Gender equality

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.

 

Gillian Triggs

Gillian Triggs was Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner – and is someone that doesn’t require introduction.  Formerly the Dean of the Sydney Law School and now Professor of the Melbourne Law School – she is a globally recognised legal authority on human rights and is author of the book ‘Speaking Up’. 

Gillian Triggs caught up with Misha Zelinsky to talk about all things related to foreign and domestic human rights.

It was an incredibly diverse discussion covering issues such as the rule of law, the future of democracy, how governments use executive power to bully individuals, how do deal with indigenous reconciliation and why Australia lags so far behind in when it comes to tangible gender equality.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky: So, Gillian Triggs, welcome to the show.

 

Gillian Triggs: It’s a great pleasure to be talking to you.

 

Misha Zelinsky: And, well, thanks so much for joining us. Now, I was thinking, there were so may places we could start this conversation. You know, global human rights, a lot of people will say that things are tracking terribly, and you can point to lots of data points that will say things are going badly. We’ve got rise of autocracy, populism, et cetera. Other people say things are going well. Infant child mortality’s on the way down. Living standards are up across the world. So, would you class yourself as a pessimist or an optimist? I mean it’s a broad topic but maybe we’ll start with it.

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, I’m definitely an optimist, and I think that there are significant improvements in human rights globally, partly because we live in a global environment, so that we’re much better informed about what’s happening than we ever used to be. But there are some pockets of absolute horror, one, of course, being the Rohingya, the civil war in the Yemen at the moment, the continuing problems of Palestine and Israel in the Middle East, and poverty in certain pockets in the world that is really appalling.

 

But I’d have to say that, on balance, I think that we are inching our way forward. I read, just by way of an example, because it’s International Women’s Week this week, I’ve been doing a number of speeches on the advances for women globally, as well as in Australia, and the irony of this report by the World Economic Forum is that women are actually doing better progressively, in developing countries, and in developed countries, they are actually regressing. Now that’s an extraordinary fact, apparently, documented by the World Economic Forum [crosstalk].

 

Misha Zelinsky: I think that would come as a big surprise to a lot of people-

 

Gillian Triggs: Yeah, it would.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … because I think the discourse at the moment would suggest, with the Me Too movement, et cetera … and we’ll probably pick up gender a little later on, but that’s just a … I’d like to return to that, actually, if we could.

 

Just in terms of one of the big trends we’re seeing at the moment, you know, the end of the Cold War, there was this sort of march of democracy, liberal democracy, and free markets, and now … and that seemed an inevitability at the end of-

 

Gillian Triggs: The Arab Spring. [crosstalk].

 

Misha Zelinsky: Yes. All these things, and now we’re seeing, perhaps, things swinging the other way. Not only the more nascent democracies falling into autocracy, but we’re seeing populists being elected in very established democracies. I mean, do you see that as a problem for human rights, more generally?

 

Gillian Triggs: I do see it as a problem. I think there’s been an extraordinary phenomenon of a rejection of some of the underpinning elements of contemporary democracy, that I thought would lead us onwards and upwards, but are now being challenged, particularly, of course, the major human rights treaties, the Refugee Convention. But the Convention on the Rights of the Child, where children are being detained, in unprecedented ways, for unprecedented periods of time.

 

So, I think that we are in a very disruptive, tumultuous global environment where we have … I mean, you almost can’t have this conversation without discussing the influence of Trump on the post-truth world we live in. The things that I thought were crucial in my early days from university, the 60s, the 70s, 80s, all the way through. Fact-based policy making was crucial. The reliance on evidence, science was king, in my youth. Today, governments may receive reports from experts on all sorts of issues, climate change, trade war issues, rising inequality, the loss of the manufacturing sector and the rise of IT, all of these areas are subject to factual reports and expert evidence, but governments are increasingly free to ignore them, and to challenge them, or reject them.

 

Misha Zelinsky: People are even making it a virtue. During the Brexit debate there was a … you know, people are sick of hearing from so-called experts.

 

Gillian Triggs: Right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: But what’s the way to address that? How do you actually cut through in that situation? Because, you’re right, when you don’t have facts, and when my opinion’s as good as your fact, that becomes very difficult-

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … to actually have an agreed starting point. Because it used to be, you know, you’d have, here’s where we’re starting, and perhaps we should go left or right, but now we can’t even agree on the starting point of the facts. So, what is a way that you think you can actually address that?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, I’m hoping that this is a phase, that we’re dealing with a truculent child almost, and in some … some respects we are. There’s been a very interesting piece of work done recently in Australia, between the New Democracy group, which is a very interesting approach to expanding the role of the community in civil society and the democratic processes, along with the Institute for Public Affairs, which, in my view, is an extreme right-wing vehicle for misinformation. But nonetheless, apparently they’ve worked together, and I happened to be present at some of the New Democracy meetings, to get a sense of what was one of the most … what was a top priority for a good functioning liberal democracy? And both those entities, coming from different spectrums, agreed with their participants that the number one thing of importance now in Australia was evidence-based policy making.

 

In other words, there’s a … Those who think about these sorts of things, and see the threats, in my case, to classical, long-established principles of international human rights law and treaties, that underpin much of what was happening in Australia in this area, right up until the 90s, I feel that we must get back to that fact-, evidence-based policy making process. And it’s clear that the fact that we’re not, that governments are so quick to override them, ignore them, whether it’s on climate change or defense policy, that’s been extremely … I think it worries a lot of people.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Yeah, and so, interesting is you’ve talked about facts and evidence. You’ve got a legal background. Think of, what’s the role of the rule of law in all these things, in terms of human rights? You’ve mentioned before, the deficit of democracy is starting to creep in, and the advance of technology, so quickly, in a lot of areas, with data retention laws, and facial recognition, and all of these things. I mean, what’s the role of the rule of law here in preserving, particularly in advanced democracies, preserving human rights?

 

Gillian Triggs: Look, I think that’s an important question, because the phrase ‘the rule of law’ slips off politicians’ lips as it does off lawyers’ lips, and those looking for social justice or civil society. It’s a very key principle, and … but it’s made up of different ideas. One is that it’s absolutely dependent … Well, the rule of law absolutely depends upon a liberal democracy, a functioning liberal democracy. Separation of powers, between executive government parliament and the judiciary, which is severely under threat in Australia at the moment, with the rise of executive decision making and discretions that are not subject to judicial review, for practical purposes.

 

So, those are the elements of the rule of law. More precisely, it might be that one has to emphasis not so much the legislation passed by Parliament, which is the law, but the rule of law is broader than what Parliament might have just passed last week. In other words, it encompasses common law principles.

 

And if I could give you a very, very quick example, a federal court judge has recently ruled that a child with … who’s been attempting suicide on Nauru should be brought to Australia, ordering the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr. Dutton, to do so, contrary to his views, it’s feared. The minister has stopped this over the previous nine months.  What this judge did was look beyond the precise terms of the Migration Act, to look at the duty of care that governments owe unto their citizens. Now that’s a sort of broad common law principle that’s embraced within the idea of legality and proper process, and what he said was that the government owed this duty of care to the child, and, therefore, the child had to be brought to Australia for psychiatric and medical care.

 

So, that’s one example, but there are many others that are essentially dependent upon transparency, fundamental common law principles, the right not to be detained arbitrarily without charge or trial, for example, the right of criminal trials before you’re detained. These are fundamental ideas of the rule of law. So, that’s what I mean by the rule of law, and I think we’ve lost track of what that means. I think many Australians, if you ask them on the street, they’ll say, “Well, you know, if that’s what the Parliament has passed as a law, then that’s the rule of law.” It isn’t actually the rule of law, the rule of law is the … are deeper fundamental principles.

 

Misha Zelinsky: That’s an interesting point. So, in terms of … you know, the rule of law, these things have tended to come from western liberal democracies, in the way you’ve just explained it. Do you think that this … the lack of … as we’ve eroded our principles in this space, and … has it made it more difficult to prosecute a human rights agenda more globally? Because if you’re not living up to your own ideals, how do you … You know, when you look at some of the examples you’ve cited, the Rohingya, or if you look at the Uighurs in China, is it a-

 

Gillian Triggs: Yes, indeed.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … difficult thing to highlight in other countries, perhaps, that are more autocratic, when they say, “Well, you know, you guys aren’t living up to your own ideals at home”?

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s always a difficult position to be in. I mean, other governments in the Human Rights Council, for example, have been very critical of Australia’s incarceration rates for Indigenous Australians, the highest in the world, violence against women, deaths of women in domestic violence, and of course, asylum seeker refugee policies. So, Australia is getting a lot wrong, but when we come to, say, dealing with the Chinese, on, let’s say … let’s take the Uighur in China or Myanmar on the Rohingya, it’s very hard to argue, and persuade those countries, because they are not culturally, historically, as committed to the rule of law, in the way that I’ve described it.

 

They will see the autonomy of the state, the right to … for a state to manage its own peoples, in the way they see fit. Human rights are for the state, not for the international community. It will be interference in their domestic policies. The Chinese will always say that, so it’s extremely difficult, and that partly adds to the argument that human rights are not universal, but they are a Western construct. I don’t believe that that’s true. The truth is that China, and Japan, and many other Asian countries, African, Latin American countries, support the basic principles of the rule of law. And the Chinese talk about the rule of law. The trouble is that there’s a huge discrepancy between the rhetoric and the reality.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Well, it’s often easy to talk about, but what are the safeguards … I’d like to get your opinion on this. One of the safeguards that those who have studied democracy, and when you go to the United States, prime example, the Bill of Rights, and the way the concerns you had, where if you … the primacy of parliament over all laws, or if … to say, well, there’s a check and balance, and they typically have the courts. Another way to do that is to have a Bill of Rights. Now, Australia, of course, doesn’t have one. There’s always been debate about whether or not we should have one. What’s the role of a bill of rights in human rights, from the respect … within a democracy?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, I think we have to be … firstly, distinguish between the sort of American system, where they’ve got a constitutionally entrenched Bill of Rights. That gives the Supreme Court, and other courts in America, an enormous level of power. They are a very powerful check and balance on the power of the executive. Executive … the decision-making of the current government, for example, and on the powers of Congress. In other words, if something is passed, or a low is passed, which breaches those fundamental rights, the right to equality before the law, the right to freedom of speech, et cetera, then the American courts have the right to strike it down. And that’s a very powerful remedy.

 

But then we have the other kind of model, which most other countries are more familiar with, and more comfortable with, and that is a legislated human rights charter. Britain, Canada, New Zealand, just to name a very few, have legislated human rights charters. Australia is the only democracy in the world, and the only common law country in the world, that doesn’t have one. So, if you’re in Canada, New Zealand, France, Germany, many, many, many countries have these charters, you can go to the courts and say, “The Parliament is passing laws, or proposes to pass law, that is in breach of the Charter of Rights.” The court, depending on the terms of the legislation, may, and this is what’s called the dialogue model, will be able to say, “Well, the law that Parliament’s planning to pass, or has passed … is in violation of these … of one of the rights in the Charter, but we now are … we won’t … we’re going to strike it down. We can’t make it invalid. What we can do is send it back to Parliament, and ask Parliament to re-draft what they’re doing, so that it complies with the Charter.”

 

So, it’s creating this sort of dialogue between the executive parliament and the courts. But it’s nothing like as powerful, really, as … Well, most models are not as powerful as that. It’s interesting that … the state of Victoria, here in Australia, has such a dialogue model, and Queensland just voted for one, two or three days ago.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Do you think … you know, notwithstanding that … So, the constitutional model brings with it its own problems. The United States Supreme Court now has become a battleground for partisans, in a way, and particularly, you see problems around, you know, the Second Amendment, with gun rights, and those types of things. Do you think this sort of consultative model is a better way? Leaving aside how realistic it would be to get a referendum up in Australia on a constitutional bill of rights. We have a checkered history here with getting referendums passed. But do you … Which model do you think is better?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, I think the best answer for me to give is to say that, in the current political and historical environment of Australia, we will not get an entrenched constitutional bill of rights. So, for practical purposes, you’ve just got to say it isn’t going to happen. I’m very much coming to the view that Australians, over time, have preferred, if you like, a parliamentary sovereignty model. They don’t like the idea of the courts being too powerful, but they want proper check and balance on executive governments. What they’d rather … I think most Australians would rather do is to give Parliament the stronger power.

 

Now, my problem with that is that Parliament has actually explicitly breached fundamental human rights in legislation, and particularly over the last 15 years or so, so that you can’t rely on Parliament to ensure fundamental human rights. So, where I come down is to say, I think, because things often have to be taken in steps, so that people learn to trust the system, I think if we had a legislated charter, a longer dialogue model, just to get everybody used to it, so that the courts could hold up Parliament and say, “You’ve just passed a piece of legislation that is in breach of fundamental rights under the Charter. We now ask you to go back and look at it again.” Now, that does make it … it politicizes it of course, but it’s not giving the power … absolute power to the courts.

 

Misha Zelinsky: How would you settle what goes in … So, let’s assume that a government of the day was to legislate the charter. What goes in the charter? I mean is it … is that [crosstalk]-

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, Queensland’s just done it. Now, one thing that a lot of people raised with me, on public debates about this is, “Oh, well, we don’t want an American system, because we don’t want the right to bear arms to be interpreted in the way that it has been.” Well, of course, I can’t imagine for a second that Australia would ever want a right to bear arms. Australians don’t have arms. We have no history of that.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Yeah, and I think we’re quite … I mean, the John Howard gun reforms, I think, are very well received and for all the-

 

Gillian Triggs: Very well received. It was a very, very important move that he made, to use that moment of power, to reduce the right of access to these kinds of guns, and I think the Australian public has been right behind it. So, with exceptions, I think, we just saw on the news last night two more people shot dead in Sydney and another couple in Melbourne, I mean, it’s going on all the time. People are still having guns illegally and killing each other with them, but it’s not in … not remotely comparable to the United States, and I don’t think Australians would be tolerant of any provision of a charter that allowed an individual right to carry guns. I think that’s out of the question, so I think we can put that one to one side.

 

Perhaps the more controversial one, that we probably would have to think about, because you’ll have right to freedom of speech, right to privacy, right to freedom of association, et cetera, et cetera, but the one that would be likely to raise the greatest level of debate, I suspect, would be the right of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, or to recognition of their culture, and right to, let’s say, an advisory voice to Parliament. Well, you could include provisions of that kind in the charter, and many, perhaps, would be … will be concerned about that.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Would you bundle the two things together? I mean, it strikes me, perhaps Indigenous issues … I mean, that … You know, and I’ve experienced … You know, I was formerly a defense lawyer with the Aboriginal Legal service, you know, so these issues are dear to my heart. But I wonder whether or not there is a case for that to be dealt with-

 

Gillian Triggs: Mm-hmm (affirmative), separately.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … on its own merits. I mean, I don’t know …

 

Gillian Triggs: I think it … Just as it was odd to have a constitution that didn’t really talk about our First Nations peoples, I think it’d be very odd to have a charter of rights that didn’t. The Queensland one has got recognition of the cultural and spiritual, sort of heritage and importance of the Indigenous peoples to Australia. I forget the exact wording. But I think that’s a pretty powerful recognition of Indigenous as the First Australians, and that their right to be consulted in relation to matters that concern them.

 

Now it doesn’t have to be all … well, it could be along … with that kind of language, cultural respect, and so on. But I am … I mean, I haven’t thought through in my own mind how to handle this, really. I would hate to see us not go forward with constitutional change to recognize Indigenous Australians at the … you know, in order to get a charter of human rights. I think constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and to eliminate the race power from the constitution are absolute constitutional priorities. And I think with political leadership, we could do it.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Where do you think the debate’s at on the Indigenous acknowledgment question? Because it seemed we were moving towards a Respect-

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … campaign, and then suddenly there was Uluru Statement from the Heart …

 

Gillian Triggs: The Recognise campaign. Mm-hmm (affirmative), that’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Sorry, the Recognise campaign, apologies.

 

Gillian Triggs: Yeah, and then the … the Uluru-

 

Misha Zelinsky: And then the Uluru, and then, seems now there’s a split, and you know, history shows, unfortunately, that you need bipartisan support on referendums in Australia, given the high bar to get over the-

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … you know, the vote.

 

Gillian Triggs: I think that’s right. I’ve come to see political leadership and bipartisanship absolutely vital to really moving forward. It’s very, very hard in Australia in the current polarized, and really quite toxic, political environment. I think it’s a tragedy, but I do think it’s enormously important that we get recognition. I mean, it was extraordinary, after the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the Australian Human Rights Commission was engaged with assisting with the collaboration and discussions, across the whole of Australia, to get some agreement on that Uluru statement. So, we were a little bit involved with it, but mainly through Mick.

 

But I think the key point is that that was dismissed by the then Prime Minister within 48 hours, with no explanation. I think that’s horrified a lot of Australians. I think they see that as grossly disrespectful of a process that was actually a coherent process, over about 10 months, I think, and not easy for the Indigenous community … communities across Australia, to agree on that statement. They had to compromise, and they had to work it through and I think that was very commendable.

 

And what they were asking for was so little, just to have a voice of advice and consultation on the matters that concern them. It’s not a major … You wouldn’t have thought it was a major request. The Prime Minister could easily have said, “Look, this is terrific. Let us go away and work out how we can make this work.” But with the leadership of the Prime Minister, I think we could have got there.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Well, it’s also strikes me, on this question, that we need to have a national … There’s a whole heap of issues bundled in with this. You’ve got the Australia Day thing, and then you’ve got the question of a republic, and then the Indigenous question, and how to deal with reconciliation. It strikes me that … I’m a person, I think a republic is a good way to deal with some of these issues, because it’ll allow us to update what it is to be … have a modern and inclusive Australia, and perhaps, within that, the Indigenous question could be resolved as well, without the colonial symbols. But do you think that’s a pathway forward for it? Or is it, again, these are all sort of … you know …

 

Gillian Triggs: I don’t really. Not anymore. I think there was a time when we could have got close to it, and that would have been the wonderful springboard for sort of modern Australia. But that moment’s lost now, I’m afraid. I think the republican movement’s going nowhere. It’s going backwards, from what I can gather, and that’s not happening. So, I think, with the extraordinary popularity of the Royal Family at the moment, and the weddings, and the visits, it … I think, Australians, it’s way down their list of priorities. I suspect that if we had strong political leadership, again, at a bipartisan basis, I think you could probably get it across the line, but there’s no political will to do it.

 

Misha Zelinsky: It’s tricky. I mean, we just had two Prime … well, we had a Prime Minister, up until recently, and an opposition leader who were both republicans. We had the Prime Minister who led the republican movement in 1999, and unfortunately, couldn’t get there, even within that. And now, obviously, a whole heap of issues on the … that I won’t delve into, with the Turnbull government. I mean, he had capacity to make those decisions, but it doesn’t fill you with confidence when you notionally have bipartisan leadership, without that-

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … without that outcome.

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, I was in Parliament when we did have bipartisan leadership, with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister, and Tony Abbot as Leader of the Opposition. And they passed the legislation, it was about five years ago now, for a process, and it was a very exciting day in Parliament. I was there with a … some people from the Human Rights Commission, and I really thought, now, for the first time, we’re going to get somewhere on Indigenous recognition. And five years later, it’s fallen into yet another black hole. It’s going nowhere. It’s disappeared completely. Now, it may be … and that’s why I’m an optimist about these things. It may be that we’ll get a change of government in three months, and I think with … over the turn of that government-

 

Misha Zelinsky: I’m touching wood on that, for the tape.

 

Gillian Triggs: … I think … That’s right. I think there’s a chance that the Labor Party would bring these matters back and progress them. But the difficulty is always going to be that there’s not going to be bipartisan support.

 

Misha Zelinsky: And that’s the bit that worries me. I mean, I think Labor has good policies in this area, but the history has shown that, even when Labor’s been in government, with referenda, that they’ve failed.

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: So, I mean, just to bring us back to Australia in a … maybe a discourse, you sort of touched on, you know, maybe once upon a time we could’ve got some of these things done, and you know, Wayne Swan gave his valedictory speech the other day and he talked about the Tampa crisis, how it changed everything, in 2001. I mean, do you see that? Do you agree that that was a pivot point in Australia’s discourse?

 

Gillian Triggs: I do. Although I’d add to that. If you look at the timing, it was really fascinating. Earlier in the year, we had the Howard blatant lie that asylum seekers, Muslims, were throwing their children overboard. Now, a year or so later, a Senate inquiry said there was not a scintilla of evidence to support that, and the government, and government officials, had falsified photographs to pretend that that … to support the argument. There was a really pretty disgraceful moment, but the problem was that, some months later, we had the so-called Tampa crisis, a really confected crisis, and then within weeks of that, we had the 9/11.

 

So, that what you … In that momentous year, you had asylum seekers arriving without visas by boat, you had … and you had international terrorism against the Pentagon and the World … the Twin Towers. And what the Howard government did, and governments did around the world, was conflate these issues, and that you’ve got asylum seekers, who are Muslims, who are terrorist, and that’s how the logic progressed. And that has been very, very, very difficult to dislodge in the public mind.

 

If you could trace the beginning of the decline of Australia’s role as a good international human rights system, that was the year. And Howard then abused the power, and used power as a vehicle for getting through laws that are more draconian than we’ve ever had in the past. For example, we had no counter-terrorism laws at all at 2001. We’re now one of the most, if not the most, heavily legislated country for counter-terrorism laws, that every so many weeks or months, we get more counter-terrorism laws, that become more and more draconian as the time goes by. [crosstalk]-

 

Misha Zelinsky: Things such as data retention laws?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, the data retention laws, dealing with, obviously, sort of picking up things that might be relevant to spying, but also, the prevention orders, and control orders, the periods of time people can be held for questioning [crosstalk]-

 

Misha Zelinsky: Without a lawyer?

 

Gillian Triggs: Without a lawyer. Without going before a court-

 

Misha Zelinsky: And it can’t be reported on, either.

 

Gillian Triggs: And they can’t report on it. The draconian penalties for those who have reported on surveillance operations by … or any operations by the security agencies, whereas the officers of the security agencies have total immunity from the jurisdiction. No one can … They can never be sued for anything they do, right or wrong. And so, we’ve had an extraordinarily disproportionate range of laws introduced, based upon this notion of fear that the government has promoted, without very much evidence.

 

And if you look at, by way of comparison, more than one woman a week is killed by her partner, or former partner, in domestic violence in Australia. Some of that being particularly, or much higher, in the Indigenous communities, and remote and rural communities. The government announces 78 million to support domestic violence refuges and accomodation for women. Well, you know, in the same time, we’ve paid, or will be paying, 50 billion dollars a year for more submarines, and for funding of offshore detention centers, and expanding the powers of the Ministry for Home Affairs, and Mr. Dutton. I’m not saying we don’t have submarines. I’m not saying we shouldn’t support national security, but I am saying that there’s such a gross disproportionality, that this has been made possible because of the politics of fear.

 

Misha Zelinsky: It’s interesting, politics of fear, because what’s your take on this question of secure borders and sovereignty? Because I think that’s something now that … we look at the Brexit example, when you look at the way populist extremists are arising, in Europe in particular, and when you look at, you know,~ the Hungarian example, particular, Polish, how do you deal with being secure but humane?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, I think it’s possible. In other words, there’s the Abbott government, in particular, adopted very successful slogans that, in effect, you have to have offshore processing, and all of the other aspects of asylum seeker policy, to stop the boats and save the drownings at sea. In other words, he conflated the two. It’s a false binary. My argument, and that of many others, of course, is that you can both stop the boats, stop the people smuggling, stop people arriving by sea without visas, and take a humane approach to those who actually come to Australia. That’s the bit of the argument that’s proved so hard to convince people about.

 

But one of the reasons is that I don’t think the Australian public realizes the sort of steel cordon sanitaire of shipping that’s up there on the north-west of Australia, that literally stops the boats coming through. Stopping the boats has not been done because we’re cruel to children and their families on Nauru. There’s no evidence to suggest that at all. But that is the public perception, because governments have seen it in their interests to conflate the two. So that we now have people in detention for nearly seven years, without charge or trial, contrary to the fundamental principles of the Magna Carta, let alone anything more recent. You don’t have to go past the Magna Carta. But Australia has … our government, at least, has completely disregarded those standards.

 

Misha Zelinsky: So, what’s the role of language here? Because one of the things that, you know, is … You’ve talked about how to be humane and it’s also … There’s an element of dehumanization in the language used. Do you think that’s an important part of this? In the way that, you know, the fear of the other, and the fear of people that are coming by armada, as Abbott said. Do you think the-

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … dehumanizing use of language, of boat people, in a … I mean-

 

Gillian Triggs: Yes, that right, and illegals. Yes. Oh, it’s-

 

Misha Zelinsky: Illegal immigrants, you know-

 

Gillian Triggs: … it’s absolutely crucial. This is the world we’re in, of global media, and the snappy phrase, and the slogan. So, people Make America Great Again, and Save Our Children, and Save Our National Borders. I mean, this is how today’s politician speaks. There’s no depth to it, there’s no analysis, there’s no nuance. It’s absolutely crystal clear for a massive voting public that actually doesn’t want to get much involved in politics, in any event, so it’s … it’s been a brilliant marketing exercise, if you like. It’s no accident, of course, that our current Prime Minister is a marketing man. I mean, this is what they do. They conjure up these slogans.

 

The trouble is that the slogans are very often straight out lies, or creating binaries that don’t exist, they’re false binaries. Or they are deliberately obfuscating the real issues. Language has always been important, I’m not suggesting it hasn’t, but in recent years, particularly in Australia, the use of the slogans has really stopped people thinking. They’re very, very dangerous, and I certainly encourage anybody to look behind the slogans and say what’s there.

 

One that I’ve been working on recently, for example, is the Zero Tolerance in sexual assault and harassment. Now, you know, from … I’ve just finished a report for the United Nations on this question, and leaders of, even of United Nations bodies, seem to think that all you’ve got to do is come up with a slogan, ‘We have zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace,’ and it’s fixed. But of course, it isn’t. It’s just a slogan, and it means nothing unless you put money, and programs, and cultural change, and all sorts of things behind the slogan. Only then do you start to actually get anywhere. But the harsh reality is that this is the global media environment we live in.

 

Misha Zelinsky: It’s very challenging, and then the media tends to reward the snappy phrase, and-

 

Gillian Triggs: Oh, they love it.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … they’re the things that cut through-

 

Gillian Triggs: They just love it.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … and, despite the fact that they tut-tut about slogans, they like to report on them.

 

Gillian Triggs: [crosstalk] they report on them all the time. They do it all the time, and they love the … you know, if you … for … Just by way of personal example, I’ve been talking a lot recently about … for the International Women’s Day, and I use the phrase, you know, that we’ve got to disrupt, and we’ve got to stand up, and I’ve used the word, and we’ve even got to be more vulgar. Now, the word ‘vulgar’ isn’t used very much in contemporary parlance. The media picked up on it, and suddenly all my speeches are about being vulgar.

 

But that’s what they do, and in the end, you learn to use a word deliberately, because you know that’s the word that’s going to be picked up. I can write a 50 minute speech of … you know, a really considered, calm piece. they’ll pick one word up, and you know the word they’re going to pick up. You know what they’re going to do.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Well, if you know, I suppose you can use it to your advantage.

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, exactly. Once you’ve realized how to do it, then you realize that that’s what … It’s a deliberate decision, and then, in other words, you don’t fall into the trap. You know exactly what you’re doing.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Now, you sort of talked … which, going right back to the beginning, we talked a little bit about checks and balances on government, and in the absence of a bill of rights here, or a charter of rights, that we rely on our court system, our parliaments, but … and our civil societies, but you know, what’s the role of individuals? You were a Human Rights Commissioner. You very famously stood up to the Government. Can you tell us a little bit about the pressure that comes to bear from the executive, on someone speaking out against government policy?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, as I think Australia saw, it’s huge pressure, but I had the remarkable protection of the statue of the Australian Human Rights Commission, which meant that I couldn’t be sacked by the government, unless I’ve committed a criminal act, or was bankrupt, and as I was neither at that time, still aren’t, then there was nothing they could do about it. And the government was really … and the Murdoch press was absolutely beside themselves, because they realized they were absolutely powerless, unless they could find something that would damn me, in terms of the statute, which they didn’t.

 

But I think your point about the individual is quite an important one, because I certainly would never have put myself forward for this role, but you find yourself in it, and in the end, you just accept the challenge, or you don’t. I felt that the laws that were being breached were so important to a working democracy that I couldn’t really back away from it, and so I just stood firm. But I didn’t see myself as being any kind of hero for doing this. I very much saw myself as acting as a lawyer would, in that situation, because I was saying, “This is the law. These are the facts. This is the outcome.” It was simple.

 

But I have come to see that people are moved by stories, and moved by individual stories, and an institution could put the arguments I was putting, but it wouldn’t have quite the same effect as an individual. And in a way, the government drew attention to me, and that then gave me a vehicle for speaking up about the things that I thought were important as President. So, I suppose the lesson to be learned is, one should never underestimate the power of the individual, because it can be very, very effective.

 

Misha Zelinsky: But, you know, how do you stand up in … without the … would you have been able to stand up the way that you had, without all those safeguards around you?

 

Gillian Triggs: No, I would have been out of there in an hour. I couldn’t have stopped it. But because the law protected me, the statute protected me, and the community, to a very high degree, in a more subtle way. But no, without those protections, I would have been gone instantly.

 

Misha Zelinsky: That’s a really … It’s a profound point because you know … And they’re the safeguards that are gradually being eroded right … as we’ve sort of discussed.

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right. That’s right. Exactly. Yes, exactly, I mean, and that’s … You know, I wouldn’t be surprised that a future conservative government, which we’re probably not going to get for a while, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised, if they had the numbers, they would amend the statute to ensure that doesn’t happen, in other words, that if they don’t like a president they can get rid of them.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Sounds like an argument for a charter of rights maybe, but …

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, that’s another … it’s another point. Exactly.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Now, so, we’ve sort of touched on gender as we’ve gone along. I kind of want to come back to the point about the advanced democracies, and the rest of the world. Sorry, just for the tape here, we’re pulling down the blinds. You’ve said that, basically, perhaps against discourse, or, like, against the narrative, that gender rights are on the decline, which is a surprise to me. Can you talk about that a little bit? Perhaps in a global sense but also in Australia?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, if we go to Australia first, I’ve been surprised myself, and I’ve … over the … I’ve not done a lot of gender equality work, as President of the Commission, because we had a sex discrimination commissioner, and so, really, I would leave that side of the work to, at that time, Elizabeth Broderick. But since leaving the Commission, I’m asked to speak a lot on the subject, so I’ve been trying to keep myself up to date. And I use, as my benchmark, and it’s a very good one, the World Economic Forum’s Gender index, and that, not at all surprisingly, lists Australian women as number one in the world for educational attainment, along with the usual suspects of Finland and Denmark, I think.

 

But then, when you look at the other indices measured by the world economic forum, health, labor force participation, and economic empowerment, and political engagement, Australia is woefully behind, and we’ve slipped from a global assessment of us at 15th in the world in 2006, to 46th a couple of years ago.

 

Misha Zelinsky: 46th?

 

Gillian Triggs: Yes, and we’ve risen to 39th, but we are well outside the usual zone of countries that we will compare ourselves with. So, for example, on health, we’re ranked at 103rd.

 

Misha Zelinsky: 103rd for women’s health? Wow.

 

Gillian Triggs: Yes. For women’s health. We’re ranked at 46 for economic empowerment, and about 45 for political empowerment. We’re 77th in the world for ministerial appointments.

 

Misha Zelinsky: What do you put that … That’s startling, and I can’t sort of … As an economist, I’m trying to put together that data. First in the world for education-

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … which I think, it’s outstanding achievement, so-

 

Gillian Triggs: But way down on all the others, and then that … when you come together, it creates a mean of 39, I think is how it works, but … and you can criticize methodology, [crosstalk]-

 

Misha Zelinsky: Oh, sure. But nevertheless, I’m sure there’s-

 

Gillian Triggs: … but the figures are so powerful that you can’t dismiss the trend.

 

Misha Zelinsky: So, then what are we getting wrong in public policy? Because the kind of standard thinking is, if you get people educated they should be able to get jobs, and they should be able to get a higher income and-

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: So, what’s going wrong?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well that’s the great disappointment for me, because when I did my law degree in the 60s, I thought, “Education will unlock this world for women, and it will be fine once they’re educated.” The truth is that higher educational attainment for women, it’s higher than for men, has not unlocked the door for me, or not fully. One of the biggest problems, I think, and it’s shown by the statistics, is … two things, one is lack of political empowerment, and we’ve seen that in the governments that have been in, in the last few years, particularly. Obviously, the Liberal Coalition, with so few women, is a real problem for the Liberal Party, but whereas the Labor Party’s adopted quotas in the 90s and they’ve got … they’re in an entirely different position.

 

But the other, that we’re all concentrating on now, much more than we ever have done, is the deleterious effect on women of a workplace of sexual harassment and bullying. And that is more of a systemic problem than I think we’ve realized, until the last few years, and now it seems that the evidence is very, very clear.

 

The other problem that I think needs to be addressed is that women do two thirds of the caring, unpaid, in Australia, and it’s true throughout the world, so that a lot of women’s time is spent on, essentially, caring roles, for which they’re never paid. The other is that women tend to be squeezed into fractional, flexible contracts, casualization of work, they’re way … in ways that men are not, to the same degree. The end result is that, in Australia, women retire on 46 percent of the male superannuation.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Yeah, that’s a huge challenge.

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s a very, very big gap, and, just to illustrate what happens when women don’t have superannuation, is that the fastest growing category of homelessness in Australia is women over 55. In other words, they are not able, if, once they’re running out of work options, and women over 55 find it very hard to get work, except in some areas, like hospital cleaners, factory cleaning, basic factory work.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Which is all very lowly paid.

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right, very low paid, casual, subject to the employer’s needs, in particular, time. It’s nothing they could … couldn’t get a mortgage on it. They can’t pay the rent after 55. They lose their partners, sometimes. Their children have grown up and gone away, and they’re sofa surfing. They’re ringing their sons up, saying, “Can I stay on the sofa for a few weeks?” But others are living in cars. And we know, from the group that I chair, Justice Connect, just how many people. They’re in a really powerless position, and many of them women.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Homelessness for women is very hidden, as well, because of the domestic violence questions associated with it as well, and fleeing from domestic violence.

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right.

 

Misha Zelinsky: But it’s not always … People tend to think of homelessness … I mean, my experience of the issue, as rough sleeping, which is not necessarily the case, is that … and maybe, could you explain that a little bit?

 

Gillian Triggs: That right. That’s right. Well, I think we think of a homeless person as being an 18 year old sleeping under a bridge somewhere, or some of the people that are in the shopping malls, with blankets, and the dog, often quite young. Not always, but often. We don’t realize that the homelessness that we can’t see is far more troubling, in some respects, and people are shameful. They live in their cars. They find shacks on the beach. I mean, they do extraordinary things to hide their situation, to try to survive, and then they become subject to crime, or commit crimes themselves. But it creates a downward spiral.

 

Misha Zelinsky: So, how do we fix some of these issues? I mean, you … Just going … pulling apart some of those figures, the health one jumped out of me, but also the ministerial one, at 77, and you know, you talk about quotas. Is that the way that we need to address? Do we address it through hard legislative sort of rules? Or is it about cultural shifts? Or what’s the way to do it? Or both?

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, both. Both. There never is a single answer to these things, just as education proved not to be the single answer. I think we need quotas. It’s worked for the Labor Party. It can work for the Liberals. [crosstalk] encourage-

 

Misha Zelinsky: And would you want to see it in the corporate sector, for example? I mean is that a way to break up that-

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, I’d like to see them with serious targets, for which directors of companies are accountable. At the end of the year, in other words, there’s a checklist, “Did you achieve these targets across the company? If not, why not? And what are you going to do next year?” And also, what’s the accountability mechanism? Because there’s almost no accountability for failing to meet a target, and that’s the point of targets, they’re voluntary, and people-

 

Misha Zelinsky: If they’re linked to bonuses they might happen, but …

 

Gillian Triggs: Well, we’ve just seen, I gather, the salaries of the major banks going down by a significant amount. I think maybe there should be consequences, that … If you gave it a monetary value, and that’s the society we live in, give it a monetary value, there’s every chance you’ll get an outcome. It’s a pretty tough way of doing it, but they’ve had long enough to do it. It’s not as though they haven’t had the time to do it. I think these tougher solutions really have to be made.

 

I think also, frankly, that we need many more programs to support families, so that women aren’t subject to domestic violence in the same way. We need much more workplace cultural change. Now, cultural change is easy to say, and extremely … it’s much easier to have a quota or an accountability mechanism. It’s very, very difficult to change cultures. But I think you need huge leadership from within the organizations, and often those in charge aren’t that passionate about it. What they do is, they establish a working group, and they leave it over there somewhere, in the working group reports, but that’s really not their concern. They’re not there to manage that problem. But I think that, now, we’re going to have to put things like the workplace environment front and center.

 

But I also think we need to look at this superannuation problem, and I think when a woman is leaving … or a man, for that matter, is leaving full-time work for caring for children, or caring for an older parent, or somebody close to them, then I think the employer and government should ensure that their superannuation payments continue at the same level. And then you won’t get these huge gaps. They come back into the workforce, but they haven’t missed out on their superannuation.

 

Misha Zelinsky: And it’s a very important thing, because super compounds over a lifetime-

 

Gillian Triggs: Exactly.

 

Misha Zelinsky: … so losing those earnings isn’t just their contribution, it’s the compounding effect.

 

Gillian Triggs: Yes, I think the American financial gurus say, “Never forget the power of compound interest.”

 

Misha Zelinsky: It’s the eighth wonder of the world, they call it, yeah, that’s right.

 

Gillian Triggs: That’s right. I can see that, it’s a wonderful thing.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Indeed.

 

Gillian Triggs: Once you’ve worked out what it does, compound interest is very, very nice. But that’s been the tragedy for women. And some men too, I mean, this is not only a male, female thing. You don’t want to position women against men, in any sense, it’s just that, because women tend to do the caring, they’re not paid for it, they lose salary, they lose their position with superannuation payments, they lose their promotional opportunities within a firm, and then they just slide back. And then … if their husband or partner dies, or they go off with a new model, these women are left to fend for themselves.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Well, it’s been a very serious conversation. I’ve been looking for a way to segue into my hokey question at the end here, but unfortunately I’m going to have make it a really clunky segue. But you know, I’ll always ask everyone on the show, if you’re an Aussie, who are the foreigners you’d like to bring along to a barbecue. In your case, who would you like to bring to a barbecue at the Triggs house? You know, three people.

 

Gillian Triggs: I’d really like to meet Theresa May. I think she’s dealing with one of the most intractable and difficult problems. I’d love to sit down and talk to her about what she’s proposing, and how she thinks she’s going to pull Britain through this.

 

Misha Zelinsky: She might have a bit more time in about three weeks.

 

Gillian Triggs: They might be extending it. There you go, they’re going to have to. But I think she’s … She seems to be emerging as quite a remarkable woman. So, I’m rather … I’d love to meet her.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Hard job.

 

Gillian Triggs: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Very, very tough job, the toughest job that one can think of just at the moment, and she seems to be pretty resilient, and she’s not very flexible, but she might have to be in the next few weeks.

 

Misha Zelinsky: So, Theresa May. Was there anyone else that you would bring along? To the …

 

Gillian Triggs: Oh. Nothing … Nobody … I’m sorry, this is a terribly boring answer, but I really can’t think. I’d love to have known Maria Callas.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Okay. Right.

 

Gillian Triggs: Because I love opera, and I think she was, again, quite … a quite remarkable woman. And I think I’d love to meet Obama.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Oh, okay, well …

 

Gillian Triggs: And Michelle [crosstalk].

 

Misha Zelinsky: Well, there you go. A couple of politicians. Well, I’ll let you have four, and why not?

 

Gillian Triggs: You’ll let me have four.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Why not? They’re a package deal, and a just actually read Michelle’s book. It was a fantastic book.

 

Gillian Triggs: Oh, I haven’t read it yet. I must read it.

 

Misha Zelinsky: Oh, well. Anyway. Well, thank you so much for joining the pod. It’s been a fantastic chat, and really appreciate it, and good luck with everything that you’re doing.

 

Gillian Triggs: Thank you very much.