Democracy

Tarun Chhabra – The China Card: How progressives should deal with an assertive Chinese Communist Party

Tarun Chhabra is a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and also with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University. His current research focuses on U.S. grand strategy, U.S.-China relations, and U.S. alliances. Tarun is a global expert on the implications of China’s growing political and international influence.

 

A Harvard, Oxford and Stanford graduate, Tarun has served on the White House National Security Council and worked in the Pentagon as a speech writer.

 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Tarun for a chinwag and asked whether the US and China are already in a Cold War, how the US political system is responding to the China challenge, why democracies must work together to resist political warfare efforts from autocrats, why technology is so critical to geostrategy and how the left should – in Tarun’s words – ‘play the China card’.

Misha Zelinsky:

Tarun, welcome to the show. It’s good to have you on, mate.

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks for having me, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I’ll just say, for the purposes of the recording, you are in Washington D.C., I’m in Sydney. We’re doing this via Zoom. So, appreciate having you on and giving us your time.

Tarun Chhabra:

Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I thought a good place to start, it’s a big conversation we could have, but we’re talking a lot about the US China relationship globally. Curious about your take on what it’s caused a hardening of US attitudes to China. I mean, previously the view was that China was very much an engagement strategy, there’d be a peaceful rise. And now very much it’s seen, certainly by the Trump administration, that China is a strategic rival. Curious for your take on that journey, over the last five years in particular.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, thanks, Misha. So, I think there’s several components to it. The first, in my view, has been a reckoning with China’s integration into WTO policy that was introduced here in the nineties, and when it was introduced, as you may recall, the promise was really that we would export goods and no jobs, quote unquote. And that was kind of a bipartisan commitment to the American people. And then fast forward to where we are now and you have economists who estimate that anywhere between 2 and 4 million jobs were lost, mainly in manufacturing, in the United States, over that period, attributable to giving China permanent normal trading relations with the United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so I think that has really driven a lot of it, and it’s not just the jobs lost, but it’s what happened in the communities that were built around a lot of those companies manufacturing, particularly in the Midwest, and, as we all saw in 2016, this was a top line message by then-candidate Trump.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think the second is the more assertive nature of Chinese authoritarian regime. There’s some debate about how much of this is really about Xi Jinping and how much of it is really about the character of the party, Xi just being the latest manifestation in the trajectory of the party. But, you know, in my view, China’s willingness to be somewhat flexible in the way it operates, I’ve called it kind of a authoritarianism abroad, is in some ways more challenging than I think the ideological challenge posed by the Soviet Union, where the model was to adopt exactly the regime type in Moscow, in many cases. And the ability to co-opt elites, the ability to corrupt institutions, I think, in many ways is a more daunting challenge.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we add to that the technology of mass surveillance it’s now available where China is a leading exporter of safe cities, surveillance technology where the demand in many cases is there for a variety of reasons, but once you have it, it’s going to be very hard to let it go. And you layer onto that, China exporting it’s 5G infrastructure through Huawei.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I think the totality of the challenge has become clear, and then as Australia has seen, China’s willingness to weaponize dependents on the Chinese economy, has become more and more clear.

Tarun Chhabra:

You all have seen it, the Norwegians have seen it, certainly Korea and Japan have seen it, and just in the last week we’ve seen now threats against the UK after its recent turn at reconsidering its Huawei contracts for 5G now that the threat that any sort of cooperation, even on the nuclear side around transportation, would be threatened as a result. So, that kind of weaponization of interdependence, censoring free speech, in many cases, has all kind of come to a head. And I think we’re seeing the kind of apotheosis of it now in the COVID era, but you can look back at their record and see that this was long coming.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you just touched on COVID, you’ve sort of detailed all the different areas of competition there, the strategic competition. Be it, technological, economic, cultural system of governance based competition. How do you see, because clearly the tensions are much higher now post COVID-19 outbreak, firstly, how do you expect those to play out? And secondly, who or which country’s system’s more likely to benefit most from the disruption?

Misha Zelinsky:

Because, I mean, from an outsider observers’ point of view, we’ve seen that this is the first time that a global challenge hasn’t been centrally led by the United States, and Donald Trump has deliberately chosen not to do that.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, and that’s a pity. I think there was a lot of debate early on in the crisis here. Some arguing that China was really poised to take a leading role in the global order in the midst of COVID. Some people suggested this was kind of a Suez moment, even. And it’s certainly possible that that could’ve happened in some ways, but as you know, China’s conduct over the last couple of months has totally alienated many populations and governments, where there might have been a real opportunity, actually, for them to claim the mantle of leadership and show some even fleeting beneficence, but there’s really been no sign of that.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, over the long term I think the key question really is how are economies emerge from this crisis. We continue not to really have a lot of fidelity on real growth and the record in the Chinese economy, to some degree, so it’s often kind of hard to predict that trajectory right now. But we certainly have our challenges right now. So, I think the ball’s really in the air right now and there’s some key decisions we, the United States, need to make, many of our allies need to make, and that China’s going to make, that could really make a big difference as to how we all emerge from this crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, turning to the domestic political debate on the China question. You’ve made the argument that the left should play the China card, in your words. Firstly, what do you mean by that? And why should the left do that? Because it’s a vexed question for progressives on how to handle the rise of China, more so, perhaps, than it is for those that are more of the right.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah. So, I had a chance to work on this argument with a couple of co-authors, and our view is that in general there’s been reluctance, often a well-grounded reluctance, for the left to frame arguments in terms of geopolitical competition. And I think that comes from a concern that when you do that you might lose control, basically, of the narrative and the politics that are related, in that you may risk both militarizing competition, spending more money on defense than you might’ve wanted to otherwise, and that you risk inflaming xenophobia.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, those are kind of the key concerns from some folks on the left. And we see that now in some of the debate around how the democratic presidential nominee now, Vice President Biden, should handle China in the course of the campaign.

Tarun Chhabra:

But our view has been that, and I guess that kind of turns onto some degree what your assumptions are about the default politics, at least in the United States, and our view is that there’s kind of a default libertarianism, and that historically the United States has tended to be more unequal, more divided, at times, when there has not been a geopolitical competitor. And manages to make hard decisions and actually do things that progressives generally want, in terms of national investment and civil rights, when geopolitical competition requires it. We can dislike that, but we think it’s an empirical reality.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, our argument is that progressives should embrace this strain, because many of the things that the United States needs to do, when it comes to investment in education and infrastructure, to really adopt major reforms, whether it comes to policing, which we’re talking about now, and other things on civil rights and restoration of our democratic fabric. All of that we might be able to do and build a bipartisan coalition for, if we talk about these things based on concern about competition with China.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we look to some, basically a change of heart on the part of some conservatives, particularly when it comes to economic thinking, where you have conservatives now who are saying, “Maybe the United States does need an industrial policy in order to compete with China in certain sectors,” which is really counter to conservative orthodoxy. And one would hope that we could build a coalition that would really broaden the scope of domestic renewal and reform.

Tarun Chhabra:

On the question about xenophobia, which is a really important one. Our view there is that if progressives simply seed the ground to conservatives in the United States, and it’s only one side that really owns the debate, that in many ways the risk is even greater that xenophobic sentiments get inflamed. And our view is that progressives should be able to own this debate and ensure that that does not happen, build credibility with the American public, that they are more than capable and, probably, even more capable in many cases of taking on China as a geopolitical competitor, and that we can do it while uniting the country and not dividing it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’re sort of talking there about the means and the ends, but one of the things that has become quite challenging in this debate with people, is whether or not democracies are capable now of delivering for people on domestic agendas, and China now holds up its model, and the Chinese communist party holds up its model, saying, “Our system has lifted X hundred million people out of poverty. The United States is incapable of providing healthcare to its people.” How can democracy and progressives unite those arguments to make sure that systemically people have faith in that argument?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think that really is the case. Misha, you just stated the case for progressive reform and why we should be talking about it in terms related to competition with China. As progressives are going to continue to make the arguments we have been making for a long time about why democracy needs to work for all of our citizens, and not just those at the top. But the reality is that those arguments have not worked, certainly in the United States, for decades, which is why we find ourselves in this situation.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, if what it takes to get those who’ve opposed these kinds of reforms on board, is to say the alternative is China championing its model around the world and showing that that system just works for more people than democracy. If that’s what it takes to get them on board then we should be willing to make that argument.

Misha Zelinsky:

And also I think it’s important to critique the regime and critique the regime for the behaviors that it displays, be it repression of people at home, be it breaking its word in the South China Sea, be it through coercive trade behavior. I think it’s very important, to your point, that it would be a nonsense to not be able to critique the Chinese Communist Party, because of the fact that it is Chinese, and rather it’s a critique of the behavior. And I think it’s very important for progressives to own that. So I completely agree with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one of the things, it may not be relevant in the China piece, but it’s certainly a question to the bipartisan piece in US politics. Your thesis that requires there’s a willing partner, so perhaps, you’ve provided some examples where you’ll get a policy outcome, Democrats might be doing it for a leftist ideal, Republicans are doing it for a conservative ideal, but the outcome is the outcome and it’s good for the system, but is the Republican party in it’s current iteration capable of reaching that kind of consensus?

Misha Zelinsky:

I think about the way that foreign policy’s been politicized, either during the 2016 election, the collusion and interference, or even during the impeachment. I mean, what’s your view there? Do you have a hopeful case for that or a slightly more pessimistic case?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s a split right now within the Republican party. There’s broad consensus at a the top level about the need to confront China on a lot of issues, and that sentiment is shared also by a lot of Democrats. Where I think on the right in the United States the breakdown happens, is you still do have a lot of folks who are faithful to conservative orthodoxy and believe that government is always the enemy, and really should not have a role, particularly in economic issues.

Tarun Chhabra:

And my view is that this kind of ignores a lot of history about innovation and technology development, in the United States in particular. If you read a book like Margaret O’Mara’s about the birth of Silicon Valley, the role of the US government and just the Defense Department is enormous, and even if you look at through the 1980s the largest employer was Lockheed Martin, it was not Apple or others, even at that stage.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think that debate is roiling right now within the Republican Party, and it’s only roiling because of China, it’s only roiling because they see that we don’t have a US competitor who can integrate a 5G network, and that we have to look abroad and we have to build a coalition now. And the reason that happened is that as China was ramping up support for its own industry, just to take 5G for example, and providing finance from its policy bank so that Huawei would be adopted around the world, US and other Western companies were basically withering on the vine in the face of that massive subsidy, essentially.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think that debate continues. I’m hopeful, though, that there are enough people in the Republican Party who could join progressives in the kind of agenda that we’re talking about. It doesn’t have to be the whole party, but there needs to be a caucus and a coalition.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, turning to the Democratic Party, curious to your take on where it currently sits on the China question. Because I think some people seem to take the view, I mean, there’s a lot of bipartisanship when it comes to this strategic competition piece, but a lot of people seem to think Trump’s issues with behaviors that have been undertaken, for all the ones you have listed, by the Chinese Communist Party are correct, but his mechanism of dealing with it are incorrect.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, I mean, I’m kind of curious for your take on that. So, for example, had Hillary Clinton have won the election, which she’d have been just as tough, even if a little more, I suppose, conventional in her approach.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think a turn was inevitable. And even if you go back and look at the last couple years of the Obama administration, particularly the last year, worked on artificial intelligence, on semi conductors, there was really a turn that was already happening. Would a Clinton administration have looked just like a Trump administration on China policy? No. I don’t think that we would’ve seen the trade war unfold as it has.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s a key question that often goes under-noticed about assumptions that we make about the Chinese economy. And so, in some ways, you could argue that what Trump has done is, while it appears to be discontinuous with some of his predecessors because of the tariffs. On the other hand, the underlying theory of the case for Trump is that we would go from phase one, which was about, basically, purchases, and mainly of agriculture in the United States, to phase two where we would get the Chinese to implement meaningful structural reform of their economy.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, essentially, his argument and his administration’s argument was, “We can get China to change. We can get them to change the way they subsidize their businesses, we can get them to change the way they’ve done forced technology transfer and IP theft for decades.” And I think that’s just a wrong assumption. And I think the better assumption, really, is that they’re not going to change any time soon, because it’s worked too well for them. And the key question for us is what are we going to do in terms of domestic investment and cooperation with our allies to respond to it?

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, I think a change was coming, but frankly that assumption needed to really change, and it hasn’t under the Trump administration.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s interesting. So, one of the things I’m curious about, is one of the critiques, in tends to come from progressive people in politics, but it also from the business community, certainly in Australia, is it possible to be more cooperative with the Chinese Communist Party?

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, some people say, “Well, if only the US was nicer in the way it approached matters,” or, “If Australia didn’t make comments about a COVID-19 investigation,” or, “If we allowed China to invest in our 5G network that the relationship would be fine.” Essentially, that the offense caused is always on the European side or the American side or the other Asian nation sides that are in the South China Sea debate.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, is it possible to cooperate, or do you think that’s a forced construct?

Tarun Chhabra:

Well, I think that the way that it’s sometimes framed is not productive. So I think that the traditional framing of this kind of interdependence fostering more stable relations, I think doesn’t hold up now. We’ve seen that’s not the way that Beijing sees this. The way Beijing sees it is dependence fostering ways to enhance their coercive power.

Tarun Chhabra:

And, in some ways, I think we need to think about interdependence needing to line up with some symmetry of interest. And to the degree that those interests diverge, I think too much interdependence actually makes the relationship much more unstable.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, yes, there certainly will be areas where we’ll find opportunities and we’ll need to cooperate with the Chinese. We’re not going to be able to deal with climate change unless there’s some sort of more meaningful action by China. We could’ve seen a world in which pandemic response was done in a more cooperative fashion, and we’re not yet at the vaccine stage so we’ll see how this goes. But it’s not looking like that’s going to be a particularly enterprise at this stage, given the way this is unfolding right now.

Tarun Chhabra:

But I think what we need to think about is what are the mechanisms by which we get to some sort of cooperation. And I think too often when we say cooperation we think that means there’ll be some sort of comedy. I think, instead, we may get “cooperation” when we think about a much broader toolkit, including deterrents, stop doing things, and some degree of coercion in some cases, to get China to cooperate on a certain set of issues.So I think we need to kind of disentangle and sift through what we mean by cooperation in particular spheres.

Tarun Chhabra:

The one thing I think we really have to be careful about, and I think we saw this a little bit during the Obama administration, was when there were areas where we felt we needed or wanted Chinese cooperation on transnational issues, whether that was climate change or nonproliferation issues. But often Beijing saw that as an opportunity for leverage, an opportunity to get us to do other things, or at least be silent when they were doing other things.

Tarun Chhabra:

So if you look at that period toward the end of the Obama administration, we saw the entire human rights bar of lawyers in China totally dissimilated. We saw the beginnings of what was beginning to happen in Xinjiang right now. So this turn I think really began…

Misha Zelinsky:

You mean with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, is that what you mean?

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly. The internment of more than a million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities there. But Beijing, I think believing in order to get them to cooperate on climate, in order to get them to go with the Iran deal, that they could essentially buy America’s silence, and that of many other countries, as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so, what we have to do, I think, is to be very clear that we’re not going to be trading these things off. We’re going to have to separate these issues. And if China doesn’t want to take meaningful steps on climate to the degree that we really need to do it, which is another issue that progressives are leaders on and rightly care about a lot, we’re going to need to think about ways to put pressure on the regime to get them to do the right thing on climate.

Tarun Chhabra:

And we’ve done this in micro fashion where the US embassy was advertising the air quality in Beijing, but we need to make the case to the Chinese people about the delta between what China’s doing now on climate and where that’s going to go, what that’s going to mean for China’s coastal cities, for example. We should be leading the charge on making that case clear on why China needs to do more.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you sort of touched on the debate internment, I’m curious about where you see the debate currently playing out in the Democratic Party, and then firstly how did it play out in the primaries? Because clearly President Trump wants to make this an election issue, and he’s targeting the presumptive candidate in Biden on this. So, what do you see the politics of that, firstly within the Democratic Party, and how do you see this playing out in the general?

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think you’re seeing, just as we’ve discussed, some of the debate in the Republican Party. We’ve got debate within the Democratic Party too, and it’s unfolding on the op-ed pages now of the Washington Post and the New York Times, and one line of the debate is whether Vice President Biden should make a tough position on China a central tenent of his campaign. He has decided to do so, I think for good reasons.

Tarun Chhabra:

But you have some democrats, and some of the lean democrat, basically arguing that that is dangerous. The basis for their argument ranges from, “That will induce xenophobia,” that’s certainly one. Another is that this shouldn’t be the subject of democratic and political debate. I find this one a little bit hard to understand because it’s such a critical issue I think it should be front and center for democratic deliberation. But, essentially, that it’s too sensitive or it will box in a Biden administration. Again, I find that one hard to understand.

Tarun Chhabra:

And then again others who say that this will lead to a militarization frame and, again, defense spending or commitments to US force aboard that they find unsustainable, or potentially risking conflict.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I think that’s a healthy debate to have, we should have it. It’s certainly a healthy debate in terms of thinking about where we should be investing in longterm competition with China and the degree to which I know we should be focusing on technology and economics as kind of the locusts of competition, to some degree.

Tarun Chhabra:

But I think the Vice President seems to have made a decision already on this question, and so we’ll see to what degree. I think those who have not liked that message find ways to, as we were talking about earlier, latch onto the argument to support some of the progressive causes that they do support. So I hope that we can mend some of that and build a coalition within the Democratic Party, but then also with republicans as well, on some of the reforms and investments that we desperately need.

Misha Zelinsky:

Any fair minded observer would assume that strategic competition at a minimum, irrespective of whichever party is in control of the White House or the houses of congress, is here to stay. But are we at the point now, some people have said that it’s a new Cold War, some people have said it’s like a 1.5 Cold War, it’s not the Cold War 2.0. But Vice President gave a speech a little over a year or two ago, essentially some people concluded that that was the beginning of a new Cold War. What’s your view? Are we in one? Is it inevitable that there will be one?

Tarun Chhabra:

You know, this is it a Cold War, is it not a Cold War, has become I think kind of a shibboleth for a separate debate about to what degree we should pursue competition and to what degree we should try to maintain some degree of engagement. So in the Cold War question per se I think we should be looking to the Cold War for some lessons because it was the last time we, the United States, was engaged in strategic competition with another great power. So there are things that we can learn from the Cold War that are applicable. But it’s obviously different in many other ways because we didn’t have the degree of commerce that we do have with China, nor did US allies have that degree of commerce with the Soviet Union, as they do today. So we have to account for that, obviously.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I think in general I don’t have the allergy that I think a lot of people have to talking about the Cold War in this context because there are really important lessons. Just in the last few months, because I mainly now work on technology competition, the lessons from some Cold War export controls still remain, I think, pretty valid. The alliance management challenges that we face today, together with our allies, I think some of those remain relevant as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

But again, I think in some ways, as we were discussing earlier, some aspects of competition with China are going to be more intense than they were with the Soviet Union, and I think that’s particularly the case on the ideological front, for some of the reasons we talked about. Whether it’s China being more flexible, or the technology and surveillance component to this competition.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, again, I think, “Is it a Cold War, or is it not a Cold War?” I think is less helpful than, “What lessons can be learn from the Cold War, and what’s different about this competition?”

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’ve talked a lot about competition, and one of the phrases now that’s in vogue is this concept of decoupling, and essentially which is to what degree should countries be sovereign in the supply chain integrity. Particularly when you talk about technology, and China’s notorious for its IP theft, in some instances. Well, certainly in its aggressive approach to IP transfers and its trade practices. But how can the US and other democracies structure their economies and their technological investments to compete with a much more monolithic structure in the Chinese state. But, at the same time, it’s more of a hybrid than what we saw with the Soviet Union, which didn’t have the same economic firepower that the West had in the previous Cold War.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah. So, yeah, in the current context obviously concerns about the medical supply chain and pandemic resilience are driving some push toward decoupling/reshoring. We’ve also had, in the US, an ongoing review by the Pentagon about defense supply chains and concerns there about resilience in the event of, not just conflict, but some sort of spat that results in China cutting off certain supply chains as well.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, that’s certainly there and those concerns are going to persist. But I think that we often don’t pay enough attention to is that the biggest driver of decoupling is China. It’s China’s own decoupling drive. So, if you look at China’s ambitions when it comes to artificial intelligence, or you look at the main 2025 plan, if you look at their 2035 standards plan, and you can say some of this, or at least that push for decoupling by China’s being driven, to some degree, by export controls that we’ve put in place, as well, certainly have been accelerated, that’s probably fair to say.

Tarun Chhabra:

But that’s the major driver here. Is China’s own, what they call, indigenization drive, when it comes to key technologies. China does not want to be intradependent with the United States or other countries when it comes to key technologies, in particular.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I think we need to, to some degree, really focus on China’s drive toward decoupling, and figure out what we, the United States, and we as an alliance, want to do in this window, which I think really is a window because it’s a window in which the CCP has clearly stated their intentions, they’re clearly making massive investments in talent in technological and industrial capacity. But they still don’t have the ability to achieve all of those, I’d say somewhere on the order of 10 to 20 years.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, what do we want to do in that window? What are our strategic objectives? And can we come up with a plan as an alliance to handle that? And I think some of the navel-gazing over, “Shall we decouple or shall we not?” I think is beside the point. It’s really not fully comprehending where China is headed and how we have to respond to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a role for allied supply chains? Some people have written about this concept that… Because I think people have framed this debate now as essentially you either produce domestically, or you rely on global supply chains, which are, a vast majority product currently, and certainly industrial production, occurs in the PRC. Is there a role for allied supply chains or trusted partners in that context?

Tarun Chhabra:

Absolutely. I think there has to be. There will be some industries that the United States will want to reshore to the United States, and I think that’s going to be the case, I think, with a lot of counties when it comes to medical supply chains, because I think the degree to which we’re totally dependent on some emergency supplies, I think, wasn’t clear. Especially to a lot of politicians and legislators until the COVID pandemic.

Tarun Chhabra:

So some of that will be reshored to the United States, and many counties I think will be doing the same thing. But more broadly on technology issues, if you look at the semiconductor industry, for example, the United States cannot do this, and should not do it, alone. There is news of a new fab potentially built by TSMC, Taiwan’s major semiconductor manufacturing company, moving to Arizona. But if you look at the broader supply chains around semiconductors, in Japan and Korea, the Netherlands, are all key players here. And I think we not only do we need to accept that reality and embrace it, but also think about ways of embedding allied supply chains as also strengthening alliance ties, which I think are going to be critical because we need them not just when it comes to technology, but we need them on a broader array of economic issues, and we need them on defending human rights and protecting free speech.

Tarun Chhabra:

And so I think the deeper that these ties can be the better. So we should think about this in the context of a broader alliance management and really focus on in particular sectors where, again, Beijing’s ambitions intent are very clear, what is our long term plan? And particularly, what is our plan in this window before China can actually achieve in a domestic capacity?

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you sort of touched a lot there on working together. One of the distinctions, perhaps distinction might the wrong way of putting it, but one of the certain characteristics of the Trump presidency has been, I suppose, apart from the Chinese Community Party, pulling autocrats closer and pushing away friends and allies, in what’s traditionally been a position of US leadership in multilateral institutions. Do you think it’s possible that we’re going to see a world that no longer has coordinating institutions? We’ve seen attacks on the World Health Organization, certainly the UN is not nearly as effective in settling disputes as it was. China has made it clear it doesn’t respect rulings from The Hague. How do you see the role of coordinating institutions in this more ideologically competitive world?

Tarun Chhabra:

We need them and I think that the way that the US should be thinking about these institutions is that they’re another forum in which the US has got to compete, hopefully together, with its allies against China. Because that’s certainly the way that China sees them. So the WHO is a good example here, particularly as COVID impacts developing countries, and countries that don’t have the health systems that the United States or Australia and many other allied countries have, we desperately need a functioning WHO. But we need one that is independent and that has integrity and is not pushed around by China.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I think the right way to handle the early days of this crisis would’ve been to be actively engaged with the WHO doing a lot of the diplomacy with international organizations, that we’ve been doing across parties for decades, where you are vigorously engaged and ensuring that no one is pushing their particular country’s interests over our own. And I think there could’ve been a different path for the WHO in this if there had been much more vigorous engagement with the WHO, pushing them not to do what they did, which was parrot some lines out of Beijing about human-to-human transmission, for example, or how well Beijing was doing in the early days. And as we’ve seen with some great investigative reporting over the last just week or so, there was a lot of concern internally at the WHO and I think a lot of them were probably looking for allies, who didn’t necessarily want to do what China was pushing them to do.

Tarun Chhabra:

I just bring that up because that’s obviously a very live example, but this is across the board. And I think, to some degree in the United States, particularly on the right, there’s this ideological baggage from the 1990s when multilateral organizations were seen to be purely a constraint on American power, and really not doing much else. Obviously the historical legacy then ambivalence toward multilateralism goes back even further with the United States, through to the 20th Century. But I think that period of the 1990s, this kind of ideological antagonism toward international institutions was really hardened. And you would think that it would be updated in the context of competition with China, because China’s seen this is an opening, where the US pulls out, China goes in, and exercises a very different kind of influence. And our allies’, obviously very frustrated by it, understandably.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I would hope that whatever happens in 2016 that we have much more vigorous engagement with multilateral institutions and that we build coalitions again with out allies to push back on some of the more malign Chinese influence in these places.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you talked a lot about allies, democracies working together. An idea that’s certainly getting some currency now. It seems that around the world, gradually, most democratic nations are starting to realize that there’s a competition here between systems, between the Chinese Communist Party’s model of autocratic technocracy and technological monolithic approach to things at home, and then increasingly that domestic tension between trading with China and being friendly with China is very difficult to manage. Do you see any currency in this idea being pushed of a so called D10, which has come out of this… Britain somewhat belatedly has now decided they don’t want Huawei participating, it would seem, in their 5G roll out. And, I’m kind of curious, they’ve been now pushing this idea of D10, of the world’s top 10 democracies coordinating actions together. Is there a role for that, or is that too overt?

Tarun Chhabra:

I think there’s definitely room for that sort of mechanism. I generally think that we’re going to have to be flexible in the kinds of arrangements that we have, and that there may be a variety of coalitions of democracies on different issues. And that might make it easier for some countries that are reluctant to be seen as participating in a “anti-China coalition.” But if we meet together where we, in one format, focus on 5G issues, and we meet in a different one to focus on semiconductors, and we meet in another context to push back on China’s done to the human rights regime globally. I think that’s all healthy, and we should be doing it.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think that’s the right way of thinking about the problem. But in terms of whether that’s going to be the sole institution or not, I’m less sure. And I’m guess I’m trying to be realistic about it because we’ve seen this with the quad, and you know this better than anybody else, getting the various countries to show up to a quad meeting and selling the agenda, can often be challenging because of the perception that by doing that it’s explicitly some sort of anti-China coalition, so…

Misha Zelinsky:

Containing Japan, India, Australia, and United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly, exactly. Whereas if you are meeting in multiple fora and just engaging in your business there may be less concern about that. I think the issue is less about whether there is this one discreet forum and more about whether we build a worldview, build a consensus about what the basic things are that we need to be doing together.

Tarun Chhabra:

And I guess I’m maybe too hopeful, but I see signs, particularly because China’s behaved so badly during the COVID crisis, of that turn really happening now. We see it building constituencies in parliament, we have this new interparliamentary working group on China issues, we push back to some of China’s behavior, kind of developing more of a domestic political valence. So I think the opportunities to do this are actually much better than they were. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if Xi Jinping had decided to hide and bide a little bit longer, if they’d not gone on the offensive they’d gone on, over the last several years and particularly over the COVID outbreak. I think we could really be up the creek.

Tarun Chhabra:

So I hope we can see some of the momentum and channel it into some productive and affirmative cooperation among allies.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I share your views there. Certainly for those that are critics of the Chinese Communist Party, they’ve certainly been validating, all of those critics over the last few years, certainly. So, just on that topic, the real big challenge, and I’m curious to get your take on this, it’s been autocracies and democracies, but it’s also between open and closed systems. I’m very much curious about how, what was different about the Cold War was that the systems work in competition, but they were separate. When we have this co-dependence, this interrelationship, and what it’s done is created a number of areas where foreign interference can occur and so called gray zone interference because there are so many different leverage points that exist and so many touch points that exist between both systems. But there’s no reciprocity. And what I mean by that, of course, is autocratic regimes, due to the openness of the democratic can meddle through the various different ways, through information or through finance or through trade, or what have you, in a way that you just can’t do. You can’t even Google the Tienanmen Square massacre if you’re in mainland China.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, how can open systems prevail in that context? Because traditionally the view is openness would win. You know, Bill Clinton said, “Good luck controlling the internet,” famously. Like nailing jello to a wall, I think he said. But it seems that they are winning at this point in that struggle.

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, so I think in the trajectory of that doesn’t look bright, in that sense that with the export of a lot of Chinese technology now, surveillance technology, and potentially the synergy between that and having Huawei as your 5G network, would suggest that the potential for control, kind of visual authoritarianism as it’s been called, has only intensified and is being exported around the world.

Tarun Chhabra:

I think we have to focus on our strengths as open societies. We’ve got to be able to show through example what our society’s about, and that’s what’s so troubling about what’s happening in the United States right now, as we certainly are not demonstrating anything by example right now, whether it’s in the administration’s response to the protest movement, or the response to COVID. But I think we can, again, and I don’t think necessarily that authoritarian societies, or the CCP even, has fully thought through what all the implications are of following through on their ambitions for surveillance.

Tarun Chhabra:

One could imagine a lot of situations in which those systems could go wrong and they could go sideways, in a lot of ways that could generate a lot of public discontent and potentially unrest. Just imagine a social credit system, basically blocking an entire class of people from accessing vital services, for example. So one could imagine a lot of ways in which it could go sideways, that I don’t think they’ve fully thought through.

Tarun Chhabra:

So, I guess I don’t see this as a binary where the question has been decided. I think it’s going to be a competitive experiment here where the authoritarian vision for technology and surveillance is being adopted widely in many cases now, but we haven’t really seen it fully roll out, and seen all the potential vulnerabilities that are inherent to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a case for democracies to be more assertive in their responses to interference efforts? So, over the last few years it’s tended to be one-way traffic, even if it’s from the Russians meddling with the United States election, or with Brexit and other European elections, or if it’s with the Chinese Communist Party interfering with various democracies around the world, including Australia. Is there a case for more assertive foreign policy approach to responding to that?

Tarun Chhabra:

Yeah, I think there has to be. It was reported that the administration in the United States took some measures against internet research agency in Russia, probably led by US cyber command to kind of disable for a period of time in response to some of the political interference. And I think that’s been, General Nakasone who runs cyber command, and I know security agencies talked about this as a policy of “persistent engagement.” And I think that is the kind of way that we’re going to need to engage some of these operations.

Tarun Chhabra:

I would be surprised if we didn’t see similar reactions to some of the Chinese disinformation around COVID, and then potentially some of the protests even, as well. Because I think for those who’ve been seeing Chinese information operations around Taiwan, around countries in their region, I think many of us have believed it was only a matter of time before that started coming to the United States as well, and hitting other allies. I think it’s happening now, and I don’t think it’s going to be going anywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we could talk about this for a very long time, but I know that your time is short, so I’ll, as ever, make my very clunky segue to the final question. The much beloved, stupid question that I ask all my guests about barbecues and who you’d have and why. It’s always interesting to me, so I ask it. But, you know, Australia and the United States clearly have a very long and deep relationship, and I was wondering who the three Australians, alive or dead, would be at a barbecue at Tarun’s. They all can’t be Crocodile Dundee, mate, I’m sure you’ll be madly googling.

Tarun Chhabra:

All right, let me see. Well, you know, when I was just out of college I had a chance to work at the UN on a commission, I was a junior staffer for this commission of very important people. And one of them was Gareth Evans, actually, so I’m very fond of Gareth, so I’d put…

Misha Zelinsky:

Our former Australian foreign minister in the Labor government.

Tarun Chhabra:

Exactly, exactly. So Gareth is always a great barbecue dinner companion, so I’d put Gareth there. Thinking a lot about the protest movement going on right now, I recall I had a grade school teacher who taught us about civil rights movements around the world, and so I’ve always admired your civil rights leader, Faith Bandler, who was involved in your 1967 referendum, and a key player there. And I’m a big fan of Australian wine, so maybe we could add Max Schubert, your master wine maker.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s how you know who’s bringing the booze, I suppose, to the barbecue. All right, well, mate, thank you so much for your time, Tarun, and look forward to catching up with you in the future, mate.

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks, Misha, for having me. It was great to chat with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers.

 

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.

 

Benedict Hugosson: Still the heartland? How social democrats can fight back in Sweden, Europe and the world.

Sweden is often considered to be the heartland of social democracy – but that may no longer be the case.

Benedict Hugosson is a global expert in political campaigning.

He has lead national field campaigns for the Social Democrats in Sweden and is a leading thinker in political engagement strategies and tactics.

An Australian born Harvard graduate, Ben has trained activists in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

I caught up with Ben for a chinwag about the fall in support for the historically dominant Swedish Social Democratic party, the rise of right wing nationalists in Sweden, why party membership is critical to voting patterns, how face to face conversations are still better than digital campaign tools, and what the future holds for mainstream European political parties of both the left and right.

It’s a fascinating, in-depth insight into what is happening right throughout Europe. It also uncovers the important role that membership and organising plays in electoral outcomes.

As ever, if you’re enjoying the show – please rate and review!

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:             Ben, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us here in Australia.

Ben Hugosson:              Thank you very much.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, we might start with a little of your background because I think this is somewhat curious one. How does an Ozzie end up in Swedish politics because, one I’m curious to know about and to how do I get the job?

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. Like you said, I didn’t grow up in Sweden. I grew up on the far North Coast of New South Wales. I think that the reason why I ended up in politics has a lot to do with my background here in Australia. When I was about 12 years old, my mother passed away with cancer and my dad was pensioned, he got sick and couldn’t run the family farm. When, we grew up there was a recurring theme of not having much money. There was one night in particular that I remember, it was a very hot day and Australia’s great in that respects, I love the warm weather. But what I love is when, of an afternoon, the temperature just drops and then you get these fantastic thunderstorms that come in and you get these fork lightning and it’s just such a spectacular light show.

Ben Hugosson:              On this night I’m lying in bed and we’re just about to go to sleep and a storm is raging outside and all of a sudden the whole roof blows off our house. Me and my twin brother, we get out of there and the family, we spend the whole night in the bathroom because that’s the safest place in the house. The next day I remember, workers coming and climbing up over our house and they basically had this bird’s eye view of my room and where I sleep, my bed. I remember looking at my bed and just seeing it very tattered and broken and I was embarrassed. I wasn’t only embarrassed, I felt so powerless. I never really got involved in politics in Australia, for me that was something that other people did.

Ben Hugosson:              When I got to Sweden, there was a lot of people talking about a politician called Olof Palme, and he was the prime minister’s Sweden. People seemed to love this guy and I had no idea who he was. One day, I looked up on, on Wikipedia, I looked up who he was, and I started to read. Down the bottom of Wikipedia there’s a lot of different links and I click on one of these links and I go into a website, which is Olof Palme International Center. Which is the aid organization for the labor movement in Sweden and I see pictures of people that are held back by structures, that basically may mean that people are powerless to affect their own situations. I see them and I see other people that are helping to remove these structures. So, people do feel empowered and oftentimes these people are the same people. And I could see myself in the people that were held down by structures, but I could also see myself in those people that helped remove those structures. That for me was really inspiring. There, and then I basically signed up to the party.

Misha Zelinsky:             The social Democrats.

Ben Hugosson:              The Social Democrats, exactly. After that, I went to an education to a training that they had for aid projects. Despite the fact I could not speak the language, I didn’t have a project, I didn’t have anything, they welcomed me with open arms. When you get there, there is such a focus on people’s movements, on getting people involved and when I was there, I met people and they just dragged me along to a meeting. All of a sudden you sit there and you start seeing how people are writing motions and they’re sending them through the party and it’s becoming party politics. You get this taste of democracy and you want more of it. That’s why I got involved with the party and why I have been involved with the party since then.

Misha Zelinsky:             For those that listening, and may not completely understand the situation currently in Sweden. Maybe you can just quickly cover that off, I always joke that most of the political parties in Sweden are all to the left of the labor party. But currently the Social Democrats are in government, but they were a minority government. Maybe you could just quickly cover that off before we dive into, what else is happening.

Ben Hugosson:              I can begin by saying the Swedish Social Democrats have been the most successful democratic political party in the history of the world. They have pretty much-

Misha Zelinsky:             I think the Labor Party, we also claim that. But we can arm wrestle for it.

Ben Hugosson:              Basically since the 1920s, 1930s the Social Democrats had been in power in Sweden, pretty much unbroken. What’s been happening recently is that that hegemony has been changing, has been loosening up. What we find now is that we have gone from a party that’s been about 45% and that’s great because we could, we could govern on 45% because we had. And left this party to the left of us that would just accept everything that we wanted to do. Just slowly but surely going down in getting smaller and smaller election results and then having to start bringing in other parties into our coalition. We started with the greens, but our share of the vote has sunk so much now that in the last election we were very, very lucky to form government. It took three months for us to form government. What we’ve had to do is actually start negotiating with some of the neo liberalist parties.

Ben Hugosson:              The reason why we can negotiate with these, is that there has been a dramatic increase in right wing populism in Sweden. We’ve had a, traditionally there are the Moderates who have been out our opposition who have basically now been dwarfed by a far right party. This far right party in the last week has actually become the largest political party in polls in Sweden. For us, that’s a bit of a defeat because we’ve always been that party. We’re sitting there now with a progressive block this has to negotiate with a neo liberalist block to hold out the conservative block. This conservative block hasn’t existed in Swedish politics for a long time, but they are becoming the most powerful block in Swedish politics. What is happening then is that now that we’re having to negotiate with neo liberalist, we’re having to negotiate away a lot of things that we went to the election on that are very, very dear to us as a political party. But, it’s becoming a solution that we have to have if we do not want a far right government.

Misha Zelinsky:             This increasingly is a challenge for a lot of… Social democratic parties globally been in decline of course, we lost the election here in 2019. But this is a challenge throughout Europe with the traditional center-right parties in many cases disappearing or being cannibalized by far right parties. What’s driving it in Sweden in particular, is there a particular issue that’s driving this populism that you can see?

Ben Hugosson:              You can look at this on many levels. Firstly, I think that the narrative that the far right is using, is built on the narrative of the right wing parties. To break down the social democratic hegemony that has been in Sweden, the right wing party, the Moderates, when they were looking to attack us back in the early two thousands. They looked at the welfare system and we’re looking at the amount of people that were actually cheating the welfare system. One of the first things that they did was they hired a right wing think tank to do a study and it came out in the newspapers and the title of the newspaper was. Or the article in the newspaper was two out of 10 people cheat or know somebody who was cheated the welfare system or something like that. It makes it sound like there’s a lot of people cheating the welfare system. But in reality, if we’re 10 people and everybody knows one of those people, then you can say 100% of people know somebody that’s cheating the welfare system.

Misha Zelinsky:             Lies, damned lies and statistics.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. What it did is it painted that picture that there were people cheating the welfare system.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is this a new thing in Sweden or it’s always been bipartisan support for welfare’s an attack of that nature, a new phenomenon?

Ben Hugosson:              The righters always attack the welfare system, but there has been such a large acceptance for the welfare system. Mainly because our welfare system it’s not means tested. It’s something that is general for everybody. So, if you are getting some government rebate, we don’t test if you have a low paying job or a high paying job, everybody gets it. That for us has been very, very important because what it’s done is it created a broad acceptance for welfare in the country. But, these attacks on these democratic systems were then use by the far right. Basically when you have the Moderates coming in and saying that, “There’s a lot of people cheating the welfare system.” Then you get the far right coming in and saying, “Okay, yes, we established that fact that people are cheating the welfare. They add that we know who was cheating the welfare system.”

Ben Hugosson:              They run ads where they say that our budget, it’s a competition between, pensioners that that wants a decent living standard and immigrants that are coming in and cheating the welfare system. They build up that tension, but we have to say that, that narrative that they have formed is actually on the back of neoliberalism. What they did when they created this mistrust of the welfare system, they created and an arena for the far right to come in and actually create conflicts in between groups in society.

Ben Hugosson:              I think that that is an important thing to see that the right wing and neo-liberalism has broken down a lot of the support for our democratic institutions. But I think that it goes a lot further than that as well. I think that when they have come in and they’ve broken down support for democratic institutions. They have broken down and privatized and hollowed out, democratic structures as well. One of the things that we have done is we’ve looked at the role of engagement in this crisis and one of the things that we see is that self-governing organizations have been basically the playground for where people have engaged. There’ve been the default mode of engagement for very many people. Since the 70s these institutions have started to lose members, so there’s a narrative that it’s political party, that are losing members but this is definitely not the case. It’s all-

Misha Zelinsky:             People don’t join anymore.

Ben Hugosson:              People don’t join anymore. We’re not a nation of joiners basically, and this is a problem both for the union movement or for political parties, but all-

Misha Zelinsky:             Churches.

Ben Hugosson:              Forming clubs, churches, you name it. What’s happening is that people aren’t experiencing democracy on an everyday basis or in these self-governing organizations. They’re not experiencing democracy and when they don’t experience democracy as a lived experience on an everyday basis. Of course, they’re not going to start thinking that democratic institutions can actually provide solutions to our pressing problems because they haven’t experienced it before. I think that there is a big connection there between what is happening now and the distrust in political process and the way that we engage. One of the things that we also did was look at what is the effect of party membership on election results.

Ben Hugosson:              In the 90s the Social Democrats had 260,000 members, which was roughly four percent of everybody that voted and when we had four percent of everybody that voted, we also got 45% in the elections. Since then, that figure has dropped, we’ve lost about 160,000 members and we’re down to about 1.2% of the voting population as a member of our party. We’ve also done the worst elections in our history and this is basically a straight line down. It pegs the loss of members. Another thing that we’ve also looked at is, what is the role of party membership in personification. Personification it comes from the Greek political party Pasok and when they basically disappeared overnight. Other examples of this are the socialists in France.

Misha Zelinsky:             France.

Ben Hugosson:              We’ve had Netherlands also being pasokified, Labor in Scotland. When we look at this, when we look at what are the organization, what are the political parties that are being pasokified. We see that they basically do not have members and there seems to be a critical role for members in this crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:             What is the key then to turn around this decline in membership, if you say that there’s this a causative relationship. How can parties encourage people to join, because we have the same problem here with the Labor party. Membership has declined as percentage of the population overall and certainly our primary vote has declined. What is the answer there?

Ben Hugosson:              I think that what we have to do is, we have to look at nature of engagement. There are many people that are saying, and I don’t know if it’s the narrative here, but it’s definitely the narrative in Sweden. That these, these old political structures and these old political parties have got old methods of engagement.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is in having a say in what the party does and its structures.

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah. Or just getting involved in a political party is not a modern way of engaging. But the problem with this is that the way that people engage now is a new way of engaging and our political parties are also engaging that same way. We’ve made a shift from engaging with people to engaging with content. When we like something on Facebook, we’re engaging with content and the thing about that is that you can do it by yourself. When we engage with people, we’re doing totally different things and this is basically how self-governing organizations have been built up. They haven’t been built up on engaging with content they’re being built up on engaging with people. That might be that, we sit round us in a local club and decide what we’re going to do, which issues we’re going to push.

Ben Hugosson:              But it is a discussion between people, we sit around and we talk about doing a campaign and this is the relation of organizing that. We see that it is coming up more and more where we’re actually rediscovering the old methods of engagement. I think that is really important, the innovative stuff that is being done today within the realm of engagement is actually a lot of the stuff that has been forgotten. Since the 70s I mentioned before that self-governing organizations have lost members since the 70s is that, what’s happened is that we’ve had TV, radio, email, social media. All these mediums come that have basically been mobilizing mediums and we’ve seen them as the new default mode of engaging with people and they’re the ones that have dominated. During this period of time, when we have been predominantly mobilizing people, not organizing people. We have lost leadership capacity within our organizations.

Ben Hugosson:              A lot of this memory of how you actually organize people and how you engage people with other people, we have lost. This is one of the biggest challenges that we have is that we have to relearn a lot of this stuff and not only relearn it for ourselves, but teach it to a lot of different people as well. It’s going to be a long road, it’s going to be a very hard road, but it’s a road we have to travel and we have to stop now.

Misha Zelinsky:             You talked about this disappearing acts of some of these great parties on the left and right. We’re talking specifically about the left in that example, but I’m curious about whether or not it’s caused it, even certainly correlated. The refugee crisis that existed as a result of the civil war in Syria and the flow on effect in Europe. What was the impact, certainly gets debated a lot and it’s been used by a lot of far right parties, particularly those who’ve got in to power in Eastern Europe and Hungary and others. What has been the impact of immigration on the political discourse in Sweden?

Ben Hugosson:              That is the number one most discussed political issue at the moment. Like I said, a lot of these narratives are built off the neo liberalist narratives. They use immigration as a way of, dividing Sweden up and putting people against people and it has been a tough issue for us to deal with. Absolutely, and when we had this immigration crisis in Sweden, we had very many people trying to come to Sweden. During a period of time we had this massive spike of people landing in Sweden and wanting to seek refuge. We didn’t have the organizational capacities at the time to be able to bring that many people into to Sweden. And to make sure that we integrate them into Swedish society by making sure that they have a job, that they have a place to stay. Just basic things that we all really, really take for granted. This was a a period of time that the right, they tried to blame us for it and they always are bringing up this period of time and of course, it was a very extreme period of time.

Ben Hugosson:              It meant that we had to take extreme measures to make sure that we could handle this. It was cold at the time, but we had to make sure that we had a place for people to stay. We had to basically look at every single building in the whole of Sweden and make sure that we had a place for them to stay. Some people, we had to make sure that the military maybe had tents to house people. So, it was a very big thing for Sweden and very tumultuous for a lot of people and a lot of people felt that things were, were spiraling out of control, absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m curious about this, because there’s a debate that exists and migration has always been a fixed problem in Australia, which I’m sure you’re aware of. It has been politically difficult for Labor, particularly in the refugee question, although there’s been more favorable attitudes towards permanent migration. But Europe is a little bit unique in that it has more of a borderlines about it. People are free to move around though they’re, Sweden’s a little bit different but largely participates in that. Has bought or corroded support for democracy, do you think? I mean, it’s a big factor in the Brexit debate, taking back control. How does that impact, because I know, look at the Danes are probably one example, where the labor party’s done well there. But they had a rather conservative position on immigration that they took the election. I’m curious about your take on this borderless, this question and whether or not it’s consistent with democracy.

Ben Hugosson:              Democracy works when people feel that they can actually influence democracy and even before this debating immigration, there was always a debate about how democratic the EU actually is. The immigration is a way for people to maybe express that feeling of disjointedness of not being able to influence, but it’s probably not some of the root causes. Not being engaged in your local society, if we can fix that and give people a place in society, I think that a lot of these issues will fade away. Because people will see that they do have a place that they can actually influence their local societies and they will feel empowered.

Ben Hugosson:              I talked earlier about the Olof Palme and he has a great speech about industrial society’s problem. He begins to speech by talking about, how much room you have, he calls it, elbow room and he says that when that starts to shrink, people will try to escape to their own private economy and I think that, that’s the case. Our job as Social Democrats is to make sure that people actually feel that they can influence their societies. We can have borderless societies, but as long as you feel that you can influence your society and where you live, then I don’t think that, that’s going to be a huge problem.

Misha Zelinsky:             What about, you talked about economics there. One of the things that’s so scary is I think as a Social Democrat is that, the country you would instinctively point to where Social Democracy has flourished traditionally and could flourish ongoing basis, is Sweden, the Scandinavian countries. A lot of people say, “Oh, that model can’t work.” I always joke that, Sweden’s not a theory, it’s a place you can fly to, you can literally go there, it’s not Narnia. But, what is it that… Is there an inequality emerging within Swedish society economically? Is that regional city divide emerging as well and are there people being felt, looked at economically. Is that impacting and is that creating a space for the far right to try to get in and sell populous message?

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah, most definitely. I think that inequality… Absolutely during the time of the Social Democrats. I don’t think that we should feel that, we’ve always done the right thing. But definitely when the right wing took over Moderates, then took over after 2006 that inequality started to shoot through the roof.

Misha Zelinsky:             Right around the time of the global financial crisis.

Ben Hugosson:              Absolutely. They took over just before, but I think that they probably used the global financial crisis as a way of actually forcing through some economic policies. That basically weakened the labor movement that made employment a lot more precarious and I think that people are feeling the effects of that. Things like, having to wait for an SMS to know that you have worked that day and these are problems that we shouldn’t have in a wealthy society like Sweden. These economic problems are actually starting to creep up and starting to become a problem. We see that in all unequal societies you’ll start to have people that have things and those that don’t have things. I think that this is one of the big problems that we have to actually start to address.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things that I find, I think a lot of social democrats globally are struggling with, is the theory with inequality increasing theoretically that should be good conditions for a social democratic government to come to power. For whatever reason, social democratic parties throughout the world or center left parties are really struggling to connect with people and the concerns that they have. May have, some policy solutions for them but it seems that whatever it is that we’re selling people aren’t buying it. And this precariousness or anxiety they feel we’re not connecting with them in fact, perhaps is that were being portrayed that way. But change seems scary when you have so little you only you’re afraid to lose even that little, bit. A risk on a social democratic party becomes more difficult. What do you think is the answer to make people have faith that we have the answers for them?

Ben Hugosson:              Actually there was one part of your question that I didn’t answer before about the divide between-

Misha Zelinsky:             Other regional areas.

Ben Hugosson:              The Regional areas and because I think this actually ties in a little into what we are talking about. If you go and have a look in the Swedish Social Democrats, we sing a lot of songs. Yeah. So we have our work of songs and when you look at a lot of these songs, they are stories about people moving from the country. Who often are the good people moving to the city and being exploited by the bad people. There is, even in our old songs, there is this divide and that I think stays, when I grew up, there were films like City Slickers. City Slickers is a derogative term for people that live in the city. This divide, it’s always really been there and it has been used like in our songs of workers to portray what some injustices are there. This is still there and it’s still a problem.

Ben Hugosson:              But for the Social Democrats, we have been those that have been able to bring these diverse groups together. One of the things that we have brought together and being like this big party that’s conformed government is that we have brought together progressive people but also conservative people. People that want some welfare or security system and those that value security. We’ve been this amalgamation of these two value groups and we’ve been able to talk across almost value sets but actually land in a set of progressive policies.

Ben Hugosson:              This is one of the keys to actually getting back into talking to some of these people is that, we can’t also divide up our country as well and say, “These are those people that think this and we think this, we’re progressive’s and we’re Social Democrats. We need to actually… How we’ve done it before is to go in and be really, really embedded in our societies and actually get these people to start talking together. Social democracy has never been a set of policies, it’s been a promise of democracy. It’s been a promise that together we can actually go together and influence our situation. I think that that’s what we have to do.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s interesting you’ve talked about this conservative element of social democracy. Increasingly it’s been overlooked, I think one of the problems that we have are attitudinal and we tend to hector people that are a bit more conservative. People that might be economically progressive as you said, but have more socially conservative views. What do you think the role for people perhaps that are religious or have more socially conservative views. What is the role for them to play in social democratic parties? Because increasingly they’re looking at parties such as ours and saying, well that party, I don’t feel at home there anymore. The labor party traditionally had a large Catholic element, which is I think still of our fabric, but an increasingly minimized fabric. I’m curious about your take on that from a European perspective.

Ben Hugosson:              Sweden is a lot more secularized than what Australia is.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s interesting because a lot of people say Australia is quite secularized.

Ben Hugosson:              We have the Swedish church and up until the 90s everybody was born directly into the Swedish church. In fact one of the largest elections outside of political elections or the largest selection outside of political elections is the Swedish church and it’s a big thing. That’s actually traditionally how the right wing in Sweden have come and gained power. Because, what they’ve done is they’ve won in the Swedish church election and because they get money and they a position in the society.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s a platform.

Ben Hugosson:              It’s a platform to run other elections. But for us, we don’t have large diverse groups of different religious groups, that is increasing, absolutely because of the immigration that has happened in Sweden. But religion generally does not play a role in, in Swedish politics. But, if you start thinking about say conservative and conservative values and their role, we traditionally have not had a large conservative block. This is something that is very, very new in Sweden, but it doesn’t mean that those conservative views haven’t been there. I think that this is largely because the Social Democrats have been able to sew together and to do it on this idea that, we want some security, we want unemployment insurance. We want a welfare state or health care that when we get sick we can actually be taken care of and it not break the bank. We’ve been able to amalgamate these groups and I think that we have to say that if we’re going to move forward, power is through the electoral system.

Ben Hugosson:              And, in the electoral system you need 50% plus one. We can’t just be talking to one value group, we have to be talking to multiple value groups and to make sure that we have the majority that we need to win. Our electoral system is geographically based so, we have to say, “Okay, well who are the people that exist in my neighborhood.” We have to go out and talk to these people and people that have progressive views and those that have conservative views, there is a possibility that they can land in the same policy platform. That’s traditionally what social Democrats have shown, but at the moment these more conservative people, these are the people that were leading to the right wing parties.

Ben Hugosson:              We have to start talking to them and start bringing them back in and make sure we have some common consensus about what we want. It’s not just us giving to them, it’s them giving to us as well. But, we have to see that our power is based on each other because the alternative is more right-wing ideologies that are more individualized. That see people as sometimes a commodity within a system, but also people that follow a powerful leader. There’s not much power in that for these people and like I said, we need to make people feel empowered. We have to start talking to them and we have to create arenas for that.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things I think is becoming difficult in a lot of democracies is this, either a winner takes all approach to the governing. No longer having mutual toleration and maybe the way Trump has approached governing, which is basically winner takes all. Or increasingly people just not accepting the outcome of elections or not perceiving elections to be the best way to get things done. I think of something like maybe the extinction rebellion, which is a bit of a global phenomenon, but people being extremist in their activists but also authoritarian in their approach to whatever issue or change they’re seeking. How do you think we can still make sure that people think that the town square or politics is the actual way to get things done. And that there’s an art of compromise there as compared to the, cancel culture in the left or the right wing populism on the right. What is the answer?

Ben Hugosson:              We can’t deny that we have very large and pressing problems and a lot of the problems that we face will require large and urgent action. I think that, that’s what organizations like the Extinction Rebellion are talking about. They’re saying that we need large and urgent action and we’re fed up with the inaction, we need to do something. I think that there is a lot of inaction and politicians might have to take some blame for that, but we also have to see that we need to create the prerequisites for actually being able to tackle these urgent problems. We have to create space for innovation, absolutely. For innovating in the climate movement. We can’t have the situation where we are, where we can only present incremental politics. Because, that incremental politics is not going to solve the environmental crisis.

Ben Hugosson:              The only option for us is to start talking to other people, is to start talking in society and creating a dialogue on what this is going to take. Because people, when you aggregate their opinions, that is vastly different. That aggregation, what you end up being is vastly different to when you get people to sit down in a group and to actually come to some consensus. When people sit and they start talking to other people, they start to empathize and they start to be able to give up things. That they didn’t think that they could give up before, mainly because they’ve empathized with other people and they see that it’s for the greater good. I think this was actually what was happening in the civil society and that’s why engagement is so important. We need to start talking to our neighbors and mix up.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mix in.

Ben Hugosson:              Once we start doing that, then I fully believe that we will be able to enact the policies that we need to be able to tackle these crisis. We do have large and pressing problems and we too need to solve them very, very quick. In some ways, these organizations are totally right, like Extinction Rebellion, we need to act now. We do, but we also need to create a dialogue and that dialogue will create the space for us to attack these problems.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s a challenge, I don’t think there’s much of a dialogue when you turn up and shut down cities and make people whose lives are already difficult, more difficult. I’m not sure that’s the way of getting it done but the thing actually is, you’re a party machine man and one of the challenges of seeing to this discourse question is this information bubble that we all live in now. You basically see it on Facebook or any other social media and be served up your own opinions of things that you agree with, in an increasingly specified manner. The right seem to have weaponized these in a particular way that is confounding social democrats globally. Are you seeing that in Sweden and secondly, how can we make sure that these social media channels, and have 50% of people now get the majority of their news from social media. How do we make those things work for us and how do we push back against these advent of fake news and this toxi fication of social media.

Ben Hugosson:              It is a very big problem and again, I think a lot of this comes back to how we engage with others. If we are to… There’s a researcher called Erica Chenowith and one of the things that she has proven is that no social movement that has been able to mobilize 3.5% of the population has failed. So, if you can mobilize 3.5% of the population, you’ll probably succeed.

Misha Zelinsky:             What is define and mobilize.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly. To get people involved in some action. I think that, that’s a very good statistic because it goes to show that, we probably don’t need to get everybody involved, but we do need to get a certain percentage of the population involved. Another thing is, is that if we’re going to get to that level, a lot of people that aren’t interested in politics today is going to have to be involved in this. The way that people generally get involved in movements is not that they see something on Facebook feel very, very inspired and then sign themselves up. That’s not how people get involved on that level. There was a guy called… I forget his name, but he wrote, he wrote a book called The Making of Pro-life Activists, and he basically followed people into the pro life movement.

Ben Hugosson:              These people became leaders after a while and so he could ask them, “Why did you join the movement? And they said, because I feel really passionate about this and I wanted to make a difference.” But he had followed the means, we knew full well why they actually joined the movement to begin with. A lot of them joined the movement because a friend had taken them to a meeting. I think that if we are going to get to that 3.5% then we need to start bringing friends to meetings. It’s about going through our contacts in our telephone and actually saying, who are these people that we can get involved? Who are these people do I want to bring to a meeting and to start experiencing some politics on an everyday basis basically.

Misha Zelinsky:             You say don’t rely on digital, get human to human contact.

Ben Hugosson:              These digital tools are just tools. I’m going to be using them to contact my friends, but I think that we do need to see that there is people to people relationships. They are the most important thing in what we’re doing and these people to people relationships are something that exist in real life. And, if we are using digital tools to actually communicate between us, then that’s great and then digital tools do play a role but we can talk to other people as well, ring them up, bring them to meetings. I think that we need to start bringing people in. People that are 100% interested in politics today, people that may be vaguely share our values but probably haven’t really been able to work out very clearly for themselves. Where they stand on issues but they need to be exposed to them basically and they need to come into our organization.

Ben Hugosson:              As an organization as well dealing with this, we need to basically, create activities that we can systematically make sure that our activists are bringing new people into our organizations. That can be done with online work tools, absolutely they make the process a lot smoother. But just like in door knocking, it’s the most effective method because it is face to face and I think that we need to see that value in being face to face. Even though it might seem like a long hard slog, it is actually the most effective way of getting people involved.

Misha Zelinsky:             People power, it’s old fashioned but it works, right?

Ben Hugosson:              People power, it all comes down to that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just to share a quick story, I remember I was studying in London recently and they had the guy who led Macron’s campaign and he came in and said, “We had this secret weapon.” I leaned in because I was curious, because it was a party that came up out of nowhere and he said, “Door-knocking.” I was like, Oh, wow. Something that every young activists gets taught right from the beginning, but they used it. Perhaps that they hadn’t really used it much in France, apparently it’s not a really fresh thing to do. But I thought it was fascinating that person or persons still the way to get it done.

Ben Hugosson:              Absolutely. The guy that was leading Macron’s campaign, he was educated by Marshall Ganz who is the lead community organizer in the world. They used that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, people power it’s interesting because I’m always have a clunky chinwag at the end of these things, right. The question I always ask everyone is, if you’re a foreigner, you got to invite three Ozzies to a barbecue. But if you’re an Ozzie, you’ve got to invite three foreigners. I’m not sure where quite sit here, I’ll let you cheat. But, three people, who would they be at your barbecue and why?

Ben Hugosson:              I can’t say anybody else, but Olof Palme, I would really, really love to meet that guy. He was amazing and if you can listen to his speeches, they are fantastic. I would invite him, I’d without a doubt invite my wife.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ll assume she’s there, right.

Ben Hugosson:              Exactly, she’s the one keeping me in Sweden.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good, very good.

Ben Hugosson:              I think that I would invite, who would I invite the last person, I don’t quite know at the moment, but it might be somebody from the film world.

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, right.

Ben Hugosson:              I’ve got a keen interest in films. I really like film, it’s interesting what’s happening in the film world at the moment. We’ve got this massive serialization of films and maybe I’d invite one of the Marvel guys and then we talk about that. How they envisioned that going and how they have succeeded at doing that.

Misha Zelinsky:             A superhero, a politician, and your wife. You got all the important ones in there, right. But look, Ben, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure having you here in Australia. Good luck in the upcoming elections in Sweden.

Ben Hugosson:              Yeah. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure being here.

 

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.

 

Wayne Swan: Economic inequality and the global rise of right wing nationalism

Wayne Swan is the President of the Labor Party. He served as Australia’s Treasurer from 2007 to 2013 and was Deputy Prime Minister. Wayne is credited with helping save Australia from the GFC and in 2011 was crowned World Finance Minister of the year.

As the author of numerous books on social policy, he has lead the domestic and global debates on the dangers of economic inequality. 

Wayne joined Misha Zelinsky for a chinwag about what went wrong at the 2019 federal election for Labor, why fiscal policy still matters in economic management, how far right nationalists are using inequality to win government around the world, why big philanthropy is a big problem for democracy, how Australia should manage an assertive Chinese Communist Party and where to from here for social democrats around the world.

 

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

Wayne Swan:                Good to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, what a place so we could start. It’s been a few months since the 2019 federal election. It was a difficult one for Labor Party people, the Labor Party supporters and members. I’m kind of curious, firstly, did you see it coming? And then, to your mind, what went wrong is the big question. But we can start there maybe.

Wayne Swan:                Well, I didn’t think we were going to have an easy victory. And I think the way in which the opinions polls were hyped up and the expectations got out of control and the bookies got it all wrong simply heightened an inevitability about our victory that wasn’t there in the foundations. And indeed, I don’t think it was there in the published opinion polling either.

Wayne Swan:                Yes, it was wrong, but it was not out in many respects and there’s no way in the world that anyone who was studying the opinion polling closely could’ve formed a conclusion that we were headed for a massive victory. Changes of government in Australia are always difficult, particularly for the Labor Party, and that applied last time. There are some things we did well, there are some things we did badly. We’re having a review about all of that, but I don’t think that there should be any automatic knee-jerk reaction when people are analyzing the result.

Misha Zelinsky:             So there’s been a lot of talk, I mean, your state of Queensland, Labor did most poorly there until in terms of our primary vote, but there’s a lot of discussion about labor’s performance in regional areas, outer suburban areas and this sort of discourse that we’ve lost touch with traditional labor voters, more working class voters. Is that something that you think is true or something you’re concerned about?

Wayne Swan:                Well, there’s no doubt that the Liberal Party campaign managed to dislodge many low-income, insecure and loosely politically aligned voters from the labor camp. No doubt about that at all. I think part of that was a very effective scare campaign, and particularly a campaign run under the radar via social media, which was promoting an economic Armageddon through death taxes and other claims that were terribly effective, got under our guard and dislodged those voters from our camp.

Wayne Swan:                So we’ve got some fundamental reassessment to do there, because if you look around the Western world and you look at the progress of social democratic parties, there’s no question that what I call the radical right, and I include the Liberal Party of Australia, which has now been taken over, if you like, by hard right elements. There’s no smaller liberals in it. Around the world, those groupings have been successful in removing voters, particularly lower income working people, from support for social democratic parties through the use of wedge politics, through the use of race, through the use of gender and increasingly through the use of climate change to pull those voters away from their traditional social democratic support.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, you talked a little bit about this, yeah, the online campaign that we saw, but also there was the impact of the Clive Palmer money.

Wayne Swan:                Sure.

Misha Zelinsky:             How much did that influence the outcome [crosstalk 00:03:03]?

Wayne Swan:                Well, there’s no question that the Clive Palmer money supercharged the themes that the Liberal Party were running. The Clive Palmer-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which was $80 million spend, right?

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. The Clive Palmer money was part of the conservative spend, so the biggest single spend that I can find in the Western world by a single person in an election campaign was turned into a preference recycling scheme aimed particularly at those groups that I spoke about before and it was very successful. So when people are evaluating this result, you can’t ignore the impact of this big money, which certainly had an impact in my home state.

Wayne Swan:                But I don’t believe the results in Queensland, putting aside the central and North Queensland seats, were any different to what we saw anywhere else in the country. It’s true, we did lose the outer suburban vote and we lost a regional vote, but that was no different in Queensland than it was anywhere else bar in Queensland the three seats that you would describe as directly affected by the issue of coal, where there were separate circumstances. So I don’t think the result in Queensland was little different to the result that we saw in outer suburban Sydney, regional Victoria or regional New South Wales. Or, for what matter, in cities like Perth.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, unpacking this. You touched on the global phenomenon. I think that this is a challenge for all social democratic parties around the world since global populism. In many ways, I think this is almost the U.S. 2016 election result or the Brexit result arriving in Australia, it has similar characteristics. So I’m kind of curious, firstly, what’s driving this global populism? And then why is it that the right, and the far-right, seem to be able to dig into it a bit [crosstalk 00:04:41]

Wayne Swan:                This is the critical question. The fact is that the Great Recession, or otherwise known here as the global financial crisis, really shattered the foundations of modern capitalism, which had already been loosening through 40 years in the growth of income and wealth inequality. And that growth of income and wealth inequality has bred resentment. And that resentment has materialized in the form of much more insecure work, the disappearance of what were once solid career opportunities with decent pay.

Wayne Swan:                And that, in many ways, shattered the faith of those people in basically their democratic arrangements. And as that’s occurred, unless governments domestically put in place a range of policies to look after those people, indeed as we did, principally, in this country, those votes increasingly became lost to basically what I’d call the center-left, and they’ve been increasingly captured by what I would call the radical right.

Wayne Swan:                You’ve seen this most particularly in recent elections in Scandinavia, you’ve seen it in Sweden, you’ve seen it in Finland, you’ve seen it around the world, that the use of race, the use of gender, to play into the insecurities of working people, and to play in to their loss of faith in the authority structures and decision making structures, in a society where they see the great gains of their labor principally going to a few at the top, has been the driver of the radical right and the great failure of the post-war period.

Wayne Swan:                See, for 30 years following the war, policies were put in place to drive a more equal and fairer society. And they were done as a hedge against communism on the left and fascism on the right. Following the rise of Thatcher and Reagan, and the advent of trickle-down economics, otherwise known by many as neoliberalism, we’ve seen a growth in rampant income, wealth, and inequality. And that has seen a fracturing in societies where there was once a consensus about a fairer share being the best way to drive prosperity and growth into this notion of trickle-down economics that if you give more to the top, then somehow, everyone down the bottom will benefit.

Wayne Swan:                Well, that’s just produced an enormous amount of distrust and it has created, if you like, the political space for the rise of the authoritarian radical right, which we now see so dominant in many countries across Europe, and you see represented in the leadership of Donald Trump.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah. And you covered a lot there about, I suppose, the conditions that are allowing this radical right to rise around this insecurity, economic inequality. The thing that’s got everyone, at least that’s on the center-left of politics about how do we respond to this, is that the conditions would seem to be good for a social democratic agenda around inequality and [crosstalk 00:07:35]

Wayne Swan:                They certainly are, but there hasn’t been the sort of social democratic leadership that we’ve required. I mean, we’ve done best here, in Australia and New Zealand, where we’ve had our social democratic aspirations reflected in Labor parties. And the anchor of our Labor Party is, of course, the trade union movement, which provides that direct linkage. And I think that has been why you could actually say that the big difference, say, between the radical right in Australia having a section of a Liberal government, and manifested, say, in the form of Pauline Hanson with a couple of senators, the big difference between that, and the election, say, of a Donald Trump in the United States, has been 30 years’ worth of real wage growth in Australia and 30 years of wage stagnation in the United States.

Wayne Swan:                But we started to see that wage stagnation. We started to see the profit share rise and wage share be suppressed. We’ve seen policies increasingly in this country after the six years, where pre-tax income has been suppressed in the form of wage suppression, post-tax income has been suppressed in the form of more regressive taxation. The twin combination of unfair taxes and low wage growth is tailor-made for either an ascendant social democratic party to storm to victory, or for a radical populist to storm the victory if the social democratic offering is not up to scratch. And when you translate that into our last election result, we should’ve won, but we didn’t have the sort of defeats, either, that you’ve seen in various other social democratic offerings in the past.

Wayne Swan:                That’s not an excuse for our outcome.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, in terms of connecting with working people and sort of reflecting their concerns, one of the challenges seems to be that there’s a perception, at least, that all sides of politics have been sort of colonized by so-called elites. And that seems to particularly hollow out that social democratic side of politics, both here and abroad. I mean, do you think there’s something about this question of big elites being from nowhere and people being from somewhere, and this question of place [crosstalk 00:09:58] communities?

Wayne Swan:                Well, I think that is really important. And I think it’s a reminder to all of us, on the center-left of politics, that to be out there with the people all the time, or of the people all the time, as comfortable in the tea room as you are in the boardroom, is absolutely critical. And I think many of our comrade parties around the world, in particularly the U.S. Democrats, have fallen prey and have not really learned that lesson.

Wayne Swan:                So I think it’s something we all have to keep in mind, but it is also something that the radical right specializes in through their authoritarian leadership and the associated gutter campaigns that they put into the system beneath the radar. And I would cite, in this example, the vilification and the smashing of the standing and reputation of Bill Shorten behind the scenes through one of the most aggressive and unprincipled demolition jobs on a politician’s character and standing that I’ve seen my whole time in politics.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, and so, in terms of… One of the things I think is challenging for social democrats is that, as faith in democracy, faith in government, goes down, it almost suits the right-wing agenda because they don’t like government [crosstalk 00:11:18]

Wayne Swan:                Well, of course it does. You see, the whole right-wing agenda, and this is what you see at the core of this government here, is to destroy the credibility and standing of government and to demonize government intervention. So, stage one of that was to demonize our stimulus, which saved our country from recession. To continue to demonize it, to do that, and to get into bed with plutocrats and parts of the business community so that when next time a huge global event comes, no government will have the guts to stand up and do what the Rudd and Gillard governments did in a time of need, which was protect our people and to use the power of government to do so.

Wayne Swan:                But it is ongoing, you’ve only got to pick up a newspaper or observe just about any policy of this current Liberal government, and find, at its core, an attempt to destroy the credibility and efficiency of public service provision. And there is perhaps no program that demonstrates that more than the so called robo-debt campaign that’s going on in Centrelink. The treating of people, that they fired the hired staff in Centrelink so that when the public wants to actually ring and find out what their entitlements, they’re on hold for 30 minutes an hour. This is all part of a systematic attempt to destroy the quality of public service provision so they can turn around ain the end and say to social democratic parties like mine, “Look, you can’t trust government, they can’t deliver services. I’ll tell you what, we’ve got a better offering. Have a tax cut instead.”

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, you touched on plutocrats. And one of the things that I’m so curious about, and there’s been a big backlash against what they called the Davos tops. And so, I mean, how do we make the case that democracy in government is still the answer, given that you see, increasingly, these big philanthropists plutocrats, where the argument is we can return the benefits of this inequality actually-

Wayne Swan:                Well, it’s outrageous and shocking. If people want to give money and make their society a better place, fantastic. But don’t expect a tax deduction. Don’t erode the basis of the government to provide the basic service provision upon which a civilized society depends. It’s just shocking that people who don’t actually pay the right amount of tax in the first place then turn around and want to give more money and get a tax deduction for that.

Wayne Swan:                Look, I know many people in the Australian business community who pay their taxes and they give away a lot of money, but equally there are plenty of people with a lot of money who aren’t paying their fair share of taxes and still expect a tax deduction and be regarded and favored in the community because they’ve given away money when they have shattered the very linkage between collecting tax and service provision by becoming tax termites and ripping away at the very essence of a civilized society.

Misha Zelinsky:             And it also is fundamentally undemocratic in that, ultimately, you want to see taxes collected by the government people deciding where those taxes should be [crosstalk 00:14:07] correlation.

Wayne Swan:                Exactly. And no wonder people then lose faith in democracy, because they see people who obviously have a lot of money, they see the publication from the Tax Stats that they’re not paying it, and then they see them standing up pretending to be very generous because they’re at some very worthy cause using these people as a shield against the underlying evasion they’re engaged in, and they expect to be clapped. No wonder the average person gets cynical.

Wayne Swan:                I mean, no wonder the average wager could get… well, actually, gets really cynical when all they ever hear is of high profile people, be they sporting people in Rugby Union or whatever, who are earning millions of dollars a year, but no one’s out there debating at the same time the fact that they can’t even get an enterprise bargaining up for a 2% increase. And they see this conflict. A news agenda dominated by elements of identity politics and big money for the top-end of town, and on the other they don’t hear many reports about the fact that their enterprise bargaining’s being squashed and they’re not going to get a decent wage increase for the next couple of years.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, yeah, in terms of this question of identity politics and economic justice, I mean, do you see those things in conflict? Because a lot of people say, “Well, we have to choose one or the other,” but my view is the thing that can unify people the most around whatever their identity is, is around economics and class.

Wayne Swan:                Exactly, and just ask Martin Luther King. I mean, it’s just not well known that when he went on his freedom march it was called Jobs and Freedom, and it was called Jobs and Freedom for a reason. That gender equality, racial equality is always going to be ultimately completely unattainable without a degree of economic inequality. So, we don’t ignore them. They’re all part of the same equation. But when you’re a truck driver in Western Sydney, or when you’re a steel worker in Wollongong, and all you ever hear about is a sporting hero on a million dollars a year having a court case dominating the news every night, and then you’re told in your latest bargaining round that you’re not getting even a reasonable increase, well, you really get the shits.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so, I mean, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Whereas you talk to people in the business community or you talk to the Davos set and they say, “What are we going to do about populism?” You say, “Pay taxes and lift wages.” And they’re like, “Well, I guess we’ll never solve it then,” right?

Wayne Swan:                Well, the two most fundamental elements of doing something about the entrenched long-term inequality in our community are progressive tax and a stronger voice for workers, principally through unions.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). And so you touched a little bit about the economy, GFC response or the Great Recession response. I’m kind of curious, firstly, you’re a former treasurer, what’s your take on the state of the economy at the moment? So, current… we’re in the weakest period of growth we’ve had pretty much for a decade.

Wayne Swan:                Well, it’s weak and anemic growth induced by the federal government’s refusal to put in place decent spending on infrastructure. It’s pretty simple, really. And it’s galling to watch the current treasurer somehow go out and try and blame the Reserve Bank for the fact that their fiscal policy isn’t working and that he intends to put pride ahead of outcome. We didn’t put pride ahead of outcome when our economy was challenged.

Wayne Swan:                I mean, imagine if these clowns were in charge and there was a pronounced international downturn, the likes of which we had back in 2008 and 2009. Well, I know what they’d do. They wouldn’t act, because they’re part of a weird brigade out there that wants the cleansing impact of a recession. Because they see that as eating away at the power of workers and a way of reducing wages, and they also see it as a political opportunity to run some of the authoritarian lines that may work for the sort of parties of the far-right elsewhere when people feel dreadfully insecure.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so you talked about, basically, that the Reserve Bank, which is a controlled monetary policy-

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             … and the treasurer who’s ostensibly in charge of fiscal policy. Now, there’s a suggestion they’re going to be pulling against one another.

Wayne Swan:                That’s right. Well, the treasurer’s fiscal policy is wrong and to cover that up he’s seeking to somehow say that the Reserve Bank governor should fix it through monetary policy.

Misha Zelinsky:             Despite [crosstalk 00:18:18] big 1%.

Wayne Swan:                Monetary policy is tapped out. Tapped out. Everybody’s saying, and it’s not just the governor of the RBA in Australia, I mean, there has been an excessive reliance on monetary policy because governments around the world have been dominated by an austerity ethos and therefore a reluctance to effectively deploy fiscal policy. Fiscal policy here and around the world should be playing a much, much larger role as we seek to deal with the economic challenges that we face 10 years on from the Great Recession.

Misha Zelinsky:             And obviously when you were a treasurer in the then-run government, there was a massive intervention via stimulus package. Do you think it’s possible today with the world the way that it is for the-

Wayne Swan:                No.

Misha Zelinsky:             … global response that we saw from every country to be coordinated through the G20 or any other mechanism?

Wayne Swan:                Well, 10 years ago, in fact, in March, early April, 2009, the world came together via the G20 and put in place a massive stimulus package to save the world from a Great Depression Mark II and to ensure it was only the Great Recession. Despite that package, it’s taken most developed economies over a decade to come out. Australia sailed through that period. Our economy now is almost 35% bigger than it was in 2007. The American economy is in the low 20s. The British economy is around 20 or a bit below. We sailed through. And because we didn’t see the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and the destruction of so many small businesses, we averted the skills and capital destruction that dragged other economies around the world down.

Wayne Swan:                Yet still, the conservative parties in this country carry on as if this was a massive mistake. Now, because of, if you like, the rise of the radical right it’s hard to see us getting the sort of international cooperation that we got from the London Summit in 2009 that dragged the world out of their recession and didn’t become a depression. If we have to go into those circumstances again, I don’t think we are or will see the sort of actions that G20 took 10 years ago. And that will be a tragedy, if that happens.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so a lot of this dysfunction we’re seeing principally probably arises from the election of Donald Trump in the United States which has been a disruptive force for the old world order, if you can call it that, and also the rise of China. Australia finds itself in the middle of this, particularly one of the big headwinds in our economy relates to this so-called trade war between China and the U.S. I mean, how do we navigate that in a political sense and in an economic sense?

Wayne Swan:                Well, sensibly, because our principal trade relationship is with China and our principal investment relationship is with the rest of the developed world, and our principal security relationship is with the United States. So we have to be incredibly careful and deft in what we do. We can’t be compliant if the China is out of step when it comes to really important issues like the South China Sea or, for that matter, even Hong Kong. But equally, when we are seeing some of the absurd decisions announced by the U.S. President, we can’t be seen to necessarily be compliant there. There is a real challenge for diplomacy and nuance for us to navigate what is a very, very difficult period.

Wayne Swan:                You see, this issue of inequality, however, is not just one that’s a problem in the U.S. and in the developed world. It’s a massive problem in China itself and, I think you’ll find, a massive problem behind the protests that you are also seeing in Hong Kong as well, because-

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, there’s a real challenge around the rental market there and the average wages from Hong Kong.

Wayne Swan:                Yes, that’s right. That’s right. Intergenerational issue. You know, it’s not just a question of political rights. But they have no political rights and are facing, if you like, economic prospects that they can have no say in or real impact on their government’s arrangements. So it’s a complex world. There’s no doubt the rise of China has been tremendously beneficial for the Chinese themselves but also for the rest of the world, but what it requires is principled and nuanced leadership, not bombast.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you touched there on an intergenerational inequality. I’m kind of curious about that, because one of the big things of the last election, just returning back to the election, was this question of the, imputation credits became a big focus and the impact on retirees. What about the impact on young people who are unable to get a secure job or are unable to enter property market? How are we going to balance the intergenerational pact?

Wayne Swan:                It’s a very good point. Well, we have got a huge intergenerational inequity problem. And my view is that our actions on negative gearing were broadly supported across the community for the very reasons that you have just outlined. I’ve got lost track of a number of people I know who have got negatively geared properties, but absolutely understand that there has to be fundamental change in this area if their kids and/or their grandkids are ever going to get a toehold in the market. So I don’t think that was one of those policies that was responsible for the blowback in the election. There might be ways in which you could be nuanced and change, but the fundamental generational inequity involved in those arrangements is one I believe that is understood in the community and the consequence was a tolerance for change in that area.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, the thing is as well, I mean, on the question of negative gearing, that’s a policy Labor took in 2016-

Wayne Swan:                Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:             … when it very nearly won in the election by one seat majority, or left a Turnbull government a minority government at the time. So, in terms of what are the policies we need to do though to make sure that we can… because one of the things that worries me is young people increasingly feeling disenfranchised from the countries that they’re residing in in terms of youth unemployment in the regions. And I think some of this sort of far-right politics we’re seeing there was a trumpification of the regions, a lot of it is from young people not feeling they got a chance to get their hand on the first rung.

Wayne Swan:                Well, we got to spend a lot of more time interacting and communicating in this area. I think a lot of young people want to know that principle matters, I think a lot of people want to know that values matter. Now, our challenge is to live up to that creed. And this is the point that I’m going to continue to make as president of the party, that principles and values matter. But so too does compromise from time to time, because to ultimately implement your principles and your values you’ve got to hold power. And we have to be seen to be able to do that in ethical ways.

Wayne Swan:                And I believe there’s probably no party around the world in a better position to actually do that properly than the Australian Labor Party. The period of government under Hawke and Keating, the period of government under Rudd and Gillard, over and above any of the blemishes those governments had, did achieve an enormous amount. Very much in the tradition of earlier labor governments whether it’s a post-war reconstruction under Chifley. Labor’s got a tremendous history to draw from as we go forward and to demonstrate to people that politics and government can be a force for good and can make a difference in the lives of people.

Wayne Swan:                But it’s just, making a difference through a government decision-making is not something that happens one day and is seen the next. To convince people that these objectives could only be achieved in the long-term, not the short-term is the challenge, because the populace from the radical right will never give a principled and effective policy a chance to get off the ground. No greater example of this than what the Conservatives did to the carbon price. If that carbon price had survived in Australia, we would be having an entirely different political and economical debate. And what sections of the business community aligned with the radical right of the Liberal Party did in destruction of the carbon price will go down in history as one of the most wanton acts of economic and social destruction in the history of our nation.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). I actually also would give a special shout-out to the Greens who were voting against the ETS twice in 2009.

Wayne Swan:                Exactly. Exactly. [crosstalk 00:26:36] that as well. Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             I always like to remind my friends of that if they are particularly left-wing and inner-city Greens that there’s only one party that’s put legislation as a party of government to the floor and enacted price and action on climate change.

Wayne Swan:                Well, if we would’ve got it through back in 2009, a lot of the other events that occurred may not have occurred either, but anyway.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, how does Labor… I mean, the last 10 years, I think, the climate wars for the last decade in Australia have been pretty devastating, both the cause of climate action, but also on progressive politics. I mean, how do we square this circle between these young people who are very energized about climate change and people in the inner city that I think are energized?

Wayne Swan:                Well, we’ve got to get them to understand that when you’re tackling climate change and doing very substantial emissions reductions it’s just not a question of coal. It’s a question of emissions reductions across the board. Of course we have to move as quickly as we can from fossil fuels and replace that with renewable energy. And it has to be driven. It has to be driven by a price on carbon. And the problem at the moment it’s not driven by a price on carbon. Many of these well-intentioned people think that their obligations are discharged by fighting against a particular coalmine here or there. The truth is that our coal, our thermal coal is 4% of world’s thermal coal. Most thermal coal around the world is mined-

Misha Zelinsky:             Locally and used locally. Yeah.

Wayne Swan:                … and used locally. What the world needs, what Australia needs is a carbon price for us to make the transition across all of those elements. To think that if you knock off Adani or knock off a couple of coalmines in the Adani basin, that this is some substantive contribution to the fight against climate change in the short term or the long term is simply not true. Yes, we have to make that change. We are, despite the government’s opposition, making substantial headway in renewable energy thanks largely to the NASA progressive business and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation that I set up and that the Conservatives did not manage to destroy.

Wayne Swan:                So this climate change debate is broader and more complex than it appears in the media, and as a progressive party we’ve got to continue to argue for a strong set of emissions reductions which are far greater in their impact and their scope than any one particular coalmine at any one point of time. I was with Nicholas Stern the day that he announced the Stern report back in two-

Misha Zelinsky:             Was it 2009? ‘8?

Wayne Swan:                No, not ‘9.

Misha Zelinsky:             ‘7?

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. ‘6, probably.

Misha Zelinsky:             ‘6? God, that was a long time ago. I remember [crosstalk 00:29:15]

Wayne Swan:                When I was in Whitehall visiting Gordon Brown.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah.

Wayne Swan:                And if you go to the Stern report, it always envisioned that coal production would go down gradually as renewable energy went up. And that has not fundamentally changed. We are not getting the emissions reductions across many of the other critical sectors that we need, and so much of this concentration on a particular mine here or there drags critical attention away from what is a diabolically difficult area of public policy achieving these reductions across a whole range of sectors that people never talk about.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the other thing I think we need to… those that are passionate about climate change and the environment, except we need to make significant action in that space. I think one of the things that challenges the politics of it is the asymmetry of who’s impacted.

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so the people that are very passionate about it in the city, their job’s not impacted. But the people that are going to be impacted, have to wear the costs of it have to-

Wayne Swan:                Exactly. Yeah. And where the people are impacted, they feel that the people that have strong views don’t care about them.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah.

Wayne Swan:                So you get a political backlash that ultimately undermines the progress on climate change.

Misha Zelinsky:             Correct.

Wayne Swan:                Because a very significant section of the progressive alliance is told by another section of it that they don’t count anymore, or that they don’t like their lifestyles, or they don’t know how to think, or they’re ignorant.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah.

Wayne Swan:                And that was the problem of the Bob Brown caravan.

Misha Zelinsky:             Indeed.

Wayne Swan:                And yeah, we just can’t go down that road if we are going to win this fight against climate change.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, and we need to build those coalitions and find ways… I think there’s a role for industry policy in terms of finding ways… industry’s going to decline over the time.

Wayne Swan:                Absolutely. You know what I find when I go out? In the business community it’s a generational thing. If you meet anyone now involved in business under 50, they’re talking the economics of climate change. Because what’s going to drive climate change is not necessarily reductions targets. It’s going to be the fact that the market won’t lend to these people. That there’s good business to be done. So you could have a decent conversation with many in the business community who are younger, because they actually get the economics of climate change as well as the environmental issue and outcome. And they are actively out there, involved in the fight in a commercial way, and we need all of them in the tent.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so I just want to turn a little bit back to your time as a treasurer and deputy prime minister in the Gillard government, commissioned an Asian Century White Paper. I’m kind of curious to contrast the view of the government then with how the world’s turned out. I mean, it was a very cheery or upside sort of document about the economic potential and perhaps overlooked maybe some of the bigger challenges of an assertive China that we’ve seen in the [crosstalk 00:31:54]

Wayne Swan:                Well, it wasn’t meant to deal with security matters. I mean, it was a very good paper. And these people would’ve been burning books back in the 1500s. I mean, they eliminated the Asian Century White Paper from every government website.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is that right?

Wayne Swan:                Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:             So it’s just gone? I didn’t know that.

Wayne Swan:                I mean, I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the future of our country should go and read the Asian Century White Paper, because-

Misha Zelinsky:             How will they find it?

Wayne Swan:                Well, it’s-

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s on Wayne’s website.

Wayne Swan:                Well, fortunately, it’s still around, but-

Misha Zelinsky:             Right. Well, that’s an interesting aside. But anyway, we were getting into the… yeah.

Wayne Swan:                Anyway. And it was so well received in the region. And in many ways, as I moved around and the members of the committee moved around, it was, if you like, putting the final nail in the coffin of White Australia, that they finally thought, over a whole range of issues, this seemed to bring together the notion that Australia saw itself as Asian-facing and part of Asia. And we have a different discussion now about Asia and Australia than we had when I first went to university or indeed was in politics for the first decade or so. You know, that we all understand that it’s part of a growing region and with it come the challenges, one of the biggest one we were talking of, climate change.

Wayne Swan:                And the other one is growing inequality, because unfortunately the trickle-down model that has been used in the developed world is now being aggressively used in the developing world including by communist China and resulting in rampant wealth and income inequality in both types of countries. So the problems we face are similar. Of course, in our region at least a third of the countries are in dire poverty in what you’d call the broader Asian region and a lot more work needs to be done in dealing with their challenges. It’s not just a question of China when you’re dealing with Asia. Non-China Asia is bigger than China.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sorry, India and Asia and somewhere else?

Wayne Swan:                Well, but all those other little countries that there is so many of them where the very basis of development has not even begun. So there’s still a lot of poverty alleviation to be done in Asia. We do focus on the Asian middle class because it’s what brings so much prosperity to our country, but we shouldn’t lose focus either in Asia or in Australia on those struggling countries across the Asia-Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:             So when you said the White Paper was an economic document, obviously, there were defense white papers at the time, and there’s that duality that exists in public policy in Australia which is that kind of that Tony Abbott describes as fear and greed. Do you think the relationship with China since the Rudd -Gillard government has changed and how would a Labor government best interact with a more assertive China now?

Wayne Swan:                Well, I think the Abbott government bungled it from day one when they held that completely dysfunctional G20 in Brisbane and Prime Minister started lecturing global leaders about the Australian health system and all sorts of bizarre things and he banned climate change from discussion at the summit.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Wayne Swan:                So President Obama went and gave a speech up the road at the university about the importance of climate change. It hasn’t been a great start in terms of our relationships with China. I think the government’s playing catch-up there now, but still is deeply confused about where we are and who we are.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so one of the things you responsibility when you’re treasurer is the FIRB decisions and the FIRB board reports treasurer in the cabinet. But I’m curious about foreign investment decisions. Should we worry about state-owned enterprises buying up shares [crosstalk 00:35:21]

Wayne Swan:                Absolutely. And I-

Misha Zelinsky:             … by an autocracy.

Wayne Swan:                Well, of course we should. And one of the first statements I made after I became treasurer in the middle of 2008 was putting obligations on approvals for state-owned enterprises. We don’t want any government body dominating a supply chain or dominating a market. I didn’t-

Misha Zelinsky:             And you talked about Chinalco trying to buy Rio Tinto?

Wayne Swan:                Well, far bigger than that, but takeover… it was actually always an attempt to take over a BHP. So if we had five medium-sized companies in a particular area and they wanted to buy one, well that’s fine, but if they wanted to come in and buy the lot, no. So we put down some principles about competition being observed, the whole series of principles, because ultimately you don’t want another government directing the private enterprise activities of its subsidiaries in your country.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). And what about things like critical infrastructure? We’ve had [crosstalk 00:36:15]

Wayne Swan:                Absolutely. Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:             … network, but, of course, [crosstalk 00:36:19]

Wayne Swan:                Well, in fact, I did that.

Misha Zelinsky:             That was from the NBN, yeah.

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. For a good reason. So yes, there are national security implications of these things, always has been, always will be. You shouldn’t be letting foreign countries buy companies in your missile launch zone, for example. And I stopped one Chinese company from doing that. I say there’s another example of that that’s almost live at the moment, of course.

Misha Zelinsky:             Correct.

Wayne Swan:                There’s always been a national security element of any form of economic policy. And I think in recent years the capacity, including under us the broader part in this outlook, if you like, has increased.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so what about situation where government makes a decision and then China often responds with a fair bit of hostility about those decisions. You’ve got sort of this use what they call hostage diplomacy with the detaining of Canadian citizens, Australian citizens in response to 5G decision here and also with the arrest of the Huawei executive in Canada. I mean, how did you stand up to Chinese decisions at the time and how does a government do that going forward?#

Wayne Swan:                Well, I had a couple of particularly difficult and tense meetings. In fact, went I went to China to explain the fact that for the first time Australia was going to enforce responsibilities on state-owned enterprise investments in Australia, I was accused openly of being a racist. Now, that regime exists to this day. It was put in place for a good purpose. But when you look at these people, you got to go and look them in the eye and tell them what you’re doing. I think one of the problems that we’ve got is a lot of this diplomacy doesn’t necessarily come from what’d have been across-the-table discussions.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’re talking about megaphone diplomacy?

Wayne Swan:                Yeah, megaphone diplomacy rarely works. But if you got to engage in it, you’re want to make sure you go and look in their eyes first.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mm-hmm (affirmative). So you think there’s a bigger interpersonal thing that we should be working on in that sense?

Wayne Swan:                Well, I think you got to work on it, but you got to be realistic it won’t always work.

Misha Zelinsky:             Although [crosstalk 00:38:23]

Wayne Swan:                You don’t know until you try.

Misha Zelinsky:             Indeed. But, I mean, for example with Turnbull, when he was making some decisions around foreign interference around donations et cetera, Australia was essentially put in what they call the freeze where meetings were all canceled. So how do you handle that sort of stuff?

Wayne Swan:                Well, I don’t know whether that was what caused that… I mean, but we’ve got, and any country would have responsibilities. For example, China wouldn’t let us invest in a company in their missile launch zone, so we most certainly wouldn’t let them do it in ours. And that was the conversation I had with the minister at the time, and it turned out to be amicable. So you got to have these discussions. They are difficult. There will be positioning publicly. There will be conflicts. But the most important thing, and you don’t always know what’s going on, is that there needs to be under the surface, effective dialog by other ministers, diplomats or both.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right. That principal reciprocity, I think, is a good one and I think it’s a very useful one for us to use. So do you see a new… you know, we haven’t had blocks in the world since the fall of Berlin Wall. Do you see increasingly blocks emerging between the so-called liberal democracies and autocrats?

Wayne Swan:                Well, what I see emerging is a hard-right movement which has its roots in both United States, in a number of European countries and most particularly Hungary, backed in by some pretty sophisticated operations coming out of the Soviet Union. And there is plenty of documentation now about how that worked in the last presidential campaign in the United States, how it worked in the Brexit campaign and how it has played out in a number of other countries. So yes, I think we have to be alive and alert to the fact that there is an authoritarian push across a number of democracies to influence domestic outcomes.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so how do we deal with this challenge of these open systems? You know, this use of Facebook, social media, and yeah, you touched on it at the beginning with [crosstalk 00:40:25] question about it.

Wayne Swan:                Well, by making sure that your capacity to repel it is high, to detect it and then repel it.

Misha Zelinsky:             And should we be holding these… Facebook’s in America [crosstalk 00:40:37]

Wayne Swan:                There’s no question that Facebook and those organizations are going to be subject to much more regulation and scrutiny than they have in the past and that will be a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so just turning back to Australian politics, you recently retired from parliament, though you’re not retired, I know that, otherwise you’d jump across the table on me, I’m sure, if I were to say that, but are you missing politics at all, the [crosstalk 00:40:57]

Wayne Swan:                Well, I got out of parliament, but I haven’t got out of politics.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, still the president of the party, so…

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. No, but I got out because I wanted to have a bit more time to particularly spend with family. I’ve got two grandchildren, two children living overseas, so a bit of travel. I’ll never give up my public policy interests and I’ll never give up fighting for the Australian national interest, but I thought it was time to move on in terms of the parliamentary party, but I’m not giving up the discussion or the battle of ideas, because that’s something I’ve dedicated my life to. I just want a bit more time to get into surf which I’m doing a lot more of and to be with and talk to my family.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so one of the things you talked about in your valedictory, but also in other, in the last few of years of being in parliament, was the impact of time away-

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             … and what politics does to families and the people. I mean, give us a bit of insight about the difficulties.

Wayne Swan:                Well, it’s a cruel world and if you’ve got a busy job, you’re away a lot, so you miss so many important events and you run the risk of being emotionally separated from and decoupled from the most important people in your life. And I said it in my main speech, that I wished I’d actually made more time for that, and I do regard that as a failure in my career. I have just been fortunate to have a very tolerant family, but it’s something that I want to spend more time on.

Misha Zelinsky:             In your time in politics, it’s probably fair to say that the prestige of the political class and of their institutions has probably diminished and faith in the institutions is much lower now when you look at any survey, not just in Australia, around the world. What’s driving that and can we get it back, and how? Because I think it’s so important.

Wayne Swan:                Well, I think the radical right is driving it. I think there are political forces driving this who’ve got an interest in demonizing the role that government has in our society and that is a vested interest so they can grab more of the product of the labor of our people than they’re entitled to. I think it’s very much driven. It’s also driven in an underlined way by many of the technological changes, the speed of communication and the nature of communication, or sort of hyper drive that or make it a hyper circle, if you like.

Misha Zelinsky:             And politics is sort of slow, the legislative process is slow, the world is quick.

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. Yeah. So it’s a combination of all of those things, but we got to get back to a bit more moral base and value base in our politics we got at the moment. And to do that you’ve got to out these people and hidden actors behind the scenes who are setting out to destroy trust between people.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you talked again, in your valedictory, about a turning point in Australian politics being the Tampa crosses, and you sort of touched there on values and morality. How did that impact on politics and what are the [crosstalk 00:43:38]

Wayne Swan:                Well, it was the beginning of the radical right in Australia purposely, deliberately using race as a wedge. And we hadn’t seen that in that way in this country before. It’s been a feature of politics in the United States for a long period of time, but the first we really saw of it as the country basically came out of its White Australia and embraced multiculturalism was Pauline Hanson.

Wayne Swan:                And what we’ve now seen as the embrace of Pauline Hanson by the conservative side of politics and the use of race and gender issues both openly and covertly, and I mean covertly even in the recent election campaign, where most people would say to you, “Oh, the refugees or all these things weren’t an issue.” They were. They were out there and they were pushed hard by that radical right under the scenes in many marginal electorates around the country. So we’ve got to try to eradicate that again. But my fear is that Liberal Party has been taken over by the extreme right and we’re in for an extended battle here. A battle for the nature and the type of Australia that we all want.

Misha Zelinsky:             And it’s interesting, because you talked, in ’87 Howard was basically pilloried for his attitude to Asian immigration.

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             Then when Hanson first came to parliament she was basically excluded by the entire political class, but also by the media.

Wayne Swan:                Now you’ve got Channel 7 paying her and TV channels paying her to do interviews, when she’s an elected member of parliament. It is an outrage and a disgrace that media organizations in Australia are involved in that sort of activity.

Misha Zelinsky:             And then the other… you know, the somewhat perverse one is that Tony Abbott, of course, was famously involved in destroying One Nation Pauline Hanson and then the next iteration, when Hanson returned back into parliament in the 2016 double dissolution election-

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. Well, the big-

Misha Zelinsky:             … he was photos with her and saying that One Nation’s now different.

Wayne Swan:                Well, the big change in my time in politics has been the elimination of smaller liberals for a Liberal Party and its takeover by a U.S. style republican right. And significant sections of the business community as well. The Americanization, if you like, of the conservative side of politics has occurred in our lifetimes and we’re now living with the consequences of it. And, as I said before, exhibit A is energy policy.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so I was curious, and I’ve put this question to you before to give you a bit of a chance, but, your best day on the job and your worst day on the job in politics, I’m kind of curious about, what are the things that make politics so powerful and what can make it so hard?

Wayne Swan:                Oh, well, the best day was the day we found out that we weren’t going to recession. That all the stimulus that we put out there had effectively worked. It was the very, very, very best day that I’ve ever had in public life. Because we didn’t know. We were operating in a very difficult policy environment. The worst day? Oh, there’s lots of bad days in politics.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ll bet.

Misha Zelinsky:             And, well, I won’t explore that any further, but now, the final question I always ask everyone, so it’s a foreign policy podcast largely, we’ve covered all the terrain, but, three foreigners alive or dead would be at a barbecue at Swannie’s. Who would they be and why?

Wayne Swan:                I think I’d go for Neil Young, just for a bit of sort of music interludes. I could’ve easily picked Springsteen.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, I was going to say, I mean, I think you could’ve picked a few.

Wayne Swan:                Or even Dylan. So I would just take those three.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay. Practical list, practical list.

Wayne Swan:                I would just [crosstalk 00:47:20] in terms of-

Misha Zelinsky:             I think everyone… you’ll pay in about odds on to pick Springsteen, but we’ll go with Neil Young.

Wayne Swan:                I’m just in the Neil Young phase at the moment for some reason.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good.

Wayne Swan:                Secondly, it’s a sort of toss-up, but I’d actually say Lyndon Johnson.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, LBJ.

Wayne Swan:                Well, you know, he really stuffed up the Vietnam War, but I tell you what, what he did with the Great Society, just about every big social and economic change of a progressive nature, most of which have now been eliminated now was put in by that guy. Anyone who reads the Robert Caro books will understand why I’ve chosen LBJ.

Misha Zelinsky:             He’s a fascinating character as well because he’s considered to be the ultimate machine politician who did so much progressive change, right?

Wayne Swan:                Well, that’s it. Well, maybe there’s a connection. Maybe he knew how to get it done.

Misha Zelinsky:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Wayne Swan:                And thirdly, well, I better choose an Aussie.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, no. It’s got to be foreign.

Wayne Swan:                Oh, foreign? Oh, right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, yeah.

Wayne Swan:                Well, you probably got to go for Mandela, right?

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, well, Nelson Mandela. Yeah, indeed. I mean, Nelson Mandela, LBJ and Neil Young all in a room at Swannie’s would be a good one, right? Well, look, before we go, I’m going to give a plug to the podcast. If you haven’t rated and reviewed it yet, please get on. It’s been a great chat with Wayne. If you don’t do it for me, do it for Swannie because he’s going to want to see this getting out to as many people as possible. So Wayne, thank you so much for joining us and I really appreciate the chat.

Wayne Swan:                Pleasure.

 

Dr Charles Edel: The Gathering Storm? How the ‘Lessons of Tragedy’ can help preserve global peace.

Dr Charles Edel is a Senior Fellow at the United States Studies Centre.

He was the Associate Professor of Strategy and Policy at the U.S. Naval War College, advised the Secretary of State John Kerry on political and security issues in the Asia-Pacific and was a Henry Luce scholar at Peking University.  Charles is the co-author of 

The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order (2019)’ and his editorials regularly appear in The New York Times and other publications. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Charlie for a chinwag about Mike Pompeo’s visit to Australia,  ongoing US China tensions, whether we are seeing the repeat of the gathering storm of the 1930s, the brave protesters of Hong Kong, how democracy can revitalise itself, the dangerous polices of the Chinese Communist Party,  and why it’s so important that we learn from historic tragedy. It was a wide ranging chat and I hope you enjoy it!

Misha:                          Charles Edel, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Charles Edel:                 I’m great. Thanks very much for having me on Misha.

Misha:                          Pleasure’s all mine. I appreciate having you on. So for the audience now obviously have given you, lifting the lid on the white podcast. Look, you’ve got the great intro about with your bio, et cetera, that I thought would be interesting, how does a person who worked for a secretary of state Kerry foreign policy expert, how do you end up in Sydney, Australia?

Charles Edel:                 With a lot of luck, and a ton of skill by being married to the right person.

Misha:                          Right.

Charles Edel:                 So when I was working for a secretary Kerry in policy planning office of the State Department I was looking at and advising him on political insecurity matters for what we used to call the Asia Pacific. Now it’s been brought into the Indo-Pacific, but Australia was clearly a very important part of that. Remit I got to travel out here when I was in government.

Charles Edel:                 But after I left government in January of 2017, my wife who is a diplomat, said “Well it’s time we go abroad again how he feel about Australia.”

Charles Edel:                 And I said, “I feel pretty damn good.” So I’m just here as a traveling spouse and it was the best decision I ever made. Yes, clearly being married to her, but coming out here to Sydney.

Misha:                          Second best decision.

Charles Edel:                 Second best … Well, look, we say we won the jackpot twice, because it’s not only Australia, but it’s Sydney. We apologize to Canberra and Melbourne and everywhere else.

Misha:                          Now you are opening up a whole heap of how dangerous. I just lost all my three listeners in Melbourne. So anyway, so normally sort of talk about things in a more general sense, but been some news this week we’ve had a visit from Secretary of State Pompeo and I thought I’d just get your take on a few things. I mean, one of the things that caused a bit of a fuss was this question of missile deployment, foreign missile deployment by the United States. You know, there was no … In the end, prime minister Morrison ruled it out, but it took a few days. What’s your take firstly on the question of foreign missile deployment and what would that do to the balance of regional power? If Australia chose to partake in that?

Charles Edel:                 So first of all, I’m not sure I am in agreement with your assessment that Prime Minister Morrison has fundamentally ruled it out. I think the conversation in the commentary has really gotten ahead of what the quotes actually were. And so my read of it at least, is that a hot on the heels of the United States withdrawing from the INF the intermediate range nuclear forces agreement, which is only binding on the United States and the Soviet Union, then the United States and Russia, right.

Charles Edel:                 That they wouldn’t develop or deploy land-based missiles either conventional or nuclear. Right after the U.S. withdrew from this on Friday, the new secretary, the U.S. Secretary of defense, Mike Asper when he touched down here in Australia said that we are looking for more sites in Asia to potentially deploy U.S. land-based missiles. That’s the backdrop to all of this.

Charles Edel:                 And again, what I heard was then the followup questions. Well did he ask Canberra to deploy them? And no, he did not ask. And I drew a line under it is what Morrison said. To me that’s actually an ambiguous statement. But it’s true that he didn’t ask because A, those conventional assets haven’t yet been developed. The type of things that they’re talking about. But this is the beginning of a conversation about whether or not they can be developed, if they should be developed and where they are deployed for what effect.

Charles Edel:                 So sorry to give you the long backdrop, but to me the reason that you can see the U.S. withdrawing from this is if you are a Europeanist, if you’re a Russian hand, this looks disastrous, right? Because for a long time it was arms control, strategic stability between the Soviet Union. Then Russia and the U.S. Well, the argument that was made, which I think has a fair amount of weight behind it, is why would you be party to this if only one side is abiding by it only the United States because the Russians have consistently been cheating on this and on what they’re developing, what they’re deploying forward. But even if you could bring the Russians kicking and dragging into compliance a big if there, it was never binding on what happened out in Asia. And so the Chinese over the last 20 plus years have literally been developing thousands of missiles, conventional and nuclear that range across the entire region and that are specifically designed to prevent the United States and certainly deeply complicated its access to project power into the region.

Charles Edel:                 Now, one of the ways that you would offset that to have a countervailing strategy is to have land-based cruise missiles that would potentially target and range things within China. Now that sounds very scary, but it’s also how you do deterrence classically. So that is the basis of the conversation. That is where we are on. And the attempt is, it’s a good discussion to say, well, would assets in Australia matter? Do you need them closer to China? Does that simply spiral up tensions or does that in fact create deterrence by one side balancing off against other, that’s where we’re at in the conversation.

Misha:                          And so an interesting point because part of the visit from Secretary Pompeo, saying we’re here to stay, we’re friends, et cetera. In this discussion with this a hundred years of mate ship, one of the issues that’s discussed at length now in the discourse within Australia is how dependable is the U.S. guarantee via ANZUS

Misha:                          Does the guarantee mean anything in that sense? Or is something like missile foreign deployment something a way to underwrite that guarantee? Or do they or they linked at all? I mean, I think it’s an interesting question because we had Jim Mattis who was a Secretary Defense quit on the basis of the Trump administration’s treatment of allies. And it’s sort of that capriciousness. So kind of curious about the dependability of the United States as a partner in that context.

Charles Edel:                 So you’ve actually asked about 15 different questions wrapped up into one. Let me see if I can pull apart some of those with some randomized thoughts for Misha.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 So first of all, I think that what Pompeo was saying, I’m not going to try to translate it.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 Is something that I believe at least is fundamentally true, that the United States is a Pacific power. It has been for the last 230 plus years.

Charles Edel:                 If you look at America’s strategic and economic and commercial interests, they are all in this region. That is the bet that’s successive U.S. administrations have made. So I don’t think that’s going away. The United States wants to be deeply anchored in the Pacific. Second point, the United States is a Pacific power comma predicated on those in the Pacific wanting it to be one because of the tyranny of distance. Now, there are certain us territories, a certain US states in the Pacific, but to remain a balancer, an offshore balancer in the Pacific that has to be acceptable to those in the region, which again is not something that the U.S. can impose unilaterally. It has to work with allies, friends and partners.

Charles Edel:                 A third point when I say a balancer that is the United States preferred role, I would argue not to Lord it over everyone and not to have hegemonic abilities you know, but simply to make sure, and this has been consistent U.S. American grand strategy and I would say both Europe and in Asia, but over the past 200 plus years that it is a driving mode of force of America and American strategic thought that they’re … They want there to be a balance of power in Asia when there is a lop side, when there is no balance of power.

Charles Edel:                 When you have one power dominating others, that has tended to not only affect American prosperity by closing off certain parts of Asia, but also has been a direct security threat to America. And so it’s important to recognize that without the United States in Asia, there is no balance of power. So part of this absolutely as you’ve asked, is a hard power question that as the balance of power, the relative balance of power has shifted over the last 20 years because of astronomical Chinese economic growth, which they’ve then poured it into the acquisition of military assets, which have been meant to coerce neighboring states, but also make it harder for the United States to remain in and protect power into the Western Pacific. Again, this is something that the U.S. has to play catch up with along with its allies and partners. So I don’t know, I think that’s like three parts of your 15 part question.

Misha:                          Well, we’ll get through the rest. We’ll get through the remaining 12 parts. That was the taste a bit. You’ve talked to sort of the long history of this issue. Of course an author, you’ve written a book, Lessons of Tragedy. I think it’s caused a bit of buzz in Canberra. I understand, I saw a tweet about Martin Parkinson referencing that … Who’s Secretary Prime Minister in cabinet saying everyone should read these book. So it’s available in all good bookstores. You can give it a plug now if you want. But the Lessons of Tragedy, it seems, it’s kind of like a counterintuitive sort of title in that it’s sort of meant to be uplifting, but at the same time with a counterintuitive title. What do you mean by this, firstly? And then we’ll dig into, the message within it.

Charles Edel:                 So you’ve nailed the paradox within my book. First of all, that it’s a bestseller that has sold like two books, such as a lot of someone who’s trained as an academic. But the point here is I think then my coauthor Hal Brands and I wrote an optimistic if sobering book, but the title is The Lessons of Tragedy, which doesn’t look or sound particularly optimistic. And the basic argument, which we can unpack a little bit, Misha if you want, is that we have lost our ability to think tragically about how bad things could happen. And I don’t mean personal tragedies, I don’t even mean societal tragedies.

Charles Edel:                 When we say tragedy, the ones that we’re talking about in this book are full-scale bucklings of the international order, complete with great power, not competition, but war and massive human suffering unfolding globally. And because we have lost the ability to think that that is actually a possibility and one that we argue is becoming more possible by the day because we are so far from the last time this happened, 75 plus years, we’re 30 years out from the last time America and its allies had a serious geopolitical, no less ideological challenger.

Charles Edel:                 The logic of what we have done for so long seems to make less sense. And it’s making less sense just as the warning signs are beginning to flair in multiple directions. So again, I don’t think that this is simply a pessimistic book because the point is, and the reason we use the lessons of tragedy, the reason we can’t hold up the book here in the studio, but it’s got two ancient Greek warriors on the cover, is because when we think about the Athenians and amazingly creative people and amazingly powerful people. People who created the world’s first democratic system in many ways that we still honor today. A prosperous people whose empire kind of span the known world. There’s this paradox because they were seemingly obsessed with the concept of tragedy every year they made their citizens go watch those plays that you and I either read or forgot to read or never chose to read in high school-[crosstalk 00:11:12] that too.

Charles Edel:                 But the point was the Athenians even in their achievements wanted to keep council with their worst fears. And they did that by putting them up on stage, but they used it communally as a prompt to think about how bad things could spin out of control, what the repercussions of that would be and to prompt the discussions and debates within their society about how to take some profoundly unnatural actions in peacetime.

Misha:                          And so in your book you sort of talk about the consequences of forgetting, and you go through a historic take on a number of different configurations. But the question I have is what is the … Do you think we are forgetting lessons? I mean we, the most probably direct lesson of tragedy would be the World War II. A lot of that generation is now sadly passing on. Is that lesson now being forgotten and that hard work that was done to build a more peaceful world order after World War II and that sort of never again, is that now fading into obscurity? Is that your concern or is it something else?

Charles Edel:                 Yes, I mean straight up. Yes. Because again, I just said this, that the logic of what America and other democratic states did. Made sense at the time when you were directly on the heels of coming out of World War II, right? So the idea was essentially preventative, right? That you would pay some costs and now so you didn’t have to pay enormous costs later that you would tend the garden, that you would look what were happening so that you didn’t have to wait till after things had collapsed. But again, there are some pretty natural questions that have come up in American political debate, in Australian debate too, although they take on different hues in the American context, there are questions like, why should America station military hardware and men and women around the world? Why should Americans care about far away places like the South China Sea and Ukraine? Why should Americans care to open their economy to others who don’t open theirs? And they’ve come at the short, medium and sometimes even longterm costs to American workers in certain industries.

Charles Edel:                 They’re really good answers for those because it tends to be, what happens when America has not played that role, and we’ve run that experiment twice during the 20th century. But as the distance has grown and as the visceral experience seems to have drained the logic of why we have done those things. Seems to have faded from memory, and it’s fading at the worst possible time.

Misha:                          So how do you make the argument for that? I mean people talk about, it’s popular in maybe wonky circles, the liberal world order, but then it’s almost a cliche, what does it actually mean and what’s involved in defending that and how do you make that case? Because to your point, once upon a time, President Kennedy pay any price, bear any burden and doesn’t seem to have that same level of guarantee. And as a result, that lack of confidence in that U.S. guarantee democracy sort of is retreating off the back of it. So I mean, how do you talk about it in a way that makes sense to people?

Charles Edel:                 Well look, this book, it represents an experiment to see if the language of Greek tragedy might be helpful here. And I, you know, we can talk about whether it’s more helpful or less helpful because simply saying things like the international liberal order or the rules based order or the American led order convinces no one of anything. And let me point out too that I’m as guilty as anyone else on this because when I was working in government, we would say we have to do this to defend the rules based system.

Charles Edel:                 And if you explain that to anyone who doesn’t work in the narrow circles of national security, that means what exactly? And the point is that the rules based order sounds really abstract and really theoretical, but it has real world effects because when it goes away, we’re actually talking about things like preventing states from coercing other states, like making sure that their rules for freedom of navigation, like making sure that their rules that other states can interfere in other states, businesses. Like making sure that there’s a global trading order that we all play by the rules and play fairly by them. So again, if you say rules-based order, got it. It’s short hand and it encompasses a lot, but I think we have to get better in our vocabulary, all of us, about what this actually means and why it affects normal citizens.

Charles Edel:                 Because when it goes away, when you have the reversion to yes, great power war, I mean people understand what that is, but when you have the reversion to not a rules based order, but a spheres of influence world, where the biggest dogs rule the most important areas. What does that mean? Well, it means that states can only trade with certain states based on the political conditions that the big dogs set. It means that states bump up against each other militarily and things become more fraught and are less stable than they might seem. That’s the alternative to this system. So again, this book is an attempt, one attempt to say, well, what does this mean? Why is it worth preserving? And are there better ways that we can talk about? But it’s not the only attempt, and it shouldn’t be.

Misha:                          And so you’ve talked to them about great power competition, largely that’s the United States relationship with China. In your book, you sort of touch on the similarities between the 1930s where we had a great depression, rise of extremist ideologies in Europe, which then led to world war II. I mean, is that, are there parallels that you see now when you look at the global financial crosses followed by we’re seeing populism, sweeping around the world, authoritarianism returning to Europe, authoritarians being elected around the world. Are there parallels or should we be careful about drawing parallels that are too close?

Charles Edel:                 Yes to both your questions. There are parallels and we should be careful about overdrawing analogies and only looking at one set of analogies. So in terms of the 1930s, the parallels are there and they’re real. Populists on the march, democracies in disarray, revisionist powers. So powers who want to change the status of power and how much they have kind of poking, prodding, nibbling around the edges.

Charles Edel:                 Some proxy wars breaking out on the side where states tests new found technologies. Take a look at Syria for instance. Take a look in Ukraine. The analogies are real. But it’s not the only analogy that we can think about. So actually, my coauthor, Hal Brands and I from this book, we wrote another article a while ago where we asked, look, is this the darkening storm, right? That we see coming towards us. Or is this the darkness before the light? And so we looked at the 1930s, but we also looked at the 1970s where you had a similar set of withdrawal by America after the Vietnam War. A real questioning of America’s international role. You had violence on the streets more so than we see today. And the question is, is that a better analogy because of course-

Misha:                          The collapse of the Bretton Woods system.

Charles Edel:                 Well, that’s exactly right. Right, because capitalism itself looked to under strain. But of course if you look at the 70s and then you look at the 1980s, in some way American power comes roaring back because the structural drivers of longterm strength of the American economy, the demographic profile of the United States, some of the policy decisions that were taken by both the Carter administrations, it’s kind of strange to say. And the Reagan administration teed up a more assertive set of policies that kind of made sure that American power was reinvigorated. And so the truth of the matter is that both of those analogies work, but in different strokes. And so if I would argue that if the right policy choices are made to reinvest in American power to grow the kind of, the economic prosperity of America to begin to play smarter bets on the strategic sense to make sure that the American people, which you can begin to see are tipping away from, we are living in a placid environment.

Charles Edel:                 To me this augers a very different future than the 1930s, but that’s only if those policy decisions are made because if they’re not, then we could very well see it tipping to a much darker future.

Misha:                          And so, this question of the U.S. China Relationship looms large in Australia, We’ll get to I suppose how Australia navigates that. But I’m curious, what’s changed in the United site’s perception of China because it seems that it’s been what was sort of a strategic, sort of a closeness has now become a strategic rivalry and that it’s almost like the U.S. suddenly woke up to this challenge overnight. How has that relationship changed? And why?

Charles Edel:                 So it’s a great question, right? That the China debate in Australia, no less in America seems to have changed so quickly that it’s really been confounding. And why has it changed so profoundly and moved so quickly? That’s a great question.

Charles Edel:                 And I would say that obviously it’s different in Australia as it is in America, but for the U.S., the engagement thesis that if you engage, if you choose to engage with China and Chinese leaders and CCP leaders, they will norm themselves to the rules of the international system and they will grow more prosperous and more secure for it.

Misha:                          And then more democratic.

Charles Edel:                 And more democratic ultimately. So that was the basis for the past 30 years of American engagement with China. And I think what’s happened and what’s happened seemingly quickly, although it’s been building for a long time, is that there’s a new emerging consensus that, that was potentially the right bet to have placed at the time, but hasn’t held up. And the thesis, that engagement, would as you say, democratize China.

Charles Edel:                 That has clearly not happened because it’s moved in the opposite direction. They would make them a more stabilizing force. Well that hasn’t happened either. And that would make them make economic choices that would reform an open up their economy as Dung Joe Ping seem to indicate was the future direction for them. While under Xi Jinping they’ve gone in the exact opposite direction. So there’s been this question of … Look in America, you always have your hawks right, who have always said you need to hedge against China’s rise. Certainly the more troubling aspects of it. But you also had the business community and the NGO community cheering on engagement. Well over the last two to three, if not three to five years. China has lost both of those constituencies within the U.S. because of the actions that they have taken on stealing IP, on forcing tech transfers on not living up to the deals and the agreements that they agreed to play by in 2000 when they joined the World Trade Organization.

Charles Edel:                 And frankly, if you look at the repressive turn within China by the CCP under Xi Jinping, all of those advocating for more people to people ties, for more civil society groups, for more a rule of law groups, have been kicked out of China at this point. So they’re not cheering on, no one’s cheering on this hard and turn, but it’s a realization that what had worked in the past is actually not going to work in the future. So a new set of assumptions need to undergird what you as policy is moving forward.

Misha:                          I think one of the interesting questions about this, and you sort of talk to the Chinese Communist Party, it’s important I think to separate the Chinese people from their government. And I think everyone doesn’t want to be defined by the government of the country at any particular one time.

Charles Edel:                 As an American. That’s true. I can say that. It’s true.

Misha:                          So the domestic policies. So we can talk … We’ll get to the foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party. But the domestic policies, I mean, what we’re seeing in Hong Kong, how troubling do you think that is for rules based order. This was a thriving liberal rule of law country well, part of China that was handed over from British colonial rule to China. What we’re seeing now is demonstrations in the streets as China’s increasingly trying to crush that liberalism there. How worried should we be about the Hong Kong situation?

Charles Edel:                 Well, two things. I think, first of all, we should be profoundly inspired by what is happening. Every day when I turn on the news, when I read, it is, you know, sometimes in democratic societies it’s hard to get people to focus, to be inspired by things.

Charles Edel:                 You have a seven point two million person population in Hong Kong. Now for basically three months, continuously out on the street protesting with protests as large as 2 million people out there.

Misha:                          It’s incredibly brave.

Charles Edel:                 It’s incredibly brave and under threat of force. Beatings by a CCP linked organizations. The threat of potential invasion. And I think it’s very clear to me the most powerful statement that I’ve read in some ways is that the Chinese artists, the dissident artists, Ai Weiwei, who was of course … For producing dissident art was in prison, was tortured, was beaten in Beijing. He wrote a fabulous op-ed in the New York Times saying that the young people who are out on the streets who have information to what China is and to what the rest of the world offers, they’ve made their choice and they made a long time ago. And we should be inspired by that because they have the information and they are saying what they want.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact, this is a test case for whether or not people choosing their own system of government can be crushed by authoritarians. So on the one hand, this is where we can get into the ins and outs of U.S. policy at some point. One of the most counterproductive statements that came out of Washington and that actually is setting the bar really, really high these days, was saying that this was a clash of civilizations. The U.S. was now embarked upon between the U.S. and China with racial overtones because the first time the U.S. has faced this against a non-Caucasian people, which is first of all, fundamentally and historically inaccurate, comma, see World War II in the Pacific. But too, as you point out, this is not about the Chinese people and Western people and they’re different. All people want the same thing. And if you don’t believe that, simply look at what’s happening in Hong Kong.

Charles Edel:                 So I wanted to take a step back from your question about how worried we should be because this is truly inspiring stuff potentially when we can’t even see people who live in an open democratic systems coming out to vote. And you have millions of people on the ground demonstrating for this. Now the flip side of your question, how worried should we should be? We should be pretty worried here. I think in unmistakable terms Beijing is making noises that they are willing to, if not crushed this in the way that they crushed a similar uprising in Tienanmen Square 30 years ago with five to 10,000 deaths at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army against their own citizens. If not quite that comma or not that yet. Well, we’ll go after protesters. We’ll use terrorism. We’ll hire the triad thugs employed by the Chinese to beat people.

Charles Edel:                 There’s a video that I was watching out this morning where you can see the Hong Kong police on the second they switch off duties switching into both black and white shirts. There’s footage of this right. So that they could both insight the protesters and then beat them down afterwards. So this is amazingly troubling, but even more so for that. And I’ll take one step back here, Misha. It’s Hong Kong has always been a special place. And the Chinese knew this. This is what they negotiated with the British in the 1994 SAS courts when the British handed it back over to them. That it would be one country but two systems, semi-autonomous region. And the point was that this was supposed to be a model that for 50 years Beijing would not interfere in or force any decisions on Hong Kong. Well, that is clearly not true.

Charles Edel:                 And the people of Taiwan are watching this extremely carefully. In fact, Tsai Ing-wen the president of Taiwan who is doing not so well in the polls leading up to this coming January’s elections, in reaction to what’s happened in Hong Kong has seen her fortunes rise. Because we now know that when the Chinese say, and again, I’ll be careful with my words, when the Chinese government says, “One country, two systems.” They don’t mean it. And so there’s a real credibility problem at this point, that no matter what Beijing and the Chinese leaderships offer, be it one country, two systems, be it peaceful conditions in a harmonious rise, be it not militarizing the south China Sea, be it joining the WTO and agreeing to play by the rules. That there’s a real credibility problem that’s emerging.

Misha:                          And so you just touched on the South China Sea. Of course, China constructed some fake islands and then promise not to militarize those to President Obama. And then of course militarize them. How concerning firstly is that annexation and what does it mean for the area? Having that annexation occur and then, and secondly, what message is China trying to send by doing that?

Charles Edel:                 They’re trying to send the message that we are the most powerful country in the region and we can intimidate and coerce other countries and that those that don’t agree to our political demands, no less our diplomatic demands, i.e, hierarchical system with China. At the middle, we talked about a sphere of influence. This is what we’re talking about are going to be leaned on very hard. And that’s been the experience of the Philippines. That’s been the experience of the Vietnamese even this week. You know, the South China Sea is the rocks, reefs, and atolls. The really, really plentiful fishing grounds that you have in there that feed, you know, like 10, 15% of some of these countries populations, the natural resources that are potentially under the ground, gas and oil that have, you know amazing wealth that they might offer to the countries around.

Charles Edel:                 This is a disputed territory, right? That six different countries lay claim to, but what the Chinese have done and said this is ours based on historical claims. When that was invalidated by an international court at The Hague. The American policy decision, I can talk about that because I was in government, was to give that a little time and space so that things might cool off and then we can kind of peacefully work with things. But that’s not what happened. That was the bet that was placed. But the Chinese lorded their claims over and have continued not only with their naval vessels, not only with their enormous coast guard vessels, but increasingly with a maritime militia, right. With thousands of fishing boats that are equipped and resourced by the central government to go out and intimidate coerce and use acts of violence against Philippine fishermen, Vietnamese fishermen and others.

Charles Edel:                 This is a really large challenge. Now what does this mean, is what you asked? That’s the message I think that it sent. That it’s ours and good luck contending with us because there’ll be violence meted out against you or the threat of violence or even economic pressure applied to your economies if you dare push back against us.

Charles Edel:                 In terms of what that means. Well, the South China Sea as enormous waterway, is in some ways the most vital one of maybe two of the most vital waterways in the world. When we think about the amount of commerce that passes through this, when we think of kind of commercial trading routes and freedom of the seas, freedom to transit through these unimpeded in international waterways has been a long standing precept and bedrock principle of that nebulous thing, that rules-based order. And so when countries have the ability to unilaterally close this down, what does that mean?

Charles Edel:                 Well, that has enormous ramifications for commodities, for insurance pricing, for global prosperity. And what we are seeing here is a test about when the Chinese move to assert their de facto control over this waterway, whether or not they’re allowed to have it or not.

Misha:                          And so what’s interesting is that China tends to prefer to deal with foreign countries on a bilateral basis, not a multilateral basis. And that you sort of talked about the coercive behavior, the bullying. What about the question of interference and the sort of more insidious ways that China tries to influence, it’s neighbors either through hacking or through the BRI, the belt and road initiative where there’s soft money coming in, in the form of loans that can’t be paid back, which China then seizes control of particular assets. I mean, how worrying is that like up against some sort of the bullying and the brute force that we’re seeing that you just described.

Charles Edel:                 It’s worrying, but not all of these things are equally worrying and we have to think about that and kind of smart ways because BRI has troubling aspects to it, but there are also attractive aspects to that. So I don’t want to paint with a blanket here but in the new report that I wrote with John Lee an Australian colleague about kind of what does the future of the U.S., Australian look like as things heat up here in this region. We said, let’s be clear that it is Beijing’s intentions to undermine the alliances, the American alliances in the region. But the way that they go about doing this takes many different forms.

Charles Edel:                 So one form is coercion, violence, force, or the threat of those. But there’s another series of tools that they have, inducements, right, that the reward is going to be well worth it even if you have to at times give up your independent political decision making.

Charles Edel:                 And alternatively, occasionally building alternative institutional arrangements some of which are very much warranted, but others of which are meant to lock in Beijing’s advantages. So there’s a number of different toolkits that I think they go about this.

Charles Edel:                 Now you asked how worried particularly on the influence and interference. And the answer is I think quite worried because for a democratic state and talking about Australia, but this applies to the United States, it applies to New Zealand, certainly and others. We are open systems. That is how we are designed. It is a source in many ways of our great strength, right? We have con testability anyone can enter into them, anyone can influence or talk to their leaders because our leaders work for us. Not the other way around. That is our strength, but it also creates some vulnerabilities because we’re not the only ones that get to talk to our leaders or influence them or pay them or put them on corporate boards or suggest that maybe there’s a different way, an alternative way of thinking about things.

Charles Edel:                 So I have to say, having been in Australia for the past two years, it’s been fascinating to watch this debate here because the debate has gotten so hot here and so quickly. And I have to say one of the ways when I go back to Washington and I’m always asked, “Well, how has the influence and interference debate playing out in Australia?” That I think that the debate has evolved in very helpful ways here, is that we have to delineate that which we find acceptable in an open society and that which we find unacceptable. And I think that the broad parameters of that strategy are being conducted and carried about pretty well in the public debate here. We can debate certain policies, but the broad contours of that debate are, look, if we’re competing in terms of brand, in terms of cultural affinity, game on. We don’t box countries out.

Charles Edel:                 If you want to make an argument for why a communist linden a state is better, go for it. If you want to make an argument for why democracies don’t deliver goods as well as again, game on. That’s okay and that’s allowable, but anything, and this is what I see in the debate here, that is coercive, corrupting or clandestine is not okay. And we’re going to legislate against that and we’re going to make sure that we prosecuted against that as well.

Misha:                          Bringing this to Australia now directly, I mean the trade war, now is heating up increasingly between the United States and China and Australia, I think rightly concerned about being caught in the crossfire there and being pulled between us security relationship with the United States and other alliances. And then of course, how important trade relationship with China and the disruption potentially caused by these trade wars. I mean, you can understand the concern that-

Charles Edel:                 Absolutely.

Misha:                          That brings to Australia. How do we have a productive discussion about this? Because often, criticism of China or Chinese government behavior is often said, “Well, don’t upset the apple cart.” And then on the other hand the United States will ask Australia to be more assertive in the South China Sea, and China’s sort of square that circle is a very, very difficult thing for policymakers. So then how do you see that as a representative or a citizen of the United States observing this debate?

Charles Edel:                 So three things that I would say in response to that. The first is, and I think you’ve rightly caged this, that the way that you often hear the debate framed here, but frankly around Southeast Asia as well, is there are two partners and their partners of choice for different things, for security and for trade.

Charles Edel:                 But of course, trade is not prosperity. It’s one component, part of it and a very important part. But so too is investment. So too, is job creation and again, I actually think it’s, it’s a very character black and white debate here that yes Australia has enormous trade flows with China its most important trading partner, 33% of your outbound exports go up north to Beijing when they’re let off the docks and into the Chinese markets. That’s a big if. But again, the United States is the number one investor into Australia in terms of foreign direct investment. And by the way, that’s also true of Australian commerce into America. And there’s more investment put into America by Australian firms than there is into China, into the Middle East or then into Latin America. When we think of job creation, when we think of aggregate prosperity and taxable dollars put into your economy and for your government, there’s no comparison.

Charles Edel:                 I mean the amount of FDI that the U.S. puts in and by the U.S., I simply mean the private sector is out weights China’s by a degree of 10 to 1. Now, I’m not making the argument that therefore choose A or B, you want to choose both to some degree, but it’s a false dichotomy in some ways to say, it trade equals prosperity because that’s not actually what the real numbers look like.

Charles Edel:                 Second Point if you don’t mind me. I’m getting rolling here.

Misha:                          Keep going.

Charles Edel:                 Is that in this report that John and I put out, we say that the economic edge of this debate is going to evolve because of changing circumstances, but it’s going to evolve probably differently in the United States as opposed to Australia. So in the United States, the word on the cusp of everyone’s lips is decoupling whether or not the United States and the Chinese economies are going to pull apart, dis-aggregate because they’re deeply intertwined.

Charles Edel:                 And of course then the next question is, well, are we talking about smart decoupling or dumb decoupling? And we’re at the beginning of that debate, but I actually think it’s almost inevitable that, that’s going to happen to some degree because there are certain sectors that the United States and China frankly needs to and wants to protect.

Misha:                          Tech for example, telecommunications.

Charles Edel:                 Exactly, that’s right. I mean, [crosstalk 00:39:25] if you ask anyone in China, I lived in China for a number of years, would you allow the United States or would you allow an Australian Telco to build your internet architecture? You couldn’t even get those words out before you got laughed out of the room because the answer is obviously no. Which then begs the question, why is this debate happening here? Although frankly, this debate is happening here only to a minor degree because Australia was the first mover on the Huawei question.

Charles Edel:                 But again, if that’s the question and the debate in America, the question and the debate in Australia, I imagine needs to be a different set of questions. It’s how do you smartly diversify your trading partners? You’re not going to stop trading with China. You might want to think about which things you’re selling to them and which things you’re allowing them to invest in. Critical infrastructure. We talked about dual use technologies or another, but in terms of agricultural food stuffs, in terms of wine, those are things that you will want to continue selling. And the question though becomes if Australia is the most developed economy, is the country of advanced economies that is most dependent on the China market of all advanced democracies in the world. That has the potential to create real political leverage where at least a case of the slows on other issues like security that we were talking about.

Charles Edel:                 So the question becomes not selling them things, but how do you decrease that political leverage? And the answer is very obvious. It’s diversification of trading partners. In fact, you’re a government commissioned, Pierre [Vargace 00:40:58] to write a report on India. Yeah, that’s like a 400 page report with 120 recommendations about how Australia and India grow links. But it’s not only India, right? I mean his report was only India. The answer is Southeast Asia as well, which we know is going to represent kind of the hot emerging market in the years to come. So the diversification question should be one that should be sought not only by business people, but also by the government. And frankly, the political risk conversation in the corporate sector here, is immature because all the time businesses do you know, cost benefit analysis, do risk allocations but very infrequently are political factors put in terms of those.

Charles Edel:                 But if we look at what’s happened even over the last six months with coal, with wheat, with wine staying on the docks. Not for any real official reason, but just because I don’t know what exactly, because the Chinese government is displeased, that Australia’s decided to stand up for its own sovereign interests.

Misha:                          The Canadians had a similar experience with canola oil.

Charles Edel:                 And continue to have one. That is a decision that needs to be factored into corporate decisions because it’s a risk factor. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, but you have to weight things perhaps differently than they’ve been weighted before.

Charles Edel:                 The final point I would make is how can we assert ourselves? Well you don’t do it dumbly. It’s actually called diplomacy right. Because when we assert our interests, there’s this kind of false narrative, this false binary that China reacts in one of two ways, thermo nuclear war or nothing.

Charles Edel:                 And that’s just false.

Misha:                          Right.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact, if we look at smaller states and how they have reacted to instances of Chinese economic coercion, South Korea for instance we can look at India, not a smaller state particularly, but Vietnam certainly. In all those instances you did not have war. We can go through the examples of them, but the point is when they pushed back, it reframed the terms of the debate more conducive to their interests. And in some places like in South Korea, like with Vietnam, Beijing had to not admit mistakes, but reset the frame of the debate.

Misha:                          And what about the role of multilaterals? I mean that with countries working together, as I said, China prefers that bilateral deal. We’ll deal with the on one-on-one basis. And they tried to pick countries off one-on-one. Can Australia work more closely with regional partners on a multilateral basis to deal with or make the Chinese government play by the rules, of the rules base order, if we can fall back on that cliche.

Charles Edel:                 Yes. They can, I mean, there’s great strength in numbers, but only if those numbers are brought to bear. And there’s another false narrative that I would say is out there that, China doesn’t care about this stuff. I mean, look at its national power. What does it matter if it gets criticized, and on certain aspects that’s true. But on other aspects, Chinese government goes through great lengths to avoid being criticized, to avoid being seen as the bully. If you look at the politics, for instance, of ASEAN on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, 10 members. The preferred approach is always to play it off as you have said one on one, because it’s easier to pick members off ASEAN as a consensus based group. So if you want to make sure that they have no joint statements, that the South China Sea needs to remain open and is not China’s. All you have to do is pick off Cambodia, which is very easy to do these days or Lau.

Charles Edel:                 But you can also look at the enormous lengths that the Chinese have gone to scuttle individual statements or anything that has a whiff of collective resolve. So when we move the gaze away from ASEAN, but about Australia’s relationships with its neighbors, with Japan, with ASEAN, with India, the more that can be done collectively not to escalate tensions, but simply to say, these are the rules that we’re willing to engage on. The more effect I would argue that it probably has.

Misha:                          And so, one of the things I wanted to get your perspective on is this question of a democracy. Democracy is under … Probably the first time it’s been challenged in a generation as certainly since the supposed end of history with the collapse of Soviet Union, is democracy is still the best system because Vladimir Putin’s basically said, “It looks all over, dust your hands, see you later.”

Misha:                          I mean, firstly, is that a legitimate position and why can he say something like that? And then secondly, has the U.S. … Does the U.S. still believe in the projection of democracy around the world?

Charles Edel:                 So first part of the question is why did Vladimir Putin make this statement? And was he right? So like someone who’s trying to murder the system, you shouldn’t really believe them and why they take it. However, why did he say, well, because-

Misha:                          Well it’s not something he could have said, I think 10 years ago with any level credibility.

Charles Edel:                 Right, because it has more credibility now. That the democratic system … Look, democracies have always been predicated on two things, right? The Winston Churchill quote, that it’s the best system of government except for all the rest or the reverse of that rather. Right?

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 But also, and fundamentally, democratic systems are based on, it delivers the best type of goods for its citizens, and responsive to their needs. And we can say that democracy, liberal democracy, liberal capitalistic democracy has had some real growing pains and real stumbling problems, particularly over the last 10 years. In the aftermath of the global financial crisis, it doesn’t look like a perfect model. When we look at globalization and what it has delivered, enormous goods, right? Globalization took millions of people, billions of people if we look at China’s case out of poverty, but also affected people unevenly. And particularly in advanced Western democracies, left a lot of people behind. So are there problems with it? Yes. The best part of our system is that it has the ability to self correct and honestly self-correct, but we’re not there yet.

Charles Edel:                 And that’s why I think, why you see so much populism and kind of push back against this. So is there some truth in what Putin has said that the system is underdressed? Yes. I mean if you just looked at the numbers, right. The number of democracies in the world hit a high point in 2000 and I believe six and has been on an ebb tide ever since.

Charles Edel:                 Meanwhile, the number of authoritarian states has increased, so we are really seeing a contest of systems emerge about what is better, able to offer prosperity to people around the world and there’s one system that makes an argument that is simply political control and order and non democratic choice that will lead its way to prosperity and the other stuff doesn’t matter quite as much. I would say kind of circling back to Hong Kong, I’m not sure if that argument has a lot of staying power because even when people become prosperous, they don’t stop caring about that other stuff. This is why Hong Kong is such a great challenge. No less Taiwan for Beijing because it puts lie I think to the fundamental argument that they have.

Charles Edel:                 But to say that democracy is great and then all of our citizens are being taken care of, I think is fundamentally to misread what’s happened around the world and in Western elections over the last 5 to 10 years.

Misha:                          I think what’s interesting there, and you did right off and say, it wasn’t as though people got to 1989 and then they read a bunch of Jeffersonian literature and read a bunch of Marx’s and said, “You know what, Jefferson’s a much more beautiful argument.” They looked at was delivering for people and a communist Soviet Union. Russia at the time was not able to deliver for people on a living standard basis, so people yearn for that. What’s interesting in this last decade, is essentially plan … There’s been this enormous prosperity in this sort of autocratic capitalists approach to the world that has been led by China.

Misha:                          And so young people, I mean when you look a lot of the polling, increasingly young people are sort of questioning whether or not democracy is the best system up against other systems and how worried should we be about that? Or is that just young people being contrarian with?

Charles Edel:                 Well, so it’s a little bit of both. We should be concerned and as young people being contrarian, but it’s also young people being offered a false choice in those polls. And then an abstract question, do you like democracy or not? How necessary is it? Look, when you look at those polls that have come out in Australia, the Lowy institutes, but a really good polling numbers on this in America, you’ve seen a lot of this poll into all around the Western world. The numbers are to the question, how important, how necessary do you find it as a young person? If we slice and dice the demographics. How important is it that you live in a democracy? And the answer is mah. It’s kind of important, but it’s not the most important thing.

Charles Edel:                 And the numbers are falling too. Now that is deeply disturbing to a lot of people, particularly to older people. But I actually think that with this one, I’m not as pessimistic as the polls might put out there. Although on the policy discussions I have bigger questions so I’ll return to that in a second.

Misha:                          Sure.

Charles Edel:                 But if you actually spend any time talking with young people, high school students, university students, this is a great virtue of my job because I lecture to university students. I get to talk with high school students all the time. And if you don’t ask them, how important is democracy to you? But if you rather say, how important is it that you live in a place that respects individuals? How important is it that you live in a country where human rights, protection and promotion is important? How important is it that you don’t have your own government scanning your face, deciding every action that you make or don’t make fits into a credit system and the government that gets to decide if you’re a trustworthy or an untrustworthy citizen. How important is that when you go to university that you get to learn new ideas and when you find things that are appealing or unappealing and you protest them peacefully, that you’re not bulldozed by violence?

Charles Edel:                 Well, the conversation shifts really markedly and very quickly.

Misha:                          From the abstract to the practical.

Charles Edel:                 From the abstract to the practical. And when you ask young people, how important is it that you live in a society like that? It’s not like 50% and falling, it’s more like 90% and rising.

Misha:                          I mean, people, it’s often politicians mixed into the question about democracy and what they see on TV and how politicians, act versus the actual system itself compared to what an autocratic system truly is, or is there an element of that do you think?

Charles Edel:                 Well, there is a little bit of that. But it’s also because, you know, I think we’ve gotten lazy that you kind of referenced 1989 you know, with Jeffersonian versus Marx’s thinking, but really it was Francis Fukuyama who wrote the end of history, i.e. history was over, there was no more argument in history. Liberal Democratic capitalism had one game over argument over. And because the Soviet Union had gone the way of the Dodo at that time or the Tasmanian Tiger right there, extinct too.

Misha:                          Oh, local reference, well done, bonus points.

Charles Edel:                 Thank you. I love Tasmania. I can make that reference now. But because they had gone that way, democracy didn’t have to compete against anything else. It didn’t have to make the arguments. So I actually think that our political leaders have gotten pretty lazy about talking about why democracy matters in practical terms, why it’s better than the alternative because there is an alternative and it is back with a lot of strength behind it.

Misha:                          Well, it’s interesting to touch on that. So what’s troubling I think as well is not just the challenge to the liberal world order, to democracies, but the increasing coordination we’re seeing by autocratic nations. Can you expand a little bit about that level coordination that we’re seeing between countries like Russia and China, but in the Middle East as well with Iran and what the challenge that represents. And secondly, should democracies be working closer together to offset that?

Charles Edel:                 There is growing coordination, if not out, and out, alliances between the world’s largest autocracies with the intent of undermining the system and growing both of their power and weakening democratic powers. And is there more that democracies can do to coordinate their actions? Yes, absolutely. It’s necessary. But the question becomes what will prompt us to do so? Because again, just looking at the numbers if you begin to look at you know, you’ll often hear that America’s in decline and some of our leaders statements will make you think that that is invariably coming true.

Charles Edel:                 However, if you look at it, and this goes back to our conversation about the 30s versus the 70s, if you look at aggregate U.S. GDP in 2016, it was about 22% of world output. That is not that far off the high point post war in the early 1970s. When you add in partner and allies, we’re talking about more than 60% of global GDP and military outlays that is far greater than any competitor has.

Charles Edel:                 The question is not necessarily one of resources. It’s willingness to use them. And again, a reason that how, and I decided to write this book is because for a democratic society, which always has more than just security on its mind, it has to, it has to be responsive to its own citizens. To get it to act in ways that can forestall things getting worse, particularly in the security and prosperity realms, but also in the values realm. What will prompt them to do so? And if you look at history, the answers are not great. Because it’s generally after something horrible happens. Generally after something blows up that we decide, whoa, we weren’t paying enough attention. It’s time to ramp up big time. And I simply say, as a historian, no less someone who’s interested in policy and occasionally works on it. That cannot be a good enough answer because we can’t wait for things to get horrible in order to develop the right set of policies.

Charles Edel:                 So the question becomes, what can we as democratic societies do on our own, but collectively together that stop the trends that we see happening in the world right now.

Misha:                          And in your book you talked about these historic political analysis and that, it had said gets discussed a bit, the Thucydides Trap. The one great power being displaced by a new great power, often or inevitably it’s a trap. The trap being the-

Charles Edel:                 It’s a trap Jim. No, sorry, go on.

Misha:                          Inevitably, those two great powers go to war and there are numerous examples in history of that happening. When we look at it in the U.S., China context is very easy to say, “Well that’s the inevitable conflict there.” But are you an optimist or pessimist about whether or not that can be avoided? Can we avoid the trap and how do we avoid the trap?

Charles Edel:                 Yeah, yeah we can avoid the trap based on decisions that we make, but it’s not clear that we’ll make those decisions. But let me step back and put my cards on the table because we have to kind of dig into what assumptions and am I carrying into this. So if you bring the assumption to bear that rising powers jostling for their place in the sun are inevitably going to create some friction. And anything that kind of the status quo power does will inevitably create spirals of escalation. That they do something you push back and voila, you were in World War III with nuclear weapons, right? That is one frame of reference. That is the Thucydides Trap. That is the World War I frame of reference. Then the policy outcome is pretty clear. Don’t push back because who the hell wants to be a World War III?

Charles Edel:                 However, if you take a different analogy that pushing back doesn’t necessarily, as long as it has done smartly, creates spirals of escalation but rather deters problematic behavior and stabilizes very problematic situations, albeit in ways that feel uncomfortable, i.e. the Cold War. That’s a different set of policy outcomes that you’re lied to. So again, this is the situation we find ourselves in is different than both of those historical analogies, but depends which way you read things. And if you read pushback as inherently destabilizing or one that feels uneasy, none of us like the world that we’re moving towards, but it also can stabilize uneasy situations. That aligns your policy choices.

Misha:                          Well, this has been very illuminating. Now Charles, I couldn’t talk about this all day, but you’ve got a job to do kids to teach. I’ve got … I can’t entertain my five listeners forever but-

Charles Edel:                 Well, I think I knocked it down to three. Right, because we knocked Melbourne out of the conversation.

Misha:                          Well, that’s right. So that’s, right. So you’ve got two sales, I’ve got two listeners. We’re very popular bunch. There’s four between us, but I’m now, heavy duty conversation. Now we’re going to lighten it up with my super fun, happy, amazing question. Super non clunky segue into a barbecue, Charlie Edel’s three Aussie’s alive or dead who’s coming and why?

Charles Edel:                 Very easy choices. One, Ned Kelly and or Peter Carey, because I love his, a historical fiction version. The True History of the Kelly Gang. Just a great read.

Misha:                          Okay.

Charles Edel:                 Two-

Misha:                          Isn’t it Kelly in the suit or not?

Charles Edel:                 The armored suit?

Misha:                          Yeah.

Charles Edel:                 Well I hope if he is, he’s not standing too close to the barbecue that won’t work out so well for him. Two, because we’ve been having this high-minded abstract talk, which I hope is not only abstract, we have to invite Hedly Bull, academic, Aussie born, lived in England who talked about issues of order versus issues of disorder. That all the time the international environment is these two forces contending and that the rules, those who seek to create an order prompt rules and discussions.

Charles Edel:                 And in fact he’s informed a lot of my own thinking. So a great Aussie, who I’d love to have more conversations with over a sizzle.

Charles Edel:                 And then third, without a doubt, Rebel Wilson, because she has to be in any conversation I think. And by any conversation, I mean I would be quiet and just listen to what it is that she had to say.

Misha:                          So we’ve got, well an outlaw, a comedian and an academic and a barbecue.

Charles Edel:                 Yeah. A fill in the blank on the joke, I guess.

Misha:                          Well that would be one to be in attendance at. But thank you so much for joining us and Charlie, and I hope everyone enjoyed the episode.

Charles Edel:                 Well, thanks very much for having me on Misha. I appreciate it.

Misha:                          Cheers, mate.

 

Chris Bowen: Reasons to be optimistic and the future of progressive politics and liberalism

Chris Bowen is the Member for McMahon in the Australian Parliament. In his time in public office, he has served as Treasurer, Minister for Human Services, Minister for Immigration, Minister for Financial Services, Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Competition Policy.

As the author of the books of ‘Hearts and Minds’ and ‘The Money Men’, Chris is a noted public policy thinker and expert. 

Chris joined Misha Zelinsky for a chinwag about the future of democracy and liberalism including the threat to democracy posed by inequality, the role of faith in politics, how Australia can properly engage with India and Indonesia, what the future holds on Australia’s China policy, why we should be much more worried about global debt and how progressive parties can rebuild trust with the public. 

Misha Zelinsky:             Chris Bowen, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Chris Bowen:                Long time listener, first time caller. Good to be here Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’d be one of our very, very few listeners that have become calls so it’s very pleased to hear that.

Chris Bowen:                I did get on early, so it’s a great listen. Well done.

Misha Zelinsky:             Thank you so much for that plug, we’ll make sure that we’re putting that out in the socials. There’s so many places we could start obviously, but one of the places I thought we could start was interesting recently leading into the G20 we had Vladimir Putin come out and say that liberalism was dead, is a dead project, that the West effectively had lost the post Cold War era. I mean, what do you make of those comments firstly, and secondly what does it say about the state of the world given that perhaps ten years ago that would have been laughed off, now it’s a serious point?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s a good way if putting it. I’m more optimistic than that, I think we have to be more optimistic than that. We can’t accept that as being the statement of fact, we have to fight back against that. But the fact that a world leader could even say that with some credibility tells you where the debate’s at. The one thing we know is that the Francis Fukuyama theorem of, “History has ended, liberalism has won”, is not how things have panned out. For a long time we thought he was wrong because Islamic fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism was a challenge to liberalism and that remains an issue.

Chris Bowen:                But also, authoritarianism has become a much more accepted framework in many countries of the world to some degree or other, whether we’re looking at what’s happening in Turkey or Hungary, but the United States is on a different part of the continuum. The trend is all to populism/some form of authoritarianism and at the other end of the spectrum, whereas say twenty years ago we might have been having the discussion, will the rise of China and the economic growth of China lead to China becoming a liberal democracy? Well in fact, if anything we’ve seen Chinese authoritarianism increase, not become more of a liberal country.

Chris Bowen:                The fact that we’re having this conversation tells you that the world’s not in a great state, but I’m an optimist about liberalism. Some people question whether democracy is under challenge.

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ll get to that.

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                And that’s a legitimate question to be asking, and then I guess to subsidize smaller liberalism under challenge, or liberalism as a world view in the international context. It is under challenge, but I think we have to think of ways to ensure that it’s not only survives, but prospers.

Misha Zelinsky:             So what are the reasons to be optimistic about it? It’s so obvious to give all the counter examples about the insurgence of autocracies and all the crisis of confidence in the liberal democratic order. So, what are the reasons to be optimistic? Very easy to point out the problems.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. Well, just looking around the world a lot of the defeats of, if you like, liberalism or, in some senses, progressivism, have been narrow. Trump didn’t actually win by much, as you know he lost the popular vote, and actually a swing of not many votes in key states would’ve changed that result.

Chris Bowen:                UK politics is highly contested. We may or may not get into the inner workings of the British labor party.

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ve got a bit of time! Cover all sorts.

Chris Bowen:                The two party system is pretty closely contested in the United Kingdom. You’d be a brave person to predict the result of the next UK election. Macron in France now, we all have our criticisms of Macron perhaps, but he’s a force of centralist liberalism, maybe slightly to the left. Trudeau in Canada, he’s had a few challenges, but he’s got one good election win and will probably win another election in the next twelve months. So, you can look at those places, and of course New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern didn’t win an election, she won a parliamentary majority, but I don’t think there’s much question that she’d win an election now.

Chris Bowen:                So there are some bright spots. And, the fact that the forces of progressivism are being challenged means that we do need to think about what our answers are. I think we are doing that, thinking around the world, parties of the center left, to some degree of success or otherwise. Or at least asking the right questions. And I’m an optimist because we have to be, otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, that we will come up with the right answers.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things that troubles me, is this intersection of economics and politics, right?

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the consistent things everyone talks about from a public policy point of view is this level of inequality that you’re seeing, both within and between countries. Can you have an increase in equality, where people feel more disenfranchised, particularly when you look at the pattern of that inequality where it seems to be regional areas, where regions that are distressed tend to become less hopeful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Are democracies and healthy democracies consistent with inequality, or do we have to address one to address the other, where you’re addressing them isolation?

Chris Bowen:                Well we should address inequality, one, because it’s the right thing to do, and two, because it is leading to this populism. You can look at inequality through any number of frameworks or spectra, but I think the most useful one for this conversation is the one that you’ve given a nod to, pointed to, which is geographic inequality. If you look at this challenge to the forces of the center left or liberalism, progressivism, what ever you want to call it around the world, it is very much a geographic divide.

Chris Bowen:                Brexit one outside London. If it was up to the people of London, they’d be very firmly in the EU. Trump one in rural America. Not in the cities. If it was up to the people of California or New York, Hilary Clinton would be preparing for re-election. Macron won in Paris. He lost in the region of France to Le Pen. And, if you look here to our recent kick the guts election defeat, we had swings to us in the city, in wealthy areas, in both safe labor and safe liberal seats, the inner ring. We had swings against us in outer metropolitan areas, particularly in Sydney, which we weren’t necessarily expecting. And big swings against us in regional particularly in Queensland.

Chris Bowen:                Now these are people, in my view, who say in the Australian context, twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, give me break. I don’t see it. My kid can’t get a job, I’m maybe forty-five and I’ve been unemployed for two years. You go down the main street of Mchale or Gladstone, or Gladstone’s a bit different, it’s going better than some regional centers. Mchale, or Bowen, or Rocky, and things aren’t feeling too great. They’re saying what about us? And the straight, center-right message of, “We care about inequality”, has not appealed to them. It’s our challenge to make sure that we do put it in ways which does appeal to them, when we ensure that the product is the right one for them, and two we are expressing it in a way which speaks to their views about inequality. Because they are, if you like, victims of inequality, they are falling behind in our society.

Chris Bowen:                Obviously our message of, “We care about you and care about inequality.”, has not resonated.

Misha Zelinsky:             It is a bizarre thing when you look at the traditional, I guess, areas that social democrats care about globally, and the regional inequality that we’re seeing somehow, whether it’s message, whether it’s policies. I think there’s an element of attitude and tone about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             But, how is it that we’re just misaligned, we’re not connecting somehow?

Chris Bowen:                This is not a new challenge in some ways, it’s more intense and more acute than it has been. But it is also not a new challenge. Do you remember fifteen or twenty years ago Thomas Frank wrote the book, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”, which was about this very matter. In some countries it was published as, “What’s the matter with America?”, but the real title is, “What’s the matter with Kansas?”. And he spoke about these issues, the people of Kansas, Alabama and Arkansas, and those states are doing it tough or falling behind, subject to inequality, have been left behind by the elites. And the democrats have all these wonderful policies to deal with that, and they are turning up on the first Tuesday of November and letting some old Republican. What is going on here?

Chris Bowen:                And he put it down to cultural issues, lack of empathy with the cultural concerns of people in those states. And I think there is still something to that.

Misha Zelinsky:             And you raise that recently, talking about whether or not people of religious faiths feel at home.

Chris Bowen:                Yes. Which is, I think, an existential problem.

Chris Bowen:                If you look at the United States, the single biggest indicator of voting intension is faith. Not income, not ethnicity, not geography, it’s faith. What ever faith. Even if you’re of Islamic faith, that’s the best indicator that you’ll vote Republican, if you are of very solid faith.

Chris Bowen:                Again, I think we have a real challenge here in Australia about this. Now, we’re a progressive party of course, we believe in equality. I voted for major equality, I’m very proud of that. But, we need to ensure we are also having lines of communication to people who are economically progressive, and who believe in social justice. And some instances believe in social justice because of the ethos that they were brought up in, in their church.

Chris Bowen:                But also have some concerns about their social conservative. Now, I’m not suggesting for one second we need to not continue with the progressive project, but I am suggesting that we need to think about how we talk to people of faith, how we bring people of faith with us, ensure that they know they have a role in our party, that they can be treated with respect by the party, and have their views considered, both within the party processes and by the party in government. And we have not done that. To be frank, we have neglected that as a movement and as a party, and we have paid a price.

Chris Bowen:                I think a big part of the swing against us in western Sydney and probably in some regional areas, was the concern of people of faith, that the labor party has lost touch with their concerns and their issues going forward. People who say to me, “We just want to know that you’ll listen to us. We may have voted against marriage equality, but we accept the result, but we want to know we’ve got a place at the table going forward.” I think, collectively, the party and parties of the left, need to ensure that there is a role for people of faith. Again, many faiths teach social-

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                Social justice.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s not antithetical-

Chris Bowen:                No, that’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:             The tenants of religion are in no way an antithetical decision. Obviously, love thy neighbor, looking after one another, there’s plenty within the-

Chris Bowen:                Quite the contrary! Quite the contrary!

Chris Bowen:                I mean, in most religions as you say, preach love, and respect, and tolerance and understanding, and justice. We might use different words, but it’s what we’re about as well. But we’ve lost the connection with people of faith, and we must get it back. I don’t mean to be melodramatic. I regard it as an existential crisis.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s that. Certainly putting it at a high level.

Misha Zelinsky:             This narrowness, how do progressives, and this a global problem. You look at it globally, rightfully identified progressive parties, social democratic parties have either been marginalized or disappeared in some countries, you’ve got France.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah. Well there’s the French socialist party effectively no longer exists.

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, as you say, the existential threat, Macron’s essentially co-opted that group and other parts of the center-right. Globally this retreat for the regions, this retreat from the suburbs even, this retreat from, as you say, more conservative social values, how do, rather than narrowing, how do progressive parties broaden? How do we become broader?

Chris Bowen:                Well, there’s no one thing Misha. It’s got to be part of a tableau, an embroidery of our party. It’s as simple as making sure that we’re in touch. We’re in touch with the regions, we’re in touch with people of faith, we’re in touch with people who maybe at least open to the argument that’s put by the populists, that the answer to your problem is less trade and less immigration. Now you know, and I know that’s the antithesis of what the answer is. We have to say to people who have been spoken to, in the Australian context, by one nation or even Parma, or the liberals in their own cunning way, to say look, the answer to your problem is less immigration, less trade. We have to show that the answer is not less immigration, less trade. But, we cannot dismiss the question or the issues that we come back to, moving our faith back down to the regions.

Chris Bowen:                If you’re in Mchale, or Bowen, or Townsville, and the economies not doing too great, we cannot say you’re wrong. We have to say, you’re right! But the answer to your problem is not Pauline Hanson. We have the answers. Now the essential key to those we have to have the answers, otherwise we can’t give it.

Misha Zelinsky:             But we do tend to jump to say, you don’t get it, you don’t understand the data, you don’t understand the policies.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, what are you talking about? We’ve got twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, and unemployment’s low, and interests rate.

Misha Zelinsky:             And the macro numbers don’t tell the micro story, right?

Chris Bowen:                They certainly do not.

Chris Bowen:                When I was shadow treasurer I used to say this, I used to do a lot of board rooms with the countries most senior business people. I used to say to them respectively, because they used to say to me, “Oh well, the labor party is wrong about this and that, and everything’s going-”, well I said, “You don’t get it. With respect, you don’t get it.”

Chris Bowen:                Things look good from here. We’re sitting in a board room in Sydney, we can see the Opera house, the Harbor bridge, the unemployment rate in Sydney has a three in front of it, or sometimes a two in front. There’s no vacant shops, everything’s bustling. Come out with me. Come to Mchale and walk down the main street. Come to Emerald! Inland Queensland. Things don’t feel too great out there. We collectively, not just political parties, but the establishment, if you want to use that word, economic establishment, the political establishment, the business community, the elites, need to get it.

Chris Bowen:                Far too much, collectively, we haven’t got it. Or, haven’t communicated that we do get it anywhere near effectively enough. The door has opened for that Charlottetown [clark parma 00:15:42] and the populist Pauline Hanson, and we have to close the door by being more responsive to the concerns of people who say this twenty-seven years of uninterrupted economic growth, I think, is bullshit.

Misha Zelinsky:             Quote that!

Chris Bowen:                You don’t beep out on this podcast?

Misha Zelinsky:             No, no, that’s all right. I’m not too sure too many kids are interested in geopolitics and social democracy globally. But for those that do, close your ears.

Misha Zelinsky:             So look, that was really interesting. One of the things I was keen to talk to you about, and we started with Putin and liberalism, and we’ve talked about social democracy, but the question of liberalism, the United States being the typical guarantor. They’ve underpinned the global system-

Chris Bowen:                Shining hope of the world!

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Chris Bowen:                Last hope.

Misha Zelinsky:             This trade war with China, they’ve now appeared to be retreating from their own system. Firstly, what do you make of that? And secondly, what’s the implications of that war between the US and China for Australia?

Chris Bowen:                The trade war will be sorted. There will be a truce. The only question is when and how? Why do I say that? The alternative is unthinkable, because the only alternative to the trade war being sorted is in effect decoupling. Saying the United States and China will decouple from each other and not have tradings.

Misha Zelinsky:             And some people argue for that, increasing national security grounds.

Chris Bowen:                Well that’s about unthinkable as men and women decoupling. Because we need each other, right?

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                China and the United States need each other. And the idea that you could have a two polers in the world, two poles of the world economy with very little to do with each other is just… The world doesn’t work like that. The production chains don’t work like that. Half the things that are made in America, the components are made in China. And that’s not about to change.

Chris Bowen:                Now, there’s an easy way and a hard way, and that’s the only question open to president Trump and president Xi is, do we take the easy way or the hard way? I hope very much they take the easy way. But even if they take the hard way, either they or their successors will sort it. It’s true to say that in the United States this is not just Trump, it is a broader concern in the political elite, including the Democrats, that China has not been playing fair in the world trading system. And it’s also true to say that in some elements they have poy. President Trump is not always wrong. And he does have some legitimate concerns about the world trading system and China’s place in it. But the trade war is very much not the answer.

Chris Bowen:                Now I’m hopeful that they’ll choose the easy way. Either they will choose the easy way, or if there’s a new president next year, but I hope it doesn’t take that long because the implications of a worsening trade war, I mean, you don’t really need us to spend much time on, because they’re pretty self evident. They’re pretty bad. They’re pretty bad for the world economy, they’re pretty bad for us as a trading nation, pretty bad for our region. Even more than the direct implications of the trade war, because you can do all the modeling, and you’ll have this impact, this flow into Australia, and all that’s legitimate. But, I think the bigger problem is just the blow to confidence around the world, just the uncertainty created by the trade war, and the general blow to confidence is terrible for a country like Australia.

Chris Bowen:                I tend to be on the more optimistic side of what will happen in the world economy and the political system, but I’m also a nice, open realist as to the implications if I’m wrong, and that they choose the hard way, and it’s not pleasant.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, it’s interesting, because pretty much the only by-part [inaudible 00:19:34] that you can find in Washington is the attitude to China. The peace arises, you described before, China’s getting rich, China’s going to get democratic, peace will now be, perhaps… Has not eventuated-

Chris Bowen:                Well it has been peaceful, but there’s been no move towards greater democratic freedom

Misha Zelinsky:             And so we’re seeing increasing authoritarianism. The question, to your point, it’s unthinkable to decouple economically, but there’s a real push to decouple on the national security elements. How do those two things sit together when you consider the techno nationalism around Warway, and the security of data and that element of the debate? And then all the economic points that you’ve made. They seem to be completely pulling against one another.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, it’s really hard. I know I don’t underestimate the difficulty for any government in the western world. I think the liberal national government here has made mistakes in that space over the last six years, but I’m not overly critical of them because I don’t underestimate the size of the task, or the degree of complexity of the task in navigating that. Now what you need is a national strategy. The problem Misha, I think you’re really making this point, is that in many countries, including Australia, the economic establishment and the national security establishment shout at each other.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                And the national security establishment shouts, “China’s terrible, have nothing to do with them.” And the economic establishment shouts, “They’re our largest trading partner, we’re buggered without them!”. Both sides have some evidence to their cases, the trouble is that far to often, it’s just the shouting. In the cabinet, and I’ve served in both, there’s the Expenditure Review Committee, which is in effect the Economic Policy Committee, and you’ve got the National Security Committee, the cabinet, I’ve served on both for some years. What you really need is probably a National Strategy Committee. To get the intelligence agencies and the economic agencies in the same room and say, what are we going to do about it then? How are we going to navigate this?

Chris Bowen:                Some countries are doing it differently, but we’re all faced with similar conundrums. Prime minister Trudeau is dealing with this very acutely in Canada. Prime minister May, they’ve dealt with their own Warway issue in a different way to many other countries. And they’ve obviously weighed up the evidence. And you know I’ve seen the briefings, not the classified briefings, but I’ve seen the public briefings about Warway, and there are some issues, and our position is the same as the government on Warway.

Chris Bowen:                These are tough issues and we’ve got to stop shouting at each other about them.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s an interesting point.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things, to your point about China is the oscillating between greed and fear, but I think actually we don’t oscillate that much, as you say, to people that are national security minded tend to be hawkish and people who are economically minded tend to be doveish.

Chris Bowen:                We have tribes.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Hilary Clinton said you can’t argue with your banker. I think we have situation where it’s difficult to argue with our best customer. China touches up a little around coal exports, I mean, certainly the coal or oil type situation with the Canadians, as you alluded to there. But is there a case on national security grounds, or even just on a diversification basis, for Australia to build deeper links into other parts of the regional, global economy?

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely. This is the key question. I think you correctly put Misha. We can talk about China and how we handle it, and obviously I have views about that, but what we’re not doing as a country is deepening our links to the region. More broadly, the Indo-Pacific. Every country is important, but the two key countries for us are India and Indonesia. We’re doing a little more in India than Indonesia-

Misha Zelinsky:             Which we don’t talk about much at all.

Chris Bowen:                No, no. But, by and large we’re not very much.

Chris Bowen:                Both of those countries have been bedeviled, in terms of our bilateral relations with different but similar problems in that in both cases the relationships have been transactional. Indonesia in particular, our relationship with Indonesia is transactional, it’s not deep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Going to Bali.

Chris Bowen:                Going to Bali or, from a government-government level, we’ve got a problem with boats, can you help us? Or live exports, it’s all about a transaction. And with India it’s a related but slightly different problem, is that it’s stop start. So there’s been good intentions by prime minsters, etc., and there’s been bilateral visits, and it disputes-

Misha Zelinsky:             You would’ve thought it’s easier, perhaps on a language basis and a cultural basis. There’s cultural alignment around sport, there’s language alignment-

Chris Bowen:                Curry, cricket, and Commonwealth. That’s what they say about India. Well let’s just step back for minute Misha. In each case, let’s look at why both countries are vital for us, and then look at why we need do better, or what we could do better.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

Chris Bowen:                So, let’s just take India, the fastest growing major economy in the world. Probably will be the second biggest economy in the world by 2050, probably, on track. It will overtake China as the largest, most populous country in the world. OK. You’d think that means they’re pretty strategically and economically important for us. And, they absolutely are. But, again, it’s been stop start.

Chris Bowen:                I’m hopeful though that perhaps we’ve turned the corner with India because the biggest thing we’ve got going for us with India, is that they are now, pretty consistently, our largest source of permanent migrants. So we have a critical mass of permanent ambassadors, from us to them, and them to us. Those Australian-Indians or Indian heritage who now make Australia home, are very entrepreneurial, active in business, and hopefully will help us cement that relationship and stop it being about curry, cricket, and Commonwealth, but actually deepen it.

Chris Bowen:                There are a few things we can do for India. Firstly, we should be actively, not just say we agree, but we should, in my view, very actively promote India joining APEC. APEC’s an Australian invention-

Misha Zelinsky:             Forgot institution largely.

Chris Bowen:                It’s fallen off the tree a bit-

Misha Zelinsky:             Keith talked about it a lot, obviously.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah. See when APEC started, it was the main game in town-

Misha Zelinsky:             G20.

Chris Bowen:                Now you’ve got G20, you’ve got East Asia Forum. Summit season’s a busy time. And APEC tends to now be the forgotten cousin.

Chris Bowen:                Well one, Australia should promote invigoration of APEC, in my view, for all sorts of reasons. And two, we should welcome India to APEC. It’s an anomaly that they’re not in APEC. They’ve been trying to join since 1994. And the concern about India is, it’s a legitimate concern by some of our colleague countries in APEC, that India is generally not a globalized, generally not pro-free trade, and would be a blocker in APEC. Well my answer to that is we have to bring them in.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                You can’t pretend to exist. They are going to be the world’s second biggest economy. Let’s bring them in. We’ve got to give more support to those people in then Indian system arguing for openness. Now the proportion of trade in the Indian economy has doubled. Their exports have doubled over the last period. So, they are being more openly focused. Prime minister Modi’s instincts generally on the economy are more free trade and global in their approach. It’s still a very different economic system to ours. But there is cause for hope. So we’ve got to try to build our institutional, bilateral links with India much more, and we should try to bring them into regional architecture.

Chris Bowen:                On Indonesia. Now, Indonesia is the most stable country, basically in the world, when it comes to economic growth. They just continue to grow. China does, but Indonesia’s growth rate has been, if anything, even more stable. They’re just consistent, quiet achievers when it comes to economic growth-

Misha Zelinsky:             Quarter of a billion people!

Chris Bowen:                Yes! And so much so that they will be the world’s seventh biggest economy probably, by 2030, and fourth biggest economy by 2050. They’ll overtake us, Germany, the UK, everybody.

Chris Bowen:                Guess what? Their next door to us, and they’re not in our top trading partners. I think, hello? Are we getting something wrong here?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well it’s certainly…

Chris Bowen:                Yeah! And, again, as I said, our relation’s transactional. We don’t talk to each other.

Chris Bowen:                Here in Australia, more Australian school students study parts of Indonesia in 1972 than they do today. University campus after university campus is closing their Indonesian faculty, because they don’t have enough students.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is that an emphasis question? Why is that happening? You’ve learnt the language.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, because I decided that, for a couple of reasons, I couldn’t talk the talk, without walking the walk, and talk about Indonesia about how important it was, for example, that we left out Indonesia literacy, if I’m a middle-aged Anglo-Celtic, middle class guy, lecturing the country and young people that we need to do this, if I wasn’t prepared to do it myself.

Chris Bowen:                So, I took myself off at age forty-two, when I started, and got myself a degree in Indonesian language.

Misha Zelinsky:             Old dog, new tricks mate!

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                People say Indonesian’s an easy language, I say, no it’s not. There’s no such thing as an easy language to learn.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

Chris Bowen:                There are just some that are easier than others. And Indonesian’s at the easier end of the scale. It’s still very bloody hard.

Misha Zelinsky:             Other languages are always challenging.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah.

Chris Bowen:                But it can be done. And it can be done at middle age, mid-career. But language is important because one, it shows respect. Well I’m going to Chicago, and my language skills aren’t as good as I’d like them to be, I’m constantly working to improve them. But I can start a meeting with an Indonesian finance company, for example, in Indonesian. They often fall off their chair in surprise that a western politician can speak Indonesian. I don’t finish the meeting in Indonesian in case I agree to something I didn’t mean to.

Chris Bowen:                The fact that you show the respect, and often when I’m there the meetings flow in and out of Indonesian and English, because they can’t half speak English, and if I can speak Indonesian we show each other respect of floating in and out of each other’s language, to make sure we understand each other. It just changes completely the tone of the meeting. If you’re just speaking English, and often it’s pro-former, it’s formulaic, it’s a lot of, “Here you are.”, and “Thanks for your visit.”, “And stay as a good friend.” It’s bullshit.

Chris Bowen:                If you actually show the respect that you’ve learnt their language, it changes the tone of the meeting. And also, because we’re getting more young people learning Indonesian, or any other Asian language, Indonesian’s what I chose because you can’t learn them all. Any Asian language. You almost inevitably are engendering and interesting the country, and their background and their history. Part of my Indonesian degree was two compulsory subjects, the history of Indonesian language, and Indonesian contemporary culture.

Chris Bowen:                But even at school. When I was school I had the choice between Italian, and French, and German.

Misha Zelinsky:             Same.

Chris Bowen:                But they also taught us about the culture as they were teaching us language. The same with Indonesian, or Mandarin, or Hindi. We talked about India, but how many schools are teaching Hindi? None.

Chris Bowen:                And recently ABC fact checked me, and I’m glad they did, because I had said in a speech, going back to China for second, but it’s about Asian languages, I said in a speech Australian’s have non-Chinese heritage who can speak Mandarin to a level of business competence. The number is one-hundred and thirty.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ve heard stat, it’s an extraordinary stat.

Chris Bowen:                It’s extraordinary!

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s actually quite damning in a way.

Chris Bowen:                It is. And sometimes when I say to the speech people shake their head and say that can’t be true. One friend of mine slammed a pencil on the table and said, “That can’t be right!”. As I said, fact checked found that essentially it was right. So it was an educated guess, but even if it’s double that, even if it’s two-hundred and sixty! [crosstalk 00:32:21]

Misha Zelinsky:             Two fifty.

Chris Bowen:                Out of twenty-four million, that’s a pretty poor figure.

Chris Bowen:                Now, Mandarin skills aren’t bad, because of immigration.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

Chris Bowen:                But that’s not going to get us there. Education is to get us there as well. So, we’ve got a massive step change to undertake, in terms of our engagement with the region. Because, to get back to your essential point, yes, we can’t put all our eggs in the China basket, share politically, economically, interest of the world, we’ve got to be lifting engagement with India, Indonesia, as young and in the entire region in particular.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah. Going back to the Indian question, because people look at India, look at China, now China has an economic miracle, and India tends to get forgotten. India’s mess here is democratic. I’m so curious on your take of, what’s the future for democracy, open markets, and mesial liberalism versus the Chinese model of state capitalism, state owned enterprises? At this point a lot of people are pointing saying, “Well, that model appears to be delivering, bringing people out of poverty.” Now it’s a convergence, it’s easier to catch up than it is to go forward, but is there legitimate case to stay that the state owned enterprise model, the central control model, is the way forward? Or do you still think the Indian model can prevail in the long term?

Chris Bowen:                No, the Indian model’s getting there. It’s a unique Indian model. It’s not what you recommend as a starting point with a tradition of protectionism and heavy state, very heavy handed regulations and anti-foreign investment. But they’re getting there.

Chris Bowen:                They now have a national GST, for example. It’s got seven different levels, depending on the product you’re buying, which is not necessarily how you design it from scratch in a perfect world, but it’s what they had to do to get it through, because up until then-

Misha Zelinsky:             John Howard did a deal here on the early exclusions. I mean, these things happen in politics, right?

Chris Bowen:                Well up until recently, every states had its own GST, and I’ve seen it, I’ve traveled through India and the trucks get stopped on the state borders to check the goods. That’s all gone. And they’re getting there with retail and land reform, etc. And their growth rates are strong. As I said, they’re the fasted growing major economy in the world, and probably on track to overtake the United States and become the world’s second largest economy at some point when you and I are still on the workforce Misha.

Chris Bowen:                That’s a big turnaround. So they’re getting there, and of course they’re a very robust, strong democracy. They just had an election. It’s a remarkable feat and logistical feat, the Indian election, as is an Indonesian election. But there’s two examples, India and Indonesia, two recent elections, all by and large comparatively smooth and straight forward, and democratic, and both engaged in pro-market reforms and continuing to grow.

Misha Zelinsky:             Does that give you hope for democracy in the region? Obviously, similar outcomes in Indonesia, very complex acapella go style elections-

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely!

Misha Zelinsky:             Very difficult to run them. And India’s also complex. A lot of people say, “Well, democracies on the way. China’s being more assertive. The Russian’s are being more assertive. The traditional democracies have lost their swagger. Brexit, Trump, etc.” Does that give you hope for the region?

Chris Bowen:                It does, and of course democratic change in Malaysia. An economy of similar size to us, similar population to us. I know Malaysia pretty well, I didn’t necessarily think I’d see a change of government in my lifetime, from the all-know government. I don’t think many Malaysians did either. They certainly had elections for a long time, but one party happened to win them every time, until this time. So, we shouldn’t discount that either. I’m not commenting on the details of Malaysian politics, but there’s been a change in government, which was unexpected.

Misha Zelinsky:             A peaceful change as well.

Chris Bowen:                They had a peaceful change, yeah!

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is always the test.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah.

Chris Bowen:                And you could not have guaranteed that a few years ago, if there was a change of government, that it would be peaceful. As I said, they tend to be forgotten, but they’re a significant economy roughly. A roughly comparable economy in terms of middle power, and there’s another example.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things I wanted to get your take on, former treasurer of Australia, you had the portfolio a long time in opposition, one thing that gets overlooked a lot in the debate is this question of debt, global debt. Since the GFC effectively money around the world has been effectively, if not free, subsidized, and we’ve just cut our own straights yet again here in Australia to 1% levels, unthinkable even five years ago. How concerned should we be about one more generally, what it’s doing to the global economy, and how concerning is debt when you look at the debt loans that individuals and countries are carrying? Big question.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, it worries me. It wouldn’t worry me if I was currently serving as treasurer of Australia. If you look at the global debt levels, it’s about 234% of GDP at the moment. Pre GFC it was 208%. So we have higher exposure than we had pre-GFC in the globe.

Chris Bowen:                Now, then you’ve got to look underneath it and say, what’s driven that? Now the good news is, is that a lot of that is driven by states, sovereign states. About eleven trillion has been handed by the United States. About five trillion has been added by China. Debt created by a sovereign government has its issues, but in terms of economic [stability around the world, it’s probably one of the less ‘badish’ types of debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             Owing it to yourself in your own currency.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

Chris Bowen:                Some comes from corporate in United States. And some comes from corporate in China, which is perhaps a cause for instability, if, because there are concerns about the opaqueness of some of that debt. If there is a downturn or a problem, it could be that, that is the cause of it. I don’t want to be too alarming, but you have to be realistic about where the shock could come from, and that is one.

Chris Bowen:                And some is household debt, which is a concern, and that’s our problem.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                Australia and Canada, household debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             World champions in that dubious area, right?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, that’s right. Second highest in the developed world. Not a record we should be looking for. And that does expose us. If there was an international downturn, whether it be caused by Chinese debt crisis, whether it be caused by a US recession, which the markets would indicate. Possible/likely.

Misha Zelinsky:             Not to get in a super wonk-ish discussion, but inverted yield curves.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly. Exactly right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Predicting a US recession in twelve months, or so.

Chris Bowen:                Exactly right.

Chris Bowen:                And there is some rushing after that. Or it’s caused by an elongated, worsening trade war, or it’s caused by Europe/Brexit. Europe’s hasn’t been in a great state. Germany’s narrowly avoided a recession. Italy’s bouncing along the bottom. Greece continues to be Greece. Europe’s not in a great state, so from somewhere you could see the makings of an international downturn from one of the above. And if that happens, one of our exposes is our very high household debt.

Chris Bowen:                I think most households can cope with an increase in interest rate, obviously they’re going down at the moment, but even if they did start to move up, most households have factored in some buffer. What you can’t cope with is unemployment. And that’s where, if there is a downturn, and we’ve got very high household debt, we are in-

Misha Zelinsky:             The assumption is you’ve still got your job.

Chris Bowen:                Correct.

Chris Bowen:                Debt does worry me.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of government? Because one of the things that troubles me, it’s a global question, going right back to basic economics, cheaper money means businesses borrow, means they invest, households borrow to an extent they can consume, but largely, we want to see this investment piece. Now, the rate of capital formation. So, i.e. people borrowing money to invest in new things to build. New factories, new businesses, etc., is on the way. You’re seeing largely this subsidized money being driven into asset markets, property shares and other forms of equity.

Misha Zelinsky:             Is there a role there to make sure that we actually, well, if we’re going to subsidize money, it goes into job creation, or into things that are going to create economic activity?

Chris Bowen:                Well, ideally.

Chris Bowen:                I don’t want to go through the war, but that was one of the policy rationales for our negative gearing reforms, for example. Obviously the pay will go through a process of revising our policies. But one of the things that drove us on negative gearing reform was that we have the most generous property tax concessions in the world. I mean it’s almost irrational not to be a property investor in Australia.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well the tax system tells you to do it, right? You can watch my essay on this, but I find it crazy for every ten dollars that’s borrowed in Australia, six bucks go in the property market.

Chris Bowen:                Because we provide such incentives to do for the tax system.

Misha Zelinsky:             People go with incentives like water goes down hill.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

Chris Bowen:                And so, that’s one of the reasons why we have the second highest household debt in the world. It’s because our tax system encourages it. Now, again, as I stress, the party has got to go through the process of a review, but that was the number of rationales for that reform, one of them was housing affordability, one of them was budget repair, and the other one was financial stability and high household debt.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the way forward here, in terms of actually getting consumption going? Because 60% of the economy is driven by consumption. So the focus tends to lead largely on supplies, so let’s get monetary policy-

Chris Bowen:                Well the reserve bank governors made it clear they can only do so much, right?

Chris Bowen:                Again, it’s a bit hard to avoid the recent election, but we had policies on the investment guarantee to encourage businesses to invest. But we also, unapologetically said, well you can’t expect people to consume when the wage is going backwards. And so we did have some, you might call them radical, but strong policies on the living wage, on penalty rates, because unless we get wages growth going, and it did require a degree of intervention because the systems not sorting it. And this is an international problem, I don’t hold this government entirely responsible for all of it, but I hold them responsible for the lack response, and for saying-

Misha Zelinsky:             And incoherence in the policy, cutting penalty rates-

Chris Bowen:                Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:             Demand for consumption.

Chris Bowen:                Well we can argue about the way it’ll increase wages, but I think we could probably agree the way to increase wages is not to cut them on weekends.

Chris Bowen:                We saw wages growth as being pretty important for social justice and fairness, and equality, but a pretty important economic stimulus as well. Unless there is a solution found through those mechanisms or others, we are going to continue to bounce on the bottom of consumption. And the economy will continue to be anaemic. In my view.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well I could probably pick your brain all day, but you’re a very busy man with a lot of things to do. But, before you go, and one of my classic clunky segues into the lamest of all questions, Chris Bowen’s barbecue, three international guests, three international shows, so who are the international guests alive or dead that you’d have at a barbecue at Bowen’s? It’s got alliteration, so already-

Chris Bowen:                There you go, I could get an apron printed or something.

Chris Bowen:                Three international guests! Well, and they can be dead? Well first-

Misha Zelinsky:             Might be less fun.

Chris Bowen:                Well, OK, to show my pure [wonkiness 00:44:15], in the fantasy football world, and they could be dead, Winston Churchill. I was born eight years after he died, so never walked the planet with him, but I’ve read basically everything you can read about him, an enormous, remarkable figure. And then you’d put Clem Attlee in. You’d see those to be in the same room as those two. Being a bit more realistic around the world, pretty interested in the US presidential race at the moment. I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of hours with Pete Buttigieg.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, I met Pete, he’s really a compelling guy isn’t he?

Chris Bowen:                Yeah! Yeah, I’d have him over for a barbecue. I’d have Ruth Bader Ginsburg over as well, if she could make it. Very admirably figure, powerful intellectual, extraordinary figure.

Chris Bowen:                And then just to mix it up completely, I’d probably have, this guy is actually a friend of mine, I’ve come to know him, I’d have, just to mix it up a bit, a guy who I think is probably the best, in my view, the best living novelist in the world, I’m bias, is John Boyne. He’s an Irish novelist. He wrote the Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and he wrote The Absolutist, which I highly recommend. A compelling read. I’ve come to know him, he’s a good fella. An Irishman, an Irish novelist. He loves Australia! He comes to Australia at every opportunity, that’s how we got to know each other.

Misha Zelinsky:             [crosstalk 00:45:48] I think Churchill might have an interesting discussion.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah! That’s right. I don’t think Churchill’s appeared directly in any of his novels. He certainly has written about the issues of the day. So I’d have John over as well.

Misha Zelinsky:             So we’ve got a novelist, a former British prime minster-

Chris Bowen:                And the nearest south bender [crosstalk 00:46:08]-

Chris Bowen:                I added one.

Misha Zelinsky:             And that’s right, a former president of Australia. So that would be a great barbecue, I’d definitely like to be a fly on the wall with that one. Chris Bowen, thanks for joining us, I really appreciate your time mate.

Chris Bowen:                Been a lot of fun Misha. Good on you.

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.

 

Ambassador Curtis Chin

Ambassador Curtis Chin served as the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.  In doing so, he became only the fourth US ambassador of Chinese heritage. As one of the world’s foremost experts on the Asia-Pacific region, Curtis now serves as the Asia Fellow of the nonpartisan Milken Institute and works with a range of startups and impact funds in Asia. Curtis joined Misha Zelinsky for a chat about the US-China trade war, what a deal looks like for both countries, the future of global trade and governance, and how the world should respond to countries that want to break the rules.

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:                  Curtis Chin, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Curtis Chin:                           Hey, doing well. Great to be with you.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And I should just reference for the audience, that we’re doing this through a web chat interface, so you’re currently in Bangkok, which is three hours behind Sydney time. So thank you for joining us. You’re an American in Thailand, but thank you for joining us as an international guest.

Curtis Chin:                           Delighted to be with you. I think though with so many of us, it’s one city one day, another city the next day, but very clearly, I spend most of time here in Asia, really Southeast Asia. And I’m with the Milken Institute out of Singapore, but yeah, from the US, but back and forth between the US and Asia-Pacific. So great to be with you today, chatting about Asia-Pacific, sharing some thoughts on Australia, the rest of the region, and some of the big stories of these weeks, and probably the whole year, which is the front and foremost, China and the US.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. I think that’s actually a good place to start. So you’re obviously an Asia-Pacific expert, you spend a lot of time in the Asian region. Big news at the moment, and certainly the last six to twelve months has been this question of trade, and certainly this trade tensions between China and the United States, and what increasingly now looking like a trade war. So I suppose the first question is, is this a trade war and what should the world make of the sort of these trade tensions between the United States and China?

Curtis Chin:                           First let me go back to your comment that I’m an expert, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s an expert in terms of what’s going on right now between the US and China. I mean, it really is unprecedented. You know, I was very lucky to serve primarily in Republican administrations, but I was lucky to serve also in the Obama administration as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. And I’d say for a long time Republicans and Democrats … and no one’s really been a big fan of tariffs. So today we’re at a situation where back and forth, whether you call it a trade war, or let’s say a tariffs war, we’re seeing the United States and China continue to raise tariffs on each other’s products. For me in the short run, clearly not a good thing. In the long run my hope is that both sides will come up with a way that will lead to a more balanced, more sustainable relationship between China and the US.

Curtis Chin:                           But also if both sides succeed in moving this forward, it will be to the benefit of the entire region, of all of Asia-Pacific, including Australia. When you think about countries that in my view, have become so dependent on China as a source of purchases of their commodities, Australia comes to mind, but also as a place where you move supply chains because labor costs have been cheaper there. So you’ve seen this movement over the what? Last decades, but that needs to change. One, it’s already changing even before these tariffs back and forth, because the cost of production in China is getting more expensive. But also I could say quite frankly, that as we think about China’s behavior, what might have been acceptable two or three decades ago … I mean, clearly China was a poor country, is not acceptable today. Bluntly we might say it’s time for China to grow up and take on some of the responsibilities that come with being again, a great economic power.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting you said there, you touched on that for a long time the bipartisan consensus in the United States, certainly globally too, is that free trade is good, tariffs are bad, interventionism is bad. What’s interesting is … I suppose firstly, and I’m keen to get your take on this, a lot of people will say that this is a Trump thing, but it’s actually, interestingly, perhaps the only thing that both sides of the United States, of the aisle politically agree on, which is that sometimes the war on trade is popular and bipartisan, because you saw Trump tweeting as he does, about tariffs that he’s going to put on, and being encouraged by the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, saying he was doing the right thing and to keep going. So it’s interesting the US in a very quick way, in a bipartisan way, to have a more assertive approach to Chinese trade in the United States. So I’m curious to get your take on what that journey is and how the United States has gotten itself to this point.

Curtis Chin:                           Well, you know I think your points, it’s clearly not just a Trump thing, I think President Trump to his great credit, has really captured kind of the moment, the feeling, the frustration of not just Americans, but people all around the world who have tried to engage with China. Clearly the world has benefited from less expensive products made in China because of traditionally what have been lower labor cost. And in may ways it was a gamble, with purchasing products from China, with making products in China, lead also to a more economically, politically liberal nation. That gamble has not paid off. We’re seeing a China today that is much more strict in term of how it treats its own people, in terms of its crackdowns on Christians and Muslims, in terms of its behavior on human rights. And it shouldn’t take away from the successes that China has achieved in lifting really, hundreds of millions out of poverty. But again, I think to one of my earlier points, China also has to evolve, China has to grow up.

Curtis Chin:                           And so Trump has in a way, come into this moment, really perhaps, he was the president for this moment, and even China in the past has said this trade imbalance between the United States and China is not sustainable, because ultimately it will lead to a pushback, and we’re seeing that, not just in the United States, but really throughout the Southeast Asia region in particular. Again, I’m based mainly in Southeast Asia, and when I speak to chairmen, CEOs, senior leadership of Southeast Asian businesses, you also find tremendous support, tremendous sympathy for the points that Donald Trump is making. I was out actually recently with the chairman of a Southeast Asian company, he stepped down as CEO from his role, and what he said to me was very interesting, he said that in many ways, they would all love to go on record and say what Trump is saying, but China has been a vindictive nation, that we’ve seen records recently, of where they’ve punished companies for doing things that went against China’s foreign policy.

Curtis Chin:                           One specific example would be South Korea. In South Korea, there’s a big conglomerate called Lotte, big South Korean company, respected company. The South Korean government, to protect its own people, made the decision to install kind of like a missile defense system. The land that was used was once owned by Lotte. So what happened? China sought to punish Lotte in terms of its business transactions in China. So just one very real example of how the Chinese government behaves against individual companies. President Trump to his great credit is saying, “We the United States will speak up on these issues,” because in many ways I think his language was, “China has been ripping off the US and too much of the world. We need to rebalance that.” And that rebalancing also will be to the benefit of China itself. I’m sure China is not happy with it being kind of like the country that’s increasingly kicked around in rhetoric not just in the US, but in public and in private, in parts of Asia.

Curtis Chin:                           That’s not good for China. China really should be embraced for what it has done in terms of lifting millions out of poverty, but its treatment of foreign businesses, both in China and outside of China really has to stop. And so where I would say that I think the Trump administration needs to evolve, is they’ve identified very clearly and spoken out very clearly on the issue, but I think they have to evolve in a way that also brings in their many natural allies to come together, to help China move forward in this situation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. One of the things I’m curious about, Trump sort of is always promoting himself as the great deal maker, but the question of tariffs is obviously that it sort of punishes the country that’s taking their export for some sort of practice, but at the same time it obviously lifts prices for households. Now, a figure I saw was that if they end up putting up this 25% tariff on all Chinese imported goods into the United States, we’re talking about $2,500 a year per household increase in the cost of living. The thing I’m curious about is does this have implications for Trump in the domestic policy sense, and also to your mind, what does a deal look like? Trump focuses a lot on trade deficits, but what does a deal look, and what does victory look like in this situation, because the grievance is clear, but it’s not as clear one who wins, households in the United States get punished, and secondly what does a deal look like in the minds of Trump or other experts?

Curtis Chin:                           Yeah. A number of interesting points you raise. First, when you have tariffs … and I’m no fan of tariffs. Tariffs openly I hope, are means to a more balanced relationship between the United States and China. The other is that question, who pays for a tariff? So let’s say you’re selling a product, a tariff is imposed, one question will be, “Can that tariff be passed on to the end consumer?” Right, then of course the consumer will most ultimately pay. Will that company though first try to absorb it because they’re afraid of losing the business? It’s a little bit more complicated than what people say. But I also underscores, there are always winners and losers when it comes to tariffs. Another tricky point. We talk about the impact of tariffs on the American consumer, but I remember I did one interview where someone said to me, “But don’t you benefit from cheap products at Walmart?” Though again, it’s a big American store. Of course we do, but clearly I can only afford those cheap products if I have a job, and have I lost my job because of all those cheap products?

Curtis Chin:                           It’s really kind of a balance that we need to seek, and then likewise, when people raise the point of American consumers ultimately in the short term pay, I wonder if people will pose that same interpretation to China, or is it just China cares less about its consumers, and they’re thinking that the US will worry about its consumers but China will not, as it tit for tat, tries then tariffs the other way around? So I think we need to look at the individual winners and losers. I think the Chinese are now trying to target agricultural areas, big support areas for President Trump. As we think about the politics of trade also, President Trump of course, is running for reelection. Election is next year, next November. That’s a lot of months before that election, to get a deal done. So we’ll see how it plays out with this timing. Your second point, what will a deal look like?

Curtis Chin:                           My fear is that ultimately there will be a face-saving deal, where each side claims victory, but really nothing changes. And so that goes to you, what is success? For me success isn’t simply that Chinese buy a lot more US exports. Clearly that’s a short-term win. But it doesn’t address the longterm issue that many countries … maybe the US is at the forefront, but many countries are facing with regards to China, which is theft of intellectual property, which is forced technology transfers, which are non-tariff trade barriers. It’s a range of things that companies, whether they’re Australian, or American, or from somewhere in Southeast Asia are facing. For me a real success would be if some of these things change. You know there was some talk that actually, that the Chinese as part of the negotiation process, had agreed to some of this, because perhaps they saw that it was in their interest too.

Curtis Chin:                           On this war, who knows the backstory and all these reports and tweets? But then you saw, most recently, leading up to the latest announcement by President Trump, about really, a move to impose tariffs on all Chinese exports, was this point that China reneged, that China moved backwards in terms of edits on the agreement that the negotiators had already agreed to. So only the people involved will know the truth to that, but I can tell you as business person who’s worked in Beijing, who’s worked in Hong Kong, and now worked throughout Southeast Asia, business people from all kinds of companies, American, Australian and others, have seen that same reality, where something that you thought was negotiated with a Chinese counterpart, all of a sudden doesn’t seem so negotiated as the process moves forward. So I would not be surprised that there is quite a bit of truth to that comment, to that tweet from President Trump, “The Chinese reneged, the Chinese moved backwards.” And so again, that needs to change.

Curtis Chin:                           So again when we talk about what is victory, victory ideally is a victory for both sides. That both sides, China and the United States, to go back to their really important domestic constituencies, and say “We’ve come to an agreement, we moved these things forward.” But then ultimately that victory will be a more sustained trading relationship between the United States and China. One of the point I always want to make though, is that we looked at some of the drivers of where we are today. Clearly for decades the Chinese have in a way, been gaming the system, taking advantage of the system, something that might have been tolerated when they really were a much poorer nation and a less militaristic nation than they are today. So that has to evolve. But I think one thing that we need to think more about more, and hopefully media can talk about more, is that in the world today, exports are both of goods and services.

Curtis Chin:                           So we talk a lot about things that were made, or grown, and exported, but we also need to think about the services. United States, developing nations, are also trying to move this way, but the United States has moved to develop the economy, where a lot of things we produce are services, are intellectual property, are things that again, are of great value, of greater value added than something simple that might have been made 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. As we talk about the balance between nations in terms of what they import or export, I think we should ideally spend also more time talking about both goods and services, versus the focus on the easy number to understand, which is how many widgets or bushels of this has a nation purchased. Out of all this I think back about our evolving sense of trade, of Asia. Ultimately, and I say to people, “Things have moved forward, it’s a positive thing. Trade has been a wonderful thing.”

Curtis Chin:                           But the reality also is that in this more globalized world, this globalized economy of ours, many people have not done so well. So Trump has captured that moment, and spoken to people about what can he do to fight for them. But I see that across this world of ours, and across Europe, but very much across here and Asia, where in the Philippines, they had a recent election also, a very populist leader, India is going to an election, Indonesian had its own election, where leaders have to respond to their vast number of citizens who maybe don’t see that they’ve become better off as part of this globalized economy.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And we’ve certainly seen that with Brexit as well. I think you’re right. I mean, the question of trade and who benefits, and it might … it looks good in a headline number, but often say trade destroys and distributes unevenly. And I think there’s a lot of people that have been left behind or dislocated, and it’s expressing itself in this politics in a worrying sort of way. So I think certainly a lot to think about there for policymakers. One thing I’m curious about is, and you sort of talked a lot about the trade relationship, that seems to me now that the United States very much considers itself or it sees China now as very much a strategic competitor.

Curtis Chin:                           I think in every US administration, every country around the world, even your government hopefully, is working to give its citizens a better life. And so I think what we’ve seen is this continuing movement to a richer world, but also a more unequal world. And so you’ve seen so much talk about inequality kind of bubbling up over these last, really two decades, and I think we’ve reached that point where people are trying to look for what are the drivers of this inequality, how do we address that? And so very clearly, the two biggest economies in the world, China and the US, ought to be very much part of that conversation. You raised an intriguing question when you talk about China and the US, China versus the US. For me taking a step back, in many ways I see things also as not just China versus the US, but a US-driven system versus an alternative that China is pushing when it comes to concepts of competition, economics, of trade, and governance.

Curtis Chin:                           In general, I think no country wants to chose and say, “I’m on the US’s side or on the China side,” but I would say to nations, I would say to the people of Australia and elsewhere, “It really it’s up to you to decide which system is better for your own people.” For me, clearly I’m biased, I am for a system of free markets, free trade, and free speech. This is not what China is for, right? But often people will say, “But I got to follow the money, I got to pay the bills, I got to do what I need to do. It’s China that is the big customer.” And so that’s what people think to think through. It’s a very difficult question sometimes. I spoke recently at a Bloomberg event in Singapore on this whole same issue of China and the US, and I was struck by one of our fellow panelist, a friend … he’s actually from the Democrat side versus Republican side, but clearly we’re both Americans. Kirk Wagar, the former US ambassador to Singapore.

Curtis Chin:                           It was very interesting when he made a comment, and that comment was basically, “Western businesses, when they deal with China, the big question for them is, ‘Do you have to sell your soul, or to what degree do you sell your soul?’” So I’m paraphrasing his comment, but that’s that challenge of you’re going to make so much money hopefully dealing with China, the reality is many companies lose money dealing with China. But in pursuit of that market, or in Pursuit of that cheaper production base, do you simply look the other way on all the terrible things that China is doing? Maybe case number one, we see these days are these reports coming out of Xinjiang, this Northwest part of China, of where they put, by some accounts, one million to two million people into camps. Some would say concentration camps, of all the terrible connotations that raises from World War II. But they put people there simply because they’re Muslim.

Curtis Chin:                           That clearly, I would hope the world would speak out about. But we’ve seen how Muslim nations, many nations have looked the other way. “It’s China’s right,” I think one Saudi leader said, “as to how they deal with what China perceives as a terrorism threat.” But for me, maybe I’m not getting any business in the near term in China, because I want to speak up on behalf of all Chinese people, whether they’re Muslim, or Tibetan, or Han Chinese. You know I’m ethnic. People can’t see me on your podcast, but I think my great-grandfather went to the US way back in the late 1880s to help build the railways or something. I’m ethnic Chinese, but for me it shouldn’t be about your ethnicity, really even your nationality, but people should willing speak up on behalf of those that really need speaking up on behalf. So clearly the Muslims, the Tibetans, but even Christians. We’re seeing reports that the Chinese have been particularly aggressive in tearing down Christian churches, which they don’t recognize. These are all not great things.

Curtis Chin:                           But what if you want to do business in China? Do you say nothing because you’re going to make some money? That’s a very difficult question for people who again, who have to pay the bills. But for me, you can’t, in my mind, simply chose to say nothing because you want the money. There is some balance and each individual, each company needs to think through what is that … and in the long run, my hope is that all Chinese people will appreciate this notion that every single individual has value. There I go sounding like an American.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s okay. It’s good to be of your people. But it’s so curious, you were touching quite a bit there about the rule of law, I think largely, I mean. And the United States is larger] since World War II certainly, in this so-called rules-based global order. China’s really bumping up against that now, and one of the things I’m sort of curious to take on, I mean, where are the areas that you think that the United States is prepared to turn the other way? So for example, if you take South China Sea where Barack Obama, President Obama sort of didn’t do a great deal as the Chinese government sort of constructed these artificial islands in the South China sea, and then militarizes on, has in effect sort of annexed a part of the South China sea.

Misha Zelinsky:                  How do you see things of that nature when it comes to getting the Chinese government to obey and respect maritime law in that instance, where the international courts very clearly ruled against China, and it essentially ignored them? How do make your earlier point that China, and they need to be a responsible grown up actor? How do you actually enforce that with the Chinese government?

Curtis Chin:                           I think the reality here, even when I go back thinking about that question you asked, the reality is it cannot just be China and the US deciding. What are the regional bodies, global bodies that can play really, a shaping role? I mean, the reality is that at the end of the day, and sadly this goes back to a statement, even when you think about Chinese history that, “Power grows out of a barrel of a gun,” Mao famously said in the civil war in China. And the reality is that when you look at some our regional institutions like ASEAN the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, they act by consensus. Many of those nations have a stake in the South China Sea, and the Philippines even calls it the West Philippines Sea, but China has been very aggressive in building up … I don’t know, we call them [islandets00:25:55], or little islands, or fake islands, I don’t know. And then despite saying they wouldn’t, moving into to militarize them.

Curtis Chin:                           But China’s got the guns, and maybe other countries don’t have the guns, or they want Chinese investment. So lets deal with that. But to your point, I would hope that a nation let’s say like Australia, can step up. It’s what we call like freedom of the seas, freedom of navigation, trips to the South China Sea. That nations throughout the region can seek to come together to engage with China. The Chinese strategy has always been one of like picking off countries, some would argue that ASEAN already has in a way, been nullified because China has bought out Laos and Cambodia. And for a associations that acts by consensus, if Cambodia has in the past said, “Well, no, no. We’re not going to issue a joint statement because we Cambodia, don’t agree,” it blocks efforts. So hopefully that will evolve and all. Your question also raised this point about systems, and organizations, and governance.

Curtis Chin:                           One I know very well, is this whole issue of how will we support and fill the financing gap? How will we support the building of infrastructure in the region when there’s been a big gap? The region’s infrastructure needs and how they will be financed. So four years, nearly two under Obama, nearly two under Bush, I served as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. For those who don’t know, that’s kind of like an Asia-Pacific base, Philippines headquartered version of the World Bank, primarily focused on ending poverty in this region, mainly through building infrastructure, a lot of core infrastructure, roads, power, water systems, sanitation. Really doing good things there. But how do you build those infrastructure projects? So World Bank, Asian Development Bank, they’re all in this region. For the last couple of years we’ve seen Chinese rivals.

Curtis Chin:                           And so we’ve first and foremost seen the rise of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We’ve seen something called the New Development Bank, some people call it the BRICS bank after Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the key players there. That one’s based out of Shanghai. We’re see moves by bilateral financial institutions like the Chinese development banks, or that will be just working with one country, versus these multilateral banks. We’re seeing a lot of new players challenging that old, what they call this old Bretton Woods type institutions to finance and move Asia forward. In many ways that’s a good thing, hopefully it makes some of those old bodies, like my old colleagues at the ADB, a little bit more hungry, innovative, focused on acting quicker to serve the needs of this region. But it’s a bad thing if what it is, it’s also a push to the bottom, who will get the money out the fastest. When I was on the board of the Asian Development Bank, I visited a nation whose engagement with the ministry of finance, is they seek to get funding for key infrastructure projects.

Curtis Chin:                           ADB, I think to its great credit, like the World Bank and others, we’ll try to push for certain, what we call safeguards, so that if you put in an infrastructure project, the environment would be in some ways be protected. There’d be … the lingo today is ESG, so there’d be like environmental, social, governance safeguards put in place. These are all good things, but then it makes a project take a little bit longer to develop. So if you’re a country just in search of financing, what if all of a sudden there are Chinese-backed banks? There’s nothing else. “We don’t care about those ESG, those safeguard standards, we trust you as the borrowing country to decide what’s right for your own people.” You can see there will be sympathy for that, “You decide what’s right for your own country in term of protecting the environment based on your own spot in that kind of development line.” But then the Chinese might say, “But if we do the financing for you, maybe Chinese state-owned enterprises were going to do a lot of the work, maybe it will come with 500 to 1,000 Chinese employees and workers.”

Curtis Chin:                           So I think any nation, they decide. It’s their money, they ultimately have to pay it back, but read the fine print. So don’t think that because maybe the Chinese aren’t insisting on certain safeguards that others might, that it doesn’t come with other things that they might well insist upon. And so that’s how it should be. As long as it’s transparent, these institutions are accountable, that’s how it should be. Let the market compete. What the big problem is though, and we’re beginning to see it even in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, this is a big infrastructure funding push, is that what if decisions aren’t made fairly? What if corruption is involved? What if money changes hands? And case in point has been what we’ve seen has happened in Malaysia. In the last year or so, Malaysia brought back its longtime prime minister, probably the oldest prime minister in the world, Mahathir came back in with … was swept his party back into government, overturning the rule of, I think for decades, of what is not the opposition party.

Curtis Chin:                           And when Mahathir came back in as leader of Malaysia, he raised questions, it certainly raised eyebrows in China, but he raised question about some of the big infrastructure deals that were signed by his predecessor Najib, with the Chinese government. And to his great credit, forced renegotiation. And so one that’s come up most recently is … I think is calling it like an East Rail, a project … Really so much money in his huge infrastructure projects. Mahathir was ultimately able to shave the cost of the product or project. Not exactly apples and oranges because the project did change somewhat, but shaved the cost of that project by a third. And so it makes you wonder where was that extra third, you were talking really tens of millions of dollars, where was that money going? Into Chinese pockets? Into construction company pockets? Into Malaysian pockets? And then a question for the region, for countries that haven’t had this kind of democratic revolution bringing back an old prime minister, focused now on corruption.

Curtis Chin:                           What about all of those countries with deals other than the One Belt, One Road initiative, that haven’t had a Mahathir, to try to renegotiate and bring those costs down by a third? Where has that money gone? And so these are some of the questions that I think individual citizens may well raise when they see deals signed with China. But sadly in so many nations, those citizens are ignored, because the deal is done with leaders, and those leaders know for good and for bad, where that money has gone or will be going. So yes, China can be a constructive force in this region, but for that to happen in this changing world of ours, China too must evolve. And so bringing this all kind of full circle to how we began talking about China and the US, clearly we see this rivalry between the Chinese and the US government at this time. Hopefully it’s not a rivalry between the peoples of these nations, where people just want a better life for themselves.

Curtis Chin:                           But it’s also a rivalry, I believe, between different systems. So this Chinese system is one again, of subsidizing their own companies. To what degree is that acceptable or should it be acceptable, and then how do you have a level playing field when you’re up against a state-owned enterprise that’s completely subsidized by the second largest economy in the world? And I think these are important questions, that again are just not US versus China questions, and hopefully they’re questions that are also being asked within China. But we’re seeing now in some of the reports that are coming out of China, few and far between, where China itself is cracking down on its own Chinese economists and their own people who would dare challenge what Xi Jinping is pushing through right now. As I think a Chinese American, as somewhat Asian American, someone who’s living in both the US and Asia, I in particular want China to move forward and to succeed just like every other nation, but China must evolve, and my hope is that it’ll be done peacefully versus all the turmoil that China has gone through this last century.

Curtis Chin:                           My hope is that that does not come back. In a weird way, that may be what Xi Jinping fears, but is he putting in place a system which might encourage or increase the odds of that coming back. A case in point, Xi Jinping, president of China, pushed through a way for him to serve as really president for life. So in a way governance has moved backwards in China. Xi Jinping has a lot of rivals within China that maybe aren’t so happy with how he’s done things. This US-China back and forth, this trade war really emerged under his watch. So there’s a lot of questions within China about he’s doing things, but those people are increasingly kind of squashed. In the old days, if you were a senior Chinese leader, maybe you’d wait out whoever the president was, you’d wait five years, you’d wait 10 years, but that has now changed. Maybe there is no waiting out Xi Jinping.

Curtis Chin:                           And so are people moving sadly, back to that old system? Are they trying to bring him down, stab him in the back? Things that are not good, because that’s how China has evolved. It’s evolved backwards, and it’s gone back to the system where actually it’s almost like there’s a new emperor in town, that emperor is Xi Jinping. And what happened to emperors in the past? They either died or were overthrown. So that’s not a good thing for China, and I think no one should welcome turmoil in China. And so again it’s in China’s own interest to rethink about how it treats not just the US, but how it treats all its neighbors. The Chinese version of rule of law is not one that I would hope the world seeks to emulate. We look right now at an imprisoned … out on parole I think, the technical term is, but an imprisoned Huawei, this big Chinese tech company CFO in Canada under the Canadian version of rule of law.

Curtis Chin:                           I think that Huawei executive has just moved from one of her multimillion dollar houses in Vancouver to another multimillion dollar house in Vancouver while she goes through the Canadian legal process as will she be extradited to the United States regarding charges of was she really directly involved in her company’s trying to avoid sanctions on Iran, create shell companies, all these things. Right? So the rule of law is proceeding. Meanwhile in China, and I dare say it’s not coincidentally, but connected, China has retried one Canadian, I think sentenced him to death. China is now putting I think two Canadian citizens under arrest, alleging that they’re spies. There was one, I think social media post, that’s never all …. as you know never sure how accurate some of these posts are, but this particular social media post contrasted the treatment of those Canadians under the Chinese version of the rule of law, versus the Huawei CFO, her name is Meng, CFO Meng, among under the Canadian rule of law.

Curtis Chin:                           And so I say to countries, I say to people, “As you think about the systems that are really contending now, a Chinese way of doing things, a Western way of things, what is better for you?” And so my hope is that this notion of East versus West isn’t one of really of East versus West, it’s really what’s right for a nation. And as I think about even one person … I did an interview when someone said to me on air, “Well, isn’t this stealing of property by the Chinese cultural?” And I had to push back, one because I’m ethnic Chinese. But when you think about what does that mean, culture, because very clearly when I go to a dynamic place like Singapore, or a dynamic place like Hong Kong, or Taiwan, mainly Chinese people, ethnic Han Chinese people, I don’t see them ripping off and stealing other countries’ or other companies’, other countries companies’ intellectual property like you do in China.

Curtis Chin:                           So if it’s cultural, it’s because of a business climate that the communist Chinese have created, it’s not because people are ethnic Chinese or Caucasian or whatever. And I think that’s how we need to look at things in order to move things forward. And again, I keep coming to this point that moving things forward are also in the interest of the Chinese people. And so it’s always intriguing where people say that, “How long will you as a citizens stand for tariffs?” If indeed those higher costs are passed on to them. But then we can throw that same question at the Chinese, how often will Chinese citizens stomach and tolerate all that their leaders do, then impose this higher cost and burdens on them, whether it’s the money they spend, the lives they live, or what they can say? And unlike in a democracy, where the Chinese citizens say, “No, we want to change things. We’ll have different leaders,” how do people change things in China? Their track record has not been good when it’s been a system where the Chinese people have no way to peacefully speak up. And that’s the challenge for our world today.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So the question I have … So you sort of talked a lot about this sort of the competing models and the hope that I suppose, over time the theory always was that China would gradually adopt Western norms of global leadership and rules-based order. The thing that is curious in all this is that the United States has always been the underwriter of these systems and has always had great confidence in these systems. One of the great strengths of the United States model of global leadership has been its alliance system. Now, people have thought about Trump’s approach to the strategic rivalry with China, but one of the things I’d like input is Trump’s administration approach to United States’ friends in a way that has attacked NATO allies, it has attacked allies in Asia region, such as South Korea for not pulling their weight, etc. How can the United States’ friend believe in the system that United States has underpinned and expect China to adopt a system that perhaps the United States itself seems to be walking away from somewhat.

Curtis Chin:                           I don’t know if the answer is walking from a system that we’ve all benefited from, this global trading system, but very clearly, the United States is saying it needs to be change and fixed. One case and point I look at is think about all these global bodies, and that’s where my hope … We talk about West versus East, but I hope some of these global bodies are really seen as global bodies, because I think part of the challenge is we say it’s a Western system or, “I’m from the East. I don’t want that system.” But I would argue that things like human rights, free speech, worship whatever you want, your religion, or whatever your faith is, isn’t a Western concept, but then I hope would be more universal concepts. So going back to your point, so one of the institutions that I think needs to evolve, one example would be the World Trade Organization, and I think even the WTO leadership has said, “Yeah. We need to change too.” And it’s the Trump administration that is pushing for some of these changes.

Curtis Chin:                           One example would be under WTO rules right now, that China is still treated as a developing nation. So maybe it’s allowed to do certain things, can it have more state-owned enterprises, more support for state-owned enterprises, but then a developed nation can’t? So doesn’t that need to change? For me it’s kind of ridiculous also that this second largest economy in the world that is China, some would say largest economy based on purchasing power parity, that this nation still borrows money from the World Bank, still borrows money from the Asian Development Bank, because they say, “Oh, we’re a poor country.” So again it goes back I think, to these metrics, but very clearly, China has resources that other nations do not have. China again, amazing, has put like this little rover on I think, the far side of the moon, and yet it still borrows money from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank because it says, “Oh, we’re a poor country, we need these subsidized loans to help us fight poverty.”

Curtis Chin:                           And so I think these institutions need to change, WTO, ADB, World Bank, and how they treat a nation like China. And what’s great about these rules-based organizations also, it would be that, it’s not just about China. If it were another nation in that same kind of role as they move up, they also should in a sense, graduate from these kinds of assistance like grants and subsidized loans. And so I think, we think about this China and the US, I think that’s part of the challenge that right now because of this tariffs war, it’s seen as China versus the US. But in many ways, there will be many allies in the battle if they could speak freely, and also many more allies in a sense, if the Trump administration to your point, I think were more adept in how it handles its long time allies and friends. The US relationship with Australia, with Thailand, with Singapore, with the Philippines, these are relationships that will continue to evolve, but really are foundations for moving things forward in a way that will I think, benefit the countries involved, but also benefit this region, this Indo-Pacific region as well as the world.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So one question I want to ask you, are you a member or do you have an involvement in the International Republican Institute, the IRI which is responsible for promoting democracy globally? There’s a sister organization to Democrats version of them. Traditionally people have always thought that China would grow rich and then it would grow democratic. What we’ve seen as it’s grown richer, unfortunately it’s become more autocratic. You touched on the fact that Xi has made himself emperor for life. With your sort of background in what makes democracy great and how democracies flourish, do you hold any sort of hope … is there anything to hope for people that want to see China become more democratic, or is that just a lost hope now to your mind?

Curtis Chin:                           Are both the International Republican Institute and this National Democratic Institute, they’re both come under this umbrella, National Endowment for Democracy, which really comes out of … started to work way back when I began my career, like an intern under Ronald Reagan. But something that Ronald Reagan sought to encourage, was the spread of democracy. So these are nonpartisan groups, even though one sounds Republican one sounds Democrat. And their job really is to encourage democracy, but I think more importantly and this goes to the heart of your question, to encourage institutions, and systems, and processes that allow democracy to flourish. I’m usually always like the most hopeful person in the room, even though like the room’s falling apart. And so I’m always hopeful that things will be moving forward. But I think it’s important that we talk about democracy, that we realize that democracy is not just elections, democracy is about balance, it’s about systems, checks and balances, it’s about institutions.

Curtis Chin:                           And so like the work of both IRI, NDI, would be things like encouraging political parties, it doesn’t matter which party you are, but encouraging political parties to think through the use of research, degree that is allowed or easily done in a given country, so that they can better understand what citizens are worried about, what they’re concerned about, and then think through how they can best address those concerns. It’s about how do you strengthen a democratic process? Where people don’t like whoever is running, there’s a chance to get rid of that person. So yes, I’m hopeful for China in the long run, but clearly what we see in these last what? Five years, is a China that’s become much more economically assertive and militarily aggressive in the Indo-Pacific region. And so what will happen over time? The reality is that it won’t just be China and the US contending, it will be the other rising powers in this increasing … what they call multipolar world.

Curtis Chin:                           They will also have to contend with a rising China. One day we’ll see India come into its own, we will see Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia come into its own. How will China engage with an India, with an Indonesia, with a stronger ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asia Nations? How will they deal with this? Probably one of their biggest headaches is their friend, North Korea. At the end of the day, I believe, here I’m being hopeful again, I believe that Korea will be united one day, but clearly when it unites, the reality will most likely be a democratic, in a way, westward-oriented democracy, versus the model that China and North Korea itself now present to the world. That’s really what holds back these two nations from coming together, North Korea and South Korea, is China. China would probably prefer kind of a somewhat unstable North Korea on it’s border than a united westward-looking Korea.

Curtis Chin:                           And so China has a lot of headaches to contend with, this trade war is really just one of them. And as you think about the calendar of this year, China has so many worries to contend with. An anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen, I say massacre, Chinese doesn’t like that word, incident, I would say. But when we think about the June 4 anniversary coming up, when you think about labor unrest in China, Xi Jinping is in a difficult situation, and maybe in some ways much less secure and stable than he would like the world to think he is. And so this trade war at a time of an already slowing but still growing Chinese economy, is not good for him either. And so maybe he will pursue the route of again, trying to unite the Chinese people in a very nationalistic way. You’re seeing some of the rhetoric coming out of China, “China will never back down.” Very nationalistic, trying to unite his own people against an enemy, when the reality that maybe his biggest challenge is what’s happening at home, in his country.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Thanks. I could probably talk to you about this all day I think, it’s so may fascinating different areas we could go to, but of course you’re a busy man, you’ve got things to do. So as I always do, very clunkily segue to the fun part of the show. I get a lot of good feedback on this really lame question that I ask everyone. But of course you’re an American guest on our show, just curious about the three Australians that are coming to Ambassador Curtis Chin’s barbecue and why? And I should disclose, earlier he said, “What if I can’t think of three Australians?” I said, “Well, just do your best.”

Curtis Chin:                           Yeah. What if I can’t think of three Australian? But yeah, I kind of laughed when you asked me that question earlier, because in the United States when we think of Australians, they’re like people we’ve taken from Australia like Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, but I think … wasn’t Keith actually born in New Zealand? But again, I think they live in Tennessee right now. So I’m going to cheat and only give you two, but because they live in Tennessee, I bet they have some of the best barbecue in the United States. So I’d certainly love to have them because then maybe we wouldn’t talk politics, or we wouldn’t talk about China and the US, and we’d just have a great time …

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, it’s funny you should say that …

Curtis Chin:                           … and enjoy American-Australia hospitality.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s funny you should say talking about Americans stealing Australians, because Australia is very famous for stealing New Zealanders like Russell Crowe. So it’s sort of … it’s all just [crosstalk 00:52:52].

Curtis Chin:                           That’s right. I think Keith Urban, I think he’s really a New Zealander. I don’t know what he is, but …

Misha Zelinsky:                  I’m not sure, but that’s a cute …

Curtis Chin:                           Nicole Kidman is Australian for sure …

Misha Zelinsky:                  She’s absolutely Aussie.

Curtis Chin:                           … and maybe they both Americans, I don’t know. But let me close by just saying that US-Australian relationship is a great one, it’s a solid one. I think United States, we can learn from Australia. I mean, look at your economy, you haven’t had a recession in a long time. A lot though has been driven by China, and so also how will Australia deal with this evolving economic world. Australia also, I think for a while, kept changing its prime ministers, I don’t know. It seems like there was a new one all the time, but maybe that’s also a broader point for all of us, that no matter who’s in charge things will be okay if we leave it to our people to run things, just American, Australia, Chinese whoever. They just want to move things forward, but maybe it’s the politics that gets in the way of everything. And sometimes when government does nothing, maybe things just move on forward.

Misha Zelinsky:                  A very positive message of hope to finish on there, Curtis. Thank you so much for joining Diplomates, mate.

Curtis Chin:                           All right, my pleasure. Take care.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Take care, mate.

Peter Jennings

Peter Jennings is the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. As a leading global expert on defence and security policy, Peter has held senior roles in the Department of Defence and was a key advisor to Prime Minister John Howard.

Peter joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the US-China rivalry, how Australia should manage its changing relationship with the Chinese government, the importance of cyber-security in future 5G networks, how democracies should respond to threats posed by hostile state actors, and the rise of right-wing terrorism at home and abroad.

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky                    Peter Jennings welcome to Diplomates.

Peter Jennings:                  Thank you very much.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, it’s always difficult to know where to start, and it seems foreign affairs is a big space, but naturally when you talk about Australia’s foreign affairs policy, you think about big powers and the influence upon on them on Australia. United States and China is obviously on the tip of everyone’s tongue. You recently wrote an article saying that 2019 was a turning point in the world’s relationship with China. Can you just tell us about that a bit?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, we’ve seen this coming for some few years. And I think historians will look back and say 2012 was a very significant year because that was when Xi Jinping came to power. And really the importance of that was I think she decided for his own leadership and for the country that the time of sort of hiding China’s power was was passed, and he was going to take China out more assertively onto the world stage. And we’ve been watching that ever since, including in areas like, for example, China’s military annexation of the South China Sea, which really happened between 2014 and 2016.

Peter Jennings:                  So I think 2019 becomes important because we’re now seeing a lot of countries in the developed democracies start to push back against China, seeking to gain too much influence in their societies. And one of those really big decisions has been around whether or not countries will allow Chinese telecommunications companies like Huawei into the 5G network. Now, it all sounds a bit complicated measure, I guess. But 5G is going to become the most critical backbone of national infrastructure in every country. Everything is going to run over it from driverless vehicles, to new medical technology, to electricity, to gas. It’s going to be absolutely vital.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The so-called Internet of Things, right?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, that’s right. And quite a few countries, Australia included, have decided that it’s just not safe. It’s not secure to allow Chinese companies, Chinese telcos to actually run that critical infrastructure. And so I think Australia was quite literally the first country to formally decided that it was not going to allow Chinese companies into 5G. And then Japan and New Zealand, interestingly enough, and the United States followed suit. You’ve now got the Americans, and the Canadians, and the Brits, and a few others considering what they will do. I think that we’ll look back on 2019 as the year where a much more observable divide started to become clear in the world, which was China on the one hand, and the developed democracies on the other. And this is very significant.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Just going back to the question of Huawei, because this has caused a lot of angst for the Chinese government, why is it that our security agencies in particular and others within the Five Eyes network in particular taking such an issue with it, a Chinese telco. I mean, something, so, well, it’s just a company. They make good stuff. They do it cheaper than some of their competitors. Why is it a concern for them to be developing the 5G network?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, because capitalism in China is different. There is no such thing as a Chinese company, particularly a large Chinese company doing business overseas. There’s no such thing as that type of company being able to operate independent from the wishes of the Chinese Communist Party. So Huawei has had such success internationally precisely because it’s had the backing of the party, the funding from Chinese banks to go out around the world and to produce at remarkably low cost, sometimes lower than the cost of production, telecommunications infrastructure for many countries.

Peter Jennings:                  Why this is significant is because I think Huawei’s close connections to the Chinese Communist Party means that it’s really not in a position to say no if Chinese state intelligence comes knocking and says to Huawei, “Hey, we’d like you to facilitate our access to a particular communication system. Or we’d like you to make it possible to help us put some malware into a piece of critical infrastructure.”

Misha Zelinsky:                  Once overseas.

Peter Jennings:                  One that’s overseas indeed. And Huawei, of course, denies as you would expect it to. They say, “No, we operate independent of the Chinese state.” But back in 2017, the Communist Party passed a law called the National Security Law, which says that every individual and every company in China must support the work of the intelligence services if they’re asked to do so. And that was, I think, a clear factor behind the Australian government’s decision. In fact, the government said, “Look, we’re not going to let any company bid into 5G if we have concerns that it might at times follow the bidding of a foreign government. And so I think that’s why there’s been this concern, because if you’re designing the technology in China, and you’re manufacturing key parts of the technology in China, and you have the Chinese Ministry of State Security looking over your shoulder, that is the best possible intelligence gathering partnership that you could imagine if you believe that China might have an interest in tapping into your information technology.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting because there’s sort of a global race now on in 5G. And it’s one thing for Australia to say we’re not going to have Huawei here. But is there a issue globally with through the Belt and Road Initiative and the way that China is rolling out its network in other parts of the world, across Africa, parts of Asia, central Asia particular about the contest between standards and which standards are adopted, because if the Chinese standard is adopted, does that have implications for security globally as well?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we’re going to see a world that’s divided into essentially two types of 5G networks. And they will be Chinese supply will be one type, and there will be Western supplied will be another. Yet I think it’s a great shame that the developed democracies have not found it possible in the last decade to sort of create an industrial situation where an obvious 5G supplier can become a champion for the democracies in providing those 5G networks. But what I am pretty sure about is that the market will meet that need if enough governments conclude that they’re not going to allow Chinese suppliers into their networks. And of course we are talking about technology that in the first place came from companies like Ericsson and Nokia. And so I think that the technology is there.

Peter Jennings:                  And unfortunately, for a number of developing countries across Africa, for example, Huawei has been able put a price case for adopting their technology, which has been impossible to ignore. But the question we should be asking ourselves is why is it so cheap? Why has China of all countries found it to be strategically valuable to try and lock down as much IT infrastructure around the world as they possibly can and actually do so at uncompetitive prices?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, it’s because they see a strategic value for themselves to own global telecommunications. And I think that it’s never too late to kind of push back against that type of strategic positioning. And that’s what the democracies have to do now.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So you sort of touched there on Chinese want to dominate strategic industries. There’s so-called the 2025 plan that China announced just recently. It caused a lot of alarm, the United States in particular, with China saying, “We’re going to dominate these 10 key industries.” Firstly, is it a concern that China wants to do that? And secondly, if it is a concern, how should worldview respond to that. Is this the beginning, are we seeing the beginnings of a cold war, or is this something that’s perhaps not as considered because they’re looking to tech up?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we are at risk of finding ourselves in a new type of cold war with China, and quite frankly we’re probably in an industrial cold war, you might say, because China’s objectives both in the 2025 plan and in earlier five-year plans that they’ve produced will often become the sort of box-checking list for Chinese intelligence agencies to actually see, “Well, what technology can we go out and steal, or legally acquire, or force from Western companies that want to do business in China if we’re having trouble developing that technology ourselves?”

Peter Jennings:                  And the 2025 plan is a very good indicator of where Chinese intelligence activities are pointed in terms of industrial espionage to steal the technology that they can’t develop themselves. That’s been a pattern of Chinese behavior for years. I think on top of that, we’d have to also acknowledge a reality, which is that China is building its own in-house capabilities very quickly and becoming extremely good in some areas like artificial intelligence, for example.

Peter Jennings:                  But a lot of that, at least to begin with, has been done on the off-back of intellectual property theft. And we have to wise up to that. We have to understand that our businesses and our universities are being attacked regularly by Chinese intelligence, precisely to try and sweep up all of the interesting tech that we might be producing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was described by a prominent member of the US security agencies or defense establishment that this Chinese property theft was the greatest transfer of wealth in human history. So there’s the obvious grounds that you want the commercial benefit of white people. What does it mean in a contest between perhaps democracies and the traditional sort of alliance structure versus a Chinese government-led approach to it, which is being tech advantaged? Does that lead to being defense or offense capability advantaged as well?

Peter Jennings:                  Look, it’s a tricky one. I think that democracies are always going to be less efficient than autocracies in terms of their ability to harness industry or to protect intellectual property because we are sort of messier systems that actually place a lot of value on giving people freedom from being directed to do things be a government, and happily so. That’s entirely the right kind of system, from my point of view. But it is a weakness compared to the ability of the Chinese state to simply direct industry, for example, to say, “Right. This is a particular type of technology we want. Got to develop it or steal it,” and to compel individuals to actually support the work of China’s intelligence apparatus.

Peter Jennings:                  So in some senses I think we’re behind the play and probably always will be against what a powerful authoritarian government can do. But on the other hand, there is still a sense that democracies produce I think better types of innovation. So it remains the case that it’s the democracies, the Americans, the Europeans, even Australia in some niche areas of technology which are producing the best types of stealth technology, the best types of artificial intelligence technology. How long we can rely on that sort of innovative advantage, I don’t know. But my sense is that, and an authoritarian state like the People’s Republic of China is going to struggle at that very fine edge of the best innovation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting, though, that, I mean, you sort of said Western governments struggle. There is a precedent for this in that the Americans were caught flat-footed in the ’50s and ’60s when the Russians sort of had the so-called Sputnik moment, where they launched a satellite into space. And then Kennedy of course said, “We’re going to go to the moon.” And they did shortly thereafter.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So if the political world is there, so do you think perhaps going back to your 2019 example, the United States now very clearly, and Pence said that in a speech not too long ago, very clearly now sees Chinese or China as a strategic rival, could that be sort of the impetus to drive that level of sort of innovation and perhaps government-led innovation rather than relying on the private sector just to do it entirely?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, I think there is now probably more consensus in the United States around the risks presented by China than I’ve ever seen. And there is some ironies in that, Misha, when you think about it because it’s not a country that’s known for consensus under the leadership of Donald Trump. And indeed I think the one point of weakness I see in Washington is how personally Trump might be signed up to this consensus view. There’s quite a fear amongst a lot of people in Europe and well indeed in the United States that feel that Trump might try to cut a deal over trade with Xi Jinping. And that could lead to turning a blind eye on some of the intellectual property protection that I think is really the core of America’s concerns about China.

Peter Jennings:                  But putting Trump to one side across the national security community, across mainstream Republicans and Democrats, Congress, the American System will generally, there is now a very strong view that the number one strategic problem the Americans face is a powerful China, especially a China which is becoming more authoritarian. And this is something that will have consequences for America’s allies and for how America kind of operates in the world in coming years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So it’s interesting. One of the things I think often gets raised, and it’s quite difficult in the Australian political context at times where I think you see globally in that this pushback you’re seeing, critics of that pushback will say, “Well, this is really xenophobia. This is kind of the Anglosphere not being comfortable with the rising East, or being replaced, or being strategically rivaled by another country that wants to do well.” Is this, do you think that that argument has merit, or is this something specific to the Chinese government and the way it conducts itself? I’m just curious about your thoughts around that question?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, I think it’s a great way to muddy the waters in a strategic discussion for some people, and we see them in Australia, that are determined to say that this is ultimately a debate about race. And therefore if you are expressing concerns about China, that must mean that in some way you’re going to be a xenophobe. The point I’d like to make is that it is not racist to be concerned about the behavior of the Chinese Communist Party. And I think we’re going to have to work very hard to be clear in the language we use. For example, we often say China as a kind of a shorthand, when most of the time, what I’m really talking about is the role of the Communist Party.

Peter Jennings:                  I do believe that this is almost a debating tactic that a lot of PRCs supporters use. I have seen what a democratic China looks like, and it’s called Taiwan. So I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the people of the mainland of China could operate very effectively in a democratic system. And in fact in many ways, it’s the nature of the party status, it’s called, the Communist Party, which is the biggest risk factor that we have to deal with. So I completely reject any sense that this is racist or xenophobic—it’s not. It’s about what types of political systems do we want to live under and how much pressure in a country like Australia should we be prepared to accept from the Communist Party of China in trying to dictate how the Asia-Pacific is going to run.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so bringing it back to Australia, I mean, some of the things that I think have shifted the debate here, I mean, has been China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and its claim of it as being strategic interest. Does that matter? Should we be concerned about this sort of the building of islands in the South China Sea and the increase creep of what China considers to be its spheres of influence? Is that something we should be concerned about or is it up, as the Chinese would contend, “It’s called South China Seas. So leave it to us”?

Peter Jennings:                  Look, I think we should be concerned. The last time the world was at war, at least in the Pacific was in dealing with the maritime ambitions of a Japan, which was determined to try to control its trade roots all the way down into the South China and through Southeast Asia. So we’re talking about a strategically vital bit of territory. The South China Sea is itself about the size of the Mediterranean. So it’s not a small area. And the fact that a country like China has come in the space of about 24 months, annexed it in much the same way that the Russians annexed the Crimea, I think it’s something that the entire world should really be outraged about. And this is I think very much a problem for Australia.

Peter Jennings:                  So perhaps another dimension to add just to that point, though, is that was the wake-up call. I think for a lot of people that might’ve said, “Well, we’ve never seen China behave in a hostile military way. Frankly, that’s a bit of a myth, but it’s a line that you often hear. But I think this has become a wake-up call for people to realize that in Xi Jinping and in the People’s Republic, what we have is a country which is now trying to militarily dominate the region. And for countries like Australia, Japan, and most others, that’s simply unacceptable.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So the question then becomes, how should Australia respond to this? Because you had traditionally maritime disputes that dealt with, through maritime law international courts, a ruling came down very clearly that did not rule in favor of China and its claim in the South China Sea. Basically got ignored. And increasingly what we’re now seeing is kind of payback from the Chinese government or countries that displease it.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Really good example recently is the Canadian arrests of the prominent Huawei CFO. And now you’re seeing these hostage diplomacy with those several individuals arrested in China, and then of course the banning of Canola oil or Canola seeds is imports from the Canadian economy. So, I mean, how concerned should we be about that kind of belligerent approach to independent foreign policy decision-making?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, firstly, I mean, the first point to make is so much for Huawei’s claim that they operate completely independently from the Communist Party because the party has been savage in its application of bullying tactics towards Canada over the arrest of Mrs. Meng. And, again, I think that begins to be a bit of an eye-opener, that we are dealing with a country that is quite prepared to go beyond legal barriers to promote its interests where we can.

Peter Jennings:                  My view is, to sort of answer the broader part of the question, how do we deal with this, I think firstly we’ve got to be very clear-minded in terms of our own thinking about what is strategically important to Australia. I’m perfectly happy, for example, for us to have a very successful trading relationship with China. That doesn’t bother me in the least. We win from that. The Chinese win from that. I’m much more concerned, though, about seeing Chinese ownership of Australian critical infrastructure.

Peter Jennings:                  So, for example, the fact that China owns of the electricity and gas distribution and transmission assets in Australia today is not something that I feel comfortable about from a strategic point of view. So where those types of issues come up, I think we’ve got to be very clear about where our strategic interests lie. And we should then be prepared to push back against Chinese opportunism either of an economic sort or indeed of a military type that we’ve seen in the South China Sea.

Peter Jennings:                  Then the second element to that is what can we do with allies and like-minded friends? And I think frankly the world has really failed to actually think about what is a type of concerted response that’s necessary to stop Chinese takeover of the South China Sea and a more assertive and outward-looking Chinese military posture. We’ve allowed China to kind of like split and stop the Southeast Asian countries from being able to develop sort of a shared position on the South China Sea.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, they want to do it on an individual basis.

Peter Jennings:                  Yep. And that’s a very obvious Chinese tactic is, “We’ll deal with the countries bilaterally.” And through the sort of, the bullying that you see, where they can hint that maybe your exports are not going to be received, or that they can stop students from coming, or they can stop tourists, it’s led to a whole bunch of countries that really should know better just kind of looking the other way in the interest of maintaining economic relations with China.

Peter Jennings:                  Now, I just think that that’s going to continue to be a problem for us; we’re going to see more and more examples of this come up. We governments will have to make hard decisions between making money on the one hand but looking after national security on the other. And this is going to be hard for whatever party’s in power in this country for years to come.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s a tricky question, though, when 30% of our trade is with China. It used to be 50% was with Britain. Then it was 25% with Japan. We’ve never had a situation like this before. I mean, do you think, is there a case to be made for trade diversity, diversification of Australia’s trading relationships, not withstanding we should continue to trade with China obviously. I mean, there’s a lot of mutual benefit there for everyone.

Misha Zelinsky:                  But that threat now that they … Well, it’s not really a threat. You’re seeing it being used against the Canadians and others. Is there a case for Australia to look to other avenues for its export relationships in order to limit the impact of those kind of things, for example, the coal that we’re seeing now being held up in Chinese ports for various reasons?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we desperately need to try and diversify our sources of wealth creation. And there’s an interesting question to ask. And our successors will look back and say, “How was it that policymakers over a generation allowed such a level of dependency to be created on a country which is so alien to the values and political system that we operate in?”

Peter Jennings:                  And indeed I think that we made some really quite terrible policy mistakes along that journey. So, for example, there was a time when there was a very aggressive sort of push inside the Australian public service to say, “Well, we are an Asian country.” And part of that demonstration of being an Asian country meant that we were reducing our ties with Europe. And we weren’t bothering to build ties in Latin America, say, or Africa.

Peter Jennings:                  And so if you look at the shape of Australia’s international relations, it is heavily skewed, particularly on the economic front to a handful of countries in North Asia. And I think that by definition that’s risky. So developing alternative markets, rediscovering Europe, looking, if you take a 30- or 40-year-perspective at what 900 million African consumers can do for the Australian economy, looking at Latin America, which is almost a closed book as far as Australia is concerned, I think there’s lots of things we can do to reduce our dependence on one country, namely China.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. We’ve sort of talked a bit there about the trading relationship. The question, then, is also about moral leadership and the difference between … The Western liberal democracies, they’ve always seen themselves to be custodians of morality globally. The Chinese government has got a pretty questionable record of human rights violations. There’s a million Uyghurs locked up in detention, which gets very little discussion. Is this scenario where countries like Australia, first, we should call out this behavior, but also use it as a way to assert morality as a values-based projection of Australian leadership globally?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. So I think we talk quite a big game about individual human rights. We say in the 2017 foreign policy whitepaper that we have a foreign policy ultimately based on values. And yet I really don’t see much in the way of a practical demonstration of that. I think what we have is a foreign policy that’s ultimately shaped around pragmatism and trying to facilitate making money. Not that I’m opposed to making money, but I do think that I personally would like to see a stronger Australian foreign policy approach, which emphasized individual human rights as articulated in the UN charter as being something which really should be a sort of a guiding point for how we think about our role in the world.

Peter Jennings:                  We’re always going to be dealing with countries that perhaps have a poorer record on human rights than we do. And I would not say that it’s smart to kind of like boycott those in those countries and say we will have nothing to do with them, because if we were to do that, we’d have a pretty lonely existence talking maybe to New Zealand, and that would be about it. That’s not sensible. But nor should we shy away from the reality that, for example, in China we appear to have over a million people in Xinjiang Province, the Uyghurs, now in essentially reeducation camps. This is just unacceptable. And to sort of just kind of like meekly accept a Beijing line that what this is is sort of like school education is just fatuous. So, yes, I think a strong stand on individual human rights is a natural part of what should be a principled Australian approach of standing up for our strategic interest.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so one of the important things about values of democracy is the integrity of elections. Increasingly globally we’ve seen a lot of foreign interference from hostile state actors. You’ve got very well-documented Russian interference in the 2016 election. There’s hints of Russian interference in the Brexit vote. Recently we had a hack of our Parliament but also our major political parties by a sophisticated state actor, which it could only be a few. How concerned should we be about this type of sort of hostile attempts to interfere with democratic institutions by foreign state actors that are not democracies?

Peter Jennings:                  Well, we can’t afford to imagine that it somehow doesn’t relate to us. I think we do have to be concerned about it. I think the Russians and the Chinese probably have different objectives when it comes to the types of interference that they’ve engaged in. When I look at Russia’s actions in the US and in some European elections, I think broadly I would say that there’s a kind of a wrecking objective, which is to create a sense that the democracies frankly are as bad as we are. So what does it matter? How could anyone kind of put a democracy forward as being in some way inherently superior to the type of system that exists in Moscow under Putin?

Peter Jennings:                  I think the Chinese probably have a different set of objectives than that, which would be to engage in doing their best to try to produce outcomes in elections, which suit Beijing’s interests more than other outcomes. And here something that I think is going to become a bigger issue in Australia than we’ve seen at the moment is whether or not there is a sort of attempts on the part of the mainland to influence the voting behavior of Australians of Chinese ethnicity.

Peter Jennings:                  One thing we know is that for a certain group within that community of Australians with Chinese ethnicity, there’s this strong reliance on getting their information from Chinese language newspapers, which in this country are almost all owned by mainland interests. And there’s a strong capacity to shape how voters might behave through WeChat and other forms of Chinese language social media that is pretty much impenetrable to non-Chinese speakers.

Peter Jennings:                  And I think this is something that we’re going to have to look at very closely just to make sure that Chinese Australians are not having their democratic choices interfered with by people from the mainland that have an interest in trying to shape election outcomes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So what’s the future, then? You kind of sort of touched on it earlier, talking about this splitting of standards, but what’s the future? I mean, the West, and the Internet have always been priding themselves on the openness of the systems, the openness of the political process, the transparency. The openness of the Internet is fundamentally information should be liberally and freely available, and that will conquer all.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You know, I’ve got a very deliberate situation where autocratic regimes are having closed systems. So we got a contest now not so much between nations as much as we have one between an open and closed system, and the Russians very deliberately recently have attempted to basically disconnect the Internet, if I can put it in very … I’m not a … In the words of our former prime minister, I’m not a tech head, but they are deliberately unplugging themselves from the rest of the world because they don’t want their domestic population to be influenced by information flows from the open Internet, and whereas we have a pretty much a hands-off approach. How do you see that future? Can Western liberal democracies remain open and remain their integrity, or if they close themselves, almost lose something that’s inherent to them as well? So it’s a really difficult one to grasp.

Peter Jennings:                  It sure is. And I don’t have a solution for you. I mean, I find both ends of the spectrum pretty scary. It’s obvious that what we’re seeing in China and quite a number of more authoritarian regimes is that in fact the Internet and everything that comes with the Internet of Things and 5G technology is a tremendous mechanism for authoritarian control of populations. It means that you can control what people know. You can see and understand what people are reading to a degree that no one could’ve anticipated when George Orwell was writing 1984. And that’s deeply scary.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. I mean, you can change history in a way. If you just Google Tiananmen Square in China, it’ll just tell you that Tiananmen Square is a lovely place to visit, and you’ll never know that there was a horrible-

Peter Jennings:                  That’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:                  … suppression and killing of domestic citizens.

Peter Jennings:                  In fact, most Chinese under 30, mainland Chinese, would have almost no knowledge of what happened in Tiananmen. On the other hand, you come into the democracies and you’ve got a sort of almost like a Wild West of badness at the extreme edges of the Internet.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Nothing’s true. Everything’s true. Your opinion is as good as my fact.

Peter Jennings:                  That’s exactly right. And I had the experience after the Christchurch shooting of writing a newspaper article about the murderer and doing some research was literally within about 10 seconds of starting to see what was on the Net, watching this guy’s shooting video inside the mosques, which is just dreadful. Normal citizens of our countries have not up until the last 10 years had such open access to such violent imagery. It’s the sort of thing that combat veterans might be aware of, but almost no one else. And that scares the living daylights out of me as well. I just think that that sheer openness of our system is one which is almost causing a sort of brutalizing of how people think about how they should interact with the fellow citizens.

Peter Jennings:                  So I don’t know what the solution is to this, other than we should probably spend less time on social media, all of us for our mental health. But at the end of the day, if I have to choose between those alternatives, I think there’s more to be said for an open system that’s less controlled than what we see emerging in China and indeed a few other authoritarian states.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So you’ve touched on the incident in Christchurch and the horrible events there. You wrote in that article about the dangers of right-wing extremism, and effectively you’ve said we’ve paid a lot of attention to the threat of Islamic extremism, but this threat of right-wing extremism, which is bubbled away in the dark corners of the Internet, as you say, and in plain sight in some instances with social media and other extremists in the political discourse. How concerned should we be about right-wing extremism?

Peter Jennings:                  I think we should. It has always been there, frankly. Before 9/11 probably that had been more of a focus of our intelligence agencies than Islamic extremism. But I do know that in the UK and in a number of European countries, there’s actually deep concern in police and intelligence services about the rise of the extreme violent right. And it’s here in Australia too. So that Internet that we’ve just been talking about is a way of actually connecting all of these groups. It’s a way of making people like that feel that they are actually part of a global social network and able to sort of radicalize each other.

Peter Jennings:                  And I think we are going to have to find ways to put more control and observation over that in order to prevent further attacks of the type that we saw in Christchurch. People have said to some extent correctly that New Zealand’s more open gun laws than Australia made it easier for Tarrant to access those weapons legally, which he did. But we would be fooling ourselves if we were to pretend that something like that couldn’t happen in Australia.

Peter Jennings:                  There’s intelligence research available publicly that says it’s about a quarter of a million long-arms weapons, so that’s to say rifles, and shotguns, and some military-style semiautomatic weapons that are illicitly out in the Australian population. So if someone’s desperate enough to acquire those types of weapons, they will be able to do so. And we know that there are Australians that have at least tendencies towards that kind of extremist ideology that presents a threat.

Peter Jennings:                  So, yeah, I do think this is a new problem. And I think we’re going to have to work amongst the Five Eyes intelligence partners, European partners to sort of collectively get a stronger grip over this extremist far-right movement to make sure that it never is anything more than just an absolute fringe part of our politics.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The thing about the incident, right, is that you could stand up in a crowded room and say something ridiculous. And most people would just call you out as being a nut. If you come and say the moon landing was fake or some other conspiracy theory of that nature, most people are going to just … But on the Internet, very quickly you can find people that agree with you and perhaps sell you something even more crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So how do you grapple with the fact that it’s not just Australians coordinating with Australians, but it’s Australians coordinating with these right-wing groups globally and these global extremists that seem to export that into our domestic discourse?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. Well, it’s true, and I think in the case of Tarrant, most of his radicalization took place in Europe and actually reading European-sourced sort of radical commentary. And I don’t say that to try and say it has nothing to do with Australia. Very clearly it did. He’s an Australian citizen. But now you can be a part, you can be a nut in rural New South Wales and be part of a global group of like-minded nuts. And what’s the solution? Well, probably working more closely with European countries where I think has been a bigger and sharper problem for a number of years.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And more embedded in their political discourse as well, right?

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah. Well, there’s a history there, of course, and these countries are under pressure. And at the end of the day, those of us who aren’t nuts, we’ve got to kind of like I think reenergize the sensible center, if I could put it that way, to remind people that there are better alternatives. And mostly those alternatives are around robust democracy of the type that we have in Australia, thankfully. But, again, one of the regrettable points of the Internet is that it mutes sort of balanced, sensible, centered-type views, and it amplifies extremist radical views. And I think-

Misha Zelinsky:                  False balance almost.

Peter Jennings:                  Yeah, that’s right. And it’s we’ve just got to look at how we educate our kids and do a whole range of things that kind of damps down those extremes and sort of puts more emphasis on the sensible center.

Misha Zelinsky:                  One of the things I think a lot of people are concerned about just recently with, and you’ve talked about gun laws and the amount of … Everyone likes to think that there are no guns in Australia. It’s not true. But how concerned are you, some of the things about these things about attempts that would seem to infiltrate Australia’s political systems by far-right groups in the United States and the gun law be attempted? Because the world looks to Australia as the kind of the prime example of how you can go from having guns to not. How concerned are you about that attempt? Because I think that surprised a lot of people.

Peter Jennings:                  Well, it was appallingly misjudged. And I think it’s to the eternal criticism of those fools that felt that it was a smart ideal to go to Washington, D.C. to talk to the NRA to ask for money. It’s not a defense to say that they got a bit sloshed and started talking, because they certainly were sober enough when they were planning their trip, and they knew pretty clearly what they were doing.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was a hell of a bender otherwise.

Peter Jennings:                  Otherwise it was a hell of a bender. But I think something that’s not been clear from those Al Jazeera programs is did the NRA or the Koch brothers at any stage ever think that it was a smart idea to offer money to these people? I don’t know that they did. And maybe that tells you that even those, that that American institution has got more sense than we might give them credit for for not handing over money to those folks.

Peter Jennings:                  I was part of the Howard government in the days when Martin Bryant was engaged in that appalling killing spree in Port Arthur in Tasmania. I recall very directly the pressure that Howard was under to compromise on the gun laws that he brought in. And I think that it was one of his best moments as prime minister to actually stick with it because it was actually quite a strong lobby that didn’t want to see as tough arrange of controls over automatic weapons that Howard put in place.

Peter Jennings:                  But we are, 20 years later, we are surely a better country for that decision having taken place. And I don’t, except at the fringes of Australian politics, I don’t see many people saying, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sort of go easy on the gun laws to make ownership of semiautomatic weapons more accessible?” So I thought that you really would have to say that the attempts of those individuals that went to the US to ask for money was about as ill-considered a political move as I’ve seen in my fairly lengthy career now of watching politics in Canberra.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So I always look for a segue on this, but it’s going super clunky on this one, but now I have a very lame hokey title called Diplomates. And I like to finish the interviews saying, well, three international guests got asked, who would you bring of three Aussies to a barbecue? But you get go pick three international guests. So who are three international guests coming to a Peter Jennings’ place for a barbecue?

Peter Jennings:                  Ooh, gosh, that’s an interesting one. Can they be political figures or could they be-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, anyone you like.

Peter Jennings:                  Anyone I like. Who would I like to talk to? Well, I’ll tell you three people who I absolutely admire. One of them I know reasonably well, that’s Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former president of Indonesia, who I actually as a young defense official escorted through Canberra on a trip, probably 25 years ago when he was a general, very fine individual. I admire him greatly. So I’d have him, Jim Mattis, former US Secretary of Defense, who I think was a fine general, someone who knew Australian fighting forces very well and who did for at least two years probably one of the toughest jobs in Washington, D.C., which was to be the defense advisor to Donald Trump as commander-in-chief.

Misha Zelinsky:                  He’s got some stories to tell, no doubt?

Peter Jennings:                  And he did, and a man that’s sort of much admired in Australian defense system. And I feel as though I should come up with a sort of quirky and different choice for you for-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Only if you feel quirky and different, man-

Peter Jennings:                  Quirky or different. I honestly don’t know. Seeing as I spend so much of my time traveling overseas, I think the person I’d most like to be able to see at a relaxed thing like a barbecue would be my wife, actually, who hears lots of stories about all of these fine people what I’m able to meet. So I’ll go for those two guys of great high standing and my own wife.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Most importantly, you’ve definitely got the right answer in the last one. But, look, thanks so much for your time.

Peter Jennings:                  [crosstalk 00:45:33].

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s been a great chat, and I really appreciate it.

Peter Jennings:                  Thanks, Misha. It’s my pleasure to talk.

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