Chinese Communist Party

Ambassador Jeff Bleich: Why trust matters in democracy and how we get it back

Jeff Bleich was US Ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013.

A distinguished legal and political professional, he is the Chair of the Fulbright Scholarship Board and now heads up the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University in Australia

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Jeff for a chat about why the Trump Impeachment is bigger than the trial itself, how Mike Bloomberg could end up President, his friendship with President Obama, the attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to dominate global technology standards, why trust is central to democracy, why autocrats can never crush the human spirit and why the most recent hacking by Russian agents could impact the upcoming 2020 US election. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Jeff Bleich, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, glad to be here Misha. Thank you for inviting me.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, pleasure’s all mine. Now, a good place I thought to start might be US politics. Now, a little bit about yourself. You obviously were ambassador-

Jeff Bleich:                    A good place [crosstalk 00:00:18]-

Misha Zelinsky:             A good place to start, or an interesting place to start, at least, maybe not good. You of course were ambassador to Australia, but you’ve also been a political candidate. I’m curious about what you experienced as the main differences. That’s a big question, but if you could maybe just give us that kind of an insight to the differences in those two roles.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, they’re very different. I mean, I think when you’re a diplomat, particularly in a country that generally is on good terms with the United States, it’s not that people necessarily agree with you, but they’re not immediately hostile to you. They want to know what you have to say. Whereas when you’re a political candidate, half the state or half the country wants to kill you every day. It’s a little different in that sense. I thought it was more policy-oriented when you’re an ambassador. The expectation is that you put politics aside and it’s really focus on, how do we solve problems between our nations and also how can our nations work together to address problems around the world? Whereas when you’re a political candidate, it is 90% politics.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I think the third big difference is money. Just money is a very corrosive factor in politics today. Whereas when you’re US ambassador, a thousand roles will keep you away from ever touching anyone’s money, even your own. That keeps a lot of stress out of your life, and has you focused really on issues. They’re dramatically different roles.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, I can imagine the role of money is certainly important one. Now, speaking of politics, I mean, whilst we can’t predict what’s going to happen as we record this, the US president is currently being impeached. I think we can probably figure out the likely outcomes. It’s unlikely that the Republican Senate will seek to convict and remove the president. But how concerned are you about, I suppose, the underlying aspects of the impeachment itself in respect to the politicization of foreign interference and how do you see that playing into the 2020 election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well I’m worried about the impeachment in a number of different ways. One thing is the fact that not enough people are paying attention to it. They’re treating it as though it’s a game and they already know the score, and so why should they watch? When in fact, this is an important statement about our values as a country and what we think matters and what we think doesn’t matter. If there were a moment when the public should be paying attention, regardless of their predisposition, I think now is one of them, so that matters.

Jeff Bleich:                    Another thing that matters to me about it is that there’s… the allegations go to the core of our democracy and if they don’t lead to some kind of sanction this time around, we’re setting a precedent for the future. The president’s accused of having used his position, the power of his office in order to obtain a personal benefit at the expense of our national interest. Namely, the personal benefit is getting dirt on a political opponent, and the national interest was congressionally approved funds being delivered to Ukraine in order for it to mount a defense against one of our adversaries. I mean, a very significant question. I used to teach constitutional law and that kind of an abuse was really the answer to my final exam question as to what’s impeachable conduct. It’s a serious offense if the Senate determines that he did engage in that behavior.

Jeff Bleich:                    What concerns me most is that so far no one has been prepared, on the Republican side, to stand up and say, “If this is true, he did a bad thing. I may not be prepared to remove him from office for it, but this is bad and it shouldn’t be done by any president under any circumstances.” The fact that you’re not hearing Republicans at least define the debate that way, the fact that the president’s defense says, “This is a perfect phone call.” The fact that the chief of staff to the president says, “We do this stuff all the time.” This should concern every American just about whether or not our system is reacting to issues that the framers considered core issues about our security.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I guess the last thing is your question, politicization. I don’t think interference is being politicized, but I think it’s being under-appreciated because we’re so focused on the impeachment, we’re not focusing on how serious this event was in terms of Russian interference and then other ways in which foreign governments could affect the outcome of one of our elections. Long answer. Sorry.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, that’s excellent, and I think it’s really enlightening. But I’m keen to return to the subject of foreign interference while I was just with US politics. One final point in parallel to the impeachment, which is an enormous story. We’ve got another big story which is the upcoming Iowa caucuses. How do you see the Democratic primary playing out? I might press you for a prediction though I won’t hold you to it. I’ve given up the prediction game after 2016, and also 2019 in Australia. But how do you see the Democratic primary playing out? But also how do you see the left right divide playing out in the primary system itself, but then more generally in the general election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well, we’ve narrowed the field of Democrats down from about 32 candidates to six. The six are Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg. Those are really the six who remain viable. I’d say some of the energy of the party is behind people with a very strong left bend who are moving for radical changes on some large scale programs. That would really be the Sanders and Warren camp. Then the other four who I think reflect more of the numbers within Democratic party are reformers, but they’re more pragmatic reformers. They’re not looking for a radical solution, radical change.

Jeff Bleich:                    I don’t know how that’s going to turn out, and I think a lot will depend on Iowa. If you think about the last few elections, everyone thought that Donald Trump’s candidacy was sort of a… they thought it was a joke candidacy for some people or they thought that he was doing it basically to raise his profile for his businesses. They didn’t think he actually thought he would win. But Iowa and other early primary showed where the energy was, and it was clearly with the people who were anti-establishment, and so it ended up being Cruz and Trump at the end.

Jeff Bleich:                    If you look at the last election for Democrats, Hillary was supposed to be in… it was supposed to be easy for her. In fact, she had to go off 50 States against Bernie Sanders because the energy was really with an anti-establishment vote. I would expect a lot of anti-establishment energy to be in the Democratic primary, but there is also going to be a lot of pro-Obama anti-Trump energy, which is focused more on a moderate. Those two are going to have to battle it out in Iowa. I think depending… it’s going to be very close at the top. But whether you win by 1% or lose by 2% can make a huge difference in how the narrative plays out and the momentum.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think this will be a defining moment for the Democrats and will really winnow the field potentially smaller. I’ll give you one prediction which is, if Sanders and Warren came out on top for example and Biden and Buttigieg were in third and fourth, there would probably be a lot of interest in Michael Bloomberg suddenly as someone who could have the resources to mount a strong campaign first against the hard left but also against Donald Trump. If on the other hand, Biden and Buttigieg came in first and second, then I think there you’re less likely to see Bloomberg emerging in the field because there’s a sense that there’s already a couple of candidates in that lane. I think most likely you’re probably going to see one moderate and one hard left candidate coming out in one, two, and everyone else bunched pretty tightly behind them, the other two. We’re in for a bit long bumpy ride.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think, irrespective of the outcome even if it comes down to a battle between say Sanders and Biden or Warren and Buttigieg, can the party bring itself together in a general election to… because I think one of the outcomes of the 2016 election was that some of the Sanders people stayed home and refused to campaign or vote for Clinton. I think that certainly impacted on her candidacy more generally.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I would expect it’ll be different this time, and I take some confidence in that from the midterm elections where Democrats turned out in numbers that they’ve never turned out in before, and they were pretty unanimous in their efforts to unseat house Republicans. I think this time around, Democrats do know how to come back together again. People thought that the Hillary Barack divide was so great that they’d never come together, they came together very well. My sense is that this time around, as well, it’s not a theoretical possibility that Donald Trump could be the president and advance policies that we disagree with as Democrats. I think it’s a certainty that he would be president if we don’t come together. I think Democrats will come together in much better fashion than they did last time around both because they know the consequences and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to do it before.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay, and just, well, I think that hopefully you’re right about that. Turning to your career as ambassador, you mentioned president Obama before, he of course appointed you as ambassador, but interesting factor about your career is that you tried to recruit him when he was a precocious young law student. I’m kind of curious about that story. Was it obvious that he was special then given you tried to recruit him or?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh yeah. No, no. The story was that we were trying to recruit him to clerk for the judge that I clerked for on the court just before the Supreme court. Then I was going on next year, and the judge said, I heard about a guy over at Harvard Law School, who’s the president of Law Review, Barack Obama. I said, “Yeah, he sounds great. I don’t really know him, but everyone says he’s terrific, but he doesn’t really want to clerk. I think he’s going to do something else.”

Jeff Bleich:                    The judge said, “Well, give him a call.” I called him up and I came back afterwards and went into the judge’s chambers and I had Obama’s resume with me. The good news is that he’s even better on the phone then he was on paper. I mean, he’s really, really special, and smart, funny, interesting. From Chicago, where the judge is from, you’d love him. The bad news is, he really doesn’t want to clerk. He wants to do something good for society. The judge said, “Well, give me his resume.”

Jeff Bleich:                    He takes it, comes back into my office a while later and he’s holding Obama’s resume. He looks at me, he goes, “Now this, this is the kind of guy I ought to be hiring.” I’m like, “You mean instead of me?” He goes, exactly, call him again. I called him again and tried to recruit him. I never did, but we formed a friendship and one thing led to another after that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Before we dig into the, maybe specific of the policies, what is it about the US Australia relationship that in your mind makes it so special and why is trust within that relationship so important?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, I think you put your finger on it, it’s about trust. There are a lot of alliances in the world that are transactional and so they’re about, “If you do this thing for me now, I will do something for you later.” But our alliance is beyond that, it’s a true partnership. It’s like a marriage. Where you’re not asking every time, “What do I get in return?” You know that the relationship itself makes both of you stronger and better and you’re always looking for ways to be helpful to each other. That’s the foundation on which our trust was based.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think the other thing is it’s very values-based. We’ve got, not just a similar set of political values in terms of free speech, and freedom of religion, and free markets, and free movement of people, and just that we think there’s also a can do ethic that’s unique to us. Australians say, “Should be right mate,” and we say, “It’ll be okay buddy,” but it’s the same message. We’re very optimistic people. We believe we can make the world a better place and then we work together and do it. Based on that, based on having been through a lot of tough situations that we volunteered for together, there’s a trust that allows us to do things that really no two other countries in the world can do together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, one of the big themes of your time as ambassador, certainly an ongoing theme, is the relationship between the US and China, but it’s very impactful on Australia’s geo-strategic positioning. One of the big signature policy initiatives of the Obama administration was the Asia Pivot. I mean, in your mind was this successful or do you think, in hindsight, the administration could have been a little tougher. I mean at the time the hope was the engagement process that China would become a responsible actor and that it will gradually liberalize. We obviously haven’t seen that now. I mean was, in hindsight 2020, or could the administration being tougher in the circumstances?

Jeff Bleich:                    I think that they were successful in a number of different ways. First, it was about integrating the region in a way where the major powers could all come to the table together and have honest conversations, not just about economics or about national security or one issue or another, but really about everything. Up until then there had been five or six different fora, but I think we really helped cement the East Asia summit as an opportunity for everyone to come together and have a honest and frank conversation about issues that mattered to the region and to fully integrate the US into those conversations. That I thought was significant on a diplomatic front.

Jeff Bleich:                    On the security front. Again, I think it was very successful with the rotational deployment of Marines up in Darwin, [some airfield dispersals and a number of other things that have happened since. Most significantly moving from a 50-50 split of our Navy between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters to a 60-40 split where now we have our Navy assets and a real integration of our joint forces with partners throughout the region, including the Talisman Saber exercise, which is now the largest joint military exercise we do anywhere in the world, and we do it off the coast of Australia.

Jeff Bleich:                    In terms of diplomatic, military, and then economic, our main focus at the time was TPP because that was a very effective strategy of integrating our economies and, to some extent, counterbalancing any other economy which was going to try to unfairly leverage its power in the region, and China was clearly in people’s minds at the time. I don’t think that that was a failure at all. In fact, TPP, it was only with the election of president Trump where he unsigned TPP.

Jeff Bleich:                    If I were going to be critical of that decision, I thought it was a wrong decision myself, but the execution of it was even worse because at that point China did not want the US to be part of TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and president Trump had an opportunity to say, “Well, we will unsign it, but only if China you do the following seven things.” He didn’t, he just unsigned it without any preconditions or concessions by China, and then two years later began a trade dispute.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think at the time we were doing a pretty good job of holding the line on trade because of TPP. I think we were doing a good job of holding the line on Chinese espionage in the commercial sector after the Sunnylands Conference between President Xi and President Obama. I think we integrated ourselves more deeply into the region. I think the Pivot was successful and could have been more successful if we continued some of those efforts over the past couple of years.

Misha Zelinsky:             You sort of touched on that, I guess, the change in tone from the Trump administration, from the Obama administration. Earlier you talked about the fact that at least the ANZUS Alliance is not transactional, but president Trump would appear at least to be more transactional in the way he approaches foreign policy, often the way that seen to, at least from the outside, look like punishing friends and rewarding enemies. I mean, how would that challenge diplomats in the background in your experience?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well I think it’s very difficult to in the current system that we have with those principles. Because look, the way you treat family members is different from the way you treat business partners. Business partners, it can be purely transactional. It’s only if there’s something in it for you that you’re going to engage in business with them. Whereas with family members, you’re always finding a way to make things work, sometimes soothing over awkward situations as opposed to ignoring them completely or being too confrontational. You behave with family members, you behave with allies and partners in a different way than you would behave with others where it’s just purely a business or geopolitical relationship.

Jeff Bleich:                    We have allies and partners who continue to behave that way with us, expect us to do the same, people raised in the diplomatic corps understand the difference and then occasionally these directives come in which are at odds at those and it throws everyone else’s calculation off. We’re trying to solve problems by predicting each other’s behavior. When you’ve got an unpredictable actor, it makes everyone alter their calculation sometimes missing chances to agree and sometimes creating conflict where it was never necessary. That’s, I think, what diplomats are struggling with is the inconsistency and the unpredictability of policy in areas where we need to find an agreement because we’ve got much bigger things to work on together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, absolutely. Working together, kind of curious I mean, you were of course ambassador during Obama’s essentially his first term and the latter half of the then Rudd Gillard government. What was it like being an ambassador during a period where the labor government was essentially at war with itself regrettably? I mean, was that something that was awkward to manage?

Jeff Bleich:                    No. Nice things about being ambassador, and I should’ve mentioned this earlier, is it’s not zero sum, it’s not someone wins, someone loses, always this is a long-term relationship and you’re looking for opportunities to do good things together and so you develop friendships all across the political spectrum. I got along with all of the prime ministers with whom I worked and worked with the different factions within labor as well as the different factions within the coalition, and [crosstalk 00:22:40]-

Misha Zelinsky:             There’s no factions mate.

Jeff Bleich:                    Right. No factions at all. No, I think the… But I served with, If you count Kevin Rudd twice, I served with four prime ministers because I served with Prime Minister Rudd, then Prime Minister Gillard, then Prime Minister Rudd, and Prime Minister Abbott during the time I was there and found ways to work together with all of them, and really didn’t get drawn into their conflicts with one another. But it was helpful because I did get insights about their conflicts with one another and was able to make better predictions about how we could focus our energies on things that would get support across the aisle there as opposed to putting too much energy into things that we thought are hopeless at the moment. That’s part of why you want to have those relationships.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very diplomatically put ambassador, but that’s a period of time we try not to remember to fondly. But so, turning to, I suppose your post ambassadorial career, you focus a lot on foreign interference.

Jeff Bleich:                    One of my favorite stories with President Obama Yeah.] I’ve been gone for a few months and I had a… came back to see President Obama, we were in the Oval Office. He said, “You’ve got a lot going on down there. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been there for a few weeks and they sacked the opposition leader Malcolm Turbull a few months later sacked the prime minister. Prime minister Gillard has now called a special election and it looks like it’s going to be a minority coalition because this will be the first minority coalition government in last 70 years.” The president he goes, “What the hell are you doing down there Jeff? These people are our friends,” so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good. Just, since you’ve left your role as ambassador, you’ve focused a lot on foreign interference. You’ve set up the Jeff Bleich Center for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance at Flinders University, which is… First, it’s a hell of a title.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh thank. It’s a lot of words but they all have meaning, and the only word-

Misha Zelinsky:             Lets talk about that.

Jeff Bleich:                    … I would have taken out, the Jeff Bleich Center. That was a very nice thing that Flinders did where they put my name on it. But I was honored and surprised. But it’s given me extra incentive to make sure it does its job. I figure it’s a statement of confidence that even with a name like Bleich it can still be successful, so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             What are you hoping for the center, and firstly what are its aims? And secondly, why have you set up in Australia?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, the aim is really to focus on a set of challenges that are unique to democracies that are created by digital technology that asymmetrically hurt democracies versus authoritarian governments and how we can work together as countries with our closest partners to figure out solutions to these. Whether it just be ways in which we will combat them within our own countries, how we can combat them together, or how we can form treaties around the world that would help all nations that share our values and care about democracy and freedom to resist this movement towards digital abuse and authoritarianism. That’s really what it’s about. It’s a US alliance studies in digital technology, security, and governance and it’s all of those things. I’m happy to talk about specific examples if that’s helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, maybe if we… I mean, I think the most famous example of hacking or a successful hacking effort is the 2016 foreign interference into the US election. But I’m interested in talking to you about this new concept where they’re talking about political warfare in the so-called gray zones. Can you explain what those are and how they’re impacting on democracies?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, well you may use different terms for it in Australia. What do you mean by that, and then I’ll say if I mean the same thing?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, this attempt to bump up against institutions and corrupt the discourse or target certain people or basically try to royal democracies using their openness against them in a way that makes it more difficult for democracies to operate properly because they’re getting this static put through them in various different ways due to the interconnectedness of the world versus the closeness, I suppose, the autocratic systems and that challenge is presenting to us in the democratic free world.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. That was the most diabolical] Russian interference in the 2016 election. Look, hacking into DMC files and releasing those in a selective way to help one party versus the other. All bad. But at least you knew it was happening. What was going on with what you’re describing is this attempt to pit Americans against each other, to break down our trust in one another, and to dirty the information field in such a way that we didn’t know what to believe by the time we got to election day. That was the concept.

Jeff Bleich:                    They would use chat bots and others to identify extreme positions and then promote them aggressively to create the sense that the entire left and the entire right believed a particularly fringe idea and that that’s what they stood for. Or to find hot buttons that they knew would inflame a particular group and get them to start criticizing each other through really nasty terms that would just make it difficult for people to dial back and have a civil conversation about issues later.

Jeff Bleich:                    The whole idea of just putting [stories about nothing, but create just ridiculous false narratives was designed to make it so that people didn’t know what to trust. You had a bunch of people wondering, is Hillary Clinton, while she’s running for president in the United States, still finding time in the evenings to go run a child sex ring out of the basement of a in suburban Maryland? It seems absurd, but if people see it enough, they start to wonder, “Well maybe there’s some truth to it.” Enough so the one person actually showed up with a assault weapon to open fire on it. I mean, it’s these things that sound silly actually have dire and very dangerous real world consequences.

Jeff Bleich:                    The impact of all that was that at some point, if people don’t know what the truth is, they don’t know what to believe, they don’t know who to believe because we’ve broken down trust, then they either believe whatever accords with their own biases or they believe nothing at all and they just kind of abdicate to government to do whatever it was going to do. Both of those are absolutely destructive to democracy.

Jeff Bleich:                    Democracy is about all of us understanding the facts, being able to make our own informed choices, and being able to select representatives who will in fact represent our views on those. Once people don’t know what the facts are and they don’t know who to trust, and they can’t make effective choices in their elections, we stop looking like a democracy anymore.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’ve absolutely nailed the problem. What’s the solution? I mean, how do we actually deal with this question of trust information sources and digital communications? Because this openness that we have now, you can’t control your information, at least in Western democratic context. You can’t control information in your borders anymore, and you don’t have gatekeeping on information. Actually, how do we reverse this problem given that it’s so corrosive?

Jeff Bleich:                    Part of it is sophistication and hygiene. I think people start to learn after a while. I keep hearing from this particular website or this particular author, never turned out to be true, and in fact turns out that they’re wrong and dangerous. Over time, the public starts walking away from people like that. I think you’re probably going to come up with greater criticism of groups like that in the sense that people on the right will start criticizing far right views as damaging to their own brand and people in the moderate left will do the same thing to extreme and irresponsible new sources on the left. There’s human nature.

Jeff Bleich:                    We really depend on timely, reliable, accurate information in every aspect of our lives. At some point when we’re not getting in, we react and start behaving differently. I’m counting, to some extent, on human nature. I think the second thing that you count on is technology getting better and better at being able to detect lies and out them. One of the advantages of AI frankly, is in things that are demonstrably false. Well, we’ll be able to identify those in real time and start educating people to take a pause, check this site, and get the accurate information. At some point I think they’ll be able to.

Jeff Bleich:                    The problem of… I think Mark Twain said, “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on.” This goes back 100 years, but it’s at hyperspeed right now in the internet age. But we have some technological tools that will help us with that. I think you’re going to start to see crowdsourced information in the news, which will help people with that same challenge. I don’t despair that we’ve outfought ourselves and we can never fight back to accuracy again. I think we’ve always managed to do it in the past and I think we’ll do it again this time. It’s just going to be a challenging effort given the acceleration of technology issues.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of US social media companies in this, in being responsible actors given so many people now get their news from social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera. They have algorithms that essentially favor outrage, which then favors extremism, and then there’s a problem with fake accounts. I mean, what is their role in, I suppose, safeguarding democracy?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, they’re all certain to encounter a backlash which is referred to as the tech lash because of people’s frustration with the failure of these platforms to actually address the negative consequences. They insist that they are platforms that they’re not news sources, they’re not responsible for the news and that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as journalists, but at the same time, they’re now appreciating that in order for their brand to be respected and for people to actually trust their platforms, they need to do more fact-checking.

Jeff Bleich:                    Facebook has brought in, I think, journalists from the Washington Post to hire a number of other journalists checking on pieces that appear on their website and to either take down things that are demonstrably false or at least put up warnings in advance that there are questions about the accuracy of certain facts stated in the piece. You see Google and Twitter saying that they are not going to run political ads they contained false information. There’s a movement, in fact, I think they’d said take down all political ads simply because they didn’t want to be in a position where they had to make those fine determinations.

Jeff Bleich:                    But they’re all stepping up in different ways to address it in response to consumer demand and other political parties. That’s healthy. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just turning to the global challenge here, I mean, one of the things I think Australia and the US are in lock step on is this, I mean, it’s been described a sort of a Chinese communist party, techno-nationalism, the so called China 2025 plan where the regime wants to dominate a whole host of critical technologies including AI which you touched on earlier. I mean, do you think this is a new bipartisan position in the US and does the president, president Trump, have a point in the way he’s addressing this challenge?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I think there’s bipartisan support. In fact, if anything, the Democrats may be even stronger in their concerns about it. Perhaps in part because of the experience from 2016 where they were the victims of foreign interference and their appreciation that what they did is child’s play compared to what can be done in the future. The techno-nationalism that you’re describing really comes down in many ways to the architecture of the internet of things. If it’s connected through 5G systems that are controlled by China, there’s a real risk that those could be used to establish an effective surveillance state that would keep Chinese citizens and countries that are in the Chinese supply chain and orbit and strategic area in line.

Jeff Bleich:                    It would be used also as a check on efforts by the West to impose their own human rights values on China or other countries, and could also be used as an economic tool to advantage China over other countries. You could easily see a balkanization around the world of some countries that have surveillance States that use the internet of things in an authoritarian manner. Then other countries which are working to ensure that we maintain our freedoms. In those cases you have two completely different economic systems in competition again and really a digital iron curtain could fall if we don’t address this now.

Misha Zelinsky:             Essentially, yeah, this question of a digital iron curtain or a decoupling, how do you see… One of the things that I think is interesting or is puzzling in the debate at the moment, there seems to have been this split in the West even, about how to approach the question of 5G, particularly Chinese technology via Huawei. How do you see the British approach as a Five Eyes partner in the Five Eyes security alliance? How do you see their approach to Huawei where they’ve essentially not sought to introduce, or at this stage don’t want to introduce, a blanket ban in the way that Australia and the United States and New Zealand have?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well the UK didn’t follow an initial advice from the intelligence communities of other countries and even some of their own intelligence community, and went ahead with infrastructure that included Huawei equipment, but it was supposed to also have a monitoring system. The monitoring system has proven not to be workable, but now they’re stuck with a very big investment and being asked to tear it all out and start again is a major challenge for the country. Their softer position, I think, decisions that were made several years ago and ones that I think there is some apprehension about today.

Jeff Bleich:                    It also explains why it’s so important at this point to make these decisions strategically, and thoughtfully, and deliberately. Because once you’ve made the decision, you start going down a rabbit hole at a relatively fast pace and it’s much harder to climb back out afterward.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just on that, I mean, this debate it was not just contingent in Five Eyes, countries, Germany, and to a broader extent the broader European Union, are debating this question of 5G technology and the role of Huawei. Where do you think the debate will end up in Germany? Because again, they’re taking what would appear to be, at least, a bet each way at this point.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, I mean, a lot of others is that they don’t want to needlessly antagonize China. What they would like, and I think what we all like is to find a way in which we could have a robust trade relationship with all countries in the world, including in our digital space, but also have some assurances that it won’t be used to undermine our security or economic wellbeing down the road that we chose one system versus another. I think they want to, in that respect, and that’s why they’ve made a number of statements about keeping an open mind. But the fact that they have not embraced 5G technology and that Nokia and Ericsson and other European 5G manufacturers have been ramping up their efforts suggests to me that Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             This question about human rights and values and but also technology, I mean, how do you see that playing out? I mean, the Human Rights Watch group recently came in and essentially warned of a techno-dystopia emerging of Chinese technology and an autocratic regime comes to dominate global affairs. I mean, how concerned are you about something like that and what can democracies do about being more assertive in values about human values and their role in technology?

Jeff Bleich:                    Look, I mean, we’re at this point, and I think there’s a desire around the world for us to remain interdependent. It’s a good way of reducing the risk of conflict. The last thing we will want to move on is a failure to be creative on digital governance. I think, and China just as much as the United States is looking to increase the quality of life, and the length of life, and the wellbeing of its people and to do the same for its allies and friends around the world.

Jeff Bleich:                    We don’t have to go into a dystopian world. It’s not inevitable. It’s going to be a matter of choices. But we’re starting to make the decisions now. We’ll either make it much more likely that we’ll go into a dystopian future or much easier for us to avoid it. That’s why we have failed to take heed of warnings in areas like climate change and we’re paying a huge price for it right now. We don’t want to make the same mistake here on the digital space in terms of having security and governance in front of mind as we’re making these critical decisions.

Misha Zelinsky:             Given that we’re heading into an important election season in the United States, I think one of the things that would disturb a lot of people, the 2016 election, the Mueller Report, even the impeachment currently underway with arguable presidential interference into a potential rival candidate. How concerned are you about these reports of new Russian hacking into some of the electoral infrastructure of the US and has that got enough attention in your opinion?

Jeff Bleich:                    No, it hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Look, I’ve been saying for a while, whatever Russia did last time, they’re not just going to do that this time. They may figure, “Okay, we’ve taught the rest of the world how to do that. They’ll do it for us.” They’re going to do something different. We know that in the last election, Russia had hacked into voter rolls for 40 different States in the United States. It was only when they were called out by our intelligence agencies at the highest level and advised that we have countermeasures that would be much more painful to them that they backed off on what appeared to be a deliberate plan to hack into certain kinds of voting machines in order to change the outcome of elections.

Jeff Bleich:                    We also know that our voting machines are vulnerable and really can… in some cases, you could change a person’s vote and there’s no paper backup to ensure that people could audit it and determine whether or not a machine had been compromised. We have real vulnerabilities and it should be something that is front of mind for Americans and a major focus of law enforcement around the world and for our media to prepare people for demanding from their electoral officials paperback, every single vote, and an audit of every voting location. I mean, that should be standard. I am very worried about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             We use high tech paper and pencil in Australia, so it’s more difficult to hack at least. It’s one of the advantages of a low tech system but…

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, although it may be that you’re using scanners and other things, so hopefully you’re also doing audits afterwards to make sure that the scanners haven’t been compromised.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, one would hope, I mean, it’s certainly something that I think it requires enormous vigilance. The last question before we go to the really last hokey question. You’re someone who describes himself as an optimist. When I look at the world, it’s divided now into opened and closed. It used to be believed that openness would always prevail. Bill Clinton famously said, “Those who think they can control the internet, it’s like nailing jello to a wall. Good luck with that.” But it almost feels now that open systems assailed from all different directions and the closed systems don’t have these same vulnerabilities. How can that be reversed and how can openness become a virtue and not be a bit of a crutch as it currently is?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well look, I think we originally imagined digital technology proliferating openness and to some extent it did. If you look at the Arab Spring, that was really a reflection of the fact that social media was able to create an environment in which disorganized rebels could overthrow a dictator. I think the lesson that we learned from that period is that, we got a little bit out over our skis. We were so confident that digital technology could only be used for good that we forgot that dictators are watching the same thing. They were thinking, “Look, if the disorganized rebel can use this tool in order to accomplish this. Imagine what we can do with all the power of the government, and military force, and money, and organization behind us. Just think how much we could weaponize digital information.”

Jeff Bleich:                    They’ve demonstrated that over the last few years and it has strengthened the hand of authoritarians. But that doesn’t mean that this tool will only be used for bad going forward. I think we’ve gotten a wake up call that this technology really can promote open societies and bring us closer together as people, and reduce friction between countries, and increase our understanding of what is true, and allow us to solve massive global problems in a way and at a scale that we never would have been able to in the past. Whether that is contagions moving around the world, or whether it is climate change, or whether it is this issue itself, the digital structure itself.

Jeff Bleich:                    We’ll be able to do things that we could never have accomplished without this technology. I remain an optimist. I think there’s work to be done, but at the wake up call that we needed and now we just need the political will to put some real muscle behind it so that we can make tomorrow better than it’s been.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you take some confidence out of the courage you’ve seen in people of Hong Kong and the recent Taiwan elections where despite all the threats and pressure that have been placed upon people in those areas, that they still have voted for self-determination and freedom. I think that should give us all confidence, but how do you see that particular way that that’s played out for the CCP regime of 2019 into 2020?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, absolutely. You see it in Turkey, you see in Hong Kong, you see it around the world, and it’s because frankly, there’s an innate instinct in us as a species, as people. We want freedom, we want… Why on earth does a person stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Why does someone throw a minefield in the demilitarized zone? Why did people lose their lives trying to cross the Berlin Wall. It’s that impulse where at some level people say, “I would rather die than live without freedom,” and they are willing to do extraordinary things to accomplish it. I take great comfort from that impulse, that instinct in all of us that you see manifested in some of these elections and in individual acts of courage and heroism.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely. I think that’s a beautiful place to finish at. Now, of course I have one of my trademarks, clunky segues into the final question, which is… it’s a little, maybe a bit easier for you given your time in Australia. Sometimes this stumps some of my guests who can’t really name three Australians beyond Crocodile Dundee, but three Aussies alive or dead at ambassador Bleich’s place for a barbecue. Who’s coming and why?

Jeff Bleich:                    Let’s see, who’s coming to my barbecue? Well, everyone who’s left off this list will be angry. Let me pick just three iconic Australians. One of them would be Paul Keating, I just think he’s brilliant and his insights are invaluable. I think I’d pick Lindsay Fox because he is what every billionaire should aspire to be. Just generous, thoughtful, down to earth, and make your money the right way, fairly and honestly. Then the third one, probably Lisa Wilkinson, because after her long career in journalism and the courage she’s shown, she knows the dirt on everyone and she would tell it. So there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             So you have a journalist, a prime minister, and a billionaire at an ambassador’s barbecue. Sounds like a pretty good party.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Sounds… get a couple meat pies and some sausages. It’s a perfect night.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much ambassador Jeff Bleich and good luck in the upcoming primary season for the Democrats.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, thanks so much, Misha, and thanks for having me on Diplomates.

 

Alex Oliver

Alex Oliver is the Director of Research at the Lowy Institute where she oversees the annual Lowy Institute Poll.

Alex in an expert in foreign affairs and has authored several major studies on Australia’s diplomacy. She is a prolific author for international press including Foreign AffairsForeign PolicyThe Wall Street Journal and BBC.com, and for all major Australian publications.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Alex for a chinwag about how the Australian public see the world, the politics of climate change, what’s driving attitudes on immigration, why Aussies are so worried about the CCP and just what the hell is going on with polling results.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Alex Oliver, welcome to the show.

Alex Oliver:                   Thanks very much Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s great to have you along. There’s so many places we could start. One of the places I thought we could start was, the concept of how Australians see themselves vis-à-vis the world. Perhaps some people say, “Australians aren’t interested in the world”, what is your research and work tell you about Australian’s general attitude? Are they interested in the world? And how are they interested in the world?

Alex Oliver:                   It’s a very good question and for an organization that’s been taking public opinion polls on Australian’s relationship with the world for 15 years, you would think it would be easier to answer. But in some ways it depends on how you ask them that question. So if, as we did in 2016, we ask the question of whether Australia should play a more influential role in the world or whether Australia should mind its own business, and concentrate on our national problems, you’ll get a really divided population. Australians don’t know if they want to be forward-leaning in the world. They don’t know if we should just be insular and inward looking.

Alex Oliver:                   If you ask a question in the way that big American think tanks have asked the question, which is perhaps slightly less pointing, which is, “Should Australia take a more active part of world affairs or should it stay out of world affairs?” And you’ll get a much stronger response. So that suggests to me, and that response is sort of 80 to 15, with a few undecided, so that suggests to me that Australians don’t want to be too much of an active middle power, if you want to use that expression, that can be quite politically loaded, whether we’re a middle power, whether we’re an influential power or a significant power, there had been some disagreement about that. But we do want to be internationally engaged.

Alex Oliver:                   So that’s my long answer to your short question. We do see ourselves as having a role in the world, but we don’t want to be too forward-leaning as far as being too aggressive in the way that we prosecute our interests. And then there’s the other question, which is a geographic or geopolitical question, which is, where are we in the world? This is more a question of international identity, and this was a really interesting question we asked in 2010 and I’d really like to ask it again, except every year, in a 20 minute survey, it’s very hard to squash everything you want to ask into all one poll. So it’s a question that we need to revisit. But it was a really interesting set of responses in 2010.

Alex Oliver:                   When we asked Australians, “Do you think you are part of Asia, part of the Pacific, part of Europe or not really part of any region?” 30% said, “We are a part of Asia”, 30% said, “We are a part of Pacific”, and 30% said, “We’re not really a part of anywhere.” So that suggests our response, which is, we still are a little bit undecided of our place in the world. So not how view the world, but a really big question about our own identity. And Paul Keating of course said that Australia is, you know, this is the Asian … It wasn’t the Asian Century then, but we should be considering ourselves a part of Asia. And-

Misha Zelinsky:             You see, he was saying, “of Asia”, not “from Asia.”

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah, that’s right. And we had an Asian Century whitepaper and we had a whole, a political era of when we were thinking ourselves as part of Asia, and as far as I can tell, Australians are not really quite sure about that still.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so then, in that context, given there is a bit of confusion and perhaps space in the politics of the country for this, what do you make of Scott Morrison’s recent discussion about this sort of anti-globalist thing that we shouldn’t be accountable to unelected bureaucrats, presumably, a global institution like the United Nations or the WTO, they didn’t name them, what do you make of that? Firstly, what should we make of that generally? But is there a constituency for this in Australia more generally?

Alex Oliver:                   Another very good question. This was a speech that the prime minister made at the Lowy Institute just last week and I think we need to understand the context in which that speech was made, because that element of it was a little bit surprising, a little bit new and certainly quite different from the speech that he made to the Asia Society just a few months before up at Bloomberg, when it seemed to be a much more conventional and quite disciplined sort of approach to our various relationships in the world. This was a bit new and I guess, it could be read as being a bit reactionary, having come back from a very successful trip to the United States, well at least the first part of that trip was, with the State Dinner and only the second national leader to have been invited by President Trump for an official visit, and then going straight from Washington and that very positive affair, to the United Nations in a big climate change meeting, some criticism of Australia’s climate policies. Morrison not going along to that particular forum and having taken some criticism from that both internationally and domestically.

Alex Oliver:                   So it might have been a bit of a reaction to that, but I think that probably he’s a strand beneath that immediate context, which suggests something of the way the government is currently thinking about where we sit in the foreign policy firmament. On these issues, it is getting hard for Australia now, our stance on climate change and emissions, and on some of our immigration policies, but our asylum seeker policies, where we have been held up to criticism by some of those, I guess he calls or thinks of as sort of faceless international organizations. So I think there probably is something beneath just a reaction to a particular visit and him feeling a bit irritated by that and wanting to answer that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well it was consistent with what Donald Trump said to the UN where he said that the future belongs to patriots not globalists.

Alex Oliver:                   Yes, but I wonder whether it’s that …? I would hope that that’s not where we’re headed, into that sort of populous, isolationist, inward-looking policies, because we’re not America, we’re much smaller than America and we’re a trading nation, we can get on to that later. Or we can actually get on to it now if you like.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well I was just curious about-

Alex Oliver:                   Australians understand that we have to be an international, an outward looking country, because we rely on free-trade, globalization has been good for us and we consistently get those sort of responses in our polling. We’d have close to 80% of Australians saying that globalization is a good thing. We have three quarters of the population saying that free trade is good for our national interest, it’s good for our economy, our standard of living, it’s even good for job creation, which is where there is sometimes some point of disagreement on whether if we have all these international relationships and allow all this freedom of movement and freedom of trade, that that will somehow impact our jobs for native Australians.

Alex Oliver:                   So we have been very outward looking and it’s been very consistently, if not actually growing. So if it is about a sort of an Australia-first, a move in an Australia-first direction, well then I don’t think that will resonate with Australians. If it is just about not being dictated to by … or being criticized by those multilateral organizations for specific, very difficult policy issues that where Australia’s interests differ from the interests of other nations, as the government sees them, and I think that’s probably where the government, where that Morrison speech was pitched.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, in terms of you’ve talked about polling already and you’re obviously responsible for managing the Lowy Poll. I mean firstly maybe, for people that aren’t policy nerds like me, what is a Lowy Poll? How does it work? Maybe just give a little bit of background on that?

Alex Oliver:                   Yes, well firstly, I have to fess-up, and that is that now I’m a director of research at the Lowy Institute, and I’m not personally responsible for the poll anymore, I’ve handed that over to our very capable new pollster Natasha [Kasam 00:08:34], but obviously I supervise the whole research program, and I’ve had a long time dealing with the Lowy Institute Poll, so I take a particular interest in it.

Alex Oliver:                   Right, well, 15 years of polling. Our first poll was in 2005, the Institute was set up in 2004 and the then executive director and the team at the Lowy Institute thought that we really needed an opinion pool, which gauged Australian attitudes to the world, because those sort of questions were rarely asked of Australians. Not just to understand how they feel about these issues, but also to give them a voice on these issues and get these sort of issues into the public domain, get them talked about in the press. And then convey those to the political guys who make decisions on the basis of them rather than making decisions on some sort of instinct, which it may have been doing a decade and a half ago.

Alex Oliver:                   So the first Lowy Institute poll was pretty controversial. It was at a time in 2005 when we were headed towards the end of the Bush presidency. There was some very unpopular foreign policies then.

Misha Zelinsky:             The Iraq war.

Alex Oliver:                   Just to name one. The president himself was not particularly popular in Australia and for the Lowy Institute to come out with a poll, which probed that, a whole lot of things, but also that American relationship and, which found that Australians ranked American foreign policy at about the same level of disfavor as they ranked Islamic fundamentalism. It was quite shocking, I think, to politicians who, and even to the bureaucrats who may have known about these sort of undercurrents in Australian public opinion, but to have it boldly stated out there on the front page of a newspaper was confronting.

Alex Oliver:                   Since then we have taken public opinion polls every year. It’s one of our flagship products. It has evolved methodologically and I kind of think we probably need to get to that point, which is that every polling organization has faced some methodological challenges.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well let’s talk about that. You’re a pollster. It probably started with Brexit, into Hillary Clinton’s loss and then polling has been heavily discussed in Australia in light of some surprising result with the federal election in May this year. Is polling still something that we can put stock in? Or has it been somehow bastardized by the way people conceive of it? Because the maths underpinning it are not necessarily … The way pollsters conceive a polling is not the way the public interprets it … and others.

Alex Oliver:                   Well, I like to see the polling world in sort of two spheres. One is political polling, and as you say, the Brexit vote was surprising, because none of the polls really predicted it. It actually started before then. There was the 2012 election where most of the Republican pollsters predicted a Romney win.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that’s right.

Alex Oliver:                   There was a Scottish referendum where that was all completely unexpected. There was the 2015 UK election and that was a very notorious polling error.

Misha Zelinsky:             But Labor believed it was going to win.

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, and Ed Miliband had prepared a victory speech-

Alex Oliver:                   And it was a Tory win by a wide margin. That in fact prompted a government ordered independent inquiry, the Sturgis Inquiry, which reported back in 2016, and raised some of the issues, which polling organizations the world over are encountering and, which we then encountered in our election in 2019. The sort of things that the Sturgis Inquiry reported on were … it’s overall finding was that the poll samples were unrepresentative, that it inadequately represented older demographics and over-represented younger demographics, because most of those polls were using internet-based polling methodologies.

Alex Oliver:                   Now, the Lowy Institute poll, and most of Australian political polling has been using phone polls. In the last few years, as everybody knows, almost nobody uses a fixed line phone anymore. The NBN has exaggerated the effect, because most people when switching over to the NBN don’t even bother with their fixed line phone anymore, they just use their mobiles. It’s really difficult to get people on their mobile phones, because they can screen calls and they don’t pick up, and also, they don’t want to sit with a mobile phone on their ear for 20 minutes, which is how long our surveys are.

Alex Oliver:                   So we’re all grappling with the same problems and the result of that has been that, depending on the polling organization, they’re either using a combination of phone and robo-polling or they’re using internet-based polling or they’re using a combination of internet and phone and SMS polling and so this is all in flux. When you put a cycle together and you’ve got a mixed set of methodologies like that, you need to weight each, because how do you know which bits are more important? Is each sample exactly equivalent?

Alex Oliver:                   So there’s a series of sets of post-weightings that you apply to the results to get the right answer and that can make a big difference. It can make several percentage points difference if you weight one part of the sample more than the other. What we’ve done in the last couple of years, is made, knowing that we have to make a transition to online polling, because otherwise you can’t get young people, because you can’t get them on the mobile phone either, we’ve made a graduated transition. So we’ve moved from a telephone-only poll including mobiles, to a part-online, part-phone model to, this year for the first time, a fully online model and we’ve been able to see if there have been any remarkable differences that will help us to decide how to apply the weightings to the results to get the most accurate result.

Alex Oliver:                   Now the other point, and the one that I said about the two spheres, is there are political polls and then there are issue polls like ours. A political poll, you can get sort of distorting factors like the so-called Shy Tory.

Misha Zelinsky:             The Shy Tory, yeah.

Alex Oliver:                   … which you’ve obviously heard of.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, and maybe explain those?

Alex Oliver:                   There’s also the Lazy Labor. And the Shy Tory is the person who, when particularly on the phone, because it’s quite confronting talking to a human on the other end of the phone, and in this era of political correctness, are sort of unwilling to admit that they will vote for something like Brexit or a conservative party that doesn’t believe in climate change or whatever the factor is. So those things that they’re kind of a little bit shy about or embarrassed about saying on the phone. They’re probably actually much more prepared to do it online, because it’s a much less personal forum.

Alex Oliver:                   Then there what they call the Lazy Labor voters. Now this is a factor, and you could say the same in America about Democrats. This is a factor that refers to nothing about their work effort, but actually about turning out to vote. Now that is relevant in America and in the United Kingdom, because they don’t have compulsory voting on these things and they might a turnout of anywhere between 60% and 70%. We have compulsory voting, it’s much less of an issue. But it is a small issue and we do have turnout issues and we also do have informal voting issues. So there might be a small factor there.

Alex Oliver:                   Anyway, they’re the sort of issues that we’ve had to grapple with as an industry in the last 15 years, but it’s become particularly difficult in the last five years as we’ve made the move. Really, it was a wholesale move from doing our business on telephones to doing our business online.

Misha Zelinsky:             We still rant about politicians and union officials, so you guys are doing okay, but … I’m curious, I mean, diving into the Lowy Poll, you’ve said it’s been going since 2005, so 15 years, right? What are the big shifts in Australian attitudes over the time that you’ve noticed in running the poll?

Alex Oliver:                   I’m going to nominate, and I have thought about this, since you asked me the questions, three big shifts. But firstly, I wanted to just make a point, that 15 years is, in the way that we segregate our demographics in our polling, is about one generation. So the 18 year olds that we polled in 2005 are now 33. So they’ve really sort of grown-up.

Alex Oliver:                   That gives us an opportunity to look back over those 15 years and trace those attitudes. It’s not a strictly longitudinal poll, we don’t poll the same person. It’s not like the Seven Up program where we poll the same person every year. But we do poll the same demographic groups every year and we make sure it’s a representative sample in terms of education levels, gender, age obviously, income level … Have I missed anything? I think they’re the … Oh geographic location, urban, rural, metropolitan, the city centers versus regional centers.

Alex Oliver:                   Then whatever we don’t use that as a way of sort of measuring, in the pre-polling part, we then weight for it afterwards. Weight, W-E-I-G-H-T. We do a post-weighting process afterwards to make sure that the sample we’ve got is completely representative of the national population. So some of the shifts that we’ve noticed, and this is where the generational thing comes in, are on climate change, immigration, and I think we are just beginning to see in the last couple of years, some emerging shifts on attitudes towards China. Now I’ll start with climate.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that will be great.

Alex Oliver:                   There is a real gap between younger generations and older generations on climate, but more importantly than that, I think, is this … Can I use the hockey stick imagery? We’ve got a hockey stick picture when you look at our pictures and I’d encourage people to go online and have a look at all these numbers in pictures, because it becomes so obvious how things have changed over a 15 year period.

Alex Oliver:                   In 2006 when we first asked the question we now still ask on climate change, 68% of Australians said that global warming was a serious and pressing problem and we should do something about it, even if it involves significant cost. From that very high result, which I think the Rudd campaign then used and talked about climate change as being the greatest moral challenge of our times, and as the drought waned in the late 2000s, so did concern about climate change on the question that we asked.

Alex Oliver:                   We’ve asked the same question every year in exactly the same way to technically the same group of people. That almost halved, the concern about climate change. That’s a huge movement in six years. Now we’ve seen it swing upwards again, to the point where 61%, not quite at the same extreme level as we were back then in 2006, but 61% of Australians say that global warming is a serious and pressing problem, and we need to do something about it, even if it involves a cost.

Alex Oliver:                   There are three questions that we ask. It’s a three part question, you can choose one of three responses. There’s a middle response that says, yes, it expresses some concern about climate change, but that the problem will be gradual, and we can do something, like taking gradual steps and then the bottom one is, “We shouldn’t do anything until we know it’s really a problem.”

Alex Oliver:                   So 61% of Australians saying that, is a significant response now, and that’s actually up 25 points since 2012. So in seven years, we’ve seen the tick back up on the hockey stick to a really strong level of concern. Now the generation thing, which is that, when we ask that question for the first few years, there was very little generational difference. It was sort of surprising. You would sort of expect that the younger generations would be more concerned about that sort of thing because it concerns the future, whereas the older Australians who are less obviously personally physically affected by it, would be not quite so concerned, or to bring their old understandings of industry and coal and science and mining and all of that sort of thing.

Alex Oliver:                   But in the last two or three years, we’ve noticed a really big demographic divide on this, where 81% of 18 to 29s take that strong response, a serious and pressing problem. But only 43%, so half the number, of people aged 60 and over say the same thing. So there is a divide. Overall, the overall average is 61% and that’s where the other two age groups kind of fit in to that. So overall, you would say this has become a really pressing problem, except perhaps for that 60-plus age group. So that’s the first big shift, and one we’re we’ve seen, well, not just a shift in attitudes, but a shift in the way that generations are responding.

Misha Zelinsky:             So just on climate, I mean I think, perhaps a lot of Labor people might tear their hair out in frustration to hear that there’s 61% of people support action on climate change, and yet it seems to bedevil the party politically at most elections, including the last election. Is that young person, old person divide also, is there a similar divide on a rural regional, urban divide? Or is that almost represented by the fact that young people often live in cities? I’m curious about it because, that 61% arguably, I mean we’d have to look at the numbers are probably not overlaid across the majority of federal seats.

Alex Oliver:                   The rural, urban thing isn’t as clear-cut as the generational divide. We’ve got a bit of a problem with an error margin because with the sample, we’ve got a pretty big sample, it was 2,000 people, but once you start dividing it down into rural and urban, unless there’s a very big difference in attitudes, we can’t say that that is statistically significant. And that’s the issue with that one. So it’s the generational divide that is more important than the urban, rural split, from our interpretation of the results.

Alex Oliver:                   The other thing to note about climate change is that it’s, now we ask a question almost every year as well about what are the threats to Australia’s vita interests? And these threats are not confined to foreign policy threats. So we do ask about climate change, we ask about cyber-attacks, we ask about terrorism. This year we asked about North Korea’s nuclear program. We ask about the Australian economy. In the past we’ve asked about water issues. But this year for the first time, climate change was the number one threat. Equally ranked with cyber-attacks and just above terrorism, whereas in previous years, terrorism has been the foreign policy threat that most Australians are concerned about.

Alex Oliver:                   Then we’ve asked a different question, and we’ve only asked this once, which is to your point, which is, “How do you situate all of these threats in terms of Australia’s policy priorities?” What make them decide to vote for a particular party and for a particular policy-

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right, because you can have all these issues at once, and they kind of compete with one another. You can be concerned about climate change, but worried about your job, and then, how do you vote?

Alex Oliver:                   It seems to me, and based on this question, which we asked in 2016, which we might revisit and we asked it in a different way in about 2007, with not much different results. Education, health and the economy, not in any particular order, but those three issues are the things which Australians rank as the most important issues facing Australia.

Alex Oliver:                   Once you get down to things like immigration, climate change, terrorism, more important than both of those, but less important than education, health, and the economy. There you start to see what actually might drive votes. Foreign policy in Australia, it’s possibly different in America, where foreign policy is a big issue and the Iraq war was obviously a huge issue there and America’s sort of global interventions generally, but in Australia, foreign policy is less motivating in terms of getting people to decide where they put their tick on the ballot box.

Alex Oliver:                   Except, and there have been a couple of exceptions, and one was the Whitlam election and the other I think probably was arguably the Rudd election, although it’s hard to know there whether that was a time, it was time to move on from a very long Liberal government to a different government. It’s hard to say and I have been grappling with this question about, you know, do these issues like climate change, which repeatedly come back to us in our polling as being a really quite serious concern and in this years poll, the most serious concern, far more so than the prospect of a downturn in the Australian economy. When do those issues actually start to drive votes, and obviously not in 2019.

Misha Zelinsky:             I mean you touch on the fact that in 2005 climate change was very concerning, then it dipped down, the drought broke, it rained significantly and then now we are in another period of drought. The polling would at least, on an anecdotal basis or a correlation basis, seems to be-

Alex Oliver:                   It correlates with the weather.

Misha Zelinsky:             … moving together. Yeah. It’s interesting that people seem to need a measurable or visible demonstration of what can be an abstract concept of carbon emissions. You can’t sort of see or touch it, but you can certainly see the consequences through drought.

Alex Oliver:                   I think that’s probably the most important factor driving concern about climate change, is the very physical, confronting presence of a drought, and I think that’s one of the main reasons why we’ve seen rising concern about climate change since 2012 to the point where it is now and if the drought continues, I expect it will keep going up.

Alex Oliver:                   The other factor I think is the policy environment and if, you know between 2007 and 2014, when attitudes about climate were much less concerned, there was sort of a sense that there was some policy movement happening. There was all sorts of prospects of a carbon tax, a carbon pollution reduction scheme. The carbon tax was eventually introduced, it was then dismantled, but in those years when concern about climate change was falling, there was a lot of policy activity.

Alex Oliver:                   In the years after the election of the Abbott government 2013 to now, I think there’s been a sense of either policy vacuum or a policy paralysis or a policy indecision, probably until the last couple of years when we’ve talked a lot more about a climate policy with the Finkel Review and now, we have an energy policy now, not so much as a climate policy. So I think the policy settings, the policy environment has something to do with it as well, but I think, you’re right, the driving force is the climate, funny enough.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, so the next big one you mentioned was immigration. Maybe you can take us through how the attitudes are shifting there, because I’m sure it’s not just an Australian phenomenon, we’re seeing this all around the world.

Alex Oliver:                   Well yeah, so this one’s hard to read here. I mean it’s easier to say that we’re suffering the same sort of anti-immigration backlash as is being reflected in the populous politics of other western nations, the United Kingdom, the United States and across Europe. What we saw last year was a big spike in anti-immigration sentiment in that, we went from 40% in 2017 who said in response to a question, “Do you think that the immigration rates to Australia are too high, about right or too low?” 40% said that they were too high in 2017, and that shot up to 54% in 2018. Now a 14 point rise in one year is something we consider quite dramatic.

Alex Oliver:                   We then of course asked the same question in 2019 and we found that that response had moderated. It had then dropped seven points in one year. Now, we changed methodology in the middle there, where we shifted from a 50/50 panel online and telephone to a completely online panel. That may have had something to do with it, but I suspect not all to do with it, because we had had that spike and then a moderation, in that second result there, where 47% of Australians say that our levels of immigration are too high, is still significantly higher than the 40%, so seven points higher than the same people we said that in 2017 and 10 points higher than when we asked the question in 2014.

Alex Oliver:                   So there does seem to be some underlying rise in sentiment against high levels of immigration, but not as dramatic as we might have thought last year. Now, the sort of things that we were talking about last year when we polled that in 2018, where we’re talking about house prices, we were talking about Chinese investment in residential real-estate, a question we’d asked the year before and we’ve got very strong responses on that. We’re talking about congestion and crowded cities and urban overcrowding and all those sort of things. There was a lot of conversation about it, and it seemed that the respondents might have been responding to that sort of debate that was happening in front of them.

Alex Oliver:                   That debate seems to have eased as house prices, as we all know, came off the boil. But there is still a conversation, very much a conversation about congestion and lack of infrastructure and urban crowding and that sort of thing, so I think that is what is driving this concern about immigration, is that Australia can’t sustain those high levels of immigration, unless we have some really positive, strong policy responses that address overcrowding in our cities.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting isn’t it that what’s essentially an urban planning question, capacity around roads, rail et cetera, has a sort of a dimension that’s related to foreign policy or immigration, but I mean, do you have a sense of how much of it relates to …? You know, because often people say, well it’s an economic scarcity argument or it’s a cultural backlash or it’s a racism question. I mean, Australia has a rather vexed sort of background relating to immigration, particularly with the White Australia policy. It’s very difficult to get to the bottom of what is truly driving that question. I mean, you seem to be saying congestion, but could it be those other things as well?

Alex Oliver:                   Well, we have asked the question. We’ve asked it a couple of times, about a range of aspects of the immigration question to try and find out what might be driving attitudes towards the rate of immigration, but overall, we get overwhelmingly positive responses on the idea of immigration. That it makes the country stronger, that it’s good for the economy, we get very low responses on things like, “Immigrants are a burden on social welfare systems”, or “They take away jobs from other Australians.” That they respond to the idea of sort of a cultural mix making Australia a stronger place. So as far as we can tell from our polling consistently over the last few years, is that generally attitudes towards immigration are very positive. That the problem is not immigration per se, the problem is the rate of immigration and that’s why I came back to overcrowding and lack of infrastructure.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting, because one of the other things that people that talk about these issues, discuss them, is that there seems to be a correlation between, and certainly a thing at 2010 and 2013 elections, around the question of refugees and control of migration. Now Australia has relatively settled that political debate, but you’re seeing this backlash of nativism in Europe. It seems to have correlated with a sharp up tick in refugees out of the Syrian crisis. Is there a link between those things? Between control of migration, refugees and immigration at all? Or-

Alex Oliver:                   Well, I don’t know-

Misha Zelinsky:             … is it hard to know?

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             I appreciate that you’re correlations, not causation et cetera-

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

Misha Zelinsky:             … but I’m just curious.

Alex Oliver:                   I mean John Howard always used to say that unless you have control over your borders, you won’t have any confidence in your immigration program. From what I can see, that’s probably right, in the sort of results that we get from the questions we ask about immigration. I mean, obviously the refugee flows in Europe are nothing like the refugee flows we get to Australia, so we’re talking about magnitudes, orders of difference. But I think he was right to say that if we don’t have that, in the coalition sense, that control over the borders, then that does undermine confidence in a strong immigration program. His expression of a view, which I think probably resonates with the Australia public based on those sort of results.

Misha Zelinsky:             And John Howard, not to speak for John Howard, or advocate for him, but he of course, said that by being tough, some would say too tough on refugees, that Australia was able to sustain a large intake of permanent migrants and skilled migrants. So it’s an interesting nexus there. That-

Alex Oliver:                   We’ve asked a number of questions about offshore processing and about the treatment of asylum seekers. We noticed a softening of attitudes. We got very, very strong responses to Operation Sovereign Borders around the time of the Abbott government’s election, sort of just after say in our 2014 polls.

Misha Zelinsky:             That “Stop the boats” rhetoric?

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah. “Turn back the boats when safe to do so”, the idea of protecting Australia’s sovereignty, that was a strongly favorable policy. 70% of Australians agreed with that. Where there is much more division is on the idea of offshore processing about never allowing asylum seekers to come onshore regardless of their refugee status. Those policies were much more polarizing. Temporary protection visas, going back through the years, we’ve asked a dozen questions at least on this and there was much more division about that.

Alex Oliver:                   What there was a strong response was on the idea of turning back boats and I’m pretty sure we used the expression Operation Sovereign Borders and I think that was a clever piece of policy naming because it really seemed to resonate with the people we asked that question to.

Misha Zelinsky:             You might accuse the Liberal party of polling their policies but … So just turning to the third big trend you talked about, which is the relationship with China and I thought that this really stood in the last poll, in the 2019 poll. Was the way the Australian public perceives the relationship with the Chinese government and how China it acting in the region. I was curious about, do you think that Australians are somewhat ahead of the political class in this? Because it was interesting that big shift that we saw in those numbers, maybe you can explain that?

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah, this was a really interesting year to be asking questions about China. We’ve asked questions about China since 2005, but this year we really noticed a shift. So in the past I wouldn’t have characterized Australian’s relationship with China, not the government’s relationship with China, but the Australian people’s relationship, as a little bit bipolar. So on one side of that center line, the strongly positive responses, really strongly positive responses on the Chinese people, its history and culture and China’s economic performance.

Alex Oliver:                   On the other side, and very strongly negative responses, so you’re really seeing that sort of polarization of attitudes, were on things like China’s political system, its record on climate policy, and I think that relates to actually just its sheer size and the fact that it’s a big emitter, even if it’s not per capita. The strongest negative response is on China’s human rights record. In the mix there also, is a little bit of anti-Chinese foreign investment in Australia.

Alex Oliver:                   What we’ve noticed this year is that there are some real subtleties starting to emerge. We asked a couple of years ago for the first time, about foreign interference and this was about the time when the first political scandal emerged about Chinese attempts to influence, operators, businessmen attempts to influence through political donations and through their own networking, the attitudes and stances of Australian politicians. It was front page news and there were ABC documentaries about it and it was a very prominent debate, and yet when we asked that question, we found that in the hierarchy of things that Australians were concerned about as a threat to our vital interests, it came very low down in the list. And in fact when we asked the question first, we asked about foreign influence from China and we also asked about foreign influence from the United States.

Alex Oliver:                   Now in the context, where nobody was talking about America’s foreign influence in Australia at the time, and they were obviously talking about influence from Chinese businessmen and the Chinese government, that was a pretty weird response, that the reaction was about the same. It was, “I don’t like the idea about foreign interference, but I’m not really sure where it’s coming from.” Two years later, we find that around 50% of Australians think that foreign interference in Australian politics is a threat to our vital interests, but overlaid on that, a whole lot of other really equivocal if not very negative responses on things like foreign technology, which was obviously a question geared to the Huawei issue and the way that the government has responded to that.

Alex Oliver:                   When we asked about whether in considering such an issue of bringing sophisticated technology to Australia, “Should you be most concerned about protecting Australians from foreign state intrusion, or bringing the most sophisticated technology to Australia, or whether cost to the consumer is the most important priority?” The highest response there, with nearly half of Australians saying that the most important thing is to protecting Australians from foreign state intrusion. So it’s not about costs, and it’s not about technology, it’s really about the idea that there is some sort of threat to our sovereignty and our freedoms if we are to allow a foreign company like that to come in and potentially undermine our security.

Alex Oliver:                   We also see some strong concerns about the Pacific and China’s increasing presence and influence in the Pacific, where 73% said that Australia should try to prevent China from increasing its influence in the Pacific. That China’s infrastructure projects, so that’s the Belt and Road initiative, where China is building these big infrastructure projects across Asia and more broadly, and nearly 8 in 10 Australians said that those infrastructure projects are part of its plan for regional domination.

Alex Oliver:                   Then I think the final one was, a question about Australia’s economic relationship with China and this was very striking, because in the past, there have been some clear results that suggest that Australians see China as having been very positive economically for us, that it has been the reason why Australia has avoided a recession through the Global Financial Crisis and that the Chinese economic story was a positive one, whenever we’ve asked about it.

Alex Oliver:                   But, this year we asked about Australia’s economic dependence on China and we’re finding 8 in 10 Australians who say that we’re too economically dependent on China. The economic story has shifted from being a positive story, and a very positive story to being quite a negative factor in the relationship. Then of course, finally, human rights. There’s been a lot of discussion about the Uyghurs internment camps, reeducation, and then-

Misha Zelinsky:             And the Hong Kong situation?

Alex Oliver:                   … now, the Hong Kong situation, but that’s actually emerged post our policies.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s interesting. Could we even [crosstalk 00:42:30].

Alex Oliver:                   But I suspect if we asked the same question about Australia doing more to protect human rights in China, we will get an even stronger response on that post-Hong Kong.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think what was interesting, and you’ve sort of taken us through a great tour of the numbers, but the one that stood out to me was that nearly the same amount of people that said that Chinese investment in the BRI was a part of regional domination, nearly the same number said that Australia should do more to resist China’s military activities in our region, even if this affects our economic relationships. That’s quite interesting that security, and the sense of the Chinese Communist Party’s intentions in the region are being viewed with a lot of suspicion. I think a lot of people maybe underestimate how sophisticated the Australian public are in viewing the behaviors of the Chinese Communist Party and the Xi regime. Would that be a fair thing to say do you think?

Alex Oliver:                   Yes, and I often say that when people talk to me about polls, and they’d say, “Well, do Australians really care about this stuff? This is all very complicated.” One year we asked them about freedom of navigation operations, and we got a 75% response saying, “Yes, we should be conducting freedom of navigation operations.” So I say, underestimate the Australian voter at your peril, because while they may not devote a huge amount of time thinking about it, when they do think about it, and they’re asked questions about it, they respond with some sophistication.

Alex Oliver:                   You’ve raised a point that was a result that I didn’t mention, but it’s exactly in the same lines as the ones that are concerned about Belt and Road, who are concerned increasing China’s influence in the Pacific and who are concerned about Australia’s economic independence, is yes, that its military presence in the region is of concern and that we should be doing something to stop that, even if that’s going to involve some economic hit to Australia and that’s of course new.

Alex Oliver:                   The concern of the business community and industry in Australia and any exporter, is that if Australia sticks its head above the parapet, and responds to China’s moves in any sort of … In a way that China would read as aggressive or interfering, is what is going to be the blow back?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s right, yeah.

Alex Oliver:                   The retribution on Australian business. So will there be more coal held up in Chinese ports? More wines stuck on Chinese ports, unable to get to its markets.

Misha Zelinsky:             And fewer students being sent here-

Alex Oliver:                   Fewer students being sent here. I think that’s our third-largest export, foreign students, so we’re at a point where there are some very serious tensions between what we do in a policy sense towards China and how that impacts on our economic relationship. Two years ago I would have said Australians would have said, at almost all costs, the economic relationship must be preserved. 8 in 10 Australians say it’s possible to have a good relationship with China and a good relationship with the United States at the same time. Any sort of question like that, they’ve always leaned very strongly. They would have said, a year ago in fact, when we asked a question about whether it’s the economic relationship, or the military threat from China was the biggest factor, most people would say, 75% of Australians would say, China is more of an economic partner than a military threat.

Alex Oliver:                   I think that’s changed, and I think that will be interesting for the government to weigh into its policy settings, when it starts considering this balance of having the cake and eating it too, and just how much will we allow China to make those incursions on our sovereignty and constrain our freedom of expression and choice in relation to these issues.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting the way that Australians seem to have responded to the concept of a foreign power interfering in our way of life here, and I think that that seems to have manifested in the numbers. One of the things I’d be curious about, you’ve talked about the Chinese relationship. I suppose the other side of the coin is the US relationship. At the beginning there, we talked about the negative views of the US president at the time, and US foreign policy, the Bush administration, 2005. How much has the Trump administration undermined the perception and prestige of the United States in the Australian mindset? It’s something that I think is a challenge for the United States in that context.

Alex Oliver:                   It is, and they’re obviously very concerned about the numbers coming out of Australia, including our own public opinion work, which shows that the American president is actually less trusted than the Chinese president. With only 25% of Australians saying that they have confidence in Donald Trump to do the right thing regarding world affairs, whereas 30% will say that about Xi Jinping, which is interesting, but when you look at the picture overall, Australians seem to be able to separate out their views about an individual who is sitting in the oval office from the relationship as a whole.

Alex Oliver:                   When you look at the relationship as a whole, well we can look back 100 years, but I’ll confine that to the 15 years we’ve been taking public opinion polls, overall, never fewer than 90% of Australians have said that the alliance is important for Australia’s security. Overall, attitudes towards America on our feelings thermometer, where we measure feelings on a scale of 0 to 100, so 100 is warm and 0 is freezing, never have feelings towards the United States fallen below 60 degrees.

Alex Oliver:                   This year the gap between the United States and China are on that thermometer, which is a basic question, but really quite revealing, the gap there is around 15 points, so the warmth towards the United States, despite the fact that we have two very unpopular presidents, or one very unpopular president and one president that Australians might be slightly scared of in Xi Jinping, the relationship between the United States and Australia operates on many different levels and not just about the interpersonal relationship between our prime minister and their president or the character of their president.

Alex Oliver:                   So it has weathered those changes in presidents, yes President Obama was very popular here and yes, the relationship with America generally warmed during those Obama years, and it was warmer than it was during the waning years of the Bush presidency. The Iraq war was an unpopular policy. Here in Australia, we wearied of our engagements in the Middle East and the American relationship and our feelings towards it took a hit, but never severely and never to the point where we felt less of it than we did of China, our other major partner. So I guess we are at a bit of a delicate balancing point in the relationship in that at some point where our relationship has been grounded in similar values, and we know that Australians have responded to that sort of question when we ask about what underpins attitudes towards the United States.

Alex Oliver:                   It’s not just the idea that they’re our security guarantor, or that they’re going to come to the defense of Australia, but that we have similar histories, we’ve been involved in wars together, that we have similar values and political systems, we are like-minded in many more ways obviously than we are with the Chinese. The question I guess is, if Australians start to perceive the values of America as diverging too far from ours, will we start seeing that relationship falter? At the moment, I don’t see any evidence of it. At the moment, I think there’s an unpopular president, well he’s unpopular here anyway, and that-

Misha Zelinsky:             His popularity hasn’t gone above 50% of the US either, but, on approval, but …

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah, Republicans love him though, 90% of them say he’s doing a good job.

Misha Zelinsky:             Indeed.

Alex Oliver:                   But at the moment, the relationship is solid. There a bit of a difference in generational attitudes towards the United States, so younger people are less favorable towards it and older people are much more favorable towards it, but the young are not negative towards it, so that’s an important point. The other important point is that it’s quite a non-partisan relationship as well, in that if you look at the responses from people who identify as Greens, who identify as Labor, who identify as One Nation, Liberal, National, across all of that political spectrum, the results are still positive towards the United States. So it’s not a particularly partisan relationship.

Alex Oliver:                   We see that, and in that we see both Labor and Liberal spokespersons on foreign policy talking about the US alliance as the bedrock of our foreign policy, so around the bedrock of, the foundation of Australia’s security.

Misha Zelinsky:             One thing I saw in the poll and I’m curious to get your take on this. It was the perceptions of how much of Australia’s budget is made up by foreign aid spending and what does that tell us about the way Australians perceive foreign aid? Is it possible that it might shift over time as we see these threats emerging in things like the Pacific or in our neighborhood? Australians have identified, I think 55% have said they’re very afraid of a Chinese base being built in the Pacific, in our region and it was reported that they had contemplated doing that via the BRI in Vanuatu. So the perceptions of foreign aid and cutting things like the Australia network, how can those attitudes … Do you think they’ll shift over time? How can policy makers convince Australians of the need to be more invested in our region? A big question.

Alex Oliver:                   Well there’s a couple of questions. You’ve got a couple of points here to your question, which is a tricky one and that is, if you ask Australians about the proportion of budgets that is spent on foreign aid, they will grossly overestimate it. But that’s unsurprising because nobody knows how the budget is cut up. The government is not particularly transparent about the way that it cuts it up. There’s a pie chart every year in the budget papers, well who looks at that?

Misha Zelinsky:             Joe Hockey looks at it I think, but that’s it.

Alex Oliver:                   Apart from the bureaucrats, and obviously the expenditure review committee or whatever goes into making up a budget every year, what a nightmare. I’m not surprised that Australians get that wrong. They do think we’re more generous though than they think we should be, so on average in 2018, the average response when you ask them what they think is spent on foreign aid, they’ll say 14% of the budget. When you ask them what they think should be spent on foreign aid, they say 10% of the budget. So they actually think that we’re being a bit more generous than we should be, even though the numbers are completely wrong. The actual amount that Australia spends on aid is less than 1% of the budget, so they’re wrong by a factor if 10 at least.

Alex Oliver:                   The other question is, do they actually characterize support for the Pacific as foreign aid? I think it’s the way that you talk about it. If you just say foreign aid, they’ll say, “We’re giving money to starving people in Africa”, or whatever it is, drought relief in some other country. Once you make it very specific and you say, “We want to help the people in our region to do better in life, to give them better development outcomes, to support them to become stronger countries”, then I think you get a much more positive response.

Alex Oliver:                   Whenever we’ve asked, and this is before the Pacific step up of the current government, whenever we’ve asked about Australia’s responsibility towards the Pacific, we always get a very strong response, as in 8 out of 10 Australians say that we have a moral obligation towards the Pacific. If you talk about specific obligations with aid and whether we should be spending money to help our nearest neighbors, you’ll get a very positive response. I think the step up has obviously made a difference and I think the idea of a potential Chinese encroachment into, and I say, a port in Vanuatu or in PNG or some other Pacific nation, then it starts to get more pressing, but I think Australians generally feel generous towards the Pacific, even if they don’t feel generous more generally with respect to aid.

Misha Zelinsky:             So it’s the context right? I mean, take for example-

Alex Oliver:                   I think it is the context and I think that governments focus on the Pacific and on our near region in terms of spending our development dollars-

Misha Zelinsky:             Because that feels tangential and you know?

Alex Oliver:                   … is something that will be much more present, pressing, relevant for the Australian public, than spending it … dispersing it more broadly across the globe.

Misha Zelinsky:             So we just sort of for the tape, we just knocked over a bottle of water, but everything’s fine, everything’s fine. So on that, I know you’ve spoken about this in the past, but how important is something like the Australia network in the role that you play in that soft power part? The American government for example is very concerned with the soft power it projects. The Chinese government is very concerned about the soft power and it’s united front work, the way it projects itself. I mean are we doing enough to forward project our soft, benefits of Australian way of life and values in our region?

Alex Oliver:                   Well, no. We don’t have a huge amount of public opinion data on this. I did ask the question, I think it was back in 2011 before I was running the poll, and my colleague Fergus Hansen was drafting the questions and I said, “Can you please ask a question about public diplomacy and international broadcasting?” And the response was very positive. It’s hard to disagree that we should be projecting a positive presence of Australia abroad, but again, it comes down to budgets and priorities and this government has not prioritized Australia’s international broadcasting. That’s a completely different and very complicated story.

Alex Oliver:                   We’ll be releasing a paper on it actually later this year. We did a big study on it in 2010 and we’re now updating that, looking at how the countries as you mentioned, who really do prioritize their public diplomacy and their international broadcasting as a way of communicating their soft power to other countries around the world in the idea that that will warm them to us and it will make it easier for us to get the thing done that we need to and to build international constituencies for policies that are favorable towards us.

Alex Oliver:                   I mean I think it’s a non-brainer, it’s not that expensive, it’s an incredibly cost-effective way to reach large audiences, and the fact that we have not even been able to do that in the Pacific, and that we’ve cut the budgets. Having cut the Australia network, which was a program that was funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs, that was cut by the Abbott government and now the ABC’s international division has been disbanded and its budgets for international broadcasting cut even further to the point where we don’t even broadcast shortwave into the Pacific anymore for vast parts of the Pacific, which can’t receive any other forms of communication, that certainly don’t have effective broadband connections, is kind of a travesty to me. But that’s my personal view.

Alex Oliver:                   I think that we should be doing much more to project Australia’s values, way of life, political system, democratic ideals around the region. If this is what everybody else is doing, it’s what China is doing, it’s what America is doing, and we need to be part of that story, particularly in our region, obviously particularly in the Pacific. So I have torn my hair out, I actually do still have some hair, but … over the last decade about this. This really difficult policy issue, but really, it shouldn’t be that hard.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, because if we don’t do it, someone else will, right? There’ll be a vacuum that will be filled by another country no doubt.

Alex Oliver:                   Well that’s what the issue has been with the dropping of our shortwave frequencies. We had shortwave frequencies where we broadcast in many languages actually, eight languages, into the Pacific as soon as just about five or six years ago, and now we broadcast in two languages, Tok Pisin and Australian and we don’t broadcast in shortwave anymore. The risk always was that all of the countries, and some other countries, not just us, are dropping their shortwave frequencies and opting for cheaper FM and long-line “broadcasting”, that China would pick up those frequencies, and China has been picking up those frequencies. There’s actually no evidence that they’ve picked up our frequency to broadcast into the Pacific. We haven’t seen any evidence of that. They’ve certainly picked up the frequency, what they’re using it and where they’re broadcasting it to is another question. But yes, of course, that is the risk.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, the next question I want to ask you about, and I know you’ve spoken about this publicly, but the question of gender balance in foreign affairs, it’s a, dare I say it, a very blokey world? It still remains that, of course, we had our most recent first ever female foreign minister Julie Bishop and now we have another one, Marise Payne, but that’s the first two ever in very near time. Now how do we get more gender balance in foreign affairs, but also, how do we encourage young women, young girls, to get more interested in it at an early age, and build that pipeline?

Alex Oliver:                   Very good question. We released a paper on this, which was a three year study that dredged up all this data, which is not particularly easy to find, from intelligence agencies, defense agencies, foreign affairs. We did some comparisons with other countries, and we found out that overall, Australia is neither particularly better nor particularly worse than any of its international counterparts. If you look at America and the United Kingdom, Canada, we might be marginally worse than a couple of them, it’s not dramatic.

Alex Oliver:                   But yes, the overall picture is that this is a sector of Australian society that is blokey, it’s male. About two thirds for example, of appointments to ambassadors positions, our ambassadors abroad, are male and Australia has never appointed a female ambassador or high commissioner who’s the equivalent in the Commonwealth countries to the United States, United Kingdom, Indonesia, Japan and Thailand. The exception was China.

Alex Oliver:                   Part of this problem is political appointments. We also have a very blokey politics and so when you’re looking at appointing a plum political position to one of your political mates, then it’s more likely to be a male than a female, because there’s just simply more. So it’s sort of a vicious cycle.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, one begets the other, sort of thing, yeah okay.

Alex Oliver:                   So that has a real impact. The male political appointments has real impact on the gender balance of our ambassadorial makeup and Department of Foreign Affairs, with its professional appointments, so professional diplomats, has been doing its level best to get a better gender balance, but it’s kind of hobbled by these political appointments. But there are other parts of the sector, which still need a lot of work. The intelligence sector is dramatically male. Security clearances could be part of that. We did look in detail at security clearances. If you’re going to work for an intelligence agency or the Defense Department in a classified kind of role where security clearances are necessary, there was a clear correlation between the higher security clearance and the number of, and the proportion of males and females. It may be that women are kind of put off by the whole security clearance process, which can be quite invasive. Once you actually got into the process, we didn’t find any gender imbalance in whether you were awarded, whether a male or a female was awarded a clearance once they were in the process. But that might be a deterrent factor.

Alex Oliver:                   I think more broadly the sort of things that you see across all sectors of society in the male female imbalance, if you’re looking at accountants or lawyers or other professionals where males dominate, you find the females dominate at the graduate level, you’ll get more women law graduates for example, coming in to work, that you will male graduates, but by the time you get up to the senior levels, you’ve lost half of the women, then you’ve only got a third of the leadership group being women. Some of that you can sheet home to families and family responsibilities, but some of it you can also sheet home to, it’s much more difficult for women to work and mange childcare and manage home responsibilities. They are the sort of things that are not unique to this sector, but really need to be looked at.

Alex Oliver:                   Networks, men are good at networking, it comes naturally. I’m making gross generalizations, but we did a survey on this, we got about 600 or 700 responses, and that was a consistent theme was that, male networks are effective, women are not as good at leveraging those. That suggests that there’s an opportunity for better mentoring programs, for coaching through the promotion processes. How do you apply for a promotion? How do you perform in an interview or a promotion round? Looking at the way that you measure merit.

Alex Oliver:                   Now merit is one of those things that some are constantly harping on about, while we always … We rely on merit as if that is some sort of gold standard. Without acknowledging that built-in to the concept of merit, is a whole lot of and potentially biased measurements of what actually good performance is. Is good performance presenteeism, is good performance going out for a lot of networking lunches or bringing in potentially lots of new clients when, in fact, it might have been a lot of the background work that made that happen. It might have been a lot of the work at home, if you were able to work flexibly, that you weren’t able to be physically present.

Alex Oliver:                   The idea of merit can be quite a loaded concept, and we should be aware of that when we say that we promote on the basis of merit. The other thing is, and particularly for this sector, is overseas placements. So it’s very important if you’re working in this sector, to get an overseas posting. So if you’re a diplomat or a defense expert, or somebody who, like me, works in foreign policy in a think tank or in an academic institution, then it’s really important for your career that you go abroad.

Alex Oliver:                   There are all sorts of misperceptions about whether women, like me, with children, would actually want to go abroad and sometimes they’re just simply overlooked and discounted for those sort of placements. Or they are told that, you wouldn’t want to do that, or you couldn’t do that or it’s a six month placement or it’s a three year placement or whatever. We get quite a lot of feedback about those sort of misperceptions of females motivations, in terms of overseas placements. They were just a few of the things that we were looking at in ways to address this very obvious imbalance.

Alex Oliver:                   Then finally, transparency. A lot of this data was very hard to find. One of the reasons why we spent so long on it, was we got really stuck on digging out some of the data. It’s there, but it’s hard to find and sometimes, particularly across the intelligence sector, it’s quite secret and you have to ask for it. Now if the data is public, then the issue is in the spotlight and there’s a continual pressure to maintain and to keep working on, you know, continuing to work on your gender balance. If the data is secret, well there’s no pressure at all. So I think one of the most simple steps is actually to make this data public.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, that’s a lot of good lessons there. Now, just to round things off, we’ll pivot to, seamlessly as I always do, to the final question I ask all my audience members. I’m quite eager to hear your answer to this. So a barbecue at Alex’s place, three foreign guests, alive or dead, who would they be and why?

Alex Oliver:                   Oh, well you didn’t say alive or dead. Well, that’s a whole different question.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh well, alive, then it might be more interesting!

Alex Oliver:                   Let’s just focus on the live ones. Well, because you know, I like having friends at a barbecue.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, you do.

Alex Oliver:                   And I would never have described myself as a good networker, so my first person would be Mana Rawlings, who was the UK high commissioner here for a few years, she left last year. She’s a great girl. She became a friend while she was here. She was a fantastic ambassador for the United Kingdom or high commissioner, as they’re called. She’s now what we would call a deputy secretary level. They called her director general at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, so very senior in the role. She’s got responsibility for Asia Pacific, The Americas, whole parts of Asia and global Britain and of course that’s a very-

Misha Zelinsky:             A tough portfolio.

Alex Oliver:                   … that’s a very tough portfolio in the context of Brexit, but I admired her enormously, apart from the fact that she was very good fun. She was such a valiant promoter and defender of Britain, even in the face of a very contorted and convoluted and complicated and at times, shocking Brexit process, which she was here as high commissioner. That, she would be a great person to have around, particularly around about the time of the Brexit vote, to get her interpretation of it all.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

Alex Oliver:                   I’m going through a bit of a spy frenzy at the moment. I seem to be reading a lot of spy novels and watching a lot of spy TV, The Bureau, was the last one, the French one, and I’m currently reading a book called, The Spy and the Traitor, by Ben Macintyre.

Misha Zelinsky:             A great book.

Alex Oliver:                   You read it?

Misha Zelinsky:             Yes.

Alex Oliver:                   I’m about a third of the way through it. It’s absolutely fascinating. Oleg Gordievsky I assume that’s how you pronounce it, was a Russian-

Misha Zelinsky:             Defector.

Alex Oliver:                   … KGB colonel who defected to the United Kingdom, but he was a double-agent for Mi6 on behalf of the British for a whole decade. He’s now 81, and I would kill to sit down and have a conversation with him. He sounds like an absolute character.

Misha Zelinsky:             A fascinating story, yeah.

Alex Oliver:                   I don’t know, that’s a tough one with the rest. I met only once, briefly, but would love to get together with her again, Kelly Magsamen, who’s the vice president of national security and international policy at The Center for American Progress, which is sort of a fellow think tank in America. She’s a real dynamo, she doesn’t mince words, and I would love to have a chance to sit down and have a drink and a good chat with her. Pete Buttigieg.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah Pete.

Alex Oliver:                   I’m intrigued at how a mayor of a small town in Indiana South Bend, runs for president. The youngest-

Misha Zelinsky:             A 37 no less-

Alex Oliver:                   … mayor of a US city with at least 100,000 residents, which is not very big. But, supremely qualified, Harvard, Oxford, Rhodes Scholar, McKinsey, intelligence officer, having served for I think for seven months abroad. I think that would be a fascinating chat too.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, I tell you, so we would have an ambassador, a KGB spy, the head of a think tank, and a presidential candidate and then-

Alex Oliver:                   Pretty good huh?

Misha Zelinsky:             … all at a pollster’s house.

Alex Oliver:                   And all alive.

Misha Zelinsky:             At a pollster’s house, so it’s almost like you feel like as though, there’s a good focus group there, but look thank you so much for joining us Alex. It’s been a fantastic chat and I hope everyone’s learned just as much as I did.

Alex Oliver:                   Good luck with the editing. Thanks Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             Thanks.