National Security

Dr. Claire Wardle – Lies, Damned Lies and Social Media

Dr. Claire Wardle is a leading expert on social media, user generated content, and verification. Her research sits at the intersection of technology, communications theory, and mass and social media. Dr. Wardle is the co-founder and leader of First Draft the world’s foremost nonprofit focused on research and practice to address misinformation and disinformation. First Draft is housed at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Claire for a chinwag about the scourge of misinformation, why truth and fact matter in democracies, how we can inoculate people against falsehoods, how journalism can be reinvigorated at the local and national levels, regulating big tech and dealing with autocrats.

Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky:

Right. Claire Wardle, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you so much for joining us.

Claire Wardle:

It is my pleasure.

Misha Zelinsky:

The pleasure’s all ours. Now, I thought a good place to start… There’s a lot of places we can take this conversation around information, but it feels like only just yesterday that this whole concept of disinformation, misinformation, gray zone interference, fake news, all these things have exploded into the discourse. And given you’re an expert, maybe you might just give a handy summation of the differences or the subtle differences in definitions here that we should be aware of?

Claire Wardle:

Yes. We can talk about definitions. We also might want to think about the history of we all felt like it started in 2016, but of course it had been around for a long time before that. But the big thing is disinformation starts with a D. It’s all about people who deliberately create information designed to be harmful. That’s actually the people who do that are a certain type of creator. They want to do this for political influence. They want to make money. Some people just want to do it to make trouble, but those people are actually relatively small in number.

Claire Wardle:

The bigger problem we have is misinformation, which is when that same disinformation gets circulated by my mom, who doesn’t realize that it’s false. Certainly doesn’t mean any harm. She’s had her emotions manipulated by these bad actors who know how to make my mom scared. I mean, so that’s what’s going on here, is that we actually have a relatively small number of people creating this stuff. If we all knew how to spot it and didn’t share it, we wouldn’t have a problem. The problem we have is that as humans we’re designed to like this kind of stuff, the platforms are optimized for this kind of stuff, and people know how to create content that is going to be shared very, very quickly. So that’s a problem we have now.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and so I want to talk about all the social media where it’s being generated, but just starting at the beginning, what’s the role of information in a society, particularly in a democratic society? You’ve spoken about in your work the information commons. Why do we need it, what happens when it’s polluted, so to speak, with misinformation or disinformation?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah, I think 30 years ago, we would have sat around and had this conversation, and said, “Oh, it’s really important for democracy to flourish that everybody is working, using the same… They need accurate information to make decisions.” We would have said that that was pretty straightforward. But I think we didn’t necessarily recognize how important it was to have gatekeepers. Gatekeepers in themselves are pretty problematic, because who ends up being gatekeepers? Well, they tend to be white, they tend to be men, blah, blah, blah.

Claire Wardle:

But I don’t think we quite understood what it meant when people had a shared media ecosystem. They had three channels. They were watching the same nightly news broadcast. The internet came and we got so excited, but we didn’t really recognize what it meant when people can seek out information that confirms their worldview, and they can seek out and find other people who think the same as them. And so all of a sudden, the commons… On the one hand, you went, “The internet has created this amazing commons, where everybody can say whatever they want and it’s amazing.” But it’s also like a massive riot. The weirdos are in one corner. When you really think about what it means when you don’t have a shared sense of reality.

Claire Wardle:

And that to me was why the 6th of January was this just horrific… I mean, it’s horrific in so many ways, but for me, as somebody who thinks about this a lot, has written about it, I was like, “What?” Everything I’ve written was for nothing, because it was almost like I talk about what’s the difference between dis and misinformation, blah, blah, blah, but the people who stormed the Capitol believed that they had right on their side and they were the ones that were basically defending the constitution, defending democracy. But they were in a completely different reality. So when we say they’d seen a few conspiracies, their whole information reality is completely different to the one that the other half of the country is living in. So that for me was when it was like, “Holy cow, how does society function when you have half the public in one reality and half the public in another?” And that’s what we’re living through right now.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about a set of shared facts. One of the old aphorisms is, “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.” Or Churchill said, “The truth is incontrovertible. It can be maligned and attacked, but in the end, there it is.” We’re in this era that I appreciate it didn’t keep up with Trump, but it certainly got metastasized and accelerated even at the beginning of his presidency with this concept of alternative facts, fake news. Does that aphorism still hold, or is it just dead?

Claire Wardle:

It does hold, because that was the thing that was so shocking the weekend of his inauguration in 2017, when Sean Spicer basically said they were the biggest crowds ever. And at the time, journalists were laughing, like, “No, it wasn’t.” But what they were doing, and what they continued to do, was just deny the facts, even if they were visually there in front of you. They put up a big picture to say, “Look how big the crowds were,” and we were like, “No.” I think the problem was, because it just seemed so unbelievable that the lies would be so obvious, that nobody really took it so seriously. He didn’t warm up to it. He just started the first weekend of his presidency, just bold-faced lie.

Claire Wardle:

So then the media were busy going, “Can we call it a lie? We’re not sure.” All of this kind of academic conversation about it, whilst what was happening was just learning that he could just lie, and keep denying, and saying, “No, you’re wrong,” and gaslighting. And he showed how hugely successful it was, because in an era without gatekeepers, the gatekeepers were busy saying, “Can we call it a lie or not? We’re not sure. Let’s have a conference to discuss whether or not we can call it a lie.” But he as president was just like, “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing to do, because I’ve got my Twitter account. I’ve got my Facebook page. I can just go directly to my supporters. I don’t need those gatekeepers. And if they tell me that I’m lying, I’ll tell my supporters I’m not.”

Claire Wardle:

If you and I had this conversation in 2012-2013 and you said, “Can you imagine this environment?” We would have been like, “No, there’s no way that people would have accepted lies like that.” Turns out when you have channels that you control, and you’ve got supporters who are seeking information that makes them feel better because their worldview is being confirmed, then yeah, people will take lies and will not challenge them. And that has been the horrible, horrible lesson that we’ve all learned over the last five years.

Misha Zelinsky:

So one of the things I think’s also difficult, because we all get this at the macro, but where’s the line between tough politics and misinformation and lies? Because politicians and political parties will take the other side’s policies, and critique them, and perhaps present them in a way that’s not the most pleasant. But where’s the difference between that and basically what you’re talking and describing there, and how do you take difference?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah, you’re right. Politicians have always misled. They’ve always been careful about the statistics that they use. They would cherry-pick. They would be careful about the question, all these things. But when you think about actually when fact-checking started, it started in 1999. Brooks Jackson, who had been at CNN, was like, “I’m seeing all of these political ads on TV just include falsehoods, and there’s no oversight because these politicians can say whatever they want.” So he started Factcheck.org with Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania, and it was designed specifically to fact-check ads. I remember seeing at that time somebody talking about it who would design these political ads, and said, “Yeah, you know what? Once we had some oversight, I’m not going to lie. We didn’t lie as much in our ads because we didn’t want Factcheck to call us out.” That was when we lived in an environment where you got called out, and you were like, “Oh, whoops. Somebody’s caught us. We’re not going to do it.”

Claire Wardle:

But that changed. If we think about 2016, we all know it was Russian trolls in their basements. It was Macedonian teenagers. There was this idea that it was on the fringes. 2018 was when Trump and Co. really realized that they could just lie themselves, and so now we unfortunately see many, many politicians following that same model, and then we see that amplification via the media. So misinformation moved from the fringes to when you have politicians lying, they then get given all this oxygen from the media. It’s a very, very different problem than the 2016 problem, which was like, “Okay, let’s clamp down on bot accounts. Let’s make sure that Facebook doesn’t accept ads paid for by Russian repeat.” That stuff revolt, that’s changed. But ultimately, yeah, politicians have always lied, but now they have an ability through social media to lie with impunity. And that’s the problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

So we’re going to talk a lot about democracy and problems about misinformation problems. Just speaking with the autocrats here, with the CCP and the Russians, and what they’re doing in terms of gray zone interference and seeding, you talked at the beginning about a lot of the disinformation actually comes from relatively narrow sources. Maybe give some examples about disinformation campaigns and what they’re designed to do, because as I understand it, they’re not trying to make us believe their narrative. It’s to make every narrative, real? To foster cynicism in democracy, which therefore makes them ungovernable, and therefore they’re not attractive to their domestic populace. Maybe you could talk a bit about that.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah, I mean, one of my favorite documentaries is Operation Infection, that the New York Times put out in 2018. One of the reasons I love it so much is that they went and found footage of Russian spies in the 1980s basically being really just out there about their techniques involving information warfare. And we know this. Russian didn’t have the same money during the Cold War. What did they have? Well, they could use their smarts to think about information differently. And there’s this amazing quote where this guy basically is talking about the drip, drip, drip of water, and that an individual drip doesn’t cause any harm, but a continuous drip can split a rock into a million pieces.

Claire Wardle:

And that’s essentially what information warfare is, and that’s what Russia and China, and increasingly a number of other countries are very good at. So thinking about autocrats in Hungary, or Bolsonaro in Brazil, or Duterte. They’re much more attacking their own country, but it’s not about convincing people of one thing or another. It’s about sowing distrust and doubt. So if you look at the way that the Russian troll accounts were creating content during 2016, 30% of their content was actually U.S. local news headlines, but they would take local news headlines that they knew would annoy the left and annoy the right. So they would take Black Lives Matter on one side, then they would take police brutality on the other, and it didn’t matter, because they just were like, “America is already so divided. We’ll just take the content that’s already there, and we’ll just amplify it.”

Claire Wardle:

And that’s the genius of this, which is the tactics. Some of these campaigns are going to fail, but it costs nothing to try, and so the thing that Russia in particular has been so good at is looking at the U.S. and saying, “Where are the wedge issues? How can we really accelerate those wedge issues?” China is much more about just flooding the environment. Particularly internally, they know exactly how they can just control the narrative, but either way, whether you’re looking at the Russian techniques or the Chinese technique, it doesn’t cost anything, or it’s very low-level, and you can just flood the zone, to use that term, and see what sticks. And unfortunately, in environments that are free and open, and you have the First Amendment, America’s this perfect Petri dish to do this. And that’s why these techniques have been so successful.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so do you think democracy’s a bit naive in allowing this asymmetry to happen? Because obviously it’s very difficult to get any information into Russia or into China, particularly the Great Firewall. You can’t Google the Tiananmen Square Massacre if you’re within the PRC. And yet we’re letting disinformation just flow in from these places. Have we been naive in that regard?

Claire Wardle:

No, because the democracies that we come from, they’ve been doing it too. So we’re not as good at it because we also have ethics policies. I remember being at a panel with somebody from the U.S. State Department talking about videos and ads that they would place in Moscow to try and reach young Russians, but of course at the beginning of the ads, they had to have a pre-roll that said, “This is sponsored by the State Department,” because that’s what happens in the U.S. So it’s not that the UK, the U.S., Australia hasn’t thought about information operations.

Claire Wardle:

All countries are doing it, but there isn’t an asymmetry here, but the one thing I think gets forgotten is 2016 was Russia really was very aggressive. And how successful they were is still open to debate about whether or not those Hillary Clinton memes swayed the election. There’s always going to be that debate, but what I think people haven’t recognized is that by the 2018 mid-terms and certainly by 2020, it wasn’t Russian interference. It was the techniques had been embedded inside. It was domestic actors that were using the same techniques. So now we’re like, “Oh, we’re being naive.” It’s too late now. It’s too late.

Claire Wardle:

The problems are internal, and watching somewhere like Australia, I see the UK and Australia tearing itself apart now around vaccines and masks, and being like, “How did that happen?” I’ve always thought, “Well, we’re not America.” Well, it turns out, because the Internet is global, there are movements now that are connected. So it’s starting in the U.S., but then it’s traveling to London, Berlin, Melbourne, really quickly. And I’m seeing in Australia people sharing completely false information about mail-in ballots that doesn’t even exist in Australia. But it doesn’t really matter, because they’ve heard enough of the narratives from Trump, and you’ve got, “You can’t trust mail-in ballots in Australia.” You don’t even have them, but that’s the point that we’re at. It’s so crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. So, conspiracy theories. Why are we so attracted to them? Obviously they’re not new. Growing up, you had the Moon landing was faked, and all these sorts of things. But it feels like they have just been absolutely turbo-charged at the moment. First, I suppose, why are we so attracted to them, and why are they so dangerous?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. I mean, it’s true that too much of the conversation about misinformation focuses on the content, like, “Should this YouTube video be taken down? Should this Facebook post be labeled?” This is all about psychology, and you’re absolutely right. We’ve always had conspiracy theories, but they’ve always been on the fringes. The last 18 months, they are slap-bang. They’ve moved absolutely into the mainstream. Why? Because everybody’s worlds have been turned upside-down. And we’ve always had, I would argue since 2008, the financial crisis, people are concerned about climate, communities are changing because of global migration flows, technology has disrupted everything, so the world is much scarier and unstable than it’s been for a very, very long time. So we’re in this situation, and we’re looking for an explanation.

Claire Wardle:

And who provides an explanation? Well, conspiracy theories are simple, powerful stories. And again, going back to being humans, we love a good yarn, as you say. We love a good story, and it’s a simple explanation. The world that you and I live in, well, it’s complex, and the data’s not quite in, and we can’t quite tell you whether vaccines are safe when it comes to nine-year-old boys and myocarditis, but we’re still working on it, and we can’t really tell you this, but keep trusting us. Follow the guidelines. It’s going to change. The world is messy. Global supply chains… The world that you and I live in, it’s very difficult to read the news every day without being really, really depressed.

Claire Wardle:

Over here, the conspiracy side of things, which is like, “I’ll tell you why your life is upside-down. Because there is a secret cabal of people that are puppeteering and that’s why your life is not turning out the way that you’d hoped it would do.” Now that takes the agency out of it. It’s not your fault that life isn’t great. It’s somebody else’s fault, and so that element of a simple narrative is really soothing to people who right now are feeling very unstable.

Claire Wardle:

And the other thing is there’s the famous book from 1994, Bowling Alone, when Robert Putnam basically talked about-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, right book.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah, people aren’t connected. Fewer people are going to church, all that stuff. Well, it turns out when you talk to people who are in conspiracy theories, when they’ve lost their son of like, “Yeah, my son works night shifts.” So we’d go online. The only people saying hello to him were in queue and on. So it turns out and it’s the same way as there’s a great Netflix documentary about flatter. If you watch it to deal with whether the earth is flat around, it’s about friendship, it’s about connections, it’s about feeling wanted, it’s about feeling seen and feeling heard that’s what’s going on. And ultimately is what I would argue as we think about the space we’re in, the disinformation ecosystem is participatory and people feel like they have agency. They feel like they’re head like, “Stop the steel, send us your tips. We want to hear from you, do your own research.”

Claire Wardle:

The world that many of us live in, who were probably listening to this podcast, our information ecosystem is top-down linear hierarchical, which is there as an expert, whose going to tell you what to think and you’re meant to accept that information though thank you very much. There’s not much agency in our information ecosystem and we’re meant to trust adoptive factors of this world. Now it turns out if we, if our information ecosystem doesn’t learn from the other side, we’re going to carry on in this world where those that understand that the internet is networked and participatory, that’s the way that people want their information not, “Hey, here’s a top down piece of information that you have to trust.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, let’s talk about trust because I think, yeah, trust is an information and trust in institutions is rapidly declined in every liberal democracy pretty much not so much in the Europeans, certainly in the Anglosphere. How much has that impacted, in terms of the running down of those institutions and then people fleeing to these alternative sources of information, because there’s always been that you can’t trust the news concept, or don’t believe everything you read, but it’s interesting the skepticism. The thing that I can’t quite get my head around is I’ll sit with someone and they’ll tell me you can’t believe what you read in the news. And they’ll show me TikTok video. And I’ll just say it blows my mind. So I’m trying to understand why is trust so round down in the traditional institutions in the world you described that world we inhabit, but so readily absorbed in this other?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. I think it’s going back and thinking about recent history, global financial crisis. What happened to those bankers? Nothing. Increased corruption in government. What happens to them? I mean, even the UK, I mean, 20 years ago, ministers would resign when there was a scandal. I mean, they-

Misha Zelinsky:

Right, same thing with Australia.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. If people keep seeing that and the institutions they’re meant to trust, or the CDC tells me to not wear a mask and then a month later says, “Oh yeah, wear a mask.” I mean, when institutions are making mistakes, that happens, newsrooms make a mistake. But now there’s no like, “Oh, okay. We’ll just give them the benefit of the doubt,” because trust is declining. So every time something happens as another scammers, it’s just reinforcing this idea that you can’t trust institutions. So what’s happened? People are turned inwards to each other. And whereas before you could argue, well, they trust the person that they know from the school gate because their kids go to the same school or they play on the same soccer team. But now that people used to scroll through TikTok every night, they believe that they know those people in the same way as the person that they play soccer with at the other weekend.

Claire Wardle:

So now we go, “Why did you trust that person on TikTok?” What’s that terrible word authenticity? They feel like they have this authenticity from people on TikTok in a way that they’re not getting from Boris Johnson or Dr. Fauci or whatever. So that’s the other piece here, which is people believe that they’re trusting those that they know better, but that in itself is a facade. But the technology makes us believe that we know these people because they’re being honest about the fact that they burned their sausages or whatever it is.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, this problem we’re getting is a symptom of the border problem of the degradation of trust and consequences, et cetera. I mean, inequality, people feeling labor laws are up to. And I mean, that makes a lot of sense when you put it in those terms. So going back to the media, you talked about that our media phone call that the traditional media, the mainstream media, whatever they want to call it. You talked about learning from the new ecosystem. What does that look like? Because how do you maintain good journalistic standards? And at the same time responding in that in a way that’s giving people information in the manner that they want it.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. I’ve first got into this field like, 2008, 2009, because I did some research for the BBC about user generated content. And at that time there were very few people in newsrooms who got social media. And so those that did understood had this amazing participatory opportunity. So you’d see they would do these amazing crowdsourcing campaigns. They would do, I remember Bristol in the West of England, they were having a new man who’d never come to the city before. And so the local radio station said to people, upload your photos to flicker of things that you want to show the new man. And of course, rather than showing nice pictures of the suspension bridge, they took pictures of dog poo, mattresses, rubbish that hadn’t been picked up.

Claire Wardle:

And as a result of that, but the local council responded and it was a real participatory element that the local newsroom was facilitating. But by the time we got to 2013, 2014, news editors had figured out Facebook and Twitter and they’re like, “Oh great. It’s just another way for us to broadcast our content.” So then social media used by nutrients was artists like LeBron tune in, we’re going to be talking about the storm or even if you go to the New York Times Facebook page, they’re not really listening. They are broadcasting their content to the audience. So ultimately what this means is how do you really listen to audiences? How do you bring them in on this? How do we create a network of like information and ambassadors? Because if you spend time in anti-vax communities, they’re not sitting there just being like, “Oh, I’ve just read another conspiracy theory.” They’re reading the insets to vaccine medication, they’re reading the science, they’re making sense of the science in the wrong way, but they are very active and they feel like they’re part of the process.

Claire Wardle:

So how do we take that need that people have and figure it out around quality information? And I just don’t think, we’ve haven’t had to do that because for the last 100 years it’s been a broadcast model and it’s worked, the internet has made it participatory, but we haven’t shifted the ways in which we communicate.

Misha Zelinsky:

So should journalists be trained differently?

Claire Wardle:

Yes. Newsroom should be different. I mean, we have to think about the role of news, but it needs to be embedded in communities. Again, I remember in 2011, long time ago now, but there were London riots. I remember at the time the BBC was putting helicopters over the city and showing live footage of all of these fires. And then at the weekend there was all these think pieces in the Guardian and the Telegraph and Times, like, “Why were there riots bla, bla?” And all the community media outlets were like, “I’ll tell you why there were riots. If you’ve spoken to us over the last three months, you would have told you how black communities in particular in London were feeling completely ostracized. Nobody was listening to them and they were angry about this place.” They knew, but they weren’t listened to. And I think about that all the time still, which is we’ve got all of this money in these big news outlets, but they’re not connected to community at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, just following up on that, I mean, because one of the biggest things that’s happened, there’s been the collapsing media, but everyone says, “Oh, we’ve also…” It’s the local newspapers that have gone or the state newspapers. You now have states that have no daily paper in the United States. I mean, do you think that that is where there’s no avenue for these voices? And so therefore there’s no local stories, local connection, that consequence has to be playing out the way you’re describing just now.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. There’s no doubt that local news deserts, a part of the misinformation problem. In two ways is that if people don’t know a journalist, it’s good for search here, which is if you know a journalist and you see them down the path, you’ve got a higher view of journalism more generally. So if you don’t know a journalist, you’re less trusting of journalism in general. But secondly, it means that there’s no [crosstalk 00:25:18].

Misha Zelinsky:

I don’t know how much they trust you journalism but-

Claire Wardle:

It’s a good point. When there’s no oversight, you have more corruption. And we see that in local news deserts, we see corruption go up. So the more corruption there is, then people are less trusting institutions. So there’s a whole host of things there, but I would say, and then some good initiatives in the U.S. about plowing money back into the local news ecosystem. But I also don’t think we should just be propping up local news as is. So when people go, “Oh, why is Nextdoor so popular? Why is Facebook, local groups so popular?” Well, because it doesn’t just tell you about the school board. In fact, it doesn’t do that. It tells you why the local street light is out and it tells you there’s going to be a barbecue at the local public. It has all the things that people want.

Claire Wardle:

And it loads quickly and it doesn’t have pop-up ads. So it’s not a case of how do we just get more money? When you start to say, how are we completely rethink what local news should look like, but that’s difficult to do when you’ve got paper to put out. So we ended up with the status quo.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right. Before we go to social media, the last thing that I want to ask you about is in the traditional media space. I mean, up until now, we were all getting worried about, well, people are going to Fox News or to CNN or MSNBC and getting their news in that manner. The thing that strikes me since spending a fair bit of time in the United States now is basically anyone under the age of maybe 30, be certainly 25. Are streaming their news totally from other sources. They are not getting any traditional news. And so what’s the counting for that? And two, what’s the impact of that? Because that’s troubling to me, the facts is being spewed at them from unregulated.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. No, I think you’re absolutely right. And I don’t think there has been a real reckoning with that generational shift. I mean, certainly when I was with the BBC back in 2009, they’re like, “Oh, the people that watch the 11:00 news and we’re over 70,” I mean, there was no awareness of how, I’m sure ABC has exactly the same conversations. The people who consume public service broadcasting and not going to be around forever. And I agree. I think it’s simplistic to say that young people don’t know what’s going on because they do, if you talk to them then [crosstalk 00:27:46].

Misha Zelinsky:

No, absolutely not. They definitely do. But they are not reading a newspaper. They’re not watching a television channel. It’s really quite a fascinating phenomenon.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. So I think what needs more study is, I know young people who spend all day on Reddit and know all the intricacies and know everything, but then I also know young people from TikTok who are like, “I think Adam Baldwin just shot someone.” They know the headline version, but they don’t know the why. I think there’s something happening with Belarus. I couldn’t even find it on a map. So my worry is that on one hand they kind of know, but I still feel like that almost dangerous because they don’t know enough. So my worry is we have a generation of people you’re just used to reading the headlines or getting a 32nd TikTok video, but I think it’s very easy to just dismiss young people. But I do feel like it’s going to change the way that people understand the world around them. Not to say that reading a newspaper everyday was the answer, but it’s going to be a big shift.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so yeah, turning to the social media companies that are responsible for this, and I often reflect on how crucial this has all happened. I feel like, I’ve grown up where there wasn’t a social media, then there was social media as a fun thing. And we all, yeah, we sought up everything that was really fun. And then Obama won the 2008 election, partly by being really good on socials. And it was a feel good feeling, exactly eight years after that you got the Russian thing and then chaos since. What is their obligation to fix this? Because I think of it as like industrial England when you had the big changes, manufacturing. And well, if you like consumer goods, you going to have to put up with black skies, black ravers and child labor will say, “Well, actually we’d like both.” I mean, is that possible? Or can it not be regulated?

Claire Wardle:

I think you’re absolutely right though, that when people go, “Oh, how’s this happened?” It is like the introduction of the Gutenberg press. And there was like 100 year of war after that. To me, it’s exactly the same. We got so excited because you’re right, we had such tech utopia and we ultimately believe that connecting everybody was going to be the best thing ever. I mean, it’s almost like you not met a human, but because this technology only ever sits on top of people. And I remember talking to somebody who was a BBC journalist in India, three years ago when there was all the stuff about WhatsApp and mob violence. And he said, “When I watched WhatsApp in India, it reminds me of the role of radio in Rwanda.”

Claire Wardle:

It was like, it’s not what the technology it is like when you’ve got more violence driven by ethnic division, you will have violence, irrespective of whether it’s radio or WhatsApp, as humans that is what will happen. So I ultimately think we got so excited about the internet, but we completely forgot our history. And it was like, we were drunk for 10 years and just could only imagine this was going to be great. And it’s no surprise, no surprise should be no surprise to anybody. I’m annoyed that those of us who did come from a journalism research background, I mean, I remember at one point hearing about I know somebody who used to work at Facebook at the time and she was talking about Facebook Live and said, “If you’ve got any concerns,” I was like, “Oh my God,” if Facebook engineers spent anytime with foreign correspondents, they wouldn’t believe that Facebook Live was only going to be a place to stream your one year olds birthday party, they would have immediately said, “Facebook Live will be used for suicide bombings or terrorism, that is what Facebook like”

Claire Wardle:

So I’m kind of annoyed that we all got a bit seduced by many because we were burned. We’d have 9/11, the world looks really scary. And then the internet came along and we were like, “Ooh.” So when you talk about regulation, how much can you regulate human behavior? And that’s the fundamental issue here is that and we’ve seen, as the platforms have cracked down on misinformation, the bad actors have just shifted their tactics. So we see far less outright falses because Facebook takes that down now. So instead we have conspiracy theorists on Facebook being like, “I don’t know, I’m just asking the question about ivermectin,” knowing full well that doesn’t break Facebook’s guidelines, but they’re sowing a seed. They’re giving you a keyword now and you’ll go to Google and you’ll find a ton of stuff on Google about ivermectin.

Claire Wardle:

So the tactics have changed. So to me, focusing on content, isn’t the answer, focusing on the sources gets us some way there when we know bad actors who consistently push out bad content. But to me, we either say as a society, we don’t think anybody should talk about vaccines on Facebook because Facebook is not the place to have conversations about vaccines. And you just get rid of all conversation about vaccines. But I don’t think as a society, we want to do that. So I don’t think there is a clear regulatory answer. I do think governments need to require significantly more oversight on the platforms or the moment that they write their own transparency reports. When that’s nonsense like me marking my own homework, there should be an independent third party who’s out auditing algorithms, auditing search results, auditing all the stuff that journalists do a great job of, and then they go, “Oh, well, yeah, sorry. We’re not going to change because Wall Street journal suddenly exposed.”

Claire Wardle:

And the Facebook files and Francis Hogan, she doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t know, but she provided some extra evidence, but it’s not like Facebook didn’t then put on an extra 9 billion or whatever they did that week. I mean, what’s really going to change? Because are people stopping using Facebook? No, they’re not and they are not going to stop unless there’s an alternative. And that alternative is going to struggle because you’d have to have all of my friends and interests and unless government said you-

Misha Zelinsky:

They’ll look at fake data.

Claire Wardle:

… import your own data. There are potential solutions, but the inertia of trying to change human behavior, I’m not very hopeful about that.

Misha Zelinsky:

What about some of the incentives that exist in social media, which essentially are about driving out rage and the content there is to get you to react emotionally. Is there a way that those can be changed to stop us immediately blowing up when we see something on there and then yeah, can the method and the response be dealt with? Or is that a human behavior question that can’t be dealt with?

Claire Wardle:

No, I mean, certainly there could be, if there was all detained algorithms that said, “Facebook, you need to dial back the fact that you’re putting so much weight on angry emoji.” So I run a nonprofit, we monitor misinformation. One of the things that helps us find it is that we felter by angry emojis on Facebook because the more angry emojis, the more you’re likely to find misinformation. So I think there is an argument to try and say to Facebook, “Pull that back.” But this whole debate, which is about filter bubbles. And if you talk to any engineer, at any social platform, they were saying, “Claire, we’ve run experiments when we try and give you and everybody else, the alternative side, you never click on that.” So let’s imagine I’m left-wing and Facebook decides to show me a story about how Obama was actually worse on immigration control and everybody thinks.

Claire Wardle:

Now if I’m from the left, I don’t want to click on that story because I don’t want to hear that about Obama. So that’s the problem here, which is for the platforms, they could be forced to tone down that, my fear is that if they turned me down so much, as humans, humans will find another platform, a more fringe platform where they can have that feeling again. And at the moment, they’ll go to Telegram or somewhere else.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right. What about what guys, we’re a very new phase of things. What about social norms? I’ve thought about like, we had all rules around you take your shoes off, coming into a house. I mean, you don’t share something that you haven’t read or it’s a sort of bad form.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah, I’m with you. I’m much more interested in those kinds of responses than I am technical. And yes, we need more from the platforms, yes we need more a side bla, bla, bla. But we are not going to get out of. We’re never going to solve this problem, but it’s like the pollution part of it. I have freckles, I go outside, I need to put on SPF. I just need to. And I live in an environment where the sun is probably going to kill me one day. So in the same way is like polluted information environment, how can we give skills to people to say, “When you go onto the internet, you are going to be bombarded with false information, as well as true information. You need to develop the skills, which makes you more resilient against the crappy stuff and better at spotting, the good stuff.”

Claire Wardle:

And social norms are part of that, which is, “Hey, you just shared something and you didn’t check it beforehand.” Or just like journalists that in professional embarrassment for journalist, if you share something that’s false, you have to have a correction on your story. How do we make people feel the same way about, hey, uncle Bob, you just did that, not that bad. But that’s going to take a long time to get there.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so just switching to… you’ve touched on it briefly, but what is First Draft doing, acting in this space? Yeah. It’s providing that social inoculations that people, the tools, what can we do and be delighted to hear about what you guys are doing?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah, I mean, we do research, but very much we’re a training organization, which nobody thinks that training is sexy. And there’s a lot of bad trading out that this one stand up, but ultimately we train journalists to write more responsible headlines and to protect themselves from being manipulated by bad actors, which is newsrooms are being weaponized by those who want to take advantage of that audience. So we do that kind of training. With public health officers, we help them think through effective communication. So they can help build trust with audiences even if they’re saying, “Hey, follow the science.” And with community-based organizations, we say, maybe you own a hair salon. Maybe you coach the local soccer team. Well now you actually have a position of trust in your small circle. So how can we work with you to ensure that you have accurate information?

Claire Wardle:

So we try and help all different parts of society. These are essentially trusted gatekeepers now, make sure that they know how to operate in this world of polluted information. So we don’t go to the public because who’s going to trust First Draft? But if I can train the person who is trusted, then my hope is that over time, again, our theory of change, which is a long one, it’s going to take a long time to get there. But the more people who know how to navigate this well, the better off we’ll be.

Misha Zelinsky:

What about things like it, I’ve read good articles talking about people having ownership of that data online. I mean, is that something that you think is probable? Because at the moment, the old adage here, if it’s free or the product. And we have no idea what company’s hold on us and how do we flip that around?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. So I completely agree with that. I think a lot of media literacy training has been teaching people how to Google the headline and do a reverse image search and look at the about ads page before they share. What we’ve done a terrible job of is teaching people how algorithms shape what they see. So there are still so many people who are like, “Yeah, what’s amazing. The things I see on Facebook.” And I say, “Well, you see about 2% of all the things that you could see if you saw everything that everybody shared.” And I’m like, “Oh no, I see everything.” You don’t. Just teaching how algorithms work as part of this. And I’d also say about data. I did a research project a couple of years ago where in 14 countries we ask people to search for vaccine information, take a screenshot and then send it back to us.

Claire Wardle:

And one of the countries was Australia. And so when people search for vaccine information in Australia, the top one was an ad from the Australian government with quality vaccine information. And all these people wrote back, participants in the project. And like, “Why is my government having to use taxpayer dollars that they’re paying to Google to guarantee quality information at the top of the feed?” And I was like, “Great question.” And so the more we can get people involved in this, which is like, can we get people donating their data to science? Can we get people to download their own data and reflect on last week I did local… I don’t know if you’ve got an iPhone, Apple sends you a thing on a Sunday that tells you your screen time. That’s always a very sobering part of the week when I can see, it’s like what does that look like to reflect back on people the kinds of information they’re looking at?

Claire Wardle:

So I think there’s a lot we can do to bring the public into this conversation because they’re absent right now. And as you say, they are being used for their data, but with no real understanding of how they’re being used and what the impact is on their societies.

Misha Zelinsky:

And there’s other solutions that have been mooted in terms of yeah, because these companies, you can’t break up a Facebook in the way you could break up the railways. Because they’ve benefited from the scale. There’s no value to me being on a different Facebook to my mum. Or whatever I like that the network effect is the value. So is there a way that they should be taxed on the basis that they went out to either individuals or to NGOs and to create a more interesting with diverse instead, rather than these big dominant platforms?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. I mean to the point of tax, there should be a massive pot of money from the tax that they’ve had to pay that would support proper media literacy initiatives, not little non-profits like mine, like nibbling at the edges, proper, global, real significant education that should, they should be paying for that. But I do also think public service, for example, the BBC or ABC, they created public service forecasting. What would it look like if we had a public service model of a social network? But it would need to be funded at such a level that it really could compete with the Facebooks of the world. And like I said, the inertia of trying to get people to move on to a new platform, we’d have to have the best engineers and whatever.

Claire Wardle:

But I think the idea of having more innovation in this space is a good thing. I think we got obsessed in 2008, 2009, like, “Oh, we’re in this period of innovation.” But actually all the social networks look pretty similar now it’s like, we now know what a social network looks like, but I do think, what does it mean to be able to take your data and move it somewhere else? What does it mean to have more niche, social networks? I don’t know. It’s an interesting one, but yeah, Mark Zuckerberg basically had 10 years when we were all asleep on the job and he created something so massive that now like you say. And we saw that with a six hour blackout, which helped Facebook.

Claire Wardle:

I mean, whether or not the conspiracies of they turned it off, but irrespective globally, people were like, “Contact my family. I can’t sell, a businesses floundering.” They are our communications infrastructure as much as we hate that. So he’s created something so massive. And even you hear him give congressional testimony, he uses China and artificial intelligence in a really strategic way. He’s like, “If you break me up, we won’t have the data that would allow us to compete with China.” So he’s a very smart cookie.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Again, I mean, I just feel that argument out a little bit. Yeah. Because just so people understand it’s about the data pools of valuables at the moment, China has no privacy and therefore they’re quantum computers are learning very quickly through these deep pools of data. And if we don’t have the same thing in the West, then we’re going to fall behind in AI. Again, that that worries me. Certainly we should be worried about the CCP, getting to AOI advantage over the West. Having said that, I’m not persuaded that democracy can survive. If the cure is burning the village to save it, then I’m not really persuaded by Mark’s argument I’m going to be honest. But I actually want to ask you a question about you’re a journalist by trade.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things that troubles me, I see a lot of it now and it’s really Tweeter specific, the way people are now targeting journalists on there that are just doing their job. And this tribalism. A politician that they like will get a tough question and they stack it on that person, or they don’t believe the interview was tough enough and they’ll stack on that journalist and it’s become about the journalists individually and journalists are getting pounded off platforms and even being threatened in the real world. So maybe you just talk a little bit about that and what we should.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. I’m actually a researcher by training, but I spent a lot of time with journalists and certainly… In 2009 developed a training program for the BBC on how do you verify content? If somebody had told me 12 years later that the same journalists would now be harassed, terrified for the safety of their kids. I mean, it is extraordinarily scary out there, particularly being a woman and in a person of color absolutely. I mean, I’m teaching a class this semester and we had a conversation yesterday about whether they should go into journalism because a number of them were like, “Why would I choose this profession when it’s hard enough to do the job, but then you’re also signing up for this abuse and harassment.” But it, like you say, the internet allows people to find you. Previously, if you were a journalist, it would be very rare for somebody to knock on the door and be like, “Hey, you are a whatever.”

Claire Wardle:

But now it doesn’t take anything it’s anonymous. So I mean, there’s a lot of good work now with some nonprofits around coalitions to help protect journalists. Almost like a helpline that when they’re getting piled on, they can contact the platform and try and… I mean, the platform should be doing much more to protect journalists. And they’re not, they should be doing a lot more to protect the whole host of people and they’re not. But it is serious. And I think, unless you’ve been in the middle of one of these storms, you don’t realize how terrifying it is and, yeah, it’s a very sad state of affairs.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I’ve watched your TED Talks and you’ve given passion defenses of us being able to fix this and regulate this. I mean, are you still an optimist or you and I have had a previous conversation where you were getting more concerned about looking ahead and certainly U.S. democracy, 2024, what’s up ahead, after January 6th. I mean, are you an optimist that we can to go away out or are we on a burning platform or hill?

Claire Wardle:

I definitely think things are much, much, much worse now than I ever would’ve dreamed of in 2016 when I first started really thinking about these issues. But I still believe that we can dig ourselves out. My concern is that things could get really bad, really quickly in the next three to four years, which will make digging out impossible. I don’t want us to get to a point of no return. And I’ve said to you previously, I’m very worried in 2024, that if it’s a close election and it goes a certain way, the right will not accept the result and we could end up in a Civil War situation. I do not think that is outside the realms of possibility. Now that’s a terrifying bit because then the impact of this is so great that it’s going take years and years and years to get back.

Claire Wardle:

If we can avoid that, then I think there’s hope as long as we are much more aware of how long this is going to take, but also the seriousness of this problem, like I just said to you, millions have gone into misinformation the last five years, but it’s still nibbling around the edges giving little nonprofits, small grants. This has to be a global conversation because ultimately misinformation impacts democracy, health, climate, hates, it influences the ways that we operate as a planet. So to me and I know it’s a thing that I care about the most, but it requires such a response. It requires a global… We don’t need a UN agency for disinformation, but the absence of a global entity to really take this seriously and to do the proper levels of education.

Claire Wardle:

Without that, if we carry on this trajectory, be like, “Ooh, how much harm really? And we just need another study to find out whether it’s really harmful.” To me, those drips of water, just keep dripping every single day, low level, hate, conspiracy, misleading content. We are so busy trying to work out should we had a tag to it, but what’s happening is that the rock is slowly splitting and we can’t see that split. The historians will, but it’s like, we are just like, “Oh, how worrying is it really?” It’s really worrying.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, look, just to build out your discussion about trying to get coordinated global. I mean the G20 was able to, or was able to get a minimum global tax agreement through, which was pretty profound. So, I mean, there is some hope, but one of the things that frustrates me when you hear Zuckerberg talk he’s like, “I’m happy to be regulated, but you tell me how to be regulated.” And there’s an asymmetry in terms how the regulators understanding how regulate, because the techs so complicated and then also pushing for a global solution is always a typical tactic of those seeking not to be regulated.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. 100%.

Misha Zelinsky:

But nevertheless, I think you’ve touched on a couple areas that would help quite a bit. Now, I think you and I could talk about this forever in a day and it’s been enormously well, interesting perhaps troubling conversation, but now I have to do my typical clunky segue to a completely unrelated question, because I’m terrible host about barbecue at Claire’s. Now, you’re a foreign guest, you’re a Brit. So regrettably enough that’s you’re going to have three or Aussie three convicts at your barbecue up in Upstate New York. So who would they be? And…

Claire Wardle:

What I wouldn’t give for an Australian barbecue just very quickly, three of my best friends from university immigrated to Australia. So I hated Australia for a long time until I went and I was like, “How do I come?” Anyway… Well I grew up-

Misha Zelinsky:

Sorry. That’s okay. The Brits sent us to Australia as a punishment and it’s like, okay, right. You guys stay there. We’ll stay here, right?

Claire Wardle:

No, no, I know you did a good job there. But so I grew up, I was a child of the ’90s, so I watched Neighbors twice a day. I don’t know if you know, it used to run up in Britain.

Misha Zelinsky:

I know Neighbors well.

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. So I would watch that. And when I first went to Melbourne and it was cold and of course I didn’t take a coat because in Edinburgh it was never not sunny. So I’d have to invite Kylie because she’s such a legend. I’d have to invite Clive James who still grew up. He was always on the radio, though he was incredible and Julia Gillard, who I know is complex, but as a woman in the role that she was in. And when she made that speech, I think she’s incredible and I love her red hair. Yeah, it would be an interesting mix.

Misha Zelinsky:

Julia Gillard.

Claire Wardle:

And mind you Sarah Snoop, if I can have a fourth, I’d say Sarah Snoop, a Succession.

Misha Zelinsky:

You can have a fourth.

Claire Wardle:

Because I just love Succession right now. And she’s amazing in it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Is she Aussie?

Claire Wardle:

Yeah. Also another red hair person. So…

Misha Zelinsky:

Ah. All right. We’re building a theme here, so [Jul G. 00:51:17]. will feel like she’s at least in the majority there with a fellow invite. Well, look Claire, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been a brilliant conversation and good luck with everything you’re doing at First Draft. We’ll stick some information about First Draft in the show notes, but keep up the brilliant work and good luck with everything.

Claire Wardle:

Thanks so much. It was a pleasure to chat.

 

Dr Thomas Mahnken: Going Nuclear – Submarines, AUKUS and Great Power Competition

Dr. Thomas Mahnken is President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. He currently serves as a member of the Congressionally-mandated National Defense Strategy Commission and as a member of the Board of Visitors of Marine Corps University. 

His career in defence is extensive and includes service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning. 

He is the author of numerous books, including The Gathering Pacific Storm: Emerging U.S.-China Strategic Competition in Defense Technological and Industrial Development.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Tom to discuss all things nuclear subs, including why this is was the right call for Australia, the significance of the AUKUS agreement, restoring diplomatic relations with the French, how Australia can get subs before 2038 to avoid capability gaps, the lessons from historic great power competition and what total technological competition with the Chinese Communist Party looks like.

Please keep rating and reviewing the show.  If you have a question, send it through to us on any of our social media channels or directly to Misha.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Tom, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks so much for joining us.

Tom Mahnken:

It’s a pleasure to be with you.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, huge news over the last week, the announcement related to AUKUS, the awkwardly named acronym. Although, I should say from the outset, Australians, we love acronyms. We basically shorten everything. But awkwardly named AUKUS.

Misha Zelinsky:

But maybe just starting here, you might just explain the significance of this announcement. It’s made a huge splash, not just at home in Australia, but around the world. Why is this so significant, compared to other announcements?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think it is tremendously significant. I think it’s tremendously significant for Australia. I think it’s tremendously significant for the United States, and for Great Britain. Because it represents an opportunity to move forward and collaborate closely on cutting-edge capabilities. To enhance the security of each of the parties, but also, the collective security of all three nations.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you’ve been, for a long time, personally … You were telling me before that you’ve been arguing the case, I suppose. So, maybe give us a little bit of the history about we got to this AUKUS announcement, and the history and the arguments around this particular debate relating to a particular nuclear capability.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. Well, you’re right. It seems like, as good as the news was last week, it was a long time coming. Because, particularly in the nuclear domain or the nuclear-powered submarine domain, it’s an argument that I’ve been making for the better part of a decade. And not just me, but a number of folks on both sides of the Pacific.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think the reason … Well, there’s multiple reasons why we’ve gotten where we have. But the logic, seems to me, has always been compelling. I think we’ve just gotten to the point now, where we’ve now gotten the political willpower and political imagination to bring that to fruition.

Tom Mahnken:

But the logic behind it, well, first it stems from Australia’s geo-strategic circumstances. That, fortunately for Australia, throughout much of her history, she’s a long ways from those who seek her harm. But of course, the ability to reach out and touch Australia and her interests is growing. So, the capability edge is needed. I think that’s certainly one dimension of it.

Tom Mahnken:

And then, of course, the capabilities of nuclear propulsion when it comes to submarines, I think are particularly appealing to Australia and to Australia’s strategic circumstances.

Misha Zelinsky:

Before we get to the tick itself, I think it’s also important to talk about just how rare it is for a nation to share its nuclear technology. The United States has only previously shared its technology in 1958, so a long time ago, about 60 years ago. And that was with the other partner of AUKUS, the United Kingdom.

Misha Zelinsky:

So maybe explain just exactly the significance of that decision in and of itself.

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, I think it represents just a statement about just how closely the United States, Australia, and Britain are able to collaborate. So I think it really builds off of, as you say, literally decades of close cooperation in a whole range of areas between the United States and Australia. And now extending that cooperation into the nuclear realm. As you say, heretofore, it’s only been the United States and Great Britain, because of the sensitivity of the technology involved.

Tom Mahnken:

But Australia is a wholly trusted ally, and a wholly trusted partner of the United States, so it makes sense to extend cooperation into this realm. And I would hasten to add, of course, AUKUS is not just about nuclear propulsion for submarines. It envisions collaboration in a whole variety of high-leverage, cutting-edge capabilities.

Tom Mahnken:

This, I think, will just be the first significant case of what I certainly hope will be collaboration in various other areas, as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I think that’s interesting. Because a lot of the detail’s been missed in the politics of it, I suppose, or the reporting, which is focused so much on this monumental decision for Australia to acquire nuclear subs, and break its deal with the French Naval Group maker.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that other component is so critical; it’s almost bigger in some senses. So, just turning to the subs, and you touched on it at the beginning there, but the capability question. Why is it that … Was it almost inevitable that we’d go down the nuclear propulsion path?

Misha Zelinsky:

Maybe for people that don’t quite understand subs, which, I’m one … Why is nuclear superior to diesel technology?

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. Nuclear propulsion for submarines provides a mixture of speed, range and endurance that’s unmatched by other means of propulsion. So, particularly if you are a continent-sized nation like Australia, located at the crossroads of the Indo-Pacific, you need … The Royal Australia Navy needs submarines with range, with endurance, and with speed.

Tom Mahnken:

So, either that is a nuclear-propelled submarine, or it’s the world’s largest, most capable conventionally powered submarine.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is what the French were going to build us, basically, or …

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, so I think Australia has faced, previous to AUKUS, Australia faced a dilemma. Which was, on the one hand, the geo-strategic logic pushes Australia toward nuclear-propelled submarines. On the other hand, to state the obvious, Australia, even though the largest or second largest repository of uranium ore in the world, doesn’t have nuclear power, civilian nuclear power. Doesn’t have a nuclear industry. So, it seems like a little bit of a strange fit.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think, if one looks closely and carefully at Australian defense policy over decades, I think you can see different attempts to deal with that dilemma. And I think fortunately, we’re in a position now, where that dilemma can be solved properly. But yeah, look, if you go back to the process that led to the choice of the Shortfin Barracuda to fulfill the requirement to replace the Collins-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s the Japanese submarine.

Tom Mahnken:

The Barracuda’s the French design.

Misha Zelinsky:

French, French. Sorry. It was the Soryu [crosstalk 00:07:28].

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. There were three contenders for that. There was a German contender, a European contender. There was a Japanese contender in the Soryu. And then there was the French contender in the Barracuda, which became the attack class.

Tom Mahnken:

And if you look at that process, and if you look at what the Australian government was looking for … again, in terms of characteristics, in terms of design attributes like speed, range and endurance, they were looking for a nuclear submarine.

Tom Mahnken:

In other words, the only propulsion plant that could really deliver those capabilities was a nuclear propulsion plant. And yet, for all sorts of understandable reasons, the … I would say the Australian government didn’t ask, and the United States didn’t volunteer, at that time.

Tom Mahnken:

But again, fortunately, we’re at a time now, and I think it speaks to the times we’re living in, where the three governments involved were able to make this happen.

Misha Zelinsky:

Was it a mistake to engage Naval Group to build this hybrid submarine that you described there? We sort of, for political reasons, tied ourselves into a pretzel to come up with this … basically converting a nuclear submarine to a diesel submarine, and making it much, much more difficult.

Misha Zelinsky:

And Australia seems to do this a lot. We build these bespoke products that no one else has, which raises the cost and extends the timetable in building them. But was it a mistake to not have bitten the bullet then, in 2016, when the Naval Group contract was signed?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, I think the options that were on the table at the time, each bore with them risks, and risks of different sort. Going the European route would have really put a dent in the Royal Australian Navy’s power projection capability. So really would have been much … resulted in much more of a coastal submarine force.

Tom Mahnken:

The Japanese alternative posed another set of risks. First, Japan at the time had just recently lifted its restrictions on exporting defense articles. And this would have been a big ask for the Japanese government to deliver on. Also, I think the Japanese were looking to continue manufacturing the Soryus in Japan. Whereas, the Australian government was obviously looking for manufacture in Australia. But there was risk there.

Tom Mahnken:

And then, the risk for the French design was … Well, among other things, it was a technical risk. The French design is the design of a nuclear-powered attack submarine, converted to a diesel submarine. And one can argue, as people have argued, that it was nonetheless a proven design.

Tom Mahnken:

But really, switching out the power plant in a submarine renders it a new design. It’s like, I don’t know, taking a six-cylinder BMW and putting a four-cylinder diesel engine in it. Now, the worst thing that can happen, if you were to do something like that with an automobile, is you get a clunker. The worst thing that happens in a submarine if you do something like that is sailors lose their lives.

Tom Mahnken:

So I think there was another set of risks involved there. All this points back to the fact that the best, the optimal solution, back a handful of years ago, was not on the table. And that best optimal solution then was a nuclear submarine.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, interestingly, the talk’s now … people said, “Well, we’ve made the French turn inside-out, to … ” as you say, redesign a nuclear submarine to our specifications. Wouldn’t it have made more sense just to build a French nuclear submarine, just that the one that they were already building?

Misha Zelinsky:

But is that an attainable outcome against the technology that is available through the Virginia-class United States tech, or the Astute-class of British tech? Or is that actually not a good comparator? Because people say it’s like for like, but …

Tom Mahnken:

I think one element has to do with propulsion. So, a nuclear design would have been superior to the world’s largest, most capable, conventional design, which is what you’re looking at. But I think interoperability with the United States is also a key element. So, they’re having a US combat system, as the attack class was to have. And hopefully, the next generation submarine will also have. I think that’s an important part of it, as well.

Tom Mahnken:

And whether that could have been accommodated … On one hand, you would have gotten a truly proven design. On the other hand, it would have been potentially less interoperable. I think that’s yet another factor that weighs here pretty heavily.

Misha Zelinsky:

And what about the fact that, as I understand it, one of the advantages, and certainly, our prime minister Scott Morrison, was talking this up quite a bit … that a British or American nuclear submarine is a once-off fueling proposition. Whereas, the French, you would require a domestic nuclear energy industry to fuel it as you need. Can you maybe explain that? Because I think that’s a fascinating thing that these subs can run on one charge.

Tom Mahnken:

Yep. That’s right, and that’s yet another variable, is the lifecycle of the submarine and the need, or not, to refuel it. American and British nuclear submarines use one variety of reactor for propulsion. The French have gone another path. In terms of the nuclear fuel cycle for the submarine, it ideally would be a one and done for an American or British design.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, what’s the lifespan of a submarine, then, on a …

Tom Mahnken:

Well, it depends on how it’s deployed, essentially. It’s, if you imagine, the plant has so many hours on it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sure.

Tom Mahnken:

But you’re talking decades of service life.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things that I’m really interested about, and you touched on it, the jobs question, and that political economy question. I represent a union at home that has people that work in ship-building. And there’s going to be a lot of jobs in South Australia, particular from the French build.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, trying to work through exactly how long it takes. But one of the things that is … I’ve never quite understood, and maybe you can explain it to me and to people listening, is … Okay. We made this decision in 2016 to build 12 ships with Naval Group. And they’re talking about the first ship hitting the water in 2035. It just seems crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:

And then today, if we were to press Go on an Astute-class or Virginia-class, or something in between, we’re told like 2038. It’s 18 years, pretty much. I can raise a child in that 18 years into an adult, and go out and do things. So, why does it take so long? Explain it as a lay person, it just seems a crazy long lead time.

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think in specifics, for Australia and Australian skills in Australian ship-building, a key part of this is building those skills. So, going from not having an active submarine production capability to having one, requires a lot of recruitment, a lot of skills development.

Tom Mahnken:

And again, at the front end of the selection process for the Collins replacement, there was actually some very good work done … literally surveying the skills base across Australia for the types of skills and the quantity of skills needed to produce, at that point, a very capable, large conventionally propelled attack submarine.

Tom Mahnken:

And what that analysis showed is … to state the obvious, you didn’t have a lot of highly skilled submarine techs and engineers just sitting around on the beach, waiting to be employed.

Tom Mahnken:

That the skills would have to be developed or brought in from adjacent trades, and folks being trained up. This was actually something that the United States faced in its own way, briefly, in the early to mid 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. Where for us, the question was, what was the minimal production run for our, then, our Los Angeles-class attack submarines, to keep the skills base intact.

Misha Zelinsky:

To avoid the valley of death, as its called.

Tom Mahnken:

Exactly. And now, and I think this will figure into AUKUS going forward … I think now, actually, the challenge that we face is, even though we’ve got a very solid submarine production base, it’s running close to flat-out right now. And there’s growing demand just from the US Navy for attack submarines than obviously our next generation of ballistic missile submarines.

Tom Mahnken:

So even for us, we’re looking at having to probably expand the skills base in some ways. But again, for Australia, starting from zero. Again, it’s not like the last of the Collins-class is just coming off the production line, and now you just roll over to something else.

Tom Mahnken:

No, there’s been a gap. And when you have a gap, hey, look … This is a lesson that on the surface ship side, the Australian government has learned. So, you currently have a continuous build for surface ships, but you don’t have a continuous build for subs. And some of those skills there are just very specialized.

Misha Zelinsky:

That makes sense, in a way. But what it doesn’t address is the fact that arguably, we need subs now. How worried should Australian policy makers be about 2021 today? Make the announcement for the geo-strategic reasons you touched on. We can dig into that in a sec.

Misha Zelinsky:

But this gap between ship in the water in 2038, Collins is going to have to be extended. What sort of problem does that represent for Australia’s defense policy?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, arguably, it’s, again, with political will and political imagination, arguably, the nuclear option can alleviate that window of vulnerability that was, again, that was going to occur because of the age-out of the Collins-class.

Tom Mahnken:

And the way you would alleviate that is through some arrangement. And I’ll just say the US version of that arrangement would be purchase or lease of some number of Virginia-class submarines. You could imagine a parallel conception, where it would involve purchase or lease of British attack submarines. But I’ll stick to what I know best, and I’ll talk about the Virginia-class.

Misha Zelinsky:

You wouldn’t be a patriot if you weren’t selling the US product.

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, I also think that there’s, back to the industrial base, and back to the size of our submarine force, I think there are probably some in the US Navy who-

Misha Zelinsky:

Won’t love the idea?

Tom Mahnken:

… won’t like what I’m about to say. But, given the size of our submarine force and our procurement, I think there’s greater scope for a non-traditional approach like that, than there is, say, for the British sub force, which is just a much smaller force.

Misha Zelinsky:

Though, as I understand it, the Brits, they’re reaching the end of what they propose to build for themselves. So there is some attraction for them, in terms of capacity in the way you described.

Tom Mahnken:

But either way, I think a key element of this is getting hulls in the water sooner. Again, as you say, not waiting 18 years, or not having to wait 18 years. It’s also skills development, because Australian crews will have to get used to crewing a nuclear powered submarine. And that has challenges of its own.

Misha Zelinsky:

And they’re bigger, right? Even just by themself. So you need more people. But also, speaking of skills, as I understand it, essentially, the captain of a nuclear submarine is essentially a nuclear scientist or an engineer. Right?

Tom Mahnken:

Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:

So they need to understand how the core works, and the engine works. Because, anything goes wrong, it can be catastrophic.

Tom Mahnken:

And not just the commanding officer, but really, the whole ward room and your senior enlisted folks are highly skilled, highly trained professionals. And the US Navy, the Royal Navy, have over decades, developed training, education pipelines, security apparatuses, to maintain the highest levels of safety and security and readiness, with their nuclear submarine forces.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how would you imagine then, could you foresee a situation where, say, we buy one off the shelf initially, whilst working out how to build them at home, or lease one, as you described. Can you imagine jointly crewing these, and learning alongside US or British sailors? Is that possible under these arrangements?

Tom Mahnken:

I think it borders on the mandatory, not just possible. I think that’s what needs to happen. Now again, that’s perhaps less of a stretch than many, most Australians, might imagine. In that there is a history of collaboration/cooperation between the US submarine force and the Australian submarine force.

Tom Mahnken:

And certainly, there are Commonwealth manning arrangements between the UK and Australia. In other words, there are decades of ties and relationships that take this from being just some pie in the sky idea, to something that is imminently practical.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, you talked about safety there; you talked about … A number of times, you’ve talked about this is a highly technical piece of equipment. So, one of the comments … so, “Fortunately, this has been, has bipartisan support in Australia.” The Labor party, as you know, I’m close to, and the Labor Party supporting it, which is good, on the proviso that we don’t have domestic nuclear energy production.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which, funnily enough, I actually think we should have. But I have a fringe position. I’ve also thought we should have nuclear subs sometimes. But nevertheless, that’s the position of the Labor Party leadership at this time.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Greens Party, who are sort of the far left party, have described nuclear submarines as floating Chernobyls … Maybe you can talk a little bit about the safety record of nuclear submarines. Because it’s actually very strong, as I understand it. But I’d be keen to hear from you on that.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah, look, the safety record of American nuclear submarines or British nuclear submarines, of Western nuclear submarines … Let’s just take the Soviet Union out of it, is actually, yeah … is very strong. And that’s built on, there’s a technical dimension to that that has to do with reactor design. The reactors that the US Navy uses are quite safe.

Tom Mahnken:

It also has to do with education; it has to do with training. It has to do with personnel selection, a whole host of things. But yeah, the track record of not just the US Navy, but certainly including the US Navy on these matters, is really, really very strong.

Misha Zelinsky:

Good to hear. Certainly not floating Chernobyls, there.

Tom Mahnken:

No, not at all. Not at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Noting the Soviet Union issue – which is perhaps a better analogy for the Greens Party, if they would like to pursue that, I’m thinking. But so, we’ve spoken a lot about the French. We need to really talk about the French reaction to this.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, in my view, it’s a bit of a failure of diplomacy, certainly on the Australian side of things. I’ve maintained the people of Australia’s been breaking hearts on these submarine deals, broke the Japanese hearts with Abe. Now, with the French and Macron. I don’t think he can break …

Misha Zelinsky:

And this is not a commentary on the United States, United Kingdom. But I don’t think he can break a $90 billion marriage via text message. So when you’ve seen ambassadors being recalled, not from the United Kingdom but from the United States and Australia, I think you’ve kind of mishandled the diplomacy.

Misha Zelinsky:

How important do you think the French are to this overall architecture of democracy, getting together in this Biden White House’s view that we need to stitch democracies together as a counterweight to autocracies? Pretty negative outcome, do you think? You got a NATO ally really with his nose out of joint about what the three nations have done here.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think it’s a shame. Because I think France is a world power. France-

Misha Zelinsky:

And an Indo-Pacific power.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. I was about to say, France is an Indo-Pacific power, and realizes it, and acts like it. And certainly, Franco-Australian relations have been closening around Indo-Pacific issues. So I think it’s regrettable that the French government has reacted the way it has.

Tom Mahnken:

And whether there was action or inaction on the part of the United States, Australia, UK, that contributed to that, that would also be regrettable.

Tom Mahnken:

But I think that France is an important actor moving forward. But I would say, look, just in, as I alluded to earlier, just in the case of the submarine deal, again, it’s … It struck me at the time, and it’s struck me in the year since. It was a little bit of a forced fit.

Tom Mahnken:

And when it is a forced fit, again, I’ll take countries out of it. I always like to say that when you’re doing something new, when you’re building something new … whether it’s military hardware or something else, you pay for it. You pay for it in money; you pay for it in time. And what Australia and France agreed to do was something new, in ways that maybe were variously acknowledged or unacknowledged by both parties.

Tom Mahnken:

So, when costs ballooned and when schedules stretched out, one shouldn’t have been surprised. But that did leave the capability gap that you talked about a few minutes ago. And seems to me that you can’t wait forever. And particularly, if there is a better solution, and a path to a better solution that also is … can be a more near-term one.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I think any fair-minded analyst would say that it was always a complex decision that we entered into with Naval Group. The relationship, frankly, notwithstanding the way it’s blown up, so to speak, in the last fortnight … It was already in rocky territory.

Misha Zelinsky:

Morrison and Macron had had discussions about, had problems with it. Naval Group were not keeping up their end of the bargain, in terms of timetable, or engagement with domestic procurement in Australia there. And a lot of promises were made before entering into the agreement, which had not been followed up on.

Misha Zelinsky:

But how do you see … France is a key player globally, in the Indo-Pacific, key NATO player, key player in Europe. What can be done to repair that relationship, do you think? Is this a question of time, or are there things that could be done actively, to deepen them into … not just the ego piece, but what could be done on a practical way?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, look, I think … And again, far be it from me to tell the French government or French analysts what’s in France’s interest.

Misha Zelinsky:

I got it.

Tom Mahnken:

But I think, actually, if you step back and look at the vision of AUKUS, at least when it comes to … Or I’ll say particularly when it comes to the nuclear-powered submarines, what we’re talking about here is in France’s interest. And that is not just Australia getting into the nuclear submarine business, but the dimension that we haven’t talked about yet, which is keeping Great Britain in the nuclear submarine business. I think that’s a key part of it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why is that important?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think it’s important to France in a NATO context, that the Royal Navy be as capable as possible. It’s also important, again, when you talk about nuclear submarines, you can go beyond the NATO context and the European context, or global context.

Tom Mahnken:

And France, as a democracy, with other advanced democracies, should want Great Britain, the Royal Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, the US Navy … to be as capable as they can be. So again, I think, step back, several deep breaths … That is hopefully the view that’ll emerge in Paris and elsewhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

I want to shift to the geopolitics of this. Last question I want to ask you is Collins. It’s had a bit of a bad rap over many years, though it’s, as I understand it, a pretty decent sub these days.

Tom Mahnken:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

How capable is it going to be until we get our hands on some Virginia-class or Astute-class submarines, in the way that you described before? How problematic is it going to be relying on the Collins-class into the 2030s?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, as you noted, I think Collins has suffered from, in an unfair, longterm way, from teething pains that the boats had early on in their life. And again, that’s something that just happens. Again, particularly when it’s something new, you inevitably have problems. That gets bad press. You fix the problems; you get increased capability, but people remember the problems.

Tom Mahnken:

Look, the main problem with the boats is that they’re getting towards the end of their life. So, there’ll need to be some investments made in keeping them in fighting shape.

Tom Mahnken:

I think that the key judgment, and again, this is a judgment that the Australian government will have to make in this case and other cases … The case that US government has to make with a bunch of older platforms, is at what point are you just putting a disproportionate amount of money into upkeep. Because I think any weapon system’s life, you get to a certain point, it’s almost an asymptotic curve where you’re just spending more and more and more to maintain-

Misha Zelinsky:

Propulsion capability.

Tom Mahnken:

Exactly. And again, I would not presume to tell the Australian government what that point is. What I would say, again, back to the idea of leasing, purchase of submarines like the Virginia-class, is that it does offer some relief there.

Tom Mahnken:

It does offer some relief to transition crews off of Collins-class, and on to the next generation. And also, get those … alleviate those older boats from the operational burden, the deployment burden, while letting newer boats do that.

Misha Zelinsky:

I suppose the big question here is why now. Subtext to what you were saying, I think your term was not asked and not answered. Basically, in 2016, when we were looking at subs, I think had Malcolm Turnbull … was the Prime Minister at the time, picked up the phone, rung … It may have been late-stage Barack Obama, or early-stage Donald Trump presidency, and said, “Listen, mate. We’d like some of your submarine technology,” the answer would have been no. Fair to say?

Tom Mahnken:

Well, I think that’s a great question. I’d say the counterpart question is would any Australian prime minister around that period, have taken the political risk of doing so without knowing in advance … whether it was President Obama or President Trump on the other end of the phone, was going to say in advance.

Tom Mahnken:

I really do think it was the two things going together. And I do think, and this was the argument that I made for the better part of a decade, was … The argument that I made was frankly, that it was in the US interest to make it known to the Australian government that, should the Australian government ask this, that this option would be on the table.

Tom Mahnken:

Obviously, it’s a sovereign decision by Australia. But I think it would have made sense then, ultimately did make sense, to just put that option on the table. But short of that, again, you have this awkward dance between … even in an awkward dance even between very close allies, over, “Okay. Well, am I really going to lead with my chin on this one?” When the answer might be no, or might be, “We’ll study it.”

Tom Mahnken:

But I think that the … At the time, the US answer of “We’ll study it,” would be to turn it over to the bureaucracy. And I think the bureaucracy would have done what bureaucracies do. Bureaucracies, where good ideas go to die … so probably wouldn’t have survived contact with the bureaucracy.

Tom Mahnken:

But like I say, we’re in a position now, I think for good and bad reasons, generally speaking … where this now has become politically feasible.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, why is it then? What has changed in the geo-strategic environment, in the Indo-Pacific suddenly, that … why would Australia now decide, “Look, the diesel subs aren’t going to cut the mustard. We need to bite the bullet and go nuclear,” for the first time in history?

Tom Mahnken:

I don’t know. What could it be? I don’t know. Could be climate change; could be migration. Oh, it could be China, too. It could be China. And it could be increasing concern over a worsening military balance. And increasing concern, I would say both, about Australian defense. Again, neither, I think, you nor your listeners really need to have that rehearsed.

Tom Mahnken:

But you certainly have growing commitment in recent years by the Australian government, to national defense, which is a reflection of a worsening strategic environment. Concern over, I’d say, a looming period of danger. We don’t have, again, back to the … you don’t have 18 years and a lot of hope that the right thing will emerge just over time.

Tom Mahnken:

So, I think that certainly is a part of it. And I think, on the part of the United States, you have, I think, a very closely shared perception of that strategic environment. And also, a desire to do more and work more closely, particularly with our closest, most trusted allies.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, is this the start of a new Cold War? You got the Chinese Communist Party and its various mouthpieces, saying, “Oh, this is an outrageous provocation.” I would say it’s a response to the outward belligerence of the Chinese Communist Party and the construction in the South China Sea, militarized islands, and the false claiming of sovereignty there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Australia’s presently dealing with a number of billions of trade coercion as a result of domestic decisions around foreign interference, principally related to China’s Communist Party. Is it incumbent upon democracies to be more accommodative of this approach from the Chinese Communist Party? Or are they crying crocodile tears about this decision?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, I think you’re right to ask this question. I think we should all ask ourselves, what is it about Chinese behavior, truly concerns us. I think that’s a clarifying question. And as I try to answer that question, I really have four answers.

Tom Mahnken:

The first is, it is, in general, Chinese international behavior, and the pattern of Chinese international behavior. We care more about, and we’re more concerned about China today, because China is, and the Chinese Communist Party is, more active externally.

Tom Mahnken:

Second, and more specifically, its behavior in maritime Asia, maritime Asia-Pacific. That is what, I think, concerns Americans. I’d say it concerns Australians as well, more than, say, activity in other areas.

Tom Mahnken:

Third, it’s a Chinese Communist Party that has grown increasingly dissatisfied with the international status quo. And is more and more overt about wanting to change that status quo.

Tom Mahnken:

And then the first, the final, rather, point that, sometimes we don’t like to talk about it in polite company, is the fact that China is an authoritarian power.

Misha Zelinsky:

Totalitarian, I would probably just go further.

Tom Mahnken:

Absolutely. And so, that actually is … a friend and colleague of mine coined the phrase a number of years ago, so I’ll steal it now. But I would say, China wants to make the world safe for totalitarianism. If for no other reason, to help the Chinese Communist Party perpetuate itself.

Tom Mahnken:

Those are the things that have brought us to where we are today. I think the … calling it a Cold War II, capital C, capital W, probably Roman numeral two. That may be overblown. Is it a lower case C, lower case W cold war, or a peacetime competition, or great power competition? I think that’s a little bit more … maybe less evocative, but I think that’s more accurate.

Tom Mahnken:

And look, China’s been competing with us for decades now. I think we, the Western democracies, have been a little bit late to wake up to that. But we are awake to it. And that means we need to protect, defend those things that we care about. Because if we don’t, we could easily see them go away.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just to quickly unpack something you said there, I think that we always look to history to try to see patterns, as Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.” But Cold War’s an imperfect analogy for many ways, but particularly because we’ve had very distinct and separate geographies and systems.

Misha Zelinsky:

What we have now is entwined economies, information systems enmeshed. And you’ve got competing political systems within that. And obviously, you’ve got a lot of asymmetry, too. That we remain relatively open, and China, Russia and others are completely closed, more or less. So, there’s no reciprocity.

Misha Zelinsky:

But how do you see that contest playing out? In these questions of systems competition, but also in that technological competition?

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah, look, I think you’ve stated it accurately. You mentioned the word reciprocity, and I should just pick up on that. Because I think it’s something that we haven’t thought enough about, and really should probably think more about.

Tom Mahnken:

And here’s where I will go back in history, to the capital C, capital W, Cold War. One of the things that the US and like-minded allies eventually adopted during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, was a policy of reciprocity. As a matter of fact, my godmother actually worked in the State Department office that sort of enforced reciprocity.

Tom Mahnken:

And I think it’s the type of idea whose time may have come again. Look, if the Chinese Communist Party is really serious about being treated as an equal, then I think we should take them at their word, and we should treat them on the basis of strict reciprocity.

Tom Mahnken:

Any access that they gain to our economies should be predicated on access that we have to theirs. Their access to our information sphere, our public, our population, should be predicated on equal access.

Tom Mahnken:

In the Cold War, it was, again, the diplomats had it down to a fine art. Which was, “All right. Well, what did American diplomats in Moscow get to do and not do? Okay, well, Soviet diplomats in the United States, you get treated the same exact way.” I think if we were to think about that, our relationship in that way, it might lead us down some very interesting paths.

Misha Zelinsky:

One thing I’m keen, just to follow along the conversation there … One of the things a lot of people talk about in all these areas we’ve discussed, is the competition piece. But then the inevitability. What China and the Chinese Communist Party like to project is linear inevitability, therefore, don’t bother.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, we see a lot of this sort of discourse in Australia. United States is in decline. The Chinese Communist Party and China are the inevitable new superpower that will eclipse everyone on any sort of linear projection.

Misha Zelinsky:

And therefore, how can you aim to compete? Don’t try. Try to live with the angry dragon, rather than antagonizing them. How do you see that narrative and that challenge, in a policy context, as well as a … I guess, a systems competition context?

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah. I’d respond in two ways. One is, just because we’re talking about competing with China, there’s no inevitability as to where that competition will go. If we go back and look at competitions between great powers historically, some of them have led to war. The Anglo-German competition bred two world wars.

Tom Mahnken:

Other times, competition actually leads to a satisfactory settlement to all concerned. The competition that I think many Americans forget about, or don’t like to think about, is the Anglo-American competition that went up until the beginning of the 20th century. We don’t think about it, by and large, because it was resolved amicably.

Tom Mahnken:

Now, I would just say parenthetically, maybe one of the reasons it was resolved that way was because ultimately, it was a competition between democracies. So, just hold that thought. But then again, if we go back to the big Cold War, the US-Soviet competition, that was sort of a middle case. It didn’t lead to war. It didn’t lead to war, thank God, between the United States and Soviet Union.

Tom Mahnken:

It ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was sort of a middle case. So, I would caution against inevitability in that sense. Just because we’re talking about competition now, doesn’t mean we are destined for war, to quote Graham Allison’s book.

Tom Mahnken:

Now, but if we now just think about the United States and the Western allies versus China, I don’t think that there’s inevitability about China’s future trajectory, either. And again, here I’ll revert to history.

Tom Mahnken:

Look, from the perspective of the second half of the 1970s, early 1980s, it looked to many, to most in the West, that the Soviets were strong; they were powerful. Their gains just kept mounting. When in fact, there were some very deep weaknesses and systemic weaknesses of the Soviet system that were laid bare at the end of the decade. But those weak, systemic, catastrophic weaknesses of the Soviet Union were all but invisible to many, to most observers, including to specialists.

Tom Mahnken:

So, lesson one, shame on them. Should have done a better job. But lesson two, things can change fairly rapidly, and they can change particularly rapidly in the face of strategic pressure. And that’s part of what the United States, its allies, did in … beginning in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. So, I reject wholeheartedly the idea that any of this is inevitable.

Misha Zelinsky:

One final technical question about this rivalry, going back to where we began, around subs, productions, navies. A lot of people, again, around this linear projection piece, say, “China has the world’s biggest navy now. It’s eclipsed the United States as a maritime power. And then if you look at production rates, China is putting a new sub into the water, one every year. Which is a pretty quick rate. And we, the royal we, the West behind. And therefore, we’re well behind in this contest.”

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked about some of the shortages that we’re seeing in the United States. So then, how do you see that? Is that an alarmist take? Is that an accurate take? Is that a ill-informed take?

Tom Mahnken:

Look, I think at the heart of it, at the very root of it, China is a continental power. China is a continental power, whose circumstances have permitted it to go to sea. And I mean its political circumstances, the fact that China’s continental borders have been largely peaceful.

Tom Mahnken:

And her economic circumstances, Chinese prosperity, have conspired to allow, to permit, to give China the luxury of expanding her navy and also, you could say, air forces.

Tom Mahnken:

But look, for the United States, and certainly for Great Britain, we’re maritime powers. It’s not elective. So, I think American superiority at sea is not willed by God. It is the product of men. But it is built on decades and decades of experience.

Tom Mahnken:

Whereas, I think the Chinese are … sure, they’ve been making some real gains, but from a pretty low starting point. They see the benefits; they see the attractiveness of sea power. Whether they can ever really get there, I think is an open question. Because again, historically, I would say China’s but the most recent in a series of continental powers that have sought to become sea powers.

Tom Mahnken:

Whether it’s 18th, 19th century France, 19th, early 20th century Germany, Soviet Union … And at least in those cases, ended badly for the continental power that aspired to be a sea power. It doesn’t mean that it’s destined to repeat this cycle. But I would be a little … It’s not a recipe for ignoring what the Chinese are doing.

Tom Mahnken:

But it should be a recipe for us to be more confident in our deep strengths. And to do more to exploit those deep strengths. And again, to take us full circle to AUKUS, that’s why I think that this is actually so important, so compelling, and so potentially consequential.

Tom Mahnken:

I say potentially, just because obviously, it depends on what governments do from here on out to make it real. But potentially, a very consequential development.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve touched on AUKUS, which is … I always note how bad my segues are, into this final question after a lot of heavy discussion of naval sea powers, continental powers, nuclear propulsion technology. Now we’re going to get into the real business with you, Tom, about … You are a foreign guest on my show.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, as a foreign guest, you are obliged … I’m sorry. You’ve got to bring three Australians to a barbecue. Hopefully, they’re not too obnoxious. But, who are they, and why, in the spirit of AUKUS?

Tom Mahnken:

In the spirit of AUKUS. Well-

Misha Zelinsky:

No Brits, though.

Tom Mahnken:

Yeah, no. Okay, right. Yeah. Because they wouldn’t know what to do. Well, you have to give me a little bit of latitude. Actually, the first would be John Howard.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Tom Mahnken:

I presume I have to give you a reason why, right?

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, [crosstalk 00:51:28].

Tom Mahnken:

Because the last time I gave it because-

Misha Zelinsky:

Ok

Tom Mahnken:

… look, I would say Howard because he’s a compelling political figure. And because he was a close friend to the United States at a time when we needed close friends.

Misha Zelinsky:

He’s the only Australian prime minister to have ever enacted the protections under ANZUS.

Tom Mahnken:

He’s an easy one. The second one is Peter Garrett.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Tom Mahnken:

And that’s because I’d like to see him at a barbecue with John Howard.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, they were in Parliament together for a period.

Tom Mahnken:

And maybe we’d need some entertainment. So, [crosstalk 00:52:07]-

Misha Zelinsky:

That would be … you might need to break up with some Midnight Oil music. Because I’m not sure they’d have a great deal in common, mate.

Tom Mahnken:

That’s the second one. The third one would be actually the late professor Coral Bell, who I think wrote just so insightfully about international politics and the Indo-Pacific. So, I would have to rely on a little bit of magic to bring her back for the barbecue. But she’d be a fitting companion for a good deep discussion of trilateral collaboration and the Indo-Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, hopefully, she’s got good diplomacy skills to break up Howard and Garrett. But that’s a fantastic way to end the conversation. So, Tom, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

Tom Mahnken:

My pleasure.

 

Ben Rhodes: After the Fall – Democracy, Authoritarianism and America

Ben Rhodes was the Deputy National Security Advisor for President Barack Obama.

A foreign policy expert, he is the host of ‘Pod Save The World’ and appears on MSNBC. His latest book ‘After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made’ is a study of the rising tide of global authoritarianism, exploring why democracy did not prevail as expected after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Ben for a chinwag about his new book, including why the failure to punish bankers in the GFC helped fuel the global rise of authoritarianism, why democracy needs to materially deliver for people to believe in it, how obsession with profits is undermining the fight against the Chinese Communist Party, how democracy itself is becoming a partisan issue in the US, why social media must be regulated, how Biden was right about Afghanistan all along, what Obama is like a person, and how fighting for democracy in America should give confidence to global democratic activists fighting for their own.

TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Ben Rhodes, welcome to Diplomates. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ben Rhodes:

Thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, super excited to have you here and want to talk about your new book, but I thought just to start us off for people that aren’t massive political or national security nerds in particular, I just wondered if maybe you’d give a quick brief rundown on your time in the Obama White House, and particularly when you were Deputy National Security Advisor. So what is that role and how does it participate in the security apparatus?

Ben Rhodes:

So I had a unique role. I was a speech writer on the Obama campaign and a Foreign Policy Advisor. And when I came into the White House, I was the senior speech writer on national security and foreign policy. And so I really was just doing speech writing and a little communications. But then in September 2009, so just a few months in the administration, I got promoted to Deputy National Security Advisor with a set of responsibilities. So I was responsible for all speech writing, all communications around foreign policy, national security. And that’s, what is the president saying? What is the State Department saying every day, how we’re responding to events. And it’s also our oversees public diplomacy and engagement programs. How do we engage with foreign public’s… Fulbright would be a part of that for instance, but then also as a Deputy National Security Advisor, I was a part of the National Security Council policy making process.

Ben Rhodes:

And what that means in the US is there’s something called the Deputies Committee where the Deputy National Security Advisor and Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy of Secretary Defense… You need to basically formulate policy options that then go up to the Cabinet for the president for approval. So you’re basically a part of the process on any issue where we’re developing a policy or where we’re responding to events. And so I participated in that. I also met with the president every morning when he got his presidential daily briefing and was a Senior Advisor to him basically as he made decisions on national security. And for me in my role, I also, because I was close to Obama, I would plan his foreign travel. Where’s he going to go?

Ben Rhodes:

What is he going to give speeches on? What messages is he trying to send with his foreign policy? And then I could take up particular projects that he was interested in. I negotiated the opening between the United States and Cuba because Obama wanted that done and it had to be discreet channel. So I had this job with specific functions around communications, participating in the policy making process, and then just advising Obama personally.

Misha Zelinsky:

Already an extremely cool job, mate. And we’ll come back to your time in the White House, but I do want to talk about your book because your time’s important, you’re here to plug things and now that I’m in America, [crosstalk 00:02:46] that’s selling, right? So, but your latest book After the Fall, you sort of chronicle the way the world has changed. And you sort of map out these pivot points. You sort of start with the end of the Cold War and the sort of end of history, then we have 9/11, we have the global financial crisis and then we more or less have what Trump brings it type event-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… and that populist uprising. And then why do you map these out as the key pivot points in modern history from then?

Ben Rhodes:

So I’ll do it quick, as quick as I can here, which is essentially I was trying to investigate in this book, why has there’ve been this rise of nationalist authoritarianism everywhere? And I really looked at the period after the Cold War. The period of time during which we thought you were going to have the spread of globalization, open markets and democracy. And that was the end of history. And I picked those events because first of all, in many ways, beginning with the end of the Cold War, that’s the starting gun for the world that we live in. And I looked at the US, I looked at China and how they were able to weather Tiananmen to get to where they are. I looked at Russia, why they went the way of Putinism and then Hungary, this country that started with all the hope of liberal democracy and within a couple of decades had moved to autocracy.

Ben Rhodes:

And I think the other events… 9/11 for me, I came to see as a time when the United States made its national purpose and project in the world, fighting terrorism in ways that I think have been corrosive to democracy in the US itself. It bred this kind of xenophobia, an us-versus-them brand of politics that morphed over time into Trumpism. And in other countries like the CCP or Russia, that framework of anti-terrorism was used to crack down on dissent and legitimize authoritarianism. Then I think the Iraq War is another key event in that it began to undermine confidence in America as the steward of a world order. And then I think the ’08 financial crisis is hugely important to the story I was telling, because that was the time at which if you look at Hungary, they were already building dissatisfaction with globalization and the inequality created by spreading markets, the corruption of political elites.

Ben Rhodes:

And then when the whole bottom falls out of the system in 2008, it really opened the door for say Hungary or right wing politician, like Viktor Orbán to come along and say, “Hey, this whole project is failing, globalization and liberal democracy. What I can offer you is the traditional nationalism,” right, “We’re the real Hungarians. And we oppose immigrants. We oppose foreign forces.” And then Putin could take the financial crisis and say, “See, look, the West is just as corrupt as anything here.” In fact, Navalny, Alexei Navalny, told me that that was a huge gift to Putin to essentially make the case that that everybody’s corrupt. So again, you might as well have a strong man who reflects your views. And I think for China, it was a pivot point where they went from deferring to American leadership to saying, “Well, we can challenge these guys.”

Ben Rhodes:

And I think you see the Chinese become steadily more assertive after ’08. So I obviously then come up through Trump and Obama, but I think that those events, the end of the Cold War, 9/11, the financial crisis were a trail that leads to a lot of the geopolitics we’re dealing with today.

Misha Zelinsky:

So then why did the Cold War project fail, the post Cold War project fail? I mean, this sort of history doesn’t end. You sort of have just before the GFC, you have this sort of unipolar moment of American Western Exceptionalism. And you’ve got Bill Clinton talking about just a sort of end of history sort of thesis, right? And then you have, fast-forward to today, you’ve got Joe Biden, essentially saying, “The question for the world is can democracy deliver for people in a meaningful way?” And so it’s staggering to think that in about 20 years, we’ve gone from that sort of complete confidence-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… to complete lack of confidence. One of the reasons I believe is that democracies have to deliver at home, if they’re going to deliver, you’re going to sort of shop them abroad, so to speak.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, is there anything that… What are the key sort of planks that you see as the reason why that project, that 30 year project after the fall of the Berlin Wall sort of failed, really?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, yeah. I mean, and first of all, I think it is important to say before I get negative in answering the question, look, a lot of good was done in those 30 years, right? I mean, standards of living around the world are improved. Hundreds of millions of people have been moved out of poverty. There hasn’t been a war between the great powers. So there are elements of that period that were progressed or made progress. I, in my book, I really focus on three factors that contributed to the failures of the last 30 years in terms of where we are politically. First was in capitalism. And I think the failure to effectively regulate markets and deal with inequality led to a really undermining of confidence in elites and in establishments around the world. That whether you’re blaming bureaucrats in Brussels or special interests in Washington, a lot of people around the world felt they were getting screwed and while a bunch of people are getting really rich.

Ben Rhodes:

And so I think, one is that unbridled American version of capitalism led to the GFC. The second, I think is the policy choices made after 9/11 by the United States. Look, in addition to what I said about the increased polarization and toxicity in our own politics, I think the post-9/11 mindset undermined aspects of American democracy from within. And in addition to the template that I think it offered the Russias and Chinas of this world to justify repression, I think it also attached concepts like democracy itself to the war in Iraq, right. I mean, that was used to justify the war in Iraq. I think it undermined the promotion of democratic values to have it so attached with post-9/11 wars that were not going well for the United States.

Ben Rhodes:

And then the third piece, if you have essentially capitalism and national security, post-9/11, the third piece is technology and the manner in which social media platforms in particular, they were thought to be these ultimate tools in empowerment and connecting people become the ultimate tools of disinformation say emanating from Russia or surveillance and control from the CCP. And so in a weird way, I describe in the book being in China and getting woken up at night and warned by Chinese officials that Obama, who I was traveling with in late 2017 after he was president, that Obama shouldn’t meet with the Dalai Lama on an upcoming trip to India. And in addition to it being strange to be woken up to be warned that, we hadn’t announced that meeting. I’d just been put in email contact with the Dalai Lama’s representative. So they were unsubtly letting me know they were monitoring somebody’s engagements.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yes, not subtle at all.

Ben Rhodes:

Not subtle. And so I walk outside and I’m looking at the Bund, the Shanghai skyline, and it looks like the future, right? There’s lights everywhere, people taking selfies with selfie sticks. And I thought to myself, if you took the last 30 years of American hegemony, the hyper capitalism, the national security focus and the technological advancement, and you just stripped all the democracy out of it, you would get basically what I was experiencing in China. So I think we have to see the ways in which it’s not… it shouldn’t be a surprise that the world evolved to that place, given the events in the last 30 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so just going back to your first point about inequality, I want to ask a question about the response to the GFC because I agree that that was a big pivot point in the economic model. And then there was people that perhaps caused this problem with it being the financial sector of the economy. And then people, the middle-class lost its savings and its wealth, particularly in United States and other parts of the world. And then bankers were seen to have gotten away and gone back to business as usual. So and at that time as well, you sort of saw the rise of two concurrent movements, grassroots movements. One was perhaps more grassroots than the other, but you had the Tea Party coming through and you had the Occupy Movement. One being perhaps extreme left, the other being more of extreme right-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… proposition, which is both a backlash against elite, so to speak. In the end Occupy, it may have found some expression in Sanders, et cetera, but the Tea Party has been highly successful in taking over the Republican party at a national level. So I suppose the question for you is, I mean, should the Obama administration have done more to punish the bankers? Obama covers this in his memoirs. It’s sort of, it’s easy to say now. And at the time, he was trying to get the economy going, et cetera, but do you think there is a case for there to have been more severe punishment because justice not only has to be done, but has to be seen to be done as well, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. So first of all, I agree with the premise. I look in the book at how the Tea Party movement in the US mirrored the rise of Orbán’s party in Hungary. But essentially you had a lot of angry disaffected people from rural areas, people that reflect the traditional Christian base of the Right in each country who were so angry at what had happened in their own lives. And so filled with grievance toward political elites, and then in the US it had the racialized component of a black president that they were very ripe for a right-wing populism that says, “Hey, here’s the traditional identity, put on the Jersey, “We’re the real Americans,” or, “We’re the real Hungarians.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Blood and soil type message, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Blood and soil nationals. Right. And I think that Obama, when I look back on that, there were two decisions to scrutinize. One is that he basically, in order to save the economy, he preserved the inequality in the economy because the method of saving the economy was essentially to pump trillions of dollars. It’s like a patient that was dying and you just pump it full of oxygen to come back to life. But that means it comes back to life with all of the same baked in inequalities. And so there’s an argument that he should have let the financial system collapse more in order to build something back that was different.

Ben Rhodes:

Then, he’s spoken to this in his memoir, and I’ve talked to him about this a lot. I mean, he still would say, “Hey, look. If the whole thing had collapsed, it’s not like I would have gotten reelected anyway.” And frankly, the anger at that could have produced something even worse, and there was a backlash, which I think is a reasonable. I do think that in retrospect, I wish we’d done more on inequality in those first two years because we lost congressional majorities after two years and basically couldn’t do anything.

Ben Rhodes:

So I think a lot of things that we presumed we’d have chance to do, we lost that chance. And then the second point is accountability. And I think you’re right. I just think people didn’t see a consequence being imposed on people that had brought down the whole global economy. And again, I think Obama would argue that it’s some of what they did was legal. And that was part of the problem. That there were… In fact, I’ll tell you, let you in on a secret, not secret anymore, taking about it in a podcast. But when Obama read my book, he took issue with me alluding to the fact that there should have been people prosecuted because he’s like, “The real scandal is, it was totally legal to have these financial schemes.” That said, I think if there’s any way to make more of an example of some people through enforcement, it would have at least made people less open to appeals from a Trump and Putin that everything is rigged.

Ben Rhodes:

And the funny thing is, again, something that Obama has explained to me, it’s a guy like Putin, and I’d say, Trump, too, doesn’t need to convince you that they’re not corrupt. They’re just trying to convince you that everybody’s corrupt.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

So it doesn’t matter that I am, right? And so that’s where I still think as difficult as it might have been, just a little more reckoning with the financial crisis could have been politically helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. I mean, cynicism is just toxic in a democracy, right.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, that’s exactly what they’re trying to breed. So, your book… you look at this sort of globally connected movement towards right wing authoritarianism or ethno-nationalism, or whatever you want to call it. But you do talk also about growing up in the Cold War and the sort of confidence that America would win. And this confidence that the West had in itself and you use Rocky IV as your base case, which is awesome, really. I’ve seen that movie, I don’t know, 250 times.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

You could have put in Top Gun as well, and you really would have had me, mate, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… so, I mean, I suppose the question is now, are you this confident now that the West can prevail against the CCP and Russian authoritarianism that they’re trying to export around the world? Do you think that it feels as natural that the West will prevail in that struggle?

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I think that first of all, the Rocky IV point is actually relevant here in the sense that part of what I was getting at is that there was this national identity that Americans had that was tied up in the Cold War-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… and standing up for certain values. And we lost that at the end of the Cold War. But part of that is also to be thinking… So if you think about how that interacts with popular culture, you get movies like Rocky IV, which obviously, simplifications, but they’re about democracy versus autocracy, right? I mean, that’s what the fight is. And today a Rocky IV type movie about the Chinese Communist party couldn’t get made by Hollywood.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right. I mean that’s really an interesting point.

Ben Rhodes:

And not only are there not movies being made or TV shows that they made that are critical of the Chinese Communist party directly, they’re not even really movies that are made that are about democracy being the good guys, right? There’s… and I’m not saying there should be state pop culture propaganda, but I actually think the popular culture is a reflection of where the culture is. And in Cold War, the culture wanted to give expression to democracy, and what we were fighting for. Today, the culture is in pursuit of profit.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

And so the Chinese market is more important than advocating for the values of democracy or telling stories about Hong Kong protesters. So I think it’s weirdly emblematic of the fact that we as societies and I count Australia too, don’t prioritize democracy in the same way that we used to, relative to things like profit or traditional identity. And I think that relates to a piece of what this competition is between autocracy and democracy, which is that in some ways, the CCP is counting on the United States and other free societies to care so much more about their profit motive in China, that they won’t even engage in an ideological…. Will basically self censor on things that the CCP cares about.

Ben Rhodes:

And, so it’s an interesting test case. The day that we stop pursuing profit vis-a-vis China, because we care more about democracy is the first day in which we might be on our way to winning that contest as a way of answering your question. Because right now, the incentive structures in society are weirdly more aligned with the CCPs interests than with the interests of democracy. So I’m with Joe Biden when he says democracies have to deliver, we have to do big things. We have to build infrastructure and solve problems. But more intangibly, we also just have to care enough about democracy, that that’s really our top priority, both at home and abroad.

Misha Zelinsky:

It is an interesting question though, right? Because the Cold War was much cleaner in the sense that there was a clear line, there was an Iron Curtain and the systems were separated on an information basis, on a political basis and an economic basis. Now you’ve got economic integration, information system integration to an extent. They’ve closed their system-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… but ours is open and the political contest exists in this mess. And so you’re right. It’s become much more difficult. In Australia, we’re obviously suffering at the moment with trade coercion from the CCP. But we’re not alone. China routinely… But yeah, the NBA’s a famous example where-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… someone spoke up about Chinese domestic affairs and next thing you know, the NBA has been threatened with being denied access to billions of dollars in Chinese viewership and market access, et cetera.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how we flip that on a set, I think is the challenge. And I think the Hollywood example is great, but the question then is, how did we win this contest? Because if it’s… At the moment, the openness, I suppose, of democracies is being exploited in an asymmetric way, right. But how do you win an open closed system contest without losing what makes you special, right? I mean, you already talk about all the freedoms that we lost as a result of 9/11 and we’re probably a less free societies than we were 20 years ago. How do we prevail while still being true to our values, not losing, I suppose, what makes democracy special?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, I think that you want to go back to first principles and setting the best example of what, in the US case obviously, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy can do. And that’s the delivering part. Beyond that though, I think there are things that we can do to protect the health of our democracies that I don’t think are akin to pulling up drawbridges and closing society, but are logical steps taken in response to events. And so, take social media as an example, right? The way we currently regulate or don’t regulate social media is both incredibly corrosive to our democracies because it allows for the mass spread of disinformation, the creation of alternative realities, the radicalization of certainly the right wing. But it also is just this open space for Russia or China to influence our politics and our debates by [crosstalk 00:22:04] turbocharging algorithms and spreading disinformation.

Ben Rhodes:

And so to me, any effort to improve the health of our democracy will have to address the regulation of social media. So that algorithms are not written in a way to prioritize the spread of sensational information. So that there is responsibility on platforms to remove hate speech and disinformation in a way that will both make it harder for foreign adversaries to interfere in our politics. And also, I think in the long run, make our democracies healthier because there’s just less scaling up of people feeding on hatred and disinformation conspiracy theory. So I actually think the steps that we have to take to reform our own democracies… I also, for instance, think in the US we have huge problems with money in politics and how that’s distorted our politics.

Ben Rhodes:

That’s also a vehicle for foreign interference in our politics, too. Dark money in particular. So I think in the United States, the things that we would have to do to clean up our democracy and to better regulate social media would make us much stronger at home and also put us in a position to be more competitive with China or Russia without again, resorting to our own Iron Curtain here.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so what about the health of democracy at home? I mean, in the United States, polarization has been around us for a long time, but I mean, it’s most incredibly and horrifically sort of demonstrated in the insurrection at the Capitol on sixth January this year. What is the rest of the world to make of this event, I suppose. And secondly, I often put it in these terms that Australia, we’re formally aligned with the United States. For democracy, United States is the star player, right? And so if the star player is not on the field or the star player’s lost his confidence, or if the star player is injured, you’re less likely to win. Team democracy can’t hope to prevail. So if with this denialism of the result and the insurrection, is democracy in the United States now a partisan question? I mean, is this no longer a bi-partisan question? And what does that mean for democracy?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. That’s a central argument of my book. And I start with this anecdote of… I met with this Hungarian activist in Germany, and this is the beginning of me just trying to figure out, “Why is this happening everywhere?” And I asked him, “How did Hungary go from being a single party,” or, “How did it go from being a liberal democracy in 2010 to basically a single party autocracy in a decade?” And he said, “Well, that’s simple. Victor Orbán gets elected on a right wing, populist backlash to the financial crisis. He redraws parliamentary districts to entrench his party in power. Changes voting laws to make it easier for his party to vote. Enriches some cronies through corruption who then both finance his politics, but also buy up the media and turn it into a right wing propaganda machinery. Packed the courts with right wing judges and wrap it all up in a nationalist us-versus-them message. Us, the real Hungarians, against them, the immigrants, the Muslims, George Soros.”

Ben Rhodes:

And I mean, he was basically describing the playbook that the American Republican party has pursued. And again, I think that’s part of how you explain January 6th to the rest of the world. They’re like, “Actually, this is a version of what’s happening in a lot of countries where you essentially have one political party that has abandoned democracy.” And I think we have to accept that the Republican party is no longer a small-d democratic political party, because they’ve been trying to entrench minority rule of majority in this country through the same means as Orbán the last decade. And now they’re passing laws at the state level to literally give Republican officials the capacity to overturn the results of elections to do what Trump wanted to do after he lost the last election. And so we’re… You have to think of it as not polarization per se, but as one party just leaving the democratic field and choosing to pursue power through alternative means.

Ben Rhodes:

I think the answer to that in the United States, the only answer to that is for the foreseeable future, putting the biggest possible tent over everybody who doesn’t want that to happen and that’s progressive Democrats, that’s more centrist Democrats, that’s disaffected Republicans. It took all of those constituencies mobilizing together in the last election just to beat Trump.

Misha Zelinsky:

It was close.

Ben Rhodes:

In Hungary, it’s interesting, the opposition… It was close. It’s a little too close for comfort. In Hungary, the opposition is doing the same thing. All five parties have decided to band together and nominate one person in this next election in Hungary. But I think the lesson everywhere is that we’re in an existential period for democracy itself. And therefore, we need to have the biggest tent opposition to that. We can’t suffer internal divisions.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so how confident are you that this genie can be put back in the bottle in the United States? I mean, there’s been periods in the past where the United States had populous movements and nationalist movements, and there’s been far right candidates for presidents, et cetera, in the past, but the system has held and the system did hold on this occasion, but are you confident that this… Can the fever break, to put it into President Obama’s terminology?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, I don’t think the fever is going to break and because I think it’s tied to the information question, the social media question that you’ve got like 40% of this country, that’s just been living in a different reality than me. And not my views, but did Donald Trump win the election? Is climate change real? Do masks help slow the spread of COVID. And so that means that we’re going to have a radical strain in American politics for some time now. But I think the system can hold. It did in the last election. Right now though, you see more worrying trends than at any time in my life in America, because I think quite simply, a good chunk of this country would be willing to give up on democracy, basically the Republican base.

Ben Rhodes:

And so it’s just going to take a pretty determined and vigilant effort to preserve that democracy. I think though the positive, and maybe I’m groping for positive here, but in that is the United States in some ways, has become more recognizable to a lot of countries, right? We can have the corrupt autocrat with the son-in-law down the hall. We can have the mob storming parliament. And I think if, instead of just issuing lectures about democracy from on high, if we in the next five, 10, 15 years can fight our way through this, I think that’s actually a more relevant example for other countries and hopefully can give momentum to a pendulum swinging back because I mean, usually the pendulum does swing back and I, for one, still think most people would rather live without a boot on their throat.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I think the counterpoint to the sort of rising authoritarianism is that you see the struggles for democracy in China itself, in Hong Kong, obviously Taiwan, which is what democratic China would look like. What I’m sort of… I’d be curious, you’re talking in your book about quite a bit about Xi Jinping, the man. Now we know about his policies and how he’s, I suppose, the world’s most famous autocrat, I’m outwardly projecting, but what was your impressions of him as a person? And what did it tell you about his politics and policies?

Ben Rhodes:

So what was interesting about Xi Jinping is that Hu Jintao, his predecessor, if you met with them, met with Hu and the Chinese, he basically seemed a first among equals. He also had very little personality. He was going to read… Obama used to joke with me that we’d be in these bilateral meetings where Hu would read a set of talking points and then the translator had the same points printed out and just read them. Point being, is it like Obama said, “Maybe we could just exchange the talking points.” This guy would never go off the party prepared script. After Xi Jinping took power, Obama invited him to the summit in Sunnylands, California, where for a couple of days they spent time informally together. And right away, you started to notice that interpreter is scribbling things down. Xi Jinping is not on the talking points and he’s much more assertive.

Ben Rhodes:

And he changed… The Chinese always talked about Taiwan and Tibet as core interests. Things that they saw as fundamental to their sovereignty. Xi was talking about the entire South China Sea like that. He brought to meet Obama… he brought some Chinese alcohol, the moonshine drink they have, and he’s doing shots at dinner. So this was a guy that was his own man. He’s not just a Communist party functionary. He was very assertive. He was expanding the definition of what China’s core interests were. And he would engage in these intellectual debates about collectivism and Confucianism versus individualism. And so he was a sea change from Hu Jintao. And the whole Chinese system has reflected since then this much more assertive personality. It infuses everything that the party has done since then.

Misha Zelinsky:

And before we just switch to some… I’m keen to get your feedback on some critiques of your… not my critiques, but the critics.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve mentioned in your book, and I’ve just got to ask you, you talk about being hacked by the Chinese personally. And you’ve given an example there where they’d read your emails, but then you talk about you were going to China and you were advised not to take your phone, take a burner phone and leave your laptop at home. And then you just decided, “No, bugger it. I’ll just go anywhere.” As a national security expert, I’m fascinated that you took that view and that you just went in and thought, “Well, I’ve got no secrets from the Chinese anyway.”

Ben Rhodes:

Well, that’s actually, you put your finger on it in the sense of the period of time I’m describing, right? 2018, 2019. I’m a private citizen so I don’t have anything particularly secret. Well, nothing on my devices that is sensitive other than it’s my own stuff. And then weirdly, maybe fatalistically, I think just because I’ve been in the public eye and I know I’ve been a public target of espionage and surveillance. You just weirdly are like, “The Chinese, the Russians maybe the Israelis, they’re likely read my comms.” And you try to operate like that, right. So you’re more careful about what you put on communications because you know that there’s no foolproof way to prevent those kinds of attacks. So to me, yeah, you can take issue with it and you can rightly expect higher cyber hygiene from people like me. I guess what I’m just trying to honestly portrays is the fatalism-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… of well, of course, they’re in my email, they’ve been trying to get in for 15 years. [crosstalk 00:33:32].

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:33:32] it’s two kinds of people, yeah. There’s people that have been hacked by the Chinese Communist Party, and people that will be hacked by the Chinese Communist Party.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, and to be clear, this doesn’t… I mean, I don’t want to overstate this because I’m very vigilant to not click on links. I’m very… I can spot things and try to avoid it. I’m very careful obviously, with networks that I’m on. That’s what got them in trouble in the Clinton campaign, then you’re bringing them into a whole network and stuff. So, again, I advise myself and everybody to be as vigilant as possible. I guess I was portraying in my own imperfection, my own mistake, even in that case, an honest portrayal of the mindset that we all have sometimes of like, “It’s inevitable.”

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, very interested in getting your take. So your book’s been very, I think, very well received and it’s smashing it in the sales, but the other side of politics will say that… I mean, you basically present your book in a really interesting way to me, which was that you’re an American traveling in the world that the US created.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

So this is basically the world that since 1989, the United States has been shaping, setting the rules, enforcing the rules, et cetera. Free markets, consumerism. But others will say, “Well, there’s an American apologist type rhetoric in it.” That America shouldn’t be embarrassed of itself in this way. How do you respond to that critique?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, no, I get it all the time. And anything I do is never totally well received because you can count on one half of the debate to absolutely savage me, and it’s tied in this… So here’s my very simple answer to that. I think that it is an incredibly American thing, and is an expression of love for America to try to identify the ways in which America can get better. I mean, and this is why I settled in the book, this question of what does it mean to be an American? I think what it means to be an American is to recognize that America is always short of the aspiration we set, all people are created equal, everybody equal under the law.

Ben Rhodes:

And so the identification of where we’ve gone wrong is an expression of love for America because that’s what makes America great. It’s our capacity to get better, our capacity to improve. I always… It’s funny to me when I get cast as America hater, because as we’ve talked, I was a Rocky IV-

Misha Zelinsky:

It doesn’t get any more patriotic than that.

Ben Rhodes:

… patriot [crosstalk 00:36:11], right, and Obama was profoundly patriotic. I mean, we were talking about red states and blue states, and we’re talking about the capacity of America to change for the better. And so I think there’s a fundamental difference that I have with that aspect of the American Right on this question of American Exceptionalism. They seem to see American Exceptionalism as, “We can do whatever the hell we want because we’re American and it’s inherently the right thing to do because we’re doing it.”

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I know I’m simplifying, but when they say they don’t want any criticism or any apology, that’s the logic of that argument. I’m saying American Exceptionalism is America’s capacity to better itself. And that’s a difference in your view of the identity of the country, because the right wing definition is, “Make America great again. It’s a white Christian nation.” The progressive exceptionalism is one that says, “Hey, as we change demographically, that’s actually an expression of what’s great about America. Our multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy.” So underneath the sloganeering, it’s a pretty profound debate about national identity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I think you’re right to say that I think progressive’s like us, we’re too easy to just want to see anything around patriotism or that entire debate about national identity, we tend to shirk from it because we don’t like the way it manifests in the Right, in terms of jingoism, right? But my argument is always when we don’t contest it, jingoism is all that’s for sale, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so fundamentally, that is what tends to dominate. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy on our side of things.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. And what Obama did, it was interesting is because the other piece of this is sometimes progressive critiques of society and progressive politics asks people to totally reject their past and their identity. It’s the criticism of who you are or the people that you grew up looking up to, you now have to reject as a means of going forward. And Obama would always frame progressive change, not as a rejection of the past, but as a validation of it because his point was, “Hey, look, America is so great that, we can evolve. We can evolve in a country that freed slaves and extends civil rights and extends workers’ rights. And when we… Each problem we identify, we solve.” And that’s almost like a validation of the American story. That capacity to improve. Whereas sometimes progressives can frame it as,” Hey, we have to junk everything,” or ,”All these people were bad.” And look, I just think even if you believe that, from a purely political perspective, it’s hard to when people support, when you’re asking them to reject core aspects of their identity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so what about the fact that a lot of the foreign policy analysis always tends to sit around, “Well, what has America done, and how has that played out? And what’s the response been?” And every… It sort of presupposes that all countries are responding to American action and have no agenda or agency of their own. So, I mean, how do you see that question or that, I suppose, concept in this because people say… Well, a little bit aligned to the American apologist piece, which is America’s not the only actor.

Ben Rhodes:

I would say, I mean, the big point I would make on this, having spent a bunch of time looking at the Cold War into this current period. I actually think America drew some wrong lessons from the end of the Cold War. And that we over interpreted it as a victory of our foreign policy. This defense spending and stronger rhetoric against the Soviets under Reagan tipped them over or something.

Misha Zelinsky:

Bankrupted them. Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, they think… When in fact, I think it ignores a more fundamental reality, which is that by the ’80s, it was pretty obvious if you lived in Russia or Hungary or Poland, that the other guys had a better system, that this is a better model. It wasn’t foreign policy. It was just we had a better system-

Misha Zelinsky:

I would say.

Ben Rhodes:

… and people were more prosperous and people were happier and they looked freer. And as it was increasingly impossible to shut that out when there’s television and there’s images that are traveling. It was just that was our trump card on the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, their own system was so sclerotic that that whole thing was a house of cards. It wasn’t defense spending that won it was just crappy Soviet economic policy and corruption for decades. So when the house of cards started to sway and everybody inside the Iron Curtain looks out and is like, “Well, those guys have it better,” then the whole thing just collapses. So the point for today is I think a lot of things, people, political elites, I believe make the mistake of, again, premise your question, thinking that it’s our foreign policy that is the barometer of our influence in the world.

Ben Rhodes:

I think it’s more, do we look like we have our act together. Right now, in recent years, China has looked like they had their act together and that this authoritarian capitalism is the shortcut to success. And so I think that foreign policy people need to have some humility about the correlation of events between whatever levers you’re pulling in Washington or in Canberra and what’s happening in the world.

Misha Zelinsky:

So speaking of looking like you’ve got your… putting it in Australian terms ‘shit in a pil’e, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, this is a policy area that you worked on quite a bit in your time in the Obama White House. And you talked quite a bit about [Forever Wars in your book, et cetera. And you’ve described them elsewhere, such as that. I suppose, there’s two parts to the question that I’m interested in is firstly, you describe yourself as a 9/11 generation and how profoundly that impacted on your world view. And so I suppose, how would the 9/11 generation feel about this withdrawal after 20 years of effort, 20 years of sacrifice. And then secondly, so much criticism, how hard is it to make these calls in government, right? Because you know, these calls are 51/49 calls and nothing ever goes perfectly. And so I was thinking if you give us some insight in those two questions?

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, I think on the first point, it’s incredibly painful to watch what’s happening in Afghanistan. And yeah, I know a lot of people around my age who served in the military or served in the foreign service. It’s been a wrenching couple of weeks and we all tend to know Afghans who’ve been trying to get out and we’ve been frantically trying to get people on the planes. And yeah, it’s a tremendous amount of disappointment. And I’d say a degree of shame, right, at how this turned out. I mean, I think when you look at the post-9/11 period, there were two sides of the coin of the war on terror. One was to go and get the people who did this on 9/11 and to stop them from doing it again. And on that front, actually, we got the people who did it and there has not been another 9/11. But then what was supposed to be the affirmative part of that, clearly in the argument I make in my book, it just… We did, we tried to do things we weren’t capable of doing and should not have been doing.

Ben Rhodes:

We should not have been trying to nation build in Afghanistan. Obviously, should not have invaded and occupied Iraq, never mind the other excesses of the post-9/11 period. So I guess that leads to the second point on the Forever Wars, which is that I think that the people like me who came of age in the 9/11 period, I think we weren’t the decision makers at the outset of Afghanistan and Iraq. So we were less invested in those decisions. And so I think we’ve actually been more capable of stepping back and saying, “Hey, this isn’t working. America cannot do this, should not do this. Doesn’t have political support to have these open-ended nation building projects. It frankly… like the assumption that our military can do this in other countries overstates our control of events.” And so I think that all that mindset informed Biden’s decision to say, “This is not working. And at some point we just have to acknowledge that reality.”

Ben Rhodes:

I think it is fair to say that you could’ve managed the disengagement and withdrawal better. Doing evacuations before you’re out, for instance. But on this basic point, I think he decided that, “Look, if I do this, I’ll take some political heat.” It’s probably been worse than anticipated. “But in the long run, I want to be able to show in the four years I’m president.” And this may be why he did it at the beginning, right. “I want to show that we can begin to have a foreign policy that’s not dominated by the war on terrorism. And we can begin to focus on other issues and that we can absorb the defeat in order to move on from the war.” And I don’t know how else you end this.

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, unless we just stayed in Afghanistan in a larger presence than we even had indefinitely, which I don’t think had political support in the US and frankly, I don’t know it was helping Afghanistan. It was helping prevent this tragedy, but there was already deterioration there. And so it’s a hard decision, whenever you make a decision you know is going to bring about a lot of recrimination, a lot of opposition and is going to bring negative consequences.

Ben Rhodes:

It’s really tough to swallow. And that’s… The biggest thing is, I remember Obama having to make decisions where either decision is going to have definitely really negative consequences. That’s the kind of decision this was. And you just have to go with your absolute core instincts here. And I think Biden, he was a skeptic on Afghanistan from the moment I met him. So it doesn’t surprise me that he took that risk. But I think that whether it’s the right decision will almost be determined by what does he do with this? What does he do now? What are we going to be doing instead of Afghanistan? I mean, it was 15… When people say this is the end of Western civilization or something, it was 15 years after the Fall of Saigon, we won the Cold War.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Ben Rhodes:

These things can change.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, totally, totally. You touched on Biden being a skeptic. Robert Gates was Secretary at the time. He and Biden bumped up against one another. Biden was sort of the odd man out as I read the history. You were there, so you can maybe correct me, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… he was saying, “We shouldn’t do this. We should have a narrower mission, focused purely on counter-terrorism.” Robert Gates said, “Yeah, Biden’s been wrong about every decision in foreign policy for 30 or 40 years.” He’s now president. He just got to see, I suppose, 11 years on that nothing had really changed. He was probably getting the exact same briefings with the exact same strategy, 10 years on, telling him just one more year. Yeah, was Biden right in 2010?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think he was. I mean, because if you look at it, what the military was proposing in 2009, 2010 under Petraeus, McChrystal and Gates was essentially a counter-insurgency strategy for Afghanistan. A version of what they’d done in the surge in Iraq. They would essentially pacify Afghanistan and transition to the Afghan government. And what Biden was saying is, “Look, we can’t do that. It’s not going to work. There’s not going to be an open-ended blank check for this. Our interest is counter-terrorism, getting Al-Qaeda and preventing this from being a base for terrorists.” If you look at what’s been accomplished or what’s been happening in Afghanistan in the last decade, I think we’ve done the counter-terrorism mission. We… 09, 10, 11, where the three years in which we pretty much decimated Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, culminating in the Bin Laden operation.

Misha Zelinsky:

But the nation building in those 10 years is what we’ve seen collapse in recent weeks with the Afghan security forces and state being incapable of functioning, absent foreign support. And so, yeah, I think if you look back on that, either you have to determine that Gates was wrong and Biden was correct because the policy of counterinsurgency that Gates was sponsoring, did not… You can’t… I don’t know what you can point to as succeeding in the last decade in that regard.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, I mean, I think it’s ultimately history will be the judge and we sort of know how Afghanistan will completely play out. But I think as it stands, I think Biden, as messy as it’s been, and as you say, bad decisions on either side and staying in perpetuity is not an option. But the collapse within a week, I think is very telling after 20 years of effort, right?

Ben Rhodes:

It’s telling of effort. And again, I think the criticism to level is that there wasn’t enough… Precisely because I don’t know that you could have salvaged the Afghan government. That the thing that you had left to try to control was the humanitarian consequence of making that decision. And that would have involved, I think much more deliberate thought as to how to withdraw, timeline interacts with giving Afghans opportunity to leave and preventing the chaotic evacuation we saw. Because you would have been managing that humanitarian interest. But the strategic point about the Afghan government just can’t function without us, and we aren’t willing to stay forever. That tragically was on display.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, I’ve got tons of listeners that are huge fans of president Obama. So I can’t… He’s been present in the conversation, but I can’t let you get away without asking some questions about him. Is he a man that’s clearly defined your professional life and a lot of your personal life. And reading his books, reading your books, it’s clear that you guys are very close. Maybe, but rather than reflecting on him as a president, what’s he like as a guy? Because I mean, in my reading of his book, but then as he appears in your book, he’s almost… He’s so incredibly analytical and insightful. He’s almost Buddha-like in his-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

… in his assessment of the world. I mean, is that a fair assessment?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, one reason to buy the book, if you like Obama, he pops up as a character now and then [crosstalk 00:52:05]-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Yeah, it’s great.

Ben Rhodes:

… and I think they are reflective of… these were snippets of conversations he and I have had over the years since he was in office. And there are a couple that stand out in my mind as Buddha-like, but also regular guy. I mean, that’s what’s so intriguing about Obama’s, he’s both analyzing the world from this other level of stepping back and examining it. But he’s also an incredibly normal guy, too. And that’s the alchemy of his politics. And two examples from the book are, one, he’s talking to me about Trump and he’s just like anybody else, right? Like anybody talking to their buddy, trying to make sense of Trump.

Ben Rhodes:

And he said that… He is describing the racial component. And he’s like… And why Trump doesn’t necessarily show that all white people are racist, but why it taps into something in the white psyche. And he’s like, “Yeah, maybe Trump is just for white people what OJ was for black people. You know it’s wrong, but it makes you feel good.” And he said that, it was a joke. I laughed at it. And I thought about it and I was like, “Huh, that’s a pretty good insight, actually. There’s something to that.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

You know it’s wrong on some level, but it makes you feel good. And then the other was, we were talking about politics and we were talking about the democratic campaigns and the primary and how there’s Biden had a good unifying message, but the critique of society, Sanders had that better.

Ben Rhodes:

And everybody had a piece of what you wanted, Pete had generational change, but something wasn’t all fitting together. And he said, he goes on this tangent about how he’d been asking his friends recently when they felt the most sense of meaning in their life. When were they happy during the course of the day? And he said, he has a buddy who’s a plant manager type guy that he went to high school with. And this guy said, “At the end of the day when I’ve worked hard all day and my family is in the background and I’m lighting the grill to cook them dinner. That’s when I feel like a sense of worth.” And Obama’s like, “Politics is supposed to lead people to that feeling. The feeling of belonging and satisfaction and productivity, but our politics is leading people to just their anger and their grievance,” right. And so I give those two examples, he makes these off-hand comments that you would… But then they had this other level of meaning that does have this Buddha quality to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so not to speak for him and he’s written things about it, but the 2016 result, right, in many ways was a rejection or a backlash against Obama and Obamaism. I mean, how did that impact on him in your assessment?

Ben Rhodes:

Well, first of all because I thought a lot about this, because it was always so peculiar to me that he was quite popular at the end of his presidency. I mean, he had some of the highest approval ratings of his presidency.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, he probably would have run… won another term had he’d been able run.

Ben Rhodes:

If he could have run against Trump, I’ve no doubt he would’ve won. He was a more popular politician than Hillary. But the intensity of the backlash to Obama is what made the Republican party go so far off the deep end into Trumpism.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

And I think the difficulty with this and I write about this in the book is that even when I start to look and diagnose, “We should have done this in the financial crisis. We should have done this on economic policy or foreign policy.” The reality is the thing that created the backlash was that he was black. It wasn’t a policy. I mean, it wasn’t like a lot of people got that upset about our Afghanistan policy or our whatever. And so it’s, I find it wrong to blame him for that backlash because there’s nothing he could have done about.

Ben Rhodes:

In fact, if anything, he was pretty cautious on issues of race and asserting his black identity. So that, I think, that’s the awkward subtexts to whenever these questions come up. In terms of him personally… so I think for him personally, was what was distressing about Trump was less the rebuke of him personally, because I think he understands that racism is not something that is individualized, it’s projected. And I think what was difficult for him was what it said about the country.

Ben Rhodes:

That Obama’s message had basically fundamentally been, not that we’re in some post racial paradise, but that we’re moving forward. And that people are becoming more accepting of diversity. And to see the degree of that backlash and to see it get over the hump was not a rebuke of Obama, it was a rebuke of what Obama represented which in some ways is actually more difficult, right, because you can’t control that. I mean, Obama could spend eight years trying to be twice as careful and no scandals and all the rest of it, and still they’re going to make him out to be the antichrist. So, yeah, I think it affected him because more because of what it said about where the country was than it did on more what the country thought about him personally.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And so when you were working for him and he’s a very cool cat, cool customer. But Eric Schultz was on the show. He told us about having to front the boss to tell him that he’d stuffed up the health.gov website. Do you have any moments like that where you were like, “Man, I really don’t want to tell the boss about this and I’m going to have to.”

Ben Rhodes:

Yes. And I’m going to give a more serious one than Eric, but this gets more at what those jobs are like. I mean, I remember, and I wrote about this in my first book, my memoir, but when we were flying to Martha’s Vineyard for his vacation in August of 2014. And it’s been a tough year and suddenly, he’s going to get a break. And he was in the front of Air Force One with his daughter, Malia, and they were hanging out because they were getting ready to go on vacation. And I got a call to Air Force One as a traveling national security staffer that the first beheading had taken place by ISIS of James Foley. And I had to hang up the phone and go walk into the next room and look at them in a way like Malia is going to have to leave the room now.

Ben Rhodes:

And this guy who thought he was heading on… have a little break, I have to explain to him that Jim Foley has been killed, how he was killed. The fact that what they talked about was Obama bombing ISIS and that, I mean, so and it’s a very serious answer, but yeah, in the course of working-

Misha Zelinsky:

Nobody can [crosstalk 00:59:29].

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, I know.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, it’s-

Ben Rhodes:

In the course of working for him and national security, I had to tell him bad news a lot.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I’ll bet.

Ben Rhodes:

But in the year since I would often be the one to offer the dark humor about things because we’ve been through so much crap. But so yeah, that’s that levity, but I think it’s important to-

Misha Zelinsky:

That the job never stops, right?

Ben Rhodes:

The job never stops. That’s the main point, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. And just… Yeah, we’ve got to get to the lame barbecue question and we’re running out of time and you do need to get going. But are you able to share any memories or insights? Australia, we think about Americans a lot. Americans like Australians, and we were obviously formally aligned, but I don’t think America thinks about Australia as much as we think about you guys. But you have any memories or insights about Australia or our politics during Obama’s time in office?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. I mean, first of all, Obama used to say that he thought Australians were more like Americans than anybody else, because there was this certain type of almost frontier mentality, right-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Ben Rhodes:

… that informs a national identity. And then there’s similar demons obviously, with indigenous peoples and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

…. so that always stuck in my head. And part of what I saw in the course of the eight years that was interesting is there was a similar realignment to some extent in Australia. When we come in, you have Kevin Rudd and he’s just a very well-respected on the world stage guy, but not the most populist guy right. A little more technocratic. And, but he’s an early partner in this technocratic response to the financial crisis and does quite well at that job.

Ben Rhodes:

And then he’s replaced by Julia Gillard, who Obama loves and she was tough and she was funny and she was normal. And she also got the China play that we were running. And I remember coming to Australia with Obama in 2011, in this trip where we met Julia Gillard and then we went out to Darwin and we had some Marines coming. But in a weird way, that was the high water mark for certain progressivism across the Pacific, in the sense that you’ve got a black man and a woman prime minister-

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

… and they’re pretty progressive in their lives. And then we get Tony Abbott. And by the time Obama went to Australia for the G20, in 2014-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, right, the speech.

Ben Rhodes:

… he was deeply at odds with Tony Abbott and climate policy was the proxy, but it was also just Tony Abbott was like a Tea Party type Republican politician. And so Obama goes way off script in this speech to just start whacking away at the climate issue and Abbott. And I think the headline was, “Obama shirtfronts Abbott,” or something and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, because Abbott had talked about shirtfronting Putin over MH1 [crosstalk 01:02:43].

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So, but I guess the point is that there were some similar currents moving around Australian politics, you go from the financial crisis happens and then the Left is in charge. So they have to make all these crappy decisions in ’09. And that’s when Rudd’s there. There’s also on the Left, this pathbreaking thing happening, and then Julia Gillard and Obama represent that. But then there’s this swing back to the populous Right. And Tony Abbott represents that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

And that ends up being out of step with Obama. But Abbott is very much in step with Brexit, obviously, and Trump, Trumpism, I think. And Scott Morrison’s a mini version of that, right? So, I’ve seen the cross pollination and the trends in both countries.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, there’s certainly a lot of coordination between the right wing parties in the Anglosphere, undoubtedly. And they take… Australia politicians like to borrow. We’re always about five years behind whatever trend’s emerging in the United States. Hopefully, we don’t have an insurrection of our own, but so just to [crosstalk 01:03:42]-

Ben Rhodes:

Well, and Malcolm, just quick, and Malcolm Turnbull is kind of a Never Trump Republican or something like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

He’s a guy who’s a reasonable conservative guy who’s just like, “Why are these people going insane?” I’m not saying… you guys shouldn’t think I say that about all Australian conservatives, but in the American context, that’s who Malcolm Turnbull is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we had him on the show. He certainly didn’t hold back on that entire process.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

But so just to dig in, so Abbott and Obama didn’t get on?

Ben Rhodes:

No, they did not get on. I mean, and I’m thinking… and Obama would say like, he just… I mean, he said to me personally that, “If Abbott was in the US, he’d be a Tea Party guy.” That was the… I mean, that was definitely… I mean, they could work together-

Misha Zelinsky:

There couldn’t be a more severe comment from President Obama, I imagine, to call someone [crosstalk 01:04:30]-

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, but they can work together in the sense of Abbott… The thing about conservatives in Australia, they have usually a pretty pro US foreign policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right, it’s bi-partisan here.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, so they… it was fine from just the stuff we were doing together with Australia, but I think personal politics, right? He saw Abbott in that perspective, although obviously Stephen Harper in his own way was like that, too. I mean, there were… most of the major democracies were governed by center right when Obama was there.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Ben Rhodes:

So, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. Now, could keep talking to you all night about Obama, mate, and I’m sure everyone’s enjoyed that part of the show quite a bit as they’re listening to it. But last bit, this lame question that we ask everyone here now. Before we started recording, you told me that you’re a fan of Australian politics. So mate, you need to get some hobbies or something, man. But the question I ask all foreign guests is there three Aussies at a barbecue. So three Aussies at a barbecue with Ben, who are they and why?

Ben Rhodes:

Oh, that’s an interesting question. So, number one would definitely be a Julia Gillard. I’ve gotten to know her a bit over the years and there’s very few politicians I’ve met who are totally normal human beings, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

Most are so strange, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You can just have a totally normal conversation with, but also be an incredibly interesting person in terms of [crosstalk 01:06:24] their worldview. So that’s number one. I guess, as… I don’t know, as a basketball fan, I want to know what’s up with Ben Simmons anyway, right. You know what I mean?

Misha Zelinsky:

You guys can have him.

Ben Rhodes:

Do you have any answers from Australia?

Misha Zelinsky:

You guys can have him, right. Patty Mills [crosstalk 01:06:43] but you can have Ben Simmons.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. And I was trying to go off the grain and I think that he… Such a mystifying performance.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right.

Ben Rhodes:

But then I guess, and I’m just going to be eccentric and play to type here because we had a Rocky IV conversation earlier. I mean, I was also a Crocodile Dundee kid, right.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, well. Fair enough.

Ben Rhodes:

I mean, so I think I just have to check that box, right, with Paul Hogan. Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Fair enough. You know, what? Despite me always joking about it. No one’s ever actually cited Paul Hogan in the entire duration of the show. So you’re our first cab off the rank.

Ben Rhodes:

Just, yeah… because to me, this is less than dinner conversation and more just this weird experience of a cross-section of [crosstalk 01:07:37].

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you got a basketballer, a [crosstalk 01:07:39]-

Ben Rhodes:

I guess, Luc Longley instead of… but yeah, there are different directions you could go.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, that’s fantastic. Look, Ben Rhodes, thanks so much for coming on the show, it’s been a great

Ben Rhodes:

And the last thing I will say just to answer your question differently is, weirdly, over the years I’ve kept in touch with Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull. And I actually think that would be a pretty interesting dinner.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’ll be tough!

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah, I know for a lot of reasons, layers of reasons, right? So maybe actually my answer would be to just try to be the person who gets-

Misha Zelinsky:

Gets the those together.

Ben Rhodes:

… those three people in the room together-

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm-

Ben Rhodes:

… and ask them to sort out what’s going on between them and then gets their perspective on the world. Because they also each have a pretty unique… I’ve done some stuff with Rudd on China and Myanmar. Malcolm Turnbull’s very smart about Asia and China. And Julia Gillard does remarkable stuff on promoting women’s and girls’ empowerment around the world. So they have this complimentary set of skills. So maybe… I guess I’d go with those three.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now Malcolm and Kevin, funnily enough, despite being fierce rivals in politics have become teamed up as some duo to take down the Murdoch-

Ben Rhodes:

Rupert Murdoch-

Misha Zelinsky:

… empire.

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah. Yeah. I follow that closely. I love that. I love that.

Misha Zelinsky:

. I think you’re more likely to get Kevin Rudd, Malcolm Turnbull and Rupert Murdoch in the room than you are to get Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd in the room together.

Ben Rhodes:

I get it, man. I get it. That’s why it’s part of the reason why it’d be interesting.

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely, mate.

Ben Rhodes:

That’s even better than the other.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I said alive or dead. But we don’t know who… Someone might be dead after that meeting, anyway, but-

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah we don’t know who walked out. Maybe the point is that they all walk in and see who the first two are who walk out.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, mate, it’s been a brilliant chat.

Ben Rhodes:

It’s funny because I like both of them. So that’s what’s so weird is to look at it from afar.

Misha Zelinsky:

They both got their strengths, right?

Ben Rhodes:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, mate, thanks so much for coming on the show, mate. It’s been a pleasure.

Ben Rhodes:

Great. Take care.

 

Nathan Law: Fighting for Freedom – Democracy, The CCP and Hong Kong

Nathan Law is a young Hong Kong democracy activist, currently in exile in London.

A key figure in the Umbrella Movement in 2014, Nathan and other student leaders founded the pro-democracy Demosistō party in 2016. Nathan then became the youngest Legislative Councillor in history, but his election was overturned on spurious grounds by the Chinese Communist Party. He was later jailed for his participation in the Umbrella Movement as part of a government crackdown. After the recent introduction of the ‘National Security Laws’ by the CCP, Nathan left Hong Kong due to fears for his safety. He continues to speak up for Hong Kong people at international events and forums and is a global leader of their movement. A nominee for the Nobel Peace Price, in 2020 Nathan was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Nathan for a chinwag about his path to activism, taking on the might of the CCP in elections and civil demonstrations, how the democracy movement has been crushed by the CCP under the cover of COVID-19, why democracy matters to everyone everywhere, what the democratic world must do to help Hong Kong, the battle for freedom in Taiwan and how he hopes to return home one day.

It’s a truly inspiring chat and we loved having Nathan on the show. Nathan is an absolute hero, an incredibly brave young man who is not yet 30 and yet has already achieved so much. Nathan is someone we should all look up to in the global struggle for democratic freedom.

Please rate and review us, to spread the word it really helps!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Nathan Law, welcome to Diplomates. How are you mate?

Nathan Law:

Yeah. Doing really good.

Misha Zelinsky:

And for the purposes of the recording, you are in the UK right now? In London, is that right?

Nathan Law:

Yes. I’m in London.

Misha Zelinsky:

Very good. It’s a great city, I spent a lot of time there when I was studying in the London School of Economics. And I’m of course in Wollongong in Australia. So, thanks for coming on. Now I’m really keen to talk about, I suppose your career to date and how it is that you’ve ended up in the situation you’re in and in London. But I thought we might start of with a little bit of a primer for people, just about Hong Kong right now. No doubt you’re chatting to people back there with COVID and the way things have changed politically. How are things in Hong Kong right this minute?

Nathan Law:

Well, the political situation in Hong Kong is quite dire. After the implementation of the national security law of last June, there have been a series of crackdowns on people’s individual rights, mass arrests on political activist campaigners and union leaders and also a lot of civil organizations are forced to disband because the government is just controlling the whole society and not allowing any force in civil society to grow that can possibly challenge them. So I think for now, we’ll be seeing a lot more people getting in jail, people are more worried about expressing political opinion and basically political opposition is really difficult to continue to be very vocal and continue to criticize the government publicly.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, so let’s just unpack that a little bit. So, when Hong Kong was sort of given back from the British to the control of the Chinese Communist Party in ’97, there was this promise of one country, two systems. You just talked about a national security law, maybe if you can just explain one country, two systems and then how the national security law has interacted with that basic principle?

Nathan Law:

Yeah. In 1997, Hong Kong was handed back from the British government, after more than 150 years of colonial ruling, to Chinese government. And back then, there were several promises made, because Hong Kong was already a cosmopolitan international financial hub by then. But China, it was ruled and still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party and it was just after the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which was this huge crackdown on democratic protesting mainland China. So there was a trust issue and a crisis which Hong Kong people did not trust the Chinese Communist Party that they would maintain the way of life and that international financial hub status and the relevant values that are needed to build that to Hong Kong people. So by then, the Chinese government promised Hong Kong people that they would do one country, two system after 1997, which there are two separate system governing mainland China and Hong Kong. And for the Hong Kong people in this system, we will enjoy democracy, freedom and rule of law and these are cornerstones of our one country, two system.

Nathan Law:

But when we fast forward to 2020, when the government implemented the national security law, it’s easy to see that freedoms are all gone because in the law, it says that when the government can see that you have breached international security, which is really effectively defined and from all the cases that we have is a speech crime. You don’t really need to do anything, as long as you chanted a slogan, you display a leaflet, then it can lock you in jail. So we’ve got that kind of draconian law and also democracy are basically deprived. For now the government is doing a election reform, which makes our directly elected seat in the Parliament from half of them into just around quarter of them. And then most of the seats are being appointed by the government. So these, really cornerstones of our one country, two system, are basically being destroyed. And commentators and people just feel like we’re not in one country, two system, we’re in one country, 1.5 system or even to a degree that we’re in one country, one system. Because no one sees the role of Hong Kong government now as they are already a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party. So you can really tell how dire the political situation in Hong Kong just by observing how people describe the system and how they feel the heat.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you mentioned people are being arrested, maybe just give a bit of a summary of the types of people being arrested. Because obviously Apple News which is one of the major free press there that was essentially broken up, Jimmy Lai was arrested a few months or a little while ago now, but what sort of arrests are we seeing and what sort of sentences are we seeing? Obviously as a trade unionist in Australia, we’re extremely concerned about arrests of trade union officials in Hong Kong as well. Maybe just unpack a little bit about the types of arrests and why those people are being targeted?

Nathan Law:

In the crackdowns in Hong Kong are all rounded. Not only democratic activists, not only ordinary protesters, but media tycoon and even union’s leader, they also suffer from political persecution. Under the national security law, there has already been more than a hundred arrests and one of the landmark case is the primary election case which the government arrested 47 democratic campaigners who was involved or organized a primary election for a legislative council election that was deemed to be held last years, but was postponed now. And the government says that, when you organize or participate in the primary election and the main purpose of the primary election is to win a majority and you are vowed to say that you could block government’s bill in order to express people’s opinion, so that by the fact that you are trying to get a majority and you will block government’s bill, you are committing a subversive action. So basically they’re just saying that if you are an opposition camp in the Parliament, you are constituting in subversive actions by exercising your constitutional rights, which is to reject proposals, reject government’s resolution, things like that.

Nathan Law:

So more than 40 democratic campaigners are already locked in jail without granted a bail and if you look at the list, a lot of unionist leaders like Carol Ng and many others and also Lee Cheuk-yan, from many other cases, that they are all in jail. And the reason is simple, when China Communist Party claimed themselves as socialists but actually they are not. There are no independent union, there are protection on labors rights, the government relies heavily on a extremely uneven capitalist system in order to maintain their absolute dominance. In Hong Kong, it’s easy to see that the union movement is one of the prime suppression targets of the government, that after the implementation of the national security law we have countless unions disbanded because they worry that they’re being hunted by the government and many union’s leaders are in jail because of that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and it’s shocking stuff what we’re seeing. But when you’ve sort of being following this issue and this crisis has been building for a number of years now in Hong Kong and sort of combinative with the national security law and it was being opposed and they’ll protest, but then of course we had COVID-19 hit. Would it be fair to say that the Chinese Communist Party has ramped up its activities perhaps while the world was distracted because there was enormous amount of attention on Hong Kong and the struggle there and of course now the world has been hugely distracted and upended by COVID. Do you think they’ve used that as a convenient way to crush the freedom movement in Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Well yes, definitely. The Hong Kong Chinese Government, they brought down their suppression while the COVID-19 was getting started and so it really distract the world because a lot of democratic countries, they have had a difficult time dealing with COVID-19. But also in Hong Kong, it’s a really convenient excuse for them to ban a crowd from gathering, to expand their power. I think these emergency states are golden times for the authoritarian regimes because they have a legitimate reason to expand their power. But after the crisis, they won’t relinquish it. They will still retain that extra power gained and to make their suppression more effective. For example, after the COVID-19, is actually a couple weeks before that, that they had already been no protest allowed in Hong Kong and all the proposals are submitted by civil organizations saying that, “Well, I’ll obey all sorts of social distance and all the public health concerns and mechanisms are in place to protect all the participants.” But the government already rejected them under the name of public health, but in reality we understand that these are really political decisions.

Nathan Law:

Massive gatherings like 4th of June candle vigil light and also 1st of July rallies, annual rallies, they’re all banned. And the government when they publicized the bans on crowd gathering, it’s easy for them to use it as a convenient tool to put pressure on protestors or people just standing on the street and try to protest. They were occasions where people, they were only standing there alone, but they were trying to chant certain slogan or express certain political messages, the police just fined them, just charged them with a gathering ban, which in fact they were not violating that. But the government says that you and other strangers that you didn’t know, they were gathering, so that you are being fined or you’re being charged with the bans on public gathering, things like that. So you could see the scope of power that they expanded. A lot of them can be used to suppress democratic campaigners and protestors.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, you can’t see this, obviously this is a podcast, but those who know, you’re an exceptionally young man still, but you’ve been doing this for a very, very long time, so I’m curious. How did you come to be involved in, I suppose a democracy movement in Hong Kong? It’s a big fight to pick, essentially fighting several million people in a small city state, taking on the might of the Chinese Communist Party, which is right next door and essentially has part of the control over that society. How did you end up in this struggle?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, I had not been growing up thinking myself as an activist, as a politician or as someone who have certain influence. I grew up in a blue-collar family. My father was a builder, my mother was a cleaner. I grew up in a situation that sometimes we had to rely on government subsidies and I had been living in public housing provided by the government for my whole life. So I would describe my family as having certain refugee mentality, which in they only care about stability, they only care about providing for their families even though they know that there are problems in politics. The Chinese Communist Party is very bad that’s why they left China to Hong Kong, they try to avoid the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, but they don’t agree that the children have to be part of a struggle, they have to get involved in political works because those will bring instability. So I didn’t grow up in a very political family, it was a apolitical family and I was not really paying attention to any official affairs or political struggles when I was in childhood or growing up period. And the very first time that I had any intention and curiosity to look into these things, were actually in my high school when Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese person got the Nobel Peace Prize. And the next day of that, our school principal because we were a every pro-Beijing school actually, so-

Misha Zelinsky:

So the school was funded by Beijing or?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, funded by an organizations that is controlled by Beijing. So yeah, when the school principal was holding a morning assembly and she publicly criticized Liu Xiaobo, saying that he was like a enemy of the country, there were a lot of problems of him, he was criticizing a lot of things, things like that. And back then I was puzzled because all I knew is, when you got the Nobel Prize, it’s an honor, it’s a recognition for your excellent work in that field, so how come such a Chinese person being criticized while he got the prize and it really triggered my curiosity and that was the moment that I started to look into the concepts of freedoms and human rights and the works Liu Xiaobo had been doing and it sort of opening up a gate for me to understand the world and the society and the relationship between me and the society in another perspective. So that was the start of it and then when I got into university, when I was involved in the student body, the student union, when I was elected as the head of it, I represented the student union to be involved in social movement and that was the time that I was put under the spotlight.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, so let’s talk about that. Politically you have an awakening as you going to high school. You come at university, you get elected to the peak of the student political movement there which is, a lot of people come into politics through university. That kind coincides with a bit of the Umbrella Movement and this movement that’s rising in Hong Kong. So tell us about that movement and then how you got involved in it?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, the Umbrella Movement is the very first mask on civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong’s history. It took place in 2014 where a round of political reform was ongoing and Hong Kong people were just fed up of basically appointing system of our chief executive, the top leader of our city and because it was already 17 years after the handover in 1997 and we should enjoy democracy by then. So people were very impatient, very angry and they were chanting demands on democracy and hoping that that rounds of political reform could grant Hong Kong people and to anyone a democratic election on both our Parliament and also our executive branch. So there were pressure developing, there were actions developing and at the end of the day in late September, Hong Kong people marched down to the major runway of the city center and they just sat down and they had been in 79 days long democratic protest and occupation in the heart of Hong Kong in order to put pressure to the government and to express their political pursuit. And that sit-in, the Umbrella Movement, was led by student organizations, was led by scholars and Hong Kong Federation of Students, which I was in the Hong Kong Federation of Students as a student leader and I participated the only one dialogue and negotiation between the government and the protesters.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so why was it called the Umbrella Movement because I think a lot of people probably don’t quite understand the background to that symbol?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, it was not named by organizers or by protesters. It was actually named by-

Misha Zelinsky:

Or it’s probably not the most catchy title.

Nathan Law:

Yeah. Yeah, it was actually named by the press because it was a completely peaceful civil disobedience movement and when the government was deploying riot police using batons and using pepper spray, Hong Kong people all used umbrellas to resist that. And when you look into the protest scene, you could see there were hundreds of umbrellas and they were patching up together and it created a very colorful scene and that is a very moving and powerful scene to symbolize the peaceful protesters. They were going against a very draconian regime and a police force that had much more violence than them. So that was actually from the press and people thought that wow, it really represented a movement and we adopted that and continue to call it Umbrella Movement.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right. So just to skip ahead a little bit, we’ll come back but, in the most recent sort of umbrella marches, they were close to two million people all carrying umbrellas, which is an incredible sort of visual side to that, right, and everyone marching peacefully. Did you imagine that you’d get to that point where that many people would all be carrying an umbrella in solidarity? I mean, that must have been a pretty incredible feeling at the time.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, the 2019 protest, it was five years after the 2014 Umbrella Movement. It was actually a blow. People didn’t expect that we could mobilize so many people coming into the streets and protest. So yeah, definitely it surprised many democratic campaigners and after the Umbrella Movement because we failed to achieve a political reform that can grant Hong Kong people democracy. So that had been appealed over in the activist groups and in the civil society and that bounce in 2019 was really surprising.

Misha Zelinsky:

So let’s go back. So you’re a student of activism, you’re involved in these protests in the occupation of Central, Hong Kong. I want to just step a little bit to just your family story. Because you talked about your background, your parents were not super political and that mindset, which my family are similar with two migrants into Australia, so I understand that don’t rock the boat mindset from my grandparents. So I’m curious, what were your parents saying about your involvement in this and how did they find out that you were involved?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, well my mother when she was in a wedding boutique in late September 2014 and when she looked up to a television because she was enjoying with her friends, she was happy because some of her friends were getting married and when she looked up to the television and she saw her son being arrested in front of a camera by a dozen of undercover police and she was shocked and-

Misha Zelinsky:

Not the best way to reveal, huh? Not the best way to reveal to everybody [crosstalk 00:22:22].

Nathan Law:

Yeah, yeah. It was rather dramatic. It’s rather dramatic, it’s like an opening of a movie. But yeah, she was shocked and that was the first time that she realized her youngest son was involved in political movement. It had always been a troubling signal for her. She had always been trying to convince me not to be involved, to stay away, to try to focus on your personal life, focus on building of the family and provide for your family. And to be honest, that had always been my thought. I wanted to become a person who can make more money and to treat my family a good life because they had been struggling for the rest of their life and they deserve to have a better life when their sons are grown up and they could provide back to them. But at the end of the day, I felt like it’s my duty, it’s my city and if we don’t come out, who will? And that was a driving momentum for me to defy the gravity from my mother and from my family and continue to devote myself into a larger struggle in the society.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I think it’s almost a bigger call defying your mum and defying the CCP, mate. So I understand that some of these things upset your mum.

Nathan Law:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

But you get arrested, but you got jailed as well, right? And so talk to us about, you’re a young guy, you at university, you go on part of these protests, you get arrested by undercover cops who are being directed by the Chinese Communist Party. What’s going through your head at this point, once you’re behind bars? Talk to us about that because that should have been an extraordinarily scary experience.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, I had been arrested for many times. There were several charges pressed on me. The time when I was in jail was in 2017 and it was quite a long story because in 2016 I found a youth-led political organization with Joshua Wong and many other student leaders. The organization is now disbanded and is Demosisto and we ran for election. So I won the election by a large margin and I became the youngest ever parliamentarian in Hong Kong at the age of 23. So by then, the government really doubled down all the pressure and political suppression on me and nine months after I served the people, I was unseated because the government issues our interpretation into our constitutions. And in the fact, it has changed to the requirement of our oath taking ceremony which each of the parliamentarians have to take it and change it and applied it retrospectively, so making parliamentarians who had made certain statement before and after the whole length of oath, considering these additions were illegal, so that we were deprived from our seats. So I was unseated because of these kinds of draconian-

Misha Zelinsky:

Technicalities.

Nathan Law:

Technicality.

Misha Zelinsky:

But you got unseated for quoting Gandhi, is that right? On the basis-

Nathan Law:

Yes, yes, yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, it was part of the plots that they designed, saying that you quoted Gandhi, it shows that you are not solemn, you are not sincere to the Chinese Communist Party, to the country and then because of that, you are basically elected illegally and well, more than 50,000 people voted for me and all their ballots are being tarnished, being tossed into a rubbish bin. And that took place nine months after I served the people and a month after, I was convicted inciting illegal assembly and was in jail, was sentenced to jail for eight months because of my peaceful participation in the Umbrella Movement. And luckily, I spent around two and a half months in jail before I filed an appeal and I appealed successfully at the Court of Final Appeal. Yeah, it was just quite a roller coaster ride when you are degraded from a honorable parliamentarian to an inmate in just a month and that was definitely quite a difficult time for me.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I want to talk about running for Parliament at 23 because that’s a extremely gutsy thing to do in any parliamentary system, but you’re doing it essentially to challenge the regime under which oversees your society. That would have been a big call to make, so what was going through your head when you decided, “Look, we’re going to create our own party, we’re going to run for election and we’re going to change the system from the inside”? At that point, I think is probably your thinking, right?

Nathan Law:

Yeah, well I was always feeling, in 2016, there was still room to work inside the system and also outside the system and we had to really collaborate these two forms of resistance so that we can maximize our impact. And by then there were no individuals that had the heritage of Umbrella Movement that can carry the flag of it, that can remind people that, that movement existed and the influence of it lingers and so that, along with other student leaders in the Umbrella Movement, we found our youth-led party. The party was so young. The average age was even younger than I, so you could really identify the youth managed to do that in an election. And we ran for just one seat which I was the candidate and at first, it was quite difficult.

Nathan Law:

I remember that one month before the election, I was at the bottom of the race. We were having a proportional election system, so there were 15 lists fighting for six seat in my constituency and that was the wealthiest, most educated and most aged constituency. So it has a natural rejection to young people like me and all the previous elected candidates were lawyers, were professionals, were ex-government officials, were proper intellectuals, so it didn’t fit my profile. So a month before the election, I was at the bottom of the race basically and people thought that wow, you were just a protesters, an activist, a university student, you knew nothing. The only thing that you knew was protesting and chanting anti-political slogans. That could possibly be a perception for people, but after several aired debates in public television, and the ability to talk about policies, to talk about politics, taught the understanding on real politic and also the ability for you to demonstrate that the lack of experience may be a benefit, may mean that you are getting rid of the constraints and the chains and the shackles, that all those experiences applied to another candidate, to the other candidates, that you are there to do something, that you can really rock the boat when the boat is so corrupted and when the boat is doing bad things to people.

Nathan Law:

And I think all these elements combined the perception to a young activist changed and people had certain confidence in him that he could talk about politics, he could talk about policy, he understand was is going on in the society and he had that new face, new energy that they had not been seeing and could possibly change the political landscape. So in having that expectation, the support really reversed and a lot more people are willing to vote to a young person like me, that they hoped for a change.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, obviously you’ve connected with the public in a great way because you’ve been elected, but clearly the regime has detected that as well, with the Chinese Communist Party has detected that as well and they’ve gone to great lengths to disqualify you are a Parliament, arrest you, et cetera, crush you. We’ve mapped that a bit as we’ve gone, not in a linear way, but we’ve sort of… Now we’re getting 2020 with the introduction of the national security law. At that point, you decided with your mates to disband your party, Demosisto and then you leave Hong Kong, so talk to me about that. So you’ve put this party together with hope, trying to do the right thing I suppose and go through the system and see if you can’t stand up for people in the way that we all would in any democracy and I certainly congratulate you for that, but at that point, what’s going through your mind when you’re like, “This national security law is now in. We’re disbanding the party. I have to leave Hong Kong”?

Nathan Law:

Well in 2019, the massive, the most impactful protest in Hong Kong had began. The anti-extradition protest started in June 2019 and we had been through a few million people rally, the largest one was two million people rally, which was more than a quarter of the city’s population. So you can imagine, if in any other major city in Australia or the whole Australia, if there were more than a quarter of the population coming out, politics will long changed and the government will definitely disband and the people will regain the power. But that’s not the case in Hong Kong. Even though we had been through so many massive peaceful demonstrations, other governments still refused to listen to us and there had been an escalation of force from the government and also an escalation of force from the protesters as a response to that. It really lasted a couple of months, with really intense protestings and conflicts and when the COVID started in 2019, in early 2019, the protest slowed down because of that.

Nathan Law:

And the government was trying to impose much more restrictions on people and I remember in May 2020, there was suddenly a news about the Chinese government trying to impose a law in Hong Kong, impose national security law and we were puzzled because in Hong Kong we’ve got our legislation system. We need to go through the Parliament in Hong Kong so that we can enact the law, but the national security law was intended to bypass all the local legislation and consultation process and it was intended to complete that in two months. So such a very controversial law and law that obviously violates human rights, that the government intended to pass it in two months and we didn’t know much before the full draft of it, after it was passed, was released. So at that point, we didn’t know how draconian it was, how close it would close down the civil society and what impact it will give to the society as a whole because we did not see the full tax of it when it was made. But after a couple of weeks, after there were more news released by the media and around two to three weeks before it was officially passed and implemented, we were getting a sense it would be a extremely draconian version of it and it were definitely targeting “at our national enemies” like me, like Joshua, like Jimmy Lai.

Nathan Law:

So we were caught in a very difficult choice. Either we stay and try to find rooms to resist, but we also need someone who can speak up for Hong Kong because it’s obvious that under the law, we cannot speak freely because any appeal for sanctionings of officials on China or having a tough stance on China, holding them accountable, will be seen as subversive speech and you will be locked in jail for years because of that. So by then I decided that we need a person with an international profile and with ability to speak for Hong Kong people on the international stage. So then I fled. I left Hong Kong a couple days before the implementation of the national Security law and arrived in London in order to preserve a voice, free from the threat of the national security law.

Misha Zelinsky:

So what was it like to leave home?

Nathan Law:

Well, it was difficult. I spent past seven years defending Hong Kong’s freedom. Well basically before then, all of my life into the city’s fight. And I love the culture, I love the people, I love the connection, I love the city landscape, cultural-scape, everything. So it was definitely a difficult decision to make, but I realized that it was more than myself, it was more than my personal preference because I carry a responsibility, a duty for collective wits which is making sure that Hong Kong is seen and is being listened to. And so, even though I did say a lot of goodbyes, but for now I feel like I made a right decision to do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you in the UK now. Obviously it’s a free democratic country, but the Chinese Communist Party makes it very clear that it considers two things, that Chinese diaspora that live abroad are part of the Chinese Communist Party’s interest. So they’ve taken a big interest in Chinese people living abroad and then secondly, they also aren’t afraid to be active in that space, to try to intimidate people, et cetera. Do you feel safe in the UK? Or do you still feel that there’s that reach, they can reach into even our societies that are democracies and free and open?

Nathan Law:

Well, we all understand how extensive China’s reach could be. That extraterritorial, extralegal persecution on democratic activist, freedom activist. Well, you can see it in a lot of places including in Australia, in the UK, so I can never say that I feel entirely secure or safe, even though for now I’m being very cautious and very vigilant so that I haven’t encounter any physical attacks. But that is for me, I can never lose my guard down. I just have to be very careful and to be aware of any following, any spies, any people approaching me, things like that.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, how is the movement surviving through this moment? I mean, I understand people are very afraid to speak up and there’s being dissembling of the party and a breaking apart of media apparatus like Jimmy Lai, who you said stayed behind and was arrested obviously and so many other people that are still being smashed up in a way that you would expect if you were trying to crush a movement. How is it surviving? And second, you think Xi Jinping will break the will of the people in Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Well, I think it is obvious that a lot of possibilities for protesters, for opposition are basically gone. So people, they have to invent new mechanisms to try to express their opinion more and in a more simple way. Take an example in 4th of June this year, when the 4th of June vigil nights was canceled second time in a row, people were just so angry because in Hong Kong it had been the only place on Chinese soil that could publicly commemorate the 4th of June massacre the democratic movement in 1989 and it had always been seen as one of the important events in Hong Kong and it really shows the consciousness and the pursuit for freedoms of Hong Kong people. So people were really furious and especially that was the first 4th of June after the implementation of the national security law. So when people can not gather in Victoria Park, which is where the vigil is normally held, they were wandering around the park, holding up cell phones with a flashlight, making it seemingly as a candle when there were thousands of police outside the park and arbitrarily detaining people who were holding a candle and saying that it was an illegal action to hold a candle in the city center.

Nathan Law:

So they had to use the flashlight of their cellphone to substitute that, but they was still trying something to tell the world, to tell Hong Kong people, to tell the press, to tell foreign media that they were people trying to express certain signal and they were trying to protest. So the day become a day that many people, thousands of them, wandering in the city center outside the Victoria Park in Causeway Bay and they were in black. They were holding flashlights and sometimes the police told them to shut the flashlights, but they were still wandering. They just appeared and that had become a way for them to protest. So after the national security law, a lot of things which has had some incredible adjustment for that but still, I do believe that there is still a strong pursuit of Hong Kong people. They just can’t express that and when they find the right way to do so, they would definitely do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, what can the world do, right? I think the democratic world has watched this whole situation unfold, certainly since ’97, but particularly really since the middle of the last decade with horror and aghast and total solidarity to the people of Hong Kong, offering asylum to people such as yourself and others who want to leave. But what more can we do and what can it do? What should it do? What would you like to see?

Nathan Law:

I feel like there have been a complacency in democratic countries, in the global community for the past two decades. And they were growing that kind of authoritarianism from China and from Russia and from around the world. For now, we’ve been seeing the democratic recessions for almost two decades and I think the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong is just falling into the big picture, one piece of the puzzles. And I think if we are indeed going to try to help the people in Hong Kong, we just have to stand much more firmer in terms of defending our democracy globally and seeing it as a crisis. Authoritarian regimes are too easy to excuse themselves from taking responsibility by claiming all the things are internal problems, are sovereignty problems and denying all the human rights claims. And in the democratic countries seems difficult to form a more collaborated and sophisticated reaction towards these human rights violations and all those economic coercion and blackmailings to countries like Australia and others and I think that should be changed. We should form a much more coordinated alliance and with an aim of promoting global democracy and addressing global human rights violation and to try to promote that values and use all of our policies to work with it.

Nathan Law:

It’s just a crisis too big to be neglected, but we have not been seeing it really properly. We see climate change, we see poverty as global crisis, but not the decline of democracy and I think if we need some changes on the international level, if we need more accountability for regimes like the Chinese Communist Party, we need to start with a change of perception. We need to see the rise of authoritarianism and the decline of democracy as a global crisis, so that we could formulate global goals, global agenda and actions around it. So I do hope that we can have that in the short-term future, so that we can really change the fight, we can really fight democracy back before it’s too late.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, that’s perfectly put. I mean, just on that right, so curious of your take on this. I mean, I think I know your answer, but I think it’s worth talking about which is, some commentators in the West and just generally foreign policies say, “Well, Southeast Asia, there’s not been a great history of democracy and the democratic institution, so maybe they don’t want it or their societies aren’t overly compatible.” I mean, what’s your take on that? I mean, I obviously disagree with that when you look at places like Japan, Indonesia, et cetera, but I’m curious about your take about, do you see democratic being universal or do you see it being a cultural practice?

Nathan Law:

Well, this is definitely not a cultural practice. Is definitely universal. Hong Kong people have always been ready for getting in democratic system. The core essence of democracy system is to make sure that the government is held accountable. No matter is being held accountable by the people on its policies or by the international community to comply with the certain standards that could protect the livelihood and the happiness of people. So democratic accountability is one certain thing that should be implemented over the world because that could avoid people falling into the hands of tyrannies and falling into the hands dictators, who take no responsibility but only for holding wealth for themselves. So I think democratic accountability delivered by a democratic system, is definitely universal and is the goal that we should pursue even though we could say that there is a variation in between different democratic systems, but we just have to make sure that people have the capacity to pick a government, to pick a governing body and the ruling incumbent party has to be responsible to them.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, exactly and I completely agree. So I’m kind of curious, I mean we talked about Hong Kong specifically, but the Chinese Communist Party is not just targeting Hong Kong within its territories. It’s also extremely hostile to Taiwan. Now we don’t have time to talk about all the issues related to Taiwan, but I’m quite curious about how you see a sense of solidarity with Taiwan and do you think that Taiwan is important in their struggle because a lot of people say, democracy in China looks a lot at Taiwan, right, and so it’s a massive threat to the Chinese Communist Party by existing, but do you see solidarity and parallels in that struggle?

Nathan Law:

A lot of Taiwanese activists are my friends who have been in very close connection. I’ve been engaging in Taiwanese civil society for many years. They are definitely good allies. Taiwan is one of the most powerful democratic entity in Asia and it really demonstrate the capacity, the ability of a democratic system. China has always been, especially under the Xi Jinping’s leadership, trying to do the “reunification” and some say that it’s the annexation on Taiwan and that’s definitely for us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to them and to say that Chinese government has to stop that military intimidation and the democratic country in the world, the community has to step in and to deter China from doing all sorts of terrible things on Taiwan.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I suppose the last thing I want to ask you before I get to the critical barbecue question that I know you just hanging to answer, where you sit right now, you’ve had to leave home, you’ve had to give up you a political party, but you’ve gone to fly the flag and to keep the flame alive for democracy. Do you hold out hope that Hong Kong can stay as it is and that we can prevail in their struggle, for all the things you talked about in terms of global democracy and democracy for people of Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Definitely there is hope. As an activist, I’m not entitled to lose hope. We have to believe the innate pursuit of freedom from every individuals and we just have to believe that there is a possibility for change. And the things that I’m doing, the international advocacy work, meeting with policymakers, attending in conferences and many others, are paving my way home. I really do wish that the work of raising awareness and raising attention and support to Hong Kong can build up a larger international pressure and the determination to hold China accountable and to make Hong Kong democratic and free.

Misha Zelinsky:

And would you like to go home one day to a free democratic Hong Kong?

Nathan Law:

Well, definitely. I guess, that is the biggest wish that I can ever have. So yeah, definitely. I would love to step foot in Hong Kong again. It could take decades, but I believe that will come.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well mate, we truly hope so and congratulations for everything you’ve done so far. But I can’t let you go and obviously I’d love to keep talking to you about this for a long time but you’ve got a life to lead and I’ve got to let you go, but I can’t let you go without the famous, lame question of Diplomates which is, you are a foreign guest on my show and so foreign guests have to have Aussies and Aussies have to have foreigners, so three Aussies at a barbecue at Nathan’s, who are they and why?

Nathan Law:

Well, it’s a pity that personally I don’t know many Aussies.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s probably a good thing.

Nathan Law:

And secondly I don’t know how to barbecue, so I would love to invite you Misha and you bring two of your best mates who are the best in cooking BBQ and we can start from there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Mate, I don’t know if you want my mates there, but you’re going to have plenty of beer. That’s the only thing that I request, but we’ll do the cooking if you supply the drinks.

Nathan Law:

Yeah well, beers!

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh Nathan mate, congratulations on everything you’re doing. Complete solidarity with you and your movement, mate, and we hope to talk to you in the future.

Nathan Law:

Yeah, thank you so much.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks mate.

 

Rob Wilcox: Guns in America – Violence, Rights and Politics

Rob Wilcox is the Federal Legal Director at ‘Everytown for Gun Safety’, the leading gun safety movement in the United States (https://www.everytown.org).

A qualified commercial lawyer, Rob’s life changed forever when his family was tragically touched by gun violence. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Rob for a Chinwag about the US gun violence epidemic, the political polarisation underpinning this issue, what sensible reform looks like, how to build a movement for change from the ground up, the role of the Second Amendment in gun ownership, misinformation online and whether meaningful change is actually possible.

It’s a really insightful conversation on an issue that touches many people. A big thank you to Rob for coming on the Diplomates Pod to share his personal story; he’s a great guy and he’s tackling an issue that needs to be addressed. 

 

Show Transcript:

Misha Zelinsky:

Rob, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us, mate.

Rob Wilcox:

Oh, thank you so much for having me. It’s my pleasure.

Misha Zelinsky:

And you’re joining us from the United States. So, much appreciated given the time zone differences. Now, we’re going to dig right into the issue of gun violence and gun control and gun safety. It’s an issue that I’m very interested in. I know a lot of Australians are very interested in particularly sort of scratching their heads at the size of this problem. So before we get into the problem itself and the solution, I’m going to start with some of the stats around guns and the stats around the gun violence problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, just looking before we were getting ready for our chat, there’s more than one gun, for example, in the United States than people, so more than one gun per person. When you think about the fact that there’s kids, obviously, there’s elderly, there’s people that are in hospital, there’s people that are in prison, and so there’s more guns floating around. So there’s people with multiple and multiple firearms. Maybe you can start with some of the stats about how bad the problem is and maybe whether or not it’s getting better or worse.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. Look, I think there’s two points there. One is gun ownership in America and one is gun violence. And I think the best estimates are that about a third of American households have firearms. So even though you’re right that there’s one per person, that doesn’t mean that there’s one in every home. And this country does have a long and rich tradition of gun ownership. And in fact, my family owns guns. So it’s not something that I haven’t been around that I don’t know about. But that’s very different than guns that end up in the wrong hands and the tragedies that are just far too frequent.

Rob Wilcox:

So the second point about gun violence, the issue we have here is that 100 Americans are dying every single day from gun violence, over 200 are injured. And it’s about 40,000 a year. And that’s every single year and it’s all types of gun violence. It’s the mass tragedies that maybe breakthrough in the national, international news, but it’s also everyday gun violence in our communities, and it’s firearm suicide that happens in the privacy of our homes, and intimate partner domestic violence. So, the firearm in the wrong hands has ripple effects throughout our communities in all sorts of different ways.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, you’ve been activist in this space, would you say the problem is getting better or worse? Because I mean, from an outsider’s point of view, it feels like it’s getting worse. I know we’re not that supported empirically in the data.

Rob Wilcox:

Look, what we’ve seen during this COVID-19 pandemic, that’s been a global health pandemic, is an epidemic within that in this country. And that’s the fact that gun violence has gotten worse. We saw more gun violence in 2020 than in the decades preceding it. So, even if some of those mass shootings that might not make the headlines haven’t occurred with the same frequency, we’ve seen the same terror happening day in and day out to families and communities. So, from my perspective, it’s getting worse and it demands immediate action.

Misha Zelinsky:

And I suppose you’d be looking at the problem in America, but no doubt you benchmark yourself against other nations like Australia, comparable nations like Canada and European nations. Do you think that America is somehow more violent society or do you see this as a problem about guns themselves?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, America is exceptional in terms of its gun violence. If you look at 25 peer nations, our rates of gun violence are multiple times higher. And that’s because we have easy access to guns. For people who shouldn’t have them, we have loopholes. Do we have more mental health issues? No. Do we have more violent video games? No. Do we have more violent movies? No. But what we do have is access to guns for those who are a threat to themselves or others. And that to me is what is fueling our uniquely American problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we’ll get back to, I suppose, this macro problem. If you don’t mind, you might share a little bit with us about your personal story and what prompted you to perhaps become an activist for change in this space. Your family was touched by gun violence very deeply, very tragically. I was wondering if you might share that story with us, please.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. No, I appreciate you asking, because I think it’s important for us to share our stories so that we can see the humanity and hopefully inspire change. But like I said, I mean, I grew up with guns and I grew up learning how to shoot for my father. And so, I see the family tradition that comes with gun ownership, but I’ve also seen the other side of it in my life. And I saw it before I even graduated college.

Rob Wilcox:

I grew up in Brooklyn and so I saw gun violence in my community both being aware of it, seeing it on the everyday local news. But it wasn’t until my senior year in college back in 2001, when I was abroad actually in Australia visiting, touring, being with friends that I got a call that I never expected to get, which was my 19-year-old cousin who was at home for winter break from her college in Northern California, kind of a safe, sleepy place, was killed. And she was killed by someone who shouldn’t have had a gun.

Rob Wilcox:

She was home from winter break from Haverford College and she was volunteering at her local mental health hospital, just checking people in, being of service in their community, that’s who she was. She was this bright, brilliant light. And the day that she was killed, she wasn’t even, I suppose, to work. But somebody called out sick, she stepped up. And what we learned is one of the former patients walked in with firearms, walked up and killed her, killed others.

Rob Wilcox:

When the police responded, he then made his way to a restaurant and killed others. It was a deadly day for that community. It didn’t make national news but it inspired me and inspired my aunt and uncle and inspired other advocates to get involved. And that’s kind of fueled me and allowed me to learn about this issue from a very personal perspective and meet thousands of survivors along the way and take a number of steps to make myself educated about our gun laws and about the solutions that would be effective at preventing the tragedy that I’ve seen.

Misha Zelinsky:

And just you’ve touched on them in these incidents, and I’m so sorry, obviously, for your loss, man. It’s an awful story. It’s all too common, unfortunately, in the US. This occurred at a mental health hospital. I mean, what’s the role of mental illness in gun violence do you see? I mean, are these things correlated to the wrong people having access to firearms? Do you see those things closely linked?

Rob Wilcox:

It’s definitely not correlated or not their causation. Folks with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators of violence. So I don’t tell that story to cast aspersions on those who have mental illness, especially those seeking treatment. But for individuals who are in crisis or a threat to themselves or others, well, then we need to do something to make sure they don’t have access to guns. And this individual, his family was concerned, his brother was in law enforcement, knew he shouldn’t have had guns but there was no steps that could be taken.

Rob Wilcox:

They actually tried to go through a mental health process to get him involuntary committed, that didn’t work. And so what they really needed was the law that we call an extreme risk protection order, which is a court process to temporarily remove firearms from someone who’s a threat to themselves or others. And frankly, that’s a law that my aunt and uncle worked to get passed in California. And it’s a law that we see in 19 states now, red, blue, and purple. And we’re working on at the federal level as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, that’s a good time to raise this organization where for Everytown, for listeners that are familiar with it, maybe you can explain who that organization is, what its purpose is, and why you see that as the place to, I suppose, affect the change you’re trying to make.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah, Everytown for Gun Safety is an incredible organization. It brings together data-driven research, evidence-based solutions, as well as a grassroots component. It brings together this notion that we need to be fighting for evidence-based policies that respect the Second Amendment, not just with our words and on paper, but with the power of people. And so we brought together survivors of gun violence activists around the country, mayors, students, law enforcement, gun owners, all to join in this effort. And right now we have six million supporters that we work with around the country at that local state and federal level and in boardrooms all looking to make the change that will make the difference.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, just want to turn to US gun culture. You talked about at the beginning a little bit about the culture of gun ownership and how it embedded in, I suppose, US cultural identity. I mean, how do you see that as being critical to this debate? Because I mean, many times this gets raised, the Second Amendment gets raised and people go right back to 1776 and the Declaration of Independence and the war of independence against the British and that don’t take away my guns because it’s going to stop us from being able to overthrow tyranny, et cetera. That is a very powerful cultural touchstone. It’s obviously important legal theme. This cultural link to gun ownership, why do you think it exists and how does it influence, I suppose, to the work you’re trying to do?

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. I think if we look back and really take a long view, what I would say from the beginning of this country, guns were tools, guns were around, they were tools for freedom, as you mentioned. They were tools for survival, for hunting and defense. They were also at times tools for oppression. It’d be that violence against others or in kind of keeping alive the slave system that we had in this country.

Rob Wilcox:

So I think all of those were parts of our founding or all those are pieces that we have to reckon with. And yes, we have a Second Amendment on the books, and that’s been interpreted. And what we fight for the policies that respect the rights of law abiding responsible Americans to own firearms but seek to make it more difficult for those who shouldn’t have access to them. And if you both look historically and at the public opinion, it all fits. For as long as we’ve had the Second Amendment, we’ve had laws about gun ownership in this country about who can and can’t have guns, about the regulations about how you store them and how you use them.

Rob Wilcox:

So, these gun laws aren’t new and that’s why they’re consistent with the Second Amendment. And the truth is, even though we have a small minority of vocal advocates who think that we shouldn’t have a single gun law on the books, the fact is 90% of Americans think we should have background checks. And that includes vast majorities of Democrats, Republicans, independents, gun owners, even NRA members. So, if you think about the policies we’re fighting for, they’re both constitutional and they’re popular. And that’s our work. That’s the work of a rather new organization, which is to bring that power to fight for the change that we want.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m keen to dig into that political change piece. And I want to have a long conversation about that. Just staying with the gun culture piece, the other bit that you’ve talked about sort of this the right to bear arms and the importance of law abiding citizens having that right, which I think people wouldn’t argue with, the other bit that I want to touch on is from an Australian point of view, I’d call it the John Wayne fantasy, if I can call it that. It’s this notion that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, and therefore having armed citizens is the best way to stop someone doing something horrendous in the community opening fire on innocent people, et cetera. Is this a real kind of construct or is a bit of a fantasy that never actually plays out in that fashion?

Rob Wilcox:

The best way to stop a tragedy is to make sure that the person who’s arrested themselves or others doesn’t have a gun in the first place. Are there situations when someone with a firearm can stop a tragedy from happening? Yes, those have occurred. They occur with law enforcement on the scene. They’ve occurred with law abiding citizens who have used a firearm in self-defense. Those things happen. But the truth is, if you really want to address gun violence and what we see in our country, then we need to focus on the interventions that work. And that’s about intervening before someone takes that step to commit the act and to prevent them from getting guns in the first place. You think about school shootings in America, I mean, it’s something that’s horrific, it’s uniquely American and it’s prevalent.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yes.

Rob Wilcox:

But if you look at the data, you actually look at the data of all of these incidents over the past 20, 30 years, things become very clear very quickly. One is that those shootings are almost always committed by students. Two is that those students almost always show warning signs that concern people around them. And three is that 80% of the time that guns coming from the home. So, what that means is we got to think about our students and those who are in crisis. We got to take steps to intervene to put them on the right path and sure, they’re not on the wrong path. And as parents, we need to make sure that our kids don’t have access to guns in our home.

Rob Wilcox:

That’s how you can actually get at that issue with school shootings. And it has nothing to do with do we need teachers who are armed? Do we need high school seniors carrying guns? Do we need to turn schools into prisons? Do we need to have a zero tolerance policy? None of those things will actually work or get at this root cause, which is kids who are in crisis and taking the steps to make sure that they both are getting services but also don’t have access to guns.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, we’ve touched on the Second Amendment, as we’ve been going along with, it’s the sort of the elephant in the room when it comes to this debate and any sort of policy changes. For those that aren’t super wonks in this space, maybe you can just explain a little bit how it impacts on it. But also, I suppose, the way that the Supreme Court plays a role within this process, because its interpretations of the Second Amendment the way it’s been perhaps advances and setbacks in that process, how do you see it as essentially a sort of immovable roadblock in terms of actually making changes that you’re talking about?

Rob Wilcox:

It’s definitely not an immovable roadblock. That’s the first thing I would say. But if we actually were to look at the text of this amendment, it says a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. And so, there’s a lot in that one sentence including multiple commas in a pack. And our Supreme Court has looked at it and ruled that it protects the individual right to have a firearm of common use in your home, but that there is room for reasonable regulation.

Rob Wilcox:

Even the justice who wrote the opinion that defined the Second Amendment, Justice Antonin Scalia, he talked about the type of regulations that are permissible and in terms of felons in possession of guns, keeping guns out of schools, and other kind of common sense regulations we can put in place that will keep guns out of the wrong hands. So no, I think that while we’ve had the Second Amendment for as long as this country has been around, we’ve also had gun laws that get at this very core point of how do we keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I think that’s right. Interesting point raised, because I think the well-regulated militia piece, I think, is what point that a lot of people tend to ignore as opposed when you’re talking about the people’s right to bear arms should not be infringed. I mean, it doesn’t strike me as inalienable because we say you can’t have a nuclear bomb, right? So there is some sort of a tank, so there is a limit already there easily. And I think anyone that’s not completely crazy would agree with that. So that is where you are drawing the line. But I guess the question I have for you is the way it’s being interpreted, given the way that the court is currently composed now with more conservative justices, are you confident that if gun laws… Let’s imagine a world where Congress were to pass gun amendment type laws, are you confident that the court would uphold those types of changes?

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah. Every single law that I’ve been working on at the federal level, every action that’s being proposed by President Biden is constitutional. And multiple courts have upheld them. The Supreme Court will be taking up a Second Amendment case this year. And so we’re going to potentially get another decision from them about the scope of the Second Amendment and what it protects. But the truth is, I mean, as you said, different types of weapons are regulated in this country in a host of different ways. You have on the one hand bombs and tanks, but even when you look at firearms, you have fully automatic weapons, machine guns that have been regulated since the 1930s.

Rob Wilcox:

You’ve had regulations and prohibitions on semi-automatic rifles that are military style, so they take detachable magazines and have the features of a military style weapon. And you’ve had background checks on gun sale on just your handgun and hunting rifle. So we’ve had a host of different types of regulations based on that type of weapon. And they’ve all been upheld as constitutional. So, I think the things that we’re working on that will make a real difference would all be upheld by this court.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, what is sensible reform? And then you touched on, I suppose, is probably what you consider to be perhaps ideal and maybe that’s not achievable. So, what do you firstly see is achievable and what would be an ideal outcome? And I suppose the other thing I’m curious is now Australia went through this process itself a long time ago. Now, when I was young, we had the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania where 30 people were shot. That’s our largest mass shooting and it startled the country at the time. We had a conservative prime minister, John Howard, who amended the gun laws. And thankfully they remain in place today, though there are attempts to weaken them. Is Australia a bit of a model in this space or is it a kind of, again, we have compulsory voting and other sorts of things that are just impossible in the United States?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, I focus on this issue of gun violence in America through the lens of the constitution, laws, tradition and history of the United States. And so, while I’m aware of what’s happened, internationally and other countries, what I focus on is what we have to deal with here. And I think when I look at that history and I look at our culture and I look at our constitution and I look at the laws we have on the books, and frankly the loopholes, I see a lot of opportunity to make significant progress.

Rob Wilcox:

I’ll give you one example. Right now in this country, since 1993, we say that if a gun is sold at a licensed gun dealer, there has to be a background check. That’s effectively stopped over four million folks who are prohibited from buying guns from those dealers. And most people go to a dealer to buy a gun. But there is a secondary market and that’s not insignificant, where people can go and buy a gun without a background check. And I’ve taken a look at this. And on just one website I found 1.2 million ads over a year where you could buy a gun without a background check.

Misha Zelinsky:

So can I just ask a question? In Australia, I wouldn’t even know how to start to get a gun. I’ll be honest with you. I mean, if I looked I’m sure I could get one and my grandfather owned guns and he was part of a gun club. But I would not even know where to buy and what permits I need, et cetera. How easy is it if I just decided and woke up and I’m a citizen of the US, I’m living in the US and so I want to buy a gun? Maybe you could just step out how easy that would be.

Rob Wilcox:

Each state has different laws. So, I think just for simplicity, I’ll focus on the federal laws. And under the federal law, if I want to buy firearm, I have to go to a licensed gun store. And there’s thousands of those in this country and they’re not easy to find because they’re all publicly listed, they’re businesses. If you want to buy a Nintendo, you go to Best Buy. If you want to buy a firearm, you go to the gun store. And when you go, you pick out the firearm you want, then you fill out a form, a Form 4473. You put your information down, you have to show your ID to prove who you are, and then that gun dealer will submit that information to the FBI or the state agency to run a background check.

Rob Wilcox:

And they’re going to check to see if you’re prohibited under a number of categories federally or under your state law. And if it comes back green, then you can buy the gun. If it comes back red, then you can’t. And then you’ve been denied that purchase. And one of the things we think is that information needs to get out to law enforcement basically so they can investigate those cases. So if you’re law abiding, you’re responsible citizen, that’s the process. As you go to the gun store, you pick out the firearm and you pass your background check.

Misha Zelinsky:

How long does that take?

Rob Wilcox:

So for 90% of these cases, it happens within minutes, because it’s a database that is searched by the FBI and it can occur with alacrity.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, if I knew that I’d likely be knocked back, you sort of talked about these loopholes, how could I get a gun going around that system?

Rob Wilcox:

So that is the loophole. You can go on to this website and you can search for exactly the gun you want and you can say where you want to buy it. And a bunch of ads will pop up and say like, in this city, these guns are available. So you click Contact Seller and you get connected to this individual, this perfect stranger. And maybe what started as an email becomes a phone call and you say, “I’d like to buy that handgun. I have $400 in cash. Where can we meet?” And we’ve done some investigation and I’ve seen how these transactions go. And the person will say, “Meet me in this parking lot.” And so you go to the parking lot, a guy shows you the gun. I’ve seen this videotape footage. You hand over the cash and the transaction is done in two to three minutes.

Misha Zelinsky:

And is that gun registered anywhere, I’m just trying to understand, or is it disappears into the community?

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah, there’s no record that comes with that firearm or that transaction. Each firearm that’s commercially made in this country has a serial number. So if it’s ever recovered in crime, you can trace it back to who first made it, what company, who that company distributed to, and who that dealer first sold it to. But after that first sale, that trail can go cold pretty quickly. Because if they sold you a gun from the dealer and then you sold it to me, and then I sold it to someone else and that person sold to a third person, even if that gun is traced, maybe they find you and they say, “Okay, who’d you sell that gun to?” And you say, “It was this guy I had on my podcast. We met for about an hour, never in person.”

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t buy gun from, mate. I think I made it pretty clear, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Rob Wilcox:

But you might not even remember my name or where I live. And so, law enforcement can’t do anything with that. The trail goes cold. And that’s one reason we need background checks on every gun sale, so that even if you and I meet, however we meet, online or at a gun show or at a neighborhood, there’s going to be a background check. And then that record of that sale would be stored at a gun store.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I probably derailed the conversation there slightly. But just getting back to the keynote, what are the three things maybe? Because I know there’s so many, but if there were three things you can say these are three things on Rob’s wish list to fix the problem of gun violence tomorrow, what would be the three things that you want to get done?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, I think the first thing is we need a background check on every single gun that’s sold. There’s absolutely no reason that a stranger should sell a gun to another stranger with no background check and no knowledge if that person is prohibited or not. The second thing that I think is really important are these extreme risk laws, which are tools that family members and law enforcement can use to temporarily remove firearms from someone who a court finds as a risk to themselves or others.

Rob Wilcox:

And the third thing that I think is critically important is regulations on what’s called ghost guns, these firearms that have escaped regulation exist without any serial number and any information about them that should be regulated just like firearms. And I think those three things would be really critically important and can make an impact in all types of gun violence, from gun trafficking into mass shootings, to firearm suicide. And I think that could make a real impact.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you have an issue around the types of guns? Not all guns are the same, right? You talked about automatics and stuff. I mean, there’s a lot of talk about AR-15s, which have been used in some of these mass shootings, which is essentially a paramilitary type weapon. It’s very sophisticated, very dangerous weapon, right down to a shotgun, AR-22 or whatever. Do you draw lines around that?

Rob Wilcox:

I mean, look, what I can tell you is any gun in the wrong hands can be deadly. And from a handgun to a hunting rifle to a shotgun to an automatic weapon, they can all cause harm to whoever’s hit with that bullet. But you’re right, there are particular guns that have capabilities that allow for you to kill, frankly, more people easier, faster, quicker than another type of firearm. So yeah, a rifle that can take a detachable magazine that can accept 100 rounds of ammunition that has a rifle barrel that has a velocity, that means that when the bullet hits the body it’s going to cause tremendous damage, and that has the type of features that allow for kind of assault style activities, yeah, those are particularly dangerous. Those should be regulated. Because we see what happens when those weapons are in the wrong hands and that’s when you see these mass murders, like we saw in Las Vegas or we saw in Dayton where high capacity magazines attached to a rifle can just cause massive amounts of harm.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I just want to turn now, I suppose, to how this gets done. I think we’ve talked a lot about the problem and some of the solutions, of course. Regrettably, this is where we bump up against politics and getting things changed by politicians in legislations. And you think you’ve sort of touched a little bit around the complexity of this issue around the Bill of Rights but also federal state laws, different jurisdictions, et cetera. We’ll stay with the federal space.

Misha Zelinsky:

But Everytown is, I suppose, the advocates for change in this space and dealing with this crisis of gun violence. The other side of that coin is, of course, every organization will have some kind of opponent as the NRA. So, without giving your view of them, I can imagine I’d have a reasonably assessment of it. But I mean, maybe you could just give how powerful is the NRA in this debate and how much of a roadblock are they in terms of making any meaningful change in this space?

Rob Wilcox:

There’s kind of three things I want to say about the NRA. One is that they brought me back into this movement space. After my cousin was shot and killed, I went right to a gun safety organization and volunteered my time first as an intern and started working more in communications and with volunteers. And then I went off to law school and was practicing in that New York law firm. And when the shooting at Sandy Hook happened, I remember seeing President Obama give his remarks. And they were so powerful and so clear and I thought to myself, wow, gun violence survivors are finally being seen. We’re going to see change.

Rob Wilcox:

And then the NRA’s executive vice president spoke a few days later and said there’ll be no change, no way, no, how. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And I remember just thinking to myself, that can’t be right. The only thing that I can offer is my time. And so I’m going to re-devote myself to this mission of gun safety. And once I came back, what I saw was that the NRA has really morphed itself into a whole new organization. When it was formed 150 years ago, it was about marksmanship and gun safety and hunting.

Rob Wilcox:

And then in the late ’70s, it was taken over by radicals, and it became an extremist political organization that said, we’re not going to stand for any regulation of any type. And when they put their thumb on the scale, it made for a really tough political fight. But more recently, what they’ve become is they’ve morphed into a whole new organization, which is a personal piggy bank for their executives where they have now been alleged to have engaged in shady mismanagement, self-dealing, and they were just in court for a week and a half having to air all their dirty laundry, trying to escape responsibility by filing for bankruptcy. That case was-

Misha Zelinsky:

And constituting themselves in Texas or something, as I recall. Yeah.

Rob Wilcox:

Yeah, they want to escape the regulation that every organization and company should face when it comes to how their executives are spending their money. So, I think they went from a hunting organization to an extreme organization to a corrupt organization. And so, what do I see now? I see a national rifle association that’s weaker than it’s ever been. And I see my movement stronger than it’s ever been. And so, yes, will there be a fight? Yes. Will they object? Do I think we can win? Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’re making a strong case there for change. Now, anyone that’s followed this issue would sort of identify the last time there was meaningful reform in this space was in ’94 under the Clinton presidency in terms of the crime bill then. But it was a 10-year law that was extinguished and not renewed when George Bush was president. Do you think there’s ever going to be something like this ever again? Because one of the things, I scratch my head on this a little bit, you touched on Sandy Hook and you kind of thought this is the moment now that America is going to say, we’re having our infant children being shot, is this the moment, and yet nothing changed.

Misha Zelinsky:

And then you talked a little bit before about 90% of Americans support sensible gun reforms, and yet the politicians did not act. And that was probably a moment for me where I thought to myself, well, if you can’t trust politicians to do the right thing, you can only trust them to do the popular thing. And so, I thought, I said, man, the sectional interests in this space, the NRA, is so powerful that they can bully politicians into not following voters, 90% of voters, who feel strongly on this issue. So, I suppose, what confidence do you have that there will be change from politicians given this disconnect between popularity or support for an issue and inaction and perhaps the way people vote?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, I think there’s two lessons I’ve learned. One is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. There’s going to be no single moment, no single incident that just flips the switch. It’s going to take day in and day out organizing. And that gets to my second thing that I’ve learned is that this is a ladder. I mean, at the top rung is congressional action, but we had to start climbing that ladder from the bottom. We had to start with local change. We had to start with state change. We had to start with change in the boardrooms, changes in school districts. We had to build this momentum from the local level on up. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

Rob Wilcox:

So yeah, the bill failed after the shooting at Sandy Hook. Frankly, there was no Everytown at that point. No Moms Demand Action, no six-million strong organization, so we took the fight to the states. And what we saw was we were able to pass background check laws in states. We were able to pass extreme risk laws in states. We were able to pass laws keeping guns away from domestic abusers in states. And so right now, 21 states require background checks on all gun sales. Nineteen states have those extreme risk laws I mentioned. About 30 states have laws on domestic abusers and guns.

Rob Wilcox:

And so yeah, that progress is slow and the lives that are lost every single day are absolutely tragic. But do I see progress? I do. And I see that when I look at the Congress we have now. I can tell you that when Donald Trump won the presidency, the NRA thought that they were going to be replaying 2005. I bring up 2005, because after George W. Bush was reelected, they thought and they did run the show. They were quoted as saying we’re going to work out of the west wing. And they passed a number of laws, including one that gave very significant legal protections to bad actors in the gun industry who imperil our community through their business behavior.

Rob Wilcox:

The kind of civil liability protection, no one in their industry gets. Huge wins for them. They elected the president. They had their Congress. They got their win. When Donald Trump was elected, they spent more money than any other outside group. So they had the president, they had their Senate and they had their house, and they thought they were going to do the whole thing over again. And they were trying to pass their top priority, this thing called concealed carry reciprocity, which says if you can carry a gun at one place in this country, you can carry it anywhere.

Rob Wilcox:

And they were all geared up to do it all over again. But what they weren’t ready for is that our movement had changed. And so we stood up and we fought and we flipped so many votes in the Senate that didn’t even bring it up for a vote, because they would have done worse in 2017 than they had done in 2013 on that policy. And so to me, it just shows how far movement came. And then after that, we put in place a Gun Sense Majority in the House of Representatives that was unafraid to pass gun safety measures.

Rob Wilcox:

We then elected a president who ran on the boldest gun safety agenda ever and has governed like it. I mean, just today, he announced a whole new set of gun safety measures that his administration was going to take to reduce gun crime in our cities. And that’s on top of the things that he announced in April. And we elected a Gun Sense Senate putting Majority Leader Schumer in charge winning two races in Georgia where we now have a Gun Sense trifecta governing Washington DC.

Rob Wilcox:

And so, does that mean we’re going to be able to pass everything we want? No. Does that mean we’re going to have to fight? Yes. But does that mean that this issue is radically different than how I got into it in the early 2000s? It absolutely does. And so, since this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we’re in it for the long haul, then we’re just going to keep fighting until we get to that top rung, which is congressional action.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things been debated quite a bit now in US politics is the political reform agenda and Republicans are making changes to state legislators around rights to vote, et cetera. But do you believe Washington is too gridlocked to achieve sensible gun legislative changes or do you think it could be done with the system that currently exists? And frankly, do you think it should be done in a system that currently exists so that it remains, I suppose, broadly supported and embedded?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, we played by the rules that exist. And I do think that there’s opportunity for bipartisan compromise on the issue of gun safety. There was incredibly productive conversations about advancements that we could make just over the past few months by senators from both sides of the aisle. Does that mean that we’re going to get to the deal that gets enough votes to become law? I’m not sure that’s going to happen in this moment. And I hope we see a vote fairly soon. We’ll get the test it out. But the truth is we see more action and more conversation than I’ve ever seen before.

Rob Wilcox:

And that’s really the first step to getting a legislative deal is actually having people at the table. I can tell you, when I was first in this movement space, there was no one at the table for our side, even the elected democratic leaders. Senators and representatives were on the side of the NRA. They had power in both chambers of Congress and in both parties. And that’s slowly chipped away. And right now, we have a table of people who are talking about gun safety reforms. Even the last president, for how little he did on this issue, still took the action to ban bump stocks, which is an accessory that turns a semi-automatic weapon into an automatic weapon. And I think that was-

Misha Zelinsky:

That was after the Las Vegas shooting, right?

Rob Wilcox:

That was after the Las Vegas shooting, because that individual climbed to that top floor. He equipped his rifles with this accessory, a bump stock, and hos guns turned into machine guns. And he sprays the field of innocent folks who were at a concert. And again, something different happened in that moment that hadn’t happened before. Typically, maybe a president of either party would propose a regulation and the other side would flood our regulatory system with comments opposing it saying you shouldn’t do this, it’s unconstitutional, you can’t do that.

Rob Wilcox:

And that’s what happened at first. And then all of a sudden, something switched and our movement got active. And by the end of that process, that regulatory process, we had about 70% of the comments saying you should regulate these bump stocks, you should take this action. So again, it just showed that our movement is showing up and that we’re doing that work to make our voices heard, and bump stocks got banned. And they got regulated. So, while we’re still fighting to get to that top rung of big comprehensive federal legislation, I’m seeing changes that hadn’t happened in 20 years all the time now.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I just want to unpack a little bit. Like anything, I mean, I would have thought the issue of the pandemic would be about politics but somehow it’s become part of these broader cultural war that exists in US politics now whether you wear masks, you don’t wear a mask, you get vaccinated, don’t get vaccinated, guns sits firmly within these cultural prison and has for a very long time. You’ve talked a little bit about the state changes. I don’t know, I’m not familiar with it. But I imagine a lot of those changes would be if I can call them in blue states.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you see this issue of polarization as being a problem in terms of actually seeking these changes in the communities that perhaps more sort of instantly support this type of agenda? I mean, I’m reminded of Barack Obama and I’m sure he’d say he regret the comments now, off the record, comments which are never off the record about people in rural America clinging to their guns and their religion as part of this sort of safety net in terms of a changing world. I mean, so I suppose it’s a long way of asking like political polarization, how does it impact on this? And is it important to try to bring those people along with you and think that’s impossible in the current circumstances?

Rob Wilcox:

I think it’s completely possible and I think it’s about being an advocate who meets people where they are, because the fact is 58% of Americans are survivors of gun violence of one type or another. And so there is something that unites us there and that if we meet people where they are and we talk about our experiences of being survivors about being advocates about what we’re actually asking for, then there’s opportunity for compromise. And I have two stories. I mean, this isn’t just kind of speech. These are things that I’ve seen in practice.

Rob Wilcox:

After the shooting and the terrible shooting in Parkland, Florida, we actually saw the Republican Florida legislature take action. We saw them put in place the extreme risk law that I mentioned earlier. We saw them take a couple of other important gun safety steps as part of a comprehensive package. So, you then had a Republican legislature that did respond and take action. You could argue that Florida is a purple state, you can argue with the red state, it definitely was run by Republicans who the NRA thought they could tell don’t do anything but they in fact did do something.

Rob Wilcox:

In my personal experience, I’ve seen this up close. I was working in Tennessee a few years ago and I went down there to find some gun safety solutions we could work on together. And when I got assigned to Tennessee to work there, I thought to myself, wow, how am I going to get anything done? This is ranked the most conservative state legislature in the country. And so I went down there and I got to know people, and I let them know who I was, a survivor, a gun owner, someone that just wants to hear about the issue they want to solve.

Rob Wilcox:

And one of the things I heard loud and clear was domestic violence was an issue that bothered a lot of people in Tennessee, including their elected officials. So I took a look at their gun laws and what I saw was, yeah, they prohibit people who were domestic abusers from having guns, but the problem was when those people went to buy a gun and failed a background check, that information sat in the database in the capital of Tennessee and didn’t get to the court that issued the domestic violence order, didn’t get to the law enforcement who could intervene before that person went and found a gun through a different way.

Rob Wilcox:

So we proposed a bill, work with legislators to have our Democrat and Republican working together. And we got to the Tennessee House of Representatives like this. We got through quickly. There seem to be kind of universal acceptance. I could tell you, it actually passed unanimously for the Tennessee House of Representatives, a bill that was being supported every time for gun safety. And then we get to the Senate. And this Tennessee State Senate, which the NRA thought they deeply controlled.

Rob Wilcox:

And so, we made it out of committee and we were about to be on the floor of the Senate with this bill. And the day before the vote, there was Republican caucus meeting. And in that caucus meeting, the NRA’s number one ally stood up and said, “You can’t do this. You can’t pass a bill that’s supported by Everytown for Gun Safety. You can’t change our gun laws.” And the sponsor was a woman, stood up and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes, I’ve worked with them but I can tell you what this bill is really about. It’s about domestic abusers in our communities that are failing background checks that were not doing anything to stop from getting the gun. And if you don’t support that, you don’t support the women, daughters, sisters and mothers of our state.” And she sat down.

Rob Wilcox:

And we all went to bed not knowing how that boat was going to go the next day. And we won 26 to 4. And then we had a signing ceremony with the Republican governor who I was proudly on stage with. So yeah, I see opportunity for change in states across this country. And it might not feel huge or substantial at the moment, but that’s why we’re on this ladder. We just got to go up one rung at a time because this is still a young movement, it’s still a young organization, and we’re just building and building and building to get to that big congressional change.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, one thing I just want to pivot to and it’s a little bit off topic but directly relevant, and I talked about it a lot in the show with various different guests is this problem of misinformation in the information in the public sphere, in the social media, in sort of far right type voices. I mean, how is this impacting on the problem in terms of actually building consensus in achieving sensible reform?

Misha Zelinsky:

So for example, you have that lunatic Alex Jones on info was talking about the fact that Sandy Hook didn’t happen, that it was a, I’m sorry, Obama conspiracy to try to take away people’s guns. I mean, this is sort of frankly crazy bullshit people then believe and then it’s sort of part of asking people to sort of dig in more tightly around the Second Amendment rights and not allow any changes. How do you see that problem impacting on your campaigning, or is it not really one?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, misinformation, disinformation, the inability for us to agree on the facts so that we can fight for the solution is a huge problem. The folks who are paid to be public figures and intentionally trade in this disinformation are both disingenuous and disgusting. And they’ve completely polluted our attempts to achieve what all of us want, which is the freedom to live our lives, the freedom to be successful, the freedom to be healthy, and the freedom to stay alive. And so yeah, I think it’s a problem and I think it’s one that we have to fight through by showing up being authentic and being straight with people about what we’re fighting for and what we believe in.

Rob Wilcox:

But I think that’s an issue that’s affected a lot of the things that we do and when you asked about the NRA earlier, that’s the biggest roadblock to the progress. It’s not that 90% of people agree on this solution, it’s that the disinformation that gets out there makes it so it’s not about that solution. It’s about something else. I’m talking about background checks. You’re talking about that I’m trying to confiscate firearms. I’m not, that’s not what the bill does. There’s no argument that that’s what the bill does. But all of a sudden, that’s what the debate becomes about. And so I think our job as advocates is to focus on the debate on what it is and then break through.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, probably the other day, we’ve just talked quite a bit about Sandy Hook throughout. That was we thought it might be just a moment, I suppose, that you’ve… I know you’ve said there’s not going to be one big moment, there’s not going to be a Port Arthur type massacre in the United States. And if that was likely, probably order would have happened. But one thing I want to get your reflections on is how do you keep people urgent on this problem, or people becoming numbed to this problem? It strikes me, I mean, the regularity of these horrific events is now pushing them further down the news cycle. They’re not front page news perhaps in the way that they once were. Do you think people are just numb to this problem now? How do you tackle that issue?

Rob Wilcox:

I don’t think people are numb at all. I mean, the advocates who I’m around are more passionate than they’ve ever been. And part of it is that it’s not just about the singular event. It’s about the everyday gun violence that’s occurring. And what we’re fighting for are the solutions that are going to save all of those lives. The 100 lives a day are not made up of individuals from a single mass shooting. They’re shootings that happen all across this country.

Rob Wilcox:

And so we fight for solutions that will deal with that, because the truth is, is that gun violence in this country, especially homicide, disproportionately affects black Americans. It disproportionately affects underserved neighborhoods. And so we got a partner and we got to stand together to fight for the resources for the community-based interventions that we know work on the one hand while also taking action upstream to deal with the guns that are being flooded into communities.

Misha Zelinsky:

And just pivoting to the political debate, we’re seeing a little bit playing out nationally but also local level, state level. More in order, crime is coming back onto the agenda in a way that it probably hasn’t for a little bit of time now, and these things always ebb and flow. How do you see that impacting on the challenge? Because we saw throughout COVID, the lines, the people wanting to purchase guns, how do you sort of address the challenge where people think, well, I’m unsafe in the community, the solution is not trying to fix the wrong people having weapons, the solution is me having a weapon and that kind of continued escalation problem in the community in that general, I suppose, fear or discomfort building in local communities about how safe they are at present?

Rob Wilcox:

Look, everyone has a right to feel safe in their communities. And that’s what we have to be fighting for. And the president, President Biden, just laid out a set of steps that he was going to take at the federal level today that I think get right to your question. He laid out a five-pillar plan, a strategy that both deals with the flood of illegal guns into communities and the steps that we could take to get at gun trafficking, but also investing in community policing, investing in community-based organizations that have been proven to be so deeply effective that they can reduce shootings by 40, 50, 60%.

Rob Wilcox:

And these are just strategies that we know work but haven’t been funded in a way that would make the difference where a community will in fact become safer. And so I think the biggest difference I see is we have a president and we have a Gun Sense Congress that’s willing to fund and fight and support for those solutions. And so, that to me is the hope is that we both put in place the right policies that we know work, because they’ve been shown to work, but then we go and talk about them.

Rob Wilcox:

So folks know that this work is happening, and that we in fact have leaders in our communities that are fighting to make them safer. Because if we don’t talk about the things that we’re doing, then it’s easy to think that nothing’s happening. And it’s easy then to retreat into yourself and think that you’re the only person that can help yourself to stay safe and to stay safe in your home and in your community.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, I mean, you’ve touched on Biden’s presidency, it seems that you’ve got some hope that he can get the job done. Do you think he can get the job done?

Rob Wilcox:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so, you’ve spoken, and in my professional life I’m a union campaigner, so I’m very familiar with the sort of ladders you’re discussing. I’m probably curious about if you and I were talking five years’ time on what do the markers look like for success in your mind, five years from now, what does success look like in this moment? What does success look like for Everytown when it comes to tackling this horrendous problem of gun violence, gun deaths, gun injuries, and all the associated aftermath?

Rob Wilcox:

Everytown’s theory of change is that by passing laws, changing culture, we can make for a safer country. But to me, honestly, the true marker is have we in fact saved lives? Have we in fact reduced shootings? Have we in fact made our city safer? I think that’s the only measure that truly matters to me is that families don’t feel like mine felt, communities don’t feel like mine has felt, and that that is how in five years’ time we can measure the success and we could measure the mark we’ve made is that in fact to your very point, people feel safer in their communities. People feel like the solutions we put in place are working and we continue to invest in those and we continue to fight for those to keep going down that path.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, there is no simple way for me to do this given the heavy nature of our conversation, but I am prompted to do it and I’m also a shocking host. So, my inability to transition to this last question, we’re talking about foreign policy or gun violence is notably terrible. But this key question that I asked every guest is compulsory question. You’re a foreign guest so you regrettably have to invite three Australians to your barbecue. But I know you mentioned at the beginning of that chat that you’ve been in Australia, so maybe easier for you than others. Three Aussies alive or dead at a barbecue with Rob, who are they, and why?

Rob Wilcox:

That’s a great question and that’s a great transition. So, I think by my first guest has to be a guy named Rob Bartram, Australian close friend, met him in law school over 10 years ago, stayed in touch. He works for this incredible company called SOURCE, which uses hydropanel technology to create water out of air. It is one of the most incredible things that I’ve ever heard of. He actually partnered with Patty Mills to bring it to rural parts of Australia. It’s an international company. They do incredible work. I don’t get to see him nearly enough.

Rob Wilcox:

And so, if I had a chance to have a barbecue, he’d be guest number one. I think second, I would probably be bringing in Chris Hemsworth, because my son and I have been watching the Marvel movies and the Thor character is just someone that my boy loves. And I think he’s a great actor and would love to spend time with him and hear about his roles and how he approaches his work. And probably the last is Neville Bonner, who I think is just a really incredible political figure who went against the odds and it will be someone that will be great to learn from and hear from.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, mate, fascinating choice. But Hemsworth has not come up on the show yet, surprisingly enough. So you’re the first person who’s actually raise him, but I’m sure he’s very pleased. No doubt that he’s listening. But a great series of guests there at your barbecue. Now, mate, look, just congratulations on all the work that you do. As an Australian, it’s a huge student of the United States, a fan of the US. I’ve spent a lot of time there. I’ve had family lived there for a long time. The issue of gun violence is perplexing to me as an Australian. I think it’s perplexing to many Australians. So congratulations on the work that you do. And I certainly wish you all the best from where I sit, mate. So thanks for coming on.

Rob Wilcox:

I appreciate the invitation. It’s been a great conversation.

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers mate. Take it easy.

 

Chris Pyne – The Insider: Politics, Party and Parliament

Chris Pyne was the Federal Member for Sturt for 26 years.

He was Leader of the House and held a number of senior Cabinet ministries, including that of defence.

Pyne’s autobiography ‘The Insider’ is a fantastic account of life in the Canberra Bubble but also a deep dive into serious public policy and defence policy in particular.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Chris for a chinwag about his career in politics. They talk about his bruising preselection in his 20s, the politics of politics, the horror show that was the 43rd Parliament, the task of rebuilding Australia’s military capabilities, what’s holding back an Australian nuclear industry, dealing with a rising Chinese Communist Party superpower, how the west can address the Uighur challenge and why politics shouldn’t be personal.

Show notes:

@mishazelinsky @diplomates.show

Keep sending your questions through, we love reading and answering them!

We were in the top 15 shows in Australia last episode – so thanks for your ongoing support.

Please rate, review and share!

 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

Chris Pyne, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Chris Pyne:

What’s it called?

Misha Zelinsky:

Diplomates, get it?

Chris Pyne:

Diplomates?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Chris Pyne:

Oh, that’s cool.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. It’s a pun.

Chris Pyne:

Indeed. Diplomates.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thank you for coming on.

Chris Pyne:

It’s a pleasure, Misha, thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh well, very excited to chat to you. So being through, we read your book recently and there’s many things we can talk about particularly around current affairs but I wanted to start at the beginning of your political career. I was quite struck, you’ve basically effectively blasted your way into parliament at a very young age.

Chris Pyne:

Yeah, it’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:

Maybe I was just thinking, what was that like? And then upon reflection, how do you look back on that? I mean to go in there in the way that you did must have been quite an extraordinary experience.

Chris Pyne:

At the time it seemed like the most normal thing to do, which is very unusual. But I guess, I decided to go into parliament when I was in about year 10 and I was 15 and I thought, well, I’ll be the member for Sturt because all the power is shifting to Canberra and so I like state politics but not enough to go into it. I thought, well I’ll be the member for Sturt because I live in Sturt, and I’ll do that in about 10 years. I thought that seemed like a plan.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you set yourself that timetable?

Chris Pyne:

I did. And I left school and I joined the Liberal Party, the Burnside branch, the Young Liberals and the Liberal Students all in the same day in December 1984, which was the orientation day at Adelaide Uni. I became president of all of those things and by 1992, and ’91 really, I thought… Well, actually Ian Wilson, my predecessor who’d been in parliament for 20 something years, since 1966, and then he had a three year break. Another guy challenged him called Jim Durden in late 1991, and so I spent about a month ringing the opinion makers in the eastern suburbs of Adelaide in the Liberal Party saying, “If Jim Durden wins, there’s only two safe seats in Adelaide, Sturt and Boothby, and I don’t really have any claim on Boothby so maybe I should be running.”

Chris Pyne:

Because secretly I was planning always to be running. They all said, “Oh yes, you must give it a go.” So in January I nominated against Ian in 1992, and got preselected on April 28th 1992, and it was the most hideous preselection. When you say I blasted my way in, it was a record breaker for South Australian hideousness. We had two appeals to the Party Appeal Tribunal, we had QCs and barristers and lots of terrible media, an independent liberal ran against me, Michael Pratt was the independent liberal and there were no confidence motions at every meeting and it was just ghastly. But, on March the 13th I raised the trophy above my head and I had won. So yes, I did blast my way in and at the time it seemed kind of like this is what you’re supposed to do.

Misha Zelinsky:

And looking back on it now?

Chris Pyne:

Looking back at it now I think Misha, I must have been completely crackers to think that a 24 year old would end up in parliament and they should then be chosen soon after for the ministry. When I arrived in Canberra of course I was a bit like a fish on a bicycle. John Howard would have looked at me thinking what am I supposed to do with him? The first thing I’m going to do is keep him out of trouble because 25, I mean I’m not sure how old you are but when you’re 25 you think you know it all. Of course you don’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

You do. I’m 37 now but I certainly did at 25.

Chris Pyne:

And because you don’t know very much so I think I probably arrived with a lot of affront, and I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of people like Robert Hill and Amanda Vanstone and Steele Hall and David Joel and of course they quickly snapped me up and popped me in their house in Kingston, Hall, Joel and Hill. So they kept an eye on me and that’s the way it went. I stayed there for 26 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so you mentioned John Howard.

Chris Pyne:

Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, your first term in ’93 through to ’96 was a pretty tumultuous term, there was a lot of leadership changes.

Chris Pyne:

It was, yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

In your book you reflect on the fact that you famously chose to back a different horse in the leadership challenges up against, when John Howard was making his comeback to the leadership. Do you want to take us through that and how that impacted on your time in the Howard government, I suppose?

Chris Pyne:

Well, I made a kind of rather catastrophic choice in March 1993. John Howard ran against John Houston straight after the election so it was literally mid-March, and he came to see me and said he was seeking my support and we had quite a lot more in common than people probably thought, because I’m a small liberal South Australian, and he’s a conservative New South Welshmen, but he’s right about certain socially conservative issues like euthanasia and abortion and things like that, and stem cell research, I was always pretty conservative.

Chris Pyne:

So he asked for my support and I said, “Well of course, John, you’re yesterday’s man and we’re not going back to you and the best thing you could do really is probably get out of politics and find something else to do.” And remember he was 48, so I’m now 53 so I’m thinking to myself now what a complete fool he must have thought I was. I thought it was tremendous because I’d always been a peacock person, I was on the federal executive of the parties, a peacock person and state executive in South Australia as a peacock person and all of my general group were all peacock people. So I thought I’d really kind of nailed it. I went home and told everybody who were all speechless of course, and said, “You did what?”

Chris Pyne:

I told them and they said, “But you know, he’ll never forgive you.” I said, “I don’t care, he’ll never be the leader again. He’ll be gone.” They said, “Oh my goodness, but that’s shocking.” They said, “He’ll never get over it. And he might be the leader.” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous, of course we’re not going to elect John Howard.” I was the last person still trying to find a candidate to run against John Howard. Two years later we took over from Downer and actually he wrote in his book, Howard wrote in his book that I was still trying to find Peter Reith to run against him because I was so aghast of course that he’d come back, and he’d never forgiven me, understandably so, for being so rude, which it was, it was rude.

Chris Pyne:

He didn’t really forgive me for a long time. I think he also thought, well, I’ve got four cabinet ministers from South Australia, and McLaughlin and Hill and Vanstone and Downer and then Minchin, and he’s very young, so it’d be very sensible if we just let him kind of find his feet for a while. So I found my feet for 10 years, but luckily because I’d started so early I was only 35 when I finally had found my feet and became a minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

And you and John Howard’s relationship, did it recover over the years?

Chris Pyne:

Oh yeah, completely. Well, because obviously he was a very tremendous success, he was prime minister for 11 and a half years, so I think he’s a pretty happy fellow, and in his post political career he’s clearly a happy person in a good place, unlike some prime ministers.

Misha Zelinsky:

Not a miserable ghost.

Chris Pyne:

Not a miserable ghost. And I think over time, well he always thought I was good at attacking the labor party. So that counts for a lot, as you know, in politics. If you can swing the cudgel against your opposition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, against your own as well.

Chris Pyne:

And against your own side as well, I mean there’s a certain level of respect that you gain from being able to do that, and he knew I was pretty good at that. So he gave me that job of investigating the electoral fraud of the Queensland Labor Party in 2001, which I did, and John Faulkner and I became great mates. Not because he liked what I did but because he rather respected my complete lack of regard for the rules. And then after that, Howard appointed me to the Department of Secretaryship and then the ministry. So yeah, no, we definitely… And now when we catch up we always have a good chat, so there’s no problem with me and John Howard.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well it’s good to know.

Chris Pyne:

’93 is a long time ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s true, that’s true. So you make your way to the senior team by the time the Howard government loses in ’07, but then you become a very senior part of the Abbott opposition, once Abbott gets into the leadership. Now, that, the second term of the Labor government with Gillard as prime minister and it’s a minority government, was a pretty brutal time, it was remembered as a brutal time in Australian politics.

Chris Pyne:

It was.

Misha Zelinsky:

You were the leader of opposition business so you’re leading the opposition in parliament.

Chris Pyne:

I was the spear tip.

Misha Zelinsky:

Indeed. So what are your reflections or observations of that time?

Chris Pyne:

It was messy and ugly. It was a really ugly period. The Liberal Party doesn’t like being in opposition because we regard ourselves as the managerial class, so managers need to make decisions and get things done. So the problem with opposition is it really goes against the grain of most liberals who go into politics.

Misha Zelinsky:

Labor doesn’t like being in opposition either, despite what you may-

Chris Pyne:

No but they’re good at it, they’ve done a lot of it. They’re very good at being in opposition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh man.

Chris Pyne:

Whereas the liberals find it very hard. So whenever we’re in opposition it’s a terribly bad time for the Liberal Party, and we change leader constantly and one side’s always trying to take over from the other, and good people fall by the wayside, which is always a bit of a pity in life, not just politics. And you lose elections and people give up and think I’m going to get out because there’s no point in staying or sticking around here. So there’s a pretty unhappy kind of atmosphere when you’re in opposition in the Liberal Party. And if the leader doesn’t look like they’re going to win, the party has no compunction about cutting them down. Whereas Labor will stick with a loser leader forever, like they did for Arthur Calwell and people like that and Dr. Evatt. I’m not just talking about recently, I mean like a long time ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That was the history, certainly, before the [crosstalk 00:11:15]

Chris Pyne:

And they stuck with Gough and then they stuck with Gough right through to 1977.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Chris Pyne:

Because they couldn’t believe their luck.

Misha Zelinsky:

Changing it from Haden to Hawke was actually a big shift culturally for the party.

Chris Pyne:

Big shift, yeah, big shift. So opposition was awful and then in the 43rd parliament, of course, we felt like we’d won the election because we had more seats than Labor, which usually means you’ve won, and your party managed to suborn Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor of course, into supporting the Gillard government, which we found very galling because they were in two conservative seats, they had never voted Labor since federation. Yet they were both supporting a Labor government.

Chris Pyne:

So it was very difficult for people to get over that, and people think that the coalition used to attack Gillard all the time because she was a woman. It had nothing to do with her being a woman, it had with her having the job that we were supposed to have. Whether she had been a woman or a man didn’t make the slightest difference. We just felt that she shouldn’t be the prime minister because Tony Abbott should be, and that Robert Oakeshott and Tony Windsor should have supported us and logically, that’s pretty fair. Could you imagine the men before Wollongong and the men before Newcastle, supporting a Liberal government to stay in power and Labor thinking oh that’s fine, no problems with that. It’s not going to happen.

Chris Pyne:

So we didn’t feel that way, we felt very annoyed about it, and so therefore that came out a lot in the vindictiveness of the 43rd parliament, and then Peter Slipper became the speaker and it was taking one of our numbers off the floor which made it even worse. The whole Craig Thompson thing was really unpleasant, and of course if Gillard had had a… if the prime minister had had a majority to speak of, they would have asked Craig Thompson along before but they couldn’t so they were clinging to this politically very unattractive corpse, really. Not a corpse, but politically unattractive person, dragging it around for… It must have gone on for 18 months, the whole Craig Thompson saga.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I’m just trying to think. It certainly went for a while.

Chris Pyne:

Oh it was ghastly.

Misha Zelinsky:

It was a political millstone.

Chris Pyne:

Shocking. So that’s why the 43rd parliament was so unpleasant and as I write in my book, our view was since the Labor government has really stolen the election from us by taking-

Misha Zelinsky:

I’m not sure I can agree with that.

Chris Pyne:

No of course not, by taking Oakeshott and Windsor.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean they’re entitled to make decisions as parliamentarians.

Chris Pyne:

Of course, yeah. And we’re entitled not to like it. So we felt well it’ll be war on all fronts at all times, and that’s what we did, and I was the kind of field marshal. Which I’m not particularly proud of, by the way.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you look on it as a time that you would take back or just you had to do a job so you did it.

Chris Pyne:

I had to do a job so I did it. Our job was to make the government’s life as unbearable as possible because they had done the wrong thing by democracy, is to give these tub thumping speeches about how it was the greatest crime against democracy since King Charles had arrested the speakers of the House of Commons.

Misha Zelinsky:

Engaging in a touch of hyperbole.

Chris Pyne:

But sometimes I used to have to get myself into a rage on the basis of not very much to go with. So getting into a bit of a hyperbole would probably be one of the few things that could fill the time, I think. [crosstalk 00:15:06] I opposed the sitting schedule once, things had got so crazy.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well you guys also were denying pairs, as I recall, as well.

Chris Pyne:

Not really, we never denied a pair, there was talk of denying pairs, but we didn’t deny pairs at all.

Misha Zelinsky:

No? I’m trying to remember.

Chris Pyne:

We didn’t. There was a lot of talk about it but we didn’t do that. Not unless somebody was clearly trying to… People still get pairs refused if they haven’t got a good excuse. You can’t just hop in a bus and go on a picnic and ask for a pair. People need pairs because they’re sick or something or they’ve got some particular family thing that they’re doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

It makes it hard, though, right? I mean just reflecting, the government’s got tight numbers now, it does make it hard for ministers to do their jobs when they can’t sit on their toes around you’ve got to make a vote in house and it does give oppositions opportunity to wreak havoc, right?

Chris Pyne:

Yeah. But the parliament’s the parliament. This is what I always used to say to my colleagues when they say, “I want to go home, I want a pair to go home early.” So actually no, no. The parliament, everything other than the parliament is a bonus. You got elected to the House of Representatives and that’s your number one job.

Misha Zelinsky:

There 150 at the time, it’s not like there’s-

Chris Pyne:

And if you do anything else, that’s nice for you, and I happen to do other things besides being a member for 16 of my 26 years, but everything else is a bonus. So no, the parliament doesn’t exist for you to be happy, you have to be in the parliament as your number one responsibility.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now you mentioned your ministerial career. Now this is a foreign policy show so we could go through your whole career, but I think the defense portfolio is probably the area that I’d like to talk more about. Now, you spent a lot of time in your time in the portfolio, spending a lot of money but rebuilding a lot of capability. I’m kind of wanting to… Maybe you can explain very quickly, obviously it’s a huge area, but why was this necessary in your time and maybe you can give a sense of how big the scale of this project actually is. Because you’re talking hundreds of billions, now hundreds of billions are being spent through COVID, maybe it’s not such a big deal, people kind of lose sight of the numbers, but the scale of these projects is enormous.

Chris Pyne:

Well, I guess the best way to describe it is it’s the biggest buildup of our military capabilities since the second world war. And of course in the war, most of the budget’s turned over to the defense of the nation, so it’s a very big deal to have the largest buildup of our military capability in 75 years and it’s financially between now and 2030 about 270 billion. That’s just in capital expenditure, by the way, that’s not in running costs. When I was the minister it was 205 billion and so the extra 65 billion is those last three years between 2027 and 2030, because my period took that to 2027.

Chris Pyne:

Why is it necessary? It’s necessary because the world is a really dangerous place, and getting more dangerous. And it’s necessary because our great and powerful ally, the United States, has said very clearly to its allies we want allies not protectorates. The Abbott government, to its credit, and then the Turnbull and Morrison governments said, “Well, we agree with that.” It’s not fair to expect the United States to do all the heavy lifting in protecting our international rules based order and our values based foreign and defense policy. It’s not fair for candidates to spend less than a percent of their GDP on defense because they know that the Americans will always be standing alongside them. Nor for Germany to spend less than 1% or Great Britain.

Chris Pyne:

Countries that have held themselves out as the protectors of liberty and freedom around the world and then underspend in defense. So the Abbott government said, “We’ll spend 2% of GDP on defense.” That’s what the Americans asked us to do as allies, and they asked all of their allies to do that. Now I think at the time, when I left, we were about five out of the NATO plus allies countries were spending 2%. We are proudly one of those. Now it’s obviously well past 2% because of COVID. So it was necessary one, to be a good ally. It’s necessary two, because we live in a very turbulent world, and to break that down the Indo-Pacific is one of the most insecure places on the planet.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve said that there’s a prospect of war in the Indo-Pacific.

Chris Pyne:

I think there is a prospect of war in the Indo-Pacific. Of course there is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why is that?

Chris Pyne:

Well, what I said in my speech to the Adelaide University graduation ceremony was that five years ago I think the chances of war were less likely and now five years later they’re more likely than they were in 2015/16. So I haven’t said that there’s likely to be war in the next 5-10 years, which some of the less sophisticated media have reported, I said that the chances are more likely now than they were five years ago.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s probably true.

Chris Pyne:

That’s a statement of fact. The reason for that is probably primarily because China has discovered that it can press its claims over the South China Sea or Hong Kong or the Uyghur minority in western China and the consequences have not been dramatic. Sure they’ve faced some criticism around the world but nothing happened. So the next obvious place that China wants to unite with the mainland is Taiwan. Despite the fact that China has only governed Taiwan for four out of the last 100 years, 100 more actually, more than 100 years. The reality is they see it very much as part of China and it’s traditionally been a province of China and I think that that makes it a flashpoint.

Chris Pyne:

Do I think there will be a war in the Indo-Pacific? No, I don’t, but I think it’s more likely than it was five or six years ago and I think it would have been more likely if the Trump administration had been reelected, and I’m glad that the Biden administration was elected for that reason alone.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, they’ve got a different approach to allies, certainly, than the Trump administration did.

Chris Pyne:

And also Donald Trump had an unusual approach to foreign policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

To say the least.

Chris Pyne:

Well, unfortunately it’s so serious and it would be nice if it wasn’t, but like the Kurds, when he decided to throw the Kurds under the bus and allow the Turks to cross the border and reclaim that territory and we still don’t know what happened to all the Kurds in that area of course, that was really the end of it for me. I thought he’d done a good job on Iran and China, I think he’d done a poor job on North Korea, but that was the problem with Donald Trump, it wasn’t a coherent strategy. There were moments, flashes of great outcomes, possibly because the advisors that he had in those areas he agreed with, like John Bolton on Iran, for example.

Chris Pyne:

But these other really unusual decisions around the Middle East for example, I thought well he’s a dangerous person to have in the White House and that’s dangerous for us, because if China thinks they could unite Taiwan militarily without there being any significant consequences, I don’t think they’ll want to do that but they’re more likely to throw that dart if there was a Trump administration than if there was an orthodox administration in the White House, Republican or Democrat.

Chris Pyne:

So I think that was an important thing to change the government there, and obviously, as I said in my speech to the students, we have to work tirelessly to avoid a war in the Indo-Pacific because it’s not an academic exercise, it would be catastrophic and it would be catastrophic for Australia. So it has to be our number one priority in foreign and defense policy.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so we’ll get to China, I want to talk about in depth, you raised a lot of interesting points there, but sticking with the kit we’re buying, you were involved… Certainly there was some politics involved in it but the decision around the subs and whether or not we were going to go with the Japanese option or whether or not it was going to be built in Australia, the French sub won out. What is the reason why that is the superior choice for Australia? It’s a wonky question, we’re very interested and a lot of people who listen to the show are, and also probably a followup to that, is there a reason why Australia couldn’t have nuclear given that it has advantages in terms of its ability to stay under the surface of the water?

Chris Pyne:

Well, the French submarine won the contest because it came first in the competitive evaluation process, it’s as simple as that, so it was the best of the three offerings. Probably because the Japanese Sōryū class and the TKMS submarine were not designed for Australian conditions. Whereas the Barracuda class French submarine is of a size that suits Australia’s unique requirements, which in layman’s terms, basically we have two different seas and one is warm and one is cold, and we have a lot of coastline and a lot of sea to be responsible for, which means we need long range submarines and we therefore need to have large submarines and they need to be able to operate in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and the Barracuda class was probably more able to be adapted to an Australian version, which has now become the Attack class.

Chris Pyne:

So the reason the French won was there’s no great science to it, they simply won the competitive evaluation process and the Japanese didn’t. And that’s what competitions are about. In the military not everyone can get the first prize, it’s not like the egg and spoon race in grade three. So that’s why they won and why not nuclear? Well, because we don’t have any kind of nuclear industry.

Misha Zelinsky:

We don’t have a sub industry either, though, right?

Chris Pyne:

Well, we do.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we have the Collins class.

Chris Pyne:

We have the Collins class submarine.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that’s still a decision of government to really build that up, I mean you could do nuclear if you really wanted to.

Chris Pyne:

You couldn’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because you’d never get a piece of legislation through an upper house in this country that would allow nuclear anything. We can’t even get a radioactive nuclear waste dump.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right, South Australian Weatherill government looked at that a few years ago.

Chris Pyne:

Weatherill government, Wran government, every government. It’s the most obvious thing in the world, is to have a low level nuclear waste dump in South Australia or the Northern Territory.

Misha Zelinsky:

Bob Hawke was a big proponent of that.

Chris Pyne:

Big supporter, and we can’t even get that up. We’re close to it, I think, but it’s still far away.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you think it’s a politics thing rather than a capability thing? Are we selling ourselves short militarily because we can’t get the politics to stack up or are you comfortable with the Barracuda class?

Chris Pyne:

The Attack class submarine will be the regionally superior submarine. So we’re not selling ourselves short in a military capability sense at all, and the chief of the navy and the chief of the defense force gave us very clear advice along all those things. What you’ll find an issue in defense and foreign policy defense is that every retired commodore, admiral, and air force marshal, leftenant general, is an expert on what the government should be doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

And the media will give them a run if they’ve got something to say.

Chris Pyne:

The media will always give them a run so they only need one person out of the many, many, many thousands of people that are available out there to say something different to what the government’s doing and they’ll get a run. So you’ll always have an audience of people who oppose the F-35As or the combat reconnaissance vehicles or the infantry fighting vehicle or the kind of missiles that we use or the submarines or the hunter class, whatever it might be. There’ll always be somebody. But government’s got to make decisions. And you get this thing about nuclear a lot in the eastern states and it’s because New South Wales, for example, is not a manufacturing state. So they’ll talk about… I mean, there manufacturing here, but the manufacturing states traditionally-

Misha Zelinsky:

There’s a nuclear reactor here.

Chris Pyne:

Yes, there is at Lucas Heights, but it’s in their culture of course, states like Victoria and South Australia. So it’s such a parlor game talking about nuclear submarines, and I always have to stop myself from getting worked up about it because there’s no nuclear engineers in Australia, there are no courses at university in nuclear science or nuclear engineering, there’s no legislative apparatus for nuclear anything in this country. The Greens would never allow anything to ever get through an upper house. Probably Labor wouldn’t either. Then you wouldn’t be able to maintain and sustain your submarines in Australia, you’d have to send them to somewhere like Guam, because we don’t have any nuclear capabilities for sustaining and maintaining a nuclear submarine.

Chris Pyne:

You would need to be able to convince the public the have nuclear submarines stationed in Sydney or Henderson in Perth, and we can’t even get a nuclear waste dump in the middle of the desert. And yet apparently, the public are going to embrace this idea of nuclear submarines. It’s just never going to happen. It’s like me willing myself to have blonde hair and blue eyes and no freckles as a child, and wondering why it can’t be. That there are some things that can and there are some things that can’t be, and nuclear submarines will never happen in this country and it’s an argument for doing nothing. It means that you wouldn’t have any submarines while we had a 50 year argument about it. Now, we should have had a nuclear industry from the ’50s like other advanced, developed countries. But we didn’t, and we haven’t got it so let’s just get over it and get on with it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Okay. Reasonable points. We could go on with this, but reasonable points.

Chris Pyne:

I could talk about that-

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, I’m sure we both could. But I wanted to get into China, the China challenge. It is the challenge, right, for modern Australia and future Australia. You were in parliament a quarter of a century, give or take.

Chris Pyne:

I know, 26 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

What as your observation of the way China changed during that time and the way the relationship evolved from perhaps it was not a great deal to a principle trading relationship to increasingly more strategic challenge.

Chris Pyne:

It’s an interesting question and it’s a good question and basically my political career traversed that period of change because Deng Xiaoping said in the 1980s, late ’70s, ’80s, he said China needed to hide its strength and bide its time. That really was the policy for 30 to 40 years, while China strengthened its middle class, its capabilities. People don’t realize, I think, that back in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and then the ’80s, China was a terribly backward economy. You’d know that, because you study these kinds of things, but most people wouldn’t know. Very, very poor. And still going through famines and so on because of government policy and just because they hadn’t been developed as a developing nation like Australia or other countries like Australia.

Chris Pyne:

But in the last 40 years, that’s changed dramatically. I’ve forgotten the name of the town next to Guangzhou in the Guangdong province, but in 1981, the Chinese government decided to create a new city next to Guangzhou. It was a fishing village. Now there’s 23 million people there.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, wow.

Chris Pyne:

And it’s the thriving financial center of what used to be the Cantonese part of China, which has now become much more multicultural. And over that last time, and in the time that I was a member of parliament, China quite rightly has taken its position as a first world superpower. It was always going to happen, by the way. China’s always been a superpower, except for those hideous 150 years.

Misha Zelinsky:

The so-called century of humiliation.

Chris Pyne:

Exactly. Which started with the opium wars and finished around the end of the second world war. Other than that period, which the Chinese feel very keenly and rightly so, China was a superpower and it’s a superpower again and there’s only two superpowers. Doesn’t matter what the Russians say or what anybody else says, the Russian’s economy is the same size as Australia. Slightly smaller sometimes and slightly bigger other times, probably because of iron ore prices are slightly smaller at the moment. China and America are the only superpowers in the world.

Chris Pyne:

So the west are talking about China as though it’s surprising, not quite right that China would want to flex its muscles, is a complete misunderstanding of the Chinese history and is extremely patronizing and suggests that people who say things like that still see China as the century of humiliation, whereas the Chinese see themselves, quite rightly, as an extremely sophisticated, intelligent group of people who are amongst the world’s leaders in the last several thousand years in new inventions and medicine and military hardware, writing and art and everything else as you’d expect, as a sophisticated civilization would be.

Chris Pyne:

So we have to get into that mindset. What we need to convince the Chinese of is it’s in their interests to support the international rules based order and it’s the international rules based order that has created the circumstances in which China can be a successful trading nation which is lifting its boats and lifting all its people out of poverty. It’s not a coincidence that that’s happened, it’s because of the west and China cooperating economically through the international rules based order.

Chris Pyne:

And that needs to flow through to the way they see their position in the world as a superpower, and that everybody can get along and everybody can keep lifting their people out of poverty and getting better educational health and housing outcomes, and that therefore military conflagration is in no one’s interests.

Misha Zelinsky:

It never is, though, right. You’ve painted the picture there almost, the old thesis of China’s going to rise economically and then become democratic and be integrated into the-

Chris Pyne:

I don’t know if it will or it won’t.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, evidence [crosstalk 00:35:19] Yeah, sorry. Evidence seems to suggest today on Xi Jinping that that’s not happening.

Chris Pyne:

Not happening, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

So how does the world deal with this challenge? Because the Chinese Communist Party is asserting its Chinese power and I think the world can reckon with a Chinese superpower but it struggles to reckon with an autocratic, outwardly projecting nation that doesn’t respect democratic neighbors, et cetera. So how do you actually reckon with that challenge?

Chris Pyne:

Well, 20 years ago I was definitely in the party of people that thought that the economic liberation of China would lead to political liberation.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think most people were.

Chris Pyne:

I think most people were. And I think the west approached it that way with absolutely every goodwill and intention. What we’re facing now is a Chinese Communist Party that is quite happy to have the liberalization of the economy but doesn’t appear to have any great interest in the liberalization of the polity in which they live. Now, whether that will continue forever, I don’t know. China today is very different to the China of Mao Zedong, it’s different to the China of Deng Xiaoping. Will the China of the next regime be different to Xi Jinping’s? Probably.

Misha Zelinsky:

But we don’t know when that will be because Xi Jinping’s now the ruler for life, right? That in itself is a big shift.

Chris Pyne:

Well, that’s right. But time keeps moving regardless, and Walt Disney has been cryogenically frozen but I think he’s still waiting a bit to come back. Unfortunately, time moves on and there will be change. And look, I trace it back to Tiananmen Square actually, which most people don’t talk about of course because it’s quite a painful period in China’s history. I think before Tiananmen Square, China was definitely on a path to economic and political liberalization, and that Tiananmen Square was such a shock to the rulers of the Chinese Communist Party that they realized that democracy and the Chinese Communist Party probably couldn’t coexist.

Misha Zelinsky:

Not in the way that they understood it.

Chris Pyne:

Correct. So I think that all came to something of a shuddering halt. That said, if you travel in China, I don’t know if you’ve traveled much in China?

Misha Zelinsky:

I haven’t.

Chris Pyne:

I’ve traveled in China. It isn’t a monolithic, a homogenous CCP hard faced society. Like most major countries of the world, the capital is the most reflective of the government, so Beijing is clearly definitely a government town. But the further you get away from places like Beijing to the commercial places in China, like Shanghai and Guangzhou and so on, it is much more free than you would expect from what you read in the media.

Chris Pyne:

So I’m very optimistic about China. I don’t think there will be a war but I think we need to be extremely hard headed about what we want in the Indo-Pacific, and then we need to make sure China doesn’t misunderstand our position.

Misha Zelinsky:

So then how do we deal with… At the moment we find ourselves in the midst of Chinese trade punishment or coercion, however you want to frame it. You’ve also got enormous examples, certainly over the last few years, around foreign interference, gray

Misha Zelinsky:

type of tax. How do we actually push back on that in the way you’ve described? How do you actually explain to China that this is unacceptable in a way that is politically viable as well?

Chris Pyne:

Well, we’re fortunate Misha because we have economic resources. So a country like Australia can invest in its defensive capabilities, and we have, especially in the last five or six years. Even if there was a change of government, I think it would be hard for Labor to reverse a lot of that. I think some of the people in the-

Misha Zelinsky:

Labor’s very supportive, I mean the sub thing for example is largely bipartisan, I think, right?

Chris Pyne:

Yeah. But you’ve got a left who doesn’t really like that, and we don’t. So the last time-

Misha Zelinsky:

I love the left, those that are listening.

Chris Pyne:

The last time the Labor Party was in power they cut spending in defense dramatically in real terms by 19%, which was quite awful, and as we know got down to 1.56% of GDP. But I don’t think they could do that again, because one, there’s so many decisions are being made, and two I don’t think the people who fill the positions in Labor these days would see that that was a good thing to do. And as we already discussed, the foreign and defense structure that we currently face is different to what it was when the Gillard and the Rudd governments were in power.

Chris Pyne:

So we have to invest in those capabilities to defend us in the gray zone, in the cyber world. We have to make sure that, and we are doing this, and this is all bipartisan, things like the Australian Signals Directorate and ASIO and ASIS and the Office of National Intelligence are all properly funded and supported. The smartest people are being employed there that we are getting cutting edge capabilities and technologies for defensive and offensive cyber. Because that’s what other countries will understand, they will recognize that Australia is not running down its capabilities, in fact it’s doing the opposite, and that therefore our interests need to be taken seriously.

Chris Pyne:

And our interests are not, we’re not asking for territorial gains or anything, we want free and open markets, we want free movement in the sealanes of the Indo-Pacific and the air spaces, we want free movement of people and money, open trade. These are things that will actually be good for us all and that’s why I’m optimistic because the human condition is to want to do better. It’s not the human condition to want to go to war. It’s kind of the last thing anybody wants to do.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so there’s what we want and there’s what we can get. Australia by itself, we’re an important country, we’re a middle power, we’re a wealthy nation, but numerically small. We’ve got a good regional defense structure, et cetera. But do you see in terms of, you talked a lot about Indo-Pacific, which is a relatively new construct but the Quad, you know United States, Japan, India, and us. Do you see that as a big part of this architecture of keeping China honest in its interactions with the rules based order in the way you’ve described?

Chris Pyne:

I don’t see the Quadrilateral as a containment policy. I don’t think that would be in anybody’s interests. I think it’s a useful structure for four like-minded countries that see the Indo-Pacific in a similar way, Japan, India, Australia, and the US. I think it will become an important tool, if you like, in the shed of things we can use to do exactly what I said before, free and open markets, liberal trade policies, et cetera. It isn’t a military dialogue, it is a dialogue. Although the Malabar military exercises are, I guess, the extension of the Quad dialogue but it’s not formal, but it’s an important military exercise in the Indian Ocean.

Chris Pyne:

I don’t think it’s nearly as important as the Five Eyes, though. Because there’s nothing that separates the Five Eyes on any policy matters of significance. Obviously New Zealanders don’t like nuclear ships visiting them, the English ships don’t have to visit them. But the Five Eyes is probably… Well, it’s not probably, it is our most important defense relationship because the sharing of information and intelligence is the surest way to avoid mistakes.

Chris Pyne:

As the minister for defense and before that in the defense portfolio, I used to say I think the more intelligence everyone gathers from all sides, we don’t want to be spied on by anybody of course, but the reality of the world-

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s happening.

Chris Pyne:

The reality of the world in which we live because of satellites and so forth, it’s hard to avoid. But more information leads to more considered decision making and removes misunderstandings. Wars in the past have started because of misunderstandings. The first world war is probably the most classic example of nations not being able to stop mobilization once mobilization had begun despite the fact they didn’t want to have a war, and all ending up for four years with the flower of Europe being slaughtered, which could have been avoided.

Chris Pyne:

So the good thing about intelligence gathering and therefore supporting our apparatus and agencies that do so is that it avoids misunderstandings. So I think we need to keep investing in that as an important priority, and we need to be able to defend our interests, but also we need to do that in concert with our friends and allies in the region. So ASEAN’s very important, the Five Eyes is very important because it’s an intelligence sharing structure, and obviously there are five anglophone countries and they all have a history, they all come from the same route, which I used to say to the English with that emphasis, as a republican.

Chris Pyne:

But the ASEAN nations, they really do rely on a country like Australia by the way. Because they know we’re a very reliable friend. We’re the first country outside ASEAN to be in ASEAN, by the way. To be ASEAN Plus. Very early in the piece, too. So those relationships are important with the Singaporeans, the Vietnamese, the Philippines and others. To make sure that they know they’re not alone and that we need to act together. There are two superpowers but there are 20 odd other countries in that region outside the South Pacific, there’s 40 plus if you include all the countries of the South Pacific, but certainly in the Asian corridor there’s 20 countries that together, in operating in concert, can make a difference. So I’m a multilateralist as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

That I think is critical for Australia. Now, one final question on China.

Chris Pyne:

And you’ve got to be able to do it all.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, absolutely. Walk and chew gum.

Chris Pyne:

It’s not a binary choice. Which some governments in the past, without mentioning, sort of felt that you’re either a bilateralist or you’re a multilateralist. Well, actually you can’t be one or the other, you’ve got to be all of it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, one final question on China relating to… A sort of ethical question for the west, but it also bumps up against politics, a question relating to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This is a bit of a diabolical challenge for a lot of western countries like Australia, other countries increasingly around the world, Australia have not done it yet, but are calling out what’s happening there as a form of genocide. How do you see the west’s responsibility, countries like Australia, dealing with this issue that’s occurring, these horrible reports we’re seeing, horrible reports about torture of Uyghurs et cetera. How do we handle that when China makes it clear that it’s a red line for its regime, of the Chinese Communist Party in particular.

Chris Pyne:

It’s very difficult. It’s a humanitarian policy area and I hesitate to say it’s hard to get to the truth. I mean clearly there is a truth about Uyghurs being clearly a put-upon minority in China. The Chinese regime, the Chinese government has a very clear view that they’re not a put-upon minority. So there’s an argument that they’re not agreed facts. Which makes it difficult for governments, doesn’t make it difficult for amnesty or for humanitarian organizations to call out the Uyghur minority situation but it does make it trickier for governments. So what you’ve got to do when you’re in government is you need to put those issues on the table and discuss them like adults and say, “We are concerned about reports about Chinese treatment of particular minorities.” The Chinese will counter with, “We’re concerned about the reports of the treatment of indigenous people in Australia.” And they’ll point to-

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s about whataboutism though, right, isn’t it, in a way?

Chris Pyne:

Well of course, and it’s about they’ll point to indigenous deaths in custody and all these other things.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is shocking but nevertheless are reported and understood-

Chris Pyne:

I’m not putting them on the same level, of course not. But I’ll say that’s what the Chinese government will counter with, and we obviously have our houses well in order as any country can on these matters and always try and do better. There’s no suggestion that there’s any Australians persecuting minorities.

Chris Pyne:

But in diplomatic discussions and meetings with ministers of defense, do you stop the discussion about the Uyghurs and not move on to cooperation and South China Sea and Taiwan and Southeast Asia, or do you say right that’s our view on that and you know our view, and then you have to obviously move on to other matters. So you maintain your ethical values based foreign policy and defense policy, but we’re not Switzerland, we’re not Sweden. We do live in the Indo-Pacific. We do have to get along with our neighbors. And we do have to find ways to engage. We can’t decide that we’re not going to engage with Beijing because of the Uyghurs. So we just don’t have those choices. You have those choices if you’re a member of Greenpeace, but you don’t have that choice if you’re a member of the Australian government.

Misha Zelinsky:

You can see increasingly the world is taking the view that it’s prepared to call the CCP out on this question.

Chris Pyne:

They’re doing that, the world is doing that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Should Australia join them?

Chris Pyne:

We have done that.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, we can probably talk about that a lot as well but we’ve got to keep moving along.

Chris Pyne:

It’s difficult to talk about genocide, because it’s too easily thrown about, this phrase genocide. And people are still arguing about the Armenian genocide because the Turks say that there wasn’t an Armenian genocide, and of course the Armenians go clearly the evidence is that there is, was.

Chris Pyne:

At the end of the day, how is it going to advance the interests of anyone to keep talking about semantics? About words like genocide or not genocide. Terrible things have happened to people throughout history, whether it’s the Armenians or the Jews, and we have to learn from those terrible mistakes, not debate them endlessly.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now I want to switch back for the last part of the show to your career. In your book-

Chris Pyne:

That’s a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Your favorite topic, no? In your book you talked about wanting to be prime minister throughout your career. In the dying days of Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership, as that was playing out, you reported that a colleague said to you, “You know it can’t be you.” As in you can’t be leader, you can’t be prime minister. How’d that feel, did that hurt?

Chris Pyne:

It didn’t hurt, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

How did it feel at the time, knowing that perhaps the ambition would never be fulfilled at that point?

Chris Pyne:

I thought that’s true.

Misha Zelinsky:

A politician who has self-awareness? No, come on mate, that can’t be right.

Chris Pyne:

I do have self-awareness. I’m a pragmatist, I thought to myself well of course it can’t be me because it can’t be Julie either. So I couldn’t be on the one hand saying that the moderates are going to have to back Scott Morrison because otherwise Peter Dutton will get elected, and as much as I like Peter Dutton, and I do, and we catch up a lot, and there’s nothing personal about my observations, I just thought that if he was the leader we wouldn’t win the election. Because I thought he would be popular in Queensland but not popular elsewhere. And I thought Scott Morrison will probably be able to straddle the different interests that support the coalition.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which has proven out, I suppose.

Chris Pyne:

Which has been proven to be true, of course, I should get a medal for it. And I thought, well Julie, obviously Julie, as much as I like Julie very much and I would have liked her to have been the prime minister, I couldn’t on the one hand be saying Julie Bishop’s not going to beat Peter Dutton but say oh actually you should support me, when I was in exactly the same position. I wasn’t going to get elected leader because I come from South Australia, I’m from the moderate faction, I’m very clearly a smaller liberal. It would have been very hard for the party to unite under me, it did under Scott, much to his great credit.

Chris Pyne:

So look, it wasn’t said but it was a moment where I thought to myself, yeah, that’s right. That opportunity’s never going to present itself to me, and they’re moving to the next generation. It was certainly the time that I started thinking that this might be it for me, I might have had my run. Because they’re not going to go back to me now, they’ve moved on to Scott and Josh. Scott and Josh got elected in 2007 or 2004 I think, in Josh’s case. It might have been 2007. No, I think it was 2004. And I got elected in 1993, I’m a Howard era minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

You need a 25 year old first NMP to tell you you can never be leader, mate.

Chris Pyne:

Well, I didn’t need it, I had one of my older colleagues and good friends. And I thought well that’s true, they’re moving on to the next generation now and I can either stay here and serve for another 20 years, or I could do something else. At 51 I thought probably it’s time to do something else. So yes, it wasn’t sad, it was just kind of… It was a pivotal moment.

Misha Zelinsky:

Looking back on your career, you had a lot of ups and downs, but any regrets? And perhaps what’s your best day and your worst day? I’m always curious about people that have had a long career in politics.

Chris Pyne:

My worst day in politics was the day that Malcolm Turnbull was defeated as prime minister.

Misha Zelinsky:

Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because Malcolm’s a star.

Misha Zelinsky:

He was a previous guest on this show. You just followed him.

Chris Pyne:

And Malcolm should have been prime minister for a long time and Malcolm was a change agent for the country.

Misha Zelinsky:

So why wasn’t he prime minister for a long time, if I can probe the…

Chris Pyne:

Because he wasn’t given the chance, really. He was always undermined by the people who he’d replaced on the first one. Not the people individually, but the-

Misha Zelinsky:

Group or…

Chris Pyne:

The group that was supplanted by Malcolm and his group never really gave Malcolm a chance. While they certainly didn’t initially undermine Malcolm, when Malcolm stumbled you can either protect the leader and help them or you can push them under the bus. And there were clearly a group of people in the party room who, whenever Malcolm wasn’t perfect or stumbled or made a slight error or caught the curb as he went around the corner, made sure that we knew about it.

Chris Pyne:

That made it hard, so it was a sad day because Malcolm Turnbull is the kind of person who should have been a longstanding successful prime minister, help changed the nation, moved it to another plane, and unfortunately he wasn’t given that chance to do so. Now his enemies of course, and his opponents will have a different take and they’re perfectly entitled to have a different opinion. My opinion was he was the kind of person that could be a great prime minister be he wasn’t given the opportunity, the free reign from some people that he should have been, and of course he made mistakes, we all make mistakes. Best day of my political career was April 28, 1992.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which was?

Chris Pyne:

The day I was preselected. I’ve never got over it. It was the greatest day of my political life.

Misha Zelinsky:

Given you said you went through a hell of a time it must have been a great victory, right?

Chris Pyne:

Oh yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

At a young age, too.

Chris Pyne:

I was 24. Obviously there were great days being sworn into the cabinet, the day I was sworn into the ministry with John Howard, that was a very memorable day because it was really just me and him because I’d replaced Santo Santoro if you remember. And so he and I went out to the government house together, and they had a certain poignancy given that 10 years before I’d cruelled my pitch. So there were other great days in politics, winning elections is always a great thing. But I won nine elections and I was cabinet minister and minister in different portfolios, so those days start to meld into one, whereas you only win one first preselection.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sure, no, I can understand that. Now, culture. A lot of discussion about political culture at the moment. You’re someone that probably thrived in parliament, you enjoyed the theater of political combat it would be fair to say I think.

Chris Pyne:

Definitely.

Misha Zelinsky:

So what reflections do you have on the challenges that we’ve seen in 2021 about the political culture and what is the answers in terms of improving it?

Chris Pyne:

Well, I think one of the reasons I survived in politics and left it in relatively good order with most of my colleagues, both Liberal and Labor and Greens for that matter, is because I saw it as a debate. So it wasn’t a personal thing. So my job was to talk about my arguments, and hone those to the best possible level and find the holes in my opponents’ arguments and highlight those and tear down their position. It wasn’t to be personal.

Misha Zelinsky:

Unless Labor wins an election in a minority government, right?

Chris Pyne:

But it still wasn’t personal.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, I’m joking.

Chris Pyne:

So I’d give lots of speeches in the chamber railing against the hideousness of the Gillard government and their illegitimacy, but nobody ever used to think I’d crossed the boundaries into being personal. And you know, one day-

Misha Zelinsky:

So you can play it hard without playing it personal is what you’re saying.

Chris Pyne:

One day I made a mistake and I accused Greg Combet of having a slush fund because do you remember the AWU workers slush fund?

Misha Zelinsky:

I do.

Chris Pyne:

And he was so furious about it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Greg gets very upset if he’s-

Chris Pyne:

Maligned.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, if his integrity’s called in question.

Chris Pyne:

Totally. He was so furious about it, I thought goodness gracious I’ve obviously touched a raw nerve there, maybe I’ve made a mistake. Anyway, so I asked some of my labor friends if I’d got that wrong, and they said completely wrong. That’s exactly the opposite of what Greg Combet would have done. So I rang him after question time and I apologized and he was very good about it, but that’s very rare. Most people don’t apologize in politics when they’re wrong.

Chris Pyne:

So I think there’s a difference between playing the ball and trying to win for your team and personal vituperative behavior. And I hopefully didn’t fall into the second. The problem in the parliament at the moment of course is that the culture does need change and there aren’t enough women in politics, and Labor has a lot more women than the coalition does, and that needs to change.

Misha Zelinsky:

Shouldn’t there be quotas?

Chris Pyne:

I don’t support quotas but that’s because I think quotas work against women in a different way, which is that yes they might win, get into parliament, but they’re looked at always as not necessarily getting there because they’re on merit, which I think is wrong but I think it’s a perception of some people and the South Australian Liberal Party, for example, has just preselected three women out of four seats, and three saved seats. It can be done with the right attitude from the leadership and from the party membership, so I don’t think quotas are necessary, but if they end up with quotas I’m not going to be upset either, it’s not something that I’m passionate about. But some people are, I’m not.

Chris Pyne:

I think there needed to be more women. When I became leader of the house I changed the sitting hours, so that we ended every night by eight o’clock, the adjournment would start at 7:30 and parliament would start at about nine o’clock in the morning because I thought these mad late night sittings to 11:00 or 2:00 AM or 4:00 AM were all completely crackers. I think the public thought it was all crackers as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you can’t be making good decisions late at night.

Chris Pyne:

No, and everybody drinks too much because they’re stuck in the house and they can’t do anything and nobody wants to sit there at their desk working on a brief at 11 o’clock at night, so people would have a drink, so there’s too much of that culture. That’s dissipated a lot because the sitting hours changed. But it’s a funny hot house atmosphere. Have you ever worked in parliament house?

Misha Zelinsky:

Not in the federal parliament but I spent a fair bit of time there for work so I’m familiar with it.

Chris Pyne:

So it’s funny, 4000 people plus, all come together for 17 weeks a year, all away from year, and they’re there for a specific period of time, a specific job, and they’re all very similar people because they’re all political people. So it’s not like a village. Everyone calls it it’s like a village, it’s not like a village because in the village you’ve got the baker and the candlestick maker and the real estate agent and a whole bunch of people who don’t work and people who do work and kids who go to school.

Chris Pyne:

In that place, there’s 4000 people all very similar. And so it’s unusual. So it doesn’t surprise me that the culture is now being called out, I think it’s a good thing that it’s being called out. I do think that it needs to reset and I think the public want everyone to get back to governing and opposing, if you’re on the opposition, but I do think the solution to this problem is… I mean, the capital should have been in a major city. It should have been in Adelaide or Brisbane or-

Misha Zelinsky:

It was a deal, essentially, between Sydney and Melbourne that would have-

Chris Pyne:

It was a deal because the Sydneysiders didn’t want it in Melbourne and the Melbournians didn’t want it in Sydney, so they had to put it within 100 kilometers of the New South Wales Victorian border on the New South Wales side, so it kind of ended up being where it is and Canberra is a lovely city and I like Canberra, but it’s an entirely artificial community. It’s now become a proper city, to be fair. When I first got elected in 1993, when I first worked for Amanda Vanstone it was a bit artificial. But if it had been in a city like Adelaide or Brisbane, rather than Sydney or Melbourne, or if they’d been able to agree that it should be in Melbourne then of course it would have been different because people would have gone home. So they would have been working in parliament house but they would have gone home at night as opposed to motels or hotels or whatever, or share houses. So it would have been a different culture. Interesting if that would have made a difference to our politics. I think it would have.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, could pin you down, chat here for hours and hours but we’re getting towards the end. Now, I can’t let you go without answering the famous lame question of Diplomates.

Chris Pyne:

Diplomates. That’s the lame part.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, indeed. It’s a lame pun with a lame final question and a terrible segue.

Chris Pyne:

Good.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I’m keeping with tradition. Now, the question of course is you’re an Australian guest, foreign guests have to invite Australians, but you’re an Australian guest so you can invite foreigners. Three foreign guests to a barbecue at Chris Pyne’s, who are they and why?

Chris Pyne:

And they can be dead?

Misha Zelinsky:

They can be dead.

Chris Pyne:

I would have Alexander the Great, Constantine and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow, okay. Three big figures of history and a long way back. Why?

Chris Pyne:

Because I’d like to know what drove them to be such change agents. What made them think that they could take an army of a few ten thousands of Greeks and conquer the modern world and get all the way to India and think they could change the world in which they lived at the age of 20-something, and why Napoleon Bonaparte thought he could go to Egypt and create a new empire in the east and how he could think that he could transcend Islam and Christianity and create a new religion and a new civilization. It must take extraordinary self-belief. And Constantine changed the western world because once he initiated Christianity as the state religion of the empire, it was probably… I think it’d be too self-regarding to think you could have Jesus Christ over for a barbecue, so I would leave him out, but Constantine, he changed the world in which we live entirely because Christianity has been the greatest force for the shaping of the western world in our entire history. So I’d like to know why he thought that was a good idea.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, three outstanding guests at a barbecue, but you’ve been an outstanding guest on Diplomates so thank you for coming on the show and much appreciate it, Chris Pyne.

Chris Pyne:

Thanks Misha, thanks for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Pleasure.

 

Malcolm Turnbull: A Bigger Picture – Politics, Leadership and Government

Malcolm Turnbull was Australia’s 29th Prime Minister.

Before entering Federal Parliament, Malcolm had a distinguished career as a Rhodes Scholar, in law, media, tech, finance and public advocacy.

He’s the author of several books, including his autobiography ‘A Bigger Picture’.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Malcolm Turnbull for a chinwag about his famous Spycatcher trial against the Thatcher Government, the failed ‘Republic’ Referendum vote in 1999, why Australia’s climate debate has been so bruising and who’s to blame for the inaction, his professional rivalry with Tony Abbott, why China’s bullying of Australia will prove to be unsuccessful, the problem with misinformation and lies in our public discourse, Australia’s attempts to bring big tech to heel, the art of leadership challenges, handling Donald Trump, fixing our political culture and why we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

As you can see, it’s a long and wide ranging chat and Malcolm is extremely generous with his time and insights – so we hope you enjoy it!

TRANSCRIPT: (Please note to check the audio against the transcript).

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm Turnbull, welcome to Diplomates, thanks for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Great to be with you, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

Obviously, lots of places we can start in a foreign policy chat with yourself, but I thought we might go right back a little to the beginning of your career, certainly in the public eye. Your first foray into foreign affairs is probably in the famous Circle Spycatcher trial. You were a lawyer taking on the British government about an author, former spy, looking to sort of publish his memoirs. I mean, I was wondering if you could detail us a little bit about your experience and what it taught you, I suppose, about taking on governments and foreign relations.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, Peter Wright, by the time I met him was in his 70s. He was old, he was frail, he was living in really impoverished conditions in sort of little farm just south of Hobart, a place called Cygnet, where he was trying to breed horses very unsuccessfully. He was living there with his wife, Lois, now basically living in a shack. Peter had been a MI5 officer, scientific officer, right through the Cold War. When he retired from MI5, the Brits doubted him on his pension or so he believed. He was not a public school boy, he was very much sort of working class kid who was just really brilliant at radio and he felt that the British establishment had never treated him like an equal. You know what, I think he was right. But Peter, had been convinced among other things, that I had one of the heads of the MI5, Roger Hollis, in the early 60s had in fact been a Soviet agent, like Burgess and Maclean, and Philby, and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

In that period was a time of enormous paranoia well described by one writer as the wilderness of mirrors. Wright had a equally paranoid counterpart in the CIA called James Jesus Angleton. The problem was that they did actually end up suspecting just about everyone else of being a Soviet agent but there were enough Soviet agents to mean that their suspicions were not entirely fantasy, so that was a bit of a problem. Anyway, Wright had written a book, a memoir, of his adventures called Spycatcher. He’d written it with the help of a television journalist called Paul Greengrass, who is now a very famous film director. He’s done many of the Bourne films and other great movies. Anyway, they’d decided to publish it in Australia because they didn’t want to get into an argument with the British over the Official Secrets Act. Anyway, the British, when they got wind of this promptly got an injunction in the Australian courts to stop the book being banned. Heinemann, who are the publishers, had been advised by their lawyers, a couple of big law firms, I think MinterEllison was one of them, and a lot of silks.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, just [Rodie Ma 00:03:51], Simon Shella, Jim Spigelman, the works, had all told them that they were not going to win, that their prospects were very, very bleak. They actually were going to give up the case and what happened was their London solicitor, who was this rather really charming guy called David Hooper, who was an old Etonian and honestly almost sometimes sounded as though he’d stepped out of a Bertie Wooster novel. He was very… he had amazing sort of British accent and was sort of affected a deliciously vague air about it. He was a bit of, I think to some extent, he was always slightly sending himself up. Anyway, Hooper had been recommended to come and see me by Jeff Robertson, who’d given them some advice in the UK. But I think Jeff’s view was also was that the case was a loser, but like a lot of lawyers on the left, I regret to say this, they often look to glorious defeats. Whereas, I’m interested in winning, whether gloriously or ingloriously.

Misha Zelinsky:

Chin up.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Anyway, I thought the case was a winner, as did Lucy, who was one of my legal partners at the time, as was my wife, of course, and we ended up agreeing to do the case for them for $20,000, it was a year’s work. I know it was a long time ago, but $20,000 is not a lot of money even in 1986. That was the only basis on which I’d do the case. Anyway, we took it on with our little team. Me and Lucy, with some help from David Hooper and some of the younger lawyers in my office. We basically took on the British government, they had securities up to the eyeballs, and they had one of the biggest law firms in Australia, they had the UK Treasury solicitor. We took them on and we won the case, then we won at trial, a court of appeal, and in the High Court. But it was a very interesting example of the hypocrisy of government, and in particular the hypocrisy of the British government. Because what became apparent was that, in fact the substance of Wright’s book had all been published before.

Malcolm Turnbull:

One of our defenses was to say, “Look, this is not confidential information. You can’t get an injunction to prevent the publication of something that’s in the public domain already.” But what was worse was that the Wright’s material had been published by a right-wing journalist called Chapman Pincher, in a book called Their Trade is Treachery. But we were able to establish that that publication had been enabled by Lord Victor Rothschild, absolute pillar of the British establishment, and that he had done so with the connivance of the British government who wanted Wright’s allegations about Hollis to get out into the public domain, but through the hands of a safely conservative journalist. It was the end… Anyway, the real problem was that the guy that Fischer sent out to Australia to give evidence, Robert Armstrong, got himself absolutely tangled up in the witness box. He was lying.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, I suppose he would argue that he wasn’t lying, because he thought what he was saying the first time, before he corrected himself, was true but you have to have a very generous view of human nature to believe that. But he ended up having to apologize to the court for misleading the court and you can imagine the humiliation this caused the British government. I mean, this was a massive political drama in London. I mean, it was a big story in the Australian media, but it was five times as big in the UK. But there was a wonderful moment, a sort of cross cultural moment, I might just leave it there, where on the question of truth. Because Armstrong had written a letter to a publisher which was asking for a copy of this book, Traders Treachery. And said, “Oh, you know, we’d like to review it before it hits the streets,” but in fact he had the copy, he had the manuscript. In fact, they had basically conspired to get the manuscript into the public domain.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I might say, since that trial… I’ll come back to this. Anyway, I said to Armstrong, “Well, you know, you were lying, weren’t you?” He said, “Oh, no, I wasn’t lying.” I said, “Well, you know, where you’re telling the truth?” “Oh, well, I was creating a misleading impression, you know?” “Well, what’s a misleading impression? Is that like a ventridis or a half truth?” Then he uttered this line that he thought was very funny. He said, “Oh, no, Mr. Turnbull, I was just being economical with the truth. Hahaha.” As he went hahaha, I thought to myself, “Boy, you have misjudged your environment here, because the one place you don’t make jokes about telling the truth is in a witness box when you’re under oath,” and it was downhill from there. But there’s a very interesting postscript to this.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Because the proposition I put to them and I put to the court was, that the British government had basically authorized all this stuff to go out into the public domain anyway, that what was inspired capture was a load of old cobblers who had been published, and so, the case was futile all along, baseless, and it demonstrated enormous hypocrisy on the part of the British. To which Armstrong said, “Oh, Mr. Turnbull, that’s a very ingenious conspiracy theory that utterly untrue.” Well, not only was it… It wasn’t utterly untrue, it was actually true because in Margaret Thatcher’s authorized biography written by Charles Moore, Armstrong actually admits that the decision to get Pincher to write this book with revelations about Hollis, was a decision taken in number 10 Downing Street with the prime minister’s knowledge and the book, Moore’s book, quotes Armstrong, quotes memos, documents from the Thatcher government.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Obviously, I imagine they probably felt Pincher’s book wasn’t entirely what they had wanted, but he was set on his mission by the British government, he was authorized, the connection with Rothschild was made with the British government, Rothschild made the connection with Wright. It was just mind boggling hypocrisy and it was very interesting. I mean, I hope an Australian government would never behave in that way, I don’t think it would. I’d say another thing too which is an interesting cross cultural thing. The British could not believe that Armstrong was not treated differentially in the Australian courts. Even as a very old man, few years ago, he just died recently, he was in the broadcast news and he was saying, “Oh, Mr. Turnbull did not behave the way a British barrister would have behaved,” which Paul Greengrass, who was on this broadcast with him, he said, “Yeah.” He said, “A British barrister would have been utterly groveling and deferential to you,” because that’s what they used to. The truth is that Armstrong was treated like any other witness, the court, the judge presided over the court with good humor, and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But it was absolute, he got the same treatment everybody else did. But that wasn’t how it worked. It was an interesting case, but ultimately the lesson, the principle, I think that then got across and it was a very historic case in the sense, that it made the British, and I think the Australians too, realize that these secret intelligence agencies have to be more accountable. They can’t pretend that everything is a secret as everything else, and the public are entitled to know. If you want something to be kept confidential, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate that it is actually detrimental to national security were it to be published. It was a good blow for freedom of speech, and above all it was enormous fun. I’ve wrote a book about it, I think I’ve given you a copy of it. Which if you like to read courtroom dramas, it’s quite a good read I think.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, we’ll obviously get a little bit more about Spycatcher once we get to your term in office as prime minister. But on the way there, dealing with the British government yet again and Australia’s relationship with the British government, you were of course, the head of the Australian Republican Movement. Now, of course… Well, it was unsuccessful in pursuit of that vote, the yes vote went down. I’m kind of curious about your reflections about why we lost and would you have done anything differently as a result?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, Misha, I mean, the first thing you’ve got to remember is that virtually all constitutional referendums fail, right? It’s very hard to get the constitution changed. It is my theory for that, which I think was originally suggested to me by Mary Gleason, actually, but I think it’s right. Is that in Australia, we have compulsory voting, which is a good thing, really good thing, but it has one bad consequence. In a referendum, where you make everyone vote, you will have a percentage of the population who don’t know, don’t care, aren’t interested, haven’t read up about it. If they are very vulnerable to that change right? Because if you don’t know the consequences of a change, you’re not going to vote for it. I mean, if I said to you, “You know, I’ve got this amazing new technology that’s produced incredible paint, and I just want to paint your room with it,” and you haven’t had time but you’ve got to make the decision now, you would be inclined to say, “Oh, look, the room’s okay, I’ll just leave it as it is.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

So there’s a sort of element of you don’t know but know. That’s a problem, which is why you need, in a referendum situation, you need to have really overwhelming support. The other problem that we had was… That’s a problem in every referendum, unless it is so boring, so administrative, and literally nobody opposes it. I mean, the last remotely controversial constitutional referendum that got up was in 1946, so it’s a long time ago. Okay, the other problem we had was that the model that we took was one where the president to replace the queen and the governor general would be chosen by a bipartisan two thirds majority of a joint sitting of parliament. You know, that’s obvious because the role is meant to be a ceremonial, a political figure. That’s what you want and that’s one way of delivering that. But there was a move to have direct election, which we did not support.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, Keating didn’t support it, there was hardly anyone on the non-Labor side of politics that supported it, apart from a few wreckers. But simply because you’re essentially using a highly politicized method of election to choose someone who you want to be non-political. Anyway, the direct electionists have also campaigned against the proposition. That was a classic example of allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I mean, just-

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Malcolm Turnbull:

… just completely… Again, I mean, they weren’t all on the left, but it is a classic thing that the left do. I mean, not everyone on the left. I mean, the other great case in Australian history is the Greens voting against the Rudd government’s carbon pollution reduction scheme at the end of 2009.

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, far out. I mean, if they had voted for that, they, together with the liberals that were still in the Senate that are still supporting me, would have been passed and an emissions trading scheme by now would have been so embedded, it would have been about as controversial as the GST. And every now and then people would say, “Oh, the rate should go up or down or sideways,” but it wouldn’t be this issue. And I was just staggered. The one thing if you can inscribe on every, I don’t know, pillowcase, at every would-be politician ever lays their head on, “Do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.” It is such a… And its way of progressives, whatever character you want to describe them, so often screw up. Anyway, that’s basically why we lost. The question then is, what do you do now? My view is that you, firstly, timing and I think the timing will be when the queen’s reign ends.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But I think you need to first have a vote, which would be a plebiscite, it wouldn’t be a referendum per se. Where you put one method of election up against another and that presumably would be direct election versus parliamentary appointment and I think you just thrash that out. I mean, sure, I think you thrash that out for three months or whatever, uphill and downed out, and then you have a vote, then whichever model of election emerges, you say, “All right, we’ll now incorporate that in the formal Constitution Amendment Bill that will then go to the public in the referendum under the constitution.” Because I think you can’t fight on two fronts at once basically, that’s the problem.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve sort of said, “Look, we need to wait until Queen Elizabeth II passes.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, why is that? Because my sense of it is basically, look, in the 90s, I remember Keating arguing for a republican, it felt inevitable. I was really shocked when the result was a nightmare. Then we’re told, “Oh, don’t worry, there’ll be a vote in the not too distant future.” Here we are, 22-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Not for me, Misha, I said these guys are lying. I mean, my conscious is clear. I said, “If you vote no, it means no for a very long time.”

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and here we are, right? I guess the question is, no one’s really arguing for a republic. I mean, why, when the queen passes, will they suddenly be supporting ponies dropping away? I don’t get a sense that there’s a ground swell for it unfortunately, because we’re not seeing that argument in the public. And the queen will pass, there’ll be King Charles and the show will roll on.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look, I’m not saying you’re wrong. I think you’re wrong and I hope you’re wrong, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

I hope I’m wrong too.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah. Okay, but here’s the proposition. Ultimately timing is just about everything in politics. You can’t breathe political life into an issue that no one has any interest in. Or maybe you can but you’ve got to use enormous amount of political capital to do so and leaders are not going to do that. There’s got to be a sense of its time. It’s time to deal with this issue. Now, in the lead up to the Centenary of Federation in the 90s, we did have that sense of this is time and there was a whole lot of things being done to review the constitution, so forth, all of which came to now, I might add but anyway. But nonetheless, there was a sense of that and I think when the queen’s reign ends, when she dies or abdicates, it will be just an enormous watershed. I mean, the reminder that she’s actually reigned for longer than this now, reminder of that old republican poet, Victor Daley, he used to write in the Bulletin in the 1880s and 90s.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Wrote a poem about Queen Victoria and he said, “60 years she’s reigned, holding up the sky, bringing around the seasons, hot and cold, and wet and dry. And all those years, she’s never done a deed deserving jail, so let joy bells ring out madly and delirium prevail,” et cetera, it’s a great poem. But the point is, just as the passing of Queen Victoria was a epochal moment, the end of Queen Elizabeth, the seconds reign, will be this gigantic watershed. I think after that people will say, “Okay, that’s amazing, we adore her, she is one of the great…” I mean, obviously very passive and she’s not a political leader, per se, but her continuity and dignity is one that has so many admirers. It’s why I always say morals of monarchists.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But I think that will be a moment, Misha. I think at that point, people will be asking, “Do we want to keep having the king or queen of the United Kingdom as our head of state?” I mean, there’s all sorts of fascinating constitutional implications by the way, because what the Constitution says… The Constitution refers to the queen throughout and that meaning Queen Victoria of course, but it says, in the Constitution Act, it says the Queen means Her Majesty and her heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. Which means, of course, that if Britain became a republic, the president of Britain would be head of state, which is like ludacris.

Misha Zelinsky:

Madness.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, ludicrous, right? But it also means, it’s also raises an interesting thing. If, for example, Scotland became independent, then the United Kingdom is no longer united, so that will pose some interesting questions. I mean, the Constitution itself is a very, very outdated document. I mean, it works but it works less because of what’s in it, but because of the way conventions have evolved. I mean, there is a still a provision in the constitution, for example, which says that the queen, which in the context of 1901 meant the British government, can disallow a law passed by the Australian Parliament and signed into law by the governor general within 12 months of its enactment. Theoretically, you could have an election and a new prime minister could come in and say, “Right, I am going to advise her majesty to disallow all of the laws passed by the parliament in the last 12 months.” There’s also a provision allowing the governor general to reserve laws for the queen’s consideration and that’s a provision called Reservation and Disallowance.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And why is that there? Well, that’s because in the days, 1901, when Australia was not a independent country at all, colonial constitutions had that power. Because it meant that the governor general or the governor, who was invariably a British official, could say, “Oh, gosh, you know, these colonials, I don’t particularly like this law, this might impact on British trade or investments. So I’ll just send that back to head office in London and see what they think of it.” The bottom line is that that constitution, you sometimes see people saying, “Oh, it’s the birth certificate for a nation.” That is nonsense, it was a colonial constitution for a country that was largely self-governing dependency of the British Empire, and our independence was acquired gradually. It’s actually an interesting question as to when? Is there a date and time when Australia became independent? There actually isn’t any one day, but we certainly obviously are and have been for many decades now.

Misha Zelinsky:

You mentioned already, the politics of climate change, I kind of want to get… It’s a big global challenge, it’s arguably defined your time in politics. I mean, we’ve lost a mark count four prime ministers to divisions over climate. Why did, to your mind, has just been so bruising from an Australian point of view? Because in 2007, Howard and Rudd both took ETS or competing emissions trading schemes to an election, Rupert was going to be bipartisan, you were the opposition leader. Rupert was going to be at… Of course the Greens voted it down. But why has it been so bruising particularly for the last decade of their politics?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, I think what happened was that sort of beginning 2008/09, you got a effectively a coalition of the right political right, the product called the Populist Right in the Liberal and National parties, the Murdoch media in particular and of course the fossil fuel lobby. Who essentially combined to turn what should have been a debate about physics and economics and engineering into one of videology. I mean, George Pell, the Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop… I mean, Pell was a great advocate for climate change denialism. Obviously, Abbott was the guy who succeeded me in 2009 who then really weaponized it. I mean, sort of there are a few fatal errors at that time. I mean, I think the fatal error of the Greens was blocking the CPRS at the end of 2009 and then Kevin’s fatal error was not proceeding straight away to a double dissolution, which he would have won. But for some reason or other, he lost his nerve.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Because, you see, the Emissions Trading Scheme at that point it still united the Labor Movement or Labor Party anyway, perhaps not all of the unions, including your own. But it united the Labor Party but it divided the coalition. And why he blames Gillard, obviously, I mean… but everyone was staggered by that decision. Then, of course, Abbott sort of weaponized it. I mean, he weaponized it and of course then in the election that followed in 2010, Julia made the absolutely staggering issue, staggering mistake of saying that an emissions trading scheme was same as a carbon tax. I told him, I wouldn’t name him so I didn’t name him in the book because he’s a friend of mine. But one of the very senior Labor politicians, who is a great trade union leader, his theory was that Julia said that because she wanted to distinguish it from Kevin’s Emissions Trading Scheme, and it was just a devastating mistake. Because she had said, “There won’t be a carbon tax under any government I lead,” and a carbon tax is obviously a fixed price on carbon. It’s $20 a ton or $25 a ton.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Everyone understands that an emissions trading scheme is different to a carbon tax. When people talk about a carbon tax, they’re invariably talking about it in contradistinction to an emissions trading scheme, where you constrain the number of permits to not allow you to emit greenhouse gases. And obviously, depending on all the forces of supply and demand, the price of those permits can go up or down, that it’ll vary. But she essentially framed herself, she should have been saying, “I don’t care if you use red hot pincers to tear out my toenails, I’m not going to say an emissions trading scheme is a carbon tax.” That was the last thing she should ever have said and she would have been right in not saying it. Abbott, then was able to present her as lying and all that sorry history began. By the time I became prime minister, the chances of getting putting a price on carbon was just, from practical political terms, zero.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you see-

Malcolm Turnbull:

But the fundamental problem, Misha, is that what’s happened is that this combination of right-wing politics, right-wing media, and the fossil fuel lobby, have essentially taken what is a matter of physics, global warming, and turned it into a question of identity or values or belief. Now, I can understand someone saying, “I have a deeply held view about gay marriage,” for example. I can understand someone who says, “The Bible says only men and women should be married and I’m against it,” now obviously I vociferously disagree with that but that you can accept that as a question of values, that’s a question… And we obviously had a vote on that and decision was taken. But saying you believe or disbelieve in global warming, it’s like saying you believe or disbelieve in gravity. I mean, it’s literally barking mad and dangerously so.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. With the NEG, we talked a lot about the ETS and you’re one of the National Energy Guarantee which is your signature energy policy as prime minister. Without going into the ins and outs of it, do you think there might have been an opportunity just to force it all to vote and test the numbers-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Basically, the NEG had two parts to it. In some respects, the most important part from an immediate point of view, was the reliability mechanism, which has gone into effect. Which essentially meant a retailer of electricity needed to ensure that there was enough dispatchable power in their portfolio. In other words, the idea of that was so that you didn’t get a sort of a repeat of the South Australian situation where a huge amount of wind is built, that’s a good thing, and solar, but without the backup. Whether it’s batteries, or pumped hydro, or a gas peaker. But you’ve got to sort of get the right mix, okay? The other part, which is where the coalition blew up, was having essentially an emissions reduction element to it. And that was the part that had to go through the Federal Parliament to provide that the emissions intensity, if you like, of your portfolio generation declined in accordance with our Paris commitments.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Now, the question as to whether, I mean basically the position that I was faced with at the beginning of that sort of last week of my prime ministership was, there were so many people that were on our side that were going across the floor and voted against that, notwithstanding that it had gone through the party realm. Even looked like the Nats would vote against it. We discussed it in the cabinet, I’m going to describe all this in my book. We discussed it in the cabinet, and literally everyone said, “We’ve just got to put this on hold.” We didn’t abandon it, we’re very expressive about that. But the view was, I mean even my good supporters like Christopher and Julian and so forth, felt that the right we’re obviously planning to use this as a way to block the government, and what we needed to do was if you like, you could call it a tactical retreat or a pause, but maintain the policy, but just say, “We just got to handle this insurrection first and then we can come back to it.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

What happened of course then, events move much faster than I’d anticipated or I think most people had. They ended up being that coup and all of the chaos that followed and resulted in Morrison becoming prime minister. But look, I think it’s a… I know a lot of people on the Labor side have said, “Oh, you should have just put it to the vote.” Well truthfully, I don’t think it would have been very hard to do that for practical sense in a cabinet government, given the attitudes of my colleagues. The idea that Labor would have voted to pass it, I mean Bill was there, he could taste the prime ministership. He was so close, and he idea that he would have passed up the opportunity to defeat the government on the floor of the House, on an important bill like that and force an election is pretty naive. I mean, the part of the problem that I had was that there was a body of a group of people in the coalition and this was absolutely backed in by Murdoch, as he acknowledged. Murdoch acknowledged this and it’s pretty obvious, that wanted my government to lose an election.

Malcolm Turnbull:

They, as Rupert Murdoch said to Kerry Stokes, “Three years of Labor wouldn’t be so bad.” They were so determined to get rid of me, it’s amazing, I’m such a lovable character. But they were so determined to get rid of me and once again, get a prime minister that would do as he’s told., that they were prepared to put up with a Labor win. I mean this was Abbott’s crazy agenda, he-

Misha Zelinsky:

Heavens forbid a Labor government, Malcolm yeah?

Malcolm Turnbull:

What?

Misha Zelinsky:

Heaven forbid a Labor government-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, now I know. Well I mean, but normally internal insurrections, you don’t normally include as part of your plan, your own party being defeated. But that’s how insane it had gotten. You had Abbott’s agenda, which a lot of people at Newscorp, again as Murdoch knowledge supported. Abbott’s agenda was for the coalition to lose the election in 2019, whether it was led by me or someone else, and for him then to return as leader of the opposition and then lead the government back, in a sort of Churchillian comeback in 2022. Well, of course he lost his seat but-

Misha Zelinsky:

I ask you about, I mean your relationship with Tony Abbott and your careers in some ways, you look at it, you see almost two sides of one coin-

Malcolm Turnbull:

OH! don’t do that to me!

Misha Zelinsky:

Sydney Uni, Rhodes Scholars, you were the head of the Republican Movement, he’s the head of the Monarchists. Obviously, the leadership ballots, I mean what’s your reflections on those many years?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well I mean Abbott look, I mean we’re very different people. I mean, you see I don’t think… you see, it’s interesting. Each of us think the other shouldn’t be in the Liberal Party. Because he would say, “Oh, Malcolm’s always been on the left, he’s far too progressive.” All of that, and I agree with Peter Costello. Tony Abbott was the first DLP Prime Minister of Australia. I mean, he’s not a Liberal at all. But you see, unfortunately, what’s happened to the Liberal Party with a capital L, is that it has become increasingly dominated by people that are not remotely Liberal. I mean, if you want to look at craziness, I mean, consider this, Victoria is the most progressive, smaller liberal State in Australia, right? Without question. The Victorian division of the Liberal Party has been largely taken over by the religious right, and similar has happened in Western Australia. I mean, there’s one of the few remaining Liberal MPs in the State parliament, was making this point in the press just today.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Unfortunately, one of the Liberal Party’s great assets, which is that it is a grassroots membership organization, has meant that it is very… Because it no longer attracts naturally a mass membership of the sort of middle class, professional class, small business people, it has become very vulnerable to take over by extremes. Like, the ACT another example. The ACT is a very progressive jurisdiction. It actually voted for the Republic, it’s the Labor Party, and the Green is are the dominant parties there. The ACT division of the Liberal Party, is just as right wing as probably more right wing than the Victorian division. Now the question then is, from your side of politics would be why can’t Labor exploit that? Well, you’ve probably just written a book about that, I think but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookstores, yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, available in all good bookstores. But that’s a major problem. I mean, Andrew Lee has made this point, always sort of riffing off Lenin actually. Lenin actually criticizing the Australian and New Zealand Labor Party’s or Labor Movements, said they were just Liberals, with a small L. They weren’t sufficiently revolutionary. But Andrew’s argument is that the liberal tradition in Australian politics is really better embodied in the Labor Party. I think the truth is, it’s been embodied in both, but regrettably less and lesser on the capital L, Liberal side of politics and I think that is a major problem. I mean, you see evidence with the issues that we’re confronted with today.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just switching gears slightly to another big trend that occurred in your time in politics, during your time as Prime Minister was the strange relationship with China.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

The relationship arguably was perhaps changing, but once you became PM, you made some big decisions, banning Huawei from the 5G network, the foreign interference laws; a bit of a line in the sand. I mean, in your estimations, why was this relevant? Had Australia’s attitude changed? Had China changed? I mean, why were those decisions made, and why are they relevant to the sort of increasingly bellicose nature of the relationship that we’re seeing now?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look I think that the change really was from the China side. Xi Jinping, is a much more authoritarian leader domestically, and you see that whether it’s in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China, and he’s more assertive or belligerent, depending how you want to describe it internationally. The island building, unilateral militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea is one good example, but there are plenty others too. I think China has definitely changed, there’s no question about that, or it’s leadership has, and Australia has responded to that. Look obviously, I’m a Liberal with a small L and a Democrat, so I deplore authoritarianism anywhere. But speaking of their international policy, I think it is quite counterproductive. I mean, I’ve got a piece of the Nikkei Asian Review just today, which makes the point that their foreign policy is completely counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, the pressure that they’re putting on Australia, which is designed to get us to mend our ways, and punish Australia for daring to criticize human rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong or expansionism in the South China Sea, what does it do? It has made Australian public opinion more adverse to China than it’s ever been, number one. It has made any changes or adjustments or nuances in government policy, impossible to affect and it alienates and creates enormous anxiety in other capitals. The object of foreign policy should be to win friends and influence people, and ideally do that without having to spend too much money, whether it is in grants or gifts or infrastructure on the one hand, or military hardware on the other. I mean, if you look around the region, around the world, where are China’s allies? I mean, it doesn’t have allies, it’s got clients. The United States, notwithstanding four years of Trump, still has enormous goodwill, and allies, and alliances and people with who, the countries who have shared values.

Malcolm Turnbull:

To be honest, I think that China blew an enormous opportunity with Trump. I mean, Trump’s erratic sort of conduct and his offending and alienating close allies and friends, sucking up to tyrants, all that stuff that he did, that was an enormous opportunity for China to be as unlike Trump as possible. That’s what they should have done. They should have appeared to be steady, accommodating, measured, all of the things Trump wasn’t. Instead they’ve become almost Trumpy in their sort of belligerence. I mean, I’ll give you a good example. The last year, Morrison said, there should be an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus. Now, look you can criticize him for saying that. You can say he didn’t need to say it. It was gratuitous, what was all that about? Was that just for the benefit of domestic public opinion in Australia? It would have been better off lining up a coalition to support it, even make all those criticisms, and let’s say for the sake of this discussion, that those criticisms are valid.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Nonetheless, the Chinese reaction was crazy. They should have let that one go through to the keeper. Absolutely, let it go through to the keeper or said yes, look we’ve noticed that but, we think the best body to handle this is the World Health Administration, which in fact, is what is doing. But instead they turned this into this huge issue. Why? It’s like somebody who does something to offend you, which even if it’s deliberate like a small thing, and you sort of declare to turn it into the biggest issue of all time, so it’s just so heavy handed and as I say, quite counterproductive. I mean, I think like most policy Misha, foreign policy included has to be judged on its outcomes. And I think that this sort of process of bullying Australia has been quite counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I think one of the reasons I was really delighted to see that four leaders of the quad, India, Japan, US and Australia meeting together was, as I say in the Nikkei Asian Review today, that those images look good in their respective capitals. But the capital where I believe it will have had the most impact is in Beijing, because it’s basically sending a message to China saying, Australia and its democratic partners and allies are sticking together. Hopefully, they will take a different approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, the other big challenge in the room, I suppose you got this sort of the China challenge. The other big challenge for democracy around the world, is this question of Big Tech, and whether or not governments can still prevail over these sort of essentially global monopoly platforms? I mean, in this big fight between Big Tech and big media, I mean who’s in the right here to your mind? How do we actually deal with these foreign owned tech platforms, and the impact they have on democracies?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, well look, I think that ultimately if government makes the law, then everyone has to comply with it, within that jurisdiction. The problem is that these platforms are transnational, they’re global. It’s often pitched as sort of government versus Big Tech, I think you’ve really got to focus on the particular issues. What is the problem that you’ve got? I mean, if for example, if you see what the media bargaining card here, I’m very uncomfortable with that. I mean, it does look to me and I think it looks to everyone, as though the government and the parliament have basically shaken down Google and Facebook to give money tot their people in the media, especially their friends at Newscorp. I would have preferred, I think a better approach would have been to have a tax on digital advertising revenues. Then rebate that to those companies that employ journalists, and as for those that don’t like Google and Facebook, take those proceeds and then distribute them to public interest journalism.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That would mean news outlets that actually complied with what we would require, whether it’s the Press Council standards, or there’s plenty of objective benchmarks of what is public interest journalism can be used. There is a reluctance though, frankly on the part of governments nowadays to make judgments about broadcasting or journalism. That wasn’t always the case. When I was a young lawyer working for Packer, television and broadcasting licenses were renewed every three years, and you had to prove you’re a fit and proper person, you had to demonstrate that the news reporting was balanced. America was out… It was Reagan that abolished that fairness doctrine in broadcast news in the US. We’ve got to… This is probably, we’re getting to the end of this podcast, but this is.. I mean, here is the big question. We have always assumed or justified free speech and the First Amendment, in the US context on the basis that in the contest of ideas, the truth will prevail, and yet we are drowning in lies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

You’ve seen that in America, I mean the biggest threat to the United States today is not international terrorism or Russia or China, the biggest threat is the internal political problems they face which are exacerbated in large part by the media, much of it owned by Rupert Murdoch. I mean, who could have imagined other than in some sort of apocalyptic novel or movie, the US Capitol being sacked by a mob as it was on the sixth of January, who had been told repeatedly by big media outlets, including Fox, that Biden had not won the election? If you think about it, if you had a large percentage of the Australian population, for example believing that the Labor Party had won the last election and not the coalition, who knows what you would get? I mean, people would get very angry and pissed off, there’s no doubt about that. The peddling of lies has consequences and it’s a big issue, again it’s probably too big to get into now, but I guess my punchline would be the freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility, and obviously, we have defamation laws and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But we’ve also got to take, we’ve got to be prepared to hold people to account, and that might mean, advertisers have got to hold them to account, readers and subscribers have got to hold them to account. But we do not want to get a repeat of… we don’t we don’t want our country to be as divided, and with so much hate turned inwards on itself and its people as they have in the US.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just turn to sort of modern events, the culture of parliament is being discussed a lot as it relates to the safety of women. In your book you talk about the brutality of politics and you give some reflections on how tough it is on politicians; you talk about dark moments you went through after losing the leadership in 2009. The question I want to ask is in two parts; how hard is politics – is it too hard? Are we too hard on our politicians? And turning to the shocking revelations of 2021 and the March for Justice movement we’ve seen from Australian women who are demanding change – how do we fix the culture of our parliament, how do we fix these cultural issues more broadly?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, look I think it is. I think you’ve got to have thick skin to get into politics. I mean, it’s not for the faint hearted, or the thin skinned, we’re probably are too hard on our politicians, but they’re pretty hard on each other too, so it’s a rough business. I suspect that’s always been the case. I mean, the thing that is the issue that’s being debated at the moment, is this whole issue of disrespect of women by men, or men’s disrespect of women, men’s violence against women and of course, this being a real issue inside parliament. The Brittany Higgins case, of course has been the most sort of notable lately, but I mean, I wrote him about this. I talked about this when I was prime minister, I made changes to the ministerial code and but my observation of Parliament, was that the culture there, the attitude had far too many men, towards women reminded me of the 1970s or 1980s, maybe in the corporate world. I mean, it’s way out of step with modern society.

Misha Zelinsky:

How do we fix it?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, okay I think there’s at least two things you’ve got to do. On one side, you’ve got to have, I think they should in effect, leverage off the reform I made with parliamentary expenses. I remember I set up an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Agency or Authority, and basically, there hasn’t been a parliamentary expenses problem since then, because it’s properly monitored and accountable and so forth. I think you need to have an independent agency, which may just be three or four people, who deal with HR and that is where people can confidentially complain about issues, and it is where they would manage training, and so if there was an issue of bullying in an office, they could go in and make sure that everyone from the minister or the member down, gets the right training, and you basically, you’ve got to have that mechanism and you’ve got have clear rules. For example, if there is a report of an assault, that particularly something as serious as rape, then that is something that should be dealt with by the police.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Not may be that the victim says she doesn’t, or she most likely doesn’t want to proceed with it. But I think you’ve basically got to send a very clear message, that the full force of the law will come down on you, if you break the law, in particular in this context of men being violent or abusive to women. Now, that to some extent is having the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s important to have the ambulance there, but the important be ideally, people aren’t going to be falling off the cliff, so how do you change the culture? Well, I think you need… That ultimately is a question of leadership, and prime ministers and ministers have to lead by example, so they’ve got to be held accountable for their own conduct, for the conduct of their officers. If a minister has a chief of staff who is bullying, the minister has to take responsibility for that.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He or she is the boss, so they’ve got to take responsibility for that. When I dealt with the Barnaby Joyce issue, and I changed the ministerial code to say that ministers should not have sexual relations to their staff, which I mean looking back now people would say, “Gosh, why didn’t you go further? Why didn’t you say more?” That was so controversial at the time. Most of my colleagues, sort of-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Most of my colleagues thought it was an outrage, utterly unreasonable and, just an example of how old and out of touch I was. But I put in the foreword to those changes, language about respect, leading by example, values have to be lived and it’s worth. I mean, I’m sorry that Scott Morrison dropped all that, but because it is important, I mean that is, you basically do have lead from the top. I mean, because again that’s the only way you can change the culture. I’m sorry, it’s a simple answer, but the execution and delivery of it is complex, because you’re dealing with people, and people are complex, but there’s no other way to do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to ask you a question about your overall career. We could obviously talk about this cultural problem at length, whether or not actually while we’re on it. Do you support an inquiry or an independent inquiry into the allegations against the Attorney General?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look the answer is yes. I totally get the all the legal arguments, everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, burden of proof. I get all of that, I understand all of that. But what I said at the time, and I noticed that this was described as being very hostile to Porter, it wasn’t. I mean, Misha, I’ve actually been in this situation with Packer back in the 80’s, when Kerry was accused of all sorts of things initially.

Misha Zelinsky:

Atlanta.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, under a code name and all that stuff, and the only way you can deal with this in a political way is to step up, give a powerful rebuttal and set out your version of events powerfully and cogently, and I believe it would have been in Porter’s interest to say, “Look, I didn’t.” Invite the prime minister to appoint a suitably qualified person to review all this material and give their judgment on it. Now, he’s chosen to bring a defamation action, but the problem with that, is that the defamation action A, will take years and years and years and B, the truth of the allegations may never even be an issue. It depends what defenses the ABC chooses to run, but I mean they’re very likely to have a sort of a qualified privilege, issues of public interest type of line of argument. I mean again, I went through this with Packer too. At the time, their lawyers, very distinguished lawyers, much older than me, who were saying, “Oh, Kerry should sue for libel and do this.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

I remember saying, “Well, we don’t have enough time for that. We’ve got to deal with this here and now.” I think this could be resolved pretty quickly, and then Porter would be able to say, “Well, I rejected the allegations. I said, why rejected them. The distinguished retired Judge, X reviewed it and came to such and such a conclusion.”

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve mentioned Packer, there is a question I want to ask you about your career overall. I mean, you’ve dealt with some massive characters over the years, Packer, Murdoch, Rudd, Whitlam, Keating, Howard, Trump, Abbott, who was the hardest to handle out of these sort of characters, and why was is there a particular thing that makes them more similar?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, they’re all very different people, all the ones you’ve mentioned. I think probably the most difficult person to deal with was Trump, because he was the most powerful, and there was so much at stake. You’ve got to sort of… As an Australian Prime Minister, you’ve got to get on with whoever is the President of the United States, on the other hand, you’ve got to defend your national interest. There is a tendency for the professional diplomats to want to sort of go along quietly and not actually take up… They’re worried about a blow up, they’re very risk averse. But had I not gone toe to toe with Trump, we would not have maintained the refugee deal.

Malcolm Turnbull:

There’s a lot of people that are now settled and free in the US that would not be, had I not stuck to that, and equally, if you look at something like our steel industry, which I know, would be an industry many of your members would work in. Our steel industry was under real threat with Trump wanting to have a 25% tariff on Australian steel imports, as he was with a 10% tariff on Australian aluminium, and that was a very complex battle to keep tariffs and quotas off our exports.

Misha Zelinsky:

You have to handle him one on one in that situation?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Totally, it was absolutely one on one. I mean, look very often politics is a team sport and very often, as the leader you are backed up by a lot of people, often very much smarter than you who do all the groundwork. The problem with Trump was there was only one decision maker in the White House, and the staff in the White House kept on coming and going, going mostly. While I had some good input from Joe Hockey, the ambassador, and some other officials, and of course people in the steel sector, particularly, ultimately it just came down to me and Trump. Now that wouldn’t be the case with Biden, it wouldn’t have been the case with Obama. But Trump’s people, his key people, they did not want him to agree with me on the terms he did, they absolutely did not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He basically went, I mean, I persuaded him that his own advisors were wrong on this point, and that was in his interest to have no tariffs and no quotas on Australian steel and aluminium, and really, it was a very one to one thing, and I’m not bragging about that, it’s just that’s the way it was. I mean, that’s the way that was the issue with Trump, because ultimately as I said, there was only one decision maker in the White House and we had a couple of people there, who were very sympathetic to Australia, but there were others frankly, who were not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just the last couple of questions. You were saying your best day in politics, can you can you pinpoint those?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, I probably work out. There were a lot of best days, or great days. I think legalizing same sex marriage was one of the best days. That’s a very big social reform. Well, one I probably the worst two days is losing the leadership I guess, on two occasions, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

On both occasions?

Malcolm Turnbull:

On both, yeah. It was worse losing the prime ministership, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Just on that, I mean, leadership challenges. I mean, talk about what goes through your mind and what’s the difference between the time, you’ve been in many. What’s the difference between the time when perhaps you’re seizing the leadership, versus when you’re playing defense and you’re on the verge of losing?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, it’s very different, it’s difficult and different. Yeah, I mean in each case, I’ve been involved in a lot of leadership struggles more than most people. Yeah, look it’s hard. I mean I they’re just very different, and you’ve got to be very careful, you got to think very clearly, you’ve obviously got to do your homework. But when you are a challenger, you’re in much more possession of the relevant facts than when you’re on defense, so the so the problem is, it’s always an advantage to have the initiative. The challenger always has that advantage, and particularly, where you are very vulnerable as a leader is if your challenger is reckless, and they actually don’t care whether they blow the joint up or not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And this is again one of the real flaws and problems right at the heart of the coalition, right in its DNA nowadays, is that you’ve got that right wing group, which is massively supported in the Murdoch press. I’m not trying to sort of echo Kevin, but what he says about Murdoch is right. But they back that in, and they actually don’t care if they blow the joint up, and so that is terrorism without guns and bombs, and it’s very dangerous. Now, I don’t think you’ve got quite the same problem in the LP. But, I’m not an expert on Labor Party-

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, leadership challenges are brutal on any side of politics.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, yeah and I mean the reality is that sometimes you do have to change the leadership. I mean, leadership changes that are driven just by personal ambition, can often be very damaging. But sometimes the leader just can’t deliver, and somebody else can do a better job, and there’s been plenty of cases of that. I mean, the interesting thing about the switch from… When I took over from Abbott, our numbers went through the roof, that was clearly from a political point of view, the right call. When I was overthrown, the coalition numbers went south and stayed south for a long time, but ultimately you can never underestimate people’s capacity to lose elections and Shorten lost that election, and part of it was personal, and part of it was as you know, some very misguided policies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I don’t think climate was a negative for you, I have to say but I think the franking credits stuff was just staggering. It was so out of touch, I mean I used to get lectures from people in the Labor Party, which basically describing why the tax breaks shouldn’t have been introduced in 2001, and let’s say I agree with you, but so what? There’s a bunch of things in the tax system that with the benefit of hindsight, you wouldn’t have done that. But that doesn’t mean you should think repealing them is going to go without opposition or resentment.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s been a very long conversation and thank you for your generosity, and I know you’ve been coughing and sneezing, so we hope that you’re right and you’ll-

Malcolm Turnbull:

I’ll survive, don’t worry.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now question I’ve got to ask you, this is the question I ask all guests. Is the clunky segue to the barbecue question of deeper mates, so three foreign guests at a barbecue at Malcolm’s. Who are they and why?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Three foreign guests, well I would have four foreign guests, and they would be my son, his wife and their two children.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh man, you’re kidding. That’s a cheating answer.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Oh then they’re not really foreigners, they live in Singapore.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, three foreign friends. Well, let’s assume I’d also have their partners, so I would definitely have President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi of Indonesia. Who’s he and his wife Ariane, are just great friends and wonderful people and that’s such an important relationship.

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Who else? Well, I would say the interestingly, the two French leaders that I got to know well, Emmanuel Macron, and his prime minister at the time, no longer his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, both really extraordinary people. I’ve not met Edouard Phelippe’s partner, but Bridgette, who is the wife of the President Emmanuel Macron is fabulous. Really great company, smart as you’d expect. I think France was very lucky to have them both together. I’m sorry that Eduard is no longer the PM there, but again I have to say that, I said I didn’t understand the internal machinations of the Labor Party. I have no idea or to understand the internal machinations of French politics, but they’d be some, I probably should nominate somebody from another country. Yeah, well I look a great person, a great human being and very good company and thoughtful as Shinzo Abe. Again, I’m sorry he’s no longer PM of Japan, and he retired for health reasons. But yeah, they would be among the people. But there’s some great characters, you can read about all of them in my book.

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookshops everywhere.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Available at good bookshops everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s right next to The Write Stuff.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That’s right, exactly. That’s right, often sold in a package deal.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a perfect place to leave this conversation, Malcolm Turnbull, thanks so much for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, see you mate.

 

Professor Rory Medcalf: Democracy v Autocracy – Friends, Rivals and Values

Professor Rory Medcalf is Head of the National Security College at the Australian National University. 

A journalist, intelligence agency analyst, diplomat, academic and thinker, Rory is one of the world’s leading experts on geopolitical strategy and his work has contributed to recent Australian government defence policy including the Defence White Paper of 2016. 

Rory is recognised as a thought leader internationally via his acclaimed 2020 book – Contest for the Indo-Pacific. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Rory for a chinwag about the US election and why the stakes are so high for Australia, whether the CCP or Russia might pull a move in the case of a litigated US election, how Australia should manage an assertive CCP, why democracies should be more confident, why minilaterialism is the new multilateralism and why its time Australia got serious about India and Indonesia.

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

Rory Medcalf, welcome to Diplomates, mate. How are you?

Rory Medcalf:

Very well, thanks Misha. Great to be on.

Misha Zelinsky:

Thanks for joining us. Now, always so many places we can start and it’s probably a topic that’s been done to death, but you almost can’t ignore it, it’s the elephant in the room, the US election. But I kind of want to approach it, I mean we could talk about the horse race all day, about who’s going to win, but I kind of wanted to approach it firstly, what are the stakes here? I mean, does it matter? Firstly, does it matter for Australia and then also what does it matter in a global context?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s hard to say anything particularly new and enlightening on this subject. Everyone seems to be a pundit on the US election or on its significance in world affairs. What I’d say is that of course it matters for Australia’s interests and security, and it matters perhaps more in an indirect way than in an immediate direct way. I mean, I do put a lot of weight on the importance of I guess American credibility in the world. I don’t think we have to think about American leadership quite in the way that we used to, and of course American leadership and credibility have both taken an enormous hit in the last few years for obvious reasons.

Rory Medcalf:

I think, though, that we shouldn’t underestimate the potential the United States still has to be a formidable player in world affairs. I see this election really as a chance to firstly arrest the damage, arrest the decline. Secondly to begin the very big repair job that needs to take place, and thirdly to also take I guess any … Salvage any positives out of the past few years. The main positive I talk about there, despite all of the harm that Trump personally and his administration have done, is the bipartisan awareness in the United States about the China challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s if you like, the one positive, or in fact the second positive, being the reawakening of the importance of democratic participation in so much of the American population. I think salvage those things, begin the repair job. Either way, this matters profoundly for Australia and for our Indo-Pacific region.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve talked a bit about US leadership, or US credibility. One thing I wanted to … And you’re right, there’s a lot of pundits out there, so we’ll focus on perhaps your subject areas of expertise, but one of the things that’s been tossed up is what happens if there’s a contentious election? What happens if for a period, maybe like in 2000 when it went on and on, there was recounts, it was contested, or it was a particularly contentious election with litigation?

Misha Zelinsky:

Peter Jennings from ASPI has been on this show before, he’s floated potentially you could see some aggression from the Chinese Communist Party in respect to Hong Kong or Taiwan. You might see Russia aggressive in Europe. I mean, how do you see something like that in a lame duck scenario, where the US is internally focused and not able to externally focus on its security guarantees around the world?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s obviously a risk. I also worry about what that internal crisis might look like inside America, because of course, in many ways the … And I’ll take sides here. I mean, I would prefer to see a Biden victory, but in many ways a downside of a Biden victory, unless it’s really decisive and really clear upfront is the way in which Trump or parts of Trump’s base could really exploit the situation internally over a few months, and you could see some very significant unrest moving within the United States.

Rory Medcalf:

As to the external foreign exploitation of that situation, I tend to think that even when China is at its most opportunistic and its most adventurous under the current leadership, I think there’s still a recognition that there would be a lot of risk in, for example, seizing this as the moment to take Taiwan by force, seizing this at the moment for some other aggressive action internationally. On balance, I think the Chinese aren’t going to be quite that crazy. Russia’s a different kettle of fish, of course, because I think Russia has made something of a constant of its interference in American processes over the past few years.

Rory Medcalf:

I tend to think that Russia thinks or the Russia leadership operates quite a bit more tactically than the Chinese. So I think the possibility or the potential for some kind of Russian exploitation of the situation is there. It’s probably happening already.

Misha Zelinsky:

What would that look like? What would a Russian aggression look like?

Rory Medcalf:

I guess what I’m referring to is an attempt to magnify and amplify the differences internally in the United States. I don’t see, if you like, some new sudden act of continental aggression by Russia, because in many ways at the moment Russia has most of what it wants and needs, and can handle. It’s certainly yet more pushing the envelope in cyber, particularly, and … Really it’s a continuation but with the United States that’s even less capable for that window of meeting any kind of concerted push back.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you’re talking about that perhaps driving wedges into the United States’ discourse by using Facebook and other social media channels and misinformation?

Rory Medcalf:

Oh, absolutely. As Russia has quite definitively done for more than four years now, going back to actually pretty early in 2016.

Misha Zelinsky:

You talked about the China challenge and that bipartisan, I suppose the way that the United States is now treating China as a strategic competitor. Turning I suppose to our neck of the woods here and how it impacts on Australia, how concerned should we be that we’ve got a rise of authoritarian regime, which is going to at least challenge the United States militarily, and certainly economically? How concerning is that just by of itself?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, the risk factor in China’s rise has become much starker, much clearer to Australian policymakers over the past few years. I think there’s now a growing awareness in the public, in the political community, even in the business community about that. That would be the case regardless of whether Trump was in the White House or anyone else. In some ways, despite the recklessness and the confrontationalism of Trump, there’s also, as I said, been that awakening in the United States recently, which is a good thing.

Rory Medcalf:

Either way, whatever happens in America next week, the China challenge isn’t going to go away. Australia faces it more starkly as not only a developed country in the Indo-Pacific region, and a very proud democracy, but a country that also is deeply enmeshed in so many ways with China economically, at a societal level, and so forth. And so much of that interaction has been over the years, a net positive for Australia. We’re now focusing on the risk factor, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

Look, I think that we really need to understand Australia’s journey on this. Almost really on Australia’s terms, in terms of actually quite an independent assertion of Australian interests, values, and identity over the past four years, and not as some commentators have claimed, as some kind of proxy for our loyalty to America, or some kind of deputy sheriff role. I think the good news is that there are senior policy thinkers, senior voices on both sides of politics across the political spectrum in Australia, who recognize the necessity of Australia really adopting this quite assertive position of its own.

Rory Medcalf:

That said, we’ve now reached a point, I’d love to go into this in the conversation, if you want to, Misha. We’ve now reached a point, we’ve got to understand what a sustainable new normal looks like in the relationship with China, and with Australia’s relationship with China in the context of all the other regional relationships in the Indo-Pacific. Because so much of Asia is not China, and I think a lot of commentators conveniently overlook that sometimes.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s a really good point. I certainly want to dig into engagement in the region more generally, but just sticking with China, the Chinese Communist Party. One of the things that gets discussed quite a bit is Australia’s relationship, so much of it’s focused on trade. We’ve said to split the trade relationship out, along with the defense component, or the strategic concerns. I mean, firstly, is that possible? Can we even separate the two anymore, given the way we’re seeing the Chinese Communist Party weaponizing trade, increasingly against Australia and others? And secondly, should we be worried about upsetting China and the Chinese Communist Party? I mean, so many people in the business community tend to say, “Well, we need to just keep the dollars flowing.” I mean, how do we handle those two components?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll start with the second half of your question and go to the whole thing of the whole idea of hurting the feelings of the Chinese people, as we’re sometimes accused of doing, and then go to the trade question. Look, I think the paramount consideration every time an Australian government looks at what to do in foreign relations, whether it’s to do with China or any other country, is Australia’s interests, values, and indeed I’d even use a term like national identity. Who are we as a country? A liberal democracy, proudly multicultural.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re a status as a pretty dynamic middle power, as related to our identity in the world. Those things I think should be starting points for policy and diplomacy is not contrary to what some would suggest about at no costs hurting the feelings of the other country that you’re dealing with. Because in the end, so much of the hurt feelings you encounter in diplomacy is really something of a confection of outrage that countries will come up with for I guess negotiating advantage.

Rory Medcalf:

China has a thicker skin than the Communist Party sometimes like us to believe. There is a lot of diplomatic game playing that goes on, and I think in many cases, especially if you look at the way nationalism has been fostered in China over the past 30 years by the party, through hardcore patriotic education, those sensitivities are deliberately cultivated so that our room for maneuver is less. That’s a long winded way of saying of course we don’t want to cause gratuitous offense.

Rory Medcalf:

We don’t want to go out of our way to poke any country or political system in the eye, but I don’t think that the protestations of outrage by Chinese diplomats need to be the barometer for policy. Importantly, if you were to map, let’s say the last 4-5 years, and map for example, our trade patterns in I guess in the context of Australia standing up for a rules based order in the region, in the South China Sea or elsewhere, Australia strengthening its own domestic infrastructure against foreign interference, as we’ve done with various laws over the last few years.

Rory Medcalf:

In fact, in many instances and in the macro sense, trade has actually increased. For most of that time, it is not as if there was a correlation between our independent policy stance and being punished in a trade sense. Now, that may be a different story this year, if we can go to the coercion that’s being used, by at the moment China hasn’t pulled the really big levers, partly because it’s operating in a global context where it knows, its leadership knows that acting so coercively against one country is going to send a signal to others, not to be frightened but to actually accelerate their own diversification away from China.

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll come to your second point in a moment if you like, about trade per se. Because just in a nutshell, I think it’s great that Australia has a very substantial trading relationship with China as we should. It’s also great that we have a whole range of growing trade and investment relationships. It’s important to separate trade and investment in this regard, and I think most Australians do not realize that Australia is not heavily dependent on China for the foreign investment, and it’s probably not going to become heavily dependent on China for investment, and that’s fine.

Rory Medcalf:

Investment I think is much more a reflection of trust, whereas trade is a reflection of transaction. Yes, we have a major trading relationship by an order of magnitude, focused heavily on the iron ore trade. Australia is actually a less trade dependent country, however, than many other developed countries in the region and around the world. Trade as a proportion of GDP is actually less than most of us realize. Doesn’t mean China can’t hurt us if it wants to. Imperative now, nothing new or original to say here, really Misha, but the imperative is diversification.

Rory Medcalf:

Not excluding China, but very much China plus and keeping in mind the question, what do we want Australia to look like 20-25 years from now? Do we still want to be a country that relies for so much of its export income on essentially iron ore trade with Australia? I see that was a pretty unsustainable, one dimensional policy in the long run.

Misha Zelinsky:

Do you think COVID-19 is a bit of a wake up call in terms of our exposure on supply chains and over reliance perhaps on a commodities trade with one major country?

Rory Medcalf:

No question. I think it’s a wake up call on so many fronts, and for all of the damage that it’s done, and all of the distress that it’s brought, it’s also an opportunity for government now to build a much more united national approach, dare I call it a united front, with the industry, with civil society, to begin a conversation about what does the resilient Australia we want for the next generation actually look like?

Rory Medcalf:

At what point do we, if you like, start to focus more on security and less on the factors of efficiency and cost that have just been allowed to be so paramount for the past few decades?

Misha Zelinsky:

So look, we talked a bit about I suppose specific nations. One of the things that the big emerging challenges that we’re seeing now is return to systems competition, democracy with I suppose liberal economics has been the dominant ideology for the last 30 or 40 years. Now we’re seeing the rise of authoritarianism. Democracy’s certainly not expanding, on the slide around the world. Perhaps is on the slide in some nations that have been democratic for a very long time. How concerned are you about this systems competition? Do you think it’s a function of may the best system win, or do you think that democracies need to get their houses in order to a degree?

Rory Medcalf:

Well, you can say both of those things if you like. I think democracies have had and are having a very rude wake up call. Those of us who believe very firmly not only in democracy or liberal democracy really as a system under which we like to live, and really which in so many ways makes life worth living, but also who recognize that this is not exclusively some kind of resting system. That in fact human societies all around the world have the right to the kinds of freedoms that let’s face it, are there in the UN Charter or various UN declarations in the hopeful post-Second World War era.

Rory Medcalf:

In other words, democracy has a home in Asia, in the Indo-Pacific, in Africa and so much of the world other than just the so-called West. It’s a time when we really have to take stock and think much harder about what is worth defending and how to defend it. I would say that like the French Revolution, it’s a bit too early to tell whether democracy is actually in decline. I mean, if you look at the sentiment on streets of Hong Kong, the streets of Minsk, the streets of Bangkok, if you look at really the movements of people power over the last really 12-24 months in the United States, in Europe, in the Middle East, that appetite for some kind of basic dignity through civil freedoms has not gone away.

Rory Medcalf:

Through participation and essentially choice about how you will be ruled and who rules you. And I would add, also incidentally, the exceptional we’ve seen of Taiwan this year. Both in its resistance to interference in its democratic election at the start of the year, and the way in which it succeeded in setting the global standard for dealing with a pandemic within a democratic framework. So, I certainly think we need to play the long game in protection and advancement of democracy. In a country like Australia, we need to do that with humility, as well.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re not aggressively proselytizing and nor should we, but we shouldn’t feel insecure or unconfident about it, either. I think if we look over the next 10-20 years, democracy is going to adapt and we just have to find ways to help that adaptation.

Misha Zelinsky:

I agree with you about the universality about democracy, and I think the protests in Hong Kong and the incredible election result in Taiwan was certainly affirming that people … There’s universal rights that everyone hopes. It’s not a Western conceit that people like to say, “Oh, well these nations have no history of democracy. Therefore they don’t want it.” Which I think is a nonsense. But you’ve touched on it a bit, we talked about Russia and its interference in the United States, we’ve talked about CCP interference in Taiwan. Obviously we’ve had quite a bit in Australia. I mean, how concerned are you about foreign interference and the concept of political warfare more generally?

Misha Zelinsky:

Which is I suppose the weaponization of all elements of society. We’ve got this total integration now of our systems where once upon a time perhaps in Cold War, there was competing systems but they were very much separate. Now they’re woven into one another. Makes it hard to grapple with all the different ways that you’ve got touchpoints which are also leverage points. How concerned are you about that, in terms of democracies being able to maintain their integrity?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah look, there obviously is … Look, there’s a degree of attack, but also there’s a degree of now waking up to the fact that we’ve been under attack for a long time. If you look at the, for example, I think very credible reports about CCP interference, but also influence operations in Australia over many years, and I should hazing to add, that influence isn’t necessarily a criminal thing. I mean, diplomats do influence as part of their job. It’s when it spills over into interference involving particularly corrupting conduct or coercive or clandestine conduct, that we’ve got a different situation.

Rory Medcalf:

I think there’s much greater awareness of these issues now. There’s much greater vigilance. I think the challenge we’ve got ahead is to ensure that this is not simply a government thing. This is not simply security agencies telling people they have a problem, telling parliamentarians they have a problem, and almost compelling them to do something about it. It’s got to be a much more inclusive and voluntary thing about cherishing what we’ve got. I think there are some positive signs there, and I do think that the more we can encourage bipartisanship on this, the better.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that these are issues that actually have to be owned by the center of Australian politics and owned by the moderate center of Australian politics. But I think for example, the more that we see communities cherishing that right to not only mobilize but participate in the democratic process and elections, but also apply scrutiny to voices within their own ranks, who take certain views. And apply scrutiny not in a kind of ASIO way, but in a much more free contest of ideas, media investigation.

Rory Medcalf:

Then I think we’re going to get through this. I worry a little bit about … In fact, I worry quite a lot about the risk of stigmatizing parts of the Australian population, and certainly stigmatizing some people in Chinese Australian communities, and they will take that personally. I think that unhelpful intervention by Senator Abetz on this the other week. I think in many ways the center in the debate has already shifted sufficiently that the scene is going to be set for communities to start, if you like, scrutinizing themselves and for media to take a continued interested.

Rory Medcalf:

Again, I’m moderately positive about our ability to get through this. However, if we see a hard partisan polarization on these issues, for example one side of politics saying we’re the side of politics that’s in favor, we have a good relationship with China, this other side is not, accusations of racism on either side. Anything that mirrors the kind of talking points we hear coming out of Beijing or echoed in the Chinese state propaganda, that’s when we’re going to have a challenge.

Rory Medcalf:

One last point, though I’ll make, Misha, and that is about the Australian electoral process, as well. One area where we’ve seen I think exploitation within the United States and elsewhere by foreign actors of the democratic process, is by amplifying any kind of criticism of the process itself by one side or other politics. Anything that undermines the credibility of the institutions themselves, the credibility of electoral systems. That’s a convoluted way of saying that I hope that in the Australian system, where we do have such a professional and impartial, credible electoral commission, I hope to see in future elections in Australia this continued restraint on the part of Australian political parties, so that whatever they do, they don’t cast the integrity of the electoral process in doubt. Because that is one of the vectors through which foreign interference operations will then, if you like, seek to magnify and cause harm.

Misha Zelinsky:

So you mean in the sense … Yeah, I completely agree. You certainly don’t want to delegitimize your own system and it’s certainly quite stark what we’re seeing in the United States, in terms of the Russians certainly couldn’t hope for so much propaganda about the failures of the voting system in the United States. And unfortunately coming from the US president at the moment is quite extraordinary.

Rory Medcalf:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to dig in a little bit into … I certainly share your concerns about the demonization of Chinese Australians or even Chinese people that are Chinese citizens studying in Australia, et cetera. How do you balance off the challenge where you know that … This is particular to the attitude of the Chinese Communist Party, which itself deems the Chinese diaspora, not just in Australia, but around the world, to be part of its I suppose domain. They certainly exert a lot of pressure and are highly active, basically a United Front Works Department in those communities. How do we balance off that activity as well as making sure that we’re not demonizing and using I suppose improper rhetoric when discussing this challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, that’s firstly where I think the quality of a lot of Australian investigative journalism has really been a major national asset. It’s almost been a contribution we’ve made to friends and partners overseas, to the Five Eyes and other democracies, as a early warning system. I think it has shifted public perception. I think that the greater public awareness that you need to question the … Not accuse, but seek clarity on the motives of certain interventions in Australian politics or certain interventions in community affairs, I think is quite reasonable.

Rory Medcalf:

I think that the proper resourcing of government agencies to conduct outreach to civil society, to business, even to universities, is going to be a really important part of the solution. Because what you want in the end is civil society, business, universities, all of these other players, basically being proactive and demonstrating the integrity of their systems, so that we can avoid and minimize anything that looks like taking I guess a much more forceful approach. Sooner or later, there are likely to be prosecutions, for example, under the foreign interference laws. But we don’t want that to become the norm. We want that to be the exception.

Misha Zelinsky:

So I mean, just to round this part of the conversation out, I mean, one of the things I think so the big challenge is lack of reciprocity between the systems. We’ve essentially seen a weaponization of the openness of Western liberal societies, and our openness of our systems, our discourse, the economics, all these things have been shifted. I mean, how do open systems beat closed systems? Because the thesis before was that closed systems are brittle, and they collapse. Now it seems that because they’re so open to so many vectors, a concentrated effort from a regime that means you harm can be quite challenging to deal with. I mean, how do you see that challenge?

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. Look, I think reciprocity’s important. I think we certainly have to be careful about anything that looks like, if you like, threatening some kind of interference in other societies. I don’t think that it’s a sane or sensible policy to be saying, for example, to the Chinese Communist Party, “Well, the more that we see you active in our system, we reserve the right to sow discord and dissent on your soil.” That’s going to be a losing game.

Rory Medcalf:

But simply by protecting the sanctuary within our own systems for dissenting voices, but making it absolutely clear that we’re not going to allow, for example, free expression to be shut down in parts of our society by a foreign actor, as has been attempted I think by the CCP occasionally in diaspora communities in Australia and elsewhere. We’re actually taking a defensive measure that I think is quite sustainable. I guess it’s about setting limits. It’s not about achieving any kind of absolute victory. It’s just about demonstrating that our system will survive, will be resilient, and that we will not be afraid of, if you like, attributing, pointing out what’s occurring. But also setting limits.

Rory Medcalf:

I don’t think there’s a guaranteed win for authoritarianism here. I’ve sort of meandered on this a little bit, but you might want to also think about time frame. Because in many ways, there’s now this new myth that time is on the side of authoritarian states, and of course, 15-20 years ago as we were saying, there was this naive belief that the internet, for example, would be this magic bullet for democratic freedoms everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

As Bill Clinton said.

Rory Medcalf:

Yeah. But we’ve swung around now to this idea that time is automatically on the side of authoritarian systems. It’s really up to democracies, whether it’s Australia, whether it’s in Europe, whether it’s in America, whether it’s in Asia, to demonstrate their own adaptability and I’d say if you … I see this as a 10-20 year long contest. In some ways, the playing field could look quite different. Especially in a decade or so from now, and especially, and this is a missing link, especially if you can build greater solidarity among the democracies and how they push back.

Rory Medcalf:

We’re seeing the kernel of that solidarity already. There’s no end of discussions now among evolving groupings, the quad in the Indo-Pacific, obviously the Five Eyes intelligence partners now widening their scope. But even institutions like so-called D10 of democracies. Not a formal government to government relationship, but a so-called 1.5 track arrangement of 10 of the world’s leading democracies, where policymakers and experts and commentators get together quite regularly now to exchange notes on how to manage the authoritarian challenge. I think we’ll see a lot more of that and we will begin to see concerted not so much push back, but concerted setting of limitations by these countries. Whether it’s on issues like hostage diplomacy as Australia and Canada have suffered.

Rory Medcalf:

Whether it’s on issues like how to build best practice in limiting foreign interference, whether it’s on issues like building alternative supply chains in areas such as critical minerals. There are a whole lot of areas where if we stay the course over about the next 5-10 years or beyond, the democracies will end up I think in a sufficiently strong and stable position, and a lot of the contradictions within authoritarian countries are likely to become more difficult for them to manage.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s interesting. You’ve stumbled into the next question that I wanted to ask you, which is about you’ve talking a lot about this concept of minilateralism. So, essentially small groupings getting together, like-minded nations, more than just bilateral. But do you see essentially things, true multilateralism, is that basically dead do you think in a modern context? Or are we going to have to rely on things like a D10 or the Five Eyes, a deeper Five Eyes, or things of that nature?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it’s certainly too soon to say that multilateralism is dead. The inclusive multilateralism of the United Nations, or big regional organizations where simply by being part of the region, you’re almost automatically entitled to membership. Of course we have all of the ASEAN centric institutions here in the Indo-Pacific. We have the EU, we have organizations that have built up over time to accommodate the widest possible range of interests.

Rory Medcalf:

Minilateralism, and for the benefit of your listeners, it’s small, self-selecting groups of three or more countries. Bigger than bilateral, but smaller than multilateral. I think that is the trend of the times, and we’re seeing that in everything from the trilaterals and the quadrilateral security dialog, right through to the way in which small groups are getting together to share best practice on COVID response, the way in which the Five Eyes intelligence partners are expanding to a whole geoeconomic agenda now.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s because it’s easiest, or it’s most effective for small groups to select one another on the basis of having interests in common, having capabilities that they can bring to the table, and having the political will to work together. But all of these layers of diplomacy will keep working I think in a loose kind of concert. I would call time on I guess the international rules based order, or the multilateral system, if you had essentially a wholesale defection. Whatever China and Russia are doing, we haven’t yet had the equivalent of an imperial Japan walking out of the League of Nations, as it did in 1933.

Misha Zelinsky:

So, what does that red line look like to your mind?

Rory Medcalf:

Of course, some would say that in fact the country that’s been calling on multilateralism has been the United States under Trump, rather than the Russians or the Chinese, even though so much of what Russia and China does is about double standards and about saying one thing and doing another. Look, I think a lot of it would relate to a comprehensive act of international aggression where major powers essentially either took sides or took that as a final warning that they would have to greatly reduce their exposure to one another.

Rory Medcalf:

So, a fully fledged attack on Taiwan, a fully fledged outbreak of hostilities between China and another major country. Not necessarily China and the United States, but for example China and India, China and Japan. I’d see those as pretty clear breakpoints. Likewise, overt Russian aggression against European countries. I think we’ve seen something beyond the grayzone that we’ve seen in Ukraine and elsewhere. I think we’re still not at that point. I think there’s a real possibility in the next 10 years that we’ll get to that point, but it’s not at all inevitable, and I guess I’d like to think that the US election in the next week or two could be the beginning of a point towards stemming that risk, especially if we see the United States begin to show a bit more respect for the system that it established in the first place.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you’ve talked about minilateralism. One of the ones that gets focused on a lot, or is getting more attention now, is the so called quad, which is Australia, United States, India, and Japan. China’s very displeased about this arrangement. I mean, what sort of hopes do you have for the quad? Do you think it can be a significant player in addressing these challenges we’ve talked about?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ve written quite a bit about the quad. Recent article in Australian Foreign Affairs and the quad features pretty heavily in my book on the Indo-Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

What’s it called, mate? Feel free to plug it.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ll do that. We’ll get there, I’m sure. The quad is not what its critics often claim it to be. Some critics say that its problem is that it’s going to become an Asian NATO. In other words, it’s an alliance, it’s the basis of a formal alliance that will “contain China and provoke China” into all sorts of things like military modernization, assertiveness and so forth. Things incidentally that China’s already doing.

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say, they’re already happening.

Rory Medcalf:

Sort of since the last 15 years proves, if you like, or the 13 years since the quad that was originally conceived, proves that in the quad’s absence, from 2008 to 2017 there was no quad, in the quad’s absence, pretty much all of the troubling things that the quad was supposed to provoke have actually taken place. The quad is not now or in the foreseeable future, a hard alliance. On the other hand, nor is it a flimsy, meaningless conversation. Critics also say, “Well, what’s the point of this?” Since when the chips are down for countries with somewhat disparate interests as America, Japan, India, and Australia are not going to take fundamental risks on one another’s behalf. They’re not going to be true allies, so what’s the point?

Rory Medcalf:

However, most of what happens in statecraft and diplomacy happens in between the extremes of golden peace and total war. There’s lots of assertiveness and coercion and negotiation, and second guessing that takes place. And the quad, and other minilateral institutions provides I think a really flexible vehicle for all of those issues in between, where you want to start showing gradations of solidarity, gradations of resolve. You want to demonstrate to a country like China that the more it throws its weight around against individual states in the Indo-Pacific, the more it’s going to encourage states to trust one another far more than they will trust China.

Rory Medcalf:

As for practical cooperation, we’re really only at the very beginning. We’ve seen in the last two or three years, not only the rebirth of the quad going very quickly to a ministerial level dialogue, now to military exercises, the Malabar naval exercise that Australia’s been admitted to. But there appears to be lots of behind the scenes and actually fairly upfront diplomacy occurring on issues like supply chain security, COVID response, critical minerals, cyber, critical technologies. In other words, the quad’s creating a new infrastructure of trust for the next 10 years or more, and it’s sending a signal I think to other countries in the region that it’s possible to build these new coalitions of trust.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d like to see the quad build its own additional relationships with, for example, South East Asian countries like Vietnam or Indonesia, that have a lot at stake and a lot to offer. Maybe with European partners, France and Britain, who are playing back into the Indo-Pacific in a big way. Let’s see where we can get with this thing. I don’t think the Indians and the Indians are critical in this, are under any illusion that were a conflict to flare up on the border with China again tomorrow, that the quad would be parachuting troops in from its member countries to hold the line.

Rory Medcalf:

But at the same time, I think increasingly you’ll see intelligence sharing, geoeconomic support for one another on supply chains, on resilient infrastructure, on cyber, that will actually help individual countries like India build their capability to protect themselves, protect their sovereignty, and that’s enough, in my view.

Misha Zelinsky:

Let’s talk about India. Switching back to bilateralism. It’s probably a country that I know you’ve talked about it quite a bit, increasingly others are talking about it. There was a report commissioned by the government a couple of years ago about looking at deepening economic ties with India. What’s your view? I mean, are we underdone in the relationship from a strategic point of view? How could we deepen it? Why does it matter?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, India matters, and I think what I’m pleased about with the way the strategic dialogues have evolved in the last few years is that no one in Australia really questions anymore that India’s important. It’s just that we have trouble still quite coming to terms with it, quite knowing the right line of engagement. Because India is big, it is complex, it’s untidy. That’s no surprise for anyone.

Rory Medcalf:

I think one of the reasons why I’ve actually got a certain respect for India’s achievements over the past 70 years or more really, is that when you think of all India’s problems, you’ve also got to think of what an extraordinary challenge it is to manage such a large and diverse society within a single democratic framework. If you were to take the entire American content and Europe and a good chunk of the Middle East, and treat that as one federated democracy, that would be less diverse than India.

Misha Zelinsky:

Wow.

Rory Medcalf:

Certainly linguistically or culturally, and roughly the same population. That’s the political challenge, and that’s actually the political achievement that India has demonstrated. Yes, its democracy is imperfect, yes I’m worried a bit about the illiberal turn that parts of the Indian polity have taken in the past few years, but India has enormous resilience. It’s a very antifragile country in a way, and I’m reasonably confident that it will chart its own path. We want to think really about India over again, over a generational time frame.

Rory Medcalf:

A large proportion of the world’s youth in India, the future workforce, the future unemployed, however you want to see it. We want to help India achieve as much of its potential as we can, while respecting its democratic institutions and traditions. And without placing I think unrealistic expectations such as that India and Australia are going to become formal treaty allies anytime soon, and we shouldn’t … I’ll pause on this point. We shouldn’t project on India the mythology that somehow it’s going to be the next China, that it will have within the next number of years, as spectacular an economic rise as China had in recent decades.

Rory Medcalf:

Because democracy means, and the nature of Indian democracy means in a sense, India fails every day, but it keeps going. Whereas I’d say that in China, we’ve seen a spectacular achievement at enormous cost to human rights, and if China in some way fails, it’s going to do so spectacularly. That’s how I’d see India. We’ve got to be patient. We’ve started on this journey. We’ve got many years to go.

Misha Zelinsky:

So just quickly, one last point on India and China, because you talked about demography there in India. I mean, one of the things that China is struggling with is its demographic destiny, with the one child policy. It’s going to be old before it gets rich. Do you think India has inbuilt advantages on that basis?

Rory Medcalf:

Look, it does, but there’s potential for an extraordinary demographic dividend or something of a demographic disaster, as well. It really is about employment, education, and dignity for this extraordinary Indian youth demographic. I would say that on balance, the creativity that we’ve seen over many years now among younger generations of Indians, not only in India but in diaspora communities all around the world, is going to provide India with a pretty significant advantage. But it is going to take further reform, economically. It’s going to take pretty high degrees of mutual respect and tolerance inside the Indian political system.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s where the role of decision and leadership is going to matter in the years ahead, and that’s where it’s going to be important firstly, for India to reinvigorate its democracy, to have a more effective opposition if you like, because one reason that Modi has done so well is that the Congress Party, which has now become the main party of opposition, used to be the natural part of government, really hasn’t reinvigorated itself. Hasn’t got beyond its dynastic dependence on the Nehru–Gandhi dynasty.

Rory Medcalf:

We’ve also seen I think a lot of the talent of young Indians go into the private sector and that’s a good thing, but we now need to see the Indian state and the Indian private sector work more closely together within the democratic framework. Lots of uncertainties there, but I think Australia is absolutely right to be investing in the relationship, as long as we keep our expectations tempered.

Misha Zelinsky:

One last regional scan around the place. I mean, and we’ll have to keep it short because I know your time is precious, but Indonesia, again, probably a nation-state that is massively unders in its discussion in Australia, other than perhaps Bali trips. How do you see that relationship and what’s its relevance to Australia, and also to the region?

Rory Medcalf:

I’ll link Indonesia and India in this sentence, if you like, because there’s obviously certain things they have in common that aren’t respected enough in Australia beyond the policy class. I would actually say that our policymakers, particularly our diplomats, generally get India and Indonesia now. I used to despair that 20 years ago our diplomats generally didn’t appreciate India’s potential, but our officials have always known that Indonesia is important.

Rory Medcalf:

What we need to do, though, is to get that awareness beyond Canberra and beyond the bureaucratic and diplomatic and indeed political elite. And India has the advantage in a way, because there is now such a strong people to people link, such a strong societal connection between India and Australia, or between really South Asia and Australia, that a cultural understanding of what India is and where it’s going is becoming I think pretty grounded in Australia society.

Rory Medcalf:

The same has not happened for Indonesia, and in fact, there are still other South East Asian societies, or South East Asian diaspora communities that are very established in Australia such as from Vietnam, for example. But we don’t have the same popular perception of what Indonesia is or what it can be. There is hard work for government and business still ahead on this, and I would say that that really needs to be a priority because Indonesia is at the center of our region. I mean, I’ll plug my book here, Misha, if you don’t mind.

Misha Zelinsky:

Please do.

Rory Medcalf:

My argument in the book Contest For The Indo-Pacific, is not as some people would argue, it’s not that all of the region’s problems are about China, or that India is the magical solution. It’s a much more nuanced argument than that, but I do make the argument that middle powers and middle players, countries that are not China and not the United States, are working together, are going to really provide the best hope of holding the line while either the United States gets its house in order, or we work through the next 20 years or so and China discovers the limits of its own ambition.

Rory Medcalf:

Indonesia is going to be important in that game because geographically it’s at the crossroads of this maritime region, the Indo-Pacific. So much of the trade and commerce that all of our nations depend on, even now because deglobalization is only going to be ever a partial thing. Maritime trade this year has actually increased, despite COVID, which I found fascinating. Indonesia is at that crossroads, and secondly Indonesia as a democracy, and as actually a pretty multicultural democracy, with the Muslim majority, Indonesia has the potential to be a leader and the natural leader in South East Asia, and occasionally is showing signs that it’s willing to do that.

Rory Medcalf:

So, diplomatically we should work with Indonesia, at least as much as we do and probably more so, but the missing link is still finding that societal and cultural connection, and really encouraging our business community to bet on Indonesia and bet on Indonesia’s own youth dividend that it has just like India.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Rory, I could go all day with this, as you well know, and everyone that listens to my podcast know that I can go all day on these things. But now it’s time for one of my famous clunky segues to the fun part of the show, and I know you can’t wait to answer these questions, but a barbecue at Rory’s where you’re plugging your book, three foreigners coming along, I’m sure … I’m quite interested in your answer actually. There’s three foreigners, alive or dead, come to a barbecue at yours. Who are they, and why?

Rory Medcalf:

I’d be curious to know what answers you got out of others for that rather fascinating, contrived question.

Misha Zelinsky:

The Americans can be a bit hit and miss depending. I’m sure they wouldn’t mind me saying that. Sometimes they say Russell Crowe, which I have to always point out to them, is a Kiwi.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s right. He’s a foreigner. No look, for a start, because we’re talking about international attendance at my special barbecue, it’s going to be probably a halal barbecue with vegetarian options, to respect that cultural diversity. And most of the people I’d love to have the conversation with that I can’t have, are people who aren’t with us anymore. There’s a few famous or forgotten names, particularly from the 20th century, who I’d love to see at my barbecue. I’d certainly want a few thinkers, a few big thinkers there. People like Hannah Arendt or Isaiah Berlin, who are some of the great anti-totalitarian thinkers of the 20th century.

Rory Medcalf:

I’d love to have a couple of great statesman, or leaders from the 20th century. Particularly those who we’re not always quite so aware of. For example, Gustaf Mannerheim, who was really the great leader of independent Finland in the early 20th century. And apart from anything else, not only led many aspects of Finnish independence, but fought the Winter War against the Russians. Someone who I guess a bit like Lee Kuan Yew, in a somewhat more democratic setting, really helped a small country to make its way in the world.

Rory Medcalf:

And then finally I think it’d be great to connect with some voices from our region, from Indonesia or India in particular, and I’d enjoy seeing for example, three generations of I think the most accomplished Indian families. So, the current Indian External Affairs Minister, Jaishankar. His son, Dhruva, who’s a great Indian security thinker, and in fact Dhruva’s late grandfather, K. Subrahmanyam, who was a great thinker in India’s strategic journey from the 1970s onwards. It’s a pretty eclectic mix, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise from a man as learned as yourself.

Rory Medcalf:

That’s the conversation I’d love to have about really how do you advance the interests of your country in a really contested world while staying true to your values?

Misha Zelinsky:

I think there’s certainly plenty to teach us based on the conversation we’ve just had, so I think that’s a perfect place to leave it. Rory Medcalf, thank you so much for joining us Diplomates.

Rory Medcalf:

Thank you.

 

Eric Schultz: Hope v Fear? Obama, Authenticity and Election 2020

Eric Schultz, is the founder of the Schultz Group and is currently a senior advisor to former President Barack Obama. He served in the White House as the Principal Deputy Press Secretary and Special Assistant to the president. 

Recognized by Politico as the strategist “White House officials turn to in a crisis to handle communications,” Schultz advised the president, spoke on behalf of the Administration on Air Force One and in the White House briefing room, and helped manage the Administration’s proactive messaging and news-of-the-day responses. 

Schultz is a veteran of numerous statewide and national campaigns. Before joining the White House, Schultz served as communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he became “well-known among Washington reporters for his aggressive, behind-the-scenes approach,” as noted by Politico. Schultz spent several years on Capitol Hill working for key U.S. senators, including now Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. Schultz, who most recently advised Netflix’s reboot of Designated Survivor, currently provides strategic communications guidance to clients in the political, financial, technology and entertainment sectors.

Misha Zelinsky aught up with Eric for a chinwag about life in the Obama White House, how to manage a crisis, the three secret words of communications, what the Situation Room is actually like, Election 2020, why politicians must be authentic, whether Hope beats Fear and what Obama is really like off camera.

It’s a really fun chat and we hope you enjoy it. Eric is super generous with his time.

If you’re enjoying the show, jump on twitter and instagram @mishazelinsky @diplomatesshow and let us know what you think. Plenty of you are heckling us there already; and we are happy to dive deeper into things we chat about.

Also 5 star reviews are appreciated. They game the algorithm and help push us above Putin. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

Eric Schultz, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Thank you. Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now as ever, there’s so many places to start with someone who’s had such a big career like yourself. But given we’re heading into election season, I thought I might take you back in time just quickly. Back to 2016, the night of the last presidential election. How surprised, I suppose, were you at this result? And what were your feelings on the night?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. When I agreed to do this conversation, I wasn’t sure we had to relive that night. But I’m happy to indulge. The question is, was I surprised? And yes, absolutely. I don’t think stunned, flabbergasted, bowled over do it justice. I think that all of us in the country, but also in the White House, were anticipating that Secretary Clinton was going to prevail on election night. So to say we were stunned is a bit of an understatement.

Eric Schultz:

But I will say that President Obama gathered all of us the next morning, Wednesday morning, as many of us trudged into work having stayed up the entire night and were exhausted and emotionally drained and empty inside and a whole whirlwind of emotions and thoughts going through our head. He was the one who called us into the Oval Office early that Wednesday morning and said, “Look, the story line of history is that it zigs and it zags, and it doesn’t always go in a straight direction.” And that as public servants, and as the keepers of democracy at that moment, our job was to follow through with a peaceful transition of power. He wanted to send a signal that morning that the sun is going to rise and that the foundations of our country and the values and the democratic small-D institutions that we have are strong enough to withstand any particular, any singular election result.

Eric Schultz:

And so it was under his direction that we sent that message loudly and clearly on Wednesday morning, and then spent the next two or three months providing for a real peaceful transition of power. And that meant, at the principle level, in terms of President Obama and president-elect Trump, convening. But down to the staff level, making sure that his team knew as much as possible going into this, when you land a new job in a new building in a new weird place, that they had as much knowledge and support on the front end of that as possible. And I certainly communicated with my counterpart who was going to replace me, and I said, “Look,” we met once. I can’t remember if that was December or January, or November. But I said, “Look, I’m happy to be available to you. We can meet in private, we can meet in public, we can email, talk. Whatever you want to do.” And that was based on the directive from the President to be as helpful as possible to the incoming team.

Misha Zelinsky:

We will talk probably a little bit about the Trump White House. I’d like to talk about your time in the Obama White House. You were in a position advising him on communications. First, I suppose, it’s a position of high levels of trust. How did you earn President Obama’s trust? And then how were you able to, I suppose, advise him around his expectations of his comms team?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, so I started in the White House in the spring of 2011, which is when Republicans had taken over the House of Representatives, one chamber of the US Congress. And they vowed all of this congressional oversight into the administration, a whole bunch of investigations. And the White House smartly decided to hire a bunch of outside people to help manage the response to those investigations. So I hired mostly lawyers, but some researchers, some communications people. And so, for my early years in the White House, that was the scope of my portfolio was managing the response to those investigations.

Eric Schultz:

My purview broadened from there. And then when Jay Carney left and Josh Earnest became the Press Secretary in 2014, he asked me to be his deputy. And I tell people it’s a little bit like being… I usually say Miss America runner-up, right? When Josh couldn’t perform his duties, they roll me out and I’d try to do the best job that I could. And it was really from that perch where I developed a relationship with President Obama. And the truth of the matter is, a lot of that relationship was nourished playing cards with the President. Just on long trips, what he does to clear his mind, to just relax, is to play cards. And so we, on a lot of plane rides-

Misha Zelinsky:

What was the game?

Eric Schultz:

Spades. And I was terrible, and he is super competitive, but he’s also mentoring. And so as a cruel joke, I was on his team, which is the worst case scenario because he’s dependent on you. And so not only is he competitive, he’s thankfully very forgiving. And so that’s where we developed a personal relationship.

Eric Schultz:

And then obviously in the middle of these trips, there’s a lot of communications and messaging judgment calls and conversations we would have in order for him to, again, learn to trust me. I did not work on the President’s 2008 campaign, so I was not part of that team that worked with him to get to the White House. So I consider myself very lucky that, even as an outsider, I was able to develop a relationship with him.

Misha Zelinsky:

What are some of your best and worst moments in the White House then? Given that you’ve sort of clearly had a good relationship with the President, I imagine it wasn’t always all sunshine and rainbows, it’s a tough environment, it’s a high pressure, high stakes environment.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. I don’t know if this made international headlines, but the President’s signature domestic legislative accomplishment in the first term was universal healthcare, what we call the Affordable Care Act, which later became known as Obamacare. And this is something that, again, presidents I think dating back to Teddy Roosevelt had tried to do and tried to get done and President Obama got this done in 2009 in his first year in office. And it was a very complicated piece of business, but it required sort of transforming… I think one sixth of the US economy is healthcare based. And so it was going to be moving a lot of different pieces.

Eric Schultz:

We had until 2014 to prepare to implement it and over the course of those years that meant putting pen to paper and getting all of the infrastructure in place. And we, again, given that it was the President’s signature domestic accomplishment, we wanted to make sure nothing could go wrong. But it was going to require a whole bunch of buy-in and support from everyone under the sun. The hospitals, the drug makers, patients, healthcare providers, insurers, politicians, civic leaders, businesses. Everyone under the sun sort of had to be bought into this in order to make it work. And we put in a lot of years of work to get ready for the launch. And, again I don’t know if this was an international affair, but we did launch and everything that we put into it didn’t work because the website flopped.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’d like to say that we didn’t hear about that, mate, but unfortunately as you’re telling that story I was saying, “I hope this isn’t about the website.”

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, this is about the website. You asked for my worst time in the White House and it was 100% the healthcare.gov flailing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that couldn’t have been a fun time. But sorry, keep going.

Eric Schultz:

It was terrible. And to the President’s credit, he understood that this wasn’t a communications problem, this was just a problem. And he understood that until the website got fixed the breathless, non-stop, around the clock coverage of this failure wasn’t going to change. And so, again, we stood up a task force and surged our Department of Health and Human Services with resources and Silicon Valley experts and a whole bunch of assets to sort of redo that website and get it up and running as soon as humanly possible.

Eric Schultz:

As a communicator it’s a story about… I don’t want to say damage control because there wasn’t really a way to control that damage, but in terms of being open and transparent with reporters and the country about what we were doing to fix the problem and I think we had something like a weekly, or maybe even more frequent than that, conference call where we would talk through in a very technical level what specifications we were fixing that day, what our estimates were for people being able to get through and sign up. Eventually we got a website that worked and a program that insured 20 million new Americans.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’re someone that goes and stands at the lectern, or did, in terms of preparation that goes into something like that, how difficult is it to get totally across all the information that you got to have, be briefed on, but then you are briefing the media on? I mean, it’s an extraordinarily challenging task for one person to do. Maybe give us a sense of that.

Eric Schultz:

Right. So this is one of those that I can only speak to my experience in the Obama White House, and others may judge it as a contrast with our current White House, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Slightly

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. My understanding is that our processes track closely our predecessors, so the Bush administration, the Clinton administration. And essentially, when the press secretary speaks from the podium we’re not just shooting from the hip. The reason we go out with a thick binder of talking points and guidance is because we understand that we are speaking for not just president, but for the United States of America on the world stage.

Eric Schultz:

And I think that in politics a lot of us get ridiculed for being so careful in our language and there’s political speak and we can get sort of mocked for being very generic or very vague. But the reason we do that is important. When you’re speaking for the White House your words carry enormous weight and you can move stock markets, you can alienate allies, you can mobilize armies, you can annoy your friends. So what we try to do is make sure that when Josh or myself or Robert gives, or Jay Carney, whoever was speaking for the administration on any given day, was fully prepared with guidance that represented the 360 degree viewpoint of the US government.

Eric Schultz:

And so sometimes that’s complicated. Sometimes if we’re talking about the Iran nuclear negotiations that is a process that involves the state departments, Secretary Kerry was the lead negotiator, that involves the department of energy, the department of interior, that involves our office of legislative affairs to make sure congress is looped, our office of public engagement to make sure some of the climate and energy activists are comfortable with what we’re saying, that includes our White House councils office to make sure that legally we’re in the right lanes.

Eric Schultz:

So when we speak, again it wasn’t just what the press people want to say, it’s language that we know has to be carefully vetted throughout all the different components of the administration.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s an extraordinary difficult challenge. You can understand why it does sometimes sound a little, for lack of a better word, nuanced or more like a UN resolution.

Eric Schultz:

Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

The current president, he watches press conferences very closely of his press secretaries. Was there ever a moment where you got off and thought, “Well, that’s it. I’m fired. This went that badly. I really hope I don’t see the president in the next 24 hours.”?

Eric Schultz:

Thank goodness, no. And that’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, I make plenty. But the three hardest words I had to learn when briefing the press were, “I don’t know.” And that is not an instinct that comes naturally. You sort of want to flub your way through and find some space to give an answer. But I think at the end of the day, reporters will respect you more if you’re willing to acknowledge that you don’t have the answer at your fingertips and you’ll follow up with them and get them the best answer you can.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good lesson. In terms of, you’ve talked about all the things going on, what’s one of the biggest crises you dealt with at the White House and how do you go about communicating that? And I suppose as a comms specialist, what are the key principles of crisis communications? Because a lot of people in politics listen to this show, big audience in political circles. I heard everyone lean in a little as I said that. I’m kind of curious for your take.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. I was thinking about this question and I was thinking back to the G20 summit in 2016 in Hangzhou, China and this was sort of at the end of the presidency and it was a moment where we were trying to sort of wrap up and make some sort of endgame progress on a lot of the president’s priorities. And I think we had negotiated a pretty strong deal with President Xi on greenhouse gas emissions, we had made some progress on cyber, on a whole host of other issues, at the time dealing with Syria and dealing with refugees were both very hot ticket items and President Obama had worked closely with a bunch of other foreign leaders to make progress on those issues. But the thing that dominated the coverage of that G20 was that the Chinese officials at the airport used the wrong stairs for when President Obama descended the aircraft. And this was something that dominated three or four days worth of coverage back here in the United States.

Misha Zelinsky:

Big issue.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, exactly. It was read as this big Chinese snub of the American president and a veracious appetite to cover the optics of the stairs versus the actual substance of what we were trying to accomplish on the ground as part of the summit. As much as we could cajole reporters into focusing on issues that actually mattered and not the circumstances which surrounded which staircase the president used to descend the aircraft on arriving in China, we had mixed success.

Eric Schultz:

And eventually, at one of the press briefings they asked President Obama about it and he said, “Look, I wouldn’t over-crank this. The truth is,” I remember this, “There was a mix-up at the airport, it was a smaller airport, and they just didn’t have the right driver of the right stairs,” so it was a very technical staffing bureaucratic stuff. But again, it got ballooned into this international affair of outsized proportion. And again, we just tried our best to focus reporters on substance and what work was actually unfolding on the ground, as opposed to that sort of stuff.

Misha Zelinsky:

It must be frustrating though, right? Trying to get people to focus on the substance rather than the triviality. I mean, that’s a bigger problem that no single press secretary’s going to solve on their own. But in terms of broadening out a little bit more to just generally politics and good communication, what do you think the biggest mistakes you observe people trying to communicate in noisy environments and what’s the best way to cut through in that sense?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I think that’s a profound question. It’s sort of the biggest challenge we face. In the White House we had a saying that our strategy was to find audiences where they are at and that was sort of our guiding principle. So I’ll give you a few examples.

Eric Schultz:

When the United States was negotiating the Paris climate accord in 2015 we wanted a way to sell this to the American public in a way that was outside the typical political conversation. The president went to visit the Arctic, he was a first sitting president to visit the Arctic and we didn’t at the time when developing a media strategy, we decided we weren’t going to sit down with 60 Minutes or the Washington Post or New York Times, we sat down with Bear Grylls. Who I don’t know if you all know, he’s an outdoorsman, he’s got a couple of shows.

Misha Zelinsky:

Kind of like Steve Irwin was, right?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. An outdoorsman who thrives in natural environments. And we wanted to be able to breakthrough to an audience that, again, doesn’t follow the day to day of the Paris negotiations or what’s happening in the house subcommittee on interior, but rather just appreciates clean air, clean water, wants their kids to grow up in a world that’s healthy.

Eric Schultz:

And so we did an hour long primetime special with Bear Grylls where President Obama and him, it was a beautiful set, where they sort of wandered outside and I think they caught raw fish with their bare hands and all that stuff. And it was a really nice setting in order to, again, just breakthrough what we were doing, why we were doing it, but to an audience that wasn’t necessarily attuned to the politics.

Misha Zelinsky:

It is hard. It’s increasingly hard to find new audiences, right? People are very much in their bubbles. It is hard to cut through to people that aren’t just probably like you or I, or listeners to this podcast, addicts to the political news cycle, so it is challenging. That’s an interesting way that you guys did it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, just switching up to 2020 or at least to present day. One of the things I’m actually curious about before we talk about the election and President Trump more generally, you’re still advising President Obama, he intervenes very rarely I suppose into politics, like most former presidents. How do you make an assessment when that should be, on which topic, in which way? Because former president’s words carry a particular weight, particularly the predecessor, and I think particularly when you consider the relationship between the current president and the former president.

Eric Schultz:

Yup. That’s a great question. I think much like many chapters of President Obama’s public life, this is the first post-presidency of its kind. I don’t think any other former US president has had to face what President Obama has. And look, the truth is President Obama believes deeply in this American principle of one president at a time. He believes that for a couple of reasons. One is, he’s mindful and respectful and grateful for the latitude that his predecessor gave to him while he was serving in office. And again, that was after a 2008 presidential campaign where President Obama was quite aggressive towards President Bush and his policies.

Eric Schultz:

But mostly it is because President Obama believes that in order for the democratic party here in the US to move on, that the next generation of leaders need to step up. And that if he gets outsized attention for when he speaks out and if he is always soaking up the limelight and soaking up the oxygen, that really limits the ability for the next wave of leaders to step up and take hold. And he’s been very careful to makes sure that he will speak out when he feels American values are threatened, and we have on a whole host of issues. But in the whole, he wants to make sure that the next wave of democratic leaders is able to command the spotlight and grow into their roles as national leaders.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. It must be very difficult at times to bite his tongue given, it seems, he’s got an administration that wants to bait him at every opportunity. If not at the podium, via Twitter or other challenges, and then also you got a very noisy media environment in the conservative media space.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, on a personal level, as someone that’s been behind the press podium, what goes through your head when you’ve watched the press briefings throughout the duration of the Trump administration thus far? Do you ever feel a little bit sorry for the person at the time? Like they go up there and take a beating. You’re shaking your head for those watching at home.

Eric Schultz:

No. I mean, look, because I still work for President Obama I’m sort of constrained in how much I can talk about the current administration. I will say though, that for me, I do get this a lot, which is, “How can you stand to watch the press briefings?” Like, how can you stand to watch the press briefing? It’s pretty cringe-worthy for anyone. I will just say as a top line that credibility matters and it doesn’t just matter I think it’s everything.

Eric Schultz:

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of combative conversations and exchanges I had with reporters and we always put our best spin on the ball and aggressively made our strongest argument and wanted to make sure that that was presented to the press. But, and I think reporters would back us up, we never knowingly lied. We never knowingly mislead anyone. And if we did, it was sort of an errant one-off mistake that we owned up to.

Eric Schultz:

And so I just think as a communicator, again whether you’re representing the president of the United States, a foreign leader, a state senator, a member of congress, a business leader, whoever, that you have to be straight with people. I mean, it’s probably a good personal rule of thumb even if you’re not a communicator. But that once you undermine your own credibility it is virtually impossible to regain it. We’re going through a few new cycles here where the White House is having to contend with other anonymous sources and other reports and other things where if they had had credibility over the past four years, they’d have more standing to make effective arguments and to be more persuasive. But because there’s sort of a pattern of not telling the truth, they are in a weaker position to make their case.

Eric Schultz:

That’s my biggest takeaway. And again, it doesn’t just pertain to the White House. I think whenever you’re speaking for someone or a company or a group or a candidate or a public official, whatever, that if the person on the other side of the conversation doesn’t believe that you’re telling the truth, then you’re not doing your job.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a really well-made point. I think that’s exactly right. You can say whatever you want, but if there’s zero credibility behind it, it makes it very difficult to spin. Though it is hard to spin, I imagine, 18 separate recordings of interviews with Bob Woodward. There’s only so much one can spin on that. Were you shocked that the president had given 18 on the record interviews to the person that took down Nixon?

Eric Schultz:

There’s a funny rule of thumb in Washington, the only thing worse than not engaging Bob Woodward when working on a book is engaging Bob Woodward when he’s working on a book.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I guess President Trump’s about to find that out. Because there was fear where they didn’t engage and now there’s rage where they have engaged

Eric Schultz:

Look, I don’t want to comment on their strategy. We had plenty of critical books written about President Obama and sometimes they are hard to navigate. Reporters are not novices, they know how to start from the outside, people who might be less informed and work their way up. And so we had to navigate plenty of books, plenty of them were not particularly complimentary about President Obama.

Eric Schultz:

I think Woodward is obviously one of the legendary journalists of our time, but given the track record of this White House in contravening their own comments, that he was very shrewd to get tapes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Indeed. Now switching up to, we are I’m not sure how many days out, not a great number of days out, probably 50 days out from the election. What’s your take on this years election? What can we expect? This is probably going to be a wild ride. I mean, clearly most of us in the game, and I’ve said this on this podcast before, I was horrendously wrong on 2016 and the outcome. What’s your take on it thus far on the matchup between former Vice President Biden and President Trump?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, your caveats well taken. I think we were all tremendously wrong about 2016, so take that for what it’s worth, audience. But look, I think President Trump has tremendous advantages on his side, but he’s got a lot of crosswinds too. Our country’s suffering from a health pandemic that in many other corners of the world has been much better managed and other racial injustice challenges that he has not calmed but rather has stoked and an economy that is in a really challenging spot. And so it’s up to Vice President Biden to make the case that he can get us to a better path. I think that a lot of the data suggests that people are clamoring for precisely Vice President Biden’s message of unifying the country and bringing us together and restoring basic competency back to the administration.

Eric Schultz:

And so I think you’re right, I think it’s going to be a dog fight for the next 50 days. Both of our conventions, the Republican and Democratic Conventions, are now over. And so obviously Vice President Biden has selected his running mate, so the next three big moments for our domestic political calendar are the three debates. And so President Trump and Vice President Biden will face off in three debates. The first one is at the end of September, and then the two others are in October. And so those will be big moments that get a lot of attention.

Eric Schultz:

But other than that, there’s just a lot of back and forth between the two camps. But I think that clearly in our primary process and now in our general election there is a yearning for a return to steady, strong, capable leadership. The type of vision that people associate with Vice President Biden. Vice President Biden’s been around for a long time. He obviously was President Obama’s Vice President for eight years, but before that served in the senate for a while and he’s a known commodity. People know his story, they respect him, they know that he’s a good, decent public servant, in it for the right reasons.

Eric Schultz:

Like a lot of voters in Australia people aren’t necessarily digging into the white papers and all the policy sheets, but they’re going to vote based on their values and if they feel that Vice President Biden animates them and is consistent with the character and principle of what they want to see in the White House. And I think he’s going to win.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you’re a messaging guy, you work for one of the most legendary presidents who ran on a positive message, a hope message, and you’ve got a president now who very much prosecutes the antithesis of that. It’s a fear message. In this election now, does hope beat fear or does fear beat hope? Because both candidates are painting very different, you look at the way the conventions went, they’re painting very different… Your point about competency I think is well-made. I think people certainly are yearning for that. But how do you see that messaging battle playing out? And which one typically wins in your assessment?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, it’s a great question and since I still work for President Obama I’m going to be an optimist.

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Our country’s going through a very painful time and there is protest, there is unrest, there’s unimaginable death and pain and sickness and illness, and there’s job loss, there’s rising poverty. And I think that people really are hungry for a better path and I think that Vice President Biden has been very precise in how he’s presented his alternative to the current scenario and that if people want to go back to a basic approach where government is on your side and just trying to make things better, we don’t have all the solutions and we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers to get out of this, but that we return to a government that respects the rule of law, respects the freedom of the press, respects scientists, respects democratic institutions.

Eric Schultz:

I think that is why the Vice President gained traction in the primary and that’s why I think he’s doing well right now. I don’t think that people want more of the same chaos and division and fear that President Trump stokes and that’s why I’m optimistic.

Misha Zelinsky:

You mentioned you’re still working for President Obama, so noting that you’re still on the payroll we might have to discount this answer slightly, I thought maybe you might just give us a sense, a lot of us we watch people on TV, you make an assessment of what sort of person they are. I think current president you get a pretty good sense of what sort of person he is. I always thought as well with President Obama that he would be very similar to the way he presented in public, in long form interviews et cetera, he seemed like, frankly, a pretty cool guy. Can you maybe give us… And I’m sure he’s listening to this and so obviously you’ll need to catch your remarks, mate. But maybe if you could just give us a little bit of insight there if you mind.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, the bummer is you’re right, I am still on the payroll so I get paid to say this, but it is the truth. Which is the guy you have seen on the world stage for the past 10 or 12 years is the guy I talk to in person. He’s as worldly and as smart as you’d think, but just as down to earth as you’d hope. And I don’t think that’s an accident. In other words, I think that we now live in a media environment that you have a real intimacy with your public officials. This isn’t a time where politics are happening distantly and you watch the news at 6:30 at night and get a report. You are constantly in their space, they are in your space.

Eric Schultz:

And the reason why President Obama was so successful and effective is because there was an authenticity to him and that voters have a really good whiff that if you’re being fake that’s a red flag. And I think that is a newer phenomenon that you could sort of get away with a façade or a public persona that’s different than who you are personally. But I don’t know that works anymore. And so I think that that’s largely one of the reasons why he’s been so successful is he is who he is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. It’s very difficult to survive the glare of so many cameras and social media and the consistent cut through. Now, you talked about things being as they are, you’re the consultant on the hit TV show Designated Survivor-

Eric Schultz:

Yes!

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:37:13] your comments you talked about the fact that Hollywood’s portrayal of the White House is not what it’s like to work there in terms of its salubriousness or otherwise. Maybe you could just quickly give us a rundown of that, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I worked on the show Designated Survivor for the third season, Netflix rebooted it, and it was a blast to work on. It was an experience for me because you had a bunch of writers out in Los Angeles who have never, I mean I’m sure some of them have been to Washington, but none of them had worked in government and most of them had not been inside the White House. So they’re writing 60 minutes worth of content about a setting and environment they’d never been in.

Eric Schultz:

And so it was a great opportunity for me to walk them through what’s realistic inside the White House. And again, not all of my suggestions were taken, but it was a fun moment to connect what they wanted their Hollywood storyline to still have some realism. And yeah, the pictures of the situation room that people hear a lot about are much more glamorous than what they actually are, which is sort of a couple of cavernous conference rooms with some wall clocks and TV screens that have telecommunications capabilities.

Misha Zelinsky:

Careful, mate, Putin might be listening. You don’t want to give the game away.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I know. I know, I know. One of the storylines that the writers did like was we had problems with mice pretty frequently and in order to address the problem with mice it wasn’t just one phone call, it was sort of a bureaucratic process of our general services administration and who can call who and get what apparatus over the building to address the very acute problem that there’s rodents at my feet. So as writers they had fun with that. But yeah, I think that how Hollywood portrays Washington, it’s obviously fun entertainment, but I do think this is how a lot of people get their information and a lot of people’s understanding of government, the White House, how Washington works, is often derived from popular culture.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, there’s one final question before you go now. Typically, because we’re a heavy foreign policy show, it’s very difficult to get in anything approaching a non-clumsy segue, but we are talking about mice and rodents in the White House so it’s a little bit easier to switch up to barbecues at Eric’s place. Now, you are an American guest so you have to have three Australians. We’ve already mentioned Steve Irwin so he’s out, but three Aussies to barbecue at Eric’s and why?

Eric Schultz:

I know, so I was planning to do a lot of homework to research this question of authors, civic leaders, Aussies who have been impressive on the world stage. I did none of that homework. One of my dreams is to come to the Australian Open so I was looking at Australian tennis players, I was really trying to roll up my sleeves and get you good guidance. But I think I’m just going to fall back on the answers I’m sure all of your American guests give you of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Hugh Jackman.

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

What’s that?

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

I think they’re going to be my three. I don’t know if the show-

Misha Zelinsky:

I don’t know if they’re friends. We should probably check that, but I guess they are. I don’t know. There might be some-

Eric Schultz:

That would be very convenient. Yeah, exactly. I want to make this easy for them.

Misha Zelinsky:

They all can come in the same car. I don’t know if Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman get along, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a rivalry between them.

Eric Schultz:

Well, they were both in Les Misérables together, the film of that. So I’m happy to web diagram the connections.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’ll give you these, even though Russell Crowe strictly speaking is a New Zealander.

Eric Schultz:

Oh, shoot.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that’s fine, mate.

Eric Schultz:

I’ve never met him. But from what I know from his reputation I’m not surprised you want to distance yourself from him.

Misha Zelinsky:

As I always say, we have a very popular trope in Australia where all New Zealanders who are successful on the world stage become Australians, so he was gratefully adopted, but when he gets into trouble he became New Zealander, Russell Crowe. But he’s a very popular guy in Australia, owns a football team, seems like a good bloke to have a beer with. So he’d be a good guy to have at a barbecue.

Misha Zelinsky:

Anyway, look, Eric, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been a fantastic chat and I really appreciate your time, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Of course. Great to be here.

 

Richard Marles: Going Big – Navigating Australia’s foreign policy in a post COVID-19 world.

Richard Marles is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Labor’s Shadow Minister for Defence. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about how COVID-19 has accelerated history’s timeline, the rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, why the US is still a force for a good, how Australia’s record defence procurement program can rebuild our manufacturing sector, the choices facing Australia as it seeks to carve out an independent foreign policy,  why sovereign capability is the new black, how Australia must do more with its key pacific partners, and why – in order to figure out our place in the world – Australia must play big.

 

Misha Zelinsky:

All right, Richard Marles, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Richard Marles:

It’s great to be here, Misha. Looking forward to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, look. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to start any conversation these days without the C-word. COVID-19, now. This is a foreign policy podcast. You’re obviously Labor’s defence shadow. To your mind, what do you think is the single biggest … ? So many changes have come from COVID-19, but what do you think is the biggest single foreign policy challenge that’s come from the crisis?

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good question. I suppose what I think is ultimately, I think it’s an accelerant if I was to identify anything. I think that the sort of trends that we had seen out there probably go faster, but part of the world we’re in was one that was much more difficult to predict and obviously challenging for Australia. We use lines like this was the most challenging set of strategic circumstances that we had faced since the second World War, and we were saying that before COVID-19 took hold.

Richard Marles:

I think this has made that much more so. Kind of multiple times so, and so the breadth of possibilities for us and the unknowns for us, all of those, are much bigger, and ultimately where you get to is not being able to answer more questions about COVID-19 means, but you do realize these are really challenging strategic circumstances for us as a nation, and so the need for us to be able to take care of ourselves has probably never been as important, or as important as the second World War.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s right, and certainly you can feel the way that things, the compression of history, and the pulling forward of things.

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good term.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things you just mentioned is looking after ourselves, now. I think a lot of Australians were shocked by some of the shortages that we saw in terms of PPE, health and safety equipment. Sovereign capability’s now become a bit of a new theme. Something that I’m very interested in. But given the exposure to just in time supply chains, and given the sense now that we don’t necessarily produce enough of the things that we need, in a defence context, what are the must haves for Australia? What are the things that we really need to produce here, to your mind?

Richard Marles:

Again, this is a really good example of where it’s changed thinking, or perhaps really clarified thinking. If you’d said to me back this time last year that the making of surgical masks was a thing that was essential to Australian security, I would’ve laughed, and yet earlier this year we had members of the Australian Army at a factory in Sheffield, I think, helping to churn out masks because we didn’t have enough of them.

Richard Marles:

If something as kind of simple, really, as a surgical mask, can be seen or become central to our own security, then what else? And it raises a whole lot of questions about that. From a defence point of view, I think the traditional answer to this question is that in an environment where the kind of platforms that you are part of are incredibly complex, and you take the joint strike fighter as an example. This is a fighter plane which has been made in and by numerous countries, and there are absolutely global supply chains in place there, the notion that going back to the second World War where we saw the making of fighter aircraft as part of our sovereign capability, that’s kind of not going to be the case now, but where people have got to in their thinking now is we at least may be able to maintain and sustain the platforms that we use here in Australia.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly that. I think, though, there does need to be something of an audit of all the defence capabilities that we have, inputs that we have, and then over and above that traditional setting we clearly do need to be able to sustain and maintain the equipment that we use, but our best certain things in addition to that or as part of that that are absolutely critical. And I’d have to format some of that, but I think a much broader assessment of what’s in that basket, we will come to see as being what defines sovereign capability going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

Obviously there’s the what of sovereign capability, i.e. the things that you get. What are the things that we need to have here, what are the things we need to store? But in terms of, also, the wear, the Henry Jackson Society did a study which showed that of the Five Isles nations that Australia was most exposed of all nations to the Chinese Communist Party in terms of key production areas. They identified 535 areas including 30 that were critical to future economic innovations. Should we care about the regime that supplies the goods as well as the goods themselves?

Richard Marles:

That’s a good question. Answered not specifically in relation to China but in the abstract, of course we need to be thinking about the places from which we import material and the places that we in effect do business with, and historically that’s been the case, and we do that. We do that right now. We would say, in relation to Iran and North Korea for example, that our ability to do business with those countries is significantly curtailed. In that spectrum, where’s China fit? I mean, we’re not … in a defence context, obviously, there’s not a lot of interaction in terms of defence supply chains, and I can understand that.

Richard Marles:

I think it is important, while China raises a whole lot of challenges in terms of Australia, it is a country with whom we’ve had a relationship for going back to the Wippen government. I don’t put China in the same category as countries like Iran or North Korea. I certainly don’t put China in the same category as the Soviet Union. I don’t think that’s who we’re talking about, and I think that the economic relationship that we have with China is appropriate. Now, in saying that, we want to make sure as a country that we have a diverse set of trading relationships around the world.

Richard Marles:

That’s just prudent. It’s, in a sense, the equivalent of having a balanced financial portfolio. We need to have a diverse set of trading relationships, and particularly as a country which is reliant on trade. But I do think that we have had an ongoing trading relationship with China, I think that is fair enough, and I’m comfortable with that going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of, you talked about the speeding up of history, so to speak, and a contested Indo-Pacific is something that is going to be an inevitable feature of Australia’s foreign policy settings now. In terms of defence procurement and new kit, Australia, we’ve made this sort of commitment, I think it’s a bipartisan commitment, to 2% of GDP, which is around give or take 40 billion a year. Do you think given the challenges that we’re seeing and the speed of which this is going, is it enough in terms of a broad commitment?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s important that we determine our spending in relation to defence based on the strategic challenges that we face. That’s kind of, when you think about it, a matter of logic. If a country’s strategic circumstances are very predictable and certain, and it can’t get away without spending a lot, countries which find themselves in a precarious position spend more, but the rational act here is to be spending in proportion to what our strategic circumstances dictate, and I said, too, earlier, that what I know is they’ve become a whole lot more complicated rather than more simple as a result of COVID, but even prior to COVID they were as complex as they’ve been for a long time.

Richard Marles:

That’s got to be the guide in terms of what we’re doing. The second point is that, whilst 2% of GDP is a good benchmark, I do think that ultimately what’s important in terms of defence spending is that you have an absolute amount. In other words, that it’s not a functional GDP, because you need certainty in relation to programs over a very long period of time, which, if spending kind of fluctuates as a function of how GDP fluctuates, it’s going to make it hard to deliver those programs.

Richard Marles:

You look at submarines for example. This is a program which is going to be delivered over decades. There needs to be a predictable funding stream over that period of time, so I guess I make that point in the context where we’re in a recession for the first time in the better part of 30 years. If you measure defence spending as a proportion of GDP, that has implications there, and I think we need to be mindful of that, and the final point I make is that it’s really important that our defence force is dense, by which I mean there is a risk in having a wholeness about your defence force if you don’t have the wherewithal to ultimately use the critical platforms that you have.

Richard Marles:

We are purchasing, and I think appropriately so, some pretty significant platforms in terms of the naval ship building program, but also Lam400 and we mentioned earlier the joint strike fighter. Across the three services, you’re seeing an appropriate modernization of equipment, but it’s really important that we have the brunt behind that to make sure that we can use all of those, that we’ve got enough people, for example, that if we have the better part of 100 fighter planes we can use 100 fighter planes. If you’ve got 100 fighter planes, but you’ve only got the personnel to actually, effectively, operate a small part of that, then you don’t have 100 fighter planes because you can’t use them.

Richard Marles:

That’s what I mean in terms of there being, we’ve got to guard against the highness in the way in which we have a defence force, and a number of serious observers have made that observation about where we’re at at the moment, so we need to make sure that in terms of our spending we’re the opposite of that, which is why I say we need to have an ADF which is robust and dense, the opposite of being hollow, and I think that’s a very important thought in terms of how we set our budget. Ultimately, we face a really challenging world.

Richard Marles:

We face a challenging world where we have an assertive China, which is doing what great powers do, so I don’t really even say this with judgment. China is seeking to shape the world around it, but that does raise challenges for us, and our alliance with the United States is profoundly important and I think is as important as it has ever been going forward, and from where I sit, the more we have America engaged in East Asia, the better, but it’s also true to say that we have an American president who would regard unpredictability as being a virtue, and I can understand that, but it makes life difficult for allies.

Richard Marles:

And so I think with all, you put those things together, and what that means is we’ve got to make sure we’re in a position to be able to look after ourselves and that’s why our defence spending at this moment in time really matters.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and I want to dig into the questions about US-China relations and what it means for Australian policy, but before we get off procurement, getting the amount of money that we’re spending on new kit, they’re big programs we’re talking about here, can we do more? In terms of innovation policy, what’s the role that the defence procurement program can play in sort of driving Australia up the innovation chain? And how can we make it to make a more complex Australian economy in terms of its manufacturing and innovation capability?

Richard Marles:

Defence industry, I think, plays a really important role there, and has done with a number of countries. If you have a place like Israel, they will say that so much of their being a country where innovation is very central to their economic character that at the heart of that is defence industry, and the kind of innovation that you see in defence industry, and partly that’s because defence equipment is about as high tech equipment as you get. It is literally at the very cutting edge of innovation and science, so if you’re in the business of making high end defence capability, then what you are is in the defence of making high end manufactured product, and for a first world nation that’s central to the ability to engage in manufacturing.

Richard Marles:

Successful first world economies that have export manufacturing as part of their economy do so at the highest end of the value chain, and defence industry can play an important role in getting you there. Having said that, it’s important that we understand how you get defence industry. When you look at countries that do it, they didn’t start off doing it because they thought, “Well, if we do a defence industry, that will lead the rest of the economy.” They’ve done it because they’ve had a strategic reason to be engaged in it.

Richard Marles:

Israel is a very obvious example, given the threats that have surrounded it for most of its existence, but you can take a country like Sweden which has a really strong defence-industrial base through a company like Saab, and at the heart of that is strategic decisions as well. Sweden was not a part of NATO, was really right there next to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, and so needed to be in a position where it was able to look after itself, and needed to have a capacity to do defence manufacturing within its borders.

Richard Marles:

If Sweden hadn’t been a part of NATO, I’m not sure, for example, that Saab would exist in quite the way that it exists today, so strategic circumstances and strategic decisions that countries make which end up leading to successful defence industries, and then the benefit that can have for the general economy becomes a spinoff. One of my criticisms about where the government is at is that thinking through the ecosystem of defence industry hasn’t been their strong suit, and so there’s never really been a proper strategic rationale which has been put forward by the government for why we would have a defence industry.

Richard Marles:

There has been, I think most observers would say, that this government, having seen the car industry leave our shores on its watch, was looking for some answer to industry policy, and so has leapt upon defence industry as a proxy for a general industry policy. Well, okay, if that’s what they’ve done, is there an example anywhere in the world where that’s worked? And I think there is one. Strong defence industries come about through a strategic decision about having them in the first place.

Richard Marles:

I actually think there is a strategic rationale for us having a defence industry but you just never hear this government seem to articulate it. I think at the heart of what would be a strategic purpose for us having a defence industry is the fact that defence exports and defence partnerships around industry really go to a core of a nation’s interests and trusts. If you think of the situation we’re now in with France, with the building of our submarines, that has dramatically changed and upgraded our bilateral relationship.

Richard Marles:

France now is critically important as a bilateral partner to us as a nation because they’re involved in the building of our submarines. Well, actually, there’s the opportunity for us, in terms of the way in which we engage in defence industry, to start partnering with a whole lot of countries within our region, and if we did that I think defence industry could play a really important role in helping Australia be taken more seriously within the region and within the world, and that’s really important for us for a whole range of reasons, in terms of our shaping our strategic circumstances, and putting us in a much better position.

Richard Marles:

And I think defence industry, we can do it, and can play a really important role there, but you need to actually make that argument. And it’s not just that you need to make the argument to the Australian people. I think you need to make that argument to the defence establishment, and I frankly think this government haven’t even thought about the argument let alone made it, and so as a result you’re kind of seeing all of the hoopla that surrounded their claims around defence industry when Christopher Pine was defence industry minister, and in defence that’s all just gone by the wayside now. There is just a barren silence, and there is a real question about whether defence industry is actually made to, by this government, now, or not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Turning to US-China relations, at the moment it just seems a day doesn’t go past without some kind of an escalation between both sides, and certainly rhetoric, and also in diplomatic action, and Australia has likewise found itself in a similar situation. How should Australia handle these increasingly tense relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and the principal trading relationship on one hand, and as you said our absolute critical security alliance that’s our longstanding relationship there? How do we navigate and triangulate this, or can we?

Richard Marles:

Well, look, it’s a really good question. I suppose the starting point is I think the world feels a lot safer and more secure and more predictable when China and America are talking with each other, so it’s in our interest that that relationship be as best as it can be, and if it’s in our interests for the relationship between America and China to be in the best possible shape, then it actually stands to reason that it’s in our interests for our own relationship with China to be in the best possible shape, and so we do need to think about that, and that actually requires the adults in the room when it comes to this government playing a part in determining Australian foreign policy, and right now the adults, such as they are, I think are pretty silent.

Richard Marles:

We don’t hear a lot from our foreign ministry about a pretty fundamental issue in terms of our relationship with China. We don’t hear that much from our prime minister, to be honest, either, and the space tends to get filled by all the fringe developments on the part of our government ranks, and I don’t think that helps, and I think the second point is we need to have a kind of underlying philosophy. What are the guiding principles that we seek to put in place in terms of our relationship with China?

Richard Marles:

The guiding principles in terms of our relationship with the United States are clear. They’re our alliance partner. We have shared values, and we often use that phrase. That really means we’re both democracies, we both respect the rule of law at home, but importantly we both seek to create a global rules based to order, and we’ve been parties in seeking to do that really since the aftermath of the second World War, and we see that global rules based order where issues and contest is determined by rules rather than power as being central to a stable and prosperous global environment, which really is the way you would characterize the environment in East Asia for most of the period since the second World War, with the obvious kind of exceptions of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Richard Marles:

But those aside, we have seen a high degree of stability in that period, which has allowed East Asia to be a part of the world which has been an economic powerhouse, and that’s been of enormous advantage to Australia. But they are the shared values, and so what we’re about in our relationship with the United States is clear. What is the guiding principle behind our relationship with China? What are we trying to do here? And so I think the first thing is we don’t really ever get an answer to that question from this government. I think getting a government minister to try and have a crack at even answering that, you’d be hard pressed, and so often it feels to me like what you get is you get to irreconcilable propositions, or two propositions which they don’t seek to reconcile is perhaps the way to put it.

Richard Marles:

Yes, China’s a great country to deal with. On the other hand, China creates anxiety as the government would describe it. I would say that that’s not particularly helpful in terms of having a way forward. For me, and it’s just my view, but what I think matters is the theories of view, but my view, I think the starting point is in our relationship with China that actually we make clear we’re in alliance with the United States, and that that is fundamental to our worldview and to our national security, but from the place of being in an alliance with the United States, we value the relationship with China and we seek to build the best relationship that we can.

Richard Marles:

One which is robust enough that we’re able to express our national interests when that differs from Chinese action. One where we can raise questions of human rights but we do so in a manner which also acknowledges human rights achievements, and there are human rights achievements in China which we should acknowledge. It is important to speak on behalf of the Uyghurs, for example. It’s also important, if we’re being fair, to acknowledge that China is responsible for the single biggest delineation out of poverty in human history. It’s important to say both sides of that equation.

Richard Marles:

And we also need to submit ourselves to judgment. Part of the global order is that, and what we seek to do since the second World War with something like the human rights commission, is to place stock in the international community’s judgment of individual countries, and that means we’re not immune from that judgment. In a sense, we come to this with humility, but we will participate in judgment, and it’s important that we do that, and from that place we do seek to do all of those things but build the relationship and trade is the critical part of that.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that can be done, but it does actually require articulating some kind of underlying set of principles which both try to do, and then it requires doing decent diplomacy. I mean, there needs to be personal relationships between senior figures in the Australian government and senior figures in the Chinese government. I don’t actually think there is one. I mean, I literally don’t think there is a single relationship that exists between a senior member of this government and a member of the Chinese government. I find that astonishing, and I find it astonishing in the context of how significant the relationship is, both in terms of its challenges and its opportunities, for our nation.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly under previous governments there were personal relationships which were able to mediate the difficult moments, but right now there is just nothing, and I think that’s a real issue. I think we’ve got to do our foreign relations with the nation a whole lot better. I think we’ve got to have a set of guiding principles. I think we’ve got to do our diplomacy well. This isn’t rocket science; this is just saying we’ve got to actually do foreign policy like a grownup nation that we should be, and I think that would go a long way to helping us navigate what is the difficult terrain.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, it goes without saying that currently, we’re not in the good books of the Chinese Communist Party, and you talked a lot about striking the balance there. The business community basically goes into a tizz every time the relationships gets into any choppy water, saying essentially we should just acquiesce for the benefit of letting the good times roll on. In terms of the decisions that sort of earn the ire, if you look at foreign interference laws, if you look at decisions relating to Huawei and 5G, if you look around calling out of misinformation, if you look at South China Sea in terms of the adherence to international law, perhaps even more recently around Hong Kong although we tend to not really talk a great deal to be honest about domestic affairs in China as a country.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which of these things would you say that we’ve got it wrong on? Because an issue is approached, we’ve taken a decision, and it’s a sovereign decision of Australia which has seemed to earn the ire of the Chinese Community Party, so it’s very difficult to understand how you can navigate it in a way that protects sovereignty without stirring them up in that sense.

Richard Marles:

I guess the answer to that question is what I’ve given. I don’t think we’re doing our diplomacy very well. I don’t think we’ve got those relationships in place.

Misha Zelinsky:

But do you think you can make those decisions, but do them in a way that doesn’t, I suppose, upset the Chinese in the same way? Or … ?

Richard Marles:

I think you can build balance in a relationship so that there’s at least a chance that you can move forward in a context where we exercise our own voice. Now, let me be clear. It’s really important that we exercise our own voice. That is not something that can be compromised, but it needs to be the voice of the nation, and that’s what I’ve said before. We have a significant interest in the South China Sea. Most of our trade goes through the South China Sea. The UN convention on the law of the sea, which if you like is the rules of the road for that part of the world, for the high seas which includes that part of the world, is fundamentally important to us as an island trading nation.

Richard Marles:

And so we need to be able to exercise our voice in respect of our national interests when it comes to what’s going on in the high seas around the world, and in asserting the UN convention on the law of sea, specifically in the South China Sea. We must do that. As I said earlier, I think as a nation which seeks to contribute to a civilized world, it’s important that we are exercising our voice in relation to human rights issues such as Uyghurs, noting that we need to do it in a way where we submit ourselves to the same judgment, and where we acknowledge other treatments.

Richard Marles:

But that architecture only works if countries are willing to speak out on behalf of people around the world who it seems as being the subject of difficulty, and that certainly would understate for what was going on for the Uighur population in China. We need to be able to do those things and they’re not matters on which you should compromise. Having said that, we’ve seen government members write articles which use ham fisted analogies between China and the rise of Nazi Germany. Well, I mean, I don’t think that’s helpful at all. I don’t remotely think that that’s what China is.

Richard Marles:

And then I can understand why China gets upset about it. You have George Christians en up here using astonishing language in the context of COVID-19, which is not helping, and we don’t have a foreign minister or a prime minister who is articulating a clear voice on behalf of the nation in respect of what we need to be saying in terms of our national interests, what we should be saying in respect of China, while these voices are going on, and so they occupy the space in a way that those things are gratuitous, and I don’t think it is possible to defend those sorts of comments, and we’re talking about a relationship which matters deeply which is the basis on which a whole lot of people in Australia is employed, and that is a reasonable thing to be thinking about as well.

Richard Marles:

And then underlying all of that is a complete absence of any personal relationships which can help navigate through difficult waters. There are going to be difficult waters with China. China does raise challenges. No one’s suggesting that it doesn’t, and it is really important that we’re able to exercise our national voice in respect of those challenges. All the more reason, then, to get our diplomacy right, and to be doing it in a more smart way. Now, it is possible that we could have the best diplomacy in place, the best personal relationships that exist, but the need to say these things means that China would still act in the same way.

Richard Marles:

But wouldn’t it be nice to try that experiment? To actually see how it would go if we did diplomacy well. And I frankly think on a governmental level, I should say, I don’t think that this government is actually doing it, and let me also just be a little bit clear in terms of clarifying this. I think our professional diplomats do an excellent job, and I think our professional diplomats in Beijing do an excellent job, and I know a number of them, and they’re very highly regarded.

Richard Marles:

But at the end of the day, at a political level, you need critical relationships with countries that are critical to us, and right now this government has been an abject failure, really, in developing those relationships, and I’m not sure why anyone would think that that’s a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you talked about doing diplomacy well, so turning to the other side of the coin, President Trump, the US has become somewhat more of a capricious actor under Trump and has more of a go it alone, it’s even been actively hostile, to be honest, to alliances, or even multilateral institutions. What’s the implications for a middle power like Australia, and how can we shore up some of these things? For example, would you support Australia joining an expanded G7, something like a G10 with South Korea and other countries joining? Do you see a way that Australia can play a balancing role against US capriciousness, in that sense?

Richard Marles:

Well, I’d be careful about using that tone in respect to the US. I mean, firstly, I still fundamentally believe that the US is a force for enormous good within the world, and I think that our relationship with the United States, which has been there for a long time, is very deep. It is not just with one person and never has been. It’s at a commercial level, at a military level, at a scientific level, at a cultural level. It is very deep, and that depth is really important right now, and actually that relationship has been and in many ways continues to be highly predictable. I think the one thing with President Trump, as I said earlier, is he would see his own unpredictability as a virtue.

Richard Marles:

And I think that that makes life challenging for an ally. We would obviously prefer to have a more predictable line of sight about what the president’s actions are going to be, but that’s not who he is and so that’s just where it’s at, but I think it is really important that we understand, that we not completely judge America by one person. I mean, the president is clearly relevant, highly relevant, to the running of America, but America is a big place and it’s a very deep relationship and it’s a relationship that will be in place, say, five years from now, irrespective of who wins the presidential election this year.

Richard Marles:

But in a world post-Donald Trump, whenever that world is, we will still be in a very strong alliance with the United States, and they still maintain all the core values that we hold, and I think that’s really important in terms of how we view our relationship with America going forward. I think it’s about putting it all in context and understanding that, and I still come back to the point

Richard Marles:

I think what we need to be doing is making sure that we are able to take care of ourselves to the extent that we can, that we need to have more of an eye on that, and perhaps the other thing is that we need to contribute to the burden of strategic thought within our region. We need not just to be a dependable, solid ally, but a country which has ideas and views about our region which actually I think America is hungry to receive for us.

Richard Marles:

I think sometimes we underplay what we can contribute in that sense. It’s probably all a long way of saying I think now’s the time for Australian leadership, and I think leadership within our region, but leadership within the alliance as well, and I think that’s probably the best way of making sure that we keep the alliance in the best possible shape at this moment in time.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of Australian leadership, then, do you think that we should seek a seat at the table at some of these major diplomatic groupings? Obviously, under Rudd, Labor was very set true in creating the G20 for the GFC response which is still an important institution, but should we be seeking to deepen and expand our influence in things like an expanded G7 or something like that?

Richard Marles:

I think the more tables we’re at, the better, to be honest, and I think that would obviously be a fantastic opportunity for Australia were that to eventuate, and the G20 is a really important forum for Australia, and Australia helping to shape, for example, the East Asian Summit, is really important. Australia’s pivotal role back during the Horton Keen governments in the creation of APEC is important.

Richard Marles:

I think these are important bodies for us to be a part of, and I think the reasoning goes a bit like this. We have a real premium on being taken seriously. That might seem like an obvious and trite thing to say, but it really stems from the fact that, along with New Zealand, our two countries have pretty unique sets of strategic circumstances. Yes, we’re in an alliance with the United States, but that’s a country much bigger than our own with a capital on the Atlantic Sea board, and how in the northern hemisphere, and how they see the world is very different to the way we see it as a country of 25 million people in the southern hemisphere in the East Asian timezone.

Richard Marles:

We’re not part of, to use a Labor party analogy, in a sense, we’re not part of a faction. We’re not a European country in the European Union. We’re not an African country in the African Union. We have to navigate our way, in a large part, on our own, and that means we actually need to play bigger rather than smaller when it comes to foreign policy because we have to figure this stuff out for ourselves. Sharing the burden of strategic thought about our circumstances, we can do it with New Zealand, but beyond New Zealand and ourselves we really need to be figuring this out for ourselves, and that means we need to play big.

Richard Marles:

Play big is not just about a kind of misplaced sense of the extent to which we can shape the world. It’s actually about so that we learn. Being at these tables helps us to learn and to understand the way the world works, and we have a premium on that more than most, and if we’re going to be able to navigate our own way through, then actually we’ve got to be out there being in these forums, understanding the way the world’s going to work so that we can part our path because there’s not really going to be anybody else getting us there. Now, that’s actually very different to being a European nation, which can talk to other European nations, or as I said, an African nation which can share notes with those other countries in the African Union.

Richard Marles:

We’ve really got to work this stuff out for ourselves, so in many ways I’ll often say that we’ve got a bigger premium on playing big and on being taken seriously than almost any other country in the world, and I genuinely think that’s right, and so being present in these places, making sure that we are there at the G20, I think taking our place on the UN security council periodically; these are really important things for us to do because they help us understand how the world’s working, and we really need to understand it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and so we’ve talked a lot about, I suppose, Indo-Pacific, East Asia, Southeast Asia, but drawing it right down to our backyard, our real backyard, and I know you’re someone who talks a lot about this, but the Pacific. You know, I mean, to put it bluntly, we’ve had the step up here from the government, but it somewhere we’ve dropped the ball, because China’s now actively contesting the region. It’s traditionally an area where it’s been Australia’s domain in terms of its diplomatic relationships. Do you think we have dropped the ball here, and are we doing enough?

Richard Marles:

I think over the journey it’s been as big a blind spot in terms of our strategic framework, in terms of our national security, as any. I welcome the step up, but the step up needs to be more than rhetoric. It’s got to be real and it’s got to be noticed by countries in the Pacific, and it’s got to be reflected in a fairly changed attitude from people in Australia. A point I’ve made a number of times is there’s 10 countries in the world who would probably identify their critical, number one bilateral relationship as not being with the United States or not being with China but with us, but go out there and ask anyone to name the 10 countries.

Richard Marles:

And it’s just something about our kind of psyche. You would think if you’re a practitioner in this space you would realize countries off in an instant, because the countries which see us as being completely central to their world necessarily has to define a space in which we is important as any, and yet by and large we tend not to think about this nearly enough in the way that we should. There is huge opportunity, I think, for us to play better and more impactfully within the Pacific in a way which will change positively the lives of those who live in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

But we’ve really got to commit to that, and we can’t do this on the basis of being worried about what others might do in the Pacific in the sense that, if our reason for engaging with the Pacific is because of what someone else might do, then we’re getting it wrong in the start. Our call to action in the Pacific, I think, should be really clear. The millennium development goals, which were a relative measure of progress around a range of social indicators between the years 2000 and 2015, had the Pacific performing worse than any region on the planet.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that has something to do with us, that that is, as you say, the region most proximate to us. It’s the part of the world where we can make the most difference. What that says is that, at a point in time, if we don’t change that trajectory, then the pacific will end up the least developed part of the globe, and that’s patently unacceptable. That will be reflected in maternal mortality rates, in short life expectancy, in low education, and a rage of other social indicators.

Richard Marles:

That would be the clearing call. We ought to be listening to that and saying that’s not acceptable in a part of the world where we have an ability to have a big impact, and so let’s really unpack the issues around that and try and affect meaningful change in relation to that, and that’s the way we will become the natural partner of choice for the countries of the pacific, by demonstrating to them that central to our interest is not any other country, but them. But that does require us to, I think, have a significant sea change in the way that we think about this, and ultimately that goes to who we are as a people.

Richard Marles:

That becomes a statement about how we see the significance of Australia as a polity in the world, positively impacting the world, and so I feel that Australian leadership, which is so central in terms of helping shape our strategic circumstances on the big questions that we’ve been talking about, the relationship with the United States, the challenges that are posed by China. Australian leadership is critical in terms of, as best we can, shape those strategic circumstances, but that Australian leadership in my view begins in the Pacific. That’s where we find it, and so it really does require us to think very deeply about it, and I do think there has been more attention in relation to the Pacific over the last couple years, but I don’t think nearly enough to turn around what I think has been a blind spot for this country for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky:

You spoke in a very positive context there, but I mean, there is a flip side there where there’s some systems competition underway. How concerned are you about things like debt book diplomacy, and China seeking to basically rope in the Pacific nations into the BRI program, and the prospect there of critical assets falling into control potentially of a more assertive China? Is that something we should be worried about? You know, there was a talk about Vanuatu potentially being a base for Chinese military assets. How worried should we be about that kind of sort of hard projection of power into our region?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s in Australia’s national interest for us to be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific. I think that’s the point here, and I think we get there by focusing on the countries of the pacific themselves, and I think if we get worried about what other countries are doing, and certainly if we start lecturing the Pacific about who they can have relationships with, then we’re not on a pathway to success here. Success lies in us focusing on the relationship that we have with the Pacific and getting it right, and that at its heart is about making sure that we place the interests and the fortunes of the people of the Pacific at the center of what we seek to be doing in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

Now, we can do all that, and we are in a position where we can be a natural partner of choice, and I feel very confident about that, but I also don’t think that that’s inevitable. I don’t think that that happens by us just being here, and I think it does in large measure define circumstances at the moment but I don’t think it necessarily always will, but I think it’s within our power if we get our relationship right with the Pacific to make sure that that is the enduring characterization of our relationship to the Pacific, and that’s in our national interest, but that’s in the interest of the people in the Pacific, and it’s what we should do.

Richard Marles:

It’s who we should be as a people. But I know that if we are really focused on the plight of those in the Pacific, and in a sense the outrageousness of in some places life expectancy for them ending in their 50s, and that we really seek with our heart but with the best brain that we can bring into this equation as well to change that, then that’s all that’s going to matter. The rest is actually going to take care of itself. It really will.

Richard Marles:

But that’s the place that we’ve got to get to, and you know, what frustrates me at times is that … let me sort of declare, I love the pacific and I’ve completely fallen in love with it, but it frustrates me that not enough of us understand it and see its importance, but also see the cultural wonder that represents, and I’ve opened up hearts to how incredible a part of the world it is, and how lucky we are to really live as part of it, and to have the opportunity that we have to contribute to it.

Richard Marles:

That’s where we’ve got to go. There’s kind of an emotional connection which I think that we’ve got to get to. It’s interesting comparing us with New Zealand in respect of this. New Zealand do, I think, identify in a deeper way with the Pacific, for a whole lot of reasons that make sense. I mean, Auckland is a much more Pacific city than any city that exists in Australia. New Zealand is part of Polynesia, so you can see why it happens, and maybe it is a tall order to ask Australia to sort of have that same cultural connection, but actually we have a lot more presence in the Pacific than New Zealand. Much, much more.

Richard Marles:

And if we could back it up with just a bit of that kind of connection then I think that working alongside New Zealand would go a long way to securing the kind of interests that we need to in terms of the relationships that we should be building with the countries of the Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a huge responsibility.

Richard Marles:

It is.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s great to hear you talk about it so passionately. Switching gears slightly, I think the profound change, and we could do a whole podcast about this so you’ll probably have to do this at a reasonably brief level, but I mean, open and closed systems. Open and closed systems, and political warfare, this seems to be, I think, the preeminent challenge of the 21st century, and one of the things that worries me as someone, and I think you obviously share my view of the world in this sense, is that we’re both passionate about democracies, passionate about open societies, but autocracies seem to be gaining our openness in a way that is very difficult for us to resist, and at the same time closing themselves off to, I suppose, the virtues of openness that we would see in terms of interacting with open societies.

Misha Zelinsky:

How can open societies prevail, and how can they beat closed systems, and do you think they can?

Richard Marles:

Well, I certainly hope that human progress and prosperity lies with human rights and with democratic thoughts and democratic freedoms, because that’s what I passionately believe in. I think over the long run innovative thought both in terms of the evolution of society in a social sense, but also in a technological sense, in terms of size, have performed better in open societies where there is freedom of expression and freedom of debate, and I think that that is still going to be the case going forward. I do think that there are real challenges in relation to the evolution of technology which present themselves, and I understand the point that you’re making that in closed systems there might be ways in which closed systems can deal with the development of technology around IT.

Richard Marles:

But ultimately I think this has got a fair way around and I do passionately believe in the power of government of the people by the people for the people. I think putting the people central to the equation is still the best recipe going forward, and so I don’t take democracy for granted. I think it is something that needs to be continually worked at, but I am as strong a believer in it at this point in my life and at this point in time as I have ever been, and I think that is still fundamentally critical to the future of a more civilized world.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, a very uplifting place than the more formal part of the proceedings. I know that you’ve been dying to get to this part and the audience can’t wait to hear your answer about my trademark clunky segue to my incredibly hokey and lame part of the show, the fun part of the show. Now, you’re a very worldly man, Richard. Who are the three people, foreign guests, that would come alive or dead that would be brought along to a barbecue with you up there in Dulong? It might be difficult to get them there even if they are alive, with the COVID restrictions made, but it’s fantasy football so we can do our best.

Misha Zelinsky:

But who are they and why, mate?

Richard Marles:

Okay, so I’m answering this in a political way.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you are a politician, mate. I can’t-

Richard Marles:

Exactly. There’d be a sporting version of this where I would love to meet Ty Woods, and I’d probably like to meet Bobby Jones, and you could kind of throw in Shane Warne. Also I kind of-

Misha Zelinsky:

We’re going to get together, mate. If Warnie is coming I’m definitely coming over, so yeah.

Richard Marles:

I also think, though, I mean, they’re all I’m sure great people. I love their efforts on the sporting field and I kind of have a bit of a rule. I don’t know whether you want to get to know your sporting heroes. I just enjoy what they do on the sporting field.

Misha Zelinsky:

Exactly. You’ve always got to be careful meeting your heroes, they do say.

Richard Marles:

Let me answer the question in a political way, though. None of them are alive. Abraham Lincoln for sure is definitely my great political hero, but I would love to have him at a barbecue because by all accounts he was a raconteur. He was funny. He was self-deprecating. He had a kind of certain melancholy, but a warm kind of charm about him which I would love to experience firsthand, and he is the great man.

Richard Marles:

Churchill would be there as well. I mean, Churchill, whatever else, he would be fun. There would certainly be no shortage of drinks if he was there, and you get the sense that a guy who routinely was in the bath, as I understand it, sipping alcohol throughout the entirety of the second World War, not that he was in the bath throughout the entirety, but he was there on many days, I mean, that is pretty amazing. He is going to be fun at a dinner party, and again, it is the defining moment of modern history and he is the central character to it, and if anyone won the second World War, I mean obviously not one person, but the person who had the most influence on it was Winston Churchill, so it would be great to have him there.

Richard Marles:

And the third goes back a bit deeper in history. I think it would be fascinating to speak to Queen Elizabeth the First. She really, I think, is probably the great English monarch, and when you think about how does the British Empire come to its preeminence, I think the seeds are there in her reign, and she comes to power, you know, father is Henry the Eighth. There is a kind of tussle for power which she was probably unlikely to win and yet does.

Richard Marles:

I doubt there has been anyone in history who has been more underestimated in terms of their ability to do the job. People were desperate for her to find a partner because they felt that there needed to be a male presence around, and she resolutely refused to that, and then becomes the greatest of them all. That’s somebody I reckon would be fascinating to meet. Her kind of desire to plot her own path and do what she was going to go, and not conform to what just about every voice around her wanted her to do, that would be a force of nature I’d like to meet.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s three good ones, there, mate. Kicking the ass of slave owners, kicking the ass of the Nazis, and kicking the ass of the Irish and the Scots, mate, so it’s a good list. Well, look, we’ll leave it there. Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a fantastic chat, and we’ll catch up soon.

Richard Marles:

Thanks, Misha.