors in the gun industry who imperil our community through their business behavior.

Rob Wilcox:

The kind of civil liability protection, no one in their industry gets. Huge wins for them. They elected the president. They had their Congress. They got their win. When Donald Trump was elected, they spent more money than any other outside group. So they had the president, they had their Senate and they had their house, and they thought they were going to do the whole thing over again. And they were trying to pass their top priority, this thing called concealed carry reciprocity, which says if you can carry a gun at one place in this country, you can carry it anywhere.

Rob Wilcox:

And they were all geared up to do it all over again. But what they weren’t ready for is that our movement had changed. And so we stood up and we fought and we flipped so many votes in the Senate that didn’t even bring it up for a vote, because they would have done worse in 2017 than they had done in 2013 on that policy. And so to me, it just shows how far movement came. And then after that, we put in place a Gun Sense Majority in the House of Representatives that was unafraid to pass gun safety measures.

Rob Wilcox:

We then elected a president who ran on the boldest gun safety agenda ever and has governed like it. I mean, just today, he announced a whole new set of gun safety measures that his administration was going to take to reduce gun crime in our cities. And that’s on top of the things that he announced in April. And we elected a Gun Sense Senate putting Majority Leader Schumer in charge winning two races in Georgia where we now have a Gun Sense trifecta governing Washington DC.

Rob Wilcox:

And so, does that mean we’re going to be able to pass everything we want? No. Does that mean we’re going to have to fight? Yes. But does that mean that this issue is radically different than how I got into it in the early 2000s? It absolutely does. And so, since this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we’re in it for the long haul, then we’re just going to keep fighting until we get to that top rung, which is congressional action.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things been debated quite a bit now in US politics is the political reform agenda and Republicans are making changes to state legislators around rights to vote, et cetera. But do you believe Washington is too gridlocked to achieve sensible gun legislative changes or do you think it could be done with the system that currently exists? And frankly, do you think it should be done in a system that currently exists so that it remains, I suppose, broadly supported and embedded?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, we played by the rules that exist. And I do think that there’s opportunity for bipartisan compromise on the issue of gun safety. There was incredibly productive conversations about advancements that we could make just over the past few months by senators from both sides of the aisle. Does that mean that we’re going to get to the deal that gets enough votes to become law? I’m not sure that’s going to happen in this moment. And I hope we see a vote fairly soon. We’ll get the test it out. But the truth is we see more action and more conversation than I’ve ever seen before.

Rob Wilcox:

And that’s really the first step to getting a legislative deal is actually having people at the table. I can tell you, when I was first in this movement space, there was no one at the table for our side, even the elected democratic leaders. Senators and representatives were on the side of the NRA. They had power in both chambers of Congress and in both parties. And that’s slowly chipped away. And right now, we have a table of people who are talking about gun safety reforms. Even the last president, for how little he did on this issue, still took the action to ban bump stocks, which is an accessory that turns a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon. And I think that was-

Misha Zelinsky:

That was after the Las Vegas shooting, right?

Rob Wilcox:

That was after the Las Vegas shooting, because that individual climbed to that top floor. He equipped his rifles with this accessory, a bump stock, and hos guns turned into machine guns. And he sprays the field of innocent folks who were at a concert. And again, something different happened in that moment that hadn’t happened before. Typically, maybe a president of either party would propose a regulation and the other side would flood our regulatory system with comments opposing it saying you shouldn’t do this, it’s unconstitutional, you can’t do that.

Rob Wilcox:

And that’s what happened at first. And then all of a sudden, something switched and our movement got active. And by the end of that process, that regulatory process, we had about 70% of the comments saying you should regulate these bump stocks, you should take this action. So again, it just showed that our movement is showing up and that we’re doing that work to make our voices heard, and bump stocks got banned. And they got regulated. So, while we’re still fighting to get to that top rung of big comprehensive federal legislation, I’m seeing changes that hadn’t happened in 20 years all the time now.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I just want to unpack a little bit. Like anything, I mean, I would have thought the issue of the pandemic would be about politics but somehow it’s become part of these broader cultural war that exists in US politics now whether you wear masks, you don’t wear a mask, you get vaccinated, don’t get vaccinated, guns sits firmly within these cultural prison and has for a very long time. You’ve talked a little bit about the state changes. I don’t know, I’m not familiar with it. But I imagine a lot of those changes would be if I can call them in blue states.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you see this issue of polarization as being a problem in terms of actually seeking these changes in the communities that perhaps more sort of instantly support this type of agenda? I mean, I’m reminded of Barack Obama and I’m sure he’d say he regret the comments now, off the record, comments which are never off the record about people in rural America clinging to their guns and their religion as part of this sort of safety net in terms of a changing world. I mean, so I suppose it’s a long way of asking like political polarization, how does it impact on this? And is it important to try to bring those people along with you and think that’s impossible in the current circumstances?

Rob Wilcox:

I think it’s completely possible and I think it’s about being an advocate who meets people where they are, because the fact is 58% of Americans are survivors of gun violence of one type or another. And so there is something that unites us there and that if we meet people where they are and we talk about our experiences of being survivors about being advocates about what we’re actually asking for, then there’s opportunity for compromise. And I have two stories. I mean, this isn’t just kind of speech. These are things that I’ve seen in practice.

Rob Wilcox:

After the shooting and the terrible shooting in Parkland, Florida, we actually saw the Republican Florida legislature take action. We saw them put in place the extreme risk law that I mentioned earlier. We saw them take a couple of other important gun safety steps as part of a comprehensive package. So, you then had a Republican legislature that did respond and take action. You could argue that Florida is a purple state, you can argue with the red state, it definitely was run by Republicans who the NRA thought they could tell don’t do anything but they in fact did do something.

Rob Wilcox:

In my personal experience, I’ve seen this up close. I was working in Tennessee a few years ago and I went down there to find some gun safety solutions we could work on together. And when I got assigned to Tennessee to work there, I thought to myself, wow, how am I going to get anything done? This is ranked the most conservative state legislature in the country. And so I went down there and I got to know people, and I let them know who I was, a survivor, a gun owner, someone that just wants to hear about the issue they want to solve.

Rob Wilcox:

And one of the things I heard loud and clear was domestic violence was an issue that bothered a lot of people in Tennessee, including their elected officials. So I took a look at their gun laws and what I saw was, yeah, they prohibit people who were domestic abusers from having guns, but the problem was when those people went to buy a gun and failed a background check, that information sat in the database in the capital of Tennessee and didn’t get to the court that issued the domestic violence order, didn’t get to the law enforcement who could intervene before that person went and found a gun through a different way.

Rob Wilcox:

So we proposed a bill, work with legislators to have our Democrat and Republican working together. And we got to the Tennessee House of Representatives like this. We got through quickly. There seem to be kind of universal acceptance. I could tell you, it actually passed unanimously for the Tennessee House of Representatives, a bill that was being supported every time for gun safety. And then we get to the Senate. And this Tennessee State Senate, which the NRA thought they deeply controlled.

Rob Wilcox:

And so, we made it out of committee and we were about to be on the floor of the Senate with this bill. And the day before the vote, there was Republican caucus meeting. And in that caucus meeting, the NRA’s number one ally stood up and said, “You can’t do this. You can’t pass a bill that’s supported by Everytown for Gun Safety. You can’t change our gun laws.” And the sponsor was a woman, stood up and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes, I’ve worked with them but I can tell you what this bill is really about. It’s about domestic abusers in our communities that are failing background checks that were not doing anything to stop from getting the gun. And if you don’t support that, you don’t support the women, daughters, sisters and mothers of our state.” And she sat down.

Rob Wilcox:

And we all went to bed not knowing how that boat was going to go the next day. And we won 26 to 4. And then we had a signing ceremony with the Republican governor who I was proudly on stage with. So yeah, I see opportunity for change in states across this country. And it might not feel huge or substantial at the moment, but that’s why we’re on this ladder. We just got to go up one rung at a time because this is still a young movement, it’s still a young organization, and we’re just building and building and building to get to that big congressional change.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, one thing I just want to pivot to and it’s a little bit off topic but directly relevant, and I talked about it a lot in the show with various different guests is this problem of misinformation in the information in the public sphere, in the social media, in sort of far right type voices. I mean, how is this impacting on the problem in terms of actually building consensus in achieving sensible reform?

Misha Zelinsky:

So for example, you have that lunatic Alex Jones on info was talking about the fact that Sandy Hook didn’t happen, that it was a, I’m sorry, Obama conspiracy to try to take away people’s guns. I mean, this is sort of frankly crazy bullshit people then believe and then it’s sort of part of asking people to sort of dig in more tightly around the Second Amendment rights and not allow any changes. How do you see that problem impacting on your campaigning, or is it not really one?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, misinformation, disinformation, the inability for us to agree on the facts so that we can fight for the solution is a huge problem. The folks who are paid to be public figures and intentionally trade in this disinformation are both disingenuous and disgusting. And they’ve completely polluted our attempts to achieve what all of us want, which is the freedom to live our lives, the freedom to be successful, the freedom to be healthy, and the freedom to stay alive. And so yeah, I think it’s a problem and I think it’s one that we have to fight through by showing up being authentic and being straight with people about what we’re fighting for and what we believe in.

Rob Wilcox:

But I think that’s an issue that’s affected a lot of the things that we do and when you asked about the NRA earlier, that’s the biggest roadblock to the progress. It’s not that 90% of people agree on this solution, it’s that the disinformation that gets out there makes it so it’s not about that solution. It’s about something else. I’m talking about background checks. You’re talking about that I’m trying to confiscate firearms. I’m not, that’s not what the bill does. There’s no argument that that’s what the bill does. But all of a sudden, that’s what the debate becomes about. And so I think our job as advocates is to focus on the debate on what it is and then break through.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, probably the other day, we’ve just talked quite a bit about Sandy Hook throughout. That was we thought it might be just a moment, I suppose, that you’ve… I know you’ve said there’s not going to be one big moment, there’s not going to be a Port Arthur type massacre in the United States. And if that was likely, probably order would have happened. But one thing I want to get your reflections on is how do you keep people urgent on this problem, or people becoming numbed to this problem? It strikes me, I mean, the regularity of these horrific events is now pushing them further down the news cycle. They’re not front page news perhaps in the way that they once were. Do you think people are just numb to this problem now? How do you tackle that issue?

Rob Wilcox:

I don’t think people are numb at all. I mean, the advocates who I’m around are more passionate than they’ve ever been. And part of it is that it’s not just about the singular event. It’s about the everyday gun violence that’s occurring. And what we’re fighting for are the solutions that are going to save all of those lives. The 100 lives a day are not made up of individuals from a single mass shooting. They’re shootings that happen all across this country.

Rob Wilcox:

And so we fight for solutions that will deal with that, because the truth is, is that gun violence in this country, especially homicide, disproportionately affects black Americans. It disproportionately affects underserved neighborhoods. And so we got a partner and we got to stand together to fight for the resources for the community-based interventions that we know work on the one hand while also taking action upstream to deal with the guns that are being flooded into communities.

Misha Zelinsky:

And just pivoting to the political debate, we’re seeing a little bit playing out nationally but also local level, state level. More in order, crime is coming back onto the agenda in a way that it probably hasn’t for a little bit of time now, and these things always ebb and flow. How do you see that impacting on the challenge? Because we saw throughout COVID, the lines, the people wanting to purchase guns, how do you sort of address the challenge where people think, well, I’m unsafe in the community, the solution is not trying to fix the wrong people having weapons, the solution is me having a weapon and that kind of continued escalation problem in the community in that general, I suppose, fear or discomfort building in local communities about how safe they are at present?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, everyone has a right to feel safe in their communities. And that’s what we have to be fighting for. And the president, President Biden, just laid out a set of steps that he was going to take at the federal level today that I think get right to your question. He laid out a five-pillar plan, a strategy that both deals with the flood of illegal guns into communities and the steps that we could take to get at gun trafficking, but also investing in community policing, investing in community-based organizations that have been proven to be so deeply effective that they can reduce shootings by 40, 50, 60%.

Rob Wilcox:

And these are just strategies that we know work but haven’t been funded in a way that would make the difference where a community will in fact become safer. And so I think the biggest difference I see is we have a president and we have a Gun Sense Congress that’s willing to fund and fight and support for those solutions. And so, that to me is the hope is that we both put in place the right policies that we know work, because they’ve been shown to work, but then we go and talk about them.

Rob Wilcox:

So folks know that this work is happening, and that we in fact have leaders in our communities that are fighting to make them safer. Because if we don’t talk about the things that we’re doing, then it’s easy to think that nothing’s happening. And it’s easy then to retreat into yourself and think that you’re the only person that can help yourself to stay safe and to stay safe in your home and in your community.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, you’ve touched on Biden’s presidency, it seems that you’ve got some hope that he can get the job done. Do you think he can get the job done?

Rob Wilcox:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’ve spoken, and in my professional life I’m a union campaigner, so I’m very familiar with the sort of ladders you’re discussing. I’m probably curious about if you and I were talking five years’ time on what do the markers look like for success in your mind, five years from now, what does success look like in this moment? What does success look like for Everytown when it comes to tackling this horrendous problem of gun violence, gun deaths, gun injuries, and all the associated aftermath?

Rob Wilcox:

Everytown’s theory of change is that by passing laws, changing culture, we can make for a safer country. But to me, honestly, the true marker is have we in fact saved lives? Have we in fact reduced shootings? Have we in fact made our city safer? I think that’s the only measure that truly matters to me is that families don’t feel like mine felt, communities don’t feel like mine has felt, and that that is how in five years’ time we can measure the success and we could measure the mark we’ve made is that in fact to your very point, people feel safer in their communities. People feel like the solutions we put in place are working and we continue to invest in those and we continue to fight for those to keep going down that path.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, there is no simple way for me to do this given the heavy nature of our conversation, but I am prompted to do it and I’m also a shocking host. So, my inability to transition to this last question, we’re talking about foreign policy or gun violence is notably terrible. But this key question that I asked every guest is compulsory question. You’re a foreign guest so you regrettably have to invite three Australians to your barbecue. But I know you mentioned at the beginning of that chat that you’ve been in Australia, so maybe easier for you than others. Three Aussies alive or dead at a barbecue with Rob, who are they, and why?

Rob Wilcox:

That’s a great question and that’s a great transition. So, I think by my first guest has to be a guy named Rob Bartram, Australian close friend, met him in law school over 10 years ago, stayed in touch. He works for this incredible company called SOURCE, which uses hydropanel technology to create water out of air. It is one of the most incredible things that I’ve ever heard of. He actually partnered with Patty Mills to bring it to rural parts of Australia. It’s an international company. They do incredible work. I don’t get to see him nearly enough.

Rob Wilcox:

And so, if I had a chance to have a barbecue, he’d be guest number one. I think second, I would probably be bringing in Chris Hemsworth, because my son and I have been watching the Marvel movies and the Thor character is just someone that my boy loves. And I think he’s a great actor and would love to spend time with him and hear about his roles and how he approaches his work. And probably the last is Neville Bonner, who I think is just a really incredible political figure who went against the odds and it will be someone that will be great to learn from and hear from.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, mate, fascinating choice. But Hemsworth has not come up on the show yet, surprisingly enough. So you’re the first person who’s actually raise him, but I’m sure he’s very pleased. No doubt that he’s listening. But a great series of guests there at your barbecue. Now, mate, look, just congratulations on all the work that you do. As an Australian, it’s a huge student of the United States, a fan of the US. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’ve had family lived there for a long time. The issue of gun violence is perplexing to me as an Australian. I think it’s perplexing to many Australians. So congratulations on the work that you do. And I certainly wish you all the best from where I sit, mate. So thanks for coming on.

Rob Wilcox:

I appreciate the invitation. It’s been a great conversation.

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers mate. Take it easy.

 

Luke de Pulford – The Human Rights Fight: China, Democracy and Global Responsibility

Luke de Pulford is a global human right mpaigner, particularly in the areas of modern slavery and human rights abuses in China

He is a co-founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and the creator of ‘Arise’ an anti-slavery charity.

Luke sits as a Commissioner on the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and advises the World Uyghur Congress. In 2020 he was awarded the Bene Merenti medal by Pope Francis for his contribution to the anti-slavery movement—the youngest ever recipient.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Luke for a chinwag about why human rights abuses matter to us all, the abuse of Uyghurs in China and what can be done, the fight for democracy in Hong Kong, why global coordination is more important than ever and how the democracies can prevail over autocracies in the long run.

 

TRANSCRIPT:

 

Misha Zelinsky:

Luke, welcome to Diplomates. How are you mate?

Luke de Pulford:

I am very well indeed. Very pleased to be here. Thank you.

Misha Zelinsky:

And of course, we’re recording this via the magic of Zoom. You are in London, I believe?

Luke de Pulford:

I am indeed. It’s sunny West London today, the first time in at least two months. So-

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s very good. And well mate, look, what’s the place to start? But I thought we might start with, when we’ll go through some of the other things you’ve done throughout your really amazing career thus far. But we might start with perhaps the most high profile piece of work that you’ve got on the way at the moment, which is the IPAC, the International parliamentary Alliance on China. For those who don’t know, for those who aren’t super China watches, although a lot of my listeners are, can you maybe just explain what it is and then we might get into how and why you set it up?

Luke de Pulford:

Yeah. I mean the easiest way to describe it as an international and cross party group of backbench politicians that have just come together to try to reform their own countries approach to China Policy. In a nutshell, that’s what it is. And we started off with eight legislatures. I’m not saying parliaments because all countries, because they’re not all. We’ve got the EU as well, which is obviously across those lines. But it started off with eight and we’ve grown to 20 legislatures and over 200 members now from all political parties. And I mean, a very, very broad ideological spectrum. So that’s what IPAC is.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so how is it that you sort of a human rights campaign, how he ended up in this pretty interesting international space and why did you get involved?

Luke de Pulford:

It’s actually a great question because my training is not as a China analyst. I don’t really come at it from that angle. I come at it almost exclusively actually from the human rights angle which has led to the other stuff. So let me tell the story like this. I have been working in and around the UK parliament for the better part of 15 years now. And for that entire period, I’ve been working to try to defend persecuted minorities in various parts of the world. So for all of that period of time, there’s been some focus on persecuted minorities in China. That’s always been a motivating thing for me, not a great specialism, but a motivating thing for me. I did a lot on the persecution of Christians in China about a decade ago. Anyway, in about 2015, I had to do some work on something called the Modern Slavery Act.

Luke de Pulford:

I know you’ve had some recent legislation in Australia as well, molded along the same thing. Actually, your legislation is better than ours. But in 2015, I was quite involved in trying to make that act stronger and wanted to do more and modern slavery. I ended up founding a charity, which is actually my remunerated work and what takes up most of my time. And that’s an international charity that works in countries of origin from where people are trafficked and focuses on prevention. So we do work in Nigeria, Eastern Europe, Philippines, India, some other countries. Now, the more you get into this area of modern slavery and exploitation, the more you realize that there were just some massive elephants in the room. And it had been clear to me that whole period, I knew about the situation of Turkic minorities in Western China, or you guys and others.

Luke de Pulford:

I’d known about that for some time. I couldn’t understand why nobody in the anti-slavery community would ever speak about it. You’ve got all of these NGOs, you’ve got all of these governments. No one would ever say, “We reckon there are a million people in camps in Western China, is that not slavery? And then what about these forced labor transfer schemes that are happening all over their country? Tens of thousands of people being bused around, is that not slavery? What about this organ trafficking?” For those who don’t know, modern slavery and human trafficking, organ trafficking is just a category of that, falls under that category. Organ trafficking, there’s a lot of noise around that in China, a lot of disputed evidence, but a lot of noise. “Why does anyone ever talk about that?” So it led me to look into it more and to start to say to some of my colleagues, “Why is this massive enslaving nation here not ever spoken about as a perpetrator of human trafficking and modern slavery? This makes no sense.”

Luke de Pulford:

And this led me more and more into a position where I came to see the Chinese Communist Party, particularly as arguably the world’s biggest human rights abuser. But, and this is the crucial point, not just within their own boundaries, a human rights threat to the rest of the world as well. And we can unpack that a little bit more as we go on. But that led me to believe this something is got to be done about this. And we can’t do it merely from country to country where individual countries or individual politicians become sidelines, exposed, painted as extremists out there in the corner. Actually this ought to be a mainstream concern. And if the problem, if the thing preventing those people from speaking out is a lack of support, is a lack of international consensus, then that’s the problem that we need to try to confront.

Luke de Pulford:

So what we ended up doing is speaking to politicians, realizing all over the world, we were pushing on an open door. There’s so much concern about China. The biggest and the great sadness for me is that, that content is everywhere. It’s even in those belt and road countries where people are even less free to speak than they are in Western democracies. But those guys don’t feel able to get involved in IPAC, if you see what I mean. So we started building out the alliance from there developing its principles, making sure that it could hang together as a very diverse group. And that’s what we’ve been on ever since.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so I suppose one of the ways to judge the success of these types of ventures is how much you’ve gotten out of the scheme arm of the CCP. Now, my understanding is you’ve been named personally as a person colluding with Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong, who was obviously the owner of the Apple News outlet there and a very high profile person. Have you been personally targeted in other ways? I mean, what risks has this brought to you in sticking your neck out like this against an incredibly powerful globally forward projecting regime?

Luke de Pulford:

Well yeah. I mean, I’ve had for about 18 months some guy and I presume it’s a man in Hong Kong. I know he’s in Hong Kong because I traced in there who has created basically versions of my identity. Mainly spoofed email addresses, but other things as well, has written to a lot of people pretending to be me. He actually successfully resigned my Conservative Party membership, believe it or not. So he had gleaned enough information about me to go through the process to do that. I’ll be honest with you, I see it as a low level nuisance. People can overplay this stuff. It’s not a pleasant, I don’t care and I don’t see it as much of a threat. It bothers other people more than it bothers me. And what I have dealt with is extraordinarily low level compared to what some other people in this country have and elsewhere. Like the Uyghurs and Xi or the Hong Kong has over here, the intimidation that they’re going through is real.

Luke de Pulford:

I’ve just got some annoyance on the internet. So I don’t take it that seriously. But yeah, I think I’m on the radar. Not very high up on the radar, I don’t want to overblow it. I’m not particularly high-profile. I do a lot of the activity, I do a lot of the coordination. But they’re much more concerned with the figureheads. This is why you see them target Jimmy Lai in the way that they do. And it’s just association with Jimmy Lai that’s got me onto that list and the global times as occasionally had a pop. But it’s not at the level of many others, is what I want to say. So I don’t want to come across as pleading about how much of a tough time I have.

Luke de Pulford:

I’ve just got some idiot who sends emails in my name to colleagues, sometimes to family members, to my political party, and many others with what I hope would be transparently stupid emails. However, one of his email addresses was, and I’m not joking here, lukedepulford.saint@gmail.com. Now-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s not your email address?

Luke de Pulford:

No, that is not my email address. And the thing that was slightly annoying about it is that a lot of people responded to that believing I would have created that email address for myself. So that was the thing that was more upsetting than the intimidation itself.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I was going to say, made look as a labor guy. He might’ve been doing you a favor resigning you from the Conservative Party mate, but I certainly won’t make any comment about that now.Yeah.

Luke de Pulford:

Laughing

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I mean Luke, before we get into the specifics and I really want to dig into the specifics about human rights abuses in China by the CCP. What does success look like for the IPAC? Right? So obviously if you’ve got information being exchanged, and coordination between people concerned, and obviously I think a big focuses on it being bipartisan or nonpartisan, multi-partisan, I mean, in parliamentary democracies. But what does success look like in your role?

Luke de Pulford:

So that’d be honest that in two ways. IPAC really is primarily a campaigning organization in the sense that it tries to frame the debate. So in a superficial way, success for us would be governments, executives picking up on the stuff that we’re talking about, and that has happened. So one very good example, the revocation of extradition treaties with Hong Kong after the imposition of the national security law, that was an IPAC campaign. And the way that it worked, and it was a great affirmation of the whole model, was that we realized that this was an issue. We had an emergency meeting with a number of Hong Kong dissidents, and immediately these cross-party folk who’ve been selected for their ability to have influence within their own parties got to work. I mean, it was within 12 hours of that meeting that the Canadians had announced that they were going to revoke extradition treaty.

Luke de Pulford:

Why? Because is loved by his administration, and because Garnett, January was loved by his administration. And Garnett was able to say, “This is going to be a big party political headache unless as you move on it.” And he was saying, “We should be moving on it guys.” So it happened. And that set the tone, and we did something similar all over the world, including Australia. Now, that is a superficial way of saying these campaigns can work when they’re well deployed, strategically deployed in each jurisdiction. But there’s a more subtle way that IPAC is starting to bring about a sense of success which is that, in more exposed economies, economies which are more open to economic coercion like New Zealand and like some others. Before IPAC, there hadn’t been much of a skeptical corporates about China, and there isn’t that much anymore.

Luke de Pulford:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not overplaying it. But there are plans now for organ trafficking legislation in New Zealand that tries to deal with a problem in China, which were unthinkable before IPAC. So what’s happened there? What’s happened is that, what would have looked in New Zealand like very isolated backbenchers now has the implied credibility of a global network of very high profile politicians. And that bolsters their efforts in their countries, particularly for smaller nations for more exposed economies. So that is a big strategic thing for us as well, and where we’re going to do more and more of that. So you’ve got come two levels, say, you’ve got the campaign victories, and they’ve been some, and then you’ve got the building up of a broader movement that helps some of the smaller exposed nations. I think success is starting to look like that. The big answer to that though is that, overarching success is having G7 wide strategy on China and Alliance of Democracies moving together realizing just how perilous the threat posed by China is. And we’re a long way away from that.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I’m keen to get to that, but let’s let’s dig into the human rights piece that we’ve been dancing around. I mean, Luke, I think firstly, the most probably egregious and you’ve touched on a number. But I mean, the situation is Xinjiang with the Uighurs. I mean, perhaps firstly, a quick recap of what is happening, what are the reports that we know about what are the things that are being reported. And I suppose, how worried should we be and what responsibility do we have in democratic nations to act on this?

Luke de Pulford:

So a brief overview of I think where we are in terms of the evidence. We have a lot of credible evidence of mass extrajudicial detention, which I don’t think anybody disputes anymore of at least 1 million people at any one time. There is a credible evidence of forced labor, which affects many of our supply chains, many of our best known and best loved brands. You have credible reports of forced sterilization and birth prevention among ethnic groups, which again is not broadly disputed. And then you’ve got a whole load of stuff which we’re starting to hear about and is beginning to be corroborated that people aren’t really sure about. Things like family separation, we know that that’s happening but to what degree, it isn’t really known.

Luke de Pulford:

There’s a lot of speculation about those numbers, but we know that children are being taken away from their families and reeducated. We know that there are certainly cases of organ trafficking, how deeply they’re linked to the state. There is dispute about, although the China Tribunal in 2018 reporters, and it was pretty clear that a state sponsored forced organ harvesting in China. So taking those things as a broad picture, what you end up with is the consideration of whether or not these things taken together constitute crimes against humanity and/or genocide. And those things are international crimes with international definitions. So I mean, I guess where the question goes is, “How are they going to managing genocide?” And the reason-

Misha Zelinsky:

And so let [inaudible 00:14:54] that because I mean the definitions in this space are important, right? And that’s been evolving quite a bit in recent times. So can’t believe that.

Luke de Pulford:

They are hugely important. But the irritating thing is, it’s also a bit of a misnomer because them being international crimes, we will only ever know if China has committed genocide if there is a court judgment saying that they have. And the same for crimes against humanity. So everything that we’re dealing with now is speculative. So you’ll get a load of information, and a lawyer could produce a legal opinion. And the most damning conclusion that a lawyer could reach now is, “We think that there’s a good case that,” which is what they’ve done. So we had two very weighty legal opinions. One from Essex Court Chambers who were subsequently sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party, who produced a very weighty legal opinion. Which concluded that there was a very, very good case to be made that China had committed both crimes against humanity and genocide. On the basis that the grounds of the genocide convention and the grounds required the legal thresholds for crimes against humanity were clearly met.

Luke de Pulford:

And more importantly, that the intent was there. And this is the problem with genocide. It’s establishing intent is the problem. It’s an extremely high bar. It’s very rare. And for that reason, people shy away from it understandably. The problem, and allow me to digress ever so slightly on this. The problem with genocide is that we are bound not just to punish the thing. Signatory to the Genocide Convention are bound to prevent it as well. So you are bound to prevent and punish genocide. And it is not possible to prevent genocide if you are unable to use the word genocide without a court determination, without having prosecuted somebody. Genocide prosecutions, bear with me, take decades, decades. Everyone will be dead by the time anyone in China is prosecuted for genocide if and when they are.

Luke de Pulford:

So the question for us as democratic states, and this is the really difficult conundrum becomes, “When do you act to prevent a genocide according to your legal duties, your duties under the Genocide Convention, when do you act to prevent it?” My argument would be, if you have very weighty tomes from numerous, very diverse international sources saying that, “It seems as if the grounds for genocide the match. And it seems as if there is intent or at least some evidence of intent.” I believe that triggers our duty to prevent. And the problem is, we’re not doing any of that. So we’re hiding from it. People don’t like these duties. They don’t like the Genocide Convention. Like in the UK, our policy is not to use the word genocide at all until there is a court determination. Hence, we failed to use the word in association with what was happening to Yazidis and other religious minorities [inaudible 00:17:56] about the clearest and most obvious genocide and recent times in my view. Haven’t used it in relation to what’s happened to the Rohingya.

Luke de Pulford:

Didn’t use it back in Rwanda, didn’t use it around the time of [inaudible 00:18:06]. The UK has never succeeded in recognizing a genocide while one was ongoing. Why? Because of this policy, which requires everyone to be dead in order to act. So my big argument around it would be, “Guys, let’s not get too caught up in whether or not we believe that this legal threshold is met. What we have to do is say, “All right, are there reasonable, diverse, independent objective of analysts who believe there is a case that there may be genocide attacks taking place in that part of the country?”” Okay. And that case governments have a very, very strong duty to try to act to prevent. And that is the duty placed upon us by the Genocide Convention. And we’re failing in that duty right now.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so then what does action look like? So leaving aside this complexity around the relationship between the legal avenues and the politics. What is actual action look like? So let’s say we were to… And Luke, I mean, we know that the CCPs attitudes international judgments, the law of the sea, et cetera, with the South China Sea, annexations are pretty dubious. Anyway, what does action look like? What does meaningful intervention look like when dealing with this question of exploitation, the way you’ve described it the way it is?

Luke de Pulford:

Again, very difficult question to answer and the reason being that no one’s ever done it. So while you’ve had the US take a very different approach to the rest of the world. They’ve made political, what we would call political determinations of genocide, rather than legal ones. So the UK defers to the legal system. The US has happy to say, “We recognize genocide.” But because they have a different relationship to the Genocide Convention, it doesn’t lead on to the corresponding action that we might expect. So after the Yazidis, stuff happened, don’t get me wrong, but not in a way that we would have normally framed it. So let me answer it like this. The ICJ, so the International Court of Justice, Bosnia case was quite clear. It tried to probe this and say, “What are our country’s duties? What is actually triggered here when countries believe that a genocide might be developing.” It is very, very clear. It says that it has to use all available means to try to bring it to an end or reasonable available means.

Luke de Pulford:

And that’s a very, very broad gambit there like, “What does that mean?” Well, I would say what it doesn’t mean is deepening bilateral trade with that country, which is what the UK is currently doing. Dominic Raab on the one hand says they have industrial scale human rights abuses. Those are his words, that’s a quote. And then on the other hand, we find that we are reopening economic and financial dialogue and JETCO economic summit with them. That is not consistent. You can’t do that. That makes no sense. That is not consistent with our international obligations. So it doesn’t mean that. Well, it could well mean, all the way anything along this very, very long spectrum of possible bilateral and then multilateral actions, which start with, I think certainly reducing dependency move into punitive economic sanctions and then into multilateral action, multilateral sanctions.

Luke de Pulford:

And then there are a whole load of other actions that we’d never want to talk about and hope never got up to and including some degree of humanitarian intervention which I wouldn’t advocate and certainly, certainly not now. But that ought to be on the table and has been on the table in the past when people have been talking about mass atrocity crimes, okay? So not talking about China, but talking generally humanitarian intervention has been something which has been, generally speaking conceptually on the radar as-

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve got Bosnia for example in the ’90s.

Luke de Pulford:

Exactly. Yeah. So nuclear option very, very worst case scenario. This is something which has been on the radar for the international community, I wouldn’t advocate it for China. But you see what I mean? There’s a very broad spectrum. And right now I’d look at the international community and say, “Are you doing that stuff?” And the answer is a resounding, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, it sounds like you would probably advocate for things like tariffs on the cotton produce from Xinjiang, which is 85% of China’s cotton production comes from there. And an enormous amount of that obviously goes into global textile production. So the brands that we’re used to that that seems like an obvious place. I’m seeing more pressure coming in companies like that, like H&M for example, and Nike and others. But a little bit more of a specific example. There’s a lot to talk about the Winter Olympics coming up in Beijing. What’s the world’s obligation here in terms of boycotting it? I’m seeing it coming on the radar United States, Nancy Pelosi’s talked about partial boycott, which is essentially the fleets would go, but dignitaries wouldn’t. How do you see that given that, Olympic games, one are, a celebration of humanity and two are, arguably, opportunities for propaganda and global soft power projection?

Luke de Pulford:

So the Olympic games, part of the reason that they’re so resistant to any involvement or capitulating to pressure around human rights abuse is very reasonable. Having this global show of unity is important, and they’ve a long history of doing that. The Olympic truce is a very ancient thing. It was supposed to be a way of waring nations allowing people to get to the games back in ancient times. Olympic truce is very old. I think the argument around what’s happening in Western China is that, on this, let’s say sliding scale of abuses, some things are simply beyond the pale. And enabling a big international sporting event implies this credibility, impeach credibility to that nation that it does not deserve. And arguably makes the situation worse and imperils them.

Luke de Pulford:

So this is an argument I think now has real traction and can’t be denied. There’s a lot of opposition to an outright boycott. So IPAC is going to be doing something on this fairly soon. But even within this broad alliance of politicians, there is disagreement. There are people who wouldn’t wants to punish athletes who have spent four years training for something. It’s not their fault that the IOC has decided to do this and in Beijing. Why should they suffer? And you can see that there is a strong argument there. So some of us who are working on this same has started saying, “Well, why don’t we move the games, then it shouldn’t be there. There are lots of places that could put on a Winter Olympics and make short notice, what’s wrong with that?” And then the IOC said that they weren’t considering moving it.

Luke de Pulford:

So I think where it’s moving now is towards a diplomatic and commercial boycott, which is what Nancy Pelosi was talking about. And which I think enjoys pretty broad consensus. And I’d be surprised if that didn’t end up having major traction with executives. But I’d say this, in 1980, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the response to that was the US trying to lead a boycott of the games which were Russia, well in Soviet Union. And that boycott had huge success. Some people have forgotten about this. Mohammed Ali went around the world trying to persuade nations to stay away, he was quite successful. And some of these videos were quite hilarious. He was sent by Jimmy Carter and he went knocking on doors in African nations saying, “Don’t go to the Olympics.”

Luke de Pulford:

So I would just say, people are looking upon this as some kind of a really awful thing. We’ve done it before, we did it with good reason before. It resulted an accountable boycott the next Olympic Games by the way, in 1984. So it was all a bit of a mess. But I would put the question pretty simply, “Is what the Soviets did to Afghanistan worse than what the Chinese government is doing to Turkic Muslims and other minorities in Northwest China.” My strong response to that would be, no. And if it is show me the evidence. Because I don’t understand why 2 million people in concentration camps isn’t bad enough for us to think again about legitimizing the state which is perpetrating it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, specifically talking about the state, the CCP, the party apparatus itself. One other area of I suppose, retaliation that democracies can impose have been broadly used against the Russians. But is this concept of the Magnitsky tiebacks were essentially sanctioned senior members of a regime for particular acts and prevent them from being able to travel or move money, et cetera. I mean, do you advocate for those types of things? I mean, that would be a bit more targeted way of dealing with some of these challenges, but of course brings enormous diplomatic risk.

Luke de Pulford:

Yes, I do. And you’re right. It does bring diplomatic risks. It’s quite funny actually, while we were pushing for the genocide amendment over here in the UK, which was a way of trying to get through this policy difficulty around genocide in the UK. Because there won’t ever be an international court case dealing with China because China will block it, but that’s a whole other point. But when we were dealing with that, I know that there were internal government conversations saying, “Should we just bring forward these Magnitsky sanctions?” And the response within government was, “That will be worse for us in this genocide of the member.” So you’re right. I think a huge diplomatic bounty is placed on the Magnitsky style approach. And that’s why I believe that they can be so valuable. But, and I’ve said this to Bill Browder and I don’t think he would disagree. “They are not a substitute for multi-lateral or binational action led by governments. And they can’t just be an excuse to get on with dealing with a perpetrating government, a government which has perpetrating human rights abuse because you’ve just singled out one of them.”

Luke de Pulford:

If we know anything about the Chinese Communist Party is that, these people don’t act unilaterally as if it was their idea to pursue genocidal policies in the Uighur region. I mean, come on, give me a break. The whole argument being made here is that this is a governmental approach. So for us to back Magnitsky and only Magnitsky and say, “Oh, well that gets us off the hook for pursuing proper bilateral sanctions or multilateral sanctions is a real cop-out.” And I think we need to be clear about that.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so one thing I’m sort of curious about, I mean, I talked about it a little bit you were very, I think, brave in the way you dismissed concerns. But you can see governments being afraid of taking on the might of the CCP, right? So how do we deal with this challenge where the CCP is very belligerent when it wants to be about punishing those who don’t acquiesce to the party line or be that Chinese nationals or diaspora living in Western nations or indeed governments like apparently in Australia. We’ve got an enormous trade sections being posed on Australia as a result of a number of foreign policy and domestic decisions we’ve made in protection of our own sovereignty. How do you stand up to that? I mean, is it that little bit of that strengthened numbers piece you talked about with New Zealand or are there other ways?

Luke de Pulford:

Yeah, I think there other are ways and your right to point it out. People forget very easily that, particularly members of the Chinese Communist Party abroad are subject to party discipline. They can’t just go about their day integrating into the society in a way that you would normally expect. And even those Chinese nationals who are not members of the CCP are still, I mean, countless examples of this, monitored for their behavior. So I’ll give you an example. I mean, just this week, we were talking to the master of Jesus College Cambridge about various things that have been happening there. Its controversial relationship between that college and China. Which they strongly dispute, but everybody else thinks that they got too cozy. Anyway, a deputy foreign minister at the Chinese embassy to the UK keeps turning up at their events. And basically intimidates people, puts provocative stuff in the chats on Zooms and it makes careful notes of who’s turning up and that kind of thing

Luke de Pulford:

In that situation, the presence of somebody like that is in direct conflict or tension with the whole notion of academic freedom, particularly for those students who don’t enjoy it. Can’t possibly enjoy any sense of academic freedom if they’re having people like that breathing down the neck. Now, the reason I raise that example is, it shows the depth of the Malays here and what has been, I think Western democracy is very much asleep on the watch while this kind of stuff has happened. The reason I don’t really like this narrative, and I speak from the perspective of somebody who politically is quite across the spectrum myself. One of the reasons that having me try to maintain IPAC has kind of worked.

Luke de Pulford:

I really hate this whole reds under the bed stuff. And I do not want to be a part of any initiative which promotes suspicion of people who look like they have Eastern or Southeast Asian heritage, which has become a big, big problem, particularly on coronavirus origins. So I hate this stuff, but at the same time feel that we have to recognize what is actually going on here. And we haven’t really found a vernacular and a way of doing that, which sufficiently separates out the party from people. And because it’s a very difficult thing to do. And the Chinese Communist Party itself is spending so much political capital and effort in conflating those things. The nationalistic narrative exists for that purpose. Whether or not hand chauvinism has struggled in the Chinese Communist Party or not is another question.

Luke de Pulford:

But the fact that there’s been a resurgence in it and that ethnic nationalism is unquestionable, and you see that playing out. So that puts us in a tough position, “What are we supposed to do in response to that?” Well, I think the first thing is that, if we’re going to act against foreign interference, and if we’re going to act to protect our critical infrastructure, but then also our institutions of national life, our academic framework and the rest of it. If we’re going to do all of that successfully, we have to do that in a way which bears responsibility for the possible consequences of those actions. So what I’ve been advocating for, and this is a long way of saying, we actually need to ensure that there is a very deep rooted anti-racism work that goes alongside of it. Unfortunately, that’s a position that we can put in by the Chinese Communist Party. But I would strongly argue for us seeing those things as going in parallel, it’s too much of a risk otherwise.

Misha Zelinsky:

And it is increasingly difficult because of the CCP claims agency and ownership and demands fealty from the entire Chinese diaspora around the world. And of course China’s communities are not monolithic, but it is difficult when the regime itself the blender to, as you touched on now it. We spend all the time talking about Xinjiang, but actually I want to talk about particularly region of China that is obviously closely line to United Kingdom, traditionally relating to Hong Kong. I mean, given everything that’s happened there in terms of the crushing of the democratic movement in Hong Kong and they’ve unfortunately accelerated under the cover of coronavirus. I mean, do you still think that the UK or the Commonwealth has a special responsibility in what is the role of the UK particularly, but also nations like Australia in either push you back and what’s happening there, offering safe haven to those that want to get out?

Luke de Pulford:

So the UK has particular responsibilities, not just because of the longstanding relationship through colonialism then afterwards. We negotiated the treaty, the Sino British Joint Declaration. And that treaty puts an obligation upon us to safeguard and to protect Hong Kong’s way of life and autonomy. So those are very strong obligations that are on us. Now, the UK believes that it has discharged those obligations through the BNO scheme. Which for those who don’t know the, British National Overseas Passport scheme. So this is complicated, but there was a category of British national in Hong Kong for a while. So they have passports. And what the UK has said is that, those people who are eligible for BNO status British National Overseas status can come and live in the UK, and they have a pathway to citizenship.

Luke de Pulford:

So in terms of it like an immigration scheme for the UK, it is extremely generous. But it does nothing to uphold the way of life and autonomy of the people of Hong Kong. Being rude about it, it’s basically a surrender tactic. And the UK hasn’t done anything the whole time to account for totally destroying that treaty. And here’s the key point, and this is why it affects Australia. That treaty isn’t just the custody of the UK. It was launched at the United Nations. So all of the nations of the United Nations should bear responsibility for its implementation.

Luke de Pulford:

There have been no efforts, the whole China to account for breaking that treaty at the UN. No one has done anything on that. So what I would say is that, “Yeah. Okay. So a lifeboat scheme better than nothing.” Of course, it is. And for democratic nations to come together and to almost share the load, because there’s quite a lot of people who want to leave. Between them, I think is a good thing, but the BNO scheme has big gaps as well. And Australia could be one of the nations filling those gaps. For example, the BNO scheme doesn’t apply to anybody born after 1997. That’s most of the people who are on the streets of Hong Kong protesting.

Misha Zelinsky:

So youth led movement. Yeah.

Luke de Pulford:

So who’s the scheme for in the UK? And who’s going to pick up the slack for those people? Where they’re going to go? Those questions have been posed and not in my view adequately answered yet. But the lifeboat scheme is basically accepting that Hong Kong has been destroyed by China. And the only way for the people there to live anything remotely akin to their previous lives is to leave. Well, not good enough. We’re running away from holding this nation accountable. And it’s our legal responsibility, Australia is too because they’re a part of this group of nations which is supposed to uphold and emboss the Sino British Joint Declaration. So yeah, there’s a responsibility not just UK and Commonwealth, but UN.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one of the things, and we’ve touched on it. One of the sort of talking points from the CCP when the issues of domestic human rights abuses in China are raised either they’re denied or they devolve into whataboutism, right? So they like to play our own somewhat dubious, obviously records in the west historically. Whether it be British colonialism or in Australia, it’s treatment of indigenous or White Australia policy. Or even recently in Germany saying to the Germans, “Well, you guys would know what genocide looks like,” right? So I suppose, how important is getting our own house in order, but then also, how do you ensure that these arguments don’t devolve into tit for tat whataboutism and actually still focus on the stamping out of the behavior that we have been discussing?

Luke de Pulford:

I think the answer is simple, logic really, and governments growing a pair being a bit brutal about it. But if their answer to, we’ve got human rights abuses is you had historic human rights abuses. Then the answer is just got to be logical. That’s irrelevant. That has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on your existing human rights abuses. And it certainly does not. It certainly doesn’t diminish your culpability. So actually Reinhard Butikofer, who’s an MEP co-chair for IPAC and an very senior green. But also the EU’s point personal on Chinese, sort of heads up whatever the the committee is there on China. And it’s great. He really knows China. His answers to this was really interesting.

Luke de Pulford:

He gave a quote that said, something along the lines of, “The Holocaust cannot be used as a political football for rhetorical gain. If you believe that invoking that is going to absolve you from your responsibilities, always going to somehow deflect from the fact that you still haven’t allowed in any kind of independent investigation into interest Xinjiang, you’re mistaken.” I think that’s the right line. I think we just have to be a bit firmer about it and brutally logical in saying, “It’s got nothing to do with it.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Zooming out a little. Yeah. I mean, we’ve talked about human rights, which is like a global universal principle. But they are constructs traditionally at least in the modern sense of democracies and liberal democracies. And so what we’re really seeing in many ways here is a contest between autocracies and democracies. And I suppose, the alliances you’re talking about are alliances indeed amongst democracies. You’ve discussed the putting in broadening these alliances and not necessarily in a cold war sense, but certainly nations with mutually aligned interests working together. But are you confident that democracies can prevail against autocracies? Because a lot of people when you look at arguably the way perhaps China’s handled COVID, versus perhaps more challenging way it’s been dealt within European Nations, United Kingdom and US. How do you see that challenge?

Luke de Pulford:

Well, I think democracies can and will prevail on the basis that the market based system is far more responsive to them. The free flow of information, the notion of trust and of relative independence from the government are really essential commercial tools. And when you remove those, it doesn’t work that well. I think for that reason alone, quite apart from the fact that people prefer freedom, is one of the reasons that even the so-called might of the Chinese Communist Party is no match for it. And you can see this, they’ve attempted to create their own financial centers outside of Hong Kong, and really struggled. Why? Because they lack the core ingredients for a successful market flow. It’s just, I can’t see it happening for them in a much broader sense.

Luke de Pulford:

And it’s why that they’ve taken the strategic tech they have in terms of expanding their power. Now I think things will probably get a little bit worse before they get better with the current situation. But they can’t continue forever. It’s a bit difficult thing to predict in the context of the CCP, just because it’s very closed and it’s messy. And my read of it is that, the decisions which are being made at the top level of the CCP strategic decisions, but especially diplomatic decisions, are more and more wrong-headed. Which is quite typical if you look at the history of authoritarianism quite typical of a pattern whereby the worst things seem to get the smaller the circle of advisors gets in the worst of mistakes. That’s where we are with the CCP right now. Now, I’m not predicting that the thing will die anytime soon. But it is not in a healthy place.

Misha Zelinsky:

And a lot of analysts say, when you look at the regime of Xi Jinping, a lot of it’s driven by paranoia. Firstly, the paranoia of how his family was removed originally, and then the way he was pushed right to the fringe. That he deeply understands what it is to be removed from power. And so that paranoia drives so much of the decision making. But what is interesting, not withstanding all the troubles we’ve seen in the United States for the last four years, that China has driven so many native its neighboring nations and nations around the world back into, I suppose, not the arms of the Americans, but certainly wanting to deepen alliances. Which is quite instructive really, when you look at the behaviors being counterproductive notwithstanding how concerning it is.

Luke de Pulford:

Yeah. Very much so. And I mean, the best example of this is fact that they managed to destroy, or at least put on ice their comprehensive investment agreement deal with the EU. Which Germany had pushed for like hell they pushed so hard for that. They couldn’t have pushed harder. They rammed it through at the last minute. And the European Parliament, we’re going to have to go along with it. Well, they’ve somehow managed to unite the entire European parliament against them who have just voted through resolution saying, “This thing isn’t going to happen until you lift the sanctions.” Well, I mean, that’s a profound act of self-harm from China, which can only have occurred within the context that you set out. So for those reasons and many more, it’s not going to be around forever. And I am one of those people who are not that backward about being forward about saying that that party regime is a bad thing and the sooner it’s gone the better.

Misha Zelinsky:

And do you hold out hope for… I mean, there was always this the thesis, China will get rich and then it will become democratic. And then a lot of people have subsequently… Some people hanging on to that thesis, but increasingly people are being persuaded by the behavior and the evidence. But do you believe, I mean, some people will also argue in that context that Asian societies or Confucian societies don’t want democracy or have no history of democracy. They’re more comfortable in more centralized governing or totalitarian type regimes. Do you accept that, firstly, and then do you think that democracy in China is possible?

Luke de Pulford:

Oh, it’s certainly possible. And that’s one of the reasons that Taiwan is so viciously hated because it’s a clear example. Now, I would with the conversation slightly different. I want to frame it slightly differently. If you look at the things that Xi Jinping said, it’s quite that, that tendency towards opening up and democracy, but also to human rights is not completely alien to the people of China. Some of the people who played a part in the draftsmanship of the Universal Declaration of Human Right were Chinese drafters. This is often forgotten about. So we need to be careful of playing too much into the narrative that there is a Confucian or ethnocentric value system, which is going to project something new upon the world which will bring about a more stable and successful civilization. Because that is just a part of that nationalistic narrative.

Luke de Pulford:

It’s not actually true. And the history of China is way more complex than that, with lots of different tracks strands of thinking. What I would say is that the human rights project, and this is why we have to wake up and smell the coffee. The Human Rights Project, the principles of universality around individual human dignity and everything that flows from those. They were tolerance, all of the principles that undergirds the Universal Declaration and then the Principle Human Rights Instruments of the UN, they were forged in the aftermath of the Holocaust because people didn’t want that to happen again. And they were very, very hard one. What we see now is a Chinese Communist Party, which wants to remake the hierarchy of rights. You very explicitly stated with economic and social rights at the top, and the sort of fundamental inalienable rights that we talk about, are which were supposed to be about the founding purposes of the whole bloody thing at further down the hierarchy subjugated to economic and social rights and security, that kind of stuff.

Luke de Pulford:

And rights to security, terrifying things, which through the lens through which they would justify what they’re doing in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Now, as Trump has retreated from the UN and a number of other nations, rather than engaging in realizing, “This is our common project, the genie’s out of the bottle here, and we’ve got to protect this thing. These custodian institutions for what we believe.” That vacuum has been filled by the CCP. And they are very successfully undermining that institution and changing into something else. We must not make the mistake of saying that the thing they’re trying to change it into is more compatible with Chinese people. I think that’s false. I think it is more compatible with a particular ideology pursued by this particular government, which wouldn’t have even been pursued 15, 20 years ago by Chinese government. So let’s be really careful and nuanced about that narrative I think. And distinguished as much as we possibly can, but also advocate for people waking up. Because use it or lose it, the UN it’s well on the way out.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I’m curious, I mean, you’ve talked about the UN, that you’ve still got hope for it or not to say it’s quixotic. But what we’re seeing more of, is what is so-called minilateralism where you see things like the quad where India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, or perhaps there’s talk of a D-10 where you have the democratic nations of the G7 there. Do you still favor going through the, I suppose, the core multilateral institutions not withstanding their dysfunction?

Luke de Pulford:

We need both, but we need to be very wary of creating lots of many UN 2.0, 3.0, 4.0. The reason being that the genius out of the bottle with the UN. We’ve created a huge multilateral institution with huge power and huge legitimacy. And if we retreat from that, it’ll just be remade in a slightly different image and an image which isn’t faithful to its founding purposes. That is what’s happening at the moment. So I wouldn’t say let’s not do these smaller things. I think we should, but we shouldn’t do them to the detriment of the UN. And we certainly shouldn’t let them be an excuse for a treat from the UN.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so just one last question before we get to the trademark final, a hokey question of this show. But we talked about, verifiable things out of Xinjiang about what’s happening there, but you’re someone that obviously is anchored. In fact. How do we promote… This challenge between, and again, it’s principally between authoritarian and totalitarian states, but it’s also exists within Western discourses about misinformation, counter narratives and the ability to discern what’s true and what is not. And COVID is a great example where China has been desperately trying to put out counter narratives about what’s happening. And you’re seeing even in Europe with Russian misinformation campaigns relating to vaccine hesitancy. How do we actually promote that? And how do we secure ourselves against misinformation campaigns in that sense?

Luke de Pulford:

Honestly, I think it’s extremely difficult. I don’t have the answers to it. And then it manifests in so many ways. So for example, right now there’s a bit of a row going on within the Uyghur community about a couple of testimonies that came out which are exaggerated. Now, apart from being a bit of a gift to the Chinese Communist Party, part of the problem is that, there’s this huge onus on journalists and the people reporting this stuff to do you do what they can in terms of verification. And it is extremely difficult for all reasons to tell the difference between, not just fact and fiction, but fact and then a little bit of embellishment. Which is often what you’re dealing with. Now, that’s just in microcosm a problem within the wider community. When you start talking about broader disinformation, like the kind of disinformation which has been pumped into Taiwan recently, how do you deal with that kind of thing?

Luke de Pulford:

I don’t think that we’ve got a very coherent plan for you all, to be honest. Luckily, I would say that right now from the stuff that I see, is not really sophisticated enough in the West to claim many hearts or minds. And you’ve probably seen this phenomenon with a load of Westerners who get paid money presumably, I don’t know where from. But it’s got to originate with the Chinese government somewhere to make apologetic videos about what’s happening in China and how great China is. I mean, it’s just not persuasive. It does not persuade anyone as far as I’m aware. And if it does, I’d be really surprised, and load of inflated viewing figures and likes. None of it’s particularly real, but it will get more sophisticated. So I’m not answering your question particularly well-

Misha Zelinsky:

And the Russians are much better at it than the CCP, right? They’re far more sophisticated in their PSYOPs. I mean, I’m not suggesting you have the answer, but I guess I’m more curious about how much does it undermine the work you do specifically. Because, as you said, you’ve got this challenge where you’re trying to verify things, but then actively being undermined at the same time. And when everything’s true, and I think it’s true. And that’s the aim, right? Of these regimes.

Luke de Pulford:

I would say, I don’t think it’s got to that level of sophistication certainly in the UK yet as far as I’ve seen. The bigger threat is the threat from within, which comes from people who have predicated their entire careers on being nice to China or this idea that China is going to open up. I’m not trying to say that these people, they’re not bad people. And there are a lot of people mainstream folk who believed that that would happen. The difficulty is that quite a number of people in positions of power now are really hit to that wagon, and they won’t let go. So they’re the people talking about the needs to have a more nuanced relationship with China, not to view everything through the prism of human rights, this kind of stuff.

Luke de Pulford:

You can’t have a bilateral relationship which is just about human rights. This is the argument they’re trying to mount now, and it’ll have some traction. And they’re more of a threat because what they do is, they absolve the UK or other nations from having to act. They give them a reason not to, and at the same time as diminishing the scale of the consent. So what you will find in the UK is that the guys who talk about nuance are also the most skeptical about the evidence. So I think different disinformation plays into that a little bit, for sure. But I actually believe that we harm ourselves way more than the disinformation campaigns are harming us.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well. And that’s a really great place too. I mean, I think you and I can talk about this for it a long time. But I’m going to have to let you get on with your day. But I can’t let you go without answering the textbook question I ask every guest here, which is the Diplomates barbecue question. Now, I’m sure you’re a little bit horrified at this prospect as a poem, but as a foreign guest, you have to invite three Ozzies. So three convicts from the Antipodes. So barbecue at Luke’s – who are they and why?

Luke de Pulford:

First of all, let me clarify it. Can they be dead?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. If that makes you happier than they can absolutely be dead, man.

Luke de Pulford:

So my first and this is very sincere because this is one of the people I admire most in Australian history. But not just in Australia history, but anywhere. I’m going to go with Saint Mary MacKillop. Now, I don’t know if this is a name that means much to you, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

It does actually. Yeah.

Luke de Pulford:

Incredible woman who founded the Joseph order. He was a bee in the bonnet of anybody who tried to hold her under authority. Remarkably entrepreneurial woman who gave her life to those who were suffering. I think she’s amazing. And the Ozzie should make more of a noise about her in my view. 19th century, Australian Saint canonized in 2010 when I was living in Rome. So yeah, I’m a fan. Now the next, I was joking about this. But I thought I know barbecue is complete without being an argument. And I would love to sit down this controversial guy, Jeff Robbie. You know this guy?

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, Yeah. Robbie, the former ambassador. Oh mate, you guys would get on like a house on fire. He’s a noted China dove if we can put it in those terms.

Luke de Pulford:

Absolutely. But I think I found it very interesting that when China was retaliating against Australia by imposing ridiculous tariffs on your wine, his white line of wine because he’s also an entrepreneur and has his own vineyards, was one of the lines that didn’t suffer. He unfortunately didn’t have very heavy tariffs placed upon him, and I leave it to any-

Misha Zelinsky:

And now its just a coincidence, mate. I’m sure those are just-

Luke de Pulford:

That’s the coincidence. But I quite like to have an argument with a guy-

Misha Zelinsky:

Maybe some wines, no doubt. But he can bring it.

Luke de Pulford:

Not some of his wine, I don’t think I’ve heard bad things. And then finally, this was a toss up between Nick Cavan and Kim Kitchen. But I’m going to at the risk of seeming as if I’m brown nosing one of my co-chairs. I just think Kim kitchen is a lovely person. And I’d love to have a barbecue with her, which I haven’t been able to do yet.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I know Kim very well. She’s a listener of the show. So I’m especially to go to thrill. But yeah, a senator and does a lot of good work and she’s actually been pushing one of important action around acknowledgement the atrocities occurring in Xinjiang. So you’ve got a site, a former ambassador such a wine entrepreneur and an Ozzy Labor Senator, mate. So it’s a good mix, no doubt.

Luke de Pulford:

Barbecues of mine are always a great laugh, as you can see.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, mate, Luke, thanks so much for coming on. Congratulations on all the work you’ve been doing to date and keep it up and we’ll hope to stay in touch.

Luke de Pulford:

Pleasure is all to me. Thank you very much.

 

Chris Pyne – The Insider: Politics, Party and Parliament

Chris Pyne was the Federal Member for Sturt for 26 years.

He was Leader of the House and held a number of senior Cabinet ministries, including that of defence.

Pyne’s autobiography ‘The Insider’ is a fantastic account of life in the Canberra Bubble but also a deep dive into serious public policy and defence policy in particular.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Chris for a chinwag about his career in politics. They talk about his bruising preselection in his 20s, the politics of politics, the horror show that was the 43rd Parliament, the task of rebuilding Australia’s military capabilities, what’s holding back an Australian nuclear industry, dealing with a rising Chinese Communist Party superpower, how the west can address the Uighur challenge and why politics shouldn’t be personal.

Show notes:

@mishazelinsky @diplomates.show

Keep sending your questions through, we love reading and answering them!

We were in the top 15 shows in Australia last episode – so thanks for your ongoing support.

Please rate, review and share!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Chris Pyne, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Chris Pyne:

What’s it called?

Misha Zelinsky:

Diplomates, get it?

Chris Pyne:

Diplomates?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Chris Pyne:

Oh, that’s cool.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. It’s a pun.

Chris Pyne:

Indeed. Diplomates.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thank you for coming on.

Chris Pyne:

It’s a pleasure, Misha, thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh well, very excited to chat to you. So being through, we read your book recently and there’s many things we can talk about particularly around current affairs but I wanted to start at the beginning of your political career. I was quite struck, you’ve basically effectively blasted your way into parliament at a very young age.

Chris Pyne:

Yeah, it’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:

Maybe I was just thinking, what was that like? And then upon reflection, how do you look back on that? I mean to go in there in the way that you did must have been quite an extraordinary experience.

Chris Pyne:

At the time it seemed like the most normal thing to do, which is very unusual. But I guess, I decided to go into parliament when I was in about year 10 and I was 15 and I thought, well, I’ll be the member for Sturt because all the power is shifting to Canberra and so I like state politics but not enough to go into it. I thought, well I’ll be the member for Sturt because I live in Sturt, and I’ll do that in about 10 years. I thought that seemed like a plan.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you set yourself that timetable?

Chris Pyne:

I did. And I left school and I joined the Liberal Party, the Burnside branch, the Young Liberals and the Liberal Students all in the same day in December 1984, which was the orientation day at Adelaide Uni. I became president of all of those things and by 1992, and ’91 really, I thought… Well, actually Ian Wilson, my predecessor who’d been in parliament for 20 something years, since 1966, and then he had a three year break. Another guy challenged him called Jim Durden in late 1991, and so I spent about a month ringing the opinion makers in the eastern suburbs of Adelaide in the Liberal Party saying, “If Jim Durden wins, there’s only two safe seats in Adelaide, Sturt and Boothby, and I don’t really have any claim on Boothby so maybe I should be running.”

Chris Pyne:

Because secretly I was planning always to be running. They all said, “Oh yes, you must give it a go.” So in January I nominated against Ian in 1992, and got preselected on April 28th 1992, and it was the most hideous preselection. When you say I blasted my way in, it was a record breaker for South Australian hideousness. We had two appeals to the Party Appeal Tribunal, we had QCs and barristers and lots of terrible media, an independent liberal ran against me, Michael Pratt was the independent liberal and there were no confidence motions at every meeting and it was just ghastly. But, on March the 13th I raised the trophy above my head and I had won. So yes, I did blast my way in and at the time it seemed kind of like this is what you’re supposed to do.

Misha Zelinsky:

And looking back on it now?

Chris Pyne:

Looking back at it now I think Misha, I must have been completely crackers to think that a 24 year old would end up in parliament and they should then be chosen soon after for the ministry. When I arrived in Canberra of course I was a bit like a fish on a bicycle. John Howard would have looked at me thinking what am I supposed to do with him? The first thing I’m going to do is keep him out of trouble because 25, I mean I’m not sure how old you are but when you’re 25 you think you know it all. Of course you don’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

You do. I’m 37 now but I certainly did at 25.

Chris Pyne:

And because you don’t know very much so I think I probably arrived with a lot of affront, and I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of people like Robert Hill and Amanda Vanstone and Steele Hall and David Joel and of course they quickly snapped me up and popped me in their house in Kingston, Hall, Joel and Hill. So they kept an eye on me and that’s the way it went. I stayed there for 26 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you mentioned John Howard.

Chris Pyne:

Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, your first term in ’93 through to ’96 was a pretty tumultuous term, there was a lot of leadership changes.

Chris Pyne:

It was, yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

In your book you reflect on the fact that you famously chose to back a different horse in the leadership challenges up against, when John Howard was making his comeback to the leadership. Do you want to take us through that and how that impacted on your time in the Howard government, I suppose?

Chris Pyne:

Well, I made a kind of rather catastrophic choice in March 1993. John Howard ran against John Houston straight after the election so it was literally mid-March, and he came to see me and said he was seeking my support and we had quite a lot more in common than people probably thought, because I’m a small liberal South Australian, and he’s a conservative New South Welshmen, but he’s right about certain socially conservative issues like euthanasia and abortion and things like that, and stem cell research, I was always pretty conservative.

Chris Pyne:

So he asked for my support and I said, “Well of course, John, you’re yesterday’s man and we’re not going back to you and the best thing you could do really is probably get out of politics and find something else to do.” And remember he was 48, so I’m now 53 so I’m thinking to myself now what a complete fool he must have thought I was. I thought it was tremendous because I’d always been a peacock person, I was on the federal executive of the parties, a peacock person and state executive in South Australia as a peacock person and all of my general group were all peacock people. So I thought I’d really kind of nailed it. I went home and told everybody who were all speechless of course, and said, “You did what?”

Chris Pyne:

I told them and they said, “But you know, he’ll never forgive you.” I said, “I don’t care, he’ll never be the leader again. He’ll be gone.” They said, “Oh my goodness, but that’s shocking.” They said, “He’ll never get over it. And he might be the leader.” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, of course we’re not going to elect John Howard.” I was the last person still trying to find a candidate to run against John Howard. Two years later we took over from Downer and actually he wrote in his book, Howard wrote in his book that I was still trying to find Peter Reith to run against him because I was so aghast of course that he’d come back, and he’d never forgiven me, understandably so, for being so rude, which it was, it was rude.

Chris Pyne:

He didn’t really forgive me for a long time. I think he also thought, well, I’ve got four cabinet ministers from South Australia, and McLaughlin and Hill and Vanstone and Downer and then Minchin, and he’s very young, so it’d be very sensible if we just let him kind of find his feet for a while. So I found my feet for 10 years, but luckily because I’d started so early I was only 35 when I finally had found my feet and became a minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

And you and John Howard’s relationship, did it recover over the years?

Chris Pyne:

Oh yeah, completely. Well, because obviously he was a very tremendous success, he was prime minister for 11 and a half years, so I think he’s a pretty happy fellow, and in his post political career he’s clearly a happy person in a good place, unlike some prime ministers.

Misha Zelinsky:

Not a miserable ghost.

Chris Pyne:

Not a miserable ghost. And I think over time, well he always thought I was good at attacking the labor party. So that counts for a lot, as you know, in politics. If you can swing the cudgel against your opposition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, against your own as well.

Chris Pyne:

And against your own side as well, I mean there’s a certain level of respect that you gain from being able to do that, and he knew I was pretty good at that. So he gave me that job of investigating the electoral fraud of the Queensland Labor Party in 2001, which I did, and John Faulkner and I became great mates. Not because he liked what I did but because he rather respected my complete lack of regard for the rules. And then after that, Howard appointed me to the Department of Secretaryship and then the ministry. So yeah, no, we definitely… And now when we catch up we always have a good chat, so there’s no problem with me and John Howard.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well it’s good to know.

Chris Pyne:

’93 is a long time ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s true, that’s true. So you make your way to the senior team by the time the Howard government loses in ’07, but then you become a very senior part of the Abbott opposition, once Abbott gets into the leadership. Now, that, the second term of the Labor government with Gillard as prime minister and it’s a minority government, was a pretty brutal time, it was remembered as a brutal time in Australian politics.

Chris Pyne:

It was.

Misha Zelinsky:

You were the leader of opposition business so you’re leading the opposition in parliament.

Chris Pyne:

I was the spear tip.

Misha Zelinsky:

Indeed. So what are your reflections or observations of that time?

Chris Pyne:

It was messy and ugly. It was a really ugly period. The Liberal Party doesn’t like being in opposition because we regard ourselves as the managerial class, so managers need to make decisions and get things done. So the problem with opposition is it really goes against the grain of most liberals who go into politics.

Misha Zelinsky:

Labor doesn’t like being in opposition either, despite what you may-

Chris Pyne:

No but they’re good at it, they’ve done a lot of it. They’re very good at being in opposition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh man.

Chris Pyne:

Whereas the liberals find it very hard. So whenever we’re in opposition it’s a terribly bad time for the Liberal Party, and we change leader constantly and one side’s always trying to take over from the other, and good people fall by the wayside, which is always a bit of a pity in life, not just politics. And you lose elections and people give up and think I’m going to get out because there’s no point in staying or sticking around here. So there’s a pretty unhappy kind of atmosphere when you’re in opposition in the Liberal Party. And if the leader doesn’t look like they’re going to win, the party has no compunction about cutting them down. Whereas Labor will stick with a loser leader forever, like they did for Arthur Calwell and people like that and Dr. Evatt. I’m not just talking about recently, I mean like a long time ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That was the history, certainly, before the [crosstalk 00:11:15]

Chris Pyne:

And they stuck with Gough and then they stuck with Gough right through to 1977.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Chris Pyne:

Because they couldn’t believe their luck.

Misha Zelinsky:

Changing it from Haden to Hawke was actually a big shift culturally for the party.

Chris Pyne:

Big shift, yeah, big shift. So opposition was awful and then in the 43rd parliament, of course, we felt like we’d won the election because we had more seats than Labor, which usually means you’ve won, and your party managed to suborn Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor of course, into supporting the Gillard government, which we found very galling because they were in two conservative seats, they had never voted Labor since federation. Yet they were both supporting a Labor government.

Chris Pyne:

So it was very difficult for people to get over that, and people think that the coalition used to attack Gillard all the time because she was a woman. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, it had with her having the job that we were supposed to have. Whether she had been a woman or a man didn’t make the slightest difference. We just felt that she shouldn’t be the prime minister because Tony Abbott should be, and that Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor should have supported us and logically, that’s pretty fair. Could you imagine the men before Wollongong and the men before Newcastle, supporting a Liberal government to stay in power and Labor thinking oh that’s fine, no problems with that. It’s not going to happen.

Chris Pyne:

So we didn’t feel that way, we felt very annoyed about it, and so therefore that came out a lot in the vindictiveness of the 43rd parliament, and then Peter Slipper became the speaker and it was taking one of our numbers off the floor which made it even worse. The whole Craig Thompson thing was really unpleasant, and of course if Gillard had had a… if the prime minister had had a majority to speak of, they would have asked Craig Thompson along before but they couldn’t so they were clinging to this politically very unattractive corpse, really. Not a corpse, but politically unattractive person, dragging it around for… It must have gone on for 18 months, the whole Craig Thompson saga.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I’m just trying to think. It certainly went for a while.

Chris Pyne:

Oh it was ghastly.

Misha Zelinsky:

It was a political millstone.

Chris Pyne:

Shocking. So that’s why the 43rd parliament was so unpleasant and as I write in my book, our view was since the Labor government has really stolen the election from us by taking-

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m not sure I can agree with that.

Chris Pyne:

No of course not, by taking Oakeshott and Windsor.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean they’re entitled to make decisions as parliamentarians.

Chris Pyne:

Of course, yeah. And we’re entitled not to like it. So we felt well it’ll be war on all fronts at all times, and that’s what we did, and I was the kind of field marshal. Which I’m not particularly proud of, by the way.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you look on it as a time that you would take back or just you had to do a job so you did it.

Chris Pyne:

I had to do a job so I did it. Our job was to make the government’s life as unbearable as possible because they had done the wrong thing by democracy, is to give these tub thumping speeches about how it was the greatest crime against democracy since King Charles had arrested the speakers of the House of Commons.

Misha Zelinsky:

Engaging in a touch of hyperbole.

Chris Pyne:

But sometimes I used to have to get myself into a rage on the basis of not very much to go with. So getting into a bit of a hyperbole would probably be one of the few things that could fill the time, I think. [crosstalk 00:15:06] I opposed the sitting schedule once, things had got so crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well you guys also were denying pairs, as I recall, as well.

Chris Pyne:

Not really, we never denied a pair, there was talk of denying pairs, but we didn’t deny pairs at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

No? I’m trying to remember.

Chris Pyne:

We didn’t. There was a lot of talk about it but we didn’t do that. Not unless somebody was clearly trying to… People still get pairs refused if they haven’t got a good excuse. You can’t just hop in a bus and go on a picnic and ask for a pair. People need pairs because they’re sick or something or they’ve got some particular family thing that they’re doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

It makes it hard, though, right? I mean just reflecting, the government’s got tight numbers now, it does make it hard for ministers to do their jobs when they can’t sit on their toes around you’ve got to make a vote in house and it does give oppositions opportunity to wreak havoc, right?

Chris Pyne:

Yeah. But the parliament’s the parliament. This is what I always used to say to my colleagues when they say, “I want to go home, I want a pair to go home early.” So actually no, no. The parliament, everything other than the parliament is a bonus. You got elected to the House of Representatives and that’s your number one job.

Misha Zelinsky:

There 150 at the time, it’s not like there’s-

Chris Pyne:

And if you do anything else, that’s nice for you, and I happen to do other things besides being a member for 16 of my 26 years, but everything else is a bonus. So no, the parliament doesn’t exist for you to be happy, you have to be in the parliament as your number one responsibility.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now you mentioned your ministerial career. Now this is a foreign policy show so we could go through your whole career, but I think the defense portfolio is probably the area that I’d like to talk more about. Now, you spent a lot of time in your time in the portfolio, spending a lot of money but rebuilding a lot of capability. I’m kind of wanting to… Maybe you can explain very quickly, obviously it’s a huge area, but why was this necessary in your time and maybe you can give a sense of how big the scale of this project actually is. Because you’re talking hundreds of billions, now hundreds of billions are being spent through COVID, maybe it’s not such a big deal, people kind of lose sight of the numbers, but the scale of these projects is enormous.

Chris Pyne:

Well, I guess the best way to describe it is it’s the biggest buildup of our military capabilities since the second world war. And of course in the war, most of the budget’s turned over to the defense of the nation, so it’s a very big deal to have the largest buildup of our military capability in 75 years and it’s financially between now and 2030 about 270 billion. That’s just in capital expenditure, by the way, that’s not in running costs. When I was the minister it was 205 billion and so the extra 65 billion is those last three years between 2027 and 2030, because my period took that to 2027.

Chris Pyne:

Why is it necessary? It’s necessary because the world is a really dangerous place, and getting more dangerous. And it’s necessary because our great and powerful ally, the United States, has said very clearly to its allies we want allies not protectorates. The Abbott government, to its credit, and then the Turnbull and Morrison governments said, “Well, we agree with that.” It’s not fair to expect the United States to do all the heavy lifting in protecting our international rules based order and our values based foreign and defense policy. It’s not fair for candidates to spend less than a percent of their GDP on defense because they know that the Americans will always be standing alongside them. Nor for Germany to spend less than 1% or Great Britain.

Chris Pyne:

Countries that have held themselves out as the protectors of liberty and freedom around the world and then underspend in defense. So the Abbott government said, “We’ll spend 2% of GDP on defense.” That’s what the Americans asked us to do as allies, and they asked all of their allies to do that. Now I think at the time, when I left, we were about five out of the NATO plus allies countries were spending 2%. We are proudly one of those. Now it’s obviously well past 2% because of COVID. So it was necessary one, to be a good ally. It’s necessary two, because we live in a very turbulent world, and to break that down the Indo-Pacific is one of the most insecure places on the planet.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve said that there’s a prospect of war in the Indo-Pacific.

Chris Pyne:

I think there is a prospect of war in the Indo-Pacific. Of course there is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why is that?

Chris Pyne:

Well, what I said in my speech to the Adelaide University graduation ceremony was that five years ago I think the chances of war were less likely and now five years later they’re more likely than they were in 2015/16. So I haven’t said that there’s likely to be war in the next 5-10 years, which some of the less sophisticated media have reported, I said that the chances are more likely now than they were five years ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s probably true.

Chris Pyne:

That’s a statement of fact. The reason for that is probably primarily because China has discovered that it can press its claims over the South China Sea or Hong Kong or the Uyghur minority in western China and the consequences have not been dramatic. Sure they’ve faced some criticism around the world but nothing happened. So the next obvious place that China wants to unite with the mainland is Taiwan. Despite the fact that China has only governed Taiwan for four out of the last 100 years, 100 more actually, more than 100 years. The reality is they see it very much as part of China and it’s traditionally been a province of China and I think that that makes it a flashpoint.

Chris Pyne:

Do I think there will be a war in the Indo-Pacific? No, I don’t, but I think it’s more likely than it was five or six years ago and I think it would have been more likely if the Trump administration had been reelected, and I’m glad that the Biden administration was elected for that reason alone.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, they’ve got a different approach to allies, certainly, than the Trump administration did.

Chris Pyne:

And also Donald Trump had an unusual approach to foreign policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

To say the least.

Chris Pyne:

Well, unfortunately it’s so serious and it would be nice if it wasn’t, but like the Kurds, when he decided to throw the Kurds under the bus and allow the Turks to cross the border and reclaim that territory and we still don’t know what happened to all the Kurds in that area of course, that was really the end of it for me. I thought he’d done a good job on Iran and China, I think he’d done a poor job on North Korea, but that was the problem with Donald Trump, it wasn’t a coherent strategy. There were moments, flashes of great outcomes, possibly because the advisors that he had in those areas he agreed with, like John Bolton on Iran, for example.

Chris Pyne:

But these other really unusual decisions around the Middle East for example, I thought well he’s a dangerous person to have in the White House and that’s dangerous for us, because if China thinks they could unite Taiwan militarily without there being any significant consequences, I don’t think they’ll want to do that but they’re more likely to throw that dart if there was a Trump administration than if there was an orthodox administration in the White House, Republican or Democrat.

Chris Pyne:

So I think that was an important thing to change the government there, and obviously, as I said in my speech to the students, we have to work tirelessly to avoid a war in the Indo-Pacific because it’s not an academic exercise, it would be catastrophic and it would be catastrophic for Australia. So it has to be our number one priority in foreign and defense policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so we’ll get to China, I want to talk about in depth, you raised a lot of interesting points there, but sticking with the kit we’re buying, you were involved… Certainly there was some politics involved in it but the decision around the subs and whether or not we were going to go with the Japanese option or whether or not it was going to be built in Australia, the French sub won out. What is the reason why that is the superior choice for Australia? It’s a wonky question, we’re very interested and a lot of people who listen to the show are, and also probably a followup to that, is there a reason why Australia couldn’t have nuclear given that it has advantages in terms of its ability to stay under the surface of the water?

Chris Pyne:

Well, the French submarine won the contest because it came first in the competitive evaluation process, it’s as simple as that, so it was the best of the three offerings. Probably because the Japanese Sōryū class and the TKMS submarine were not designed for Australian conditions. Whereas the Barracuda class French submarine is of a size that suits Australia’s unique requirements, which in layman’s terms, basically we have two different seas and one is warm and one is cold, and we have a lot of coastline and a lot of sea to be responsible for, which means we need long range submarines and we therefore need to have large submarines and they need to be able to operate in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and the Barracuda class was probably more able to be adapted to an Australian version, which has now become the Attack class.

Chris Pyne:

So the reason the French won was there’s no great science to it, they simply won the competitive evaluation process and the Japanese didn’t. And that’s what competitions are about. In the military not everyone can get the first prize, it’s not like the egg and spoon race in grade three. So that’s why they won and why not nuclear? Well, because we don’t have any kind of nuclear industry.

Misha Zelinsky:

We don’t have a sub industry either, though, right?

Chris Pyne:

Well, we do.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we have the Collins class.

Chris Pyne:

We have the Collins class submarine.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that’s still a decision of government to really build that up, I mean you could do nuclear if you really wanted to.

Chris Pyne:

You couldn’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because you’d never get a piece of legislation through an upper house in this country that would allow nuclear anything. We can’t even get a radioactive nuclear waste dump.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right, South Australian Weatherill government looked at that a few years ago.

Chris Pyne:

Weatherill government, Wran government, every government. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, is to have a low level nuclear waste dump in South Australia or the Northern Territory.

Misha Zelinsky:

Bob Hawke was a big proponent of that.

Chris Pyne:

Big supporter, and we can’t even get that up. We’re close to it, I think, but it’s still far away.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you think it’s a politics thing rather than a capability thing? Are we selling ourselves short militarily because we can’t get the politics to stack up or are you comfortable with the Barracuda class?

Chris Pyne:

The Attack class submarine will be the regionally superior submarine. So we’re not selling ourselves short in a military capability sense at all, and the chief of the navy and the chief of the defense force gave us very clear advice along all those things. What you’ll find an issue in defense and foreign policy defense is that every retired commodore, admiral, and air force marshal, leftenant general, is an expert on what the government should be doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

And the media will give them a run if they’ve got something to say.

Chris Pyne:

The media will always give them a run so they only need one person out of the many, many, many thousands of people that are available out there to say something different to what the government’s doing and they’ll get a run. So you’ll always have an audience of people who oppose the F-35As or the combat reconnaissance vehicles or the infantry fighting vehicle or the kind of missiles that we use or the submarines or the hunter class, whatever it might be. There’ll always be somebody. But government’s got to make decisions. And you get this thing about nuclear a lot in the eastern states and it’s because New South Wales, for example, is not a manufacturing state. So they’ll talk about… I mean, there manufacturing here, but the manufacturing states traditionally-

Misha Zelinsky:

There’s a nuclear reactor here.

Chris Pyne:

Yes, there is at Lucas Heights, but it’s in their culture of course, states like Victoria and South Australia. So it’s such a parlor game talking about nuclear submarines, and I always have to stop myself from getting worked up about it because there’s no nuclear engineers in Australia, there are no courses at university in nuclear science or nuclear engineering, there’s no legislative apparatus for nuclear anything in this country. The Greens would never allow anything to ever get through an upper house. Probably Labor wouldn’t either. Then you wouldn’t be able to maintain and sustain your submarines in Australia, you’d have to send them to somewhere like Guam, because we don’t have any nuclear capabilities for sustaining and maintaining a nuclear submarine.

Chris Pyne:

You would need to be able to convince the public the have nuclear submarines stationed in Sydney or Henderson in Perth, and we can’t even get a nuclear waste dump in the middle of the desert. And yet apparently, the public are going to embrace this idea of nuclear submarines. It’s just never going to happen. It’s like me willing myself to have blonde hair and blue eyes and no freckles as a child, and wondering why it can’t be. That there are some things that can and there are some things that can’t be, and nuclear submarines will never happen in this country and it’s an argument for doing nothing. It means that you wouldn’t have any submarines while we had a 50 year argument about it. Now, we should have had a nuclear industry from the ’50s like other advanced, developed countries. But we didn’t, and we haven’t got it so let’s just get over it and get on with it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Okay. Reasonable points. We could go on with this, but reasonable points.

Chris Pyne:

I could talk about that-

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, I’m sure we both could. But I wanted to get into China, the China challenge. It is the challenge, right, for modern Australia and future Australia. You were in parliament a quarter of a century, give or take.

Chris Pyne:

I know, 26 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

What as your observation of the way China changed during that time and the way the relationship evolved from perhaps it was not a great deal to a principle trading relationship to increasingly more strategic challenge.

Chris Pyne:

It’s an interesting question and it’s a good question and basically my political career traversed that period of change because Deng Xiaoping said in the 1980s, late ’70s, ’80s, he said China needed to hide its strength and bide its time. That really was the policy for 30 to 40 years, while China strengthened its middle class, its capabilities. People don’t realize, I think, that back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and then the ’80s, China was a terribly backward economy. You’d know that, because you study these kinds of things, but most people wouldn’t know. Very, very poor. And still going through famines and so on because of government policy and just because they hadn’t been developed as a developing nation like Australia or other countries like Australia.

Chris Pyne:

But in the last 40 years, that’s changed dramatically. I’ve forgotten the name of the town next to Guangzhou in the Guangdong province, but in 1981, the Chinese government decided to create a new city next to Guangzhou. It was a fishing village. Now there’s 23 million people there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, wow.

Chris Pyne:

And it’s the thriving financial center of what used to be the Cantonese part of China, which has now become much more multicultural. And over that last time, and in the time that I was a member of parliament, China quite rightly has taken its position as a first world superpower. It was always going to happen, by the way. China’s always been a superpower, except for those hideous 150 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

The so-called century of humiliation.

Chris Pyne:

Exactly. Which started with the opium wars and finished around the end of the second world war. Other than that period, which the Chinese feel very keenly and rightly so, China was a superpower and it’s a superpower again and there’s only two superpowers. Doesn’t matter what the Russians say or what anybody else says, the Russian’s economy is the same size as Australia. Slightly smaller sometimes and slightly bigger other times, probably because of iron ore prices are slightly smaller at the moment. China and America are the only superpowers in the world.

Chris Pyne:

So the west are talking about China as though it’s surprising, not quite right that China would want to flex its muscles, is a complete misunderstanding of the Chinese history and is extremely patronizing and suggests that people who say things like that still see China as the century of humiliation, whereas the Chinese see themselves, quite rightly, as an extremely sophisticated, intelligent group of people who are amongst the world’s leaders in the last several thousand years in new inventions and medicine and military hardware, writing and art and everything else as you’d expect, as a sophisticated civilization would be.

Chris Pyne:

So we have to get into that mindset. What we need to convince the Chinese of is it’s in their interests to support the international rules based order and it’s the international rules based order that has created the circumstances in which China can be a successful trading nation which is lifting its boats and lifting all its people out of poverty. It’s not a coincidence that that’s happened, it’s because of the west and China cooperating economically through the international rules based order.

Chris Pyne:

And that needs to flow through to the way they see their position in the world as a superpower, and that everybody can get along and everybody can keep lifting their people out of poverty and getting better educational health and housing outcomes, and that therefore military conflagration is in no one’s interests.

Misha Zelinsky:

It never is, though, right. You’ve painted the picture there almost, the old thesis of China’s going to rise economically and then become democratic and be integrated into the-

Chris Pyne:

I don’t know if it will or it won’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, evidence [crosstalk 00:35:19] Yeah, sorry. Evidence seems to suggest today on Xi Jinping that that’s not happening.

Chris Pyne:

Not happening, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how does the world deal with this challenge? Because the Chinese Communist Party is asserting its Chinese power and I think the world can reckon with a Chinese superpower but it struggles to reckon with an autocratic, outwardly projecting nation that doesn’t respect democratic neighbors, et cetera. So how do you actually reckon with that challenge?

Chris Pyne:

Well, 20 years ago I was definitely in the party of people that thought that the economic liberation of China would lead to political liberation.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think most people were.

Chris Pyne:

I think most people were. And I think the west approached it that way with absolutely every goodwill and intention. What we’re facing now is a Chinese Communist Party that is quite happy to have the liberalization of the economy but doesn’t appear to have any great interest in the liberalization of the polity in which they live. Now, whether that will continue forever, I don’t know. China today is very different to the China of Mao Zedong, it’s different to the China of Deng Xiaoping. Will the China of the next regime be different to Xi Jinping’s? Probably.

Misha Zelinsky:

But we don’t know when that will be because Xi Jinping’s now the ruler for life, right? That in itself is a big shift.

Chris Pyne:

Well, that’s right. But time keeps moving regardless, and Walt Disney has been cryogenically frozen but I think he’s still waiting a bit to come back. Unfortunately, time moves on and there will be change. And look, I trace it back to Tiananmen Square actually, which most people don’t talk about of course because it’s quite a painful period in China’s history. I think before Tiananmen Square, China was definitely on a path to economic and political liberalization, and that Tiananmen Square was such a shock to the rulers of the Chinese Communist Party that they realized that democracy and the Chinese Communist Party probably couldn’t coexist.

Misha Zelinsky:

Not in the way that they understood it.

Chris Pyne:

Correct. So I think that all came to something of a shuddering halt. That said, if you travel in China, I don’t know if you’ve traveled much in China?

Misha Zelinsky:

I haven’t.

Chris Pyne:

I’ve traveled in China. It isn’t a monolithic, a homogenous CCP hard faced society. Like most major countries of the world, the capital is the most reflective of the government, so Beijing is clearly definitely a government town. But the further you get away from places like Beijing to the commercial places in China, like Shanghai and Guangzhou and so on, it is much more free than you would expect from what you read in the media.

Chris Pyne:

So I’m very optimistic about China. I don’t think there will be a war but I think we need to be extremely hard headed about what we want in the Indo-Pacific, and then we need to make sure China doesn’t misunderstand our position.

Misha Zelinsky:

So then how do we deal with… At the moment we find ourselves in the midst of Chinese trade punishment or coercion, however you want to frame it. You’ve also got enormous examples, certainly over the last few years, around foreign interference, gray

Misha Zelinsky:

type of tax. How do we actually push back on that in the way you’ve described? How do you actually explain to China that this is unacceptable in a way that is politically viable as well?

Chris Pyne:

Well, we’re fortunate Misha because we have economic resources. So a country like Australia can invest in its defensive capabilities, and we have, especially in the last five or six years. Even if there was a change of government, I think it would be hard for Labor to reverse a lot of that. I think some of the people in the-

Misha Zelinsky:

Labor’s very supportive, I mean the sub thing for example is largely bipartisan, I think, right?

Chris Pyne:

Yeah. But you’ve got a left who doesn’t really like that, and we don’t. So the last time-

Misha Zelinsky:

I love the left, those that are listening.

Chris Pyne:

The last time the Labor Party was in power they cut spending in defense dramatically in real terms by 19%, which was quite awful, and as we know got down to 1.56% of GDP. But I don’t think they could do that again, because one, there’s so many decisions are being made, and two I don’t think the people who fill the positions in Labor these days would see that that was a good thing to do. And as we already discussed, the foreign and defense structure that we currently face is different to what it was when the Gillard and the Rudd governments were in power.

Chris Pyne:

So we have to invest in those capabilities to defend us in the gray zone, in the cyber world. We have to make sure that, and we are doing this, and this is all bipartisan, things like the Australian Signals Directorate and ASIO and ASIS and the Office of National Intelligence are all properly funded and supported. The smartest people are being employed there that we are getting cutting edge capabilities and technologies for defensive and offensive cyber. Because that’s what other countries will understand, they will recognize that Australia is not running down its capabilities, in fact it’s doing the opposite, and that therefore our interests need to be taken seriously.

Chris Pyne:

And our interests are not, we’re not asking for territorial gains or anything, we want free and open markets, we want free movement in the sealanes of the Indo-Pacific and the air spaces, we want free movement of people and money, open trade. These are things that will actually be good for us all and that’s why I’m optimistic because the human condition is to want to do better. It’s not the human condition to want to go to war. It’s kind of the last thing anybody wants to do.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so there’s what we want and there’s what we can get. Australia by itself, we’re an important country, we’re a middle power, we’re a wealthy nation, but numerically small. We’ve got a good regional defense structure, et cetera. But do you see in terms of, you talked a lot about Indo-Pacific, which is a relatively new construct but the Quad, you know United States, Japan, India, and us. Do you see that as a big part of this architecture of keeping China honest in its interactions with the rules based order in the way you’ve described?

Chris Pyne:

I don’t see the Quadrilateral as a containment policy. I don’t think that would be in anybody’s interests. I think it’s a useful structure for four like-minded countries that see the Indo-Pacific in a similar way, Japan, India, Australia, and the US. I think it will become an important tool, if you like, in the shed of things we can use to do exactly what I said before, free and open markets, liberal trade policies, et cetera. It isn’t a military dialogue, it is a dialogue. Although the Malabar military exercises are, I guess, the extension of the Quad dialogue but it’s not formal, but it’s an important military exercise in the Indian Ocean.

Chris Pyne:

I don’t think it’s nearly as important as the Five Eyes, though. Because there’s nothing that separates the Five Eyes on any policy matters of significance. Obviously New Zealanders don’t like nuclear ships visiting them, the English ships don’t have to visit them. But the Five Eyes is probably… Well, it’s not probably, it is our most important defense relationship because the sharing of information and intelligence is the surest way to avoid mistakes.

Chris Pyne:

As the minister for defense and before that in the defense portfolio, I used to say I think the more intelligence everyone gathers from all sides, we don’t want to be spied on by anybody of course, but the reality of the world-

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s happening.

Chris Pyne:

The reality of the world in which we live because of satellites and so forth, it’s hard to avoid. But more information leads to more considered decision making and removes misunderstandings. Wars in the past have started because of misunderstandings. The first world war is probably the most classic example of nations not being able to stop mobilization once mobilization had begun despite the fact they didn’t want to have a war, and all ending up for four years with the flower of Europe being slaughtered, which could have been avoided.

Chris Pyne:

So the good thing about intelligence gathering and therefore supporting our apparatus and agencies that do so is that it avoids misunderstandings. So I think we need to keep investing in that as an important priority, and we need to be able to defend our interests, but also we need to do that in concert with our friends and allies in the region. So ASEAN’s very important, the Five Eyes is very important because it’s an intelligence sharing structure, and obviously there are five anglophone countries and they all have a history, they all come from the same route, which I used to say to the English with that emphasis, as a republican.

Chris Pyne:

But the ASEAN nations, they really do rely on a country like Australia by the way. Because they know we’re a very reliable friend. We’re the first country outside ASEAN to be in ASEAN, by the way. To be ASEAN Plus. Very early in the piece, too. So those relationships are important with the Singaporeans, the Vietnamese, the Philippines and others. To make sure that they know they’re not alone and that we need to act together. There are two superpowers but there are 20 odd other countries in that region outside the South Pacific, there’s 40 plus if you include all the countries of the South Pacific, but certainly in the Asian corridor there’s 20 countries that together, in operating in concert, can make a difference. So I’m a multilateralist as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

That I think is critical for Australia. Now, one final question on China.

Chris Pyne:

And you’ve got to be able to do it all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, absolutely. Walk and chew gum.

Chris Pyne:

It’s not a binary choice. Which some governments in the past, without mentioning, sort of felt that you’re either a bilateralist or you’re a multilateralist. Well, actually you can’t be one or the other, you’ve got to be all of it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one final question on China relating to… A sort of ethical question for the west, but it also bumps up against politics, a question relating to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This is a bit of a diabolical challenge for a lot of western countries like Australia, other countries increasingly around the world, Australia have not done it yet, but are calling out what’s happening there as a form of genocide. How do you see the west’s responsibility, countries like Australia, dealing with this issue that’s occurring, these horrible reports we’re seeing, horrible reports about torture of Uyghurs et cetera. How do we handle that when China makes it clear that it’s a red line for its regime, of the Chinese Communist Party in particular.

Chris Pyne:

It’s very difficult. It’s a humanitarian policy area and I hesitate to say it’s hard to get to the truth. I mean clearly there is a truth about Uyghurs being clearly a put-upon minority in China. The Chinese regime, the Chinese government has a very clear view that they’re not a put-upon minority. So there’s an argument that they’re not agreed facts. Which makes it difficult for governments, doesn’t make it difficult for amnesty or for humanitarian organizations to call out the Uyghur minority situation but it does make it trickier for governments. So what you’ve got to do when you’re in government is you need to put those issues on the table and discuss them like adults and say, “We are concerned about reports about Chinese treatment of particular minorities.” The Chinese will counter with, “We’re concerned about the reports of the treatment of indigenous people in Australia.” And they’ll point to-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s about whataboutism though, right, isn’t it, in a way?

Chris Pyne:

Well of course, and it’s about they’ll point to indigenous deaths in custody and all these other things.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is shocking but nevertheless are reported and understood-

Chris Pyne:

I’m not putting them on the same level, of course not. But I’ll say that’s what the Chinese government will counter with, and we obviously have our houses well in order as any country can on these matters and always try and do better. There’s no suggestion that there’s any Australians persecuting minorities.

Chris Pyne:

But in diplomatic discussions and meetings with ministers of defense, do you stop the discussion about the Uyghurs and not move on to cooperation and South China Sea and Taiwan and Southeast Asia, or do you say right that’s our view on that and you know our view, and then you have to obviously move on to other matters. So you maintain your ethical values based foreign policy and defense policy, but we’re not Switzerland, we’re not Sweden. We do live in the Indo-Pacific. We do have to get along with our neighbors. And we do have to find ways to engage. We can’t decide that we’re not going to engage with Beijing because of the Uyghurs. So we just don’t have those choices. You have those choices if you’re a member of Greenpeace, but you don’t have that choice if you’re a member of the Australian government.

Misha Zelinsky:

You can see increasingly the world is taking the view that it’s prepared to call the CCP out on this question.

Chris Pyne:

They’re doing that, the world is doing that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Should Australia join them?

Chris Pyne:

We have done that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, we can probably talk about that a lot as well but we’ve got to keep moving along.

Chris Pyne:

It’s difficult to talk about genocide, because it’s too easily thrown about, this phrase genocide. And people are still arguing about the Armenian genocide because the Turks say that there wasn’t an Armenian genocide, and of course the Armenians go clearly the evidence is that there is, was.

Chris Pyne:

At the end of the day, how is it going to advance the interests of anyone to keep talking about semantics? About words like genocide or not genocide. Terrible things have happened to people throughout history, whether it’s the Armenians or the Jews, and we have to learn from those terrible mistakes, not debate them endlessly.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now I want to switch back for the last part of the show to your career. In your book-

Chris Pyne:

That’s a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Your favorite topic, no? In your book you talked about wanting to be prime minister throughout your career. In the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, as that was playing out, you reported that a colleague said to you, “You know it can’t be you.” As in you can’t be leader, you can’t be prime minister. How’d that feel, did that hurt?

Chris Pyne:

It didn’t hurt, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

How did it feel at the time, knowing that perhaps the ambition would never be fulfilled at that point?

Chris Pyne:

I thought that’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:

A politician who has self-awareness? No, come on mate, that can’t be right.

Chris Pyne:

I do have self-awareness. I’m a pragmatist, I thought to myself well of course it can’t be me because it can’t be Julie either. So I couldn’t be on the one hand saying that the moderates are going to have to back Scott Morrison because otherwise Peter Dutton will get elected, and as much as I like Peter Dutton, and I do, and we catch up a lot, and there’s nothing personal about my observations, I just thought that if he was the leader we wouldn’t win the election. Because I thought he would be popular in Queensland but not popular elsewhere. And I thought Scott Morrison will probably be able to straddle the different interests that support the coalition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which has proven out, I suppose.

Chris Pyne:

Which has been proven to be true, of course, I should get a medal for it. And I thought, well Julie, obviously Julie, as much as I like Julie very much and I would have liked her to have been the prime minister, I couldn’t on the one hand be saying Julie Bishop’s not going to beat Peter Dutton but say oh actually you should support me, when I was in exactly the same position. I wasn’t going to get elected leader because I come from South Australia, I’m from the moderate faction, I’m very clearly a smaller liberal. It would have been very hard for the party to unite under me, it did under Scott, much to his great credit.

Chris Pyne:

So look, it wasn’t said but it was a moment where I thought to myself, yeah, that’s right. That opportunity’s never going to present itself to me, and they’re moving to the next generation. It was certainly the time that I started thinking that this might be it for me, I might have had my run. Because they’re not going to go back to me now, they’ve moved on to Scott and Josh. Scott and Josh got elected in 2007 or 2004 I think, in Josh’s case. It might have been 2007. No, I think it was 2004. And I got elected in 1993, I’m a Howard era minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

You need a 25 year old first NMP to tell you you can never be leader, mate.

Chris Pyne:

Well, I didn’t need it, I had one of my older colleagues and good friends. And I thought well that’s true, they’re moving on to the next generation now and I can either stay here and serve for another 20 years, or I could do something else. At 51 I thought probably it’s time to do something else. So yes, it wasn’t sad, it was just kind of… It was a pivotal moment.

Misha Zelinsky:

Looking back on your career, you had a lot of ups and downs, but any regrets? And perhaps what’s your best day and your worst day? I’m always curious about people that have had a long career in politics.

Chris Pyne:

My worst day in politics was the day that Malcolm Turnbull was defeated as prime minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because Malcolm’s a star.

Misha Zelinsky:

He was a previous guest on this show. You just followed him.

Chris Pyne:

And Malcolm should have been prime minister for a long time and Malcolm was a change agent for the country.

Misha Zelinsky:

So why wasn’t he prime minister for a long time, if I can probe the…

Chris Pyne:

Because he wasn’t given the chance, really. He was always undermined by the people who he’d replaced on the first one. Not the people individually, but the-

Misha Zelinsky:

Group or…

Chris Pyne:

The group that was supplanted by Malcolm and his group never really gave Malcolm a chance. While they certainly didn’t initially undermine Malcolm, when Malcolm stumbled you can either protect the leader and help them or you can push them under the bus. And there were clearly a group of people in the party room who, whenever Malcolm wasn’t perfect or stumbled or made a slight error or caught the curb as he went around the corner, made sure that we knew about it.

Chris Pyne:

That made it hard, so it was a sad day because Malcolm Turnbull is the kind of person who should have been a longstanding successful prime minister, help changed the nation, moved it to another plane, and unfortunately he wasn’t given that chance to do so. Now his enemies of course, and his opponents will have a different take and they’re perfectly entitled to have a different opinion. My opinion was he was the kind of person that could be a great prime minister be he wasn’t given the opportunity, the free reign from some people that he should have been, and of course he made mistakes, we all make mistakes. Best day of my political career was April 28, 1992.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which was?

Chris Pyne:

The day I was preselected. I’ve never got over it. It was the greatest day of my political life.

Misha Zelinsky:

Given you said you went through a hell of a time it must have been a great victory, right?

Chris Pyne:

Oh yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

At a young age, too.

Chris Pyne:

I was 24. Obviously there were great days being sworn into the cabinet, the day I was sworn into the ministry with John Howard, that was a very memorable day because it was really just me and him because I’d replaced Santo Santoro if you remember. And so he and I went out to the government house together, and they had a certain poignancy given that 10 years before I’d cruelled my pitch. So there were other great days in politics, winning elections is always a great thing. But I won nine elections and I was cabinet minister and minister in different portfolios, so those days start to meld into one, whereas you only win one first preselection.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sure, no, I can understand that. Now, culture. A lot of discussion about political culture at the moment. You’re someone that probably thrived in parliament, you enjoyed the theater of political combat it would be fair to say I think.

Chris Pyne:

Definitely.

Misha Zelinsky:

So what reflections do you have on the challenges that we’ve seen in 2021 about the political culture and what is the answers in terms of improving it?

Chris Pyne:

Well, I think one of the reasons I survived in politics and left it in relatively good order with most of my colleagues, both Liberal and Labor and Greens for that matter, is because I saw it as a debate. So it wasn’t a personal thing. So my job was to talk about my arguments, and hone those to the best possible level and find the holes in my opponents’ arguments and highlight those and tear down their position. It wasn’t to be personal.

Misha Zelinsky:

Unless Labor wins an election in a minority government, right?

Chris Pyne:

But it still wasn’t personal.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, I’m joking.

Chris Pyne:

So I’d give lots of speeches in the chamber railing against the hideousness of the Gillard government and their illegitimacy, but nobody ever used to think I’d crossed the boundaries into being personal. And you know, one day-

Misha Zelinsky:

So you can play it hard without playing it personal is what you’re saying.

Chris Pyne:

One day I made a mistake and I accused Greg Combet of having a slush fund because do you remember the AWU workers slush fund?

Misha Zelinsky:

I do.

Chris Pyne:

And he was so furious about it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Greg gets very upset if he’s-

Chris Pyne:

Maligned.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, if his integrity’s called in question.

Chris Pyne:

Totally. He was so furious about it, I thought goodness gracious I’ve obviously touched a raw nerve there, maybe I’ve made a mistake. Anyway, so I asked some of my labor friends if I’d got that wrong, and they said completely wrong. That’s exactly the opposite of what Greg Combet would have done. So I rang him after question time and I apologized and he was very good about it, but that’s very rare. Most people don’t apologize in politics when they’re wrong.

Chris Pyne:

So I think there’s a difference between playing the ball and trying to win for your team and personal vituperative behavior. And I hopefully didn’t fall into the second. The problem in the parliament at the moment of course is that the culture does need change and there aren’t enough women in politics, and Labor has a lot more women than the coalition does, and that needs to change.

Misha Zelinsky:

Shouldn’t there be quotas?

Chris Pyne:

I don’t support quotas but that’s because I think quotas work against women in a different way, which is that yes they might win, get into parliament, but they’re looked at always as not necessarily getting there because they’re on merit, which I think is wrong but I think it’s a perception of some people and the South Australian Liberal Party, for example, has just preselected three women out of four seats, and three saved seats. It can be done with the right attitude from the leadership and from the party membership, so I don’t think quotas are necessary, but if they end up with quotas I’m not going to be upset either, it’s not something that I’m passionate about. But some people are, I’m not.

Chris Pyne:

I think there needed to be more women. When I became leader of the house I changed the sitting hours, so that we ended every night by eight o’clock, the adjournment would start at 7:30 and parliament would start at about nine o’clock in the morning because I thought these mad late night sittings to 11:00 or 2:00 AM or 4:00 AM were all completely crackers. I think the public thought it was all crackers as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you can’t be making good decisions late at night.

Chris Pyne:

No, and everybody drinks too much because they’re stuck in the house and they can’t do anything and nobody wants to sit there at their desk working on a brief at 11 o’clock at night, so people would have a drink, so there’s too much of that culture. That’s dissipated a lot because the sitting hours changed. But it’s a funny hot house atmosphere. Have you ever worked in parliament house?

Misha Zelinsky:

Not in the federal parliament but I spent a fair bit of time there for work so I’m familiar with it.

Chris Pyne:

So it’s funny, 4000 people plus, all come together for 17 weeks a year, all away from year, and they’re there for a specific period of time, a specific job, and they’re all very similar people because they’re all political people. So it’s not like a village. Everyone calls it it’s like a village, it’s not like a village because in the village you’ve got the baker and the candlestick maker and the real estate agent and a whole bunch of people who don’t work and people who do work and kids who go to school.

Chris Pyne:

In that place, there’s 4000 people all very similar. And so it’s unusual. So it doesn’t surprise me that the culture is now being called out, I think it’s a good thing that it’s being called out. I do think that it needs to reset and I think the public want everyone to get back to governing and opposing, if you’re on the opposition, but I do think the solution to this problem is… I mean, the capital should have been in a major city. It should have been in Adelaide or Brisbane or-

Misha Zelinsky:

It was a deal, essentially, between Sydney and Melbourne that would have-

Chris Pyne:

It was a deal because the Sydneysiders didn’t want it in Melbourne and the Melbournians didn’t want it in Sydney, so they had to put it within 100 kilometers of the New South Wales Victorian border on the New South Wales side, so it kind of ended up being where it is and Canberra is a lovely city and I like Canberra, but it’s an entirely artificial community. It’s now become a proper city, to be fair. When I first got elected in 1993, when I first worked for Amanda Vanstone it was a bit artificial. But if it had been in a city like Adelaide or Brisbane, rather than Sydney or Melbourne, or if they’d been able to agree that it should be in Melbourne then of course it would have been different because people would have gone home. So they would have been working in parliament house but they would have gone home at night as opposed to motels or hotels or whatever, or share houses. So it would have been a different culture. Interesting if that would have made a difference to our politics. I think it would have.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, could pin you down, chat here for hours and hours but we’re getting towards the end. Now, I can’t let you go without answering the famous lame question of Diplomates.

Chris Pyne:

Diplomates. That’s the lame part.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, indeed. It’s a lame pun with a lame final question and a terrible segue.

Chris Pyne:

Good.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I’m keeping with tradition. Now, the question of course is you’re an Australian guest, foreign guests have to invite Australians, but you’re an Australian guest so you can invite foreigners. Three foreign guests to a barbecue at Chris Pyne’s, who are they and why?

Chris Pyne:

And they can be dead?

Misha Zelinsky:

They can be dead.

Chris Pyne:

I would have Alexander the Great, Constantine and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow, okay. Three big figures of history and a long way back. Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because I’d like to know what drove them to be such change agents. What made them think that they could take an army of a few ten thousands of Greeks and conquer the modern world and get all the way to India and think they could change the world in which they lived at the age of 20-something, and why Napoleon Bonaparte thought he could go to Egypt and create a new empire in the east and how he could think that he could transcend Islam and Christianity and create a new religion and a new civilization. It must take extraordinary self-belief. And Constantine changed the western world because once he initiated Christianity as the state religion of the empire, it was probably… I think it’d be too self-regarding to think you could have Jesus Christ over for a barbecue, so I would leave him out, but Constantine, he changed the world in which we live entirely because Christianity has been the greatest force for the shaping of the western world in our entire history. So I’d like to know why he thought that was a good idea.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, three outstanding guests at a barbecue, but you’ve been an outstanding guest on Diplomates so thank you for coming on the show and much appreciate it, Chris Pyne.

Chris Pyne:

Thanks Misha, thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Pleasure.

 

Malcolm Turnbull: A Bigger Picture – Politics, Leadership and Government

Malcolm Turnbull was Australia’s 29th Prime Minister.

Before entering Federal Parliament, Malcolm had a distinguished career as a Rhodes Scholar, in law, media, tech, finance and public advocacy.

He’s the author of several books, including his autobiography ‘A Bigger Picture’.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Malcolm Turnbull for a chinwag about his famous Spycatcher trial against the Thatcher Government, the failed ‘Republic’ Referendum vote in 1999, why Australia’s climate debate has been so bruising and who’s to blame for the inaction, his professional rivalry with Tony Abbott, why China’s bullying of Australia will prove to be unsuccessful, the problem with misinformation and lies in our public discourse, Australia’s attempts to bring big tech to heel, the art of leadership challenges, handling Donald Trump, fixing our political culture and why we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

As you can see, it’s a long and wide ranging chat and Malcolm is extremely generous with his time and insights – so we hope you enjoy it!

TRANSCRIPT: (Please note to check the audio against the transcript).

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm Turnbull, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Great to be with you, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

Obviously, lots of places we can start in a foreign policy chat with yourself, but I thought we might go right back a little to the beginning of your career, certainly in the public eye. Your first foray into foreign affairs is probably in the famous Circle Spycatcher trial. You were a lawyer taking on the British government about an author, former spy, looking to sort of publish his memoirs. I mean, I was wondering if you could detail us a little bit about your experience and what it taught you, I suppose, about taking on governments and foreign relations.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, Peter Wright, by the time I met him was in his 70s. He was old, he was frail, he was living in really impoverished conditions in sort of little farm just south of Hobart, a place called Cygnet, where he was trying to breed horses very unsuccessfully. He was living there with his wife, Lois, now basically living in a shack. Peter had been a MI5 officer, scientific officer, right through the Cold War. When he retired from MI5, the Brits doubted him on his pension or so he believed. He was not a public school boy, he was very much sort of working class kid who was just really brilliant at radio and he felt that the British establishment had never treated him like an equal. You know what, I think he was right. But Peter, had been convinced among other things, that I had one of the heads of the MI5, Roger Hollis, in the early 60s had in fact been a Soviet agent, like Burgess and Maclean, and Philby, and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

In that period was a time of enormous paranoia well described by one writer as the wilderness of mirrors. Wright had a equally paranoid counterpart in the CIA called James Jesus Angleton. The problem was that they did actually end up suspecting just about everyone else of being a Soviet agent but there were enough Soviet agents to mean that their suspicions were not entirely fantasy, so that was a bit of a problem. Anyway, Wright had written a book, a memoir, of his adventures called Spycatcher. He’d written it with the help of a television journalist called Paul Greengrass, who is now a very famous film director. He’s done many of the Bourne films and other great movies. Anyway, they’d decided to publish it in Australia because they didn’t want to get into an argument with the British over the Official Secrets Act. Anyway, the British, when they got wind of this promptly got an injunction in the Australian courts to stop the book being banned. Heinemann, who are the publishers, had been advised by their lawyers, a couple of big law firms, I think MinterEllison was one of them, and a lot of silks.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, just [Rodie Ma 00:03:51], Simon Shella, Jim Spigelman, the works, had all told them that they were not going to win, that their prospects were very, very bleak. They actually were going to give up the case and what happened was their London solicitor, who was this rather really charming guy called David Hooper, who was an old Etonian and honestly almost sometimes sounded as though he’d stepped out of a Bertie Wooster novel. He was very… he had amazing sort of British accent and was sort of affected a deliciously vague air about it. He was a bit of, I think to some extent, he was always slightly sending himself up. Anyway, Hooper had been recommended to come and see me by Jeff Robertson, who’d given them some advice in the UK. But I think Jeff’s view was also was that the case was a loser, but like a lot of lawyers on the left, I regret to say this, they often look to glorious defeats. Whereas, I’m interested in winning, whether gloriously or ingloriously.

Misha Zelinsky:

Chin up.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Anyway, I thought the case was a winner, as did Lucy, who was one of my legal partners at the time, as was my wife, of course, and we ended up agreeing to do the case for them for $20,000, it was a year’s work. I know it was a long time ago, but $20,000 is not a lot of money even in 1986. That was the only basis on which I’d do the case. Anyway, we took it on with our little team. Me and Lucy, with some help from David Hooper and some of the younger lawyers in my office. We basically took on the British government, they had securities up to the eyeballs, and they had one of the biggest law firms in Australia, they had the UK Treasury solicitor. We took them on and we won the case, then we won at trial, a court of appeal, and in the High Court. But it was a very interesting example of the hypocrisy of government, and in particular the hypocrisy of the British government. Because what became apparent was that, in fact the substance of Wright’s book had all been published before.

Malcolm Turnbull:

One of our defenses was to say, “Look, this is not confidential information. You can’t get an injunction to prevent the publication of something that’s in the public domain already.” But what was worse was that the Wright’s material had been published by a right-wing journalist called Chapman Pincher, in a book called Their Trade is Treachery. But we were able to establish that that publication had been enabled by Lord Victor Rothschild, absolute pillar of the British establishment, and that he had done so with the connivance of the British government who wanted Wright’s allegations about Hollis to get out into the public domain, but through the hands of a safely conservative journalist. It was the end… Anyway, the real problem was that the guy that Fischer sent out to Australia to give evidence, Robert Armstrong, got himself absolutely tangled up in the witness box. He was lying.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, I suppose he would argue that he wasn’t lying, because he thought what he was saying the first time, before he corrected himself, was true but you have to have a very generous view of human nature to believe that. But he ended up having to apologize to the court for misleading the court and you can imagine the humiliation this caused the British government. I mean, this was a massive political drama in London. I mean, it was a big story in the Australian media, but it was five times as big in the UK. But there was a wonderful moment, a sort of cross cultural moment, I might just leave it there, where on the question of truth. Because Armstrong had written a letter to a publisher which was asking for a copy of this book, Traders Treachery. And said, “Oh, you know, we’d like to review it before it hits the streets,” but in fact he had the copy, he had the manuscript. In fact, they had basically conspired to get the manuscript into the public domain.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I might say, since that trial… I’ll come back to this. Anyway, I said to Armstrong, “Well, you know, you were lying, weren’t you?” He said, “Oh, no, I wasn’t lying.” I said, “Well, you know, where you’re telling the truth?” “Oh, well, I was creating a misleading impression, you know?” “Well, what’s a misleading impression? Is that like a ventridis or a half truth?” Then he uttered this line that he thought was very funny. He said, “Oh, no, Mr. Turnbull, I was just being economical with the truth. Hahaha.” As he went hahaha, I thought to myself, “Boy, you have misjudged your environment here, because the one place you don’t make jokes about telling the truth is in a witness box when you’re under oath,” and it was downhill from there. But there’s a very interesting postscript to this.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Because the proposition I put to them and I put to the court was, that the British government had basically authorized all this stuff to go out into the public domain anyway, that what was inspired capture was a load of old cobblers who had been published, and so, the case was futile all along, baseless, and it demonstrated enormous hypocrisy on the part of the British. To which Armstrong said, “Oh, Mr. Turnbull, that’s a very ingenious conspiracy theory that utterly untrue.” Well, not only was it… It wasn’t utterly untrue, it was actually true because in Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biography written by Charles Moore, Armstrong actually admits that the decision to get Pincher to write this book with revelations about Hollis, was a decision taken in number 10 Downing Street with the prime minister’s knowledge and the book, Moore’s book, quotes Armstrong, quotes memos, documents from the Thatcher government.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Obviously, I imagine they probably felt Pincher’s book wasn’t entirely what they had wanted, but he was set on his mission by the British government, he was authorized, the connection with Rothschild was made with the British government, Rothschild made the connection with Wright. It was just mind boggling hypocrisy and it was very interesting. I mean, I hope an Australian government would never behave in that way, I don’t think it would. I’d say another thing too which is an interesting cross cultural thing. The British could not believe that Armstrong was not treated differentially in the Australian courts. Even as a very old man, few years ago, he just died recently, he was in the broadcast news and he was saying, “Oh, Mr. Turnbull did not behave the way a British barrister would have behaved,” which Paul Greengrass, who was on this broadcast with him, he said, “Yeah.” He said, “A British barrister would have been utterly groveling and deferential to you,” because that’s what they used to. The truth is that Armstrong was treated like any other witness, the court, the judge presided over the court with good humor, and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But it was absolute, he got the same treatment everybody else did. But that wasn’t how it worked. It was an interesting case, but ultimately the lesson, the principle, I think that then got across and it was a very historic case in the sense, that it made the British, and I think the Australians too, realize that these secret intelligence agencies have to be more accountable. They can’t pretend that everything is a secret as everything else, and the public are entitled to know. If you want something to be kept confidential, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that it is actually detrimental to national security were it to be published. It was a good blow for freedom of speech, and above all it was enormous fun. I’ve wrote a book about it, I think I’ve given you a copy of it. Which if you like to read courtroom dramas, it’s quite a good read I think.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we’ll obviously get a little bit more about Spycatcher once we get to your term in office as prime minister. But on the way there, dealing with the British government yet again and Australia’s relationship with the British government, you were of course, the head of the Australian Republican Movement. Now, of course… Well, it was unsuccessful in pursuit of that vote, the yes vote went down. I’m kind of curious about your reflections about why we lost and would you have done anything differently as a result?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, Misha, I mean, the first thing you’ve got to remember is that virtually all constitutional referendums fail, right? It’s very hard to get the constitution changed. It is my theory for that, which I think was originally suggested to me by Mary Gleason, actually, but I think it’s right. Is that in Australia, we have compulsory voting, which is a good thing, really good thing, but it has one bad consequence. In a referendum, where you make everyone vote, you will have a percentage of the population who don’t know, don’t care, aren’t interested, haven’t read up about it. If they are very vulnerable to that change right? Because if you don’t know the consequences of a change, you’re not going to vote for it. I mean, if I said to you, “You know, I’ve got this amazing new technology that’s produced incredible paint, and I just want to paint your room with it,” and you haven’t had time but you’ve got to make the decision now, you would be inclined to say, “Oh, look, the room’s okay, I’ll just leave it as it is.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

So there’s a sort of element of you don’t know but know. That’s a problem, which is why you need, in a referendum situation, you need to have really overwhelming support. The other problem that we had was… That’s a problem in every referendum, unless it is so boring, so administrative, and literally nobody opposes it. I mean, the last remotely controversial constitutional referendum that got up was in 1946, so it’s a long time ago. Okay, the other problem we had was that the model that we took was one where the president to replace the queen and the governor general would be chosen by a bipartisan two thirds majority of a joint sitting of parliament. You know, that’s obvious because the role is meant to be a ceremonial, a political figure. That’s what you want and that’s one way of delivering that. But there was a move to have direct election, which we did not support.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, Keating didn’t support it, there was hardly anyone on the non-Labor side of politics that supported it, apart from a few wreckers. But simply because you’re essentially using a highly politicized method of election to choose someone who you want to be non-political. Anyway, the direct electionists have also campaigned against the proposition. That was a classic example of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I mean, just-

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Malcolm Turnbull:

… just completely… Again, I mean, they weren’t all on the left, but it is a classic thing that the left do. I mean, not everyone on the left. I mean, the other great case in Australian history is the Greens voting against the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme at the end of 2009.

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, far out. I mean, if they had voted for that, they, together with the liberals that were still in the Senate that are still supporting me, would have been passed and an emissions trading scheme by now would have been so embedded, it would have been about as controversial as the GST. And every now and then people would say, “Oh, the rate should go up or down or sideways,” but it wouldn’t be this issue. And I was just staggered. The one thing if you can inscribe on every, I don’t know, pillowcase, at every would-be politician ever lays their head on, “Do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” It is such a… And its way of progressives, whatever character you want to describe them, so often screw up. Anyway, that’s basically why we lost. The question then is, what do you do now? My view is that you, firstly, timing and I think the timing will be when the queen’s reign ends.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But I think you need to first have a vote, which would be a plebiscite, it wouldn’t be a referendum per se. Where you put one method of election up against another and that presumably would be direct election versus parliamentary appointment and I think you just thrash that out. I mean, sure, I think you thrash that out for three months or whatever, uphill and downed out, and then you have a vote, then whichever model of election emerges, you say, “All right, we’ll now incorporate that in the formal Constitution Amendment Bill that will then go to the public in the referendum under the constitution.” Because I think you can’t fight on two fronts at once basically, that’s the problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve sort of said, “Look, we need to wait until Queen Elizabeth II passes.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, why is that? Because my sense of it is basically, look, in the 90s, I remember Keating arguing for a republican, it felt inevitable. I was really shocked when the result was a nightmare. Then we’re told, “Oh, don’t worry, there’ll be a vote in the not too distant future.” Here we are, 22-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Not for me, Misha, I said these guys are lying. I mean, my conscious is clear. I said, “If you vote no, it means no for a very long time.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and here we are, right? I guess the question is, no one’s really arguing for a republic. I mean, why, when the queen passes, will they suddenly be supporting ponies dropping away? I don’t get a sense that there’s a ground swell for it unfortunately, because we’re not seeing that argument in the public. And the queen will pass, there’ll be King Charles and the show will roll on.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look, I’m not saying you’re wrong. I think you’re wrong and I hope you’re wrong, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

I hope I’m wrong too.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah. Okay, but here’s the proposition. Ultimately timing is just about everything in politics. You can’t breathe political life into an issue that no one has any interest in. Or maybe you can but you’ve got to use enormous amount of political capital to do so and leaders are not going to do that. There’s got to be a sense of its time. It’s time to deal with this issue. Now, in the lead up to the Centenary of Federation in the 90s, we did have that sense of this is time and there was a whole lot of things being done to review the constitution, so forth, all of which came to now, I might add but anyway. But nonetheless, there was a sense of that and I think when the queen’s reign ends, when she dies or abdicates, it will be just an enormous watershed. I mean, the reminder that she’s actually reigned for longer than this now, reminder of that old republican poet, Victor Daley, he used to write in the Bulletin in the 1880s and 90s.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Wrote a poem about Queen Victoria and he said, “60 years she’s reigned, holding up the sky, bringing around the seasons, hot and cold, and wet and dry. And all those years, she’s never done a deed deserving jail, so let joy bells ring out madly and delirium prevail,” et cetera, it’s a great poem. But the point is, just as the passing of Queen Victoria was a epochal moment, the end of Queen Elizabeth, the seconds reign, will be this gigantic watershed. I think after that people will say, “Okay, that’s amazing, we adore her, she is one of the great…” I mean, obviously very passive and she’s not a political leader, per se, but her continuity and dignity is one that has so many admirers. It’s why I always say morals of monarchists.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But I think that will be a moment, Misha. I think at that point, people will be asking, “Do we want to keep having the king or queen of the United Kingdom as our head of state?” I mean, there’s all sorts of fascinating constitutional implications by the way, because what the Constitution says… The Constitution refers to the queen throughout and that meaning Queen Victoria of course, but it says, in the Constitution Act, it says the Queen means Her Majesty and her heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. Which means, of course, that if Britain became a republic, the president of Britain would be head of state, which is like ludacris.

Misha Zelinsky:

Madness.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, ludicrous, right? But it also means, it’s also raises an interesting thing. If, for example, Scotland became independent, then the United Kingdom is no longer united, so that will pose some interesting questions. I mean, the Constitution itself is a very, very outdated document. I mean, it works but it works less because of what’s in it, but because of the way conventions have evolved. I mean, there is a still a provision in the constitution, for example, which says that the queen, which in the context of 1901 meant the British government, can disallow a law passed by the Australian Parliament and signed into law by the governor general within 12 months of its enactment. Theoretically, you could have an election and a new prime minister could come in and say, “Right, I am going to advise her majesty to disallow all of the laws passed by the parliament in the last 12 months.” There’s also a provision allowing the governor general to reserve laws for the queen’s consideration and that’s a provision called Reservation and Disallowance.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And why is that there? Well, that’s because in the days, 1901, when Australia was not a independent country at all, colonial constitutions had that power. Because it meant that the governor general or the governor, who was invariably a British official, could say, “Oh, gosh, you know, these colonials, I don’t particularly like this law, this might impact on British trade or investments. So I’ll just send that back to head office in London and see what they think of it.” The bottom line is that that constitution, you sometimes see people saying, “Oh, it’s the birth certificate for a nation.” That is nonsense, it was a colonial constitution for a country that was largely self-governing dependency of the British Empire, and our independence was acquired gradually. It’s actually an interesting question as to when? Is there a date and time when Australia became independent? There actually isn’t any one day, but we certainly obviously are and have been for many decades now.

Misha Zelinsky:

You mentioned already, the politics of climate change, I kind of want to get… It’s a big global challenge, it’s arguably defined your time in politics. I mean, we’ve lost a mark count four prime ministers to divisions over climate. Why did, to your mind, has just been so bruising from an Australian point of view? Because in 2007, Howard and Rudd both took ETS or competing emissions trading schemes to an election, Rupert was going to be bipartisan, you were the opposition leader. Rupert was going to be at… Of course the Greens voted it down. But why has it been so bruising particularly for the last decade of their politics?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, I think what happened was that sort of beginning 2008/09, you got a effectively a coalition of the right political right, the product called the Populist Right in the Liberal and National parties, the Murdoch media in particular and of course the fossil fuel lobby. Who essentially combined to turn what should have been a debate about physics and economics and engineering into one of videology. I mean, George Pell, the Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop… I mean, Pell was a great advocate for climate change denialism. Obviously, Abbott was the guy who succeeded me in 2009 who then really weaponized it. I mean, sort of there are a few fatal errors at that time. I mean, I think the fatal error of the Greens was blocking the CPRS at the end of 2009 and then Kevin’s fatal error was not proceeding straight away to a double dissolution, which he would have won. But for some reason or other, he lost his nerve.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Because, you see, the Emissions Trading Scheme at that point it still united the Labor Movement or Labor Party anyway, perhaps not all of the unions, including your own. But it united the Labor Party but it divided the coalition. And why he blames Gillard, obviously, I mean… but everyone was staggered by that decision. Then, of course, Abbott sort of weaponized it. I mean, he weaponized it and of course then in the election that followed in 2010, Julia made the absolutely staggering issue, staggering mistake of saying that an emissions trading scheme was same as a carbon tax. I told him, I wouldn’t name him so I didn’t name him in the book because he’s a friend of mine. But one of the very senior Labor politicians, who is a great trade union leader, his theory was that Julia said that because she wanted to distinguish it from Kevin’s Emissions Trading Scheme, and it was just a devastating mistake. Because she had said, “There won’t be a carbon tax under any government I lead,” and a carbon tax is obviously a fixed price on carbon. It’s $20 a ton or $25 a ton.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Everyone understands that an emissions trading scheme is different to a carbon tax. When people talk about a carbon tax, they’re invariably talking about it in contradistinction to an emissions trading scheme, where you constrain the number of permits to not allow you to emit greenhouse gases. And obviously, depending on all the forces of supply and demand, the price of those permits can go up or down, that it’ll vary. But she essentially framed herself, she should have been saying, “I don’t care if you use red hot pincers to tear out my toenails, I’m not going to say an emissions trading scheme is a carbon tax.” That was the last thing she should ever have said and she would have been right in not saying it. Abbott, then was able to present her as lying and all that sorry history began. By the time I became prime minister, the chances of getting putting a price on carbon was just, from practical political terms, zero.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you see-

Malcolm Turnbull:

But the fundamental problem, Misha, is that what’s happened is that this combination of right-wing politics, right-wing media, and the fossil fuel lobby, have essentially taken what is a matter of physics, global warming, and turned it into a question of identity or values or belief. Now, I can understand someone saying, “I have a deeply held view about gay marriage,” for example. I can understand someone who says, “The Bible says only men and women should be married and I’m against it,” now obviously I vociferously disagree with that but that you can accept that as a question of values, that’s a question… And we obviously had a vote on that and decision was taken. But saying you believe or disbelieve in global warming, it’s like saying you believe or disbelieve in gravity. I mean, it’s literally barking mad and dangerously so.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. With the NEG, we talked a lot about the ETS and you’re one of the National Energy Guarantee which is your signature energy policy as prime minister. Without going into the ins and outs of it, do you think there might have been an opportunity just to force it all to vote and test the numbers-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Basically, the NEG had two parts to it. In some respects, the most important part from an immediate point of view, was the reliability mechanism, which has gone into effect. Which essentially meant a retailer of electricity needed to ensure that there was enough dispatchable power in their portfolio. In other words, the idea of that was so that you didn’t get a sort of a repeat of the South Australian situation where a huge amount of wind is built, that’s a good thing, and solar, but without the backup. Whether it’s batteries, or pumped hydro, or a gas peaker. But you’ve got to sort of get the right mix, okay? The other part, which is where the coalition blew up, was having essentially an emissions reduction element to it. And that was the part that had to go through the Federal Parliament to provide that the emissions intensity, if you like, of your portfolio generation declined in accordance with our Paris commitments.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Now, the question as to whether, I mean basically the position that I was faced with at the beginning of that sort of last week of my prime ministership was, there were so many people that were on our side that were going across the floor and voted against that, notwithstanding that it had gone through the party realm. Even looked like the Nats would vote against it. We discussed it in the cabinet, I’m going to describe all this in my book. We discussed it in the cabinet, and literally everyone said, “We’ve just got to put this on hold.” We didn’t abandon it, we’re very expressive about that. But the view was, I mean even my good supporters like Christopher and Julian and so forth, felt that the right we’re obviously planning to use this as a way to block the government, and what we needed to do was if you like, you could call it a tactical retreat or a pause, but maintain the policy, but just say, “We just got to handle this insurrection first and then we can come back to it.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

What happened of course then, events move much faster than I’d anticipated or I think most people had. They ended up being that coup and all of the chaos that followed and resulted in Morrison becoming prime minister. But look, I think it’s a… I know a lot of people on the Labor side have said, “Oh, you should have just put it to the vote.” Well truthfully, I don’t think it would have been very hard to do that for practical sense in a cabinet government, given the attitudes of my colleagues. The idea that Labor would have voted to pass it, I mean Bill was there, he could taste the prime ministership. He was so close, and he idea that he would have passed up the opportunity to defeat the government on the floor of the House, on an important bill like that and force an election is pretty naive. I mean, the part of the problem that I had was that there was a body of a group of people in the coalition and this was absolutely backed in by Murdoch, as he acknowledged. Murdoch acknowledged this and it’s pretty obvious, that wanted my government to lose an election.

Malcolm Turnbull:

They, as Rupert Murdoch said to Kerry Stokes, “Three years of Labor wouldn’t be so bad.” They were so determined to get rid of me, it’s amazing, I’m such a lovable character. But they were so determined to get rid of me and once again, get a prime minister that would do as he’s told., that they were prepared to put up with a Labor win. I mean this was Abbott’s crazy agenda, he-

Misha Zelinsky:

Heavens forbid a Labor government, Malcolm yeah?

Malcolm Turnbull:

What?

Misha Zelinsky:

Heaven forbid a Labor government-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, now I know. Well I mean, but normally internal insurrections, you don’t normally include as part of your plan, your own party being defeated. But that’s how insane it had gotten. You had Abbott’s agenda, which a lot of people at Newscorp, again as Murdoch knowledge supported. Abbott’s agenda was for the coalition to lose the election in 2019, whether it was led by me or someone else, and for him then to return as leader of the opposition and then lead the government back, in a sort of Churchillian comeback in 2022. Well, of course he lost his seat but-

Misha Zelinsky:

I ask you about, I mean your relationship with Tony Abbott and your careers in some ways, you look at it, you see almost two sides of one coin-

Malcolm Turnbull:

OH! don’t do that to me!

Misha Zelinsky:

Sydney Uni, Rhodes Scholars, you were the head of the Republican Movement, he’s the head of the Monarchists. Obviously, the leadership ballots, I mean what’s your reflections on those many years?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well I mean Abbott look, I mean we’re very different people. I mean, you see I don’t think… you see, it’s interesting. Each of us think the other shouldn’t be in the Liberal Party. Because he would say, “Oh, Malcolm’s always been on the left, he’s far too progressive.” All of that, and I agree with Peter Costello. Tony Abbott was the first DLP Prime Minister of Australia. I mean, he’s not a Liberal at all. But you see, unfortunately, what’s happened to the Liberal Party with a capital L, is that it has become increasingly dominated by people that are not remotely Liberal. I mean, if you want to look at craziness, I mean, consider this, Victoria is the most progressive, smaller liberal State in Australia, right? Without question. The Victorian division of the Liberal Party has been largely taken over by the religious right, and similar has happened in Western Australia. I mean, there’s one of the few remaining Liberal MPs in the State parliament, was making this point in the press just today.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Unfortunately, one of the Liberal Party’s great assets, which is that it is a grassroots membership organization, has meant that it is very… Because it no longer attracts naturally a mass membership of the sort of middle class, professional class, small business people, it has become very vulnerable to take over by extremes. Like, the ACT another example. The ACT is a very progressive jurisdiction. It actually voted for the Republic, it’s the Labor Party, and the Green is are the dominant parties there. The ACT division of the Liberal Party, is just as right wing as probably more right wing than the Victorian division. Now the question then is, from your side of politics would be why can’t Labor exploit that? Well, you’ve probably just written a book about that, I think but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookstores, yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, available in all good bookstores. But that’s a major problem. I mean, Andrew Lee has made this point, always sort of riffing off Lenin actually. Lenin actually criticizing the Australian and New Zealand Labor Party’s or Labor Movements, said they were just Liberals, with a small L. They weren’t sufficiently revolutionary. But Andrew’s argument is that the liberal tradition in Australian politics is really better embodied in the Labor Party. I think the truth is, it’s been embodied in both, but regrettably less and lesser on the capital L, Liberal side of politics and I think that is a major problem. I mean, you see evidence with the issues that we’re confronted with today.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just switching gears slightly to another big trend that occurred in your time in politics, during your time as Prime Minister was the strange relationship with China.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

The relationship arguably was perhaps changing, but once you became PM, you made some big decisions, banning Huawei from the 5G network, the foreign interference laws; a bit of a line in the sand. I mean, in your estimations, why was this relevant? Had Australia’s attitude changed? Had China changed? I mean, why were those decisions made, and why are they relevant to the sort of increasingly bellicose nature of the relationship that we’re seeing now?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look I think that the change really was from the China side. Xi Jinping, is a much more authoritarian leader domestically, and you see that whether it’s in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China, and he’s more assertive or belligerent, depending how you want to describe it internationally. The island building, unilateral militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea is one good example, but there are plenty others too. I think China has definitely changed, there’s no question about that, or it’s leadership has, and Australia has responded to that. Look obviously, I’m a Liberal with a small L and a Democrat, so I deplore authoritarianism anywhere. But speaking of their international policy, I think it is quite counterproductive. I mean, I’ve got a piece of the Nikkei Asian Review just today, which makes the point that their foreign policy is completely counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, the pressure that they’re putting on Australia, which is designed to get us to mend our ways, and punish Australia for daring to criticize human rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong or expansionism in the South China Sea, what does it do? It has made Australian public opinion more adverse to China than it’s ever been, number one. It has made any changes or adjustments or nuances in government policy, impossible to affect and it alienates and creates enormous anxiety in other capitals. The object of foreign policy should be to win friends and influence people, and ideally do that without having to spend too much money, whether it is in grants or gifts or infrastructure on the one hand, or military hardware on the other. I mean, if you look around the region, around the world, where are China’s allies? I mean, it doesn’t have allies, it’s got clients. The United States, notwithstanding four years of Trump, still has enormous goodwill, and allies, and alliances and people with who, the countries who have shared values.

Malcolm Turnbull:

To be honest, I think that China blew an enormous opportunity with Trump. I mean, Trump’s erratic sort of conduct and his offending and alienating close allies and friends, sucking up to tyrants, all that stuff that he did, that was an enormous opportunity for China to be as unlike Trump as possible. That’s what they should have done. They should have appeared to be steady, accommodating, measured, all of the things Trump wasn’t. Instead they’ve become almost Trumpy in their sort of belligerence. I mean, I’ll give you a good example. The last year, Morrison said, there should be an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus. Now, look you can criticize him for saying that. You can say he didn’t need to say it. It was gratuitous, what was all that about? Was that just for the benefit of domestic public opinion in Australia? It would have been better off lining up a coalition to support it, even make all those criticisms, and let’s say for the sake of this discussion, that those criticisms are valid.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Nonetheless, the Chinese reaction was crazy. They should have let that one go through to the keeper. Absolutely, let it go through to the keeper or said yes, look we’ve noticed that but, we think the best body to handle this is the World Health Administration, which in fact, is what is doing. But instead they turned this into this huge issue. Why? It’s like somebody who does something to offend you, which even if it’s deliberate like a small thing, and you sort of declare to turn it into the biggest issue of all time, so it’s just so heavy handed and as I say, quite counterproductive. I mean, I think like most policy Misha, foreign policy included has to be judged on its outcomes. And I think that this sort of process of bullying Australia has been quite counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I think one of the reasons I was really delighted to see that four leaders of the quad, India, Japan, US and Australia meeting together was, as I say in the Nikkei Asian Review today, that those images look good in their respective capitals. But the capital where I believe it will have had the most impact is in Beijing, because it’s basically sending a message to China saying, Australia and its democratic partners and allies are sticking together. Hopefully, they will take a different approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, the other big challenge in the room, I suppose you got this sort of the China challenge. The other big challenge for democracy around the world, is this question of Big Tech, and whether or not governments can still prevail over these sort of essentially global monopoly platforms? I mean, in this big fight between Big Tech and big media, I mean who’s in the right here to your mind? How do we actually deal with these foreign owned tech platforms, and the impact they have on democracies?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, well look, I think that ultimately if government makes the law, then everyone has to comply with it, within that jurisdiction. The problem is that these platforms are transnational, they’re global. It’s often pitched as sort of government versus Big Tech, I think you’ve really got to focus on the particular issues. What is the problem that you’ve got? I mean, if for example, if you see what the media bargaining card here, I’m very uncomfortable with that. I mean, it does look to me and I think it looks to everyone, as though the government and the parliament have basically shaken down Google and Facebook to give money tot their people in the media, especially their friends at Newscorp. I would have preferred, I think a better approach would have been to have a tax on digital advertising revenues. Then rebate that to those companies that employ journalists, and as for those that don’t like Google and Facebook, take those proceeds and then distribute them to public interest journalism.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That would mean news outlets that actually complied with what we would require, whether it’s the Press Council standards, or there’s plenty of objective benchmarks of what is public interest journalism can be used. There is a reluctance though, frankly on the part of governments nowadays to make judgments about broadcasting or journalism. That wasn’t always the case. When I was a young lawyer working for Packer, television and broadcasting licenses were renewed every three years, and you had to prove you’re a fit and proper person, you had to demonstrate that the news reporting was balanced. America was out… It was Reagan that abolished that fairness doctrine in broadcast news in the US. We’ve got to… This is probably, we’re getting to the end of this podcast, but this is.. I mean, here is the big question. We have always assumed or justified free speech and the First Amendment, in the US context on the basis that in the contest of ideas, the truth will prevail, and yet we are drowning in lies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

You’ve seen that in America, I mean the biggest threat to the United States today is not international terrorism or Russia or China, the biggest threat is the internal political problems they face which are exacerbated in large part by the media, much of it owned by Rupert Murdoch. I mean, who could have imagined other than in some sort of apocalyptic novel or movie, the US Capitol being sacked by a mob as it was on the sixth of January, who had been told repeatedly by big media outlets, including Fox, that Biden had not won the election? If you think about it, if you had a large percentage of the Australian population, for example believing that the Labor Party had won the last election and not the coalition, who knows what you would get? I mean, people would get very angry and pissed off, there’s no doubt about that. The peddling of lies has consequences and it’s a big issue, again it’s probably too big to get into now, but I guess my punchline would be the freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility, and obviously, we have defamation laws and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But we’ve also got to take, we’ve got to be prepared to hold people to account, and that might mean, advertisers have got to hold them to account, readers and subscribers have got to hold them to account. But we do not want to get a repeat of… we don’t we don’t want our country to be as divided, and with so much hate turned inwards on itself and its people as they have in the US.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just turn to sort of modern events, the culture of parliament is being discussed a lot as it relates to the safety of women. In your book you talk about the brutality of politics and you give some reflections on how tough it is on politicians; you talk about dark moments you went through after losing the leadership in 2009. The question I want to ask is in two parts; how hard is politics – is it too hard? Are we too hard on our politicians? And turning to the shocking revelations of 2021 and the March for Justice movement we’ve seen from Australian women who are demanding change – how do we fix the culture of our parliament, how do we fix these cultural issues more broadly?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, look I think it is. I think you’ve got to have thick skin to get into politics. I mean, it’s not for the faint hearted, or the thin skinned, we’re probably are too hard on our politicians, but they’re pretty hard on each other too, so it’s a rough business. I suspect that’s always been the case. I mean, the thing that is the issue that’s being debated at the moment, is this whole issue of disrespect of women by men, or men’s disrespect of women, men’s violence against women and of course, this being a real issue inside parliament. The Brittany Higgins case, of course has been the most sort of notable lately, but I mean, I wrote him about this. I talked about this when I was prime minister, I made changes to the ministerial code and but my observation of Parliament, was that the culture there, the attitude had far too many men, towards women reminded me of the 1970s or 1980s, maybe in the corporate world. I mean, it’s way out of step with modern society.

Misha Zelinsky:

How do we fix it?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, okay I think there’s at least two things you’ve got to do. On one side, you’ve got to have, I think they should in effect, leverage off the reform I made with parliamentary expenses. I remember I set up an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Agency or Authority, and basically, there hasn’t been a parliamentary expenses problem since then, because it’s properly monitored and accountable and so forth. I think you need to have an independent agency, which may just be three or four people, who deal with HR and that is where people can confidentially complain about issues, and it is where they would manage training, and so if there was an issue of bullying in an office, they could go in and make sure that everyone from the minister or the member down, gets the right training, and you basically, you’ve got to have that mechanism and you’ve got have clear rules. For example, if there is a report of an assault, that particularly something as serious as rape, then that is something that should be dealt with by the police.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Not may be that the victim says she doesn’t, or she most likely doesn’t want to proceed with it. But I think you’ve basically got to send a very clear message, that the full force of the law will come down on you, if you break the law, in particular in this context of men being violent or abusive to women. Now, that to some extent is having the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s important to have the ambulance there, but the important be ideally, people aren’t going to be falling off the cliff, so how do you change the culture? Well, I think you need… That ultimately is a question of leadership, and prime ministers and ministers have to lead by example, so they’ve got to be held accountable for their own conduct, for the conduct of their officers. If a minister has a chief of staff who is bullying, the minister has to take responsibility for that.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He or she is the boss, so they’ve got to take responsibility for that. When I dealt with the Barnaby Joyce issue, and I changed the ministerial code to say that ministers should not have sexual relations to their staff, which I mean looking back now people would say, “Gosh, why didn’t you go further? Why didn’t you say more?” That was so controversial at the time. Most of my colleagues, sort of-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Most of my colleagues thought it was an outrage, utterly unreasonable and, just an example of how old and out of touch I was. But I put in the foreword to those changes, language about respect, leading by example, values have to be lived and it’s worth. I mean, I’m sorry that Scott Morrison dropped all that, but because it is important, I mean that is, you basically do have lead from the top. I mean, because again that’s the only way you can change the culture. I’m sorry, it’s a simple answer, but the execution and delivery of it is complex, because you’re dealing with people, and people are complex, but there’s no other way to do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to ask you a question about your overall career. We could obviously talk about this cultural problem at length, whether or not actually while we’re on it. Do you support an inquiry or an independent inquiry into the allegations against the Attorney General?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look the answer is yes. I totally get the all the legal arguments, everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, burden of proof. I get all of that, I understand all of that. But what I said at the time, and I noticed that this was described as being very hostile to Porter, it wasn’t. I mean, Misha, I’ve actually been in this situation with Packer back in the 80’s, when Kerry was accused of all sorts of things initially.

Misha Zelinsky:

Atlanta.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, under a code name and all that stuff, and the only way you can deal with this in a political way is to step up, give a powerful rebuttal and set out your version of events powerfully and cogently, and I believe it would have been in Porter’s interest to say, “Look, I didn’t.” Invite the prime minister to appoint a suitably qualified person to review all this material and give their judgment on it. Now, he’s chosen to bring a defamation action, but the problem with that, is that the defamation action A, will take years and years and years and B, the truth of the allegations may never even be an issue. It depends what defenses the ABC chooses to run, but I mean they’re very likely to have a sort of a qualified privilege, issues of public interest type of line of argument. I mean again, I went through this with Packer too. At the time, their lawyers, very distinguished lawyers, much older than me, who were saying, “Oh, Kerry should sue for libel and do this.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

I remember saying, “Well, we don’t have enough time for that. We’ve got to deal with this here and now.” I think this could be resolved pretty quickly, and then Porter would be able to say, “Well, I rejected the allegations. I said, why rejected them. The distinguished retired Judge, X reviewed it and came to such and such a conclusion.”

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve mentioned Packer, there is a question I want to ask you about your career overall. I mean, you’ve dealt with some massive characters over the years, Packer, Murdoch, Rudd, Whitlam, Keating, Howard, Trump, Abbott, who was the hardest to handle out of these sort of characters, and why was is there a particular thing that makes them more similar?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, they’re all very different people, all the ones you’ve mentioned. I think probably the most difficult person to deal with was Trump, because he was the most powerful, and there was so much at stake. You’ve got to sort of… As an Australian Prime Minister, you’ve got to get on with whoever is the President of the United States, on the other hand, you’ve got to defend your national interest. There is a tendency for the professional diplomats to want to sort of go along quietly and not actually take up… They’re worried about a blow up, they’re very risk averse. But had I not gone toe to toe with Trump, we would not have maintained the refugee deal.

Malcolm Turnbull:

There’s a lot of people that are now settled and free in the US that would not be, had I not stuck to that, and equally, if you look at something like our steel industry, which I know, would be an industry many of your members would work in. Our steel industry was under real threat with Trump wanting to have a 25% tariff on Australian steel imports, as he was with a 10% tariff on Australian aluminium, and that was a very complex battle to keep tariffs and quotas off our exports.

Misha Zelinsky:

You have to handle him one on one in that situation?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Totally, it was absolutely one on one. I mean, look very often politics is a team sport and very often, as the leader you are backed up by a lot of people, often very much smarter than you who do all the groundwork. The problem with Trump was there was only one decision maker in the White House, and the staff in the White House kept on coming and going, going mostly. While I had some good input from Joe Hockey, the ambassador, and some other officials, and of course people in the steel sector, particularly, ultimately it just came down to me and Trump. Now that wouldn’t be the case with Biden, it wouldn’t have been the case with Obama. But Trump’s people, his key people, they did not want him to agree with me on the terms he did, they absolutely did not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He basically went, I mean, I persuaded him that his own advisors were wrong on this point, and that was in his interest to have no tariffs and no quotas on Australian steel and aluminium, and really, it was a very one to one thing, and I’m not bragging about that, it’s just that’s the way it was. I mean, that’s the way that was the issue with Trump, because ultimately as I said, there was only one decision maker in the White House and we had a couple of people there, who were very sympathetic to Australia, but there were others frankly, who were not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just the last couple of questions. You were saying your best day in politics, can you can you pinpoint those?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, I probably work out. There were a lot of best days, or great days. I think legalizing same sex marriage was one of the best days. That’s a very big social reform. Well, one I probably the worst two days is losing the leadership I guess, on two occasions, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

On both occasions?

Malcolm Turnbull:

On both, yeah. It was worse losing the prime ministership, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Just on that, I mean, leadership challenges. I mean, talk about what goes through your mind and what’s the difference between the time, you’ve been in many. What’s the difference between the time when perhaps you’re seizing the leadership, versus when you’re playing defense and you’re on the verge of losing?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, it’s very different, it’s difficult and different. Yeah, I mean in each case, I’ve been involved in a lot of leadership struggles more than most people. Yeah, look it’s hard. I mean I they’re just very different, and you’ve got to be very careful, you got to think very clearly, you’ve obviously got to do your homework. But when you are a challenger, you’re in much more possession of the relevant facts than when you’re on defense, so the so the problem is, it’s always an advantage to have the initiative. The challenger always has that advantage, and particularly, where you are very vulnerable as a leader is if your challenger is reckless, and they actually don’t care whether they blow the joint up or not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And this is again one of the real flaws and problems right at the heart of the coalition, right in its DNA nowadays, is that you’ve got that right wing group, which is massively supported in the Murdoch press. I’m not trying to sort of echo Kevin, but what he says about Murdoch is right. But they back that in, and they actually don’t care if they blow the joint up, and so that is terrorism without guns and bombs, and it’s very dangerous. Now, I don’t think you’ve got quite the same problem in the LP. But, I’m not an expert on Labor Party-

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, leadership challenges are brutal on any side of politics.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, yeah and I mean the reality is that sometimes you do have to change the leadership. I mean, leadership changes that are driven just by personal ambition, can often be very damaging. But sometimes the leader just can’t deliver, and somebody else can do a better job, and there’s been plenty of cases of that. I mean, the interesting thing about the switch from… When I took over from Abbott, our numbers went through the roof, that was clearly from a political point of view, the right call. When I was overthrown, the coalition numbers went south and stayed south for a long time, but ultimately you can never underestimate people’s capacity to lose elections and Shorten lost that election, and part of it was personal, and part of it was as you know, some very misguided policies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I don’t think climate was a negative for you, I have to say but I think the franking credits stuff was just staggering. It was so out of touch, I mean I used to get lectures from people in the Labor Party, which basically describing why the tax breaks shouldn’t have been introduced in 2001, and let’s say I agree with you, but so what? There’s a bunch of things in the tax system that with the benefit of hindsight, you wouldn’t have done that. But that doesn’t mean you should think repealing them is going to go without opposition or resentment.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s been a very long conversation and thank you for your generosity, and I know you’ve been coughing and sneezing, so we hope that you’re right and you’ll-

Malcolm Turnbull:

I’ll survive, don’t worry.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now question I’ve got to ask you, this is the question I ask all guests. Is the clunky segue to the barbecue question of deeper mates, so three foreign guests at a barbecue at Malcolm’s. Who are they and why?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Three foreign guests, well I would have four foreign guests, and they would be my son, his wife and their two children.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh man, you’re kidding. That’s a cheating answer.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Oh then they’re not really foreigners, they live in Singapore.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, three foreign friends. Well, let’s assume I’d also have their partners, so I would definitely have President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi of Indonesia. Who’s he and his wife Ariane, are just great friends and wonderful people and that’s such an important relationship.

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Who else? Well, I would say the interestingly, the two French leaders that I got to know well, Emmanuel Macron, and his prime minister at the time, no longer his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, both really extraordinary people. I’ve not met Edouard Phelippe’s partner, but Bridgette, who is the wife of the President Emmanuel Macron is fabulous. Really great company, smart as you’d expect. I think France was very lucky to have them both together. I’m sorry that Eduard is no longer the PM there, but again I have to say that, I said I didn’t understand the internal machinations of the Labor Party. I have no idea or to understand the internal machinations of French politics, but they’d be some, I probably should nominate somebody from another country. Yeah, well I look a great person, a great human being and very good company and thoughtful as Shinzo Abe. Again, I’m sorry he’s no longer PM of Japan, and he retired for health reasons. But yeah, they would be among the people. But there’s some great characters, you can read about all of them in my book.

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookshops everywhere.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Available at good bookshops everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s right next to The Write Stuff.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That’s right, exactly. That’s right, often sold in a package deal.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a perfect place to leave this conversation, Malcolm Turnbull, thanks so much for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, see you mate.

 

Clare O’Neil: The Long View – Fixing Work, Tech and Politics

Clare O’Neil is the Labor Shadow Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services.

A qualified lawyer with a background in business consulting, Clare is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

Misha and Clare caught up for a chinwag about how we can make working work for people; why we need to rediscover class in our political discourse, Australia’s guest worker visa disaster, the short term obsessions undermining our policy making, bringing tech giants to heel and how we can improve the culture of our politics

Clare is also a fellow podcaster! Clare’s podcast The Long View focuses on long term policy challenges and recovering from COVID-19.

Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @mishazelinsky @diplomatesshow

TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

All right. Clare O’Neil, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Clare O’Neil:

I’m so good, Misha. How are you doing?

Misha Zelinsky:

I am well. Thank you for joining us. Now, always plenty of places to start but as a fellow podcaster, I thought I’d give you the ultimate, easy dixer personal plug. Your podcast, The Long View. I was thinking about this was I was preparing the interview and I was thinking, well firstly, got to get the plug in for your podcast, podcaster to podcaster, but also, why did you select that title? And then secondly, you were podcasting throughout the COVID 2020, was there one big takeaway that you learned from all the interviews that you did of a lot of different eminent thinkers in Australia?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. Well, thanks for the free plug, for The Long View. Love a bit of Labor Party cross-promotion, Misha. This podcast I started really when we went into lockdown in Melbourne, and we were, as you know, in and out of lockdown for pretty much most of 2020. I had lots of time to be talking to people and thinking about things, which I don’t normally in my work as a member of parliament. I called the podcast The Long View really for two reasons.

Clare O’Neil:

I think the first is I have just an ongoing fundamental frustration with the obsession of Australian politics on the short term stuff that goes on. It is just amazing how much time and energy gets focused on whatever the micro political debate of the day is. I just don’t think that’s our job. I mean, it is part of our job. Of course, we’ve got to keep the government accountable and manage the issues of the day, but fundamentally we’re here to make sure that the best things about Australia are being delivered for the next generation.

Clare O’Neil:

And those are all questions that are about the long term, not what happens in politics today or tomorrow, but what we’re doing in one year, five years, 10 years. It’s that general interest, but also with COVID, I really noticed there was of course, obsessive focus of a lot of senior people on the pandemic. That was totally appropriate, and I just felt I could actually probably contribute to the conversation because I wasn’t involved in that actual emergency management of the health issue. I could help out a little bit by thinking about some of the issues that I thought were going to be different because of COVID in the long term. That was really where we got to.

Misha Zelinsky:

Was there one big, sort of like the big theme that you took away from all the different conversations that you had on it?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. There were so many. We had 17 hours of conversation with experts. One thing I would just say is I think coming out of COVID, there was a real temptation both on the right and the left of politics to be, “This is the moment that everyone realizes that we were right all along.” Like, all of our thinking about how we approach the world, and it became I think for some people, a little bit utopian that suddenly the public were going to emerge believing in a whole bunch of stuff they hadn’t believed before. I’m like you Misha, very pragmatic. I’m quite a centrist person, and I really [crosstalk 00:03:09]-

Misha Zelinsky:

Careful, careful. I’m a bleeding heart liberal. You’ll offend my listeners.

Clare O’Neil:

I mean, I am a bleeding heart, absolutely, but I also believe in representative politics and I believe in listening to my community and yeah. One of the things I just came out of that feeling is there is a huge reform opportunity coming from COVID. There’s no question about that. I don’t think though, you can label it as a progressive left reform opportunity. But there’s big stuff that can change here, and just one of the ones that I would throw into the mix which I think’s gotten almost no airplay when it deserves a huge amount of focus, is immigration.

Clare O’Neil:

We’ve got immigration on hold in this country for the first time really ever, and I mean, we had net negative migration flows for a brief period around the war, but this is a huge opportunity for us to actually stand back and say, “Is this serving our interests? Do we want immigration rates where they are? Do we want the mix of people coming in to be the way it was?” I think we’ve got to be real here. There’s real issues with our immigration system, why wouldn’t we take the chance now to rebuild that system from scratch?

Misha Zelinsky:

A fantastic point. I mean, we could do a whole show on immigration, but I think a lot of people would be shocked that there’s a lot of talk about the permanent number, is it 160,000? Is it 170,000? But when we were pre-COVID, that made up 10% of the overall migration intake which I think would shock a lot of people about how many workers we had and the temporary migration that the country had come to rely on.

Clare O’Neil:

Absolutely, Misha. It’s a very big change for Australia. That program was never designed to be a temporary worker scheme, which is in some ways what it’s become. We’ve always had an approach to immigration in Australia that’s been around permanency and citizenship because we’re this beautiful multicultural country because-

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Clare O’Neil:

… we welcome people in and they become Australian, and they’re our neighbors and they’re equal. But the way the immigration system works at the moment, it’s not like that. We had pre-COVID, almost a million people in the country who were not citizens, who didn’t have a clear pathway to citizenship, and who were here basically to work, and then they’d go home again. I don’t think that’s a good migration program for our country. I don’t think it’s consistent with our national values. That’s just one area where I feel like it’s not a right or a left issue, but there’s a clear space for a big conversation, and I would like us to have it.

Misha Zelinsky:

I completely agree. I think it’s one Labor should lean into. Now, speaking of, as you said, centrist pragmatism, it’s time to get my plug in. Now, obviously The Write Stuff. It’s been in the news. You were a contributor to it, so if you haven’t bought it, listeners, make sure you buy one copy and one for your friend. That way I will double my sales, but it was an attempt, we had 30 contributors from across the Labor movement, but also particularly the national right, the more perhaps moderate, pragmatic wing of the Labor movement.

Misha Zelinsky:

Your essay, I want to dig into your essay specifically. It’s a great essay. Obviously the best essay was my essay, but yours was the second best essay.

Clare O’Neil:

Second best, okay.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, but all jokes aside-

Clare O’Neil:

I think you say that to all your guests, but okay.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s exactly right. No, no, yours was a fantastic contribution, essentially about making work work, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, I’m kind of curious about what you meant by that, and why do you think work is no longer delivering for people in the way that it once did?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. Thanks, Misha. The Write Stuff really is a really great book and I want to congratulate you on it because you can get these collections of essays that don’t quite work, but this one was awesome. Like, really good thinking from really interesting people so I think it’s a good read and I would encourage everyone to buy it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Print that on a t-shirt, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. The essay I wrote for The Write Stuff was about work and so Misha, if we just roll back a bit, the purpose of our political party is about work really. It’s about how do we use work to share the prosperity of Australia with all Australians? And for a long time, that has been the ideal model for sharing the benefits of growth with ordinary people. But it’s not working anymore. Like, it is actually fundamentally broken, and for the Labor Party, this is a huge crisis because we need to basically rethink what our model is going to be for sharing the benefits of growth.

Clare O’Neil:

There is no point to economic growth unless ordinary people improve their quality of life. I’m sure you and I agree on that. My piece was really about what’s changed and why isn’t work working anymore? And what can we do to fix it?

Misha Zelinsky:

What would you say is the biggest problem? I mean, I completely agree with your analysis that it’s no longer delivering for people in terms of security, in terms of wages growth, and that pre-distributive element of the economy which is essentially taking up the tax system or how do people get ahead by having a good secure job with good wages. What are the pillars that have fallen apart there in your diagnosis?

Clare O’Neil:

If I can just describe it in one sentence it’s that we’ve had dramatic economic change over the past 40 years that hasn’t been partnered with sufficient other policy shifts to help Australians cope with what’s changed. If you just unpack that a little bit, the labor market today looks completely different to how it did when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister in 1983. One of the things we can see for example, is that incomes growth has gone really wonky and people who are working at the lower end of the labor market are getting no income growth at all, and people at the upper end are getting massive growth in income.

Clare O’Neil:

Just instantly we have a huge inequity problem that’s built into the labor market. The thing that’s also changing is the kind of places in the economy where jobs are growing is different. What we’re seeing is we’re getting lots of jobs growth for really high skill university educated people, we’re getting a lot of jobs growth for low skilled people who are generally really poorly paid and have really difficult conditions attached to their work, and those middle ring of jobs, and especially in manufacturing, area of major passion for you, they’re not growing fast enough or in some cases, actually going into decline.

Clare O’Neil:

We’re ending up with this labor market where you can either be, have lots of money and be rich, you can have not much and struggle all the time, and that middle rung is disappearing. And just a final thing I’ll just mention is the declining quality of jobs that basically has happened in particularly this last eight years of a Liberal government. Gig economy employs a million people today and their employment conditions are totally precarious. But even across the caring professions, which is an issue that predominately affects women, it is scandalous the way that some people are treated in the labor market. We’ve got a big job ahead of us when Labor’s next elected to government, to address some of these issues and make work work again.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I want to dig into that, because I think one of the big conversations people tend to obsess about, certainly for the last five years, maybe the last 10 years, is the future of work. Automation challenge, we’re not going to have jobs, are we going to need UBI? Et cetera. You and I have talked about this before, but I’m kind of curious to get your thoughts on the so-called jobless future and do we need to have all these new policies? Or, do you think it’s a little bit more simple? Because what you talked about there is splitting away of the reward elements of work and who gets rewarded and what work gets rewarded.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, my view, I personally have the view that the evidence supports that we don’t have a job creation problem. Jobs are being created. What we have is a conditions replacement problem, and what I mean by that is you live in a regional city, you lose your job at a factory, at a steelworks, at an oil refinery, you lose your job, it’s well paid, it’s probably earning six figures, and it’s secure work, it’s got leave, sick leave, holiday pay, et cetera. And suddenly you’re driving Uber with completely unregulated labor conditions, so you’ve got a job per se, but the conditions are nothing like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, are you someone that worries about that automation challenge, or do you see it more in that kind of how do we actually make people get rewarded for the work they’re doing in all those categories you listed?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. I mean, I absolutely agree with your analysis of that there, Misha. I think if we roll back around 10 years, that’s when there was a genuine frenzy, and these frenzies rise up and down over history if you look back, that there’s going to be a jobless future. And basically we’re all going to have to be on universal basic income and it’s just … The thing is, it just never plays out. We watch it, and technology destroys jobs and it also creates jobs.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Clare O’Neil:

The big issue-

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s funny, though, right? Sorry to cut across you. Blue collar people have been suffering from automation forever. Suddenly accountants are going to get automated, and everyone freaked out, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which was sort of amusing I suppose, if you’re a blue collar person, or representative of [crosstalk 00:12:14]-

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, they know all about it, don’t they?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Clare O’Neil:

I think the big thing for us is firstly that the new jobs that are getting created are good jobs, a lot of them. But they require skills that the people that got displaced by robotics don’t have. And the second thing is that it’s gone along with this real push to devalue work for people who don’t have a lot of education. And so those two things combined mean that we end up with this labor market, where if you’re an IT guru, or a fancy lawyer, or any of those jobs, you are fine. This is not affecting you, but the impact on people who didn’t get to study much beyond high school in particular is acute. And we can see that really clearly, and we can see it not just in the economic figures, Misha, but in politics.

Clare O’Neil:

Like, the frustration that people have because this is like the biggest problem in their lives and they feel like people aren’t talking about it enough and representing them enough on these issues. Yeah, again, this is a problem that Labor’s going to solve, not the Liberals, so we do need a federal Labor government to come in and be a long term government that can actually structurally fix some of these problems.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I mean, you just touched on a couple of interesting areas there, and you’ve done work on this. I want to dig into this challenge of you’ve done a lot of analysis of how displacement has affected in particular blue collar men. What do you see that’s happening to that cohort in particular? Economically, but then also politically, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Oh yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Because you see it-

Clare O’Neil:

[crosstalk 00:13:50].

Misha Zelinsky:

… in the United States certainly, the biggest … Where you saw this shock of manufacturing losses and shock of job losses for blue collar communities and blue collar men, and that’s where the biggest support for Trumpism emerged, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yep. Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’re right that those two things are sort of correlated, but what is happening to that particular group of people?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, it’s a really good question. There’s weird sensitivities as well around talking about men and the issues they face at work, Misha. Because I think that the starting point for this conversation is in Australia, people probably don’t think about this much but we actually have a very gender defined labor market. There are jobs where women are really, really dominant, nursing, aged care, all caring professions, teaching, lots of other ones. There are jobs where men are really, really dominant, and the impact of that is that the experience of Australian men and women at work is actually quite different.

Clare O’Neil:

For women, the biggest issue they face is job quality and the fact that there’s a lot of women congregated in poorly paid professions where the conditions are not fair. That’s a problem that Labor’s talked about a lot and we need to solve. When you look at men, the situation’s quite different. The real problem for men is that there are structural changes happening to our economy that are leaving these jobs that used to be enough to support a family, and they’re just disappearing. So, it’s not just an economic crisis for a lot of men. It’s a cultural crisis as well, because a lot of men and a lot of communities still have this really strong attachment to a male breadwinner model of a family.

Clare O’Neil:

And in fact, I’m a feminist, but I just have to look at the facts. That is the dominant family structure for Australians. I think it’s really unfair to not have an open discussion about what that feels like for men who are raised to believe that their job is to provide for their family and then they get into a labor market where they find they actually can’t do that. But also just on the economic side, this is a real crisis and a lot of the blokes that you work with, Misha, in your union, they would see people around them losing jobs sometimes and as you say, not able to find a job that pays them well, that’s secure, on the other side of that.

Clare O’Neil:

When we look at the numbers, what we really see for men is for men who didn’t get the chance to study, their participation rates in work are actually plummeting. And it’s actually the numbers are quite scary. If you look at one of the things that frustrates me about the debate about men and work is that people put all men in the same bucket. It’s like there’s this kings of the world narrative, and if you’re a really highly educated man, you’re probably on average doing really, really well, and you’re actually in the best position in the labor market of any group of Australians.

Clare O’Neil:

But lots of Australian men don’t fit into that category, and even today 25% of Australian young men don’t finish high school. These are the men I’m talking about, and that’s like 40% of the men who are of working age in Australia today. I think we’ve really got to have a big think about some fundamental questions here. What are lower skilled men in Australia going to do in the future where robotics have displaced a lot of the jobs that they would traditionally have done? And a really important question for me is we’ve got a school system that doesn’t really provide proper support to young boys who are not academic, who are never going to go onto university and never follow that pathway.

Clare O’Neil:

I think we need to do a lot of thinking about how we can help those guys get set up in the skills system, get set up in a job that’s going to give them a fulfilling life, when a lot of them today are actually falling through the cracks.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a really interesting, obviously critical policy challenge, but politically, you talked about it before that perhaps there’s this frustration building in the community, particularly in the people that you just mentioned. One of the things I wrote about in The Write Stuff is we stopped talking about class, and I think as a result, when we talk about if it’s identity based on gender, for example, you say, “Okay, all men are the same and all women are the same.” We know that’s not true, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

A person who’s a cleaner, who he lives in a regional community, is not going to have much in common with an inner city banker, right? So, if we put people in that stream all together, it becomes very difficult to have a conversation. People don’t relate to it. How do you see that challenge from the Labor Party’s point of view, actually connecting in a way that people can build I suppose solidarity around their challenges?

Clare O’Neil:

I think it’s a really, really important point, Misha. In the Labor Party, class is always there. It’s always part of the discussion and it’s kind of a core thing for us, but if I look at the broader conversation about I don’t even know how you describe it, society and economy that’s happening outside of the party, I think it’s become a little bit dominated by people whose main focus is on gender, and it is on race. And those things are really important, don’t get me wrong, they’re super important, but there’s a blindness almost amongst that group to class.

Clare O’Neil:

The people that you and I care about most, I think, I can say this, they’re not on Twitter tweeting about whatever-

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:19:24].

Clare O’Neil:

… the issue of the day is. They’re in their communities, struggling, trying to make ends meet, and they’re actually not even … Can’t even access this conversation, nor would they really want to, that’s happening at this really highfalutin level. I just feel for myself, those are the people I represent in parliament. Because they don’t have a voice, and there’s a lot of people who are very loud in conversation who are I think missing some really important pieces.

Misha Zelinsky:

We can talk about that a lot, but we’ve obviously got to come to some other topics. I’d encourage people to read my chapter, to get my thoughts on this challenge, but one of the things … The elephant in the room in this challenge, right? There’s this automation challenge, there’s this sort of breakdown of work, there’s the skills challenge, but there’s also this big theme that’s happened, or this big policy wave of technology, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Misha Zelinsky:

Particularly around digital platforms. I want to get your take. I mean, we’ve had this big spat between the government and Facebook, particularly, over media regulations, et cetera. But I suppose question for me, who’s in charge here? Is Big Tech in charge or are governments? Have we been to enamored by the promises of Big Tech? For example, I think Uber for example, has deregulated industrial relations more than John Howard ever did with workforce. I think there’s a real challenge here for people such as yourself that are in parliament, who’s in charge? How do you see that challenge in amongst all the things we just discussed?

Clare O’Neil:

Yep. There was a real moment of technological utopianism coming into I reckon around 2000, that went up until about 2010. When it felt like big social problems were going to get solved by technology companies, and there was lots of exciting innovation, and we saw a different future, and that is not what’s transpired at all over the last decade. Instead, we’ve just seen these old school monopolies, we’ve had monopolies in economies for ever since there’s been free markets and they all behave the same. They’re big, mean bullies who destroy creativity and growth, they treat their employees badly if they can get away with it, and they don’t do it with consumers.

Clare O’Neil:

That’s just where we’ve ended up. I’m pretty focused on government retaking the reigns here, and so I think there’s some things we need to do. I think the best example of this is what’s happened in the US with Trump and the riots on the capitol and this sort of stuff. They’re talking about how we’re going to get misinformation off social media and all this sort of stuff. Still governments around the world defer to the social media companies to do the job. And I just reckon that’s bullshit. This is not the way this is going to work. I don’t want Mark Zuckerberg to decide who comes on his platform or not.

Clare O’Neil:

They are monopolists, they dominant and host the platforms that are hosting the majority of political conversation in Australia and overseas, and governments have a legitimate role to set the ground rules for how they operate. I think governments around the world have basically abdicated that responsibility over the last decade, and we need to take it back.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And I think that’s an interesting point, too, because there’s this Kool-Aid that gets drunk in San Francisco, this righteous of, “Well, everything we’re doing’s fantastic, and if we break something, that’s okay.” Now, breaking labor markets is being enormously challenging for not just Australia but all over the world, but then also smashing up of social discourse. This is unacceptable situation that we’re in now, and it’s not dissimilar to the environmental degradation that you saw during the industrial revolution. We saw enormous environmental exploitation, enormous exploitation of people and we said, “No, that’s now how it’s going to be,” right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:

The capitalists, at the time the industrialists, were told no. And I think we’ve kind of reached a similar point now, but a question I’ve got is can Australia, we certainly punch well above our weight, we’re a very important democracy in of ourselves, but globally, but can we stand up to these big platforms on our own, or do we need coordinated global action? Because it strikes me that to your point, there’s this element of, “Oh, we’ll self-regulate, but also tell us what we need to do and we need it to be globally uniform.” They kind of thrive on the fact that there’s a friction between various jurisdictions, et cetera. How do you see the challenge? Can we fix it here by ourselves or do we need coordinate [crosstalk 00:23:57]? Because coordinate our action, as you know-

Clare O’Neil:

It’s hard.

Misha Zelinsky:

… it’s extraordinarily [crosstalk 00:24:00].

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, it’s really hard. And look at what’s happened. The digital tax is the best example of that. It’s in some countries’ interest, it’s not in other countries’ interest, so it goes nowhere year after year. Great question. I think it’s got to be two strategies pursued alongside each other. The Australian government has been mainly through the ACCC, which did this thing called the Digital Platforms Inquiry, which was a big look at the competition power of the Big Tech companies and how we can address those issues.

Clare O’Neil:

It’s been a document that I know regulators all over the world have read, have looked at, and they’re actually watching some of the experiments we’re running here in Australia to see how this goes. The news bargaining code that just passed … It is about to pass the parliament, probably in the next week or two, members of parliament around the world are watching that to see how that goes. We’ve got a really important role here as an example set up, an experimenter, to show that this is some of the ways that we can think about handling these.

Clare O’Neil:

But in the end, I think global action for sure is going to be required, and that’s where this sort of interesting mix of diplomacy and technology is becoming really important. Some of the goals that we will have for tech companies will only be achieved when we’ve got global support and so yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised in future years, if our Foreign Minister spends a significant amount of time actually working on tech issues.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a case to remove anonymity from these social media platforms? For example, just you’d have a Twitter account and can only imagine the sort of abuse that comes your way after you post a tweet. I certainly get plenty. It tends not to be from anyone that puts their name to it. It tends to be from knucklehead486. I often wonder if you just removed the cowardice from it, people wouldn’t be prepared to say it in a room to a person’s face, I think if their name’s attached to it, they’re less likely to say things, as well. Do you think there’s anything in that?

Clare O’Neil:

I do, I do. I mean, I don’t know what the answer is. I think that’s got to be considered.

Misha Zelinsky:

I know, yeah.

Clare O’Neil:

I mean, I think the issues around the economic impact of these companies and child exploitation, there’s a bunch of things that are just absolutely clearly not acceptable, and those are the ones that I think regulation needs to focus on to start with. But Misha, something that’s just really, really important to me is the social impacts of all this, and we can’t allow our civil society to break down because of a bunch of tech billionaires-

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Clare O’Neil:

… say so. When you’re think about anonymity I think that’s really important. Maybe it sounds odd to raise this, but I’m doing this in my electorate at the moment where I bring together six or seven constituents at a time, and we just have a cup of coffee together. The respectful way that people treat each other, the kindness with which they deal with each other in person, it just makes me so happy. They have such different views and yet they listen, they give their opinion, and that to me is dialogue. Whatever’s happening on social media is the complete opposite of that, and so yeah, this is a thing that I really worry about, that there’s permanent changes happening around how we think about each other as human beings. That’s for me the biggest crisis of all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, no, I completely agree. There’s something about the way social media and interaction between politics, social media, and traditional media, and that tribalism that we’re seeing, or identity or whatever, right? I mean, you can cut it many different ways, but it’s really allowing people to other others. Once you start to dehumanize and say, “Oh look, I hate everyone who is X and everyone who is X is wrong,” there’s Mike Murphy who you may know, he’s a Republican strategist, he always says, “I’m right and you’re evil.” That’s where we’ve gotten to, right? Rather than, “I’m right, you’re wrong, we can respectfully disagree.” It’s good to see you’re doing things like that. I think we need to think about ways at scale that we can get people mixing.

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, I think about this as like Australians in different groups, little circles on a diagram, and there was all these overlaps in the past. Like, these things that brought people together. Their church communities, the union movement, their workplace, and just-

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:28:38].

Clare O’Neil:

… over time, we’re moving away further and further from one another, and having less and less as we see as having in common. I don’t think things are at a crisis here in Australia. We’re just a different country, but look at what’s happened to the US. That’s our cautionary tale. People are violent towards each other. Families can’t speak to each other because of political differences. And we never want to get there. So, it is a big concern.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s extraordinary, right? People now in the United States, in a country been troubled by all sorts of things, race, racial inequity, religious sectarianism, but people now, the number one thing that they don’t want people to marry into is the opposing political party.

Clare O’Neil:

I know. Scary.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just extraordinary.

Clare O’Neil:

So scary.

Misha Zelinsky:

Anyway, but yeah, we can certainly dive into that one for a long time, although we’ve probably already bored everyone with our musings. Well, at least I have. You’ve been very interesting. But I want to actually just … We’ve talked a lot about I suppose the problems with the business community in respect to its term of labor, et cetera, and how do we improve the standards of labor. But do you think the way we approach business more generally, particularly small business, I mean, is Labor getting this right? Have we got the tone right? Or, again, a little bit of us and them narrative. I’m someone that believes in collaborating, naturally, so you can’t always, sometimes you do have to have a fight.

Misha Zelinsky:

But I think I always say that there’s two key relationships in your life. Your spouse or your partner at home, and then your relationship with your employer at work. It sucks fighting with your partner at home, so why would you want to go to work and fight all the time, as well? Occasionally you’ve got to say, “Look, we’re going to have to have a serious discussion about this” but you don’t want to be in constant conflict. I don’t believe in a conflict narrative. It’s stressful to people, people don’t want that, and the evidence doesn’t support conflict. When you have collaboration, you have better economic outcomes. So, do you think we’re getting this right, this relationship, at a higher level? And specifically small business, and Labor’s approach to it?

Clare O’Neil:

I think we have a lot more in common with small business than people probably automatically recognize, and it is an issue for us. Because we’ve got to make that understood better. Partly because I mean, you made some really good arguments about the workplace impacts of that, but Misha also small business is increasingly a preferred way of operating for a lot of Australians. I mean, there are lots of people who are technically small business who are actually employees, and let’s just set that aside for a moment, because that’s an industrial relations problem that shouldn’t exist.

Clare O’Neil:

But there are lots of people who are working today who 50 years ago would have been members of your union, who are now small business operators. And those people have so much in common with the Labor Party, and I talk to these … I call them guys, because they are mostly men, but I talk to these men, they are desperate to vote Labor. They’re desperate to vote Labor. Their families voted Labor for generations. They say to me, “I feel like Labor’s making it hard for me to support the party.” When you hear that from people, obviously you sit up and take notice.

Clare O’Neil:

I do think we need to do a lot more, but there’s a lot of people … I mean, I think that’s an accepted truth in the Labor Party today and there’s a lot of people doing really good work on it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and I think that’s right because I think one of the difficulties we’ve had conceiving the relationship with small business, you say, if you’re a small business, we say, “You’re a boss.” And really small business owners, a lot of the time, they’re guys or girls with vans, tradie with a van. Is that really a business or is that a working class person busting their ass every day, right? Same with like a franchisee, they’re a small business, they’re essentially a price taker from the bigger franchise network, and they’re getting done over by big business. They’re getting done over by their landlord or they’re getting done over by the power relationship.

Misha Zelinsky:

Likewise with tradies, they’re probably getting done over by the big construction companies et cetera, they go belly up and phoenix or what have you. I agree with you, there’s got to be more natural cleavages. It’s interesting that you’re talking to people that want to vote Labor, but they can’t. Is there one thing that you would change policy wise to try to encourage them to step back into our fold?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, Misha, I think a lot of it is about … It’s about rhetoric, because they feel … I think some people feel perhaps alienated, that when we talk about business, perhaps they feel that all businesses are being treated the same, when as you point out, a man or a woman who has skills and drives a truck around servicing Coles and Woolies, for example, they’re a price taker and they’re in many ways share the concerns of an average employee.

Clare O’Neil:

But I also think in total fairness, Misha, I think sometimes they feel we are talking about fringe issues a little bit in politics too much. They actually want us to be focused on the basics of work, health, education, and when we talk about those things, I think many Australians immediately see that Labor’s focus is their interest. But when we talk about other issues, I think they start to feel like we’re not speaking for them, basically. And again, it comes back a little bit to class, perhaps.

Clare O’Neil:

What are the actual real concerns of working people today? If they’re not at the top of the agenda for Labor, every day of the week, then you and I are not doing our jobs well enough. I’m just drawing you into my orbit here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh okay. This is the FPLP’s [crosstalk 00:34:31] just an observer.

Clare O’Neil:

Our problem, is it?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yep.

Clare O’Neil:

It is an ongoing issue in politics for every political party, to stay on the same page, and to stay focused on the issues that matter most to the people that vote for you, or you want to vote for you. It’s easy to get distracted, and I think for you and I who are centrists of the party and trying to desperately win Labor government again, because we know that working people in Australia need that, one of our jobs is to keep us on track. Work, what matters to families, health, education. These are the core issues that we really stand for and that’s what we need to be talking about as much as possible.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s interesting. I mean, one of the things, and certainly wouldn’t accuse you of it, or many of your colleagues, but it does exist certainly perhaps in the broader party, or the broader activists, and certainly to the left of us with the Greens, who them unhelpfully to my view, pollute the discourse for Labor with general public. I think there’s an element of cultural disconnect. There’s the kind of like I say there are a lot of people in the Labor Party, unfortunately, that don’t like the sport that working class people play, they don’t like where they live, they don’t like the jobs that they work in, they don’t like their religions, but they turn and say, “You know what? You’ve got to vote for us because we’re on your side.”

Misha Zelinsky:

I think people look at that and go, “Are you really?” I wonder, is the Labor Party becoming too narrow? We can’t be narrow, right? Got to get 51% at least of the vote, so if people look at it and don’t feel culturally aligned with us, I think that’s a big challenge. Do you see that at all, as a problem for us?

Clare O’Neil:

I think it has been, but I really believe that after that 2019 election loss, which was just so gutting to every Labor person around the country, that really caused a lot of people to actually stand back a bit and say, and just address that issue that you’re talking about there. For me, it’s a little bit rethinking for me who’s powerless in this society? Or, who has lots of power and who doesn’t have as much, and who I am there for?

Clare O’Neil:

It’s the people that don’t have as much power. And my focus all the time is continuously assessing what we’re saying and what we’re doing, and how does it sit with those people? It’s almost like a rethinking a little bit of representative politics and just enforcing this constant reference back to the people that we care about, and anything that we’re saying that doesn’t matter to them, it’s not that those things are objectively therefore not important, but I just think we need to keep our focus on what are we here for as a political party? It’s to share the great prosperity of Australia with every single person in our country, to get people out of poverty, to help working families live an actual existence, rather than just desperately make ends meet from week-to-week.

Clare O’Neil:

Those are the things we need to focus on, and I actually think that was a reckoning in 2019 election, and we actually have made some really big changes in thinking about how we do politics as a consequence. But what do you think? I mean, you’re a bit more outside looking in, very close to us all of course, but do you see a change?

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m the one asking the questions on this show. Showing your-

Clare O’Neil:

This is podcaster to podcaster, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

No look, I mean, I think people are alive to it in perhaps a way that … I think people are increasingly asking these questions. But I still worry that we still haven’t fully absorbed all the lessons. But I think people are asking the right questions about … And look, not to plug Write Stuff again, but if you look through that, you look about people asking questions about what’s our relationship with faith? Traditionally, certainly in New South Wales, Labor Party’s built on Catholicism, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Misha Zelinsky:

Working classes Catholics was the beginning, and then it was other second wave migrants, like my family, in terms of Greek, Russian Orthodox. So suddenly if you haven’t got a place for those people, it becomes difficult, right? I think increasingly those questions are being asked but I don’t know whether or not we’ve arrived at the answers. But conversations like this hopefully do help, but it is really great, Clare, I think to hear you talking about these issues and letting … I think the reflectiveness, I’ve certainly seen a lot of reflection in a lot of people in the broader movement, about what happened in 2019.

Misha Zelinsky:

We keep asking the right questions, hopefully we will arrive at those answers. But I don’t typically do this on the show, but sort of with you being on at this particular time, I wanted to ask you about parliamentary culture. I think whilst there’s been these shocking events detailed in the last week or so, these allegations that have come through, deeply troubling, I mean, as a woman leader in the parliament, in the community, what do you make of it? What should we make of this issue and does it speak to … You’ve already make public comments I’ll ask you to expand on, about what does this say about the culture of our politics, and then how can we fix it?

Clare O’Neil:

Well, this has been such a shocking incident to happen in the parliament. And there’s sex scandals in politics from time to time. Someone was raped in our workplace, and that’s just … If any member of parliament is not standing back and asking some really hard questions about how that happened, then they shouldn’t be working in this building. It’s a core issue that we need to focus on. And I guess what I’ve observed about the process here is that you go into a lot of workplaces, Misha, and the process is easy to talk about and it’s easy to fix. We can write down on a piece of paper how things are going to be different, and we can all agree that this is how things will go forward.

Clare O’Neil:

But the really difficult part of this is cultural issues that pervade how we do politics in this building. And unfortunately this building I think has not caught up with the 2020 Australian outside world, and I think it’s very male dominated, most of our political leaders are male, and the worst impacts are actually on our staff. Because even though there’s a lot of focus, in particular in the Labor Party, on how many female MPs there are, the staff are very vulnerable in this situation, in this building. And at a staffing level, the vast majority of senior positions are occupied by men.

Clare O’Neil:

And unfortunately it’s just left this really blokey culture and if there’s a blokey culture that’s not misogynistic, and leading to a situation where people can get sexually assaulted in their workplace, okay, fine. But this is clearly a problematically misogynist culture in the building. What I’m trying to get members of parliament to do is actually we drive the culture here. We are responsible. The thing that’s really annoyed me in the debate about this is people like the Prime Minister saying, “Oh, the culture in parliament’s terrible. It’s got to change.”

Clare O’Neil:

And he’s in charge of the culture in this building. What I really want to see is the leaders of our country standing up and saying, “I’m listening and I’m shocked and I know that I need to change and here’s how I’m going to behave differently to try to fix this problem.” But no one’s said that so far. Everyone’s pointed the finger at someone else and commissioning a new report or review every day to try to kick it down the road. I just think that’s how you manage a political issue, this is not a political issue. Someone allegedly committed a horrible crime in this building and apparently it wasn’t the first time. Can we just step back from the bullshit politics and actually really try to solve this problem? Because we can’t continue like this.

Misha Zelinsky:

How do you get lasting change? I completely agree with you. People say, “What’s culture?” Well, fundamentally it’s what standards people set, what they will accept and what they won’t accept, right? That’s it.

Clare O’Neil:

Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s all culture really is. It’s kind of unspoken, but they’re the parameters that we learn or understand based on what we see around us. Previously there’s been this attempts at resetting the culture in parliament. There’s been unfortunately issues where there’s been suicide, and people have then said, “Oh, we need a new, better way of dealing with one another” and within a day … The example I read recently speaking on a condolence motion, Tony Abbott, when he was Health Minister, got up and said, “Oh, this is shocking. We need to be kinder to one another” and then the next day he was the first minister in 40 years to be tossed out of parliament for yelling abuse at his opposite. How do you get out of just falling back into those old habits? What actually can change it?

Clare O’Neil:

Well, I mean, I think the process stuff is going to be important, but the fundamental thing is people actually being real leaders and changing their behavior. And one of the things I’ve been a bit frustrated by in the parliament’s dealing of this is that this has been pushed into women’s laps, and the Prime Minister, he turns to women to redo these reports about culture and that sort of thing. I really feel that’s a little bit unfair, because sexual assault’s not a female problem.

Clare O’Neil:

Like, often the victim’s are women, but the perpetrators of this crime are by and large male, and I just think … Like, you’re a great guy Misha, and you are involved and in different environments, and I’m sure that you do the right thing when things get to a place that’s inappropriate when guys are there on their own and there’s no women around. I don’t think that’s happening enough in this building. There’s a lot of amazing guys that work here, who are doing so much to help women. But the prevailing culture isn’t that. It’s something else. I just want us to all actually work on this together and not see this as a female problem that women have somehow got to solve.

Clare O’Neil:

Because the problem isn’t women’s vulnerability, it’s that there’s people in this building who clearly feel entitled to commit a crime and face no accountability for it. The worst thing is this guy, who allegedly perpetrated this crime, basically the crime was covered up for almost two years by the people around him in the Prime Minister’s office. And so that just shows you everything you need to know. This is a system that protects people who, a man in this instance, who allegedly assaulted a woman. We need to do a lot more on it, and it is about individuals in the parliament, like cultural change it comes from the top. It’s got to be the most senior politicians in the country standing up and saying, “I’m not going to just call a bunch of reviews. I’m going to ask what I’ve done to allow this to happen and how I can fix it myself.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it’s incredibly well put and I think a lot for us to all collectively reflect on. I think that at the moment, I think people are really shocked, and hopefully this is a turning point.

Clare O’Neil:

I hope so, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, it’s a very heavy point for me to segue to what is the “fun” part of the show, as I like to call it. Everyone’s been on tenterhooks waiting for the patented barbecue question of Diplomates. So, Clare O’Neil’s barbecue, you’re an Australian guest, so you’ve got to pick three foreigners. Who are they and why?

Clare O’Neil:

Oh, right. Okay, great. All right, well I will go with Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris, and we need some levity. Maybe Bill Murray.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say-

Clare O’Neil:

I know who I would go for, actually. Kristen Wiig. The comedian. Or Tina Fey. So many options to choose from. Yeah, I’m going to go with Tina Fey. Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris, and Tina Fey.

Misha Zelinsky:

Tina Fey can do an impersonation of various other politicians, as well.

Clare O’Neil:

So we’d end up having many more people at our barbecue.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say, your first two were strong female political leaders, so you must work in politics. If I didn’t know any better. Is there any particular about those three that appeal?

Clare O’Neil:

Well, I think Angela Merkel is just truly an amazing human being. I mean, she’s amazing. There is no one-

Misha Zelinsky:

Hell of a leader.

Clare O’Neil:

… that’s done more to shape Europe in the last 30 years than her. I really like that she’s got her own leadership style and she doesn’t try to change herself. She’s a quiet, quite introverted person, who doesn’t … People say politics is show business for ugly people. Well, Angela Merkel’s totally rejected that. She’s just there to do her job and I just respect her so much and [crosstalk 00:47:47]-

Misha Zelinsky:

Very German in that sense, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yes. Exactly. And Kamala, of course, such a cool person. And I’m really fascinated to just see where this goes with her as Vice President. It’s a huge thing to have her in that position, and I just think-

Misha Zelinsky:

She’s not just the first black woman, she’s also a migrant background, as well, right? Quite extraordinary story.

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. Exactly. And apart from all of her achievements, she just seems like such a cool person to have at a barbecue. And Tina Fey I just love. I don’t know if anyone’s read Bossypants, Tina Fey’s autobiography, but it is just the funniest book. She’s just such a cool person.

Misha Zelinsky:

As I said, if she’s going to be there, she has to do her Sarah Palin impersonation [crosstalk 00:48:31].

Clare O’Neil:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, anyway, Clare, it’s a sitting day so I’ll let you get back to your actual job, but look, thank you so much for joining us on the show. It’s been a fascinating chat and no doubt we’ll see you on our TV screens and on our podcasts in the very near future. Thank you so much.

Clare O’Neil:

Thanks, Misha. Thanks for having me on. Really appreciate it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers.

 

Nicole Hemmer: Nightmare at the Capitol – Conspiracies, Insurrectionists and Trump

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University. A prominent American historian, she is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is a columnist for CNN as well as the host of the podcast ‘Past Present’ and ‘This Day in Esoteric Political History’.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Nicole for a chinwag about the shocking events of 6 January at the US Capitol,  what the hell the Qanon conspiracy theory is all about, President Trump’s culpability, the role of Right Wing media in radicalising politics, how social media giants can be held to account for promoting misinformation, what history tells us about the dangers of ignoring extremist movements and how we can save democracy.

Other show notes

It’s been a bit of a break on the show, due to Misha’s commitments in editing a new book ‘The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future’. If you’re are interested in buying it, you can get it below.

‘The Write Stuff’ Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future’:

https://www.connorcourtpublishing.com.au/The-Write-Stuff-Voices-of-Unity-on-Labors-Future–Edited-by-Nick-Dyrenfurth-and-Misha-Zelinsky_p_416.html

Diplomates socials

If you aren’t following Misha or Diplomates on socials: @mishazelinsky @diplomatesshow Instagram and Twitter.

Nicole Hemmer’s details:

You can follow Nicole on Twitter @pastpunditry and see below for links to her podcast! 

Past Present Podcast

www.pastpunidt.com: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/past-present/id1043954557

This Day in Esoteric Political History

www.thisdaypod.com: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/victory-sausages-1943/id1502728938?i=1000505070903

Professor Rory Medcalf: Democracy v Autocracy – Friends, Rivals and Values

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. 

A journalist, intelligence agency analyst, diplomat, academic and thinker, Rory is one of the world’s leading experts on geopolitical strategy and his work has contributed to recent Australian government defence policy including the Defence White Paper of 2016. 

Rory is recognised as a thought leader internationally via his acclaimed 2020 book – Contest for the Indo-Pacific. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Rory for a chinwag about the US election and why the stakes are so high for Australia, whether the CCP or Russia might pull a move in the case of a litigated US election, how Australia should manage an assertive CCP, why democracies should be more confident, why minilaterialism is the new multilateralism and why its time Australia got serious about India and Indonesia.

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

Rory Medcalf, welcome to Diplomates, mate. How are you?

Rory Medcalf:

Very well, thanks Misha. Great to be on.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks for joining us. Now, always so many places we can start and it’s probably a topic that’s been done to death, but you almost can’t ignore it, it’s the elephant in the room, the US election. But I kind of want to approach it, I mean we could talk about the horse race all day, about who’s going to win, but I kind of wanted to approach it firstly, what are the stakes here? I mean, does it matter? Firstly, does it matter for Australia and then also what does it matter in a global context?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s hard to say anything particularly new and enlightening on this subject. Everyone seems to be a pundit on the US election or on its significance in world affairs. What I’d say is that of course it matters for Australia’s interests and security, and it matters perhaps more in an indirect way than in an immediate direct way. I mean, I do put a lot of weight on the importance of I guess American credibility in the world. I don’t think we have to think about American leadership quite in the way that we used to, and of course American leadership and credibility have both taken an enormous hit in the last few years for obvious reasons.

Rory Medcalf:

I think, though, that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential the United States still has to be a formidable player in world affairs. I see this election really as a chance to firstly arrest the damage, arrest the decline. Secondly to begin the very big repair job that needs to take place, and thirdly to also take I guess any … Salvage any positives out of the past few years. The main positive I talk about there, despite all of the harm that Trump personally and his administration have done, is the bipartisan awareness in the United States about the China challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s if you like, the one positive, or in fact the second positive, being the reawakening of the importance of democratic participation in so much of the American population. I think salvage those things, begin the repair job. Either way, this matters profoundly for Australia and for our Indo-Pacific region.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked a bit about US leadership, or US credibility. One thing I wanted to … And you’re right, there’s a lot of pundits out there, so we’ll focus on perhaps your subject areas of expertise, but one of the things that’s been tossed up is what happens if there’s a contentious election? What happens if for a period, maybe like in 2000 when it went on and on, there was recounts, it was contested, or it was a particularly contentious election with litigation?

Misha Zelinsky:

Peter Jennings from ASPI has been on this show before, he’s floated potentially you could see some aggression from the Chinese Communist Party in respect to Hong Kong or Taiwan. You might see Russia aggressive in Europe. I mean, how do you see something like that in a lame duck scenario, where the US is internally focused and not able to externally focus on its security guarantees around the world?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s obviously a risk. I also worry about what that internal crisis might look like inside America, because of course, in many ways the … And I’ll take sides here. I mean, I would prefer to see a Biden victory, but in many ways a downside of a Biden victory, unless it’s really decisive and really clear upfront is the way in which Trump or parts of Trump’s base could really exploit the situation internally over a few months, and you could see some very significant unrest moving within the United States.

Rory Medcalf:

As to the external foreign exploitation of that situation, I tend to think that even when China is at its most opportunistic and its most adventurous under the current leadership, I think there’s still a recognition that there would be a lot of risk in, for example, seizing this as the moment to take Taiwan by force, seizing this at the moment for some other aggressive action internationally. On balance, I think the Chinese aren’t going to be quite that crazy. Russia’s a different kettle of fish, of course, because I think Russia has made something of a constant of its interference in American processes over the past few years.

Rory Medcalf:

I tend to think that Russia thinks or the Russia leadership operates quite a bit more tactically than the Chinese. So I think the possibility or the potential for some kind of Russian exploitation of the situation is there. It’s probably happening already.

Misha Zelinsky:

What would that look like? What would a Russian aggression look like?

Rory Medcalf:

I guess what I’m referring to is an attempt to magnify and amplify the differences internally in the United States. I don’t see, if you like, some new sudden act of continental aggression by Russia, because in many ways at the moment Russia has most of what it wants and needs, and can handle. It’s certainly yet more pushing the envelope in cyber, particularly, and … Really it’s a continuation but with the United States that’s even less capable for that window of meeting any kind of concerted push back.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you’re talking about that perhaps driving wedges into the United States’ discourse by using Facebook and other social media channels and misinformation?

Rory Medcalf:

Oh, absolutely. As Russia has quite definitively done for more than four years now, going back to actually pretty early in 2016.

Misha Zelinsky:

You talked about the China challenge and that bipartisan, I suppose the way that the United States is now treating China as a strategic competitor. Turning I suppose to our neck of the woods here and how it impacts on Australia, how concerned should we be that we’ve got a rise of authoritarian regime, which is going to at least challenge the United States militarily, and certainly economically? How concerning is that just by of itself?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, the risk factor in China’s rise has become much starker, much clearer to Australian policymakers over the past few years. I think there’s now a growing awareness in the public, in the political community, even in the business community about that. That would be the case regardless of whether Trump was in the White House or anyone else. In some ways, despite the recklessness and the confrontationalism of Trump, there’s also, as I said, been that awakening in the United States recently, which is a good thing.

Rory Medcalf:

Either way, whatever happens in America next week, the China challenge isn’t going to go away. Australia faces it more starkly as not only a developed country in the Indo-Pacific region, and a very proud democracy, but a country that also is deeply enmeshed in so many ways with China economically, at a societal level, and so forth. And so much of that interaction has been over the years, a net positive for Australia. We’re now focusing on the risk factor, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

Look, I think that we really need to understand Australia’s journey on this. Almost really on Australia’s terms, in terms of actually quite an independent assertion of Australian interests, values, and identity over the past four years, and not as some commentators have claimed, as some kind of proxy for our loyalty to America, or some kind of deputy sheriff role. I think the good news is that there are senior policy thinkers, senior voices on both sides of politics across the political spectrum in Australia, who recognize the necessity of Australia really adopting this quite assertive position of its own.

Rory Medcalf:

That said, we’ve now reached a point, I’d love to go into this in the conversation, if you want to, Misha. We’ve now reached a point, we’ve got to understand what a sustainable new normal looks like in the relationship with China, and with Australia’s relationship with China in the context of all the other regional relationships in the Indo-Pacific. Because so much of Asia is not China, and I think a lot of commentators conveniently overlook that sometimes.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s a really good point. I certainly want to dig into engagement in the region more generally, but just sticking with China, the Chinese Communist Party. One of the things that gets discussed quite a bit is Australia’s relationship, so much of it’s focused on trade. We’ve said to split the trade relationship out, along with the defense component, or the strategic concerns. I mean, firstly, is that possible? Can we even separate the two anymore, given the way we’re seeing the Chinese Communist Party weaponizing trade, increasingly against Australia and others? And secondly, should we be worried about upsetting China and the Chinese Communist Party? I mean, so many people in the business community tend to say, “Well, we need to just keep the dollars flowing.” I mean, how do we handle those two components?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll start with the second half of your question and go to the whole thing of the whole idea of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, as we’re sometimes accused of doing, and then go to the trade question. Look, I think the paramount consideration every time an Australian government looks at what to do in foreign relations, whether it’s to do with China or any other country, is Australia’s interests, values, and indeed I’d even use a term like national identity. Who are we as a country? A liberal democracy, proudly multicultural.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re a status as a pretty dynamic middle power, as related to our identity in the world. Those things I think should be starting points for policy and diplomacy is not contrary to what some would suggest about at no costs hurting the feelings of the other country that you’re dealing with. Because in the end, so much of the hurt feelings you encounter in diplomacy is really something of a confection of outrage that countries will come up with for I guess negotiating advantage.

Rory Medcalf:

China has a thicker skin than the Communist Party sometimes like us to believe. There is a lot of diplomatic game playing that goes on, and I think in many cases, especially if you look at the way nationalism has been fostered in China over the past 30 years by the party, through hardcore patriotic education, those sensitivities are deliberately cultivated so that our room for maneuver is less. That’s a long winded way of saying of course we don’t want to cause gratuitous offense.

Rory Medcalf:

We don’t want to go out of our way to poke any country or political system in the eye, but I don’t think that the protestations of outrage by Chinese diplomats need to be the barometer for policy. Importantly, if you were to map, let’s say the last 4-5 years, and map for example, our trade patterns in I guess in the context of Australia standing up for a rules based order in the region, in the South China Sea or elsewhere, Australia strengthening its own domestic infrastructure against foreign interference, as we’ve done with various laws over the last few years.

Rory Medcalf:

In fact, in many instances and in the macro sense, trade has actually increased. For most of that time, it is not as if there was a correlation between our independent policy stance and being punished in a trade sense. Now, that may be a different story this year, if we can go to the coercion that’s being used, by at the moment China hasn’t pulled the really big levers, partly because it’s operating in a global context where it knows, its leadership knows that acting so coercively against one country is going to send a signal to others, not to be frightened but to actually accelerate their own diversification away from China.

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll come to your second point in a moment if you like, about trade per se. Because just in a nutshell, I think it’s great that Australia has a very substantial trading relationship with China as we should. It’s also great that we have a whole range of growing trade and investment relationships. It’s important to separate trade and investment in this regard, and I think most Australians do not realize that Australia is not heavily dependent on China for the foreign investment, and it’s probably not going to become heavily dependent on China for investment, and that’s fine.

Rory Medcalf:

Investment I think is much more a reflection of trust, whereas trade is a reflection of transaction. Yes, we have a major trading relationship by an order of magnitude, focused heavily on the iron ore trade. Australia is actually a less trade dependent country, however, than many other developed countries in the region and around the world. Trade as a proportion of GDP is actually less than most of us realize. Doesn’t mean China can’t hurt us if it wants to. Imperative now, nothing new or original to say here, really Misha, but the imperative is diversification.

Rory Medcalf:

Not excluding China, but very much China plus and keeping in mind the question, what do we want Australia to look like 20-25 years from now? Do we still want to be a country that relies for so much of its export income on essentially iron ore trade with Australia? I see that was a pretty unsustainable, one dimensional policy in the long run.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think COVID-19 is a bit of a wake up call in terms of our exposure on supply chains and over reliance perhaps on a commodities trade with one major country?

Rory Medcalf:

No question. I think it’s a wake up call on so many fronts, and for all of the damage that it’s done, and all of the distress that it’s brought, it’s also an opportunity for government now to build a much more united national approach, dare I call it a united front, with the industry, with civil society, to begin a conversation about what does the resilient Australia we want for the next generation actually look like?

Rory Medcalf:

At what point do we, if you like, start to focus more on security and less on the factors of efficiency and cost that have just been allowed to be so paramount for the past few decades?

Misha Zelinsky:

So look, we talked a bit about I suppose specific nations. One of the things that the big emerging challenges that we’re seeing now is return to systems competition, democracy with I suppose liberal economics has been the dominant ideology for the last 30 or 40 years. Now we’re seeing the rise of authoritarianism. Democracy’s certainly not expanding, on the slide around the world. Perhaps is on the slide in some nations that have been democratic for a very long time. How concerned are you about this systems competition? Do you think it’s a function of may the best system win, or do you think that democracies need to get their houses in order to a degree?

Rory Medcalf:

Well, you can say both of those things if you like. I think democracies have had and are having a very rude wake up call. Those of us who believe very firmly not only in democracy or liberal democracy really as a system under which we like to live, and really which in so many ways makes life worth living, but also who recognize that this is not exclusively some kind of resting system. That in fact human societies all around the world have the right to the kinds of freedoms that let’s face it, are there in the UN Charter or various UN declarations in the hopeful post-Second World War era.

Rory Medcalf:

In other words, democracy has a home in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific, in Africa and so much of the world other than just the so-called West. It’s a time when we really have to take stock and think much harder about what is worth defending and how to defend it. I would say that like the French Revolution, it’s a bit too early to tell whether democracy is actually in decline. I mean, if you look at the sentiment on streets of Hong Kong, the streets of Minsk, the streets of Bangkok, if you look at really the movements of people power over the last really 12-24 months in the United States, in Europe, in the Middle East, that appetite for some kind of basic dignity through civil freedoms has not gone away.

Rory Medcalf:

Through participation and essentially choice about how you will be ruled and who rules you. And I would add, also incidentally, the exceptional we’ve seen of Taiwan this year. Both in its resistance to interference in its democratic election at the start of the year, and the way in which it succeeded in setting the global standard for dealing with a pandemic within a democratic framework. So, I certainly think we need to play the long game in protection and advancement of democracy. In a country like Australia, we need to do that with humility, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re not aggressively proselytizing and nor should we, but we shouldn’t feel insecure or unconfident about it, either. I think if we look over the next 10-20 years, democracy is going to adapt and we just have to find ways to help that adaptation.

Misha Zelinsky:

I agree with you about the universality about democracy, and I think the protests in Hong Kong and the incredible election result in Taiwan was certainly affirming that people … There’s universal rights that everyone hopes. It’s not a Western conceit that people like to say, “Oh, well these nations have no history of democracy. Therefore they don’t want it.” Which I think is a nonsense. But you’ve touched on it a bit, we talked about Russia and its interference in the United States, we’ve talked about CCP interference in Taiwan. Obviously we’ve had quite a bit in Australia. I mean, how concerned are you about foreign interference and the concept of political warfare more generally?

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is I suppose the weaponization of all elements of society. We’ve got this total integration now of our systems where once upon a time perhaps in Cold War, there was competing systems but they were very much separate. Now they’re woven into one another. Makes it hard to grapple with all the different ways that you’ve got touchpoints which are also leverage points. How concerned are you about that, in terms of democracies being able to maintain their integrity?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah look, there obviously is … Look, there’s a degree of attack, but also there’s a degree of now waking up to the fact that we’ve been under attack for a long time. If you look at the, for example, I think very credible reports about CCP interference, but also influence operations in Australia over many years, and I should hazing to add, that influence isn’t necessarily a criminal thing. I mean, diplomats do influence as part of their job. It’s when it spills over into interference involving particularly corrupting conduct or coercive or clandestine conduct, that we’ve got a different situation.

Rory Medcalf:

I think there’s much greater awareness of these issues now. There’s much greater vigilance. I think the challenge we’ve got ahead is to ensure that this is not simply a government thing. This is not simply security agencies telling people they have a problem, telling parliamentarians they have a problem, and almost compelling them to do something about it. It’s got to be a much more inclusive and voluntary thing about cherishing what we’ve got. I think there are some positive signs there, and I do think that the more we can encourage bipartisanship on this, the better.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that these are issues that actually have to be owned by the center of Australian politics and owned by the moderate center of Australian politics. But I think for example, the more that we see communities cherishing that right to not only mobilize but participate in the democratic process and elections, but also apply scrutiny to voices within their own ranks, who take certain views. And apply scrutiny not in a kind of ASIO way, but in a much more free contest of ideas, media investigation.

Rory Medcalf:

Then I think we’re going to get through this. I worry a little bit about … In fact, I worry quite a lot about the risk of stigmatizing parts of the Australian population, and certainly stigmatizing some people in Chinese Australian communities, and they will take that personally. I think that unhelpful intervention by Senator Abetz on this the other week. I think in many ways the center in the debate has already shifted sufficiently that the scene is going to be set for communities to start, if you like, scrutinizing themselves and for media to take a continued interested.

Rory Medcalf:

Again, I’m moderately positive about our ability to get through this. However, if we see a hard partisan polarization on these issues, for example one side of politics saying we’re the side of politics that’s in favor, we have a good relationship with China, this other side is not, accusations of racism on either side. Anything that mirrors the kind of talking points we hear coming out of Beijing or echoed in the Chinese state propaganda, that’s when we’re going to have a challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

One last point, though I’ll make, Misha, and that is about the Australian electoral process, as well. One area where we’ve seen I think exploitation within the United States and elsewhere by foreign actors of the democratic process, is by amplifying any kind of criticism of the process itself by one side or other politics. Anything that undermines the credibility of the institutions themselves, the credibility of electoral systems. That’s a convoluted way of saying that I hope that in the Australian system, where we do have such a professional and impartial, credible electoral commission, I hope to see in future elections in Australia this continued restraint on the part of Australian political parties, so that whatever they do, they don’t cast the integrity of the electoral process in doubt. Because that is one of the vectors through which foreign interference operations will then, if you like, seek to magnify and cause harm.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you mean in the sense … Yeah, I completely agree. You certainly don’t want to delegitimize your own system and it’s certainly quite stark what we’re seeing in the United States, in terms of the Russians certainly couldn’t hope for so much propaganda about the failures of the voting system in the United States. And unfortunately coming from the US president at the moment is quite extraordinary.

Rory Medcalf:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to dig in a little bit into … I certainly share your concerns about the demonization of Chinese Australians or even Chinese people that are Chinese citizens studying in Australia, et cetera. How do you balance off the challenge where you know that … This is particular to the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party, which itself deems the Chinese diaspora, not just in Australia, but around the world, to be part of its I suppose domain. They certainly exert a lot of pressure and are highly active, basically a United Front Works Department in those communities. How do we balance off that activity as well as making sure that we’re not demonizing and using I suppose improper rhetoric when discussing this challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s firstly where I think the quality of a lot of Australian investigative journalism has really been a major national asset. It’s almost been a contribution we’ve made to friends and partners overseas, to the Five Eyes and other democracies, as a early warning system. I think it has shifted public perception. I think that the greater public awareness that you need to question the … Not accuse, but seek clarity on the motives of certain interventions in Australian politics or certain interventions in community affairs, I think is quite reasonable.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that the proper resourcing of government agencies to conduct outreach to civil society, to business, even to universities, is going to be a really important part of the solution. Because what you want in the end is civil society, business, universities, all of these other players, basically being proactive and demonstrating the integrity of their systems, so that we can avoid and minimize anything that looks like taking I guess a much more forceful approach. Sooner or later, there are likely to be prosecutions, for example, under the foreign interference laws. But we don’t want that to become the norm. We want that to be the exception.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I mean, just to round this part of the conversation out, I mean, one of the things I think so the big challenge is lack of reciprocity between the systems. We’ve essentially seen a weaponization of the openness of Western liberal societies, and our openness of our systems, our discourse, the economics, all these things have been shifted. I mean, how do open systems beat closed systems? Because the thesis before was that closed systems are brittle, and they collapse. Now it seems that because they’re so open to so many vectors, a concentrated effort from a regime that means you harm can be quite challenging to deal with. I mean, how do you see that challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. Look, I think reciprocity’s important. I think we certainly have to be careful about anything that looks like, if you like, threatening some kind of interference in other societies. I don’t think that it’s a sane or sensible policy to be saying, for example, to the Chinese Communist Party, “Well, the more that we see you active in our system, we reserve the right to sow discord and dissent on your soil.” That’s going to be a losing game.

Rory Medcalf:

But simply by protecting the sanctuary within our own systems for dissenting voices, but making it absolutely clear that we’re not going to allow, for example, free expression to be shut down in parts of our society by a foreign actor, as has been attempted I think by the CCP occasionally in diaspora communities in Australia and elsewhere. We’re actually taking a defensive measure that I think is quite sustainable. I guess it’s about setting limits. It’s not about achieving any kind of absolute victory. It’s just about demonstrating that our system will survive, will be resilient, and that we will not be afraid of, if you like, attributing, pointing out what’s occurring. But also setting limits.

Rory Medcalf:

I don’t think there’s a guaranteed win for authoritarianism here. I’ve sort of meandered on this a little bit, but you might want to also think about time frame. Because in many ways, there’s now this new myth that time is on the side of authoritarian states, and of course, 15-20 years ago as we were saying, there was this naive belief that the internet, for example, would be this magic bullet for democratic freedoms everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

As Bill Clinton said.

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. But we’ve swung around now to this idea that time is automatically on the side of authoritarian systems. It’s really up to democracies, whether it’s Australia, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in America, whether it’s in Asia, to demonstrate their own adaptability and I’d say if you … I see this as a 10-20 year long contest. In some ways, the playing field could look quite different. Especially in a decade or so from now, and especially, and this is a missing link, especially if you can build greater solidarity among the democracies and how they push back.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re seeing the kernel of that solidarity already. There’s no end of discussions now among evolving groupings, the quad in the Indo-Pacific, obviously the Five Eyes intelligence partners now widening their scope. But even institutions like so-called D10 of democracies. Not a formal government to government relationship, but a so-called 1.5 track arrangement of 10 of the world’s leading democracies, where policymakers and experts and commentators get together quite regularly now to exchange notes on how to manage the authoritarian challenge. I think we’ll see a lot more of that and we will begin to see concerted not so much push back, but concerted setting of limitations by these countries. Whether it’s on issues like hostage diplomacy as Australia and Canada have suffered.

Rory Medcalf:

Whether it’s on issues like how to build best practice in limiting foreign interference, whether it’s on issues like building alternative supply chains in areas such as critical minerals. There are a whole lot of areas where if we stay the course over about the next 5-10 years or beyond, the democracies will end up I think in a sufficiently strong and stable position, and a lot of the contradictions within authoritarian countries are likely to become more difficult for them to manage.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s interesting. You’ve stumbled into the next question that I wanted to ask you, which is about you’ve talking a lot about this concept of minilateralism. So, essentially small groupings getting together, like-minded nations, more than just bilateral. But do you see essentially things, true multilateralism, is that basically dead do you think in a modern context? Or are we going to have to rely on things like a D10 or the Five Eyes, a deeper Five Eyes, or things of that nature?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s certainly too soon to say that multilateralism is dead. The inclusive multilateralism of the United Nations, or big regional organizations where simply by being part of the region, you’re almost automatically entitled to membership. Of course we have all of the ASEAN centric institutions here in the Indo-Pacific. We have the EU, we have organizations that have built up over time to accommodate the widest possible range of interests.

Rory Medcalf:

Minilateralism, and for the benefit of your listeners, it’s small, self-selecting groups of three or more countries. Bigger than bilateral, but smaller than multilateral. I think that is the trend of the times, and we’re seeing that in everything from the trilaterals and the quadrilateral security dialog, right through to the way in which small groups are getting together to share best practice on COVID response, the way in which the Five Eyes intelligence partners are expanding to a whole geoeconomic agenda now.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s because it’s easiest, or it’s most effective for small groups to select one another on the basis of having interests in common, having capabilities that they can bring to the table, and having the political will to work together. But all of these layers of diplomacy will keep working I think in a loose kind of concert. I would call time on I guess the international rules based order, or the multilateral system, if you had essentially a wholesale defection. Whatever China and Russia are doing, we haven’t yet had the equivalent of an imperial Japan walking out of the League of Nations, as it did in 1933.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, what does that red line look like to your mind?

Rory Medcalf:

Of course, some would say that in fact the country that’s been calling on multilateralism has been the United States under Trump, rather than the Russians or the Chinese, even though so much of what Russia and China does is about double standards and about saying one thing and doing another. Look, I think a lot of it would relate to a comprehensive act of international aggression where major powers essentially either took sides or took that as a final warning that they would have to greatly reduce their exposure to one another.

Rory Medcalf:

So, a fully fledged attack on Taiwan, a fully fledged outbreak of hostilities between China and another major country. Not necessarily China and the United States, but for example China and India, China and Japan. I’d see those as pretty clear breakpoints. Likewise, overt Russian aggression against European countries. I think we’ve seen something beyond the grayzone that we’ve seen in Ukraine and elsewhere. I think we’re still not at that point. I think there’s a real possibility in the next 10 years that we’ll get to that point, but it’s not at all inevitable, and I guess I’d like to think that the US election in the next week or two could be the beginning of a point towards stemming that risk, especially if we see the United States begin to show a bit more respect for the system that it established in the first place.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you’ve talked about minilateralism. One of the ones that gets focused on a lot, or is getting more attention now, is the so called quad, which is Australia, United States, India, and Japan. China’s very displeased about this arrangement. I mean, what sort of hopes do you have for the quad? Do you think it can be a significant player in addressing these challenges we’ve talked about?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ve written quite a bit about the quad. Recent article in Australian Foreign Affairs and the quad features pretty heavily in my book on the Indo-Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

What’s it called, mate? Feel free to plug it.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ll do that. We’ll get there, I’m sure. The quad is not what its critics often claim it to be. Some critics say that its problem is that it’s going to become an Asian NATO. In other words, it’s an alliance, it’s the basis of a formal alliance that will “contain China and provoke China” into all sorts of things like military modernization, assertiveness and so forth. Things incidentally that China’s already doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say, they’re already happening.

Rory Medcalf:

Sort of since the last 15 years proves, if you like, or the 13 years since the quad that was originally conceived, proves that in the quad’s absence, from 2008 to 2017 there was no quad, in the quad’s absence, pretty much all of the troubling things that the quad was supposed to provoke have actually taken place. The quad is not now or in the foreseeable future, a hard alliance. On the other hand, nor is it a flimsy, meaningless conversation. Critics also say, “Well, what’s the point of this?” Since when the chips are down for countries with somewhat disparate interests as America, Japan, India, and Australia are not going to take fundamental risks on one another’s behalf. They’re not going to be true allies, so what’s the point?

Rory Medcalf:

However, most of what happens in statecraft and diplomacy happens in between the extremes of golden peace and total war. There’s lots of assertiveness and coercion and negotiation, and second guessing that takes place. And the quad, and other minilateral institutions provides I think a really flexible vehicle for all of those issues in between, where you want to start showing gradations of solidarity, gradations of resolve. You want to demonstrate to a country like China that the more it throws its weight around against individual states in the Indo-Pacific, the more it’s going to encourage states to trust one another far more than they will trust China.

Rory Medcalf:

As for practical cooperation, we’re really only at the very beginning. We’ve seen in the last two or three years, not only the rebirth of the quad going very quickly to a ministerial level dialogue, now to military exercises, the Malabar naval exercise that Australia’s been admitted to. But there appears to be lots of behind the scenes and actually fairly upfront diplomacy occurring on issues like supply chain security, COVID response, critical minerals, cyber, critical technologies. In other words, the quad’s creating a new infrastructure of trust for the next 10 years or more, and it’s sending a signal I think to other countries in the region that it’s possible to build these new coalitions of trust.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d like to see the quad build its own additional relationships with, for example, South East Asian countries like Vietnam or Indonesia, that have a lot at stake and a lot to offer. Maybe with European partners, France and Britain, who are playing back into the Indo-Pacific in a big way. Let’s see where we can get with this thing. I don’t think the Indians and the Indians are critical in this, are under any illusion that were a conflict to flare up on the border with China again tomorrow, that the quad would be parachuting troops in from its member countries to hold the line.

Rory Medcalf:

But at the same time, I think increasingly you’ll see intelligence sharing, geoeconomic support for one another on supply chains, on resilient infrastructure, on cyber, that will actually help individual countries like India build their capability to protect themselves, protect their sovereignty, and that’s enough, in my view.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about India. Switching back to bilateralism. It’s probably a country that I know you’ve talked about it quite a bit, increasingly others are talking about it. There was a report commissioned by the government a couple of years ago about looking at deepening economic ties with India. What’s your view? I mean, are we underdone in the relationship from a strategic point of view? How could we deepen it? Why does it matter?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, India matters, and I think what I’m pleased about with the way the strategic dialogues have evolved in the last few years is that no one in Australia really questions anymore that India’s important. It’s just that we have trouble still quite coming to terms with it, quite knowing the right line of engagement. Because India is big, it is complex, it’s untidy. That’s no surprise for anyone.

Rory Medcalf:

I think one of the reasons why I’ve actually got a certain respect for India’s achievements over the past 70 years or more really, is that when you think of all India’s problems, you’ve also got to think of what an extraordinary challenge it is to manage such a large and diverse society within a single democratic framework. If you were to take the entire American content and Europe and a good chunk of the Middle East, and treat that as one federated democracy, that would be less diverse than India.

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow.

Rory Medcalf:

Certainly linguistically or culturally, and roughly the same population. That’s the political challenge, and that’s actually the political achievement that India has demonstrated. Yes, its democracy is imperfect, yes I’m worried a bit about the illiberal turn that parts of the Indian polity have taken in the past few years, but India has enormous resilience. It’s a very antifragile country in a way, and I’m reasonably confident that it will chart its own path. We want to think really about India over again, over a generational time frame.

Rory Medcalf:

A large proportion of the world’s youth in India, the future workforce, the future unemployed, however you want to see it. We want to help India achieve as much of its potential as we can, while respecting its democratic institutions and traditions. And without placing I think unrealistic expectations such as that India and Australia are going to become formal treaty allies anytime soon, and we shouldn’t … I’ll pause on this point. We shouldn’t project on India the mythology that somehow it’s going to be the next China, that it will have within the next number of years, as spectacular an economic rise as China had in recent decades.

Rory Medcalf:

Because democracy means, and the nature of Indian democracy means in a sense, India fails every day, but it keeps going. Whereas I’d say that in China, we’ve seen a spectacular achievement at enormous cost to human rights, and if China in some way fails, it’s going to do so spectacularly. That’s how I’d see India. We’ve got to be patient. We’ve started on this journey. We’ve got many years to go.

Misha Zelinsky:

So just quickly, one last point on India and China, because you talked about demography there in India. I mean, one of the things that China is struggling with is its demographic destiny, with the one child policy. It’s going to be old before it gets rich. Do you think India has inbuilt advantages on that basis?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it does, but there’s potential for an extraordinary demographic dividend or something of a demographic disaster, as well. It really is about employment, education, and dignity for this extraordinary Indian youth demographic. I would say that on balance, the creativity that we’ve seen over many years now among younger generations of Indians, not only in India but in diaspora communities all around the world, is going to provide India with a pretty significant advantage. But it is going to take further reform, economically. It’s going to take pretty high degrees of mutual respect and tolerance inside the Indian political system.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s where the role of decision and leadership is going to matter in the years ahead, and that’s where it’s going to be important firstly, for India to reinvigorate its democracy, to have a more effective opposition if you like, because one reason that Modi has done so well is that the Congress Party, which has now become the main party of opposition, used to be the natural part of government, really hasn’t reinvigorated itself. Hasn’t got beyond its dynastic dependence on the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ve also seen I think a lot of the talent of young Indians go into the private sector and that’s a good thing, but we now need to see the Indian state and the Indian private sector work more closely together within the democratic framework. Lots of uncertainties there, but I think Australia is absolutely right to be investing in the relationship, as long as we keep our expectations tempered.

Misha Zelinsky:

One last regional scan around the place. I mean, and we’ll have to keep it short because I know your time is precious, but Indonesia, again, probably a nation-state that is massively unders in its discussion in Australia, other than perhaps Bali trips. How do you see that relationship and what’s its relevance to Australia, and also to the region?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll link Indonesia and India in this sentence, if you like, because there’s obviously certain things they have in common that aren’t respected enough in Australia beyond the policy class. I would actually say that our policymakers, particularly our diplomats, generally get India and Indonesia now. I used to despair that 20 years ago our diplomats generally didn’t appreciate India’s potential, but our officials have always known that Indonesia is important.

Rory Medcalf:

What we need to do, though, is to get that awareness beyond Canberra and beyond the bureaucratic and diplomatic and indeed political elite. And India has the advantage in a way, because there is now such a strong people to people link, such a strong societal connection between India and Australia, or between really South Asia and Australia, that a cultural understanding of what India is and where it’s going is becoming I think pretty grounded in Australia society.

Rory Medcalf:

The same has not happened for Indonesia, and in fact, there are still other South East Asian societies, or South East Asian diaspora communities that are very established in Australia such as from Vietnam, for example. But we don’t have the same popular perception of what Indonesia is or what it can be. There is hard work for government and business still ahead on this, and I would say that that really needs to be a priority because Indonesia is at the center of our region. I mean, I’ll plug my book here, Misha, if you don’t mind.

Misha Zelinsky:

Please do.

Rory Medcalf:

My argument in the book Contest For The Indo-Pacific, is not as some people would argue, it’s not that all of the region’s problems are about China, or that India is the magical solution. It’s a much more nuanced argument than that, but I do make the argument that middle powers and middle players, countries that are not China and not the United States, are working together, are going to really provide the best hope of holding the line while either the United States gets its house in order, or we work through the next 20 years or so and China discovers the limits of its own ambition.

Rory Medcalf:

Indonesia is going to be important in that game because geographically it’s at the crossroads of this maritime region, the Indo-Pacific. So much of the trade and commerce that all of our nations depend on, even now because deglobalization is only going to be ever a partial thing. Maritime trade this year has actually increased, despite COVID, which I found fascinating. Indonesia is at that crossroads, and secondly Indonesia as a democracy, and as actually a pretty multicultural democracy, with the Muslim majority, Indonesia has the potential to be a leader and the natural leader in South East Asia, and occasionally is showing signs that it’s willing to do that.

Rory Medcalf:

So, diplomatically we should work with Indonesia, at least as much as we do and probably more so, but the missing link is still finding that societal and cultural connection, and really encouraging our business community to bet on Indonesia and bet on Indonesia’s own youth dividend that it has just like India.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Rory, I could go all day with this, as you well know, and everyone that listens to my podcast know that I can go all day on these things. But now it’s time for one of my famous clunky segues to the fun part of the show, and I know you can’t wait to answer these questions, but a barbecue at Rory’s where you’re plugging your book, three foreigners coming along, I’m sure … I’m quite interested in your answer actually. There’s three foreigners, alive or dead, come to a barbecue at yours. Who are they, and why?

Rory Medcalf:

I’d be curious to know what answers you got out of others for that rather fascinating, contrived question.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Americans can be a bit hit and miss depending. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me saying that. Sometimes they say Russell Crowe, which I have to always point out to them, is a Kiwi.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s right. He’s a foreigner. No look, for a start, because we’re talking about international attendance at my special barbecue, it’s going to be probably a halal barbecue with vegetarian options, to respect that cultural diversity. And most of the people I’d love to have the conversation with that I can’t have, are people who aren’t with us anymore. There’s a few famous or forgotten names, particularly from the 20th century, who I’d love to see at my barbecue. I’d certainly want a few thinkers, a few big thinkers there. People like Hannah Arendt or Isaiah Berlin, who are some of the great anti-totalitarian thinkers of the 20th century.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d love to have a couple of great statesman, or leaders from the 20th century. Particularly those who we’re not always quite so aware of. For example, Gustaf Mannerheim, who was really the great leader of independent Finland in the early 20th century. And apart from anything else, not only led many aspects of Finnish independence, but fought the Winter War against the Russians. Someone who I guess a bit like Lee Kuan Yew, in a somewhat more democratic setting, really helped a small country to make its way in the world.

Rory Medcalf:

And then finally I think it’d be great to connect with some voices from our region, from Indonesia or India in particular, and I’d enjoy seeing for example, three generations of I think the most accomplished Indian families. So, the current Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar. His son, Dhruva, who’s a great Indian security thinker, and in fact Dhruva’s late grandfather, K. Subrahmanyam, who was a great thinker in India’s strategic journey from the 1970s onwards. It’s a pretty eclectic mix, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise from a man as learned as yourself.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s the conversation I’d love to have about really how do you advance the interests of your country in a really contested world while staying true to your values?

Misha Zelinsky:

I think there’s certainly plenty to teach us based on the conversation we’ve just had, so I think that’s a perfect place to leave it. Rory Medcalf, thank you so much for joining us Diplomates.

Rory Medcalf:

Thank you.

 

Ambassador Frank Lavin: Winning Elections – Reagan, Bush, Trump and Election 2020

Ambassador Frank Lavin has been a fixture in Republican politics for the last 40 years.

He worked for President Reagan as his head of politics, advised President George H.W. Bush and under President George W Bush, he was appointed US Ambassador to Singapore in 2001.

A prolific author for global publications, Frank had a second career in Asian finance and is now CEO and founder of ‘Export Now’.

A prominent ‘Never Trumper’, he has been a vocal critic of the Donald Trump Administration.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Frank for a chinwag about Election 2020 and whether Trump can fight back and win, why elections are defined by what voters don’t want,  what made Ronald Reagan the politician of his era, how politics has changed for the worse today, the future of the Republican Party, the secret to winning Presidential races and what the rise of an authoritarian China means for the US, Australia and the world.

It’s a wide ranging chat.

We want to say that Frank absolutely wins the award of best BBQ answer in the history of the show!

Transcript

Misha Zelinsky:
Frank, welcome to the show.

Frank Lavin:

Thanks. Thanks Misha, glad to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

And thank you so much for joining us on Diplomates this week. Now you are in Singapore for the audio tape?

Frank Lavin:

I am locked down in Singapore. My business is actually in Shanghai, but I bunk in Singapore because that’s where my wife works. And it so happened when the curtain came down on Coronavirus, I was locked down here, and here I’ve been for about the last six or seven months.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Right. It’s a tough time everywhere at the moment, and no doubt we’ll cover Corona. But there’s so many things I’d like to talk to you about in terms of your personal very long career in politics, but given that we are now very near to the US presidential election, and clearly that’s what everyone’s tuning in for, I thought we might start with the election. You wrote a piece recently, I thought we could start here, you wrote a piece recently saying, don’t really focus on what voters want, focus on what they don’t want. What did you mean by that? And what does that mean for the election?

Frank Lavin:

I think this is a global phenomenon. When we have a public discussion and we articulate our preferences, we typically do so in terms of upside and aspirations. Where do we want our country to go? What kind of political leadership do we want? So that’s typically the currency of public discussion. However, in decision making theory, it’s very different than that. It’s people vote their fears, they vote negative, they can identify the greatest threat or the greatest risk, and that’s what they vote against. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence to take examples from this cycle, Misha. I think we can make a pretty strong case that the rather crowded Democratic field this time, Joe Biden was the least flawed candidate. He was the person who you had a hard time voting against if you were a Democrat, but the other people all had different sort of flaws, personal flaws, ideological flaws, and so forth that made them weak and turned, I think, a lot of Democrats with them.

And I think also Kamala Harris of the candidates mentioned for running mate that she was the least flawed running mates. So they ended up with a package that is broadly acceptable to Democrats rank and file. But if you typically vote Democratic you’re going to be very comfortable voting for Biden and Harris.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so the state of the race, I mean, it’s been pretty set for some time now, polling, and I think as has a lot of people nervous because of what happened in 2016, but if you believe the polling, Biden’s ahead nationally considerably, he’s ahead in most of the battleground states and key states. Firstly, do you think that’s the state of the race? And then secondly, I mean, can Trump come from behind with only a number of weeks left?

Frank Lavin:

Yeah. And look, I think a race with an incumbent in it is overwhelmingly a referendum on that incumbent. So what the polls are telling us, and I do think they’re accurate, is voters would prefer someone other than Trump. But Trump has already sort of lost the job interview, he’s already failed the job interview. It’s not 100% clear if Biden’s passed the job interview, but they’ve already decided they don’t want to renew Trump’s lease for another four years. And no surprise that the poll numbers are stable, Trump is a known quantity and Biden is a known quantity. So it’s not as if you are going to discover something new about Donald Trump in the next 30 days that might change your mind. I think it’s going to tighten up a little bit. I think Trump has a better chance to improve his standing than Biden does, meaning I think Biden’s more or less at his ceiling of around 50%, but Trump is underperforming I think a bit at about 42%.

So I think Trump can go up a point or two, but I think he has trouble going beyond that. So I would still, subject to the one big question mark that’s left in these last six weeks, Misha, is the three presidential debates. So subject to something egregious taking place in those debates of normal performance, more or less a draw, I think Biden wins, and I think he ends up winning by about four points or so.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, the other big thing underway now, and it’s crazy to think of all the things that have happened in this term, we’ve had an impeachment, which seems it’s not going to be even a factor in this election though, whether or not it’s perhaps baked into Trump’s numbers. You’ve got the Supreme Court nomination situation, do you think the replacement of RBG, do you think this is going to be a factor or does it net out both sides? Is it a positive for the Democrats in the suburbs? How do you see that playing out as an election issue? And then we might even-

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, I’ll give you a political science answer, meaning I do think it nets out even in that passion on both sides is even. But I think that phenomenon plays to the advantage of the front runner because you’ve got a front runner, as you point out, is in a rather static position, six, eight points up, there’s only 42 days left, and if you’re going to eat up five or 10 of those days with Senate hearings, you’re absorbing the news. The insurgent or the underdog doesn’t have the opportunity to make his case. So if Biden can run out the clock a bit, I think that just helps him at the margin. It just takes Trump off message and it doesn’t help him close the gap at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we talked about the campaigns, and you’re a veteran of many Republican campaigns over a very long number of years … Debates, there’s always a lot of focus on them. Do you think they matter at all? And then like, I mean, what would you be looking for as a Republican strategist at the three debates? You sort of said if it’s a draw it won’t matter, but I suppose what makes a draw first? And then secondly, do they matter at all in the context of a long electoral cycle and campaign?

Frank Lavin:

I would score these debates, I think they do matter, but the metric … it’s easy to have the wrong metric. Meaning the wrong metric here is an academic debate scorecard where your typical academic debate, should Britain go ahead with Brexit or something, and it’s the Oxford society has this debate and the judges vote 82 to 77 that the highest side, the affirmative side won, that’s the wrong way of doing it.

Because look, somebody is going to do marginally better than the other person, on points, but what I’m saying is that aspect of the debate, I don’t think matters much. I think, look at debate as a threshold set of performance questions, meaning, did each candidate perform adequately? Did they perform to the moment? Were they more or less in their game, on their game, spoke to their constituency, spoke to the issue, stayed on message, were more or less disciplined and messaging, no egregious faults or failures.

If they basically do an adequate job, then it’s tied. It’s a wash, meaning I think Biden supporters simply want to be reassured that their candidate is okay, and Trump voters the same, but the stakes are a little higher for Biden. Trump has chosen over the last six months to make Biden’s age a bit of an issue. And so there’ll be some scrutiny on that point, but if you watched the Democratic primary debate, Biden did fine. Biden certainly passed any kind of threshold criteria. And if you watch, there’s a recent, they call these town hall meetings, recent sort of an open question format on, I think one of the networks are US ABC. And again, Biden did fine. It wasn’t … these are sort of man on the street questions. So they’re not exactly hardball questions. But he had no gaps, no gaffs, no … he did perfectly fine on these questions.

So I think the rap that he’s somehow drifting, or not up to it or not engaged, I don’t see any evidence of that. But God forbid, from the Biden perspective, if he loses his train of thought, or has a gap in something, he will pay a price for that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think those … somewhat ironic, but do you think that perhaps Trump has mis-played this in that he’s lowered the threshold of success for Biden? He’s managed his expectations down so much that if Joe turns up and is basically coherent, to your point, that’s a tick?

Frank Lavin:

I think you’re right. And I think also, there’s an element of Biden’s stage presence that has a bit of charm to it. Meaning, the guy is loquacious. But that’s very different than saying he’s senile. I mean the guy over talks issues, and he has odd verbal tics, like a lot of people in public life , so he’ll use a phrase, stock phrase, like “Come on, man,” to enforce a point, which you could says is rhetorically weak. But it has a certain amount of every-man charm to it. Right? It’s not pretentious, he’s not quoting Latin, and he is an authentic person. He is a man of the streets. So I think rapping him for that doesn’t help Trump.

He also uses the invective at the end of some sentences, “I’m serious,” which again is a painfully weak rhetorical device. But it is authentic, it is Joe Biden. If you don’t believe this guy is the major party nominee, front runner for President, that he’s serious when he makes a point, there’s nothing … the least effective way of convincing you he’s serious is to say “I’m serious.” So he’s not a rhetorical master. But again, there’s a certain charm in the every day unpretentiousness of his approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

So stepping out to the campaigns more generally, how do you see campaigning today as being different to the way campaigns have been traditionally run? Is there a difference? One of the big things people talk about is that so much is focused now on turning out your own vote, turning out your base vote, rather than persuasion of undecided voters. But how do you see campaigns today compared to the way they’ve been run over the last …

Frank Lavin:

There’s been a few shifts in my short political life, but over the last few decades, one shift has been the prevalence of digital communications. It means we’re rewarding depth rather than breadth. We’re rewarding people who might own an issue or a segment of the issue, rather than rewarding someone who can get 51%. So pugnacity is important. You’ve got the most cluttered media environment in the world, and you have to break through that. So there’s always a temptation to say something outrageous, or be outrageous.

Trump is a very good example of that. I think he’d say, if you asked Trump “What are the rules of communication?” He’d say “Rule number one is, never be dull.” And boy, Trump owns that segment of the population of people.

Misha Zelinsky:

He doesn’t breach that rule.

Frank Lavin:

Right. And there’s a certain segment, call it the WWF segment, that says I can’t necessarily follow the issues or follow the policies, but I can tell who the most combative person is. And I warm to that person. And I think I want a fighter, so the person who uses the toughest rhetoric has my vote. By the way, I think you pay a price for that in all sorts of ways as well, but you can see that Trump captures some advantage out of tone and temperament. So there’s been a drift toward that kind of fragmentation of the market, there’s been a reward toward pugnacity, and on the same token I’d say with some regret, there’s been a real shift away from management expertise. That we want someone that can actually run a government program, or run a solution, or find the best way. So if we have problems with high school dropouts, we want someone who’s the most emotional about that issue, and not the who says “I have a seven point plan to reduce high school dropouts,” “Here’s some ideas that will work to reduce high school dropouts.”

So there’s been a real deterioration in the dynamic for somebody who’s got management expertise, and I’d say on the same token, it seems every single cycle we strip out the one remaining element of the process that would reward some time of political leadership to say … make it have some elements of a parliamentary system. The last time that was done was Democrats stripped out, largely, the value of the so-called super-delegates, where they had somewhat of a parliamentary element to their process, where they said “We’re going to let sitting members of Congress and Governors and Senators each have a vote,” and then they said later “No, we were just sort of kidding about that. We don’t want that.” And that was a concession that Hillary Clinton had to make to the Bernie Sanders group. Because obviously those people would look at Bernie Sanders as the answer and he said for his loyalty you have to dilute that group’s power.

So we’re in to a point now where it’s pure vote, with no intermediary institution or individual. So that rewards that emotional content, that rewards that communication skill, and it really de-values both management and leadership or resume. It’s very interesting to me that the last two presidents, Trump and Obama, were two presidents that had very strong communication skills. Both of them love the rally format, large-scale, large mass, very strong emotional connectivity with the base. And neither of them ran on the basis of a government record. Presumably, Obama’s the only one who could have, but he’d been in the Senate for two years. There was no Obama bill, no Obama history, and he knew that. He knew that. He said “What I can do better than anybody else is communicate, and form that emotional bond.” And he did that very effectively.

So we’re in an era now where that sort of populism dominates the process, and saying “I am the master of the Senate, I’m Lyndon Johnson, and I orchestrated 40 pieces of legislation and I’m moving America a certain way,” we said that doesn’t really matter anymore. Or doesn’t matter the way it used to. So that’s a huge shift in the electorate behavior in the last few decades.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s interesting, isn’t it, because when you look at the Democratic primary, the governors, who all have presumably good government experience … who’ve got records … have not done well at all. And they didn’t even get through to Iowa. Whereas you look back to Bill Clinton in ’92, he was Governor of Arkansas and that was a good base for him to campaign. So interesting point you raise. But also, do you think that the lack of gatekeepers in major parties is a problem now? The so-called smoky back rooms, in terms of …

Frank Lavin:

I think we’d be better off with them playing some kind of role. There should be some median where … look, I’m fundamentally, I believe in democracy. So you want the voters to elect delegates, the delegates to elect … but I thought the idea of super-delegates or something like that made a lot of sense. To say “Look, this person who’s a member of Congress or Senator, Governor, has some awareness of the system and some capability to add to the conversation.” So I wouldn’t just simply discount that to zero. So I think that’s the happy medium, that voters can directly elect any delegate they want for any reason they want. But the incumbent members, those few hundred other people, are going to have their say as well. So then you have a bi-cameral process. A little bit like the UK labor party, right? Where they have direct membership, and they also have union leadership vote … different constituencies have different rights within the UK labor party.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right. Australia as well, it’s the leadership of the labor party is now decided by 50% vote of the rank and file membership, 50% by the union caucus. The colleagues of the candidates. And they know them best, presumably, right? So they know what they’re like.

Frank Lavin:

But that’s a members constituency, what you just described?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right. So it’s like 50/50 college, so members of the labor party get a vote directly and then the other half of the vote is made up of people that are in the federal parliamentary caucus, along with the candidates.

Frank Lavin:

Right. Good. Well look, it’s not for me to tell Australia what to do, but I’d say that’s some kind of balance, that lets leadership play a role, but also rank and file of the man on the street play a role, would be helpful. And interestingly, of the leading candidates this cycle, two of them were not members of the party in any meaningful sense. Meaning Bernie Sanders was never a Democrat, and Donald Trump was never a Republican. So it’s extraordinary to me, you can sort of walk in off the street and through self-declaration just say “This looks interesting to me, why don’t I lead this party?” And to say “My, that’s a rather elastic political structure if somebody can just knock on the door.”

Biden, to his credit, has been a registered Democrat, active Democrat, for 40, 50 years. So that’s a much more traditional biography of the people we used to nominate.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s essentially been a hostile takeover of the Republican party by Trump, and an attempted one by Sanders, and you’re right, I often remark to people that friends of mine that are Sanders people, who say “The Democratic party was very unfair to Bernie,” I say “Well, he’s not a member.” So you can understand there might be some hostility from an organization that someone is not a member of, to being colonized by. But that’s just an observation.

Now going right back … I want to zero in now on your experience. And we’ve talked a lot about the Republican party, you were of course Ronald Reagan’s political director. Way back with a legendary Republican president, sort of the beginning of the modern era in many ways … before we get into your experiences, what was Ronald Reagan like, as a person? And a man, and a President? I’m kind of curious for your take on that.

Frank Lavin:

Well, if I had to pick one word I’d say “Genial.” Meaning, I think an element of leadership is to project an amiability, and to be open to anybody’s opinions, questions, and to say “Look, it’s a world of opinions. Everybody’s got an opinion, everybody wants a hearing.” They view the President as some sort of Supreme-Court-type figure that they say “I want this, I’ve got this injustice, I’ve got this problem you need to fix, you need to help us.” So you need to have that in your mind when you take the job, that you’re going to have a lot of people knocking on the door, and coming in. And you better be able to treat them with respect and with kindness, and give everybody a good hearing.

So he was extremely good with that. And I suspect that came with a long history in movies, TV, and radio, where again, you’re a public figure. And Americans are just unabashed about approaching people and saying to Ronald Reagan the actor, “My cat just died, and I had named him Ronald after you. I’d like you to come to my cat’s funeral.” But Americans will say things like that, and you have to be able to say something gracious and polite to that person, and not “Get out of my way, you lunatic.” So Reagan was very, very good at offering empathy and trying to be compassionate with somebody, and trying to give the person the time of day and make sure the person is taken care of.

And he was a great guy to work with, as well. No static, no sharp elbows, I think he also, just as a human being, as a manager … you know, if you have all the power in the world you can be gracious. You can be kind. And the saying of the 1980s was, of all the different kind of people who end up in the West Wing, some of them quite difficult personalities, the two nicest people in the West Wing were Ronald Reagan and George Bush. And they were both old-school gentlemen, who were very … great guys to work with. And you could say anything to them, they’d respond. Very approachable. So I enjoyed that time with Reagan and with Bush.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about Reagan and Bush. A lot of people talk today, they talk about President Trump and essentially he can’t take bad advice … and essentially anyone who stood up to him or had a different view has been run out of the White House. How did the White Houses operate under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and how would you give advice to the President, that might be contrary to what they’re thinking at the time?

Frank Lavin:

But that happens regularly in a professionally-managed organization, you set a tone from the top that we’re trying to go in a certain direction, trying to go in a certain path, but we want to hear about the trade offs, we want to hear about the cost, we want to hear about alternative paths. And that’s part of the policy process. And that’s why you have the … I was on the National Security Council staff, but that’s why you have that NSC process. To say “We’re all concerned about problem X, and there are three or four options in front of us, let’s look at the costs and benefits of these different approaches, and have a thoughtful discussion.”

So there was never a climate of hostility or stigmatizing the outlier. You wanted to make sure you always heard the outlier. So I said any … let’s make sure around the table that there’s at least one negative voice there, so we fully understand what might go wrong, and we don’t get into an odd kind of cheerleading dynamic of … we run cheering down some path, again we’re just reinforcing each other’s worst instincts.

So I thought Reagan and Bush were both good managers in that respect, I think you’re right, Trump doesn’t have a lot of policy depth, so he can’t always evaluate the trade offs, and then you overlay that with enormous personal sensitivity. So if you challenge him, it’s a personal slight. And he thinks you’re impugning him. So he must rebuff you, he must knock you down or swat you down. So you only learn by doing, and sometimes you don’t learn at all, right?

And the good thing about Reagan I would say, and Bush as well, is they each had a policy compass. They each knew where they wanted to go, and they’d also spend considerable time in public life. So they had a team, they had people they worked with, people they trusted, people who believed in them, had working responsibilities … so thy didn’t just wash up on the shores of the White House on election day and say “Let’s try to figure this out,” they had been at this search, and at this business of government, for decades. Right? So reasonably well-seasoned when they came into office. Trump really suffers from the fact that he … it’s kind of impressive that he won, but he won as the outsider, and as the contrarian with any kind of government background at all. And you pay a price for that. Because he didn’t have a team, he didn’t have thought-through position papers when he came into office.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Reagan era, the Bush one era, the 80s into the early 90s … politics has always been not a game for the fearful. So it’s always been very robustly-contested in the United States. But it strikes me, and certainly Biden talks about this a lot, it strikes me that politics has gotten nastier in recent times. And certainly nastier since that era. Would you agree with that? How did things happen in the back rooms, when you’d be talking to the other side, compared to what you observe today?

Frank Lavin:

I think there’s been enormous deterioration. You hate to lay it all on one person, but I’ve never seen a President act the way Trump acts with regard to how he describes political adversaries, or impugns them. But to have that kind of raw criticism, or mocking or scorn, of individuals and opponents from a Presidential statement, I think is beneath the office. I would say one of the first rules of serving as President is to act like a President, and to act with a degree of dignity. And if you want to take a shot at someone, we see Presidents do that. You can use humor, you can use back-handed or understated comments. People get the joke, people know what you’re saying. But to simply berate somebody and denigrate someone is, I think, appalling. And then he frequently does it in a context of their ethnicity, or their religion, or where they’re from. I think these are just appalling statements, that nobody in public life should act that way.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Republican party … you’re a long-time Republican. You got links right back to Reagan, Bush, and George W. Bush. I’m kind of curious about how the Republican party has changed. Because I often think, you look at Ronald Reagan’s record, and he’s considered to be the gold standard by many Republicans active today. But you look at his record as California Governor, and you think “Would he win a primary in 2020?” So what does that say about the modern Republican party, from your point?

Frank Lavin:

I think there are two or three things going on here. One of which we talked about, which is the rise of digital media, the rise of emotional populism, and this populist … I mean what is populism? One we discussed already is emotional connectivity, rather than a managerial approach to problems. Now that can be on the left or the right. But another element of populism is it’s grievance-based. Tell me what’s wrong, tell me what you don’t like, and I’ll speak to your grievances. Which on the one hand, all grievances need an airing, but on the other hand, if your messaging is entirely grievance-oriented, you’re not talking about solutions. And you’re not allowing people to feel comfortable about the direction of the country. So there’s the price you pay for being grievance …

I’d say a third area of populism, which is also a bit dangerous or risky, is populism’s message is exculpatory. Populism’s message is, “The problems we face today are because others have done this to us.” I would say, in most countries, it’s generally the opposite. The problems Australia faces today, are problems that Australians have made. The problems Americans face today are problems Americans have made, right? And if you have a problem with drug use, or high school dropouts, or street crime, or unemployment, or lack of racial equality, those are self-inflicted problems. Those weren’t problems that Japanese or Chinese steel makers hoisted upon us. So you can see the seduction of it, but there’s a bit of a danger in that if you’re telling people “Our problems are caused by someone else,” instead of saying “I want to bring a mirror, and I want you to look in this mirror and tell us what we’re doing wrong.”

And I’ll tell you the fourth element of populism, I would say, is policy choices have no trade-offs. We’re going down the wrong path, but don’t worry, I’m going to take us down the right path. But we know in government, almost all policy situations do have a trade-off. And you can be unhappy with the path we’re on, there are advantages and disadvantages, but the alternative one you’re suggesting is also going to have costs and benefits. So it’s not a question of right and wrong. But if you listen to a lot of the Trump rhetoric, and I would say some of the Obama rhetoric … well, Obama had a populist streak, but I don’t think he was as orthodox populist as Trump. But he had elements of that as well. So this populism dominates the moment, digital dominates the moment, as I said.

I’ll tell you something else that kind of opened the door to Trump, is the drift of the Democratic party. So I think you’re quite right to talk about what’s happened to Republicans, and how did they become more nationalist, and move away from some international leadership roles that you had under a Reagan presidency and a Bush presidency, but what happened to the Democratic party where the working man, the Union member, the factory worker, moved away from the Democrats? How did the Democrats become more new class, and more orthodox left, and more based in identity politics that is just uninviting to a lot of working class voters? Even if there’s still an economic orientation to the left?

What would give a multi-millionaire like Trump, who has nothing in common with the working man culturally, what would give him reach with that community that Hillary Clinton didn’t have? So it’s as much of an evolution of the Democratic party as for the Republican party.

Now Biden, to his credit, especially in the last two or three weeks, if you look at his speeches he’s keyed back into that working class voter a lot more. He talks about, he’s not an Ivy League College graduate, he went to a state school. So it’s a little bit of populism there, a little bit of us and them, but it’s a shot at Trump. It’s a little bit of saying, he has a theme of “My Dad told me you’re no better than anybody else, treat everybody with respect.” With a little Will Rogers egalitarianism. But that will play well. And again, it’s a shot at Trump, who’s sort of the regional elitist, and the regional snob.

So Biden, I think, gets it. That at least culturally, social and cultural bases, you’ve got to be able to speak to this constituency that I feel is cut adrift by the traditional Democratic party. And Republicans can reach out to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s an interesting point. And this is not particular to the US Democrats, we’ve seen it with a lot of parties of the center-left around the world, where for whatever reason having a nationalist response to the economic concerns of working class voters. And the parties of the left are not, for whatever reason, connecting with the concerns of those people.

Frank Lavin:

And there’s also a social-cultural element here. Which look, I don’t think the Democratic party is guilty of this, I don’t think Joe Biden is guilty of this, but there’s elements of the Democratic party, and some of them are vocal elements, that for example call for open borders. That there should be no restrictions at all on immigration. See, that’s not a majority view, even with the Democrats. But I think Americans just find that unfathomable, that you would do that. And I think it’s as popular in America as it is in Australia.

But there’s a variant of that, called Sanctuary Cities, that city governments and municipal governments should not cooperate with Federal law enforcement in cases regarding illegal immigration. And you’d say “Look, this violates all sorts of government norms and constitutional norms, and you have local governments actively working to frustrate law enforcement.” And they’re projecting some kind of nobility on illegal immigrants. Which might be there in some cases, certainly there’s personal hardship there, but if there’s a legal warrant out for that individual, most people’s reaction is you need to honor that warrant. You need to process that person in the criminal justice system.

So there’s some exotic voices on the left that probably get more of a hearing than they deserve. It’s not a majority view, but it’s off-putting to rank and file historic Democrats who might normally pull the D lever. And look, let’s face it, the original Franklin Roosevelt sort of issues that got the Unions going and energized the Democratic party for a few generations, have largely been solved. So it’s a victim of their own success to say “We have 40 hour weeks, we have well-enforced safety and health regulations, and these sort of factors. We have funded retirements.” You know, it’s a comfortable life in the factory now, as opposed to 50 years ago.

I remember reading federal and OSHA, federal workplace hazard statistics that said … because I was going on a tour of a steel mill when I was a Congressman, I was talking to folks who worked at the steel mill. It said look, the injury rate and the fatality rate at a steel mill in the US is considerably lower than the injury rate and fatality rate working at a 7-11. So that’s a really successful journey. Because you can bet 50 or 100 years ago, working in a steel mill was quite a hazardous … there’s no safety anything, no guard rails, no safety goggles, no procedures. I’d guess it was a pretty miserable place, but now it’s a reasonable working environment.

Misha Zelinsky:

I know, we’ve got a lot of members that either work in steel, I’m from Wollongong, it’s a steel town … they’re good jobs, right? And that’s why it’s become such contested space to maintain and keep these jobs. You sort of touched on that before, the contest between the United States and China when it comes to trade. But just the Republican party, if Trump wins, it’s going to become the Trump party … probably in perpetuity. The hostile takeover would be complete. I’m kind of curious on your take, and you’re a never Trump-er I believe. If Trump loses, what happens next for the future of the Republican party? Some people think it’ll double down, you’ll end up with Donald Trump Jr. as the next proxy for that same nationalist … or is the more traditionalist, Bush Republican going to come back to the center?

Frank Lavin:

Well, I think it’s an open question. And a lot of it has to do with personalities as much as the philosophy and the themes. Meaning it’s not as if there’s a working caucus or faction that is a meaningful entity. It’s not like Japan, where you have LDP factions that stand for something, and then you group around them and they organize. You can’t really have that. And I say this meaning, what you have is this running, open debate/argument, fist fight policy papers, books, talk show, kind of behavior until you formally decide this with the primary seasons in four years.

And you’re going to have … you know, it’s open casting call. There’s no playoff bracket where you settle down. Anybody who wants to show up at the starting line for the race could show up at the starting line. So it’s a very inviting proposition, and indeed the market tends to overshoot. Meaning you tend to get 20 some people showing up saying “I think I’m interested in this job,” when you say “Well look, only half of them might really be serious and only a quarter of them really can go the difference.” But there’s no filtering mechanism. So I think we’re going to have a very open, loud, noisy, maybe at times painful debate on the future of the Republican party. And it is only settled during the primary process in 2024.

I’ll say this though, I think Trump, if he loses, he still has a shadow. But that shadow lasts one or two years. And he’s got some real strength in that he enjoys the media, he enjoys the public role, and he’s a good communicator. So he’s got some real strengths. But he has some real disadvantages as well, one is he’s not a young man. He’s getting into his mid-70s himself. Two, I think most importantly, he is defined as a loser. And if you ask what Americans disdain, what they dislike the most, they disdain losers. And there’s not anybody running for public office in America today that says I better call up Hillary Clinton and get her advice. They say we’ll give her a speaking slot, and we’ll applaud her, and say “I respect your long service,” but she’s deemed a loser. So if Trump is deemed a loser, I think right away you lose half the party right there. You say “Look your only job was to win this damn thing, you couldn’t do it, so why should we listen to you?”

But there’s also true believers. That saying in the US, you might’ve heard it, that both parties are divided functionally between two groups: the priests and the mathematicians. And the priests say “I have the truth, you need to follow me,” and the mathematicians say “Look I’ve got to get the 50% plus one.” So the mathematicians move away right away from Trump, most of the priests, the Trump priests at least, stay with him and say “He speaks the truth.” But there’s even different priests. It’s a broad church, there’s different factions, different denominations. So there’ll be other people running in 2024, and you could see a series of problems.

One is that the Trump field might be the dominant field, but again there’s no faction mechanism. So what you have are three or four people running as I am the new Trump. I’m the baby Trump, I’m the mini-me. Including, arguably, maybe one of the Trump children running in that capacity. But you have different statewide officials running in that way, so you could have four or five people saying “I’m the new adjusted, modern, improved Donald Trump.” Right? And then you’ll have some people running as non-Trump, or anti-Trump, you’ll have some people running as fusion candidates. I mean, everybody defines themselves. It’s open architecture.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, by the way, priests and mathematicians, that’s a fantastic quote that … I’m going to be using that live on air, I’m stealing that quote from you. It’s fantastic. Really good. I just wanted to …

Frank Lavin:

If we’re just taking a break, Mike Murphy uses that a lot. So credit him rather than me, at least if you’re going to use it independently. Mike uses that all the time. But it’s …

Misha Zelinsky:

Mike’s been on the show, so I’m sure he won’t mind you borrowing it.

Frank Lavin:

So to hell with him, yeah I agree, I like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

I just want to switch gears slightly, now you had a big career in US politics, you then went on to be an ambassador. I kind of want to get your take on US leadership. The US has typically played a big role as a global leader, I mean, how do you see its role presently? And what’s your take on Trump’s approach to the alliance structures that have underpinned the world, post World War II and certainly post Cold War?

Frank Lavin:

By the way, this process, this evolution I would stay started under Obama. But Trump brings a kind of roughness to it, and Obama had a lot of charm in his style. But both of them came to office questioning US international leadership. And both of them make a lot of similar points, that the cost benefit of US role globally was just out of whack. And we needed to trim down and retrench US outreach, that there wasn’t an immediate threat, that global reach sometimes became a self-defining mission of … we would go on a hunt for enemies and end up in wars where we shouldn’t properly be. And the trade policy … I mean, interesting, Obama ran for President, was the first successful candidate for President to run against trade. And he said almost verbatim, the same as Trump, NAFTA is a mistake and NAFTA needs to be renegotiated.

Now, to his credit, when Obama came to office, backed away from that. And you could say I give him credit for being sort of an economic rationalist, or I give him discredit for being politically expedient. But I guess you could make the same dichotomy as Trump to his discredit, he kept his word. But to his credit, what he said in the campaign is what he did in office. He said “We’re going to try to change NAFTA.” So you had the first time in the modern era, from Harry Truman through George W. Bush, 11 Presidents in a row all supporting trade, trade liberalization, US participation in trade. And you have two Presidents who are saying that trade is harmful to America. We need to back away from it.

But same thing with political military set of issues, you had the sharpest reduction in NATO under Obama that we’d ever had, modern era, and I think Obama was basically saying “Look, we’re saving money, there’s no immediate threat.” And Trump goes one click further on the dial, he says “Look I’m not sure I believe in NATO, I think these other people aren’t burden sharing, and they’re sort of cheating us or abusing the relationship.” So we’re at a period of definition, where the Cold War generation in America has left the scene, and largely left the scene, there’s not a consensus on a US international leadership role, there’s always sort of a populist temptation to argue against playing a role, and I think it’s potentially dangerous. Because to my mind, if we don’t maintain the alliance structure and the international posture we’ve had, you’re going to be inviting to malevolent powers.

There’s a foreign policy concept known as a provocative weakness. And you’ve got to be very careful about reducing your posture to a point where you become a provocative weakness, and you’re provoking instability by not being seen as serious. I don’t think it was any accident that the only change in borders in Europe, by force, since World War II, came with the Russian seizure of Crimea. And that was on Obama’s watch. To say for whatever set of reasons, the Russians, the Soviets, always respected US deterrents. They would challenge and provoke, and do a lot of things, but the battle ground in the Cold War became the third world in part because Europe was so stable. So the only place that was left for the Soviets to compete was Central America, and Angola, and different kind of publics where they could, in some respects, compete on an even footing. But Europe was a very stable environment, where they knew they should not provoke or challenge NATO. And for whatever set of reasons, Obama didn’t have that credibility with the Russians the way other US Presidents did.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we’ve talked a lot about partisanship, and we’ve talked about the shift in US policy in recent times. One of the things that seems quite settled, or at least has a bipartisan consensus, is about US competition or strategic competition with China and the Chinese communist party. And so I’m kind of curious for your take, you were Ambassador to Singapore, you live there now, how do you see this playing out in that part of the world? It’s relevant to Australia as well, how do you see this contest, and how do you see it playing out in the region itself?

Frank Lavin:

I think it’s hugely relevant to Australia. Look, I make a broad statement that it is, to my mind, China’s role in the international system is the foreign policy issue of the moment we’re in. This century. China’s the only major power that is still defining its international role. And it’s not entirely up to China itself to define that role, because, to the extent it’s own self-described definition impinges on other people’s rights. Then they have something to say as well. So it’s a collective process, but it’s an ongoing process, and what we see is after 30 years of strong economic performance, China has developed a set of political aspirations, and that economic performance has translated into military reach as well. So they’re in the game, they’re in the competition for power and friends and influence. It’s largely peaceful, but not always, and some of it is quite sharp-elbowed. And they don’t always behave in a way that we would say comports with normal diplomatic behavior. So they’re playing their own tune, and they’re marching to their own beat, and the rest of the world is responding to it.

A lot of this is okay, a lot of this is the normal parameters, and I think what’s important, and where I would fault Trump, I give him marks for calling him out on a lot of their misbehavior, but what he hasn’t done is try to shape some kind of positive view on areas where we can cooperate. On some of the trade issues, tourism, educational activities … there’s a lot of value, and I would say for Australia as well, to have Chinese students there, Chinese tourists, trade … there’s a lot of value in that relationship.

So let’s try to capture the positive sides of the relationship, and let’s be sensitive to the places where there’s competition, like in a text base like Huawei, and so forth where there’s sensitivities and there’s ongoing competition. And then at the more serious level, geopolitics, let’s make sure we draw a line under a very important geopolitical core interest, like freedom of navigation in South China Sea, like Taiwan’s security, where we make sure we’re sending a clear message to China about what US core interests are, and I daresay Australia core interests as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Given that we basically now have a rising economic power, for the first time in a long time, that is not a Democracy, so how do you see the systems competition reemerging for the first time since the Cold War? Is another Cold War essentially inevitable on that basis?

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, I wouldn’t call it a Cold War but I would call it a competition. And China has never … well, not never. But in the last several decades, China hasn’t claimed to have global ideological goals. They really abandoned those … in the 1970s they were funding groups in Africa and Central America, they funded as we well know, Southeast Asian, Indonesia, and Malay insurgencies. So they’ve played a role in guerrilla warfare, but not for 40 or 50 years. It’s been quite a while since they … so they’re acting in some respects closer to, so to speak, normal state behavior. But, then you have normal geopolitical rivalry and competition, and you observed, the fact that they’re Leninist and political structure is also a cause for concern for other countries. That it’s not what we would call normal state behavior.

But I don’t think it’s a cold war competition, I don’t think they’re trying to get African countries to model themselves after China the way the Soviet Union wanted African countries to adopt Soviet-style government. What they do want from African countries is political support, they want markets, they want technology embedded in the ecosystem in Africa. So there’s certain things they want, but it’s more power projection and economic connectivity than political modeling in the strict Soviet sense of that word.

Misha Zelinsky:

Getting towards the end here, but I want to quickly jump back to the US election. Kind of curious for your take, what would your advice be to Republicans that are worried about Trump, that have been lifelong Republicans, what is their role in this election? Do they vote Democrat? Do they sit it out? Would they split ticket? And then secondly, who’s going to win? I’ll barrel you down to a prediction here.

Frank Lavin:

Well look, I think there’s an aspect of human behavior regardless of ideology, regardless of policy, there’s some aspect of human behavior that any one of us would say “This type of behavior is so reprehensible that even if I find myself in agreement with the individual in some respects, I can’t in good conscience vote for this person because of his own activity.” And that’s my feeling toward Donald Trump, that even though I probably agree with elements of his platform and things he’s done, I just don’t think he should be President.

But I’m giving you a bit of a long answer there, because I back into that to say “Look, I’m comfortable with right of center policies elsewhere on the Republican ticket.” So I don’t have a problem voting for Republican office holders and Republican candidates elsewhere. I know some of my colleagues who are never-Trumpers who don’t adhere to that, and they say “Not only must we purge Trump, but we must purge anybody who supported Trump, anybody who voted with Trump,” and so there’s got to be a broad church. We need a Robespierre kind of reaction.

But I don’t subscribe to that, and I’ll tell you this, whether Biden wins or loses, if he wins he’s going to want a Republican Senate in there to put a bit of a check on his own left, and he’ll be a more successful President if a Republican Senate is in there. And I also think Republicans, if they were looking at a post-Trump Republican party, a Republican Senate will help them develop an identity beyond Trump, and there’ll be speakers and leaders politically who are not Donald Trump.

So I’m not abashed at all about saying I’m voting … I think, I just applied for my absentee ballot, I vote in Ohio, but I think … I’m just trying to remember … I think I’ll be voting straight Republican for state and local offices in Ohio. There’s always one outlier, one lunatic that you don’t feel comfortable voting for, but I’ll be voting for somewhere around 99 to 100% of Republicans. But not Donald Trump.

Misha Zelinsky:

And the predication for the Presidential race is?

Frank Lavin:

I think Biden wins. I think Trump’s got three big problems, only one of which might have a solution. The three big problems are: the economy, Coronavirus, and Trump’s own personality. Trump has been unpopular, more disliked than liked, about since he took office. And you can’t fix that. That’s his operating style, he relishes it, he likes being audacious, he likes playing the public role, he likes being the bad guy, it lets him be the most visible person in the room. It lets him be the most powerful person in the room. So that’s the price I pay, for my operating style. So that’s just uninviting to people. The Coronavirus, I don’t see any measurable improvement, although Trump will try to message some improvements. But I don’t see that having traction.

The one area where Trump can pick up a little bit is the economy is on a bit of an uptick. So he’ll get some credit for that. But the main problem with that thesis is it’s only on an uptick in a relative sense, in an absolute sense it’s still off-peak from pre-Coronavirus. So if you ask me how that washes out, it means that people who are inclined to vote for Trump but found all of the last six months too timultuous, they’ll gravitate back to Trump. He’ll pick up a point or two. But people who are disinclined to vote for him aren’t going to be won over because we have two or three months of a nice recovery. Because we’re still under water, we’re still below where we were before Coronavirus started. So I do think Biden wins.

I’ll give you one other prediction if I might, Misha, that all this discussion about election day anomalies, and weird behavior and Trump’s weird behavior … there’s no question at all that he loves being outrageous, he loves being provocative, he loves saying inappropriate things. But I have a feeling this is going to be a reasonably smooth election day, meaning by midnight election night, US time, we’ll know 75% of the results. And we’ll be able to make a prediction. Unless the results are say, less than two or three percent, then it’s harder to do because it breaks down by states, of course. But if Biden’s up there in a three or four percent lead, where I think he’s going to be, I think we’ll know … we’ll be congratulating him that night.

Although, as I suggested a minute ago, Trump is still of the kind of personality that he’ll be defiant, if not on the bridge of his ship screaming at the torpedoes. So he still has the capacity to behave in an un-statesmanlike fashion, but I’ve just got a sense this has a smoother resolution than you might expect, given all the discussion we’re hearing today about anomalies on election day.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, a lot of people are worried about the mail-in ballot issue, and the fact that most … if you look at the messaging and the polling, that Biden’s voters are going to vote by mail, Trump’s voters are going to vote in person, and the nightmare scenario is that Trump’s in the lead on the night of the election and then the postal ballots come in over the next few days and then Trump declares that it’s been stolen from him. So that’s the nightmare.

Frank Lavin:

Elements of that could happen, I guess what I’m saying is I think 75% of the states, that scenario won’t apply. That the amount of mail in ballots are small enough, and the lead is large enough. Or the counting is taking place quickly enough, that even by election night you say, Biden wins Pennsylvania by 400,000 votes, there’s still 150,000 votes to be counted, and people say well that doesn’t matter. It’s not consequential. So I think that will be about 75% of the states, that election night will say that it’s over. But that leaves a lot that are closer to your scenario, but even in most of those where we say “We don’t really know, we can’t really declare a winner, but we could say if trends continue this person’s won or that person’s won.” But we can’t formally state it.

So I think that will be the bulk … only in the minority of that minority will you say, “We don’t know who’s winning, and the trends aren’t clear either.” So we don’t really know, we just have to keep counting for another few days. But that is going to be a very small number of states where that even materializes. So I guess I’m prognosticating here that it won’t be enough, it won’t be big enough states or consequential enough states that it’s going to be meaningful, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you have any concerns about Trump and the Republican Senate in a lame duck session, Trump’s lost the election, Biden’s not yet been sworn in, in January, the Republican Senate potentially ramming through a supreme court nomination? Or other things of that nature? Or is that something that’s overblown?

Frank Lavin:

I think they’re going to be as forceful as they can, I mean Andy Warhol once said “Art is whatever you can get away with,” but I would say politics is whatever you can get away with. So I would say yeah, whatever they can legally get away with, and you can criticize their audacity and you can take umbrage at their behavior, but to say if the system lets them do this, they’re going to do it. Or they’re going to try to do it. The big, big prize that we’re looking at right now is the Supreme Court Justice.

But I also think we have to give this individual some credit, meaning I think America will more or less accept this process if the person themselves with judicial knowledge and learned behavior, and dignity. And the person comes across like a judge. And I think the person will have a big TV audience. You’ll have 50 or 100 million people watching this person’s testimony, and they’ll come to a conclusion to say the person looks okay to me. So Democrats are against this person only because it’s a Republican selection, but I think then the issue will just fade. But if the person comes across like a boob, some kind of political hack, they’re not up to the job or otherwise flawed, then I think it raises all of the points you just made to say “Look, this is a force.” You’re using this temporary majority status to push somebody through. And it’s going to rank a lot, I think Republicans pay a price for that kind of ham-handedness.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well we can talk about this, clearly I could talk about this all day. But you’ve got other things to do. Now I’ve got the last question that I don’t let any guests leave without getting weighed in on, I know you’ve been desperately researching Australians, but a barbecue at your place, it could be in Ohio or it could be in Singapore, Singapore is probably not as far for Australians to travel. There’s a lot of Aussies in Singapore. But three Aussies at a barbecue at Frank’s, and why?

Frank Lavin:

The three I’d invite … yeah, I’ve been thinking about this. And I have to ask you a technical question, since you’re the judge and jury here, can we designate pre-confederation inhabitants as Aussies?

Misha Zelinsky:

Sure.

Frank Lavin:

Or are you going strictly by … yeah. Because then I’ll say, there’s an interesting historical figure who has an Australian pedigree and Australia anchor, but I suspect Australians would deny he’s Australian, but he’s a fascinating historical figure, and this is your former governor of New South Wales, from the Colonial era, Captain Bligh.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right, yeah.

Frank Lavin:

I would put William Bligh down as a fascinating individual. This fellow, we in America know him only from Mutiny on the Bounty, and the fact that he has this rather remarkable escape across several thousand miles of sea. But I think what few Americans know is then he becomes … he re-enters the Colonial service and becomes the Governor of New South Wales, and there’s a mutiny again! There’s another mutiny against him and he’s kicked out again.

Misha Zelinsky:

Rum rebellion, yeah.

Frank Lavin:

I would definitely want to ask him, what is there about his management style and his personality that induces people to mutiny against him. And I think Misha, I’m going to ask you to chip in with me on that, and I think what we’ve got to get him is Dale Carnegie’s book about how to win friends and influence people, to say “But Captain, you’ve just got to work on that personality side, so you’re not rubbing folks the wrong way all day long.” But I would put Captain Bligh down on there.

I thought of somebody else, but I’m not even sure I know their names, but this might be two [and might not fit under your rules, but I was also intrigued … you know, I was in Perth a few months ago, and I got to go to the Fremantle, there’s a shipping museum there. And the exhibit on the Batavia, was the Batavia shipwreck, but these were the first Europeans … two of the mutineers from the Batavia were juts set ashore on Australia …

Misha Zelinsky:

East India Company, wasn’t it? Yeah.

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, that’s the Dutch though, so it’s not even the Brits. So it’d be quite a stretch to call these people Aussies, since Australia didn’t exist, nothing existed, they were just put ashore as part of their punishment and they disappeared. But it’s nonetheless an interesting story. But I’d say back to planet Earth, the real Australia as we know it, I’d say … I’ve always had this curiosity about a prominent Australian who played a signature role in his country’s history, but Americans only know him through the prism of World War II, and that’s John Curtin. But what’s striking to me, is that if we look at global leadership in that moment, and I would put Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle … and I’d put Mackenzie King in that as well, to say these are individuals who we know today as great wartime leaders, and indeed they were very important for their nations’ survival. But their record domestically, and their record in domestic politics was much more mixed. Much more ambiguous, and much harder to evaluate.

And I think as Americans, who are just a bit lazy on this point, but we don’t fully understand Curtin’s parliamentary pedigree and what his domestic agenda is, because I think as far as we’re concerned, we’re just so overwhelmed by war dynamics that we’d say, as far as the US is concerned it really doesn’t matter what he was doing back home. What really matters is the A, B, C, D alliance in East Asia, and what the Americans, they’re all just working together.

But that would be the fellow. So Captain Bligh and John Curtin. And then I want to take a flyer, there’s an enormous celebrity culture in Australia, and I wanted to take a bow to it, but to go with someone who might not be terribly well known at the moment, but I suspect will be, and it’s a young Australian filmmaker, Natalie James. And she just had a movie out, which got released in the US called “Relic.” And it’s a bit of a spooky, a bit of a horror movie. And so she’s making a name for herself. I heard her on a podcast, very impressive person. And it’s a degree of creativity, entrepreneurial drive, craftsmanship, that you really have to respect. And I think when people say “What makes Australia great?” It’s people like that, who have a vision and pursue a vision. And so it’s not because of celebrity status, I don’t think she necessarily has celebrity status, but because she’s going down this path of professional excellence and creativity, and she brings joy to our lives with her movies.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m going to say, look, I am the judge and jury, and that is without a doubt the best answer that we’ve ever had on this show. The amount of history that you’ve got on there with William Bligh, the Rum Rebellion, the Dutch East India Company crash in the 17th century at Perth, John Curtin, legendary labor party minister from World War II, and then a modern day filmmaker, Natalie James, mate. Five-star effort, well done!

Frank Lavin:

Thanks Misha! Am I the only American who didn’t say Ned Kelly?

Misha Zelinsky:

Well you didn’t say Crocodile Dundee or Ned Kelly.

Frank Lavin:

I didn’t say Paul Hogan.

Misha Zelinsky:

You lost a Bingo round, mate, but nevertheless. Five star effort. Look, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on, and I will hope to have you on sometime soon.

Frank Lavin:

I’d love to visit with you again. Thank you so much, Misha, for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks mate.

Frank Lavin:

Thanks