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

Malcolm Turnbull was Australia’s 29th Prime Minister.

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

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

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

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

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

Great to be with you, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Chin up.

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

I hope I’m wrong too.

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Madness.

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

So you see-

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Malcolm Turnbull:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Heavens forbid a Labor government, Malcolm yeah?

Malcolm Turnbull:

What?

Misha Zelinsky:

Heaven forbid a Labor government-

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, now I know. Well I mean, but normally internal insurrections, you don’t normally include as part of your plan, your own party being defeated. But that’s how insane it had gotten. You had Abbott’s agenda, which a lot of people at Newscorp, again as Murdoch knowledge supported. Abbott’s agenda was for the coalition to lose the election in 2019, whether it was led by me or someone else, and for him then to return as leader of the opposition and then lead the government back, in a sort of Churchillian comeback in 2022. Well, of course he lost his seat but-

Misha Zelinsky:

I ask you about, I mean your relationship with Tony Abbott and your careers in some ways, you look at it, you see almost two sides of one coin-

Malcolm Turnbull:

OH! don’t do that to me!

Misha Zelinsky:

Sydney Uni, Rhodes Scholars, you were the head of the Republican Movement, he’s the head of the Monarchists. Obviously, the leadership ballots, I mean what’s your reflections on those many years?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well I mean Abbott look, I mean we’re very different people. I mean, you see I don’t think… you see, it’s interesting. Each of us think the other shouldn’t be in the Liberal Party. Because he would say, “Oh, Malcolm’s always been on the left, he’s far too progressive.” All of that, and I agree with Peter Costello. Tony Abbott was the first DLP Prime Minister of Australia. I mean, he’s not a Liberal at all. But you see, unfortunately, what’s happened to the Liberal Party with a capital L, is that it has become increasingly dominated by people that are not remotely Liberal. I mean, if you want to look at craziness, I mean, consider this, Victoria is the most progressive, smaller liberal State in Australia, right? Without question. The Victorian division of the Liberal Party has been largely taken over by the religious right, and similar has happened in Western Australia. I mean, there’s one of the few remaining Liberal MPs in the State parliament, was making this point in the press just today.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Unfortunately, one of the Liberal Party’s great assets, which is that it is a grassroots membership organization, has meant that it is very… Because it no longer attracts naturally a mass membership of the sort of middle class, professional class, small business people, it has become very vulnerable to take over by extremes. Like, the ACT another example. The ACT is a very progressive jurisdiction. It actually voted for the Republic, it’s the Labor Party, and the Green is are the dominant parties there. The ACT division of the Liberal Party, is just as right wing as probably more right wing than the Victorian division. Now the question then is, from your side of politics would be why can’t Labor exploit that? Well, you’ve probably just written a book about that, I think but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookstores, yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, available in all good bookstores. But that’s a major problem. I mean, Andrew Lee has made this point, always sort of riffing off Lenin actually. Lenin actually criticizing the Australian and New Zealand Labor Party’s or Labor Movements, said they were just Liberals, with a small L. They weren’t sufficiently revolutionary. But Andrew’s argument is that the liberal tradition in Australian politics is really better embodied in the Labor Party. I think the truth is, it’s been embodied in both, but regrettably less and lesser on the capital L, Liberal side of politics and I think that is a major problem. I mean, you see evidence with the issues that we’re confronted with today.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just switching gears slightly to another big trend that occurred in your time in politics, during your time as Prime Minister was the strange relationship with China.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

The relationship arguably was perhaps changing, but once you became PM, you made some big decisions, banning Huawei from the 5G network, the foreign interference laws; a bit of a line in the sand. I mean, in your estimations, why was this relevant? Had Australia’s attitude changed? Had China changed? I mean, why were those decisions made, and why are they relevant to the sort of increasingly bellicose nature of the relationship that we’re seeing now?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look I think that the change really was from the China side. Xi Jinping, is a much more authoritarian leader domestically, and you see that whether it’s in Xinjiang or elsewhere in China, and he’s more assertive or belligerent, depending how you want to describe it internationally. The island building, unilateral militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea is one good example, but there are plenty others too. I think China has definitely changed, there’s no question about that, or it’s leadership has, and Australia has responded to that. Look obviously, I’m a Liberal with a small L and a Democrat, so I deplore authoritarianism anywhere. But speaking of their international policy, I think it is quite counterproductive. I mean, I’ve got a piece of the Nikkei Asian Review just today, which makes the point that their foreign policy is completely counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I mean, the pressure that they’re putting on Australia, which is designed to get us to mend our ways, and punish Australia for daring to criticize human rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong or expansionism in the South China Sea, what does it do? It has made Australian public opinion more adverse to China than it’s ever been, number one. It has made any changes or adjustments or nuances in government policy, impossible to affect and it alienates and creates enormous anxiety in other capitals. The object of foreign policy should be to win friends and influence people, and ideally do that without having to spend too much money, whether it is in grants or gifts or infrastructure on the one hand, or military hardware on the other. I mean, if you look around the region, around the world, where are China’s allies? I mean, it doesn’t have allies, it’s got clients. The United States, notwithstanding four years of Trump, still has enormous goodwill, and allies, and alliances and people with who, the countries who have shared values.

Malcolm Turnbull:

To be honest, I think that China blew an enormous opportunity with Trump. I mean, Trump’s erratic sort of conduct and his offending and alienating close allies and friends, sucking up to tyrants, all that stuff that he did, that was an enormous opportunity for China to be as unlike Trump as possible. That’s what they should have done. They should have appeared to be steady, accommodating, measured, all of the things Trump wasn’t. Instead they’ve become almost Trumpy in their sort of belligerence. I mean, I’ll give you a good example. The last year, Morrison said, there should be an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus. Now, look you can criticize him for saying that. You can say he didn’t need to say it. It was gratuitous, what was all that about? Was that just for the benefit of domestic public opinion in Australia? It would have been better off lining up a coalition to support it, even make all those criticisms, and let’s say for the sake of this discussion, that those criticisms are valid.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Nonetheless, the Chinese reaction was crazy. They should have let that one go through to the keeper. Absolutely, let it go through to the keeper or said yes, look we’ve noticed that but, we think the best body to handle this is the World Health Administration, which in fact, is what is doing. But instead they turned this into this huge issue. Why? It’s like somebody who does something to offend you, which even if it’s deliberate like a small thing, and you sort of declare to turn it into the biggest issue of all time, so it’s just so heavy handed and as I say, quite counterproductive. I mean, I think like most policy Misha, foreign policy included has to be judged on its outcomes. And I think that this sort of process of bullying Australia has been quite counterproductive.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I think one of the reasons I was really delighted to see that four leaders of the quad, India, Japan, US and Australia meeting together was, as I say in the Nikkei Asian Review today, that those images look good in their respective capitals. But the capital where I believe it will have had the most impact is in Beijing, because it’s basically sending a message to China saying, Australia and its democratic partners and allies are sticking together. Hopefully, they will take a different approach.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, the other big challenge in the room, I suppose you got this sort of the China challenge. The other big challenge for democracy around the world, is this question of Big Tech, and whether or not governments can still prevail over these sort of essentially global monopoly platforms? I mean, in this big fight between Big Tech and big media, I mean who’s in the right here to your mind? How do we actually deal with these foreign owned tech platforms, and the impact they have on democracies?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, well look, I think that ultimately if government makes the law, then everyone has to comply with it, within that jurisdiction. The problem is that these platforms are transnational, they’re global. It’s often pitched as sort of government versus Big Tech, I think you’ve really got to focus on the particular issues. What is the problem that you’ve got? I mean, if for example, if you see what the media bargaining card here, I’m very uncomfortable with that. I mean, it does look to me and I think it looks to everyone, as though the government and the parliament have basically shaken down Google and Facebook to give money tot their people in the media, especially their friends at Newscorp. I would have preferred, I think a better approach would have been to have a tax on digital advertising revenues. Then rebate that to those companies that employ journalists, and as for those that don’t like Google and Facebook, take those proceeds and then distribute them to public interest journalism.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That would mean news outlets that actually complied with what we would require, whether it’s the Press Council standards, or there’s plenty of objective benchmarks of what is public interest journalism can be used. There is a reluctance though, frankly on the part of governments nowadays to make judgments about broadcasting or journalism. That wasn’t always the case. When I was a young lawyer working for Packer, television and broadcasting licenses were renewed every three years, and you had to prove you’re a fit and proper person, you had to demonstrate that the news reporting was balanced. America was out… It was Reagan that abolished that fairness doctrine in broadcast news in the US. We’ve got to… This is probably, we’re getting to the end of this podcast, but this is.. I mean, here is the big question. We have always assumed or justified free speech and the First Amendment, in the US context on the basis that in the contest of ideas, the truth will prevail, and yet we are drowning in lies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

You’ve seen that in America, I mean the biggest threat to the United States today is not international terrorism or Russia or China, the biggest threat is the internal political problems they face which are exacerbated in large part by the media, much of it owned by Rupert Murdoch. I mean, who could have imagined other than in some sort of apocalyptic novel or movie, the US Capitol being sacked by a mob as it was on the sixth of January, who had been told repeatedly by big media outlets, including Fox, that Biden had not won the election? If you think about it, if you had a large percentage of the Australian population, for example believing that the Labor Party had won the last election and not the coalition, who knows what you would get? I mean, people would get very angry and pissed off, there’s no doubt about that. The peddling of lies has consequences and it’s a big issue, again it’s probably too big to get into now, but I guess my punchline would be the freedom of speech does not mean freedom from responsibility, and obviously, we have defamation laws and so forth.

Malcolm Turnbull:

But we’ve also got to take, we’ve got to be prepared to hold people to account, and that might mean, advertisers have got to hold them to account, readers and subscribers have got to hold them to account. But we do not want to get a repeat of… we don’t we don’t want our country to be as divided, and with so much hate turned inwards on itself and its people as they have in the US.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just turn to sort of modern events, the culture of parliament is being discussed a lot as it relates to the safety of women. In your book you talk about the brutality of politics and you give some reflections on how tough it is on politicians; you talk about dark moments you went through after losing the leadership in 2009. The question I want to ask is in two parts; how hard is politics – is it too hard? Are we too hard on our politicians? And turning to the shocking revelations of 2021 and the March for Justice movement we’ve seen from Australian women who are demanding change – how do we fix the culture of our parliament, how do we fix these cultural issues more broadly?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, look I think it is. I think you’ve got to have thick skin to get into politics. I mean, it’s not for the faint hearted, or the thin skinned, we’re probably are too hard on our politicians, but they’re pretty hard on each other too, so it’s a rough business. I suspect that’s always been the case. I mean, the thing that is the issue that’s being debated at the moment, is this whole issue of disrespect of women by men, or men’s disrespect of women, men’s violence against women and of course, this being a real issue inside parliament. The Brittany Higgins case, of course has been the most sort of notable lately, but I mean, I wrote him about this. I talked about this when I was prime minister, I made changes to the ministerial code and but my observation of Parliament, was that the culture there, the attitude had far too many men, towards women reminded me of the 1970s or 1980s, maybe in the corporate world. I mean, it’s way out of step with modern society.

Misha Zelinsky:

How do we fix it?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, okay I think there’s at least two things you’ve got to do. On one side, you’ve got to have, I think they should in effect, leverage off the reform I made with parliamentary expenses. I remember I set up an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Agency or Authority, and basically, there hasn’t been a parliamentary expenses problem since then, because it’s properly monitored and accountable and so forth. I think you need to have an independent agency, which may just be three or four people, who deal with HR and that is where people can confidentially complain about issues, and it is where they would manage training, and so if there was an issue of bullying in an office, they could go in and make sure that everyone from the minister or the member down, gets the right training, and you basically, you’ve got to have that mechanism and you’ve got have clear rules. For example, if there is a report of an assault, that particularly something as serious as rape, then that is something that should be dealt with by the police.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Not may be that the victim says she doesn’t, or she most likely doesn’t want to proceed with it. But I think you’ve basically got to send a very clear message, that the full force of the law will come down on you, if you break the law, in particular in this context of men being violent or abusive to women. Now, that to some extent is having the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. It’s important to have the ambulance there, but the important be ideally, people aren’t going to be falling off the cliff, so how do you change the culture? Well, I think you need… That ultimately is a question of leadership, and prime ministers and ministers have to lead by example, so they’ve got to be held accountable for their own conduct, for the conduct of their officers. If a minister has a chief of staff who is bullying, the minister has to take responsibility for that.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He or she is the boss, so they’ve got to take responsibility for that. When I dealt with the Barnaby Joyce issue, and I changed the ministerial code to say that ministers should not have sexual relations to their staff, which I mean looking back now people would say, “Gosh, why didn’t you go further? Why didn’t you say more?” That was so controversial at the time. Most of my colleagues, sort of-

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Most of my colleagues thought it was an outrage, utterly unreasonable and, just an example of how old and out of touch I was. But I put in the foreword to those changes, language about respect, leading by example, values have to be lived and it’s worth. I mean, I’m sorry that Scott Morrison dropped all that, but because it is important, I mean that is, you basically do have lead from the top. I mean, because again that’s the only way you can change the culture. I’m sorry, it’s a simple answer, but the execution and delivery of it is complex, because you’re dealing with people, and people are complex, but there’s no other way to do it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just wanted to ask you a question about your overall career. We could obviously talk about this cultural problem at length, whether or not actually while we’re on it. Do you support an inquiry or an independent inquiry into the allegations against the Attorney General?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, look the answer is yes. I totally get the all the legal arguments, everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, burden of proof. I get all of that, I understand all of that. But what I said at the time, and I noticed that this was described as being very hostile to Porter, it wasn’t. I mean, Misha, I’ve actually been in this situation with Packer back in the 80’s, when Kerry was accused of all sorts of things initially.

Misha Zelinsky:

Atlanta.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Yeah, under a code name and all that stuff, and the only way you can deal with this in a political way is to step up, give a powerful rebuttal and set out your version of events powerfully and cogently, and I believe it would have been in Porter’s interest to say, “Look, I didn’t.” Invite the prime minister to appoint a suitably qualified person to review all this material and give their judgment on it. Now, he’s chosen to bring a defamation action, but the problem with that, is that the defamation action A, will take years and years and years and B, the truth of the allegations may never even be an issue. It depends what defenses the ABC chooses to run, but I mean they’re very likely to have a sort of a qualified privilege, issues of public interest type of line of argument. I mean again, I went through this with Packer too. At the time, their lawyers, very distinguished lawyers, much older than me, who were saying, “Oh, Kerry should sue for libel and do this.”

Malcolm Turnbull:

I remember saying, “Well, we don’t have enough time for that. We’ve got to deal with this here and now.” I think this could be resolved pretty quickly, and then Porter would be able to say, “Well, I rejected the allegations. I said, why rejected them. The distinguished retired Judge, X reviewed it and came to such and such a conclusion.”

Misha Zelinsky:

You’ve mentioned Packer, there is a question I want to ask you about your career overall. I mean, you’ve dealt with some massive characters over the years, Packer, Murdoch, Rudd, Whitlam, Keating, Howard, Trump, Abbott, who was the hardest to handle out of these sort of characters, and why was is there a particular thing that makes them more similar?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, they’re all very different people, all the ones you’ve mentioned. I think probably the most difficult person to deal with was Trump, because he was the most powerful, and there was so much at stake. You’ve got to sort of… As an Australian Prime Minister, you’ve got to get on with whoever is the President of the United States, on the other hand, you’ve got to defend your national interest. There is a tendency for the professional diplomats to want to sort of go along quietly and not actually take up… They’re worried about a blow up, they’re very risk averse. But had I not gone toe to toe with Trump, we would not have maintained the refugee deal.

Malcolm Turnbull:

There’s a lot of people that are now settled and free in the US that would not be, had I not stuck to that, and equally, if you look at something like our steel industry, which I know, would be an industry many of your members would work in. Our steel industry was under real threat with Trump wanting to have a 25% tariff on Australian steel imports, as he was with a 10% tariff on Australian aluminium, and that was a very complex battle to keep tariffs and quotas off our exports.

Misha Zelinsky:

You have to handle him one on one in that situation?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Totally, it was absolutely one on one. I mean, look very often politics is a team sport and very often, as the leader you are backed up by a lot of people, often very much smarter than you who do all the groundwork. The problem with Trump was there was only one decision maker in the White House, and the staff in the White House kept on coming and going, going mostly. While I had some good input from Joe Hockey, the ambassador, and some other officials, and of course people in the steel sector, particularly, ultimately it just came down to me and Trump. Now that wouldn’t be the case with Biden, it wouldn’t have been the case with Obama. But Trump’s people, his key people, they did not want him to agree with me on the terms he did, they absolutely did not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

He basically went, I mean, I persuaded him that his own advisors were wrong on this point, and that was in his interest to have no tariffs and no quotas on Australian steel and aluminium, and really, it was a very one to one thing, and I’m not bragging about that, it’s just that’s the way it was. I mean, that’s the way that was the issue with Trump, because ultimately as I said, there was only one decision maker in the White House and we had a couple of people there, who were very sympathetic to Australia, but there were others frankly, who were not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just the last couple of questions. You were saying your best day in politics, can you can you pinpoint those?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, I probably work out. There were a lot of best days, or great days. I think legalizing same sex marriage was one of the best days. That’s a very big social reform. Well, one I probably the worst two days is losing the leadership I guess, on two occasions, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

On both occasions?

Malcolm Turnbull:

On both, yeah. It was worse losing the prime ministership, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Just on that, I mean, leadership challenges. I mean, talk about what goes through your mind and what’s the difference between the time, you’ve been in many. What’s the difference between the time when perhaps you’re seizing the leadership, versus when you’re playing defense and you’re on the verge of losing?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, it’s very different, it’s difficult and different. Yeah, I mean in each case, I’ve been involved in a lot of leadership struggles more than most people. Yeah, look it’s hard. I mean I they’re just very different, and you’ve got to be very careful, you got to think very clearly, you’ve obviously got to do your homework. But when you are a challenger, you’re in much more possession of the relevant facts than when you’re on defense, so the so the problem is, it’s always an advantage to have the initiative. The challenger always has that advantage, and particularly, where you are very vulnerable as a leader is if your challenger is reckless, and they actually don’t care whether they blow the joint up or not.

Malcolm Turnbull:

And this is again one of the real flaws and problems right at the heart of the coalition, right in its DNA nowadays, is that you’ve got that right wing group, which is massively supported in the Murdoch press. I’m not trying to sort of echo Kevin, but what he says about Murdoch is right. But they back that in, and they actually don’t care if they blow the joint up, and so that is terrorism without guns and bombs, and it’s very dangerous. Now, I don’t think you’ve got quite the same problem in the LP. But, I’m not an expert on Labor Party-

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh, leadership challenges are brutal on any side of politics.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Well, yeah and I mean the reality is that sometimes you do have to change the leadership. I mean, leadership changes that are driven just by personal ambition, can often be very damaging. But sometimes the leader just can’t deliver, and somebody else can do a better job, and there’s been plenty of cases of that. I mean, the interesting thing about the switch from… When I took over from Abbott, our numbers went through the roof, that was clearly from a political point of view, the right call. When I was overthrown, the coalition numbers went south and stayed south for a long time, but ultimately you can never underestimate people’s capacity to lose elections and Shorten lost that election, and part of it was personal, and part of it was as you know, some very misguided policies.

Malcolm Turnbull:

I don’t think climate was a negative for you, I have to say but I think the franking credits stuff was just staggering. It was so out of touch, I mean I used to get lectures from people in the Labor Party, which basically describing why the tax breaks shouldn’t have been introduced in 2001, and let’s say I agree with you, but so what? There’s a bunch of things in the tax system that with the benefit of hindsight, you wouldn’t have done that. But that doesn’t mean you should think repealing them is going to go without opposition or resentment.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s been a very long conversation and thank you for your generosity, and I know you’ve been coughing and sneezing, so we hope that you’re right and you’ll-

Malcolm Turnbull:

I’ll survive, don’t worry.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now question I’ve got to ask you, this is the question I ask all guests. Is the clunky segue to the barbecue question of deeper mates, so three foreign guests at a barbecue at Malcolm’s. Who are they and why?

Malcolm Turnbull:

Three foreign guests, well I would have four foreign guests, and they would be my son, his wife and their two children.

Misha Zelinsky:

Oh man, you’re kidding. That’s a cheating answer.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Oh then they’re not really foreigners, they live in Singapore.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s right.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, three foreign friends. Well, let’s assume I’d also have their partners, so I would definitely have President Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi of Indonesia. Who’s he and his wife Ariane, are just great friends and wonderful people and that’s such an important relationship.

Misha Zelinsky:

Absolutely.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Who else? Well, I would say the interestingly, the two French leaders that I got to know well, Emmanuel Macron, and his prime minister at the time, no longer his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, both really extraordinary people. I’ve not met Edouard Phelippe’s partner, but Bridgette, who is the wife of the President Emmanuel Macron is fabulous. Really great company, smart as you’d expect. I think France was very lucky to have them both together. I’m sorry that Eduard is no longer the PM there, but again I have to say that, I said I didn’t understand the internal machinations of the Labor Party. I have no idea or to understand the internal machinations of French politics, but they’d be some, I probably should nominate somebody from another country. Yeah, well I look a great person, a great human being and very good company and thoughtful as Shinzo Abe. Again, I’m sorry he’s no longer PM of Japan, and he retired for health reasons. But yeah, they would be among the people. But there’s some great characters, you can read about all of them in my book.

Misha Zelinsky:

Available in good bookshops everywhere.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Available at good bookshops everywhere.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s right next to The Write Stuff.

Malcolm Turnbull:

That’s right, exactly. That’s right, often sold in a package deal.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a perfect place to leave this conversation, Malcolm Turnbull, thanks so much for joining us.

Malcolm Turnbull:

Okay, see you mate.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRANSCRIPT:

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Second best, okay.

Misha Zelinsky:

No, no, but all jokes aside-

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Print that on a t-shirt, right?

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that’s right.

Clare O’Neil:

The big issue-

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah.

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Oh yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

Because you see it-

Clare O’Neil:

[crosstalk 00:13:50].

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Yep. Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:19:24].

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

It’s hard.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

I know, yeah.

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Totally.

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:28:38].

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

I know. Scary.

Misha Zelinsky:

Just extraordinary.

Clare O’Neil:

So scary.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Our problem, is it?

Misha Zelinsky:

Yep.

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

This is podcaster to podcaster, Misha.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Yep.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

I hope so, yeah.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

I was going to say-

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Hell of a leader.

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Very German in that sense, right?

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

Absolutely.

Misha Zelinsky:

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

Clare O’Neil:

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

Misha Zelinsky:

Cheers.

 

Nicole Hemmer: Nightmare at the Capitol – Conspiracies, Insurrectionists and Trump

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University. A prominent American historian, she is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is a columnist for CNN as well as the host of the podcast ‘Past Present’ and ‘This Day in Esoteric Political History’.

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Nicole for a chinwag about the shocking events of 6 January at the US Capitol,  what the hell the Qanon conspiracy theory is all about, President Trump’s culpability, the role of Right Wing media in radicalising politics, how social media giants can be held to account for promoting misinformation, what history tells us about the dangers of ignoring extremist movements and how we can save democracy.

Other show notes

It’s been a bit of a break on the show, due to Misha’s commitments in editing a new book ‘The Write Stuff: Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future’. If you’re are interested in buying it, you can get it below.

‘The Write Stuff’ Voices of Unity on Labor’s Future’:

https://www.connorcourtpublishing.com.au/The-Write-Stuff-Voices-of-Unity-on-Labors-Future–Edited-by-Nick-Dyrenfurth-and-Misha-Zelinsky_p_416.html

Diplomates socials

If you aren’t following Misha or Diplomates on socials: @mishazelinsky @diplomatesshow Instagram and Twitter.

Nicole Hemmer’s details:

You can follow Nicole on Twitter @pastpunditry and see below for links to her podcast! 

Past Present Podcast

www.pastpunidt.com: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/past-present/id1043954557

This Day in Esoteric Political History

www.thisdaypod.com: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/victory-sausages-1943/id1502728938?i=1000505070903

Eric Schultz: Hope v Fear? Obama, Authenticity and Election 2020

Eric Schultz, is the founder of the Schultz Group and is currently a senior advisor to former President Barack Obama. He served in the White House as the Principal Deputy Press Secretary and Special Assistant to the president. 

Recognized by Politico as the strategist “White House officials turn to in a crisis to handle communications,” Schultz advised the president, spoke on behalf of the Administration on Air Force One and in the White House briefing room, and helped manage the Administration’s proactive messaging and news-of-the-day responses. 

Schultz is a veteran of numerous statewide and national campaigns. Before joining the White House, Schultz served as communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where he became “well-known among Washington reporters for his aggressive, behind-the-scenes approach,” as noted by Politico. Schultz spent several years on Capitol Hill working for key U.S. senators, including now Democratic Leader Charles Schumer. Schultz, who most recently advised Netflix’s reboot of Designated Survivor, currently provides strategic communications guidance to clients in the political, financial, technology and entertainment sectors.

Misha Zelinsky aught up with Eric for a chinwag about life in the Obama White House, how to manage a crisis, the three secret words of communications, what the Situation Room is actually like, Election 2020, why politicians must be authentic, whether Hope beats Fear and what Obama is really like off camera.

It’s a really fun chat and we hope you enjoy it. Eric is super generous with his time.

If you’re enjoying the show, jump on twitter and instagram @mishazelinsky @diplomatesshow and let us know what you think. Plenty of you are heckling us there already; and we are happy to dive deeper into things we chat about.

Also 5 star reviews are appreciated. They game the algorithm and help push us above Putin. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Misha Zelinsky:

Eric Schultz, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Thank you. Great to be here.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now as ever, there’s so many places to start with someone who’s had such a big career like yourself. But given we’re heading into election season, I thought I might take you back in time just quickly. Back to 2016, the night of the last presidential election. How surprised, I suppose, were you at this result? And what were your feelings on the night?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. When I agreed to do this conversation, I wasn’t sure we had to relive that night. But I’m happy to indulge. The question is, was I surprised? And yes, absolutely. I don’t think stunned, flabbergasted, bowled over do it justice. I think that all of us in the country, but also in the White House, were anticipating that Secretary Clinton was going to prevail on election night. So to say we were stunned is a bit of an understatement.

Eric Schultz:

But I will say that President Obama gathered all of us the next morning, Wednesday morning, as many of us trudged into work having stayed up the entire night and were exhausted and emotionally drained and empty inside and a whole whirlwind of emotions and thoughts going through our head. He was the one who called us into the Oval Office early that Wednesday morning and said, “Look, the story line of history is that it zigs and it zags, and it doesn’t always go in a straight direction.” And that as public servants, and as the keepers of democracy at that moment, our job was to follow through with a peaceful transition of power. He wanted to send a signal that morning that the sun is going to rise and that the foundations of our country and the values and the democratic small-D institutions that we have are strong enough to withstand any particular, any singular election result.

Eric Schultz:

And so it was under his direction that we sent that message loudly and clearly on Wednesday morning, and then spent the next two or three months providing for a real peaceful transition of power. And that meant, at the principle level, in terms of President Obama and president-elect Trump, convening. But down to the staff level, making sure that his team knew as much as possible going into this, when you land a new job in a new building in a new weird place, that they had as much knowledge and support on the front end of that as possible. And I certainly communicated with my counterpart who was going to replace me, and I said, “Look,” we met once. I can’t remember if that was December or January, or November. But I said, “Look, I’m happy to be available to you. We can meet in private, we can meet in public, we can email, talk. Whatever you want to do.” And that was based on the directive from the President to be as helpful as possible to the incoming team.

Misha Zelinsky:

We will talk probably a little bit about the Trump White House. I’d like to talk about your time in the Obama White House. You were in a position advising him on communications. First, I suppose, it’s a position of high levels of trust. How did you earn President Obama’s trust? And then how were you able to, I suppose, advise him around his expectations of his comms team?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, so I started in the White House in the spring of 2011, which is when Republicans had taken over the House of Representatives, one chamber of the US Congress. And they vowed all of this congressional oversight into the administration, a whole bunch of investigations. And the White House smartly decided to hire a bunch of outside people to help manage the response to those investigations. So I hired mostly lawyers, but some researchers, some communications people. And so, for my early years in the White House, that was the scope of my portfolio was managing the response to those investigations.

Eric Schultz:

My purview broadened from there. And then when Jay Carney left and Josh Earnest became the Press Secretary in 2014, he asked me to be his deputy. And I tell people it’s a little bit like being… I usually say Miss America runner-up, right? When Josh couldn’t perform his duties, they roll me out and I’d try to do the best job that I could. And it was really from that perch where I developed a relationship with President Obama. And the truth of the matter is, a lot of that relationship was nourished playing cards with the President. Just on long trips, what he does to clear his mind, to just relax, is to play cards. And so we, on a lot of plane rides-

Misha Zelinsky:

What was the game?

Eric Schultz:

Spades. And I was terrible, and he is super competitive, but he’s also mentoring. And so as a cruel joke, I was on his team, which is the worst case scenario because he’s dependent on you. And so not only is he competitive, he’s thankfully very forgiving. And so that’s where we developed a personal relationship.

Eric Schultz:

And then obviously in the middle of these trips, there’s a lot of communications and messaging judgment calls and conversations we would have in order for him to, again, learn to trust me. I did not work on the President’s 2008 campaign, so I was not part of that team that worked with him to get to the White House. So I consider myself very lucky that, even as an outsider, I was able to develop a relationship with him.

Misha Zelinsky:

What are some of your best and worst moments in the White House then? Given that you’ve sort of clearly had a good relationship with the President, I imagine it wasn’t always all sunshine and rainbows, it’s a tough environment, it’s a high pressure, high stakes environment.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. I don’t know if this made international headlines, but the President’s signature domestic legislative accomplishment in the first term was universal healthcare, what we call the Affordable Care Act, which later became known as Obamacare. And this is something that, again, presidents I think dating back to Teddy Roosevelt had tried to do and tried to get done and President Obama got this done in 2009 in his first year in office. And it was a very complicated piece of business, but it required sort of transforming… I think one sixth of the US economy is healthcare based. And so it was going to be moving a lot of different pieces.

Eric Schultz:

We had until 2014 to prepare to implement it and over the course of those years that meant putting pen to paper and getting all of the infrastructure in place. And we, again, given that it was the President’s signature domestic accomplishment, we wanted to make sure nothing could go wrong. But it was going to require a whole bunch of buy-in and support from everyone under the sun. The hospitals, the drug makers, patients, healthcare providers, insurers, politicians, civic leaders, businesses. Everyone under the sun sort of had to be bought into this in order to make it work. And we put in a lot of years of work to get ready for the launch. And, again I don’t know if this was an international affair, but we did launch and everything that we put into it didn’t work because the website flopped.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’d like to say that we didn’t hear about that, mate, but unfortunately as you’re telling that story I was saying, “I hope this isn’t about the website.”

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, this is about the website. You asked for my worst time in the White House and it was 100% the healthcare.gov flailing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, that couldn’t have been a fun time. But sorry, keep going.

Eric Schultz:

It was terrible. And to the President’s credit, he understood that this wasn’t a communications problem, this was just a problem. And he understood that until the website got fixed the breathless, non-stop, around the clock coverage of this failure wasn’t going to change. And so, again, we stood up a task force and surged our Department of Health and Human Services with resources and Silicon Valley experts and a whole bunch of assets to sort of redo that website and get it up and running as soon as humanly possible.

Eric Schultz:

As a communicator it’s a story about… I don’t want to say damage control because there wasn’t really a way to control that damage, but in terms of being open and transparent with reporters and the country about what we were doing to fix the problem and I think we had something like a weekly, or maybe even more frequent than that, conference call where we would talk through in a very technical level what specifications we were fixing that day, what our estimates were for people being able to get through and sign up. Eventually we got a website that worked and a program that insured 20 million new Americans.

Misha Zelinsky:

You’re someone that goes and stands at the lectern, or did, in terms of preparation that goes into something like that, how difficult is it to get totally across all the information that you got to have, be briefed on, but then you are briefing the media on? I mean, it’s an extraordinarily challenging task for one person to do. Maybe give us a sense of that.

Eric Schultz:

Right. So this is one of those that I can only speak to my experience in the Obama White House, and others may judge it as a contrast with our current White House, but-

Misha Zelinsky:

Slightly

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. My understanding is that our processes track closely our predecessors, so the Bush administration, the Clinton administration. And essentially, when the press secretary speaks from the podium we’re not just shooting from the hip. The reason we go out with a thick binder of talking points and guidance is because we understand that we are speaking for not just president, but for the United States of America on the world stage.

Eric Schultz:

And I think that in politics a lot of us get ridiculed for being so careful in our language and there’s political speak and we can get sort of mocked for being very generic or very vague. But the reason we do that is important. When you’re speaking for the White House your words carry enormous weight and you can move stock markets, you can alienate allies, you can mobilize armies, you can annoy your friends. So what we try to do is make sure that when Josh or myself or Robert gives, or Jay Carney, whoever was speaking for the administration on any given day, was fully prepared with guidance that represented the 360 degree viewpoint of the US government.

Eric Schultz:

And so sometimes that’s complicated. Sometimes if we’re talking about the Iran nuclear negotiations that is a process that involves the state departments, Secretary Kerry was the lead negotiator, that involves the department of energy, the department of interior, that involves our office of legislative affairs to make sure congress is looped, our office of public engagement to make sure some of the climate and energy activists are comfortable with what we’re saying, that includes our White House councils office to make sure that legally we’re in the right lanes.

Eric Schultz:

So when we speak, again it wasn’t just what the press people want to say, it’s language that we know has to be carefully vetted throughout all the different components of the administration.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s an extraordinary difficult challenge. You can understand why it does sometimes sound a little, for lack of a better word, nuanced or more like a UN resolution.

Eric Schultz:

Yes.

Misha Zelinsky:

The current president, he watches press conferences very closely of his press secretaries. Was there ever a moment where you got off and thought, “Well, that’s it. I’m fired. This went that badly. I really hope I don’t see the president in the next 24 hours.”?

Eric Schultz:

Thank goodness, no. And that’s not to say I don’t make mistakes, I make plenty. But the three hardest words I had to learn when briefing the press were, “I don’t know.” And that is not an instinct that comes naturally. You sort of want to flub your way through and find some space to give an answer. But I think at the end of the day, reporters will respect you more if you’re willing to acknowledge that you don’t have the answer at your fingertips and you’ll follow up with them and get them the best answer you can.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good lesson. In terms of, you’ve talked about all the things going on, what’s one of the biggest crises you dealt with at the White House and how do you go about communicating that? And I suppose as a comms specialist, what are the key principles of crisis communications? Because a lot of people in politics listen to this show, big audience in political circles. I heard everyone lean in a little as I said that. I’m kind of curious for your take.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah. I was thinking about this question and I was thinking back to the G20 summit in 2016 in Hangzhou, China and this was sort of at the end of the presidency and it was a moment where we were trying to sort of wrap up and make some sort of endgame progress on a lot of the president’s priorities. And I think we had negotiated a pretty strong deal with President Xi on greenhouse gas emissions, we had made some progress on cyber, on a whole host of other issues, at the time dealing with Syria and dealing with refugees were both very hot ticket items and President Obama had worked closely with a bunch of other foreign leaders to make progress on those issues. But the thing that dominated the coverage of that G20 was that the Chinese officials at the airport used the wrong stairs for when President Obama descended the aircraft. And this was something that dominated three or four days worth of coverage back here in the United States.

Misha Zelinsky:

Big issue.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, exactly. It was read as this big Chinese snub of the American president and a veracious appetite to cover the optics of the stairs versus the actual substance of what we were trying to accomplish on the ground as part of the summit. As much as we could cajole reporters into focusing on issues that actually mattered and not the circumstances which surrounded which staircase the president used to descend the aircraft on arriving in China, we had mixed success.

Eric Schultz:

And eventually, at one of the press briefings they asked President Obama about it and he said, “Look, I wouldn’t over-crank this. The truth is,” I remember this, “There was a mix-up at the airport, it was a smaller airport, and they just didn’t have the right driver of the right stairs,” so it was a very technical staffing bureaucratic stuff. But again, it got ballooned into this international affair of outsized proportion. And again, we just tried our best to focus reporters on substance and what work was actually unfolding on the ground, as opposed to that sort of stuff.

Misha Zelinsky:

It must be frustrating though, right? Trying to get people to focus on the substance rather than the triviality. I mean, that’s a bigger problem that no single press secretary’s going to solve on their own. But in terms of broadening out a little bit more to just generally politics and good communication, what do you think the biggest mistakes you observe people trying to communicate in noisy environments and what’s the best way to cut through in that sense?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I think that’s a profound question. It’s sort of the biggest challenge we face. In the White House we had a saying that our strategy was to find audiences where they are at and that was sort of our guiding principle. So I’ll give you a few examples.

Eric Schultz:

When the United States was negotiating the Paris climate accord in 2015 we wanted a way to sell this to the American public in a way that was outside the typical political conversation. The president went to visit the Arctic, he was a first sitting president to visit the Arctic and we didn’t at the time when developing a media strategy, we decided we weren’t going to sit down with 60 Minutes or the Washington Post or New York Times, we sat down with Bear Grylls. Who I don’t know if you all know, he’s an outdoorsman, he’s got a couple of shows.

Misha Zelinsky:

Kind of like Steve Irwin was, right?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. An outdoorsman who thrives in natural environments. And we wanted to be able to breakthrough to an audience that, again, doesn’t follow the day to day of the Paris negotiations or what’s happening in the house subcommittee on interior, but rather just appreciates clean air, clean water, wants their kids to grow up in a world that’s healthy.

Eric Schultz:

And so we did an hour long primetime special with Bear Grylls where President Obama and him, it was a beautiful set, where they sort of wandered outside and I think they caught raw fish with their bare hands and all that stuff. And it was a really nice setting in order to, again, just breakthrough what we were doing, why we were doing it, but to an audience that wasn’t necessarily attuned to the politics.

Misha Zelinsky:

It is hard. It’s increasingly hard to find new audiences, right? People are very much in their bubbles. It is hard to cut through to people that aren’t just probably like you or I, or listeners to this podcast, addicts to the political news cycle, so it is challenging. That’s an interesting way that you guys did it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, just switching up to 2020 or at least to present day. One of the things I’m actually curious about before we talk about the election and President Trump more generally, you’re still advising President Obama, he intervenes very rarely I suppose into politics, like most former presidents. How do you make an assessment when that should be, on which topic, in which way? Because former president’s words carry a particular weight, particularly the predecessor, and I think particularly when you consider the relationship between the current president and the former president.

Eric Schultz:

Yup. That’s a great question. I think much like many chapters of President Obama’s public life, this is the first post-presidency of its kind. I don’t think any other former US president has had to face what President Obama has. And look, the truth is President Obama believes deeply in this American principle of one president at a time. He believes that for a couple of reasons. One is, he’s mindful and respectful and grateful for the latitude that his predecessor gave to him while he was serving in office. And again, that was after a 2008 presidential campaign where President Obama was quite aggressive towards President Bush and his policies.

Eric Schultz:

But mostly it is because President Obama believes that in order for the democratic party here in the US to move on, that the next generation of leaders need to step up. And that if he gets outsized attention for when he speaks out and if he is always soaking up the limelight and soaking up the oxygen, that really limits the ability for the next wave of leaders to step up and take hold. And he’s been very careful to makes sure that he will speak out when he feels American values are threatened, and we have on a whole host of issues. But in the whole, he wants to make sure that the next wave of democratic leaders is able to command the spotlight and grow into their roles as national leaders.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah. It must be very difficult at times to bite his tongue given, it seems, he’s got an administration that wants to bait him at every opportunity. If not at the podium, via Twitter or other challenges, and then also you got a very noisy media environment in the conservative media space.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, on a personal level, as someone that’s been behind the press podium, what goes through your head when you’ve watched the press briefings throughout the duration of the Trump administration thus far? Do you ever feel a little bit sorry for the person at the time? Like they go up there and take a beating. You’re shaking your head for those watching at home.

Eric Schultz:

No. I mean, look, because I still work for President Obama I’m sort of constrained in how much I can talk about the current administration. I will say though, that for me, I do get this a lot, which is, “How can you stand to watch the press briefings?” Like, how can you stand to watch the press briefing? It’s pretty cringe-worthy for anyone. I will just say as a top line that credibility matters and it doesn’t just matter I think it’s everything.

Eric Schultz:

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of combative conversations and exchanges I had with reporters and we always put our best spin on the ball and aggressively made our strongest argument and wanted to make sure that that was presented to the press. But, and I think reporters would back us up, we never knowingly lied. We never knowingly mislead anyone. And if we did, it was sort of an errant one-off mistake that we owned up to.

Eric Schultz:

And so I just think as a communicator, again whether you’re representing the president of the United States, a foreign leader, a state senator, a member of congress, a business leader, whoever, that you have to be straight with people. I mean, it’s probably a good personal rule of thumb even if you’re not a communicator. But that once you undermine your own credibility it is virtually impossible to regain it. We’re going through a few new cycles here where the White House is having to contend with other anonymous sources and other reports and other things where if they had had credibility over the past four years, they’d have more standing to make effective arguments and to be more persuasive. But because there’s sort of a pattern of not telling the truth, they are in a weaker position to make their case.

Eric Schultz:

That’s my biggest takeaway. And again, it doesn’t just pertain to the White House. I think whenever you’re speaking for someone or a company or a group or a candidate or a public official, whatever, that if the person on the other side of the conversation doesn’t believe that you’re telling the truth, then you’re not doing your job.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s a really well-made point. I think that’s exactly right. You can say whatever you want, but if there’s zero credibility behind it, it makes it very difficult to spin. Though it is hard to spin, I imagine, 18 separate recordings of interviews with Bob Woodward. There’s only so much one can spin on that. Were you shocked that the president had given 18 on the record interviews to the person that took down Nixon?

Eric Schultz:

There’s a funny rule of thumb in Washington, the only thing worse than not engaging Bob Woodward when working on a book is engaging Bob Woodward when he’s working on a book.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, I guess President Trump’s about to find that out. Because there was fear where they didn’t engage and now there’s rage where they have engaged

Eric Schultz:

Look, I don’t want to comment on their strategy. We had plenty of critical books written about President Obama and sometimes they are hard to navigate. Reporters are not novices, they know how to start from the outside, people who might be less informed and work their way up. And so we had to navigate plenty of books, plenty of them were not particularly complimentary about President Obama.

Eric Schultz:

I think Woodward is obviously one of the legendary journalists of our time, but given the track record of this White House in contravening their own comments, that he was very shrewd to get tapes.

Misha Zelinsky:

Indeed. Now switching up to, we are I’m not sure how many days out, not a great number of days out, probably 50 days out from the election. What’s your take on this years election? What can we expect? This is probably going to be a wild ride. I mean, clearly most of us in the game, and I’ve said this on this podcast before, I was horrendously wrong on 2016 and the outcome. What’s your take on it thus far on the matchup between former Vice President Biden and President Trump?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, your caveats well taken. I think we were all tremendously wrong about 2016, so take that for what it’s worth, audience. But look, I think President Trump has tremendous advantages on his side, but he’s got a lot of crosswinds too. Our country’s suffering from a health pandemic that in many other corners of the world has been much better managed and other racial injustice challenges that he has not calmed but rather has stoked and an economy that is in a really challenging spot. And so it’s up to Vice President Biden to make the case that he can get us to a better path. I think that a lot of the data suggests that people are clamoring for precisely Vice President Biden’s message of unifying the country and bringing us together and restoring basic competency back to the administration.

Eric Schultz:

And so I think you’re right, I think it’s going to be a dog fight for the next 50 days. Both of our conventions, the Republican and Democratic Conventions, are now over. And so obviously Vice President Biden has selected his running mate, so the next three big moments for our domestic political calendar are the three debates. And so President Trump and Vice President Biden will face off in three debates. The first one is at the end of September, and then the two others are in October. And so those will be big moments that get a lot of attention.

Eric Schultz:

But other than that, there’s just a lot of back and forth between the two camps. But I think that clearly in our primary process and now in our general election there is a yearning for a return to steady, strong, capable leadership. The type of vision that people associate with Vice President Biden. Vice President Biden’s been around for a long time. He obviously was President Obama’s Vice President for eight years, but before that served in the senate for a while and he’s a known commodity. People know his story, they respect him, they know that he’s a good, decent public servant, in it for the right reasons.

Eric Schultz:

Like a lot of voters in Australia people aren’t necessarily digging into the white papers and all the policy sheets, but they’re going to vote based on their values and if they feel that Vice President Biden animates them and is consistent with the character and principle of what they want to see in the White House. And I think he’s going to win.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you’re a messaging guy, you work for one of the most legendary presidents who ran on a positive message, a hope message, and you’ve got a president now who very much prosecutes the antithesis of that. It’s a fear message. In this election now, does hope beat fear or does fear beat hope? Because both candidates are painting very different, you look at the way the conventions went, they’re painting very different… Your point about competency I think is well-made. I think people certainly are yearning for that. But how do you see that messaging battle playing out? And which one typically wins in your assessment?

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, it’s a great question and since I still work for President Obama I’m going to be an optimist.

Misha Zelinsky:

I wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Our country’s going through a very painful time and there is protest, there is unrest, there’s unimaginable death and pain and sickness and illness, and there’s job loss, there’s rising poverty. And I think that people really are hungry for a better path and I think that Vice President Biden has been very precise in how he’s presented his alternative to the current scenario and that if people want to go back to a basic approach where government is on your side and just trying to make things better, we don’t have all the solutions and we’re not going to be able to snap our fingers to get out of this, but that we return to a government that respects the rule of law, respects the freedom of the press, respects scientists, respects democratic institutions.

Eric Schultz:

I think that is why the Vice President gained traction in the primary and that’s why I think he’s doing well right now. I don’t think that people want more of the same chaos and division and fear that President Trump stokes and that’s why I’m optimistic.

Misha Zelinsky:

You mentioned you’re still working for President Obama, so noting that you’re still on the payroll we might have to discount this answer slightly, I thought maybe you might just give us a sense, a lot of us we watch people on TV, you make an assessment of what sort of person they are. I think current president you get a pretty good sense of what sort of person he is. I always thought as well with President Obama that he would be very similar to the way he presented in public, in long form interviews et cetera, he seemed like, frankly, a pretty cool guy. Can you maybe give us… And I’m sure he’s listening to this and so obviously you’ll need to catch your remarks, mate. But maybe if you could just give us a little bit of insight there if you mind.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, the bummer is you’re right, I am still on the payroll so I get paid to say this, but it is the truth. Which is the guy you have seen on the world stage for the past 10 or 12 years is the guy I talk to in person. He’s as worldly and as smart as you’d think, but just as down to earth as you’d hope. And I don’t think that’s an accident. In other words, I think that we now live in a media environment that you have a real intimacy with your public officials. This isn’t a time where politics are happening distantly and you watch the news at 6:30 at night and get a report. You are constantly in their space, they are in your space.

Eric Schultz:

And the reason why President Obama was so successful and effective is because there was an authenticity to him and that voters have a really good whiff that if you’re being fake that’s a red flag. And I think that is a newer phenomenon that you could sort of get away with a façade or a public persona that’s different than who you are personally. But I don’t know that works anymore. And so I think that that’s largely one of the reasons why he’s been so successful is he is who he is.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, I think that’s a really good point. It’s very difficult to survive the glare of so many cameras and social media and the consistent cut through. Now, you talked about things being as they are, you’re the consultant on the hit TV show Designated Survivor-

Eric Schultz:

Yes!

Misha Zelinsky:

[crosstalk 00:37:13] your comments you talked about the fact that Hollywood’s portrayal of the White House is not what it’s like to work there in terms of its salubriousness or otherwise. Maybe you could just quickly give us a rundown of that, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I worked on the show Designated Survivor for the third season, Netflix rebooted it, and it was a blast to work on. It was an experience for me because you had a bunch of writers out in Los Angeles who have never, I mean I’m sure some of them have been to Washington, but none of them had worked in government and most of them had not been inside the White House. So they’re writing 60 minutes worth of content about a setting and environment they’d never been in.

Eric Schultz:

And so it was a great opportunity for me to walk them through what’s realistic inside the White House. And again, not all of my suggestions were taken, but it was a fun moment to connect what they wanted their Hollywood storyline to still have some realism. And yeah, the pictures of the situation room that people hear a lot about are much more glamorous than what they actually are, which is sort of a couple of cavernous conference rooms with some wall clocks and TV screens that have telecommunications capabilities.

Misha Zelinsky:

Careful, mate, Putin might be listening. You don’t want to give the game away.

Eric Schultz:

Yeah, I know. I know, I know. One of the storylines that the writers did like was we had problems with mice pretty frequently and in order to address the problem with mice it wasn’t just one phone call, it was sort of a bureaucratic process of our general services administration and who can call who and get what apparatus over the building to address the very acute problem that there’s rodents at my feet. So as writers they had fun with that. But yeah, I think that how Hollywood portrays Washington, it’s obviously fun entertainment, but I do think this is how a lot of people get their information and a lot of people’s understanding of government, the White House, how Washington works, is often derived from popular culture.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, there’s one final question before you go now. Typically, because we’re a heavy foreign policy show, it’s very difficult to get in anything approaching a non-clumsy segue, but we are talking about mice and rodents in the White House so it’s a little bit easier to switch up to barbecues at Eric’s place. Now, you are an American guest so you have to have three Australians. We’ve already mentioned Steve Irwin so he’s out, but three Aussies to barbecue at Eric’s and why?

Eric Schultz:

I know, so I was planning to do a lot of homework to research this question of authors, civic leaders, Aussies who have been impressive on the world stage. I did none of that homework. One of my dreams is to come to the Australian Open so I was looking at Australian tennis players, I was really trying to roll up my sleeves and get you good guidance. But I think I’m just going to fall back on the answers I’m sure all of your American guests give you of Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, and Hugh Jackman.

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

What’s that?

Misha Zelinsky:

They’re your three?

Eric Schultz:

I think they’re going to be my three. I don’t know if the show-

Misha Zelinsky:

I don’t know if they’re friends. We should probably check that, but I guess they are. I don’t know. There might be some-

Eric Schultz:

That would be very convenient. Yeah, exactly. I want to make this easy for them.

Misha Zelinsky:

They all can come in the same car. I don’t know if Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman get along, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a rivalry between them.

Eric Schultz:

Well, they were both in Les Misérables together, the film of that. So I’m happy to web diagram the connections.

Misha Zelinsky:

I’ll give you these, even though Russell Crowe strictly speaking is a New Zealander.

Eric Schultz:

Oh, shoot.

Misha Zelinsky:

But that’s fine, mate.

Eric Schultz:

I’ve never met him. But from what I know from his reputation I’m not surprised you want to distance yourself from him.

Misha Zelinsky:

As I always say, we have a very popular trope in Australia where all New Zealanders who are successful on the world stage become Australians, so he was gratefully adopted, but when he gets into trouble he became New Zealander, Russell Crowe. But he’s a very popular guy in Australia, owns a football team, seems like a good bloke to have a beer with. So he’d be a good guy to have at a barbecue.

Misha Zelinsky:

Anyway, look, Eric, thanks so much for coming on the show. It’s been a fantastic chat and I really appreciate your time, mate.

Eric Schultz:

Of course. Great to be here.

 

Richard Marles: Going Big – Navigating Australia’s foreign policy in a post COVID-19 world.

Richard Marles is the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Labor’s Shadow Minister for Defence. 

Misha Zelinsky caught up with Richard for a chinwag about how COVID-19 has accelerated history’s timeline, the rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific, why the US is still a force for a good, how Australia’s record defence procurement program can rebuild our manufacturing sector, the choices facing Australia as it seeks to carve out an independent foreign policy,  why sovereign capability is the new black, how Australia must do more with its key pacific partners, and why – in order to figure out our place in the world – Australia must play big.

 

Misha Zelinsky:

All right, Richard Marles, welcome to Diplomates. Thanks for joining us.

Richard Marles:

It’s great to be here, Misha. Looking forward to it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, look. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to start any conversation these days without the C-word. COVID-19, now. This is a foreign policy podcast. You’re obviously Labor’s defence shadow. To your mind, what do you think is the single biggest … ? So many changes have come from COVID-19, but what do you think is the biggest single foreign policy challenge that’s come from the crisis?

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good question. I suppose what I think is ultimately, I think it’s an accelerant if I was to identify anything. I think that the sort of trends that we had seen out there probably go faster, but part of the world we’re in was one that was much more difficult to predict and obviously challenging for Australia. We use lines like this was the most challenging set of strategic circumstances that we had faced since the second World War, and we were saying that before COVID-19 took hold.

Richard Marles:

I think this has made that much more so. Kind of multiple times so, and so the breadth of possibilities for us and the unknowns for us, all of those, are much bigger, and ultimately where you get to is not being able to answer more questions about COVID-19 means, but you do realize these are really challenging strategic circumstances for us as a nation, and so the need for us to be able to take care of ourselves has probably never been as important, or as important as the second World War.

Misha Zelinsky:

I think that’s right, and certainly you can feel the way that things, the compression of history, and the pulling forward of things.

Richard Marles:

That’s a really good term.

Misha Zelinsky:

One of the things you just mentioned is looking after ourselves, now. I think a lot of Australians were shocked by some of the shortages that we saw in terms of PPE, health and safety equipment. Sovereign capability’s now become a bit of a new theme. Something that I’m very interested in. But given the exposure to just in time supply chains, and given the sense now that we don’t necessarily produce enough of the things that we need, in a defence context, what are the must haves for Australia? What are the things that we really need to produce here, to your mind?

Richard Marles:

Again, this is a really good example of where it’s changed thinking, or perhaps really clarified thinking. If you’d said to me back this time last year that the making of surgical masks was a thing that was essential to Australian security, I would’ve laughed, and yet earlier this year we had members of the Australian Army at a factory in Sheffield, I think, helping to churn out masks because we didn’t have enough of them.

Richard Marles:

If something as kind of simple, really, as a surgical mask, can be seen or become central to our own security, then what else? And it raises a whole lot of questions about that. From a defence point of view, I think the traditional answer to this question is that in an environment where the kind of platforms that you are part of are incredibly complex, and you take the joint strike fighter as an example. This is a fighter plane which has been made in and by numerous countries, and there are absolutely global supply chains in place there, the notion that going back to the second World War where we saw the making of fighter aircraft as part of our sovereign capability, that’s kind of not going to be the case now, but where people have got to in their thinking now is we at least may be able to maintain and sustain the platforms that we use here in Australia.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly that. I think, though, there does need to be something of an audit of all the defence capabilities that we have, inputs that we have, and then over and above that traditional setting we clearly do need to be able to sustain and maintain the equipment that we use, but our best certain things in addition to that or as part of that that are absolutely critical. And I’d have to format some of that, but I think a much broader assessment of what’s in that basket, we will come to see as being what defines sovereign capability going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

Obviously there’s the what of sovereign capability, i.e. the things that you get. What are the things that we need to have here, what are the things we need to store? But in terms of, also, the wear, the Henry Jackson Society did a study which showed that of the Five Isles nations that Australia was most exposed of all nations to the Chinese Communist Party in terms of key production areas. They identified 535 areas including 30 that were critical to future economic innovations. Should we care about the regime that supplies the goods as well as the goods themselves?

Richard Marles:

That’s a good question. Answered not specifically in relation to China but in the abstract, of course we need to be thinking about the places from which we import material and the places that we in effect do business with, and historically that’s been the case, and we do that. We do that right now. We would say, in relation to Iran and North Korea for example, that our ability to do business with those countries is significantly curtailed. In that spectrum, where’s China fit? I mean, we’re not … in a defence context, obviously, there’s not a lot of interaction in terms of defence supply chains, and I can understand that.

Richard Marles:

I think it is important, while China raises a whole lot of challenges in terms of Australia, it is a country with whom we’ve had a relationship for going back to the Wippen government. I don’t put China in the same category as countries like Iran or North Korea. I certainly don’t put China in the same category as the Soviet Union. I don’t think that’s who we’re talking about, and I think that the economic relationship that we have with China is appropriate. Now, in saying that, we want to make sure as a country that we have a diverse set of trading relationships around the world.

Richard Marles:

That’s just prudent. It’s, in a sense, the equivalent of having a balanced financial portfolio. We need to have a diverse set of trading relationships, and particularly as a country which is reliant on trade. But I do think that we have had an ongoing trading relationship with China, I think that is fair enough, and I’m comfortable with that going forward.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of, you talked about the speeding up of history, so to speak, and a contested Indo-Pacific is something that is going to be an inevitable feature of Australia’s foreign policy settings now. In terms of defence procurement and new kit, Australia, we’ve made this sort of commitment, I think it’s a bipartisan commitment, to 2% of GDP, which is around give or take 40 billion a year. Do you think given the challenges that we’re seeing and the speed of which this is going, is it enough in terms of a broad commitment?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s important that we determine our spending in relation to defence based on the strategic challenges that we face. That’s kind of, when you think about it, a matter of logic. If a country’s strategic circumstances are very predictable and certain, and it can’t get away without spending a lot, countries which find themselves in a precarious position spend more, but the rational act here is to be spending in proportion to what our strategic circumstances dictate, and I said, too, earlier, that what I know is they’ve become a whole lot more complicated rather than more simple as a result of COVID, but even prior to COVID they were as complex as they’ve been for a long time.

Richard Marles:

That’s got to be the guide in terms of what we’re doing. The second point is that, whilst 2% of GDP is a good benchmark, I do think that ultimately what’s important in terms of defence spending is that you have an absolute amount. In other words, that it’s not a functional GDP, because you need certainty in relation to programs over a very long period of time, which, if spending kind of fluctuates as a function of how GDP fluctuates, it’s going to make it hard to deliver those programs.

Richard Marles:

You look at submarines for example. This is a program which is going to be delivered over decades. There needs to be a predictable funding stream over that period of time, so I guess I make that point in the context where we’re in a recession for the first time in the better part of 30 years. If you measure defence spending as a proportion of GDP, that has implications there, and I think we need to be mindful of that, and the final point I make is that it’s really important that our defence force is dense, by which I mean there is a risk in having a wholeness about your defence force if you don’t have the wherewithal to ultimately use the critical platforms that you have.

Richard Marles:

We are purchasing, and I think appropriately so, some pretty significant platforms in terms of the naval ship building program, but also Lam400 and we mentioned earlier the joint strike fighter. Across the three services, you’re seeing an appropriate modernization of equipment, but it’s really important that we have the brunt behind that to make sure that we can use all of those, that we’ve got enough people, for example, that if we have the better part of 100 fighter planes we can use 100 fighter planes. If you’ve got 100 fighter planes, but you’ve only got the personnel to actually, effectively, operate a small part of that, then you don’t have 100 fighter planes because you can’t use them.

Richard Marles:

That’s what I mean in terms of there being, we’ve got to guard against the highness in the way in which we have a defence force, and a number of serious observers have made that observation about where we’re at at the moment, so we need to make sure that in terms of our spending we’re the opposite of that, which is why I say we need to have an ADF which is robust and dense, the opposite of being hollow, and I think that’s a very important thought in terms of how we set our budget. Ultimately, we face a really challenging world.

Richard Marles:

We face a challenging world where we have an assertive China, which is doing what great powers do, so I don’t really even say this with judgment. China is seeking to shape the world around it, but that does raise challenges for us, and our alliance with the United States is profoundly important and I think is as important as it has ever been going forward, and from where I sit, the more we have America engaged in East Asia, the better, but it’s also true to say that we have an American president who would regard unpredictability as being a virtue, and I can understand that, but it makes life difficult for allies.

Richard Marles:

And so I think with all, you put those things together, and what that means is we’ve got to make sure we’re in a position to be able to look after ourselves and that’s why our defence spending at this moment in time really matters.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and I want to dig into the questions about US-China relations and what it means for Australian policy, but before we get off procurement, getting the amount of money that we’re spending on new kit, they’re big programs we’re talking about here, can we do more? In terms of innovation policy, what’s the role that the defence procurement program can play in sort of driving Australia up the innovation chain? And how can we make it to make a more complex Australian economy in terms of its manufacturing and innovation capability?

Richard Marles:

Defence industry, I think, plays a really important role there, and has done with a number of countries. If you have a place like Israel, they will say that so much of their being a country where innovation is very central to their economic character that at the heart of that is defence industry, and the kind of innovation that you see in defence industry, and partly that’s because defence equipment is about as high tech equipment as you get. It is literally at the very cutting edge of innovation and science, so if you’re in the business of making high end defence capability, then what you are is in the defence of making high end manufactured product, and for a first world nation that’s central to the ability to engage in manufacturing.

Richard Marles:

Successful first world economies that have export manufacturing as part of their economy do so at the highest end of the value chain, and defence industry can play an important role in getting you there. Having said that, it’s important that we understand how you get defence industry. When you look at countries that do it, they didn’t start off doing it because they thought, “Well, if we do a defence industry, that will lead the rest of the economy.” They’ve done it because they’ve had a strategic reason to be engaged in it.

Richard Marles:

Israel is a very obvious example, given the threats that have surrounded it for most of its existence, but you can take a country like Sweden which has a really strong defence-industrial base through a company like Saab, and at the heart of that is strategic decisions as well. Sweden was not a part of NATO, was really right there next to the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, and so needed to be in a position where it was able to look after itself, and needed to have a capacity to do defence manufacturing within its borders.

Richard Marles:

If Sweden hadn’t been a part of NATO, I’m not sure, for example, that Saab would exist in quite the way that it exists today, so strategic circumstances and strategic decisions that countries make which end up leading to successful defence industries, and then the benefit that can have for the general economy becomes a spinoff. One of my criticisms about where the government is at is that thinking through the ecosystem of defence industry hasn’t been their strong suit, and so there’s never really been a proper strategic rationale which has been put forward by the government for why we would have a defence industry.

Richard Marles:

There has been, I think most observers would say, that this government, having seen the car industry leave our shores on its watch, was looking for some answer to industry policy, and so has leapt upon defence industry as a proxy for a general industry policy. Well, okay, if that’s what they’ve done, is there an example anywhere in the world where that’s worked? And I think there is one. Strong defence industries come about through a strategic decision about having them in the first place.

Richard Marles:

I actually think there is a strategic rationale for us having a defence industry but you just never hear this government seem to articulate it. I think at the heart of what would be a strategic purpose for us having a defence industry is the fact that defence exports and defence partnerships around industry really go to a core of a nation’s interests and trusts. If you think of the situation we’re now in with France, with the building of our submarines, that has dramatically changed and upgraded our bilateral relationship.

Richard Marles:

France now is critically important as a bilateral partner to us as a nation because they’re involved in the building of our submarines. Well, actually, there’s the opportunity for us, in terms of the way in which we engage in defence industry, to start partnering with a whole lot of countries within our region, and if we did that I think defence industry could play a really important role in helping Australia be taken more seriously within the region and within the world, and that’s really important for us for a whole range of reasons, in terms of our shaping our strategic circumstances, and putting us in a much better position.

Richard Marles:

And I think defence industry, we can do it, and can play a really important role there, but you need to actually make that argument. And it’s not just that you need to make the argument to the Australian people. I think you need to make that argument to the defence establishment, and I frankly think this government haven’t even thought about the argument let alone made it, and so as a result you’re kind of seeing all of the hoopla that surrounded their claims around defence industry when Christopher Pine was defence industry minister, and in defence that’s all just gone by the wayside now. There is just a barren silence, and there is a real question about whether defence industry is actually made to, by this government, now, or not.

Misha Zelinsky:

Turning to US-China relations, at the moment it just seems a day doesn’t go past without some kind of an escalation between both sides, and certainly rhetoric, and also in diplomatic action, and Australia has likewise found itself in a similar situation. How should Australia handle these increasingly tense relationships between the Chinese Communist Party and the principal trading relationship on one hand, and as you said our absolute critical security alliance that’s our longstanding relationship there? How do we navigate and triangulate this, or can we?

Richard Marles:

Well, look, it’s a really good question. I suppose the starting point is I think the world feels a lot safer and more secure and more predictable when China and America are talking with each other, so it’s in our interest that that relationship be as best as it can be, and if it’s in our interests for the relationship between America and China to be in the best possible shape, then it actually stands to reason that it’s in our interests for our own relationship with China to be in the best possible shape, and so we do need to think about that, and that actually requires the adults in the room when it comes to this government playing a part in determining Australian foreign policy, and right now the adults, such as they are, I think are pretty silent.

Richard Marles:

We don’t hear a lot from our foreign ministry about a pretty fundamental issue in terms of our relationship with China. We don’t hear that much from our prime minister, to be honest, either, and the space tends to get filled by all the fringe developments on the part of our government ranks, and I don’t think that helps, and I think the second point is we need to have a kind of underlying philosophy. What are the guiding principles that we seek to put in place in terms of our relationship with China?

Richard Marles:

The guiding principles in terms of our relationship with the United States are clear. They’re our alliance partner. We have shared values, and we often use that phrase. That really means we’re both democracies, we both respect the rule of law at home, but importantly we both seek to create a global rules based to order, and we’ve been parties in seeking to do that really since the aftermath of the second World War, and we see that global rules based order where issues and contest is determined by rules rather than power as being central to a stable and prosperous global environment, which really is the way you would characterize the environment in East Asia for most of the period since the second World War, with the obvious kind of exceptions of the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

Richard Marles:

But those aside, we have seen a high degree of stability in that period, which has allowed East Asia to be a part of the world which has been an economic powerhouse, and that’s been of enormous advantage to Australia. But they are the shared values, and so what we’re about in our relationship with the United States is clear. What is the guiding principle behind our relationship with China? What are we trying to do here? And so I think the first thing is we don’t really ever get an answer to that question from this government. I think getting a government minister to try and have a crack at even answering that, you’d be hard pressed, and so often it feels to me like what you get is you get to irreconcilable propositions, or two propositions which they don’t seek to reconcile is perhaps the way to put it.

Richard Marles:

Yes, China’s a great country to deal with. On the other hand, China creates anxiety as the government would describe it. I would say that that’s not particularly helpful in terms of having a way forward. For me, and it’s just my view, but what I think matters is the theories of view, but my view, I think the starting point is in our relationship with China that actually we make clear we’re in alliance with the United States, and that that is fundamental to our worldview and to our national security, but from the place of being in an alliance with the United States, we value the relationship with China and we seek to build the best relationship that we can.

Richard Marles:

One which is robust enough that we’re able to express our national interests when that differs from Chinese action. One where we can raise questions of human rights but we do so in a manner which also acknowledges human rights achievements, and there are human rights achievements in China which we should acknowledge. It is important to speak on behalf of the Uyghurs, for example. It’s also important, if we’re being fair, to acknowledge that China is responsible for the single biggest delineation out of poverty in human history. It’s important to say both sides of that equation.

Richard Marles:

And we also need to submit ourselves to judgment. Part of the global order is that, and what we seek to do since the second World War with something like the human rights commission, is to place stock in the international community’s judgment of individual countries, and that means we’re not immune from that judgment. In a sense, we come to this with humility, but we will participate in judgment, and it’s important that we do that, and from that place we do seek to do all of those things but build the relationship and trade is the critical part of that.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that can be done, but it does actually require articulating some kind of underlying set of principles which both try to do, and then it requires doing decent diplomacy. I mean, there needs to be personal relationships between senior figures in the Australian government and senior figures in the Chinese government. I don’t actually think there is one. I mean, I literally don’t think there is a single relationship that exists between a senior member of this government and a member of the Chinese government. I find that astonishing, and I find it astonishing in the context of how significant the relationship is, both in terms of its challenges and its opportunities, for our nation.

Richard Marles:

It’s certainly under previous governments there were personal relationships which were able to mediate the difficult moments, but right now there is just nothing, and I think that’s a real issue. I think we’ve got to do our foreign relations with the nation a whole lot better. I think we’ve got to have a set of guiding principles. I think we’ve got to do our diplomacy well. This isn’t rocket science; this is just saying we’ve got to actually do foreign policy like a grownup nation that we should be, and I think that would go a long way to helping us navigate what is the difficult terrain.

Misha Zelinsky:

I mean, it goes without saying that currently, we’re not in the good books of the Chinese Communist Party, and you talked a lot about striking the balance there. The business community basically goes into a tizz every time the relationships gets into any choppy water, saying essentially we should just acquiesce for the benefit of letting the good times roll on. In terms of the decisions that sort of earn the ire, if you look at foreign interference laws, if you look at decisions relating to Huawei and 5G, if you look around calling out of misinformation, if you look at South China Sea in terms of the adherence to international law, perhaps even more recently around Hong Kong although we tend to not really talk a great deal to be honest about domestic affairs in China as a country.

Misha Zelinsky:

Which of these things would you say that we’ve got it wrong on? Because an issue is approached, we’ve taken a decision, and it’s a sovereign decision of Australia which has seemed to earn the ire of the Chinese Community Party, so it’s very difficult to understand how you can navigate it in a way that protects sovereignty without stirring them up in that sense.

Richard Marles:

I guess the answer to that question is what I’ve given. I don’t think we’re doing our diplomacy very well. I don’t think we’ve got those relationships in place.

Misha Zelinsky:

But do you think you can make those decisions, but do them in a way that doesn’t, I suppose, upset the Chinese in the same way? Or … ?

Richard Marles:

I think you can build balance in a relationship so that there’s at least a chance that you can move forward in a context where we exercise our own voice. Now, let me be clear. It’s really important that we exercise our own voice. That is not something that can be compromised, but it needs to be the voice of the nation, and that’s what I’ve said before. We have a significant interest in the South China Sea. Most of our trade goes through the South China Sea. The UN convention on the law of the sea, which if you like is the rules of the road for that part of the world, for the high seas which includes that part of the world, is fundamentally important to us as an island trading nation.

Richard Marles:

And so we need to be able to exercise our voice in respect of our national interests when it comes to what’s going on in the high seas around the world, and in asserting the UN convention on the law of sea, specifically in the South China Sea. We must do that. As I said earlier, I think as a nation which seeks to contribute to a civilized world, it’s important that we are exercising our voice in relation to human rights issues such as Uyghurs, noting that we need to do it in a way where we submit ourselves to the same judgment, and where we acknowledge other treatments.

Richard Marles:

But that architecture only works if countries are willing to speak out on behalf of people around the world who it seems as being the subject of difficulty, and that certainly would understate for what was going on for the Uighur population in China. We need to be able to do those things and they’re not matters on which you should compromise. Having said that, we’ve seen government members write articles which use ham fisted analogies between China and the rise of Nazi Germany. Well, I mean, I don’t think that’s helpful at all. I don’t remotely think that that’s what China is.

Richard Marles:

And then I can understand why China gets upset about it. You have George Christians en up here using astonishing language in the context of COVID-19, which is not helping, and we don’t have a foreign minister or a prime minister who is articulating a clear voice on behalf of the nation in respect of what we need to be saying in terms of our national interests, what we should be saying in respect of China, while these voices are going on, and so they occupy the space in a way that those things are gratuitous, and I don’t think it is possible to defend those sorts of comments, and we’re talking about a relationship which matters deeply which is the basis on which a whole lot of people in Australia is employed, and that is a reasonable thing to be thinking about as well.

Richard Marles:

And then underlying all of that is a complete absence of any personal relationships which can help navigate through difficult waters. There are going to be difficult waters with China. China does raise challenges. No one’s suggesting that it doesn’t, and it is really important that we’re able to exercise our national voice in respect of those challenges. All the more reason, then, to get our diplomacy right, and to be doing it in a more smart way. Now, it is possible that we could have the best diplomacy in place, the best personal relationships that exist, but the need to say these things means that China would still act in the same way.

Richard Marles:

But wouldn’t it be nice to try that experiment? To actually see how it would go if we did diplomacy well. And I frankly think on a governmental level, I should say, I don’t think that this government is actually doing it, and let me also just be a little bit clear in terms of clarifying this. I think our professional diplomats do an excellent job, and I think our professional diplomats in Beijing do an excellent job, and I know a number of them, and they’re very highly regarded.

Richard Marles:

But at the end of the day, at a political level, you need critical relationships with countries that are critical to us, and right now this government has been an abject failure, really, in developing those relationships, and I’m not sure why anyone would think that that’s a good thing.

Misha Zelinsky:

Now, you talked about doing diplomacy well, so turning to the other side of the coin, President Trump, the US has become somewhat more of a capricious actor under Trump and has more of a go it alone, it’s even been actively hostile, to be honest, to alliances, or even multilateral institutions. What’s the implications for a middle power like Australia, and how can we shore up some of these things? For example, would you support Australia joining an expanded G7, something like a G10 with South Korea and other countries joining? Do you see a way that Australia can play a balancing role against US capriciousness, in that sense?

Richard Marles:

Well, I’d be careful about using that tone in respect to the US. I mean, firstly, I still fundamentally believe that the US is a force for enormous good within the world, and I think that our relationship with the United States, which has been there for a long time, is very deep. It is not just with one person and never has been. It’s at a commercial level, at a military level, at a scientific level, at a cultural level. It is very deep, and that depth is really important right now, and actually that relationship has been and in many ways continues to be highly predictable. I think the one thing with President Trump, as I said earlier, is he would see his own unpredictability as a virtue.

Richard Marles:

And I think that that makes life challenging for an ally. We would obviously prefer to have a more predictable line of sight about what the president’s actions are going to be, but that’s not who he is and so that’s just where it’s at, but I think it is really important that we understand, that we not completely judge America by one person. I mean, the president is clearly relevant, highly relevant, to the running of America, but America is a big place and it’s a very deep relationship and it’s a relationship that will be in place, say, five years from now, irrespective of who wins the presidential election this year.

Richard Marles:

But in a world post-Donald Trump, whenever that world is, we will still be in a very strong alliance with the United States, and they still maintain all the core values that we hold, and I think that’s really important in terms of how we view our relationship with America going forward. I think it’s about putting it all in context and understanding that, and I still come back to the point

Richard Marles:

I think what we need to be doing is making sure that we are able to take care of ourselves to the extent that we can, that we need to have more of an eye on that, and perhaps the other thing is that we need to contribute to the burden of strategic thought within our region. We need not just to be a dependable, solid ally, but a country which has ideas and views about our region which actually I think America is hungry to receive for us.

Richard Marles:

I think sometimes we underplay what we can contribute in that sense. It’s probably all a long way of saying I think now’s the time for Australian leadership, and I think leadership within our region, but leadership within the alliance as well, and I think that’s probably the best way of making sure that we keep the alliance in the best possible shape at this moment in time.

Misha Zelinsky:

In terms of Australian leadership, then, do you think that we should seek a seat at the table at some of these major diplomatic groupings? Obviously, under Rudd, Labor was very set true in creating the G20 for the GFC response which is still an important institution, but should we be seeking to deepen and expand our influence in things like an expanded G7 or something like that?

Richard Marles:

I think the more tables we’re at, the better, to be honest, and I think that would obviously be a fantastic opportunity for Australia were that to eventuate, and the G20 is a really important forum for Australia, and Australia helping to shape, for example, the East Asian Summit, is really important. Australia’s pivotal role back during the Horton Keen governments in the creation of APEC is important.

Richard Marles:

I think these are important bodies for us to be a part of, and I think the reasoning goes a bit like this. We have a real premium on being taken seriously. That might seem like an obvious and trite thing to say, but it really stems from the fact that, along with New Zealand, our two countries have pretty unique sets of strategic circumstances. Yes, we’re in an alliance with the United States, but that’s a country much bigger than our own with a capital on the Atlantic Sea board, and how in the northern hemisphere, and how they see the world is very different to the way we see it as a country of 25 million people in the southern hemisphere in the East Asian timezone.

Richard Marles:

We’re not part of, to use a Labor party analogy, in a sense, we’re not part of a faction. We’re not a European country in the European Union. We’re not an African country in the African Union. We have to navigate our way, in a large part, on our own, and that means we actually need to play bigger rather than smaller when it comes to foreign policy because we have to figure this stuff out for ourselves. Sharing the burden of strategic thought about our circumstances, we can do it with New Zealand, but beyond New Zealand and ourselves we really need to be figuring this out for ourselves, and that means we need to play big.

Richard Marles:

Play big is not just about a kind of misplaced sense of the extent to which we can shape the world. It’s actually about so that we learn. Being at these tables helps us to learn and to understand the way the world works, and we have a premium on that more than most, and if we’re going to be able to navigate our own way through, then actually we’ve got to be out there being in these forums, understanding the way the world’s going to work so that we can part our path because there’s not really going to be anybody else getting us there. Now, that’s actually very different to being a European nation, which can talk to other European nations, or as I said, an African nation which can share notes with those other countries in the African Union.

Richard Marles:

We’ve really got to work this stuff out for ourselves, so in many ways I’ll often say that we’ve got a bigger premium on playing big and on being taken seriously than almost any other country in the world, and I genuinely think that’s right, and so being present in these places, making sure that we are there at the G20, I think taking our place on the UN security council periodically; these are really important things for us to do because they help us understand how the world’s working, and we really need to understand it.

Misha Zelinsky:

Yeah, and so we’ve talked a lot about, I suppose, Indo-Pacific, East Asia, Southeast Asia, but drawing it right down to our backyard, our real backyard, and I know you’re someone who talks a lot about this, but the Pacific. You know, I mean, to put it bluntly, we’ve had the step up here from the government, but it somewhere we’ve dropped the ball, because China’s now actively contesting the region. It’s traditionally an area where it’s been Australia’s domain in terms of its diplomatic relationships. Do you think we have dropped the ball here, and are we doing enough?

Richard Marles:

I think over the journey it’s been as big a blind spot in terms of our strategic framework, in terms of our national security, as any. I welcome the step up, but the step up needs to be more than rhetoric. It’s got to be real and it’s got to be noticed by countries in the Pacific, and it’s got to be reflected in a fairly changed attitude from people in Australia. A point I’ve made a number of times is there’s 10 countries in the world who would probably identify their critical, number one bilateral relationship as not being with the United States or not being with China but with us, but go out there and ask anyone to name the 10 countries.

Richard Marles:

And it’s just something about our kind of psyche. You would think if you’re a practitioner in this space you would realize countries off in an instant, because the countries which see us as being completely central to their world necessarily has to define a space in which we is important as any, and yet by and large we tend not to think about this nearly enough in the way that we should. There is huge opportunity, I think, for us to play better and more impactfully within the Pacific in a way which will change positively the lives of those who live in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

But we’ve really got to commit to that, and we can’t do this on the basis of being worried about what others might do in the Pacific in the sense that, if our reason for engaging with the Pacific is because of what someone else might do, then we’re getting it wrong in the start. Our call to action in the Pacific, I think, should be really clear. The millennium development goals, which were a relative measure of progress around a range of social indicators between the years 2000 and 2015, had the Pacific performing worse than any region on the planet.

Richard Marles:

Now, I actually think that has something to do with us, that that is, as you say, the region most proximate to us. It’s the part of the world where we can make the most difference. What that says is that, at a point in time, if we don’t change that trajectory, then the pacific will end up the least developed part of the globe, and that’s patently unacceptable. That will be reflected in maternal mortality rates, in short life expectancy, in low education, and a rage of other social indicators.

Richard Marles:

That would be the clearing call. We ought to be listening to that and saying that’s not acceptable in a part of the world where we have an ability to have a big impact, and so let’s really unpack the issues around that and try and affect meaningful change in relation to that, and that’s the way we will become the natural partner of choice for the countries of the pacific, by demonstrating to them that central to our interest is not any other country, but them. But that does require us to, I think, have a significant sea change in the way that we think about this, and ultimately that goes to who we are as a people.

Richard Marles:

That becomes a statement about how we see the significance of Australia as a polity in the world, positively impacting the world, and so I feel that Australian leadership, which is so central in terms of helping shape our strategic circumstances on the big questions that we’ve been talking about, the relationship with the United States, the challenges that are posed by China. Australian leadership is critical in terms of, as best we can, shape those strategic circumstances, but that Australian leadership in my view begins in the Pacific. That’s where we find it, and so it really does require us to think very deeply about it, and I do think there has been more attention in relation to the Pacific over the last couple years, but I don’t think nearly enough to turn around what I think has been a blind spot for this country for a long time.

Misha Zelinsky:

You spoke in a very positive context there, but I mean, there is a flip side there where there’s some systems competition underway. How concerned are you about things like debt book diplomacy, and China seeking to basically rope in the Pacific nations into the BRI program, and the prospect there of critical assets falling into control potentially of a more assertive China? Is that something we should be worried about? You know, there was a talk about Vanuatu potentially being a base for Chinese military assets. How worried should we be about that kind of sort of hard projection of power into our region?

Richard Marles:

I think it’s in Australia’s national interest for us to be the natural partner of choice for the countries of the Pacific. I think that’s the point here, and I think we get there by focusing on the countries of the pacific themselves, and I think if we get worried about what other countries are doing, and certainly if we start lecturing the Pacific about who they can have relationships with, then we’re not on a pathway to success here. Success lies in us focusing on the relationship that we have with the Pacific and getting it right, and that at its heart is about making sure that we place the interests and the fortunes of the people of the Pacific at the center of what we seek to be doing in the Pacific.

Richard Marles:

Now, we can do all that, and we are in a position where we can be a natural partner of choice, and I feel very confident about that, but I also don’t think that that’s inevitable. I don’t think that that happens by us just being here, and I think it does in large measure define circumstances at the moment but I don’t think it necessarily always will, but I think it’s within our power if we get our relationship right with the Pacific to make sure that that is the enduring characterization of our relationship to the Pacific, and that’s in our national interest, but that’s in the interest of the people in the Pacific, and it’s what we should do.

Richard Marles:

It’s who we should be as a people. But I know that if we are really focused on the plight of those in the Pacific, and in a sense the outrageousness of in some places life expectancy for them ending in their 50s, and that we really seek with our heart but with the best brain that we can bring into this equation as well to change that, then that’s all that’s going to matter. The rest is actually going to take care of itself. It really will.

Richard Marles:

But that’s the place that we’ve got to get to, and you know, what frustrates me at times is that … let me sort of declare, I love the pacific and I’ve completely fallen in love with it, but it frustrates me that not enough of us understand it and see its importance, but also see the cultural wonder that represents, and I’ve opened up hearts to how incredible a part of the world it is, and how lucky we are to really live as part of it, and to have the opportunity that we have to contribute to it.

Richard Marles:

That’s where we’ve got to go. There’s kind of an emotional connection which I think that we’ve got to get to. It’s interesting comparing us with New Zealand in respect of this. New Zealand do, I think, identify in a deeper way with the Pacific, for a whole lot of reasons that make sense. I mean, Auckland is a much more Pacific city than any city that exists in Australia. New Zealand is part of Polynesia, so you can see why it happens, and maybe it is a tall order to ask Australia to sort of have that same cultural connection, but actually we have a lot more presence in the Pacific than New Zealand. Much, much more.

Richard Marles:

And if we could back it up with just a bit of that kind of connection then I think that working alongside New Zealand would go a long way to securing the kind of interests that we need to in terms of the relationships that we should be building with the countries of the Pacific.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s a huge responsibility.

Richard Marles:

It is.

Misha Zelinsky:

It’s great to hear you talk about it so passionately. Switching gears slightly, I think the profound change, and we could do a whole podcast about this so you’ll probably have to do this at a reasonably brief level, but I mean, open and closed systems. Open and closed systems, and political warfare, this seems to be, I think, the preeminent challenge of the 21st century, and one of the things that worries me as someone, and I think you obviously share my view of the world in this sense, is that we’re both passionate about democracies, passionate about open societies, but autocracies seem to be gaining our openness in a way that is very difficult for us to resist, and at the same time closing themselves off to, I suppose, the virtues of openness that we would see in terms of interacting with open societies.

Misha Zelinsky:

How can open societies prevail, and how can they beat closed systems, and do you think they can?

Richard Marles:

Well, I certainly hope that human progress and prosperity lies with human rights and with democratic thoughts and democratic freedoms, because that’s what I passionately believe in. I think over the long run innovative thought both in terms of the evolution of society in a social sense, but also in a technological sense, in terms of size, have performed better in open societies where there is freedom of expression and freedom of debate, and I think that that is still going to be the case going forward. I do think that there are real challenges in relation to the evolution of technology which present themselves, and I understand the point that you’re making that in closed systems there might be ways in which closed systems can deal with the development of technology around IT.

Richard Marles:

But ultimately I think this has got a fair way around and I do passionately believe in the power of government of the people by the people for the people. I think putting the people central to the equation is still the best recipe going forward, and so I don’t take democracy for granted. I think it is something that needs to be continually worked at, but I am as strong a believer in it at this point in my life and at this point in time as I have ever been, and I think that is still fundamentally critical to the future of a more civilized world.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, a very uplifting place than the more formal part of the proceedings. I know that you’ve been dying to get to this part and the audience can’t wait to hear your answer about my trademark clunky segue to my incredibly hokey and lame part of the show, the fun part of the show. Now, you’re a very worldly man, Richard. Who are the three people, foreign guests, that would come alive or dead that would be brought along to a barbecue with you up there in Dulong? It might be difficult to get them there even if they are alive, with the COVID restrictions made, but it’s fantasy football so we can do our best.

Misha Zelinsky:

But who are they and why, mate?

Richard Marles:

Okay, so I’m answering this in a political way.

Misha Zelinsky:

Well, you are a politician, mate. I can’t-

Richard Marles:

Exactly. There’d be a sporting version of this where I would love to meet Ty Woods, and I’d probably like to meet Bobby Jones, and you could kind of throw in Shane Warne. Also I kind of-

Misha Zelinsky:

We’re going to get together, mate. If Warnie is coming I’m definitely coming over, so yeah.

Richard Marles:

I also think, though, I mean, they’re all I’m sure great people. I love their efforts on the sporting field and I kind of have a bit of a rule. I don’t know whether you want to get to know your sporting heroes. I just enjoy what they do on the sporting field.

Misha Zelinsky:

Exactly. You’ve always got to be careful meeting your heroes, they do say.

Richard Marles:

Let me answer the question in a political way, though. None of them are alive. Abraham Lincoln for sure is definitely my great political hero, but I would love to have him at a barbecue because by all accounts he was a raconteur. He was funny. He was self-deprecating. He had a kind of certain melancholy, but a warm kind of charm about him which I would love to experience firsthand, and he is the great man.

Richard Marles:

Churchill would be there as well. I mean, Churchill, whatever else, he would be fun. There would certainly be no shortage of drinks if he was there, and you get the sense that a guy who routinely was in the bath, as I understand it, sipping alcohol throughout the entirety of the second World War, not that he was in the bath throughout the entirety, but he was there on many days, I mean, that is pretty amazing. He is going to be fun at a dinner party, and again, it is the defining moment of modern history and he is the central character to it, and if anyone won the second World War, I mean obviously not one person, but the person who had the most influence on it was Winston Churchill, so it would be great to have him there.

Richard Marles:

And the third goes back a bit deeper in history. I think it would be fascinating to speak to Queen Elizabeth the First. She really, I think, is probably the great English monarch, and when you think about how does the British Empire come to its preeminence, I think the seeds are there in her reign, and she comes to power, you know, father is Henry the Eighth. There is a kind of tussle for power which she was probably unlikely to win and yet does.

Richard Marles:

I doubt there has been anyone in history who has been more underestimated in terms of their ability to do the job. People were desperate for her to find a partner because they felt that there needed to be a male presence around, and she resolutely refused to that, and then becomes the greatest of them all. That’s somebody I reckon would be fascinating to meet. Her kind of desire to plot her own path and do what she was going to go, and not conform to what just about every voice around her wanted her to do, that would be a force of nature I’d like to meet.

Misha Zelinsky:

That’s three good ones, there, mate. Kicking the ass of slave owners, kicking the ass of the Nazis, and kicking the ass of the Irish and the Scots, mate, so it’s a good list. Well, look, we’ll leave it there. Richard Marles, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a fantastic chat, and we’ll catch up soon.

Richard Marles:

Thanks, Misha.

 

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!
 
Enjoy!
 
(We hope to have Senator Keneally on soon as a guest!)

 

TRANSCRIPT OF PANEL

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:

Cheers.

 

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. 

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

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:

Wow.

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. 

 

TRANSCRIPT

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.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

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.