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.

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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:


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:


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:


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.


Bonus Content: Kristina Keneally and Misha Zelinsky talk COVID-19, immigration and trade policy as panel guests

Bonus Content: Senator Kristina Keneally and Misha Zelinsky in panel discussion on COVID-19, immigration and trade policy.
This is a special content episode!
Senator Kristina Keneally is the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs and Immigration and Citizenship. Senator Keneally is Labor’s deputy leader in the Senate and also served as the first female premier of NSW.
Misha Zelinsky and Senator Keneally appeared as guests on a NSW Young Labor panel session discussing the future of immigration and trade in a post COVID-19 world.
This is a recording of that live panel session.
Senator Keneally gives some fascinating insights into the economic and migration challenges facing Australia, discusses the shocking fact that Australia has the second largest guest worker program in the OECD, tells us why Australia should always be a nation of permanent and generous migration and explains how COVID-19 gives us a chance for a policy reset.
Misha talks about the sovereign capability challenge facing the world and why Australia can no longer rely on just-in-time supply changes to deliver the things it needs when it needs them.
We apologise in advance for the BBQ question making its way into the program; don’t blame us!
(We hope to have Senator Keneally on soon as a guest!)



Brandon Hale:

I’d like to firstly acknowledge that we’re meeting on the lands of the First Nations people and want to acknowledge any First Nations people emerging. So tonight, we’re joined by Kristina Keneally, the senator for New South Wales who is also the shadow home affairs minister, and was of course a former premiere of New South Wales. We’re also joined by Misha Zelinsky, who’s the assistant secretary of the Australian Workers Union, who also runs a podcast called Diplomates, which is a foreign policy podcast.

Brandon Hale:

Tonight, we’re going to be talking about immigration and trade policy. Kristina will be focusing on any questions about immigration policy and Misha will be focusing on any trade policy. So I’d like to just begin by just asking Senator Keneally how she thinks COVID-19 can change immigration policy first in Australia for the foreseeable future.

Kristina Keneally ::

Thanks, Brandon. Thanks everyone for being here. Thanks, Misha, as well, for joining the conversation. Clearly, COVID-19 is having a massive impact on immigration and migration, and that starts with the fact that the borders are closed. They’ve been closed now for almost two months. They look likely to remain closed for the next 12 months. There may be some small changes in that in certain ways to allow people in safely, if it’s safe to do so, but if you look at what is happening in the United States, in Indonesia, in India, in China, in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, in Western Europe, you only need to realize that Australia’s relative success in flattening the curve would be undone if we were to reopen the borders to the type of free movement, relatively free movement, of people that we had prior to COVID-19.

Kristina Keneally :

Now, this stoppage of migration means that at some point over the next 12 months, most likely, and we’re not entirely sure when yet, we will as a country do something we have never done before, which is restart a migration program from a standing stop. That gives us an opportunity right now to be asking, what kind of migration program do we want that to be? This is, I believe, an opportunity for the country to take stock of what’s been happening in the migration program for the past two decades and for us as a political movement, particularly one that is concerned about not only a progressive future for our country, but also the rights and conditions of working people, of all working people.

Kristina Keneally ::

This is an opportunity for us to argue, to reset a migration program, international interest, and when I say that, I mean in the interest of working people, in the interest of social cohesion, in the interest of economic growth, in the interest of the budget bottom line. Now, let me be clear. We are a country built on migration. You only need to think about the story of Australia, particularly since the war, since post-war Australia, were we have seen successive waves of migrants come here from every corner of the Earth, settle permanently, and build this country. Raise their families, build the infrastructure. Think of the Snowy Hydro scheme. Start small businesses, send their children to school, join their local churches, political parties, community groups, and become part of the fabric of this nation, which makes us the most successful multicultural nation on Earth.

Kristina Keneally ::

All of us, no matter how long or short ago, our ancestors came here. Unless we are First Australians, unless we are aboriginal or Torres Strait islander, we are all part of that immigrant story to this country. I also acknowledge that Australians celebrate that Australians are enthusiastic welcomers of new migrants, and I myself experienced that in the sense that I came here in 1994 as a permanent resident, as a migrant. We know that our national benefits when people come here and are able to join in, make that contribution, and become part of the story of Australia and have a stake in its future.

Kristina Keneally ::

Now, what this COVID-19 stoppage gives us a chance to examine in detail is really a case portfolio. Our full unifying idea, a nation built by migration, where people come here, settle down, and become part of the Australian community, is an idea that risks becoming nostalgia rather than our ongoing reality, and that is because since John Howard, we have seen a shift in our migration program, away from that pathway to permanency. And successive governments, including labor governments, but I really have to acknowledge that it’s been under liberal governments that these settings have been ramped up, we have seen the pathways to permanency narrow. We have seen temporary migration expand. We saw it come to almost its logical and perhaps almost absurd conclusion under Scott Morrison last year when he said he was capping permanent migration at 160,000 people per year.

Kristina Keneally ::

This was a congestion-busting measure. But yet he has allowed temporary migration to continue uncapped and be demand-driven, which means that really, the government towards migration policies, they’re not determining who comes to this country and the manner in which they come, to borrow a famous phrase. What we are really seeing is businesses, universities, state governments, and other forms of employers make that decision about who they’re going to allow into the country, and we are also seeing an expansion, a real significant expansion, of schemes like the Working Holiday Maker Program and the Seasonal Worker Program, and of course, international students and the work rights that they have.

Kristina Keneally ::

Now, all of these things might be useful, and there is a role for temporary migration in certain places and in certain contexts, things like seasonal work, fruit picking, where it is hard sometimes, quite often, to get Australians to take on a seasonal role in a regional area. There might be reasons, say, in cyber security, where we need a lot more people qualified in that area and we can train up quickly. And so temporary migration, skilled or unskilled, has a role to play in our economy and it always will. But, we are now, our island home, is now home to the second largest temporary… Excuse me, the second largest migrant workforce in the world, sorry, in the OECD, I apologize, behind the United States. So we’re the second largest migrant workforce in the OECD. We are right behind the United States.

Kristina Keneally ::

One of the largest groups within that is, of course, international students. There are over 600,000 young people from around the globe that come to study in Australia. The majority of those are in New South Wales, and what have we heard over the past few years? Example after example of wage theft and exploitation. We should remember that, the first serious case of wage theft that really brought this problem into prominence was 7-Eleven, did involve migrant workers, international students, temporary visa holders. What we know from the multiple consultations, reports that have been tabled in Parliament and the like, is that the temporary nature of these workers’ visa adds to their vulnerability, makes them vulnerable to exploitation, and creates the conditions whereby employers use that temporary status to drive down wages and to take advantage of their circumstances.

Kristina Keneally ::

While many of you may not think that this impacts you directly, although I acknowledge there may well be people on this Zoom meeting who are themselves international students, but many of you will be students or you will be of just left training or skills training or university, and I want to remind you that the treatment of younger workers has an impact on all workers. That is, if we are seeing, and we are seeing, exploitation occur, particularly amongst temporary visa holders, and quite serious as well, that starts to take hold across the economy and across employment. So when we have things like wages being undercut, people being told they have to work for cash in hand from below [award 00:10:46] rates, it is harder for every other young person in particular to get a good, well-paying, and secure job when that becomes the economic model.

Kristina Keneally ::

I would argue that in the name of lower wages and cheap labor, the government is risking a new and damaging form of social exclusion. We only need to look at COVID and the response to that to see how excluded these temporary visa holders are. The government has absolutely refused, and again today, in the COVID-centered hearing, the minister for finance, Mathias Cormann, made clear the government has absolutely no intention to provide any form of support to temporary visa holders who are trapped here during this pandemic. His only argument was, “If they can’t support themselves through a job, they should go home.” Never minding that some of them, their borders will be closed. Some of them can’t actually physically get a flight, and some of them will be on a path to permanency, not many, but some will, and that would mean they would actually have to forfeit that path to permanency.

Kristina Keneally ::

My concern has always been that we risk becoming a two-tiered society, where we have Australian citizens and permanent residents who are able to access rights, to assert their rights at work, to access services, to access support, and then we have another group of workers, guest workers, temporary migrant workers, who are locked out, locked out of those same rights, locked out of those same services, and locked out of having a stake in the future of our country. When we have a crisis like bushfires and again with COVID-19, we have seen how temporary migrant holders have been disproportionately impacted, and we talk about we’re all in this together, well, a virus doesn’t check your visa status before it infects you.

Kristina Keneally ::

We are not all in this together if we have some one million workers who live in Australia who are unable to access support and services during this time. No less than Peter Costello said back during his time in office that Australia will never become a guest worker nation. I’ve got news for Mr. Costello and the liberals, that is precisely what we are turning our country into, and I’ll end on this point. I think in this period, while the borders are closed, this is an opportunity for us to look at a range of policy settings, whether we have truly independent labor market testing, whether we are truly providing a pathway to skills and training for Australians to be able to work in these jobs.

Kristina Keneally ::

Workers don’t just pick fruit. One in five chefs, one in four cooks, one in six hospitality workers, one in 10 nursing and personal care support workers hold a temporary visa. Now, if the borders are going to be closed and we are going to have workforce shortages as the domestic economy reopens, this is the time to be saying, “How do we scale Australians up? How do we fill those skill shortages?” And do look at our skills and training systems so that we can provide pathways to employment, to good jobs, secure jobs, for Australians. But we should also think about when we reopen up migration, what do we want it to look like?

Kristina Keneally ::

I would argue that we would want it to provide more pathways to permanency, to encourage more higher skilled, younger workers to come here, settle permanently, establish families. They have the least impact on the budget, they have the greatest contributor to economic growth, they grow jobs and opportunity, and they help us build up again, that sense of a holistic society where we all have a contribution, we all have a go, we all get a fair go. I will end on that point. There’s a whole range of other things I could talk about in terms of some of the industrial relations policy settings that would help us drive down exploitation and particularly wage theft, but I will end on that point. I’m mindful there will be questions, and I know that Misha has things to say as well. So I’ll stop there, Brandon, but hopefully that gives people good context in terms of how I’m thinking and we here in Canberra in the federal opposition are thinking about these questions.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much, Kristina. I’ll pass onto Misha now. So Misha, how will COVID-19 change trade policy in Australia for the foreseeable future?

Misha Zelinsky ::

Well, I think what COVID-19 has done is shown how interconnected the world is. Clearly, trade is important, has always been important for Australia, and will always be important for Australia. Australia’s as a trading nation is a cliché. But trade is critical to our standard of living. But there’s probably four things that I think that are important when you think about the impacts in respect to trade policy and what’s happened with COVID-19. The first one I think is that it’s shown up the danger or how fraught these free nation states have been relied on just in terms of supply chains. So essentially, you can’t run a nation state like it’s a local service station. You can’t just have things turn up in the morning and be dropped off. It’s a far more complex enterprise than that.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Fundamentally, the basic principle of economic sovereignty and your basic expectation of citizens is that the country can produce the things and deliver the things it needs when we need them. The one that everyone’s focused on in this instance has been personal protective equipment, PPE. It just so happens that when the virus broke out in Wuhan, Wuhan’s essentially the world’s factory, so 90% of face masks are made in Wuhan, which is probably suboptimal when you need to have masks urgently for everyone around the world when you’re dealing with a respiratory illness. The other issue, and again, it was particular to this supply chain relating to health, but the number two place after Wuhan when it comes to ventilator manufacture is actually Northern Italy.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Now, it’s kind of peculiar that it happened that way, but it’s just very interesting that suddenly, you can very quickly find yourself not having the things you need when you need them. I think it’s something that’s been a real wake up call for Australians, and we actually commissioned some polling the other day, we literally asked that question, “Has COVID-19 been a wake up call for you as an Australian about Australia’s reliance on global supply chains?” And 90% of people responded yes to that, either strongly agree or agree. I think that principle, relying purely on just in time supply chains, I think is a critical change and one that we’ll see us have to make some serious decision about how we’re managing our supply chains.

Misha Zelinsky ::

PPE on this occasion, but with fuel security, for example. Australia only has 28 days of fuel. The 90 days is what the International Energy Agency mandates to have in storage. We have 28 maybe. In certain types of fuel, it’s as low as 18 days. Without fuel, you essentially can’t feed yourself, you can’t transport yourself, you can’t defend yourself. Again, on this occasion, it was health, but on other occasions, there are, and you can talk to experts in this area, but wouldn’t take much to think about the disruption that you would get throughout our fuel supply chain to very quickly Australia would be out of fuel and in dire straits really is the truth of the matter. It’s something that we need to urgently look at, but there are a whole host of other areas.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Which kind of brings me to the next point, which is that supply chains are sovereign, and what I mean by that is, look, economists talk about supply chains in high level manners over there, this kind of thing that exists above nation states. Ultimately, they are still controlled by nation states, not by corporations. And so countries make rational decisions, they make rational decisions in their own self-interest to fulfill the needs of domestic citizens before others. That’s completely okay, we would expect the same thing if there was an international shortage of a particular item and Australia was a prominent exporter of that good, we would expect that our government would say, “Hang on a minute. We got to sort out our domestic needs first before we’re going to sell this,” and that’s just the nature of things.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Nations trade in their self-interest, not doing other nations a favor. It’s done in the national interest or economic hard nosed way. So those two things in combination I think again have made a real wake up call for how the world actually works, and that globalization is not something that is beyond anyone’s control, and that the nation state is still powerful in the way that goods are exchanged internationally. The third point that I would make, it’s related to the first and the second, and it’s about whether the sticker price is the actual price. A lot of people when it comes to trade will say, “Well, you just take the lowest price that you can get.”

Misha Zelinsky ::

Now to use a wonky term, what we’ve now seen is that the risk premium adjustment for goods or more, to put it into kind of normal language, is that the real price is the price that you pay when you need it. When shit hits the fan, that’s the price. The price isn’t when there’s lots available. The price of a face mask, you could see what the price people were prepared to pay in the black market for these goods online and in other ways, and the desperation… Toilet paper, right? We laughed about it, but when that level of panic goes through communities, that’s the real price for the good. And so again, it’s about making an assessment of what are the things that we need when we need them? Who supplies them? How can we get them? And what are we prepared to pay for them? And not actually just looking beyond the sticker price to say, “No, well, the real price for this good is what we need to have in storage or in production and we need to have it when we need it.”

Misha Zelinsky ::

Those three things in combination, I think you’re going to have a profound, profound change in the way that countries trade with one another, the way that Australia trades with the world, and I think that when you used to have this debate within the labor party or within the broader public discourse, people used to think that it was kind of in the abstract, that yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s never going to happen sort of thing. So this national security augment or sovereign capability augment was dismissed as essentially a fortress Australia type thinking, scaremongering. We’re essentially ransacking, trying to promote domestic industries at the expense of the consumer.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Well, it’s shown up now, on this occasion we got relatively lucky. It was quite scary there for a period obviously, but I think the nature of the goods and the way that we’re able to respond worked out okay, but wouldn’t always. The fourth point I’d make, and this is the last point, but this is the foundational, critical point, it’s played out recently in some of our foreign policies, that it’s absolutely critical for Australia that a rules-based trading system is maintained. Australia can’t… We are a middle power. We are a rich trading nation. We benefit greatly from a rules-based trading system, whether it’s a grade set of rules, and those rules are enforced by an independent umpire and everyone observes the rules.

Misha Zelinsky ::

But we also don’t benefit. Australia can’t hope to exist in a situation or in an economic trading system where might is right. Essentially if the big dog wins, that’s a problem for Australia, given our relative size and given our reliance on trade internationally. So when we’re seeing things like trade being used in a form of foreign policy coercion, as we’re seeing from the Chinese Communist Party, or when it comes to dumping of goods into Australia, which essentially dumping is selling goods into another country with the express theme of destroying that market, so that way you can continue to sell, right? Those two things are not in our interest.

Misha Zelinsky ::

When you look at the question of barley, when it comes to the tariffs that have been placed onto barley by the Chinese Communist Party of 80%, they’re just not based in any sort of reality. Australia places zero tariffs on our barley. It’s the most competitive barley producers that come from Australia. We have zero tariffs on it. China, and other nations frankly, are notorious subsidizers of their agricultural sector. So when you look at that argument, you can see what it is. It’s Australia being punished for its foreign policy decisions, on this occasion, the decision to call for an independent inquiry into COVID-19 and the origin. But there are also other decisions that Australia has made that have been threatened, the 5G network with Huawei and other things of that nature.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Not having an independent umpire in place is a very, very dangerous place for Australia to be, and so we absolutely need to preserve a rules-based trading, because it’s good or Australia as a trading nation and it’s good for Australia as a middle power to have a well-supported, multilateral global system, not just for trade, but for all things. So I think trade’s absolutely critical for Australia, but we need to be a little bit more clear-eyed about exactly what is that we want our country to be, what are the things that we need it to have, what are the expectations of the things that we need to have at the pivotal moments, and as it all becomes more uncertain, that we are sovereignly capable in critical industries and in the things that we rightly expect to have when we need them.

Misha Zelinsky ::

So I’m happy to take questions, but I think that probably is a snapshot of where I think it’s heading. It’s heading into an area where I think Australia can actually leverage it to our advantage. We’ve got everything we need in Australia, yeah, to produce much more than we currently do. Currently, we trade a lot of primary produce, which is good in terms of mining and agriculture things, but we can definitely make a lot more finished product with everything we need from energy to raw materials to the people, apart from the vision. It’s not all doom and gloom. We can certainly use this time to retool our manufacturing sector, and in the process create lots and lots of jobs for average Aussies who can work in regional communities. So I’ll leave it at that, but happy to take questions, Brandon. Thanks.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much, Misha. We’re now going to move onto answering some questions that were submitted on the Google forum. Senator Keneally – how long should Australia’s international borders be closed during the pandemic, even after the numbers are heavily reduced, if not eradicated, by this year?

Kristina Keneally ::

That question that’s going to be determined by what’s happening in the rest of the world and safe for us to do. Yeah, we might want to open up borders for, say, a particular skill need. I mentioned cyber security earlier. Today, the ASIO director general made clear that we are at even greater risk of cyber security attacks and online manipulation, foreign interference, and it may be that we need to bring in more people in that particular skillset, with that particular skillset. And so do we do that with the two week quarantine? Who pays for it? Same thing with international students. There may come a time where we feel comfortable or we have a desire to facilitate the reentry of international students to universities, but again, how do you do it? How is it safely done? Who pays for it? Is that attractive to people?

Kristina Keneally ::

There may be the opportunity for somewhere like New Zealand, where people talk about this trans-Tasman bubble, that may be a possibility. But I think the question about how long our borders stay closed is really going to be determined by what’s going on in the rest of the world. It still remains the case that we have had community transmission, but a significant amount, and I need to go back and double check, but I believe it’s still the majority of our cases did come from an overseas, so we’re trying to make sure that does not spike again with the second wave.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much. Just to Misha, so what can the [AOP 00:29:08] do to support regional jobs in the rice industry and improve Australian trade in the face of China extorting countries that Australia export rice to?

Misha Zelinsky ::

Thank you for that question. It’s a very esoteric question. I should just note that I’m not an agricultural economist, but I’ll do my best to answer the question. I think going back to my comment about barley, look, Australia is an extraordinary competitive agricultural economy. Our farmers are the world’s most competitive, and we export to the world all sorts of produce, right? In terms of rice, I think there’ll be some ongoing challenges for Australia making sure that our farmers are able to access water when they need and we need to continue to be very innovative in our use of water for water-hungry crops like rice or cotton.

Misha Zelinsky ::

But certainly, the expectation would be that in a rules-based, going back to my comments about a rules-based trading system, if nobody is subsidizing rice, then Australia should be essentially the world’s rice bowl, to the extent that we can produce it, the world should be able to buy it. Now, from memory, and I’m just going off the top of my head, but China subsidizes agricultural sector quite significantly. I was looking at this recently, I’m pretty sure it’s about… I might have these numbers wrong, so for those listening on the tape and Googling, wanting to hang me on this, I’m pretty sure it’s about 25% that they subsidize their rice industry to that extent.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Again, if you don’t have an umpire in place to say, “Well, hang on a minute. You can’t subsidize your goods here and then use that subsidy to take market share off not just Australia, but other countries that are producing rice, or you use that 25% advantage to dump into another good.” So for example, let’s just say we had a situation with Chinese rice was subsidized, and then it was dumped into Australia below cost with that subsidy, so therefore, the domestic industry can’t compete and has to close down, and suddenly what was a completely competitive industry is now being closed through basically legal cheating. It’s effectively, and when you look at dumping, it’s the same way as using steroids at the Olympics. You’re using an unfair advantage to cheat.

Misha Zelinsky ::

There are ways to, in Olympics, we drug test. In trade, we put in place anti-dumping duties to basically say, “Well, you’re dumping. So you guys put 25% on a subsidy or you’ve undersold it for 25%, we’re going to whack that back on, and we’re going to equalize it back to where it’s supposed to be.” And then the World Trade Organization sits at the top of that, and enforces those rules. So really, back to the beginning, which is the way that we would do that is we would get a competitive industry. We support that with I should also say very good, strong labor laws in agriculture, because that’s an area that I’d like to see some improvement from our farmers. I think, unfortunately, there’s a lot of exploitation that occurs within the agricultural and the horticultural sector, particularly with migrant workers, as the senator talked about earlier, and it’s shocking actually.

Misha Zelinsky ::

But parking that, looking at the macro economic argument, we want to see a competitive industry here. We want to make sure that there’s a global system of rules in place, and that Australian farmers are able to compete, and then if we apply that to every other industry, Australia’s very well-placed to export all sorts of things, and so the critical piece here is countries not cheating and there being an umpire to enforce when they do cheat. Currently we’re getting to a stage where countries are cheating and they’re also just basically thumbing their nose at the umpire. That is not a game that we can win. And so whether it’s rice or anything else, it’s a big concern for Australia as a middle power trading nation if we don’t have the rule book enforced.

Brandon Hale:

Fantastic. Well, thank you. So I’ve got another question for Senator Keneally, just from Aden. So how do you see labor confronting anxiety immigration in broad electorates, particularly key seats?

Kristina Keneally ::

I think you froze a tiny bit on me there, which I mean, Parliament has-

Brandon Hale:

Oh, sorry.

Kristina Keneally ::

We have terrible… No, Parliament has this terrible connection, so I hope I’m coming through all right. Yeah, this is a really good question, because at one level, immigration becomes at times a political touchstone. I would recite that towards the end of last year, the Scanlon Foundation poured out their annual report, which really surveys the electorate across Australia on their attitudes towards a range of issues. Go and find it if you’re interested, it showed that there’s incredibly high support for migration, that overwhelmingly Australians celebrate our cultural diversity and multiculturalism, and think that it makes Australia a stronger place. What I do think a road support for migration is when we see that shift away from permanent migration to that two-tiered society that I spoke about earlier.

Kristina Keneally ::

But I do think we can take some comfort in the fact that Australia is not like our American or Western European cousins, where immigration has become what is blamed for a range of other ills or economic challenges. I think we start off in a positive space. I think we have to advocate for a positive view of migration. We have to articulate how it benefits the country economically and socially, and we have to in some sense appeal to people’s sense of pride and nostalgia on who we are and who we were and how we want to define ourselves into the future. I don’t like the notion of thinking about it just in terms of key seats, but I’m not naïve to the fact that it plays itself out differently in different communities.

Kristina Keneally ::

I would point to this, a lot of people might think that when we’re talking about regional communities that there might be an instant kind of resistance. In fact, if anything, regional communities very much seem to want migrants and permanent migrants to come and settle there. They help bolster the population, they create economic opportunity. Misha just mentioned the exploitation of farm workers. I went to a regional town, I went to Shepparton in Victoria, and visited there one of the biggest apple growers in the country. They were frustrated because all they can get in terms of labor is temporary migrants or undocumented workers that come from labor hire companies. They know the labor hire companies are exploiting them. There’s very little they can do about it.

Kristina Keneally ::

When I said, “What can we do to solve this?” They kept saying to me, “The Albanian solution,” and I had no idea what the Albanian solution was, except it turns out under the Fraser Government, there was a program to bring Albanians to allow them to come to Shepparton and to work in the orchards to learn skills, because there were some problems going on in Albania at the time. If they wanted to, they could settle down and stay, and many of them did, and they spoke glowingly about how these were the best thing that had happened to the town, that many of them stayed, started their own businesses.

Kristina Keneally ::

I think Australians understand the benefits of migration. I think where we get into dangerous territory is when we do see an erosion of wages, when we do see a lack of independent labor market testing, when we don’t have a robust industrial relations framework, when companies are making a choice, offering wages that they know that an Australian won’t work for or conditions they know won’t appeal to an Australian, so they can say, “Oh, we’ve done labor market testing and we’re going to now bring in a migrant to do this job.” That’s when we start to erode away support for multicultural communities and for migrant communities to come be part of us. So I think that’s what we have to safeguard.

Brandon Hale:

Absolutely. Thank you very much for that. So we’re going to move onto a bit of a fun section now. A lot of people in young labor have been following the US-

Kristina Keneally ::

[crosstalk 00:38:25] Oh, I was not told there would be a fun section, so I’m very excited.

Brandon Hale:

[crosstalk 00:38:28] quite a bit now.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Anything fun about politics [crosstalk 00:38:31].

Brandon Hale:

Yeah, so just going to ask Misha, just have a question from Dillon just about who Misha would have supported in the Democratic primaries and what he thinks the Democrats need to do to win in 2020.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Right, well, it’s an interesting question. As a faithful New South Wales right winger, I actually was on team Biden from the beginning. I’m going to be honest though, I thought they were going to sink him as the primary went on and those big stats on Biden. I quite liked Pete Buttigieg. I think he was a really interesting and exciting candidate. But I think they’ve… Look, I think this election’s important. Every election’s the most important election, but I think this election is a critical election in terms of the future of the United States, but also it’s profoundly important for Australia and the world in terms of US leadership of some of these things we’ve talked about, in terms of multilateralism.

Misha Zelinsky ::

I was in favor of Biden. I took a little Buttigieg, but I think he actually got a bit unlucky, too. I think the way Iowa played out I think was bad luck for him. He didn’t get that Iowa bounce into New Hampshire and then Klobuchar kind of touched him up in that debate. Anyway, so he very nearly could have jagged it, but he’s got about 40 years on his side as a competitor to Biden, so I’m sure he can have at least one or two more shots. It was third time the charm I think for Joe. So I think Biden is a good candidate. I think I was pleased to see that they went with a moderate candidate and didn’t go down the Sanders path or the Elizabeth Warren path, because I think that would’ve been very jarring and I actually think it would have become a referendum on the Democrats and not being a referendum on Trump, which I think is kind of critical here.

Misha Zelinsky ::

We could go, we could do an entire conversation on this, but I think what’s going to be critical, clearly the Rust Belt States, the question of trade’s going to be very important, how managing that issue. When you look at the states and the regions that swung to Trump, when you actually overlay trying a suspension to the World Trade Organization, they’re called the China Shock, which essentially was the loss of all the manufacturing work in those areas and they all become extraordinarily economically distressed. Trump promised, rightly or wrongly, and whether or not you believe he’s actually done any of these things, he promised people that he would stand up for them in their economic interests, and I think it’s critical that the Democrats have got a really good answer when it comes to manufacturing policy, industry policy, jobs policies for people in those swing states, and the Rust Belt States, the so-called blue wall that crumbled.

Misha Zelinsky ::

I should preface, well, not preface, but I predicted Hillary Clinton would win, so you can take all that with a grain of salt. Now we can perhaps defer to Senator Keneally, who’s probably a little closer to home to these matters than I am.

Kristina Keneally ::

Brandon, [crosstalk 00:41:53].

Brandon Hale:

… same question to Senator Keneally.

Kristina Keneally ::

All right.

Brandon Hale:

[crosstalk 00:41:58]

Kristina Keneally ::

In my fantasy football league, I would have gone for Elizabeth Warren, but I knew that was never going to win. I think Misha’s really covered it all well there.

Brandon Hale:

Absolutely. In terms of Australia’s immigration strategy, I’ve got another question. Can you see an Australian government, particularly a labor government, using immigration as a strategic tool to drive growth while bundling out the domestic labor market? If so, how?

Kristina Keneally ::

Yeah, look, I think we had seen under particularly this government since Malcolm Turnbull created the Department of Home Affairs, we have seen migration downgraded as a key economic tool. This government through the creation of the Department of Home Affairs has securitized migration. It talks about it in terms of the threats of people who might come in. It talks about it through a security lens. I’m not saying security isn’t important. It has always been an important part of migration. The immigration department has always been two sides of one coin, who we let in and who we don’t. On the who we let in, it has always been about why we let people in, how we integrate them in, what skills they bring in, how it grows the economy in our community.

Kristina Keneally ::

All out of that has just been so lost under the creation of the Department of Home Affairs where you’ve got a real security gloss that cuts across the whole department. You only need to look at the Department of Home Affairs to see it ranked 93rd out of 93rd in terms of morale. A third of the people who work there wish they worked somewhere else. It has had an exodus of people who understood how to use migration as an economic and community building tool. Anthony has created here in the Parliament a group, we’ve got some working groups that are working on policy as we go toward the next national platform.

Kristina Keneally ::

We are very much looking at migration as an economic tool, because this government has just… The immigration minister doesn’t even sit at the cabinet table. So nobody is really talking about immigration in that context. But that is a fundamental important part of why we have a migration program, is to grow the economy. I think you do remember that under Hawke and Keating in particular, we did rely on migration, and we did use it to grow the economy. We did use it to create a sense of successful multiculturalism in our community. That is there, and Australians are ready for that message, I believe. I think it can be done, but I think because we bring a real focus on skills, training, fixing up the vet system, investing in education, investing in public education.

Kristina Keneally ::

We had a whole range of policy settings at the last election that I think you will see similar or same variations are that the next one in terms of Australian skills authority, about labor market testing, about a national labor hire licensing scheme, and the like that I think will help us really promote the opportunities to grow the skills of Australians and yet argue for the importance of migration to grow the economy and create opportunity.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you very much, Kristina. I’ve just got just one final question for Misha. China allows the flaunting of intellectual property rules in order to allow Chinese industries to have unfairly competitive prices at a global stage. Is it ethical for Australia to buy these products? Should Australia do more to clamp down on this? And what does this say more broadly about China’s trade practice?

Misha Zelinsky ::

Yeah, you went out there a bit, but I think I understood the thrust of the question, that IP theft. Look, the question of… Technology is kind of critical to economic success, right? Every country strives to out compete other countries and to essentially have a tech advantage, and then economic advantage comes from tech, as does military advantage. So the Chinese Communist Party has made an absolute art form out of IP theft. It was described, I can’t remember who said it, but it was essentially described that the intellectual property theft by the Chinese Communist Party is the single greatest transfer of human wealth in human history.

Misha Zelinsky ::

The capacity to make intellectual advances and technological advances and protect that intellectual property, that’s critical to the way that we understand how the principles of economics work and that’s how it’s worked, and making those rights enforceable are critical to making sure that people spend their time and effort and energy investing into research, investing into innovation, investing into improvements. So again, not to go right into… You can spend a lot of time talking about the various strategies, for example, if you want to set up a business in China, they make you essentially force transfer your IP across to an adjunct venture partner, and then over time, once the domestic firm has worked out all your secrets, it should be often that they then deny you market access.

Misha Zelinsky ::

China, when it comes to IP, is extremely ruthless, and every country I think should be thinking about its own system and making sure it rigorously defends those from incursion and cyber incursion. Going right back to my original comment, the critical piece here for Australia, for everyone, is that we’ve got a rules-based system. So be it IP law, be it trade law, etc., that we respect one another’s sovereignty, that there’s a rule book in place, and that there’s an umpire, and that when the umpire makes a decision, we respect that decision. And so IP theft is a huge concern, it’s particularly a concern when it’s occurring auto credit regime, stealing text secrets, military secrets, and then using those to either further enhance its own military or repress its own people. I think that’s a further concern to what is already an economic concern.

Brandon Hale:

Thank you. With that, we’ll have to end, but we have one final two questions for both of you, just as Misha does with all his podcasts. If you were to choose three historical figures, international relations, who are dead or alive you could have at a barbecue?

Kristina Keneally ::

Are you going to me first? All right. Well, I have just finished watching Mrs. America on Foxtel, and Gloria Steinem, who I have met and have had lunch with, is from my hometown, Toledo, Ohio, and I did reflect after watching that show that I would love to have dinner with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug. That’s just my moment, that’s where I’m at at the moment. I’m sure if you asked me at some other time, I’d have a whole ‘nother list. But they would be a rocking dinner party, as a child of the ’70s, I would love to do that.

Brandon Hale:

That’s a great lineup. And what would yours, Misha, be?

Misha Zelinsky ::

I should just point out that this is meant to be the fun section, and I painstakingly point out that this is the world’s lamest question in my podcast. So the fact that someone has decided to take me up on this is… Anyway, look, give yourself an uppercut, whoever’s written that question in. But look, so for me, funnily enough, I probably haven’t spent enough time thinking about this, notwithstanding that its my show. Winston Churchill would be someone that I would have on there. I think particularly one of the things that troubles me these days is that it doesn’t seem to be abundantly clear that the Nazis are the bad guys. So getting the guy that essentially kicked the Nazis’ ass back to the Stone Age I think would be a person that I would definitely love to hear from, and plus hearing a few of his witticisms would be great.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Another person would be Bobby Kennedy. I’d probably spend all the time asking him about JFK, but what I love about Bobby Kennedy particularly, I don’t know if any of you have seen it, but I’ve been thinking back quite a bit with his speech that he gave the night that Martin Luther King was assassinated, if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to watch it. It’s a very, very, very powerful speech, and I think particularly timely with things that we’re seeing at the moment with the protests in the United States and in Australia as well about race relations, and I think had Bobby not been assassinated in 1968, I think things might have been very different in the United States. I think he’d be a great person to have.

Misha Zelinsky ::

And probably lastly, I’m reading a lot of Ernest Hemingway at the moment, so I don’t know how much Bobby Kennedy drinks, but Hemingway and Churchill [crosstalk 00:52:20]-

Kristina Keneally ::

You’re saying this is an alcoholic dinner.

Misha Zelinsky ::

Well, he’s Irish, Irish-Catholic, so maybe he does drink as well. Look, yeah, and an Australia union official, so it’s definitely going to be we need to have a well-stocked bar. But they’re my three for the extraordinarily lame, not fun time question.

Brandon Hale:

Well, there you go. Well, we’ll have to leave it there, but thank you so much, Senator Kenneally and Misha, for coming.


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

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


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


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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

Thanks for having me, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Containing Japan, India, Australia, and United States.

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Our former Australian foreign minister in the Labor government.

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Tarun Chhabra:

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

Misha Zelinsky:



Dr. Alexandra Phelan: Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and you should know

Dr Alexandra Phelan is a faculty member at the Center for Global Health Science & Security at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Adjunct Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

A global expert in pandemics, Misha Zelinsky caught up with Alex to talk about all things related to COVID-19, including the nature of the threat we face from the virus, the challenges coordinating government responses, the vital role universal healthcare plays in stopping pandemics, why the Chinese Communist Party’s delays at the start were so costly and what Australia and the world should be doing right now.

As a serious note please make sure you are listening to authorities and taking the most up to date advice as this crisis unfolds. The situation may have changed by the time you have listened to this. 


Misha Zelinsky:

Welcome to Diplomates. This is Misha Zelinsky. I’m joined today by Dr. Alexandra Phelann from the United States. She’s Australian but she’s joining via the magic of the internet, which is not yet crashed with all the traffic that’s on it. Alex, can you hear me? Welcome to the show.

Alexandra Phelan:

I can, Misha. Thanks so much for having me.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, pleasure’s all mine and the listeners. I might start, there’s a lot of places you can start with this topic relating to, we’re obviously going to be talking a lot about coronavirus or COVID-19, which is much more sinister-sounding name. Firstly, maybe you could just start by explaining what exactly the virus is. I mean, a lot of people say it’s a bad flu, it’s a killer virus, is it somewhere in between? Maybe you could start there with a short definition.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely. So, I’ll firstly start with sort of two terms. We’ve got COVID-19 which describes the disease, so when people are ill and then we have SARS-CoV-2 which is the name that has been given to the virus itself, the coronavirus and you might here in there that SARS-CoV-2, so SARS coronavirus two, is because it’s closely related to the coronavirus that we saw in the SARS outbreak back in 2002, 2003, but it is a different new novel coronavirus.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are four coronaviruses that normally circulate during the year. They’re sort of a type of virus, a coronavirus, and they normally cause mild illness, so like mild colds, but we do know of two before this virus, more serious forms of coronavirus and that’s SARS that I mentioned and MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, is caused by the MERS coronavirus. And those are two viruses that showed us that the coronaviruses can actually cause this serious disease and this third novel coronavirus, so this sort of severe coronavirus is another example of a coronavirus that can cause quite serious respiratory illness being COVID-19.

Misha Zelinsky:

Right. Okay. And so in terms of the next question I think’s useful to get, as long as we’re doing a quick round of definitions. A pandemic. What is a pandemic and how do we define one?

Alexandra Phelan:

Great question. A pandemic is actually is not necessarily a legal term or a specific technical click, it’s more a descriptive term. A pandemic is simply a way of describing an outbreak or an epidemic that has gone over the entire world. And there are different definitions that people use to describe what is over the entire world. Some definitions are simply that it’s to two or three continents. Some definitions say everywhere except Antarctica. But essentially, it describes the spread of disease, rather than the severity of a disease, and as we look at the cases around the world of coronavirus, it’s quite clear that this is a pandemic. Now when the WHO confirmed that this was a pandemic the other week, it didn’t necessarily change anything from say an international law or a governance perspective. There maybe some contracts around the world that might have the word pandemic in them and that’s a triggering event or some pieces of domestic legislation that have pandemic as a triggering event, but as a term, it’s more a descriptor rather than any sort of significant legal designation.

Alexandra Phelan:

There is a term that is significant legally and that’s a public health emergency of international concern or PHEIC and that was declared on January 30th by the World Health Organization director-general under international law.

Misha Zelinsky:

And say that we’re now officially in a pandemic and we’ve got this rather severe version of the coronavirus, I mean, it’s hard to be how worried to be. I mean, can you give a sense to me, because there is so many different projections and people making various calculations as to mortality rates based on data out of China and other places. How worried should people be because it seems that early sentiment, certainly in Australia and I think around the world was people were relatively sanguine about it. How worried should people be and how concerned should we be about the various projections?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so worry versus being informed is a difficult one. I work in pandemic preparedness. This has been my life for the last 10 years and so for me, the idea of worry is not necessarily a good one. I think though how seriously should we take this is very seriously. And the reason being is, I mean models are models and there are limits to what models can actually demonstrate and what models can factor in and there are lots of different models that are being used for this outbreak, but what we are learning based on the observed data and I guess the consistency we’re seeing a range of different models that are coming out of this is that this is going to have beyond what it already has, a significant human health and life impact. If we start to compare it to other, comparisons can be useful to get a sense of things, right?

Alexandra Phelan:

If we compare some of the data that we do have, and again, this is just observed and this is likely to change, we do have some early, what we call case fatality rates. They’re a form of mortality rates that look at out of everyone who gets the disease, how many people actually die and this is being updated because every country in every situation will change the factors that cause whether people die or not die. And so there’s an average case fatality rate of about 3.4% and there’s out of everyone that gets it 3.4% will pass away, but that changes based on the situation. In Italy it’s looking like the case fatality rate is sitting up at that sort of higher-end, maybe 3.4%, perhaps even a little bit higher, but in other countries we’re seeing in say South Korea, we’re seeing it at sort of the lower end, sort of closer to 1%. Now that being said, that number, 1% is still significant.

Alexandra Phelan:

If we compare to past outbreaks and obviously this is the first time we’ve had a COVID-19 outbreak, this is a new type of coronavirus, if we look at say influenza pandemics, and they’re perhaps the most useful comparison, but you can’t really compare them exactly because they’re different diseases and different circumstances, but if I said, we’ve got this 3.4% global case fatality rate, we look at say seasonal influenza. Seasonal influenza each year has around a 1% case fatality rate typically, I mean it sort of changes a little bit, and that does a significant health burden. If we look at say the H1-9, so 2009 influenza pandemic, swine flu, which people may remember, that was about 0.1%. So, if we go from 0.1% to about 1% and then we’re looking at that’s between 1% and 3.4% or so depending on the circumstances, we’re looking at a pretty significant global health burden.

Alexandra Phelan:

The 1918 Spanish flu, just sort of think back to that, which killed more people than both wars combined, had a case fatality rate of about 2%. So, if we’re hovering at around that 2% and we get global spread and we get that 2% globally, and again, it depends all on the situation in each country, what measures countries take to protect their citizens and protect the health of their citizens will affect it, but if we’re looking at those sorts of figures, then we are in this, this is going to be a marathon, this is not going to be a sprint, the global impact and the health impact of this outbreak is currently expected to be significant.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, that’s certainly sobering those statistics as compared to the Spanish flu which killed 10s of millions if not 100s of millions of people. So, just curious, you talked about the kind of the responses and sort of the impact. One of the things that people are talking about a lot is sort of this flattening of the curve, which is essentially governments trying to reduce the speed of the rate of infections, how much can that impact on how the health system responds and preventing the health system being overrun and not having access to respirators et cetera. How critical is that to the response?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so this is what makes this virus particularly concerning is the ability to overwhelm health services. Because when you do have the severe form of illness, which still appears to be only about 20% of everyone who gets it, gets this severe form, because that’s a really important point to make, it looks like 80% of the population will have a mild illness as 20% who are severe, but if we’re seeing 20% of the population with severe illness, that is guaranteed health care system overwhelm. And what we’re seeing in Italy for example, what we saw in Wuhan specifically, not necessarily in other parts in China, but in Wuhan, in Italy, and we are likely to see in other countries around the world, the intensiveness and the severity of care needed is what makes that health care overwhelm. So this flattening the curve, the idea here that is a term that those of us in pandemic preparedness have worked with and it’s wonderful to see this is rolling out and people understanding it, but what it’s worth understanding is whilst it’s about reducing the number of people with the severity of the illness over time, so reducing from being everyone overwhelming the health care system at once and trying to spread it out and delay the people who are getting the severe illness as long as possible so that the health care system can cope.

Alexandra Phelan:

One of the things that’s not reflected in a lot of those graphs is health care services are already overwhelmed in most places in terms of our ICUs, in terms of our beds. Around the world, governments have consistently under-funded health systems or non-nationalized health systems, and so we’re already kind of at health care capacity or very close to. So, even if we are doing this mitigation, this flattening of the curve by focusing on slowing, but necessarily stopping the spread of an epidemic, we’re still likely to meet that sort of peak health care demand at that level, it’s just about mitigating that as much as possible. So that’s where those mitigation strategies are really key.

Alexandra Phelan:

But then the other strategy that we’ve sort of talked about is this idea of suppression, which is not just about mitigating and reducing the impact but also actually stopping the spread to people. So, that’s where we start to talk about things like social distancing, which we can get into. The idea of social distancing is you try to prevent people who are infected from coming into contact with people who are susceptible, and that includes people who may not have severe illness but could then pass it onto people who are vulnerable, which includes older populations. We say older, we’re looking at maybe over 65 as the data again is coming in, but also people with underlying medical conditions that make them more at risk, and again, a lot of this data is observational and on the fly, and so it’s likely to change and that has to inform government policy as well.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so that’s really kind of critical then how the government responds. Can you give a sense, I mean, you’ve mentioned Italy a bit, maybe what Italy got wrong and maybe some of the countries that seemed to have maybe tackled the challenge. I mean, China had a very aggressive response essentially locking down Hubei province and then having people essentially report to fever clinics et cetera. Are you able to give a very kind of high-level delineations in who’s doing it well and who isn’t and what the key factors there are?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, let’s start with the good example. The good example is South Korea, and they’ve been touted as a good example, and this may change over time. But to date, South Korea have appeared to reduce the spread, have a health care system more able to cope, and have managed to start to reduce the cases going forward from here. What South Korea implemented was a bit of this multi-pronged strategy that looked at both mitigation and suppression. So, what they did is implemented significant testing processes whereby individuals could essentially access tests, to get tested to check if they were infected regardless of their illness and their symptoms, or their travel history, and South Korea was able to run 20,000 tests a day at some point. And that included things like drive-up car testing facilities, as well as actively testing individuals.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now if an individual tested positive in South Korea they were essentially put into sort of a self-isolation and there were a range of different measures that the South Korean government used that helped implement that, which may or may not transfer to other places. So they used extensive mobile phone surveillance and monitoring to help enforce that, which I think that depends on the acceptability of an entire population because, at the end of the day, public health requires public trust. You don’t want to be doing anything that undermines peoples willingness to engage with the government. So, they implemented that testing and surveillance, and so it meant the people that were infected were taken away like they were at home, they took themselves away from the potential risk of spreading it to other people. And coupled with broad social distancing, meaning that people weren’t necessarily going out to restaurants and bars and people were working from home, engaging those sorts of policies so even if someone hadn’t got a test, you’re reducing the opportunities for transmission before someone knows whether they are sick or not. So, the testing coupled with the social distancing measures were incredibly effective.

Alexandra Phelan:

If we now look to say Italy. Italy started its surveillance and testing significantly too late. The social distancing that were put in place were put in place probably two weeks too late and the thing to I guess think about with pandemics and when we do this pandemic preparedness, we say that when you think it’s too early, you’re probably just about to get too late. The whole point of these social distancing measures is to have it in place before you have transmission occurring because remember when you actually are doing a test and you’re finding people are turning up and they’re sick, so you’re doing a test based on them being sick, not like South Korea where they’ve just got testing happening, if you’re waiting for people to get sick, you’re probably two weeks down the track already. There’s been two weeks of … We still don’t know exactly the details of pre-symptomatic transmission, like how long before people show symptoms, can they transmit it, that’s still getting that precise data, but it appears to be an element here. Once people are showing up and they’re sick, it’s already a bit too late.

Alexandra Phelan:

And so this sort of a week and two-week timeframes we’re seeing sort of roll across the world, and so in Italy, once these measures were implemented, sure they might have assisted in bringing down the curve, but by that stage, the system was primed for overwhelm and that’s what we’ve seen in the Italian ICU units in the north of the country. There are some more nuanced sort of distribution of ICU beds within the country that could assist, but the overwhelm has occurred because these measures were put in too late and Italy was the first country in Europe to really be` hit, so it’s also not surprising that these measures were put in too late.

Alexandra Phelan:

I do want to sort of take a moment to mention Wuhan. In China, in other cities, in Beijing, [Shanghai 00:17:16], [Sichuan 00:17:16], et cetera, they implemented these sorts of social distancing measures very similar to what we saw in South Korea and that was very successful. Wuhan is a special category and I think it’s really important to distinguish the successful measures done in other China cities from Wuhan. By the time Wuhan implemented their lockdown, which is a phrase, and if we look at what it technically was it was a cordon sanitaire, which is not a quarantine, it’s essentially a geographic area that has a rope tied around it and said no one can come and no one can go. By the time that had been implemented, there was already significant local transmission occurring. The impact of the cordon sanitaire in Wuhan appears to have potentially delayed the spread, not within China, you know this was happening during Lunar Year travel periods, but perhaps could’ve delayed the spread internationally by a couple of days.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now the question is at what cost those couple of days because we don’t know how many people in Wuhan died from secondary causes as a result of the lockdown from the health care system overwhelm and the appropriate counterfactual would be what if Wuhan back when they had the first notifications from doctors at the end of December or during December and early January, if we’re being flexible with the timing there, if they’d implemented social distancing and extensive testing and gotten those diagnostic tests up and running in time and had that in place, could have it been a very different picture, and I think that is a counterfactual we’ll have to explore in the after reviews of this outbreak.

Misha Zelinsky:

You sort of touched there about the importance of quick response and not waiting too long, but as I think from an Australian point of view, we’re watching the world seemingly going into lockdown, is it inevitable that every country’s going to be lockdown in some way, or is that not inevitable. Because one of the things I’m struggling to understand just as a complete layman in this space is, is lockdown really the best and most effective way of dealing this in a social distancing way but in an almost complete social distancing sense or can it be measured and mitigated in different ways?

Alexandra Phelan:

So I think the first thing I’d say is the term lockdown is getting used to describe just relatively normal social distancing measures that we’d say are quite legitimate as well as very punitive, arbitral and authoritarian measures because the term lockdown doesn’t mean anything right? It’s a descriptive term-

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, for example in LA, right, they’ve just now closed restaurants and bars to the public. I mean, in Australia it was just said, it was no football games, but I think it was quite stark to see cities around the world now where they’re restaurants are shut, bars are shut, any sort of social event is shut.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so that’s happened here in New York as of tomorrow wherein all restaurants, bars et cetera closed. In reality that’s already been happening to some degree. So, if we’re thinking about that, so if we want to use lockdown to mean a few things. I think the measures that we want to be seeing are working from home policies, that should be implemented. It’s already here in New York, that is getting people working from home if they can because not everyone can and not every business can, but where people can work from home. No gatherings, I think the current, and please feel free to correct me was 100 people or 500 perhaps even, I mean that’s way too … 20 people versus 500 people that’s an arbitrary distinction, really it’s about removing people having contact, so I would say even getting the point where people aren’t meeting up with more than 5 people. I think that is what we need-

Misha Zelinsky:


Alexandra Phelan:

to be sort of be reducing this transmission, right? Obviously in families, that’s not necessarily feasible, but I wouldn’t be having a dinner party. If they are going outside, making sure they’ve got that physical distance, but I think though when we start to think about things like schools, which this becomes tricky because it might seem counter-intuitive, schools and universities, universities I think there is more of a justification for moving classes to online and reducing that contact, but for schools, one of the things that needs to be consider in this process is the fact that if you cancel schools a parent has to be able to stay home and not all parents have jobs where they will be able to work from home and in particular the workforce that we are particularly concerned about are our health care workforce.

Alexandra Phelan:

One of the most direct ways to stymie say the US health care workforce, and I’m not as across the Australian data, is if single parents have to stay home and look after their kids because a significant number of health care workers, particularly nurses, are single parents with primary carer responsibilities to stay home and look after kids. And the alternative might be to be looked after by their grandparents who we know are a high-risk group, whereas children, thankfully, on the current data appear not to be high risk, so closing schools, particularly say primary schools, can have really significant negative impacts on your ability to respond. And so whilst it might seem counterintuitive, the closing of schools needs to be really well thought through and considered in regards who are the parents that might have to stay home to look after the kids, and that’s why as a social distancing measure, in a lockdown, that may not actually be the appropriate thing.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are lots of in-between, right, you can stagger recess, you can stagger arrival times, you can increase recess times, that’s why it’s a lot more nuanced than I think the discussion has been to date in a lot of the data in Australia, but certainly, mass gatherings, restaurants, bars. There is a social responsibility on all of us that if we take measures now, we could save our grandparents, our parents, and our friends and other loved ones who may be particularly vulnerable to this outbreak.

Misha Zelinsky:

And so this social distancing, or maybe it’s moderate lockdown or that this really like closing down of large parts of the economy, what’s not clear to me at least is how long will this last for and what the aftermath looks like? So I mean it’s 14 days, it’s eight weeks, but then at the end of that period, are we sort of through the worst of it, or can it sort of spike again? That bit’s not clear to me either and I think that’s causing a lot of confusion at least in my mind.

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, yeah. I guess from a pandemic planning point of view we always put upfront the economic costs of a pandemic and the reality is the more people who are getting sick and ill and if you don’t mitigate and reduce the spread the bigger the impact on the economy, so it’s like just accepting there’s going to be a loss, it’s just how much of a loss. So in terms of the timeframes and how that factors in, as I said, models are models and they’re not necessarily, you know, they’re not forecasts, they’re not Nostradamus or Cassandra.

Alexandra Phelan:

But some modeling that came out overnight from a group at Imperial and they’re work has been informative for the UK government response and other responses previously, is that we would likely need to be using a combination of mitigation and suppression, so social distancing as well as reducing peak health care demand until we have a vaccine and it becomes widely available and we know from other vaccines we’re probably looking at the 12 to 18 months. So, there has to be some sort of combination with both measures.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now how does that work in practice? Well, we saw that in South Korea, and also in parts of China, we’ve seen the ability to bring cases under control and get case numbers low enough that you can go back to perhaps the testing model of testing if someone’s sick and then isolating them and quarantining their contacts. So because suppression is possibly in the short term, if we could potentially loosen interventions and measures provided that we don’t see a rebound, so it all depends on how good the system in place is for that period in between. So, we could see these temporary relaxations in short windows, but it needs to be able to put the switch back on if we see case numbers moving again. And that can relatively disruptive obviously, but that might be a way of easing the economic and social costs of interventions that are being used over that period until we have a vaccine.

Alexandra Phelan:

A vaccine isn’t guaranteed. We do have incredibly a potential candidate of vaccines out there, but we’ve got to remember the only tool we actually have in our power right now, as humans together against this virus is our solidarity and our ability to act to socially distance and until we have a vaccine and it’s available it’s going to be our solidarity that is going to be what keeps us safe.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, it sounds like people should be digging in for the long haul, so maybe switching now just to what maybe individuals should be doing social distancing. What should people be doing as of now, working from home clearly but are there specific measures people should be taking in terms of preparing themselves?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so I think some of the measures we’ve seen in Italy and what we’re seeing here in New York, closing of bars and restaurants and people working from home, but keeping grocery stores and pharmacies open so people can still go get food, and so there’s this sort of rush and panic to have a 18-month prep, that’s not necessarily be required. Having a stockpile of food to sort of get through the next two weeks is a good way of doing it, or having to get through in sort of periods and bursts and that way when people run out it’s sort of much more staggered and people can go to the shops and get groceries. In terms of other additional measures, I think the most important thing, and this is particularly for people who are not in high-risk categories, who are healthy, who are younger, so like under 60, is to realize that they have perhaps one of the most important role to play in stopping the spread of this outbreak and that that is more important than going to a bar with mates or having friends over, and we’re very lucky this has happened at a time where we have tools where we can chat with our friends through video and audio link and there is some really innovative and creative ways we can keep ourselves not socially isolated whilst we’re doing this social distancing.

Alexandra Phelan:

I think the other sort of very individualized measures are clearly washing your hands often and properly, I think people are getting that message. If you do feel sick to contact the relevant hotline that’s made available or health care service to check with them. If you do have any symptoms, to stay home. The reality is, is we say mild illness, up to 80% of mild illness, that still can include pneumonia, so you can still get pretty sick and pretty unwell, but you’re not necessarily at the point of hospitalization and needing the health care service, and so I think there’s going to have to be an understanding that it’s not going to be pleasant for everyone that gets it and has a mild form. Some people will just get a sniffle, some people will get quite sick, but what we need that is our ICUs and our hospitals are available for people who are going to die without that support. So, I think that individual recognition of what is serious and what’s not serious.

Alexandra Phelan:

And I think the final thing is we all have a part to play in protecting the most vulnerable members of our community not just in our behaviors but also ensuring that they’re not socially isolated. Our elderly population or people with disabilities, or other members other community, just anyone in the community might not have the social connections and/or the support systems to be able to go get groceries and do things like that, so I think ensuring that we’re protecting those individuals. And that includes things like ensuring that sick leave is not a limit on people’s ability to stay home. Ensuring that casualized workforce in Australia have access to sick leave and have access to payment protections. There are lots of models around the world where the government’s actually gave hand-outs, gave amounts of money, and not just sort of what we’ve seen in Australia so far, but a broader range of people, and I think those sorts of measures we really need to be thinking about our restaurant workers, our casualized workforce, that need to be part of this because we need to be safe and staying home and not feel the economic individual economic pressures to have to be going to work.

Misha Zelinsky:

I absolutely agree with you around the issue around insecure work and the lack of access to health care. Certainly a concern in Australia, and I know it’s a bigger concern in countries like the United States. In terms of reassuring people, I mean we saw, I think at first everyone was having a bit of a laugh about the toilet paper crisis that seemed to have started in Australia and has spread around the world, but the prospect of panic buying is now very real. We’re seeing queues for things around the world and in the United States, people are queuing for guns, which is concerning, do you think we’ve done enough to reassure people? Because there’s a balance between scaring the bejesus out of people and also making sure they’re properly aware of the facts. So, how have you got that [crosstalk 00:32:09]?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, it is a really challenging example of science and political, and governance communication. There are people who are experts at this, right, people who are experts in how to communicate that tension-

Misha Zelinsky:

Like Twitter, right?

Alexandra Phelan:

… I think if we saw government engaging these experts, in fact in our pandemic plans that is right up there in our top-10 priorities is have expert communicators for this exact issue. So, what people should be doing is having enough food and supplies that they feel that they can stay at home for the two weeks, in case they are sick and they stay at home for that entire period. And recognizing that hoarding is … You know, you see these posters during WWII, hoarding is unpatriotic, we’re kind of in that sort of period, right, where this is take only what you need to keep you and your family safe, and you might need to change some behaviors to be able to take less than what you would normally need. And I think that’s where there’s also a role for government in communicating what’s going to happen in terms of supply chains and logistics about access to food and how those supply chains are going to be kept active so people know that hey in two-weeks’ time when I’ve served my period of isolation, I need to go out and get some more supplies, get some more food and whatever that they know that they can.

Alexandra Phelan:

In New York, a number of restaurants have shifted to go and delivery so that they can keep their staff on board and can continue to provide food and done in a way where it’s pick up and drop off so you don’t have any individual contact between the people delivering and people who are at home. And so in facilitating those sorts of supplies and facilitating a much clearer communication is really key to addressing that balance. It’s a hard one but it’s possible.

Misha Zelinsky:

What’s the role here? So, how concerned are you as someone as an expert, I mean I was half-joking about Twitter, it seems to me that every single person’s now an expert in infection rates and global health policy, but how concerned are you about the role of social media in driving fake news and being able to distinguish what’s happening and what’s not happening? And also, I think, it’s very difficult for people as well with the flood of information from around the world, not just in their own jurisdiction, how do you see those challenges in amongst all this?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, so I think there are two elements here. The first element is accuracy of information and the second element is mental health. So, the accuracy of information is we’ve become accustomed to receiving information from multiple sources, reliable and unreliable, and over the last four years, in particular, there’s been a lot of discussion about how do you stop unreliable information and where do you get reliable information. One of the advantages of a public health threat is we do have already established authorities on public health and that’s the World Health Organization, that’s the Center for Disease Control for the US, that’s the different public health departments in Australia, and I think I haven’t been up to date on what the Victorian Department of Health has been communicating. WHO and CDC have lots of really shareable memes on social media, they’re not actually memes they’re just images, but really shareable ways of communicating accurate information. So, if you are using Twitter and Facebook, I would make sure you’re following WHO and your state, as well as the federal health department, because they have been engaging in really active and proactive communication on those tools and I would limit where you get your information to those sources as much as possible, partly because of the first reason, for getting correct information, but also the second reason is mental health.

Alexandra Phelan:

A pandemic is a scary thing. There’s a lot of uncertainty and in that uncertainty, we can get worries and fears, as well as misinformation. There is constant information coming from other countries, accurate and not accurate, there’s constant levels of panic and fear and people telling other people not to fear and not to panic and dismissing what are quite legitimate concerns in many respects, so I think if you are not working on the outbreak directly, and it’s not necessarily directly relevant to what you need to be doing in your day-to-day apart from what you are doing to protect yourself and your family and your community, limiting the information you get to perhaps once a day. Maybe it’s the news broadcast at night or even radio at a certain time of day, or to the WHO or CDC or where ever you’re getting your news and limiting it, because I can tell you from someone who’s been following this outbreak since 31 December 2019, it can very quickly because overwhelming and very quickly that sense of lack of control, like what can you do as an individual. So I would focus on those steps that we spoke about and limit your time on social media in so far as you can while staying connected with your friends and family and loved ones.

Misha Zelinsky:

Staying off social media generally is good advice, so [crosstalk 00:37:56]. So, yeah you talked a lot about governments and the important role that they play here, I mean unfortunately in some instances we’ve seen I think rather poor leadership. I mean how helpful or unhelpful do you think the political class has been around the world on this issue? Who’s doing it well, who’s not, and what should they be really doing to restore a sense of calm to this?

Alexandra Phelan:

I think one of the best examples that we’ve seen in terms of political communication and political messaging and leadership is in Singapore, we saw the Singapore government very early come out say what they’re going to do, very clear messaging, balanced, and I think there’s a couple of rules for political and health communication that we try to follow. You say firstly, what do you know, what you don’t know, what you’re doing to find out and when you’re going to speak with people next? I’ve seen the state of Victorian Premier Andrews do exactly that framework in a number of the messaging and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples within different levels of government in Australia as well. So, I think clear messaging and leadership upfront and early is really key and that Singapore is a great example.

Alexandra Phelan:

We look at WHO, I’ve openly critiqued them on a number of different issues with this outbreak, particularly on human rights and international law norms, as well as public health messaging, but to their credit, one of the most incredible things WHO and the Director-General Tedros and others have been doing these daily updates to press, really clear messaging, again, what we know, what we don’t know, what we’re doing to find out, and when we’ll be back and I think those are some really great examples of communication. And it really shows how communication is so central to leadership and when people don’t hear from their leaders, they get worried. And I think having clarity of messaging is one of my biggest concerns with the current outbreak back in Australia and how it’s being dealt with. Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just expanding on the Australian response, it seems that we are at least somewhat behind the rest of the world maybe by fortune of our geographic isolation, ability to control our borders, I mean what would your advice be to Scott Morrison and the rest of the authorities that are responsible for this, what should we be doing urgently?

Alexandra Phelan:

So, the first thing I would say actually is to push back a little bit on that. Pathogens don’t respect borders. So, the fact that Australia’s a little bit behind in terms of timing is not a factor of border security, in fact at one point, we can maybe at another date how border enforcement can actually make things worse, or perceived border enforcement. But it is potentially a fact of our geographic isolation in terms of just number of travelers from the relevant parts of the world that has made a big, big step. Sorry, I got so distracted with making a particular point I forgot the rest of your question, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s okay, it’s an important point to make and as I said, I’m more than happy to be corrected on this topic, I do not claim to be an expert.

Alexandra Phelan:

No, no, no.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, so what would you be advising the government in Australia to be doing if for whatever reason we do seem to have some time still up our sleeve?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, absolutely that’s spot on. So, what we have right now is that time up our sleeve. There is already local transmission in Australia and so we need to start recognizing that we need to have measures in place now that address social distance and for people to limit that local transmission. We can’t rely on trying to control who comes in and out of the country, it is already here, it is already in Australia. So, what is needed is, I think there should be a move to issue advisories about limiting all mass gatherings, so I would say, over 20 people. People should and this is advisory and I’m deliberately using the word voluntary and advisory here, we can sort of talk about mandatory and criminal in a moment. There should be a prioritization of testing. We’re already at risk of running out of certain re-agents as I understand in Australia, so I think guaranteeing and shoring up our supply chain to actually conduct testing and to continually proactively test anyone who is showing symptoms, regardless of their travel history and perhaps facilitating testing through things like drive-through testing, continuing to set up specified clinics and to have that testing for people who have symptoms or who are our contacts of people who have symptoms or are confirmed.

Alexandra Phelan:

We then also be needing to look at our own measures. We should be looking at an encouragement and people who can, working from home. If they can, work from home. I think the universities, makes sense also to be shifting to a university-from-home model, where applicable, where okay. The school closures, as I mentioned earlier is a little bit more tricky and a little bit more difficult and I think that should be thought through very carefully because of the risk it will have on our health care workforce and our vulnerable elderly populations if those measures are implemented. The next thing we need to be doing is preparing a health care system. We do not have enough ventilators in Australia to cope with this. We do not have enough ICU beds in Australia to cope with this if we have transmission what is modeled in other countries and what we’re seeing in other countries.

Alexandra Phelan:

What we need to be doing is can we increase those direct items, do we have ability to get more ventilators, and get more beds, and that includes being ready to … When I say ready, I mean within the next two weeks, if we don’t see any particular shift in transmission being ready to be able to have our hospitals in surge capacity, that includes cutting elective surgeries and getting ready to have our system and perhaps already depending on what capacity is like in hospitals now, already be switching to have our hospitals in crisis standards of care, which that’s when we’re determining who gets access to ventilators. We need to have those plans in place now because you don’t want to be making those ethical decisions on the fly. And to be having our hospitals ready and supported ready to go for when to surge does hit.

Alexandra Phelan:

We’re going to be seeing, I think the thing I would say to people is do not be surprised and alarmed as we see cases doubling or exponentially growing because that’s exactly what we’re expecting the virus to do. So, when you see breaking news cases have doubled overnight, or whatever, that is expected and what you see today is two weeks after the infection occurred. So, we need to be putting those measures in place now so we are stopping that spread and it may seem like it’s too early, but that’s exactly when we’re talking about a pandemic, that is exactly when you need to be putting these measures in place. I think the cancellation of mass sporting events I think they’re absolutely the right decision and I think we need to be moving to those measures now.

Alexandra Phelan:

Now I mentioned the mandatory and criminal thing. Something that has concerned me is, so I worked on these laws in my undergraduate law dissertation was on these laws in Australia, when you use punitive criminal laws, you push people away from the public health system. You push them towards the criminal system, you push people towards avoiding interaction with authorities, whether they be police or public health.

Misha Zelinsky:

Because you don’t want to admit that you have it so you’re better to hide from it.

Alexandra Phelan:

Absolutely. And that’s when it goes underground. That’s when we see transmission, right, because people don’t want to engage. I was deeply disappointed to hear the Prime Minister say talking about dobbing in your mate who comes into work to the police. That’s is a strategy for underground transmission in Australia that we cannot track and it is not the right message, because we are about to go into a pandemic most likely in Australia, well we are in an epidemic, we are mostly likely drawn into the scale that we’re seeing around the world to some degree, we may be able to flatten it and move it to a different trajectory if we act now. What we need right now is solidarity and trust in our authorities and trust in each other and it is much better than if your mate comes into work that you say, “Hey, you go home right now. You have to go home.” Than you’re calling the cops. We need to be in this together and we need to support each other, and support our most vulnerable populations and moving towards a criminal model, I can tell you now from someone who’s worked in this field for a decade. criminalizing anything to do with health will always make health worse.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a very strong message and I think that’s something we should absolutely take on board here and around the world. Now just one, as we get towards the end of this. I know you got important conversations to have and important work to do. You talked before about the Wuhan situation and the origins of this outbreak, I mean, you talked all about the government response information sharing, how big a stuff up, and would it have made a difference had the Chinese authorities sort of acted earlier rather than covering it up. I mean it’s all sort of been forgotten now in the flurry of activity, but of course, at the time doctors were being arrested for diagnosing the illness and things like of that nature, as essentially the system tried to manage up, to hide the problem emerging. How big a problem was that delay in the beginning to where we are today?

Alexandra Phelan:

I think we will get some really interesting counterfactual model or sort of post hoc models to look at exactly that, that if this was reported. Again, this ties into the point that I was just making, that we know that a system that shares information, that is transparent, that is based on public health principles and is based on human rights, including the right to health and the right for everyone to have their health protected by the government, we know that those systems are much better at responding to infectious diseases and so measures that discourage notification that penalize individuals speaking or reporting, or a bureaucracy that deliberately slows down the sharing of information upwards and the reactions out of concern of potential punishment, we know that already, we know that that makes health worse, so I think that it will be very unsurprising if we have after-action reviews that sort of look at if we had had action by the Wuhan government in early January. So, even when this was reported globally, but if Wuhan specifically, we’d seen action in early January, rather than keeping the lid on things whilst the regional meetings were being held, then I think they’re quite conceivably could’ve been an appropriate response that mitigated and contained the outbreak at a much earlier stage.

Alexandra Phelan:

The nature of exponential growth means that the earlier that you can get in the more lives saved and the economics, like the economics, aren’t really what’s going to be at play here, but that’s the early you intervene the less the impact. I don’t know how helpful that’s going to be going forward because we’re going to have a long way before we get to those sorts of after-action reviews, but yeah, I think that will definitely be a point of many, many PhDs to come.

Misha Zelinsky:

Sounds like you’ve got one in the making there for yourself, but how do we future proof ourselves against future pandemics. I’m sure there’s someone who’s thought about these for a very, very long time, probably been jumping up and down producing reports saying that we’re not prepared for pandemics, we’re not pandemics and being ignored. What are the things that, you know, we obviously need to control this outbreak now, but what are the real things we need to be doing to future proof ourselves against future problems like this?

Alexandra Phelan:

Yeah, we need a couple of things. The first is we need investment in strong domestic health care system. We’re incredibly lucky to have Medicare in Australia and we should not be cutting it, we should not be underfunding it, we should be supporting our systems. To be able to have the capacity to prepare for pandemics like this let along every day health of Australians and that’s around the world, universal health care around the world. So, ensuring that health care is affordable, it’s available, it’s acceptable and it’s accessible and it’s quality around the world.

Alexandra Phelan:

There are a range of different capacities as under the piece of international law called The International Health Regulations there are these core capacities that countries are obligated to implement. There is an external evaluation available of countries to assess whether they’ve met those requirements and so there are tool kits, there are frameworks, and there are legal obligations that already exist for pandemic preparedness. And yes, we have been jumping up and down for the last 10 years and longer, so investment in not just in our own countries but the investment in the health systems and pandemic preparedness of other countries around the world, because we’re interconnected. If this pandemic has shown us anything is an outbreak anywhere is a public health threat everywhere and rather than placing blame on countries it’s about building up their support and their capacity to prevent, detect and respond to these outbreaks in the future.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, Alex, this has been a hell of a conversation. I’m certainly more informed, though I don’t know if I’m any less alarmed, but to bring some kind of levity to this conversation, I normally find some clunky way to segue and I can’t possibly think of one for the final question about a barbecue at Alex’s place with three foreigners. Now, it is three, which does make it under your number of small gatherings, so we can still go ahead, though you might need to buy some stuff ahead of time and I can’t guarantee everybody’s going to make it there, but who are the three foreigners at a barbecue at Alex’s and why?

Alexandra Phelan:

You know what? I might need you to ask this question again, Misha, at some point, because I have been so busy I haven’t been able to sit and think about who I would invite to my barbecue. I think I’m still in social isolation mode.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you know what? I’m going to let you off the hook. Ordinarily, I don’t let my guests out of here without answering the question but given that you’re fighting the good fight on behalf of Aussie’s in the global debate, I think I’ll let you off the hook, but-

Alexandra Phelan:

I appreciate it.

Misha Zelinsky:

… it’s been a fantastic conversation. Really appreciate your insights and good luck with the fight against not only this pandemic, but all future pandemics. Thank you very much.

Alexandra Phelan:

Thanks, Misha.


Ambassador Jeff Bleich: Why trust matters in democracy and how we get it back

Jeff Bleich was US Ambassador to Australia from 2009 to 2013.

A distinguished legal and political professional, he is the Chair of the Fulbright Scholarship Board and now heads up the Jeff Bleich Centre for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security, and Governance at Flinders University in Australia

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Jeff for a chat about why the Trump Impeachment is bigger than the trial itself, how Mike Bloomberg could end up President, his friendship with President Obama, the attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to dominate global technology standards, why trust is central to democracy, why autocrats can never crush the human spirit and why the most recent hacking by Russian agents could impact the upcoming 2020 US election. 



Misha Zelinsky:             Jeff Bleich, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, glad to be here Misha. Thank you for inviting me.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, pleasure’s all mine. Now, a good place I thought to start might be US politics. Now, a little bit about yourself. You obviously were ambassador-

Jeff Bleich:                    A good place [crosstalk 00:00:18]-

Misha Zelinsky:             A good place to start, or an interesting place to start, at least, maybe not good. You of course were ambassador to Australia, but you’ve also been a political candidate. I’m curious about what you experienced as the main differences. That’s a big question, but if you could maybe just give us that kind of an insight to the differences in those two roles.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, they’re very different. I mean, I think when you’re a diplomat, particularly in a country that generally is on good terms with the United States, it’s not that people necessarily agree with you, but they’re not immediately hostile to you. They want to know what you have to say. Whereas when you’re a political candidate, half the state or half the country wants to kill you every day. It’s a little different in that sense. I thought it was more policy-oriented when you’re an ambassador. The expectation is that you put politics aside and it’s really focus on, how do we solve problems between our nations and also how can our nations work together to address problems around the world? Whereas when you’re a political candidate, it is 90% politics.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I think the third big difference is money. Just money is a very corrosive factor in politics today. Whereas when you’re US ambassador, a thousand roles will keep you away from ever touching anyone’s money, even your own. That keeps a lot of stress out of your life, and has you focused really on issues. They’re dramatically different roles.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, I can imagine the role of money is certainly important one. Now, speaking of politics, I mean, whilst we can’t predict what’s going to happen as we record this, the US president is currently being impeached. I think we can probably figure out the likely outcomes. It’s unlikely that the Republican Senate will seek to convict and remove the president. But how concerned are you about, I suppose, the underlying aspects of the impeachment itself in respect to the politicization of foreign interference and how do you see that playing into the 2020 election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well I’m worried about the impeachment in a number of different ways. One thing is the fact that not enough people are paying attention to it. They’re treating it as though it’s a game and they already know the score, and so why should they watch? When in fact, this is an important statement about our values as a country and what we think matters and what we think doesn’t matter. If there were a moment when the public should be paying attention, regardless of their predisposition, I think now is one of them, so that matters.

Jeff Bleich:                    Another thing that matters to me about it is that there’s… the allegations go to the core of our democracy and if they don’t lead to some kind of sanction this time around, we’re setting a precedent for the future. The president’s accused of having used his position, the power of his office in order to obtain a personal benefit at the expense of our national interest. Namely, the personal benefit is getting dirt on a political opponent, and the national interest was congressionally approved funds being delivered to Ukraine in order for it to mount a defense against one of our adversaries. I mean, a very significant question. I used to teach constitutional law and that kind of an abuse was really the answer to my final exam question as to what’s impeachable conduct. It’s a serious offense if the Senate determines that he did engage in that behavior.

Jeff Bleich:                    What concerns me most is that so far no one has been prepared, on the Republican side, to stand up and say, “If this is true, he did a bad thing. I may not be prepared to remove him from office for it, but this is bad and it shouldn’t be done by any president under any circumstances.” The fact that you’re not hearing Republicans at least define the debate that way, the fact that the president’s defense says, “This is a perfect phone call.” The fact that the chief of staff to the president says, “We do this stuff all the time.” This should concern every American just about whether or not our system is reacting to issues that the framers considered core issues about our security.

Jeff Bleich:                    Then I guess the last thing is your question, politicization. I don’t think interference is being politicized, but I think it’s being under-appreciated because we’re so focused on the impeachment, we’re not focusing on how serious this event was in terms of Russian interference and then other ways in which foreign governments could affect the outcome of one of our elections. Long answer. Sorry.

Misha Zelinsky:             No, that’s excellent, and I think it’s really enlightening. But I’m keen to return to the subject of foreign interference while I was just with US politics. One final point in parallel to the impeachment, which is an enormous story. We’ve got another big story which is the upcoming Iowa caucuses. How do you see the Democratic primary playing out? I might press you for a prediction though I won’t hold you to it. I’ve given up the prediction game after 2016, and also 2019 in Australia. But how do you see the Democratic primary playing out? But also how do you see the left right divide playing out in the primary system itself, but then more generally in the general election?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well, we’ve narrowed the field of Democrats down from about 32 candidates to six. The six are Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg. Those are really the six who remain viable. I’d say some of the energy of the party is behind people with a very strong left bend who are moving for radical changes on some large scale programs. That would really be the Sanders and Warren camp. Then the other four who I think reflect more of the numbers within Democratic party are reformers, but they’re more pragmatic reformers. They’re not looking for a radical solution, radical change.

Jeff Bleich:                    I don’t know how that’s going to turn out, and I think a lot will depend on Iowa. If you think about the last few elections, everyone thought that Donald Trump’s candidacy was sort of a… they thought it was a joke candidacy for some people or they thought that he was doing it basically to raise his profile for his businesses. They didn’t think he actually thought he would win. But Iowa and other early primary showed where the energy was, and it was clearly with the people who were anti-establishment, and so it ended up being Cruz and Trump at the end.

Jeff Bleich:                    If you look at the last election for Democrats, Hillary was supposed to be in… it was supposed to be easy for her. In fact, she had to go off 50 States against Bernie Sanders because the energy was really with an anti-establishment vote. I would expect a lot of anti-establishment energy to be in the Democratic primary, but there is also going to be a lot of pro-Obama anti-Trump energy, which is focused more on a moderate. Those two are going to have to battle it out in Iowa. I think depending… it’s going to be very close at the top. But whether you win by 1% or lose by 2% can make a huge difference in how the narrative plays out and the momentum.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think this will be a defining moment for the Democrats and will really winnow the field potentially smaller. I’ll give you one prediction which is, if Sanders and Warren came out on top for example and Biden and Buttigieg were in third and fourth, there would probably be a lot of interest in Michael Bloomberg suddenly as someone who could have the resources to mount a strong campaign first against the hard left but also against Donald Trump. If on the other hand, Biden and Buttigieg came in first and second, then I think there you’re less likely to see Bloomberg emerging in the field because there’s a sense that there’s already a couple of candidates in that lane. I think most likely you’re probably going to see one moderate and one hard left candidate coming out in one, two, and everyone else bunched pretty tightly behind them, the other two. We’re in for a bit long bumpy ride.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you think, irrespective of the outcome even if it comes down to a battle between say Sanders and Biden or Warren and Buttigieg, can the party bring itself together in a general election to… because I think one of the outcomes of the 2016 election was that some of the Sanders people stayed home and refused to campaign or vote for Clinton. I think that certainly impacted on her candidacy more generally.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I would expect it’ll be different this time, and I take some confidence in that from the midterm elections where Democrats turned out in numbers that they’ve never turned out in before, and they were pretty unanimous in their efforts to unseat house Republicans. I think this time around, Democrats do know how to come back together again. People thought that the Hillary Barack divide was so great that they’d never come together, they came together very well. My sense is that this time around, as well, it’s not a theoretical possibility that Donald Trump could be the president and advance policies that we disagree with as Democrats. I think it’s a certainty that he would be president if we don’t come together. I think Democrats will come together in much better fashion than they did last time around both because they know the consequences and they’ve demonstrated the capacity to do it before.

Misha Zelinsky:             Okay, and just, well, I think that hopefully you’re right about that. Turning to your career as ambassador, you mentioned president Obama before, he of course appointed you as ambassador, but interesting factor about your career is that you tried to recruit him when he was a precocious young law student. I’m kind of curious about that story. Was it obvious that he was special then given you tried to recruit him or?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh yeah. No, no. The story was that we were trying to recruit him to clerk for the judge that I clerked for on the court just before the Supreme court. Then I was going on next year, and the judge said, I heard about a guy over at Harvard Law School, who’s the president of Law Review, Barack Obama. I said, “Yeah, he sounds great. I don’t really know him, but everyone says he’s terrific, but he doesn’t really want to clerk. I think he’s going to do something else.”

Jeff Bleich:                    The judge said, “Well, give him a call.” I called him up and I came back afterwards and went into the judge’s chambers and I had Obama’s resume with me. The good news is that he’s even better on the phone then he was on paper. I mean, he’s really, really special, and smart, funny, interesting. From Chicago, where the judge is from, you’d love him. The bad news is, he really doesn’t want to clerk. He wants to do something good for society. The judge said, “Well, give me his resume.”

Jeff Bleich:                    He takes it, comes back into my office a while later and he’s holding Obama’s resume. He looks at me, he goes, “Now this, this is the kind of guy I ought to be hiring.” I’m like, “You mean instead of me?” He goes, exactly, call him again. I called him again and tried to recruit him. I never did, but we formed a friendship and one thing led to another after that.

Misha Zelinsky:             Before we dig into the, maybe specific of the policies, what is it about the US Australia relationship that in your mind makes it so special and why is trust within that relationship so important?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, I think you put your finger on it, it’s about trust. There are a lot of alliances in the world that are transactional and so they’re about, “If you do this thing for me now, I will do something for you later.” But our alliance is beyond that, it’s a true partnership. It’s like a marriage. Where you’re not asking every time, “What do I get in return?” You know that the relationship itself makes both of you stronger and better and you’re always looking for ways to be helpful to each other. That’s the foundation on which our trust was based.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think the other thing is it’s very values-based. We’ve got, not just a similar set of political values in terms of free speech, and freedom of religion, and free markets, and free movement of people, and just that we think there’s also a can do ethic that’s unique to us. Australians say, “Should be right mate,” and we say, “It’ll be okay buddy,” but it’s the same message. We’re very optimistic people. We believe we can make the world a better place and then we work together and do it. Based on that, based on having been through a lot of tough situations that we volunteered for together, there’s a trust that allows us to do things that really no two other countries in the world can do together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Now, one of the big themes of your time as ambassador, certainly an ongoing theme, is the relationship between the US and China, but it’s very impactful on Australia’s geo-strategic positioning. One of the big signature policy initiatives of the Obama administration was the Asia Pivot. I mean, in your mind was this successful or do you think, in hindsight, the administration could have been a little tougher. I mean at the time the hope was the engagement process that China would become a responsible actor and that it will gradually liberalize. We obviously haven’t seen that now. I mean was, in hindsight 2020, or could the administration being tougher in the circumstances?

Jeff Bleich:                    I think that they were successful in a number of different ways. First, it was about integrating the region in a way where the major powers could all come to the table together and have honest conversations, not just about economics or about national security or one issue or another, but really about everything. Up until then there had been five or six different fora, but I think we really helped cement the East Asia summit as an opportunity for everyone to come together and have a honest and frank conversation about issues that mattered to the region and to fully integrate the US into those conversations. That I thought was significant on a diplomatic front.

Jeff Bleich:                    On the security front. Again, I think it was very successful with the rotational deployment of Marines up in Darwin, [some airfield dispersals and a number of other things that have happened since. Most significantly moving from a 50-50 split of our Navy between the Atlantic and Pacific theaters to a 60-40 split where now we have our Navy assets and a real integration of our joint forces with partners throughout the region, including the Talisman Saber exercise, which is now the largest joint military exercise we do anywhere in the world, and we do it off the coast of Australia.

Jeff Bleich:                    In terms of diplomatic, military, and then economic, our main focus at the time was TPP because that was a very effective strategy of integrating our economies and, to some extent, counterbalancing any other economy which was going to try to unfairly leverage its power in the region, and China was clearly in people’s minds at the time. I don’t think that that was a failure at all. In fact, TPP, it was only with the election of president Trump where he unsigned TPP.

Jeff Bleich:                    If I were going to be critical of that decision, I thought it was a wrong decision myself, but the execution of it was even worse because at that point China did not want the US to be part of TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and president Trump had an opportunity to say, “Well, we will unsign it, but only if China you do the following seven things.” He didn’t, he just unsigned it without any preconditions or concessions by China, and then two years later began a trade dispute.

Jeff Bleich:                    I think at the time we were doing a pretty good job of holding the line on trade because of TPP. I think we were doing a good job of holding the line on Chinese espionage in the commercial sector after the Sunnylands Conference between President Xi and President Obama. I think we integrated ourselves more deeply into the region. I think the Pivot was successful and could have been more successful if we continued some of those efforts over the past couple of years.

Misha Zelinsky:             You sort of touched on that, I guess, the change in tone from the Trump administration, from the Obama administration. Earlier you talked about the fact that at least the ANZUS Alliance is not transactional, but president Trump would appear at least to be more transactional in the way he approaches foreign policy, often the way that seen to, at least from the outside, look like punishing friends and rewarding enemies. I mean, how would that challenge diplomats in the background in your experience?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well I think it’s very difficult to in the current system that we have with those principles. Because look, the way you treat family members is different from the way you treat business partners. Business partners, it can be purely transactional. It’s only if there’s something in it for you that you’re going to engage in business with them. Whereas with family members, you’re always finding a way to make things work, sometimes soothing over awkward situations as opposed to ignoring them completely or being too confrontational. You behave with family members, you behave with allies and partners in a different way than you would behave with others where it’s just purely a business or geopolitical relationship.

Jeff Bleich:                    We have allies and partners who continue to behave that way with us, expect us to do the same, people raised in the diplomatic corps understand the difference and then occasionally these directives come in which are at odds at those and it throws everyone else’s calculation off. We’re trying to solve problems by predicting each other’s behavior. When you’ve got an unpredictable actor, it makes everyone alter their calculation sometimes missing chances to agree and sometimes creating conflict where it was never necessary. That’s, I think, what diplomats are struggling with is the inconsistency and the unpredictability of policy in areas where we need to find an agreement because we’ve got much bigger things to work on together.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, absolutely. Working together, kind of curious I mean, you were of course ambassador during Obama’s essentially his first term and the latter half of the then Rudd Gillard government. What was it like being an ambassador during a period where the labor government was essentially at war with itself regrettably? I mean, was that something that was awkward to manage?

Jeff Bleich:                    No. Nice things about being ambassador, and I should’ve mentioned this earlier, is it’s not zero sum, it’s not someone wins, someone loses, always this is a long-term relationship and you’re looking for opportunities to do good things together and so you develop friendships all across the political spectrum. I got along with all of the prime ministers with whom I worked and worked with the different factions within labor as well as the different factions within the coalition, and [crosstalk 00:22:40]-

Misha Zelinsky:             There’s no factions mate.

Jeff Bleich:                    Right. No factions at all. No, I think the… But I served with, If you count Kevin Rudd twice, I served with four prime ministers because I served with Prime Minister Rudd, then Prime Minister Gillard, then Prime Minister Rudd, and Prime Minister Abbott during the time I was there and found ways to work together with all of them, and really didn’t get drawn into their conflicts with one another. But it was helpful because I did get insights about their conflicts with one another and was able to make better predictions about how we could focus our energies on things that would get support across the aisle there as opposed to putting too much energy into things that we thought are hopeless at the moment. That’s part of why you want to have those relationships.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very diplomatically put ambassador, but that’s a period of time we try not to remember to fondly. But so, turning to, I suppose your post ambassadorial career, you focus a lot on foreign interference.

Jeff Bleich:                    One of my favorite stories with President Obama Yeah.] I’ve been gone for a few months and I had a… came back to see President Obama, we were in the Oval Office. He said, “You’ve got a lot going on down there. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve been there for a few weeks and they sacked the opposition leader Malcolm Turbull a few months later sacked the prime minister. Prime minister Gillard has now called a special election and it looks like it’s going to be a minority coalition because this will be the first minority coalition government in last 70 years.” The president he goes, “What the hell are you doing down there Jeff? These people are our friends,” so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             Very good. Just, since you’ve left your role as ambassador, you’ve focused a lot on foreign interference. You’ve set up the Jeff Bleich Center for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance at Flinders University, which is… First, it’s a hell of a title.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh thank. It’s a lot of words but they all have meaning, and the only word-

Misha Zelinsky:             Lets talk about that.

Jeff Bleich:                    … I would have taken out, the Jeff Bleich Center. That was a very nice thing that Flinders did where they put my name on it. But I was honored and surprised. But it’s given me extra incentive to make sure it does its job. I figure it’s a statement of confidence that even with a name like Bleich it can still be successful, so there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             What are you hoping for the center, and firstly what are its aims? And secondly, why have you set up in Australia?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, the aim is really to focus on a set of challenges that are unique to democracies that are created by digital technology that asymmetrically hurt democracies versus authoritarian governments and how we can work together as countries with our closest partners to figure out solutions to these. Whether it just be ways in which we will combat them within our own countries, how we can combat them together, or how we can form treaties around the world that would help all nations that share our values and care about democracy and freedom to resist this movement towards digital abuse and authoritarianism. That’s really what it’s about. It’s a US alliance studies in digital technology, security, and governance and it’s all of those things. I’m happy to talk about specific examples if that’s helpful.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, maybe if we… I mean, I think the most famous example of hacking or a successful hacking effort is the 2016 foreign interference into the US election. But I’m interested in talking to you about this new concept where they’re talking about political warfare in the so-called gray zones. Can you explain what those are and how they’re impacting on democracies?

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, well you may use different terms for it in Australia. What do you mean by that, and then I’ll say if I mean the same thing?

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, this attempt to bump up against institutions and corrupt the discourse or target certain people or basically try to royal democracies using their openness against them in a way that makes it more difficult for democracies to operate properly because they’re getting this static put through them in various different ways due to the interconnectedness of the world versus the closeness, I suppose, the autocratic systems and that challenge is presenting to us in the democratic free world.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. That was the most diabolical] Russian interference in the 2016 election. Look, hacking into DMC files and releasing those in a selective way to help one party versus the other. All bad. But at least you knew it was happening. What was going on with what you’re describing is this attempt to pit Americans against each other, to break down our trust in one another, and to dirty the information field in such a way that we didn’t know what to believe by the time we got to election day. That was the concept.

Jeff Bleich:                    They would use chat bots and others to identify extreme positions and then promote them aggressively to create the sense that the entire left and the entire right believed a particularly fringe idea and that that’s what they stood for. Or to find hot buttons that they knew would inflame a particular group and get them to start criticizing each other through really nasty terms that would just make it difficult for people to dial back and have a civil conversation about issues later.

Jeff Bleich:                    The whole idea of just putting [stories about nothing, but create just ridiculous false narratives was designed to make it so that people didn’t know what to trust. You had a bunch of people wondering, is Hillary Clinton, while she’s running for president in the United States, still finding time in the evenings to go run a child sex ring out of the basement of a in suburban Maryland? It seems absurd, but if people see it enough, they start to wonder, “Well maybe there’s some truth to it.” Enough so the one person actually showed up with a assault weapon to open fire on it. I mean, it’s these things that sound silly actually have dire and very dangerous real world consequences.

Jeff Bleich:                    The impact of all that was that at some point, if people don’t know what the truth is, they don’t know what to believe, they don’t know who to believe because we’ve broken down trust, then they either believe whatever accords with their own biases or they believe nothing at all and they just kind of abdicate to government to do whatever it was going to do. Both of those are absolutely destructive to democracy.

Jeff Bleich:                    Democracy is about all of us understanding the facts, being able to make our own informed choices, and being able to select representatives who will in fact represent our views on those. Once people don’t know what the facts are and they don’t know who to trust, and they can’t make effective choices in their elections, we stop looking like a democracy anymore.

Misha Zelinsky:             I think you’ve absolutely nailed the problem. What’s the solution? I mean, how do we actually deal with this question of trust information sources and digital communications? Because this openness that we have now, you can’t control your information, at least in Western democratic context. You can’t control information in your borders anymore, and you don’t have gatekeeping on information. Actually, how do we reverse this problem given that it’s so corrosive?

Jeff Bleich:                    Part of it is sophistication and hygiene. I think people start to learn after a while. I keep hearing from this particular website or this particular author, never turned out to be true, and in fact turns out that they’re wrong and dangerous. Over time, the public starts walking away from people like that. I think you’re probably going to come up with greater criticism of groups like that in the sense that people on the right will start criticizing far right views as damaging to their own brand and people in the moderate left will do the same thing to extreme and irresponsible new sources on the left. There’s human nature.

Jeff Bleich:                    We really depend on timely, reliable, accurate information in every aspect of our lives. At some point when we’re not getting in, we react and start behaving differently. I’m counting, to some extent, on human nature. I think the second thing that you count on is technology getting better and better at being able to detect lies and out them. One of the advantages of AI frankly, is in things that are demonstrably false. Well, we’ll be able to identify those in real time and start educating people to take a pause, check this site, and get the accurate information. At some point I think they’ll be able to.

Jeff Bleich:                    The problem of… I think Mark Twain said, “A lie is halfway around the world before the truth has got its pants on.” This goes back 100 years, but it’s at hyperspeed right now in the internet age. But we have some technological tools that will help us with that. I think you’re going to start to see crowdsourced information in the news, which will help people with that same challenge. I don’t despair that we’ve outfought ourselves and we can never fight back to accuracy again. I think we’ve always managed to do it in the past and I think we’ll do it again this time. It’s just going to be a challenging effort given the acceleration of technology issues.

Misha Zelinsky:             What’s the role of US social media companies in this, in being responsible actors given so many people now get their news from social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera. They have algorithms that essentially favor outrage, which then favors extremism, and then there’s a problem with fake accounts. I mean, what is their role in, I suppose, safeguarding democracy?

Jeff Bleich:                    Well, they’re all certain to encounter a backlash which is referred to as the tech lash because of people’s frustration with the failure of these platforms to actually address the negative consequences. They insist that they are platforms that they’re not news sources, they’re not responsible for the news and that they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as journalists, but at the same time, they’re now appreciating that in order for their brand to be respected and for people to actually trust their platforms, they need to do more fact-checking.

Jeff Bleich:                    Facebook has brought in, I think, journalists from the Washington Post to hire a number of other journalists checking on pieces that appear on their website and to either take down things that are demonstrably false or at least put up warnings in advance that there are questions about the accuracy of certain facts stated in the piece. You see Google and Twitter saying that they are not going to run political ads they contained false information. There’s a movement, in fact, I think they’d said take down all political ads simply because they didn’t want to be in a position where they had to make those fine determinations.

Jeff Bleich:                    But they’re all stepping up in different ways to address it in response to consumer demand and other political parties. That’s healthy. That’s how a democracy is supposed to work.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just turning to the global challenge here, I mean, one of the things I think Australia and the US are in lock step on is this, I mean, it’s been described a sort of a Chinese communist party, techno-nationalism, the so called China 2025 plan where the regime wants to dominate a whole host of critical technologies including AI which you touched on earlier. I mean, do you think this is a new bipartisan position in the US and does the president, president Trump, have a point in the way he’s addressing this challenge?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, I think there’s bipartisan support. In fact, if anything, the Democrats may be even stronger in their concerns about it. Perhaps in part because of the experience from 2016 where they were the victims of foreign interference and their appreciation that what they did is child’s play compared to what can be done in the future. The techno-nationalism that you’re describing really comes down in many ways to the architecture of the internet of things. If it’s connected through 5G systems that are controlled by China, there’s a real risk that those could be used to establish an effective surveillance state that would keep Chinese citizens and countries that are in the Chinese supply chain and orbit and strategic area in line.

Jeff Bleich:                    It would be used also as a check on efforts by the West to impose their own human rights values on China or other countries, and could also be used as an economic tool to advantage China over other countries. You could easily see a balkanization around the world of some countries that have surveillance States that use the internet of things in an authoritarian manner. Then other countries which are working to ensure that we maintain our freedoms. In those cases you have two completely different economic systems in competition again and really a digital iron curtain could fall if we don’t address this now.

Misha Zelinsky:             Essentially, yeah, this question of a digital iron curtain or a decoupling, how do you see… One of the things that I think is interesting or is puzzling in the debate at the moment, there seems to have been this split in the West even, about how to approach the question of 5G, particularly Chinese technology via Huawei. How do you see the British approach as a Five Eyes partner in the Five Eyes security alliance? How do you see their approach to Huawei where they’ve essentially not sought to introduce, or at this stage don’t want to introduce, a blanket ban in the way that Australia and the United States and New Zealand have?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, well the UK didn’t follow an initial advice from the intelligence communities of other countries and even some of their own intelligence community, and went ahead with infrastructure that included Huawei equipment, but it was supposed to also have a monitoring system. The monitoring system has proven not to be workable, but now they’re stuck with a very big investment and being asked to tear it all out and start again is a major challenge for the country. Their softer position, I think, decisions that were made several years ago and ones that I think there is some apprehension about today.

Jeff Bleich:                    It also explains why it’s so important at this point to make these decisions strategically, and thoughtfully, and deliberately. Because once you’ve made the decision, you start going down a rabbit hole at a relatively fast pace and it’s much harder to climb back out afterward.

Misha Zelinsky:             Just on that, I mean, this debate it was not just contingent in Five Eyes, countries, Germany, and to a broader extent the broader European Union, are debating this question of 5G technology and the role of Huawei. Where do you think the debate will end up in Germany? Because again, they’re taking what would appear to be, at least, a bet each way at this point.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, I mean, a lot of others is that they don’t want to needlessly antagonize China. What they would like, and I think what we all like is to find a way in which we could have a robust trade relationship with all countries in the world, including in our digital space, but also have some assurances that it won’t be used to undermine our security or economic wellbeing down the road that we chose one system versus another. I think they want to, in that respect, and that’s why they’ve made a number of statements about keeping an open mind. But the fact that they have not embraced 5G technology and that Nokia and Ericsson and other European 5G manufacturers have been ramping up their efforts suggests to me that Germany.

Misha Zelinsky:             This question about human rights and values and but also technology, I mean, how do you see that playing out? I mean, the Human Rights Watch group recently came in and essentially warned of a techno-dystopia emerging of Chinese technology and an autocratic regime comes to dominate global affairs. I mean, how concerned are you about something like that and what can democracies do about being more assertive in values about human values and their role in technology?

Jeff Bleich:                    Look, I mean, we’re at this point, and I think there’s a desire around the world for us to remain interdependent. It’s a good way of reducing the risk of conflict. The last thing we will want to move on is a failure to be creative on digital governance. I think, and China just as much as the United States is looking to increase the quality of life, and the length of life, and the wellbeing of its people and to do the same for its allies and friends around the world.

Jeff Bleich:                    We don’t have to go into a dystopian world. It’s not inevitable. It’s going to be a matter of choices. But we’re starting to make the decisions now. We’ll either make it much more likely that we’ll go into a dystopian future or much easier for us to avoid it. That’s why we have failed to take heed of warnings in areas like climate change and we’re paying a huge price for it right now. We don’t want to make the same mistake here on the digital space in terms of having security and governance in front of mind as we’re making these critical decisions.

Misha Zelinsky:             Given that we’re heading into an important election season in the United States, I think one of the things that would disturb a lot of people, the 2016 election, the Mueller Report, even the impeachment currently underway with arguable presidential interference into a potential rival candidate. How concerned are you about these reports of new Russian hacking into some of the electoral infrastructure of the US and has that got enough attention in your opinion?

Jeff Bleich:                    No, it hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention. Look, I’ve been saying for a while, whatever Russia did last time, they’re not just going to do that this time. They may figure, “Okay, we’ve taught the rest of the world how to do that. They’ll do it for us.” They’re going to do something different. We know that in the last election, Russia had hacked into voter rolls for 40 different States in the United States. It was only when they were called out by our intelligence agencies at the highest level and advised that we have countermeasures that would be much more painful to them that they backed off on what appeared to be a deliberate plan to hack into certain kinds of voting machines in order to change the outcome of elections.

Jeff Bleich:                    We also know that our voting machines are vulnerable and really can… in some cases, you could change a person’s vote and there’s no paper backup to ensure that people could audit it and determine whether or not a machine had been compromised. We have real vulnerabilities and it should be something that is front of mind for Americans and a major focus of law enforcement around the world and for our media to prepare people for demanding from their electoral officials paperback, every single vote, and an audit of every voting location. I mean, that should be standard. I am very worried about it.

Misha Zelinsky:             We use high tech paper and pencil in Australia, so it’s more difficult to hack at least. It’s one of the advantages of a low tech system but…

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, although it may be that you’re using scanners and other things, so hopefully you’re also doing audits afterwards to make sure that the scanners haven’t been compromised.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, one would hope, I mean, it’s certainly something that I think it requires enormous vigilance. The last question before we go to the really last hokey question. You’re someone who describes himself as an optimist. When I look at the world, it’s divided now into opened and closed. It used to be believed that openness would always prevail. Bill Clinton famously said, “Those who think they can control the internet, it’s like nailing jello to a wall. Good luck with that.” But it almost feels now that open systems assailed from all different directions and the closed systems don’t have these same vulnerabilities. How can that be reversed and how can openness become a virtue and not be a bit of a crutch as it currently is?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Well look, I think we originally imagined digital technology proliferating openness and to some extent it did. If you look at the Arab Spring, that was really a reflection of the fact that social media was able to create an environment in which disorganized rebels could overthrow a dictator. I think the lesson that we learned from that period is that, we got a little bit out over our skis. We were so confident that digital technology could only be used for good that we forgot that dictators are watching the same thing. They were thinking, “Look, if the disorganized rebel can use this tool in order to accomplish this. Imagine what we can do with all the power of the government, and military force, and money, and organization behind us. Just think how much we could weaponize digital information.”

Jeff Bleich:                    They’ve demonstrated that over the last few years and it has strengthened the hand of authoritarians. But that doesn’t mean that this tool will only be used for bad going forward. I think we’ve gotten a wake up call that this technology really can promote open societies and bring us closer together as people, and reduce friction between countries, and increase our understanding of what is true, and allow us to solve massive global problems in a way and at a scale that we never would have been able to in the past. Whether that is contagions moving around the world, or whether it is climate change, or whether it is this issue itself, the digital structure itself.

Jeff Bleich:                    We’ll be able to do things that we could never have accomplished without this technology. I remain an optimist. I think there’s work to be done, but at the wake up call that we needed and now we just need the political will to put some real muscle behind it so that we can make tomorrow better than it’s been.

Misha Zelinsky:             Do you take some confidence out of the courage you’ve seen in people of Hong Kong and the recent Taiwan elections where despite all the threats and pressure that have been placed upon people in those areas, that they still have voted for self-determination and freedom. I think that should give us all confidence, but how do you see that particular way that that’s played out for the CCP regime of 2019 into 2020?

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah, no, absolutely. You see it in Turkey, you see in Hong Kong, you see it around the world, and it’s because frankly, there’s an innate instinct in us as a species, as people. We want freedom, we want… Why on earth does a person stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square? Why does someone throw a minefield in the demilitarized zone? Why did people lose their lives trying to cross the Berlin Wall. It’s that impulse where at some level people say, “I would rather die than live without freedom,” and they are willing to do extraordinary things to accomplish it. I take great comfort from that impulse, that instinct in all of us that you see manifested in some of these elections and in individual acts of courage and heroism.

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely. I think that’s a beautiful place to finish at. Now, of course I have one of my trademarks, clunky segues into the final question, which is… it’s a little, maybe a bit easier for you given your time in Australia. Sometimes this stumps some of my guests who can’t really name three Australians beyond Crocodile Dundee, but three Aussies alive or dead at ambassador Bleich’s place for a barbecue. Who’s coming and why?

Jeff Bleich:                    Let’s see, who’s coming to my barbecue? Well, everyone who’s left off this list will be angry. Let me pick just three iconic Australians. One of them would be Paul Keating, I just think he’s brilliant and his insights are invaluable. I think I’d pick Lindsay Fox because he is what every billionaire should aspire to be. Just generous, thoughtful, down to earth, and make your money the right way, fairly and honestly. Then the third one, probably Lisa Wilkinson, because after her long career in journalism and the courage she’s shown, she knows the dirt on everyone and she would tell it. So there you go.

Misha Zelinsky:             So you have a journalist, a prime minister, and a billionaire at an ambassador’s barbecue. Sounds like a pretty good party.

Jeff Bleich:                    Yeah. Sounds… get a couple meat pies and some sausages. It’s a perfect night.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much ambassador Jeff Bleich and good luck in the upcoming primary season for the Democrats.

Jeff Bleich:                    Oh, thanks so much, Misha, and thanks for having me on Diplomates.


Emily Lau

Emily Lau is one of the most famous politicians in Hong Kong.

She was the leader of the Democratic Party and the first woman to be elected into Hong Kong’s legislature.

A former journalist, Emily is a passionate defender of press freedoms and free speech.

Emily joined Misha Zelinsky for a chinwag about the current mood in Hong Kong, what ‘one country, two systems’ actually means, how the Beijing crackdown is hardening the position of protestors, how young people are inspiring their fellow citizens, why western governments and businesses should stand up to CCP bullying – and what a peaceful resolution looks like.

 It’s an inspiring and illuminating chat.


Misha Zelinsky: So Emily, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining us.

Emily Lau:         Thank you.

Misha Zelinsky: I’ll just say for the recording, we are talking through the miracle of video conferencing technology. You are currently in Hong Kong, and I am currently in Sydney. So, welcome and thank you. I’ve thought a first place for us to start, I mean there’s so much going on at the moment in Hong Kong, I thought you might be able to give us a bit of a sense of the mood right now in Hong Kong. There’s a lot of reporting, but what’s the mood like on the ground amongst people?

Emily Lau:         Well, I think the mood is still tense because people are still demanding that the administration of Carrie Lam should respond to all these legitimate demands and requests and she has exceeded to one which is withdrawing the extradition bill from the legislative council. And that happened yesterday and they see it’s taken almost five months to do that. And now, and there are other demands, but one is very critical and that is the setting up of an independent commission of inquiry to look into, not just to target the police and investigate police brutality, which the whole world has seen for over four months, but also to look into the whole saga and why did it blow up and what happened?

And of course, to find out what lessons Hong Kong can learn that a city which is so safe and so peaceful can suddenly just crumble before the world’s eye. And that’s very important. But she, Carrie Lam refused. And this legitimate request is not only supported by the pro democracy camp, the peaceful protesters and some of the radical protesters, but also supported by population at large, even those in the probation camp.

So we’re waiting for her to do that. And as we speak this morning there were peaceful demonstrations in the morning, people just march on their way to work and chanting slogans and so on. So some people are not going to stop.

Misha Zelinsky: So, and that’s fascinating. So thank you for that. And we’ll dig into the, I guess the protests and how those have played out. I’m curious, you’ve lived in Hong Kong very long time. You’ve been a very prominent politician throughout your career in Hong Kong.

Curious for historic overview about how Hong Kong has maybe changed since 1997 and given that that was the turning point from when we had British rule and now a two systems, one country rule under Chinese communist party. How has Hong Kong changed in that time? Has it changed and then what are the changes you’ve seen over that period?

Emily Lau:         Well, of course Hong Kong has changed. Before ’97, we were a British colony in fact, we were a British colony for one and a half centuries. And Britain wanted to hang on, but China disagreed. So Britain had to pull out. But regrettably, when Britain pullout, Hong Kong did not have a democratic government. The people had no right to choose the government and there were very little protection of human rights.

And so it was really quite terrible. But the Hong Kong people sort of accepted it willingly because, well, most of us were ethnic Chinese and most of the people accept that Hong Kong is Chinese soil. And then China came out and reassured the Hong Kong people and say, “Don’t worry, we will not send communist carters to Hong Kong to run the place. You, Hong Kong people, will run Hong Kong.” But of course, unfortunately these Hong Kong people are not elected by us.

They have a very convoluted form of election whereby power rests with the political and the business elites who of course will always look up to Beijing. But initially it was okay in a sense that Beijing did not interfere, but then when Beijing tried to pass law to affect our freedoms and safety, people were began, you know, demonstrating. And the first big march was in 2003, the law on national security.

And because so many people march, some of the pro-business legislators then changed their mind, refused to support. So the bill had to be abandoned and then, but Beijing started getting very worried because so many people could march. So they started sending more and more of their people to Hong Kong to interfere, to find out what’s going on. And but still they would not allow us to have democratic political reform.

And then you see, as you can see in 2014 we had the umbrella movement where protestors, including myself, we occupied the central business district and in Causeway Bay and Mong Kok for 79 days, we blocked the roads. There was not that much violence, but of course it ended in us being arrested but no democracy. And now this time around, this protest almost coming up to five months of protest was triggered by an extradition bill, which Carrie Lam proposed to extradite someone who went to Taiwan with a girlfriend, killed her and came back and Taiwan wanted Hong Kong to send the man to Taiwan for trial.

But we have no extradition arrangement and Carrie Lam came up with this bill and not just to enable them to send people to Taiwan for trial, but to send to mainland China and to Macau, and to all the countries that we have no such arrangement. And people are very frightened because we, we in Hong Kong ended China’s policy of one country, two systems.

It is true that the people here, the 7 million odd people here, we do enjoy freedoms and human rights, personal safety and the rule of law, which the people in mainland China do not enjoy. And of course, some of them are envious of us and some when they come to Hong Kong they are very free. But once they go back to the mainland they are not free. So people in Hong Kong don’t want to be extradited to China for trial, because there is no legal independence, no independence of the judiciary. And I speak as a member of the board of directors of the China human rights lawyers concern group.

We formed a group here 11 years ago to support the human rights lawyers. They are very brave and some of them are in jail for many years being tortured, cannot see their families. That’s the state of affairs there. So Hong Kong people are very frightened. Then Carrie Lam refused to withdraw the bill and then they demonstrated and the police beat them up, and all that.

And now we are stuck and she still refused to set up this commission of inquiry. Of course people want democracy too, but I guess people are pragmatic enough to know that democracy will not happen next month or even next year. But to quiet things down, we need to have this commission of inquiry.

Misha Zelinsky: And so you mentioned there the extradition bill. How specifically, how would that actually work? How would that practically be applied by mainland China if a bill was implemented by Hong Kong, but under carrier Lam’s plan? What would have actually happened to somebody materially? Could they have been arrested and taken across the border?

Emily Lau:         Oh yes. Well, but they say the bill says that you have to have crimes, which you know we have clients in Hong Kong and the same crime in mainland China. You can not have something there that we don’t have. Like you punish people for their political views, for religious reasons, or other things. So it has to be like that. But of course people have no confidence in mainland China.

In fact, a few years ago they came to Hong Kong to snatch somebody from the Causeway Bay bookshop because they were printing and selling books to the mainland, which upset the Chinese authorities. So people have no confidence. And in fact, for the last 22 years, ever since Hong Kong was returned to China, Hong Kong authorities have been negotiating with the mainland authorities for a deal on extradition. Or if it is within the same country, it’s called rendition. But we could not get anywhere.

So it’s not as if we have not been trying, but we try for 22 years and could not do it. And there was no big trouble. I mean, it’s not as if some people say, “Oh, Hong Kong has become a haven for fugitives.” Well, the Chinese government did say they have 300 fugitives in Hong Kong and they not only came, but they also took a lot of money to Hong Kong. But still we could not get the arrangement.

And suddenly, Carrie Lam came up with this thing triggered by the Taiwan murder case. And with no very little consultation, you know, they just gave a few weeks for public consultation. Even some law on animal cruelty, they have three months, but this one is just a few weeks. That’s why people went berserk.

Misha Zelinsky: And so what are the specific demands that the protestors have? So you mentioned that wanted to withdraw the bill, but what else specifically are they looking for?

Emily Lau:         Well, of course they want a democracy. That’s number one.

Emily Lau:                     And they also want, because the government, the police called this whole, the protests, as riots. And of course they want them to withdraw that label. And anyway, the government said it’s not for them to decide, it’s for the court, finally. But they want them to withdraw that label. And they also, of course, wanted amnesty for all the protesters who were arrested. And some of them, of course, are very young.

And then the government again say, of course, there’s no way we can give amnesty, it is against the rule of law. But of course, in the 1970s, in the last century, we had this big row between the police and the offices of the Independent Commission Against Corruption, which of course was set up mainly to investigate corruption in the police force.

And everybody knew it at that time the police were very corrupt, and the police were very angry, and they attacked the ICAC office.

And so there was big, big friction and tension. And the then-governor, Murray MacLehose, gave an amnesty. Said, “Okay, quiet down.”

But is this going to happen? But I think we need the inquiry to look into it, and to see whether people should be just released and not charged. But anyway, we have over 2,000 people arrested, and many of them have not been charged. And many say that they were just arrested so indiscriminately, and actually they were not guilty of anything, and the police arrested them. So that aggravated the anger. So those are the things that the protesters want.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve talked a bit there about the protesters. I’m curious, there’s been a long-going, ongoing protest, and increasingly the tensions have risen.

What are the risks that protesters are taking in continuing to demonstrate against against the actions of the CCP and Carrie lamb? What are the material risks that you’re seeing in that level of bravery that the citizenry are exhibiting?

Emily Lau:                     Well, actually, Hong Kong has long had a tradition of peaceful protests. Even if you have over a million people protesting, not one single bottle would be broken, and not one single shop window would be broken, and no vandalism, and all that. That’s what we’re known for.

And even this tourist guide, The Lonely Planet, they put Hong Kong in it a few years ago, and asked people to come to Hong Kong and join the protest because they are so peaceful, so colorful.

So that’s what Hong has been known for. But over this, this time round, because the police were quite brutal, and some of the protestors, I must admit, they were also ready for action. They dug up the bricks in the road, and so on. So when they started clashing, it changed the whole nature of our protests.

And then, but if you joined that sort of protest, and then the police start firing teargas, and then rubber bullets, bean bags, and even live ammunition on a few occasions, and some people were critically injured. And then now they also have the water cannon, and they add some color to the water.

We don’t know what other chemicals they put in the water, and a few days ago, they spray it in a mosque. And so the imam were very, very upset. And there were people standing outside, people from the Indian community, the Indian community leaders, they were all sprayed, so they were furious. They were not protesting.

So, anybody, if you join that part of the protests, because what sometimes happen is, if there’s a peaceful protest, sometimes the protests get the police permission. Sometimes they do not get, but even without the permission, we still march. I’ve taken part in those marches.

But the first part, very peaceful. Many people. And then came to the end or something, then many people went home. But the rest stayed and then blocked the roads, and started beating things up, smashing the railway station, because they say the railway station is being used as a tool of the police, so they started smashing them.

Then, if you do that, and the police fought back, they fire all these things. Then of course it could be very dangerous. And then Indonesian journalists, a lady, a few weeks ago, was shot in the eye with a bean bag, and she has lost her eyesight. So it could be very dangerous.

And then more and more of the protesters, young people, very young, as young as 12 years old. And they’re so galvanized. And the reason, one of the reason is the social media, the telegram and all these things. They go to the apps, they go to to find out what is the proposal for action today, tonight. And they join, and then they see their peers. There’s people in the same school, they join too, they also go, especially they see their friends getting injured or arrested.

They get very angry, and they say, “Okay, let’s go.” So it is really… And some of the schools, they can do nothing about it. And the parents, the parents are also very worried if their kids go out like that.

Some parents go and follow them to ensure they are safe. But because there are people who are against this, so the society, the community is completely split asunder. Friends have split up, even families split up, because once you start talking about this, if you have different views, you started arguing, you started shouting at each other. And in the end you say, “Oh, come on, forget it. I never see you again.” So it is very, very sad.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, when you talk about that division across society, one of the things you think about is the leadership involved in this. You’ve talked a bit about Carrie Lam. How has she handled this, in your opinion, the way this is escalated, and the back down very late in the piece, and letting it continue to build and build and build, and the use of police and other things.

How do you think that her leadership stacks up in this context?

Emily Lau:                     Well, I think she has no leadership. She disappeared, disappeared for a number of weeks when the thing first broke out.

And then later, when she met with some businesspeople, and those are the people she would talk to, the rich and the powerful. She talked to those businesspeople and she said, “Oh, some people thought I’m dead. Well, I’m still alive.”

I mean, really crazy. So she had no leadership whatsoever, and she made a bloody mistake. When we marched, there were several marches before, but they were not very big. So I guess that gave her the confidence that, oh, it’s nothing, no big deal.

And she also of course survive other crisis in the past, like the disqualification of legislators, disqualification of candidates standing for election, and a still no big blow up, no big marches.

And also the co-location of Chinese immigration and customs facilities in Hong Kong, which is, against, it’s one country, two systems, because they are not supposed to implement their laws here. But all these, she survived.

So, as some people said, “Oh, she probably thought she could walk on water.”

So when this thing came along, she thought she would survive again. And also, the pro-Beijing politicians in the legislative council, which is our parliament, they have a majority, and they support it. So she thinks, “Well, I have enough votes.”

So, on the 9th of June, there was a march, because a few days later the legislative council was going to vote on it without the scrutiny of a committee. So already very tense.

So, on Sunday they march, and there was supposed to be the vote the following Wednesday. One million people marched. Very peaceful. No, nothing happened. Just marched. Before the demonstrators went home, got home that night, government issue a statement. “We know the city has different views on this. We’re going to go ahead with the vote on Wednesday.”

Isn’t it crazy? One million. And then, on Wednesday, of course, some of the protestors, young ones, older ones, were very mad. They went to the legislative council complex, surrounded it, and then would not let some of the politicians in to attend the meeting.

And started the clashes. How stupid. And then, a few days later, she came out and said, “Okay, I will suspend the bill.”

But the people say, “No. We want you to withdraw it. It’s a proper procedure. You cannot just suspend. What does it mean?”

And then, a few weeks later she said, “Oh, the bill is dead.”

People said, “What is that? There’s no such terminology in parliamentary language.”

But as I told you, they formally withdrew the bill yesterday in the council. So it’s taken more than four months to just withdraw the bloody thing. I mean, she is hopeless. And they were reports saying she offered to resign, she offered to Beijing, and Beijing said no.

Just this morning, on a phone-in program here, someone said, “She is so awful.” And the person is right.

She said the whole society of Hong Kong has to suffer just because of the mistake of one person. And of course he’s not absolutely right. It’s not just her mistake. It’s also the mistake of those people in parliament who supported her, and also her advisors.

And you know, all the pro-Beijing camp supported her, the businesspeople supported her. Although the businesspeople were very upset with the bill, because they feel they are the first to be hit, because they go to mainland China to do business all the time. And they say, “If you do business there, you have to be corrupt. If there is no corruption, you can’t do business, so we’re going to be caught.”

And so they were very upset. And then Carrie Lam took out a few offenses, and they were forced to support it, but they had no guts. They should’ve come out. And they are the people that Beijing and Carrie Lam will listen to. But in the end, when Beijing said, “Yeah, support her.”

So they all shut up and support her. I mean, they are so despicable.

Misha Zelinsky:             And so there is, you know, Carrie Lam, there are some upcoming elections. Maybe you can explain, firstly, how democracy, as it currently structured, works in Hong Kong, and how those elections work. And then, what do you think is likely to happen, because there’s talk about them being deferred or delayed. And so maybe you could explain a little bit about that.

Emily Lau:                     Yes. Well, as I said, Hong Kong has no democracy. Carrie Lam was chosen by a committee of 1,200 business and political elites. And the people who had a right to choose this committee of 1,200 is about a quarter of a million. But they are mainly the business and political elites.

And then in the parliament legislature, 70 members, half are chosen by the people, half by these elites, called functional constituencies.

And next month we will have election to the district councils. Hong Kong has 18 district councils. Together there are 400-odd members, and most of the members are elected by constituencies.

But now, one thing that people are concerned about is whether one of the candidates, Mr. Joshua Wong, who is a young leader, whether his qualification will be will be taken away, whether he will be disqualified. And because I think Beijing and the authorities regard him as too close to America, and they are inviting for an interference, and they say they support self-determination, which Mr. Wong said they don’t. They support everything within the one country, two systems policy, and also, they do not support independence. But still they have not yet announced whether he can be qualified to stand. So that’s one thing.

And then yesterday the government said that they have set up a committee, a sort of a crisis committee, to decide whether there will be a crisis next month, and whether the election of the district councilors will be postponed. And it can postpone it for within a period of two weeks, because if they see there are too many protests, and safe, and so on.

So the situation is very tense. And of course, one reason why they think of postponing is that the pro-Beijing parties fear that they will lose many seats in the election. Right now they have a majority in many of them, but they fear that this time round the situation could change, and they could lose their majority in many of the district councils.

And to make matters even more sensitive, the 400-odd district councilors have the right to elect 117 members of the committee, which choose the chief executive, the 1,200 member committee.

So whoever has a majority in the district councils, the winner, if you have more than half of the seats, you can automatically get the right to elect 117 members to the election committee for chief executive.

So it will not just affect the district councils, which have no real power, but of course they still represent the people. They can speak out on district issues. But it will affect the election of the chief executive, which should take place in 2022. And so of course Beijing is very concerned, because Beijing doesn’t want the right to elect the chief executive to be usurped right now, although it’s 1,200 people who elect, but they listen to Beijing. And only candidates that Beijing like will come forward to stand.

All these things are linked. But if they cancel the election, or postpone the election without good reason, I think it will cause a huge international uproar. And I hope you people in Australia, the media, the politicians, the government, will speak out.

How can you just cancel the election? If you come to Hong Kong now, it’s very calm, although they are periodic demonstrations. They just had any election in Afghanistan. If they can do it there, and also in Bolivia, where they’re clashing.

Of course I want people to calm down. Don’t get me wrong. I think the situation should dial down, should deescalate. And I have already told you what needs to be done to deescalate. And I think we should have a calm environment for election, but the government should not use some excuse to postpone, or to cancel the election.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve said, obviously, there’s no true democracy in Hong Kong. You’re a very longstanding pro-democracy politician and activist in Hong Kong.

What realistic prospects do you think there is for democracy in Hong Kong in the longterm? And do you think that the one country, two systems approach is going to last for the duration of what it was promised?

Emily Lau:                     Now, you’re right. We don’t have true democracy in Hong Kong. We sound as if there is semi-democracy.

Well, actually democracy, my dear, is like pregnancy. Either you are pregnant or you’re not, and of course, we are not, and we don’t have democracy.

But there is an irony. Although no democracy here, but the level of freedoms, civil liberties, personal safety, the rule of law, independence of the judiciary that the Hong Kong people have enjoyed for decades, is much higher than many countries which have democracy.

I would not say true democracy, but they have democracy. They have periodic elections, whether it’s in Asia or elsewhere. And we can have a very long list of such countries and their people, and I think they will agree. They do not enjoy the level of freedoms and personal safety, and the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, which is the ultimate arbiter. They don’t enjoy it. That is the irony.

Those are the things that we’ve enjoy under British rule, and under one country, two systems. And of course we think that if we can have democratic government, then we can boast of those things even more. But now, with these weeks and months of protests and demonstrations and clashes, all these things that we hold so dear to our hearts are crumbling before our very eyes. The lesson to you people in Australia and elsewhere is that certain things which are very precious, universal core values that we have taken decades to build up, can be destroyed in no time, my dear friend. In no time.

It’s very sad. But speaking as someone who’s been in this for so many decades, I’m not going to give up. Although I have left parliament, I’m no longer in the leadership of my party, but I will not give up.

I will never resign from the fight for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. But we need to work with the people, with the masses. And I certainly hope the government would listen to their demands, very legitimate, so that many of the protesters will not turn out to march anymore, and there will not be violent clashes with the police.

Otherwise, we are really going to lose everything. And then, of course, some of the protesters say, “Oh, we burn, you burn with us.”

I don’t think too many Hong Kong people want to burn. We want to return to normality. But we also want the administration to respond to our demands, which are very legitimate. It’s not as if we are fighting for independence or self-determination. Now those, I think many countries will not support. I don’t think the Australian government will support. And even look at Catalonia in Spain. I mean, many governments do not support it.

But last night we had a demonstration here supporting Catalonia. And they had one there, then two demonstrations together, supporting each other. But that was a small demonstration in Hong Kong. They said 3,000 people turned up. By our current day standard, we easily talk about hundreds of thousands every time.

But we’re not fighting for those things. We’re just fighting for one country, two systems, civil liberties, personal safety, and the rule of law. But if the government wants to crush all that, and the protestors, they’re not going to give in. So it’s going to get worse.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve talked about Australia, but more generally, I think there’s been a lot of concern globally around the situation in Hong Kong.

What can democratic governments around the world, like the Australian government and other governments, do to support? How can we show support to the protests in Hong Kong?

Emily Lau:                     Well, I think, first of all, I want to thank the international community for supporting Hong Kong in the past few months.

In fact, one reason why Carrie Lam was willing to suspend the bill and all that, was due to pressure from the international community and the business community. They always just listen to the rich and the powerful. So they have spoken out, and of course, we call on them to continue to speak out.

And I fully understand, and some of them have told me, they said, “We cannot support violence.” And I say, “I fully understand, I do not support violence too. So you can call on all sides to dial down. But you should also call on the administration of Carrie Lam to accede to the demand to set up this Independent Commission of Inquiry.”

And yesterday there was a debate in the House of Lords in London, not on Brexit, although they’re very preoccupied with Brexit. But it was on Hong Kong, and some of the Lords we spoke, and two of them were former governors of Hong Kong, Lord Chris Patton, and Lord David Wilson.

And both of them support the setting up of the Independent Commission of Inquiry. And they also of course touched on the possibility of Hong Kong British citizens, because there are over two million British citizens in Hong Kong. They hold a British national overseas passport, which does not give them the right of abode in the UK.

I don’t have one. And when people ask me, “This is a BNO passport.”

I said, “Do you know what BNO stands for? It’s Britain Says No.”

It’s disgraceful. These are British citizens. So I’m glad to hear that, in the House of Lords debate, they were talking about possibility of giving these people a second home.

And then of course there were also statement issue by over a hundred parliamentarians in the UK, calling on countries of the Commonwealth, which should include Australia, to also come chip in, to offer second home to these people should there be a need.

So we are really calling on the international community to be sympathetic, to be supportive. Of course, if everything goes right, Hong Kong people are not going to flee. Why should they go out? They are not going to become Hong Kong boat people, like the Vietnamese did in the last century.

But we need people to not just tell Carrie Lam, but to tell Beijing, tell President Xi Jinping, not to keep saying this is a color revolution, the foreigners interfering, and want to make Hong Kong an independent entity, which is not true.

Misha Zelinsky:             You’ve talked there about international pressure. One of the things that’s interestingly happened recently, we’ve had people speaking out against Beijing and its interference in what’s going on in Hong Kong.

For example, we’ve had the MBA now basically buckle to pressure from the CCP and Beijing when one of the coaches spoke out again in support of the people of Hong Kong.

That kind of bullying of businesses like the MBA that rely heavily on their income from the Chinese market. How disappointing is that to the people of Hong Kong, and how much does that deflate the efforts underway in protesting in Hong Kong?

Emily Lau:                     Well, of course that’s a big problem. And I noticed that the American Vice President, Mike Pence, just made a big speech, and he attacked the MBA.

But this problem is not just with the MBA. I think there are companies in Australia, and political parties in Australia, politicians who love money. And the Chinese, although now of course they are not as rich as we think, and their economy is not in very good shape, but they have a lot of money. And they will go to many places to buy influence.

But also, there are many companies, which want, or organizations like the MBA, which will make a lot of money if they can get access to the China market. China knows that these people value money so much, so they use that to say, “Ah, if you do or say the wrong thing, we will punish you, and you will not get access to the China market, and you will lose billions of dollars.”

People are so keen. Then of course they will say, “Oh, okay, I’m a bad boy. I will shut up. Sorry, I will never do it again. And also, I will encourage others not to do it.”

So it is something that many countries, not just America MBA. You in Australia, your companies, your political parties, you’ve had cases of members of parliament, members of political party, who have to resign because it’s been shown that they have received Chinese money.

And so it is something that everybody has to be aware of. I mean, I am in favor of free trade, but you have to do it in a clean and accountable way, a very transparent way. And also, you should demand reciprocity. Now, you go to China to trade. You have scholars going there, politicians, journalists going there. But you don’t get access to many things, because that is not an open society.

But when they come to your country, which is open, they’re academics, they’re politicians, they’re government officials. They get open access to everything. So why can’t you demand reciprocity? If you are free, open country, and China is not, say, “Hey, when our people come to your place, you give us the same treatment.”

But many do not get the same treatment, and they don’t say anything. Why? Because they get money. Money will cover their mouth up. And that’s the sad thing. People are willing to sell their souls because just they want to get money, and China knows it.

And not just in Australia, but in many other countries, even free and democratic countries, because they are so crazy about the China market. Billions of dollars.

Misha Zelinsky:             We talked a lot about financial pressure there. One of the things that we’ve seen a bit from the backlash from Beijing against the protests has been… We’ve seen the PLA amassing on the border of Hong Kong. We’ve obviously had lots of arrests, but one of the things I’d be curious to hear about is this question of face masks and the banning of face masks, and why protesters are wearing them, and what they’re concerned about. Can you explain a little bit about that?

Emily Lau:                     Now, first of all, you’ve got the word wrong. It’s not border, my friend. We are part of China.

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

Emily Lau:                     So it’s a boundary.

Misha Zelinsky:             I’m sorry. Okay. Yup.

Emily Lau:                     It’s a boundary. And the face mask thing is, you know, again, it was a demand by the pro-Beijing politicians here in Hong Kong.

They have been demanding it for quite a while, and Carrie Lam kept resisting because she should know, everybody should know. It’s counterproductive. If people will go out to protest, to fight with the police, they are not afraid of getting arrested, getting tortured and all that.

Are they going to be afraid of just being arrested with the face mask on? They’re crazy. So, once the thing was passed, and it was passed not by ordinary procedure in the legislative council. They invoked the emergency regulations ordinance, which was enacted in the 1920s, the last century. And the last time it was used was in 1967 during the riots, which was triggered by the cultural revolution in mainland China, so that’s a historical relic.

I actually moved to have that bill, that ordinance, repealed, when I was in the council in 1996. But of course, I lost. So they retained that historical relic after the change of sovereignty.

Of course they had foresight, they knew one day they would need it. And of course now they used it, but it is no use. The people are not going to be afraid, not going to be stopped by this law. It’s crazy.

And then of course they say, “Oh, you foreign countries, you are hypocrites because you have face mask laws in your country too. And now when we try to have it, and then you criticize us.”

But our remark is, well, like what you just said, we don’t have true democracy. These countries which pass the face mask laws, they have a democratically elected parliament, and they pass it. But we don’t.

And also we will say, “People are not going to be intimidated. So forget it.”

In fact, people would be provoked even more. You see our demonstrations, our marches now. Most of them are wearing the mask. What good is the law?

Misha Zelinsky:             And the reason for wearing the mask, is that also partly about the concerns about facial recognition technology and surveillance?

Emily Lau:                     Of course, of course. They don’t want to be recognized by the police. They don’t want to be arrested, but they are not afraid. Many have been arrested. And the police, the police also wear things that make them unrecognizable.

They’re supposed to have their identity known so that if people want to lodge a complaint, they can say, “I’m complaining against a police officer, blah blah blah.”

But no, they are all covered up. So people say, “Oh, you are covered up, and you don’t allow us to be cover up.”

Oh, it’s really terrible.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, well I know they tell you you’ve got a very busy day ahead of you, and very grateful for your time. So there’s one last question that I always ask, and it’s been very inspiring, and as I always say, very clunky segue to this question, and particularly on this occasion, but foreign guests on the show, I always ask them what three Australians would come to a barbecue at Emily Lau’s place? Who would those people be and why?

Emily Lau:                     Well, my dear friend, actually, I don’t know too many Australians, but I met several recently because they came to Hong Kong to interview me.

And I think I would like to barbecue with them to discussing more. One of them is the senior, or the foreign correspondent, of 60 Minutes, Liam Bartlett. And the other one is the ABC Australia journalist, Hamish MacDonald. The third one is, I’ve not met him, but I’ve read about it. It’s Tim Norton, he’s the chair of Digital Rights Watch, talking about attacks on press freedom in Australia, and the many attempts by the government to raid journalists’ home and offices, and also to get access to their metadata.

And of course press freedom is very close to my heart. I also understand that many Australians are not happy with the media, but that’s no reason to just allow the government to run riot, because once we lose press freedom, we lose freedom of expression, we lose… many other freedoms will be at stake.

Why? Because if there’s no press to report, and if you cannot put things on the social media, the people in power can do anything, and many things, and nobody would get to know about it.

One reason why the Hong Kong protests have got such international attention and support is we still have press freedom. Any journalists here or from all over the world, they land in Hong Kong, they can immediately go to the site, scene, and have closeups of the protesters, and closeup of the police offices.

All these scenes are very riveting. Just imagine if there’s no press freedom. We will be like, you know, in Xinjiang, they say a million or more Uyghurs are being locked up. Have you seen wall-to-wall coverage of that? No. Why not? Because there are no pictures. Pictures are very powerful, and the journalists help to bring us the pictures. So I hope you in Australia will defend your press freedom. I would like to meet Tim.

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, that is a very prescient and important point to end on, so thank you so much for your time. Good luck in your struggles, and good luck to the people of Hong Kong. Thank you very much.

Emily Lau:                     Thank you. Bye-bye.

Misha Zelinsky:             Bye-bye.




Alex Oliver

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

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

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


Misha Zelinsky:             Alex Oliver, welcome to the show.

Alex Oliver:                   Thanks very much Misha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well I was just curious about-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The Iraq war.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that’s right.

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             The Shy Tory, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well, and maybe explain those?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, that will be great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   It correlates with the weather.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Well, I don’t know-

Misha Zelinsky:             … is it hard to know?

Alex Oliver:                   Yeah.

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

Alex Oliver:                   Correct.

Misha Zelinsky:             … but I’m just curious.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That “Stop the boats” rhetoric?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             And the Hong Kong situation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well that’s right, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             And fewer students being sent here-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Because that feels tangential and you know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, you do.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A tough portfolio.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A great book.

Alex Oliver:                   You read it?

Misha Zelinsky:             Yes.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Defector.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A fascinating story, yeah.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah Pete.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A 37 no less-

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

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

Alex Oliver:                   Pretty good huh?

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

Alex Oliver:                   And all alive.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Thanks.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             We’ll get to that.

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s right.

Chris Bowen:                Social justice.

Misha Zelinsky:             It’s not antithetical-

Chris Bowen:                No, that’s right.

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

Chris Bowen:                Quite the contrary! Quite the contrary!

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                They certainly do not.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Quote that!

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Shining hope of the world!

Misha Zelinsky:             Right.

Chris Bowen:                Last hope.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             That’s an interesting point.

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

Chris Bowen:                We have tribes.

Misha Zelinsky:             Yeah, right.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Going to Bali.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Forgot institution largely.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             G20.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Quarter of a billion people!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Well it’s certainly…

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Old dog, new tricks mate!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Absolutely.

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Other languages are always challenging.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Same.

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                It’s extraordinary!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Two fifty.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Absolutely!

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             A peaceful change as well.

Chris Bowen:                They had a peaceful change, yeah!

Misha Zelinsky:             Which is always the test.

Chris Bowen:                Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Yep.

Chris Bowen:                Australia and Canada, household debt.

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly. Exactly right.

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

Chris Bowen:                Exactly right.

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Correct.

Chris Bowen:                Debt does worry me.

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Well, ideally.

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                Exactly.

Misha Zelinsky:             Demand for consumption.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Might be less fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Bowen:                I added one.

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:             Cheers.


Bonita Mersiades

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

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

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


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

Bonita Mersiades:           Thanks, Misha.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonita Mersiades:           At that time, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Not fakes news, though.

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonita Mersiades:           Thanks.

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  The show rolls on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bonita Mersiades:           Very.

Misha Zelinsky:                  That-

Bonita Mersiades:           [crosstalk 00:37:24]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:                  Certainly does.

Bonita Mersiades:           Yeah.

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

Bonita Mersiades:           Thank you.