Chinese Communist Party

Richard McGregor: The war within the war on COVID-19

Richard McGregor is an internationally recognized expert on the Chinese political system and a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute.

McGregor’s book, The Party, on the inner-workings of the Chinese Communist Party is considered the pre-eminent text for understanding the CCP and was called a “masterpiece” by The Economist and a must read” by the Washington Post.

A former Bureau Chief for the Financial Times in Beijing and Washington D.C., Richard has been published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. He is also a regular commentator on the ABC, CNBC and Bloomberg TV.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about the COVID-19 crisis and what this means for the world, including the escalated US-China rivalry and who is winning, how Xi Jinping is using the crisis to his advantage, how fake news is making the problems worse in the west, how democracies are struggling under the weight of the challenge and losing soft power, the pivotal battle underway in the pacific and why its critical we engage the Chinese diaspora in western values.

Episode Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Welcome to Diplomates I’m your host, Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Richard McGregor. Richard, are you there?

Richard McGregor:

I’m here. Thanks for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Thanks for joining us. Of course, we’re doing this live from both of our socially distant bunkers, vice the beauty of Skype, which everyone’s now very acquainted with over the last couple of weeks working from home, those who are. But thanks for joining us and obviously your expertise is in foreign policy and in particular the Chinese communist party. But given we had been talking about all things COVID, I thought an interesting place to start. You’re an expert in the CCP and you’ve written a book about the workings of the party. What does the handling of the virus tell us about the way the party does or does not function? And how did that impact on the, I suppose early stages of the outbreak in the Wuhan province.

Richard McGregor:

Well let me start at what might sound like an old place. But there’s a phrase in the US politics, it’s called the permanent campaign and that comes from the late 60s when politics basically got out of the old ways and old boroughs and things like that. Got into the hands of professionals and politics became a permanent occupation. Parties were running for election permanently in many respects. And I think that’s a good way to explain how the communist party in China works. And it’s one reason by the way, that why Western countries struggle to keep up with it. They are like a political organization running for election 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. And so they’ve got remarkable skills and faults. We’ll come back to that as a result of that. So look at the COVID crisis is a bit of a classic case.

Richard McGregor:

The start of this, China mishandled it, however you want to put it. They lied. It was the virus in its early stage was covered up. This is not just Western propaganda, it’s all on the record in China. The outbreak and the spread of the virus would not have been nearly as bad in China and then to the rest of the world if it hadn’t been covered up in Wuhan initially. But look what happened, once they acknowledged it. They basically locked down first a city of 11 million people, Wuhan. Then they locked down a province of about 50 million people in Hubei. And after that they locked down the country.

Richard McGregor:

One of the funny things about this is, we’ve all come to know a lot of epidemiologists on TV and radio and the like, and they’ve become household names and none of them said, quarantining the source of the disease is basically a textbook way to handle it. But I guess, the textbook didn’t quite envisage quarantining about 760 million people, which was probably had the idea of a medieval village in France, but the CCP had the capacity to do it.

 

 

Richard McGregor:

Because they don’t just have a strong central government when they get their act together, they were able to exercise their power right down to every neighborhood committee and street and keep people indoors. So that’s state in genuine power state capacity. The second point on this is look how quickly they’re able to turn on a dime. We can come back to the issue about whether the latest Chinese figures are right on that, but once the Chinese got the spread of the disease under control and there were much fewer new infections.

Richard McGregor:

It is just amazing to me how quickly they turned on a dime and then their focus was outward propaganda. In other words, we want to tell the world not how we covered up the virus, but how we beat the virus. And we are now in this process now where China is running an incredible global campaign as a good global citizen to underpin public health. And you can only do that if you’ve got a political organization which is both top-heavy but flexible and fleet of foot, not bound by any law, can turn on a dime and that’s what we’re witnessing at the moment. So that’s what I mean by the sort of the permanent campaign.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Now that’s actually a perfect way to turn to I suppose the war within the war. I mean, we’ve got the war against the virus itself, but there’s this I suppose the contest that’s underway and it’s perhaps another front for a contest that’s already been underway between the United States and China. Do you think that this is going to be a decisive battle between the U.S and China or is this just a skirmish of a broader play? Because there’s a real big focus now in the United States about blaming China, then China is now of course putting out misinformation suggesting that the disease came from the United States military. How do you see that war within the war at the moment between two superpowers?

Richard McGregor:

Now I think just about everything is a contest between the U.S and China in many respects. There’s very little cooperation at all and it’s not just a contest between two countries, it’s a contest between two systems. Because China benchmarks itself against democracies, for its own citizens it demonizes democratic system. What’s the most important democratic system in the world? And that’s the United States which sadly at the moment it’s doing very poorly in handling this crisis. Now, as you and I know there’s many different democracies and there’s many different types of democracies.

Richard McGregor:

And many democracies in the world Taiwan, South Korea, Japan to some extent, Singapore, which we might call a guided democracy. Maybe Australia we’ll see how we go there have handled this crisis in a very different fashion and relatively speaking, touch wood successfully. Not the U.S though, so China is focused on the U.S. Both sides have stepped back a little from the rhetorical war, but it was only about two weeks ago that an official Chinese foreign ministry spokesman as you alluded to, started tweeting out that this virus had probably not originated in China but it had probably been bought to China by a U.S military serviceman, a woman actually.

Richard McGregor:

There’s no basis to this, it’s the product of fettered conspiracy sites, one in Canada, some in America, all around the world. And this was quite a remarkable thing for the foreign ministry to do. Now I think there’s been a split in China within the foreign ministry over these tactics. But nonetheless, the fact that an official foreign ministry spokesman was authorized to do this tells you that the system in China is hardening up against the U.S. They wouldn’t have done this 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have done it five years ago but they are feeling pretty confident now and pretty involved in and pretty assertive and aggressive all under Xi Jinping. And so they are willing to take on the U.S in any form possible and that includes spreading fake news almost from the very top of the system.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I’m curious just to dig into that about this total campaign or this information war by China and the Chinese Communist Party. I mean, one of the things that I think the difficulty there is that the system tended to reward, or at least at the beginning was that misinformation or managing perceptions rather than truth. Where people in Wuhan doctors were arrested and journalists were arrested for reporting on it almost at the beginning for political reasons. I mean, is it possible do you think that China is going to be able to position itself as a savior globally, and can we really believe the narratives of the infection rates, the mortality rates out of China? And is that something that’s going to be effective for them?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah. Well the jury is still out on that. I would say not completely effective, but there might… I’d say two things. It might be more effective than we think or would like, and remember all this propaganda is also internally directed to the Chinese people themselves. The Chinese people have just gone through an absolutely brutal experience with a really tough quarantine. You think of yourself how much you might be sort of champing at the bit at the moment, after a few weeks-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I’m climbing the walls here mate.

Richard McGregor:

Well, right. You think of Wuhan you weren’t allowed out at all, if you were you were severely punished, people were dying all around you and like. So there’s been a lot of civil unrest in China since then at various different places, you can see it on the internet. They were for example, outside the provincial headquarters, sorry the city headquarters of party organization this week. There was a massive protest calling for rent relief, something that people in Australia are going to be sort of angst that they will be very familiar with very soon. So going back to the start as you alluded in Wuhan and the origins of this and whether that really undermines China’s claims to soft power.

Richard McGregor:

I mean, I think it does overseas but let’s see how it plays out. For example I think one of the major battlegrounds right now is Europe. We’ve got terrible situations in Spain and Italy to France and also the UK, and China has been making extremely high profile air lifts of masks and protective equipment and gowns and that sort of thing for the use of medical professionals. And this has really caused quite a stir. If you look at Macron, president Macron from France recently he’s had to make very statement saying well, “Look, we’ve given as much to other countries in Europe as China has, stop this propaganda.”

Richard McGregor:

So it might work in a superficial way at the start, but I think it really alerts the leaders of other country like Macron who’s been thinking deeply about China. That they’ve really got to wake up to themselves and just see the attention and focus of what China is doing and they have to respond. We’ve been through this same debate in Australia, so the coronavirus has been important in that respect. I should say one other thing though, that on the figures you mentioned. Look, the quarantine was brutal in China but there’s no doubt it worked to a degree. Now, is it true, as they were saying a week or two ago that there were no new cases in China? Obviously that’s not true.

Richard McGregor:

Is it true that the death rate in Wuhan was as low as they suggested a few thousand? I think there’s no doubt that under counts the death rate. But having said that, I treat the Chinese figures to a degree like I treat Chinese GDP figures. They’re not right to the decimal point, but they’re broadly right as to the trends because I think with the virus, it’s something you simply you can’t sort of cover up for good. And another way of judging it is an old thing with China, don’t watch what they say, watch what they do. Now Xi Jinping has been out and about, he was into Zhejiang yesterday the province near Shanghai. He’s been to Wuhan. There’s no way they would put Xi Jinping out in public unless they were pretty confident that they’d made massive progress in containing the virus.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. So just turning to Xi Jinping, your essay recently the backlash essay, you’ve written that Xi was under pressure internally and that perhaps China isn’t an unstoppable monolith that we sometimes perceive it to be. What to your knowledge has been the response in China by Chinese people? Are they buying the narrative from the government that things have been well handled by the Chinese Communist Party? And is this information war, you mentioned some of it’s being projected externally for soft power reasons to manipulate the global narrative, but a lot of it is for the domestic audience. How much is that of confidence as how much is that of fear in your mind?

Richard McGregor:

Yes, that’s a very good question and hard to be definitive in answering it. Before the coronavirus I had a very simple crude rule of thumb and emphasis on crude, and that was that the people, the citizenry liked Xi Jinping, the elite disliked him. Now why would I say that? Xi’s anti-corruption campaign is highly popular amongst people because that’s something that people have been angry about in China for a long time. Saying public officials get rich at their expense so bringing these people down works for him. The elite it’s a bit different. There’s a lot of criticism of him for his management of the economy, favoring the state over the private sector.

Richard McGregor:

You obviously upset a lot of powerful people with an anti-corruption campaign. Most of all I think the elite technocrats are absolutely furious with him about making himself president or leader in perpetuity, that was really the turning point. I don’t see at the moment, there’s no way at the moment Xi Jinping has his hands firmly on the levers of a power in every sector, nobody’s going to knock him off or anything that. It’s very hard to mobilize even elite opinion against him because you can’t. If you form a group to criticize him or a ginger group against him you’ll be shut down, you might be arrested and the like. Look at what’s happened in recent weeks after Wuhan.

Richard McGregor:

In the initial stages of the virus in Wuhan, we had an extraordinary display of public opinion on the internet criticizing the government, mourning the death of doctors who tried to speak out and like. Citizen journalists going around giving us fresh reports daily about what was happening on the ground. Well, that’s all stopped. The system’s got his act together, those citizen journalists are basically in detention. Other people who criticize Xi recently, most famously a big time Beijing property developer who was always a bit of a rat bag commentator but he was well-connected. He’s been detained.

Richard McGregor:

So anytime there’s any outbreak of criticism against Xi before it can take grip, before it can gain an audience at the top, before it can embolden people, he shuts it down and that’s what’s happening now. Whether the impact on Chinese people, people in China haven’t gone through a deep recession before, they probably about to go through one now. So we’ll see. The system will be tested but the propaganda system will also be working over time to convince people that they did the right thing with a lockdown. China did better than other countries, particularly America and they should stick with Xi and they should stick with the CCP.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah, that’s interesting. You sort of touched earlier on the contest between systems and that’s very much evident now. I mean, it was emerging before, but we’ve now got a full blown struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. And we talked about the limitations around why the authoritarian regime might’ve led to a cover up at the beginning, but the ability to turn on a dime as you said. I mean, what is the response to the crisis tell us about democracies struggling to get the balance right between I suppose, the repression of people and rights of individuals and the suppression of the illness?

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And the other thing I think is perhaps troubling people that are in favor of democracies as I am. When you look at the United States response to some other democracies in Europe, basic competence appears to be in question here. I mean when you look at the United States, a lot of their soft power came from being the country that put the man on the moon and being the global leader. They’re certainly not stepping up in a global leadership capacity, but also in basic competence capacity there’s certain question marks there.

Richard McGregor:

Well that’s right. When you let the state wither, and when you attack the state for decades, and when you load them up with all sorts of things that the bureaucracy in America is loaded up with by Congress, you undermine the effectiveness of the state. Whatever you say about China, they’ve got enormous state capacity. They can mobilize resources, they can mobilize people, they have a extraordinary ability, logistical ability to get suppliers here or there. That sort of thing has been corroded over many years in the U.S. We could go on about that about that tribal political culture. You’ve seen a bit of sclerotic democracies in Europe as well struggling at the same time.

Richard McGregor:

And this is all grist for the Chinese mill. I mean, the context for the Chinese is, the turning point of the Chinese confidence in their system compared to America was obviously first of all in the global financial crisis in 2008. The Americans had been coming over and lecturing the Chinese about how to run a modern financial system and the like. Then of course, we had the GFC and the Chinese saw okay, thanks America no more lectures from you on how to run banks and the like, we’ll do that ourselves. After that, that was the start of Chinese hubris after that under Obama and American made a bit of a comeback. You can criticize Obama, but the economy did start to recover and that Chinese notice that.

Richard McGregor:

I think this second point of Chinese hubris was the election of Donald Trump. The Chinese have always said we’re meritocracy and look you’ve just selected as your new president, a real estate celebrity developer from New York. So thanks very much, we’ll stick with our meritocracy. Now, I think that came off again because Trump in his initial stages really destabilize the Chinese, they didn’t know how to handle him. I think they got a better grip on him as of about last year. But now I think we’re getting maybe to a third point of Chinese hubris. In other words, if America really suffers and it looks they’re going to from this virus, both economically, societally and the like.

Richard McGregor:

All the holes in the health system, all the impact on poor people and the like in U.S. The way that the rich will be able to protect themselves in the U.S and poor people won’t. Well, that’s going to be another high point of Chinese hubris and this is at a time when compared to 2008, they’re a really powerful country. Their economy 2/3 the size America’s, their military I think they’ve got a bigger Navy these days than America’s, untested obviously. So we’re getting to a point where China will feel even more assertive and they’ll feel their able to be more assertive because the U.S more so than in 2008, will be really turning inward angrily. We hope not, but that’s the direction it’s heading in.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

And so just turning to you mentioned I suppose, China in the context of its military and forward projecting foreign policy. How worried should we be about the Pacific during the pandemic? I mean every country at the moment is grappling with the COVID-19 outbreak. We’ve gone through a big focus where we’ve done the Pacific step up because we took the view, we’d taken our eyes off the prize with our Pacific partners. And China had been doing a lot of soft power, a lot of debt diplomacy through it’s a belt and road initiative there. I mean, how worried are we generally right now about the Pacific? And should we be more worried about China’s activities there during the COVID-19 situation?

Richard McGregor:

Well, I think we’re worried about it. To be fair we are focused on it, whether we’ve got the capacity to remain competitive it remains to be seen. But let me give you one story. About three weeks ago I was actually in Papua New Guinea giving talks on China and the like and this was just when the situation was starting to turn in China, in other words they thought they were getting on top of the virus. And at that point the Chinese convened a teleconference with the entire cabinet of P and G and I think the Solomon Islands, to give them a talk about how to handle COVID-19. And I thought that was just remarkable. They were so fast, they’d barely drawn breath from battling back the virus and they’re on the front foot in this propaganda campaign.

Richard McGregor:

And it was obviously a global campaign because the Pacific Islands are important, but they’re not the biggest front for China’s global push. And there they were convening the entire cabinet and the Solomon Islands to in an exercise of what we might call soft power, teaching them about the virus. Now since then, for example Solomon Islands tests for the virus where were having to be sent to Australia. The Chinese said, “Oh, we’ll come and do them for you.” As a response to that, Australia has actually sent the Solomons their own test kits so that they can be done there. So, yeah there’s definitely a contest going on. In Port Moresby you can see Chinese construction sites everywhere, that they look just the construction sites I used to see Beijing.

Richard McGregor:

For good reason they’ve got the exact same signs outside them, the same companies, the same sort of safety signs in Chinese and bad English. And of course, Chinese workers were drawn and imported at the expense of the locals. I asked many of the Papua New Guinea friends up there why do you allow this? What about you’ve got massive underemployment in your country. And they said that well, the Chinese just insisted on it. So yeah, it’s a big contest in the Pacific and fundamental one for Australia. I think the federal government has done the right thing to focus on it. The problem with Australia I think often is we have excellent well-meaning policies, but then the execution falls away. And China isn’t going away from the Pacific so we’ve got to stick with it for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

No I think it’s absolutely critical, it’s one area hopefully that there’s bipartisan support. I mean the Pacific essentially is Australia’s geopolitical neighborhood so it’s something that we need to keep an eye on. I’m curious about your take on criticism of the CCP regime by those in the West. Clearly at the moment Donald Trump for the reasons we’ve already discussed, that Macron story but also he’s domestic political reasons he’s been calling COVID-19 coronavirus and calling it the China virus. I mean, where do you see the differences between criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, China as a nation state? What’s fair and what delves into racism? Because often you have a situation where the regime, the CCP very quickly come out and say any criticism amounts to racism. Which is clearly untrue, but where is the line there and how do we manage that when we’re looking at both our domestic politics but also geopolitically in this contest between democracy and autocracy?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, it’s a bloody hard question. In Australia, we have a very sort of racist history in Australia at the gimps, that’s obvious to anybody. We had an anti color bar in immigration till about ’65 or ’73 or however you decide to define it. Since then I think we’ve opened up remarkably and I’m sort of a glass half full on all this, but we’re being tested right now. I guess there’s two things to mention here. It’s very painful to see all the headlines in papers in Australia now about Chinese profiteers on masks and this, that and the other as though the only carpetbaggers in the world are Chinese and not of any other race or color.

Richard McGregor:

I have some sympathy for the Chinese companies in Australia, which sort of bought up all the masks and the PPE equipment in January and sent to China. Well, there was an emergency then, they’re now bringing it back here. I don’t know whether they’re price gouging or not, and if they are price gouging then something should be done about them. But it’s just seems a really easy, cheap, free kick in the tabloid and newspapers and maybe sort of you know prodded on from his sick bed by Peter Dutton. And I think we have to be really careful about that because we end up with people of Asian descent no matter where they’re from, being screamed at on the streets and the like and that’s bad all round.

Richard McGregor:

On the issue of the so called China virus, Chinese virus or Wuhan virus now look, I would never call it that and I don’t know whether it’s racist on not I mean. But I’m a little bit reluctant to allow the Chinese to play the victim card on this account. We have Japanese encephalitis, that’s what it’s called in Chinese newspapers. We had the Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome, We had Spanish flu, which by the way started in Kansas in America, not in Spain.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It is that right? That’s interesting.

Richard McGregor:

Yes it is. It was only sort of came up and was reported in Spain. But the WHO I think because the Japanese complained about Japanese encephalitis I think tried to encourage people as of a few years ago, not to attach geographical names to diseases and fair enough. I think. But it is funny or interesting I should say, not funny. If you look at Chinese papers from say five weeks ago The Global Times, some of the headlines there talked about the Wuhan virus. And guess what? They’ve gone back in recent weeks and changed the headlines on the online stories and they are no longer calling it the Wuhan virus.

Richard McGregor:

But personally, we should speak truthfully don’t shy away from the fact about where this started and the problems of the initial cover up. That’s all fair game, but trying to use this as some sort of political cajole as U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did recently at the G7 meeting. He wouldn’t agree to a communique until the word Wuhan virus was in there and of course there wasn’t a communique as a result. I think that’s pointless and not the main game and unnecessarily stigmatizing.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

So I mean, one of the things I think we’re grappling with here. I mean, traditionally people sending I suppose goods back to their homeland probably not an uncommon event in Australia’s history. The difference I suppose here is we’ve never had a situation where we’ve had an authoritarian regime which seeks to control its diaspora in other nations. So I mean, I’ll be curious to get your take on how worried we should be by CCP interference in Australia’s institutions, the United Works Front Department which is the propaganda wing of the CCP. How worried should we be about that when you’ve got former ASIO head saying look, “Essentially we’re being overwhelmed.” I mean, how concerned are you about things that? And then how do they play into things where you have seemingly China on a global scale, not just from Australia using its it’s diaspora networks to essentially source goods from beneath the nation states.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well once again, it’s a really difficult issue. On the issue of diaspora network sourcing goods, sometimes that can be great for trade. I mean, people have complained, I’m sitting in Sydney as I talk to you and Michelle and I listened to Alan Jones and Ray Hadley in the morning, the shock jocks, and they’re often complaining about the so called diagos the people who grab milk powder off the shelves here and send it back to China knowing that they’re getting a higher price. Now that’s no good price gouging but the other way of looking at it, these people have established what could be a lucrative trade for Australia.

Richard McGregor:

So instead of sort of demonizing why don’t we take them over? Why don’t we use it? Why don’t we make ourselves a base for which the Chinese would be dependent on to buy these things? So I kind of think in some respects we approach it the wrong way. Now onto your bigger point of how we handle the diaspora issue, it’s a really difficult issue. A lot of Chinese in Australia feel singled out over a lot of heavy press reporting in recent years about overseas Chinese and infiltrating the Labor Party and the Liberal Party of course.

Richard McGregor:

And not being loyal to Australia and that’s extremely hurtful thing to be told. But the truth is the problem starts in many respects in China, in the CCP with Xi Jinping because they’re very experienced at this kind of work. Saying that to these people your Chinese, your first loyalty should be to China. So how do we respond to that? It muddies the waters, it makes it very difficult for Australian institutions to manage when the CCP is quite openly targeting these people to support China. So it’s a day to day proposition and a very hard one to get right on every single day.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

The other difficulty of course is essentially the CCP has been very good at infiltrating all the I suppose the ethnic groups, the Chinese ethnic groups and taking control of those institutions. I mean, how do we push back on the independence of those institutions including things the Chinese language media in Australia, which a lot of it is a mouthpiece straight from the party? How do you see that challenge?

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well the Chinese community in Australia is actually extremely diverse, some have been here for decades. The 70s we got a lot of people after the Beijing crackdown in 1989, we’ve had waves in more recent years. We’ve got rich people, we’ve got poor people, a lot of the Chinese middle class as well, very varied. A lot of the evangelical Christians and the like. So it’s a diverse community but as you say, the community groups which represent them and the newspapers which speak to them are not diverse. They are almost entirely pro PRC and the newspapers in fact basically censor themselves along PRC lines. Now, I want to make an important distinction here. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of China’s success since 1980, that’s quite natural.

Richard McGregor:

That doesn’t make you a CCP student and we’ve got to be careful about that. But nonetheless as you say, the control of the key groups or the mollifying of them if you like, is really striking. So we’ve got to be very aware of that. Where it’s a problem, we’ve got to be very open about it, sunlight helps. Everybody needs to understand how the Chinese political system works so we can get a bit of, a hate to say this, nuance into the debate. We can make judgments about whether something is in the interests of Australia and whether it’s not. But don’t target the entire community with a single brush because the community is diverse and we would like them to stay diverse in both their political opinion, especially I would say in the political outlook.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

I think that’s a really critical point. I mean, I think one of the mistakes we make in the debate is treating “the Chinese community” as a monolithic group. So I think it is very important, but it is also kind of that challenge between that pointy end that seems to be controlled by the CCP and how we navigate around that. The other question I want to ask you and sort of going back to some of the things we were talking about earlier relating to a repression and use of information in this total campaigning both globally and domestically. How do you see technology now seemingly… Once upon a time we thought technology and information was going to favor democracies. Now it seems democracy is being overrun now by misinformation, challenging of sources, impossibility of working out what truth is. The Chinese are very good at it, the Russians are excellent at it. I mean, how do you see that challenge and how do democracies push back against that?

Richard McGregor:

Yeah, very good question because you can make sure that the Chinese are pushing on all fronts. They’ve got their domestic internet locked down. They want to at the same time I would say transform or reform in their words, their global internet governance. They’ve got this thing called cyber sovereignty. In other words, they resent the fact that the internet having been set up mainly by the U.S and Western countries has been sort of governed by NGOs set up by those countries at the time. China wants to change that.

Richard McGregor:

Twitter is a great example of how China has it both ways. Inside China Twitter is banned outside China the Chinese government through its various ambassadors use Twitter remorselessly to promote their cause and spread all sorts of information. That same kind of access to Chinese citizens on Chinese social media, on Weibo and things that, the Twitter equivalent is not available. One of the big things you touched on there of course is Western countries being awash with misinformation and not much of it comes from China and Russia.

Richard McGregor:

And I think one of the big tasks is particularly to if not reform ourselves, is to get better ourselves. To make sure our institutions are protected and resilient, that we have a free and open media that is both sort of independent and healthy. In other words, that should, not entirely help crowd out as much misinformation as possible. And if we’re successful our rivals will be less successful. That applies particularly to America, but it certainly applies to Australia as well.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Yeah. I wanted to get your take on… I mean, China and the CCP will have to focus a lot of the debate when in discussions about the economic benefits to relationship with the Chinese state. I mean, how critical do you think the issue of human rights is? It’s dropped away now with COVID-19, but the way your issue was certainly getting a lot more attention probably in 2019. How do you see the importance of continuing to challenge China’s human rights record? A lot of countries shy away from it. Do you think it’s important that we continue to step up in that space?

Richard McGregor:

Well, it’s certainly important, but I do think Australia’s ability to lead on this is limited. Unless other bigger Western countries are taking the lead, then it’s going to be very difficult for us to do that. The Chinese don’t even bother to have the bilateral dialogue with Australia on human rights, which we conducted for a number of years. They steadily downgraded the level of representatives they would send to it, now they don’t bother with it at all. In the case of the Uyghurs for example, yes we should continue to pursue that, particularly in where Australian citizen involve, we should continue to publicize it.

Richard McGregor:

The media should continue to write about it. Think tanks like mine should continue to have events about it as well. But we don’t want to have too much expectations about what we will be able to achieve other than keeping it on the agenda. Now I may sound a little bit not as tough as some people would like, but this is not a new issue. China when it was much weaker and poorer didn’t respond very much to what pressure we were able to mount then and what pressure of course the U.S was able to amount then. And I’d say that’s even more the case now.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

But certainly, I mean and I think it’s really troubling that use of the technology in repression of Uyghurs in particular with at least one million people locked away it’s something I think we need to keep striving to draw attention to. But you’re right, it is extraordinarily difficult certainly from Australia on its own, but even from a global coordinated effort. Lastly, I just want to ask your opinion. I mean, we’ve got this big contest, you’re an expert in the CCP and its workings and it appears like this perhaps and it’s of their narrative to project themselves as a irrepressible monolith. But are you confident or an optimist when it comes to democracy prevailing in this contest or are you bearish at the moment in terms of us getting our act together and prevailing?

Richard McGregor:

I’m a little bearish. I do think China’s going to have many more problems than people appreciate or not every… For example, demographics. They’re going to get old very rapidly before they’re rich in a per capita basis. They’ve got enormous environmental problems particularly with water. The economy will not grow even at 6% a year for too much longer. So they’ve got enormous problems, but they’ve had enormous problems for years and they keep exceeding expectations in their ability to manage them. So in that respect, I don’t underestimate them and I think we shouldn’t underestimate them. So then it comes back to your question, can we get our act together?

Richard McGregor:

Well, if the U.S doesn’t get its act together, then it’s a whole new world. We’re already sort of part way down there in Australia by trying to establish much more regional multi-lateral partnerships, tighter relationships with Europe perhaps as well. That is going to be a whole new ball game once the Ex-Americana doesn’t so much fall off the cliff, but no longer becomes the dominant force in the region. This is a once in a two or three generational change in our foreign policy situation, and this it’s going to be a tough struggle I think some decades to come. So I just hope Australians can step up to the mark really and be prepared for it.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Do you see the election in 2020 in the U.S in November as critical to that then? Given that second Trump term could really lock in a lot of those trends you just discussed?

Richard McGregor:

I totally do. I’m sorry to say, but if Trump is re-elected that is a disaster. I’m not saying everything he’s done is bad, but he’s just corrosive for U.S institutions, the importance of at least some level of truth and transparency in a democracy, in stability, in using expert advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen in 2020. I’ve always thought he’s going to lose actually because I think there’s so many Americans, you can look at all sorts of elections which have taken place, the democratic primaries, the midterms two years ago. So many people want to vote him out, it’s just a matter of the candidate who the Democrats field on the day, most likely Joe Biden we’ll see can get those people out. But I think you won’t undo the damage that Trump has done quickly and I should also say of course, Trump might be a symptom as much as a cause. He didn’t land in American politics a spaceship, the circumstances, the soil had been tilled for many years making way for him. But if he gets another four years then I think that will be devastating for global democracies.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, Richard on that very happy note, I’m going to switch to our final question that I ask every diplomates and I was trying to find something positive to switch us to, but you’ve defeated me. But I’ll get across there in an enormously clunky Segway, but three people coming to a barbecue or foreign guests coming to a barbecue at Richard’s place in Sydney. You’ve noted that you’re in Sydney, so who would they be and why mate?

Richard McGregor:

Okay. I guess we want a Chinese guest. Let’s get Deng Xiaoping along with an interpreter because of his sheer sense, the arc of history of his life is quite remarkable. I think he would be terrific. I would like, and this is by the way I’m not saying all these three people would get along. I’m just telling the people I think-

Misha Zelinsky (host):

It might make it more interesting-

Richard McGregor:

More interesting. I think this is a great man of the old elite foreign policy, but a great thinker was a Harry Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson who was pivotal in setting up the post war world. And a third person who I think might be a good peace maker amongst those or somebody who could step in when the conversation froze would be the late Kofi Annan from the UN, a great African diplomat. Many people would criticize him over many different things. He was in a job where he was never going to please everybody, but I think he also had a fantastic career as well. So he’d be my third guest.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Well, they’ll be fascinating conversations around that table. So we’d love to get a podcast of that one mate so make sure you record it if you do happen to get everyone on.

Richard McGregor:

That’s true, yeah. I’m sorry to sound so gloomy, I’m really sounding gloomy these days and maybe it’s been locked up inside and I can’t exercise enough.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

What is that? In fairness Richard, we are in the middle of a global pandemic so you are entitled to be a little gloomy right now in mate.

Richard McGregor:

Yes. Well, next time I’ll be happier, I hope.

Misha Zelinsky (host):

Indeed. But look, thank you so much for joining us. You’ve given a lot to think about and I really appreciate the chat. So thank you so much.

Richard McGregor:

Thank you very much for having me on. I appreciate it.

 

 

 

Dr. Alexandra Phelan: Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and you should know

Dr Alexandra Phelan is a faculty member at the Center for Global Health Science & Security at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

A global expert in pandemics, Misha Zelinsky caught up with Alex to talk about all things related to COVID-19, including the nature of the threat we face from the virus, the challenges coordinating government responses, the vital role universal healthcare plays in stopping pandemics, why the Chinese Communist Party’s delays at the start were so costly and what Australia and the world should be doing right now.

As a serious note please make sure you are listening to authorities and taking the most up to date advice as this crisis unfolds. The situation may have changed by the time you have listened to this. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Welcome to Diplomates. This is Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Dr. Alexandra Phelann from the United States. She’s Australian but she’s joining via the magic of the internet, which is not yet crashed with all the traffic that’s on it. Alex, can you hear me? Welcome to the show.

Alexandra Phelan:

I can, Misha. Thanks so much for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, pleasure’s all mine and the listeners. I might start, there’s a lot of places you can start with this topic relating to, we’re obviously going to be talking a lot about coronavirus or COVID-19, which is much more sinister-sounding name. Firstly, maybe you could just start by explaining what exactly the virus is. I mean, a lot of people say it’s a bad flu, it’s a killer virus, is it somewhere in between? Maybe you could start there with a short definition.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ll firstly start with sort of two terms. We’ve got COVID-19 which describes the disease, so when people are ill and then we have SARS-CoV-2 which is the name that has been given to the virus itself, the coronavirus and you might here in there that SARS-CoV-2, so SARS coronavirus two, is because it’s closely related to the coronavirus that we saw in the SARS outbreak back in 2002, 2003, but it is a different new novel coronavirus.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are four coronaviruses that normally circulate during the year. They’re sort of a type of virus, a coronavirus, and they normally cause mild illness, so like mild colds, but we do know of two before this virus, more serious forms of coronavirus and that’s SARS that I mentioned and MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is caused by the MERS coronavirus. And those are two viruses that showed us that the coronaviruses can actually cause this serious disease and this third novel coronavirus, so this sort of severe coronavirus is another example of a coronavirus that can cause quite serious respiratory illness being COVID-19.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right. Okay. And so in terms of the next question I think’s useful to get, as long as we’re doing a quick round of definitions. A pandemic. What is a pandemic and how do we define one?

Alexandra Phelan:

Great question. A pandemic is actually is not necessarily a legal term or a specific technical click, it’s more a descriptive term. A pandemic is simply a way of describing an outbreak or an epidemic that has gone over the entire world. And there are different definitions that people use to describe what is over the entire world. Some definitions are simply that it’s to two or three continents. Some definitions say everywhere except Antarctica. But essentially, it describes the spread of disease, rather than the severity of a disease, and as we look at the cases around the world of coronavirus, it’s quite clear that this is a pandemic. Now when the WHO confirmed that this was a pandemic the other week, it didn’t necessarily change anything from say an international law or a governance perspective. There maybe some contracts around the world that might have the word pandemic in them and that’s a triggering event or some pieces of domestic legislation that have pandemic as a triggering event, but as a term, it’s more a descriptor rather than any sort of significant legal designation.

Alexandra Phelan:

There is a term that is significant legally and that’s a public health emergency of international concern or PHEIC and that was declared on January 30th by the World Health Organization director-general under international law.

Misha Zelinsky:

And say that we’re now officially in a pandemic and we’ve got this rather severe version of the coronavirus, I mean, it’s hard to be how worried to be. I mean, can you give a sense to me, because there is so many different projections and people making various calculations as to mortality rates based on data out of China and other places. How worried should people be because it seems that early sentiment, certainly in Australia and I think around the world was people were relatively sanguine about it. How worried should people be and how concerned should we be about the various projections?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so worry versus being informed is a difficult one. I work in pandemic preparedness. This has been my life for the last 10 years and so for me, the idea of worry is not necessarily a good one. I think though how seriously should we take this is very seriously. And the reason being is, I mean models are models and there are limits to what models can actually demonstrate and what models can factor in and there are lots of different models that are being used for this outbreak, but what we are learning based on the observed data and I guess the consistency we’re seeing a range of different models that are coming out of this is that this is going to have beyond what it already has, a significant human health and life impact. If we start to compare it to other, comparisons can be useful to get a sense of things, right?

Alexandra Phelan:

If we compare some of the data that we do have, and again, this is just observed and this is likely to change, we do have some early, what we call case fatality rates. They’re a form of mortality rates that look at out of everyone who gets the disease, how many people actually die and this is being updated because every country in every situation will change the factors that cause whether people die or not die. And so there’s an average case fatality rate of about 3.4% and there’s out of everyone that gets it 3.4% will pass away, but that changes based on the situation. In Italy it’s looking like the case fatality rate is sitting up at that sort of higher-end, maybe 3.4%, perhaps even a little bit higher, but in other countries we’re seeing in say South Korea, we’re seeing it at sort of the lower end, sort of closer to 1%. Now that being said, that number, 1% is still significant.

Alexandra Phelan:

If we compare to past outbreaks and obviously this is the first time we’ve had a COVID-19 outbreak, this is a new type of coronavirus, if we look at say influenza pandemics, and they’re perhaps the most useful comparison, but you can’t really compare them exactly because they’re different diseases and different circumstances, but if I said, we’ve got this 3.4% global case fatality rate, we look at say seasonal influenza. Seasonal influenza each year has around a 1% case fatality rate typically, I mean it sort of changes a little bit, and that does a significant health burden. If we look at say the H1-9, so 2009 influenza pandemic, swine flu, which people may remember, that was about 0.1%. So, if we go from 0.1% to about 1% and then we’re looking at that’s between 1% and 3.4% or so depending on the circumstances, we’re looking at a pretty significant global health burden.

Alexandra Phelan:

The 1918 Spanish flu, just sort of think back to that, which killed more people than both wars combined, had a case fatality rate of about 2%. So, if we’re hovering at around that 2% and we get global spread and we get that 2% globally, and again, it depends all on the situation in each country, what measures countries take to protect their citizens and protect the health of their citizens will affect it, but if we’re looking at those sorts of figures, then we are in this, this is going to be a marathon, this is not going to be a sprint, the global impact and the health impact of this outbreak is currently expected to be significant.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, that’s certainly sobering those statistics as compared to the Spanish flu which killed 10s of millions if not 100s of millions of people. So, just curious, you talked about the kind of the responses and sort of the impact. One of the things that people are talking about a lot is sort of this flattening of the curve, which is essentially governments trying to reduce the speed of the rate of infections, how much can that impact on how the health system responds and preventing the health system being overrun and not having access to respirators et cetera. How critical is that to the response?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so this is what makes this virus particularly concerning is the ability to overwhelm health services. Because when you do have the severe form of illness, which still appears to be only about 20% of everyone who gets it, gets this severe form, because that’s a really important point to make, it looks like 80% of the population will have a mild illness as 20% who are severe, but if we’re seeing 20% of the population with severe illness, that is guaranteed health care system overwhelm. And what we’re seeing in Italy for example, what we saw in Wuhan specifically, not necessarily in other parts in China, but in Wuhan, in Italy, and we are likely to see in other countries around the world, the intensiveness and the severity of care needed is what makes that health care overwhelm. So this flattening the curve, the idea here that is a term that those of us in pandemic preparedness have worked with and it’s wonderful to see this is rolling out and people understanding it, but what it’s worth understanding is whilst it’s about reducing the number of people with the severity of the illness over time, so reducing from being everyone overwhelming the health care system at once and trying to spread it out and delay the people who are getting the severe illness as long as possible so that the health care system can cope.

Alexandra Phelan:

One of the things that’s not reflected in a lot of those graphs is health care services are already overwhelmed in most places in terms of our ICUs, in terms of our beds. Around the world, governments have consistently under-funded health systems or non-nationalized health systems, and so we’re already kind of at health care capacity or very close to. So, even if we are doing this mitigation, this flattening of the curve by focusing on slowing, but necessarily stopping the spread of an epidemic, we’re still likely to meet that sort of peak health care demand at that level, it’s just about mitigating that as much as possible. So that’s where those mitigation strategies are really key.

Alexandra Phelan:

But then the other strategy that we’ve sort of talked about is this idea of suppression, which is not just about mitigating and reducing the impact but also actually stopping the spread to people. So, that’s where we start to talk about things like social distancing, which we can get into. The idea of social distancing is you try to prevent people who are infected from coming into contact with people who are susceptible, and that includes people who may not have severe illness but could then pass it onto people who are vulnerable, which includes older populations. We say older, we’re looking at maybe over 65 as the data again is coming in, but also people with underlying medical conditions that make them more at risk, and again, a lot of this data is observational and on the fly, and so it’s likely to change and that has to inform government policy as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so that’s really kind of critical then how the government responds. Can you give a sense, I mean, you’ve mentioned Italy a bit, maybe what Italy got wrong and maybe some of the countries that seemed to have maybe tackled the challenge. I mean, China had a very aggressive response essentially locking down Hubei province and then having people essentially report to fever clinics et cetera. Are you able to give a very kind of high-level delineations in who’s doing it well and who isn’t and what the key factors there are?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, let’s start with the good example. The good example is South Korea, and they’ve been touted as a good example, and this may change over time. But to date, South Korea have appeared to reduce the spread, have a health care system more able to cope, and have managed to start to reduce the cases going forward from here. What South Korea implemented was a bit of this multi-pronged strategy that looked at both mitigation and suppression. So, what they did is implemented significant testing processes whereby individuals could essentially access tests, to get tested to check if they were infected regardless of their illness and their symptoms, or their travel history, and South Korea was able to run 20,000 tests a day at some point. And that included things like drive-up car testing facilities, as well as actively testing individuals.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now if an individual tested positive in South Korea they were essentially put into sort of a self-isolation and there were a range of different measures that the South Korean government used that helped implement that, which may or may not transfer to other places. So they used extensive mobile phone surveillance and monitoring to help enforce that, which I think that depends on the acceptability of an entire population because, at the end of the day, public health requires public trust. You don’t want to be doing anything that undermines peoples willingness to engage with the government. So, they implemented that testing and surveillance, and so it meant the people that were infected were taken away like they were at home, they took themselves away from the potential risk of spreading it to other people. And coupled with broad social distancing, meaning that people weren’t necessarily going out to restaurants and bars and people were working from home, engaging those sorts of policies so even if someone hadn’t got a test, you’re reducing the opportunities for transmission before someone knows whether they are sick or not. So, the testing coupled with the social distancing measures were incredibly effective.

Alexandra Phelan:

If we now look to say Italy. Italy started its surveillance and testing significantly too late. The social distancing that were put in place were put in place probably two weeks too late and the thing to I guess think about with pandemics and when we do this pandemic preparedness, we say that when you think it’s too early, you’re probably just about to get too late. The whole point of these social distancing measures is to have it in place before you have transmission occurring because remember when you actually are doing a test and you’re finding people are turning up and they’re sick, so you’re doing a test based on them being sick, not like South Korea where they’ve just got testing happening, if you’re waiting for people to get sick, you’re probably two weeks down the track already. There’s been two weeks of … We still don’t know exactly the details of pre-symptomatic transmission, like how long before people show symptoms, can they transmit it, that’s still getting that precise data, but it appears to be an element here. Once people are showing up and they’re sick, it’s already a bit too late.

Alexandra Phelan:

And so this sort of a week and two-week timeframes we’re seeing sort of roll across the world, and so in Italy, once these measures were implemented, sure they might have assisted in bringing down the curve, but by that stage, the system was primed for overwhelm and that’s what we’ve seen in the Italian ICU units in the north of the country. There are some more nuanced sort of distribution of ICU beds within the country that could assist, but the overwhelm has occurred because these measures were put in too late and Italy was the first country in Europe to really be` hit, so it’s also not surprising that these measures were put in too late.

Alexandra Phelan:

I do want to sort of take a moment to mention Wuhan. In China, in other cities, in Beijing, [Shanghai 00:17:16], [Sichuan 00:17:16], et cetera, they implemented these sorts of social distancing measures very similar to what we saw in South Korea and that was very successful. Wuhan is a special category and I think it’s really important to distinguish the successful measures done in other China cities from Wuhan. By the time Wuhan implemented their lockdown, which is a phrase, and if we look at what it technically was it was a cordon sanitaire, which is not a quarantine, it’s essentially a geographic area that has a rope tied around it and said no one can come and no one can go. By the time that had been implemented, there was already significant local transmission occurring. The impact of the cordon sanitaire in Wuhan appears to have potentially delayed the spread, not within China, you know this was happening during Lunar Year travel periods, but perhaps could’ve delayed the spread internationally by a couple of days.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now the question is at what cost those couple of days because we don’t know how many people in Wuhan died from secondary causes as a result of the lockdown from the health care system overwhelm and the appropriate counterfactual would be what if Wuhan back when they had the first notifications from doctors at the end of December or during December and early January, if we’re being flexible with the timing there, if they’d implemented social distancing and extensive testing and gotten those diagnostic tests up and running in time and had that in place, could have it been a very different picture, and I think that is a counterfactual we’ll have to explore in the after reviews of this outbreak.

Misha Zelinsky:

You sort of touched there about the importance of quick response and not waiting too long, but as I think from an Australian point of view, we’re watching the world seemingly going into lockdown, is it inevitable that every country’s going to be lockdown in some way, or is that not inevitable. Because one of the things I’m struggling to understand just as a complete layman in this space is, is lockdown really the best and most effective way of dealing this in a social distancing way but in an almost complete social distancing sense or can it be measured and mitigated in different ways?

Alexandra Phelan:

So I think the first thing I’d say is the term lockdown is getting used to describe just relatively normal social distancing measures that we’d say are quite legitimate as well as very punitive, arbitral and authoritarian measures because the term lockdown doesn’t mean anything right? It’s a descriptive term-

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, for example in LA, right, they’ve just now closed restaurants and bars to the public. I mean, in Australia it was just said, it was no football games, but I think it was quite stark to see cities around the world now where they’re restaurants are shut, bars are shut, any sort of social event is shut.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so that’s happened here in New York as of tomorrow wherein all restaurants, bars et cetera closed. In reality that’s already been happening to some degree. So, if we’re thinking about that, so if we want to use lockdown to mean a few things. I think the measures that we want to be seeing are working from home policies, that should be implemented. It’s already here in New York, that is getting people working from home if they can because not everyone can and not every business can, but where people can work from home. No gatherings, I think the current, and please feel free to correct me was 100 people or 500 perhaps even, I mean that’s way too … 20 people versus 500 people that’s an arbitrary distinction, really it’s about removing people having contact, so I would say even getting the point where people aren’t meeting up with more than 5 people. I think that is what we need-

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow.

Alexandra Phelan:

to be sort of be reducing this transmission, right? Obviously in families, that’s not necessarily feasible, but I wouldn’t be having a dinner party. If they are going outside, making sure they’ve got that physical distance, but I think though when we start to think about things like schools, which this becomes tricky because it might seem counter-intuitive, schools and universities, universities I think there is more of a justification for moving classes to online and reducing that contact, but for schools, one of the things that needs to be consider in this process is the fact that if you cancel schools a parent has to be able to stay home and not all parents have jobs where they will be able to work from home and in particular the workforce that we are particularly concerned about are our health care workforce.

Alexandra Phelan:

One of the most direct ways to stymie say the US health care workforce, and I’m not as across the Australian data, is if single parents have to stay home and look after their kids because a significant number of health care workers, particularly nurses, are single parents with primary carer responsibilities to stay home and look after kids. And the alternative might be to be looked after by their grandparents who we know are a high-risk group, whereas children, thankfully, on the current data appear not to be high risk, so closing schools, particularly say primary schools, can have really significant negative impacts on your ability to respond. And so whilst it might seem counterintuitive, the closing of schools needs to be really well thought through and considered in regards who are the parents that might have to stay home to look after the kids, and that’s why as a social distancing measure, in a lockdown, that may not actually be the appropriate thing.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are lots of in-between, right, you can stagger recess, you can stagger arrival times, you can increase recess times, that’s why it’s a lot more nuanced than I think the discussion has been to date in a lot of the data in Australia, but certainly, mass gatherings, restaurants, bars. There is a social responsibility on all of us that if we take measures now, we could save our grandparents, our parents, and our friends and other loved ones who may be particularly vulnerable to this outbreak.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so this social distancing, or maybe it’s moderate lockdown or that this really like closing down of large parts of the economy, what’s not clear to me at least is how long will this last for and what the aftermath looks like? So I mean it’s 14 days, it’s eight weeks, but then at the end of that period, are we sort of through the worst of it, or can it sort of spike again? That bit’s not clear to me either and I think that’s causing a lot of confusion at least in my mind.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, yeah. I guess from a pandemic planning point of view we always put upfront the economic costs of a pandemic and the reality is the more people who are getting sick and ill and if you don’t mitigate and reduce the spread the bigger the impact on the economy, so it’s like just accepting there’s going to be a loss, it’s just how much of a loss. So in terms of the timeframes and how that factors in, as I said, models are models and they’re not necessarily, you know, they’re not forecasts, they’re not Nostradamus or Cassandra.

Alexandra Phelan:

But some modeling that came out overnight from a group at Imperial and they’re work has been informative for the UK government response and other responses previously, is that we would likely need to be using a combination of mitigation and suppression, so social distancing as well as reducing peak health care demand until we have a vaccine and it becomes widely available and we know from other vaccines we’re probably looking at the 12 to 18 months. So, there has to be some sort of combination with both measures.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now how does that work in practice? Well, we saw that in South Korea, and also in parts of China, we’ve seen the ability to bring cases under control and get case numbers low enough that you can go back to perhaps the testing model of testing if someone’s sick and then isolating them and quarantining their contacts. So because suppression is possibly in the short term, if we could potentially loosen interventions and measures provided that we don’t see a rebound, so it all depends on how good the system in place is for that period in between. So, we could see these temporary relaxations in short windows, but it needs to be able to put the switch back on if we see case numbers moving again. And that can relatively disruptive obviously, but that might be a way of easing the economic and social costs of interventions that are being used over that period until we have a vaccine.

Alexandra Phelan:

A vaccine isn’t guaranteed. We do have incredibly a potential candidate of vaccines out there, but we’ve got to remember the only tool we actually have in our power right now, as humans together against this virus is our solidarity and our ability to act to socially distance and until we have a vaccine and it’s available it’s going to be our solidarity that is going to be what keeps us safe.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it sounds like people should be digging in for the long haul, so maybe switching now just to what maybe individuals should be doing social distancing. What should people be doing as of now, working from home clearly but are there specific measures people should be taking in terms of preparing themselves?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so I think some of the measures we’ve seen in Italy and what we’re seeing here in New York, closing of bars and restaurants and people working from home, but keeping grocery stores and pharmacies open so people can still go get food, and so there’s this sort of rush and panic to have a 18-month prep, that’s not necessarily be required. Having a stockpile of food to sort of get through the next two weeks is a good way of doing it, or having to get through in sort of periods and bursts and that way when people run out it’s sort of much more staggered and people can go to the shops and get groceries. In terms of other additional measures, I think the most important thing, and this is particularly for people who are not in high-risk categories, who are healthy, who are younger, so like under 60, is to realize that they have perhaps one of the most important role to play in stopping the spread of this outbreak and that that is more important than going to a bar with mates or having friends over, and we’re very lucky this has happened at a time where we have tools where we can chat with our friends through video and audio link and there is some really innovative and creative ways we can keep ourselves not socially isolated whilst we’re doing this social distancing.

Alexandra Phelan:

I think the other sort of very individualized measures are clearly washing your hands often and properly, I think people are getting that message. If you do feel sick to contact the relevant hotline that’s made available or health care service to check with them. If you do have any symptoms, to stay home. The reality is, is we say mild illness, up to 80% of mild illness, that still can include pneumonia, so you can still get pretty sick and pretty unwell, but you’re not necessarily at the point of hospitalization and needing the health care service, and so I think there’s going to have to be an understanding that it’s not going to be pleasant for everyone that gets it and has a mild form. Some people will just get a sniffle, some people will get quite sick, but what we need that is our ICUs and our hospitals are available for people who are going to die without that support. So, I think that individual recognition of what is serious and what’s not serious.

Alexandra Phelan:

And I think the final thing is we all have a part to play in protecting the most vulnerable members of our community not just in our behaviors but also ensuring that they’re not socially isolated. Our elderly population or people with disabilities, or other members other community, just anyone in the community might not have the social connections and/or the support systems to be able to go get groceries and do things like that, so I think ensuring that we’re protecting those individuals. And that includes things like ensuring that sick leave is not a limit on people’s ability to stay home. Ensuring that casualized workforce in Australia have access to sick leave and have access to payment protections. There are lots of models around the world where the government’s actually gave hand-outs, gave amounts of money, and not just sort of what we’ve seen in Australia so far, but a broader range of people, and I think those sorts of measures we really need to be thinking about our restaurant workers, our casualized workforce, that need to be part of this because we need to be safe and staying home and not feel the economic individual economic pressures to have to be going to work.

Misha Zelinsky:

I absolutely agree with you around the issue around insecure work and the lack of access to health care. Certainly a concern in Australia, and I know it’s a bigger concern in countries like the United States. In terms of reassuring people, I mean we saw, I think at first everyone was having a bit of a laugh about the toilet paper crisis that seemed to have started in Australia and has spread around the world, but the prospect of panic buying is now very real. We’re seeing queues for things around the world and in the United States, people are queuing for guns, which is concerning, do you think we’ve done enough to reassure people? Because there’s a balance between scaring the bejesus out of people and also making sure they’re properly aware of the facts. So, how have you got that [crosstalk 00:32:09]?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, it is a really challenging example of science and political, and governance communication. There are people who are experts at this, right, people who are experts in how to communicate that tension-

Misha Zelinsky:

Like Twitter, right?

Alexandra Phelan:

… I think if we saw government engaging these experts, in fact in our pandemic plans that is right up there in our top-10 priorities is have expert communicators for this exact issue. So, what people should be doing is having enough food and supplies that they feel that they can stay at home for the two weeks, in case they are sick and they stay at home for that entire period. And recognizing that hoarding is … You know, you see these posters during WWII, hoarding is unpatriotic, we’re kind of in that sort of period, right, where this is take only what you need to keep you and your family safe, and you might need to change some behaviors to be able to take less than what you would normally need. And I think that’s where there’s also a role for government in communicating what’s going to happen in terms of supply chains and logistics about access to food and how those supply chains are going to be kept active so people know that hey in two-weeks’ time when I’ve served my period of isolation, I need to go out and get some more supplies, get some more food and whatever that they know that they can.

Alexandra Phelan:

In New York, a number of restaurants have shifted to go and delivery so that they can keep their staff on board and can continue to provide food and done in a way where it’s pick up and drop off so you don’t have any individual contact between the people delivering and people who are at home. And so in facilitating those sorts of supplies and facilitating a much clearer communication is really key to addressing that balance. It’s a hard one but it’s possible.

Misha Zelinsky:

What’s the role here? So, how concerned are you as someone as an expert, I mean I was half-joking about Twitter, it seems to me that every single person’s now an expert in infection rates and global health policy, but how concerned are you about the role of social media in driving fake news and being able to distinguish what’s happening and what’s not happening? And also, I think, it’s very difficult for people as well with the flood of information from around the world, not just in their own jurisdiction, how do you see those challenges in amongst all this?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so I think there are two elements here. The first element is accuracy of information and the second element is mental health. So, the accuracy of information is we’ve become accustomed to receiving information from multiple sources, reliable and unreliable, and over the last four years, in particular, there’s been a lot of discussion about how do you stop unreliable information and where do you get reliable information. One of the advantages of a public health threat is we do have already established authorities on public health and that’s the World Health Organization, that’s the Center for Disease Control for the US, that’s the different public health departments in Australia, and I think I haven’t been up to date on what the Victorian Department of Health has been communicating. WHO and CDC have lots of really shareable memes on social media, they’re not actually memes they’re just images, but really shareable ways of communicating accurate information. So, if you are using Twitter and Facebook, I would make sure you’re following WHO and your state, as well as the federal health department, because they have been engaging in really active and proactive communication on those tools and I would limit where you get your information to those sources as much as possible, partly because of the first reason, for getting correct information, but also the second reason is mental health.

Alexandra Phelan:

A pandemic is a scary thing. There’s a lot of uncertainty and in that uncertainty, we can get worries and fears, as well as misinformation. There is constant information coming from other countries, accurate and not accurate, there’s constant levels of panic and fear and people telling other people not to fear and not to panic and dismissing what are quite legitimate concerns in many respects, so I think if you are not working on the outbreak directly, and it’s not necessarily directly relevant to what you need to be doing in your day-to-day apart from what you are doing to protect yourself and your family and your community, limiting the information you get to perhaps once a day. Maybe it’s the news broadcast at night or even radio at a certain time of day, or to the WHO or CDC or where ever you’re getting your news and limiting it, because I can tell you from someone who’s been following this outbreak since 31 December 2019, it can very quickly because overwhelming and very quickly that sense of lack of control, like what can you do as an individual. So I would focus on those steps that we spoke about and limit your time on social media in so far as you can while staying connected with your friends and family and loved ones.

Misha Zelinsky:

Staying off social media generally is good advice, so [crosstalk 00:37:56]. So, yeah you talked a lot about governments and the important role that they play here, I mean unfortunately in some instances we’ve seen I think rather poor leadership. I mean how helpful or unhelpful do you think the political class has been around the world on this issue? Who’s doing it well, who’s not, and what should they be really doing to restore a sense of calm to this?

Alexandra Phelan:

I think one of the best examples that we’ve seen in terms of political communication and political messaging and leadership is in Singapore, we saw the Singapore government very early come out say what they’re going to do, very clear messaging, balanced, and I think there’s a couple of rules for political and health communication that we try to follow. You say firstly, what do you know, what you don’t know, what you’re doing to find out and when you’re going to speak with people next? I’ve seen the state of Victorian Premier Andrews do exactly that framework in a number of the messaging and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples within different levels of government in Australia as well. So, I think clear messaging and leadership upfront and early is really key and that Singapore is a great example.

Alexandra Phelan:

We look at WHO, I’ve openly critiqued them on a number of different issues with this outbreak, particularly on human rights and international law norms, as well as public health messaging, but to their credit, one of the most incredible things WHO and the Director-General Tedros and others have been doing these daily updates to press, really clear messaging, again, what we know, what we don’t know, what we’re doing to find out, and when we’ll be back and I think those are some really great examples of communication. And it really shows how communication is so central to leadership and when people don’t hear from their leaders, they get worried. And I think having clarity of messaging is one of my biggest concerns with the current outbreak back in Australia and how it’s being dealt with. Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just expanding on the Australian response, it seems that we are at least somewhat behind the rest of the world maybe by fortune of our geographic isolation, ability to control our borders, I mean what would your advice be to Scott Morrison and the rest of the authorities that are responsible for this, what should we be doing urgently?

Alexandra Phelan:

So, the first thing I would say actually is to push back a little bit on that. Pathogens don’t respect borders. So, the fact that Australia’s a little bit behind in terms of timing is not a factor of border security, in fact at one point, we can maybe at another date how border enforcement can actually make things worse, or perceived border enforcement. But it is potentially a fact of our geographic isolation in terms of just number of travelers from the relevant parts of the world that has made a big, big step. Sorry, I got so distracted with making a particular point I forgot the rest of your question, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s okay, it’s an important point to make and as I said, I’m more than happy to be corrected on this topic, I do not claim to be an expert.

Alexandra Phelan:

No, no, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, so what would you be advising the government in Australia to be doing if for whatever reason we do seem to have some time still up our sleeve?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely that’s spot on. So, what we have right now is that time up our sleeve. There is already local transmission in Australia and so we need to start recognizing that we need to have measures in place now that address social distance and for people to limit that local transmission. We can’t rely on trying to control who comes in and out of the country, it is already here, it is already in Australia. So, what is needed is, I think there should be a move to issue advisories about limiting all mass gatherings, so I would say, over 20 people. People should and this is advisory and I’m deliberately using the word voluntary and advisory here, we can sort of talk about mandatory and criminal in a moment. There should be a prioritization of testing. We’re already at risk of running out of certain re-agents as I understand in Australia, so I think guaranteeing and shoring up our supply chain to actually conduct testing and to continually proactively test anyone who is showing symptoms, regardless of their travel history and perhaps facilitating testing through things like drive-through testing, continuing to set up specified clinics and to have that testing for people who have symptoms or who are our contacts of people who have symptoms or are confirmed.

Alexandra Phelan:

We then also be needing to look at our own measures. We should be looking at an encouragement and people who can, working from home. If they can, work from home. I think the universities, makes sense also to be shifting to a university-from-home model, where applicable, where okay. The school closures, as I mentioned earlier is a little bit more tricky and a little bit more difficult and I think that should be thought through very carefully because of the risk it will have on our health care workforce and our vulnerable elderly populations if those measures are implemented. The next thing we need to be doing is preparing a health care system. We do not have enough ventilators in Australia to cope with this. We do not have enough ICU beds in Australia to cope with this if we have transmission what is modeled in other countries and what we’re seeing in other countries.

Alexandra Phelan:

What we need to be doing is can we increase those direct items, do we have ability to get more ventilators, and get more beds, and that includes being ready to … When I say ready, I mean within the next two weeks, if we don’t see any particular shift in transmission being ready to be able to have our hospitals in surge capacity, that includes cutting elective surgeries and getting ready to have our system and perhaps already depending on what capacity is like in hospitals now, already be switching to have our hospitals in crisis standards of care, which that’s when we’re determining who gets access to ventilators. We need to have those plans in place now because you don’t want to be making those ethical decisions on the fly. And to be having our hospitals ready and supported ready to go for when to surge does hit.

Alexandra Phelan:

We’re going to be seeing, I think the thing I would say to people is do not be surprised and alarmed as we see cases doubling or exponentially growing because that’s exactly what we’re expecting the virus to do. So, when you see breaking news cases have doubled overnight, or whatever, that is expected and what you see today is two weeks after the infection occurred. So, we need to be putting those measures in place now so we are stopping that spread and it may seem like it’s too early, but that’s exactly when we’re talking about a pandemic, that is exactly when you need to be putting these measures in place. I think the cancellation of mass sporting events I think they’re absolutely the right decision and I think we need to be moving to those measures now.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now I mentioned the mandatory and criminal thing. Something that has concerned me is, so I worked on these laws in my undergraduate law dissertation was on these laws in Australia, when you use punitive criminal laws, you push people away from the public health system. You push them towards the criminal system, you push people towards avoiding interaction with authorities, whether they be police or public health.

Misha Zelinsky:

Because you don’t want to admit that you have it so you’re better to hide from it.

Alexandra Phelan:

Absolutely. And that’s when it goes underground. That’s when we see transmission, right, because people don’t want to engage. I was deeply disappointed to hear the Prime Minister say talking about dobbing in your mate who comes into work to the police. That’s is a strategy for underground transmission in Australia that we cannot track and it is not the right message, because we are about to go into a pandemic most likely in Australia, well we are in an epidemic, we are mostly likely drawn into the scale that we’re seeing around the world to some degree, we may be able to flatten it and move it to a different trajectory if we act now. What we need right now is solidarity and trust in our authorities and trust in each other and it is much better than if your mate comes into work that you say, “Hey, you go home right now. You have to go home.” Than you’re calling the cops. We need to be in this together and we need to support each other, and support our most vulnerable populations and moving towards a criminal model, I can tell you now from someone who’s worked in this field for a decade. criminalizing anything to do with health will always make health worse.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a very strong message and I think that’s something we should absolutely take on board here and around the world. Now just one, as we get towards the end of this. I know you got important conversations to have and important work to do. You talked before about the Wuhan situation and the origins of this outbreak, I mean, you talked all about the government response information sharing, how big a stuff up, and would it have made a difference had the Chinese authorities sort of acted earlier rather than covering it up. I mean it’s all sort of been forgotten now in the flurry of activity, but of course, at the time doctors were being arrested for diagnosing the illness and things like of that nature, as essentially the system tried to manage up, to hide the problem emerging. How big a problem was that delay in the beginning to where we are today?

Alexandra Phelan:

I think we will get some really interesting counterfactual model or sort of post hoc models to look at exactly that, that if this was reported. Again, this ties into the point that I was just making, that we know that a system that shares information, that is transparent, that is based on public health principles and is based on human rights, including the right to health and the right for everyone to have their health protected by the government, we know that those systems are much better at responding to infectious diseases and so measures that discourage notification that penalize individuals speaking or reporting, or a bureaucracy that deliberately slows down the sharing of information upwards and the reactions out of concern of potential punishment, we know that already, we know that that makes health worse, so I think that it will be very unsurprising if we have after-action reviews that sort of look at if we had had action by the Wuhan government in early January. So, even when this was reported globally, but if Wuhan specifically, we’d seen action in early January, rather than keeping the lid on things whilst the regional meetings were being held, then I think they’re quite conceivably could’ve been an appropriate response that mitigated and contained the outbreak at a much earlier stage.

Alexandra Phelan:

The nature of exponential growth means that the earlier that you can get in the more lives saved and the economics, like the economics, aren’t really what’s going to be at play here, but that’s the early you intervene the less the impact. I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be going forward because we’re going to have a long way before we get to those sorts of after-action reviews, but yeah, I think that will definitely be a point of many, many PhDs to come.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sounds like you’ve got one in the making there for yourself, but how do we future proof ourselves against future pandemics. I’m sure there’s someone who’s thought about these for a very, very long time, probably been jumping up and down producing reports saying that we’re not prepared for pandemics, we’re not pandemics and being ignored. What are the things that, you know, we obviously need to control this outbreak now, but what are the real things we need to be doing to future proof ourselves against future problems like this?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, we need a couple of things. The first is we need investment in strong domestic health care system. We’re incredibly lucky to have Medicare in Australia and we should not be cutting it, we should not be underfunding it, we should be supporting our systems. To be able to have the capacity to prepare for pandemics like this let along every day health of Australians and that’s around the world, universal health care around the world. So, ensuring that health care is affordable, it’s available, it’s acceptable and it’s accessible and it’s quality around the world.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are a range of different capacities as under the piece of international law called The International Health Regulations there are these core capacities that countries are obligated to implement. There is an external evaluation available of countries to assess whether they’ve met those requirements and so there are tool kits, there are frameworks, and there are legal obligations that already exist for pandemic preparedness. And yes, we have been jumping up and down for the last 10 years and longer, so investment in not just in our own countries but the investment in the health systems and pandemic preparedness of other countries around the world, because we’re interconnected. If this pandemic has shown us anything is an outbreak anywhere is a public health threat everywhere and rather than placing blame on countries it’s about building up their support and their capacity to prevent, detect and respond to these outbreaks in the future.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Alex, this has been a hell of a conversation. I’m certainly more informed, though I don’t know if I’m any less alarmed, but to bring some kind of levity to this conversation, I normally find some clunky way to segue and I can’t possibly think of one for the final question about a barbecue at Alex’s place with three foreigners. Now, it is three, which does make it under your number of small gatherings, so we can still go ahead, though you might need to buy some stuff ahead of time and I can’t guarantee everybody’s going to make it there, but who are the three foreigners at a barbecue at Alex’s and why?

Alexandra Phelan:

You know what? I might need you to ask this question again, Misha, at some point, because I have been so busy I haven’t been able to sit and think about who I would invite to my barbecue. I think I’m still in social isolation mode.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you know what? I’m going to let you off the hook. Ordinarily, I don’t let my guests out of here without answering the question but given that you’re fighting the good fight on behalf of Aussie’s in the global debate, I think I’ll let you off the hook, but-

Alexandra Phelan:

I appreciate it.

Misha Zelinsky:

… it’s been a fantastic conversation. Really appreciate your insights and good luck with the fight against not only this pandemic, but all future pandemics. Thank you very much.

Alexandra Phelan:

Thanks, Misha.

 

Dr Michael Fullilove: Why middle powers matter – managing China in an era of Trump.

Dr Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute. An adviser to Prime Minister Paul Keating, Rhodes Scholar and renowned foreign affairs expert, Dr Fullilove is a widely published author and a much sought after global commentator.

Misha Zelinsky up with Michael for a chinwag about how Australia should interact with a rising China under Xi Jinping,  the madness of US politics and what a second Trump term might look like, how open systems of government still have the upper hand, why the world might be one elected leader away from a new sense of calm, and why – despite everything – Michael remains an unabashed optimist about the future. Be sure to listen to Michael’s special shout out to the ‘Deep State’!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Michael, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you for joining us.

Michael Fullilove:          Thank you for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, pleasure’s all mine and listeners. Now, so many places to start obviously, but you’re a noted internationalist and probably a tough time to be an internationalist with global politics being as they are. There’s so many reasons to be pessimistic.

Michael Fullilove:          Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:             You talk a lot about being pessimistic, would you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist about the future of our foreign policy and the world more generally?

Michael Fullilove:          I’m an optimist by instinct and by nature. I think there’s lots of reasons to feel down at the moment because you’ve got a leader of the free world who doesn’t believe in the free world and doesn’t want to leave it. You have a West that is stepping back from its traditional role, you have non democracies up on their hind legs, you have an international organization in the UN that’s sort of unable to solve the global problems that we it tasked with solving.

Michael Fullilove:          So there are a confluence of factors that make one pessimistic, but as against that, I never underestimate the genius of humanity to get its act together and solve problems when they come into focus. And also never underestimate the role of individuals because I think structures matter, structural reason, the world changes for vast impersonal reasons, but also because of individual decisions that individual leaders make.

Michael Fullilove:          If Donald Trump, for example, I’m sure we’ll come to him later, if Donald Trump is not reelected president, if a Democrat of any stripe really is a reelected president, I think that would be a burst of adrenaline for the international system. I think a lot of the world would say, “Wow, maybe we’re getting back on track.” Maybe they’d be more impetus to solve some of these bigger global problems.

Michael Fullilove:          Similarly, if we go to the UK, I don’t think Brexit would have happened. You can’t explain Brexit without the role of one or two individuals, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. If Hillary Clinton had won the election four years ago rather than Donald Trump, then we’d probably be living in a different world. So we are at… the sort of pendulum is swinging in a bad way at the moment, but I always believe the pendulum will come back.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think though, this period that we’ve had, this 30 year period that people seem to want to hark back to around the liberal world order, is that an anomaly though? Are we just going back to the way things always have been, which is big power politics and big strategy or strategic role rather than the world harmoniously operated by one hyper power?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that it’s all to be played for. We don’t know the answer to that. It’s obvious that power politics is rushing back, and if America is considering America first, then it’s natural for other countries to do that. But I do think that the benefits that were provided by the liberal international order that existed came into being sort of after the second World War were incredible in terms of economic growth.

Michael Fullilove:          There were so many wonderful things that were achieved in that period that I’m not ready to write it off and say, “No, we’re out of the garden, went back in the jungle.” I think we can get back to the garden, it’s all to be played for. but there are a few big decision points coming up and one of them is the U.S. election.

Michael Fullilove:          I think if Donald Trump is reelected, I think it becomes much harder to maintain that garden. Suddenly the world will adapt to that, they will start to say the United States, which is in the cockpit of the world order has really changed, it’s a different country from what we thought it was, and that will have all sorts of flow on effects.

Misha Zelinsky:             Let’s talk about us politics. Politics has gone a little bit mad in United States. You heard the Iowa result, one result, we’ve had the president recently acquitted by the Senate, Republican Senate of largely partisan basis apart from Mitt Romney. What do we make of the madness of U.S. politics leaving aside global politics? And how does that flow into… Because you’ve painted the positive picture, but let’s talk about the negative picture?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s very hard for an America far like me. Bear in mind that I spent a lot of my life reading about the U.S. politics and the U.S. role in the world. I wrote a book on Franklin Roosevelt who helped to establish the international order that we see crumbling in front of us.

Michael Fullilove:          So for me to go through even just the last week or two, the incredible incompetence of the Democrats in Iowa, the sort of partisan acquittal of the president really after really atrocious behavior in relation to Ukraine. And then the state of the union, the garishness, the grotesque circus-

Misha Zelinsky:             Is almost like an Oprah Winfrey TV special.

Michael Fullilove:          And I don’t acquit the other side either. I thought-

Misha Zelinsky:             Tearing up the space?

Michael Fullilove:          … Pelosi’s bit tearing up the space. The whole thing, it feels like the country’s coming apart at the seams, doesn’t it? So look, voters of New Hampshire, we look to you to restore some order.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, you’re an avowed Americanist, everyone knows that. How does the world operate without its traditional leader? Or can it operate without its traditional leader?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s hard and it’s a challenge that we have been trying to come to terms with really since the second half of the Bush administration, I would say. I think in the first administration of George W. Bush, the first term they overreached, and then in the second term they started to step back.

Michael Fullilove:          Obama for all his qualities had a much more limited view of America’s role in the world and he hoped that as America did less, other countries would do more. You remember that was the sort of the hope that in the middle East that the Europeans and someone would step up as Americans tried to lead from behind.

Michael Fullilove:          And what actually happened was that as America did less, everyone else did less too. So this is the problem, it’s hard… I think middle powers like Australia should do more with other middle powers.

Michael Fullilove:          I think we should do our best to hold the system together until the fever passes in Washington, but it’s hard because middle powers don’t make the international system great powers, super powers make the international system. The international system tends to acquire some of the features of the most important powers.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t know the answer to your question, Misha, we’re living through an experiment. I think all of us have to do what we can to hold the system together and hope that America returns to some form of normalcy.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you’re absolutely right, history is governed by events that are these pivot points, Brexit, which we’ll come to, the 2016 election is perhaps one of the most classic in contemporary politics, but let’s fast… And you’ve painted a rosy picture potentially of what a democratic presidency could do for America, but the global mood so to speak, but let’s fast forward to a second term of a Trump presidency.

Misha Zelinsky:             Strikes me that much of Trump’s worst do you think have been largely contained by the institutions? May be almost struggling to the point now he’s busting out against them. Can the institutions survive a second term of Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s the big question and having just come back from the United States, it feels like we’re probably more likely than not to have to grapple with that question. Look, the glass half-full view says that as you say, “The institutions have more or less held together the free press, the U.S. civil service to some extent, the deep state [crosstalk 00:08:24]”-

Misha Zelinsky:             The national security systems.

Michael Fullilove:          Thank God for the deep state.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m going to end up with a lot of [ATMS] from some interesting people on Twitter, but anyway.

Michael Fullilove:          Bring it on, bring it on. So that’s the positive view, and of course… I’ve said to my American friends, “Don’t forget halfway through a second term, a president tends to enter the lame duck phase and event start to move on, and often the most important changes that a president brings in happen in the first term.” So that’s the glass half-full.

Michael Fullilove:          The glass half empty version says that we will have Trump unleashed, the deep state will wither away. It will be impossible to… We’ve already seen him come back at issues again and again like free trade, and alliances, and other things and this time he will overcome the resistance. I suppose we also have to think, even if he limits himself to two terms and you’d have to say based on everything you see about him, I don’t know why he would think the constitutional limitation should apply to him.

Michael Fullilove:          What happens after Trump? Does the Make America Great Again movement survive Trump? Does someone else called Trump run for president in four years time? What does that do to the democratic party? This is the fear that if you have two terms of Mr. Trump, does that really knock the country off course? And does it start to spiral away like Darth Vader’s TIE Fighter? No.

Misha Zelinsky:             He goes from being an anomaly to systemic-

Michael Fullilove:          Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             … force.

Michael Fullilove:          The new normal.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right. And so that I think is an interesting question to pose. We could probably talk about Trump all day and we will return to U.S. politics in a global context. Jumping across the pond as a word to the UK, Brexit. It’s now done. One of the things that people feared was that the UK leaving Europe would be the first of a domino effect. Next would come in France after that might come Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think there’s more to come in Europe? And what’s the net impact of Brexit on Britain, but also on the European union, which is critical to the liberal world order? It’s a sleeping giant in many ways.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the good news is that Brexit has been such a shamble that no one in Europe wants to follow the Brits. And so you remember after the Brexit vote, people were talking about Frexit, and Grexit, and Spexit, and all the rest of it. But now I don’t think… I think everyone looks at that and says, “No, we don’t want that.”

Michael Fullilove:          Now, one possible wrinkle on that is Scotland where suddenly you’ve got a country in a nation in Scotland that is in a very different place on Europe and many other issues from England, so that’s a caveat. I don’t think Brexit will break up Europe, but I think what Brexit will do is first of all, it will make Britain poorer and more distracted than it would otherwise have been.

Michael Fullilove:          And as you say, we’ve historically relied on Britain to be one of the tent poles of the international order, the most internationally focused European country, the one with the greatest, with big economy and outward-looking economy, trade dependent, strong military and intelligence services, and it has been blown off course, it’s been heavily distracted for five years and it will continue to be that way.

Michael Fullilove:          I’m not a total bear when it comes to Britain’s future, I think Britain’s got a great future, but I think it’s going to be less than what it would have been if it had stayed in Europe. And to come to the other bit of your question, I think Brexit will make the EU smaller by definition, weaker, poorer, less liberal, more statist, less pro American, less willing to stand up to Russia.

Michael Fullilove:          So I think the net effect of all this is to benefit enemies of the West, adversaries of the West in the Kremlin or [Xiao Nan Hai 00:12:48] and elsewhere.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so do you think a Scottish independence vote is likely? It’s interesting question, isn’t it? Because the Scots voted to stay perhaps principally because they want to stay in the EU and then their friends down South have now taken them out of EU, it’s interesting problem politically.

Michael Fullilove:          I hope it doesn’t. Look, I hope it doesn’t because all the… I just think Scotland adds so much to the United Kingdom that… My people are from Ireland and England, not from Scotland, but I just think it would be a shame for Britain as a country, but also again, it would further distract, it would be more lead in the saddles for Britain.

Michael Fullilove:          And really someone like me wants a Britain that gets over this, that does get Brexit done and gets over Brexit and comes back to playing a confident outward looking role in the world. We need that. And another extended debate about Scotland and the impoverishment of the country that would come from Scotland, exiting can only be bad news for that.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so you mentioned the Kremlin and Russia, and clearly they had a hand in Brexit, and they had a hand in the 2016 election famously, and there’s talk that they might have a hand in the 2020 election. But I want to talk a little bit about open and closed systems because this seems to be the big trend we’re heading towards is that for a long time we had a globalization led by United States and more democracy and there’s going to be integration, et cetera.

Misha Zelinsky:             And what we now have is two worlds, one that’s characterized by a liberal openness of information, of people, of exchanged and increasing closed essentially autocratic systems. Traditional theory has been the open systems would win. Bill Clinton nailing jello to a wall, good luck with that. If you want to control the incentive, of course, it appears to be the case that the closed systems are winning and using the openness against them.

Misha Zelinsky:             Why do you think that is the case and what’s the way for democracies to guard against that without losing the closing themselves?

Michael Fullilove:          I think in the end, open systems work better, and I think to return to the metaphor of the pendulum, the last 12 months or 24 months, we’ve gone through this period of the strong men where we were worried by the rise of the strong men. But if you look at how countries like Russia and China are doing now, would you say that closed systems are working when you look at Russia’s economy, the fact that it’s in a demographic death spiral?

Michael Fullilove:          Russia has an economy not much larger than Australia’s.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, Mr. Putin plays a poor hand well, and he invests heavily in his military, in his ability to cause problems and cause mayhem elsewhere. But in terms of delivering economic growth, and happiness, and good health to the Russian people, that system is a failure. If you look at China, it’s a different story I think.

Michael Fullilove:          You have to acknowledge the success of the Chinese system in the last few decades as it opened up, but if you look at coronavirus and you look at the reporting now about how Chinese bureaucracy has refused to come clean quickly, you can see that that closed system to come to answer your question, doesn’t respond well to these shocks. An open system that is open to science and open to transparency will work better in the long run.

Michael Fullilove:          So I believe in our system and I sometimes I want to shake people in the West stop, and shake them out of their topper and say, “Don’t underestimate the system that our fathers and mothers fought for and our system is better than their system.” And I’ll tell you what, if we could elect a couple of leaders in big Western countries that would change the psychology.

Michael Fullilove:          To come back to the structural versus individual, don’t underestimate that the fact that Mr. Trump is the president of the United States, the fact that Merkel who was so impressive for a long time is fading out of the picture, there’s not that many big Western leaders that you can look to and say that they’re really impressive.

Michael Fullilove:          Whereas as I said, say Putin seems to play weekend well, Xi Jinping is obviously sort of a world historic figure. I admire Macron in many ways, and I think if we could get a couple of other Western leaders out there that might change the psychology a little bit.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting though, isn’t it? How much do you think the crisis of confidence within the West, not just in the leadership, but almost in the system itself? You look at polling, which says, “Younger people have concerns or they don’t think democracy is the best system.”

Misha Zelinsky:             Or just generally that the West doesn’t seem to have the swagger it once did maybe in the Cold War days where literally believed in the system and self-evidently projected in that way. Do you think there’s something to that? So that may happen?

Michael Fullilove:          I do. I think that… What’s happened is first of all, the forever wars that disenfranchised a whole generation of people around the West who didn’t believe in those wars, and also who not only thought the wars were wrong, but then watched as the Wars were not won. And their system seemed unable in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere to win those wars.

Michael Fullilove:          And then the global financial crisis I think was the second blow of the hammer and the ongoing effects of that’s had, inequality. I think these are the problems that these have shaken our faith in the system. Now, it’s interesting when you mention that polling.

Michael Fullilove:          The Lowy Institute polling for a number of years has found those concerning results among younger Australians that they don’t necessarily believe that democracy is the best system, but what’s interesting is that we dove deeper a couple of years ago and did qualitative polling as well to try to work out why we were getting those quite shocking results.

Michael Fullilove:          And younger Australians didn’t say that they necessarily believe that authoritarian government is better, it was more to do with disillusionment about how Australian democracy is working. So concerns that the parties were not different from each other, or the politicians were only in it for themselves, or that the system seemed to be broken.

Michael Fullilove:          I think there’s a grain of hope there. I don’t think young Australians want an authoritarian system, but they want our system to work better, and so do I. I would like to have politics in Australia and around the world that is solving the problems rather than being concerned with their own position in the hierarchy.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve spoken a couple of times about inspiring leaders. Are there any leaders that you can see on the horizon you think that man or woman is someone that get us to this place?

Michael Fullilove:          Well, I mentioned Macron. I love the audacity of Macron, I love saying-

Misha Zelinsky:             Starting a party from nowhere and just-

Michael Fullilove:          Incredible, amazing. Imagine that in the Australian context, not just becoming president under the age of 40 have a nuclear power, but shattering the old parties hold on the political system. Buttigieg is showing similar-

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, he’s interesting.

Michael Fullilove:          … audacity in a way. But I think it’s too soon to put our hopes in him. So I like Macron, I like the fact that he thinks big, he thinks about these big issues. I would also say I wouldn’t again, at the risk of getting mobbed on Twitter, I have much more time for Boris Johnson than the many people, and I think that I disagree with Boris on Brexit completely and I think Brexit was totally wrong headed for the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          But I think Boris is more of a liberal, cosmopolitan leader than many people think. I think his instincts on immigration and questions like that are much more liberal than people think. I think there’s a glimmer of hope there and just to offer a third leader if I can. For some years I’ve had an eye on Keir Starmer who seems to be the front runner at the moment to lead the labor party in the UK.

Michael Fullilove:          Starmer is someone of real… who had a distinguished career as a prosecutor, someone who’s a sort of fully formed human being with a hinterland. Very interesting guy, and I’ll tell you, if he could… To go from Corban to Starmer, that would be a big battlefield promotion, so fingers crossed.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay. You’re clearly passionate about democracy and someone believes in heavily. How concerned you about this notion of political warfare and the border [Kratz] dabbling in Western democracy using social media or weaponizing institutions against Western liberal democracy? How concerned are you about that advent because it’s reasonably new, but it seems to be getting worse not better?

Michael Fullilove:          It is concerning, but here’s the good news story is that Australia has responded. The whole Australian system has responded to attempts by foreign interference, especially from the Chinese party state in the last couple of years in a way that’s very interesting. People overseas often talk about Australia as the canary in the coal mine, but I say to them, “Some canary.”

Michael Fullilove:          The problem with that is a canary has no agency, does it? It’s just a bird in a cage and it either dies or it doesn’t die. Whereas actually what Australia has done is stood up for itself, and that’s partly policy changes at a government level. It’s partly the political class on both sides coming up with a new bipartisan approach. It’s also the media.

Michael Fullilove:          There are probably half a dozen journalists in Australia whom I won’t embarrass by mentioning, but it’s the scoops that they have led, especially in the old Fairfax press actually and in the ABC, not exclusively, but especially there that has thrown light on some of the problems in the system.

Michael Fullilove:          So if you ever thought that an individual can’t make a difference in society, that’s not true because those stories forced the political class to focus on it first, forced all of us to focus on it. And now a lot of countries abroad are saying, “Okay, Australia seems to have done a few things right here.”

Michael Fullilove:          And you start with transparency and throwing some light on what other countries are trying to do, how they’re trying to get their hands in the stuff of our soul.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’re absolutely correct about the press. I think we are critical of the press and its role at times, but I think they’ve done an outstanding job in that context. Now, switching to China and the critical nature of the Chinese relationship to Australia’s future. How do you see Australia managing its relationship?

Misha Zelinsky:             Is our relationship with the U.S. central to this? Because a lot of people say, “We don’t have to choose between the economic trade relationship and our security relationship.” But increasingly those two countries are choosing at least strategic rivalry for not shifting towards some kind of cold war. What is our position within that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think on China, I think our policy is properly a mix of engaging with them battles so hedging, and it has to be an intelligent mix of those two, and you’ve got to work out when you engage and when you hedge. I think we should cooperate with China where our interests overlap, and sometimes our interests will require us to say yes to China even when the United States says no to China.

Michael Fullilove:          So I don’t think we should look at China always through an alliance prism. I think we should be ambitious when we see opportunities to pursue our interests. But I think when our interests diverged from China’s interests, we have to be very tough minded and very clear and consistent about why we’re doing something, we’re going in a different direction.

Michael Fullilove:          And that’s very hard to do, especially when your own politics is as fragile as ours. We’re not in the freezer with China, but we’re kind of in the bar fridge where they’re not that happy with us, and that’s fine. We’ve stood up for ourselves, but Beijing hasn’t really put the weights on us in the way that it has put the weights on the South Koreans and a couple of other countries. So it will be interesting to see how we respond if they ever do.

Michael Fullilove:          I think the other thing is to say that the U.S. matters because like most Asian countries, we want a U.S. engaged in the region because it helps to provide some balance to the force if you like to go back to the Star Wars metaphor. And it’s easier to maintain our freedom of movement and independence when there’s at least two big States in the region.

Michael Fullilove:          And the other thing that I think is important for us to think about when we think about China is not to shrink Asia to the dimensions of China. And not to forget that there are a number of other big Asian countries including Japan, and South Korea, and Indonesia and Vietnam, and others, and we need not focus on China both in positive and negative ways to the exclusion of those other countries.

Michael Fullilove:          We need to thicken those countries and have a sort of a balanced Asia relationship and not too focused on China.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting because one of the things undercooked is clear relationship with India. Certainly, our relationship with Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, but do you think there’s a case for deeper links between the democracies of the Asian and Southeast Asian region and working together, not necessarily as an avert way to the Chinese Communist Party, but just as a way of promoting democracy in the region?

Michael Fullilove:          Yes, I do. I think that it’s totally legitimate for democracies to get together and to work out where their interests overlap, and if we believe in our system, we shouldn’t be embarrassed about saying that. I would also say though that there are some countries that are not democracies but are not necessarily in the China camp as it were.

Michael Fullilove:          And it’s useful for us also to thicken our links with those countries, so yes, I think we should be… I think India is a big opportunity for us, but I’d also like us to do more with a country like Vietnam that’s certainly not a democracy, but that has different interests from China’s.

Michael Fullilove:          And the more we can thicken those connections, the more we can complicate the region, the harder it is for any one state to dominate the rest of us. And that’s what all of us want, we all want the freedom to make our own way. None of us want to live in another big State’s shadow.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s a really interesting point. Speaking of big States and in the shadow, what’s your take on the Pacific in the way there’s been the Pacific step up, which is arguably Australia has been a little bit of sleep slip of the wheel given our importance in that region, but China has been exceptionally assertive in that area.

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned are you about that in that particular context?

Michael Fullilove:          I think we’ve got a lot of equities in the Pacific and I don’t think we should get jumpy about China. I do think it would be inimical to our interests if a country like China were to establish a military base in the Pacific, and we need to be very nimble about how Pacific Island States are relating to Beijing.

Michael Fullilove:          But let’s not underestimate the strength of our connection to the Pacific, and one of the research products the institutes put out recently that I’m very proud of is the Pacific Aid Map where we tracked all of the aid to the Pacific from all the donors around the world, including China.

Michael Fullilove:          And one of the highlights from that index… from that map, I should say, is that Australia provides 45% of total aid to the Pacific, and if you add the Kiwis, it’s 55%. But if you read the papers, you think China’s aiding our lunch in the Pacific, but actually more than half of the aid comes from Australia and New Zealand.

Michael Fullilove:          And we still have these very thick person ties to China, and most Pacific elites know that sure there’s money to be had, there are commercial opportunities with China, but that in the end, Australia is a better longterm bet. Again, to go back to what we were discussing earlier, we have to be confident in ourselves, confident in our history and confident in what we bring to these other States.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just circling back to United States and Trump in the context of Pacific and Asia Pacific politics. One of the things that is notable about the Trump presidency is how transactional in nature it is. How concerned should we be about the nature of the alliance given the isolation, tendencies of the Trump presidency, given the transactional nature?

Misha Zelinsky:             How concerned should we be about the formality of the [inaudible] alliance in that context? Is it bankable? Can we take it to the bank or is it ultimately going to be another deal to be made or broken by Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          It’s a very good question. You’d have to say that the relationship between the Trump administration, the Morrison government is very strong really. So we’re not at risk in the way… The Eye of Sauron is not on us. But having said that, the truth is that Mr. Trump doesn’t believe in alliances and he’s said that consistently for 30 years.

Michael Fullilove:          Let me put it this way, it’s hard to think of a less reliable Alliance partner if your country was in trouble, someone who is less disposed to risking American lives and spending American blood and treasure in defense of an ally on the other side of the world.

Michael Fullilove:          Now, of course, you can’t shrink the American system to the president, and in extremists there’d be lots of people around the president saying this is important.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the links are deeper than the presidency.

Michael Fullilove:          The links are very deep and the deep state, again, thank goodness for the deep state and the deep states, but it has to be admitted that I think… Of course, every country, there’s like an Abacus in the capital and they’re constantly assessing other capitals in terms of reliability, and an intention, and capability and all that.

Michael Fullilove:          And of course, allies around the world are looking at the United States and looking at the president’s instincts and it doesn’t us more confident. That’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:             One thing that’s been very consistent about the Trump presidency has been his approach to the Chinese Communist Party, particularly the Chinese Communist Party under Xi. It’s a very different beast, modern China to even to China of five, 10 years ago. Do you think the world was naive about the rise of China and wasn’t live to the changes under Xi’s regime?

Misha Zelinsky:             Or have we been asleep at the wheel and say that the South trying to see, should we have been Sterner there? Could some of these sudsiness we’re seeing now had been dealt with by being a bit stronger earlier on? How do you see that?

Michael Fullilove:          I think that Obama for example, could have been firmer with China definitely, and I think Obama had unrealistic expectations. And I remember this because I was in Washington when he came into office and he really felt that the United States and China could form a group of two at G2 and they together solve all the problems. And I don’t-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is funny, he was an optimist about these things.

Michael Fullilove:          He was. He was an optimist, yeah. But I think that was too optimistic. Yes, I think we misread it, and a lot of analysts misread Xi Jinping in particular, a lot of analysts. Most China analysts thought he would be a steady as he goes leader and not a transformational leader. So I think that’s true.

Michael Fullilove:          The question is now how do we deal with this new China under Xi Jinping where more and more power is being concentrated in the person of the president, where the country has great strengths as we see in military expenditure, and confidence and so on, but also has great weaknesses as we’re seeing in the coronavirus.

Michael Fullilove:          This is the big challenge for leaders, getting the mix of hard and soft, standing up where we feel that China is overstepping the appropriate bounds for a sovereign country, but on the other hand, not squeezing China and not acknowledging that. Of course, it’s a great power and it deserves certain progressives and it deserves respect. The mix of hard and soft is very difficult one to get.

Michael Fullilove:          And on Trump, I don’t really know what Trump’s settling point on China is because he’s very tough on China when it comes to trade, but I don’t think he really cares about security issues when it comes to China. Very hard to imagine Trump caring about half submerge water features in the South China sea. So let’s see where he comes down.

Michael Fullilove:          Today, he’s been tough on trade but not on other [crosstalk 00:35:54]-

Misha Zelinsky:             He’s been tough on 5G though, on techno nationalism, but arguably that’s a trade that he sees it as but.

Michael Fullilove:          There was that tweet, remember when he kind of hinted that if Xi Jinping gave him a good trade deal, maybe Huawei could get it back in. To go to your earlier question, the problem is everything is transactional for Mr. Trump. Everything is a deal waiting to be had.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so what would that mean for something let’s say Taiwan or Hong Kong? He was reasonably firm on Hong Kong, but do you think Hong… sorry, Taiwan is as big a red line for the United States as it is used to be under Trump?

Michael Fullilove:          That’s a very good question. That’s a very good question. I would defer to specialists on it because there’s so many different angles to it, but starting from first principles, not withstanding the vibrancy of Taiwanese democracy and the legitimacy in my view of Taiwan playing an important part in the role in the world, I think if it came down to a sort of a crisis and Mr. Trump had a 3:00 AM moment, I think he’s much more attracted by the idea of doing deals with Xi Jinping, the leader of a giant superpower than he is about defending a scrappy, tiny democracy.

Michael Fullilove:          That’s sort of from the first principles, but of course, as you know, the relationship between the militaries of Taiwan and the United States are very deep as well, so it has a lot of support in Congress in the media. So it’s a complicated question, but I don’t think Trump’s instincts play well for the Taiwanese.

Misha Zelinsky:             A sobering point to leave the formal part of our conversations, but we’ll now switch to the real meat of the debate, the thing that everyone’s been waiting for is barbecue of Michael’s three guests, alive or dead, but they’ve got to be foreign, they can’t be yours. I’m sorry to say [inaudible] but who would you have and why?

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I like the fact that you do it as a barbe because everyone has who do you want to invite to a dinner party or whatever? And barbes are more fun than dinner parties anyway.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s true. There’s more beer.

Michael Fullilove:          First of all, I would have to have FDR because I spent years writing about FDR, first of all for my Master’s thesis, then my PhD, then a book. And when you spend so long thinking about someone, you wonder always what would the guy be like, what would actually be like to meet. So that would answer that question for me.

Michael Fullilove:          I would have a strong hypothesis, which would be that he would be great fun because he always mixed the drinks in the oval office at about 5:00. He’d mix the martinis and have everyone in for cocktail hour. And he was just a charming personality, which is one of the reasons I wanted to write about him.

Michael Fullilove:          In fact, Winston Churchill said of FDR that meeting him for the first time was like opening your first bottle of Champagne.

Misha Zelinsky:             That is a hell of a rap.

Michael Fullilove:          Now of course we’re going to serve beer at our barbecue, but having someone who has a bit of bubbly to his personality would be good. Secondly, I would probably invite Grace Kelly because I’m a big Hitchcock fan and I loved her. She was such a charming, interesting, intelligent figure with such a crazy life story, and I love that period of all Hollywood. I love Hitchcock movies, and Billy Wilder movies and stuff like that.

Michael Fullilove:          And thirdly, to round it out because we’d need someone to entertain us, I’d have Bruce Springsteen because-

Misha Zelinsky:             Boss.

Michael Fullilove:          … I’m a big longterm fan of the boss. Love his sentimental blue collar view of American democracy, I love his love songs. He’s such an authentic character that I think he would ground this otherwise highfalutin barbecue, and I think he’d be the kind of guy who’d be fun when you’ve got a couple of beers into him. So that’d be my barbe.

Misha Zelinsky:             Or Champagne as it were, but that sounds fantastic. Look, Michael, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Michael Fullilove:          Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s been a fantastic chat and good luck with everything [crosstalk 00:40:38]-

Michael Fullilove:          It was a lot of fun. Thanks.

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.

 

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.