Human Rights

Ambassador Curtis Chin

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

TRANSCRIPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curtis Chin:                           … and enjoy American-Australia hospitality.

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

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

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

Curtis Chin:                           Nicole Kidman is Australian for sure …

Misha Zelinsky:                  She’s absolutely Aussie.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Take care, mate.

Bonita Mersiades

Bonita Mersiades is one of the most famous whistleblowers in world sport.

She is the author of ’Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way’ – a book that details the massive corruption inside the bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup including Australia’s role in the shady process. 

Bonita joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the intersection of sport and politics, why when it comes to cheating its easier to punish individuals than nation states, the role that money plays in the corruption of sport and why it’s just so scary being a whistleblower. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:                  Bonita Mersiades Mersiades, welcome to the show.

Bonita Mersiades:           Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Slightly different change of pace for what we typically have on Diplomates. You’ve got a very heavy sports background, but sports and politics are never too far apart. I thought, with your experience, let’s start right at the beginning. Why do people care so much about sport? Why do people care so much about men and women running around on a field kicking a ball or throwing a ball?

Bonita Mersiades:           There’s many reasons. I guess one of them would be that we’ve all done it, or most of us have don’t it, at some stage in our lives. The other thing is I think almost more than anything, perhaps music is the only other thing, is that it’s something which is part of a culture that goes through generations. Particularly in something like football, regardless of which code of football it is, the love of that and a love of the team for example can pass down from generation to generation. I think from an individual perspective, that’s why we love sport.

Bonita Mersiades:           From a bigger picture perspective, of society, it absolutely does reflect society and the values that we find important and the values that we like to instill for example in our children, of fair play and team work and perseverance and determination and integrity. For all of those reasons, it’s important.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, people often say, sports, it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that. It’s also seen as an extension of the nation state. Do you see, in your experience, how much is sport an extension of not just communities but of the country itself? Do you think that that is an important part of sport, as well, the national identity?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah, especially for a country like our own. We’re very much tied up, our national identity is very much tied up with sport, even if not so much with ourselves. It is for other people. Having traveled a lot for work not just in sport, but in previous work in government, one of the things that people will often throw at you as a curtain raiser conversation is about the cricket team or the football team or whatever. It is pretty much part of our identity.

Bonita Mersiades:           I think, though, increasingly, too, is that a lot of nations are getting into sport and investing so much in sport because it is obviously a way of exercising soft diplomatic power. Along with arts and culture and fashion and food and all sorts of other ways in which soft power is exercised, sport is also very important to that.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s interesting you touch on that soft power, because it’s that murky bit between politics, business, passionate community interest. It strikes me sometimes what makes sport so special is what makes it inherently corruptible. What is it that we see with this questionable behavior from players, obviously, but administrators, high level bureaucrats? How is it that it gets so easily corrupted, something that is so pure when you start as a kid?

Bonita Mersiades:           I think a lot of the administrators in sport, particularly at high level, they forget what sport was about in the first place. My experience, for example, of FIFA is such that, whereas most of the people involved at a high level would have started off in the game as a kid once upon a time and came through the ranks as a volunteer and all of those sorts of things, they lost sight of that when they could see just how powerful that particular sport is, football … I’m talking soccer when I talk football … and the doors it opens for them. For example, if the FIFA president came to visit a country such as Australia, he would get a green light corridor which is reserved for heads of state. He would get to meet anyone that he wants to meet. The president of FIFA has, it doesn’t matter who it is, the president of the United States or the prime minister of the UK. They juggle about who they’re going to sit next to at state dinners. They are treated like a head of state and they see themselves as a head of state. In fact, they even refer to the FIFA congress, which has 212 member nations, more than the United Nations, as their parliament.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s really interesting. We’ll come back to that a little bit later on, about the way that sports globally govern themselves. You of course, you touched on FIFA. You’re the author of a book called Whatever it Takes, which is The Inside Story of the FIFA Way, but also particularly Australia’s failed bid for the World Cup in 2022.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Firstly, I suppose, why did Australia bid for this event? Why is it important to put taxpayer money … We put in $50 million, I think it was. Why do countries put money behind these kind of events?

Bonita Mersiades:           I think the number one reason is the one that we touched on earlier about soft power. If you look at Australia’s history with major world events, whether it be the ’56 Olympics, the 2000 Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, although that’s not as large, and things like that, Australia has leveraged those events to give it more power and more of a, I guess, credibility and notoriety, and I say that in a positive way, every time there’s been one of those major world events. That’s why nations use them. If you look at who won out of that 2018, 2022 process, and we’ve already experienced the 2018 World Cup, there is absolutely no doubt that Vladimir Putin and Russia used that to try and soften their image when everything else that was going on in their country would probably be a negative for most.

Bonita Mersiades:           Why did we bid? One, there was that. Two, I think from a football perspective, at the time and probably still, we have always seen it necessary to turbo charge our sport to realize its potential. This is what I’m really passionate about, is that football is a way in Australia for Australia to be closer to the world and the world to be closer to Australia. Yet, we’ve never really taken great advantage of that. Hosting a World Cup would have been a way to do that, as well as putting our sport onto another level financially. That was one of the reasons from a football perspective, as well as whatever legacy it may have left for the sport within our country. They were the three major reasons. There was a national reason, there was a football legacy perspective, and there was a football financial perspective.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. In your book, you talk about the fact that … Famously, for those who … I’ll just quickly recap. There was two bids for the 2018, 2022. Australia was reasonably confident they were going to do well with that process. We then finished last. We got one vote. $50 million dollars for one vote. That vote was from the now disgraced Sepp Blatter who basically told us he voted us, I mean, effectively out of sympathy. Otherwise, we would have got zero votes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The thing that you talk about in your book, and I’d like for you to unpack this, at the time of the vote we knew we were going to lose, and yet nobody told the government. Can you expand on that a little bit, about that process of the vote itself?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. I think that was … People have also asked me what really got me to the point where I was so unhappy with working through this. There was a lot of things, but that was one of them. We were standing in the lobby of the FIFA headquarters in Zurich after Kevin Rudd had been to visit. Kevin Rudd was a master politician and master showman. Put him up with Sepp Blatter and it was really a contest to see who was going to be smiling the most and being in front of the camera the most. Kevin Rudd was great on that visit, but after he left we were told point blank we wouldn’t win it because we would never be commercially competitive.

Bonita Mersiades:           From my perspective then, we should have at least as a minimum told the government that that was the case. The government may well have said, “That’s fine. There are other objectives we’re pursuing with this,” because after all, just by being a bidder we’re out there in the global community getting noticed. That’s not a bad objective as long as the government is able to make that decision, in my view. They were also bidding at the time for a security council seat at the United Nations, so there was that double act going on as well. But we didn’t. We didn’t do any of that.

Bonita Mersiades:           I think, when you come back to what happened at the very end of the whole bidding process and the fact that I revealed in my book, that Qatar, through what was then Al Jazeera, paid a $100 million what they call production contribution if the World Cup was held in Qatar, I think it’s fairly clear that Qatar were also given the same information, i.e. you won’t be competitive commercially. In other words, their meaning against the United States, who was one of the other bidders for 2022. Qatar dealt with that because they had the state owned resources to be able to deal with it. They came up with some might say it was a clever way of doing it, and some might say it was sneaky. Nonetheless, it worked for them, from an organizational perspective. We didn’t do any of that. Instead, what we did was, oh, we’ll get a consulting company to do a report on why Asia is the next big growth area in football. My question to that was, there’s three other Asian nations bidding so why us rather than the other three.

Bonita Mersiades:           There was always this view that no one would want those other three, they’ll want us in Asia, not the other three. I think there was this sense that while we would host a great World Cup … We do all of that stuff really well … and it’d have been fantastic to have, there was never any sense, realistic view of what else was going on. At least publicly there wasn’t a realistic view of what was going on.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You’ve sort of touched on this process. A lot of people wouldn’t know that when they’re deciding a World Cup, there’s only 22 votes, as I understood it.

Bonita Mersiades:           At that time, yes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. Can you give a sense of some of the dirty trick … You touched on the Qataris have put up $100 million. You talk in your book and at other speeches around some of the examples from the then French president Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin in Cyprus. Can you give some examples of some of the stuff that other countries were doing in other to secure it? Given that the Russians won 2018 and Qatar won 2022, I think it’s important to think about exactly what went on.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. Not just during the bidding process, but afterwards as well if you track some of these things. I think it’s important, too, because so many people have talked about Qatar and put it down to the traditional brown paper bag stuff. There may well have been some of that that went on, but there are also this other much more sophisticated and strategic interventions.

Bonita Mersiades:           I mentioned the $100 million production contribution. Not long before the vote, the person who is now the emir of Qatar went to France, had dinner with Nicholas Sarkozy, and Michel Platini who was then the FIFA vice president and one of the most powerful people in football, was invited along. Basically, it was put upon him that he and the people, his votes that he could manage, should vote for Qatar and in return for which Qatar would look after a number of things.

Bonita Mersiades:           The following year at the Dubai Air Show, Qatar Airways bought … I haven’t got the numbers absolutely correct, but certainly a proportion … bought approximately 80 Airbus aircraft and two Boeing aircraft. The following year, Michel Platini’s son ended up with a job with Qatar. The following year, Qatar, and they still owned, Paris Saint Germain, the most successful and the biggest football club in Paris. All of these things sort of went on both at the time and subsequent to secure those votes. That’s one example.

Bonita Mersiades:           In terms of Russia, I tracked this through a Greek newspaper, or through a relative who sent it to me actually. Vladimir Putin visited Cyprus in September 2010. This was about two months before the vote or six weeks before the vote. In a speech about anti ballistic missile technology, he said, “We Russia are going to share our technology with you,” which in itself is a huge issue and quite big, “But by the way we’re also bidding for the 2018 World Cup and we’d really love to have your vote.” Sitting in the audience is the man who’s going to vote. Now, was that you must vote for us or else or just the type of typical government to government deal or negotiating or trading that goes on during these things? That’s why I say there’s a lot of sophisticated and strategic interventions from countries and nation states around that whole bidding process and the voting process.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was quite successful when you look at it, right? You look at the fact that there was a lot of concern at the time, certainly for the last decade, around Russia’s behavior globally, when you look at invasion of Georgia and so on and so forth, the annexation of Crimea. They bid quite high as you describe and then there was a tremendous soft power success for the Putin regime in Russia last year in the 2018 World Cup. Qatar, which is a tiny country, I think everyone was shocked that they won it. They’ve come under enormous pressure for some of the abuses of human rights and labor rights subsequently. They’re two really concerning examples.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Australia’s bid. I’m kind of curious. What about us? We spent $50 million of taxpayers’ money. Was our bid clean or not?

Bonita Mersiades:           It depends what you mean by clean. Is it clean in that anyone is being indicted or arrested yet? It was clean in that respect because no one has been. Was it clean in terms of using, as I’ve termed it, or in fact as the former attorney general of the United States termed it, the FIFA way? Yeah, we absolutely did. For example, we gave four million dollars to the Oceania Football Confederation, that’s based in the Pacific, for a really good project, that is to help kids in the Pacific play sport with better facilities. No one can doubt that that’s a good cause, but it was only given because we were bidding. I sat in the meeting. It’s not a question of I’ve read this somewhere and i think this is what happened. I sat in the meeting with the director general of [inaudible 00:14:59] on more than one occasion, what was then [inaudible 00:15:02], more than one occasion in which he talked about how he would require additionality from the federal budget in order to fund this. There is no doubt about that.

Bonita Mersiades:           We, when I say we, Australia, the Football Federation of Australia, got an award from the Asian Football Confederation for a five million dollar donation, five million dollar donation that wasn’t particularly allocated to anything but we donated it. We gave half a million US dollars to Jack Warner, probably the most notorious of all of the characters, if I can call them that, around FIFA and world football. He wanted that to upgrade a stadium in his home country of Trinidad and Tobago. What they didn’t bother to do in terms of due diligence was to find out that the land on which the stadium was … Sorry, the stadium was built by FIFA money. The club concerned was owned by the Warner family. The land on which the stadium and the facilities were built was owned by the Warner family. Where did that US half a million dollars end up? In Jack Warner’s personal back account.

Bonita Mersiades:           Now, what Football Federation Australia officials or former officials have said in relation to that, “Well, we didn’t know that was happening.” Even if they didn’t know that was happening, they should have been able to figure out what was going on and they should have done better due diligence. Not only that, they shouldn’t have made a payment of US half a million dollars to one of the most powerful people in world football and a voter some six weeks before that vote, because it smells. There is no other word for it. It smells.

Misha Zelinsky:                  In any other context, if these people were elected, it’d be a corruption. Because again this murkiness of sport, it becomes less … There’s no proper oversight, no proper democratic oversight. Just going back slightly from the bid, we lose the bid quite badly, but ten months before that event you lost your job. Your book is largely about being a whistleblower. I was kind of curious. You called out some of the problems. Next thing you find yourself on the out. Can you maybe explain what caused you firstly to blow the whistle on this, so to speak, internally? Then why did you find yourself shown the door do you think?

Bonita Mersiades:           I kept raising questions while I was in the job. It’s worth bearing in mind that I was a very senior executive. I reported to the CEO, I had close contact with the chairman amongst the bid group. I was also doing my other work at FFA as well, which was the ordinary communications and PR and corporate affairs type stuff. I would ask questions about why were we doing this, why were we spending money here. I would call out … We employed three notorious, two of them especially, notorious international consultants. In my eyes, [crosstalk 00:18:05]-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Who specialize in the area of thief of bidding?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yes. That’s all they do basically.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Bonita Mersiades:           Having worked with consultants for years and years and years, having been in government and elsewhere, I knew that they were not ordinary consultants. They were getting paid $15 million between them. They weren’t like ordinary consultants who would provide reports or provide you feedback or have any … Except for one of them, they had no deliverables in particular. I kept asking questions about this. As I mentioned, we were told that we wouldn’t win and we didn’t tell the government. As far as I’m aware, we didn’t tell the government. Certainly from a management perspective, we didn’t. I just got more and more uncomfortable. After a while, I guess, I think it was just simpler for my CEO at the time because he had the consultants in one ear sort of complaining about me and me in the other ear complaining about them. I think he thought what price piece will get rid of her?

Misha Zelinsky:                  Like a lot of whistleblowers, you came under an enormous amount of personal pressure. Can you explain that the attempts to discredit you? There was a report done that deliberately targeted you and one other person. Can you sort of take us through that process? You’ve made the complaint and then you’ve then largely been left as the problem.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. To this day, I’m still seen as a problem, even though there’s been a change of executive management [inaudible 00:19:35] at FFA. I think someone said I was an agitator and therefore I shouldn’t really be someone they talk to.

Bonita Mersiades:           The first thing they did was try to make out that the reason I was sacked was for reasons that were just not accurate. A little bit like what’s happened to the Matilda’s coach more recently. They would say, for instance, it was because I was responsible for relationships with the state governments and they weren’t going well. Actually, it wasn’t my responsibility. That was all about stadiums and that wasn’t my responsibility. There were those sorts of things. That was just the immediate aftermath.

Bonita Mersiades:           It became much bigger than that. There was sort of a fatwa put out against me by Football Federation Australia in terms of warning people not to have any contact with me, not to talk to me, not to take any notice, saying that I was bitter and twisted, saying the usual stuff when there’s a whistleblower. They do everything to discredit you and say that you’re only saying things because you’ve lost your job. Some people didn’t believe that because they had known me. I didn’t just go and work in football because I wanted a job. I worked in football because I love football and have done all my life. I grew up with it.

Bonita Mersiades:           Then it sort of elevated. When I started talking about governance, when I put it all together, I wrote it all down. I wrote everything down. I started putting together and I realized that what this really was was a governance issue at a much bigger level, at a FIFA level. I started talking about that, both here in Australia and also internationally. I actually coined the phrase the FIFA way back in 2011 and in fact I’m delighted to say that Loretta Lynch, the US attorney general, picked up on it.

Bonita Mersiades:           They then started a review of the 2018, 2022 bidding process by a person who is now a judge in the New York Court of Appeals. He was a paid consultant to FIFA. He interviewed approximately 75 people for his report, which took approximately two years to do. He got paid about ten million US dollars for it. In his report, he singled out two people to criticize. First of all, he said the decision was fine, there was nothing wrong with Qatar and Russia being selected. He did say that there was some dodgy things about the Australian bid and some dodgy things about the UK bid, but he singled out two people and identified them. That was me and another whistleblower, a woman. Of all people in the entire world of football that were seen as being a problem for football, it was the two whistleblowers and two women, and two quite vulnerable people.

Bonita Mersiades:           One of the impacts of having been a whistleblower, especially in a relatively small community in Australia, is it’s very hard to get a job when you’re up against one of the most powerful men in the country, i.e. Frank Lowy. For the other whistleblower, she was an American born Arab woman who … She has found it difficult to I guess really gain the employment that she would like to, just as I have. You continue and get on with life and do other things, but life changes a lot when that happens to you.

Bonita Mersiades:           I guess one of the telling things about all of that was that you do learn who your friends are and you do learn about people who say they stand for something and that they don’t actually stand for anything when it comes to it. Because they’ve never bothered to pick up the phone and ask you how you are or any of those sorts of things. I guess I’m glossing over it to some extent, because it doesn’t sound that bad, that it was just written in a report, but it was much worse than that in that this was global news. This wasn’t just something that happened in little old Australia. It was global news.

Bonita Mersiades:           When this report came out, I was in Perth doing some work. A friend of mine, a journalist in England, contacted me and he said, “You really need to look at the Garcia report straight away.” By the time I’d got back to the hotel to log onto the computer and have a look at it, I was inundated with calls. It changes your life. It’s one thing to have been sacked from my job and had to sort of reinvent myself after that. It was quite another to have this man who should know better, a lawyer, who had been the US attorney general for the Southern District of New York, so a prosecutor, he should have known better than to break the confidence of two women whistleblowers. It was just outrageous treatment and says more about him than it does about us.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You sort of detailed I suppose there the enormous pressure you came under. It’s quite a curious … A lot of people might have just gone underground. You’ve probably taken even more prominence since then. How did you go about fighting back against a very, very, very powerful not just in Australia, but global outfit?

Bonita Mersiades:           There were two options, and one was to sort of, and what they wanted us to do, was to get into a corner and curl up and die. Neither of us did that, I’m pleased to say. Certainly for the other whistleblower, her preference was not to bring any more attention to herself because she had some other issues that she needed to deal with. From my perspective, I thought I’m just not going to take this. I’m not the person who did anything wrong. I’m the person who’s brought attention to all of this. I’m just not going to take it.

Bonita Mersiades:           Fortunately, someone put me in touch with an MP in the House of Commons, Damien Collins, who is now the chairman of the Culture, Media, Digital, and Sport Committee at the House of Commons, and also an Australian businessman who is living overseas who is very interested in sports governance issues. We formed, in conjunction with a couple of members of the European Parliament, a group called New FIFA Now, campaign group. Soon after that, we turned up in the Brussels parliament and European Parliament and had I think about 250-300 people at a gathering in which we called for reform of FIFA. We called for basically an overthrow of FIFA as we knew it then and said that there was something terribly wrong going on, when that report had come out, when the two whistleblowers were shamed and disparaged the way they were, yet their whole decision making regime and rationale was not questioned whatsoever.

Bonita Mersiades:           Now that was before the May 2015 arrests.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah, I’d like to … Let’s go to that now. This dodgy process happens. You lose your job. You come under a lot of pressure, start fighting back. FIFA are kind of largely sweeping things under the rug as perhaps they’ve done in the past. Then, of course, there are an enormous amount of arrests, huge worldwide press, that of Jack Warner, the soccer club that you just described, the $500,000 from Australia for the stadium upgrade that never happened, and then Sepp Blatter who was the head of FIFA and the person that voted for us but did so in a manner that was relatively back handed. Tell us a little bit about that and also how validating it might have been. Was it validating after everything?

Bonita Mersiades:           It was quite incredible. As part of our New FIFA Now campaign activity, there was actually a FIFA presidential election coming up in 2015. Sepp Blatter was standing yet again and he was up against at the time Prince Ali of Jordan. We had, as part of a campaign activity, we had organized something with Amnesty International and with [inaudible 00:27:55] to happen in Zurich. We also have put together this sort of fake newspaper, which we were handing out in the streets of Zurich.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Not fakes news, though.

Bonita Mersiades:           No, no, not fake news. Fake newspaper.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Okay.

Bonita Mersiades:           With stories about FIFA corruption basically. Sharon Burrow and Jamie Fuller and others were …

Misha Zelinsky:                  Sharon Barrow is of course the global head of the union movement. An Australian, former head of the ACTU.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah. Former head of the ACTU. They were in the streets of Zurich handing out this fake newspaper with the real news when all of the sudden the news came through that there’d been these arrests at the Baur au Lauc Hotel. That was yet another media onslaught. It was quite incredible. In a sense, Jamie and Sharon were sort of Johnny and Jenny on the spot in Zurich. Even again here, there was a lot of media interest in what went on.

Bonita Mersiades:           Did I feel vindicated? Not straightaway. It took a while for that to happen. It was certainly the case though that it was pleasing to see and to have confirmed that the FBI and the IRS were looking into these issues. I had known about it for some time that they were. It was pleasing to see that they’d got to the point where they’d made these arrests. After that, to learn that other things subsequently happened, such as the Swiss government started looking at it, the French government and the UK. I guess over time that has become vindicating. Even more so, I guess when the full Garcia report was released some three years after that summary report, which-

Misha Zelinsky:                  This is the report that named you as the …

Bonita Mersiades:           Which named me and the other woman. Almost three years after it was first released as a summary report, when that came out, everything that was in it in relation to Australia in which he had pointed the finger and said there’s something that needs to be looked into in relation to Australia, everything had come from me, which made it even more absurd what he had said. Because on the one hand, he’s saying this happened, that happened, this happened in relation to Australia. The person who had told him all that, he then said, “You can’t really take any notice of her because she’s a whistleblower.” I think that probably for me was really the point of vindication.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s a big decision to make, whistle blowing. Do you think it was worth it knowing that journey you’ve been on? Maybe you can’t answer that, I’m not sure. At huge personal cost, obviously, but seeing that whole house of cards come tumbling down, does it feel worth it in the end?

Bonita Mersiades:           Yes, it does fundamentally. Does it change your life? Yes, it does. Is it worth it? Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s a very brave thing to do, to stand up to power.

Bonita Mersiades:           Thanks.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Turning to money in sport, we’ve talked a little bit about much money there is in sport. You talked about FIFA more generally in the sense that they’re an international body, they’re not government run, but they’re these quasi international bodies with sort of no democratic oversight, at least from people, democratically elected people. Given how much money they’re in control of, and these are multi, multi, multi billion dollar enterprises, but also receive billions and billions of dollars from governments, from taxpayers, what do we do about overseeing these entities? What’s the role of culture and governance and how do you actually bring these institutions to their heel? The FBI raiding them and investigating and arresting people is one thing, but you want to see good governance more fundamentally like you would in an ordinary government. What’s the role of governance and culture?

Bonita Mersiades:           It’s a really interesting question, and especially at the moment when you can see what’s happened since 2016 in particular. What happened then is we got a new FIFA president. He brought in a CEO who was a senior bureaucrat in the United Nations. Now, United Nations has had its own governance and financial management problems, but what she has done is introduce a lot of good process and good reporting. I would say that where there’s an issue of process versus culture, culture wins every time. What they haven’t addressed, and I don’t think anyone who’s in the game could address it, they haven’t addressed the culture of FIFA and they haven’t addressed the culture of world football.

Bonita Mersiades:           You’ve got to go back to what the FBI said, I think it was James Comey at that very first media release, sorry, media conference, after the arrests, where James Comey and Loretta Lynch was there. James Comey was still the director of the FBI and he said, “This is a mafia style organization.” I was at a conference not long after that where one of the FBI investigators was speaking. He actually explained what a mafia organization looks like. You take one person out, e.g. Jack Warner, and you put another person in.

Misha Zelinsky:                  The show rolls on.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah, the show rolls on. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in the Caribbean. Jack Warner came out, the next person came in, and he’s since been arrested as well.

Bonita Mersiades:           What do you do in terms of governance and culture? One of the things that we called for at New FIFA Now is that there needed to be … It was like being a company. You needed to treat it like a company, an administration, that you would bring in an outsider who had an absolute [inaudible 00:33:47] to make the necessary policy and operational and cultural change and force that through. That takes a generational thing. That isn’t what’s happened. What is clear, though, is that the whole circus keeps rolling on.

Bonita Mersiades:           FIFA’s financial statements came out I think yesterday or the day before, and they showed that their cash reserves have increased to $2.6 billion, their revenues over four years have increased to around about, I’m talking US dollars here too, seven billion dollars. Despite, when you consider that those four years to 2018 includes 2015, despite all of that and despite a 100 million US dollar legal bill, sponsors are still putting money into the game. The question is, where is that sponsorship coming from nowadays. This is the big issue for sport, I reckon. It’s coming from Russia. It’s coming from China. It’s coming from the Middle East. There’s still some money coming from the US, but it is less so as a proportion of all the money. There’s a real pivot happening in world sport. That could just reflect society in general, where the world is going in geopolitical terms. Going back to the very first question is how the sport reflects society, I think it’s worthwhile looking at where the big money in sport is coming from.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s interesting. I didn’t really link the concept of sponsorship, soft power, and the control of those institutions, but there’s actually … My next question just goes to this point. There’s this issue of national systematic cheating going on in sport. You’ve seen the Russians with Sochi, then the question of the nation states interfering in the bidding process. We’ve seen some pretty severe penalties for Sepp Blatter, for Jack Warner, but the penalties seem to be on the individuals and on the nations less so. Why? Is that about power? Is it about money? It seems to be the World Cup, the 2018, the 2022 fiasco, Putin would be the center of it and he’s gotten away with it scot free and put on a triumph of soft power in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in his home country. What is it that you can actually … How are we going to stop countries getting away with this rather than the individuals?

Bonita Mersiades:           That’s a really good question. As to why, it’s much more difficult to I guess get at a world leader in that respect than it is to get at a recipient or someone who may be a recipient of a corrupt payment for example. That’s what’s interesting about what’s happening with FIFA so far, too. Most of the people they’ve arrested, indicted, charged, or have been sentenced have been those who have been in receipt of the payments, not those who have made the payments. I think that’s a really interesting issue because it’s not always that companies have made the payments, it’s been individuals as well. Yet, every single indictment so far has been around an individual. It hasn’t gone beyond that. How you stop that, I don’t know. I think it’s a big issue for the world. It goes beyond sport, but of course it gets back to the fact that sport reflects that very much so.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s definitely a challenge, though. These countries and these individuals, sorry, companies and countries, when you look at countries like Russia, countries like China, the distinction between a company, an individual, and the nation state is incredible blurred.

Bonita Mersiades:           Very.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That-

Bonita Mersiades:           [crosstalk 00:37:24]

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s right. Exactly. The top down pressure and the top down influence is enormous. To say these are just rogue actors is to a fair minded person, I think, relatively heroic kind of way of framing it. What’s the answer? Is there cause for hope in this? Ultimately, sport … Sport is a funny thing because it relies on you and I putting importance on 11 women or men running around on a field kicking a piece of leather around wearing different color shirts and giving import to that so people can make billions of dollars out of it. It matters. Once you puncture that myth, sport kind of dies. These things chip away at it. Is there hope for sport in the longterm, do you think?

Bonita Mersiades:           I think there’s hope for sport in the longterm. I would have perhaps three and a half years ago we were at a tipping point where things may change more quickly than they have. I think what an organization like FIFA in particular has done very well is manage the crisis they’re in quite well. I would argue, as I said earlier, that the culture hasn’t changed though. One of the things we have to bear in mind is that the FBI and the IRS and the Swiss and all of them keep saying this is an ongoing investigation. They haven’t gone beyond North and South America yet. They haven’t looked at Asia. They haven’t looked at Oceania. They haven’t looked at Africa or Europe. That’s, I would think, is still to come.

Bonita Mersiades:           What can sport do? I think the other potential is in the general changes we see in society where younger people in particular are not taking crap like this. My generation, obviously there are exceptions, but my generation has tended to sort of play within the system a bit more. Whereas I think younger people, don’t classify it necessarily as an age thing, but they are calling out this sort of behavior and they don’t want it. I am hopeful that that will have an impact over time.

Misha Zelinsky:                  You’ve talked about the age of idea. Another important [inaudible 00:39:41], it’s something that has been a certain movement in this area as well, gender, the Me Too movement and calling out bad behavior and power. Role of gender in sport, you took on basically the ultimate boy’s club arguably in FIFA. What was the role of gender in this?

Bonita Mersiades:           For the two of us, the two women involved, it was huge, but I’m going to say there’s not one woman in power in football, including in this country, who ever bothered to pick up the phone and say, “Are you okay?” Not one. I find that unforgivable because in fact the other woman whistleblower, she actually sort of came to my attention as being in a spot of bother quite a while before that. My first reaction, having met her once, was I must reach out to her and see that she’s okay because there’s obviously something going on there. I did that. That’s what I think I would do for almost anyone in that situation.

Bonita Mersiades:           There’s no doubt that because we were women, they saw us easy targets. She was even a more junior woman than I was in the whole setup. They saw us easy targets, thought we’d be people who would probably keep quiet. They certainly looked for areas, things where we were both vulnerable and found them, and that’s one of the reasons in fact why she has chosen not to be public about these things. Yet, there was no support from a gender perspective. That’s despite the fact on the FIFA executive committee at the time, sitting in the room, discussing these issues, was an Austrian woman, who’s gone on to get awards for being so wonderful on gender diversity in football, yet she didn’t once reach out to either of the two women who were absolutely treated appallingly by the male machine that was FIFA.

Misha Zelinsky:                  What do you think the reason for that was? Is that something that’s systemic as a problem in the sport itself, that it’s hard for women to support other women, the interests of the individuals involved? Is there anything in particular you could put it down to?

Bonita Mersiades:           I don’t think it’s the sport itself. It’s the sport itself in that I think one of the things I always characterize those who have got to the top of FIFA and in fact in football in Australia as well, they get to the point where they’ve forgotten why they are there. They’re more concerned about what football can do for them than rather what they can do for football. Therefore, if there is a line between right and wrong and good and bad and all of those things, they are quite happy to sort of dip their big toe over to the other side and dismiss anyone … This is true of any sort of whistleblower type situation … dismiss anyone who’s making a noise, a bit of an agitator as I said earlier, or a bit of an activist and say, “I’m not having to do with them because that won’t help me.”

Misha Zelinsky:                  Now, we’ve talked a lot about all the negatives of sport. We kind of touched on the positives at the beginning. One of the things, you can sometimes get depressed about the state of the world. This podcast often deals with a lot of the bad things that are happening in the world. Sport can be harnessed for good. We saw recently the issue in relation to Hakeem Al-Araibi, the entire soccer football community coming together, although the union movement globally coming together, and the players union movement supporting him and the incredible work of Craig Foster. Do you see that there are other avenues for sport to be that lightning rod for good? We’ve talked about the problems, but can it still be a force for good?

Bonita Mersiades:           Absolutely. That’s what it should be for. The Hakeem Al-Araibi situation is a good one. I first met Hakeem back in 2016 because the FIFA presidential election was on. One of the front runners for that was Sheik Salman of Bahrain and Hakeem was then living in Australia. He didn’t have refugee status, but he was brave enough to speak out against Sheik Salman. Hardly anyone in Australia took any notice of it, including Craig Foster and the UPFA, but nonetheless internationally it was a big story because the FIFA presidency was a big story. Hakeem did the right thing then and he’s continued to do so. It was a great example of the positive power of sport and the potential of sport. What we recently saw with Craig is the public face of that Save Hakeem campaign.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It was a great story and it’s very good to see him back safely at home here in Australia. The last question I like to ask all my guests … We could talk all day about sport, frankly. I could talk about sport nonstop. We need to put some kind of limit on it. .

Misha Zelinsky:                   Of course, the last hokey question that I have at the end of a very serious discussion about sport is about … It’s called Diplomates. Who are the three foreign mates you would invite to a barbecue at Bonita Mersiades’s? Who would they be?

Bonita Mersiades:           Three foreign mates or three foreign people who have-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Or three foreign people that you’d like to be their mates. I’d like to pretend that all these people that I talk to are my mates. You can have anyone you want.

Bonita Mersiades:           Okay, all right. The first I would suggest would be Vitaly Mutko. He is the deputy prime minister in Russia. He was the Russian sports minister. He was president of Russian Football Federation. He was the president of [inaudible 00:48:35] St. Petersburg. He is part of the St. Petersburg clique of Russia. He, of course, was the sports minister who was in charge when all of the doping issues were going on. He sanctioned it. He has lost all of his positions in world football and in the Olympics. I think he would be worthwhile having a chat to. Just to see if he’s ready to be a whistleblower.

Bonita Mersiades:           The other one would be, and this is terrible, I’m going to sit on the fence, either of the Obama’s would be fine with me. I’m a great admirer of Barack Obama and a great admirer of Michelle Obama-

Misha Zelinsky:                  I’ll let you have both. It’s your barbecue, so you can have them both. Is there a last one?

Bonita Mersiades:           Last, and I would like to say but not least, but this is a really different reason, I think it’d be fascinating to meet one of the people who controls a lot of the world, especially a lot of the world in our language, and that’s Rupert Murdoch.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Certainly does.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Rupert Murdoch, a Russian politician, and the Obama’s. That’d be quite an interesting affair. Look, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks so much for being so open and honest and brave. Congratulations on your fight so far and appreciate it.

Bonita Mersiades:           Thank you.

 

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.

 

 

Elaine Pearson

Elaine Pearson is the Australian Director of Human Rights Watch.

As a graduate of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson school, Elaine is a global expert in human rights law and has worked all over world – including stints at the United Nations and various NGOs.

Elaine joined Misha Zelinsky for a fascinating chat about the intersection of democracy and human rights, the fate of Hakeem Al Arabi currently detained in Thailand, China’s use of hostage diplomacy and its muslim reeducation camps, whether autrocrats are winning the global PR battle and what role Australia has as a middle power in global diplomacy. 

 

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

Elaine Pearson:                  Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So, you’re the head of Human Rights Watch in Australia, so a lot of places we could start, but it seems a good place for us to start the conversation might be the news related to the young soccer player, Hakeem, who’s now been detained in Thailand. Maybe you could just give us a bit of background about that before we start to discuss it?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, sure. I mean Hakeem al-Araibi went on a belated honeymoon to Thailand in November with his wife. He’s originally from Bahrain. He got refugee status in Australia in 2017, and when he got off the plane in Thailand, he didn’t even make it to Bangkok, or anywhere, because a squad of police were waiting for him. And what had happened was that there was an Interpol red notice out for him, which was actually a massive screw up. Interpol should’ve never issued the red notice because he’s a refugee, but he was sentenced in absentia in Bahrain for a crime that he says that he didn’t commit, to 10 years in prison, for supposedly vandalizing a police station. So since that time, Bahrain has basically issued an extradition request. Interpol got rid of the red notice, because as I said, it should never have been issued. And he’s sitting now in Bangkok jail, awaiting, basically the trial for extradition proceedings to be carried out.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And of course he is a refugee in Australia, subsequent to the Arab Spring in Bahrain. And so he came to Australia when?

Elaine Pearson:                  He came to Australia in 2014.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right. And he’s a permanent resident, but not a citizen?

Elaine Pearson:                  He is a permanent resident. Actually, he was days away from being able to apply for his citizenship. And at the moment, there are moves underway to file those papers and make him a citizen, because we feel that that might strengthen his hand in dealing with the Thai authorities. But in any case, whether he’s a permanent resident or a citizen, he should be returned to Australia. He should not be returned to a country that he fled persecution from, and was found to be a refugee from.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So he was just days away from applying to be an Australian citizen?

Elaine Pearson:                  That’s right.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Wow, that’s really scary for him. So, a little bit about, why has this captured the attention of so much, so why is it such a big deal for someone to be arrested in an airport the way that he has, to be sent to face charges? I mean, is that something that you’d be worried about or is it not a big deal? I mean …

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, I think it’s a really shocking case, and I think it’s very scary for people who flee their home countries, think that they’re then safe in a country like Australia. He then subsequently spoke out against a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, who’s a president of the Asian Football Federation, and it’s because of his criticisms of the Bahrain government that he feels like he is being punished. That’s really what this is about, and that’s why this case, I think, will have really global ramifications, because it means that if he was sent back to Bahrain, anyone who’s been found to be a refugee who comes an authoritarian country, will have to think twice before taking holidays to third countries, because of the risk that something like this potentially could happen to them.

Elaine Pearson:                  As far as Thailand’s concern, unfortunately, Thailand has a really horrible track record of collaborating with countries like China, Bahrain, in the past, Cambodia, Vietnam, and basically sending back their citizens on the result of these extradition requests, and many cases, these people have been activists who, yes, may have been convicted on national security charges, but I think there’s very big concerns about how those people were convicted, and whether those people actually committed these crimes or whether these are people who were thrown in jail, basically for peaceful acts of free expression.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And what about Bahrain’s record in human rights? I mean, it’s not a country that’s really got strong rule of law despite their guarantees, as I understand it, coming from the leader of the country. It’s a place that if you had fled from it, you would have valid concerns, would that be right?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, yeah. I mean, Human Rights Watch has reported on the torture in Bahrain’s prisons. We issued a big report just a few years ago. There were five deaths in custody as a result of torture in, one year alone. So this is a country that has a really big problem with basically torturing dissidents, in order to get forced confessions out of them. So the claim by the Bahraini government that, we have an independent judiciary, he should just come back here and face charges. Look, in the last time that Thailand send someone back to Bahrain, the person was beaten so badly, before he even got off the plane at Bahrain’s airport, that he had to be hospitalized. So that’s why we’re so worried about the fate of Hakeem, if he was returned to Bahrain. And he says that he was tortured before, so we have no reason to believe that it would be any different this time, if he’s sent back.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And, one of the things I’m never clear about, I mean, I think you hear about Australian’s being detained, well what’s the role of the government here? Because we’ve got people … you’ve got similar emissaries like [Fozzy 00:05:03] going over there to intervene, and we’ve had the soccer unions getting involved, and the player’s association. What’s the role of the government here, because I think people think, well, the diplomats will come in and save it, but how easy is that? I mean, is that more difficult than it seems, once you actually been in custody in another country?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, it can be quite difficult. I mean, our government tends to adopt a sort of quiet diplomacy approach. Often when these cases come up, they’re dealt with very quietly, behind closed doors, with our government believing that that’s the best way of resolving these matters. But in this case it’s a bit different, and part of it is because there was a massive screw up on the part of the Australian Federal Police, who actually notified the Thai police about the Interpol red flag.

Misha Zelinsky:                  So that came from the AFP?

Elaine Pearson:                  That came from the AFP. I think it’s an automated systems, but in any case, they should have obviously checked his status and realized that he was a refugee. And I think because of the intense pressure from the media on this case, from FIFA, from the football groups, actually the Australian government has taken a much more robust and public stance, and I think that’s really important. But there are many other cases actually, where the Australian government is dealing with similar cases of people being wrongfully detained abroad, where they haven’t had such a strong response. I mean, there was James Ricketson, for instance, last year in Cambodia, he was eventually released but he was also someone who was tried and convicted on espionage charges, and unfortunately spent many months in a Cambodian prison.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, just before we act, because I’m keen to talk about some of the detainments, how is Hakeem? I mean, how is he coping? This would be a terribly … I mean, I can only imagine what he’s sort of fearing in terms of being in a Thai prison, in of itself. And then the prospect of being sent somewhere where you fled political persecution, I mean how is he doing, given the circumstances?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, he’s not doing that great. I mean, the conditions, as you can imagine in Bangkok jail, are not particularly good. He’s been a bit sick in recent weeks, he’s sharing a cell, I think, with about 35 other people. He’s also extremely worried about his wife. I’m in pretty much daily contact with his wife, who’s here in Australia, but you know, she’s also terrified about what’s going to happen to her husband, and she was with him when he was arrested, but has not been able to have direct communication with him since, because he’s not allowed to have telephone calls.

Elaine Pearson:                  So, they are now allowed to pass messages to one another, but obviously, he is extremely scared that he’s going to be sent back, and he’s really worried about spending the next few months in prison. The next court date is not until late April. April in Thailand is incredibly hot. I mean, it’s hot enough … I’ve lived in Bangkok, in an apartment without air conditioning. You can just imagine if you’re in a jail cell with 35 other people, how uncomfortable that is going to be. And clearly he shouldn’t be there. He should be back in Australia with his wife, and playing football with his team.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And, how hopeful are we that we can get a positive resolution for him?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, it’s unknown. I mean, I think the great thing about this case is there has been so much support and pressure coming from the Australian government, also from the international diplomatic community. They turned out in force at his extradition hearing, last week. But I think, in any case there’s big questions around, why the Thai government seems to be prioritizing and entertaining this extradition request from Bahrain, and why it would be prioritizing that relationship, over its relationship with Australia. Because clearly, Thailand and Australia also have a very long relationship.

Elaine Pearson:                  Australia has provided a lot of security training, development aid, over the years. Obviously, a lot of Australian tourists [crosstalk 00:08:52] Thailand every year. So, it makes you wonder what incentives the Bahraini government has offered, or why, basically, Thailand is doing this. The Thai government’s now saying, they put out a statement recently where they said, this is a matter between Australia and Bahrain, and Australia and Bahrain should sort it out, and we just want to win, win result for everyone, which obviously is kind of ridiculous, because there can’t be a win, win result. Someone’s going to have to lose here.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, that’s why effectively, you can only be in one country at a time. So-

Misha Zelinsky:                  Indeed. Well, I mean, keep up the good work and no doubt, I think a lot of Australian’s obviously sending a lot well wishes, but you talked a lot about the high profile this case has but of course there are other Australians being detained around the world. Is it getting increasingly dangerous to travel the world as an Australian, or any sort of citizen from a Western democracy, into perhaps places that are more autocratic? I mean, because there are a number that you can think of.

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, I mean I have to say it just somehow seem that way a little bit. I mean, in recent months there have been a number of these high profile cases. China in particular, there’s the case of the Australian writer, Yang, who was detained just a few weeks ago in China. Obviously, there’s been a number of Canadians, including some really high profile Canadians who’ve been detained in China. I don’t know if it’s actually increasing, but I guess in a globalized world, people are traveling more and more, and I think we are seeing authoritarian governments basically becoming more aggressive, in the stance that they’re taking. And particularly if they see people as potentially a threat to national security, because they’ve spoken out, that this is one way of, I guess, lashing out at those people. So I think, the people who are particularly at risk, are people who are dual citizens or who have come originally from authoritarian governments, and if they’re visiting that country again.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. So you’ve raised a Chinese example, and one of the things that people discussed, is the Chinese detainments of both the Canadians, and obviously the young Australian … Yang, the blogger, came hot on the back of a decisions made in relation to, Huawei’s banning from participation in telecommunication networks, in Australia and other countries, but also the arrest of the CFO of Huawei in Canada. That kind of sort of retribution, arguably from China, or and a payback of detainment of people, where they’re effectively holding people hostage, how concerned should we be about that?

Elaine Pearson:                  We should be very concerned about it. I mean, I think this kind of hostage diplomacy … I mean, in some sense, it’s not new tactics from China. We have seen them use these tactics before. There was the case of Stern Hu, which Australians might remember, an executive from Rio Tinto, who was detained I think for nine years, in China, over allegations of bribery and I think sharing state secrets. But while all of that was unfolding, obviously Rio Tinto was also having it’s issues with the Chinese government. But, now it seems like the Chinese government is becoming increasingly bold, and even more blatant, in the way that it’s going after people.

Elaine Pearson:                  And it is unusual, I think, that it has chosen to go after Yang at this point in time. We don’t really know why, but I think we’re very concerned that he’s someone that they’ve been saying is being held in residential detention. That doesn’t mean house arrest. That means he’s being held in an unauthorized place of detention, where sometimes quite frankly, the conditions can even be worse than in regular jails and prisons in China. And he could be held up to three months, in residential detention and that could be extended for another three months. So potentially, we’re looking at six months without him even having access to legal representation, family and friends, and so on.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Which is terrifying when you think about it. So, comparing and contrasting, because Hakeem, who’s currently detained, it’s a global story, national story set in Australia, but a global story because of the football component. You’ve got a situation with another Australian, in another country. Why is there so little attention, comparatively, and now of course it’s been reported, but not nearly to the extent as it captured public imagination, and are we doing enough as firstly, from a discourse point of view, but is the government doing enough, and why is it different when you can contrast Thailand and China, is it the countries involved, or something else?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, I guess Thailand is a lot more open, so obviously, people have been able to go to Thailand. Thailand’s media has a lot of foreign correspondents being able to report on Hakeem’s case. Foreign correspondents have actually been able to go to the jail and talk to Hakeem. Thailand hasn’t prevented that from happening. Whereas in China, we don’t even know exactly where it is that Yang is being held. There’s very little information, it’s very difficult for journalists that work in China to get information about this case. So they are different, I guess, in that way. But obviously, yes, I mean we think also the way to address these cases is to bring more pressure to bear on the Chinese government.

Elaine Pearson:                  And I think many governments, including Australia, have been very reluctant to criticize China about human rights abuses, about detentions of human rights lawyers in China, but also of our own citizens, of Australians, are precisely because the Chinese government has so much clout, and it’s so powerful. And so at the end of the day, I think that’s also a big reason why we haven’t seen the prime minister speaking publicly about letters that he’s written to the Chinese government, in the way that he has spoken publicly about letters that he’s written to the Thai government, on Hakeem’s case.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It does make you wonder, because I mean, I always think of Hillary Clinton’s off the record comments about arguing with China, that it’s hard to argue with your banker, given the debt situation and underwriting of the US economy. And for Australia perhaps it’s hard to argue with that best customer, and when you look at the trade relationship, but should the government be doing more, irrespective of … is it possible to ignore those kinds of realities, or did they have to be managed in that way? Because some people will say, well, there’s no real … words are bought in diplomacy, and you’ve got to sort of talk quietly, but is that beneficial in these situations, or is it better to, for lack of a better phrase, blow it up in the media?

Elaine Pearson:                  I don’t think a quiet diplomacy is enough. And look, quite frankly, until Hakeem’s case was blown up in the media, the Australian government had not been as responsive on this case. It was really the public attention that this case brought, the fact that football associations we’re getting so involved, that really upped the ante in terms of the Australian government’s response. But no, I mean I think, look, where, China is concerned, it’s not like a very strong robust, response from Australia will necessarily win Yang’s freedom, but I think the danger of not speaking out, is that China will become more and more emboldened, to take these actions, because there’s no repercussions. And so, I think it’s actually really important that Australia have a more robust policy of speaking up on human rights issues, so that it doesn’t come as a shock to the Chinese government when the Australian government does speak up in cases like this.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Good. You’ve actually just touched on the next thing I want to talk about, which is a human rights record in China. And, you’re right, we don’t talk about it much at all. So, one thing that I’d be … and I know Human Rights Watch has done some work in this area, about the situation related to the Uighurs in the Xingang province. Are you able to get a little bit of background about that, and then we can perhaps talk about that issue in a little more detail? Exactly what’s going on there, in respect to the camps?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah. I mean, the situation of Uighurs in China, has always been dire in some respects. They’re in a far western province of China. Uighurs and Turkic Muslims have always been somewhat viewed with suspicion, by the Chinese government, but the repression really has been turned up a notch in recent years with the establishment of these political reeducation camps. And so now you’re looking at a situation where you have more than a million people, according to the UN, detained in these political reeducation camps. These are arbitrary detentions, so there’s no court. You can’t protest your detention. You don’t know how long you will be there, and living life in the camps, it’s very militarized. They’re forced to sing Chinese songs, they’re forced to pledge their allegiance to the Chinese state, and it’s really about eradicating any sense of Muslim identity or Uighur identity, and effectively trying to brainwash these people to become loyal Chinese subjects.

Misha Zelinsky:                  I mean, that’s terrifying. I mean, a million people in a reeducation camp, to be forced to pledge allegiance and give up their religions. I mean, these are the sort of things we haven’t seen, globally, for a very, very long time. Why are we not talking about this? I mean, again, we’re talking, and we should be talking about one Australian detained, in a Thai prison, but a million people detained in reeducation camps in a large country, is really quite scary. So why isn’t that not anymore attention?

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, it’s a very good question, and I mean certainly, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty and a bunch of organizations, are really trying to up the profile of what’s happening, and try and get governments to address this issue. So at the moment, we just launched the campaign, we wanted the March session of the Human Rights Council, governments to issue a resolution which would force the Chinese government to allow a fact finding mission, to come to China to look at the situation in Xinjiang, particularly with regard to the political reeducation camps.

Elaine Pearson:                  The problem is because the Chinese government is also a member of the Human Rights Council, a lot of governments and it’s … it tends to retaliate against governments. Frankly, a lot of governments don’t want to take on China, and so they don’t want to support resolutions like this because they’re worried that the Chinese government will retaliate, financially. A lot of countries in the world, involved with the belt and road initiative, and frankly that’s been a very effective way for the Chinese government to buy the collaboration and complicity from a lot of governments.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Yeah. Just before we turn to that, because I think that’s really a fascinating topic, about Chinese assertiveness in the region. The other thing I’d love to get your take on, because you talked about Chinese, this urge to control its population. They’re very autocratic regime, obviously, very controlling of the media, but this latest thing, and maybe you could talk a little about this concept of social credit. And when I first read about it, the notion that you can … they’ll basically be scoring everyone for everything that they do. Jaywalking, whether or not you pay your bills on time, if you’re polite to people and then everyone has this score. It’s sort of almost like an Orwellian nightmare, or for your younger listeners, it’s something from a Black Mirror episode, and literally was an episode of Black Mirror. So, I mean-

Elaine Pearson:                  It was.

Misha Zelinsky:                  … Tell us a little bit about that because, that is legitimately scary.

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah. I mean, the social credit system has been rolled out in China over the last few years. I think they expect it to be fully operationalized by 2020, and it’s basically a big data system that collects a whole lot of information, and scoops it up. So it could be all sorts of things as to whether you parking fines, court orders, what kind of shopping you do, where you go out, who you’re associating with, what kinds of comments you’re making on social media. And it basically uses that information to give you a score, and it determines whether you are a trustworthy member of Chinese society, in which case you will be entitled to all sorts of benefits from the Chinese state.

Elaine Pearson:                  Or if you’re in the untrustworthy a category, then you might actually have trouble in booking flights, or booking a fast trains to get around. And you know, it also has repercussions in terms of your social credit score for applying for government jobs, or if you want to send your kids to a good government school. So it is extremely scary, that the Chinese government has embarked on the system. I think it’s part of the broader efforts of the Chinese government to have this mass surveillance state. And unfortunately, because China is becoming increasingly totalitarian, there’s no real way for Chinese citizens to really object to this, because if they do, they likely to bend themselves, find themselves in jail.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Or with a low score.

Elaine Pearson:                  Or low score, indeed.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, in terms of, so if the ability to protest these things internally in China is difficult, and we’ve seen in the past with Tiananmen Square, where attempts have been made, that the dissidents have been brutally crushed, but also the hunting down of people that blog online, or tweet online, and the great firewall of China, I mean so, it really falls to other countries to call out this sort of behavior. So, can you talk a little bit about the way that China tends to sort of bully it’s neighbors, or coerce its neighbors, into silence? And we’ve talked about trade and that kind of bilateral nature, but you know things like the BRI with diplomacy, where China lends money for projects of questionable value, and then when they can’t pay it back, they either take the asset or reach some sort of accommodative arrangement with you. I mean, how worried are you about that as an organization, when you look at human rights, globally, and in China?

Elaine Pearson:                  Oh yeah, I mean we’re extremely worried about it. I think we’re seeing that happen all over the Asia Pacific. I think now, Australia for many, was the biggest donor to Papa New Guinea, but now that’s been dwarfed by China. But most of the money that the Chinese government is giving to the PNG government, is not aid, it’s loans, and it’s for infrastructure projects. And so I think there are real questions about what happens when that money has to be repaid. But the fact that China has this ongoing, with so many different countries around the world, it means that it is also effectively able to buy the silence of these countries when it comes to raising human rights violations. So when we were talking a bit about Xinjiang, this is happening to a million Muslims, you would think that Muslim majority countries would be concerned about this, because this is happening to their brothers and sisters. And in China, they’re not even allowed to say Salaam alaikum anymore. They have to say nǐ hǎo, because if they say that, they might get sent to a political reeducation.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

Elaine Pearson:                  But we’re not seeing the criticism coming from these governments, because many of these governments are also indebted to China. I was just in Indonesia a few weeks ago to talk to the Indonesian government about this, because we saw the Indonesian government really show a bit of leadership on the Rohingya issue, ethnic Rohingyas and Muslims. And as you might remember, many of them had to flee to Bangladesh because of the Myanmar militaries mess campaign of rape, murder and arson. And in that case you saw countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, really taking a stand and calling on the Myanmar government for accountability. But, Myanmar and China, I guess, are two very different beasts, precisely because of China’s economic clout. And so actually it’s been much, much more difficult to get governments to speak up about what’s happening in China right now.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, thinking about the way that typically human rights has been led by liberal democracies, are you concerned about, and is the organization concerned about this sort of increasing divide where, so leaving aside China, but increasingly divided between countries that are democratic and countries that are either autocratic, or democratic in name only, we’re starting to see increasing divides emerge, when you look at the countries that have recognized the new president of Venezuela, they’ve tended to fall along the lines of countries that are broadly democratic, or countries that are broadly autocratic. What is the role of that, in the human rights discourse, and how important is democracy to civil liberty?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah look, I think that’s a great question. And I think democracy is really important to civil liberties. I don’t think you can have … it’s very hard to see how you could protect basic civil rights of free speech, freedom of association, free press, if you don’t have a democratic system or a way in which you can raise … basically call for your rights. I think we’re very concerned about the sort of sweeping populist, autocratic movement around the world, and I think we’re seeing democracies, even the established ones, are really fraying at the edges.

Elaine Pearson:                  And the rise of these populist leaders, they’re coming to power because I think they see the world as a complicated, difficult place. They were able to really tap into the fears of a lot of people, and they’re basically scapegoating minorities, and here it might be asylum seekers, in other places it’s migrants or Muslims. In other countries, it might be LGBTI people. And I think the other thing that they do is they really erode away the checks and balances that we need in place in order to defend our basic civil liberties. And so, it’s eroding away a free press, an independent judiciary, a vigorous civil society. And we’re seeing that happen all around the world.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And, so you just touched on media there, which I think is a really important one, because media model is collapsing of the exact same time we’re seeing these problems emerge. I mean, and then there’s a further complication, I think around sort of social media, and then you kind of got this post truth, this fake news phenomenon, so what’s real, what’s not? Do you find that it’s kind of almost like a propaganda, it’s like a almost an autocratic propaganda playground, because you can always contest what’s true and what isn’t, what’s real, what’s not, and increasingly it’s very difficult to source what actually is the case. And so, quality reporting from areas that are subject to human rights abuse is becoming increasingly difficult, if you can obtain it at all. Do you find that to be the case?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, I think it is becoming a bit of a propaganda war now, in some ways. And I think in the past, Human Rights Watch use to diligently do it’s reports, put its reports out there and then we would kind of think, well, the facts speak for themselves. But frankly, that’s not enough anymore. So it’s also about getting visuals. It’s about using video. It’s about effectively using social media to get your message out there, because otherwise, I think there’s also so many counter narratives around the world. But I also think, we are seeing that certain sources of information that are considered accurate, that are considered independent, are actually even more important in this world today, that’s being dominated by fake news and by spin.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Because there’s that saying which is, a lie gets around the world before truth even has time to get out of bed and put on his pants, or something – I probably butchered the quote, the quote. But that’s even more true now with social media and the way things can quickly be spread. I mean, do you think in this battle, are the autocrats winning this PR battle? I mean, I think increasing you look at polling and even in advanced democracies, in Australia, you taking the example where, young people had to be convinced that democracy is the best model, which is quite scary. I mean, do you think we’re winning or we’re losing this fight, in very broad terms?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, I mean it’s hard to say. I mean I think, look, working for human rights organization, you have to be an optimist. You can’t be a pessimists because we work on pretty depressing subjects. So, I mean I think the good thing … I think we were at a really low point, particularly after Trump won the US election, and I think at that point it did seem like, you know, all of these autocratic leaders, also in Europe, were basically coming to power and how we going to stop this? But that’s not true.

Elaine Pearson:                  I mean we have seen some positive stories in Malaysia, in the Maldives recently, where they’ve been able to oust authoritarian governments through having democratic elections. And even looking at the US midterms, I mean, I think that’s another example that gives us hope. But ultimately, it is up to people to vote for the type of leaders that they want. And I think, the Philippines is an extremely concerning example, where Duterte didn’t even hide about extrajudicial killings. He openly flaunted that he wanted to kill people who were involved in the drug trade, and-

Misha Zelinsky:                  He made it a virtue as a part of his platform-

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah. And unfortunately he maintained a lot of popular support, despite those positions. So, I think now we seeing, in the Philippines, some of the independent media that were really reporting quite strongly on the war on drugs, also facing a lot of problems from the Duterte government. So I think it’s a matter of being vigilant, everywhere. And I think it’s also about ensuring that the way in which we fight back against these autocratic governments, might be trying to get more people to come out and protest, getting people to understand the impact that this has on their rights, and I think we are starting to see that around the world. I mean, even in places like Poland, I think the fact that you had the judges protesting and saying, no, we’re still going to come to work, you can’t just dismiss us, was actually really moving. And in Hungary too, you’ve seen massive protests against Orban. So it’s not like people are just suddenly sitting back and accepting, suddenly, these more repressive governments.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That’s a really interesting point. And it’s good to hear some positive news sometimes, because we do often focus on the negative. But yeah, again, we’ve sort of talked a little about the contest between democracies and autocrats, and the old divide of … the old cold war divide, but what’s the role of values projection in foreign policy? Because, I mean we talk a lot about hard power, and things in a national security frame, about cyber security and military and alliances. But what’s the role of values projection in it, and also, how much is it dependent on western credibility, and has some of that eroded over time, that we can’t really talk about these things as confidently as we once did?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, I mean, I think there’s definitely some truth to that, that if you’re going to talk about respect for international law, and get other countries to agree to that, then you also need to apply those same principles at home. And we have seen basically hypocritical governments, from the US to Australia, on a number of these issues. But I think the role of values in diplomacy is incredibly important. And even if you read the foreign policy white paper that came out, it talks about the need for an international rules based order, and how Australia’s interests will best be protected in a region that respects the rule of law. Well, if you want a region that respects the rule of law, then it is about also promoting those values, because you’ve got the Chinese government at the other end, throwing all its cash around, in a lot of these countries in this region.

Elaine Pearson:                  And so I think, it is really important for democratic countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea. It’s not simply, I guess, the place of Western governments to be speaking out for these things, certainly at Human Rights Watch, we’ve been investing more in middle power countries, not just western countries, because we think that they’re really crucial to the global fight to press for human rights. So it depends, a really good case example, the Japanese government gives massive aid all around the region, yet never has really raised human rights concerns. It never comes with any conditionality attached. So we’ve certainly been working with a Japanese MPs, to talk about the importance of making sure, at least in the aid packages, that there is some human rights benchmarks, or human rights monitoring that they’re doing, and trying to get the Japanese government to be a little bit more outspoken on some rights issues.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Okay. So you mentioned Australia, so circling back to us again, which we sort of started, I think it’s a good time to talk about it. What is Australia’s role in maintaining … we’ve said, and it’s very clear that Australia benefits, middle size economy, we’re down at the bottom of the world. We benefit from a liberal rules based order. What’s our role in maintaining that? Do we have a role? I mean, how does a middle power navigate this sort of uncertain times, where there’s these sort of emerging tensions between titans, globally?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yeah, so look, I mean I think, it’s about standing up. Consider having a consistent principal position on human rights, and standing up for those values, and those principles, wherever they under threat. And this doesn’t mean megaphone diplomacy, or … I hate that term because the whole idea that you would shout at someone through a megaphone, obviously is never going to be effective.

Misha Zelinsky:                  We do it at the unions, but …

Elaine Pearson:                  But maybe not, maybe not in senior meetings between prime ministers and foreign ministers. And it doesn’t mean lecturing other countries, but it also means finding ways to support civil societies, support human rights defenders, to support the lawyers and people in those countries, who frankly are under attack for their views. And so it might be simple things like, you know, inviting them to embassy functions, providing support to organizations who really need that work to document human rights abuses. But I think it’s also calling governments out, when people are unfairly prosecuted, or when political prisoners go to jail, and showing governments that the Australian government cares about these values.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And so, I mean, I think Ozzie’s often wonder, when we look at the world, we think, do we really matter? We’ve got our alliances, and they kind of taking care of us and the world and we just sort of ride along. Does our opinion matter in this space? Are we seen as a serious player in the human rights space? I mean, how much should we care about this, and what’s our influence, in a realistic sense?

Elaine Pearson:                  Yes, it totally matters. I mean, I think particularly now, given that the traditional countries that spoke up very strongly about human rights, for better or for worse, the US and the UK, they’re pretty absent now. The US is completely absent on a Trump. The UK is totally preoccupied by Brexit. That leaves the EU. Canada has been pretty good, in raising these issues, but I think that really sort of opens the space for middle power countries like Australia, and particularly in the Asia Pacific region. I mean, Australia is a really important player. It has important trade and security relationships with a lot of these countries.

Elaine Pearson:                  It’s provided a lot of aid over the years, and so our voice does matter. But I think it’s not just about Australia speaking up on its own, it’s actually about Australia working in coalition with a bunch of other governments, and especially if you’re dealing with a very strong, powerful country like China, it’s not going to be effective if it’s just Australia raising its concerns on its own. But in a case like Yang, I think it’s effectively trying to get joint demarches by embassies, getting other embassies to also speak up, and speaking with a united voice on these issues.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Well, I think it’s been a really fascinating chatting, and we could talk all day about this, well I certainly could. I bore people to death with my podcast. But, so the last question I ask everybody, so Ozzie’s get asked … so the mirror version, but foreign guests get asked which Australians they’d invite to a barbecue, so three foreigners at a barbecue at Elaine Pearson’s house. Who are they, and why?

Elaine Pearson:                  Three foreigners at a barbecue? Well, I think I would have to say Kofi Annan, because yeah, I have long been a fan of Kofi Annan. But at the other end of the spectrum, I would probably love to have Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand Prime Minister there, and he had her insights as a young female leader of the country. And then, maybe because this is a podcast, Ira Glass, who does, “This American Life”, I just feel like I’ve listened to his voice for so many years, I would love to have him around for barbie.

Misha Zelinsky:                  Very good. A podcaster, a politician, and a diplomat. It would be a great time to be a fly on the wall there. I’d like to record that barbecue, it would be a very fascinating-

Elaine Pearson:                  Well, maybe I’d let you come along too.

Misha Zelinsky:                  It’s kind of implicit in the Diplomates title I’m coming, but no, thank you so much for joining us tonight. It’s been a fascinating chat. Appreciate it.

Elaine Pearson:                  Thanks, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:                  And we are done.