Luke de Pulford – The Human Rights Fight: China, Democracy and Global Responsibility

Luke de Pulford is a global human right mpaigner, particularly in the areas of modern slavery and human rights abuses in China

He is a co-founder of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and the creator of ‘Arise’ an anti-slavery charity.

Luke sits as a Commissioner on the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and advises the World Uyghur Congress. In 2020 he was awarded the Bene Merenti medal by Pope Francis for his contribution to the anti-slavery movement—the youngest ever recipient.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Luke for a chinwag about why human rights abuses matter to us all, the abuse of Uyghurs in China and what can be done, the fight for democracy in Hong Kong, why global coordination is more important than ever and how the democracies can prevail over autocracies in the long run.




Misha Zelinsky:

Luke, welcome to Diplomates. How are you mate?

Luke de Pulford:

I am very well indeed. Very pleased to be here. Thank you.

Misha Zelinsky:

And of course, we’re recording this via the magic of Zoom. You are in London, I believe?

Luke de Pulford:

I am indeed. It’s sunny West London today, the first time in at least two months. So-

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s very good. And well mate, look, what’s the place to start? But I thought we might start with, when we’ll go through some of the other things you’ve done throughout your really amazing career thus far. But we might start with perhaps the most high profile piece of work that you’ve got on the way at the moment, which is the IPAC, the International parliamentary Alliance on China. For those who don’t know, for those who aren’t super China watches, although a lot of my listeners are, can you maybe just explain what it is and then we might get into how and why you set it up?

Luke de Pulford:

Yeah. I mean the easiest way to describe it as an international and cross party group of backbench politicians that have just come together to try to reform their own countries approach to China Policy. In a nutshell, that’s what it is. And we started off with eight legislatures. I’m not saying parliaments because all countries, because they’re not all. We’ve got the EU as well, which is obviously across those lines. But it started off with eight and we’ve grown to 20 legislatures and over 200 members now from all political parties. And I mean, a very, very broad ideological spectrum. So that’s what IPAC is.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so how is it that you sort of a human rights campaign, how he ended up in this pretty interesting international space and why did you get involved?

Luke de Pulford:

It’s actually a great question because my training is not as a China analyst. I don’t really come at it from that angle. I come at it almost exclusively actually from the human rights angle which has led to the other stuff. So let me tell the story like this. I have been working in and around the UK parliament for the better part of 15 years now. And for that entire period, I’ve been working to try to defend persecuted minorities in various parts of the world. So for all of that period of time, there’s been some focus on persecuted minorities in China. That’s always been a motivating thing for me, not a great specialism, but a motivating thing for me. I did a lot on the persecution of Christians in China about a decade ago. Anyway, in about 2015, I had to do some work on something called the Modern Slavery Act.

Luke de Pulford:

I know you’ve had some recent legislation in Australia as well, molded along the same thing. Actually, your legislation is better than ours. But in 2015, I was quite involved in trying to make that act stronger and wanted to do more and modern slavery. I ended up founding a charity, which is actually my remunerated work and what takes up most of my time. And that’s an international charity that works in countries of origin from where people are trafficked and focuses on prevention. So we do work in Nigeria, Eastern Europe, Philippines, India, some other countries. Now, the more you get into this area of modern slavery and exploitation, the more you realize that there were just some massive elephants in the room. And it had been clear to me that whole period, I knew about the situation of Turkic minorities in Western China, or you guys and others.

Luke de Pulford:

I’d known about that for some time. I couldn’t understand why nobody in the anti-slavery community would ever speak about it. You’ve got all of these NGOs, you’ve got all of these governments. No one would ever say, “We reckon there are a million people in camps in Western China, is that not slavery? And then what about these forced labor transfer schemes that are happening all over their country? Tens of thousands of people being bused around, is that not slavery? What about this organ trafficking?” For those who don’t know, modern slavery and human trafficking, organ trafficking is just a category of that, falls under that category. Organ trafficking, there’s a lot of noise around that in China, a lot of disputed evidence, but a lot of noise. “Why does anyone ever talk about that?” So it led me to look into it more and to start to say to some of my colleagues, “Why is this massive enslaving nation here not ever spoken about as a perpetrator of human trafficking and modern slavery? This makes no sense.”

Luke de Pulford:

And this led me more and more into a position where I came to see the Chinese Communist Party, particularly as arguably the world’s biggest human rights abuser. But, and this is the crucial point, not just within their own boundaries, a human rights threat to the rest of the world as well. And we can unpack that a little bit more as we go on. But that led me to believe this something is got to be done about this. And we can’t do it merely from country to country where individual countries or individual politicians become sidelines, exposed, painted as extremists out there in the corner. Actually this ought to be a mainstream concern. And if the problem, if the thing preventing those people from speaking out is a lack of support, is a lack of international consensus, then that’s the problem that we need to try to confront.

Luke de Pulford:

So what we ended up doing is speaking to politicians, realizing all over the world, we were pushing on an open door. There’s so much concern about China. The biggest and the great sadness for me is that, that content is everywhere. It’s even in those belt and road countries where people are even less free to speak than they are in Western democracies. But those guys don’t feel able to get involved in IPAC, if you see what I mean. So we started building out the alliance from there developing its principles, making sure that it could hang together as a very diverse group. And that’s what we’ve been on ever since.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so I suppose one of the ways to judge the success of these types of ventures is how much you’ve gotten out of the scheme arm of the CCP. Now, my understanding is you’ve been named personally as a person colluding with Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong, who was obviously the owner of the Apple News outlet there and a very high profile person. Have you been personally targeted in other ways? I mean, what risks has this brought to you in sticking your neck out like this against an incredibly powerful globally forward projecting regime?

Luke de Pulford:

Well yeah. I mean, I’ve had for about 18 months some guy and I presume it’s a man in Hong Kong. I know he’s in Hong Kong because I traced in there who has created basically versions of my identity. Mainly spoofed email addresses, but other things as well, has written to a lot of people pretending to be me. He actually successfully resigned my Conservative Party membership, believe it or not. So he had gleaned enough information about me to go through the process to do that. I’ll be honest with you, I see it as a low level nuisance. People can overplay this stuff. It’s not a pleasant, I don’t care and I don’t see it as much of a threat. It bothers other people more than it bothers me. And what I have dealt with is extraordinarily low level compared to what some other people in this country have and elsewhere. Like the Uyghurs and Xi or the Hong Kong has over here, the intimidation that they’re going through is real.

Luke de Pulford:

I’ve just got some annoyance on the internet. So I don’t take it that seriously. But yeah, I think I’m on the radar. Not very high up on the radar, I don’t want to overblow it. I’m not particularly high-profile. I do a lot of the activity, I do a lot of the coordination. But they’re much more concerned with the figureheads. This is why you see them target Jimmy Lai in the way that they do. And it’s just association with Jimmy Lai that’s got me onto that list and the global times as occasionally had a pop. But it’s not at the level of many others, is what I want to say. So I don’t want to come across as pleading about how much of a tough time I have.

Luke de Pulford:

I’ve just got some idiot who sends emails in my name to colleagues, sometimes to family members, to my political party, and many others with what I hope would be transparently stupid emails. However, one of his email addresses was, and I’m not joking here, Now-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s not your email address?

Luke de Pulford:

No, that is not my email address. And the thing that was slightly annoying about it is that a lot of people responded to that believing I would have created that email address for myself. So that was the thing that was more upsetting than the intimidation itself.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I was going to say, made look as a labor guy. He might’ve been doing you a favor resigning you from the Conservative Party mate, but I certainly won’t make any comment about that now.Yeah.

Luke de Pulford:


Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I mean Luke, before we get into the specifics and I really want to dig into the specifics about human rights abuses in China by the CCP. What does success look like for the IPAC? Right? So obviously if you’ve got information being exchanged, and coordination between people concerned, and obviously I think a big focuses on it being bipartisan or nonpartisan, multi-partisan, I mean, in parliamentary democracies. But what does success look like in your role?

Luke de Pulford:

So that’d be honest that in two ways. IPAC really is primarily a campaigning organization in the sense that it tries to frame the debate. So in a superficial way, success for us would be governments, executives picking up on the stuff that we’re talking about, and that has happened. So one very good example, the revocation of extradition treaties with Hong Kong after the imposition of the national security law, that was an IPAC campaign. And the way that it worked, and it was a great affirmation of the whole model, was that we realized that this was an issue. We had an emergency meeting with a number of Hong Kong dissidents, and immediately these cross-party folk who’ve been selected for their ability to have influence within their own parties got to work. I mean, it was within 12 hours of that meeting that the Canadians had announced that they were going to revoke extradition treaty.

Luke de Pulford:

Why? Because is loved by his administration, and because Garnett, January was loved by his administration. And Garnett was able to say, “This is going to be a big party political headache unless as you move on it.” And he was saying, “We should be moving on it guys.” So it happened. And that set the tone, and we did something similar all over the world, including Australia. Now, that is a superficial way of saying these campaigns can work when they’re well deployed, strategically deployed in each jurisdiction. But there’s a more subtle way that IPAC is starting to bring about a sense of success which is that, in more exposed economies, economies which are more open to economic coercion like New Zealand and like some others. Before IPAC, there hadn’t been much of a skeptical corporates about China, and there isn’t that much anymore.

Luke de Pulford:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not overplaying it. But there are plans now for organ trafficking legislation in New Zealand that tries to deal with a problem in China, which were unthinkable before IPAC. So what’s happened there? What’s happened is that, what would have looked in New Zealand like very isolated backbenchers now has the implied credibility of a global network of very high profile politicians. And that bolsters their efforts in their countries, particularly for smaller nations for more exposed economies. So that is a big strategic thing for us as well, and where we’re going to do more and more of that. So you’ve got come two levels, say, you’ve got the campaign victories, and they’ve been some, and then you’ve got the building up of a broader movement that helps some of the smaller exposed nations. I think success is starting to look like that. The big answer to that though is that, overarching success is having G7 wide strategy on China and Alliance of Democracies moving together realizing just how perilous the threat posed by China is. And we’re a long way away from that.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I’m keen to get to that, but let’s let’s dig into the human rights piece that we’ve been dancing around. I mean, Luke, I think firstly, the most probably egregious and you’ve touched on a number. But I mean, the situation is Xinjiang with the Uighurs. I mean, perhaps firstly, a quick recap of what is happening, what are the reports that we know about what are the things that are being reported. And I suppose, how worried should we be and what responsibility do we have in democratic nations to act on this?

Luke de Pulford:

So a brief overview of I think where we are in terms of the evidence. We have a lot of credible evidence of mass extrajudicial detention, which I don’t think anybody disputes anymore of at least 1 million people at any one time. There is a credible evidence of forced labor, which affects many of our supply chains, many of our best known and best loved brands. You have credible reports of forced sterilization and birth prevention among ethnic groups, which again is not broadly disputed. And then you’ve got a whole load of stuff which we’re starting to hear about and is beginning to be corroborated that people aren’t really sure about. Things like family separation, we know that that’s happening but to what degree, it isn’t really known.

Luke de Pulford:

There’s a lot of speculation about those numbers, but we know that children are being taken away from their families and reeducated. We know that there are certainly cases of organ trafficking, how deeply they’re linked to the state. There is dispute about, although the China Tribunal in 2018 reporters, and it was pretty clear that a state sponsored forced organ harvesting in China. So taking those things as a broad picture, what you end up with is the consideration of whether or not these things taken together constitute crimes against humanity and/or genocide. And those things are international crimes with international definitions. So I mean, I guess where the question goes is, “How are they going to managing genocide?” And the reason-

Misha Zelinsky:

And so let [inaudible 00:14:54] that because I mean the definitions in this space are important, right? And that’s been evolving quite a bit in recent times. So can’t believe that.

Luke de Pulford:

They are hugely important. But the irritating thing is, it’s also a bit of a misnomer because them being international crimes, we will only ever know if China has committed genocide if there is a court judgment saying that they have. And the same for crimes against humanity. So everything that we’re dealing with now is speculative. So you’ll get a load of information, and a lawyer could produce a legal opinion. And the most damning conclusion that a lawyer could reach now is, “We think that there’s a good case that,” which is what they’ve done. So we had two very weighty legal opinions. One from Essex Court Chambers who were subsequently sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party, who produced a very weighty legal opinion. Which concluded that there was a very, very good case to be made that China had committed both crimes against humanity and genocide. On the basis that the grounds of the genocide convention and the grounds required the legal thresholds for crimes against humanity were clearly met.

Luke de Pulford:

And more importantly, that the intent was there. And this is the problem with genocide. It’s establishing intent is the problem. It’s an extremely high bar. It’s very rare. And for that reason, people shy away from it understandably. The problem, and allow me to digress ever so slightly on this. The problem with genocide is that we are bound not just to punish the thing. Signatory to the Genocide Convention are bound to prevent it as well. So you are bound to prevent and punish genocide. And it is not possible to prevent genocide if you are unable to use the word genocide without a court determination, without having prosecuted somebody. Genocide prosecutions, bear with me, take decades, decades. Everyone will be dead by the time anyone in China is prosecuted for genocide if and when they are.

Luke de Pulford:

So the question for us as democratic states, and this is the really difficult conundrum becomes, “When do you act to prevent a genocide according to your legal duties, your duties under the Genocide Convention, when do you act to prevent it?” My argument would be, if you have very weighty tomes from numerous, very diverse international sources saying that, “It seems as if the grounds for genocide the match. And it seems as if there is intent or at least some evidence of intent.” I believe that triggers our duty to prevent. And the problem is, we’re not doing any of that. So we’re hiding from it. People don’t like these duties. They don’t like the Genocide Convention. Like in the UK, our policy is not to use the word genocide at all until there is a court determination. Hence, we failed to use the word in association with what was happening to Yazidis and other religious minorities [inaudible 00:17:56] about the clearest and most obvious genocide and recent times in my view. Haven’t used it in relation to what’s happened to the Rohingya.

Luke de Pulford:

Didn’t use it back in Rwanda, didn’t use it around the time of [inaudible 00:18:06]. The UK has never succeeded in recognizing a genocide while one was ongoing. Why? Because of this policy, which requires everyone to be dead in order to act. So my big argument around it would be, “Guys, let’s not get too caught up in whether or not we believe that this legal threshold is met. What we have to do is say, “All right, are there reasonable, diverse, independent objective of analysts who believe there is a case that there may be genocide attacks taking place in that part of the country?”” Okay. And that case governments have a very, very strong duty to try to act to prevent. And that is the duty placed upon us by the Genocide Convention. And we’re failing in that duty right now.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so then what does action look like? So leaving aside this complexity around the relationship between the legal avenues and the politics. What is actual action look like? So let’s say we were to… And Luke, I mean, we know that the CCPs attitudes international judgments, the law of the sea, et cetera, with the South China Sea, annexations are pretty dubious. Anyway, what does action look like? What does meaningful intervention look like when dealing with this question of exploitation, the way you’ve described it the way it is?

Luke de Pulford:

Again, very difficult question to answer and the reason being that no one’s ever done it. So while you’ve had the US take a very different approach to the rest of the world. They’ve made political, what we would call political determinations of genocide, rather than legal ones. So the UK defers to the legal system. The US has happy to say, “We recognize genocide.” But because they have a different relationship to the Genocide Convention, it doesn’t lead on to the corresponding action that we might expect. So after the Yazidis, stuff happened, don’t get me wrong, but not in a way that we would have normally framed it. So let me answer it like this. The ICJ, so the International Court of Justice, Bosnia case was quite clear. It tried to probe this and say, “What are our country’s duties? What is actually triggered here when countries believe that a genocide might be developing.” It is very, very clear. It says that it has to use all available means to try to bring it to an end or reasonable available means.

Luke de Pulford:

And that’s a very, very broad gambit there like, “What does that mean?” Well, I would say what it doesn’t mean is deepening bilateral trade with that country, which is what the UK is currently doing. Dominic Raab on the one hand says they have industrial scale human rights abuses. Those are his words, that’s a quote. And then on the other hand, we find that we are reopening economic and financial dialogue and JETCO economic summit with them. That is not consistent. You can’t do that. That makes no sense. That is not consistent with our international obligations. So it doesn’t mean that. Well, it could well mean, all the way anything along this very, very long spectrum of possible bilateral and then multilateral actions, which start with, I think certainly reducing dependency move into punitive economic sanctions and then into multilateral action, multilateral sanctions.

Luke de Pulford:

And then there are a whole load of other actions that we’d never want to talk about and hope never got up to and including some degree of humanitarian intervention which I wouldn’t advocate and certainly, certainly not now. But that ought to be on the table and has been on the table in the past when people have been talking about mass atrocity crimes, okay? So not talking about China, but talking generally humanitarian intervention has been something which has been, generally speaking conceptually on the radar as-

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve got Bosnia for example in the ’90s.

Luke de Pulford:

Exactly. Yeah. So nuclear option very, very worst case scenario. This is something which has been on the radar for the international community, I wouldn’t advocate it for China. But you see what I mean? There’s a very broad spectrum. And right now I’d look at the international community and say, “Are you doing that stuff?” And the answer is a resounding, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, it sounds like you would probably advocate for things like tariffs on the cotton produce from Xinjiang, which is 85% of China’s cotton production comes from there. And an enormous amount of that obviously goes into global textile production. So the brands that we’re used to that that seems like an obvious place. I’m seeing more pressure coming in companies like that, like H&M for example, and Nike and others. But a little bit more of a specific example. There’s a lot to talk about the Winter Olympics coming up in Beijing. What’s the world’s obligation here in terms of boycotting it? I’m seeing it coming on the radar United States, Nancy Pelosi’s talked about partial boycott, which is essentially the fleets would go, but dignitaries wouldn’t. How do you see that given that, Olympic games, one are, a celebration of humanity and two are, arguably, opportunities for propaganda and global soft power projection?

Luke de Pulford:

So the Olympic games, part of the reason that they’re so resistant to any involvement or capitulating to pressure around human rights abuse is very reasonable. Having this global show of unity is important, and they’ve a long history of doing that. The Olympic truce is a very ancient thing. It was supposed to be a way of waring nations allowing people to get to the games back in ancient times. Olympic truce is very old. I think the argument around what’s happening in Western China is that, on this, let’s say sliding scale of abuses, some things are simply beyond the pale. And enabling a big international sporting event implies this credibility, impeach credibility to that nation that it does not deserve. And arguably makes the situation worse and imperils them.

Luke de Pulford:

So this is an argument I think now has real traction and can’t be denied. There’s a lot of opposition to an outright boycott. So IPAC is going to be doing something on this fairly soon. But even within this broad alliance of politicians, there is disagreement. There are people who wouldn’t wants to punish athletes who have spent four years training for something. It’s not their fault that the IOC has decided to do this and in Beijing. Why should they suffer? And you can see that there is a strong argument there. So some of us who are working on this same has started saying, “Well, why don’t we move the games, then it shouldn’t be there. There are lots of places that could put on a Winter Olympics and make short notice, what’s wrong with that?” And then the IOC said that they weren’t considering moving it.

Luke de Pulford:

So I think where it’s moving now is towards a diplomatic and commercial boycott, which is what Nancy Pelosi was talking about. And which I think enjoys pretty broad consensus. And I’d be surprised if that didn’t end up having major traction with executives. But I’d say this, in 1980, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and the response to that was the US trying to lead a boycott of the games which were Russia, well in Soviet Union. And that boycott had huge success. Some people have forgotten about this. Mohammed Ali went around the world trying to persuade nations to stay away, he was quite successful. And some of these videos were quite hilarious. He was sent by Jimmy Carter and he went knocking on doors in African nations saying, “Don’t go to the Olympics.”

Luke de Pulford:

So I would just say, people are looking upon this as some kind of a really awful thing. We’ve done it before, we did it with good reason before. It resulted an accountable boycott the next Olympic Games by the way, in 1984. So it was all a bit of a mess. But I would put the question pretty simply, “Is what the Soviets did to Afghanistan worse than what the Chinese government is doing to Turkic Muslims and other minorities in Northwest China.” My strong response to that would be, no. And if it is show me the evidence. Because I don’t understand why 2 million people in concentration camps isn’t bad enough for us to think again about legitimizing the state which is perpetrating it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, specifically talking about the state, the CCP, the party apparatus itself. One other area of I suppose, retaliation that democracies can impose have been broadly used against the Russians. But is this concept of the Magnitsky tiebacks were essentially sanctioned senior members of a regime for particular acts and prevent them from being able to travel or move money, et cetera. I mean, do you advocate for those types of things? I mean, that would be a bit more targeted way of dealing with some of these challenges, but of course brings enormous diplomatic risk.

Luke de Pulford:

Yes, I do. And you’re right. It does bring diplomatic risks. It’s quite funny actually, while we were pushing for the genocide amendment over here in the UK, which was a way of trying to get through this policy difficulty around genocide in the UK. Because there won’t ever be an international court case dealing with China because China will block it, but that’s a whole other point. But when we were dealing with that, I know that there were internal government conversations saying, “Should we just bring forward these Magnitsky sanctions?” And the response within government was, “That will be worse for us in this genocide of the member.” So you’re right. I think a huge diplomatic bounty is placed on the Magnitsky style approach. And that’s why I believe that they can be so valuable. But, and I’ve said this to Bill Browder and I don’t think he would disagree. “They are not a substitute for multi-lateral or binational action led by governments. And they can’t just be an excuse to get on with dealing with a perpetrating government, a government which has perpetrating human rights abuse because you’ve just singled out one of them.”

Luke de Pulford:

If we know anything about the Chinese Communist Party is that, these people don’t act unilaterally as if it was their idea to pursue genocidal policies in the Uighur region. I mean, come on, give me a break. The whole argument being made here is that this is a governmental approach. So for us to back Magnitsky and only Magnitsky and say, “Oh, well that gets us off the hook for pursuing proper bilateral sanctions or multilateral sanctions is a real cop-out.” And I think we need to be clear about that.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so one thing I’m sort of curious about, I mean, I talked about it a little bit you were very, I think, brave in the way you dismissed concerns. But you can see governments being afraid of taking on the might of the CCP, right? So how do we deal with this challenge where the CCP is very belligerent when it wants to be about punishing those who don’t acquiesce to the party line or be that Chinese nationals or diaspora living in Western nations or indeed governments like apparently in Australia. We’ve got an enormous trade sections being posed on Australia as a result of a number of foreign policy and domestic decisions we’ve made in protection of our own sovereignty. How do you stand up to that? I mean, is it that little bit of that strengthened numbers piece you talked about with New Zealand or are there other ways?

Luke de Pulford:

Yeah, I think there other are ways and your right to point it out. People forget very easily that, particularly members of the Chinese Communist Party abroad are subject to party discipline. They can’t just go about their day integrating into the society in a way that you would normally expect. And even those Chinese nationals who are not members of the CCP are still, I mean, countless examples of this, monitored for their behavior. So I’ll give you an example. I mean, just this week, we were talking to the master of Jesus College Cambridge about various things that have been happening there. Its controversial relationship between that college and China. Which they strongly dispute, but everybody else thinks that they got too cozy. Anyway, a deputy foreign minister at the Chinese embassy to the UK keeps turning up at their events. And basically intimidates people, puts provocative stuff in the chats on Zooms and it makes careful notes of who’s turning up and that kind of thing

Luke de Pulford:

In that situation, the presence of somebody like that is in direct conflict or tension with the whole notion of academic freedom, particularly for those students who don’t enjoy it. Can’t possibly enjoy any sense of academic freedom if they’re having people like that breathing down the neck. Now, the reason I raise that example is, it shows the depth of the Malays here and what has been, I think Western democracy is very much asleep on the watch while this kind of stuff has happened. The reason I don’t really like this narrative, and I speak from the perspective of somebody who politically is quite across the spectrum myself. One of the reasons that having me try to maintain IPAC has kind of worked.

Luke de Pulford:

I really hate this whole reds under the bed stuff. And I do not want to be a part of any initiative which promotes suspicion of people who look like they have Eastern or Southeast Asian heritage, which has become a big, big problem, particularly on coronavirus origins. So I hate this stuff, but at the same time feel that we have to recognize what is actually going on here. And we haven’t really found a vernacular and a way of doing that, which sufficiently separates out the party from people. And because it’s a very difficult thing to do. And the Chinese Communist Party itself is spending so much political capital and effort in conflating those things. The nationalistic narrative exists for that purpose. Whether or not hand chauvinism has struggled in the Chinese Communist Party or not is another question.

Luke de Pulford:

But the fact that there’s been a resurgence in it and that ethnic nationalism is unquestionable, and you see that playing out. So that puts us in a tough position, “What are we supposed to do in response to that?” Well, I think the first thing is that, if we’re going to act against foreign interference, and if we’re going to act to protect our critical infrastructure, but then also our institutions of national life, our academic framework and the rest of it. If we’re going to do all of that successfully, we have to do that in a way which bears responsibility for the possible consequences of those actions. So what I’ve been advocating for, and this is a long way of saying, we actually need to ensure that there is a very deep rooted anti-racism work that goes alongside of it. Unfortunately, that’s a position that we can put in by the Chinese Communist Party. But I would strongly argue for us seeing those things as going in parallel, it’s too much of a risk otherwise.

Misha Zelinsky:

And it is increasingly difficult because of the CCP claims agency and ownership and demands fealty from the entire Chinese diaspora around the world. And of course China’s communities are not monolithic, but it is difficult when the regime itself the blender to, as you touched on now it. We spend all the time talking about Xinjiang, but actually I want to talk about particularly region of China that is obviously closely line to United Kingdom, traditionally relating to Hong Kong. I mean, given everything that’s happened there in terms of the crushing of the democratic movement in Hong Kong and they’ve unfortunately accelerated under the cover of coronavirus. I mean, do you still think that the UK or the Commonwealth has a special responsibility in what is the role of the UK particularly, but also nations like Australia in either push you back and what’s happening there, offering safe haven to those that want to get out?

Luke de Pulford:

So the UK has particular responsibilities, not just because of the longstanding relationship through colonialism then afterwards. We negotiated the treaty, the Sino British Joint Declaration. And that treaty puts an obligation upon us to safeguard and to protect Hong Kong’s way of life and autonomy. So those are very strong obligations that are on us. Now, the UK believes that it has discharged those obligations through the BNO scheme. Which for those who don’t know the, British National Overseas Passport scheme. So this is complicated, but there was a category of British national in Hong Kong for a while. So they have passports. And what the UK has said is that, those people who are eligible for BNO status British National Overseas status can come and live in the UK, and they have a pathway to citizenship.

Luke de Pulford:

So in terms of it like an immigration scheme for the UK, it is extremely generous. But it does nothing to uphold the way of life and autonomy of the people of Hong Kong. Being rude about it, it’s basically a surrender tactic. And the UK hasn’t done anything the whole time to account for totally destroying that treaty. And here’s the key point, and this is why it affects Australia. That treaty isn’t just the custody of the UK. It was launched at the United Nations. So all of the nations of the United Nations should bear responsibility for its implementation.

Luke de Pulford:

There have been no efforts, the whole China to account for breaking that treaty at the UN. No one has done anything on that. So what I would say is that, “Yeah. Okay. So a lifeboat scheme better than nothing.” Of course, it is. And for democratic nations to come together and to almost share the load, because there’s quite a lot of people who want to leave. Between them, I think is a good thing, but the BNO scheme has big gaps as well. And Australia could be one of the nations filling those gaps. For example, the BNO scheme doesn’t apply to anybody born after 1997. That’s most of the people who are on the streets of Hong Kong protesting.

Misha Zelinsky:

So youth led movement. Yeah.

Luke de Pulford:

So who’s the scheme for in the UK? And who’s going to pick up the slack for those people? Where they’re going to go? Those questions have been posed and not in my view adequately answered yet. But the lifeboat scheme is basically accepting that Hong Kong has been destroyed by China. And the only way for the people there to live anything remotely akin to their previous lives is to leave. Well, not good enough. We’re running away from holding this nation accountable. And it’s our legal responsibility, Australia is too because they’re a part of this group of nations which is supposed to uphold and emboss the Sino British Joint Declaration. So yeah, there’s a responsibility not just UK and Commonwealth, but UN.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one of the things, and we’ve touched on it. One of the sort of talking points from the CCP when the issues of domestic human rights abuses in China are raised either they’re denied or they devolve into whataboutism, right? So they like to play our own somewhat dubious, obviously records in the west historically. Whether it be British colonialism or in Australia, it’s treatment of indigenous or White Australia policy. Or even recently in Germany saying to the Germans, “Well, you guys would know what genocide looks like,” right? So I suppose, how important is getting our own house in order, but then also, how do you ensure that these arguments don’t devolve into tit for tat whataboutism and actually still focus on the stamping out of the behavior that we have been discussing?

Luke de Pulford:

I think the answer is simple, logic really, and governments growing a pair being a bit brutal about it. But if their answer to, we’ve got human rights abuses is you had historic human rights abuses. Then the answer is just got to be logical. That’s irrelevant. That has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on your existing human rights abuses. And it certainly does not. It certainly doesn’t diminish your culpability. So actually Reinhard Butikofer, who’s an MEP co-chair for IPAC and an very senior green. But also the EU’s point personal on Chinese, sort of heads up whatever the the committee is there on China. And it’s great. He really knows China. His answers to this was really interesting.

Luke de Pulford:

He gave a quote that said, something along the lines of, “The Holocaust cannot be used as a political football for rhetorical gain. If you believe that invoking that is going to absolve you from your responsibilities, always going to somehow deflect from the fact that you still haven’t allowed in any kind of independent investigation into interest Xinjiang, you’re mistaken.” I think that’s the right line. I think we just have to be a bit firmer about it and brutally logical in saying, “It’s got nothing to do with it.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Zooming out a little. Yeah. I mean, we’ve talked about human rights, which is like a global universal principle. But they are constructs traditionally at least in the modern sense of democracies and liberal democracies. And so what we’re really seeing in many ways here is a contest between autocracies and democracies. And I suppose, the alliances you’re talking about are alliances indeed amongst democracies. You’ve discussed the putting in broadening these alliances and not necessarily in a cold war sense, but certainly nations with mutually aligned interests working together. But are you confident that democracies can prevail against autocracies? Because a lot of people when you look at arguably the way perhaps China’s handled COVID, versus perhaps more challenging way it’s been dealt within European Nations, United Kingdom and US. How do you see that challenge?

Luke de Pulford:

Well, I think democracies can and will prevail on the basis that the market based system is far more responsive to them. The free flow of information, the notion of trust and of relative independence from the government are really essential commercial tools. And when you remove those, it doesn’t work that well. I think for that reason alone, quite apart from the fact that people prefer freedom, is one of the reasons that even the so-called might of the Chinese Communist Party is no match for it. And you can see this, they’ve attempted to create their own financial centers outside of Hong Kong, and really struggled. Why? Because they lack the core ingredients for a successful market flow. It’s just, I can’t see it happening for them in a much broader sense.

Luke de Pulford:

And it’s why that they’ve taken the strategic tech they have in terms of expanding their power. Now I think things will probably get a little bit worse before they get better with the current situation. But they can’t continue forever. It’s a bit difficult thing to predict in the context of the CCP, just because it’s very closed and it’s messy. And my read of it is that, the decisions which are being made at the top level of the CCP strategic decisions, but especially diplomatic decisions, are more and more wrong-headed. Which is quite typical if you look at the history of authoritarianism quite typical of a pattern whereby the worst things seem to get the smaller the circle of advisors gets in the worst of mistakes. That’s where we are with the CCP right now. Now, I’m not predicting that the thing will die anytime soon. But it is not in a healthy place.

Misha Zelinsky:

And a lot of analysts say, when you look at the regime of Xi Jinping, a lot of it’s driven by paranoia. Firstly, the paranoia of how his family was removed originally, and then the way he was pushed right to the fringe. That he deeply understands what it is to be removed from power. And so that paranoia drives so much of the decision making. But what is interesting, not withstanding all the troubles we’ve seen in the United States for the last four years, that China has driven so many native its neighboring nations and nations around the world back into, I suppose, not the arms of the Americans, but certainly wanting to deepen alliances. Which is quite instructive really, when you look at the behaviors being counterproductive notwithstanding how concerning it is.

Luke de Pulford:

Yeah. Very much so. And I mean, the best example of this is fact that they managed to destroy, or at least put on ice their comprehensive investment agreement deal with the EU. Which Germany had pushed for like hell they pushed so hard for that. They couldn’t have pushed harder. They rammed it through at the last minute. And the European Parliament, we’re going to have to go along with it. Well, they’ve somehow managed to unite the entire European parliament against them who have just voted through resolution saying, “This thing isn’t going to happen until you lift the sanctions.” Well, I mean, that’s a profound act of self-harm from China, which can only have occurred within the context that you set out. So for those reasons and many more, it’s not going to be around forever. And I am one of those people who are not that backward about being forward about saying that that party regime is a bad thing and the sooner it’s gone the better.

Misha Zelinsky:

And do you hold out hope for… I mean, there was always this the thesis, China will get rich and then it will become democratic. And then a lot of people have subsequently… Some people hanging on to that thesis, but increasingly people are being persuaded by the behavior and the evidence. But do you believe, I mean, some people will also argue in that context that Asian societies or Confucian societies don’t want democracy or have no history of democracy. They’re more comfortable in more centralized governing or totalitarian type regimes. Do you accept that, firstly, and then do you think that democracy in China is possible?

Luke de Pulford:

Oh, it’s certainly possible. And that’s one of the reasons that Taiwan is so viciously hated because it’s a clear example. Now, I would with the conversation slightly different. I want to frame it slightly differently. If you look at the things that Xi Jinping said, it’s quite that, that tendency towards opening up and democracy, but also to human rights is not completely alien to the people of China. Some of the people who played a part in the draftsmanship of the Universal Declaration of Human Right were Chinese drafters. This is often forgotten about. So we need to be careful of playing too much into the narrative that there is a Confucian or ethnocentric value system, which is going to project something new upon the world which will bring about a more stable and successful civilization. Because that is just a part of that nationalistic narrative.

Luke de Pulford:

It’s not actually true. And the history of China is way more complex than that, with lots of different tracks strands of thinking. What I would say is that the human rights project, and this is why we have to wake up and smell the coffee. The Human Rights Project, the principles of universality around individual human dignity and everything that flows from those. They were tolerance, all of the principles that undergirds the Universal Declaration and then the Principle Human Rights Instruments of the UN, they were forged in the aftermath of the Holocaust because people didn’t want that to happen again. And they were very, very hard one. What we see now is a Chinese Communist Party, which wants to remake the hierarchy of rights. You very explicitly stated with economic and social rights at the top, and the sort of fundamental inalienable rights that we talk about, are which were supposed to be about the founding purposes of the whole bloody thing at further down the hierarchy subjugated to economic and social rights and security, that kind of stuff.

Luke de Pulford:

And rights to security, terrifying things, which through the lens through which they would justify what they’re doing in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Now, as Trump has retreated from the UN and a number of other nations, rather than engaging in realizing, “This is our common project, the genie’s out of the bottle here, and we’ve got to protect this thing. These custodian institutions for what we believe.” That vacuum has been filled by the CCP. And they are very successfully undermining that institution and changing into something else. We must not make the mistake of saying that the thing they’re trying to change it into is more compatible with Chinese people. I think that’s false. I think it is more compatible with a particular ideology pursued by this particular government, which wouldn’t have even been pursued 15, 20 years ago by Chinese government. So let’s be really careful and nuanced about that narrative I think. And distinguished as much as we possibly can, but also advocate for people waking up. Because use it or lose it, the UN it’s well on the way out.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I’m curious, I mean, you’ve talked about the UN, that you’ve still got hope for it or not to say it’s quixotic. But what we’re seeing more of, is what is so-called minilateralism where you see things like the quad where India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, or perhaps there’s talk of a D-10 where you have the democratic nations of the G7 there. Do you still favor going through the, I suppose, the core multilateral institutions not withstanding their dysfunction?

Luke de Pulford:

We need both, but we need to be very wary of creating lots of many UN 2.0, 3.0, 4.0. The reason being that the genius out of the bottle with the UN. We’ve created a huge multilateral institution with huge power and huge legitimacy. And if we retreat from that, it’ll just be remade in a slightly different image and an image which isn’t faithful to its founding purposes. That is what’s happening at the moment. So I wouldn’t say let’s not do these smaller things. I think we should, but we shouldn’t do them to the detriment of the UN. And we certainly shouldn’t let them be an excuse for a treat from the UN.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so just one last question before we get to the trademark final, a hokey question of this show. But we talked about, verifiable things out of Xinjiang about what’s happening there, but you’re someone that obviously is anchored. In fact. How do we promote… This challenge between, and again, it’s principally between authoritarian and totalitarian states, but it’s also exists within Western discourses about misinformation, counter narratives and the ability to discern what’s true and what is not. And COVID is a great example where China has been desperately trying to put out counter narratives about what’s happening. And you’re seeing even in Europe with Russian misinformation campaigns relating to vaccine hesitancy. How do we actually promote that? And how do we secure ourselves against misinformation campaigns in that sense?

Luke de Pulford:

Honestly, I think it’s extremely difficult. I don’t have the answers to it. And then it manifests in so many ways. So for example, right now there’s a bit of a row going on within the Uyghur community about a couple of testimonies that came out which are exaggerated. Now, apart from being a bit of a gift to the Chinese Communist Party, part of the problem is that, there’s this huge onus on journalists and the people reporting this stuff to do you do what they can in terms of verification. And it is extremely difficult for all reasons to tell the difference between, not just fact and fiction, but fact and then a little bit of embellishment. Which is often what you’re dealing with. Now, that’s just in microcosm a problem within the wider community. When you start talking about broader disinformation, like the kind of disinformation which has been pumped into Taiwan recently, how do you deal with that kind of thing?

Luke de Pulford:

I don’t think that we’ve got a very coherent plan for you all, to be honest. Luckily, I would say that right now from the stuff that I see, is not really sophisticated enough in the West to claim many hearts or minds. And you’ve probably seen this phenomenon with a load of Westerners who get paid money presumably, I don’t know where from. But it’s got to originate with the Chinese government somewhere to make apologetic videos about what’s happening in China and how great China is. I mean, it’s just not persuasive. It does not persuade anyone as far as I’m aware. And if it does, I’d be really surprised, and load of inflated viewing figures and likes. None of it’s particularly real, but it will get more sophisticated. So I’m not answering your question particularly well-

Misha Zelinsky:

And the Russians are much better at it than the CCP, right? They’re far more sophisticated in their PSYOPs. I mean, I’m not suggesting you have the answer, but I guess I’m more curious about how much does it undermine the work you do specifically. Because, as you said, you’ve got this challenge where you’re trying to verify things, but then actively being undermined at the same time. And when everything’s true, and I think it’s true. And that’s the aim, right? Of these regimes.

Luke de Pulford:

I would say, I don’t think it’s got to that level of sophistication certainly in the UK yet as far as I’ve seen. The bigger threat is the threat from within, which comes from people who have predicated their entire careers on being nice to China or this idea that China is going to open up. I’m not trying to say that these people, they’re not bad people. And there are a lot of people mainstream folk who believed that that would happen. The difficulty is that quite a number of people in positions of power now are really hit to that wagon, and they won’t let go. So they’re the people talking about the needs to have a more nuanced relationship with China, not to view everything through the prism of human rights, this kind of stuff.

Luke de Pulford:

You can’t have a bilateral relationship which is just about human rights. This is the argument they’re trying to mount now, and it’ll have some traction. And they’re more of a threat because what they do is, they absolve the UK or other nations from having to act. They give them a reason not to, and at the same time as diminishing the scale of the consent. So what you will find in the UK is that the guys who talk about nuance are also the most skeptical about the evidence. So I think different disinformation plays into that a little bit, for sure. But I actually believe that we harm ourselves way more than the disinformation campaigns are harming us.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well. And that’s a really great place too. I mean, I think you and I can talk about this for it a long time. But I’m going to have to let you get on with your day. But I can’t let you go without answering the textbook question I ask every guest here, which is the Diplomates barbecue question. Now, I’m sure you’re a little bit horrified at this prospect as a poem, but as a foreign guest, you have to invite three Ozzies. So three convicts from the Antipodes. So barbecue at Luke’s – who are they and why?

Luke de Pulford:

First of all, let me clarify it. Can they be dead?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. If that makes you happier than they can absolutely be dead, man.

Luke de Pulford:

So my first and this is very sincere because this is one of the people I admire most in Australian history. But not just in Australia history, but anywhere. I’m going to go with Saint Mary MacKillop. Now, I don’t know if this is a name that means much to you, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

It does actually. Yeah.

Luke de Pulford:

Incredible woman who founded the Joseph order. He was a bee in the bonnet of anybody who tried to hold her under authority. Remarkably entrepreneurial woman who gave her life to those who were suffering. I think she’s amazing. And the Ozzie should make more of a noise about her in my view. 19th century, Australian Saint canonized in 2010 when I was living in Rome. So yeah, I’m a fan. Now the next, I was joking about this. But I thought I know barbecue is complete without being an argument. And I would love to sit down this controversial guy, Jeff Robbie. You know this guy?

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, Yeah. Robbie, the former ambassador. Oh mate, you guys would get on like a house on fire. He’s a noted China dove if we can put it in those terms.

Luke de Pulford:

Absolutely. But I think I found it very interesting that when China was retaliating against Australia by imposing ridiculous tariffs on your wine, his white line of wine because he’s also an entrepreneur and has his own vineyards, was one of the lines that didn’t suffer. He unfortunately didn’t have very heavy tariffs placed upon him, and I leave it to any-

Misha Zelinsky:

And now its just a coincidence, mate. I’m sure those are just-

Luke de Pulford:

That’s the coincidence. But I quite like to have an argument with a guy-

Misha Zelinsky:

Maybe some wines, no doubt. But he can bring it.

Luke de Pulford:

Not some of his wine, I don’t think I’ve heard bad things. And then finally, this was a toss up between Nick Cavan and Kim Kitchen. But I’m going to at the risk of seeming as if I’m brown nosing one of my co-chairs. I just think Kim kitchen is a lovely person. And I’d love to have a barbecue with her, which I haven’t been able to do yet.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I know Kim very well. She’s a listener of the show. So I’m especially to go to thrill. But yeah, a senator and does a lot of good work and she’s actually been pushing one of important action around acknowledgement the atrocities occurring in Xinjiang. So you’ve got a site, a former ambassador such a wine entrepreneur and an Ozzy Labor Senator, mate. So it’s a good mix, no doubt.

Luke de Pulford:

Barbecues of mine are always a great laugh, as you can see.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, mate, Luke, thanks so much for coming on. Congratulations on all the work you’ve been doing to date and keep it up and we’ll hope to stay in touch.

Luke de Pulford:

Pleasure is all to me. Thank you very much.


Clare O’Neil: The Long View – Fixing Work, Tech and Politics

Clare O’Neil is the Labor Shadow Minister for Senior Australians and Aged Care Services.

A qualified lawyer with a background in business consulting, Clare is a Fulbright Scholar and a graduate from the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. 

Misha and Clare caught up for a chinwag about how we can make working work for people; why we need to rediscover class in our political discourse, Australia’s guest worker visa disaster, the short term obsessions undermining our policy making, bringing tech giants to heel and how we can improve the culture of our politics

Clare is also a fellow podcaster! Clare’s podcast The Long View focuses on long term policy challenges and recovering from COVID-19.

Follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook: @mishazelinsky @diplomatesshow


Misha Zelinsky:

All right. Clare O’Neil, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Clare O’Neil:

I’m so good, Misha. How are you doing?

Misha Zelinsky:

I am well. Thank you for joining us. Now, always plenty of places to start but as a fellow podcaster, I thought I’d give you the ultimate, easy dixer personal plug. Your podcast, The Long View. I was thinking about this was I was preparing the interview and I was thinking, well firstly, got to get the plug in for your podcast, podcaster to podcaster, but also, why did you select that title? And then secondly, you were podcasting throughout the COVID 2020, was there one big takeaway that you learned from all the interviews that you did of a lot of different eminent thinkers in Australia?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. Well, thanks for the free plug, for The Long View. Love a bit of Labor Party cross-promotion, Misha. This podcast I started really when we went into lockdown in Melbourne, and we were, as you know, in and out of lockdown for pretty much most of 2020. I had lots of time to be talking to people and thinking about things, which I don’t normally in my work as a member of parliament. I called the podcast The Long View really for two reasons.

Clare O’Neil:

I think the first is I have just an ongoing fundamental frustration with the obsession of Australian politics on the short term stuff that goes on. It is just amazing how much time and energy gets focused on whatever the micro political debate of the day is. I just don’t think that’s our job. I mean, it is part of our job. Of course, we’ve got to keep the government accountable and manage the issues of the day, but fundamentally we’re here to make sure that the best things about Australia are being delivered for the next generation.

Clare O’Neil:

And those are all questions that are about the long term, not what happens in politics today or tomorrow, but what we’re doing in one year, five years, 10 years. It’s that general interest, but also with COVID, I really noticed there was of course, obsessive focus of a lot of senior people on the pandemic. That was totally appropriate, and I just felt I could actually probably contribute to the conversation because I wasn’t involved in that actual emergency management of the health issue. I could help out a little bit by thinking about some of the issues that I thought were going to be different because of COVID in the long term. That was really where we got to.

Misha Zelinsky:

Was there one big, sort of like the big theme that you took away from all the different conversations that you had on it?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. There were so many. We had 17 hours of conversation with experts. One thing I would just say is I think coming out of COVID, there was a real temptation both on the right and the left of politics to be, “This is the moment that everyone realizes that we were right all along.” Like, all of our thinking about how we approach the world, and it became I think for some people, a little bit utopian that suddenly the public were going to emerge believing in a whole bunch of stuff they hadn’t believed before. I’m like you Misha, very pragmatic. I’m quite a centrist person, and I really [crosstalk 00:03:09]-

Misha Zelinsky:

Careful, careful. I’m a bleeding heart liberal. You’ll offend my listeners.

Clare O’Neil:

I mean, I am a bleeding heart, absolutely, but I also believe in representative politics and I believe in listening to my community and yeah. One of the things I just came out of that feeling is there is a huge reform opportunity coming from COVID. There’s no question about that. I don’t think though, you can label it as a progressive left reform opportunity. But there’s big stuff that can change here, and just one of the ones that I would throw into the mix which I think’s gotten almost no airplay when it deserves a huge amount of focus, is immigration.

Clare O’Neil:

We’ve got immigration on hold in this country for the first time really ever, and I mean, we had net negative migration flows for a brief period around the war, but this is a huge opportunity for us to actually stand back and say, “Is this serving our interests? Do we want immigration rates where they are? Do we want the mix of people coming in to be the way it was?” I think we’ve got to be real here. There’s real issues with our immigration system, why wouldn’t we take the chance now to rebuild that system from scratch?

Misha Zelinsky:

A fantastic point. I mean, we could do a whole show on immigration, but I think a lot of people would be shocked that there’s a lot of talk about the permanent number, is it 160,000? Is it 170,000? But when we were pre-COVID, that made up 10% of the overall migration intake which I think would shock a lot of people about how many workers we had and the temporary migration that the country had come to rely on.

Clare O’Neil:

Absolutely, Misha. It’s a very big change for Australia. That program was never designed to be a temporary worker scheme, which is in some ways what it’s become. We’ve always had an approach to immigration in Australia that’s been around permanency and citizenship because we’re this beautiful multicultural country because-

Misha Zelinsky:


Clare O’Neil:

… we welcome people in and they become Australian, and they’re our neighbors and they’re equal. But the way the immigration system works at the moment, it’s not like that. We had pre-COVID, almost a million people in the country who were not citizens, who didn’t have a clear pathway to citizenship, and who were here basically to work, and then they’d go home again. I don’t think that’s a good migration program for our country. I don’t think it’s consistent with our national values. That’s just one area where I feel like it’s not a right or a left issue, but there’s a clear space for a big conversation, and I would like us to have it.

Misha Zelinsky:

I completely agree. I think it’s one Labor should lean into. Now, speaking of, as you said, centrist pragmatism, it’s time to get my plug in. Now, obviously The Write Stuff. It’s been in the news. You were a contributor to it, so if you haven’t bought it, listeners, make sure you buy one copy and one for your friend. That way I will double my sales, but it was an attempt, we had 30 contributors from across the Labor movement, but also particularly the national right, the more perhaps moderate, pragmatic wing of the Labor movement.

Misha Zelinsky:

Your essay, I want to dig into your essay specifically. It’s a great essay. Obviously the best essay was my essay, but yours was the second best essay.

Clare O’Neil:

Second best, okay.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, but all jokes aside-

Clare O’Neil:

I think you say that to all your guests, but okay.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s exactly right. No, no, yours was a fantastic contribution, essentially about making work work, right?

Clare O’Neil:


Misha Zelinsky:

So, I’m kind of curious about what you meant by that, and why do you think work is no longer delivering for people in the way that it once did?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. Thanks, Misha. The Write Stuff really is a really great book and I want to congratulate you on it because you can get these collections of essays that don’t quite work, but this one was awesome. Like, really good thinking from really interesting people so I think it’s a good read and I would encourage everyone to buy it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Print that on a t-shirt, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. The essay I wrote for The Write Stuff was about work and so Misha, if we just roll back a bit, the purpose of our political party is about work really. It’s about how do we use work to share the prosperity of Australia with all Australians? And for a long time, that has been the ideal model for sharing the benefits of growth with ordinary people. But it’s not working anymore. Like, it is actually fundamentally broken, and for the Labor Party, this is a huge crisis because we need to basically rethink what our model is going to be for sharing the benefits of growth.

Clare O’Neil:

There is no point to economic growth unless ordinary people improve their quality of life. I’m sure you and I agree on that. My piece was really about what’s changed and why isn’t work working anymore? And what can we do to fix it?

Misha Zelinsky:

What would you say is the biggest problem? I mean, I completely agree with your analysis that it’s no longer delivering for people in terms of security, in terms of wages growth, and that pre-distributive element of the economy which is essentially taking up the tax system or how do people get ahead by having a good secure job with good wages. What are the pillars that have fallen apart there in your diagnosis?

Clare O’Neil:

If I can just describe it in one sentence it’s that we’ve had dramatic economic change over the past 40 years that hasn’t been partnered with sufficient other policy shifts to help Australians cope with what’s changed. If you just unpack that a little bit, the labor market today looks completely different to how it did when Bob Hawke was elected Prime Minister in 1983. One of the things we can see for example, is that incomes growth has gone really wonky and people who are working at the lower end of the labor market are getting no income growth at all, and people at the upper end are getting massive growth in income.

Clare O’Neil:

Just instantly we have a huge inequity problem that’s built into the labor market. The thing that’s also changing is the kind of places in the economy where jobs are growing is different. What we’re seeing is we’re getting lots of jobs growth for really high skill university educated people, we’re getting a lot of jobs growth for low skilled people who are generally really poorly paid and have really difficult conditions attached to their work, and those middle ring of jobs, and especially in manufacturing, area of major passion for you, they’re not growing fast enough or in some cases, actually going into decline.

Clare O’Neil:

We’re ending up with this labor market where you can either be, have lots of money and be rich, you can have not much and struggle all the time, and that middle rung is disappearing. And just a final thing I’ll just mention is the declining quality of jobs that basically has happened in particularly this last eight years of a Liberal government. Gig economy employs a million people today and their employment conditions are totally precarious. But even across the caring professions, which is an issue that predominately affects women, it is scandalous the way that some people are treated in the labor market. We’ve got a big job ahead of us when Labor’s next elected to government, to address some of these issues and make work work again.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I want to dig into that, because I think one of the big conversations people tend to obsess about, certainly for the last five years, maybe the last 10 years, is the future of work. Automation challenge, we’re not going to have jobs, are we going to need UBI? Et cetera. You and I have talked about this before, but I’m kind of curious to get your thoughts on the so-called jobless future and do we need to have all these new policies? Or, do you think it’s a little bit more simple? Because what you talked about there is splitting away of the reward elements of work and who gets rewarded and what work gets rewarded.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, my view, I personally have the view that the evidence supports that we don’t have a job creation problem. Jobs are being created. What we have is a conditions replacement problem, and what I mean by that is you live in a regional city, you lose your job at a factory, at a steelworks, at an oil refinery, you lose your job, it’s well paid, it’s probably earning six figures, and it’s secure work, it’s got leave, sick leave, holiday pay, et cetera. And suddenly you’re driving Uber with completely unregulated labor conditions, so you’ve got a job per se, but the conditions are nothing like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, are you someone that worries about that automation challenge, or do you see it more in that kind of how do we actually make people get rewarded for the work they’re doing in all those categories you listed?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. I mean, I absolutely agree with your analysis of that there, Misha. I think if we roll back around 10 years, that’s when there was a genuine frenzy, and these frenzies rise up and down over history if you look back, that there’s going to be a jobless future. And basically we’re all going to have to be on universal basic income and it’s just … The thing is, it just never plays out. We watch it, and technology destroys jobs and it also creates jobs.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Clare O’Neil:

The big issue-

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s funny, though, right? Sorry to cut across you. Blue collar people have been suffering from automation forever. Suddenly accountants are going to get automated, and everyone freaked out, right?

Clare O’Neil:


Misha Zelinsky:

Which was sort of amusing I suppose, if you’re a blue collar person, or representative of [crosstalk 00:12:14]-

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, they know all about it, don’t they?

Misha Zelinsky:


Clare O’Neil:

I think the big thing for us is firstly that the new jobs that are getting created are good jobs, a lot of them. But they require skills that the people that got displaced by robotics don’t have. And the second thing is that it’s gone along with this real push to devalue work for people who don’t have a lot of education. And so those two things combined mean that we end up with this labor market, where if you’re an IT guru, or a fancy lawyer, or any of those jobs, you are fine. This is not affecting you, but the impact on people who didn’t get to study much beyond high school in particular is acute. And we can see that really clearly, and we can see it not just in the economic figures, Misha, but in politics.

Clare O’Neil:

Like, the frustration that people have because this is like the biggest problem in their lives and they feel like people aren’t talking about it enough and representing them enough on these issues. Yeah, again, this is a problem that Labor’s going to solve, not the Liberals, so we do need a federal Labor government to come in and be a long term government that can actually structurally fix some of these problems.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I mean, you just touched on a couple of interesting areas there, and you’ve done work on this. I want to dig into this challenge of you’ve done a lot of analysis of how displacement has affected in particular blue collar men. What do you see that’s happening to that cohort in particular? Economically, but then also politically, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Oh yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Because you see it-

Clare O’Neil:

[crosstalk 00:13:50].

Misha Zelinsky:

… in the United States certainly, the biggest … Where you saw this shock of manufacturing losses and shock of job losses for blue collar communities and blue collar men, and that’s where the biggest support for Trumpism emerged, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yep. Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’re right that those two things are sort of correlated, but what is happening to that particular group of people?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, it’s a really good question. There’s weird sensitivities as well around talking about men and the issues they face at work, Misha. Because I think that the starting point for this conversation is in Australia, people probably don’t think about this much but we actually have a very gender defined labor market. There are jobs where women are really, really dominant, nursing, aged care, all caring professions, teaching, lots of other ones. There are jobs where men are really, really dominant, and the impact of that is that the experience of Australian men and women at work is actually quite different.

Clare O’Neil:

For women, the biggest issue they face is job quality and the fact that there’s a lot of women congregated in poorly paid professions where the conditions are not fair. That’s a problem that Labor’s talked about a lot and we need to solve. When you look at men, the situation’s quite different. The real problem for men is that there are structural changes happening to our economy that are leaving these jobs that used to be enough to support a family, and they’re just disappearing. So, it’s not just an economic crisis for a lot of men. It’s a cultural crisis as well, because a lot of men and a lot of communities still have this really strong attachment to a male breadwinner model of a family.

Clare O’Neil:

And in fact, I’m a feminist, but I just have to look at the facts. That is the dominant family structure for Australians. I think it’s really unfair to not have an open discussion about what that feels like for men who are raised to believe that their job is to provide for their family and then they get into a labor market where they find they actually can’t do that. But also just on the economic side, this is a real crisis and a lot of the blokes that you work with, Misha, in your union, they would see people around them losing jobs sometimes and as you say, not able to find a job that pays them well, that’s secure, on the other side of that.

Clare O’Neil:

When we look at the numbers, what we really see for men is for men who didn’t get the chance to study, their participation rates in work are actually plummeting. And it’s actually the numbers are quite scary. If you look at one of the things that frustrates me about the debate about men and work is that people put all men in the same bucket. It’s like there’s this kings of the world narrative, and if you’re a really highly educated man, you’re probably on average doing really, really well, and you’re actually in the best position in the labor market of any group of Australians.

Clare O’Neil:

But lots of Australian men don’t fit into that category, and even today 25% of Australian young men don’t finish high school. These are the men I’m talking about, and that’s like 40% of the men who are of working age in Australia today. I think we’ve really got to have a big think about some fundamental questions here. What are lower skilled men in Australia going to do in the future where robotics have displaced a lot of the jobs that they would traditionally have done? And a really important question for me is we’ve got a school system that doesn’t really provide proper support to young boys who are not academic, who are never going to go onto university and never follow that pathway.

Clare O’Neil:

I think we need to do a lot of thinking about how we can help those guys get set up in the skills system, get set up in a job that’s going to give them a fulfilling life, when a lot of them today are actually falling through the cracks.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a really interesting, obviously critical policy challenge, but politically, you talked about it before that perhaps there’s this frustration building in the community, particularly in the people that you just mentioned. One of the things I wrote about in The Write Stuff is we stopped talking about class, and I think as a result, when we talk about if it’s identity based on gender, for example, you say, “Okay, all men are the same and all women are the same.” We know that’s not true, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

A person who’s a cleaner, who he lives in a regional community, is not going to have much in common with an inner city banker, right? So, if we put people in that stream all together, it becomes very difficult to have a conversation. People don’t relate to it. How do you see that challenge from the Labor Party’s point of view, actually connecting in a way that people can build I suppose solidarity around their challenges?

Clare O’Neil:

I think it’s a really, really important point, Misha. In the Labor Party, class is always there. It’s always part of the discussion and it’s kind of a core thing for us, but if I look at the broader conversation about I don’t even know how you describe it, society and economy that’s happening outside of the party, I think it’s become a little bit dominated by people whose main focus is on gender, and it is on race. And those things are really important, don’t get me wrong, they’re super important, but there’s a blindness almost amongst that group to class.

Clare O’Neil:

The people that you and I care about most, I think, I can say this, they’re not on Twitter tweeting about whatever-

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:19:24].

Clare O’Neil:

… the issue of the day is. They’re in their communities, struggling, trying to make ends meet, and they’re actually not even … Can’t even access this conversation, nor would they really want to, that’s happening at this really highfalutin level. I just feel for myself, those are the people I represent in parliament. Because they don’t have a voice, and there’s a lot of people who are very loud in conversation who are I think missing some really important pieces.

Misha Zelinsky:

We can talk about that a lot, but we’ve obviously got to come to some other topics. I’d encourage people to read my chapter, to get my thoughts on this challenge, but one of the things … The elephant in the room in this challenge, right? There’s this automation challenge, there’s this sort of breakdown of work, there’s the skills challenge, but there’s also this big theme that’s happened, or this big policy wave of technology, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Misha Zelinsky:

Particularly around digital platforms. I want to get your take. I mean, we’ve had this big spat between the government and Facebook, particularly, over media regulations, et cetera. But I suppose question for me, who’s in charge here? Is Big Tech in charge or are governments? Have we been to enamored by the promises of Big Tech? For example, I think Uber for example, has deregulated industrial relations more than John Howard ever did with workforce. I think there’s a real challenge here for people such as yourself that are in parliament, who’s in charge? How do you see that challenge in amongst all the things we just discussed?

Clare O’Neil:

Yep. There was a real moment of technological utopianism coming into I reckon around 2000, that went up until about 2010. When it felt like big social problems were going to get solved by technology companies, and there was lots of exciting innovation, and we saw a different future, and that is not what’s transpired at all over the last decade. Instead, we’ve just seen these old school monopolies, we’ve had monopolies in economies for ever since there’s been free markets and they all behave the same. They’re big, mean bullies who destroy creativity and growth, they treat their employees badly if they can get away with it, and they don’t do it with consumers.

Clare O’Neil:

That’s just where we’ve ended up. I’m pretty focused on government retaking the reigns here, and so I think there’s some things we need to do. I think the best example of this is what’s happened in the US with Trump and the riots on the capitol and this sort of stuff. They’re talking about how we’re going to get misinformation off social media and all this sort of stuff. Still governments around the world defer to the social media companies to do the job. And I just reckon that’s bullshit. This is not the way this is going to work. I don’t want Mark Zuckerberg to decide who comes on his platform or not.

Clare O’Neil:

They are monopolists, they dominant and host the platforms that are hosting the majority of political conversation in Australia and overseas, and governments have a legitimate role to set the ground rules for how they operate. I think governments around the world have basically abdicated that responsibility over the last decade, and we need to take it back.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And I think that’s an interesting point, too, because there’s this Kool-Aid that gets drunk in San Francisco, this righteous of, “Well, everything we’re doing’s fantastic, and if we break something, that’s okay.” Now, breaking labor markets is being enormously challenging for not just Australia but all over the world, but then also smashing up of social discourse. This is unacceptable situation that we’re in now, and it’s not dissimilar to the environmental degradation that you saw during the industrial revolution. We saw enormous environmental exploitation, enormous exploitation of people and we said, “No, that’s now how it’s going to be,” right?

Clare O’Neil:


Misha Zelinsky:

The capitalists, at the time the industrialists, were told no. And I think we’ve kind of reached a similar point now, but a question I’ve got is can Australia, we certainly punch well above our weight, we’re a very important democracy in of ourselves, but globally, but can we stand up to these big platforms on our own, or do we need coordinated global action? Because it strikes me that to your point, there’s this element of, “Oh, we’ll self-regulate, but also tell us what we need to do and we need it to be globally uniform.” They kind of thrive on the fact that there’s a friction between various jurisdictions, et cetera. How do you see the challenge? Can we fix it here by ourselves or do we need coordinate [crosstalk 00:23:57]? Because coordinate our action, as you know-

Clare O’Neil:

It’s hard.

Misha Zelinsky:

… it’s extraordinarily [crosstalk 00:24:00].

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, it’s really hard. And look at what’s happened. The digital tax is the best example of that. It’s in some countries’ interest, it’s not in other countries’ interest, so it goes nowhere year after year. Great question. I think it’s got to be two strategies pursued alongside each other. The Australian government has been mainly through the ACCC, which did this thing called the Digital Platforms Inquiry, which was a big look at the competition power of the Big Tech companies and how we can address those issues.

Clare O’Neil:

It’s been a document that I know regulators all over the world have read, have looked at, and they’re actually watching some of the experiments we’re running here in Australia to see how this goes. The news bargaining code that just passed … It is about to pass the parliament, probably in the next week or two, members of parliament around the world are watching that to see how that goes. We’ve got a really important role here as an example set up, an experimenter, to show that this is some of the ways that we can think about handling these.

Clare O’Neil:

But in the end, I think global action for sure is going to be required, and that’s where this sort of interesting mix of diplomacy and technology is becoming really important. Some of the goals that we will have for tech companies will only be achieved when we’ve got global support and so yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised in future years, if our Foreign Minister spends a significant amount of time actually working on tech issues.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think there’s a case to remove anonymity from these social media platforms? For example, just you’d have a Twitter account and can only imagine the sort of abuse that comes your way after you post a tweet. I certainly get plenty. It tends not to be from anyone that puts their name to it. It tends to be from knucklehead486. I often wonder if you just removed the cowardice from it, people wouldn’t be prepared to say it in a room to a person’s face, I think if their name’s attached to it, they’re less likely to say things, as well. Do you think there’s anything in that?

Clare O’Neil:

I do, I do. I mean, I don’t know what the answer is. I think that’s got to be considered.

Misha Zelinsky:

I know, yeah.

Clare O’Neil:

I mean, I think the issues around the economic impact of these companies and child exploitation, there’s a bunch of things that are just absolutely clearly not acceptable, and those are the ones that I think regulation needs to focus on to start with. But Misha, something that’s just really, really important to me is the social impacts of all this, and we can’t allow our civil society to break down because of a bunch of tech billionaires-

Misha Zelinsky:


Clare O’Neil:

… say so. When you’re think about anonymity I think that’s really important. Maybe it sounds odd to raise this, but I’m doing this in my electorate at the moment where I bring together six or seven constituents at a time, and we just have a cup of coffee together. The respectful way that people treat each other, the kindness with which they deal with each other in person, it just makes me so happy. They have such different views and yet they listen, they give their opinion, and that to me is dialogue. Whatever’s happening on social media is the complete opposite of that, and so yeah, this is a thing that I really worry about, that there’s permanent changes happening around how we think about each other as human beings. That’s for me the biggest crisis of all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, no, I completely agree. There’s something about the way social media and interaction between politics, social media, and traditional media, and that tribalism that we’re seeing, or identity or whatever, right? I mean, you can cut it many different ways, but it’s really allowing people to other others. Once you start to dehumanize and say, “Oh look, I hate everyone who is X and everyone who is X is wrong,” there’s Mike Murphy who you may know, he’s a Republican strategist, he always says, “I’m right and you’re evil.” That’s where we’ve gotten to, right? Rather than, “I’m right, you’re wrong, we can respectfully disagree.” It’s good to see you’re doing things like that. I think we need to think about ways at scale that we can get people mixing.

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, I totally agree. I mean, I think about this as like Australians in different groups, little circles on a diagram, and there was all these overlaps in the past. Like, these things that brought people together. Their church communities, the union movement, their workplace, and just-

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:28:38].

Clare O’Neil:

… over time, we’re moving away further and further from one another, and having less and less as we see as having in common. I don’t think things are at a crisis here in Australia. We’re just a different country, but look at what’s happened to the US. That’s our cautionary tale. People are violent towards each other. Families can’t speak to each other because of political differences. And we never want to get there. So, it is a big concern.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s extraordinary, right? People now in the United States, in a country been troubled by all sorts of things, race, racial inequity, religious sectarianism, but people now, the number one thing that they don’t want people to marry into is the opposing political party.

Clare O’Neil:

I know. Scary.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just extraordinary.

Clare O’Neil:

So scary.

Misha Zelinsky:

Anyway, but yeah, we can certainly dive into that one for a long time, although we’ve probably already bored everyone with our musings. Well, at least I have. You’ve been very interesting. But I want to actually just … We’ve talked a lot about I suppose the problems with the business community in respect to its term of labor, et cetera, and how do we improve the standards of labor. But do you think the way we approach business more generally, particularly small business, I mean, is Labor getting this right? Have we got the tone right? Or, again, a little bit of us and them narrative. I’m someone that believes in collaborating, naturally, so you can’t always, sometimes you do have to have a fight.

Misha Zelinsky:

But I think I always say that there’s two key relationships in your life. Your spouse or your partner at home, and then your relationship with your employer at work. It sucks fighting with your partner at home, so why would you want to go to work and fight all the time, as well? Occasionally you’ve got to say, “Look, we’re going to have to have a serious discussion about this” but you don’t want to be in constant conflict. I don’t believe in a conflict narrative. It’s stressful to people, people don’t want that, and the evidence doesn’t support conflict. When you have collaboration, you have better economic outcomes. So, do you think we’re getting this right, this relationship, at a higher level? And specifically small business, and Labor’s approach to it?

Clare O’Neil:

I think we have a lot more in common with small business than people probably automatically recognize, and it is an issue for us. Because we’ve got to make that understood better. Partly because I mean, you made some really good arguments about the workplace impacts of that, but Misha also small business is increasingly a preferred way of operating for a lot of Australians. I mean, there are lots of people who are technically small business who are actually employees, and let’s just set that aside for a moment, because that’s an industrial relations problem that shouldn’t exist.

Clare O’Neil:

But there are lots of people who are working today who 50 years ago would have been members of your union, who are now small business operators. And those people have so much in common with the Labor Party, and I talk to these … I call them guys, because they are mostly men, but I talk to these men, they are desperate to vote Labor. They’re desperate to vote Labor. Their families voted Labor for generations. They say to me, “I feel like Labor’s making it hard for me to support the party.” When you hear that from people, obviously you sit up and take notice.

Clare O’Neil:

I do think we need to do a lot more, but there’s a lot of people … I mean, I think that’s an accepted truth in the Labor Party today and there’s a lot of people doing really good work on it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and I think that’s right because I think one of the difficulties we’ve had conceiving the relationship with small business, you say, if you’re a small business, we say, “You’re a boss.” And really small business owners, a lot of the time, they’re guys or girls with vans, tradie with a van. Is that really a business or is that a working class person busting their ass every day, right? Same with like a franchisee, they’re a small business, they’re essentially a price taker from the bigger franchise network, and they’re getting done over by big business. They’re getting done over by their landlord or they’re getting done over by the power relationship.

Misha Zelinsky:

Likewise with tradies, they’re probably getting done over by the big construction companies et cetera, they go belly up and phoenix or what have you. I agree with you, there’s got to be more natural cleavages. It’s interesting that you’re talking to people that want to vote Labor, but they can’t. Is there one thing that you would change policy wise to try to encourage them to step back into our fold?

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah, Misha, I think a lot of it is about … It’s about rhetoric, because they feel … I think some people feel perhaps alienated, that when we talk about business, perhaps they feel that all businesses are being treated the same, when as you point out, a man or a woman who has skills and drives a truck around servicing Coles and Woolies, for example, they’re a price taker and they’re in many ways share the concerns of an average employee.

Clare O’Neil:

But I also think in total fairness, Misha, I think sometimes they feel we are talking about fringe issues a little bit in politics too much. They actually want us to be focused on the basics of work, health, education, and when we talk about those things, I think many Australians immediately see that Labor’s focus is their interest. But when we talk about other issues, I think they start to feel like we’re not speaking for them, basically. And again, it comes back a little bit to class, perhaps.

Clare O’Neil:

What are the actual real concerns of working people today? If they’re not at the top of the agenda for Labor, every day of the week, then you and I are not doing our jobs well enough. I’m just drawing you into my orbit here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh okay. This is the FPLP’s [crosstalk 00:34:31] just an observer.

Clare O’Neil:

Our problem, is it?

Misha Zelinsky:


Clare O’Neil:

It is an ongoing issue in politics for every political party, to stay on the same page, and to stay focused on the issues that matter most to the people that vote for you, or you want to vote for you. It’s easy to get distracted, and I think for you and I who are centrists of the party and trying to desperately win Labor government again, because we know that working people in Australia need that, one of our jobs is to keep us on track. Work, what matters to families, health, education. These are the core issues that we really stand for and that’s what we need to be talking about as much as possible.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s interesting. I mean, one of the things, and certainly wouldn’t accuse you of it, or many of your colleagues, but it does exist certainly perhaps in the broader party, or the broader activists, and certainly to the left of us with the Greens, who them unhelpfully to my view, pollute the discourse for Labor with general public. I think there’s an element of cultural disconnect. There’s the kind of like I say there are a lot of people in the Labor Party, unfortunately, that don’t like the sport that working class people play, they don’t like where they live, they don’t like the jobs that they work in, they don’t like their religions, but they turn and say, “You know what? You’ve got to vote for us because we’re on your side.”

Misha Zelinsky:

I think people look at that and go, “Are you really?” I wonder, is the Labor Party becoming too narrow? We can’t be narrow, right? Got to get 51% at least of the vote, so if people look at it and don’t feel culturally aligned with us, I think that’s a big challenge. Do you see that at all, as a problem for us?

Clare O’Neil:

I think it has been, but I really believe that after that 2019 election loss, which was just so gutting to every Labor person around the country, that really caused a lot of people to actually stand back a bit and say, and just address that issue that you’re talking about there. For me, it’s a little bit rethinking for me who’s powerless in this society? Or, who has lots of power and who doesn’t have as much, and who I am there for?

Clare O’Neil:

It’s the people that don’t have as much power. And my focus all the time is continuously assessing what we’re saying and what we’re doing, and how does it sit with those people? It’s almost like a rethinking a little bit of representative politics and just enforcing this constant reference back to the people that we care about, and anything that we’re saying that doesn’t matter to them, it’s not that those things are objectively therefore not important, but I just think we need to keep our focus on what are we here for as a political party? It’s to share the great prosperity of Australia with every single person in our country, to get people out of poverty, to help working families live an actual existence, rather than just desperately make ends meet from week-to-week.

Clare O’Neil:

Those are the things we need to focus on, and I actually think that was a reckoning in 2019 election, and we actually have made some really big changes in thinking about how we do politics as a consequence. But what do you think? I mean, you’re a bit more outside looking in, very close to us all of course, but do you see a change?

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m the one asking the questions on this show. Showing your-

Clare O’Neil:

This is podcaster to podcaster, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

No look, I mean, I think people are alive to it in perhaps a way that … I think people are increasingly asking these questions. But I still worry that we still haven’t fully absorbed all the lessons. But I think people are asking the right questions about … And look, not to plug Write Stuff again, but if you look through that, you look about people asking questions about what’s our relationship with faith? Traditionally, certainly in New South Wales, Labor Party’s built on Catholicism, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Misha Zelinsky:

Working classes Catholics was the beginning, and then it was other second wave migrants, like my family, in terms of Greek, Russian Orthodox. So suddenly if you haven’t got a place for those people, it becomes difficult, right? I think increasingly those questions are being asked but I don’t know whether or not we’ve arrived at the answers. But conversations like this hopefully do help, but it is really great, Clare, I think to hear you talking about these issues and letting … I think the reflectiveness, I’ve certainly seen a lot of reflection in a lot of people in the broader movement, about what happened in 2019.

Misha Zelinsky:

We keep asking the right questions, hopefully we will arrive at those answers. But I don’t typically do this on the show, but sort of with you being on at this particular time, I wanted to ask you about parliamentary culture. I think whilst there’s been these shocking events detailed in the last week or so, these allegations that have come through, deeply troubling, I mean, as a woman leader in the parliament, in the community, what do you make of it? What should we make of this issue and does it speak to … You’ve already make public comments I’ll ask you to expand on, about what does this say about the culture of our politics, and then how can we fix it?

Clare O’Neil:

Well, this has been such a shocking incident to happen in the parliament. And there’s sex scandals in politics from time to time. Someone was raped in our workplace, and that’s just … If any member of parliament is not standing back and asking some really hard questions about how that happened, then they shouldn’t be working in this building. It’s a core issue that we need to focus on. And I guess what I’ve observed about the process here is that you go into a lot of workplaces, Misha, and the process is easy to talk about and it’s easy to fix. We can write down on a piece of paper how things are going to be different, and we can all agree that this is how things will go forward.

Clare O’Neil:

But the really difficult part of this is cultural issues that pervade how we do politics in this building. And unfortunately this building I think has not caught up with the 2020 Australian outside world, and I think it’s very male dominated, most of our political leaders are male, and the worst impacts are actually on our staff. Because even though there’s a lot of focus, in particular in the Labor Party, on how many female MPs there are, the staff are very vulnerable in this situation, in this building. And at a staffing level, the vast majority of senior positions are occupied by men.

Clare O’Neil:

And unfortunately it’s just left this really blokey culture and if there’s a blokey culture that’s not misogynistic, and leading to a situation where people can get sexually assaulted in their workplace, okay, fine. But this is clearly a problematically misogynist culture in the building. What I’m trying to get members of parliament to do is actually we drive the culture here. We are responsible. The thing that’s really annoyed me in the debate about this is people like the Prime Minister saying, “Oh, the culture in parliament’s terrible. It’s got to change.”

Clare O’Neil:

And he’s in charge of the culture in this building. What I really want to see is the leaders of our country standing up and saying, “I’m listening and I’m shocked and I know that I need to change and here’s how I’m going to behave differently to try to fix this problem.” But no one’s said that so far. Everyone’s pointed the finger at someone else and commissioning a new report or review every day to try to kick it down the road. I just think that’s how you manage a political issue, this is not a political issue. Someone allegedly committed a horrible crime in this building and apparently it wasn’t the first time. Can we just step back from the bullshit politics and actually really try to solve this problem? Because we can’t continue like this.

Misha Zelinsky:

How do you get lasting change? I completely agree with you. People say, “What’s culture?” Well, fundamentally it’s what standards people set, what they will accept and what they won’t accept, right? That’s it.

Clare O’Neil:


Misha Zelinsky:

It’s all culture really is. It’s kind of unspoken, but they’re the parameters that we learn or understand based on what we see around us. Previously there’s been this attempts at resetting the culture in parliament. There’s been unfortunately issues where there’s been suicide, and people have then said, “Oh, we need a new, better way of dealing with one another” and within a day … The example I read recently speaking on a condolence motion, Tony Abbott, when he was Health Minister, got up and said, “Oh, this is shocking. We need to be kinder to one another” and then the next day he was the first minister in 40 years to be tossed out of parliament for yelling abuse at his opposite. How do you get out of just falling back into those old habits? What actually can change it?

Clare O’Neil:

Well, I mean, I think the process stuff is going to be important, but the fundamental thing is people actually being real leaders and changing their behavior. And one of the things I’ve been a bit frustrated by in the parliament’s dealing of this is that this has been pushed into women’s laps, and the Prime Minister, he turns to women to redo these reports about culture and that sort of thing. I really feel that’s a little bit unfair, because sexual assault’s not a female problem.

Clare O’Neil:

Like, often the victim’s are women, but the perpetrators of this crime are by and large male, and I just think … Like, you’re a great guy Misha, and you are involved and in different environments, and I’m sure that you do the right thing when things get to a place that’s inappropriate when guys are there on their own and there’s no women around. I don’t think that’s happening enough in this building. There’s a lot of amazing guys that work here, who are doing so much to help women. But the prevailing culture isn’t that. It’s something else. I just want us to all actually work on this together and not see this as a female problem that women have somehow got to solve.

Clare O’Neil:

Because the problem isn’t women’s vulnerability, it’s that there’s people in this building who clearly feel entitled to commit a crime and face no accountability for it. The worst thing is this guy, who allegedly perpetrated this crime, basically the crime was covered up for almost two years by the people around him in the Prime Minister’s office. And so that just shows you everything you need to know. This is a system that protects people who, a man in this instance, who allegedly assaulted a woman. We need to do a lot more on it, and it is about individuals in the parliament, like cultural change it comes from the top. It’s got to be the most senior politicians in the country standing up and saying, “I’m not going to just call a bunch of reviews. I’m going to ask what I’ve done to allow this to happen and how I can fix it myself.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it’s incredibly well put and I think a lot for us to all collectively reflect on. I think that at the moment, I think people are really shocked, and hopefully this is a turning point.

Clare O’Neil:

I hope so, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, it’s a very heavy point for me to segue to what is the “fun” part of the show, as I like to call it. Everyone’s been on tenterhooks waiting for the patented barbecue question of Diplomates. So, Clare O’Neil’s barbecue, you’re an Australian guest, so you’ve got to pick three foreigners. Who are they and why?

Clare O’Neil:

Oh, right. Okay, great. All right, well I will go with Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris, and we need some levity. Maybe Bill Murray.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say-

Clare O’Neil:

I know who I would go for, actually. Kristen Wiig. The comedian. Or Tina Fey. So many options to choose from. Yeah, I’m going to go with Tina Fey. Angela Merkel, Kamala Harris, and Tina Fey.

Misha Zelinsky:

Tina Fey can do an impersonation of various other politicians, as well.

Clare O’Neil:

So we’d end up having many more people at our barbecue.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say, your first two were strong female political leaders, so you must work in politics. If I didn’t know any better. Is there any particular about those three that appeal?

Clare O’Neil:

Well, I think Angela Merkel is just truly an amazing human being. I mean, she’s amazing. There is no one-

Misha Zelinsky:

Hell of a leader.

Clare O’Neil:

… that’s done more to shape Europe in the last 30 years than her. I really like that she’s got her own leadership style and she doesn’t try to change herself. She’s a quiet, quite introverted person, who doesn’t … People say politics is show business for ugly people. Well, Angela Merkel’s totally rejected that. She’s just there to do her job and I just respect her so much and [crosstalk 00:47:47]-

Misha Zelinsky:

Very German in that sense, right?

Clare O’Neil:

Yes. Exactly. And Kamala, of course, such a cool person. And I’m really fascinated to just see where this goes with her as Vice President. It’s a huge thing to have her in that position, and I just think-

Misha Zelinsky:

She’s not just the first black woman, she’s also a migrant background, as well, right? Quite extraordinary story.

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah. Exactly. And apart from all of her achievements, she just seems like such a cool person to have at a barbecue. And Tina Fey I just love. I don’t know if anyone’s read Bossypants, Tina Fey’s autobiography, but it is just the funniest book. She’s just such a cool person.

Misha Zelinsky:

As I said, if she’s going to be there, she has to do her Sarah Palin impersonation [crosstalk 00:48:31].

Clare O’Neil:


Misha Zelinsky:

Well, anyway, Clare, it’s a sitting day so I’ll let you get back to your actual job, but look, thank you so much for joining us on the show. It’s been a fascinating chat and no doubt we’ll see you on our TV screens and on our podcasts in the very near future. Thank you so much.

Clare O’Neil:

Thanks, Misha. Thanks for having me on. Really appreciate it.

Misha Zelinsky:



Ambassador Frank Lavin: Winning Elections – Reagan, Bush, Trump and Election 2020

Ambassador Frank Lavin has been a fixture in Republican politics for the last 40 years.

He worked for President Reagan as his head of politics, advised President George H.W. Bush and under President George W Bush, he was appointed US Ambassador to Singapore in 2001.

A prolific author for global publications, Frank had a second career in Asian finance and is now CEO and founder of ‘Export Now’.

A prominent ‘Never Trumper’, he has been a vocal critic of the Donald Trump Administration.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Frank for a chinwag about Election 2020 and whether Trump can fight back and win, why elections are defined by what voters don’t want,  what made Ronald Reagan the politician of his era, how politics has changed for the worse today, the future of the Republican Party, the secret to winning Presidential races and what the rise of an authoritarian China means for the US, Australia and the world.

It’s a wide ranging chat.

We want to say that Frank absolutely wins the award of best BBQ answer in the history of the show!


Misha Zelinsky:
Frank, welcome to the show.

Frank Lavin:

Thanks. Thanks Misha, glad to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

And thank you so much for joining us on Diplomates this week. Now you are in Singapore for the audio tape?

Frank Lavin:

I am locked down in Singapore. My business is actually in Shanghai, but I bunk in Singapore because that’s where my wife works. And it so happened when the curtain came down on Coronavirus, I was locked down here, and here I’ve been for about the last six or seven months.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Right. It’s a tough time everywhere at the moment, and no doubt we’ll cover Corona. But there’s so many things I’d like to talk to you about in terms of your personal very long career in politics, but given that we are now very near to the US presidential election, and clearly that’s what everyone’s tuning in for, I thought we might start with the election. You wrote a piece recently, I thought we could start here, you wrote a piece recently saying, don’t really focus on what voters want, focus on what they don’t want. What did you mean by that? And what does that mean for the election?

Frank Lavin:

I think this is a global phenomenon. When we have a public discussion and we articulate our preferences, we typically do so in terms of upside and aspirations. Where do we want our country to go? What kind of political leadership do we want? So that’s typically the currency of public discussion. However, in decision making theory, it’s very different than that. It’s people vote their fears, they vote negative, they can identify the greatest threat or the greatest risk, and that’s what they vote against. And I don’t think it’s any coincidence to take examples from this cycle, Misha. I think we can make a pretty strong case that the rather crowded Democratic field this time, Joe Biden was the least flawed candidate. He was the person who you had a hard time voting against if you were a Democrat, but the other people all had different sort of flaws, personal flaws, ideological flaws, and so forth that made them weak and turned, I think, a lot of Democrats with them.

And I think also Kamala Harris of the candidates mentioned for running mate that she was the least flawed running mates. So they ended up with a package that is broadly acceptable to Democrats rank and file. But if you typically vote Democratic you’re going to be very comfortable voting for Biden and Harris.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so the state of the race, I mean, it’s been pretty set for some time now, polling, and I think as has a lot of people nervous because of what happened in 2016, but if you believe the polling, Biden’s ahead nationally considerably, he’s ahead in most of the battleground states and key states. Firstly, do you think that’s the state of the race? And then secondly, I mean, can Trump come from behind with only a number of weeks left?

Frank Lavin:

Yeah. And look, I think a race with an incumbent in it is overwhelmingly a referendum on that incumbent. So what the polls are telling us, and I do think they’re accurate, is voters would prefer someone other than Trump. But Trump has already sort of lost the job interview, he’s already failed the job interview. It’s not 100% clear if Biden’s passed the job interview, but they’ve already decided they don’t want to renew Trump’s lease for another four years. And no surprise that the poll numbers are stable, Trump is a known quantity and Biden is a known quantity. So it’s not as if you are going to discover something new about Donald Trump in the next 30 days that might change your mind. I think it’s going to tighten up a little bit. I think Trump has a better chance to improve his standing than Biden does, meaning I think Biden’s more or less at his ceiling of around 50%, but Trump is underperforming I think a bit at about 42%.

So I think Trump can go up a point or two, but I think he has trouble going beyond that. So I would still, subject to the one big question mark that’s left in these last six weeks, Misha, is the three presidential debates. So subject to something egregious taking place in those debates of normal performance, more or less a draw, I think Biden wins, and I think he ends up winning by about four points or so.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, the other big thing underway now, and it’s crazy to think of all the things that have happened in this term, we’ve had an impeachment, which seems it’s not going to be even a factor in this election though, whether or not it’s perhaps baked into Trump’s numbers. You’ve got the Supreme Court nomination situation, do you think the replacement of RBG, do you think this is going to be a factor or does it net out both sides? Is it a positive for the Democrats in the suburbs? How do you see that playing out as an election issue? And then we might even-

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, I’ll give you a political science answer, meaning I do think it nets out even in that passion on both sides is even. But I think that phenomenon plays to the advantage of the front runner because you’ve got a front runner, as you point out, is in a rather static position, six, eight points up, there’s only 42 days left, and if you’re going to eat up five or 10 of those days with Senate hearings, you’re absorbing the news. The insurgent or the underdog doesn’t have the opportunity to make his case. So if Biden can run out the clock a bit, I think that just helps him at the margin. It just takes Trump off message and it doesn’t help him close the gap at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we talked about the campaigns, and you’re a veteran of many Republican campaigns over a very long number of years … Debates, there’s always a lot of focus on them. Do you think they matter at all? And then like, I mean, what would you be looking for as a Republican strategist at the three debates? You sort of said if it’s a draw it won’t matter, but I suppose what makes a draw first? And then secondly, do they matter at all in the context of a long electoral cycle and campaign?

Frank Lavin:

I would score these debates, I think they do matter, but the metric … it’s easy to have the wrong metric. Meaning the wrong metric here is an academic debate scorecard where your typical academic debate, should Britain go ahead with Brexit or something, and it’s the Oxford society has this debate and the judges vote 82 to 77 that the highest side, the affirmative side won, that’s the wrong way of doing it.

Because look, somebody is going to do marginally better than the other person, on points, but what I’m saying is that aspect of the debate, I don’t think matters much. I think, look at debate as a threshold set of performance questions, meaning, did each candidate perform adequately? Did they perform to the moment? Were they more or less in their game, on their game, spoke to their constituency, spoke to the issue, stayed on message, were more or less disciplined and messaging, no egregious faults or failures.

If they basically do an adequate job, then it’s tied. It’s a wash, meaning I think Biden supporters simply want to be reassured that their candidate is okay, and Trump voters the same, but the stakes are a little higher for Biden. Trump has chosen over the last six months to make Biden’s age a bit of an issue. And so there’ll be some scrutiny on that point, but if you watched the Democratic primary debate, Biden did fine. Biden certainly passed any kind of threshold criteria. And if you watch, there’s a recent, they call these town hall meetings, recent sort of an open question format on, I think one of the networks are US ABC. And again, Biden did fine. It wasn’t … these are sort of man on the street questions. So they’re not exactly hardball questions. But he had no gaps, no gaffs, no … he did perfectly fine on these questions.

So I think the rap that he’s somehow drifting, or not up to it or not engaged, I don’t see any evidence of that. But God forbid, from the Biden perspective, if he loses his train of thought, or has a gap in something, he will pay a price for that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think those … somewhat ironic, but do you think that perhaps Trump has mis-played this in that he’s lowered the threshold of success for Biden? He’s managed his expectations down so much that if Joe turns up and is basically coherent, to your point, that’s a tick?

Frank Lavin:

I think you’re right. And I think also, there’s an element of Biden’s stage presence that has a bit of charm to it. Meaning, the guy is loquacious. But that’s very different than saying he’s senile. I mean the guy over talks issues, and he has odd verbal tics, like a lot of people in public life , so he’ll use a phrase, stock phrase, like “Come on, man,” to enforce a point, which you could says is rhetorically weak. But it has a certain amount of every-man charm to it. Right? It’s not pretentious, he’s not quoting Latin, and he is an authentic person. He is a man of the streets. So I think rapping him for that doesn’t help Trump.

He also uses the invective at the end of some sentences, “I’m serious,” which again is a painfully weak rhetorical device. But it is authentic, it is Joe Biden. If you don’t believe this guy is the major party nominee, front runner for President, that he’s serious when he makes a point, there’s nothing … the least effective way of convincing you he’s serious is to say “I’m serious.” So he’s not a rhetorical master. But again, there’s a certain charm in the every day unpretentiousness of his approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

So stepping out to the campaigns more generally, how do you see campaigning today as being different to the way campaigns have been traditionally run? Is there a difference? One of the big things people talk about is that so much is focused now on turning out your own vote, turning out your base vote, rather than persuasion of undecided voters. But how do you see campaigns today compared to the way they’ve been run over the last …

Frank Lavin:

There’s been a few shifts in my short political life, but over the last few decades, one shift has been the prevalence of digital communications. It means we’re rewarding depth rather than breadth. We’re rewarding people who might own an issue or a segment of the issue, rather than rewarding someone who can get 51%. So pugnacity is important. You’ve got the most cluttered media environment in the world, and you have to break through that. So there’s always a temptation to say something outrageous, or be outrageous.

Trump is a very good example of that. I think he’d say, if you asked Trump “What are the rules of communication?” He’d say “Rule number one is, never be dull.” And boy, Trump owns that segment of the population of people.

Misha Zelinsky:

He doesn’t breach that rule.

Frank Lavin:

Right. And there’s a certain segment, call it the WWF segment, that says I can’t necessarily follow the issues or follow the policies, but I can tell who the most combative person is. And I warm to that person. And I think I want a fighter, so the person who uses the toughest rhetoric has my vote. By the way, I think you pay a price for that in all sorts of ways as well, but you can see that Trump captures some advantage out of tone and temperament. So there’s been a drift toward that kind of fragmentation of the market, there’s been a reward toward pugnacity, and on the same token I’d say with some regret, there’s been a real shift away from management expertise. That we want someone that can actually run a government program, or run a solution, or find the best way. So if we have problems with high school dropouts, we want someone who’s the most emotional about that issue, and not the who says “I have a seven point plan to reduce high school dropouts,” “Here’s some ideas that will work to reduce high school dropouts.”

So there’s been a real deterioration in the dynamic for somebody who’s got management expertise, and I’d say on the same token, it seems every single cycle we strip out the one remaining element of the process that would reward some time of political leadership to say … make it have some elements of a parliamentary system. The last time that was done was Democrats stripped out, largely, the value of the so-called super-delegates, where they had somewhat of a parliamentary element to their process, where they said “We’re going to let sitting members of Congress and Governors and Senators each have a vote,” and then they said later “No, we were just sort of kidding about that. We don’t want that.” And that was a concession that Hillary Clinton had to make to the Bernie Sanders group. Because obviously those people would look at Bernie Sanders as the answer and he said for his loyalty you have to dilute that group’s power.

So we’re in to a point now where it’s pure vote, with no intermediary institution or individual. So that rewards that emotional content, that rewards that communication skill, and it really de-values both management and leadership or resume. It’s very interesting to me that the last two presidents, Trump and Obama, were two presidents that had very strong communication skills. Both of them love the rally format, large-scale, large mass, very strong emotional connectivity with the base. And neither of them ran on the basis of a government record. Presumably, Obama’s the only one who could have, but he’d been in the Senate for two years. There was no Obama bill, no Obama history, and he knew that. He knew that. He said “What I can do better than anybody else is communicate, and form that emotional bond.” And he did that very effectively.

So we’re in an era now where that sort of populism dominates the process, and saying “I am the master of the Senate, I’m Lyndon Johnson, and I orchestrated 40 pieces of legislation and I’m moving America a certain way,” we said that doesn’t really matter anymore. Or doesn’t matter the way it used to. So that’s a huge shift in the electorate behavior in the last few decades.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s interesting, isn’t it, because when you look at the Democratic primary, the governors, who all have presumably good government experience … who’ve got records … have not done well at all. And they didn’t even get through to Iowa. Whereas you look back to Bill Clinton in ’92, he was Governor of Arkansas and that was a good base for him to campaign. So interesting point you raise. But also, do you think that the lack of gatekeepers in major parties is a problem now? The so-called smoky back rooms, in terms of …

Frank Lavin:

I think we’d be better off with them playing some kind of role. There should be some median where … look, I’m fundamentally, I believe in democracy. So you want the voters to elect delegates, the delegates to elect … but I thought the idea of super-delegates or something like that made a lot of sense. To say “Look, this person who’s a member of Congress or Senator, Governor, has some awareness of the system and some capability to add to the conversation.” So I wouldn’t just simply discount that to zero. So I think that’s the happy medium, that voters can directly elect any delegate they want for any reason they want. But the incumbent members, those few hundred other people, are going to have their say as well. So then you have a bi-cameral process. A little bit like the UK labor party, right? Where they have direct membership, and they also have union leadership vote … different constituencies have different rights within the UK labor party.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right. Australia as well, it’s the leadership of the labor party is now decided by 50% vote of the rank and file membership, 50% by the union caucus. The colleagues of the candidates. And they know them best, presumably, right? So they know what they’re like.

Frank Lavin:

But that’s a members constituency, what you just described?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right. So it’s like 50/50 college, so members of the labor party get a vote directly and then the other half of the vote is made up of people that are in the federal parliamentary caucus, along with the candidates.

Frank Lavin:

Right. Good. Well look, it’s not for me to tell Australia what to do, but I’d say that’s some kind of balance, that lets leadership play a role, but also rank and file of the man on the street play a role, would be helpful. And interestingly, of the leading candidates this cycle, two of them were not members of the party in any meaningful sense. Meaning Bernie Sanders was never a Democrat, and Donald Trump was never a Republican. So it’s extraordinary to me, you can sort of walk in off the street and through self-declaration just say “This looks interesting to me, why don’t I lead this party?” And to say “My, that’s a rather elastic political structure if somebody can just knock on the door.”

Biden, to his credit, has been a registered Democrat, active Democrat, for 40, 50 years. So that’s a much more traditional biography of the people we used to nominate.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s essentially been a hostile takeover of the Republican party by Trump, and an attempted one by Sanders, and you’re right, I often remark to people that friends of mine that are Sanders people, who say “The Democratic party was very unfair to Bernie,” I say “Well, he’s not a member.” So you can understand there might be some hostility from an organization that someone is not a member of, to being colonized by. But that’s just an observation.

Now going right back … I want to zero in now on your experience. And we’ve talked a lot about the Republican party, you were of course Ronald Reagan’s political director. Way back with a legendary Republican president, sort of the beginning of the modern era in many ways … before we get into your experiences, what was Ronald Reagan like, as a person? And a man, and a President? I’m kind of curious for your take on that.

Frank Lavin:

Well, if I had to pick one word I’d say “Genial.” Meaning, I think an element of leadership is to project an amiability, and to be open to anybody’s opinions, questions, and to say “Look, it’s a world of opinions. Everybody’s got an opinion, everybody wants a hearing.” They view the President as some sort of Supreme-Court-type figure that they say “I want this, I’ve got this injustice, I’ve got this problem you need to fix, you need to help us.” So you need to have that in your mind when you take the job, that you’re going to have a lot of people knocking on the door, and coming in. And you better be able to treat them with respect and with kindness, and give everybody a good hearing.

So he was extremely good with that. And I suspect that came with a long history in movies, TV, and radio, where again, you’re a public figure. And Americans are just unabashed about approaching people and saying to Ronald Reagan the actor, “My cat just died, and I had named him Ronald after you. I’d like you to come to my cat’s funeral.” But Americans will say things like that, and you have to be able to say something gracious and polite to that person, and not “Get out of my way, you lunatic.” So Reagan was very, very good at offering empathy and trying to be compassionate with somebody, and trying to give the person the time of day and make sure the person is taken care of.

And he was a great guy to work with, as well. No static, no sharp elbows, I think he also, just as a human being, as a manager … you know, if you have all the power in the world you can be gracious. You can be kind. And the saying of the 1980s was, of all the different kind of people who end up in the West Wing, some of them quite difficult personalities, the two nicest people in the West Wing were Ronald Reagan and George Bush. And they were both old-school gentlemen, who were very … great guys to work with. And you could say anything to them, they’d respond. Very approachable. So I enjoyed that time with Reagan and with Bush.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about Reagan and Bush. A lot of people talk today, they talk about President Trump and essentially he can’t take bad advice … and essentially anyone who stood up to him or had a different view has been run out of the White House. How did the White Houses operate under Presidents Reagan and Bush, and how would you give advice to the President, that might be contrary to what they’re thinking at the time?

Frank Lavin:

But that happens regularly in a professionally-managed organization, you set a tone from the top that we’re trying to go in a certain direction, trying to go in a certain path, but we want to hear about the trade offs, we want to hear about the cost, we want to hear about alternative paths. And that’s part of the policy process. And that’s why you have the … I was on the National Security Council staff, but that’s why you have that NSC process. To say “We’re all concerned about problem X, and there are three or four options in front of us, let’s look at the costs and benefits of these different approaches, and have a thoughtful discussion.”

So there was never a climate of hostility or stigmatizing the outlier. You wanted to make sure you always heard the outlier. So I said any … let’s make sure around the table that there’s at least one negative voice there, so we fully understand what might go wrong, and we don’t get into an odd kind of cheerleading dynamic of … we run cheering down some path, again we’re just reinforcing each other’s worst instincts.

So I thought Reagan and Bush were both good managers in that respect, I think you’re right, Trump doesn’t have a lot of policy depth, so he can’t always evaluate the trade offs, and then you overlay that with enormous personal sensitivity. So if you challenge him, it’s a personal slight. And he thinks you’re impugning him. So he must rebuff you, he must knock you down or swat you down. So you only learn by doing, and sometimes you don’t learn at all, right?

And the good thing about Reagan I would say, and Bush as well, is they each had a policy compass. They each knew where they wanted to go, and they’d also spend considerable time in public life. So they had a team, they had people they worked with, people they trusted, people who believed in them, had working responsibilities … so thy didn’t just wash up on the shores of the White House on election day and say “Let’s try to figure this out,” they had been at this search, and at this business of government, for decades. Right? So reasonably well-seasoned when they came into office. Trump really suffers from the fact that he … it’s kind of impressive that he won, but he won as the outsider, and as the contrarian with any kind of government background at all. And you pay a price for that. Because he didn’t have a team, he didn’t have thought-through position papers when he came into office.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Reagan era, the Bush one era, the 80s into the early 90s … politics has always been not a game for the fearful. So it’s always been very robustly-contested in the United States. But it strikes me, and certainly Biden talks about this a lot, it strikes me that politics has gotten nastier in recent times. And certainly nastier since that era. Would you agree with that? How did things happen in the back rooms, when you’d be talking to the other side, compared to what you observe today?

Frank Lavin:

I think there’s been enormous deterioration. You hate to lay it all on one person, but I’ve never seen a President act the way Trump acts with regard to how he describes political adversaries, or impugns them. But to have that kind of raw criticism, or mocking or scorn, of individuals and opponents from a Presidential statement, I think is beneath the office. I would say one of the first rules of serving as President is to act like a President, and to act with a degree of dignity. And if you want to take a shot at someone, we see Presidents do that. You can use humor, you can use back-handed or understated comments. People get the joke, people know what you’re saying. But to simply berate somebody and denigrate someone is, I think, appalling. And then he frequently does it in a context of their ethnicity, or their religion, or where they’re from. I think these are just appalling statements, that nobody in public life should act that way.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Republican party … you’re a long-time Republican. You got links right back to Reagan, Bush, and George W. Bush. I’m kind of curious about how the Republican party has changed. Because I often think, you look at Ronald Reagan’s record, and he’s considered to be the gold standard by many Republicans active today. But you look at his record as California Governor, and you think “Would he win a primary in 2020?” So what does that say about the modern Republican party, from your point?

Frank Lavin:

I think there are two or three things going on here. One of which we talked about, which is the rise of digital media, the rise of emotional populism, and this populist … I mean what is populism? One we discussed already is emotional connectivity, rather than a managerial approach to problems. Now that can be on the left or the right. But another element of populism is it’s grievance-based. Tell me what’s wrong, tell me what you don’t like, and I’ll speak to your grievances. Which on the one hand, all grievances need an airing, but on the other hand, if your messaging is entirely grievance-oriented, you’re not talking about solutions. And you’re not allowing people to feel comfortable about the direction of the country. So there’s the price you pay for being grievance …

I’d say a third area of populism, which is also a bit dangerous or risky, is populism’s message is exculpatory. Populism’s message is, “The problems we face today are because others have done this to us.” I would say, in most countries, it’s generally the opposite. The problems Australia faces today, are problems that Australians have made. The problems Americans face today are problems Americans have made, right? And if you have a problem with drug use, or high school dropouts, or street crime, or unemployment, or lack of racial equality, those are self-inflicted problems. Those weren’t problems that Japanese or Chinese steel makers hoisted upon us. So you can see the seduction of it, but there’s a bit of a danger in that if you’re telling people “Our problems are caused by someone else,” instead of saying “I want to bring a mirror, and I want you to look in this mirror and tell us what we’re doing wrong.”

And I’ll tell you the fourth element of populism, I would say, is policy choices have no trade-offs. We’re going down the wrong path, but don’t worry, I’m going to take us down the right path. But we know in government, almost all policy situations do have a trade-off. And you can be unhappy with the path we’re on, there are advantages and disadvantages, but the alternative one you’re suggesting is also going to have costs and benefits. So it’s not a question of right and wrong. But if you listen to a lot of the Trump rhetoric, and I would say some of the Obama rhetoric … well, Obama had a populist streak, but I don’t think he was as orthodox populist as Trump. But he had elements of that as well. So this populism dominates the moment, digital dominates the moment, as I said.

I’ll tell you something else that kind of opened the door to Trump, is the drift of the Democratic party. So I think you’re quite right to talk about what’s happened to Republicans, and how did they become more nationalist, and move away from some international leadership roles that you had under a Reagan presidency and a Bush presidency, but what happened to the Democratic party where the working man, the Union member, the factory worker, moved away from the Democrats? How did the Democrats become more new class, and more orthodox left, and more based in identity politics that is just uninviting to a lot of working class voters? Even if there’s still an economic orientation to the left?

What would give a multi-millionaire like Trump, who has nothing in common with the working man culturally, what would give him reach with that community that Hillary Clinton didn’t have? So it’s as much of an evolution of the Democratic party as for the Republican party.

Now Biden, to his credit, especially in the last two or three weeks, if you look at his speeches he’s keyed back into that working class voter a lot more. He talks about, he’s not an Ivy League College graduate, he went to a state school. So it’s a little bit of populism there, a little bit of us and them, but it’s a shot at Trump. It’s a little bit of saying, he has a theme of “My Dad told me you’re no better than anybody else, treat everybody with respect.” With a little Will Rogers egalitarianism. But that will play well. And again, it’s a shot at Trump, who’s sort of the regional elitist, and the regional snob.

So Biden, I think, gets it. That at least culturally, social and cultural bases, you’ve got to be able to speak to this constituency that I feel is cut adrift by the traditional Democratic party. And Republicans can reach out to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s an interesting point. And this is not particular to the US Democrats, we’ve seen it with a lot of parties of the center-left around the world, where for whatever reason having a nationalist response to the economic concerns of working class voters. And the parties of the left are not, for whatever reason, connecting with the concerns of those people.

Frank Lavin:

And there’s also a social-cultural element here. Which look, I don’t think the Democratic party is guilty of this, I don’t think Joe Biden is guilty of this, but there’s elements of the Democratic party, and some of them are vocal elements, that for example call for open borders. That there should be no restrictions at all on immigration. See, that’s not a majority view, even with the Democrats. But I think Americans just find that unfathomable, that you would do that. And I think it’s as popular in America as it is in Australia.

But there’s a variant of that, called Sanctuary Cities, that city governments and municipal governments should not cooperate with Federal law enforcement in cases regarding illegal immigration. And you’d say “Look, this violates all sorts of government norms and constitutional norms, and you have local governments actively working to frustrate law enforcement.” And they’re projecting some kind of nobility on illegal immigrants. Which might be there in some cases, certainly there’s personal hardship there, but if there’s a legal warrant out for that individual, most people’s reaction is you need to honor that warrant. You need to process that person in the criminal justice system.

So there’s some exotic voices on the left that probably get more of a hearing than they deserve. It’s not a majority view, but it’s off-putting to rank and file historic Democrats who might normally pull the D lever. And look, let’s face it, the original Franklin Roosevelt sort of issues that got the Unions going and energized the Democratic party for a few generations, have largely been solved. So it’s a victim of their own success to say “We have 40 hour weeks, we have well-enforced safety and health regulations, and these sort of factors. We have funded retirements.” You know, it’s a comfortable life in the factory now, as opposed to 50 years ago.

I remember reading federal and OSHA, federal workplace hazard statistics that said … because I was going on a tour of a steel mill when I was a Congressman, I was talking to folks who worked at the steel mill. It said look, the injury rate and the fatality rate at a steel mill in the US is considerably lower than the injury rate and fatality rate working at a 7-11. So that’s a really successful journey. Because you can bet 50 or 100 years ago, working in a steel mill was quite a hazardous … there’s no safety anything, no guard rails, no safety goggles, no procedures. I’d guess it was a pretty miserable place, but now it’s a reasonable working environment.

Misha Zelinsky:

I know, we’ve got a lot of members that either work in steel, I’m from Wollongong, it’s a steel town … they’re good jobs, right? And that’s why it’s become such contested space to maintain and keep these jobs. You sort of touched on that before, the contest between the United States and China when it comes to trade. But just the Republican party, if Trump wins, it’s going to become the Trump party … probably in perpetuity. The hostile takeover would be complete. I’m kind of curious on your take, and you’re a never Trump-er I believe. If Trump loses, what happens next for the future of the Republican party? Some people think it’ll double down, you’ll end up with Donald Trump Jr. as the next proxy for that same nationalist … or is the more traditionalist, Bush Republican going to come back to the center?

Frank Lavin:

Well, I think it’s an open question. And a lot of it has to do with personalities as much as the philosophy and the themes. Meaning it’s not as if there’s a working caucus or faction that is a meaningful entity. It’s not like Japan, where you have LDP factions that stand for something, and then you group around them and they organize. You can’t really have that. And I say this meaning, what you have is this running, open debate/argument, fist fight policy papers, books, talk show, kind of behavior until you formally decide this with the primary seasons in four years.

And you’re going to have … you know, it’s open casting call. There’s no playoff bracket where you settle down. Anybody who wants to show up at the starting line for the race could show up at the starting line. So it’s a very inviting proposition, and indeed the market tends to overshoot. Meaning you tend to get 20 some people showing up saying “I think I’m interested in this job,” when you say “Well look, only half of them might really be serious and only a quarter of them really can go the difference.” But there’s no filtering mechanism. So I think we’re going to have a very open, loud, noisy, maybe at times painful debate on the future of the Republican party. And it is only settled during the primary process in 2024.

I’ll say this though, I think Trump, if he loses, he still has a shadow. But that shadow lasts one or two years. And he’s got some real strength in that he enjoys the media, he enjoys the public role, and he’s a good communicator. So he’s got some real strengths. But he has some real disadvantages as well, one is he’s not a young man. He’s getting into his mid-70s himself. Two, I think most importantly, he is defined as a loser. And if you ask what Americans disdain, what they dislike the most, they disdain losers. And there’s not anybody running for public office in America today that says I better call up Hillary Clinton and get her advice. They say we’ll give her a speaking slot, and we’ll applaud her, and say “I respect your long service,” but she’s deemed a loser. So if Trump is deemed a loser, I think right away you lose half the party right there. You say “Look your only job was to win this damn thing, you couldn’t do it, so why should we listen to you?”

But there’s also true believers. That saying in the US, you might’ve heard it, that both parties are divided functionally between two groups: the priests and the mathematicians. And the priests say “I have the truth, you need to follow me,” and the mathematicians say “Look I’ve got to get the 50% plus one.” So the mathematicians move away right away from Trump, most of the priests, the Trump priests at least, stay with him and say “He speaks the truth.” But there’s even different priests. It’s a broad church, there’s different factions, different denominations. So there’ll be other people running in 2024, and you could see a series of problems.

One is that the Trump field might be the dominant field, but again there’s no faction mechanism. So what you have are three or four people running as I am the new Trump. I’m the baby Trump, I’m the mini-me. Including, arguably, maybe one of the Trump children running in that capacity. But you have different statewide officials running in that way, so you could have four or five people saying “I’m the new adjusted, modern, improved Donald Trump.” Right? And then you’ll have some people running as non-Trump, or anti-Trump, you’ll have some people running as fusion candidates. I mean, everybody defines themselves. It’s open architecture.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, by the way, priests and mathematicians, that’s a fantastic quote that … I’m going to be using that live on air, I’m stealing that quote from you. It’s fantastic. Really good. I just wanted to …

Frank Lavin:

If we’re just taking a break, Mike Murphy uses that a lot. So credit him rather than me, at least if you’re going to use it independently. Mike uses that all the time. But it’s …

Misha Zelinsky:

Mike’s been on the show, so I’m sure he won’t mind you borrowing it.

Frank Lavin:

So to hell with him, yeah I agree, I like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

I just want to switch gears slightly, now you had a big career in US politics, you then went on to be an ambassador. I kind of want to get your take on US leadership. The US has typically played a big role as a global leader, I mean, how do you see its role presently? And what’s your take on Trump’s approach to the alliance structures that have underpinned the world, post World War II and certainly post Cold War?

Frank Lavin:

By the way, this process, this evolution I would stay started under Obama. But Trump brings a kind of roughness to it, and Obama had a lot of charm in his style. But both of them came to office questioning US international leadership. And both of them make a lot of similar points, that the cost benefit of US role globally was just out of whack. And we needed to trim down and retrench US outreach, that there wasn’t an immediate threat, that global reach sometimes became a self-defining mission of … we would go on a hunt for enemies and end up in wars where we shouldn’t properly be. And the trade policy … I mean, interesting, Obama ran for President, was the first successful candidate for President to run against trade. And he said almost verbatim, the same as Trump, NAFTA is a mistake and NAFTA needs to be renegotiated.

Now, to his credit, when Obama came to office, backed away from that. And you could say I give him credit for being sort of an economic rationalist, or I give him discredit for being politically expedient. But I guess you could make the same dichotomy as Trump to his discredit, he kept his word. But to his credit, what he said in the campaign is what he did in office. He said “We’re going to try to change NAFTA.” So you had the first time in the modern era, from Harry Truman through George W. Bush, 11 Presidents in a row all supporting trade, trade liberalization, US participation in trade. And you have two Presidents who are saying that trade is harmful to America. We need to back away from it.

But same thing with political military set of issues, you had the sharpest reduction in NATO under Obama that we’d ever had, modern era, and I think Obama was basically saying “Look, we’re saving money, there’s no immediate threat.” And Trump goes one click further on the dial, he says “Look I’m not sure I believe in NATO, I think these other people aren’t burden sharing, and they’re sort of cheating us or abusing the relationship.” So we’re at a period of definition, where the Cold War generation in America has left the scene, and largely left the scene, there’s not a consensus on a US international leadership role, there’s always sort of a populist temptation to argue against playing a role, and I think it’s potentially dangerous. Because to my mind, if we don’t maintain the alliance structure and the international posture we’ve had, you’re going to be inviting to malevolent powers.

There’s a foreign policy concept known as a provocative weakness. And you’ve got to be very careful about reducing your posture to a point where you become a provocative weakness, and you’re provoking instability by not being seen as serious. I don’t think it was any accident that the only change in borders in Europe, by force, since World War II, came with the Russian seizure of Crimea. And that was on Obama’s watch. To say for whatever set of reasons, the Russians, the Soviets, always respected US deterrents. They would challenge and provoke, and do a lot of things, but the battle ground in the Cold War became the third world in part because Europe was so stable. So the only place that was left for the Soviets to compete was Central America, and Angola, and different kind of publics where they could, in some respects, compete on an even footing. But Europe was a very stable environment, where they knew they should not provoke or challenge NATO. And for whatever set of reasons, Obama didn’t have that credibility with the Russians the way other US Presidents did.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we’ve talked a lot about partisanship, and we’ve talked about the shift in US policy in recent times. One of the things that seems quite settled, or at least has a bipartisan consensus, is about US competition or strategic competition with China and the Chinese communist party. And so I’m kind of curious for your take, you were Ambassador to Singapore, you live there now, how do you see this playing out in that part of the world? It’s relevant to Australia as well, how do you see this contest, and how do you see it playing out in the region itself?

Frank Lavin:

I think it’s hugely relevant to Australia. Look, I make a broad statement that it is, to my mind, China’s role in the international system is the foreign policy issue of the moment we’re in. This century. China’s the only major power that is still defining its international role. And it’s not entirely up to China itself to define that role, because, to the extent it’s own self-described definition impinges on other people’s rights. Then they have something to say as well. So it’s a collective process, but it’s an ongoing process, and what we see is after 30 years of strong economic performance, China has developed a set of political aspirations, and that economic performance has translated into military reach as well. So they’re in the game, they’re in the competition for power and friends and influence. It’s largely peaceful, but not always, and some of it is quite sharp-elbowed. And they don’t always behave in a way that we would say comports with normal diplomatic behavior. So they’re playing their own tune, and they’re marching to their own beat, and the rest of the world is responding to it.

A lot of this is okay, a lot of this is the normal parameters, and I think what’s important, and where I would fault Trump, I give him marks for calling him out on a lot of their misbehavior, but what he hasn’t done is try to shape some kind of positive view on areas where we can cooperate. On some of the trade issues, tourism, educational activities … there’s a lot of value, and I would say for Australia as well, to have Chinese students there, Chinese tourists, trade … there’s a lot of value in that relationship.

So let’s try to capture the positive sides of the relationship, and let’s be sensitive to the places where there’s competition, like in a text base like Huawei, and so forth where there’s sensitivities and there’s ongoing competition. And then at the more serious level, geopolitics, let’s make sure we draw a line under a very important geopolitical core interest, like freedom of navigation in South China Sea, like Taiwan’s security, where we make sure we’re sending a clear message to China about what US core interests are, and I daresay Australia core interests as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Given that we basically now have a rising economic power, for the first time in a long time, that is not a Democracy, so how do you see the systems competition reemerging for the first time since the Cold War? Is another Cold War essentially inevitable on that basis?

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, I wouldn’t call it a Cold War but I would call it a competition. And China has never … well, not never. But in the last several decades, China hasn’t claimed to have global ideological goals. They really abandoned those … in the 1970s they were funding groups in Africa and Central America, they funded as we well know, Southeast Asian, Indonesia, and Malay insurgencies. So they’ve played a role in guerrilla warfare, but not for 40 or 50 years. It’s been quite a while since they … so they’re acting in some respects closer to, so to speak, normal state behavior. But, then you have normal geopolitical rivalry and competition, and you observed, the fact that they’re Leninist and political structure is also a cause for concern for other countries. That it’s not what we would call normal state behavior.

But I don’t think it’s a cold war competition, I don’t think they’re trying to get African countries to model themselves after China the way the Soviet Union wanted African countries to adopt Soviet-style government. What they do want from African countries is political support, they want markets, they want technology embedded in the ecosystem in Africa. So there’s certain things they want, but it’s more power projection and economic connectivity than political modeling in the strict Soviet sense of that word.

Misha Zelinsky:

Getting towards the end here, but I want to quickly jump back to the US election. Kind of curious for your take, what would your advice be to Republicans that are worried about Trump, that have been lifelong Republicans, what is their role in this election? Do they vote Democrat? Do they sit it out? Would they split ticket? And then secondly, who’s going to win? I’ll barrel you down to a prediction here.

Frank Lavin:

Well look, I think there’s an aspect of human behavior regardless of ideology, regardless of policy, there’s some aspect of human behavior that any one of us would say “This type of behavior is so reprehensible that even if I find myself in agreement with the individual in some respects, I can’t in good conscience vote for this person because of his own activity.” And that’s my feeling toward Donald Trump, that even though I probably agree with elements of his platform and things he’s done, I just don’t think he should be President.

But I’m giving you a bit of a long answer there, because I back into that to say “Look, I’m comfortable with right of center policies elsewhere on the Republican ticket.” So I don’t have a problem voting for Republican office holders and Republican candidates elsewhere. I know some of my colleagues who are never-Trumpers who don’t adhere to that, and they say “Not only must we purge Trump, but we must purge anybody who supported Trump, anybody who voted with Trump,” and so there’s got to be a broad church. We need a Robespierre kind of reaction.

But I don’t subscribe to that, and I’ll tell you this, whether Biden wins or loses, if he wins he’s going to want a Republican Senate in there to put a bit of a check on his own left, and he’ll be a more successful President if a Republican Senate is in there. And I also think Republicans, if they were looking at a post-Trump Republican party, a Republican Senate will help them develop an identity beyond Trump, and there’ll be speakers and leaders politically who are not Donald Trump.

So I’m not abashed at all about saying I’m voting … I think, I just applied for my absentee ballot, I vote in Ohio, but I think … I’m just trying to remember … I think I’ll be voting straight Republican for state and local offices in Ohio. There’s always one outlier, one lunatic that you don’t feel comfortable voting for, but I’ll be voting for somewhere around 99 to 100% of Republicans. But not Donald Trump.

Misha Zelinsky:

And the predication for the Presidential race is?

Frank Lavin:

I think Biden wins. I think Trump’s got three big problems, only one of which might have a solution. The three big problems are: the economy, Coronavirus, and Trump’s own personality. Trump has been unpopular, more disliked than liked, about since he took office. And you can’t fix that. That’s his operating style, he relishes it, he likes being audacious, he likes playing the public role, he likes being the bad guy, it lets him be the most visible person in the room. It lets him be the most powerful person in the room. So that’s the price I pay, for my operating style. So that’s just uninviting to people. The Coronavirus, I don’t see any measurable improvement, although Trump will try to message some improvements. But I don’t see that having traction.

The one area where Trump can pick up a little bit is the economy is on a bit of an uptick. So he’ll get some credit for that. But the main problem with that thesis is it’s only on an uptick in a relative sense, in an absolute sense it’s still off-peak from pre-Coronavirus. So if you ask me how that washes out, it means that people who are inclined to vote for Trump but found all of the last six months too timultuous, they’ll gravitate back to Trump. He’ll pick up a point or two. But people who are disinclined to vote for him aren’t going to be won over because we have two or three months of a nice recovery. Because we’re still under water, we’re still below where we were before Coronavirus started. So I do think Biden wins.

I’ll give you one other prediction if I might, Misha, that all this discussion about election day anomalies, and weird behavior and Trump’s weird behavior … there’s no question at all that he loves being outrageous, he loves being provocative, he loves saying inappropriate things. But I have a feeling this is going to be a reasonably smooth election day, meaning by midnight election night, US time, we’ll know 75% of the results. And we’ll be able to make a prediction. Unless the results are say, less than two or three percent, then it’s harder to do because it breaks down by states, of course. But if Biden’s up there in a three or four percent lead, where I think he’s going to be, I think we’ll know … we’ll be congratulating him that night.

Although, as I suggested a minute ago, Trump is still of the kind of personality that he’ll be defiant, if not on the bridge of his ship screaming at the torpedoes. So he still has the capacity to behave in an un-statesmanlike fashion, but I’ve just got a sense this has a smoother resolution than you might expect, given all the discussion we’re hearing today about anomalies on election day.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, a lot of people are worried about the mail-in ballot issue, and the fact that most … if you look at the messaging and the polling, that Biden’s voters are going to vote by mail, Trump’s voters are going to vote in person, and the nightmare scenario is that Trump’s in the lead on the night of the election and then the postal ballots come in over the next few days and then Trump declares that it’s been stolen from him. So that’s the nightmare.

Frank Lavin:

Elements of that could happen, I guess what I’m saying is I think 75% of the states, that scenario won’t apply. That the amount of mail in ballots are small enough, and the lead is large enough. Or the counting is taking place quickly enough, that even by election night you say, Biden wins Pennsylvania by 400,000 votes, there’s still 150,000 votes to be counted, and people say well that doesn’t matter. It’s not consequential. So I think that will be about 75% of the states, that election night will say that it’s over. But that leaves a lot that are closer to your scenario, but even in most of those where we say “We don’t really know, we can’t really declare a winner, but we could say if trends continue this person’s won or that person’s won.” But we can’t formally state it.

So I think that will be the bulk … only in the minority of that minority will you say, “We don’t know who’s winning, and the trends aren’t clear either.” So we don’t really know, we just have to keep counting for another few days. But that is going to be a very small number of states where that even materializes. So I guess I’m prognosticating here that it won’t be enough, it won’t be big enough states or consequential enough states that it’s going to be meaningful, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you have any concerns about Trump and the Republican Senate in a lame duck session, Trump’s lost the election, Biden’s not yet been sworn in, in January, the Republican Senate potentially ramming through a supreme court nomination? Or other things of that nature? Or is that something that’s overblown?

Frank Lavin:

I think they’re going to be as forceful as they can, I mean Andy Warhol once said “Art is whatever you can get away with,” but I would say politics is whatever you can get away with. So I would say yeah, whatever they can legally get away with, and you can criticize their audacity and you can take umbrage at their behavior, but to say if the system lets them do this, they’re going to do it. Or they’re going to try to do it. The big, big prize that we’re looking at right now is the Supreme Court Justice.

But I also think we have to give this individual some credit, meaning I think America will more or less accept this process if the person themselves with judicial knowledge and learned behavior, and dignity. And the person comes across like a judge. And I think the person will have a big TV audience. You’ll have 50 or 100 million people watching this person’s testimony, and they’ll come to a conclusion to say the person looks okay to me. So Democrats are against this person only because it’s a Republican selection, but I think then the issue will just fade. But if the person comes across like a boob, some kind of political hack, they’re not up to the job or otherwise flawed, then I think it raises all of the points you just made to say “Look, this is a force.” You’re using this temporary majority status to push somebody through. And it’s going to rank a lot, I think Republicans pay a price for that kind of ham-handedness.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well we can talk about this, clearly I could talk about this all day. But you’ve got other things to do. Now I’ve got the last question that I don’t let any guests leave without getting weighed in on, I know you’ve been desperately researching Australians, but a barbecue at your place, it could be in Ohio or it could be in Singapore, Singapore is probably not as far for Australians to travel. There’s a lot of Aussies in Singapore. But three Aussies at a barbecue at Frank’s, and why?

Frank Lavin:

The three I’d invite … yeah, I’ve been thinking about this. And I have to ask you a technical question, since you’re the judge and jury here, can we designate pre-confederation inhabitants as Aussies?

Misha Zelinsky:


Frank Lavin:

Or are you going strictly by … yeah. Because then I’ll say, there’s an interesting historical figure who has an Australian pedigree and Australia anchor, but I suspect Australians would deny he’s Australian, but he’s a fascinating historical figure, and this is your former governor of New South Wales, from the Colonial era, Captain Bligh.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right, yeah.

Frank Lavin:

I would put William Bligh down as a fascinating individual. This fellow, we in America know him only from Mutiny on the Bounty, and the fact that he has this rather remarkable escape across several thousand miles of sea. But I think what few Americans know is then he becomes … he re-enters the Colonial service and becomes the Governor of New South Wales, and there’s a mutiny again! There’s another mutiny against him and he’s kicked out again.

Misha Zelinsky:

Rum rebellion, yeah.

Frank Lavin:

I would definitely want to ask him, what is there about his management style and his personality that induces people to mutiny against him. And I think Misha, I’m going to ask you to chip in with me on that, and I think what we’ve got to get him is Dale Carnegie’s book about how to win friends and influence people, to say “But Captain, you’ve just got to work on that personality side, so you’re not rubbing folks the wrong way all day long.” But I would put Captain Bligh down on there.

I thought of somebody else, but I’m not even sure I know their names, but this might be two [and might not fit under your rules, but I was also intrigued … you know, I was in Perth a few months ago, and I got to go to the Fremantle, there’s a shipping museum there. And the exhibit on the Batavia, was the Batavia shipwreck, but these were the first Europeans … two of the mutineers from the Batavia were juts set ashore on Australia …

Misha Zelinsky:

East India Company, wasn’t it? Yeah.

Frank Lavin:

Yeah, that’s the Dutch though, so it’s not even the Brits. So it’d be quite a stretch to call these people Aussies, since Australia didn’t exist, nothing existed, they were just put ashore as part of their punishment and they disappeared. But it’s nonetheless an interesting story. But I’d say back to planet Earth, the real Australia as we know it, I’d say … I’ve always had this curiosity about a prominent Australian who played a signature role in his country’s history, but Americans only know him through the prism of World War II, and that’s John Curtin. But what’s striking to me, is that if we look at global leadership in that moment, and I would put Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle … and I’d put Mackenzie King in that as well, to say these are individuals who we know today as great wartime leaders, and indeed they were very important for their nations’ survival. But their record domestically, and their record in domestic politics was much more mixed. Much more ambiguous, and much harder to evaluate.

And I think as Americans, who are just a bit lazy on this point, but we don’t fully understand Curtin’s parliamentary pedigree and what his domestic agenda is, because I think as far as we’re concerned, we’re just so overwhelmed by war dynamics that we’d say, as far as the US is concerned it really doesn’t matter what he was doing back home. What really matters is the A, B, C, D alliance in East Asia, and what the Americans, they’re all just working together.

But that would be the fellow. So Captain Bligh and John Curtin. And then I want to take a flyer, there’s an enormous celebrity culture in Australia, and I wanted to take a bow to it, but to go with someone who might not be terribly well known at the moment, but I suspect will be, and it’s a young Australian filmmaker, Natalie James. And she just had a movie out, which got released in the US called “Relic.” And it’s a bit of a spooky, a bit of a horror movie. And so she’s making a name for herself. I heard her on a podcast, very impressive person. And it’s a degree of creativity, entrepreneurial drive, craftsmanship, that you really have to respect. And I think when people say “What makes Australia great?” It’s people like that, who have a vision and pursue a vision. And so it’s not because of celebrity status, I don’t think she necessarily has celebrity status, but because she’s going down this path of professional excellence and creativity, and she brings joy to our lives with her movies.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m going to say, look, I am the judge and jury, and that is without a doubt the best answer that we’ve ever had on this show. The amount of history that you’ve got on there with William Bligh, the Rum Rebellion, the Dutch East India Company crash in the 17th century at Perth, John Curtin, legendary labor party minister from World War II, and then a modern day filmmaker, Natalie James, mate. Five-star effort, well done!

Frank Lavin:

Thanks Misha! Am I the only American who didn’t say Ned Kelly?

Misha Zelinsky:

Well you didn’t say Crocodile Dundee or Ned Kelly.

Frank Lavin:

I didn’t say Paul Hogan.

Misha Zelinsky:

You lost a Bingo round, mate, but nevertheless. Five star effort. Look, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming on, and I will hope to have you on sometime soon.

Frank Lavin:

I’d love to visit with you again. Thank you so much, Misha, for having me on.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks mate.

Frank Lavin:


Mike Murphy: Never Trump? The future of the Republican Party and Election 2020

Mike Murphy is a legendary political consultant and one of the Republican Party’s most successful ever campaigners.
Mike has handled media and strategy for more than 26 successful Republican campaigns including Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney and Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as leading John McCain’s historic presidential race in 2000. Mike has advised political leaders all over the world.

Mike is a prominent media personality, Hollywood writer and co-host of the hugely popular podcast, Hacks on Tap. As a leading ‘Never Trumper’, Mike heads up the ‘Republican Voters Against Trump’ ( movement.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Mike for a chinwag about why he’s been against Trump since the 1990s, the Republican Voters Against Trump movement, President Trump’s first term in office, why Trump loves dictators so much, why trust has eroded so badly in politics, the future of the Republican Party, who Biden should pick as his VP candidate and what should keep Democratic strategists awake at night.

It’s a big chat and we hope you enjoy it! Please rate and review the episode, it really helps.


Misha Zelinsky:

Mike Murphy, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us today, mate.

Mike Murphy:

Well, Misha, great to be here. Thanks for inviting me now.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, so many places we could start our thought. We’ll get to the current political situation in the U.S. shortly, but I thought a great place to start would be talking about November 8, 2016. You’re a very prominent never Trumper and you were a Never Trumper then. I was wondering if you might just take us through the thoughts running through your mind on election night.

Mike Murphy:

Well, it was a mix of shock and horror. I’ve been anti-Trump since 19, probably 93 only because I was working back then for the newly elected governor of New Jersey, Christine Todd Whitman, and Trump was slippering around Atlantic city. So we had some unfortunate experiences with him, so I was no stranger to his character and his problems. Now, that said, like most people in my business, I was very surprised when he won because it was pretty obvious from the polling and just the normal rules of political gravity that he was going to get clobbered in the popular vote.

Mike Murphy:

And most of the time, almost all the time, it’s only happened five times in American history where the popular vote does not elect the president because of course we have the electoral college, which is old device from the original founders, kind of like the Senate where the smaller States have outsized power. California has two senators, little Rhode Island has two senators, so it works the same with electoral college.

Mike Murphy:

So he was able to draw the inside straight Michigan, Pennsylvania, my home state of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, three States by the way that had not voted Republican and not been carried by the Republican Party in a presidential race since the 1980s. But narrowly 77,000 votes out of 13-and-a-half million, the three States all cast together, the margin was that small, but it was enough.

Mike Murphy:

I remember I was there with James Carville, we both worked for NBC News and he was getting texts, I was getting texts from friends of ours out in the field with just disbelief that Trump was showing this weird pattern. He did worse than Mitt Romney, our last Republican candidate in a lot of suburbs, but in what we call exsubs, which are farther out suburbs with cheaper housing, but a lot of middle class, lower middle class people. And then out in rural areas, he was blowing the doors off it.

Mike Murphy:

So it started to dawn on us that the polls were going to be wrong, they were going to predict the popular vote right. Hillary won by nearly three million votes, but in the distribution of the vote in those industrial Midwestern States and a few other places, he was going to come really close and maybe win the damn election, so it was just complete shock. Then when I got my pulse under control about that, because I was not excited about Hillary Clinton, but I thought Trump was a cheap demagogue, and a populist and not a conservative, and I thought, what is this guy going to do?

Mike Murphy:

Then for about a month, I’d started thinking, well, give him a chance, surround with staff. I saw Reince Priebus that night in the middle of the night at NBC and I knew him from the party. He had been our party chairman and he was rumored to go in as chief of staff. I remember I pulled him aside at 3:00 in the morning election night and I said, “Look, you got to take it. You got to surround this guy because…” And he’s like, “We know, we know. We’re going to build a cage. We’re on it.” Then it began.

Mike Murphy:

I also felt like an idiot because I… Sorry for the long answer, but I had done a podcast during the election called Radio Free GOP, a precursor to Hacks on Tap, was basically just me screaming about Trump and then interviewing operatives about how they got into politics and their stories. Still on iTunes if anybody cares. And so I had predicted with great certainty a thousand times he’d lose and then there he was winning, so I thought, oh, this is great. I’ll be eating crow here for a year, and I did.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I have to say, you’re not alone in predicting that Hillary would win. I’ve famously said that Hillary wouldn’t just win, but win well, that she’ll absolutely crash it. So you certainly not by yourself there, mate, consider that point in this podcast on a number of occasions.

Mike Murphy:

Well, she half did, that’s all I’ll say. Here’s a little bit of American political tribute, you know who… So the electoral college, and again, it’s happened five times in American history, never in the 20th century, twice the 21st, 2000 and 2016 where the electoral college has been different than the popular vote. You know who invented it? Alexander Hamilton. That’s the song that never made the musical.

Mike Murphy:

I came up with this stupid thing [inaudible 00:06:09], but yeah, and it’s here to stay, so we’ll see. This year looks a little more aligned, but we have a lot of campaign yet to happen.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, Mike, I’m curious for you take on Trump’s first term thus far. We’re coming up to the end of his first term. You’re obviously very bearish about his presidency overall as a Never Trumper, but how would you assess it? Has it been what you expected? A bit better? Worse? Care for your take.

Mike Murphy:

Worse. Yeah, I thought, all right, they’re going to put the training wheels on him. One of the things that is true about this, Trump didn’t think he was going to win, Trump’s people didn’t think he was going to win. Kellyanne Fitzpatrick Conway, I always call her Kellyanne Fitzpatrick because that was her original name when she started in politics, so my apologies it’s Conway, Kellyanne Conway, she was calling…

Mike Murphy:

There’s a thing in American politics, the media spend millions and millions, millions of dollars on exit polling, which is they do it as well as it can be done, but it’s shaky. Because you have to do two things; you intercept people at polls when they come out and say, “How did you vote?” And you try to get bellwether precincts, but it’s a big country, and again, we learned about you got to really understand the distribution of the vote with the electoral college.

Mike Murphy:

The other thing people forget is what about absentee voters? Well, you do a phone poll two days before the election. Then you put it on a computer and you predict. So during the day, the exit polling data comes in and waves, so the morning vote, plus the absentee, the afternoon vote and the evening vote. And there is a projection that the exit polling service at the three networks or the five networks, wherever they are now control sends out an hourly update where the number keeps moving, and that leaks.

Mike Murphy:

Some of us get it, other people leak, and it’s a big sport among politicals, “What are the exits?” Starting at about 3:00 in the afternoon really. So the exits were coming out and they’re bad for Trump. And so Kellyanne was on the phone calling all the national reporters. “This campaign was screwed up, if they’d only listen to me. I knew they were going to lose, that darn Reince Priebus.” And unbelievable because it’s the snake pit in their world and culture is set from the top.

Mike Murphy:

Then Trump is sitting there on election night and they’ve got the classic five TVs in the suite and they’re starting to predict he’s going to win and he doesn’t believe it. So he’s checking each channel, he think it’s a prank, it’s like it’s fake. Then the famous story, I wasn’t in the car, so I can’t say it’s absolutely true, but I believe it, and the people who also believe it were almost in the car. He turned to then PRA, Hope… God, it’s early here and I’m trying to remember. She left and came.

Mike Murphy:

Anyway, he turned to a PRA as they drove through the White House gates to begin the transition process and he looked at her and said, “All I was trying to do was increase ratings on the apprentice.” So he was more surprised than anybody, so I thought, okay. If the dog has caught the car, he’ll bring in some war horses and it’ll be a Jimmy Carter semi-competent buffoonish presidency, but he won’t actually try to be president other than ride around in the big plane and try to find the alien remains in Roswell out at the Air Force base in Nevada.

Mike Murphy:

It was like a movie of some kind of clown talk radio person got beamed up into the presidency, what would they do? Well, do I have a yacht? They’d get into the quality of life. I thought that would probably happen. Instead, he tried to be president and most of the serious people wouldn’t work for him because he has a bad style, he’s abusive and he won’t read anything. The military briefers and the intelligence people among themselves were all impressive career types would walk in there and they used to call the briefing story time like they were talking to a five-year-old because he wouldn’t read anything.

Mike Murphy:

So they learned to quickly do cartoons and charts. I used to joke, sock puppets were going to be next because he has zero attention span. What he likes to do is pace and talk about the election, and how they tried to steal it from him, and he only lost New Hampshire because they bused in union act and it’s crazy. In every campaign, sometimes you have to suffer foolish donors who give the party a fair amount of money.

Mike Murphy:

And they mean well, most of them are great, but you have a few who make their fortune and plastic coat hangers. And they give you a 30-minutes on how the wire coat hanger is a joke, and if hadn’t been for their genius and the plastic coat hanger, they wouldn’t have all this money. They could use that same insight to fix the entitlement budget problems, they’re blowhards. Well, it’s like a guy like that got elected and here we are.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, we’ve got to get a little on topic. This is of course a foreign policy show. I’m curious to get an insight from you. Trump’s first term, what’s been interesting is how in the few times that Trump’s ran into trouble with the house Republicans who have essentially backed him most of the way. The times he’s run into trouble with them or bumped up against them has been on foreign policy, be it what happened in Helsinki, some of the issues relating to NATO and other matters of that nature.

Misha Zelinsky:

How costly do you think it’s been for the U.S. in terms of Trump’s approach to our allies and alliances, including the Australia AND U.S. Alliance? And also what is it with Trump’s tendency to lord strong men and dictators? And why does he seem to push away his friends and get drawing closer people that in regimes that had essentially been enemies of the United States and these types of characters that are quite unsavory? He seems to cling on to them. What is it about him that does that?

Mike Murphy:

It is the question. I’m not enough of a psychiatrist to really go through it, other than his dad had a little deuce step in his behavior. They didn’t have a great relationship, he was an authoritarian. Look into Fred Trump. I always joke if there was a time machine in one trip, I would not go back and kill baby Hitler, I’d go back and tell Fred Trump to be less of an asshole to his kid because 45 years later would solve a lot of problems.

Mike Murphy:

He has shown a real hostility to the classic alliances, and I don’t think he understands geopolitics. A friend of mine, I don’t want to blow up his career, who was a very distinguished American career person in the foreign policy space went into the White House and was stunned to see that as bad as he thought it would be, and this person is no amateur. It was worse and Trump literally had a limited understanding of basic geography.

Mike Murphy:

So I think everything is transactional to Trump and it’s all very small time like what are we paying for Ramstein Air Base in Frankfurt, it’s high rent. He doesn’t understand the Atlantic Alliance, he’s hostile to it. Clearly, Australia is a critical ally of ours and increasingly geopolitically even more important one, linchpin in many ways of what ought to be our Asian network of alliances along with the Koreans and Japan, and he just seems to have an instant hostility.

Mike Murphy:

He doesn’t do protocol well. He has a hard time doing two-way conversations. He’s blowhard again so you’re sitting there, you’re the prime minister of Australia, you have to listen to this guy, ill informed whinge on and on. I’ll tell you a funny story. Erskine Bowles who had been a big leading Democrat, had been a White House Chief of Staff, good friend of mine. We both got a call cause in the U.S. if you’re known in politics, there’s a whole, and I’ll call it a racket because that’s somewhat accurate.

Mike Murphy:

Because I’m on cable TV bloviating a bit and Erskine of course is highly esteemed. You get called to do paid speeches, so you go to the outboard motor dealers and tour, you joke around or [inaudible 00:14:03] do it, or Carville or the gala, and you entertain the crowd, but it’s… And then they give you a big check, and dinner, and you go home. It’s easiest the dollars in the world.

Mike Murphy:

Well, we both got a call from the speakers bureau early in the Trump presidency, “Well, you want to go to London?” And I always want to go to London, but it’s going to take three or four days. “Well, paid trip or your fee. When are we leaving?” So Erskine and I wind up in an elite hotel there, and I got to be a little careful cause I think we’re under an NDA and there are only 12 people in the room, and they are 12 of the oldest, richest, private families in Europe; France, UK, Germany.

Mike Murphy:

Barnes Heineken was sitting there, big, big names, Rothschild. We had a very polite discussion, but their question was yours with a little more of an exclamation point, which is, “What the hell is going on? Don’t you idiots understand?” There was a German that was very persuasive. “Our largest trading partner is Russia, we don’t like them, they’re next door. And you guys are the metronome clock of the Atlantic Alliance and now all we hear are clown shoes tapping around and baby gurgles, and this is really bad and you clowns get it.”

Mike Murphy:

Now, we of course got it, but it was hard to explain that we’d had this eruption and we would have a clown president for a while. Long answer, to get to the meat of it, we have damaged our alliances, we’ve emboldened our enemies. We’ve taught every dictator in the world that bad behavior can be rewarded. Hell, we went out and legitimize Kim Jong-il for no trade. I came up in the foreign policy world and rule number one is you want to get an American president eyeball to eyeball, you earn that with behavior.

Mike Murphy:

Instead just out of vanity and ego, this guy shows up to arguably the worst regime in modern history in terms of what it’s done to its own people. It made Stalin look like amateur night and there he is. So the next president is… It’s going to be interesting and I’m sure there will be grins in Canberra, in Bonn, in London, and Paris because there will be relief that there’d be somebody back to normal, but they’re also going to get a price.

Mike Murphy:

We’re going to be paying some taxes here, making up for the egregious behavior of this guy, and that’s the way the world works. So it has been really damaging, I think to our position in the world and there’s less security now. There’s more instability.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? Because during the Trump presidency in his first term, what are the words to look into U.S. leadership and saying, “Well, there’s still a role for U.S. leadership and a craving for traditional U.S. leadership?”

Mike Murphy:

Right, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so whether or not the Trump presidency is a reorientation of U.S. policy or whether or not it’s an aberration is going to be decided in November and it’s a critical question for the world.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah. It reminds me of it’s like a jet airliner and the pilots died, and the copilot died, and they’re going passenger to passenger to see if anybody has a pilot’s license before a thousand miles. And luckily there are some pilots on the plane, they’re just in the back row and it’s going to take them five months to find one.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a chilling metaphor, mate. Now, we’ve talked a little bit about it, but the question of trust, I want to talk about trust in politics. Because Trump in many ways is the consequence of low trust, but he’s also the destructor of trust. A lot of people will say, “Should we trust Trump?” One of the things that’s interesting when you look at some [inaudible 00:17:37] on coronavirus, about 20% of Americans trust that the president of the United States on information about the coronavirus, which is about half of Trump’s approval rating.

Misha Zelinsky:

So half of the people that approve of Trump don’t trust him on coronavirus, which is peculiar to say the least. But what is low trust more generally tell us about politics? And should it worry us? And do you think trust can be restored in politics more importantly? Because it is a critical ingredient in democracy.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah, that’s a great question because the glue of the democracy is some trust like that. I think it’s working at several levels. I think when Trump first got elected, one of the problems we have in our culture, and I ran Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign for governor California, the second biggest job here. And Arnold was the first classic example since maybe governor George Murphy, no relation, back in California who came out of Hollywood and then later Ronald Reagan.

Mike Murphy:

But Arnold was a pop culture celebrity who just made a huge audacious leap sideways into national politics. But I can tell you, Arnold is very shrewd and he knew that he had to build a machine to be ready to govern. Arnold on movie sets would spend all this time in his trailer hanging around with political policy nerds to learn the business. He took it very seriously. Trump was also a move and pop culture, but he didn’t take it seriously, nor did he build a bunch of strong staff relationships.

Mike Murphy:

I think one of the things in the culture that happened when Trump moved from pop culture was people had become so cynical through political doublespeak and Washington’s arrogance, the gilded city that’s never felt a recession that the stakes of politics became low enough that your vote was a joke. You saw in Italy, they’re voting for baggy pants comedians, you’ve seen this before in other places. Well, your vote did mean to say, “Oh, I’ll give it to that guy who’s going to drain the swamp.”

Mike Murphy:

There was a combination of antipathy for institutions. We have a middle class that’s been squeezed by flat real wages for a long time, so the American dream is not working for them. They’re working harder and getting less. Then you’ve got the financial engineering class, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, though they’re of course more innovative, but people at the top corporate America, particularly Wall Street who when they win, they make billions, when they lose, we bail them out.

Mike Murphy:

And so there’s all this anger, and so here comes a guy who’s credentialed outside of politics because he’s on TV for 10 years on prime time being… Even if all he’s doing is firing comedians for not selling enough cotton candy at some… Remember, it’s all product placement. The whole thing is rigged. It’s a TV ad, is a TV show for products, they paid to be there. But Trump was the in-charge guy.

Mike Murphy:

When you did the data and it was all art of the deal. He’ll get things done, he’ll shake it up. And the risk of Trump was not really in the calculation because people hadn’t had real, real, real 20th century pain in a while. We’ve had wars, but wars with a volunteer army, not a draft. We had the great recession in 2007, but we hadn’t had a lot of economic pain, not real economic pain since then.

Mike Murphy:

So it was easy to take a flyer on Trump and laugh and it’s all entertainment. And then corona came and all of a sudden the stakes shot up. A lot of our political class, he was like, “Well, the Mueller report, the this, the that. Why doesn’t anybody abandon him?” Blah, blah, blah. Well, two things were going on. One, people were abandoning him. Trump has had crappy poll numbers since a month after he got elected, so I’ve been short his reelection ever since then, but they’ve gotten worse.

Mike Murphy:

But this Washington stuff looks like another Washington food fight. The Republicans say this and that. And you go to a focus group, somebody will say, “Yeah, he got dirt from the Russians about Hillary, but you know Hillary, she would’ve gotten dirt from the Russians about him and she could have done it. They’re all the same. They’re all corrupt.” Blah, blah, blah. A sign of institutional weakness, which ought to worry us because we used to hold presidents to a standard, which would force them to act the standard.

Mike Murphy:

So now with the coronavirus, it’s in your life. Your plan’s closing, you’re in economic pain, real economic pain. Your brother-in-law’s restaurant may never open. Your 62-year old uncle has it and he’s on a ventilator in a hospital, even money chance to live are worse. So a real crisis came and all of a sudden it is like the movie, Premise where the actor who plays a cop suddenly has to solve a real case and it all falls apart. And that’s what’s happened to Trump, and Trump’s method is the lie.

Mike Murphy:

You saw the exaggeration and superlatives, greatest ever. Swallow a Christmas tree light, drink a little Clorox. It’s just ripped them to pieces. It’s funny, most leaders, and this has happened with the American governors in most places until recently during the first wave of the virus, their polling goes up because it’s a crisis, they’re standing there, are five guys in state trooper uniforms and doctor outfits, and they got a plan. People want authority when they’re scared, so they cling to it.

Mike Murphy:

Fauci, the chief doctor in our world who’s highly respected, his polling now, 80% he’s a national celebrity. Trump’s gone down significantly, even among as you say, his own people where he’s got real problems, a third of them are more not buying in because he’s been so bad in the spotlight and all he’s done is lie and they know. So this has been the final neck breaker for him politically, which is why right now, Joe Biden, who was far from a perfect super formidable candidate, as far as candidate skills, he’s sitting on the count of numbers that looked like Nixon in ’72 or Reagan in ’84.

Mike Murphy:

Joe is going to be damn hard for Trump to beat because Trump has dug himself in such a horrible hole and he doesn’t seem to have any of the tools to get himself out of it through being president. Now, maybe he’ll have the tools to run a campaign and vilifies Biden, that’s in his wheelhouse and his comfort level, but it’s hard to run against the government when you are the government.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I’m super keen to dig into the 2020 campaign and Biden versus Trump, but before we get to that, just want to round out this point on trust. You talked about the food fight in Washington, how much of a problem is this blue team, red team approach? And how critical is it to have friendships across the aisle or even just relationships across the aisle? And you’re famously very close with David Axelrod who was Obama’s chief strategists and your cohost on the great podcast, Hacks on Tap.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a fantastic podcast, my favorite podcast, everyone should listen. There’s a plug there for you, mate.

Mike Murphy:

Thank you.

Misha Zelinsky:

But how critical is that?

Mike Murphy:

Well, it is a problem. So the ugly little secret is, and this is true in the Congress too. It used to be more true, but it’s still true is behind the food fight, most of them are friends. They get along pretty well. You will see on our television two members of Congress who are in the leadership cast, the top 60 people, they’re fighting on TV, calling each other names, and then you’re be in the Capitol building and they’re both on an elevator talking about, “Hey, you’re going to the barbecue tomorrow? We got a thing for the national association of plastic molding.”

Mike Murphy:

What has happened is there’s nowhere left for them to hide, be friends and get anything done. Part of it is the way our system works, and our house of representatives, we have 435 congressional seats that are normally all quarter million or 200,000 voters, maybe 700,000 people, and they’re all over the country. And there used to be between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat about 80 seats, kind of there.

Mike Murphy:

And there were about 80 seats that were what we would call swing seats that could go either way, so they had to build a coalition beyond just Republicans or Democrats to win that seat. But then redistricting took over where State legislatures, and governors, it’s a complicated process, but they drew the seats to be safe. So all you care about are your party voters. So now we only have about 20 of those seats and there are only three people between the most liberal Republican, most conserved Democrats.

Mike Murphy:

So it becomes you’re on a team and you don’t have any room to move, and the incentives are to fight. And then you’ve got the cable TV business where we got a channel for every point of view saying, “You’re right, you’re right. They’re terrible.” There was a Congressman, was a minister in Philadelphia who coined a great phrase that I steal all the time, Bill Gray, who said, “The problem is the formula has now become, I’m right, you’re evil.”

Mike Murphy:

And if the other side is evil, you can say anything about them or do anything. You’re a hero, you’re killing the devil. So that corrosiveness has trapped everybody and a lot of them hate it, into this world where it’s all worrying about your primary voters. Because you might have 700,000 people in your district and 195,000 voters, but because it’s a mostly Republican district and you’re going to win 90% of the time, unless something really crazy happens, all you really care about is the 35,000 voters in the primary who are generally driven by interest groups. Same thing on the Democratic side.

Mike Murphy:

I remember California, big Democratic State, used to be a swing State. I was working for Schwarzenegger, we would do the big budget negotiation at the very end of the process. After all the fighting, we’d put everybody in a room, be the governor and the two legislative leaders, the big five, and the Republicans were in the minority. They’d sit there and wonder what was for lunch, and the speaker of the house, the Democratic speaker could not order lunch or move a chair without calling the head of the Teacher’s Union or the head of the State Employee Union.

Mike Murphy:

So Arnold used to say, “Throw him out, get her in.” Because they were so powerful in primaries, you couldn’t buck them. So that has taken the lubrication out of the gears and frozen everything. And it’s bad because we’re teaching people that politics doesn’t solve anything, which means they lose faith in the system, which means they elect drags, they just fight. So it’s a compounding thing that’s really trouble.

Mike Murphy:

I have got one more plugin. When I’m not doing what I normally do, I also spent a lot of time at University of Southern California, USC, the center for the political future with Bob Schrum, who like David Axelrod is a Democrat consultant that I spent a career fighting in campaigns, but we’ve been friends. He’s wrong on everything, he’s got a iHeart Lennon tattoo, but he’s a good guy and he’s a patriot. So you can be opponents but not enemies. That’s the way politics used to work.

Mike Murphy:

Axe and I have a joke, we have run more Iowa governor races against each other, and we would go back and forth. And even though we’re killing each other in the campaign, we’d sneak off and have dinner in some small rural place where nobody would see us. It’s like pro wrestling, I’m the Russian assassin, he’s Captain America, and actually were cousins. But it’s not quite that cynical because he… I’m a conservative and I believe it. One of the reasons I hate Trump is I don’t think he’s a conservative at all, and Axelrod’s a good committed liberal. So we know we disagree on stuff, but we love the system.

Mike Murphy:

Having those relationships too, if a campaign really goes out of whack, you can have a little back channel knowing there’s no mercy in it, but there are rules, and there can be a little back channel to try to keep the thing on the playing field, not out in the stands hurting civilians.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now I just want to turn attention to your side of the show, the Republican Party. You are a very, very prominent Never Trumper, but I want to talk about the future of the Republican Party. Trump was even an outsider. He undertook a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, but it’s very much now fashioned in his image, there is a resistance. But I want to pose it a question to because a lot of people focus on 2020.

Misha Zelinsky:

If Trump wins, is that the end of the Republican Party? And does it have a future if Trump wins the election? Because it is important that mainstream politics does have a mainstream-

Mike Murphy:


Misha Zelinsky:

… conservative party.

Mike Murphy:

Well, that is a great question. So it was a takeover and we’ve gone from being a, I’ll use the Australian example, we’re a small-l liberal party. We believed in free trade, and we believed in the Atlantic Alliance, we were fiscal conservatives, we were classic. Then Trump takes over and all of a sudden it’s Juan Peron. He doesn’t care anything about the budget or entitlements, blows up all the alliances. Runs a racket near criminal behavior with Confederates and people like that as a soft spot for the white supremacist movement, which was long dead. And he just sprinkled a little gasoline on the embers, see what he can do there.

Mike Murphy:

And he’s ruined the Republican brand, and Republican politicians with a few notable exceptions. I’ll give a salute to my old friend and client, Mitt Romney. Pretty much gone cynical and looked the other way, thinking, well, we won, we have power and, or I’m afraid… One Senator told me, “Look, I see you on cable TV screaming about Trump.” This was two years ago. “I would love to do that. I go home, give a fiery speech, he’s a moron. I’ve seen him in the White House, he can’t work at TV remote. The aide has to come do it.

Mike Murphy:

He’s an idiot. And my wife would be so happy, she’d talked to me again. It would be fantastic. And I’d give that fiery speech back in my State. A day later, I’d have a guy in an uncle Sam suit with an aluminum foil hat primarying me, and I’d be only one point ahead, and I probably lose. Then some socialists would take over or some Democrat and I’ve been in the trenches 30 years fighting that and Trump wouldn’t change at all. Trump will just be Trump, so we’re going to wait him out.”

Mike Murphy:

And I said, “Well, what if 10 of you guys came forward?” And he said, “Sign me up. I’m number three, tell me who the first two are.” That has been the problem, but as you say, he’s ruined the brand, and I think if Trump loses, we’re going to have a big civil war over what we are. Do we go back to the liberal party conservatism? Or do we stay in this populous madness? Now, the argument for a reversion to some modernized mean is political parties don’t like losing, and under Trump we’ve been wiped out.

Mike Murphy:

American politics is such a big country, is full of a lot of bullshit because there’s room for commentators, and pollsters, and it’s endless TV show. Guilty, I’m part of it, but most of them haven’t really done campaigns. Like hardheaded businessmen, one thing we know from doing campaigns here on both sides, the operatives know is like Wall Street, we have a thing called mark-to-market. What is it worth today?

Mike Murphy:

You have to sell your factory this week, there’s a price you get. Not going to be maybe the best price or maybe that week it will be, but there’s what it’s worth now. You mark it to market, take an asset, what is it worth today in cash? Not what in 10 years it’ll be worth. Well, in politics, mark-to-market is election day, we count the votes and the polls don’t matter, the predictions don’t matter, it’s just what is.

Mike Murphy:

So when every mark-to-market moments since Trump took the oath of office after being elected, problem part he’s got beat, and we’ve gotten beat either really bad, medium bad, or mediocre. There are no big wins where we would have a special election and a safe Republican seat, and we’d win it by 10 instead of the normal 20. And swing seats would generally gotten our clock cleaned.

Mike Murphy:

We’ve had the biggest wipe out in the Congress since Watergate, we’ve lost nine governorships, and right now we’re on our way to lose in the Senate, which is a shocker because to do that we’re going to have to lose some lean Republican States, and right now the pollings a disaster. Maybe there’ll be a big come back as possible, but it’ll be hanging on by one seat if we do it. So Trump has been anthrax. We are drinking Clorox politically.

Mike Murphy:

When the party regroups after that, I think the biggest We’re going to get tired of winning guy in America” becomes the biggest loser, wiped out our political power. And our legislators are all moving into smaller office and nobody calls them Mr. Chairman anymore. We have had a… One of the stats people don’t look at is since Trump was elected, almost half the serving Republican members of Congress or the Senate have retired or been beaten and left.

Mike Murphy:

So out of that rubble, we either decide this is 1946 and we’re Toyota, and we’re going to need some new modern factories here. Or we go with Trump Jr, or Trump tries again, or a Trump imitator, which will have strength in the party. There are diehards who will… It’s a cult, but I think it’ll be a much more fair fight and Trump will have none of that or lower the big winner who’s going to do anything because there’s going to be very little left.

Mike Murphy:

So my guess is we will lurch in a more normal direction, but the other part of the story is we have to modernize conservatism simply because the demography is against us. It used to be in American politics, ’88, then down to ’82, 80% of the vote was Caucasian and the Republicans won a majority of that vote. This election, we’ll see if we can get to 71% Caucasian. My guess is it’ll be more like 70.

Mike Murphy:

So we’ve been standing still retreating among white voters. Well, nonwhite voters where we can’t get arrested, no surprise, look at the way we act, especially lately have been exploding in size. So we’re in a demographic vice, so we need to modernize conservatives. Now, the good thing is there’s a market. Thank God for the Democrats because the loony left is getting stronger and stronger on their side and over time there’ll be a fatigue there.

Mike Murphy:

And we will have an opportunity to offer quite an alternative, but it’s up to us to figure out what that alternative is going to be.

Misha Zelinsky:

So who are the people to keep an eye out for? Who are the likely leaders of the future in the Republican Party, good and bad?

Mike Murphy:

Well, there’s always a casino game of who’s who and it’s always wrong, but the next generation, I’ll start, there’s former governor, Nikki Haley of South Carolina. She was two term governor there. She was Trump UN ambassador. She escaped the chains of Trump, but she was Trumpy when she had to be. I think she’s the most cynical person I’ve ever dealt with in American politics. So she’s very formidable, but I’d love to sprinkle a little holy water on her and see what happens.

Mike Murphy:

I’m not a big fan because I’ve dealt with her, but she is definitely a contender and again, she’ll make a deal with anybody to get the job. So you got to look at her. And she has been a droid at being right with Trump when it was in her interest and who Trump, huh? Lately. That cynicism may catch up with her, but she is formidable. Then in the Senate, you got a couple of junior Trumps, Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton.

Mike Murphy:

Tom’s a veteran, does the veteran hero, Trumpian thing. I appreciated his service but as politics were demagogic, but hey, there’s some evidence to show there’s a ticket there. Marco Rubio, Senator from Florida is always humming hail to the chief. We’ll see, he ran before. Ben Sasse is a thoughtful conservative. He’s been gutless on Trump, but his other stuff has been very good from Nebraska. Doesn’t have a huge base, but attractive candidate. The Trump sons, particularly Don Jr. He’s openly talking about it, yeah.

Mike Murphy:

One of the problems is, this happened in Hollywood after Arnold got elected. Arnold was funny, a California governor is enough of a big figure. You have security issues, particularly of a super movie star like him. He’d run around Sacramento in a suburban with a chase car, but whenever Arnold was in Hollywood, he’d have them put on the full package two suburban sirens and motorcycle, it was ridiculous just to show his friends.

Mike Murphy:

And next thing you know, Rob Brian is thinking about running for governor, Rob Lowe, it caught on. Well, with Trump, every idiot with yacht is thinking, hey, can be me. So we can have a couple of those guys. And then the latest D.C. bubble, and again, I’ve been around this too long and most of the people, American TV pitches about politics never run a campaign. So I’m a little cynical about the conventional wisdom, but Tucker Carlson, who probably…

Mike Murphy:

I don’t know if he means anything over there, but he’s… Yeah, yeah. You’d know about him, but he’s very glib. He’s a big star on Fox. Old friend of mine before he went crazy. He used to be a respected journalist, but he’s the sharp acid tongue, but clever trumping guy in TV, so there’s a boom right now for Tucker. I think he would never make it and my guess is, he’s making too much money being a TV blowhard, but he’s being mentioned right now.

Mike Murphy:

I would tell my friends in Australia to tune in. I can finally admit it, I used to do a lot of work in Canada. They didn’t talk about it at the time and it was always fun with my Canadian friends. There’s probably a parallel kind of a Commonwealth thing with Australia, but the Canadians would always say, “Well, I’m a federal toy. I’m a provincial social credit voter and I’m an American Democrat.” Because they’d see so much of it, they’d adopt a party to root for it.

Mike Murphy:

So I would say if you like the theater of the absurd and it may… I think it may get better and become hopeful. And if Trump loses as he is likely, but not certain to keep an eye on the Republican primary because there’ll be no end of entertainment.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it certainly sounds like good theater, if nothing else. Of course, so for there to be a Republican primary, there’s got to be firstly, a Democratic victory, a Biden presidency. Biden at the moment, you look at the polling, he’s well ahead on national polls, double digit, leads in most national polls, he’s got good single digit leads in all the critical swing States.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’re a strategist, you’re running Biden’s campaign, what’s keeping you up at night right now if you are in charge of that campaign?

Mike Murphy:

That nobody knows Joe Biden. It’s one of these things where they’re way ahead of their supply lines in the polling, and what I mean by that is that the country wants to fire Donald Trump. I’d argued they wanted that since 2017, which is why the Republican Party has taken a beating on every mark-to-market day of elections. Almost everywhere, almost all the time, almost always really bad. So fire Trump is what’s winning the election now, and that’s not uncommon. Generally our presidential elections are a referendum on the incumbent, keep him or lose him.

Mike Murphy:

But at some point in the campaign, they take a look at the challenger. Now, because the coronavirus, Joe’s been locked in his basement doing a few good things, but to political junkies, Biden is well known, has been around forever. To rank and file voters, they don’t know much about them at all other than old guy from D.C. who seems blue collar and seems like a good guy to have a beer with. They don’t know anything else.

Mike Murphy:

The Trump campaign is going to have a couple of hundred million to do what incumbents in trouble always do, which is beat the hell out of him, and that’s coming. And there’s been a lot of worry that the Biden fundraising operation has been anemic. His campaign started with a small staff, can he handle that? Well, the last two months he’s raised more money than Donald Trump, which is a very good sign. So the Biden folks are catching up fast.

Mike Murphy:

But Joe, I know him, I like him. I ideologically, I was for Buttigieg because I know him and I think he… And again, I’m a conservative, so yeah, yeah. All of this is painful for me because I’m probably seeing I’m not with many of them, but I want to get rid of Trump. I’m actually-

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, how much were you freaking out about Bernie Sanders who’s in the lead going to South Carolina and looked like he might win at one point?

Mike Murphy:

Oh God, my worst nightmare come to life. It’s unbelievable. I was on the phone trying to see if we can get a Neil Kinnock look alike to come over in primary. It’d be inch better. So I’m part of Republican voters against Trump, if you’re curious and we’re running a big aggressive campaign. So as I like to say, I’m not buying Democrat, I’m leasing for four years to get rid of Trump.

Mike Murphy:

Here’s the Biden problem. Lets look at him, just like a product. So there’s the Iowa caucus. Now it’s a weird election, small turnout, Iowa, but it’s important and it’s the first test. Well, Biden starts 20 points ahead and he gets there because he’s known in the Democratic Party, liked, and all of a sudden there’s competition. So good soybean farmer in Iowa gets to start with Biden, but then, hey, there’s this Buttigieg guy. He’s really impressive.

Mike Murphy:

Wow, I like this Cory Booker, I like Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, a just North of here. And all of a sudden in a competitive market, Biden gets wiped out when people have other choices. And so then he goes to New Hampshire and he gets wiped out again. Well, bad sign. Then he gets to South Carolina, the first contest with a large African American population influential in it, which is true in the Southern Democratic primaries, and because of his connection to Obama, and because of earned affection in that community, and because the most powerful leader in the community was all for him, he wins.

Mike Murphy:

So he’s the turtle upon the fence post. He did not climb up there himself. Now, they then surf forward and beat everybody and came back from the dead, so I give him a big salute. But what that’s telling me is Biden is not a magic candidate, he needs that help. And right now what’s helping him is fire Trump, which I doubt will change. But Biden’s going to go through some bumpy times if they can manage that, particularly the big debates.

Mike Murphy:

Because the Trump campaign slogan has been, Biden’s a sleepy, crazy old man, and Biden’s had some bad moments on the trail. Part of it is Biden is a motor mouth and he gets tangled up and everything. I think Biden is smarter and sharper than Trump by a mile, but perception is reality of judicious editing, you get these moments. So Trump’s going to build that up, and if Biden has a sharp debate, it’ll be destroyed, it will be over.

Mike Murphy:

But if Biden has a bad debate because Joe was too busy calling other old politicians around the country and not going through grilling debate prep for the next five months, and doesn’t take it seriously. And in the past, Joe has not been a very disciplined campaigner. So if Joe can’t get into shape here, he will give Trump an opening.

Mike Murphy:

Now, my guess is, the country will still fire Trump, but let’s remember the Obama example. Obama had bad reelect numbers, not as bad as Trump but bad, and so they went out and they defined my friend Mitt Romney a lot better than Mitt defined himself, and they beat him. And it will be the same strategy for Trump with more ferocity.

Mike Murphy:

The other thing I worry about, and I’m not sending any angry emails to David Axelrod at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics, dear listeners, but I’m a hardheaded politician, so I’m talking about the numbers. I worry a little, the Democrats have a fetish for identity. You go to the DNC website… See what we Republicans do and drives them crazy, but we try to pitch one big idea of room for everybody, Make America Great Again, which was originally a Reagan slogan, Shining City on a Hill.

Mike Murphy:

And so we tend to have one big vision whether you like it or not for where we’re going and put everybody in it. The Democrats tend to say, “New Englanders for Biden.” I have a yard sign in my basement where we record the podcast. I collect a lot of this political stuff over the years and I’ve got a native Americans for Al Gore yard sign of a big feather at it.

Mike Murphy:

Now, I have nothing against feathers, I have nothing against… In fact, I’m a fan of native American culture, but you go to the DMC page and it’s African Americans for Biden, Asian Americans… It’s 400 groups. And right now the theory in the conventional wisdom is African American voters are so important. We have to have an African American running mate because we’ve had this moment of awakening about systemic racism.

Mike Murphy:

And I agree with everything, but the African American running mate, why? Because the African American vote is the one thing Biden has. He has tons of it. And what he’s got to worry about are cranky white people who are suspicious of identity politics, and if there’s a racial undercurrent there, I would like to fix it after the election, after you get their damn votes and you have power.

Mike Murphy:

And if we nominate a Kamala Harris or something else to reinforce a vote you already have, you give Trump an opening. And Trump is a racist and a runner racist campaign. So going to the liberal African American left is scary to me. It adds risk to the Biden campaign and I don’t want risk. I want Trump in a box going out of the box of his papers being shoved out of the office. So they have to be careful about that.

Mike Murphy:

The theory is, oh, if you don’t do it, everybody will stay home. Nobody is going to stay home against Trump. Biden has respect in that community. They know his administration will be strongly of color. But pandering to… You see, one of the problems we have American politics now, and the media is bought into this is this narrative that your base voters are swing voters.

Mike Murphy:

No, base voters will vote for a box of horseshoes if it has an R or D on it, but you’ve got to win the election by making your base slightly uncomfortable and reaching out a little bit. And if the Biden people run an all base strategy, then we’re going to be debating Kamala Harris positions like cash reparations for former slaves, which I can tell you in the industrial suburbs where Trump rang the bell in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan is going to be much better for Trump than it is for Biden. So I don’t want to give Trump any of those tools. So I worry about the VP pick.

Mike Murphy:

Nobody in American politics votes for VP. It’s just a big Superbowl for the press, big contest where the voters learned something about the candidate for president based on who he or she picks. This whole election will come down to the suburbs. The Republicans under Trump have lost the suburbs, college educated white women, college educated white independents and males, and if Biden goes hard left or goes too racial, the suburbs are going to start going back to the safety of the GOP.

Mike Murphy:

So my advice to Biden and all these things about winning is take the risk out of it. Pick an Amy Klobuchar, though she took herself out, pick a Gina Raimondo, the governor of Rhode Island. Best democratic governor in the country. Pick a Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, key State, popular, smart, generational change. Pick governor Lujan even in of New Mexico. She’s impressive. But careful, careful, careful, careful with the identity stuff because their best skill is pulling the Democrats who are run by a coastal elite into culture wars.

Mike Murphy:

And in the Midwest, the Dems have lost. Whitmer knows what to do in Michigan, but they’ve lost the ability to really understand a Republican culture war attack. Look at Hillary, I know people in Michigan, well, I grew up around Detroit who on weekends, they’d come up in the auto industry, were making good money as trained machinists, the high skilled blue collar jobs. On weekends are being paid cash to dissemble 40 ton stamping presses and put them on freight cars to Mexico.

Mike Murphy:

And most of them are Democrats and they are listening to Hillary Clinton talk about gender rights and bathrooms. Now gender rights and bathroom are important, but if you’re a 52-year old auto worker who’s never going to learn how to code and you’re watching the machine your dad worked at and it gave you a middle class life being taken down into parts and putting on a freight car to Mexico, you got other problems.

Mike Murphy:

The Democrat, they don’t need to win that vote, but they need to be competitive there, and I’m worried their identity fetish, sorry, for the long answer, will steer them into a place where Trump will have a good September. That said, I think Joe wins. If I had to bet, I bet on Joe definitely.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, personally, I have a rule to never bet on elections ever again after the 2016 presidential election. Those who know me will understand why. I just want to switch gears a little. We’ve talked a lot about the current presidency, the upcoming election, talk about some previous elections and candidates you worked for and a little bit of politics in the pub, a bit of Ali versus Tyson.

Misha Zelinsky:

We talked about Schwarzenegger, but you worked for John McCain who’s a legendary Republican Senator, presidential candidate. The 2000 campaign that he lost to George Bush, do you think the Republican Party, do you think the world would have been different had McCain won that one?

Mike Murphy:

Oh sure. Yeah. We’ve got hacks at the pub here. I like it. Number one beer in Australia, Fosters?

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, definitely not a Fosters. It’s actually an export beer. Nobody in Australia drinks Fosters, believe it or not.

Mike Murphy:

What’s the best one? What do I order when I’m there?

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s go with the VB, mate.

Mike Murphy:

I see the advertising. That’s why I asked you. I didn’t want to go with the line, “Hand me a Fosters.” Got that. I’ll bet I’ll be wrong.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah. Well, if John had won the nomination, I worked a lot in 2000 with him. He was an amazing character, I’m very fond of him. We had an incredible time because it was a pure insurgency. We got to sneak around, blowing up bridges and everything. Then if they had called our bluff and actually made us the nominee, it would have been a bumpy general election candidate because McCain was always ready to get into a good fight with a third of his own party.

Mike Murphy:

But had we won, I think McCain would have been a great reformer in the Teddy Roosevelt tradition and it would have reclocked things a bit. It would have been bumpy, but it would have been, let’s put, I’m from Los Angeles, I also worked in show business, a writer and producer, and there’s a great old line about Jack Warner who built Warner brothers studio with his brother. And Jack was a very crusty guy.

Mike Murphy:

Albert Einstein once came to the studio and he said, “Hey Jack, this is Professor Einstein. He wrote the theory of relativity in Oregon city.” Warner said, “I got a theory too about relatives, don’t go into business with them.” Because he was always fighting his brother. But anyway, they asked him how hard it was to run a big movie studio in the golden age and he said, “Well, you got to make a choice. I don’t get heart attacks, I give them.”

Mike Murphy:

And McCain would have given a lot of heart attacks. He would have been on offense all the time. And I think he would have been a great president. I think he really would have. Then we would have had the bad second term probably and wouldn’t have been as good. But I think the party had become so corrupted by just keeping the perpetual power machine in D.C. And this stunned me, I thought most of the hacks would go wrong, but I know a lot of these Senators, I’ve worked for a bunch of them and Congressmen.

Mike Murphy:

I thought there’d be more pushback, and as you said, other than the Russian stuff, sanctions, a few things like that, occasionally China and a lot of eye rolling at the North Korea policy, there hasn’t been, they’ve been gutless. It’s funny, they get a federal paycheck, but it’s not like we’re asking them to land on Anzio Beach and get shot. We’re just asking them to give up Senate haircuts for two bucks if they lose a primary.

Mike Murphy:

But apparently, and that shook me. And my guess is the Democrats have so tested might be just as bad. It’s been very easy to be a Democrat because you get a free halo from Trump and you can say, “Oh, he’s horrible. He’s horrible.” And it’s not morally equivalent, but when Clinton was misbehaving in the White House and lying to the camera about it, all the strong feminist of the Democratic Party found comfort in silence.

Mike Murphy:

So it has scared me about the fines and patriotism of the kind of people we elect to Congress because I’m proud the Democrats have been tough on Trump, but it’s been easy. There’s no cost in it for them, it’s a winner.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, Mike, I could of course go on all day picking your brain on these topics, but it’s time for the [inaudible 00:53:40] fun part of the show where I do my trademark clunky segue from heavy foreign policy to talk to light chat. Now, of course, you’re an avid fan of Diplomates, so you know these questions coming your way, Mike.

Mike Murphy:

I have it on my subscription list, so I promise you, I will.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you’ve got to listen to this episode at least, mate. So that’s great because there’ll be two listeners, you and my mind. So barbecue at Mike Murphy’s, who are the three Aussies coming along and why?

Mike Murphy:

Oh, well, I’d love to meet an Australian prime minister, Mr. Morrison of the Liberal Party, would be interesting. And I’m also curious about all the nutty intrigue and all that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh you mean the [KU capital 00:54:25]?

Mike Murphy:

Yeah, yeah. No, no. It’s Game of Thrones down there, so I’m curious about that. Maybe I’d also invite opponent and watch them circle each other, but I want it to be a fun barbecue. I would call my wonderful friend of mine, we did for years named [Judof 00:54:42], who’s from Melbourne, grew up there. Not there now, she’s in New York, but she used to tell me great stories about various characters, so I give her one person to pick because I’ve heard all the names, but I’m going to get it wrong right now.

Mike Murphy:

I would probably do that, and boy, Australia in so many ways punches way above its weight and there are some tremendous film directors and actors that have come out of there. And based on my Hollywood life, I’d drag Sam Neill in, or maybe Hines, or one of the great Australian artists. There’s a lot. It would be a tough call, but probably somebody Judof would recommend to amaze me of her knowledge. Morrison or even a former prime minister, but somebody from the Liberal Part on right just because I’m curious about all the madness.

Mike Murphy:

And one of your leading film people, probably… We’ll start with Sam Neill just because he’s a truly great actor and he’s had an amazing career than any other stars.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m laughing Mike because you’ve stumbled into one of the great Australian ripoffs, which is that anyone who becomes famous from New Zealand globally immediately become stolen as an Australian citizen. So Sam Neill, believe it or not, is actually Kiwi, so you’ve gone and made unwittingly a host of enemies in New Zealand and I’ve got a huge following the on this show in New Zealand. So there you go, mate, enemies for life all over the shaky isles.

Mike Murphy:

You guys should just invade and solve that thing. I understand they don’t have an army, it wouldn’t take long. I don’t know how many Americans, they probably always say Paul Hogan, and I was definitely not going to go there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Crocodile Dundee obviously, mate-

Mike Murphy:


Misha Zelinsky:

… or another Kiwi, Russell Crowe.

Mike Murphy:

Oh, I didn’t know that. I bumped into him once. I bumped into this guy and he turned around and I thought one, sorry… And he was nice. Sorry for bumping in and two, well, you’re not 6/4 like our movie stars. It was at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, long story. But anyway, Crowe would be… Guy Pearce is a tremendous actor. He would be high on my list. There’s an Australian television show I love where he’s a down and out lawyer detective.

Mike Murphy:

It airs here like two years later and it’s perfectly made, and it’s a great cast of Australian character actors. Use box office. Well, can I wrap up with a few plugs here real quick?

Mike Murphy:

Republican voters against Trump, we are doing a lot of cool vicious anti-Trump ads and stuff, so you got to check us out at our rvat, One of the things we’re doing is we’re having real Republicans just get online and do an ad into the camera. Very grassroots, we’ve done over 350 of them, and then we air them digitally in the key five States. And we got big news coming.

Mike Murphy:

In fact, appreciate this as a poll. We just did a dirty trick. We took a poll of Jacksonville, Florida, Duvall County, lean Republican, but an important County where Trump wants to have the convention. We found out they don’t want it. They don’t want to COVID convention. So we’re throwing a lot of bombs there, and if you’re curious about what’s going on in Republican civil war, they’re a good place to go.

Mike Murphy:

And then of course, Hacks on Tap and Radio Free GOP. We just did a special episode with Bill Kristol and a bunch of the other leaders of RVAT talking about our strategy. So when you listen to every Diplomate podcast twice, and after you’ve memorized it, and you want another one, check out one of those and hopefully you enjoy it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Of course, mate, I love Hacks on Tap and I encourage everyone to listen in, it’s fantastic show. And check out Radio GOP. There you go, I’m the Republican ads, mate. Just one supplementary question, if I could just.

Mike Murphy:

Yeah, of course.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked a bit about Never Trumping, what should people be doing if they are Republican in this election? Should they be voting for Biden? Should they stay at home? Should they split their ticket? What would you say to those people in this election?

Mike Murphy:

My argument is vote Biden. He’s not that bad, that’s my powerful slogan. I got to stop Trump, so participate but vote Biden. If he can’t stand that, participate, but skip, just don’t vote in the presidential. Or write in Ronald Reagan, nothing wrong with that. Write in John McCain. Write in Mitt Romney, write in whoever you believe in. So vote for president you want not the one you endure.

Mike Murphy:

But I encourage people to vote and down the ticket I’m really… This is the big fight in the Never Trump movement. Should we throw out the Republican Senate in-house to punish them for what they’ve done with Trump or is it still okay to vote for a gutless Republican Senator? And I’m really torn on this. I’m leaning toward, it’s still okay to vote for a gutless Republican Senator. I have a complicated argument which I’ll try to do very quickly.

Mike Murphy:

Biden’s big superpower in the Senate was he was the only guy on the Democratic side who could make a deal through Republicans because they trust him. He could go into a room with Mitch McConnell and they’d have a hell of a battle, but they respect each other, he’d come out with something. If the Democrats win the Senate, and the house, and the Biden presidency, Joe’s going to find himself boxed in by the left and Joe’s center is Democrat.

Mike Murphy:

And he’s going to be a little less powerful and ideologically a little more in the corner than he’s going to want to be, yet the Republicans still hold onto the Senate by a vote and have the majority there, and the Democrats have the house, which they will have. Then Biden’s got something to work with. He’s got a little counterforce where you can say, “I’m the only guy who can get this out of McConnell. I’m not going to be able to get your AOC agenda from the hard left, but I can get this, that, and the other thing I’ll trade them for that.”

Mike Murphy:

And the Republicans on the other hand will be hanging on by one vote and terrified and ready to deal. So there’s from Biden’s personal point of view, having a narrow one vote Senate lead, Biden’s got more power to operate. And ideologically would be a more centrist outcome than totally turning over the world to the Ds, where the Republicans in the Senate will just go into flame throwing opposition mode like a bunch of house guys.

Mike Murphy:

Will make the job of rebuilding the party harder too. So I’m for the one vote edge in the Senate, as mad as I am at him and I’m still working that through. So whatever it is, I tell everybody to vote. Don’t stay home, it a democracy. Do your duty.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do your duty, what a hopeful place in this conversation. Mike Murphy, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been fantastic.

Mike Murphy:

Thank you, Misha. Anytime. Take care. Let me know if you’re ever in the U.S.

Misha Zelinsky:

Hopefully not too far away. Cheers, mate. Take care.

Mike Murphy:

See you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Hey, everyone, before you go, a little bit of homework. Mike mentioned Hacks on Tap quite a bit. It’s fantastic podcast, so I encourage you to jump on, listen, subscribe. It’s one of the best U.S. and general political podcasts going around with some legendary and political analysts on there. And as ever, if you did enjoy the episode, jump on iTunes or your podcasting app, rate, review, and subscribe to the show, it helps get the word out there.

Misha Zelinsky:

I hope you’ve enjoyed the episode and see you next time.

Speaker 2:

You were just listening to Diplomates – A Geopolitical Chinwag. For more episodes, visit Or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or through any of your favorite podcast channels.

Speaker 1:

This podcast is brought to you by Minimal Productions, Producer Jim Mintz.


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

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

Benedict Hugosson is a global expert in political campaigning.

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ben Hugosson:              Thank you very much.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The social Democrats.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Lies, damned lies and statistics.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             People don’t join anymore.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Churches.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             France.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Other regional areas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s a platform.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Mix in.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             What is define and mobilize.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good, very good.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Oh, right.

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

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

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


Alex Oliver

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

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

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


Misha Zelinsky:             Alex Oliver, welcome to the show.

Alex Oliver:                   Thanks very much Misha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well I was just curious about-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The Iraq war.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that’s right.

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The Shy Tory, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, and maybe explain those?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that will be great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   It correlates with the weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Well, I don’t know-

Misha Zelinsky:             … is it hard to know?

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah.

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

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

Misha Zelinsky:             … but I’m just curious.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That “Stop the boats” rhetoric?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             And the Hong Kong situation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s right, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             And fewer students being sent here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Because that feels tangential and you know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, you do.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A tough portfolio.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A great book.

Alex Oliver:                   You read it?

Misha Zelinsky:             Yes.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Defector.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A fascinating story, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah Pete.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A 37 no less-

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Pretty good huh?

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

Alex Oliver:                   And all alive.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Thanks.


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

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

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

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


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

Wayne Swan:                Good to be here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Locally and used locally. Yeah.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Was it 2009? ‘8?

Wayne Swan:                No, not ‘9.

Misha Zelinsky:             ‘7?

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. ‘6, probably.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah.

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Correct.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Is that right?

Wayne Swan:                Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             How will they find it?

Wayne Swan:                Well, it’s-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Absolutely. And I-

Misha Zelinsky:             … by an autocracy.

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

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Absolutely. Absolutely.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That was from the NBN, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Correct.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             You’re talking about megaphone diplomacy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Yeah.

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

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Yeah. Well, the big-

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             I’ll bet.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay. Practical list, practical list.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, LBJ.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Mm-hmm (affirmative).

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Oh, foreign? Oh, right.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, yeah.

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

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

Wayne Swan:                Pleasure.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ll get to that.

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                Social justice.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s not antithetical-

Chris Bowen:                No, that’s right.

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

Chris Bowen:                Quite the contrary! Quite the contrary!

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                They certainly do not.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Quote that!

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Shining hope of the world!

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Chris Bowen:                Last hope.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s an interesting point.

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

Chris Bowen:                We have tribes.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, right.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Going to Bali.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Forgot institution largely.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             G20.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Quarter of a billion people!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well it’s certainly…

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Old dog, new tricks mate!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Other languages are always challenging.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Same.

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                It’s extraordinary!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Two fifty.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A peaceful change as well.

Chris Bowen:                They had a peaceful change, yeah!

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is always the test.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                Australia and Canada, household debt.

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly. Exactly right.

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

Chris Bowen:                Exactly right.

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Correct.

Chris Bowen:                Debt does worry me.

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Well, ideally.

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:             Demand for consumption.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Might be less fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                I added one.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.


Max Bergmann: Center for American Progress

Foreign Interference and Russia 2016 Election Special.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow and director of the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on European security and Russia policy. Previously he served in the U.S. Department of State where he focused on political-military affairs, arms control and international security. He was also speechwriter to Secretary of State John Kerry. A graduate of the London School of Economics, Max joined Misha Zelinsky to discuss foreign interference in democracy, what the Mueller Report uncovered about the US 2016 election, whether the Congress should impeach the President, how Russia interfered in the Brexit referendum, and how democracies can fight back against hostile actors. 

Misha Zelinsky:             So, Max, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?

Max Bergmann:            Good, how are you?

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m well, and we are obviously doing this by the miracle of the internet. I think it’s about the end of the day in DC and the start of the day here in Australia, so welcome to the show.

Max Bergmann:            Thanks so much for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, I was thinking about the best place to start. Now your background is foreign interference. You have a background in the US State Department and you’re working in foreign interference at the Center for American Progress. I suppose firstly, before we get into the specifics, why does foreign interference matter at all? Why would we at all be concerned about this?

Max Bergmann:            Well, I think it matters even more now than it has in the past and it’s partly because of how our politics work now. It’s how people get their information, how the Internet has transformed people’s lives, has made, I think modern societies particularly vulnerable to foreign interference in a way that wasn’t really the case, I think, in previous eras, at least not to the same degree. Partly because, now, it’s very easy to reach people to connect with people, to influence different segments of the population and so, the way foreign governments are interfering, I think is particularly important because for our Democratic politics, both in Australia and the United States and everywhere there’s a democratic country, it’s important that that be an internal conversation. It’s always going to be influenced in some ways by the broader world, by broader dynamics, but when you start having foreign governments saying, “We are going to deliberately get involved and find a way to tip the balance, put our thumb on the scale in a particular direction,” where you start undermining the very legitimacy of democratic politics. And the way we live now with this modern network society, it’s increasingly easy and available to foreign countries to try to put their thumb on the scale.

Max Bergmann:            And so, I think it’s a particularly pernicious threat to open societies, to open liberal democratic countries where our openness is our big great advantage and what these foreign governments are trying to do is really undermine that and take advantage of it. And so I think it’s a real worry, it’s a real threat and a real concern and something that all democratic societies now really have to pay attention to.

Misha Zelinsky:             And, of course, the most famous example, there are other examples we could get into, the most famous example that’s been debated lately is the 2016 US presidential election and the interference of the Russians there. Before we get into the Mueller report and the political dimensions of all this, what do we know specifically? What are the uncontested facts in this space?

Max Bergmann:            Well, so there’s a lot, actually of uncontested facts and Mueller’s 400+ page report I think, most of that, almost all of that, is largely uncontested. But I think when it comes to the foreign interference dimension, in particular, now I think the way the Mueller report has been interpreted, I think, particularly outside of America and abroad is, well it didn’t quite have the smoking gun to nail Trump. I don’t actually think that’s quite true, but the more important part of the Mueller report for foreign countries, for foreign democracies, is the first 50 some odd pages where he outlines a Russian conspiracy against the United States. We forget that Mueller has brought all these criminal charges and what Mueller effectively identifies in Volume I, in the first 50 pages, are two distinct Russian lines of effort to influence American politics. And they’re quite successful in 2016.

Max Bergmann:            And that first line of effort was to social media, through the creation of the Internet Research Agency. This is sort of a pseudo-private oligarch funded operation in St. Petersburg. And what does it do? It was trying to influence American, the political discussion on social media, facebook, on Twitter, this is where we hear about the troll farms, the bots, which are automated accounts. And what the Russians effectively figured out is how to game the American debate, how to game the social media companies by, if you amplify content, if everyone’s retweeting the same thing, if you create automated bots that is all retweeting racist content, some of that racist content gets amplified. Lots of people then look at it. He gets promoted. And so that was one major line of effort. Where the Russians were trying to interfere both to sow discord in American politics, basically amplify our racial divisions, amplify aspects of American political debate that they wanted to promote, and then the other aspect was to simply promote Donald Trump. There were a lot of Russian accounts that were promoting Donald Trump. And this was not a Mickey Mouse sized operation. It had roughly 80 people devoted just to the United States, just to the 2016 election with a multimillion dollar budget.

Max Bergmann:            Now if you look at the Clinton campaign’s digital operation, this is the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, she had roughly 80 people devoted to digital. So you see what is, in effect, a Russian online campaign, digital campaign, devoted to influencing American politics. And probably, it’s not going to be as effective as the Clinton digital campaign, but, on the other hand, this is the campaign, on the Russian side, willing to say things that normal political campaigns wouldn’t do, push certain messages, attack candidates in ways that people that were had to be true to who they were, had to represent themselves wouldn’t say.

Max Bergmann:            And so the second line of effort, so the first line is the social media campaign that Mueller outlined. The second line of effort is the hacking. Now this is basic intelligence operations. A Russian military intelligence unit within the Russian GRU that was devoted, not to hacking the State Department or hacking a diplomat’s phone, but to hacking an actual political campaign. And hacking the personal email accounts of John Podesta, who is the cofounder of Center for American Progress, who I should disclose the place that I work at, but also, penetrating the Democratic Party, which they were able to successfully do.

Max Bergmann:            When we think about political campaigns, political campaigns, especially in the American context, are basically like small start up companies that suddenly balloon overnight and have all these young twentysomethings working for them. And so they are quite actually easy in some ways to penetrate or should be. Actually, the Clinton campaign took cybersecurity incredibly seriously. So the Clinton campaign actually wasn’t breached. It was a personal email account of Podesta and it was the Democratic Party. But so the Russians broke in, stole tens of thousands of emails from both the Democratic Party and from John Podesta. And not only that, they also stole a lot of stuff, like their field operations research, basically their battle plans for the campaign, and we don’t know what they did with that. We know that they release the emails into different waves through Wikileaks, which was an online transparency organization that felt no bones about releasing content that was given to them by Russian intel and release that right before the Democratic convention in July, which was the first release. And then the second release, which came in October was sort of the October surprise of the election.

Max Bergmann:            And so it had a huge impact on the race, in a race that was so close there is no doubt that when you look at the impact of both those lines of effort, it definitely swung the election, tilted the election in Donald Trump’s favor. So that’s in the Mueller report and I think it’s something that all countries, that all democratic societies should look at those, especially the first 50 pages, to learn about, hey, if this could happen in the United States, how could this also happen here in our country?

Misha Zelinsky:             And I suppose I should apologize on behalf of the Australian people for the role that Julian Assange played in Wikileaks. We won’t get into that too much, but that was a really good run down of the 400 page report and a two-year investigation, but I think you’re right. One of the things that’s fascinating to me is that, you’re right, the question of the smoking gun that if Mueller wasn’t able to find a recording between Vladimir Putin and either Donald Trump himself or someone in the Trump organization, campaign, that this was all going to be a farce of an investigation, that it wasn’t going to be that… One of the things that I think would be good for you to unpack would be all the people in the Trump campaign, that worked on the campaign, that have since been indicted and arrested and charged, and in some cases, imprisoned. So if you could give us some idea, a quick rundown of the rap sheet, I think that would be interesting.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, no sure. The Mueller investigation was probably the most successful special counsel investigation that we’ve ever had in the United States. And the report that he produced is the most damning thing ever written, most damaging official document ever written about a President of the United States. And as you mentioned, the Mueller investigation has led to guilty pleas of Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort; his deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates; his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen; his first National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn; as well as a Foreign Policy Advisor, a guy name George Papadopoulos. It has produced a tremendous amount of indictments and charges also against Russians and Russian affiliated individuals. So this was an investigation that found a lot of lawbreaking, found a lot of crime.

Max Bergmann:            I think when it comes to Donald Trump, what we see here is, in fact, a classic counterintelligence investigation, that what Mueller found was a lot of smoking guns. What he didn’t find was Donald Trump pulling the trigger. When we think about famous, if we go back to the Cold War era or post-Cold War era, where the US was busting a lot of Russian or KGB agents that were embedded in the CIA, the FBI, we have the famous Aldrich Ames case and the famous Robert Hanson case, what happened in both of those, the FBI caught them at the dead drop. They got them in the act of committing this crime. In this case, Mueller was only appointed to investigate a year after the election almost and what seems pretty clear is the FBI was very slow on the uptake in terms of Russian interference during the actual election. Some of this was actually the fault of the Obama administration not being super focused on the threat of Russian interference at the time. It caught everyone off guard. And so that gave people a lot of time to delete messages, to delete emails, to erase things on their phone and coordinate stories.

Max Bergmann:            So what we see in the Volume II of the Mueller report is the crime, is the crime that implicates the President of the United States, his obstruction of justice. And we have the famous story here in the US of Al Capone who was this famous mobster during the prohibition era in the 1920s and how did Al Capone go down? Well, of tax evasion. No one says that Al Capone wasn’t this famed mobster, he was avoiding taxes because he was this famed mobster. But it was the tax evasion that got him. And I think what we see here is Robert Mueller, the reason why there’s 198 pages of Volume I devoted to Trump’s Russian contacts, the Russian contacts with Donald Trump in the Trump campaign with Russia is because Mueller was describing a story, a story of something that Donald Trump wanted to hide, wanted to conceal, wanted to obstruct from the investigators that were looking into it.

Max Bergmann:            And I think in some cases Donald Trump was successful. But there’s also a lot of smoking guns. Maybe I’ll just run through them quickly. One, they have the campaign chairman, Paul Manafort meeting with someone who the FBI believes is a Russian intelligence agent. But it’s not only the FBI, it’s also Paul Manafort and his deputy, also believe this individual Konstantin Kilimnik is connected to Russian intelligence. And they meet with him on August 2 in the midst of this campaign. Throughout the election, they’re sharing polling data, internal polling data from the campaign. This is sort of the crown jewels of the Trump campaign. This is confidential information about how their polling numbers, the messages they’re looking to push, and they also shared the campaign battle plan, the states they’re looking to focus on. And they’re sharing it with Konstantin Kilimnik, who they know is sharing it with Oleg Deripaska, Who is this Putin connected oligarch who’s been sanctioned by the United States. And why to they want it shared with Deripaska? I think it’s fairly clear that they knew Deripaska was sharing that with the Kremlin more broadly.

Max Bergmann:            So we have a very unique chain of events to Russian intel from the trunk campaign to Russian intel with very few actors in between. Now Mueller identified all that. His problem was Paul Manafort was a cooperating witness, decided to not cooperate about why he was providing that information to Konstantin Kilimnik. And so Mueller withdrew the cooperation agreement, Manafort’s now going to jail for a very long time and the question is why did Manafort not want to disclose that information? And I think the conclusion is pretty clear. It’s because he was sharing that information with the intent that it was going to get to the Russian government.

Max Bergmann:            Now there’s other examples of Donald Trump’s advanced knowledge and awareness of the WikiLeaks releases. In fact, not only that, instructing his campaign to establish a back channel to WikiLeaks knowing that WikiLeaks was getting the content for the releases from Russian intel. And why did they know that? And this is the other bombshell, because the Trump campaign was told about it. The Trump campaign was informed by this Maltese professor, Joseph Mifsud, in London that the Russians had “dirt on Hillary Clinton” that they had thousands of emails. And this was in April and May before it was known to the world.

Max Bergmann:            So what we see are all these sort of… this awareness on the part of the Trump campaign about what the Russians were doing, this willingness to share internal Trump campaign data and information that would be very useful to the Russian campaign that they were running, that I mentioned earlier. And so Trump’s awareness of this crime, Russia was doing and his willingness to say go out, collude, connect, meet with the Russians. The Trump campaign effectively ran toward the crime. And that’s what Mueller outlines.

Max Bergmann:            Now he says, I wasn’t able to find any tangible agreement, tacit or expressed, that could amount to a conspiracy between the Russian efforts and the Trump efforts, but he did find a lot of collusion and then he found a lot of obstruction of justice in the Volume II.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so, I’m keen to turn to, I suppose, where this goes from here. But just going back a step, you talk about, you outlined a very concerning and alarming series of facts, the concerning part, I think, is some of this was known. The Obama administration certainly knew. The FBI had some concerns. Why was there no red flag going up before the election? Why was this, in effect, sat on and we didn’t hear about it until after the fact?

Max Bergmann:            So I think there’s a few reasons and it’s a great question. I think, one, I think everyone was just caught off guard. We’re the United States of America, no one messes with our internal democratic politics. It’s just not a threat that we expected or anticipated, partly because we can deter foreign actors from doing that by the very nature of us being the world’s largest superpower. And so I think there was a little bit of just lack of imagination that occurs in every major intelligence failure, whether it’s 9/11, whether it’s Pearl Harbor, of just not anticipating how a foreign actor would actually go about attacking you.

Max Bergmann:            When the DNC, the Democratic Party was hacked, and it became known on June 14, 2016, it was actually reported in the Washington Post that day, the initial response from US government or thought process was that, well, this is happened before. It’s not unusual for foreign countries to want to hack a political party, political campaign. Barack Obama’s campaign was hacked by the Chinese in 2008. Lots of Washington think tanks are hacked all the time by China, by Russia. And so it was sort of viewed as this was traditional intelligence gathering, this wasn’t about influencing events, it was about, you know that the Russians wanted to know where the Clinton campaign may be going or where the Democratic Party may be going on certain issues. You could very quickly scratch the surface there and say, well that didn’t quite add up based on what they were doing. I think that was the basic sense at the time.

Max Bergmann:            That all changed on July 22 when the Russians, through WikiLeaks, release the DNC emails right before the Democratic convention. This was a huge deal. This resulted in the resignation of the head of the Democratic party, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, at the time, it left a massive rift between the Clinton and Bernie supporters. And so suddenly, at that moment, there is a realization in the US government that they have a problem.

Max Bergmann:            After this point where the FBI, who had sort of been slow on the uptake of conducting counterintelligence investigation gets information from a good Australian diplomat in London who had actually had drinks with George Papadopoulos in early May where Papadopoulos who’s a foreign policy advisor to Trump, told him that the Russians had this dirt and were going to release it. This information is passed to the FBI. The FBI opens a counterintelligence investigation. But then what we see… Donald Trump’s stance during the election was problematic. Because he was saying, dismissing the notion that Russia was involved, it meant that if President Obama got involved and said the Russians were doing this, they were worried it would be seen as partisan, they were worried it would be seen as tipping the scale on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

Max Bergmann:            And so what we saw, in September and October, was the Obama White House going to the Republicans in Congress, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, who were the two leaders in Congress, and saying, “Hey, let’s issue a bipartisan statement.” And both of them turned it down and said no. We think this would be partisan. And so what we saw was actually a breakdown, I think, it wasn’t just a failing on the Obama administration, it was also a failure on behalf of the Republican Party. We have political parties to act as guardrails for our democracy and here was a Republican Party failing to step up.

Max Bergmann:            Now that being said, there’s no doubt that the Obama administration’s response was way too weak, was way too timid. They should have gone out and spoke out more loudly than they did. When they did try to speak out, well, there was two things that happened. One, they tried to pick up the red phone and tell the Russians, the red phone was used during the Cold War to avert a nuclear crisis, this was actually picked up where John Brennan, the head of the CIA, told his counterpart, “Cut it out. We know you’re doing this.” And Obama told Putin at the G 20 summit, I believe in China.

Max Bergmann:            The second thing that happened was they decided to go public. On October 7 about noon, this was a Friday they released from the head of the Department of Homeland Security the head of the director of national intelligence, a statement about Russian interference. Then a few hours later the biggest bombshell of the election happens, which is Trump’s Access Hollywood tape comes out and this is where Donald Trump is basically bragging about committing sexual assault on a hot mic. And then 29 minutes after that tape is released, we have this good Australian, Julian Assange, of WikiLeaks, releasing at 4:32 PM on the Friday on October 7, the John Podesta emails. And so, suddenly announcing to the public that yes, Russia was doing this just got completely buried in the news cycle and no one paid any attention.

Max Bergmann:            So I think what we have is a failure of imagination, slow in how to respond and how to react, being hamstrung by Republicans, and finally acting and then it getting consumed in the broader news environment. So that’s a pretty long answer to the simple question, but I think anyone in the Obama administration who says they would do it exactly the same as they did it is lying. I think everyone looks back, and also has the assumption… The last thing I should say is everyone assumed she was going to win. So it’s easier not to do something. It’s always easier not to act than to act, especially when you could say well she’s going to win it.

Misha Zelinsky:             They certainly weren’t alone in predicting that Hillary was going to win. I was certainly on board with that prediction as well. So I think… Thank you for that really concise answer.

Misha Zelinsky:             So I suppose she sort of touched on a bit of the politics. I think it’s a good time, because this has now become political but first there is a National Security element discuss, but there’s a political dimension to this.

Misha Zelinsky:             The Mueller report itself has become politicized. So I’m curious of your take, the Republicans are effectively now saying through the Attorney General William bar put out a summary of the report, effectively saying that case closed. The president is saying he’s exonerated. Some Democrats think it’s time to move on. Is it time to move on from this in your opinion?

Max Bergmann:            No. As you and your listeners could probably tell, I’m fairly committed to this topic. No, I think it’s the exact opposite. I think the last few months of inaction on the Democratic side of the house, the stonewalling from the White House, have been a real disservice. I think there’s a real need to act. I think what’s broadly happened here is, to step back for a minute, the last two years the Democrats were in kind of a tough spot actually. They were wanting to let the process play out, not prejudge an ongoing criminal investigation. Now Donald Trump was not doing that. Donald Trump was working the rest. Donald Trump was basically running, for the last two years a campaign against being impeached. He was telling the American people there’s nothing there, this is all a hoax, no collusion, no collusion, no collusion. I didn’t do this. I didn’t do this. And so he sent a very clear message while the Democrats’ message has been where basically protect the Mueller investigation, wait for Mueller, which isn’t really a clear message.

Max Bergmann:            And I think that continued after the Mueller report where what you now have is, I think a Democratic Party that wasn’t prepared for the Mueller report to be as damaging as it was. And so, partly because of that, they’ve also had to view this through a more political lens of is this a smart political step to move forward with impeachment because, perhaps if we move forward on impeachment, then Donald Trump will be able to say that we’re just obsessed with impeaching him and the public will view us as not really focused on their interest but focused on just getting a Donald Trump.

Max Bergmann:            I don’t really view it that way. I think that what this is… That impeachment is bad, that being impeached is bad. It’s not something anyone wants. It’s fairly simple and that if the Democrats in the house move forward on impeachment, that will send a real signal to the public that Donald Trump’s actions have been unacceptable. I think they’re walking… There’s all these other competing domestic political issues as well, but I think that’s the basic thrust here is that it is important for House Democrats to hold Donald Trump accountable for the action that’s outlined in the Mueller report, because failure to do so, I think essentially means that what the Mueller report then will become is, that sort of a new guide, it’s a new precedent for how you can actually collude with the foreign intelligence service in running a political campaign and get away with it. And I think that’s a terrible precedent to set, especially getting into a 2020 election cycle.

Misha Zelinsky:             So what about the facts. Not to make the arguments for the House Democrats, because you’re certainly more plugged into the Democratic Party than I could hope to be, but the argument seems to be, yes the House could impeach Donald Trump now that there’s a majority since the midterms. Then the Republican Senate would likely exonerate, given the way that you require a super majority to remove a president and the Senate to find him guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. So is that a relevant point? Do you think that’s relevant? And would that make the case for exoneration greater?

Max Bergmann:            No, I think that’s a very relevant point. And that’s the argument that House Democrats are making saying that this is a symbolic exercise. Here’s the thing, is that every piece of live legislation that Democrats in the House are passing as well is a symbolic exercise because there’s this roadblock called Mitch McConnell who runs the Senate and is the Republican leader and is not going to pass any legislation that goes forward and actually impeaching… My counterargument would be, look, Republicans in the Senate have been like frightened turtles over the last two years. They haven’t wanted to talk about this. It has been something that they are very glad not to have to be confronted with. The problem, I think… I think that if Democrats were to move forward and actually impeach and then move it forward to the Senate and there would be a trial in the Senate. That has happened very rarely in American history. Bill Clinton, it happened in 1999. Richard Nixon, we never got to that point because he resigned. And then it happened in 1866, I believe, with Andrew Johnson, after Abraham Lincoln.

Max Bergmann:            So this would send, I think, a big signal to the country. It would be treated very seriously in the press. And then you’d be forcing Republicans in the Senate to stand up and to defend the actions and conduct as outlined in the Mueller report. And I think where it makes sense for me to do this is I think you’ll actually get some Republicans to join forces with Democrats. No I don’t think you’re going to get the two thirds majority to remove Donald Trump, but I think you could see a real strong bipartisan rebuke. And that will also be very useful for a Democratic candidate opposing Donald Trump in 2020 that can then run on the argument that Donald Trump is, in fact, a criminal and should be going to jail. That strikes me as a strong argument to make in 2020.

Max Bergmann:            And if you get the 2020, and it doesn’t poll well, you can always just run on other issues. But, to me, the conduct outlined in the Mueller report just cannot stand, and I think the political calculation here, the political machinations don’t make a lot of sense to me, number one. Number two, even if they did, I think there’s a duty on the part of members that took an oath to uphold our Constitution to act. We’re not a parliamentary system. We only have one way to remove a leader and that is through the impeachment process And the impeachment process-

Misha Zelinsky:             As an Australian, mate, I should probably say that removing leaders is not without its problems, but sorry not to cut you off.

Max Bergmann:            That is a good flag. On the other hand, not removing leaders that are hugely problematic, having to sit out and wait for four years, is also a problem. And the designers of our Constitution back in 1770s, 1780s, put this in there for a reason. And they put it in there for a guy like Donald Trump who is basically used corrupt means to gain the office, who has committed high crimes and misdemeanors while in office in the obstruction of office. So if you’re not going to use it now, then when? And I think not acting just sets an incredibly terrible precedent for the future of our democracy.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so you talked about Watergate. The Clinton comparison, I mean I think it’s an interesting one given when you consider the relative conduct, I think it speaks for itself, but the Watergate ones more instructive because that was a Republican president in the end who while was not impeached, was removed because the Republicans Senate abandoned him or the Republican senators. Do you have any confidence that that’s the case given where the Republican Party is at now? And is it not relevant political calculus? You’ve talked about some may be coming over, but is that enough, really, in the…

Max Bergmann:            So the Nixon example, I think is one that we… in America’s not been totally internalized. It’s viewed through this, All the President’s Men movie with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman where, aha, Woodward and Bernstein got it and then Nixon resigned fairly quickly. But it was a two-year process. It was very similar. It was the slow burn of information that came out. It wasn’t until the very end that political support for Nixon collapsed. Nixon’s approval ratings had gone down throughout the process and Watergate helped push them down, but Republicans actually stood by his side up until the very end. And suddenly the dam broke and it broke completely and Nixon saw that there was no future. And so I think the… Here’s what I would tell the Democrats in the modern age is that you don’t know unless you try. You don’t know unless you push forward.

Max Bergmann:            And why did Nixon’s support collapse? Because House Democrats were moving forward with an impeachment inquiry. It was the impeachment inquiry which then elicited new information, get more information out there, the tape broke, but it was that that was the forcing function that put pressure on Republicans to justify it. And the political results through the Democratic Party in the 1974 election, it was the biggest wave election, I think, in modern history where Democrats won by 17% and two thirds majority in the house. And then, the only Democrat to win in the period between 1968 and 1992 was Jimmy Carter in 1976. And why did he win? Partly on this backlash, this anti-Watergate backlash.

Max Bergmann:            And so I think, if I were the Democrats, I would look at that example as the high-end. Nixon resigning essentially confirmed everything that everyone was saying about him. And then you’d look at the ’98, ’99 Clinton scandal. And what happened in ’98 was Republicans lost five seats in the house. This wasn’t this huge backlash against Republicans for pushing it, for pushing impeachment. And then George W. Bush won in 2000 based off of basically restoring honor and integrity back to the White House. He ran against Bill Clinton’s image.

Max Bergmann:            If the Clinton case is the backlash example of pursuing an unjustified impeachment process and it only, the backlash is that minimal, losing five seats, having George W. Bush sneak through in the controversial election in 2000, okay. And then you look at the 1974 and if that’s the high-end, where we are, at the very least, with the Mueller investigation, why I think it’s a bigger scandal than Watergate, the political dynamics are different. We’re much more in the Watergate space than we are in the Clinton space. And I think if Democrats push this and pursued it and actually made this a big political issue, I think it would bear political fruit for them, but they’re very reticent to do so.

Max Bergmann:            And I think there’s a number of reasons for that that go beyond there’s a larger psychology here. Democrats don’t like to run a scandal. While the Republicans, their whole, what drives them when they run political campaigns is to search for political scandal, for Clinton emails, for some sort of Obama-ish scandal that they could make a big deal out of. The Democrats like to talk about policy and are very wonky in some ways lovable and sort of boring in that sense. And that’s, I think, really hurting them here.

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s an interesting point. The progressives don’t tend to dial up the outrage on those types of things, they like to make it about the issues. We’re often outraged about the issues but it’s a really valid point. The 2020 election is anyone talking about this to your mind? We just had the debates, do you think this is getting enough air time because there’s been significantly a pivot to perhaps the issues health education, etc. Do you think that this is getting enough air time or are the candidates still mind waiting to see what that House does and see if there’s a tailwind there?

Max Bergmann:            Well actually the Democratic political candidates have led on this. I think Elizabeth Warren, in particular, was the first major political figure to come out in favor of impeachment. She was then followed by a number of other Democratic presidential candidates. And most of the top-tier candidates have all come out calling for Donald Trump to be impeached and for the House to move to an impeachment inquiry. So I think they’ve actually led. The debates that occurred, I was sort of surprised that there weren’t more questions related to impeachment. There was one on the first night, not on the second, in that this hasn’t played a bigger role in the questioning.

Max Bergmann:            Some of that is because it’s a lot of the folks agree internally, but I am a little surprised it’s hasn’t been a bigger issue. I think it’s now been a few months since the Mueller report has dropped. It shows that how if you don’t react and if there’s no outrage, the outrage will decline over time, people’s attention spans are short especially with Donald Trump in the White House and there’s a scandal every 15 minutes. But we’re about to have a big thing happen in a couple weeks where Robert Mueller is going to testify, or is scheduled to testify, and I think that’s going to put this back into the news. I think it’s going to put more pressure on House Democrats. And what we’ve been seeing is this trickle of more and more House Democrats are coming out for impeachment. So the numbers are sort of ticking up and I think the big question is…

Max Bergmann:            August is sort of this mythical month actually in American politics where there’s no news, boring eras, like the 1990s, August will be dominated by news of shark attacks and other things. But it’s also a month that because it’s a limited new cycle there’s not much happening that one issue could sort of dominate and perhaps the one issue to dominate might be Russia, and I think that’s one of the big, the Russian investigation. In 2009, it was the Tea Party movement sort of developed then. Two years ago it was Charlottesville. It was Donald Trump’s racism dominated. So we’ll see what sort of drives the news in August. And if it drives the news, this investigation drives the news, I think you could see House members coming back from that long recess, having been home speaking to their constituents, and say okay, I can’t look my constituents in the eye and not move forward on this. We’ll see.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’re right, I think Mueller testifying will be interesting because in his report, as I understand it, he’s effectively said, you can’t indict a sitting president and the mechanism for that as you pointed out is an impeachment through the Constitution. So that case might come out and that evidence as well.

Misha Zelinsky:             We talked a lot about US, there are obviously other democracies in the world and quite a bit of interference, particularly in the European context. What sort of work are you doing looking at the level of Russian interference or foreign interference in the European elections or particularly in the Brexit election? How concerning is that, given that you talked about driving to those schisms that exist within societies?

Max Bergmann:            Been doing a significant amount of work looking into those. I think one of the things that when we think about, at least in the Russian case, Russian interference, is that they look to exploit the gaps that our domestic politics make available to them. In the United States there’s lots of gaps in terms of the financing of campaigns of money… And the Russians were able to identify those gaps. I think in the Brexit case, for example, we see a lot of the same similarities. So a lot of the things happening in the United States were happening in the UK.

Max Bergmann:            I think one of the things that’s most troubling about Brexit is that while we’ve had this two-year long investigation and discussion and focus on Russian interference that has resulted in the Mueller report, and the one thing the United States can firmly say is we know Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The one thing that you still cannot say about Brexit, or at least that is not accepted in UK politics, I think you can say it, but is not accepted as conventional wisdom in UK politics is that Russia interfered in the Brexit Referendum. And to me, there’s very little doubt that that occurred. And you just have to look at the way Aaron Banks, who is the main financier of one of the Leave campaigns, what we see is exactly the same thing that was happening with Donald Trump. Almost exactly at the same time.

Max Bergmann:            Donald Trump was being offered this Trump Tower in Moscow, this too good to be true business deal and at the same time he was then running for office in which, and Donald Trump was using his pro-Russian statements throughout the campaign as a way to advance his business deal that involved working with the Russian bank, involved coordinating with the Kremlin. And we see the same thing with Aaron Banks, where he essentially he’s being offered this too good to be true deal to take to run the merger of these gold mines in Russia, something that would be well beyond his depths. It would be incredibly lucrative. He’s having meetings with the UK and the Russian ambassador with in the UK. He’s in talks with a Russian bank and so you see very similar, a lot of similarities. You also see the Russian online social media arm, the Internet Research Agency didn’t just start operating in 2016. It started years before that. And Brexit would be something that the Russians would have definitely worked to promote. There’s a lot of digital, computer scientists that have looked at the Brexit referendum and have seen the same sorts of social media activity in the UK during that period that we saw in the United States.

Max Bergmann:            But the UK has not conducted a similar sort of investigation. And when they have, when the Parliament did, it found a lot of there there, referred Aaron Banks to the National Crime Agency, the FBI equivalent, and it raised a lot of questions about some of the digital campaigns, one being digital companies, Cambridge Analytica, who worked on the Trump campaign who is now out of business because of the practices that it used. And so, I think that is a particularly worrying case of lack of actual energy and resolve on behalf of British authorities to actually protect their politics from Russian interference.

Misha Zelinsky:             It would be a significant win for for Vladimir Putin and Russia to split apart the EU. That’s a foreign-policy aim of the Russian government.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, I think particularly, one of the things that occurred, I think, after 2014 is pre-2014, so pre the Ukraine crisis, the EU was seen in Russia as a second-tier thing. NATO was the major focus. But what the Ukraine, the Maidan Revolution was about, which then resulted in the collapse of the pro-Russian, pro-Kremlin government of Viktor Yanukovych, It was about whether Ukraine was going to have an economic agreement with the EU. And Russia was offering an economic agreement with Russia, the Eurasian union as they described it. And Yanukovych decided to go with Russia. It led to mass protests in the streets, which then an occupation of Maidan Square, which lasted for months. And so here was a revolution started, essentially by EU bureaucrats, not realizing, basically, how far they were going and offering Association agreements with the EU. And the power of the EU that countries like Georgia and Ukraine wanted to be part of the European Union. They looked at countries like Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia, their neighbors, that were part of the EU and said we want that.

Max Bergmann:            And so, think after 2014, you see a particular Russian focus on how do we undermine the European Union. One of the ways, you cultivate and you build up and you amplify the far right leaders of Europe and seek exits, Brexit. Brexit would totally be in Russian interests, but then you also see it in France with Marine Le Pen. This is probably a much clearer example Marine Le Pen’s National Front party was funded by a Czech Russian bank, they got around €10 million to operate. There was lots of online social media support from Marine Le Pen’s campaign and attacks against Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 election. And then, of course, what did the Russians do? They also hacked Macron’s campaign and released the emails a la the same thing we saw in 2016. And Marine Le Pen was running on an anti-EU, anti-NATO, pro-Russian platform.

Max Bergmann:            And we’re seeing it now in Italy with Matteo Salvini government where he’s potentially a recipient of millions of dollars from Russia, or at least his party is. And so the playbook is very straightforward. It’s the idea that you can corrupt politicians. And so why not corrupt Democratic politicians, especially those on the far right who, in fact, seem more corruptible than those on the left and seek to cultivate them and amplify them and try to promote their candidacies. It’s been particularly effective and I think it’s one thing that I think were seeing in Europe, one positive, is that there’s been a strong backlash actually against Brexit and so the EU seems, in some ways, more solid than it was a few years ago in 2016.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the things you talked about and I think is relevant to basically all these issues that were having with foreign interference is this question of openness versus closed systems. Up until now, the theory’s been that openness wins liberalism wins markets, tends to win, democracy wins. As you said, they’re driving, foreign interference creates schisms in society. They’re already pre-existing but the openness And messiness of democracy and the openness of the media, the openness of social media, in particular, seems to now being a tool used against liberal democracies in the West and Europe and other parts of the world. And so how do democracies guard against that, that openness, without losing a sense of self?

Max Bergmann:            It’s a great question. I think it’s in some ways the question of our age. Now I think step one is to have a degree of confidence in the success of open systems. I think in some ways close systems are more afraid of us then we should be of them. There’s a reason why Vladimir Putin, in particular, is striking back at the West. It’s because he is incredibly nervous of a color revolution, of a liberal uprising happening within Russia. Why would that happen? It’s because Russian citizens decide they want to have more of a democratic society. They want to be more open, more like us. And so Putin needs to make, and I think China as well, democratic societies seem unattractive. And so, I think it’s one where we need to have a degree of confidence.

Max Bergmann:            The second thing is, I think we need to be aware of this challenge, of this threat, of the fact that we done all this business, we need to pivot, reassess that after the 1990s we assumed that if we opened our economies and opened our societies to autocratic governments it would change them, and it wouldn’t change us. And, to a degree, we were right. It has changed autocratic societies, but it hasn’t changed them to the degree we thought it would. In this glide path to democratization, I think we have to reassess. And in some ways it’s also changed us. So it doesn’t meet that we need to close off an autocratic societies, but I think we need to be more guarded. We need to have a real focus on transparency within our democratic politics, really focus on our rules and legislation, foreign interference, foreign registration, other areas where how do we make sure that yes, we can have foreigners here in our society, but they can’t covertly influence our politics. So that remains, I think, a critical challenge.

Max Bergmann:            I think the other larger aspect is that it means that we need to go back and look at our democratic allies and partners and value them much more and work together much more closely, look to have our economies of democratic societies linked together more closely. As opposed to having it be just generally open, we should focus on like-minded partners, democracies. And so, I think that is both a broader challenge in terms of… And also protecting ourselves in our political systems.

Max Bergmann:            And the third component is that I think we do need to go on offense a bit more. There does need to be a bit more of pushing public diplomacy of competing more with autocratic states, particularly in areas like the Balkans and areas in Asia and Africa where authoritarian countries are moving in, offering lots of resources, working to corrupt those countries and turn them away from liberal democracy. And we need to counter that.

Misha Zelinsky:             One of the other areas, and we talked a lot about safeguarding systems and making sure that the institutions themselves are safe, but I think one of the areas that we need to address as societies are the schisms that you’re seeing between rural and urban, between educated and uneducated, between the economic uplift that people are experiencing or not experiencing, these are relatively present in most advanced economies and advanced democratic societies. And I think there’s probably a need for us to address the schisms themselves. We can stop them from being exploited but the best way to stop them being exploited is to probably try to remove them as best we can. I’m sure you probably agree with that.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, no I think that’s dead on. And I think one of the ways that foreign interference works is that it can tap into discontented populations within society. And it’s particularly problematic when a large portion of your democratic population is extremely discontent. A lot of the discontent is over the different economic inequalities, economic setbacks that have occurred, divergence between urban and rural areas I think is particularly something we see very strongly here in the United States. We used to talk about red states, blue states, but now it’s really blue cities, red country. The dynamic is very clear. And so part of that is because, and part of the resentment of globalization that were seeing, resentment of liberalism is that from rural areas where economic growth in the United States has flat-lined over the last 20 years and, in particular, were particularly hard-hit by the great recession. Cities like Washington DC have thrived, actually in the past 20 years and have become super expensive, have become plugged into the global economy, to the global intellectual architecture, the hub of ideas that are flowing around the world. And I think there’s a resentment of that and a willingness on the part of large parts of the population to vote for anyone that will change the system, that will break the system.

Max Bergmann:            So one immediate remedy for addressing foreign interference, and it’s complicated, but is to try to address that broader discontent. And if your public is not as discontent about the current situation, then democratic societies will thrive, you’ll create less space for foreign interference. And so I think that is a major focus, should be a major focus of policymakers. I think one good thing we’re seeing here in the Democratic political discussion is a lot of focus on that in a way that hasn’t actually occurred in modern memory.

Misha Zelinsky:             I completely agree. Democracy needs to deliver. It’s not purely just of voting process of itself. They need to deliver for people. If it delivers for people than the rest takes care of itself. The one thing I was curious to take you on, we talked a lot about Russia. There’s been an enormous focus from the administration on the question of China and the use of Huawei potentially moving liberal democracies and the concerns about its links to the Chinese Communist Party and whether or not… It’s a company in Australia that’s been banned from joining the 5G network. Do you see perhaps… Is China the main game when it comes to interference? We talk about it a lot in Australia. It’s tended to dominate the discourse a little bit in the US, but from a public policy point of view, how do you see the threat posed by the use of Huawei and the use of Chinese interference?

Max Bergmann:            I think it’s a really significant threat. I think it’s one where… Sometimes the Trump administration isn’t wrong. And the problem is we’re used to them just being wrong all the time that when they’re right it becomes a little bit… It can fall on deaf ears. But I think this is super problematic because if you control the broader telecommunications architecture of a democratic society and that’s being controlled by an autocratic government that has its own political designs and intentions, I think that the potential for abuse is huge. Now, we’ve worried in the past about Russians hacking into the communications links of sea cables under the sea, of satellites of intercepting all sorts of communication. And so if you basically allowed China to control your information technology backbone structure, I think you’re potentially exposing yourself, not just from a potential foreign interference, China’s potential ability to observe and monitor Australian society or whatever society they’re in, but in a national security contingency, in an event where there’s a conflict or if something were to happen, then you’re already compromised and how to combat that threat and challenge.

Max Bergmann:            And so I think one thing for countries to assess, especially if you’re Australia, is what is the potential contingency like? What side would you want to be on, and I hope that would be, I think as we see the new sort of geopolitics of the day, it’s clear that the US and China are, I think, hopefully will always avoid conflict, but they’re going to be two competitors and I think the alliance between the US and Australia, and I saw this at the end of the Obama administration, has sadly actually come to supplant the special relationship with the UK and its importance. That’s partly because of the UK’s own actions of austerity, of Brexit, but it’s also because Australia’s now pivotal role in a pivotal region. It’s also Australia’s partnership throughout the years with the United States. And I think part of that is our democratic values that are so closely aligned. We speak the same language, we have similar forms of government, we’re democracies. And I hope, and I think that is something that… So if Australia when it’s making a geopolitical decision here, sees that as the trend line to be with the United States or to make a choice, I don’t think China’s the right bet.

Max Bergmann:            Now it’s hard to make that case when we have Donald Trump in the White House, someone who, I think, is not quite an attractive figure and makes America, I think embarrasses the country a lot, but we are a democracy. We’ll have an election next year and hopefully, at least from my perspective that will pivot. I think having a Chinese company control something so vital is something to really be wary of.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve ended on an uplifting message there. And as one of my famous clunky sort of segues, you managed to bring it back to the Australian American alliance So I can pivot out of that to say, the last question I ask every guest, foreign guests, who are the three Australians that you might reluctantly, perhaps there’s not enough of us, but that you would bring to a barbecue at Max Bergmann’s place? I should give you up the fact that you were desperately googling famous Australians so I’m curious to see who you came up with in the top three Google searches?

Max Bergmann:            No, the problem is I got distracted. And I wasn’t really able to go through it. I think so… Famous Australians. Well I mean I think I would have to have dinner with the former Australian ambassador to the UK, Ambassador Downer, who met with Papadopoulos. So I think that’s a no-brainer given my role. I’m sort of friends with another Australian ambassador who used to be posted here in the United States who would also get me drunk quite frequently, but I won’t say his name because I don’t want to get him in trouble… So the famous Australian NBA player Bogarts would be one. And then, oh Tim Cahill of soccer, also played for the New York Red Bulls, who’s not my team, I’m a DC United supporter, but Tim Cahill seems like a great guy. So I think that’s, that’s three.

Misha Zelinsky:             Alexander downer, Tim Cahill, and Chris Bogut at and an unnamed ambassador who would be bringing the booze, I assume. So that sounds like a good barbecue.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah… Often times Americans are bad at dissecting American accents, often times from our movie stars were all be like that person’s not American? Or that person is not British? So I know there’s more Australians among us that should be brought to the dinner party.

Misha Zelinsky:             Will there’s a whole heap of Australians that are actually New Zealanders that we claim, like Russell Crowe. So there’s a whole system in place where if you become famous your Australian, if you’re notorious you become a Kiwi right?

Max Bergmann:            Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:             Anyway, look thank you so much for joining the show, Max, it’s been a pleasure. And thank you for your time.

Max Bergmann:            Yeah, my pleasure, thanks for having me.



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.


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.